Thursday, September 11, 2014

Winged Foot Golf Club - East Course

There has been much written about many of the world's greatest golf courses: Herbert Warren Wind gushing about Dornoch and Ballybunion; several books have been written about Bethpage; the romance of Hogan's Alley at Riviera, etc. The course in the top 100 rankings which gets little written about it is Winged Foot's East Course (ranked #66 in the world) designed, like the West, by A.W. Tillinghast. How is it that a course that ranks higher than Valderrama, Cruden Bay and Yeamans Hall is highlighted so little? Could it be that the course if simply riding the coattails of its bigger brother Winged Foot West (ranked #18 in in the world)? Which holes make it a top 100 course exactly?

I am blessed to live close to so much good golf and was fortunate to play Winged Foot East and West back-to-back on the same day so I could have a fresh comparison of the two courses. I didn't do justice to the East course on my first trip, so this post will focus on it.

Winged Foot is the only club in the world that has two ranked courses on my list, although a strong case can be made for both Sunningdale and Royal Melbourne to have two, but that's another story. Both golf courses at Winged Foot opened for play on September 8, 1923.  

The defining characteristics of both courses are the greens, which almost all slope back-to-front and have narrow entry areas. In the 1920s the press dubbed them "bottle-necks." Being above the hole is not recommended. In their 1923 brochure announcing the opening of both courses, the golf committee warned the golfer about the first two holes on the East course. "A dollar bill couldn't lie level on either of the first two greens with their pitches and roll." The second hole is named "Man O'War" because of the necessity of keeping your shot left, or, as in horse racing, in the pole position, to keep out of trouble. At the time of the course's opening "Man O'War" was a popular race horse.

6 east
The par three sixth hole, Winged Foot East, "Trouble"

The par three sixth plays uphill and is about 200-yards long. The hole's name, "Trouble,"--aside from the pitch of the green and the bunkers--is derived from the fact that there is O.B. down the entire right side. It has classic Tillinghast bunkering.

One of the defining features of Pine Valley is how each of the holes are isolated from the others. Not so at Winged Foot, where you see other holes when playing your hole and essentially have vistas of the whole property while playing.

Although all the greens on the course slope back-to-front there is never a time you think they are unfair; the ninth green, for example, has a hump in the rear that serves as a backstop. Tillinghast's description of Winged Foot sums up how much effort he put into the greens, "The holes are like men, all rather similar from foot to neck, but with the greens showing the same varying characters of human faces." If I do have one small criticism of Winged Foot it is, as Tillinghast himself says, that there are many similar holes; I find this to be particularly true on the front nine of the West course where almost a half-dozen holes are of the same basic type tee-to-green. The East has more variety in the style and types of holes.

tenth green east

The 10th green Winged Foot East

The tenth hole on the East Course plays back toward the clubhouse and is relatively simple, at only 353 yards. Although, as members will tell you, when the pin is tucked back left in a narrow part of the green behind bunkers, the hole is anything but easy.

11th green east
The narrow 11th green, Winged Foot East

The eleventh hole is named "Broadway" because like the Great White Way, it bends slightly to the right. This hole is a great illustration of how narrow some of the approaches to the greens are; the difficulty of the greens is in direct proportion to the hole's modest 364 yards. Beware of short par fours. What Tillinghast takes away in length, he makes the golfer pay for around the green. The greens are made to accept shots coming in only on the line of play; being on either side of them you will find yourself playing army golf, marching back-and-forth across the green after failing to hold a delicate pitch shot on them.

  12th green
The 12th green on the East Course

The par five twelfth is a difficult hole from tee to green and the #2 stroke index hole; what makes it particularly difficult is the approach shot to the green. As the opening day booklet says about twelve, "One big trap almost closes the green in front so the third shot must be pitched." It is a brilliant design, and why the 536-yard hole still gives players fits today. Try to land a long iron or wood into that narrow and well protected target.

13 green east
The "Cameo", 13th hole at Winged Foot East viewed from the side

Tillinghast was a master of par three design, and the 13th hole on the East course is the best hole on the entire property in my view. Named "Cameo" it plays only 140-yards but is very narrow and requires a perfectly struck shot. As with all of the greens on Winged Foot's East course, if you are left or right, pitching a shot back onto the green requires precision because the greens are only designed to be approached from the front. The picture above is from the side, and you can get a good sense of how narrow the landing strip is from the tee.

14th hole east
Winged Foot East's 14th "Hell Bent", which doglegs to the right

The East course only has fifty-three traps, so this is golf of the strategic vs. the penal variety that you may find at a course like Oakmont. Although there are relatively few traps, they add to the scenic beauty of the course because your eye is drawn to them, and they are placed with maximum effectiveness to catch wayward shots.

  15 East
The 15th hole at Winged Foot East, "Shrine"

The approach to the elevated green on the sub 350-yard fifteenth hole is over a brook, and as see pictured, the green falls off sharply to the right and rear. The East course finishes with a bang. The seventeenth hole is called "Lightning," since a "bolt of Jove" would be required to move the ball from some of the 207-yard hole's traps. The eighteenth is called "Taps," on a course that opens with a first hole named "Reveille," and "sails happily to a rising green."

A strong case can be made that the best stretch of holes on the property are the East course's eleventh through fifteenth. I am a big fan of the East course and personally prefer playing it to the West; I think it has more shot variety and is a more interesting routing.

Both are fabulous courses where you have to hit and hold the greens or you will have a long day. Although my feet hurt after playing 36 holes and from being on them for close to ten hours, my spirits were soaring as we retired to the majestic clubhouse for a drink. The total golfing experience at Winged Foot is the epitome of private American club golf, with its historic grand clubhouse, experienced and learned caddies, and world-class courses. Those that only play the major championship-hosting West course are missing something special if they skip the East.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

East Lake Golf Club

The grand East Lake Tudor style club house

East Lake Golf Club (ranked #97 in the world) is located in the Atlanta neighborhood of East Lake, only six miles from the city center. The skyscrapers of downtown are visible from the top of the property when you are on the fifteenth green. Going back to East Lake conjured up good feelings, especially since the route to the course is along I-20 which is signposted Augusta. This is especially true since the author has played Augusta and birdied its twelfth hole! The good associations continue when the rushed golfer heads to the half-way house near the first tee to grab a quick sandwich and among the selections is a pimento-cheese. I was glad to play East Lake again with my camera and in summer conditions since my prior visit was during the winter when the greens were overseeded.

The original golf course was laid out by the designer of many undistinguished golf courses, Tom Bendelow, designer of Medinah. In 1913, Donald Ross redesigned the Bendelow course which originally featured two par four and half holes and oddly finished across the lake from the clubhouse. The remodeled course featured a routing plan that provided each nine holes to conclude at the clubhouse. 

The interior of the clubhouse, a Bobby Jones shrine, seen above is the Great Hall

In 1963, the Ryder Cup was held at East Lake, which was won by the U.S. and featured Arnold Palmer as the playing Captain. In preparation for the matches, the course went through a facelift for three years, during which most of the old course was rebuilt and many of the holes changed to provide the quality championship layout the tournament merited. The alterations were performed under the direction of golf course architect George Cobb. In 1994, Rees Jones restored Donald Ross’s original golf course layout making East Lake an eclectic Bendelow-Ross-Cobb-Jones design.

