Friday, June 30, 2006

Royal St. George's - Sandwich

Sandwich Bunker
Bond. James Bond. The famous golf match between James Bond and Auric Goldfinger is set at the fictional stand in for the Royal St. George's Golf Club (ranked #33 in the world) - Royal St. Mark's in the book. Ian Fleming served as captain of the club.

Royal St. George's Golf Club is near the town of Sandwich, which is historically what the club has been known as. The course is located about 2 1/2 hours southeast of London. When reading the autobiographies of Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen or early golf books, Sandwich is referred to often as it has always been a championship quality links course.

I rate it overall as the best golf course in England. I have never been a fan of the out and back layout and Sandwich is not one; it provides a superior routing of holes. There are no parallel holes and a constant change in hole direction, which is very important when the wind is up, which it often is.

The day I played at Royal St. George's, the wind was up. The temperature was roughly 50 degrees and the wind was blowing at a sustained 25 mph with higher gusts. We arrived and were greeted by the Caddie Master who was right out of central casting. A giant of a man, he was wearing shorts and long socks. Many golf clubs in Great Britain frown upon the wearing of shorts unless you have on 'long socks'. Many courses in Britain send you a list of rules when you make your booking and they tell you whether or not you have to wear a jacket and tie, admonish you to play fast and stipulate the minimum handicap required to play the course (generally between 18 and 24). And usually lurking somewhere in the rules is a long sock rule. The long sock rule says that if you wear shorts, which they don't really want you to do, then your socks must come up above your knee. He was very accommodating and warned us it would be a difficult day. We then went into the pro shop and had a nice discussion with the head professional, Andrew Brooks, who said at least four times 'it will be difficult today with this wind'. Although it was late May, the temperature with the wind chill was in the low 40s. I have found that generally in the British Isles the locals downplay the weather and wind specifically, saying it is a 'gentle breeze' or 'nothing'. When the understated English tell you the wind will be ferocious, it is time to panic. A hearty man indeed wears shorts in this weather.


Well, the pro and caddie master were right. It was a very difficult days golf. Never-the-less, the greatness of the course came through and it was a very enjoyable day indeed. We enjoyed lunch in the members dining room with the requisite jacket and tie. We had a drink served in their signature silver tankard and lunch was a very classy affair. Muirfield has a deserved reputation for a good lunch and a lot of history but Royal St. Georges's gives it a run for the money on both fronts.

The English have a great sense of tradition and respect for rules and authority, especially among the upper crust. After lunch as we were changing out of our jacket and tie into our four layers of clothing that would be necessary to keep warm, I noticed the accents in the locker room were more polished that those I have heard throughout Scotland and England. No cockney accents at Royal St. George's. Think Prince Charles. The smoking room has a wooden board up above the fireplace listing previous club Presidents and it confirms Royal St. George's place among the connected in English society. Among the Presidents there were four Right Honourables, A Most Honourable, two Sirs and a Lord. The abbreviations after the names includes Knights, members of the Orders of Chivalry and military decorations: K.G. (Knight of the Garter), C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), K.T. (Knight of the Thistle), M.C. (Military Cross), D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order), K.C.M.G. (Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George), T.D. (Territorial Decoration), D.L. (Deputy Lieutenant) and a K.B.E. (Knight Commander of the British Empire).

I can't say enough about how grateful I am to clubs like Royal St. George's for being so accommodating for visitors. Luckily the tradition of being open and accessible to visitors is greatly appreciated and they make you truly feel welcomed (Royal Troon take note).

I found three holes at Royal St. George's to be particularly good. The par five 14th hole, "Suez Canal" (pictured below) has out of bounds down the entire right side and a burn/swale in play off the tee. You can't just wail at your second shot, since short of the green there are bunkers on the left side of the fairway and the fairway narrows to about 25 yards. Yet, if you can thread the needle and land in that area you will likely be rewarded with a birdie; otherwise you will pay the price. The fairway bunkers 80 yards short of the green will penalize you if you try to get the ball to the green. Even this close to the hole, you have to just get the ball out as your first priority. It is a hole you really have to use your head to play well.

The #1 handicap hole, the eighth, is a dogleg right and has a very interesting and challenging green complex that is artfully bunkered. Your second shot to the green plays downhill and usually downwind. Very tricky.

The fourth hole, Sahara, has an enormously large bunker on the right side of the hole. You hit from an elevated tee to a fairway that is wildly undulating and the green is even wilder. If you hit long past the green you are in the backyard of a local resident. Definitely a unique hole.

