Sunday, November 19, 2006

North Berwick and Prestwick - The Cradle of Golf

North Berwick

Two of the unquestionably best golf courses in the world, both located in Scotland, are curiously not ranked in the world's top 100. North Berwick, located a couple of miles south of Muirfield on the east coast and Prestwick, located immediately adjacent to Royal Troon on the west coast.

Perhaps it is because the courses are too short - Prestwick is 6,554 yards and North Berwick 6,420. Or perhaps because they don't host championships any more, they are overlooked. Or perhaps those that rank the courses for the magazines sadly underweight history and tradition.

Both courses were clearly great 100 years ago. The famous British amateur champion of that era, Horace Hutchinson, wrote at the time - "A man is less likely to be contradicted in lauding Prestwick than in singing the praises of any other course in Christendom." The question is, are they still great courses today?

If you like courses with a lot of cement cart paths or if you like Donald Trump over-hyped golf courses, you won't appreciate these so you can stop reading now. If, however, you are a student of the game, appreciate tradition and want to have some of the best golfing experiences of your lifetime, I highly recommend both courses.

Prestwick Golf Club

Prestwick Golf Club, founded in 1851 is the birthplace of the Open Championship (British Open). The first Open was held at Prestwick in 1860 and was won by Old Tom Morris. Prestwick hosted the first 12 Open Championships and in total has hosted 24 Opens, second only to The Old Course at St. Andrews.

Playing at Prestwick is like going back in time. The course has a timeless feel to it and is hallowed ground for golfers.

1st hole
One of the best opening holes in golf

The first hole at Prestwick is one of the world's great starting holes, even to this day. It is a short par four at only 346 yards. The name of the hole is Railway, and it is aptly named. You tee off about 10-15 steps from the clubhouse, usually with caddies or other players watching. It is also not uncommon to have members sitting in the smoke room who are also watching through a large picture window. As is typical in Britain, since there is no driving range, you have to hit your tee shot without warming up. The right side of the hole is out of bounds from tee to green since a railroad line runs down the coast toward Turnberry. Between you and the railway there is a stone wall the entire length of the hole. Making the hole even more difficult is the fact that the left side of the fairway is protected by a large swath of gorse bushes, taking away the potential strategy of playing to the left. It is a good test to see if you are on your game, hitting an iron under these conditions. I rank it among the top three first holes in the world (the other two being the opening tee shots at Merion and The Old Course at St. Andrews).

The British golf writer Henry Longhurst has said of the first at Prestwick - "A tremendous wind is blowing and the slightest letting up will see your ball sailing away like a seagulls feather across the down platform of Prestwick station."
1st gren
The first green at Prestwick
Horace Hutchinson also wrote extensively about the first - "The crime against which we have to chiefly be on our guard is that of slicing. There is apt to be an engine snorting loudly on the other side of the wall just as we are playing a critical and curly putt and the said putt is none easier from the engine having liberally besprinkled the green with cinders."

Fortunately, the trains are now all electric so we don't have to contend with cinders. But the sensation of playing the first hole remains with the modern golfer. Dell Leigh wrote eloquently about Prestwick's first hole in 1925, "Caddies, who have carried the clubs of champions, lean on the iron railings of their pen behind, taking stock of you. All along your right (or slicing hand), in terrible proximity, runs the railway line, over which rush whistle-blasting engines. Was it not Vardon who put his first two balls out of bounds on these same railway lines, and won the championship in spite of that?. Even if you play warily to the left here you have a grimly narrow opening to the green, and you are off the line of entry."

Detractors of Prestwick will tell you that they don't like the course because you can hit an iron off too many tees and granted, the eighteenth hole is a weak finishing hole. They will criticize the blind par three fifth hole, named Himalayas. The critics are wrong in my view. The place is worthy of being ranked among the top golf courses in the world. I will guarantee that you will think about Prestwick long after the memory of other courses fade. The sixteenth green, "Cardinal's Back":

16 green

It is interesting to note that when early American golf aficionados came to study the courses of The British Isles, among the courses they studied were Prestwick. Charles Blair Macdonald replicated two of the holes at Prestwick in his ideal golf course - The National Golf Links of America: the third hole, Cardinal, and the seventeenth, Alps. While some holes at Prestwick haven't stood the test of time, these two most certainly have. Both are excellent risk/reward holes that demand well played shots over difficult and massive bunkers.

