Despite the best efforts of Tiger Woods and other famous golfers, England's coastline from Cumbria in the north to Chester in the south - an area so thick with outstanding layouts that golfers can sometimes walk from one to the next - remains mostly overlooked on this side of the great water hazard.
By far the biggest draw of more than 200 courses is the Irish Sea coast's trio of officially designated Royal layouts - Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale and Royal Lytham & St. Annes, which together have hosted 30 British Opens and are open for public play.
Fly in for a long weekend (an extended long weekend - four days at least), make Southport your home base, and start swinging the clubs.
Ideal for a post-flight warm-up round is Hesketh Golf Club, a classic links dating from 1885 that twists around the Victorian villas of one of Southport's most posh residential neighbourhoods.
And just a short taxi ride south of downtown Southport is a cluster of exceptional layouts rich in golf history: Formby (host of the 2004 Curtis Cup), Hillside (site of the 1982 PGA Championship), Southport & Ainsdale (host of the Ryder Cup in 1933 and 1937), and Royal Birkdale, widely regarded as England's premier course.
It was at Royal Birkdale, a seaside links carved through majestic sand dunes, that Arnold Palmer famously battled gale-force winds to capture the 1961 Open Championship. This was also the site of the 1969 Ryder Cup, when Jack Nicklaus graciously conceded a two-foot putt to Tony Jacklin to produce the first tie in the cup's history.
One of England's most eerily fascinating tourist attractions is found nearby at Crosby Beach. Scattered across 3.2 kilometres
of sand are 100 life-size cast-iron figures of people looking out to sea as if in search of salvation - or lost golf balls. As the tides ebb and flow, the sculptures by English artist Antony Gormley are gradually revealed and then submerged again.
Turn any corner along the coastline and a hidden gem of a layout or yet another hallowed links seems to appear out of the sea mist. About a 45-minute drive north of Southport is Royal Lytham & St. Annes, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Set a fairway wood shot from the sea, but surrounded by suburban housing, this constantly demanding beast is regarded as the ugly duckling of the three Royals. In 1926, the immortal Bobby Jones won the first of the 10 Open Championships played here.
But the majority of the top courses are found along the 35 kilometres of sandy beachfront from Southport south to Liverpool. Close to Liverpool are two more must-play links: Wallasey and West Lancashire.
Laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1893, Wallasey is idyllically set on gently undulating land close to the crashing Irish Sea.
And overlooking the Mersey River is the underappreciated West Lancashire, which rambles seamlessly through the humps and hollows of the most natural piece of links land on the coast. Established in 1873, West Lancashire is one of the 10 oldest clubs in the British Isles.
Even older and just as ideally situated is Royal Liverpool. Established in 1869, the usually wind-battered links (also known as Hoylake) stretches toward the Dee Estuary of the Irish Sea and the vaguely purple hills of North Wales on the horizon. It was here at the 2006 Open that Woods, at the peak of his popularity, put on one of history's most dazzling displays of precision golf, using his driver only once in 72 holes of play to win his third Claret Jug.
Watched by a vast television audience, Woods's virtuoso performance is credited by golf travel organizers with finally putting England's Irish Sea coastline in the vacation plans of some North American golfers. Just two years later, England's northwest coast returned to the spotlight when Padraig Harrington won the Open at Royal Birkdale.
With the championship set to return to Royal Lytham & St. Annes next year and Royal Liverpool in 2014, the region's fame is certain to keep growing. Beat the crowds and play it now.
PACK YOUR CLUBS
Getting there: Southport, about an hour's drive from Manchester Airport (the local hub for international flights), is renowned for canopied shopping arcades, tree-lined boulevards and a promenade that winds through gardens and past Marine Lake. Transat Holidays flies direct to Manchester, Air Canada and British Airways offer connecting flights.
Where to stay: The Vincent, a stylish three-year-old, six-floor boutique hotel, is on posh Lord Street. From $147 (includes breakfast); www.thevincenthotel.com.
Royal Liverpool Golf Club www.royal-liverpool-golf.com; green fee: $157 to $235.
Royal Birkdale Golf Club royalbirkdale.com; green fee: $274 to $321.
Royal Lytham & St. Annes royallytham.org; green fee: $235 to $353.
Hesketh Golf Club heskethgolfclub.co.uk; green fee: $94 to $125.
Formby Golf Club formbygolfclub.co.uk; green fee: $172 to $204.
Hillside Golf Club www.hillside-golfclub.co.uk; green fee: $110 to $125.
Southport & Ainsdale Golf Club sandagolfclub.co.uk; green fee: $125 to $165.
Wallasey Golf Club wallaseygolfclub.com; green fee: $125 to $141.
West Lancashire Golf Club westlancashiregolf.co.uk; green fee: $141.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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