Saturday, January 28, 2006

Royal Troon

Royal Troon (ranked #38 in the world) is not one of my favorite courses. The course itself is an out-and-back layout that didn't really grab me as being that special. The Postage Stamp 8th hole is a notable exception. It is a fun, interesting and challenging hole, but otherwise I would rank Troon last among all the Open Championship courses in the British Isles. Sometimes you might not like a course because you played poorly on the day you played it. I can't blame that for my dislike of Troon. I shot the second lowest score of any course in the top 100 so far and played well. We played the course several days after the 2004 Open Championship and I played the 10th (Sandhills) and 11th (Railway) holes, which were the two most difficult in the Championship, in one under par. Since my handicap is in the low double digits, I did alright.

First I would like to go on the record and say that I respect the history of Royal Troon: formed in 1878; the importance of its past professionals: Fernie and Strath, in golf history; host to the Open Championship with Watson, Palmer and Weiskopf as winners; its Royal patronage. However, the current guardians of the course aren't exactly playing up to par.

A true measure of a club's worth is how well it treats its visitors, and Troon doesn't treat you very well. First, it is difficult to get onto; they have many rules to make it hard to schedule a tee time, which is fine. It's their course and they get to make the rules. They limit guest play to only a couple of days a week and for a short time only each day. It appears to me like they are trying to be a Muirfield wanabee, although frankly, they are not even in the same league.

In any event, I was only able to schedule a twosome instead of the full foursome that was on our Scottish trip, so we split our group in two that day. This is primarily because they lost our initial request for a reservation made 11 months in advance; I had an email confirming that they received it. They were quite snooty nonetheless about their error. So a dear friend and I made the drive over from the East Coast of Scotland to play. We had a late afternoon tee time but were scheduled to play the Troon Portland course in the morning. Unlike all other courses in Britain which let you play their championship course only (often times twice), at Troon they pretty much force you to play, or at least pay for, their shite course as a revenue raising venture. We played the Portland course in the morning and it may be the most unimaginative course every built. When they decided to build the course the mandate to the architect must have been "make every hole ruler straight with flat greens and put only two greenside bunkers on each hole." The total budget to build this piece of crap was probably 100 pounds.

The Postage Stamp hole at Troon

After our morning round we went into the clubhouse to have lunch. Our afternoon tee time was scheduled for around 3:00 and the weather was predicted to worsen as the day went on. I went politely to ask the caddy master/starter if we could move up our tee time and he said no, even though there were two-somes going out earlier. Our caddie from the morning round had warned us that he was a jerk and was known to be looking to have his palms greased any way possible. I disappeared for a short while until several members standing nearby left and then slipped him a 20 pound note and said we would appreciate it if he could help us. This was honestly the first time at any golf course worldwide where I have done this or even thought about doing it. The way they have organized the place makes it part of the decorum.

The lunch itself was a terrible joke. They put visitors off in a back room of the clubhouse and the food was pitiful. It was a bad buffet. Bad to the point of being inedible. I almost never skip a meal but did on this day. I couldn't even eat the cookies, which were stale. Although only halfway through my 100 course quest I am now declaring it the worst food to be had anywhere on the journey. Even the state-run Bethpage Black offers a better menu and more ambiance. And for that matter, the Rikers Island prison probably has better food.

How hard is it to treat guests with respect? It's not like playing Troon was cheap compared with the other courses we've had to pay for. In fact, aside from Shadow Creek and Pebble Beach, it may be the most expensive course on the list at 185 pounds. At EVERY other single course I have played in the British Isles including Royal Portrush, Royal County Down, Prestwick, Muirfield, North Berwick, Carnoustie, Sunningdale, Ganton, Woodhall Spa, Wentworth, Kingsbarns, Cruden Bay, Turnberry and Royal Dornoch I was treated well. At two of the most storied, traditional and historic courses in the world (Muirfield and Prestwick) they allow you to sit in the members dining room and have a full course meal. At many of the other courses, the meals may not be elaborate, mostly simple sandwiches to order and a bowl of soup. But at least they give a damn to see that you experience some level of hospitality and don't treat you like a second-class citizen.

Troon with the gorse in bloom on a brilliant day

Back to the golf. Miraculously the caddy master came and found us and said he could indeed get us off earlier. What a surprise! So we played the rather boring layout and were underwhelmed. As a final insult at Troon they make you play from tees that are set at about 6,200 yards. While most courses won't let you play from the tips, they will at least let you play from a reasonable set of tees. Although, given the overall tone of the place, I'm sure it's another ploy to get more money. I'll bet if you slip the caddymaster another 100 pounds you can play further back, but that's just wrong.

So in summary the charms of Troon include:

1. Poor hospitality
2. World-class pompousness
3. Having to play their shite course in addition to the old course
4. The worst food in the golf world
5. Playing from tees way up
6. Being overcharged for the experience

If you're going to play a 6,200 yard course on the top 100 list, my personal vote is to remove Royal Troon entirely from the list and replace it with either Prestwick or North Berwick which are great courses. At those historic gems, you are treated with respect and as an added bonus you don't have to eat dog food or deal with the attitude.

My unsolicited advice to the R and A is drop Royal Troon from the Open Championship rota and add back in Royal Portrush or Kingsbarns, two courses that are worthy.

Post Script

We would note that the original creator of the top 100 worldwide list and a learned golf writer, also believes that Royal Troon is one of the top 10 overrated courses in the world. George Peper's description is more eloquent and concise than mine: "Six dull holes - six interesting holes - six dull holes."

Royal Troon's web site:

Muirfield - The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers

Muirfield (ranked #3 in the world) is no mere golf club. It has a name that distinguishes it from all the rest of the top courses. There is no swimming pool here. This is not a Country Club in the American sense. No kids in the pool. No tennis courts. Just golf. This is the most formal course of them all; with a name that speaks volumes about the seriousness of the endeavor. The name of the golf club is The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. The course they play on is known as Muirfield. Unless you are fully educated in the traditions of the game it is hard to appreciate how the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is different. The Honourable Company drew up the original 13 rules of golf in 1744. They are thus entitled to some amount of privilege. They were organized ten years before the governing body of golf in Britain - The Royal and Ancient. It is not like some of these newer ostentatious American clubs that try hard to give themselves history.

The Honourable Company has real history. Arranging to play at Muirfield is quite a chore. Getting on the course requires a precision in its planning closer to a military operation than booking a tee time. You don't just call and simply arrange a tee time on short notice. Such a dignified club guards their privacy and makes it difficult to get on. Most of the Open Championship courses in Great Britain aren't too difficult to get on if you plan ahead. In truth, it took several years to get a tee time at Muirfield, and even then, we had to book it over a year in advance and then built a golf trip around it. The good news is that once you get to play Muirfield they let you make a day of it and play 36 holes, provided you follow their rules. You can play your own ball in the morning if you'd like but in the afternoon you play alternate shot only.

The entry gate at Muirfield

The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers does not have a professional's shop where a visitor can buy merchandise because the club has no professional. This suits them quite well since selling items would introduce an element of crass commercialism into the club that they quite suitably don't want. In fact, they really don't want visitors at all, but the prospect of charging (largely) Americans is apparently too much to resist. And we pay it willingly. It allows the members to essentially belong to the club for a low cost and invest the money back into the course. Visitors are only allowed to play on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 8:30 and 10:00 in the mornings, and then only off the tenth tee. Members and two-balls play off the first tee. They have a very distinct hierarchy of play and it must be adhered to. Tee times are arranged through the Secretary of the club. Secretaries at Muirfield are legendary. Many have been former military commanders and thus they have a great deal of respect for rules and structure. Although the Secretary is appointed by a committee of the members, Muirfield Secretaries have traditionally behaved like it was their course. In their defense, they are trying to maintain order and structure.

You have to be cautious when requesting a tee time not to overdo it. Like courting a woman, you have to go slow and judge each step carefully. Overdo it and you are shut out. Follow their protocol closely and look carefully for clues to get you to the next step. Booking a tee time is more like a master chess game. One previous Secretary was known to use binoculars to monitor the golf course for any infractions. From his office, he could see most of the course. It is said that if you didn't rake the bunkers, he would be watching you and you would be reprimanded when you finished the round. It was something that all members feared. Members of Muirfield are important and powerful gentleman. They are leaders in the business community, the legal establishment, the government and the military. Yet, they all fear the Secretary of the Club. There is another famous story about a Secretary at Muirfield where a group of non-members appear at the course one day. They are publicly recognizable figures, quite distinguished in their field. They ask for permission to play. The Secretary looks over the obviously deserted course and then replies that it would be impossible for them to play because the course was too busy.

It is against this backdrop that you try to get on to Muirfield. It is no ordinary course to get on. In any event, we had booked our tee time, and as luck would have it, it was on my birthday. As soon as you get a date reserved, I suggest calling the Greywalls hotel, which is immediately adjacent to Muirfield. It fills up quickly so you should book it right away since they don't have that many rooms. The Greywalls Hotel is symbiotic with Muirfield. Originally an Edwardian manor home for the Weaver family it was converted into a hotel in 1928. Since it was still affiliated with the aristocracy they provided it with a measure of privilege that has long been a tradition in Britain.