RSG Great Par 5

Henry David Thereau once said the most men lead lives of quiet desperation and he was right. Although at one of the best golf courses in the world, for a few holes the wheels really came off due to the wind. Wind destroys a golfer's tempo and gets in your head. I much prefer playing in the rain to playing in a strong wind. Try losing your swing in a four club wind in the middle of a golf trip to play the championship courses of England. 3,500 miles from home, you begin to doubt everything.

Sports psychologists will tell you that you will play your best when you don't have any swing thoughts. Pick a target and hit to the target. Your mind should be uncluttered. A zen-like state is best, you should be focused in the present. I was in the opposite state. At this point in time, my stream of consciousness was something like what follows: What am I doing out here? Why am I not home with my wife and children? Why did I take up this game in the first place? I am a complete dumb-ass. My handicap is too high to be trying this. I should go to church more often. I should call my mother more often. I should really floss more often. I really should have put on clean underwear this morning. I left the office for a week with a lot of dysfunction and people taking shots behind my back. I could be back sucking up to my boss. As the top 100 course located closest to a nuclear reactor it is only fitting that I had a core meltdown at Royal St. George's.

The normal solitude and peacefulness of a golf course is turned into your enemy and not your friend. As you may have guessed, someone who is crazy enough to take on this journey might be a bit compulsive and obsessive. So you extrapolate your bad game infinitely into the future. You'll never be able to hit the ball again. I walked four holes with my head down and my chin on my chest and lost a disproportionate amount of balls in a short period of time.

One of the things I love about this great game is what it teaches you about yourself and about life. Never give up; keep persevering; forge ahead. I didn't walk in. I didn't give up, I played on and got my swing back. Like life, golf forces you to keep reinventing yourself. The swing you had two years ago it probably not the swing you have today. Mine changes often but thanks to the pro at my course, we always seem to be able to cobble something together again no matter how bad the wheels fall off. Life, like golf, is not easy. It is a constant struggle. Just when you think you have it figured out, it reaches up and bites you.

In a nice touch, the pin flags at Royal St. George's are the English (not British) flag. It took me a while to figure out but it makes sense when you learn that the English flag, which is a white background with a red cross, is called St. George's cross.

The course is so good that even the distant views of the nuclear cooling towers can't spoil Royal St. George's. I am putting Royal St. George's on my short list of courses to return to, to play again; hopefully, next time with the wind down.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Hoylake - The Royal Liverpool Golf Club - Far and Sure

Hoylake Clubhouse
Royal Liverpool's historic clubhouse


Legendary. Historic. Welcoming. A classic golf course. World renowned history. Welcome to the Royal Liverpool Golf Club (ranked #72 in the world), also known as Hoylake after the town it is located in. It has been 39 years since the R & A has held the open championship at Hoylake and the world is in for a treat. The last open held there was before the massive media and television coverage golf receives today. This is one of golf's true gems and the opening will most likely be its coming out party to the modern era of golf.

Hoylake is the third oldest course on the top 100 list, built in 1869, it is pre-dated only by The Old Course at St. Andrews and Carnoustie. The first Amateur Championship was held here in 1885. The course has hosted the open championship ten times. This is one of the four courses Bobby Jones won the grand slam on in 1930, winning the open championship here that year. The clubhouse at Hoylake displays its history better than any other we've been to yet. Where else in the world are there the signed original winning score cards of Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and memorabilia from two of golf's early historical figures John Ball and Harold Hilton?

The one knock you hear about Royal Liverpool is that it has too many holes that have out of bounds and in particular too many with internal out of bounds, known locally as 'cops' which allegedly makes for bad golf. There are 10 holes that have an O.B. My view is that the 'rule' among golf's cognoscenti that too many O.B.'s makes a bad course is complete rubbish and Royal Liverpool proves it. Even for a non-scratch golfer, such as myself, I didn't find that the O.B. came into play that often. When it does, it is very strategically placed and you are duly penalized for hitting a poor shot.

I played the course recently while it was being prepared for the Open Championship. Located about 15 minutes outside of Liverpool on the Wirral peninsula, you leave the City of Liverpool through the Queensway tunnel. The tunnel is over two miles long and winds its way under the Mersey in an unsettling fashion for those who aren't used to driving on the left side of the road. Once you pull into the course the dramatic clubhouse (pictured above) is most inviting. The course is behind the clubhouse and is dramatic. Half the grandstands were up and the course was re-configured with the new routing. The original first hole now plays as the third, the 17th plays as the first and the 18th as the 2nd. Holes 4 through 18 continue in the original order, previously having been the 2nd through 16th holes. I found every hole to be a good hole. The routing is interesting and varied. The use of bunkers is very strategic. For example, on the 4th hole, a line of bunkers on the left forces you to hit where the fairway narrows on the right side with no margin for error.

