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Saying hello to Birkdale

Rob Hodgetts | 12:29 UK time, Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Phil Mickelson's wife's bodyguard is called "Guns". He's not really but he's earned this nickname on account of his unfeasibly large biceps adorned with Green Beret tattoos.

You'd think he'd be a natural born killer. And he might be. But he also seems like a nice guy after a chat with him proved in Carnoustie last year. This just goes to show you can't judge a book by its cover.

Another classic of the "good book/less than conventional cover" genre is American Boo Weekley, everyone's favourite good 'ol boy. Or more accurately, his family.

You'll remember Boo from last year, his first trip outside of the States. When asked about his impressions of Scotland, he said: "Ain't got no sweet tea and ain't got no fried chicken."

So, imagine our surprise when we met his very charming aunt and uncle while walking nine holes at Royal Birkdale on Monday evening.

But more of that later. As the lucky two to get selected for Open duty, myself and colleague Mark Orlovac, along with Radio 5 Live's Iain Carter will be blogging from Royal Birkdale throughout the week, so feel free to get in touch and join in the fun of the 137th Open Championship.

The journey started early on Monday morning in London. I threw some clubs in the boot just in case (you needn't tell the boss this bit), picked up "Orlo" and pointed the Micra north (we didn't have actually a Micra. Again, don't tell the boss).

For the first carefree hour we drove along under a cobalt-blue sky with Cliff's Summer Holiday belting out of the stereo (obviously, this isn't quite true either).

The weather, particularly clement for this time of year given the recent nonsense, suggested we were going to be in for Duel in the Sun II, only at Birkdale not Turnberry and this time with Monty against Poulter, arm in arm going up the 18th.

Chewing up the miles, the sky grew steadily greyer, but it did so in direct contrast to our mood. We were going to the Open and we were stoked, clouds or not.

The only flitter in our otherwise unflappable stoicism came on the outskirts of Southport. Banners hung from lampposts with marketing blurb for the town and the Open above pictures of... Tiger Woods. Ah. Um. Er...

I can't lie, there was a brief moment of melancholy as it hit home that the greatest tournament IS going to go ahead without the greatest player and it wasn't all just a bad dream.

But rounding a bend we clapped eyes on Royal Birkdale itself and the jolt of electricity shocked us out of gloom. The first glimpse of an Open Championship venue always induces a sharp intake of breath and a few muttered "wows".

The dunes, the mounds, the rough, the stands, the sea in the distance - a vast, natural arena waiting serenely for the onslaught on its defences, knowing it holds the ultimate power to make heroes and crush dreams.

Revved right back up, we thoroughly enjoyed the next bit of marketing spiel we spotted. "Southport in bloom. Victorian splendour with a modern agenda". You just can't teach that.

And if Royal Birkdale sparked a chorus of "wows", the next site illicited a collective "awesome". Turns out there's a Moroccan-themed crazy golf course at the end of our road. "That's got our names all over it," we shouted. It will definitely be hosting the BBC Sport Online Open later this week.

But back to Boo.

Bimbling down the third, we came across none other than 1998 champion Mark O'Meara, rising US star Anthony Kim and Boo playing in a three-ball.

O'Meara and Kim were in deep discussion over which private jet to buy (not kidding this time).

The 51-year-old O'Meara seems to make a habit of mentoring the young guns - he calls close friend Woods "The Kid" - and Kim was getting a guided tour of Birkdale by one of its masters.

Meanwhile, Boo was busy shanking wedge shots out of the rough (he only did one really). Plenty of autograph hunters were around, chasing O'Meara with glossy pics to sign, no doubt destined for Ebay, so it took a few holes to identify the Weekley contingent.

Uncle Jim told us about the background to the Boo nickname - his real name is Thomas but he loved Yogi Bear cartoons as a kid - and filled us in on his golfing career. Jim's wife, meanwhile, brought us up to date with Boo's new-born son Aiden and told of their hometown of Milton in Florida which is home to PGA professionals and former school-mates Boo, Heath Slocum and Bubba Watson.

Our little group bonded when Boo clonked one of the spectators on the backside with a drive on the 8th.

Whipping out a marker pen, he swiftly signed the ball and handed it to the man to make it all better.

When Mr Lu hit a women spectator during his battle with Lee Trevino at Royal Birkdale in 1971, he forked out for an all-expenses-paid trip to his homeland of Taiwan.