East Lake was the course Bobby Jones played growing up as a youngster and he played the course for a period of 41 years. The interior of the clubhouse is a shrine to Bobby Jones. It includes his Calamity Jane putter, the original scroll conferring the 1958 Freedom of the Burgh of St. Andrews on him, his hickory shafted clubs and his original lockers. It also includes full size replicas of all four of his Grand Slam trophies from 1930, which is fitting because it was only at East Lake that all four were together in one place.

East Lake, like Los Angeles Country Club, is a city course hemmed in in its entirety by a perimeter fence. The course is built on gently rolling hills and with the exception of holes 4, 6, 8 and 17, the holes are routed east-west to play directly into the wind or down wind. After a gentle starter into the wind, the par three second hole plays down wind. You can see below the gently sloping hills and the typical shaved fall-off areas surrounding the green.

  2nd hole

The par three 2nd hole

  4th approach

The par four 4th hole rises up the gentle hill to a green that is approachable with a bump and run shot

The fourth hole and the eighth hole, which runs parallel to it, have depressions that run along them. These depressions were dug out during the Civil War to protect encamped soldiers (presumably Confederates) from attack along Fayetteville Road. As you can see, there are areas to run the ball up to the green at East Lake, but Rees Jones made most of them rise with one-to-two foot elevation changes just before the green to make that more difficult.

  5th from tee
The par five fifth hole from the tee; the hole plays downhill, down-wind

One afternoon Bobby Jones was playing the fifth hole, a good 544-yard downhill par five that bends down the hill. He had to stand and wait for a long time for a group ahead of him to hit and he became so frustrated that he picked up his ball and walked off the course to go build his own course. The course he ended up building was nearby Peachtree (ranked #87 in the world).

9th green 
The par five, downhill 9th hole with its approach shot over the lake

The 551-yard par five ninth hole was my favorite on the course. It sweeps down the hill from a tee box at the top and you have to play your third shot over the lake to a very well protected green. The majestic clubhouse in the background adds to the grandeur of the hole.

9th closeup 
The green complex on the 9th hole

The front nine plays on the west side of the clubhouse and the back nine plays on the east side; and on the back, with the exception of the seventeenth, the holes run parallel to each other as you play up and down the hill. The back nine is the more interesting of the two.

12th green
The elevated twelfth green, with a typical long high-lipped bunker

You can see the style of the bunkering at East Lake from these two pictures of the twelfth and fifteenth greens, which are the product of Rees Jones. They are long and have high lips, making pins tucked right behind them very difficult to access; particularly because these two holes play down wind, the golfer faces an uphill-downwind shot with little margin for error, and the reason they come into play so much, even though in total the course doesn't have that much sand.


The difficult uphill par five fifteenth

The "signature" hole at East Lake is the eighteenth, which is a par three finishing hole which plays 207 yards uphill into the prevailing wind. I was on the green in regulation, but the green is so large I might as well have been off. With its bent grass greens, the direction of the grain is a big factor when putting at East Lake, much more so than other courses I have played. Knowing whether you are into or against the grain is a big deal. I had a couple of putts where it was both, the putt began into the grain and then shifted to down grain due to the contours of the green.

Today the course is owned and run by the East Lake Foundation, a local non-profit whose mission is to give back to the East Lake neighborhood, which it has been instrumental in reviving. Atlantan Tom Cousins was the driving force behind this unique structure. He purchased the course in 1993, brought in Rees Jones, invested $25 million and donated it to the foundation. Their mission, "Golf With A Purpose" is supported by corporations from around the country who are the primary members of East Lake. I am glad I was able to return and do a proper review after all these years. It was a really nice relaxed round on the rolling hills. We had world-class caddies at East Lake, one of whom was receiving a college scholarship from the club. 

The locker room features East Lake's signature Ginger Snaps

The cozy club house is filled with leather chairs and makes a great place to repair to after the round to soak up all the Jones memorabilia. The course is very welcoming and professionally run with a Southern hospitality that I love. Ginger Snaps were Jones' favorite and the recipe used to make them was apparently his mother's.

East Lake has dropped off the world top 100 rankings of late which is too bad. As much as I love the new minimalist designs of Coore-Crenshaw and others, to some degree all the new modern courses are crowding out important courses like East Lake and Ganton and Colonial. It is better to have a balanced set of courses making up the top 100 since these are important courses that the serious golf fan should come to know so that they can better honor the legacy of this great game.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Streamsong Golf Resort

I know I said Augusta would be my last post, but I wasn't anticipating golf at Streamsong.

The winning formula for a new golf resort over the last fifteen years has consisted of a visionary developer acquiring some inexpensive land in a remote location, almost always near the ocean; hiring a new golden-age minimalist golf designer or two, and building some great golf courses. The visionaries have included an eccentric Chicago millionaire, Mike Keiser, who began the trend with Bandon Dunes. This was followed by a Tasmanian spud farmer, Richard Sattler, with the Barnbougle resort in Australia, and a golf obsessed Canadian, Ben Cowan-Dewar who moved his family to a remote Canadian village to pursue his dream. The golf architects of choice in our modern times are Tom Doak and the team of Coore & Crenshaw. So, will the formula work if the visionary developer is a NYSE listed commodity company and the inexpensive land is not near the water?

While it might not be as romantic a story as the first three, the answer is a resounding yes.

The modern style clubhouse at Streamsong paradoxically fits in and looks appropriate

I would like to add my voice to the chorus of praise being heaped on the Streamsong golf courses in Florida. My mental image of Florida golf is flat terrain, palm trees, thick Bermuda grass and lots of water. Streamsong is the opposite of “typical” Florida golf, located east of Tampa and South of Orlando in the geographic middle of the state. I know this offers a simplistic view of Florida golf; the reality is, the state has some pretty diverse courses such as Calusa Pines and World Woods. But, you get my drift, which is that this is not like Doral, PGA National, TPC Sawgrass, Bay Hill, Seminole or the myriad of flat courses with an abundance of water hazards.

This part of Florida is less traveled and semi-rural; the town that Streamsong is located in has less population than some blocks in Manhattan. The large amount of jobs created by Streamsong is a mini boom to the area, which is dotted with farms and ranches. Florida is the third largest state in terms of cattle production and this is visible as you drive to Streamsong. The other big industry in this part of Florida is phosphate mining, which brings us to why the courses were built. The Mosaic Company has been extracting phosphate, a key component of fertilizer, in the area, for years. In fact they still are, as you drive to and play the course you can still see their facilities all around you. Some very wise executives at Mosaic, who are clearly among us golf obsessed, had the vision to take the land that was mined and re-purpose it into a golf resort. 

One of the benefits of the way phosphate is mined (apologies to my tree-hugging readers) is that it is extracted from beneath the ground, thus large amounts of earth are removed and piled up. 12 million yards of earth were moved between the two courses, Tom Doak has estimated. This process took an otherwise flat terrain and created sand dunes and lots of elevation changes. The other natural benefit of Streamsong is that Florida was at one time under water, thus the soil is very sandy, having been a sea bed in earlier millenia. In fact, our caddie told us they frequently find sharks teeth among the sand.