Greywalls Hotel

To let you in on one of golf's great secrets, we learned while staying, that on Monday and Friday mornings there are an undisclosed set of tee times that are given to select guests of the Greywalls. The Greywalls and Muirfield are hard to tell apart. There is even a secret doorway that connects the Greywalls to Muirfield. You can walk directly out the back door of the Greywalls and through a discrete and un-assuming door right into the clubhouse. You can see the Greywalls on TV when the British Open is held at Muirfield. It is right off the 10th tee. It effectively serves as a high-end dormy house for Muirfield. The walk from the hotel courtyard to The Honourable Company is less than 100 yards. It was with great anticipation that we traveled south from St. Andrews to play Muirfield. As you are leaving the village of Gullane on the A198 traveling South you have to know where to turn left or you will not find Muirfield. You turn left onto Duncar road, yet there is no sign.

Once you get the invite to play, you are informed of the situation and you are told where to turn. It looks like an alley-way or a service road. You have no idea you are next to one of the greatest golfing Meccas in the world. Once you make the left, you enter a road of about 500 yards in length. A sign halfway down the road warns you to turn away if you have no business related to the golf course. It doesn't say which golf course, as they don't want to give any clues so as to keep away the curious. You don't know it yet, but you are also being watched on a security camera. Slightly further down the road on the right side of the road, hidden behind tall hedges are covered parking stalls. There are four small buildings hidden into the landscape. Car parks. Very discrete. It is befitting the majesty of the place not to have open car parks that would ruin the atmosphere.

If there is a polar opposite to the public parking lots of a municipal course such as Bethpage, this is it. The extravagance of the parking lots tells you a lot about what is to come. About 100 yards further down the road are the discrete yet majestic stone entrance gates to the Greywalls. As you turn into the Greywalls, the crushed stone underneath the car adds to the feeling of grandeur. Once through the main gate you enter a courtyard with a further set of narrow stone gates that lead you through to the final entrance. Our foursome awoke early the next morning. We had a full Scottish breakfast and were off for the short walk to the club.

You approach the Muirfield gates and again notice a warning sign to step away if you have no business at the course. The black entrance gates are imposing and convey the appropriate sense of decorum. You unlatch a small gate and you enter on foot. You can't see the security cameras that are watching you, but you are being watched. You walk in and immediately see the first tee on the left, guarded by the caddy master. The course unfolds in front of you in a straightforward manner. The front nine forming the perimeter and organized in a clock-wise fashion. The back nine running counter-clockwise inside the back nine. And you begin to see the beginnings of what makes Muirfield so difficult - its bunkers.

There are no cameras or cell phones allowed on the property. The members jealously guard their privacy and their course. Ladies may only play if accompanied by a gentleman player and may not lunch in the Clubhouse. You are required to arrive at Muirfield in a jacket and tie. You walk past the clubhouse and into the drawing rooms, smoking rooms, etc. You are greeted as you walk by an Assistant Secretary who escorts you to the appropriate place within the clubhouse. You leave your bags outside the entrance and enter a foyer with an office on the left. Glancing in (you have to be careful not to stare) as you walk by you see one of the most imposing sights in golf: The desk of the Secretary of the Club at The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. It is a desk befitting the position.

As imposing as anything you would see at #10 Downing Street or the Oval Office. After you pass the Secretary's desk you come to a hallway that ends. To the left is the locker room, to the right a reception window and further on a smoking room and dining room. You stop at the reception window and have your credentials checked. Not unlike going through the customs process. No idle chit chat. No time for one-liners. Keep a somber look on your face and speak only when spoken to. You present your credentials in a business-like manner when you are asked. You must offer proof that you are worthy enough to play at the H.C.E.G. Your home golf club has previously provided a letter of attestation that you are not an inexperienced golfer off the street. You present your handicap cards and certificates to the women behind the counter. She verifies it against her log sheet to verify who you say you are. No computer generated lists here. A manual log, written in perfect script lettering. No substitutions allowed. You show up with the four golfers whom you said would play with or you don't play. No singles, no three-somes. You do as you are told and you're happy about it. After being checked in you proceed to the locker room and change into your golfing attire. At the appointed time you proceed to the tenth tee and meet your caddies. Four balls (as a group of four golfers playing their own ball is properly called at Muirfield) proceed off the tenth tee only. The standard game at Muirfield is foursomes.

Foursomes is a format where four golfers play with two balls only, alternate shot. The Honourable Company plays this format both because of tradition and because it is efficient. You can get a group around in two and a half hours. After we played the 10th hole (our first) we were about to tee off on the 11th when our caddies became very flustered. Since we were the second group out that day, we were fortunate to have seasoned caddies. One of our caddies had noticed that the group behind us was four women. Women are not allowed to play without a gentleman at Muirfield. Their husbands were behind them on the 10th tee, planning to play as a group. 'If the Secretary sees this he will throw both groups off the course and fire the caddies', 'This is shite', 'No, No, No', were among the more polite things the caddies said. True to tradition, our most senior caddie went up to the group on the 10th green and made them split up. They had to mix up the two groups so that women were accompanied by men. At Muirfield, a rule is a rule.

After completing the morning round we proceeded into the locker room and changed back into jacket and tie to make our way to the member's dining room for a proper lunch. Although the Scots are more properly famous for their full breakfast, lunch at the Honourable Company is an experience in indulgence. The dining room is oblong in shape and contains a series of long slender tables where you eat cafeteria style, although this doesn't capture the appropriate sense of decorum. It's rather like the prep school dining hall seen in the Harry Potter movies. Only with a lot more class. At the end of the room are giant glass windows overlooking the course. The walls are lined with pictures of every past captain of the Honourable Company.

Muirfield's sixteenth hole

The food is organized into five distinct sections, each representing a separate course: drinks and spirits; soup; carvery; cheeses and sweets. You sit at the galley tables and gorge yourselves. The room is quite steamy as the water baths from the vegetables and heat lamps from the carvery exude their heat. You wouldn't dare take off your jacket or loosen your tie for fear of being scolded. No matter how hot it gets, and it gets hot, you remain calm. Stiff upper lip. Never let them see you sweat. It is the custom at the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers that the captain of the club wears a red jacket. Much like you see a member of Augusta wearing their green jackets, at Muirfield, the tradition is old. The tradition evolved from when they originally played at Leith Links. At that time, all members had to wear their red jackets or could be fined. It subsequently evolved into only the captains wearing them. After lunch we retired to the smoking room and sat in sumptuous leather chairs, again overlooking the 18th green.

You sit and have more drinks and enjoy cigars and appreciate the splendor of both the room and the scene outside. At the far end of the room above the chimney piece is a painting of William St. Clair of Roslin painted in 1771. It is the centerpiece of the room and is sized proportionally for the large space. It is about 20 feet by 30 feet, painted in oil. William St. Clair of Roslin served as Captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1761-1766, 1770 and 1771. The portrait reminds you more of a portrait of Mozart or George Washington than it does of a golfer. This is clearly a portrait of the 18th century. As you think that members of the Honourable Company were playing golf here before the time of the American revolutionary war, the history of the place begins to bear down on you. You don't need to be told about tradition sitting in this room. A moron could figure it out. Even most Americans. Mounted and framed in the smoke room they have a copy of the original thirteen rules at the club. Framed on the wall is also an original membership certificate for a member of the Leith Links, a predecessor club to Muirfield.

The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is the name of the golfing society that has been in existence since 1744. The Honourable Company originally played at Leigh Links until they outgrew it. They then moved to Musselburgh, but soon outgrew that as well. Their third course is Muirfield and they are justifiably proud of their heritage. Once you complete your relaxation you are back into the locker room to change back into your golfing attire and then you are off to your afternoon match. You are allowed to play your afternoon match off the first tee. The mandatory format is foursomes.

As was typical given the unstable state of most golfers after the big lunch and drinks, so it was with our group. The first two shots were nowhere near the fairway and ended up in the knee high rough. The alternate shot format we played turned out to be one of the most fun and rewarding golfing experiences all four of us has ever had. What a great tradition. It is a shame that is has largely been lost.

Muirfield's finishing hole

And oh yea, the course was ok. Nothing spectacular when compared with dozens of other top ranked courses. Certainly, the bunkering is a defining characteristic. The scenery is honestly kind of bland; none of the holes are that memorable. You're not that close to the water. But the overall experience is one of the best you could have in golf. The history, tradition, respect, etc. In terms of the golf course itself, does it deserve to be ranked #3 in the world? Certainly not. But when you throw in the whole scene, you can begin to understand its esteemed place in the world of golf. And while I normally don't like to recount shots and scores, I am particularly proud of my birdie at the #1 handicap hole. The eighth is a 443-yard, difficult par four dogleg with severe bunkering. It's Jack Nicklaus's favorite hole on the course, and now mine. I couldn't have asked for a better birthday present.


