Wednesday, December 01, 2010

St. Louis Country Club

St. Louis Country Club ("SLCC") is not ranked in the top 100 courses in the world; nonetheless, it is a great place to play golf. Located outside the city, in the affluent enclave of Clayton (Ladue), SLCC is a real treat to play. Notice their distinctive logo on the scorecard, which features a polo themed mallot and interlocking horseshoes. Also, the back of the card has an image of C.B. Macdonald with his caddie, an iconic pose of the maestro which is featured in an oversized painting of him that hangs at The Links Club.

St. Louis Country Club has the distinction few golf courses in America can claim: It was designed by the father of golf in this country, Charles Blair Macdonald, whose National Golf Links of America set the standard for greatness. Macdonald only designed a handful of courses in addition to St. Louis and the National. These include The Creek, Sleepy Hollow, Piping Rock, the Greenbriar's Old White Course and the historic Chicago Golf Club.

As was almost always the case with C.B., Seth Raynor was in charge of actually building the course, which was completed in 1914. Macdonald and Raynor almost always used "prototype" holes on other courses and St. Louis Country Club is no exception. It has a brilliant collection of holes patterned after some of the greatest holes in the world, originating from the British Isles.

Coincidentally, like at two other Macdonald designed courses, there is a full sized polo field in front of the clubhouse that also serves as a driving range. Unlike the fields at Chicago Golf Club and the Piping Rock Club, this one is still in use. It is probably more than a coincidence that C.B. was associated with these monied clubs. Given his patrician nature and his associations with wealth, he was more likely to be called into elite communities such as this one to practice his craft. Although jets weren't yet invented, C.B. Macdonald was one of America's original jet setters and traveled in circles of people comfortable with polo and yachting.

Clubhouse and Polo field

The clubhouse fronted by the polo field

St. Louis Country Club hosted the U.S. Open in 1947 and the U.S. Amateur in 1921 and 1960. I suppose it doesn't host big tournaments anymore because it is only 6,534 yards from the tips (par of 71).

Although the property has nice rolling terrain, Macdonald liked to start with an easy hole and the 394 yard first hole, "Preparatory," is a flat and benign starting hole that eases you into the round.

In an oddity, the next two holes are both par threes of the same length. They measure 213 yards each. The second hole, "Double Plateau," is as advertised. Loved it.


The green on the par three Double Plateau second hole

The third has to be the hardest rendition of an "Eden" hole I have ever seen. It plays uphill over water to a difficult-to-hit green. The book The World's 500 Greatest Golf Holes ranks the third hole at St. Louis among its entries because of the "phalanx" of bunkers and the difficulty of the green.

3rd Eden

The par three third Eden hole

I particularly like the "Punch Bowl" fifth hole, as I generally do all Punch Bowl holes. I just think it's an interesting way to design a hole. This 508 yard par five doesn't disappoint from tee to green. Unlike my favorite Punch Bowl hole at the National Golf Links, which plays up a big hill, the shot to this Punch Bowl is blind and plays down a hill and is situated in front of a small stream.

5-2 Punch Bown

The brilliant Punch Bowl par five fifth hole

The sixth, named "Blind" is the start to a relatively easy part of the course. It is a 359 yard par four which features a blind tee shot, and depending upon where your ball lands, you will more-likely-than-not have another blind shot to the green, albeit a pitch shot.

The seventh, a prototype Short hole, smartly named "Shorty," is a beautiful rendition of this classic hole with a horseshoe green similar to, although not as severe as, the twelfth hole at Forsgate Country Club.

7 shorty

The classic par three "Shorty"

Every hole at SLCC is genuinely interesting, and I can't describe one as weak. The eighth is a "Cape" hole. Although there is a meandering stream that snakes around the right side of the hole, the water really doesn't come into play. The front nine finishes with a tricky par five named "Ladue." The green slopes away from you, which makes it a demanding approach shot, and, like all the greens at St. Louis, is lightning quick.

SLCC has five par threes. The twelfth, "Crater" hole, is another demanding one at 178 yards uphill.

12th Crater

Another long par three at St. Louis, the 12th, "Crater"

The thirteenth is the #1 stroke index hole and plays 601 yards with a fairway that slopes left to right and features an unfair back-to-front sloping green.

St. Louis's "Redan" hole, the sixteenth, is actually a reverse Redan and slopes left to right and is angled away from you with a massive bunker on the right. The ability to fade the ball into the green is of paramount importance.