Having played Bandon, Cabot Links and the Barnbougle resorts I can state definitively that Streamsong can proudly join the ranks of golf destinations worth going out of your way for. At several times throughout the day I was reminded very much of playing at Barnbougle in Tasmania in particular. The picture below gives you a good sense of why. Florida does not come to mind when looking at this picture, taken from the third tee of the Coore & Crenshaw course.

A vista from the Coore/Crenshaw course, 3rd tee looks nothing like Florida

My memory is not particularly good and I personally find the names of the courses, Red and Blue to be confusing. When thinking back I often got confused trying to recall which was Red and which was Blue. A little multiple-choice trivia question to begin. The courses were named Red and Blue because:

(a) Tom Doak happens to live in a blue state and Coore/Crenshaw in red states and the owners were making a political statement.
(b) The third course is going to be called White and the owners are going with a patriotic theme.
(c) The course names represent the color of the ink the course architects used when routing the courses on a map simultaneously when looking for potential designs.

The correct answer is the more mundane C. It would be simpler if they named them simply the Doak course and the Coore & Crenshaw course. 

Although there are trees at the perimeter of both courses, they do not come into play, both are wide open and bumping and running the ball are a delightfully consistent part of the golf here. The tee areas at Streamsong blend into the fairways and are not really distinctive tee boxes. This no doubt makes mowing and maintenance easy, and creates a lot of options on tee placement.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than the fifth hole on the Blue (Doak) course. The hole is a downhill par three of between 102 and 150 yards depending on the tees you play and where the pin is. When we got to the tee someone in my group pointed out that you could actually putt the ball to the green given that the flag was front left and there was fairway all the way from tee to green. As I am always up for a stupid challenge I decided to tee off with a putter and ended up about a foot short of the green! 

 The par three fifth hole on the Doak course at Streamsong gives many options including putting off the tee

The green is quite large lengthwise, at first I thought it might be part of a double green complex, but it is not. I walked it off at 245 feet from side-to-side, so most of the time putting may not be a good option, but it did create a lot of debate about whether this was a good design feature or not; personally I liked it. Streamsong lists holes-in-one on their website, including the club used for those that have already gotten them, and they range from a 54 degree wedge up to a 7-iron. One of my new goals is to get listed on the site with the club listed as “putter”. 

My favorite hole on the Doak (Blue) course is the par three seventh which is “the” picture hole everyone captures when playing Streamsong, and for good reason. It is such a picturesque hole of between 178 and 203 yards, and a delight to play over water into such a secluded area between the sand dunes.

"The" picture hole at Streamsong, the par three seventh on the Doak (Blue) course

Another hole I really liked is the sixth hole, which, coincidentally, has the same hole number and reminded me of the sixth hole at St. Enodoc in England, one of Tom Doak’s favorite courses. The dominant feature on the hole is the huge "Himalaya" sand dune on the left side of the hole near the green. 

Streamsong Doak (Blue) sixth hole with a Himalaya sand dune

 I left my ball in the “cleavage” between the two humps on the green!

The enticing green, Streamsong Blue, sixth hole

The other hole I really liked is number thirteen (not pictured) similar to a hole at Pacific Dunes, a par four of between 279 and 312 yards that gets progressively more narrow as you get to the green, which is set up on a hill and is well bunkered.

Some of the greens on the Blue course are border line tricked up, like the twelfth, a par four, with its massive humps and slope.

The very tricky twelfth green, Streamsong Blue

Putting is one of the strong suits of my overall deteriorating and currently mediocre game, and I found the greens on the Blue course to be very difficult to read and putt on, as did the other three golfers in my group. It takes quite a bit of time to adjust to the putting on both courses given that almost all the greens have pretty good contours.

I know I am comparing the holes at Streamsong to a lot of other courses, but I do think they are apt. The tenth (Blue) reminds me of Kingston Heath near Melbourne with its flat terrain and abundance of bunkers. In some respects this shouldn't be too much of a surprise since the terrain and sandy soil are very similar here to the Sandbelt region of Melbourne.

Streamsong Blue, par three tenth hole, shades of Kingston Heath 

The Blue course has a gentle start to ease you into the round, the first half dozen holes being relatively easy. The first tee shot plays from atop a large sand hill downwind to a wide open fairway. It is good for the ego to begin your round this way. The tee box is one of the highest points on the property which has a total elevation change of 75 feet. The easy start is more than made up for with the difficulty of the finish. Sixteen is a par three of over 200 yards playing into a cross-wind and sloping left to right all the way. I think the hole is too penal given the cross-wind, the severity of the slopes and the bunkers. I get it, golf doesn't always have to be fair, rub of the green and all that, but sometimes the balance is tipped too far like it is here.

The seventeenth is a LONG par five, approaching 600 yards from the back tees. I’m not sure if the prevailing wind is the same as the day I played, but it was into us. In addition to the length, the hole gently rises from tee to green. The second shot is a crucial one where you have to decide whether you can carry the large bunkers set at an angle to the fairway up a sloping hill. It’s a big hole, reminiscent in some respects of the fourth hole at Bethpage Black.

Bethpage Black meets Sand Hills on the 17th at the Doak Course, Streamsong

I played the Blue course in the morning and then immediately played the Coore & Crenshaw course, which has a difficult start. For those looking for a maximum challenge, play the Blue first followed by the Red and you have the most difficult half dozen holes on the property in a row.

The par three sixth on the Coore & Crenshaw (Red) course, Streamsong

The Coore & Crenshaw course and the Doak courses have many similarities as the two designers don't have very different styles in their minimalist design approaches. Tom Doak calls the courses "cousins" rather than "twins" and I think that is right. I found the Coore & Crenshaw design has more of the course out in front of you and less blind shots. On the front nine of the Doak course alone the second shots on the first and fourth holes are blind as is the tee shot at nine. The Doak course has wider fairways and wilder greens. The Coore & Crenshaw course has slightly narrower fairways and slightly less sloped greens.

I enjoyed the Coore & Crenshaw course, as I always do, since their design aesthetic suits my eye. I particularly enjoyed holes fifteen through seventeen, probably the best three hole stretch on the property. Number sixteen is a Biarritz style hole of between 160 and 208 yards that plays over the same lake as the seventh hole on the Blue course.

 The sixteenth "Biarritz" hole on the Coore/Crenshaw Course

Closeup of the Biarritz green, the 16th hole on the Red course

The predominant impression coming away from Streamsong is the sand dunes, however, both architects also took advantage of the savanna the course is on. One of the things that makes Cypress Point so special is that the course has six holes routed through the dunes, six holes routed through the trees and six holes routed along the water. Streamsong doesn't have any holes routed across the water obviously, but there is more variety that meets the eye, particularly the holes routed through the grassy plains part of the property that abuts the trees. These include the ninth and tenth of the Blue course and the twelfth and seventeenth (below) on the Red course.