Liverpool 1
A hole we are adding onto our list of the world's best is the third (pictured above), formerly the first. It is a terrifying par four with a dogleg right. The tee shot doesn't look that hard, but it is. You flirt with O.B. on the right off the tee and aiming left leaves you a longer shot into the green or in the rough. The dogleg is sharp and after the turn in the dogleg the whole is ruler-straight, with O.B. all the way down the right. There are NO bunkers on the hole but it is one of the best par fours in golf. I couldn't imaging how much harder it played being hole #1 without warming up first.

Holes 11-15 along the River Dee are gorgeous as you overlook North Wales across the way. The day we played the course there was a 4+ club wind. You had to aim your tee shot on the 151 yard par three 50 yards left at the TV tower setup off the green in preparation for the open. And even then your ball was blown off the right side of the green. It was good playing Hoylake in its difficult wind-blown condition, which it has a reputation for.

Liverpool Dining

The clubhouse is one of the most inviting, intimate and welcoming in the world of golf. They have a world class golf book library, memorabilia second only to the R & A and an awesome dining room with pictures of every club captain going back to 1885 wearing the red jacket bestowed on the office-holder.

Liverpool Smoke Room
The Smoke Room in the Royal Liverpool Clubhouse

Congratulations to the R & A for putting Royal Liverpool back in the rota. Now to really make things interesting drop either Royal Troon or Royal Birkdale and play the open here at least once a decade my friends!

Royal Liverpool should be ranked at least 30 places higher on the world rankings. Of the three world ranked courses on the Lancashire coast of England near Liverpool England, Hoylake is the best, easily a better course than both nearby Royal Lytham and Birkdale. Thus far, if there is one club overseas I would like to join, this is it. The place has it all.

As the club's motto says - Far and Sure!

Post Script - July 2006

Congratulations to Tiger Woods, The Royal Liverpool Golf Club and the R & A for hosting a fantastic championship. Hoylake proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it belongs back in the rota with a regular spot. I look forward to visiting again and seeing Tiger's signed winning score card hanging alongside Jones and Hagens in the downstairs bar. Great courses produce great champions.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Walton Heath

Walton Heath - Old (ranked #82 in the world) counts among its members four prime ministers including Sir Winston Churchill. The course has a rich history linked with the English aristocracy, founded by well-to-do Edwardians, the successful upper class, an elite of titled gentleman and prosperous businessmen. The atmosphere has always been one of high rank and impeccable social standing. Among its former members it counts: 26 dukes, lords, knights and honourables. In the early days nobody could be proposed as a member who was not 'received in general society'. It is the only English club that has had a reigning monarch serve as captain.

Green detail at Walton Heath

Walton Heath also hosted the 1981 Ryder Cup. The course itself is a lovely heathland course. It really shines around the greens with its contouring (pictured below). The course has no water or water views and limited greenside bunkering, which leads to a lot of bump and run shots approaching greens if you so desire. Like its more famous English course Royal Lytham, Walton Heath starts with a good par three and has a particularly good set of finishing holes.
The rough hewn land at Walton Heath

Walton Heath is on the world's top 100 courses due partly to its affiliation with five time open Champion James Braid who served as club professional between 1904 and 1950.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Royal Birkdale

The best golf course in England.


Royal Birkdale Golf Club (ranked #28 in the world), ranks as the highest ranked course of all of the nine English courses on the list. I adamantly disagree about its placement. I would say it's the best golf course in England after the following courses: 1. Royal St. George's; 2. Royal Liverpool; 3. Sunningdale Old; 4. Woodhall Spa; 5. Ganton; 6. Royal Lytham & St. Annes; 7. Walton Heath and 8. Wentworth West. While I'm not a math genius, I think that would make it the lowest ranked course in the country.

The course is not near enough to the ocean to give it any views and I don't think it has any truly distinctive holes. The course has hosted many Open Championships because the R & A likes the flat routing surrounded by dunes because it makes for good TV viewing. But don't mistake good TV viewing for a good golf course. They are not one in the same.

And what's up with that clubhouse? At first I thought it was just bad c1970s architecture. The clubhouse was actually built in 1935 and is art deco, having the look of a ship. But it just doesn't work. There is no sense of purpose or tradition to it. The interior spaces don't work either. White is a terrible color for the outside as it is too stark a contrast to the links terrain and it does not fit in with the landscape.