The eighteenth, "Oasis," is the best and most demanding hole on the course in my view. It is a 412 yard par four that plays up a big hill. Your second shot will be blind to a big green that has some characteristics like a Punch Bowl. Also, the carry required and the bunker between the fairway and the green reminded me of the "Alps" hole at Prestwick. My photo is looking back and shows the canted nature of the fairway.


The strong finishing hole "Oasis," named for your upcoming visit to the bar, not for itself

Playing at St. Louis is a great day's fun. The ability to play a classic course in an idyllic setting is what golf is all about.

St. Louis is an old money, conservative town and their namesake club mirrors the city. I thought New York was the epicenter of the world and had all the great golf courses? How exactly did St. Louis end up with an early world-class golf course designed by one of the greats? St. Louis has been an affluent place for a long time, going back to its roots as a Mississippi River gateway city. In addition to SLCC it has a collection of other wonderful courses including Bellerive and Old Warson, all clustered a few miles apart. At the time SLCC was built, St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the United States. A decade earlier the city had hosted both a World's Fair and, amazingly, an Olympic Games. As such, the suburbs in the Western part of the city have been here a long time and were built by people with money. The houses surrounding the course are quite well-heeled and reminded me a bit of those surrounding the Valley Club of Montecito, which is reflective of how prosperous this part of St. Louis is.

St. Louis has always punched above its weight relative to other cities of its size. It is the corporate headquarters of Anheuser-Busch, Energizer, Edward Jones, Monsanto and Emerson Electric and formerly of TWA, McDonnell Douglas and several large banks. In 1927, when Charles Lindbergh needed money to fly solo across the Atlantic, at the suggestion of the local Chamber of Commerce, he went to members of the nearby St. Louis Racquet Club. They ponied up $15,000, which was the sum total cost of his plane; in return, he named his plane the “Spirit of St. Louis.” Along with the $24 the Dutch paid for Manhattan, it has to be one of the best values per dollar spent of all time.

I had a Bud, which I don't really like, at the halfway house, but hey, this is their hometown and I always go local when I travel. The bratwurst there was fantastic, as you would expect in the Midwest. I have read that August A. Busch started the nearby Sunset Country Club after he was rejected for membership at SLCC. He'd be happy to know that rather than being considered crass mercantilists, many of his ancestors have now evolved into "old money" and play at SLCC. It is unsurprising that they are pretty much an all Anheuser-Busch shop.

Missouri is the "Show-Me" state, and SLCC shows that it is a worthy of being included among the world's great courses.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Shoreacres (ranked #51 in the world) is located in Lake Bluff, Illinois, north of Chicago on Lake Michigan and was designed by Seth Raynor in 1919.

In a happy coincidence, I bumped into The Itinerant Golfer, who happened to be playing Shoreacres the same day I was. For some reason, probably because I’m psychotic, my first thought was, “Criss Cross,” which is the phrase used in the wonderful Alfred Hitchcock movie Strangers on a Train, where Guy Haines and Bruno Anthony meet coincidentally.

What are the odds that two golf lunatics will meet crisscrossing the planet playing their top 100 lists? Pretty slim. Steve and I played together at Galloway National a couple of years ago as part of his journey, and we both hosted the crazy kiwis this summer. An amazing coincidence and a stroke of good fortune. Small world.

If you’ve never seen the movie, it is one of Hitchcock’s best, particularly the tennis scene played on grass at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York where the US Open used to be played.

The Golf Course

My experience at Shoreacres was very rewarding. We had an 8am tee time on a lovely summer morning and were the only ones on the course. When I stepped to the first tee to hit my drive, the Star Spangled Banner started playing. I thought, "Hey, this is pretty cool," until my host politely pointed out that it wasn't in my honor but was the daily ritual at the Great Lakes Naval Station, which is located across the street from Shoreacres. Throughout the round we heard our nation's bravest marching, chanting and doing drills.

The defining characteristic of Shoreacres is the way Raynor routed the course around, over and through the ravines that dominate the landscape. The majority of holes play over a ravine on either the tee shot or the approach shot, sometimes both. The ravines are so prevalent that the scorecard features a local "Ravine Rule," allowing you relief under various penalty strokes if your ball ends up in one.