The seventeenth hole Streamsong Red at dusk shows off the variety of challenge

There is much debate about which course is better and which people prefer playing. I am not going to join that particular debate as I like both courses a lot. They are both similar in the sense that they are courses that encourage you to use the ground to bump and run shots and both place a premium on putting. I can't tell you the last time I walked and played 36 holes in a day, but I did happily at Streamsong. Like at Sand Hills, Cabot Links, Barnbougle and Bandon, Streamsong is one of those places when you finish your round you want to head right back to the first tee and play again. For those who can't access Sand Hills in Nebraska, Streamsong is a credible public alternative to see the genius of Coore & Crenshaw. The courses are built on 2,300 acres of the 16,500 that Mosaic owns in this area and nature is in abundance. While playing we saw a large turtle crossing one fairway and we saw an ominous looking long black snake in the rough. Some bunkers had unsettling sized paw prints in them from Bobcats which inhabit the area. Other wildlife present include deer, wild hogs, wild turkey and the more typical for Florida: alligators lurking in the water.

A shot from the seventh hole, Coore & Crenshaw course, similar to Sand Hills in Nebraska

So where do the courses rank among Florida golf? Where do they rank in the world? How is it compared to Bandon? I would say they rank pretty high among Florida golf, along with Seminole among the top three. It is less windy than Bandon, making it a big plus in my book. Plus, you can leave New York in the morning, fly down and play a round before sundown which makes it very convenient. Arguably it is easier to get to Streamsong than it is to Kiawah or Pinehurst. Hard to say where these courses would land in the world rankings, but I think it is safe to say they belong there as they rank ahead of a dozen or two of the courses currently on the list. Maybe I am suffering from rating and ranking fatigue (pretty ironic coming from me) given all the new courses coming on line and all of them hyped as top 100. Putting aside the rankings, they are special courses to play and worth a journey.

Both courses are designed for walking and it is strongly encouraged. I have a lumbago and am getting old, but with some help from my Advil I found the courses easy to walk. After 9:30 am you can take a cart and a fore-caddie, although the carts can only go around the perimeter of the course, so you probably walk as much as if you didn't have a cart. Streamsong also offers an interesting option for playing. A six hole or twelve hole round is available after 2:00 pm, which I think is a great idea.

The new hotel doesn't quite fit in, it looks more like a corporate headquarters or hospital building, but that is pretty much the only thing on the whole property that doesn't perfectly fit in

Service was outstanding throughout the day, everyone was chipper and attentive and my caddie, Noah Zelnik, a former tour caddie and PGA player was as good as I've ever had. Kudos to the nameless visionary executives at Mosaic who had the fore-sight to develop this into something so appealing and classy. The property is isolated enough that you see no cars nor do you hear background din from a highway, and the hotel has a place on its roof where you sit out and take advantage of star gazing since there is no "light pollution" in the area.  It was bold to setup the courses to strongly encourage walking so that you could truly take nature in and enjoy the ambiance of the quiet and beautiful surroundings.

I can't wait to go back.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Augusta National Golf Club - A Cinderella Story

"I shall never forget my first visit to the property... The long lane of magnolias through which we approached was beautiful. The old manor house with its cupola and walls of masonry two feet thick was charming. The rare trees and shrubs of the old nursery were enchanting. But when I walked out on the grass terrace under the big trees behind the house and looked down over the property the experience was unforgettable."

Augusta Entry Drive

The quote leading off the post is not mine, but is from Bobby Jones. His recollection is from seeing the property before the course was built and it is still the perfect description of it to this day. My attempt to capture my day at Augusta is below. Lou Holtz once said, "I'm often asked to explain the mystique of Notre Dame. I reply, 'If you were there, no explanation in necessary. If you weren't, no explanation is satisfactory'." For those who haven't had the opportunity to play it, it is quite difficult for words to do it justice. For those who are among the lucky ones who have, no explanation is necessary.

Augusta National Golf Club (ranked #5 in the world) is the hardest course in the top 100 to get on. I probably have to qualify my prior sentence so I don't get bombarded with email from Down Under reminding me that Ellerston Golf Club is probably the hardest in the world to get on, but that's another story and wasn't on my to do list. It took me fifteen years to get invited to Augusta National, but I finally managed to do it in style. All the pictures on this post were happily taken with my camera, and as you can see, the conditions were perfect when I was there. It was 74 degrees and sunny with a slight wind.

What better circumstances are there to play Augusta National than when the azaleas are blooming, when the course is in tournament condition and with a Masters winner or two? Well, none.

I saved the best experience for last, and walking off the eighteenth green of Augusta National as the last hole to complete my quest is the only way to finish. I am one very lucky bastard.

After I was invited to play at Augusta National it was overwhelming, and it took several days for me to come back down to earth. Because I am just a little anal and clearly I like lists, I immediately began to keep three: 1) People who were previously my friends who told me they now hated me from jealousy; 2) People who offered to caddie for me if needed; and 3) People who wanted "Augusta National" and not "Masters" logo items that you can only buy in the pro shop in the clubhouse. Sleeping the night before playing at Augusta was restless at best, the sense of anticipation was crushing. Sitting in my hotel room prior to the round, I was a clinical example of adult ADHD and displayed all the symptoms in classic form: inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. I was babbling, moving things around the room senselessly and not listening to a word my wife said.

What was it like?

Short answer: Wow!

Long answer: It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, if a bit overwhelming. Driving under the canopy of trees lining Magnolia Lane is something I never dreamed would happen to me, so the range of emotions that I felt when it happened were wide, as I was trying to comprehend my dream being realized. The most prevalent feelings were joy, fear, excitement, disbelief, exhilaration and anticipation.

As anyone who has ever been to the Masters knows, everything about the place is perfect. Walking through the door of the plantation-style antebellum clubhouse is as memorable an experience as riding down Magnolia Lane. Having previously been to the Masters twice, I had already experienced the jaw-dropping awe of the property and its rolling hills. Not that it ever gets old, because it doesn't. Being anywhere on the verdant Augusta grounds is special, no matter how many times you have been there. This time, being able to walk into the clubhouse, an act previously verboten, was truly amazing. I do believe I had the biggest smile of my life on my face when I entered.

As with everything else in this adult version of Disneyland, the interior of the stately clubhouse is flawless. It is the antithesis of glitz and ostentation; it is simple, but elegant; the ultimate embodiment of understated Southern charm. There are scores of little touches they get right, including a mounted display board in the entry foyer. The board has slots that hold the engraved names of members who are currently on the property. They slide little brass name plates in and out as members enter and leave the property. I did my best not to gawk at the board, but did recognize a couple of names, including a former Secretary of State who was present. The clubhouse, with a two-story veranda around the entire building was built in 1854; is a veritable museum; touring it is special, as it holds the permanent Masters trophy, special golf clubs donated to the club from past champions and a big oil painting of President Eisenhower. Ascending the winding stairway leads you to the second floor, which houses the dining room where they hold the champions dinner each year and the champions locker room. Starting with Bobby Jones, and thinking about all the great golfers who have been in the clubhouse and walked over these hallowed grounds over the last 80 years gives me goosebumps.

