Changes to the course at Royal Birkdale will add at least one extra shot to each round at this year’s Open Championship, the Royal and Ancient predicted last week.
Since the Open was last played on the Merseyside links in 1991, won by Ian Baker-Finch with an eight under par total of 272, all the greens have been rebuilt and new tees have been constructed on the seventh and 17th holes.
Hugh Campbell, Chairman of the Championship Committee, said: “Two new tees have been built at the seventh and 17th, which should mean the course will play about a stroke a round more difficult. At just over 7,000 yards, par 70, it is a substantial test.
“The seventh is 20 yards longer and has been moved 50 yards to the left of the old one. The 17th has been moved 50 yards from where it was and tightened up the drive considerably.”
To improve the putting surfaces a major rebuilding programme has been undertaken on the greens. For several years it has been appreciated that some kind of problem existed under the greens. Following the Open in 1991, the Club considered it was necessary to embark on a programme of radical reforms to maintain and extend its position as one of the leading venues for major golf championships.
Between 1992 and 1994 all the greens were rebuilt by lifting the turf, replacing the “problem layer” about two to six inches below the surface and replacing the existing turf. The opportunity was also taken to re-design some of the greens to the plans of Martin Hawtree, a leading golf course architect and the third generation of Hawtree to work on the course.
Michael Bonnallack, Secretary of the Royal and Ancient, said: “The greens are going to putt considerably harder than in ’91. They are beautifully contoured and pretty quick even in March. I think the changes will add at least one shot, maybe two, to the course. The bunkers are brought more into play than in the past. If the greens hadn’t been tackled there wouldn’t be a golf course.”
Elsewhere on the course approximately 20 acres of silver poplar, locally known as Lancashire Weed, has been removed from the course. If left the whole of the sand dune area would have been covered with the unwanted growth. Their removal was carried out with the full approval of English Nature and the Sefton Life Project and will slowly revert Royal Birkdale to its true links character. The removal of the Lancashire Weed will greatly assist spectator movement at the Open Championship.
Following the success of last year’s Open Championship in letting juveniles in for free, the Championship Committee are expecting a similar number this year.
David Hill, Championship Secretary, said: “30,000 juveniles took advantage of the free admission last year and indications are that this year’s figure will be in line with that. A lot of clubs have written to say they want to bring bus loads of kids.”
Justin Leonard will be defending the title he won after producing one of the greatest comebacks in Open Championship history with a final round of 65 at Royal Troon to come from five behind to win by three. He will be hoping to emulate the achievement of Tom Watson in 1983 the last player to win back to back Open Championships.
Watson will once again be gracing the links where he won the last of his five Open Championships in his quest to equal Harry Vardon’s record of six Open titles.