4th ravine

A ravine on the 4th hole at Shoreacres

5th swale

A major ravine crossing the fairway on the 5th at Shoreacres

Raynor is known for his use of prototype or replica holes, and Shoreacres has many. The prototype "Biarritz" hole, the sixth, is a 192 yard par three that features a green that measures an amazing 88 yards from front to back with a big swale through its middle. Without moving the tees, the hole can vary in length from 148 yards to 236 yards just by moving the pin.

Like the golf course itself, the halfway house behind the sixth green is classic and refined. They have a nice selection of finger sandwiches stacked on a three tiered serving tray. The edges of the bread are nicely cut off the salmon, chicken salad and egg salad sandwiches. Her Majesty would approve of the halfway house at Shoreacres. Call me a ponce if you'd like, but I get off on this kind of stuff. It's the little things in life that count!

Shoreacres has the usual polish of a Raynor course, and the front nine was a joy to play. The course really picks up steam, though, on the back nine: Holes eleven through fourteen really get your heart racing. The tenth is a great rendition of a "Road" hole with only one bunker protecting the green, but when the pin is on the left side, one is all that's needed.

11 from tee
The intimidating 11th hole from the tee

The eleventh is a 378 yard par four with the fairway set at an angle to the tee so you have to decide which line you will hit on and judge the distance correctly. It is a classic risk-reward shot with a big penalty for a miss.

Not only do you have to carry the massive ravine off the tee, but also once again as you approach the green. The hole is seen from the green looking back below:

11th back
The 11th hole seen looking back from the tee

The eleventh is a true world-class hole and is followed by another at the par three twelfth, a prototype "Short" hole. It plays only 127 yards from an elevated tee box, but just look at the beauty of how Raynor designed the large green to sit tucked away in a small valley.

The world-class par three twelfth, "Short" hole at Shoreacres

The short 332 yard par four thirteenth features a completely blind tee shot over the ravine. Once again, your second must also carry a smaller ravine.

13th approach

The approach to the 13th green

Shoreacres is not a long course; it measures 6,530 yards from the tips, but remember, golf is supposed to be a game we play to have fun and not a place to prove our manhood by demonstrating how far we hit the ball. Besides, holes like the 449 yard par four fifth and the 438 yard par four sixteenth provide plenty of opportunity to use muscle, if that's your cup of tea. Raynor routed the entire course to take advantage of the ravines, and even though the property abuts Lake Michigan, there are no holes where you can see the water.

Shoreacres is a tremendous place to play golf and I am a lucky man indeed to be invited to experience a place such as this, although as I approach the end of my journey, I wish I could slow the whole thing down and make it last longer. Shoreacres also represents the 52nd course I have played where you have to be hosted by a member. I've really become spoiled playing courses without a lot of people on them and with great caddies.

In addition to a world-class golf course, Shoreacres also has one of the stand-out clubhouses along with Shinnecock, Loch Lomond, National Golf Links and Cypress. There are few places better to enjoy an after round refreshment, overlooking the beautiful and cooling Lake Michigan. The clubhouse is set on the top of the bluff overlooking the lake. Of the 95 courses I have played, eight stand out as places I would like to join if I had unlimited money and better manners. The other seven are Maidstone, San Francisco Golf Club, Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Sunningdale, Yeamans Hall, Somerset Hills and Camargo Club.

The stand out Shoreacres clubhouse

Some of the best golf courses in the world such as Pine Valley and Peachtree are located in average neighborhoods. Shoreacres is no such animal. Lake Bluff and the adjacent town of Lake Forest are one of those elite suburban areas where everything is perfect and the people are at the highest echelons of wealth in the country.

An interior view of the classic clubhouse

The view from the clubhouse overlooking Lake Michigan

I have now completed playing all of Seth Raynor's courses ranked in the top 100. I think his best is Yeamans Hall (1925), followed by Camargo (1921), then Shoreacres (1919) and Fishers Island (1926). Yeamans, Camargo and Shoreacres have all been renovated by Tom Doak and seem better because of it. Perhaps Fishers can hire Tom and his firm to refresh the course to be more in line with its peers and for it to live up to its true potential.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Who would you want to have a drink with?

The results of our latest poll question is in and not surprisingly, Bobby Jones commanded the lead in the voting, "Which golfing figure would you most want to have a drink with if you could?"

Bobby Jones 37%
Halter Hagen 21%
Jack Nicklaus 14%
Phil Michelson 12%
Tiger Woods 9%
Colin Montgomerie 4%

Only 12 other people voted with me selecting the dour Scot. Even after his performance on the Ryder Cup? The man is a living wonder.