My warm-up was on the driving range used during the Masters instead of on the members driving range. I have obviously played a lot of good golf courses and have experienced teeing off at some famous locales that are pressure packed, such as the Old Course at St. Andrews and the first tee at Merion with lunch in progress. Hitting my first tee shot at Augusta was the most nerve-racking of all and shortened both my breath and my back swing. My palms were sweaty and my stomach full of butterflies. The first drive is over a big swale, and although the fairway is wide, the target area is not, since it narrows between the huge bunker on the right and the big Georgia pines on the left. In retrospect, it was one of the narrowest fairway landing areas on the course. Making contact with the ball on the first tee was special. Having the ball actually go my normal distance down the fairway was a bonus!

I played well on the first six holes, then the gravity of the situation hit me and I fell apart for two holes. It is really hard to comprehend that I was lucky enough to be able to actually play Augusta National. Many thanks to the caddies who helped me stay calm and in the present and enjoy the moment. Just as all roads lead to Rome, all golfers dream of the back nine at Augusta on a Sunday afternoon, and here I am in just such a spot.

The practice putting green is near the tenth tee at Augusta National. After we teed off on ten, a multiple-time winner and Ryder Cup captain walks up to the tee and says, "Do you guys mind if I join you on the back?" Hard to conceive of, right? My playing partner says, "No problem with me, John, is it ok if he joins us?" What am I going to say, "No, I'm sort of in a groove, why don't we continue as a two-some!" My fairy tale story continues...

Nelson Bridge #13 Augusta
Nelson Bridge over Rae's Creek from the 13th tee to the 13th fairway, as seen from Hogan Bridge

From tee to green there is no rough; so, truth be told, putting your ball in play is actually not that hard. The course plays 6,365 yards from the member tees. The fairways are generous, they look and feel like carpets, and every lie is perfect. The greens are also perfection, without question the best in the world.  The most difficult shots tee to green are those you have to hit off of the pine needles if you hit off the fairway. The real tests of Augusta National are chipping, holding your ball on the greens and putting. The greens are fast, as you would expect. They are significantly harder on the back nine, in my humble opinion. In particular, I found the thirteenth, fourteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth to be like putting on the top of a glass table.

I am an average golfer (15 handicap) and if there is one hope that I had going into the round it was to play Amen Corner well. A sense of calm and peace overtook me as I walked onto the eleventh tee. To be able to hit the same shots the professionals hit is a dream every golfer has. To be able to pull it off and not cease up was a treat. One of the highlights of my life was hitting the middle of the eleventh green in regulation (the hole plays 400 yards from the member tees) with a shot that got a "great shot" shout out from two former tournament winners. Luckily, my birdie putt was captured by my alert caddie who knew the gravity of the moment and took the camera out of my golf bag without being asked. I rolled it to within six inches. I was not disappointed with a tap in par to start Amen Corner. Walking over the Hogan Bridge is something that cannot be described; it is a solemn, spiritual experience.

Birdie Putt on #11 Augusta
Putting for birdie on #11 on a brilliant day with the azaleas in bloom

Standing on the twelfth tee I mentally blocked out the water, the ultra-shallow green, the bunkers in the front and in back, and everything else. I adjusted perfectly for the one club wind, visualized the shot, saw only the flag and took a very deep breath. I ended up hitting one of the best shots of my life, eight feet from the hole. This is the reason you stand on the range year after year and hit tens of thousands of practice balls; so that when you need to, you can pull off the shot of your life, and it was satisfying. On #12 the member tee and the pro tee are in the same place, so I had the exact same shot they hit during the Masters, a 155-yarder over Rae's Creek. My putt broke a good cup and a half and when it landed in the bottom of the hole for birdie, it was hard to absorb. I have had my ups and downs with my golf game over the years, but it was very satisfying to birdie what Jack Nicklaus calls, "the hardest hole in tournament golf." I was one under through two holes on Amen Corner, and hit a drive straight down the middle of the thirteenth fairway.  I didn't so much walk over Nelson Bridge as I did float over it.

#13 tee Augusta
The view from the back tee on the thirteenth

My luck ran out when my ball rolled back off the thirteenth green, but I was still overjoyed, having just lived every golfer's dream. When the legendary golf writer Herbert Warren Wind coined the phrase "Amen Corner," he described it as your second shot on the 11th, the entire 12th hole and your tee shot on 13. In the original true sense of Amen Corner, I played it to near perfection. My favorite hole was the thirteenth; it is just breathtaking and on a scale that most golf holes can never achieve. The back tee on the thirteenth is one of the most peaceful places in the world. It sits in a little alcove set among the splendor and beauty of Augusta, and standing there one has not a care in the world.

#13 green Augusta
The approach to the par five thirteenth green over Rae's Creek

I am blessed, and for some reason the golf gods were good enough to let me play to my handicap when I played Augusta National. As is typical, I had my ups and downs. I hit my tee shot on sixteen into the water,  pulled my ball through the Eisenhower Tree on seventeen, hit my fair share of chip shots fat and three putted more than normal, as the greens were tournament ready. After my final putt dropped on the eighteenth green I shook hands with two green jacket winners. To say I was in a state of elation is a gross understatement. At that moment, I was the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

As an added bonus, after the round I also got to play the par three course and to have a drink in the champions locker room. It is quite small and intimate, with only three tables that seat four at each. The veranda outside the room overlooks the circular entry drive and Magnolia Lane. The room was full when I entered and I will leave it to your imagination as to who was in the room and what happened next. If I told you, you wouldn't believe me anyway. Hollywood couldn't have scripted it any better.

I have a big imagination. You have to, to envision playing Augusta and completing this quest. My experience at Augusta National exceeded anything I could have ever imagined. Any one of my experiences that day are remarkable in and of their own right. Are my descriptions hyperbole? Not in the least, when you experienced what I did as the culmination of a long journey. Collectively, they are truly hard to take in and represent a dream come true. The title song from The Wizard of Oz sums up my day:

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high
There's a land that I've heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream,
Really do come true.

Would you go if invited?

Links Magazine did a readers poll a couple of years back and asked the following question, "You're on a business trip in Atlanta and have an important meeting that cannot be rescheduled. The night before the meeting, you receive a last minute invitation to play Augusta National Golf Club the following morning. What do you do?"

57% responded that they would skip and meeting and play
43% said they would attend the meeting

The 43% are clearly out of their mind. Are you kidding me?

What PGA players think about Augusta

Sports Illustrated polled the players in 2012 about the Masters. Their answers are below and my opinion in parenthesis.

1. The 11th hole was ranked as the hardest. (I think the seventh and tenth holes are harder)

2. The 12th hole was ranked as the best hole and as the favorite shot on the course (hard to disagree)

3. The 13th hole was ranked as their favorite hole (I agree)

4. 62% of them had never tried the pimento cheese sandwich!

5. 50% of those polled said the major they would most like to win would be the Masters

Some of my favorite quotes about Augusta

"The course is perfection, and it asks perfection" - Nick Faldo

"You get the feeling that Bobby Jones is standing out there with you" - Lee Janzen

"I always said that if they have a golf course like this in heaven, I want to be the head pro" - Gary Player

Augusta truisms

There are three truisms that anyone who has been to the Masters knows:

1. The neighborhood the course is in is more befitting to a suburban strip mall in New Jersey and is lined with Waffle Houses and fast food chains.

