Saturday, February 25, 2006

Sunningdale Golf Club

Located right down the road from the Wentworth Estate in Ascot, Surrey, outside of London is Sunningdale, one of the world's great golf courses. Sunningdale Old (ranked #44 in the world) was designed by William Park Jr. in 1901 and was tinkered with over the years by H.S. Colt who served as the secretary at Sunningdale for many years. Once you are inside the electronic entrance gates, you are in an oasis. The clubhouse, locker room, pro shop and property have a good feel to them and the course has an intangible quality that gets the adrenaline going.

Sunningdale has scenic beauty to stack up against most of the world's best. It achieves a high ranking in the world without being located near the water and without having hosted any Open Championships. The terrain, sand, birch trees, heather, gorse, pines and water come together beautifully to create a unique environment. Heathland courses such as Sunningdale were developed due primarily to the underlying land's resemblance to seaside links courses. Sandy soil, the absence of mud in the winter and good drainage. Most of the area around London has a clay base and thus is not ideally suited for golf. The exception is the Surrey heathland where Sunningdale, Wentworth and Walton Heath are all located.

The course starts with a relatively easy par five opening hold with an O.B. on the right bordering the roadway. After you putt and to to the 2nd tee box you are in peaceful isolation for the rest of the round. I would imagine some people wouldn't like Sunningdale because it has some blind shots and several short holes. The stretch of holes beginning at the 5th and continuing to the 8th are as good a stretch of holes as you can find on any golf course. What makes them good is the risk/reward nature of them combined with their natural beauty. They are a cross between strategic design and penal design that works. As you play Sunningdale you are reminded as much as anything of Pine Valley. You can see the similarities between Pine Valley and Sunningdale throughout the round. This is not surprising given Colt's influence on the design at Pine Valley.

Sunningdale Old 10th hole

Sunningdale was built at a time when it was not in vogue to actively move terrain. Willie Park, Jr. is an important architect in the history of golf. He was the first to move earth to create raised greens and thus Sunningdale is an important historic course in addition to being so spectacularly beautiful. The old course follows the natural contours of the land brilliantly. This type of design principle has largely been lost on new courses, especially in the top 100 courses designed by Pete Dye and Tom Fazio. We are optimistic that architects such as Tom Doak (Pacific Dunes, Barnbougle Dunes) and Kyle Phillips (Kingsbarns) represent a new breed that are returning to this brilliant, traditional design style. I also liked the use of bunkers 60 to 80 yards from the green which make for a difficult up and down if you are in them. His mixture of long holes, short holes, uphill and downhill is the ideal combination. The 277 yard 9th is another very good example of a risk/reward hole with an extremely large green and bunkers short of the green for those that try to go for it from the tee.

Aside from a world-class golf course, Sunningdale also has a very strong Bobby Jones history. It was on Sunningdale Old during an Open Championship qualifier in 1926 that Jones shot what was described as a perfect round. The standard scratch score on the course at the time was 75. He shot a 66 with a 33 on the front and a 33 on the back. He had 33 full shots and 33 putts. The highest number written on his scorecard was a four. This feat is even more incredible if put into its proper context. He was using hickory shafted clubs and a golf ball that was nowhere near those of today's standard. On ten holes he hit his shot to the green with a two iron or a wood. The more I learn about Bobby Jones, the more I see why he is a golf legend.

Sunningdale's 8th hole

One of the problems I am finding writing this blog is that it is difficult not to repeat superlatives again and again. Any course that has made it onto the list has fine attributes (although Royal Troon only has one) and it is easy to wear out words like great, special and best when describing them. Sunningdale not only has all the attributes necessary for greatness but combines them all together into a package that makes it world class. I have been very lucky indeed thus far in my attempt to play the top 100 courses in the world. It is exposing me to experiences and places that are very privileged and special. Sunningdale has a very healthy attitude regarding visitors who will respect their rules. We wish more of America's private clubs would open up a bit more and allow visitors to share some of the world's great courses. I was fortunate to play Sunningdale on a nice crisp Fall day with the temperature in the high 50s. At the risk of over-using superlatives: I have had few finer experiences than sitting in the Sunningdale clubhouse after the round of golf with a pint of Guinness reflecting back on a brilliant days golf.

Sunningdale is a special place.