When Carnoustie (ranked #26 in the world) is brought up in conversation, the discussion invariably turns to Jean Van de Velde and his meltdown in the 1999 Open Championship. It is too bad if that is the only impression many of us have of Carnoustie, because, despite the R & A allowing the course to be made ridiculously penal in 1999, it is an impressive course. Hopefully, the R & A has learned its lesson and for future Open Championships will let Carnoustie defend itself without trying to trick it up.

Carnoustie is an important and historic golf course. Originally laid out in 1840 by Allan Robertson, it is one of the oldest courses in the world. Subsequent changes were made by Old Tom Morris and James Braid, which is not too shabby a group. For years I organized a small golf trip to Great Britain or Ireland. We were frankly scared off of Carnoustie after seeing it on TV, so had not made it a priority to play. After a half dozen years, we finally put it on our itinerary, and having done so are now sorry that we waited so long.

If every golf course has a personality, Carnoustie is that of a working man. Looking over Carnoustie from the first tee and you are bound to be disappointed. Be patient, however, and you will be rewarded.

One of the key things that makes Carnoustie great is its variety and the selection of shots you are asked to hit. Another defining feature is the series of burns that run through the course. On six holes you have to navigate the most "Scottish" of burns in golf. The tenth is guarded by the unforgiving Barry Burn:

Tenth Burn
The Barry Burn snaking through the 10th hole

Carnoustie is an enigma. It is unquestionably one of the greatest golf courses in the world but not for the usual reasons. It has none of the beautiful scenery that Pebble Beach or Turnberry has; in fact, some of the views are almost industrial and gritty. It is not set directly on the water. It does not have the storied history of a Merion or a Muirfield. It does not have a Royal pedigree or a delightful clubhouse like Hoylake or Lytham and St. Annes. In fact, it has a bit of a dis-jointed history and has been the home of many different golfing societies and local clubs over the years. Carnoustie is a public links, roughly the equivalent of a Bethpage in the U.S. And, it has an inferiority complex to its neighbor across the bay - St. Andrews.

Yet, despite all these apparent shortcomings, there is a certain charm to the place. Carnoustie is not pretending to be something it is not. It doesn't put on any airs or try to be fancy or pretentious in any way. It deserves a high place in the world of golf because it has evolved into something great. It is pure golf.

2nd green
The second green, like many at Carnoustie, is set in a hollow

Every hole at Carnoustie fits perfectly into an overall mosaic. Unlike an out and back routing such as Troon, Carnoustie offers variety. There is a constant change in direction, which, given the strong wind that is frequently present, is important, so as not to wear a golfer down. The course follows the natural contours of the land. It has some short holes, some long ones, some holes that are easy to drive, others that are quite narrow. It rewards driving but is also a shot makers course. And, its caddies have the best wit and sense of dry humor in all of Scotland. The short commuter trains going by not far away with a stout whistle are charming, reminiscent of Prestwick.

The third hole is guarded by Jockie's Burn. It is a classic Carnoustie hole. How can you make a 355 yard hole difficult? Make the second shot a blind one and put a burn like this directly in front of the green:

3rd jockie's burn
Jockie's Burn protecting the third green

Like a Beethoven Symphony, Carnoustie starts slowly, gets increasingly more complex and finishes with a bang. The last five holes have to be the hardest finishing holes in championship golf (other contenders would be Bethpage? Oakmont?). They start with "Spectacles", a hole so named for the fearsome bunkers located fifty yards short of the green that resemble a pair of glasses. From the tips, the hole is a 510 yard par FOUR. Even from the regular tees it is 461 yards. Although I'm told differently, every time I've played it, it's also into the wind.

Fourteen Spectacles
The fabulous 14th hole at Carnoustie, "Spectacles"

It ranks among the hardest holes in the world, with certainty. Even if you can navigate the Spectacles, there are a couple of pot bunkers that await your blind shot near the green. With well placed bunkers in the fairway and O.B. left, it also features a daunting tee shot.

The fifteenth, "Lucky Slap", is a 459 par four that normally plays into a prevailing wind and features a narrow fairway to a green that sits between treacherous bunkers.

The sixteenth is an impossibly difficult 250 yard par three, whose green slopes back to front. During the 1968 Open Championship the hole played so long that Jack Nicklaus was the only player able to hit the ball past the pin. Tom Watson describes it as the hardest par three in golf and I won't disagree.

The seventeenth and eighteenth have the Barry Burn snaking through them. We all remember what the Barry Burn did to Jean Van de Velde on that dreadful Sunday in 1999. Ironically, the seventeenth hole is actually a more difficult hole. The seventeenth is aptly named "Island" and when you stand at the tee you quite literally think to yourself, "Where the F am I supposed to hit the ball?"

One of my favorite golf writers, Dell Leigh, had this to say about Carnoustie in 1925 and it still rings true today, "The burn meanders slyly about the course to trap the shots of the unskilled at several holes. But the course is all the better because of it. There is a great satisfaction in beating the burn, and beating it convincingly."

On seventeen you need to hit your tee shot to a very small landing area that exists between the snaking burn. It is equally as important to hit the ball both the correct distance and on the correct line. Most people hit into the burn. Your choice is whether to do it left or right. This is all difficult enough, add in the wind and you've got your hands full.

"Island", the wicked seventeenth hole at Carnoustie

The eighteenth repeats a lot of the characteristics of the seventeenth, but in the opposite wind direction, which completely change the dynamics. Also, the eighteenth has an out of bounds along the left side, so any tension in your swing coming in on a close match easily brings it into play.

The famous British golf writer Henry Longhurst describes Carnoustie perfectly: "It defies you for thirteen holes and hammers you over the last five."

Come see where the Wee Ice Mon, as the Scots called Ben Hogan, won the 1953 Open Championship, his only time competing it that championship. The sixth hole is now named "Hogan's Alley". The hole is one of only two par fives on the course and has an out of bounds down the entire left hand side and a ditch down the right side. Hogan hit an almost identical shot in all four rounds in 1953, starting the ball out over the O.B. and fading it into the middle of the fairway. He did it with such precision that it is said the ball almost landed in the identical spot each day. What Hogan accomplished at Carnoustie is breathtaking, during the 1953 Open Championship he missed no fairways on the way to his victory and was the first champion since Willie Park in 1860 to win the tournament on his first try. It's too bad he didn't play in other Open's, which at the time was scheduled at the same time as the PGA Championship.

This part of the course is also next to a firing range the British military uses. The last time I played, in the middle of the day on a weekday they were firing automatic weapons into a big dirt hill while we played, perhaps 300 yards away.

It was with great amusement that I recently came across a review of Carnoustie published by Golf Illustrated in 1930. The only criticism they had of the course was that the greens were in such good shape that it actually made putting too easy. More than 70 years later, Carnoustie has had the best greens of any course I've played in the top 100 (although Winged Foot is a close second).

Patric Dickinson selected Carnoustie as a course in his 1951 book, A Round of Golf Courses, where he picked the eighteen best courses in the British Isles. He wrote, ". . . On the whole it is a friendly giant who prefers not to show his strength but to defeat you by wiles which one would, rather, attribute to a midget--by cunning changes of direction, by narrowing, subtle ditches, and by the winding of the Barry Burn. What finally one feels about Carnoustie is that it is a course one will continually want to return to. One could not ever get tired of it, and I mean that as a great compliment. It is fierce as a lion and sheet as honey."

Well said. Whenever I return to Scotland I try to play Carnoustie and consider it among my personal favorites in the world, and for me it is the best course in Europe.

San Francisco and Olympic Golf Clubs

San Francisco Golf Club (#27 in the world) is a traditional golf club. Designed early in the career of A.W. Tillinghast, many consider it his best. Personally, I think his best is actually Bethpage Black, but San Francisco is a close second.

The City of San Francisco has the reputation of being a very liberal city based on gay rights, environmentalism, etc. However, I always found that beneath the surface, its old money is some of the most conservative in the western world. San Francisco Golf Club is more a reflection of this older, conservative city than the more liberal one most people know. San Francisco Golf Club was proud that it did not let in new members who made their fortunes in technology during the Internet bubble years. It is a bastion of old money conservatism. It is reflective of a type of club that is increasingly scare. Our experience has been that Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco are three of the most conservative cities in the U.S. in terms of doing business and still having an old establishment. They may vote left of center, but the old-line, blue-bloods are alive and well and still pulling the strings. I found that S.F.G.C. is a very conservative club along the lines of a Merion or The Country Club. Membership in an elite course such as these still represents something that money can't buy. Any fool could leverage himself to the hilt with a big mortgage, lease a BMW and give the appearance of having arrived. Only the truly elite could get into a club like San Francisco. You have to be nominated by seven members of the establishment. And they will not let in anyone without the proper pedigree. And for good reason. Their traditions are time honored and are to be respected. Why let in some technology genius who would ruin the decorum in the locker room by checking his hand-held email device every 3 minutes.

Belonging to one of these clubs is the ultimate safeguard. You can't rely on your neighborhood any more as anyone can buy a home next to you. The first class cabin on a plane is no longer exclusive with the frequent business travelers taking over. But, to be the Chairman of the admissions committee at an old line club such as San Francisco or Merion or The Country Club and you are a real member of the ruling elite. In Great Britain, it is easier to tell someone's class by their education, title and accent. Not so in the U.S. With the equal opportunity movement, a Harvard or Yale pedigree is no longer a shorthand way to see if someone is like you. To find the true landed gentry in this country, check the membership lists at the most elite of clubs in Boston, San Francisco or Philadelphia.