2. The steepness of the terrain doesn't come through on TV. Especially how much the first hole plays down and up. Also, the uphill shots required on nine and eighteen are much more dramatic when seen in person, given the big elevation changes. The most dramatic hole of all is the tenth, which plays almost straight down hill.

3. The entire property is perfect. Quite literally perfect. There are no weeds. Nothing is out of place. Those who have been to the Masters know how perfect it is, including the wooden pine bathroom houses that are spotless. The interior of the clubhouse is also perfect. I don't know if they paint the place every day, but the interiors of the buildings look like they were freshly painted. The flooring is polished, the carpets are spotless and look freshly laid, and the lucky people working there are charming and gracious, and make you feel at home. No detail is too small to overlook at Augusta National. Inside the clubhouse they don't use an electric vacuum cleaner since the noise would disturb the perfect ambiance of the place. Instead, they use an old school push style that makes no noise.

Unlike any other

Pine Valley is the #1 ranked course in the world and Cypress Point is #2, and an absolute dream land. Everyone talks about Pebble Beach, and you get chills playing the Old Course at St. Andrews when they announce your name on the first tee. But the course EVERYBODY asks about when I tell them what I've been doing is Augusta. Have you played Augusta? How did you get on Augusta?

I have played in some unreal and memorable places. My day at Loch Lomond was exceptional. My experience and the ambiance of the hunting lodge at Morfontaine is still something I think about all the time. It is also pretty hard to beat an overnight stay at The National Golf Links of America. Yet, this is the one to tell the grand kids about (some day). Everyone I meet in my life from now on will hear about my birdie on the twelfth hole.

#13 looking back 
The 13th fairway looking back toward the tee shows the massive curve around Rae's Creek

Augusta trivia

Some interesting trivia facts about Augusta taken mostly from David Owen's The Making of the Masters:

1. The tress that line Magnolia Lane were planted before the Civil War

2. President Eisenhower never attended the Masters because of possible security problems

3. Before there were tour caddies, golfers recruited bellhops from the local Bon-Air Hotel to serve as caddies

4. Cliff Roberts handled Eisenhower's personal finances and investments

5. The golf shop makes change with new bills because Clifford Roberts didn't like dirty bills

6. There are no tee times at Augusta National. Captains of industry are very civilized and no doubt don't all show up at once. The limited number of cabins for overnight play self-regulates the number of people that play, as most members don't live locally.

7. The two nines originally played in reverse. The 1934 Masters was the only one played with the front and back opposite of the way they play today.

8. Augusta has no slope and course rating from the U.S.G.A. thus you can't really post your score after playing. I'm not sure why they never had the course rated, perhaps to do with privacy and limiting access?

What will you do now that you are done playing the top 100 courses?

People have asked me this question a lot. I contemplated giving up golf altogether, since what I just did can't be topped. Like Bobby Jones, I thought, wouldn't it be great to go out at the top. Jones retired at his peak in 1930 after winning the impregnable quadrilateral, as he termed the Grand Slam. My friends reminded me that I'm no Bobby Jones, so a few other ideas I'm kicking around:

1. Go back to Cruden Bay and play it over and over and over

2. Go and sit in the Sunningdale clubhouse for a week drinking Guinness and smoking cigars

3. Try to join the Links Club in New York

4. Eat at the top 100 restaurants in the world

5. Move to Queenstown, New Zealand, herd sheep and drive a taxi while playing golf at Jack's Point a lot

How did you get on the course?

Unfortunately, like in Las Vegas, what happens at Augusta National stays at Augusta National. This will remain my secret. That is, unless my book deal comes through with its big advance, in which case I will give all the details :). What I can say is that asking to play is futile. Like joining the club, you can't ask them, they have to ask you. Asking to play is an automatic no. Think about it, members would be inundated with requests every day if you could ask them to play since this is the course every golfer obsesses about. In this regard, Augusta National is truly unlike all other golf courses in the world. If you meet a member of Shinnecock Hills or Riviera or many of the other top courses, chances are you can ask them and as long as you are not a total JO, you can usually get invited, as they are proud to show off their course, especially to those that appreciate the history of the game and golf course architecture.  A prior post of mine does outline the ways you can get onto the course:  A Dozen Ways to Play Augusta. Good luck if you are trying, and sorry, I can't help.

What are your favorite courses and holes?

Alas, a complex question best answered by this post: The Best Holes and Courses. My day at Augusta was by far the best overall experience of my journey playing the top 100 courses given what happened to me on that day. In terms of the course only, I would rank only a half-dozen or so courses above it including Cypress Point, Sand Hills, the National Golf Links of America, Merion, and Sunningdale. My top five holes in the world are the thirteenth at Augusta, the fifteenth at Cypress Point, Maidstone's fourteenth, Kawana's fifteenth and the seventh at Sunningdale.

Was it hard to play the top 100 golf courses in the world?

Yes. To put the feat in perspective, by completing my quest I become only the 23rd person to do so, the same number of men who have been to the moon: The list of those who have completed playing. I tried to calculate the percentage of people in the world that have done this and dividing 23 into 7 billion gave a result with a lot of zeros after the decimal point. The odds of winning the lottery are higher than the odds of playing all 100 of the top golf courses in the world.

The hardest courses to get on aside from Augusta are Morfontaine in France, Hirono and Nauro in Japan, Wade Hampton in North Carolina, San Francisco Golf Club and The Golf Club in Ohio.

Thank you 

A heartfelt thanks to everyone who has been kind to me along the way, particularly those that hosted me and had to tolerate looking at my terrible swing. Thank you to all my loyal and supportive readers. Special thanks to my mates Tom, Chris and Sheldon who accompanied me to many of the world's great golf courses and are fabulous company. We have shared many laughs together. Thank you for being such good friends, I couldn't have done it without you. The biggest thanks of all goes to the most tolerant and greatest wife in the world! Thank you.

One of the lessons learned from this experience is to be patient. I pressed hard to get on Augusta for years and for the last two had sort of given up, and figured completing the top 99 courses in the world would be a pretty good feat. Little did I know that all those previous no's and rejections in my attempt to play the course were for a reason. Fate had decided that my quest should end with the ultimate climax. Just like in your game, sometimes when you give up, you play your best. Other lessons learned: be nice to everyone you meet, think big, have perseverance and persistence, and believe. There is no way to pay everyone back that helped me, so I will continue to pay it forward and share my luck and good fortune with others.

This will be my last post now that the quest is complete.

Post Script - Did I mention I birdied twelve?

Monday, April 08, 2013

White Smoke

 Perfectus Questus!


The Quest is Complete!

Golf's Holy Grail has been found

 A full write-up of my final course to come...

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Wentworth (West Course)

When I first played Wentworth seven years ago I was tired, didn't have my camera and did not do the course justice in my writeup. I returned recently with camera in tow and present this new and improved post.

The Wentworth West Course (ranked #78 in the world) is part of the sprawling Wentworth estate in Surrey. Originally owned by the Countess de Morella, the development rights for the housing estate and golf course were acquired in 1923. The West course was designed by H.S. Colt in 1924. Today, Wentworth has a large golf footprint with three 18 hole courses. Wentworth is located in the Surrey region outside London in Virginia Water, across from the Windsor Great Park, part of the Queen's Crown Estate. Virginia Water got its name from Elizabeth I, the 'Virgin Queen.'

