Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Loch Lomond Golf Club


Rossdhu House, Loch Lomond's clubhouse

Loch Lomond Golf Club (ranked #56 in the world) is located in Luss, Scotland, not far from Glasgow. As those that have been following my quest know, I have been critical of the approach that Loch Lomond has taken to visitor play.

Organized in 1994, Loch Lomond was set up in the tradition of Augusta National and Pine Valley; it has an international membership which doesn't serve as a local golf club in the traditional sense. In fact, Loch Lomond is constituted as a 'destination' club to be 'savored' only a few times a year. Membership is organized around specific geographic regions. The club has appointed specific 'Club Captains' to assume leadership and membership responsibilities for these geographic regions and to ensure a particular geographic mix of members.

Apparently I got it all wrong. The club markets itself in a pompous fashion, but once behind the gates, I found Loch Lomond to be delightful and not the least bit pretentious. After hearing my pleas for access, I was contacted by a member who wanted to prove that Loch Lomond is a down to earth kinda' club, even if it is for people in the ├╝ber-privileged class. After my visit I was better able to appreciate what they have here and separate out the pomposity of the marketing from the actual membership and club operation. Bottom line, I immensely enjoyed my first visit to their 'private and discerning international golf club' and hope to return to play again.

LL #3 shaved
The third hole ("Garden Cottage")

The golf course was designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Moorish. When one of the course designers almost dies by sinking into a bog while building the course, that should tell you something about the terrain it is built on. Near the thirteenth and fourteenth holes, Weiskopf went out to survey the land one early morning and started to sink into the bog. He almost died and saved his own life by clinging onto a nearby tree limb for several hours before being rescued.

The course is atypical of most of the top ranked courses in the British Isles in that it is neither a links course nor a heathland course. It is a parkland course more akin to those found in the U.S.

As you can see from a picture of the third green above, one of the design elements of the course is the shaved areas around many greens. This picture shows the severity of the slope. The fourth, twelfth and thirteenth holes also have severe shaved areas such as the one seen here.

LL 5th-1

The par three fifth hole ("Creinch")

The course opens up with a relatively easy set of holes and then turns toward the loch at the fourth and fifth holes. The short (150 yard) par three fifth hole shows the beauty of the setting at Loch Lomond.

Similar to Royal County Down, the terrain at Loch Lomond is idyllic, with the mountains rising up behind the water to create a dramatic backdrop. This part of Scotland is the beginning of where the lowlands meet the highlands and is breathtaking. As you can see from the pictures, I hit Loch Lomond on a near perfect day. One of the things I love about Scotland is the degree to which the outdoor environment is so vibrant and clear. Due to its blessed geography and lack of pollution, the air is cleaner and crisper in Scotland than virtually anywhere I've been. The vibrancy of the colors is stunning on a clear day and the diffused nature of the light hitting the leaves makes them appear translucent. When the gorse is in bloom, with its canary yellow color, contrasted against the lush greens and purple-hued hills, it creates an unparalled environment in which to play golf.

LL 6th green
The par five sixth hole ("Long Loch Lomond")

The 625 yard par five sixth hole is the #1 stroke index hole on the course and plays along the loch from tee to green. As we played this hole, a small boat went up the middle of the loch past where we were playing. It was the mail-man out delivering mail on the lake. Norman Rockwell couldn't have imagined a more serene scene.

LL 8th looking from clubhouse
The short par three eighth hole ("Inchmoan")

The short par three eighth hole plays away from the loch and back toward the clubhouse. On the day we played Loch Lomond, the course was quite wet, which is a frequent occurrence here. Those familiar with the Scottish Open, which is played at Loch Lomond every year the week before the Open Championship, will know that the course is usually wet. They have been working on improving the drainage situation ever since the course was built, but I think frankly, since it was effectively built on a bog, it will be a nagging problem. The scorecard clearly states a local rule: the embedded ball rule, which makes sense. Because of the wet conditions, being able to lift, clean and place your ball is of paramount importance here.

LL approach 10th

The lovely downhill par four tenth hole ("Arn Burn")

The front and back nines at Loch Lomond are quite different. As my caddie described Loch Lomond: the front nine is for tourists and the back nine is for golfers. That is, the front is an easier test of golf and plays along the water. The back nine is a sterner test of golf and plays inland, closer to the mountains and through the bog. The tenth hole is a 425 yard par four that plays down a hill and offers many hazards including a burn, a water hazard and many well placed bunkers.