Like the city itself, the golf course is near perfection. Everything about it. It's understated demeanor, the bartender who has been there for forty years. If the sign of a good club is the integrity of its locker room and sense of tradition, then San Francisco, like the city itself is world class. Gentleman who will always ask you for a game if you are waiting near the first tee.

With one of the hardest admissions policies, you have to make an application just to get the go ahead to fill out an admissions application. While there for the day we heard a story where an existing member's wife applies for membership and was rejected. Guess how much longer he remained a member?

As to the golf course, you get a sense of its greatness standing on the practice putting green or first tee; perched above the wide fairway with massive bunkers strategically placed throughout. The golf course is actually hemmed in by the city so doesn't have necessarily dramatic views. What it does have is ample room to drive the golf ball. Unlike many Tillinghast designs that have become overgrown, San Francisco is not hemmed in by trees. The terrain is used imaginatively, not straight up and down and there are many subtle, challenging dogleg holes. You can see the fairway and thus, you can view the real majesty of Tillinghast's skills, his ability to use bunkers strategically and with a sense of beauty.

The 7th hole at Olympic shows the steepness of the terrain

Especially compared to nearby Olympic Club (#39 in the world), San Francisco shines. I find the Olympic Lake course to be near-impossible to play for a non-scratch player. The trees are grown in too tight, it is built on the side of a mountain and the greens are too fast. It is hard to get an even lie. You have to be able to hit a draw and a fade at will. What makes this especially difficult is that most of the lies you will have require you to work the ball the opposite of the way the terrain dictates. That is, if you have a cut lie it requires you to hit a draw shot and vice versa. One of the prominent design features of Olympic is the 'Reverse Camber' which is an architectural term for fairways that slope in one direction while the golfer aims at a green that turns the opposite way. A Reverse Camber is not a unique architectural feature at Olympic, other courses have similar designs. What makes Olympic especially difficult is that there is nowhere to play safe or to bail out, unlike on most other designs. It simply forces you to have to try to hit a shot that all but the most accomplished golfer cannot hit.

On the bright side, Olympic Club only has one fairway bunker. In this regard it is the anthesis of Whistling Straits with its close to 1,000 bunkers. The thing is, Olympic doesn't need any fairway bunkers. The combination of hemmed in fairways, small greens and uneven lies is enough to easily rank it among the most difficult courses in the world along with Oakmont, Bethpage Black and Royal County Down (with the wind up!). The routing of Olympic is essentially sideways on the hillside. It does not play up and down the hill, but rather you find yourself walking sideways on hilly terrain throughout your round.

The hilly terrain of Olympic with its abundance of trees

Personally, I don't have the ability to fade a two iron and land it softly on the green. Beyond that, I find Olympic (the club and not the golf course), like its California neighbor to the south, Riviera, to be too large and corporate and lacking the charm of San Francisco. It doesn't have a clubby feel given the size of its membership with two courses. It feels more like an athletic club. San Francisco, on the other hand just feels privileged and more genuine.

In terms of world rankings, I think both courses are ranked about right. San Francisco is justifiably high on the list. Olympic, despite my reservations about the course and inability to play it well is a unique, historic and challenging course that should be included among the world's best.

Fishers Island Club

I played Fishers Island again recently and have an updated post here titled A Mulligan at Fishers Island.

Most people have never heard of Fishers Island or Fishers Island Club (ranked #29 in the world). It is a seven mile long island, located on the narrowest part of the Long Island Sound between New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. It is quite small, the entire island being only 3,200 acres and is one of the most affluent places in the world. It is hard for a U.S. locale to have a WASPier origin or a better pedigree. Fishers Island was granted to John Winthrop Jr., an early governor of Connecticut, in 1640. The family owned the island for several generations and finally sold it in 1863. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it evolved into a retreat for families with last names like Dupont, Firestone and Whitney. Fishers Island remains a secluded enclave. I was lucky to get an invitation to play the course this past summer. I had heard great things about the course and about the island in general.

The day held much promise. We slept well the night before in a local hotel and then went down to New London, Connecticut to catch the seven am ferry. Although geographically part of New York's Long Island, you access it via Connecticut. The day was scheduled to be over 100 degrees with high humidity. The morning was quite foggy and misty and you couldn’t see more than ten feet off the pier. As we waited for the ferryboat to arrive, the workers started to arrive. The painters, gardeners and other day laborers who make the daily journey over to Fishers Island to work. The island itself seemingly has no resident workers, only the ultra-wealthy. There is nowhere for workers to live on the island, and even if there was they could not afford to live there.

The boat pulled out with the fog horn constantly going. As we traveled southward down the Thames River, we passed the submarine base (excuse me, General Dynamics facility) on the eastern shore, although the fog was so thick that you couldn’t see much of it. The facility we passed is not trivial. It supports twenty-one attack-class submarines and is one of the largest in the world. As we exited the channel there were several buoys and a lighthouse. All were in full operation this morning, beeping and whirling through the thick fog. As the ferry was exiting the river and about to enter Fishers Island Sound we could see a Los Angeles Class attack submarine floating in the water on the western shore. Getting to Fishers Island has to be the most dramatic and unique approach to any course in the world. At all the others you drive in, and no matter how grand the approach, there is something special about arriving by boat with the smell of the salt air and the rhythmic pounding of the waves. The forty-five minute ride went by quickly with the fog lifting along the way. We soon began to see the outskirts of Fishers Island. Once docked, we let the workers off first then slung our golf clubs over our shoulders and disembarked.

As the ferry was docking a New York State Trooper on shore began looking everyone over. I am sure this is a great assignment for a NY State Trooper based on Long Island. It sure beats patrolling the Long Island Expressway. Dressed formally, he was wearing his full grey dress suit, light brown smokey the bear hat with purple band and his reflective sunglasses. Unlike the L.A.P.D., he is not there “to protect and to serve”. He is there to chase you off public land. If you are not recognized or greeted by a resident you risk being put back on the boat. Although Fishers Island is part of the Continental United States, they have their own unwritten, but enforced rules. No day-trippers here. As passengers disembarked, the trooper stood near the stern of the boat with his arms at the parade rest position, peering at everyone through his sunglasses. There was no Chamber of Commerce welcoming you here.

The member we were playing with picked us up in his rusted 10 year old Range Rover. The beat-up car is consistent with the Fishers Island Weltanschauung. There are no overt displays of wealth on Fishers Island. You would see no Bentleys or Rolls Royces tooling around the Island. If you saw a BMW it was at least 20 years old and slightly beat up. This was money of the understated variety. The anti-hamptons. Residents' cars are your only means of transportation. The island has no taxis. There are only a handful of paved roads on the island. The place is an odd mixture of a small New England village with the distinctly Caribbean island feel.

The closest land mass is actually the State of Rhode Island, less than a mile away. Connecticut is two miles away. This helps explain the New England feel of the place. However, they have taken the New-England-protestant-work-ethic-chic to the extreme.

We wound our way around the main road past the old movie theater and then through what passes for a town on the island. A small general store, a post office and an ice cream shop, then past Barlow pond and Middle Farms pond. As you get toward the eastern end of the island you approach a small guard station. It was a little white sun bleached shed. Sitting outside the guard station was a teenager on a beach chair. He makes sure that your car has the Fishers Island Club sticker on it, although it really seems like overkill. Everyone on the island knows everyone else. But, it is the last fail-safe to make sure no un-invited guests get to the club. Up the long winding road and finally you arrive at the Fishers Island Club. This is not a golf club or a country club; it includes tennis courts, a beach club, thus the more generic name of Fishers Island Club.

The course was designed by Seth Raynor who was a protégée of Charles Blair MacDonald. Raynor was the town surveyor in Southampton when MacDonald was constructing the National Golf Links in Southampton. Actually, Raynor’s official title was “street commissioner.” In his autobiography Macdonald raves about Raynor's abilities to drain water, lay pipe, clear land and seeding; Raynor had no peer, Macdonald felt. Fisher's Island is supposed to be Raynor’s masterpiece. Masterpiece is meant to imply an outstanding piece of artistry. Not here. If Michaelangelo had stopped painting halfway through the sistine chapel and then the Vatican hadn't maintained it, would it still be considered his masterpiece? Same with Fishers Island. Raynor designed but never fished the course and the paint is peeling!

Apparently, Raynor’s idea of designing a golf course was to walk around and put in tees and greens without much else. While this can sometimes be the purest way to do a golf course as evidenced by many designers that did it properly, most famously Old Tom Morris, it does take some imagination and skill, which Raynor clearly did not possess while designing this course. The first hole is ruler straight with little character. The second, an attempt at a Redan hole is weak. Last time I checked, Redan holes don't have water. In the interest of fairness, I didn't dislike the entire course. The next four holes including the “Punchbowl” and “Biarritz” holes are quite good and interesting. Then the course becomes a let down. Seventeen is a poorly conceived and executed hole with flat terrain, minimal bunkering and a benign green.