The Wentworth housing estate is large and occupied by the jet set, to borrow an expression from the 1960s. Among today's leading European golf pros who live or have lived at Wentworth are: Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Colin Montgomery. One of the attractions of Wentworth is its proximity to Heathrow airport, but it is also one of its pitfalls, as you can hear the jets all day. The 1953 Ryder Cup was played at Wentworth and Ben Hogan and Sam Snead played on the U.S. team.

Clubhouse Rear
Wentworth's castle clubhouse

Surrey is blessed with sandy soil and beautiful terrain and Wentworth makes the most of it. I must say I hated the course the first time I played it, but this time around I saw that it is better than I realized the first time. The first hole is a nice par five playing 473 yards. Before you hit your tee shot the starter presses a button that puts up red lights on the entry road, so that you don't hit a car if you skull your tee shot. There is a big dip before the first green.

1st Green
Approach shot to the first green on Wentworth's West course

The second hole is a 154-yard par three that plays from an elevated tee to a shallow green guarded by a big tree on the right side of the green.

2nd green
The par three 2nd hole's green

I enjoyed the par four seventh hole very much. It is 396 yards and sweeps down the hillside to an elevated green sited up a big dogleg right. You can see the beautiful Surrey countryside clearly on this hole.

7th from tee
The beautiful Surrey heath land from the 7th hole at Wentworth

The green is interesting and challenging.

7th green
The green on the nice 7th hole on Wentworth's West course

The terrain at Wentworth is demanding and the course is long and the walk wore me out both times I played it. It is one of the most difficult courses I have ever played and is very long at 7,302 yards from the tips. The course's nickname is aptly, the Burma Road. Because the estate is so sprawling, the course is spread out and many holes have hills to walk up as well. The course also has active roads running through nine holes. I did find this to be very distracting. A lot of the world's great courses, in fact, have roads running through them including the National Golf Links of America, Cypress Point, Maidstone and Merion. What makes it different at Wentworth is the overall volume of traffic and the large number of holes where cars cross while you are playing. The view below is off the tee on the 203-yard par three fifth.

5th hole crossing


The long 449-yard par four ninth hole was also very good. If features an active railway along the left side, which, like many U.K. courses is quite charming. The hole features a really interesting and well-protected green.

9th green 1

The green on Wentworth's 9th hole

Ernie Els has made changes to Wentworth over the last decade, many of them controversial, including to the 539-yard par five finishing hole. I rather liked the hole as it stands today. The hole sweeps to the right and the shot to the very small green is over this new burn.

18th Green
The approach to the green of Wentworth's final hole

The estate grounds are idyllic, especially the giant rhododendron plants and the way the roads and houses are set back around sweeping drives. Wentworth also serves as the home of the European Tour and as a result the overall feel of the club is more like a resort or large corporate entity rather than a private club, which it also is. My preference is for more intimate clubs such as nearby Sunningdale.

On balance, I came away with a much better appreciation for Wentworth than my initial impression gave. My chief complaints are the demanding shots the course requires and the fact that between the planes from Heathrow overhead and the cars criss-crossing the course, it feels a lot like the movie Planes, Trains & Automobiles. The Wentworth Estate is also now a favorite place to live for ├╝ber-wealthy people from the Middle East and Russia. There were several mega properties being built on the estate just off the course when we were there, also adding to the less-than-idyllic noise levels. A security-minded bunch, many of the houses feature cameras and some warn of guard dogs and one even has an electric fence.

House on Wentworth Estate
An entrance to one of the large estate homes on the drive into Wentworth

My biggest complaints, however, are the $600 cost of the greens fee and compulsory caddie, and the fact that the round takes over FIVE AND A HALF HOURS!!!!!!! which is frankly not fun. Wentworth does a lot of corporate outings, so on the days they do allow visitors, it is a grueling experience.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Ganton Golf Club

Entry Sign

The Ganton Golf Club (ranked #62 in the world) was formed in 1891 and orginally called the Scarborough Golf Club. It is the course where Harry Vardon served as the  professional between 1896 and 1903. If you don't appreciate who Harry Vardon is, then you had better brush up on your golfing history. One of the greatest players of all time, Vardon won the Open Championship six times and the U.S. Open once.  Ted Ray, winner of the Open Championship and U.S. Open also served as the head professional at Ganton.

Some of golf's most esteemed architects have had a hand in shaping Ganton including J.H. Taylor, H.S. Colt, Alister MacKenzie and James Braid.  The Ganton railway station, now gone, was 300 yards from the course and caddies used to meet their players at the station and accompany them to the clubhouse.

Located in Yorkshire, Ganton has hosted three British Amateur Championships and a Walker Cup (2003). It also hosted the 1949 Ryder Cup, won by the United States and captained by Ben Hogan. My regular readers know how much I love the British Isles and visiting Ganton is no exception. The course is located in North Yorkshire which has beautiful rolling countryside and impossible to decipher thick accents. The nearby North York Moors are a national park and the areas surrounding Ganton are comprised of moors rich with bracken, heather and grass that give off a glowing color. The area has a purple hue in the summer from the bursting heather. There is something mysterious and romantic about this part of England and its old stone walls and alluring views.

Entry Drive
The nice entry road into Ganton

Ganton is golf from the old school. Aside from 150-yard markers, there are no yardage markers at Ganton. The tops of the flag sticks DO NOT have a GPS target in them. This is golfing the old fashioned way, played by feel, trying to judge the wind and distance by eye or from the distance measured by a bunker or a tree. No golf carts here. This is pure golf.

I suppose that deep bunkering is part of the character in the north of England because Ganton also has deep, penal and large bunkers in the style of nearby Woodhall Spa. These are bunkers so deep that you need a ladder to climb in and out of them.  I played Ganton without a caddy in sunny, windy conditions. The winter sun was at a low angle in the sky with the crisp air filling my lungs. 

10th bunker
A bunker on the 10th hole is typical of the deep bunkers at Ganton

The course has a relatively easy start and the front nine isn't terribly difficult or dramatic, although you quickly get a sense that is is wise to stay out of the bunkers and to look around at the idyllic countryside in all directions. Ganton is not unusually short by today's standards, with back tees of 6,935 and would be a real challenge with the wind blowing. The growing conditions in this part of England are ideal due to the rain and cool temperatures, thus, the greens and fairways are as good as any course in the world.

I think the back nine is far stronger than the front. The course's strong finish picks up steam on the sixteenth hole, seen below, with a huge and rough cross bunker running across the fairway. The hole is 446 yards and has a line of trees along both sides. You can see some of the pastoral beauty in the distance in the picture below. Farming has been going on in this area for over 1,000 years.

  16th Cross Bunker  
The view of the 16th fairway as seen from the tee

I particularly like the 258-yard par three seventeenth hole, where you must hit your tee shot across the entrance road to the course. Yorkshire men are known as a hearty breed, and this hole is built for them.

17th tee shot
The difficult par three 17th as seen from the tee box 

The 435-yard eighteenth features a blind tee shot on the drive and a shot over the entry drive as your second. The shot below shows the tee shot over gorse bushes, a big sand hole and other local flora, especially gorse. If you hit your tee shot to the left, you have no shot to the green and are blocked out by trees.