Prior poll results:

Hardest course to get on? Augusta
Great golf course architect? Mackenzie
Best golfing region in the world? Long Island

Please join me in our new poll question: The best Redan hole?

I have a new write-up coming later this week on a real gem of a course.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wade Hampton Golf Club

Wade Hampton Golf Club (ranked #88 in the world) is located in Cashiers, North Carolina near Asheville, close to the South Carolina border. Cashiers is in the Western mountainous part of the state where the Great Smokey and Blue Ridge Mountains are located. The course takes its name from a confederate soldier known as "The Giant in Gray," General Wade Hampton III. Hampton's family owned the land the course was built on for generations, and they summered in the area; they also had a hunting lodge nearby. The Hamptons used to harvest ice from the lakes and where the eighteenth green sits today there was previously one such ice house.

Wade Hampton sporting a serious handlebar mustache

Hampton was the highest ranking Confederate cavalry officer under Robert E. Lee's command. He fought in the Battle of Antietam, the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Fredricksburg. He was injured numerous times at Gettysburg. After the war he served as Governor of South Carolina and as a U.S. Senator. The likeness of Hampton seen above greets you in the form of a big painting hanging in the pro shop.

The course was designed by Tom Fazio, and he remains an active member today. The club was opened in 1987 with 120 charter and founding members, all from below the Mason-Dixon Line: seven from Augusta, Georgia and the remainder from Florida, Alabama and North Carolina. Although the membership has changed somewhat since the club's founding, Wade Hampton remains a below-the-radar Southern club. Similar to Fishers Island, in order to be a member of the club, you have to own property or a house bordering the course, making it a small, tight knit group, which explains why it took so many years for this cantankerous Yankee to get invited to play.

At the guard-gated entrance we were greeted with a big "Good maw-nin." Once through the gate you make a "ryat" followed by a "layft" to get to the clubhouse.

The course has a program where they sponsor young adults from South Africa to apprentice as caddies and in other jobs to learn the golf business. These well-mannered youngsters add some nice character to Wade Hampton. The course also has the nicest staff of any course I have visited. As at the Honors Course and Muirfield Village, your car is valet parked. EVERY employee greeted us warmly and welcomed us to the club. This was consistent all day long; they have really developed a culture of service excellence here that is unmatched.

The dramatic, downhill par 5 opening hole at Wade Hampton

Cashiers sits at 3,650 feet in elevation. The course begins on the highest point on the property with a 534 yard par five that plays down into a big valley. The course is essentially built into the mountain and has a lot of elevation change. The major characteristics of the course are its brilliant use of the elevation, its lushness and the creative routing through the large and omnipresent trees.

The downhill par three sixth hole

The par threes at Wade Hampton, as with most Fazio courses, are all very good. The sixth hole is a good example. It plays 152 yards downhill. In a very interesting design feature, the water in front of the green flows over a large granite slab that slopes down the hill. Two of the golfers in our group (yours truly included) came up short and the ball bounced off the rock onto the green. Apparently, there has been a hole in one recorded on this hole from a ricochet off the rock.

Seventh hole from the tee

The seventh hole is a 376 yard par four with a forced carry over both scrub and water. Wade Hampton was blasted through granite and carved out of thick forest, and you can get a sense of the density of the trees and foliage on the course from this picture taken off the seventh tee. The hole is a good risk-reward hole since you can choose how much of the water to take on with your tee shot.

The par three 11th

The 172 yard par three eleventh is another downhill beauty that uses the trees and bunkers to perfectly frame this verdant hole.

At least twelve holes at Wade Hampton play from an elevated tee box and the thirteenth is the most dramatic of them all. The 406 yard hole plays from an elevated tee and the second shot is also down a hill to the green.

The dramatic par four 13th hole with the mountain backdrop

What makes the thirteenth hole so dramatic is how close the granite face of Chimney Top Mountain is to you. It is not in the distance, but quite close to you as you play the hole and about 1,000 feet high. It's hard to focus on playing the hole, the grandeur of the mountain is so distracting. This was one of my favorite holes, along with the eighteenth.

The par three 17th hole, framed by two giant hemlock trees

The tantalizing seventeenth is also a very dramatic par three. It plays 190 yards downhill, with a small stream running in front of the green. The green is framed by two giant hemlock trees and the mountain. Wade Hampton is one of only a handful of mountain courses ranked in the top 100, the others being Highlands Links in Canada, Homestead (Cascades) in Virginia and Naruo in Japan.