First impressions of Royal Birkdale close up - good looking, tight, with each hole in its own little furrow between the dunes. And, surprisingly for a links course, separated from the sea by a road.

At the 9th green we wished our party well for the week, and headed into Southport. It didn't take long before we heard our first rumour that George Clooney was in town but the best we could do on the celebrity-spotting front was former Liverpool defender Gary Gillespie.

Seeking a final nightcap to plan for the week we ventured upon the Lakeside Inn, which claims to be the smallest pub in Britain. It is, indeed, very small as Mark proved with 11 carefully concealed paces across its entire floor.

But again, appearances can be deceptive, and though it's small it has all the right ingredients. With no Tiger Woods, plenty of the lesser-ranked players in the Open field will do well to remember that this week.


  • Comment number 1.

    This has left me very excited about going to the Open. I have tickets for Saturday. Having never been to a golf tournament as a spectator, what's the best way to get the most out of the day - pick a hole, or follow a match?

  • Comment number 2.

    Loosieloo, it depends whether you want to see all the players, or see the whole course with one. Personally I think you get a better sense of the open doing the latter, but it could be tricky on Saturday when the course is more crowded and there are fewer pairs to watch. My suggestion for the latter would be to pick a pairing going out reasonably early on the Saturday and follow them; you should get a view all the way round, and then later you can pick a spot out perhaps to watch the later players at one hole. It might be too late for a seat, but you should be able to find somewhere. Have a ball. The Open is something special to be at.

  • Comment number 3.

    loosieloo, i went to practice days on Sunday and Monday and i got into the habit of following someone who i wanted to see earlier on and then finding a seat on one of the latter holes. however, it is really likely that seats will fill up fast and so its up to you as to whether you can walk for a long time or not!

  • Comment number 4.

    Loosieloo, I`ll be watching from Chicago and wish I was with you. My plan would be to follow someone early to get round the course and then get a seat on the 18th grandstand when your group finish. At this time there should still be seats available since the stand is huge. Then relax and watch all the groups come in. It will be a long wait but once the last groups come in the atmosphere is electric and you will be glad you sat down early. Enjoy yourself

  • Comment number 5.

    I was ball spotting the drives on the first today. All the drives were drifting left. Found 4 new Titleist just out of bounds. It'll be a tough hole this week.

    Chatted to many of the players as they came up - Els, Vijay, Westwood, Scott (and Butch), Garcia, Larrazabal, Watson, Beem, Monty and Rose. Also spoke to Ken Brown about the 17th green - he's done one of his little pieces on the borrows.

    Good day. Early start for the next three days. Please don't rain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hi all,

    I'm just back from a scouting mission out on the course and I can secretly reveal that one good spot to watch might be from the back of the par-three 12th, right at the other end of the course. Follow the rope around and perch yourselves by the TV tower.

    We met a couple of fellas who had been sat there for hours on Tuesday and they reckoned that only about a sixth of the balls they'd seen found the green. A pivotal hole and a lush spot.

    Hope that helps!

    Have fun out there.

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm looking forward to watching the Open from my easy chair in Florida. It would be nice for someone like Boo, or another golf journeyman, to win golf's greatest prize. And when it is all over and the winner is being interviewed, all I ask is that that stupid perennial question, "What went through your mind when......." is not asked of the guy holding the trophy.

  • Comment number 8.

    I was working this morning in the press tent at the open and was finding it increasingly annoying as the day went on over the fact that each player that came into the interview room was bombarded with questions and comments about tiger and how he wasnt there and what affect did the players think it would have!!?? surely the matter should be closed and the golfers be allowed to talk abotu other more pressing matters like how good birkdale looks and how much of an interesting week it is going to be!

  • Comment number 9.

    The Open atmosphere is fantastic, I have been lucky enough to go to quite a few over the years starting at Muirfield in 1980 age 10. My mother still talks about tracking me with her binoculars as I raced round the start of the back nine chasing Seve desperately trying to glimpse my hero. I have 2 abiding memories, the first at Troon in '82 and bumping into Sandy Lyle in the players car park (not sure what exactly I was doing there) and my brother thrusting a chewing gum wrapper towards him asking for his autograph. Lyle smiled, asked him if that was the best he could do and signed the wrapper and then told me to turn to p78 in my program and signed for me across his photo. The second was at St Andrews in 84 when I was torn between Seve and Watson as to who I would follow on Sunday afternoon. It all came down to the last 2 holes and I was up on the road by the green at the 18th to see Seve pumping the air at holing his putt. I have never felt excitement in a crowd like it. Once Seve had received the Claret Jug and was ready to be interviewed by the BBC a wag next to me shouted "Oim here from Irish TV, bad luck Seve".