Sunningdale's home page

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Cruden Bay Golf Club

At several of the top 100 courses I have played, I've been disappointed upon seeing the course for the first time. St. Andrews, Carnoustie and Hoylake fit into this category. Not to say they are bad courses, quite the contrary, but when you first look at them they look flat and dull.

The anthesis of this is Cruden Bay (ranked # 76 in the world). When you drive into the parking lot for the first time you are simply stunned. Below you in a valley is set a collection of massive sand dunes. Among the dunes weaves a golf course bordering on the North Sea. Not any golf course, but a golf course that you will probably have more fun on than any other course you've ever played. Cruden Bay is located along the Aberdeen coast of Scotland about two hours drive north of Carnoustie. If there was ever an apt description of the term hidden gem, then Cruden Bay is it. The golf writer James Finegan says of Cruden Bay: "Outsized, non conformist, unpredictable and flamboyant".

In the world of golf there are much stearner tests such as Carnoustie, Oakmont and Olympic. Muirfield, Merion and Shinnecock are more historic. Turnberry, Pebble Beach and Kingsbarns are more scenic. But for pure fun, Cruden Bay cannot be beat. The course defies being pigeonholed. So far I have developed some broad classifications that courses have fit into as I'm playing the top 100:

1. International/National membership courses - Pine Valley, Loch Lomond, Cypress Point and the ultimate: Augusta. These clubs transcend their geography.

2. Historic courses - Merion, Chicago, The National, Lahinch

3. Championship courses - Generally all the courses on the British and U.S. Open rotations

4. The ultra-wealthy and low-key clubs - Maidstone and Fishers Island

5. The heathland courses - Ganton, Sunningdale, Wentworth, Woodhall, Walton Heath

6. The new school - Kingsbarns, Pacific Dunes, Bandon Dunes

7. Those that honor greats in the game - Muirfield Village (Nicklaus), Colonial (Hogan), Pinehurst (Ross), East Lake and Peachtree (Bobby Jones)

8. Pete Dye Courses

9. Courses designed by legendary designers - Quaker Ridge, Prarie Dunes, Camargo, Southern Hills

10. Courses designed by Alister Mackenzie

Cruden Bay doesn't fit neatly into any category. It is a truly unique location and a one of a kind golf course. Golf at its simplest is a game. Over time, you can lose sight of that as you get more competitive in matches; try to beat your personal best; try to tinker with your game or perfect your swing.

I found Cruden Bay to be a refreshing and enlightening experience. The point of golf after all is to have fun and enjoy yourself. Cruden Bay would be ranked #1 in the world if you used this as your only measurement criteria. It makes you see golf like through the eyes of a five year old. If you haven't been around a five year old lately I'll remind you: everything is exciting; there is a sense of discovery around every corner; life is good and full of promise.

I've spoken to a lot of well traveled golfers and it's no surprise to me that almost all of them rank Cruden Bay among their personal favorite courses. To be sure, Cruden Bay is quirky. There are a lot of blind shots; there are back to back par threes; some really short par 4's including one that is 258 (the 8th hole plays uphill); the course is only 6,300 yards long. You hit out of valleys up onto the tops of hills and then down into them. There are times when the Cruden Bay landscape almost seems lunar and surreal. On the 10th tee box if you look north over the beach and ocean you can see the ruins of a castle. Slains Castle provided the inspiration to Bram Stoker when he wrote Dracula. It is all truly unique and brilliant fun!

The course is located in a rather isolated location away from any real population center and as a result the members serve as caddies for visitors. The are a very welcoming and friendly group who are happy to share their wonder of the golfing world with visitors. As an added bonus I recommend staying at the Udny Arms located in nearby Newburgh. A family owned B and B, it is cozy and inviting. Being isolated you might assume they would serve basic meat and potatoes fare. In fact, the food is world class. The bar areas are cigar friendly and the wait staff makes you feel at home. Don't expect American size rooms or 200 channels of cable television. As is typical in Britain the amenities are basic, the showers are tiny but there is a facility to make a cup of tea in each room. It is one of my favorite places to stay in the world.

The first time I saw Cruden Bay was on a golf trip with eight of us touring Scotland. This was prior to my now obsessive quest to play the top 100. We were so enamored with the place that on the spot we changed our plans to stay an extra day so we could play the course over and over again. On every trip to Scotland I try to play Cruden Bay.