18th green
The 18th green with the lovely clubhouse in the background

The eighteenth is a really good short par five finishing hole that gets progressively narrower from tee to green. Down its entire left hand side there is a stream and the fairway slopes right to left. It is equally as magnificent viewed from either the tee or the green. The intoxicating clubhouse provides a welcome distraction as you approach the green. It has a series of cascading porches, verandas and patios and exudes understated Southern elegance. The boys put some serious money into this hideaway.

18th fwy back
The 18th fairway looking backward from the green

There are probably only a handful of courses better to play on than Wade Hampton on a sunny summer day; certainly almost none away from the sea. Playing at Wade Hampton is like being inside a Thomas Kinkade painting: Idyllic, with bucolic scenery and an idealized version of the world.

With the exception of the par four thirteenth, I liked the par threes and fives on the course better than the par fours. The par threes all make great use of the downhill terrain and are perched in special locations, tucked into corners around the property. The four par five holes were all very well designed and rewarded bold shots, but also gave a safe play for the higher handicapper. The course is quite difficult, with slope ratings on the various men's tee boxes ranging from 136-146.

During my visit I stayed at the High Hampton Inn, which is less than a mile from Wade Hampton down Highway 107. It is an old-style traditional inn where you still have to wear a jacket and tie at dinner; it has no air conditioning, no TV's; and still has its original 1930s knotty pin wood interiors. We sweated profusely at dinner but still enjoyed the show put on by the old-time Southerners who frequent this region in their seersucker suits and summer linen outfits, strutting their stuff up in the mountains. Our food at the buffet dinner was awful and the lack of air conditioning led me to develop a serious case of prickly heat. Plus, the place was also over-run with toddlers and kids. On the positive side the breakfast was quite good and the place has serious ambiance. One night staying there was enough, since I'm too uncouth to appreciate it and I miss my MTV.

My regular readers know I'm a big fan of the South and enjoyed playing Yeamans Hall, The Honors Course, Kiawah and Harbour Town. Wade Hampton is no exception. Wade Hampton is hard to get to, and frankly, like a lot of out-of-the-way places I have played like Sand Hills and Barnbougle Dunes, that is part of the charm. I drove the three hours from Atlanta to Cashiers, the last 45 minutes of which you ride on the single lane South Carolina State Highway 107. It is a long and winding road which snakes steeply uphill with 'S' turn after 'S' turn in the back woods, with the occasional old broken-down general store or barbeque shack. I continue to love the countryside, traditions and feel of the Old South, although I wouldn't want my car to break down on any of these back roads. It's not hard to see why Deliverance was filmed near here.

Only one more course in the South to play. I'm livin' the dream out here!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Sunningdale Golf Club

On a few occasions I have written about courses that I've played on before and really liked, most notably, Maidstone. I haven’t played Sunningdale in years and recently played it again. I had forgotten just how much I like it. This time with digital camera in tow, I got some nice pictures and thought I would update the post.

Located right down the road from the Wentworth Estate in Ascot, Surrey, adjacent to land owned by the Crown Estate (The Queen) is Sunningdale, one of the world's great golf courses. Sunningdale Old (ranked #44 in the world) was designed by Willie Park Jr. in 1901 and was tinkered with over the years by H.S. Colt who served as the secretary at Sunningdale. Once you enter 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 makes it special.

I have always liked clubs of the understated variety, those that just have a good vibe about them. Sunningdale is comfortable, welcoming, traditional and has a patina and character that you only get through graceful aging.

Heathland courses such as Sunningdale were developed primarily because of the underlying land's resemblance to seaside links courses. They take advantage of 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. Sunningdale, in the Surray heathland, is one of the brilliant exceptions.

Golf is sometimes referred to metaphorically as a walk in the park. In the case of Sunningdale, it is literally true. The course is surrounded by deep woods and is idyllic and peaceful. Its scenic beauty stacks up against 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 combination of the natural terrain, sand, birch trees, heather, gorse, pines and water come together beautifully to create a unique environment. It feels like one big classic English garden. Sunningdale is the quintessential English golf club in many respects. Aside from the stately English clubhouse, there are walking paths around the course where people stroll about with their dogs in peaceful solitude, and like Britain in general, it's delightfully quirky.

1st grn
The first green in a park-like setting

I like a relatively easy starting hole, and the short par five first (492 yards) with O.B. down its right side, eases you into the round. Sunningdale reminds me a bit of Pine Valley. You can see the similarities between Pine Valley and Sunningdale throughout the round. This is not entirely surprising given Colt's influence on the design at Pine Valley.