Exhibit 'A' is seen above, which is an aerial view of the seventeenth hole. The brown is the fairway. This picture was taken from the club history, taken in 1999. I played the course under similarly poor conditions, which I don't get. Yes, I understand that links golf is supposed to play firm and fast, but burning out the whole course doesn't make sense. Courses in the UK don't irrigate because it rains all the time. Maintaining a course in the eastern U.S. like this does not create a world-class golf course.

The fifteenth hole, like the seventeenth and first is essentially a straight hole tee to green with a flat green. I didn't think eighteen a particularly strong finishing hole either at 452 yards for a par five. Someone needs to explain to me again how a golf course ranks so highly in the world with so many average holes. Oh, I see, it's the exclusivity and the water views of Connecticut.

I heard rave reviews about Fishers Island, most people citing the views of the water from every hole. So, a water view is the mark of greatness alone? Not exactly. Even water views from every hole can’t save Fishers Island. Let’s admit it, not all water views are the same. Looking out at New London, Connecticut is not exactly the same as looking out on the Monterey Peninsula or the Irish Sea. Having worked with one of the great course designers of his time, Charles Blair MacDonald, Raynor should have done better. He should have stayed a municipal employee, laying pipe.

Apparently, it wasn’t all his fault. He died half-way through construction and never let anyone know where he wanted his bunkers put in. So, they never put them in. The course was never really finished. Maybe it is because they are trying to show what frugal yankees they are even though the members have a higher net worth per capitia than any course in the top 100. You’d think they could have paid someone to finish the course? It any event, maybe I am being unfair to Raynor who has been dead for many years. It’s not entirely his fault. In fact, I admire his work at Yeamans Hall very much and can see where he can use his skills in a very artful fashion. He just didn't have the inspiration here. Fishers Island reminds me more of his design at Morris County, New Jersey, than it does of other world class courses.

Fishers Island is arguably the most difficult club in the top 100 to get accepted into. We are told that you need twelve letters of recommendation and only then once admitted, you are let in as an associate member. Realistically, you have to own a house on the island to be a member and since there are less than 500 residents on the entire island, it’s not happening.

I have been lambasted for not saying positive things about Fishers Island. Sorry, folks, but I call 'em as I see 'em. It's a bit too exclusive for me. Also, a course that is ranked #29 in the world should be held to a higher standard and should be impressive. I simply think it is over-rated, particularly by people who compare it to Pebble Beach or Cypress Point. Not even close.

Post Script

Despite my misgivings about Fishers Island, the member we played with was a perfect gentleman all day and we are still very thankful we got invited.

Additional Post Script as of March 2006

It's no surprise to us that in this month's Links magazine in an article written by George Peper, the original creator of the top 100 world rankings the following quote is attributed to a representitive of Fishers Island: "We do not wish our course to be ranked, visited or for that matter, known. Please convey that message to your panelists." We rest our case.

Garden City Golf Club

Garden City Golf Club (#55 in the world) founded in 1899, not to be confused with nearby Garden City Country Club, is one of the most unique courses in the world top 100. Generally referred to as "The Mens Club" or "Garden City Mens" it prides itself on being exclusively a club for men. There are many stories about Garden City related to how women are not allowed on the property, let alone on the course; this includes the driveway and parking lot. When we played Garden City and casually asked the member how many members Garden City had, he gave an unusual answer: 399. Apparently, the laws in New York State governing private clubs regarding equal access issues, employment law, etc. have certain provisions that kick in when there are more than 400 members. Thus, the carefully crafted strategy. The laws are also such that the club has to be for social and non-business purposes. Garden City is not the place to go to hammer out business deals, as this is strictly enforced. Likewise, your company cannot pay for your dues, you must pay them yourself.

There is a reason why Garden City has not hosted a U.S.G.A. event since 1936. While there are many courses in the top 100 that do not have female members including Augusta, Pine Valley, The Golf Club (Ohio) and Garden City, Garden City's exclusion is total. It is the only one that won't let women play.

While many stories about Garden City are no doubt apocryphal, it has indeed evolved into an all male club with attitude. According to the New York Times, although never allowed in the clubhouse, up until the 1950s women were allowed to play the course before eleven o’clock on Monday and Friday mornings. When Garden City celebrated their annual “open house” on New Years day, the women guests had to drink their eggnogs outside the clubhouse in the parking lot.

The bar area at Garden City Men's

I don't consider myself to be discriminatory in any fashion. In fact, I quite enjoy the company of the fairer sex. But, I am a firm believer in the First Amendment right to free association and Garden City has created a unique atmosphere. I found Garden City to be a charming place. Since this is after all a club for gentleman, one of its rules is that you must always wear a jacket when you enter through the front door of the club house. We find that New Yorkers in general and certainly those from Long Island in particular, often times have an 'edge', shall we say. This is certainly the case at Garden City. On the morning we played, upon arrival, a member was walking through the parking lot approaching the clubhouse wearing boat shoes, shorts, and a golf shirt; but he had on the requisite blue blazer. Once inside, as long as you are not in the dining room or bar area you can take the jacket off, however, you must wear it into the club. Although the rule is to wear a jacket, this is not to be confused with Muirfield or Royal St. George's where the decorum is different and a jacket and tie are the proper attire to be respected. Welcome to New York.

In any event, entering the clubhouse at Garden City is like entering a museum. You enter and the locker room is to the right hand side through two saloon-style swinging doors. The old low slung open metal green lockers are the originals, as is almost everything. There is a large moose head mounted high up in the arching ceiling at the far end of the room. The main part of the clubhouse is one of the more genuinely warm and cozy rooms I've been in. In this regard, Garden City is more like a traditional English or Scottish club. If you were filming a period movie about a golf club at the turn of the century, you'd use the inside of the clubhouse at Garden City without changing a thing. There is no indication in the room that you are still not in 1899. The place is right out of central casting, with green leather chairs and sofas, a fireplace and dark wood.

The golf course has a great pedigree, designed by Devereux Emmett and Walter Travis. Travis was one of the top amateur golfers of his day and Garden City is a shrine to him. The "Travis Room" in the clubhouse includes a lot of original memorabilia and clubs used by 'The Old Man' as he is affectionately known. The Amateur Championship was held at Garden City four times and the U.S. Open once. Charles Blair Macdonald was one of the founding members of the club, which had a great appeal to New York City residents in the early years because it was built across the street from the railroad and it was a much shorter train ride to Garden City than to the other grand New York courses located in the Hamptons.

The course itself is a natural style layout on flat terrain. The first hole is short (302 from the tips) and quirky with a semi-blind tee shot. The second hole is a great par three of about 150 yards. It features a green set at a diagonal with a "bottomless pit" of sand set in front. It is not a long hole, but plays much tougher than it looks.


The view from the fairway to the first green at Garden City

What you see is what you get at Garden City. The course is all right there in front of you. Avoid the penal fescue, seen in the picture above, and you will have an enjoyable day. Many of the approach shots to the greens are either flat or slightly up hill. The greens themselves are subtely contoured away from you or slope downhill. One of the secrets to playing Garden City is figuring out how to hit your approach shots to the greens so they don't roll off. A Scotsman would be right at home, bumping shots onto the green as well.


The par five 4th hole with its elevated green

8th green
The fabulously bunkered and difficult 8th hole at Garden City

16th green
The par four 16th hole's green

The meat of the course are holes thirteen through seventeen, a tough collection of par fours and fives. The course has only three par threes and plays to a par of 73. The par four fifteenth hole has one of the most canted greens I have ever seen and slopes sharply from left to right.

Although this part of Long Island is quite congested, the middle part of the course has parts that offer isolated seclusion that catches you by surprise, and the neighborhood surrounding the course is quaint with a lot of tudor style houses. Other parts of the course are near roads, some of the views are of industrial buildings and the course is on a flight path into JFK, so it is not a complete walk in the park.
18 green
The par three 18th green with the porch right behind it

Garden City also features a par three finishing hole with a pond on the right side, next to the green. Shades of your tee shot at Merion, the outside dining area is right behind the eighteenth green, creating more pressure than you would imagine when playing the hole with a gallery watching.

After the round, you can sit and enjoy the ambiance of the place and watch groups coming in playing seventeen and eighteen. Your food and drink orders are written on a computer punch card, another quirky and unique aspect of the place. Also, in how many golf clubs in the world do they have German Peach Pancakes and Palatschinka with Wild Lingonberries on the menu? I think that if the founding members came back to Garden City they would be very happy to see that it hasn't changed at all. Long Island is, mile for mile, I believe, the best golf region in the world and Garden City is one of the reasons why.

Post Script

After posting on Garden City I have received a number of emails regarding Garden City's policy of women playing. Apparently, members wives can play on select days (Mondays) or a woman can play at the discretion of the executive committee, which they have selectively granted in the past. Nevertheless, Garden City remains a male-dominated bastion of the golf world that we hope they continue to proudly defend.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Our Idea of Winter Golf - Ganton and Woodhall Spa

Bunkers are serious business at Woodhall: wide, deep and penal.