For a club formed in 1889 you would think you could get a better sense of history or tradition walking around the clubhouse. But the place is flat. Walking around the other English courses your spine tingles with excitement and history. The Bobby Jones perfect card at Sunningdale, the grandeur of Royal St. George's, the museum like quality of Hoylake, the traditions of Royal Lytham. Walking through the Birkdale clubhouse felt like walking through a hospital corridor. They have hosted two Ryder cups and eight open championships but they don't use it to their advantage.

Sorry boys, but Birkdale is missing that certain je ne sais quoi.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Halfway There - 50 of the world's top 100 completed!

I recently returned from a golf trip to England and the trip marked a significant milestone in my quest to play the world's top 100. The lineup included many Open Championship courses: Royal Liverpool (Hoylake), Royal St. George's (Sandwich), Lytham & St. Annes, Royal Birkdale; and two heathland courses: Walton Heath and Woodhall Spa, the last course being so good I couldn't resist going back again, having played it last year.

When I have time I will post a more detailed write-up of each new course, but in the interim, having completed 23 of the 24 courses in G.B. and Ireland (only Loch Lomond remains), I would like to reflect back on how good golf in the British Isles is. First, the great courses are accessible to golfers who appreciate the game and respect their rules; Second, the post-golf experience has been perfected, sitting in the cozy smoke rooms and bars (scenes from Royal Liverpool below) enjoying friendship and camaraderie; And last, the respect for tradition and history that exudes from golf's shrines.

And I also appreciate the overall experience in Britain with the bad hair, brown bread, roundabouts and the good humor and wit of the people. It seems a shame to me that England is banning smoking next year as this will ruin some of the experience. I appreciate the heathland, parkland and links courses alike. Picking a favorite among them is proving to be difficult since the courses and clubs all have such different personalities.

This was the most difficult of my 10 trips across the pond since the wind was up. On many of the rounds we played you couldn't wear a baseball style hat because it would blow off and when putting your bag on the ground it to would invariably be blown over. Hitting a three wood from 135 yards to the green is certainly a novelty but you don't want to do it day after day, which we did on this last trip.

My rankings of the courses we played on this trip was:

1. Royal St. George's (Sandwich)
2. Royal Liverpool (Hoylake)
3. Woodhall Spa
4. Royal Lytham & St. Annes
5. Walton Heath
6. Royal Birkdale

and overall in G.B. and Ireland:

1. Carnoustie
2. Royal Portrush
3. Royal St. George's (Sandwich)
4. Royal Liverpool (Hoylake)
5. Cruden Bay
6. Royal County Down
7. Sunningdale (old)
8. Kingsbarns
9. Ballybunion
10. Turnberry Ailsa
11. Royal Dornoch
12. St. Andrews (old)
13. Woodhall Spa
14. Lahinch
15. Ganton
16. Muirfield
17. Royal Lytham & St. Annes
18. Walton Heath
19. Wentworth (west)
20. The European Club
21. Portmarnock
22. Royal Troon
23. Royal Birkdale