3rd green from rear
The 3rd green could just as well be at Morfontaine

Aside from Pine Valley, Sunningdale also reminds me of Morfontaine because of its heavily wooded heathland setting in a forest. Sunningdale was built at a time when it was not in vogue to actively move terrain. Willie Park, Jr. is an important architect Thus, Sunningdale is a historic course, in addition to being so spectacularly beautiful. The Old course follows the natural contours of the land brilliantly. I like the use of cross-bunkers 60 to 80 yards from many greens, which creates doubt when hitting approach shots. Park's mixture of long holes, short holes, uphill and downhill is the ideal combination. The demanding par four (489 yard) second hole wakes you up after the easy first hole. It asks that you hit to the proper angle off the tee over heath. Mind the ditch down the left side of the hole if you want to score well. The blind second shot is to a well protected, canted green.

6th hole
The sixth hole with its beautiful cross-bunkering

Sunningdale arguably has one of the top five routings of any golf course ever built (Pine Valley, Carnoustie, Sand Hills and Cypress Point in the mix). The shot variety, change in direction, change in elevation and mix of holes is top of the heap. Aside from the top shelf routing, the other defining features are forced carries over heather and scrub and the very well-placed cross-bunkering. You can see these to great affect in the picture of the 433 yard par four sixth hole, above.

The seventh is just a fantastic hole from tee to green and one of my favorites in the world. The tee shot is completely blind and plays to a hill that slopes sharply from right to left. The hole plays 406 yards and dog-legs to the right.

7th back
The seventh seen looking back from the fairway to the tee

Shots hit to the left will roll down the hill, potentially leaving you a shot blocked by trees. Even if you are not blocked by trees, the left side leaves a much more difficult angle to approach the uphill green from.

7th green-1
Approach to Sunningdale's 7th green

The elevated green is extremely well-protected. It is also large and slopes from back to front. The best tee shot is to the right side of the fairway, on the top of a little plateau that gives you a clean shot at the green.

7th back from green
The seventh green at Sunningdale looking back

The seventh is the middle of a fabulous three hole stretch that offers great shot variety and scenery. The 277 yard ninth is another very good example of a risk/reward hole with an extremely large green and well placed bunkers just short for those that try to go for it from the tee. The tee shot is essentially blind. Nine is an easy hole, which is a good thing, because the next hole is decidedly not.

10th from tee
Sunningdale's signature 10th hole

Sunningdale's 475-yard par four tenth hole is also a world-class hole. The hole plays from the highest point on the course down into a massive sweeping valley up to a well-protected elevated green. It's a real cracker and difficult.

The well-stocked halfway house off the tenth green offers traditional English fare including lovely egg mayonnaise or bacon & chicken sandwiches. You wait at the halfway house for the group ahead to ring the bell on the eleventh green when they are done to indicate you can proceed.

I like short quirky par fours like the 322 yard eleventh, which makes for a nice breather between the two hardest holes on the course. This is classic Sunningdale. After beating you up, it hits you with a short par four to balance off being too harsh. The twelfth has a tee shot similar to the blind third hole at Royal Adelaide. I would imagine some people wouldn't like Sunningdale because it has some blind shots and several short holes. Charles Blair Macdonald and I were in synch with our love of the 12th hole. He patterned the 8th hole at National Golf Links (named "Bottle") after Sunningdale's 12th.

12 from tee 
The genius 12th hole from the tee, featuring fairway bunkers placed on a diagonal to the line of play, separating a two-level fairway

The genius in the routing is that hard holes are followed by those of relative ease. A long hole is usually followed by a short one, etc. Sunningdale does not have a weak set of holes anywhere on the course. What makes them all good is the risk/reward nature of them combined with their natural beauty.

Another nice feature of Sunningdale is that the walk from green to tee is always delightfully short, but never forced. Unlike Park’s design at Maidstone, there are no holes or shots across other holes.

12th green
The approach to the twelfth green

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 standards. 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.

18th green
Sunningdale's "Stockbroker's Tudor" clubhouse behind the 18th green

I’ve had some difficult rounds on my travels, but at Sunningdale everything finally clicked and I played to my true potential. About time. It was nice to finally have some payback for pounding all those balls on the range and suffering through so many poor shots. The round was made even more pleasant by having a caddie who has carried bags here for forty years.

