Sunday, March 25, 2007

The World's Top Courses in 1908

I find it interesting to track the progress of courses and how they are ranked over time. Previously, I have posted regarding the top 100 courses in 1939. Click here to read this post.

I just purchased a copy of the new golf club history, The Evolution of the Links at the Royal County Down Golf Club, which is one of the most spectacular golf club histories I have ever read. It's expensive, but I recommend it highly.

The book was written by Richard Latham and he has a sidebar in the book regarding a ranking he stumbled across as he was doing his research for the book. Contained within a 1908 edition of Golf Illustrated he found a ranking of the top courses which was compiled by the most prominent golfers in the world. The rankings were fairly broad-based, comprising the opinions of 230 professional and 314 amateur golfers.

The list is below:

  1. The Old Course at St. Andrews
  2. Prestwick
  3. Sandwich (also known as Royal St. George's)
  4. Deal
  5. Hoylake (also known as Royal Liverpool)
  6. North Berwick
  7. Sunningdale
  8. Westward Ho!
  9. Portmarnock
  10. Formby
  11. Royal County Down (known as Newcastle then)
  12. Rye
  13. Portrush (now known as Royal Portrush)
  14. Lahinch
  15. Carnoustie
  16. Luffness New
  17. Woking
  18. Gullane
  19. Huntercombe
  20. Brancaster (now know as Royal West Norfolk)
  21. Littlestone
  22. Lytham and St. Annes
  23. Dollymount (now known as Royal Dublin)
  24. Machrahanish
  25. Walton Heath
  26. Harlech (now known as Royal St. David's)
  27. Muirfield

Obviously, their conception of the 'world' in 1908 did not include the New World or Australia/New Zealand.

I've had the privilege of playing sixteen of the courses on the list and don't really take exception to the ranking, which I find even today quite respectable. Before the Muirfield fans get up in arms, remember that the course we know today evolved considerably from the course as it was in 1908.

At the risk of repeating myself, both Prestwick and North Berwick were at the time, and I still believe are today, two of the best golf courses in the world.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Myopia Hunt Club

A hunt club? I thought the quest was to play the world's top golf courses? It is indeed. However, one of them happens to also be a hunt club. Early golf clubs in this country were often inter-twined with other leisure pastimes. Merion was originally both a golf course and a cricket club. Myopia was founded for both equine pastimes and for golf. Another famous early U.S. course with a non-golf history is the C.B. Macdonald designed gem on Long Island, Piping Rock, with its polo field, now converted to one of the largest driving ranges in the world. Although not on the world ranked top 100 list which I am playing, Myopia Hunt Club is on the top 100 U.S. list (ranked #69), and is worthy of a higher ranking on the list, in my view. I got the chance to play this below-the-radar course this past fall and jumped at the chance. Actually, I pestered the member until he cracked and invited me. The course, located 30 minutes north of Boston, is not widely known to most people. It has hosted the U.S. Open four times (1898, 1901, 1905 and 1908). Hosting the 1898 Open puts Myopia into a small fraternity of only five elite courses that hosted a U.S. Open in the nineteenth century.

The clubhouse upon arrival

The course was designed by Herbert Leeds, who had no prior or subsequent experience in course design. He did spend many years tinkering with and perfecting the course into a true gem. Leeds work here adds weight to the argument that many of the world's great courses were the result of 'amateur' architects on their first attempt. In this regard, Myopia is like Hugh Wilson's work at Merion and Henry Fownes's at Oakmont. They are iconoclastic, unique and world-class courses developed by a non-professional who was passionate about golf. I have always been a believer in the feeling that first impressions are often correct. My first impression of Myopia Hunt Club was quite favorable. My readers know that I like old, traditional golf courses. This New England classic is a real gem, reminiscent of courses in England. Driving down the tree-covered road into the club you immediately see horses striding behind a post-and-rail fence and you pass over a humped-backed bridge, all of which creates a welcoming and different feel. A polo field is located to your right as you drive in to the cloistered environment.

The Golf Course

The golf course is situated behind the clubhouse and locker room buildings a short walk up a hill. In one of its charming quirks, the red tees at Myopia are the back tees.

The opening hole is a very short uphill par four where you hit a blind drive and it is a relatively easy hole, although the tilted green is trickier than it looks. The greatness of Myopia is confirmed early in the round as you stand on the second tee and look out at the beauty below.

Myopia #2.2
Myopia's Second Hole

The second hole is an absolutely beautiful hole where you hit your tee shot from an elevated tee down into a valley (shades of Sunningdale's 10th hole) with a fairway that is deceptively hard to hit. The third hold is a healthy 253 yard par three with a small green. As such, Myopia presents challenge and variety early in the round and as you continue around the course, sustains it for eighteen holes.