For most golfers the idea of winter golf might include a trip to Hilton Head, Portugal or maybe Florida. Not us. We just returned from a winter trip to the north of England. The British Isles generally don't experience the kind of winters one gets in the Northern U.S., so for us it's a welcome break. While it obviously won't be balmy, we were taking a chance that at least it wouldn't be so cold, gray and windy that we wouldn't be able to play. Our journey began with a red-eye on Friday night from the East Coast of the U.S. Sitting in an upright position in the back of the plane is not an ideal set of conditions for a good night's sleep. Nevertheless, when daylight appears on the horizon as you approach the English coast from the air, it is an exciting moment for us no matter how many times we've done it before.

Woodhall 17
This view of the 17th hole at Woodhall Spa shows that on a beautiful day there are few places better places in the world to have the privilege to tee it up at

As is typically the case, the morning is overcast with a light rain falling as we leave Manchester Airport and begin the three hour journey east to Lincolnshire where Woodhall Spa (#46 in the world) is located. One of the toughest parts of the quest to play the top 100 in the world (aside from playing Augusta) is no doubt getting off a red-eye, driving on the wrong side of the road in poor weather on tight roads. As we head out on the A628 we're amazed that such large trucks can fit on a one lane road (always coming at you in the opposite direction) and manage the hairpin turns with ease. More than once we've run up on curbs or knocked off the mirror on the left side of the car during these journeys. Luckily, our trip to Woodhall is long and tiring but uneventful. Our sense of excitement builds as we pass through the real Sherwood Forest where Woodhall is located near. We arrive to find that Woodhall Spa is a charming Edwardian Spa town with tree lined streets.

In the same way that The National Golf Links of America is the product of Charles Blair Macdonald and Pine Valley is the work of George Crump, so it is with Woodhall Spa and Colonel Stafford Hotchkin in the early part of the 20th century. Built on sandy soil, it is a fantastic heathland course with J.H. Taylor and H.S. Colt having had a hand in the design. It reminded us of Sunningdale and has quite a few Pine Valley type forced carries over sand and scrub to reach the fairways. It is set in a peaceful wooded area with silver birch, pine, heather and gorse in the English countryside. There are walking trails throughout the course for use by the locals. More than once while we were playing, townspeople would come walking through with their Wellington boots and dogs. Rather than finding it annoying, we found it a charming, typically English practice. There is no doubt what country you're in when you're playing at Woodhall Spa. The weather was in the mid 50's and it was slightly overcast. The smell of peat fires was lingering in the air. While those back home were still sleeping, we had been transported to a different world. For anyone who wants to experience golf in splendid isolation, Woodhall Spa is the place for you. It is the antithesis of the modern golf courses which are often times sadly an excuse for a housing development. Woodhall Spa meanders along the natural terrain. Colonel Hotchkin has also mastered the art of bunkering. The bunkers at Woodhall Spa are truly penal. As an example, the 12th green with bunkering is illustrated below.

Woodhall 8
The beauty of the environment of Woodhall Spa shines through. A sea of heather fronts the fairway on the 8th hole

Woodhall Spa has only three par three holes but taken together they may represent the best collection of par threes on any course we've played thus far. Unless you hit a perfect shot, the balls feed into the deep bunkers. Fair; but you must hit a very good shot.

Woodhall Spa 12th hole
The par three 12th hole. Note the deep bunker on the left. The depth is not visible to the unsuspecting golfer 

Woodhall Spa also has a fine collection of short par fours at the end of the round. You stand on the tee and think to yourself that it's a nice way to finish, maybe with a couple of birdies. Not exactly. The design of this hidden gem of a course has once again proven that golf holes don't have to be long to be tough.

We finished the round only because of an adrenaline rush, since by the end of the round, we had more or less been awake for over 40 hours straight. Luckily for us we stayed at the Dower House Hotel which is located off the first fairway of the non-championship course at Woodhall Spa. It is a newly renovated old country house estate. You open the front door and there is a fire burning in the cozy front room and a nice bar nearby. Our first Guinness of the trip was enjoyed in front of the fireplace in a leather chair with a 'Havana' cigar as they call them in England. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day. As the song goes, we are quite thankful "there will always be an England."

The next morning, after a proper full English breakfast (without the black pudding), we set off for Ganton, located three hours north up the A164. Although only 90 miles away, the roads follow the contour of the English countryside and wander through the beautiful landscape. We arrived at mid-day and were able to tee off straight away.


Ganton (#62 in the world, built in 1892) is the course where Harry Vardon served as professional between 1892 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. Some of golf's most esteemed architects have had a hand in shaping Ganton including J.H. Taylor, H.S. Colt, Alister McKenzie and James Braid. Located in Yorkshire, Ganton has hosted a Ryder Cup (1949) and a Walker Cup (2003).

We 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 Woodhall Spa. We played Ganton without a caddy in sunny, windy conditions. The winter sun was at a low angle in the sky and the crisp air fills your lungs and is refreshing. No golf carts here. No yardage markers. At Ganton, you're on your own (in a good way). It is pure golf, with no frills. The surrounding countryside is dramatic and peaceful. We particularly like the 258 yard par three 17th where you must hit your tee shot across the entrance road to the course. All the eye can see standing on the tee is a lot of very big bunkers. Not for the faint of heart.

After the round, we retired to the clubhouse to have a sandwich (egg mayonnaise on brown bread). As is the custom for most proper English courses, you must have on a jacket and tie to enter the dining area (even to sit in the men's grill). While it is somewhat annoying when you're hungry and tired, we appreciate that they are trying to uphold the standards and traditions of proper English clubs. The Ganton clubhouse is a throwback to an earlier era, probably not changing much since Vardon's time. We believe 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.

We're off on the three hour drive back to Manchester before flying out tomorrow morning. Six hours of driving in one day is a bit much, but you have to be a little nuts to play the top 100. Our hotel outside Manchester turns out to be a shit-hole, but you can't ask for perfection all the time. Once again, we have been very lucky on this trip regarding the transportation and the weather.

Both courses are highly recommended. They are not on the natural circuit you would make playing the Open Championship courses in England, so you must really go out of your way to play them. We recommend doing so if you appreciate the history of the game. We really love the quirkiness of Britain and were not disappointed on this trip. Also, we found the people at both Ganton and Woodhall Spa have treated us as nice as any course in the world so far, although the English don't have the wit of the Scottish!

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Strategy for Playing the Top 100

How do you go about playing the Top 100?

The top 100 courses are located in thirteen countries:

1. The United States (59)
2. Scotland (9)
3. England (9)
4. Ireland (6)
5. Australia (4)
6. Japan (3)
7. New Zealand (2)
8. Canada (2)
9. Spain (2)
10. South Africa (1)
11. Mexico (1)
12. The Dominican Republic (1)
13. France (1)

And, in twenty-three states:

1. New York (10)
2. California (8)
3. Ohio (5)
4. Georgia (4)
5. South Carolina (3)
6. New Jersey (3)
7. Illinois (3)
8. Florida (3)
9. Pennsylvania (2)
10. Michigan (2)
11. Oregon (2)
12. Maryland (2)
13. North Carolina (2)
14. Massachusetts (1)
15. Oklahoma (1)
16. Texas (1)
17. Tennessee (1)
18. Virginia (1)
19. Colorado (1)
20. Nevada (1)
21. Nebraska (1)
22. Wisconsin (1)
23. Kansas (1)

Yes, we know this is not the current ranked list. My objective is to play the 2003 list so that I don't have to support a course associated with Donald Trump on the current list.

We offer the following musings on playing the top 100:

1. You need to have a plan. Like planning a battle campaign; you need a strategy, tactics, logistical planning and support. I isn't just going to happen.

2. If you live in the United States you're in a better position to achieve it. Living in the New York Metropolitan area or California helps. Nine of the twelve people we know of that have completed the list lived in either California or the New York area.

3. Have a valid passport and be ready to go at a moment's notice. A private jet would be ideal, as would being independently wealthy. Being a member of a course in the top 100 helps for obvious reasons. Personally, we're trying to do this without having any of these advantages, although a lot of frequent flyer miles don't hurt.

4. You have to network. Ask. Although 80 percent of the courses are private, those is the British Isles and Australia have a better approach to the game. They recognize that they are guardians of great places and are willing to let others share the experience. You have to respect their rules and traditions, but playing the great British Open courses is a lot easier than their counterparts in the U.S. where many courses are under the mistaken impression that snobbishness makes greatness. There are 50 courses on the list that are truly private where you have to be invited by a member.

5. As in life, you need a little luck. Although as Gary Player has said "The harder you work, the luckier you get."

Another Golfer Joins the Elite Fraternity

This month, Travel and Leisure Golf Magazine features the story of Selwyn Herson, who becomes one of a very select group of golfers that have completed the duffer's equivalent of the grand slam: Playing the Top 100 ranked golf courses in the world. More people have walked on the moon than have completed this feat.

The article confirms what we've always known; that you have to be a bit compulsive/obsessive to do this. Or as Herson puts it: "I am a goal oriented person." That sounds better to us. We're now goal-oriented also.

