LYTHAM ST ANNES, England (Reuters) - Lytham head pro Eddie Birchenough, who has seen four British Opens pass through his gates, lives and breathes links golf and wants to see more of it to test the world’s best players.
After 25 years at the Lancashire course that hosted its 11th British Open last week, Birchenough retires at the end of the year and told Reuters that links-style golf needed to be embraced, not feared.
“I‘m not one for this American trait of controlling everything,” he said while amateurs honed their game on the nearby practice putting green, where less than 24 hours earlier winner Ernie Els had stood.
”The ground, the course, the weather. If you go down that line you’ll end up playing snooker.
”On Sunday afternoon the conditions here were as testing as you could want while keeping the game fair, so perhaps as a champion Ernie was examined better than on the courses, particularly in America, where everything’s controlled.
“I think it requires more fortitude and you need to be more resourceful when you play in all kinds of different conditions.”
The unique event, golf’s oldest major, draws enormous attention worldwide for the different venues it visits every year, all of them with their own quirks that make the Open stand out.
It is one of a handful of European Tour events played on a links layout. Others include the traditional Open warm-up tournament the Scottish Open which was switched to a seaside course in 2011 having been inland since 1996.
The Dunhill Links Championship in October is another, while the Volvo Golf Champions event in South Africa in January takes place on a links layout, though not a traditional links course like the many that dot the British coastline.
The PGA Tour, which ventures outside the United States far less than the European Tour does from its continent, is renowned for its manicured courses which, in Birchenough’s eyes, require less imagination.
“The overall thing that surprised me was around the greens, the short shots, they threw the ball up in the air and that’s just not how to play a seaside green,” he said, shaking his head gently.
“You need to get the ball on the ground and I thought several of them were guilty of not doing that.”
There was one shot that will live long in his memory however.
American 14-times major champion Tiger Woods, already out of the tournament and finishing up his final round, showed the rest of the field how to approach links golf with a sumptuous chip and run on the par-four 17th for a tap-in par.
“Tiger’s five-iron little run shot up the bank on to the green where he knocked it stiff had TV commentators in raptures. So was I,” said Birchenough.
“It was a wonderful links-type shot. We didn’t see enough of them this week.”
The brilliance of that shot over the course of the frantic final round, where Australian Adam Scott blew a sizeable lead late in the day to let Els in the side door, went largely unnoticed as fans sought prime position to see the finish.
Birchenough said that the heaving galleries played their part in another dramatic Lytham finish, with spectators packed into the grandstands on the 18th for the heartbreaking conclusion giving Scott a standing ovation.
”I was talking to one of the referees last night and he said ‘What you remember at Lytham are the crowds.’
“There’s a humor and they come and put up with northern English weather and are still cheerful.”
The well-mannered fans impressed Birchenough and he said he found the professionals more polite this year than in 2001, 1996 and 1988 when Lytham also hosted the Open.
”The behavior and the way the pros comported themselves last week was absolutely outstanding. They were friendly, respectful and very grateful of the effort the members had made to play on a course like this.
”They were good to everybody and they always had time for you. I don’t know what I was expecting but I certainly wasn’t expecting that amount of respect.
“I wonder if they came to a course that they like, they enjoyed the challenge and it gave them a different mindset,” he said with a wistful look in his eye as removal men buzzed around the pro shop, noisily packing up the grandstand.
“I don’t know why it was. But all I can tell you is that’s how it was.”
Edited by Clare Fallon