It’s early on a glorious July morning as I turn left through the gates of Hillside Golf Club.
The place is abuzz with people. The team from the DP World Tour are on site constructing grandstands, measuring for yardage books, and preparing for a tour event which arrives here in the next few days. The car park is already filling up and the temperature is rising. I’m running late and have been for the past 90 minutes, scampering through the traffic in a vain attempt to make up lost time but it isn’t to be – I park up a whole three minutes before our tee time. The temperature has already reached 26 degrees and boy am I feeling it?
I dash around to the front of the beautiful, modern clubhouse and Hillside reveals itself in stages: to my right, the 18th green, with grandstands going up either side. Ahead of me, some 70 yards away, the 9th green and halfway house. To my left, the practice putting green – which will have to wait for my next visit – and beyond it, the 1st tee.
Hands are shaken, introductions are made, and I’m told the group behind have agreed to go off in our place, handing me a precious few minutes to get changed and prepare for the round ahead. I don’t have much time to take in the beauty of Hillside Golf Club, but that will come. But the towering dunes away to my right certainly register as does the sheer natural beauty of the landscape, the verdant greens, the glowing purples – bring it on.
HILLSIDE AT THE HEART OF GOLF COAST
I’m on the 1st tee with a new sleeve of balls in hand before I know it. The less said about the opening tee shot, the better, and yet from that moment on, it’s as if Hillside Golf Club takes over. I somehow scramble a par 4 on the opening hole and, before long, the frenetic nature of my arrival is a distant memory. Suddenly, no one is around. Even on a busy day, it’s as if we have the course completely to ourselves, playing in splendid isolation with most holes hidden from each other by sand dunes. It’s hard to imagine a more serene experience at one of England’s best golf courses.
Hillside sits at the heart of England’s wonderful golf coast. To the southeast, it borders two-time Ryder Cup host Southport & Ainsdale Golf Club. To the north it borders Royal Birkdale, with his iconic art deco clubhouse visible from Hillside’s back 9. Fabulous Formby is five miles to the south, Hesketh five miles to the north and Royal Liverpool is some 25 miles south of here. It’s an extraordinary concentration of high-quality golf courses, almost unparalleled anywhere in the world.
HISTORY OF HILLSIDE GOLF CLUB
It’s hard to believe it as I walk the fairways and watch this place prepare for the arrival of yet another tour event, but there was a time when Hillside was considered something of a poor relation among that embarrassment of golfing riches. Why? Well, the club was founded in 1911 by a group who didn’t mix in the same elevated social circles as those who lived in nearby Birkdale Park. Instead, it was a group of lower middle-class golfers who started the club, playing on a piece of land the other side of the railways tracks known as Hill Side Farm. How times change, these days it counts knights of the realm, celebrities, the great and the good among its membership.
Hillside has only occupied its current footprint since 1967 when architect Fred Hawtree came up with a plan to exchange four holes at the far end of the course as it was then, for a piece of land which sat between Hillside and Royal Birkdale. Those who remember that time say only four holes from the original course are recognisable today. And yet, the course Hawtree created has not only stood the test of time but made Hillside into one of England’s most celebrated links – many even regard it as the finest course in England not to have hosted The Open Championship. High praise indeed.
The Open may not have come to Hillside Golf Club, but almost every major event that could have come here, has. The British Masters in 2019, The PGA Championship, The Amateur Championship to name just a few. And it’s easy to see why the big events keep coming back as we explore the golf course: the whole place is not only immaculately presented but constantly challenging and the variety of holes and the beauty of the land, make the experience nothing short of spellbinding. And perhaps the secret of Hillside’s success is that it doesn’t seem to rest on its laurels. Despite the widespread praise there’s a constant drive, it seems, to find ways to make it even better and there are signs of that everywhere we look.
‘THE BEST BACK 9 IN BRITAIN’
The back 9 at Hillside has, for many years, attracted great acclaim. There are a series of breath-taking elevated tee shots, a beautiful variety in the terrain and a constant challenge that requires nothing less than your best golf. Greg Norman described it as the best back 9 in Britain while Jack Nicklaus said ‘within the second nine are some of my favourite holes’. And yet the recent work undertaken by architects Mackenzie & Ebert has sought to bring the quality of the front 9 – as well as the look and feel of it – in line with the rest of the golf course by adding drama, shape and substance to the way it plays. The opening two holes run parallel to the railway line, with a stiff right-to-left wind tending to be the prevailing breeze, neither is straightforward. The dunes which now frame these fairways were introduced during the recent work and have really added something to the opening stretch. The par-3 4th is another example – it’s a fantastic short hole now, with large areas of sand scrapes, fantastic dunes and run off to the left of the green making this one of the most memorable and challenging holes on the course. It’s just a brilliant hole.
There is, however, no denying Hillside Golf Club moves into top gear from the 10th tee on with one stunning hole after another, each presenting a different kind of challenge and each provoking awe. If the par-3 10th is a wonderful way to get things going, the 11th – a reachable par-5 – may be even better, with many regarding it as Hillside’s signature hole. As we reach the elevated 14th tee, we stop in our tracks to take it all in – there’s barely a cloud in the sky. To our left we can see Snowdonia. To our right, the majesty of the Lake District. We can even see Blackpool Tower. It’s a moment to savour. But then each hole on the back 9 feels like an escape as you weave between towering dunes, attempt to avoid cunningly placed bunkers and fire at flags which are brilliantly defended by run-offs and slopes. This is links golf at its very, very best.
The finishing stretch, the par-3 16th, par-5 17th and par-4 18th is a fitting way to finish a truly memorable round of golf. The 16th is a beast of a par-3 which will demand your best ball striking if you are to reach a two-tier green. Miss and you will need a silky touch to get up and down. The raised green on 17 makes reaching in two extremely difficult and another tough, elevated tee shot on 18 will ask that you produce your best right to the end. The bar is 25 paces from the 18th green, which can either be seen as a good or very bad thing if your distance control is off on the day!
HILLSIDE GOLF CLUB STAYS WITH YOU
It’s not straightforward to sum up the experience of being at Hillside Golf Club. There is so much to it, so many beautiful holes, so many fabulous details on the way around. It’s the kind of place you revisit in your mind long after you have driven back out of the gates: you’ll remember the dramatic elevated tee shots, the smell of the pines as you walk through to the forest areas, the gorgeous grass paths which evoke memories of Lahinch. There are so may moments which make this place special. Your moments will be different to mine, of course. But there is no question you’ll have them: it might be a wonderful hole, a feeling which grips you as you take in the wonder of the place or just the ease with which you are made to feel at home while you are here. And all those details and moments add up an experience to remember.
Hillside Golf Club may border a club which has hosted The Open on 10 occasions, on one side, and another which has hosted The Ryder Cup twice, on the other. But it is easy to see why there is no inferiority complex here. All the ingredients at Hillside add up to make it a place you look forward to returning to from the moment you drive out of the gates.