  18th tee shot
The blind tee shot as seen from the 18th tee

After the round, one of the great pleasures of this quest is retiring to the clubhouse to have a sandwich. At Ganton it is egg mayonnaise on brown bread or roast beef with classic English mustard, with the edges trimmed off as they do here, accompanied by a local beer. Or, if you are so inclined you can have sausages and cakes with tea after the round as a hearty group sitting nearby us did.

As is the custom for most proper English courses, you must have on a jacket and tie to enter the dining area at Ganton, even though you are far from the big cities.  I can appreciate that they are trying to uphold the standards and traditions of proper English clubs. The classic English club, Ganton has everything that is quintessentially English: The locker room has separate hot and cold water old-fashioned faucets. The TV is tuned to the BBC. The course is surrounded by beautiful English hedges that grow so perfectly here given the growing conditions. Of course, there are dogs being walked through the course by non-golfers.

The Ganton clubhouse is a throwback to an earlier era, probably not changing much since Vardon's time. Their locker room is seen below.

Locker Room  
The historic locker room at Ganton

It is important that clubs and courses like Ganton remain in the top 100 rankings. It is certainly easy to have courses like this replaced with the newest $20 million Tom Fazio made-for-US-Open-design. To do so would be a shame. The history of the game is important and places like Ganton are standard bearers for upholding its traditions.

I have now visited Ganton twice and I must say they are some of the friendliest people I have encountered each time. The long-time pro greeted us and was happy to give the history of the course. The caddie master went back to his house to get me a plug so I could charge my phone while we played. The members were also all welcoming and proud of their below-the-radar gem of the golfing world.

By chance, as we were driving back to our B & B on the A171 we spotted the Hare & Hounds because there was smoke rising from the chimney on the chilly night we went by. Inside, it the most English of pubs, with regulars and visitors happily mingling in a lively atmosphere. The fireplace burns coal and the food is locally sourced and provided the perfect ending to a perfect day.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Kingsbarns Golf Links

New pictures updated from my recent trip to Kingsbarns. I like the course more every time I visit.

18th green
The exciting finishing hole at Kingsbarns Golf Links, Scotland

The first golden era of golf course design was in the 1920s when some of the best all time architects were alive and designing: Alister Mackenzie, Seth Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast, H.S. Colt and George Thomas. "The Roaring Twenties" were also a time of unprecedented global prosperity with markets booming around the world. Of the 100 top courses in the world an astonishing 28 are were built in the 1920s.

We are lucky to live in the new golden era of golf course architecture. Kingsbarns (ranked #65 in the world) is one of the new generation of courses that have graced the world in the 1990s and 2000s, specifically having been built in 1999. The new golden era is characterized by architects such as David Kidd, Tom Doak, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and Kyle Phillips, the designer of Kingsbarns. This new group has designed many new courses that rank in the top 100. This new generation of world-ranked courses follows a dearth in good design. During the entire forty year period between the 1940s and the 1970s, only nine courses were worthy of inclusion on the top 100 list, and most of them were toward the latter half of the period and were designed by Pete Dye.

Part of the reason we are in a new golf course design renaissance is the favorable economic environment we find ourselves. A new generation of multi-millionaires, fueled by entrepreneurship and rising real estate and capital markets, have had both the vision and the money to put together some of the these great new courses.

Kingsbarns, located in the Kingdom of Fife, south of St. Andrews in Scotland, is a course I like very much. I have been fortunate enough to have played Kingsbarns three times on two different trips.

1st fairway
The great 414-yard opening hole at Kingsbarns takes you right out to the North Sea

The course is varied and interesting and a lot of fun to play. A lot of land was moved to build the course and critics of Kingsbarns cite this as something that detracts from it, since it is not pure links land. Hogwash! The course is great and feels and plays like a links course.

3rd fairway 1
The 516-yard Par 5 third plays along the water and is a terrific hole

From my point of view, there really is no let-down at Kingsbarns. I find the opening holes to be very exciting. The third, in particular plays along the North Sea and is a great par five in the dunes. If your blood isn't pumping with excitement by the time you reach the third green you need to have your pulse checked. The green, seen below, is demanding. Be sure to avoid the deep bunker front, right.

3rd green
The third green at Kingsbarns

The fifth hole is a 424-yard par four that plays back toward the opening hole. Your approach shot is over some big humps, hollows and gorse, seen below. The hole's name, "Tassie", means small cup or goblet and refers to the punch bowl nature of the green.

  5th green
Approach to the fifth green at Kingsbarns

I have been keeping track of the greatest holes in the world as I progress through the courses, and Kingsbarns has a couple on my list. The driveable par four sixth hole is on the list.

  6th from tee 
The world-class driveable par four sixth hole at Kingsbarns

The sixth is 337 yards and the tee shot is over a little valley. The play is to the right since a strip of land protrudes out of the hillside. If you can hit your ball about 220-240 yards, it will ride the slope all the way down to the hole. A hole is one is possible and eagles are also in the offing. The hole's name "Auld Links" refers to the original 1793 Kingsbarns 9-hole course that existed near this part of the course.

6th green
The fantastic sixth green at Kingsbarns

The sixth green is set in a little cove, and as you expect from a short hole, the green is difficult with a lot of undulations. Laying up into the valley isn't really the play from my point of view, since it leaves you with a blind shot to the green. It is tons of fun to play this hole. The hole reminds me of the sixteenth at Royal County Down, because you have to hit your ball over a valley to land it on the green if you are going for it.

8th green 
Green on the par 3 eighth hole at Kingsbarns

The par three eighth hole, seen above, plays only 168 yards from the back tees and 132 from the front. It also plays down hill and possibly down wind as well. As you can see, the green is two tiers and the lower tier is 10-12 feet below the upper. A very good hole.

Memorable holes on the back include the par five twelfth hole that is often compared to the eighteenth at Pebble Beach, rightly so. In my opinion, the views at Kingsbarns are as good as those at Pebble Beach, as is the hole. Avoid the big bunker guarding the green on the left side. There are some old stone walls down on this part of the course too, which add to the charm.  I also like the par 3 fifteenth hole, which plays over water. And the long par 4 seventeenth hole has a diabolical green! 

What do I like so much about Kingsbarns? It has everything I like in a course:

1. An interesting routing, not just an out-and-back layout
2. Holes of varying length which test your skill on short shots as well as long. I'm not a big fan of having to hit 80% of your shots all day as long shots.
3. Six holes along the Ocean that rival any course in the world for scenic beauty
4. The ability to hit a variety of shots - bump and run, pitches, and a variety of wedge shots
5. Challenging but fair greens - some contoured significantly, some not, but appropriate for the size of the green and the type of hole
6. An intelligent use of terrain and elevation - some uphill shots, some downhill, but not overdone.

The course should rank higher in the world rankings in my view. It is, I believe, the first modern course worthy to be put on the rotation to hold an Open Championship. To me, the place the feel of a Scottish equivalent of Bandon Dunes.

About 80-90% of the people that play Kingsbarns are visiting Americans. They have a great caddie program as well and I recommend taking one. The clubhouse is great and I recommend the onion rings.