Cruden Bay's home page:

Friday, February 10, 2006

Merion - The Vatican of Golf

Most major cities have their well healed suburbs - in New York Greenwich and Darien. In Chicago, the communities along the North Shore of Lake Michigan. In Philadelphia, the affluent leafy suburbs are known as The Main line. Named after the train line west of the city, the Main Line is old world, understated and rich. Merion is located in the heart of Philadelphia's Main Line and plays the part well. The land the course and clubhouse are on trace their title back to William Penn.

Memory is not one of my strengths. One minute after meeting someone I don't remember their name. Many times I have had to look at the bag tag of the member I'm playing with every three holes to remember his name and not make a complete fool of myself. And, I have gotten very good at not saying names. "Nice shot" instead of "Nice Shot, Dave", in case his name is in fact Bob.

There is, however a part of my memory that works very well when it sees greatness. I have found that the mark of a truly great course is how well you remember it both immediately after a round and six months later. Using this measure Merion is a truly great course. After playing it once I could describe every hole in detail. The shape, terrain, bunkers, doglegs, green contours, etc. At Pebble Beach you sort of feel compelled to like the course because it is so pretty and everybody raves about. But, if you're being honest with yourself, aside from the 18th hole, can you visually remember all 18 holes at Pebble? I'll bet you can't. Merion is seared into my memory. So far this has happened to me on only three courses in the world: Merion, The National Golf Links of America and Cruden Bay.

What makes Merion so memorable? It is the ultimate strategic golf course. It is not a terribly long course. First, you have to hit the fairways or it will be a long day. Second, you have to be on the correct side of the fairway in order to have a decent shot at the green. And finally, you have to be on the correct part of the green or you're in three putt territory. On every green. Also, the shot variety is really good as are the changes in direction, doglegs and uphill/downhill shots. No monotomy here. As if the golf course itself is not good enough (and it is) you also have the grandeur and majesty of the clubhouse and the Bobby Jones history. When you play the 11th hole, where Jones won the Grand Slam, you have chills up and down your spine. I have, on the half dozen times I've been fortunate enough to play.

If there was ever a course that new equipment has destroyed it is Merion. It is too bad that the U.S.G.A and R. & A. have let the situation get out of hand and length is now the primary driver of competitive golf. It would be a shame if this course is lost from major competition forever. I consider Merion to be the spirtual home of golf in the U.S. due to its greatness, its history, its association with Bobby Jones and the architecture of the course and the clubhouse.

This is the first course Bobby played a major on (the 1916 Amateur), the first course he won a major on (the 1924 Amateur) and the last course he played competitive golf on (the 1930 Amateur), completing the fourth leg of the Grand Slam at Merion in September 1930. Also, the photograph which is the golfing equivalent of the sailor on VJ day kissing a woman in Times Square was taken at Merion.

Taken by Life Magazine photographer, Hy Peskin, it shows Ben Hogan hitting a one iron on the 18th hole in the 1950 U.S. Open. It is an iconic picture of this great player at one of the most historic of courses in a perfect finish position. Hogan almost stopped playing during this final round because he was in such a state of fatigue recovering from a near fatal car accident the year before. Hogan hit the one iron onto the green and made a par to qualify for a three man playoff the next day which he would go on to win. It is one of the most heroic finishes of all time.

Merion has many unique characteristics: the red wicker baskets as flags, the bunkers with clumps of grass in the middle (known as the white faces of Merion) and the scene around the first tee. You tee off right next to the outside patio with members and guests about five feet away from the tee box. It is one of the best opening holes in golf. The view in all directions is impressive, the clubhouse building with its white-washed stone and porch, the green awnings, the mature trees, the wicker baskets. Merion also still has what has unfortunately become a rare entity in American golf: Experienced caddies, and lots of them. The clubhouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places is the golfing equivalent of St. Peter's. Also, like the Vatican, Merion upholds the traditional and the conservative in the game and in many ways is truer to the traditions than the governing bodies because they don't have to compromise with the equipment manufacturers.

In the clubhouse and on the course at Merion you naturally speak in hushed tones and in a respectful manner. In sounds absurd but it is close to a religious experience. If you get invited to play Merion, by all means make the pilgrimage.

Merion's web site: