SOUTHPORT, England -- When the Open was played at Birkdale 10 years ago, players were having so much difficulty reaching the fairway at the 16th hole during practice rounds that a crew of workers was dispatched to cut back the long grass and give the so-called shorter hitters a chance. (The USGA didn't exactly follow suit when players had similar problems at Bethpage Black's 10th hole during the 2002 U.S. Open.)
Well, a decade later there's a new back tee at Birkdale's 16th, extending the hole to 439 yards (about 25 yards longer than in 1991), and even though players are finding short grass off the tee into a stiff wind, a 4 remains a very good score.
"I didn't know that that was a new tee box," said Phil Mickelson, who played the hole a few times last week during a brief stop before the Scottish Open in Loch Lomond. "Into the strong wind you know it's a good drive and about a 3- or 4-iron. So it's going to be a hard par. It's probably just as hard a 4 on 16 as a 4 on 17 [a 572-yard par 5]."
Most players had anywhere from 180 to 200 yards left for their second shots at 16 (well back from the spot where a plaque commemorates Arnold Palmer's famous escape from a bush during his 1961 Open victory). Which brings to mind a story from another visit to Birkdale.
A group of us ducked over to play here the week of the 2001 Open at nearby Royal Lytham. After a few wrong turns we showed up about a half-hour late for a 3:45 p.m. tee time, and when we asked about caddies, we were told they were all gone, save a willing but rather inexperienced lad.
That experience showed on the first green, when a member of our group hunched over a 10-footer asked, "Which way does this break?"
"It goes a little left . . . or maybe a little right," came the halting reply from our man, who was maybe 14 years old and hoping to buy new sunglasses with his caddie money. (Our friend split the difference, played it straight and missed the putt.)
But our favorite memory came when we played the 16th. As we approached the plaque, our caddie called us over and, eager to enrich our experience, asked, "Have you gents ever heard of Arnold Palmer?"
We confirmed that the name sounded vaguely familiar, and in short order we heard the story of Arnie's famous shot. And, as I recall, we overtipped the storyteller to make sure he was able to buy the sunglasses.