    No Tiger is a disappointment, but the golf and the excitement will be unchanged. I'll be glued to US coverage from Boston.

  • Comment number 10.

    Re: Boo's razor-sharp observation of Scotland "ain't got no fried chicken"...

    Not strictly true Boo - check out any number of chip shops in the country and you'll happily find "chicken" sharing the same deep fat frier as pizza, haggis, black pudding and even the odd Mars Bar.

    We're not Heart Attack capital of Europe for nothing my learned American friend.

    Good luck on Thursday though......

  • Comment number 11.

    The Lakeside can be traversed in 11 paces. Ha! No way is that the smallest pub in Britain. Try the Nutmeg in Bury St. Edmunds. 4 paces maximum. And they serve Greene King, the finest beer in the world.

  • Comment number 12.

    Unfortunately, I'm missing out on the Open this year for the first time in a few years. I would say the best way to view play would be to follow a group early on all around the course so you see it all and take it in, then pick a grandstand and watch all of the other players come through. That way you see everyone and everything. Last year we scored by getting a seat in the 16th grandstand at Carnoustie which gave a fantastic view of the 1st, 2nd 17th and 18th. Ideal for the play-off. Not a better sporting event in the world to be at, the buzz around the course is fantastic. One last thing, don't miss out on the Open Arms, situated what seems like every 4/5holes around the course, brilliant if you fancy a potter!

  • Comment number 13.

    Nice blog, I hear that Birkdale is beaut.

    Just want to point out that there is a factual error in your picture slides which states that Birkdale has hosted the second most Opens after St Andrews. Given that St Andrews only became the most prolific Open venue in 1999, this is clearly not the case.

  • Comment number 14.

    Darobsta - As I am bored, I thought I would do some quick google research and found the following:

    Carnoustie – 5
    Muirfield – 15
    Musselborough – 6 (Last was in the 1889)
    Prestwick – 23 (last was 1925)
    Princes – 1 (1932)
    Birkdale – 9
    Cinque Ports – 2 (last in 1920)
    Hoylake – 11
    Lytham st Annes – 10 (next due in 2012)
    Portrush NI – 1 (1951)
    St Georges – 13 (next due in 2011)
    Troon – 8
    St Andrews – 27 (next due in 2010)
    Turnberry – 3 (2009)

    So you are right as Prestwick is number 2 on the list. However it could be that he means courses on the current roster.

    as an aside, I am quite amazed that Turnberry has only been used 3 times.

  • Comment number 15.

    Enjoyed reading the article, apart from a nagging voice at the back of my mind which kept asking, "why does a golfer's wife need a bodyguard?"

  • Comment number 16.

    Birkdale Memories:
    As a thirteen year old boy I was lucky enough to be taken to the 1983 open at Birkdale by some family friends who at the time ran most of the hospitality catering. This meant we had access to behind the ropes areas and spent a memorable week on the course from around 6 in the morning to 8 or 9 at night. The trip also included an eye opening introduction into the world of professional sport.
    Graham Marsh was a friend of my hosts and had a particularly good tournament that year. We were there on the first tee of his first round when his brother, the legendary Aussie wicketkeeper Rod Marsh strolled up. After nearly knocking me out with a gentle pat on the head he proceeded to work his way through the case of beer that was perched on his shoulder as he followed his brother’s fortunes whilst regaling us with tales the whole way round. He then repeated this trick on each of the subsequent days regardless of tee off times. He made sure that wherever we stopped that we had good vantage points and could not have been nicer to us impressionable young lads.
    If I remember correctly the weather was fantastic all week as well.
    Looking forward to a great open and have a strong feeling for a European win, fiver each on Garcia and Westwood.

  • Comment number 17.

    Colinbgood - Mrs Mickelson needs a bodyguard because she is about 2ft 9', a good sort and attracts a lot of conversation on the course. We saw her at Hoylake in 06 and she was a real gem, (i) having her picture taken with blokes who had by the look consumed her body weight in lager during the day and (ii) giving some Mickelson branded golf stuff to young kids. It was all good fun but it only takes one goose to spoil the party.

  • Comment number 18.

    Thanks OzBolts - That nagging voice tells me it is satisfied with your explanation.


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