He clearly has good taste since the list of top courses that he really liked we fully agree with (the ones we have been lucky enough to play). Especially his selection of Cruden Bay, Merion and the National Golf Links of America which we whole-heartedly endorse. We also found it amusing that he played Lahinch in a 40 mph wind. We have played Lahinch several times and this always seems to be the weather at this gem in County Clare, Ireland.

What lessons can we take from Selwyn's journey? First, like in life, a little luck doesn't hurt. Like Selwyn, we've gotten the call many times to see if we're free to play Augusta because someone has just dropped out of a foursome. The trouble is, each time the dream ends and we wake up. It is a pleasant dream, though. This guy really had it happen! Second, you have to network. A lot. And last, it doesn't hurt to be a member of top 100 course (he is a Riviera member) if you're trying to do this (we're not).

The full article from Travel and Leisure Golf Magazine's January 2006 Issue:

by David T. Friendly

The eighteenth hole at New Zealand's magnificent Kauri Cliffs is a steep dogleg-left par five that plays 539 yards from the tips. On Thanksgiving Day 2004, while the rest of us were downing our turkey and stuffing, Selwyn Herson, a scratch player at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California, was nervously contemplating a five-foot birdie putt for an even-par round of seventy-two. But it was not the putt that was making his hands sweat. Rather, it was the realization that Herson pushed the birdie putt right and then calmly tapped in for a solid seventy-three, beating the two pros from Kauri Cliffs who played with him.

Thus concluded an extraordinary golf journey: Herson, who looks like a cross between Sean Connery twenty years ago and Dr. Phil today, had finally played every hole at each of the top 100 golf courses in the world (as ranked biannually by Golf Magazine). It was a journey that cost him a small fortune and countless frequent-flyer miles and regularly challenged the patience of his wife of now twenty-seven years. It also required brilliant time-management skills, since Herson accomplished his feat while working fifty to sixty hours a week on various entrepreneurial ventures. Along the way, he collected scorecards from some of the finest and hardest-to-get-on courses in the world, joining an elite club of only perhaps a half dozen other Americans who can claim to have played the entire list of the world's top 100 courses.

But as he plucked his ball from that final cup, Herson was overcome with an odd and unexpected sense of melancholia. "It was almost as if I did not want to make that last putt because it signaled the end," he reflected recently on a terrace overlooking the first fairway at Riviera. "You start thinking, 'Well, what am I going to do next?'"

I first met Herson on the driving range at Riviera (#36 on the 2003 list, to which all top-100 references in this story refer unless otherwise noted), where we are both members. You can find him there frequently on Saturday mornings for hour-and-a-half practice sessions grooving one of those swings that makes you wonder if you ever really want to look at your own swing on video again. As he blasted 300-yard drives to the back fence, we started chatting. Herson wanted to play the following week, but I was about to leave for Dublin, Ireland, to produce a movie. It was then that Herson first told me of his quest to play the top 100 and that one of the final courses he would be playing was near Dublin (the European Club; #98, Brittas Bay, Ireland). We talked about having dinner there, but in truth it was one of those polite conversations you barely absorb and never expect to materialize into anything.

On my ten-hour flight to Dublin, however, I began to think about Herson and his magnificent obsession. Was this a genuine golf accomplishment—the small-ball equivalent of climbing the Seven Summits? Or was this simply the mad meanderings of yet another golf fanatic? As I nibbled on my Aer Lingus canapés, I wondered what this all revealed about the complex game of golf. More important, why Herson—and why not me?

Several weeks into production I got a message on my cell phone from Herson announcing that he was staying at the same hotel as me and that he wanted me to join him at the European Club, a tight oceanside links, the next day. Since we had just started filming the movie, I did not feel comfortable giving up a day of shooting. So as a substitute I offered up my driver, Tommy Hamill, a former footballer for the Dublin Bohemians and a respectable eleven-handicapper with his own passion for the game. Herson, who had let the management at the European Club know he was coming and why, wound up playing with Tommy and a friend of the course's architect, Pat Ruddy. When told that Herson liked to play from the back tees, their host took them deep to drive from original tee areas that were now just fescue. Hamill, a bear of a man, could not reach the fairway on a number of holes, a source of great humiliation heaped upon his considerable Irish pride. How tough was the course? Herson shot eighty-one, lost three balls in the process and told me he played pretty well.

That night I joined Herson at Shanahan's, where JFK's rocking chair is housed in bulletproof glass behind the bar downstairs. There, over steaks, Herson poured out his saga like a smooth glass of Jameson. Psychiatrists talk about the perfect-storm marriage of a drug and its abuser; in this case, it was a marriage between Herson and a brazen idea.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, the product of a middle-class upbringing, Herson took up the game of golf at ten and was scratch as a teenager. He was good enough to play for the national team and was even pursued by a number of American universities offering golf scholarships while completing his own studies at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand, where he earned a masters in finance in 1976. (Herson turned down the scholarships when he realized it meant he would have to start college all over again.) A few years later, while traveling in America, he had the good fortune to shoot sixty-six at Squires Golf Club outside Philadelphia while playing with George Fazio, runner-up to Ben Hogan at the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion's East course (#14; Ardmore, Pennsylvania) and the uncle of famed course designer Tom Fazio. George Fazio and some friends decided to give Herson an opportunity to see if he might want to pursue a career as a professional golfer. They put him up at a condo near Jupiter Hills Golf Club in Tequesta, Florida, and let him have at it. "I got to spend ten hours a day finding out just how good I really was," Herson says. In the end, however, it was his desire that gave out. He was twenty-two, away from his home country and with no support system. "I was emotionally immature at the time," recalls Herson, an open book on this subject. "After about seven months I just went brain-dead."

That may have been true regarding golf, but in his business pursuits Herson has shown nothing but resolve. In order to complete a quest like this, one has to be enormously driven, and Herson is. A self-described "serial entrepreneur" who specializes in business restructuring, he has headed a number of successful companies over the years and is founder and chief executive of the Windsor Park Group, a restructuring and investment firm. His work, plus successful investments, gave him the resources necessary to pursue his golf dream. He began playing the top 100 courses on Golf's 1995 list, but subsequent additions and subtractions to the list meant that by the time he putted out at Kauri Cliffs, he had played 118 courses altogether.

Just what motivated Herson to take on this goal? Obviously a golf fanatic (he's one of those guys who always practices with clubs laid at his feet for proper alignment), there was much more to it than a mere love of the game. In 1985 in Los Angeles he was the victim of a brutal car­jacking. The culprits trailed his red Porsche Carrera Cabrio­let to his home. "They got me in the garage, pulled me out of the car and beat me senseless. I was sure they were going to kill me," he says. Herson came out of that horrific experience a changed man. It made him more determined than ever to work hard and play hard to follow his dreams.

Ironically this dream began in 1995 with an inexpensive promotional gift from a client: a plaque listing the world's top 100 courses. When Herson started placing plastic pins in the plaque to denote where he'd been, he realized he had already played about thirty of the top 100. "I am a goal-oriented person," he says. "I would have enjoyed playing the courses without a list, but then it all came together with a purpose. It became a quantifiable objective."

One of the common characteristics of such successful people is that they make what they do well seem effortless. To hear Herson describe his quest, it sounds pretty simple. But dig a little deeper and the reality of the challenge takes hold. It's no easy task to get on courses such as Shinnecock Hills (#4; Southampton, New York), Seminole (#22; North Palm Beach, Florida) or Muirfield (#3; Gullane, Scotland).

But let's be honest: What we re­ally want to know is how this guy man­aged to get on Augusta (#5; Augusta, Georgia). Tell people about Herson's quest and while some might be in awe and others will roll their eyes, everyone—and I mean everyone—wants to know how he got on Augusta. Here's the lowdown: Herson's tour of the track Bobby Jones made famous fell from the sky. While doing some advisory work for a large communications company in New York, Herson was summoned to the office of one of the top executives. He thought he was in trouble, but the guy asked Herson to do him a favor—take his place in a group that was scheduled to play Augusta.

If only they could have all been that easy. Sometimes arranging rounds at top courses was not that difficult for Herson and the rounds were thoroughly enjoyable. Actor Dennis Hopper (another Riviera member) got him on Cypress Point (#2; Pebble Beach, California) through his pal Clint Eastwood, and Herson promptly broke par. Thanks to Ric Kayne, a friend (and fellow Riviera member) with a private plane, Herson achieved the extraordinary feat of playing two top-100 courses in one day: the Honors course (#96; Ooltewah, Tennessee) in the morning and Prairie Dunes (#23; Hutchinson, Kansas) in the afternoon.

At other times the rounds them­selves were difficult. At Lahinch (#73; County Clare, Ireland), Herson was forced to play in 40 m.p.h. winds and the temperature never exceeded thirty-eight degrees. At Naruo Golf Club (#75; Osaka, Japan), the members he played with did not speak English. Using frequent-flyer miles, he squeezed in his round at the European Club by making the exhausting flights from North America to Ireland and back over one Labor Day weekend. But the commitment he made to himself was simple: Play every hole of every course from the back tees and never stop once a round has commenced.