LL 13th
The par five thirteenth hole ("Gallow's Hill")

The 560 yard par five thirteenth hole is a downhill par five that offers the golfer plenty of risk-reward options given its myriad bunkers, water hazards and changes in direction. Look at the photo above and try to figure out the best route to the green. What makes this hole even more difficult is that the stunning beauty of the mountain backdrop is a constant distraction as you play the hole.

In keeping with the high-end nature of the club, Loch Lomond prints custom scorecards each day, adjusting the yardages for the actual pin placements. On the day we played, the cards were not accurate, which is frankly no big deal. It is easy enough to just look at the green and figure it out. After the third hole, the caddies knew something was wrong. In classic Scottish fashion we heard from the various caddies in succession, "The scorecards are rubbish today," "These sheets are all shite," in a way only a Scotsman can pull it off. It is one of the endearing charms of Scotland that without intending to do so, almost everything the Scots say is tinged with humor and sarcasm. The Scots use their words sparingly, but always with maximum impact.

LL 14th

The short par four fourteenth hole ("Tom and Jay's Chance")

The 345 yard fourteenth hole is a classic risk-reward short par four. From the tee, it is a 245 yard carry to drive the green on this sharp dogleg right hole. Going for the green and missing will penalize you, as you would expect. Hitting an iron off the tee leaves you an easier shot, but it is not an automatic par given the uneven fairway, the fact that you have to hit over a wee burn, and the difficulty of the green.

LL 17th-1
The photogenic seventeenth hole ("The Bay")

The 215 yard photogenic par three seventeenth hole is set in a spectacular setting near the loch.

Loch Lomond excels on its short risk-reward par four holes. There is great variety in the routing and unique and imaginative shaping of bunkers. The course is manicured perfectly with the beautiful gently rising mountains as the backdrop and the crisp blue water at their base. The burn snaking around several holes adds to the charm of Loch Lomond. The glens, with their gentle sloping, the trout streams and ponds, peat bogs, thirty-five feet of elevation change and the old trees make this a remarkable setting for golf.

Most would agree that Loch Lomond is one of the finest and most scenic places in the world to be at and to play golf on. But how is the course? Certainly, to rank a parkland course in Scotland this high in the world rankings it must be special. To be honest, the course on its own right probably is like a lot of other high quality parkland courses in the United States. What makes it so charming is the combination of having a very good course set in this breathtaking location, the exclusivity of the club and one of the best clubhouses in the world. It is impossible to separate the course from its environment. Looked at in total, I agree that Loch Lomond is roughly one of the top fifty places in the world to play golf.

Loch Lomond looking up toward Ben Lomond from the 17th green

If someone knows of a finer clubhouse in all the world than Rossdhu House at Loch Lomond, please let me know. The clubhouses at the National Golf Links, Winged Foot, Garden City and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers impressed me as being world-class. Rossdhu House takes it to another level. The similarities between Loch Lomond and The White House in Washington D.C. are striking. The club has a fenced exterior gate around the property with a guarded entrance. Your movements on the property are perfectly orchestrated. When you arrive and leave they track your progress with walkie talkies through a command center. The interior of this 18th century Georgian mansion has a series of interconnected, themed rooms, each decorated with original, high-quality large oil paintings. Rossdhu House has a green room, a red room, a library, a formal dining room, a reception area, and a series of additional rooms for a variety of specialized purposes that I lost count of them. Like at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the club has its own helicopter here. Each has a Rose Garden and perfectly manicured grounds. Rossdhu House even one ups The White House with clearly superior views out of the large windows, and I doubt that the White House has an amenitized spa!
In the end, I was won over at Loch Lomond by the setting and the Scottish charm. The club is not pretentious, and I've decided that I like being pampered. I had an 'A' caddy and a great day at Loch Lomond. I have been playing some local municipal courses this year to try to cut back on expenses, and the experience here was the polar opposite of public golf. I didn't find lots of broken tees laying on each tee box, nobody was walking around with their shirt out, there were not a lot of unrepaired pitch marks on the greens, and we didn't have to wait to hit every shot. While playing the round, I was asking the member how far it was to Dundonald, the other course associated with Loch Lomond. "About 10 minutes by helicopter." It must be nice.

It's official. I've become a golf snob. The problem is that, once you experience this level of golf, it's tough to go back. I apologize to all of you hackers out there for leaving the fraternity of regular guys and moving over to the dark side. I have indeed gone native. It did strike me as a bit odd that they served us Kool Aid at Loch Lomond after the round in the walled garden. I should have paid more attention, as it didn't seem right at the time, but now there is no going back.

Loch Lomond was the last of the twenty-seven courses ranked in the top 100 in Europe that I set out to play. As such, I finished on a very high note indeed, but hope to be invited back to Loch Lomond again.