As with the first time I played here, I had a very nice apres-round Guinness to celebrate. Sunningdale has a lot of members who work in the financial industry, aka "The City.” Where else can you overhear a conversation like this on the front porch after a round over drinks? "We spent the winter in St. Moritz; our next big adventure is to Antarctica. In between, we'll have a “short” two week trip to Kilimanjaro. And of course, we’re spending June and July in Cannes. It’s quite easy now to just have a Bloomberg installed in your holiday home so you can keep up with the markets and “pop in” to London for one or two nights if necessary to attend to business." They were not discussing this to boast. Quite the opposite, in typically English style they were being discrete and spoke in a near whisper. Although my rabbit ears are a big detriment when I’m trying to fall asleep, they come in handy for listening in on conversations. It gives you a good sense for the type of membership Sunningdale has. They're not living paycheck-to-paycheck (more accurately in Britain pay packet-to-pay packet) at this most aristocratic of clubs.

As I've said before, I have had few finer experiences than sitting in the Sunningdale clubhouse after the round of golf with a pint reflecting back on a brilliant day's golf. Sunningdale is in a small group of courses that combine the best of both worlds - a world-class golf course with a great, warm and inviting club. Others are Maidstone, Somerset Hills, Yeamans Hall, The Valley Club of Montecito, Morfontaine, Royal Liverpool and San Francisco Golf Club, to name the best of the bunch.

Bobby Jones sums up the club in one succinct statement that perfectly captures my sentiments: "It's a wonderful course, Sunningdale, I would I could carry it about with me. I wanted to bring it back home."


Sunday, August 01, 2010

Colonial Country Club

Colonial Country Club (ranked #100) is located in Ft. Worth, Texas. It is the only top 100 course ranked in the state. Readers located outside the U.S. may not be familiar with the psyche in The Lone Star State, which is summed up cleanly in their unofficial state motto, "Don't mess with Texas." Texas isn't so much a separate state as it is a state of mind. Ft. Worth has an interesting history as a genuine Western city. If someone walks around Dallas with a big cowboy hat they would be assumed to be a Yankee trying to fit in. In Ft. Worth, the cowboys are real, based on the local cattle industry. Ft. Worth is also a major rail hub, but more about that later. Ft. Worth's city motto is "The West Starts Here," and there is much truth to that. It was previously nicknamed "The Paris of the Plains" due to its freewheeling reputation during the mid 1800's. Ft. Worth had a rowdy saloon district in the latter part of the 19th century, known for its debauchery and crime. It was called "Hell's Half Acre," predating the use of this nickname for the seventh hole at Pine Valley by a good fifty years.

Colonial was built by John Bredemus in 1936, and modifications were made by Perry Maxwell a few years later. Maxwell was the same designer as Prairie Dunes & Southern Hills. The course is famous because it was Ben Hogan's home course during the height of his career.

The Golf Course

Colonial starts out simply enough on flat ground. The first hole is a straight forward dogleg right par five of 555 yards, one of only two on the course. As you can see in the picture below of the first green, the course is well bunkered around the greens. It has possibly the whitest sand I have seen on a golf course. Stepping into the immaculate bunkers can be blinding because they are so white.

1st green
The first green

It becomes clear pretty quickly at Colonial that the greens are small. Along with Pebble Beach, Harbour Town and Inverness, they are among the smallest of all the courses I have played.

The three hole stretch three through five is known as the "Horrible Horseshoe." Horseshoe, because the third tee is right next to and left of the fifth green, and the three holes swing around in a U shape. Horrible, because they are not easy. The third is a 468 yard par four dogleg left with a slightly elevated green. The fourth is a tricky 220 yard par three, also with an elevated green.

4th green
The par three fourth green

The fifth hole is one of the most renowned in the world. It gets endless accolades. Golf's 100 Toughest Holes includes it on its list. The 500 World's Greatest Golf Holes ranks the fifth among its top 100. Dan Jenkins, in his 1966 book The Best 18 Golf Holes in America, selected the fifth hole as well. It is a 459 yard par four (481 for the pros), dogleg right. As Jenkins describes it: "The drive must be almost perfect, a slight fade and 250 yards out, if you are going to reach it in two. But fade too much, and there is the Trinity waiting. You can bail out to the left but there is a line of trees and a ditch there." The Trinity he is referring to is the Trinity River, which snakes along the outside of the course.