Top 100 Courses Played

Current Status: 92 courses played

1. Pine Valley,Clementon, NJ, Yes
2. Cypress Point,Pebble Beach, CA, Yes
3. Muirfield,Gullane, Scotland, Yes
4. Shinnecock Hills,Southampton, NY,Yes
5. Augusta National,Augusta, GA, No
6. St. Andrews (old), St. Andrews, Scotland, Yes
7. Pebble Beach,Pebble Beach, CA, Yes
8. Royal Melbourne,Melbourne, Australia, Yes
9. Pinehurst (#2),Pinehurst, NC,Yes
10. Royal County Down,Newcastle, Northern Ireland,Yes
11. Sand Hills,Mullen, Nebraska,Yes
12. Royal Portrush (Dunluce),Portrush, Northern Ireland,Yes
13. Ballybunion (old),Ballybunion, Ireland,Yes
14. Merion (East),Ardmore, PA,Yes
15. Oakmont,Oakmont, PA,Yes
16. Royal Dornoch,Dornoch, Scotland,Yes
17. Turnberry (Ailsa),Turnberry, Scotland,Yes
18. Winged Foot (West),Mamaroneck, NY,Yes
19. Pacific Dunes, Bandon, OR,Yes
20. National Golf Links of America, Southampton, NY,Yes
21. Kingston Heath,Cheltenham, Australia, Yes
22. Seminole, North Palm Beach, FL, Yes
23. Prairie Dunes,Hutchinson, KS, Yes
24. Crystal Downs, Frankfort, MI, Yes
25. Oakland Hills, Bloomfield Hills, MI, Yes
26. Carnoustie,Carnoustie, Scotland, Yes
27. San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, Yes
28. Royal Birkdale,Southport, England, Yes
29. Fishers Island, Fishers Island, NY, Yes
30. Bethpage (Black), Farmingdale, NY, Yes
31. Chicago, Wheaton, IL, Yes
32. Royal St. Georges, Sandwich, England, Yes
33. The Country Club, Brookline, MA, Yes
34. Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic, Yes
35. Hirono, Kobe, Japan, Yes
36. Riviera, Pacific Palisades, CA, Yes
37. Muirfield Village, Dublin, OH, Yes
38. Royal Troon, Troon, Scotland, Yes
39. Olympic (Lake), San Francisco, CA, Yes
40. Portmarnock, Portmarnock, Ireland, Yes
41. Southern Hills, Tulsa, OK, Yes
42. Oak Hill (East), Rochester, NY, Yes
43. New South Wales, La Perouse, Australia, Yes
44. Sunningdale (Old), Sunningdale, England, Yes
45. Baltusrol (Lower), Springfield, NJ, Yes
46. Woodhall Spa, Woodhall Spa, England, Yes
47. Morfontaine, Senlis, France, Yes
48. The Golf Club, New Albany, OH, Yes
49. Kauri Cliffs, Kaeo, New Zealand, No
50. Royal Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia, Yes
51. Shoreacres,Lake Bluff, IL, No
52. Medinah (#3), Medinah, IL , Yes
53. Whistling Straits,Haven, WI, Yes
54. Royal Lytham & St. Annes,Lytham St. Annes, England, Yes
55. Garden City, Garden City, NY, Yes
56. Loch Lomond, Luss, Scotland, Yes
57. TPC at Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, Yes
58. Inverness , Toledo, OH, Yes
59. Los Angeles (North) , Los Angeles, Yes
60. Maidstone, East Hampton, NY, Yes
61. Quaker Ridge, Scarsdale, NY, Yes
62. Ganton,Ganton, England, Yes
63. Camargo, Cincinnati, OH , Yes
64. Highlands Links, Nova Scotia, Canada, No
65. Kingsbarns, St. Andrews, Scotland, Yes
66. Winged Foot (East), Mamaroneck, NY, Yes
67. Harbour Town,Hilton Head Island, SC, Yes
68. Cabo del Sol (Ocean), Los Cabos, Mexico, Yes
69. Somerset Hills, Bernardsville, NJ, Yes
70. Durban, Durban, South Africa, Yes
71. Scioto,Columbus, OH, Yes
72. Royal Liverpool, Hoylake, England, Yes
73. Lahinch, Lahinch, Ireland, Yes
74. Bandon Dunes, Bandon, OR, Yes
75. Naruo, Osaka, Japan, Yes
76. Cruden Bay , Cruden Bay, Scotland, Yes
77. Valderrama ,Sotogrande, Spain, Yes
78. Wentworth (West), Virginia Water, England, Yes
79. Kiawah Island (Ocean), Kiawah Island, SC, Yes
80. Kawana (Fuji), Kawana, Japan, Yes
81. Spyglass Hill, Pebble Beach, CA, Yes
82. Walton Heath (Old) ,Tadworth, England, Yes
83. World Woods (Pine Barrens), Brooksville, FL, Yes
84. Ocean Forest, Sea Island, GA , Yes
85. Valley Club of Montecito, Santa Barbara, CA, Yes
86. Congressional (Blue), Bethesda, MD, Yes
87. Peachtree, Atlanta, GA, Yes
88. Wade Hampton, Cashiers, NC, No
89. Shadow Creek, North Las Vegas, NV, Yes
90. Cherry Hills, Cherry Hills Village, CO, Yes
91. Baltimore (Five Farms East), Lutherville, MD, Yes
92. Yeamans Hall, Hanahan, SC, Yes
93. El Saler, Valencia, Spain, Yes
94. Homestead (Cascades), Hot Springs, VA, No
95. St. George's, Etobicoke, Ontario, Yes
96. The Honors Course, Ooltewah, TN, Yes
97. East Lake,Atlanta, GA, Yes
98. European Club, Brittas Bay, Ireland, Yes
99. Paraparaumu Beach, Paraparaumu, New Zealand, No
100. Colonial, Fort Worth, TX, No