More often than not, by far the hardest part of each golf experience was getting on the course. Doing so often required resourcefulness, luck and a willingness to take advantage of opportunities as they came up. "Most people in L.A., if they get invited to play in Santa Barbara, will come up with a hundred reasons to say no," Herson says while breakfasting at Riviera on his usual: oatmeal with honey, and hot chocolate. "But I have a 'no whining' rule. Get on with it. Be positive, commit to the experience, have fun."

Eighty percent of the courses on the list are private, which forced Herson to spend countless hours organizing his schedule and networking. Early on he determined that he would always use an intermediary, whether it was a member of the target course or a friend of a member. Herson worked hard at developing the relationships to make it happen. In a few cases he asked Riviera head pro Todd Yoshitake to make an introduction on his behalf. "You cannot do it by yourself," says Herson. "Some of the clubs just won't deal with you." For those that did, the fact that he himself belonged to a top-100 club probably didn't hurt.

Herson discovered that there are clubs and then there are golf's hal­lowed grounds, some of which were established in the nineteenth century, when the locker room may not have had running water. Consider the Chicago Golf Club (#31; Wheaton, Illinois), founded in 1895 and said to be the first eighteen-hole course in America. The active members (fewer than 150) at this links gem didn't par­ticularly care about Herson's agenda. But Herson had done some business with one of them, Jerry Maatman, who finally agreed to take him out. He got on the two private Japanese courses after winning a whimsical bet (don't ask) with a South African CEO who had lots of business connections in Japan.

Herson found there was a certain amount of kismet that made things happen for him, but sometimes with unexpected consequences. While vaca­tioning on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, Herson was in a Jacuzzi with some new golf buddies with whom he had hooked up for four days in a row. Upon hearing of his quest, one of the guys, a stockbroker, boasted that he could get him on Shadow Creek (#89; North Las Vegas, Nevada), which at the time was a tough track to crack since owner Steve Wynn allowed only a handful of foursomes a day. "When I meet the guy in Vegas, he has this enormous limousine waiting to take me to the Mirage, where he is gambling with more money than I have ever seen in one place before or since," Herson says. "He was playing with chips I didn't recognize." On the course the next day, the stockbroker heavily touted a high-flying stock. Herson made a small investment and unfortunately learned a valuable lesson when the stock went belly-up soon after. "I figure the round at Shadow Creek cost me significantly more than the greens fee."

As for the quest's personal cost, Herson claims to have had the unwavering backing of his wife, Orin. "I did this in partnership with my wife," he says. "I asked her, 'If I'm going to do this, will I have your support?'" Based on my own fourteen years of experience with marriage, I found that difficult to buy, so I interviewed Orin separately before dinner one night. Turns out she was indoctrinated into Selwyn's passion early on. "Before we were ever married, I was listening to the radio and I heard that he had won a national golf tournament in South Africa," she said. "At that point I knew golf was going to be a very big part of our lives." With a twinkle in her eye she added, "But Selwyn is very smart. He knew exactly how to play this. He always made me part of the planning." For example, when Herson wanted to play Sawgrass (#57; Ponte Vedra, Florida), he induced his wife to come along by arranging for them to spend the following night—Valentine's Day—in South Beach, and to fly from there to the Dominican Republic so that he could tackle Casa de Campo (#34; La Romana). While she often skipped destinations that did not interest her, when she did come along she sampled the best hotels and spas in the world. "I could participate without ever being jealous of the process," she said.

He also had the support of his son, Jonathan, now twenty-three, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado. Over the past eight years, Herson has included Jonathan on many of the golf trips he has taken, including that stormy round at Lahinch. "The wind was blowing 30 or 40 m.p.h. and it was freezing," recalls Herson, sounding very much the proud father. "My son loved it. He never would have played on in those conditions unless I had to. And to this day we still talk about it."

Herson had a number of golf-related epiphanies along the way. On his flight to play The Country Club (#33) in Brookline, Massachusetts, he prepared by reading his friend Mark Frost's fabulous tome on the 1913 U.S. Open, The Greatest Game Ever Played (now a movie). "When I got to the course, the member who invited me had brought along another member who was a historian," Her son remembers. "And this guy was showing me spots on the course and saying things like, 'This is where Harry Vardon took a divot.'" On one hole, the historian pointed out that Vardon had hit a driver followed by a three-wood. The same hole today can be reached with a driver and a wedge, Herson says. "One of the sad things for me was to see how technology is wreaking havoc on some of these historic gems," he says.

Then there were the interpersonal challenges. Herson played a number of courses where language was such a barrier that he could not converse with his playing partners. At El Saler (#93; Valencia, Spain), he played the front nine with a woman who did not utter a word of English. On the back nine it was no better, when they were joined by a non-English-speaking couple. For a gregarious type like Herson, this is tantamount to golf torture. He also figures he played about ten of the courses by himself when he could not round up a member or the local pro.

Some of the members Herson did play with had their noses in the air, although he eventually won most of them over. At the ultra-exclusive Southern Hills (#41; Tulsa, Oklahoma), Herson and his member host played the first five holes in near-complete silence. "On the sixth hole the guy makes the first hole in one of his life, and after the round he would not let me leave the course," Herson recalls. "Then we went to dinner and he would not let me leave the restaurant. We were out until 2 a.m., and he said it was one of the best days of his life."

When you sit down with Herson and he starts talking about the quest, you do become convinced that there was a certain magic attached. Acquaintances introduced him to acquaintances who seemed eager to get involved. If you can't do it yourself, why not help a fellow golfer who has the resources, the drive and the time to get it done? "I've become very good friends with lots of people all over the world, and that just might be the single best fringe benefit of the whole thing," he says.

Not everyone buys into the deal, however. I talked with a mix of dif­ferent golfers and got a range of reactions to Herson's achievement. "I think I would rather play the top ten courses ten times each," scoffed John Carr, son of Joe Carr, Ireland's three-time amateur champion, and a member at two top-ten clubs.

When Golf updated its list of the world's top 100 last summer, Herson couldn't pass up the challenge to keep current. Of the eight new courses on the list, he had already played three. In early October he conquered two more (Hamilton Country Club, #84, Ancaster, Ontario; and Trump National, #87, Bedminster, New Jersey) and made a special trip to Asia later that month to play Tokyo Golf Club (#94) and Nine Bridges on Jeju Island, South Korea (#95). That left only Barnbougle in Bridport, Tasmania, Australia (#49), which he intended to visit before the year was out.

Once Herson plays Barnbougle, he will be in more or less the same place he was after holing that final putt at Kauri Cliffs: filled with mixed emotions and uncertain about what to take on next (at least until the 2007 list is released). "I think I may want to develop a golf course at some point," he says during our final conversation at Riviera. With his drive, this is not a remark to be taken lightly. "But I wouldn't develop one unless I thought it could make the top 100," he says, without a hint of irony. If he does build that course and it makes the list, the only downside for Herson will be that getting on will be no challenge at all.

Selwyn Herson's Best of the Best
When golfers hear about Selwyn Herson's accomplishment—playing the top 100 courses in the world—they almost always ask what his favorites were. He finds it impossible to answer. "There were twenty to twenty-five that I truly loved," he says, "but I can't rank or compare them. They were special to me in different ways." Here, with his commentary, is an alphabetical listing of some of his favorite experiences.

Augusta National (#5, Georgia). "It was a thrill to play the course where I've seen so many great contests on TV. I hit an eight-iron on number twelve but didn't know whether it was going to land on the green, in the water or in a bunker. (It caught the edge of the green.) On the greens it was like putting down your windshield."

Cape Kidnappers (#27 on the 2005 list, New Zealand). "Spectacular scenery. You play holes built out on the fingers of cliffs, looking down at the ocean. Tom Doak has created a monster. It's hard, hard, hard, but afterward you want to go back for more."

Casa de Campo (#34, Dominican Republic). "The ocean holes here are some of the best in the world."

Cruden Bay (#76, Scotland). "I didn't have high expectations, but the unusual holes and the scenery were magnificent."

Cypress Point (#2, California). "Walking in heaven. Six holes in the trees, six holes in the sand dunes, six holes by the sea."

Hirono (#35, Japan). "I liked the course, but for me it was the total Japanese experience that made Hirono so memorable. Everything is so different: the caddies, the two-hour break for lunch after nine holes, the huge staff weeding the grounds by hand."

Merion, East (#14, Pennsylvania). "It forces you all the time to hit the ball closer to trouble to have a better entry angle into the green. All day long you're dealing with temptation."

National Golf Links (#20, New York). "For the layout, the beauty and the lobster-tail lunch."

Pine Valley (#1, New Jersey). "The course seems like it's been there for a million years. Amazing how well the holes fit into the land."

Royal Melbourne, Composite (#8, Australia). "The layout is so subtle, so clever. It's a very challenging place to play."

Sand Hills (#11, Nebraska). "As if you were playing through sand dunes by the sea even though you are in the middle of the country. The course was designed around more than 100 naturally formed bunkers."

Shinnecock Hills (#4, New York). "Hard. Breaks your back. Wears you down."
St. Andrews, Old (#6, Scotland). "I was in awe. The layout, the history, the clubhouse, the town—you can't compare it to anything."