SOUTHPORT, England — William McGirt landed in England on Monday morning in time for some practice at Royal Birkdale Golf Club ahead of this week’s British Open.
After walking the final nine holes of the links course on the coast of the Irish Sea, the 38-year-old Fairmont native was impressed, to say the least.
“Royal Birkdale is phenomenal,” McGirt told The Robesonian. “The back nine may be one of the best (nine holes) I have ever played. It is easily one of my top 5 courses I have ever played.”
The par-70 track tips at 7,156 yards for the 146th edition of golf’s oldest championship.
Looking to make his fourth straight cut in a major tournament, McGirt begins his quest for the claret jug on Thursday at 6:58 a.m. Eastern time with Toby Tree and Jamie Lovemark.
In his British Open debut last season at Royal Troon, McGirt missed the cut by one shot, enduring a Friday afternoon of gusts that topped 30 mph and rain so heavy at times it was hard to see.
“As with most Open championships, so much comes down to your tee time draw,” McGirt said. “I’m hoping I’m on the good side of it this year.”
Birkdale is not a course that leads to low scoring, certainly not like what Henrik Stenson did last year at Troon when he set the major championship record of 264 to win the claret jug in a brilliant duel with Phil Mickelson.
The lowest score ever at Royal Birkdale was 272 by Ian Baker-Finch in 1991. The British Open was last played at Birkdale in 2008 when Padraig Harrington won with a score of 281 for his second consecutive title.
“The wind is what really makes this course tough. Unlike most Open courses, Birkdale doesn’t go out and come back,” McGirt said. “The holes are laid out more like an American course so that you will play shots with pretty much every direction of wind.”
This week’s forecast is commanded by 20- to 35-mph winds off the coast with temperatures expected to climb into the 60s. The greatest threat for rain exists on Friday and Saturday, but it can’t be ruled out at any time.
“I hate to see the rain because the course played very fast (Tuesday). Balls would run 60 yards on downwind holes. The greens are very good and fast by Open standards — rolling about 9 to 9.5 (on the Stimpmeter). With the winds, they cannot get them any faster.”
The tight fairways at Royal Birkdale are fairly flat, but dunes line each hole and can stand as high as 40 feet. The fairways have an average width of 28 yards, according to Golfweek magazine.
In addition to narrow fairways, the course features more than 120 bunkers, including 50 that come into play on tee shots. The emphasis this week will be on driving accuracy, over distance.
“The biggest challenge this week is avoiding the bunkers, especially the fairway bunkers,” said McGirt, who ranks eighth on the tour in fairways hit. “They are all basically dead. You will have to simply pitch out.”
With three missed cuts and an average finish of 53rd in his last nine events, McGirt hopes to get his game trending in the right direction across the pond with September’s FedEx Cup playoffs on the horizon.
“It should be fun. I’m looking forward to getting things back on track.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5162. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.