The course meanders around what I found to be surprisingly hilly terrain in this part of Massachusetts. It is a true parkland course in the forest. Look at the picture below from the fifth hole, which is typical of the course, and if I didn't tell you it was Myopia, you could quite possibly mistake it for the heathlands surrounding London.

Myopia #5

Myopia #5 - Shades of Sunningdale or Walton Heath? <

The 9th hole, pictured below, is a brilliant par three with a postage stamp green. The green is only nine yards wide and surrounded by seven steep bunkers. One of the defining characteristics of Myopia are the deep bunkers, which are, as you can see, reminiscent of those found in the British Isles.

As you play Myopia you will occasionally see bridle paths crossing or paralleling various holes. Rather than taking away from the course, they add to its distinctiveness. One of the local rules at Myopia is that you can take a free drop if your ball lands on a bridle path. I hit onto a path once during my round but decided to hit from the path, which pretty much plays like a sand shot.

Myopia #9

Myopia #9 - A world-class postage stamp hole

The 11th hole, pictured below, is a short par four that has a true cross-bunker cutting across the fairway. Bobby Jones played the course while attending Harvard Law School and apparently had trouble getting across this bunker regularly.

Myopia Bunker

The thirteenth hole, pictured below, from behind the green, is an uphill par four where your second shot plays about three additional clubs longer than the scorecard indicates due to the severity of the hill. This hole parallels the second hole, so you are playing up the hill that you hit from the elevated tee from earlier in your round.

Myopia #13

Green #13 seen from the rear

The 16th hole is a down hill par three that plays back toward the clubhouse and like many holes at Myopia provides a stunning vista as can be seen from the picture taken from this elevated tee, below. The 17th tee is right outside the pro-shop door and has an old stone wall down its entire left side that plays O.B. Holes 17 and 18 seem to be set-off from the rest of course and look like they will be anti-climactic, but in fact provide for the perfect finish.

Myopia Hunt Club clubhouse as seen from the 16th tee

The 18th is one of the best finishing holes in all of golf. It is 404 yards, a dogleg right with a hill down the right side of the hole, and your tee shot is semi-blind. You have to land on the left side of the fairway to have a clean shot at the green. If you are on the right hand side you are blocked from a view of the green. In front of the green are two massive and deep bunkers. Adding to the beauty of the hole are the horses strutting in front of you as you approach the polo ground and the beautiful yellow farmhouse/clubhouse behind the green. The horses give the place a genteel and civilized ambiance. I can't sing the virtues of Myopia enough. It strikes the appropriate balance between being intimate without being stuffy or pretentious. The membership seems perfectly suited to the historic club. Although it is dangerous to draw conclusions based on one visit, the membership seems to have avoided the usual minority of blow-hards, half-wits, morons, simpletons, rummies and lackeys that make up a minority of any club. It is a rarity to combine a world-class course with a club that has the right mix of elements and intangibles. Thus far in my journeys I have only seen this a handful of times - Myopia, Sunningdale, Maidstone, Royal Liverpool and San Francisco Golf Club. Each possesses an inveterate charm to complement their fabulous courses.

Many other clubs possess great golf courses but fall flat on the club or clubhouse environment. Some are trying too hard or are too uptight or snooty. Others have too many members you wouldn't enjoy associating with. These five pull it all off and are the real McCoy.

The 19th hole at Myopia

Myopia brings together a lot of what I like about old-style golf courses and reveals many verities that I have found on my trips. Among the truths: 1) Length doesn't matter. Myopia is 6,539 yards from the tips but is still a challenging course. 2) Low-key, understated and intimate are better than big and flashy. In this regard I like courses like Myopia and Sunningdale as opposed to big clubs like Wentworth, Riviera or Medinah. 3) Old and quirky are under-appreciated. The bar at Myopia has no barman, the members sign chits for themselves. The rooms in the clubhouse have low ceilings and a feel of antiquity. There are private lockers near the bar for members liquor. The old, original creaking floors will probably never be replaced. The locker room, housed in a separate building, is original and reminded me of another old original, Garden City on Long Island. 4) A variety of holes and shots make a better course. Nothing felt forced at Myopia, the course fits naturally into the terrain; there are a couple of short par fours, a 200+ yard par three and a 130 yard par three. Some uphill holes, some downhill holes and plenty of change in direction. A visit to Myopia is a truly distinctive day. The club is intensely private and there are less than 12,000 rounds played a year, which is about 50% less than at most clubs. If you can wangle an invitation, I suggest going at once.

The weather vane with fox motif adorns the clubhouse
The 18th fairway at dusk
The regal entry drive at Myopia Hunt Club