SOUTHPORT, England — The town, all Victorian architecture and weathered citizens, somehow escaped the 19th Century. Southport, 25 miles up the coast from Liverpool, has dance halls, pubs and entertainment featuring comedians who apparently are funny if you understand English, as opposed to American.
It also has one of the great golf courses anywhere, Royal Birkdale, a place of 50-foot sand hills and wonderful history — just check the plaque to Arnold Palmer on the 16th fairway — stretched across a lunar landscape but hardly stretching the imagination when it comes to deserving champions, a list that includes Palmer, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.
The 146th British Open will be played starting Thursday at Birkdale, described once as “the untidiest links on the circuit.’’ The essential word is “links,’’ because that rolling land once under the sea along with capricious weather make The Open Championship not only unique but at times exasperating.
“I like the golf course,” said Jordan Spieth, coming off a break and before that a win at the Travelers Championship. “It’s very cool. It’s very tough, but a fair test, one that’s demanding off the tee.”
But not necessarily fair is that fickle lady, Mother Nature, and who knows what she may have in store, wind, rain or as early this week, sunshine and temperature in the high 70s.
Two years ago Spieth won the Masters and U.S. Open, as Palmer did in 1960 and Jack Nicklaus in 1972. Then, in tough weather at St. Andrews, Spieth missed by a stroke tying for first in the Open.
“Most of the time,” said Spieth, “there’s at least a group that gets the worst weather. And it’s almost impossible to win in that circumstance at an Open. So nothing you can do about that other than keep your head down, play as well as you can and see what happens after two days.
What happened to Palmer at the 1961 Open at Birkdale was he played fearlessly in wind so strong, wooden Coke boxes blew around.
Palmer hit into the rough on 15, which, after a rerouting, became the 16th. His caddie advised prudence by chipping out. But Palmer slashed a 6-iron onto the green. “I saw an opening no one else did,” he explained later. He won.
That victory more than a half century ago made American pros aware of the Open. If it was important enough for Arnie, then they had to join him. And now in this first Open since Palmer’s death last September, every top player from the PGA Tour has crossed the Atlantic.
“I love links golf,” said Brooks Koepka. A month ago he won the U.S. Open on an un-links-like course, Erin Hills. But before he qualified for the PGA Tour, Koepka spent two years on the European Tour
“I think [links] is the best kind of golf you can play,” Koepka said. “So much imagination that goes into it. You can play 10 different shots from the middle of the fairway. You’ve really got to be creative. It’s not just a stock shot.”
And then, as Spieth said, Koepka added, “I think that’s cool.”
Koepka, after the final round of his U.S. Open win on June 18, has taken an even longer time away from competition than Spieth, four weeks. “I’m refreshed,” he said. “I was playing the entire time.”
Koepka was the last of seven first-time winners of majors, preceded at the Masters by Sergio Garcia, who triumphantly wore his green jacket in the Royal Box at Wimbledon a week and a half ago.
“The younger generation,” said Koepka, “look at how many good players there are.”
Good players against a historic course. Palmer very much would approve.