It's a hard hole for sure, but not that hard. As my readers know, I'm not exactly a scratch golfer and I parred the fifth. In fairness, the prevailing left to right wind wasn't blowing when we played; I imagine it's a different hole if the wind is up.

The sixth is a lovely 381 yard par four, dogleg right with another elevated green. For the record, the greens were as well conditioned as I've seen in my travels, so my compliments to the greenskeeping staff. They keep this place immaculate, which, given the heat and humidity down here, they should be commended for.

6th green
The elevated sixth green from the left side

I must say, though, that walking off the seventh green, I was not terribly impressed with the course. Very pleasant, for sure, but I was thinking to myself, ok, so it's in the top 100 in the world because Ben Hogan was a member. Nothing wrong with that. We should respect the wee ice mon. I'm good with that.

By the time I walked off the eighteenth green, I had a different opinion.

I liked the 169 yard par three eighth hole. It has some wicked bunkers and trees around it, and the green slopes back to front. Starting on this part of the course, there are two dramatic changes. First, there is a lot more change in elevation and terrain; and second, you play alongside the massive adjacent railroad yard. I know, stick to the golf, you fool, who cares about rail yards? Well, in my view it is an integral part of playing at Colonial. I'm not talking about an occasional train that goes by like at Carnoustie or Royal Lytham & St. Annes. We're talking a major working rail yard right next to the course. Serious rolling stock, my friends.

8th hole
The par three eighth hole

Because of the cattle business and stock yards, Ft. Worth has had railroad yards since 1876, so they have been here a lot longer than the golf course. It's not unusual to be hitting a drive or a putt and hear train cars smacking into each other as they are coupled up. Train whistles toot their horns throughout the round more than Donald Trump when he is on camera.

The tenth was also one of my favorite holes. It is a nice 381 yard dogleg right par four. Your second shot is over a big swale to a well protected green. Like Harbour Town, Colonial is a narrow, shot makers course. You don't need to bomb the ball to score well here. What you need to do is hit around trees and be smart with club selection.

10th with swale
The tenth hole, approach to the green

The eleventh hole is the other par five on the course, and it is Texas-sized at 600 yards from the pro tees. The green is protected extremely well as seen below.

11th green
The par five eleventh green

It won't be uncommon to hear high-pitched screeching as you play around this part of the course as metal train wheels brush against the metal tracks as they are continually put together and leave the station. I'm not bringing up the trains to be critical of them. In fact, the course has a perimeter of trees that block out most of the noise. It's not obnoxious, but it is constant background din all day. Just like it would be hard to describe Moray Golf Club in Scotland without talking about the everpresent jets taking off from RAF Lossiemouth, it's hard to talk about Colonial without discussing the bustling rail yard.

The twelfth was also a very good hole, a 400 yard par four dogleg right with a bowl-like fairway. The elevated green is protected by trees and beautiful bunkers. The green is the smallest on the course, which is saying something here, given that they are all small. Where Colonial excels is in its subtle but sneaky-hard use of doglegs. Ben Hogan's assessment of the course describes how the doglegs are used so effectively, "A straight ball will get you in more trouble at Colonial than any course I know."

12th green
The tiny twelfth green

Fifteen was my favorite hole, another 400 yard par four, this one another dogleg right. Tee shots will kick right-to-left off the sloping terrain. There is a creek that guards the left side of the elevated green, which you approach from the bottom of a hollow.

15th green
The fifteenth green

Sixteen through eighteen are strong finishing holes that I enjoyed. It is a finishing sequence like this that makes Colonial such a good venue for the PGA tour. Seventeen is a 373 yard par four that gets progressively narrower as you approach the green, and you have to hit over a swale in the middle of the fairway. The eighteenth has water left of the green. When Phil Mickelson won the tournament here in 2008, he hit a miracle shot over trees after being completely out of position. When he made the putt for birdie, some drunken fool did a cannonball into the little pond adjacent to the green. He was arrested, but you must agree that it was a rather imaginative move. At least he had the decency not to take his shirt off before he jumped in. The video on YouTube.

Obviously, I liked the back nine better than the front and liked Colonial overall. I almost always walk when I play, but I took a cart at Colonial because, like Shadow Creek, it's just too hot. We were treated with true Texas hospitality by everyone at Colonial including our forecaddy who was a nice young man who always had a mouth full of chewin' tobacca' and called us "y'all" the whole round.

As they say, don't mess with Texas.

Colonial and the rail yard from the air