17 bunker

The Alps hole is built on such a massive scale, it remains better than all attempts to copy it around the world. The seventeenth is seen greenside, below:

17 greenside

Pete Dye was also influenced by Prestwick where apparently he was inspired by the railway sleepers (ties as we call them in America) used to shore up bunkers. The course remains an important place in the history of the game and for this reason architects continue to study it.

Prestwick also allows you to appreciate its history to the fullest extent possible. If you book in advance, you can have lunch in the member dining room, shown below. You must wear a jacket and tie, and the hastle of changing into them is worth the trouble. You sit at a long table that seats 32 with dozens of pictures of past club captains in the dark green room. After lunch you can enjoy a Kummel (nasty) and a cigar as you contemplate your afternoon round and subliminally think - don't slice off that first tee.

North Berwick Golf Links

Similar in many respects to Prestwick, the West Links at North Berwick is an old, traditional golf course in the links style, founded in 1832. It is home to the most copied golf hole in history: the 15th hole at North Berwick is the original Redan hole. A Redan hole is a long par three (this one is 192 yards) that has a large bunker in front of the green and a deep bunker beyond the short side of the green. The green generally slopes from front-right to back-left. It is a hole that is approached diagonally and is quite difficult. At least 15 courses ranked in the top 100 have a Redan hole and I have heard often about how various Redan holes are better than the original. I don't agree with any of it. The original is the best.

One of the defining features of the North Berwick West Links are the stone walls that are throughout the course. In several instances you have to hit your shots over the stone walls. On the 13th hole, a stone wall protects the green. If you hit your shot to the right (wrong?) spot on this hole you will have to either chip or putt off the green through an opening in the stone wall. It is a lot of fun.

Humps in fairway 2
The 2nd fairway at North Berwick is indicative of the course's contours

The sixth hole is also a very good one. It is a short par four where more likely than not you will be hitting your second shot from a downhill lie, over a small burn to a green that slopes down to a burn that is hidden to the golfer off the tee.

13 from 14 tee
The hole every golfer loves, the 13th, with the green set beside a stone wall. Crazy, but fantastic!

Redan from the tee
The Redan hole from the tee. The puzzled golfer will be excused for standing on the tee scratching their head, dumbfounded on where to hit the ball

As you approach the green, you see what what you couldn't from the tee. Pray that you are not in the bunker left which is at least 15 feet deep and a true test of skill

The 16th hole, close to The Marine Hotel, which looms over the course from a promontory nearby, has one of the most interesting greens you will ever encounter. The green is bisected by a gully which creates two distinct tiers that are separated from one another. If your ball is on the wrong side of the gully, you will have a miniature-golf style putt. Think it's silly? It's not, it's a blast.

16th green (2)
Grab your ankles if you're ball is not in the right spot on the 16th green

Hutchinson captured the essence of North Berwick and it still rings true today - "It is an exceptionally good school in which to learn the art of approaching." Clearly, at 6,420 yards, driving is not of paramount importance, but hitting good and often creative approach shots, is.

North Berwick, like Prestwick, does have some weak holes, most notably the first and finishing holes. Its detractors will tell you that it is not a good test of golf. No doubt, these detractors have never played the course when the wind is up, which is the real defense of links courses. There are few places in the world to play like North Berwick that are magical and will inspire you to keep going out again and again to play.

North Berwick Golf Club Scorecard

North Berwick Golf Club Web Site

Prestwick Golf Club Web Site

Credits: The sensational pictures with the sun shining in this posting that capture the spirit of North Berwick are from Golf Club Atlas.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

المدينة المنورة‎ (Medinah Country Club)

I flew to Chicago for this?

The Club and Clubhouse

Medinah Country Club (ranked #52 in the world) is located in suburban Chicago. Medinah is a private member owned country club which has three golf courses featuring 640 acres of property and 18,000 trees. Medinah was founded in 1925 by the Shriners, who thought it would be interesting to build a clubhouse with an unusual style of architecture. The clubhouse is certainly one of the most unique in the world of golf at 60,000 square feet. It has an eclectic style evocative of the near east and contains elements of many architectural styles including Italian, Oriental, Louis XIV and Eastern. The club was named after the holy city of Islam in Saudi Arabia by the same name. Medinah is the second holiest city in Islam after Mecca and is famous for the presence of the shrine of Mohammad, known as the Green Dome, thus the likeness to the Medinah clubhouse. Like Mecca, Medinah permits only Muslins to enter. You can enter Medinah Country Club, however, if you are the guest of a member.

I am always excited about finally being able to play courses that have hosted major championships and that I have seen on TV. The clubhouse at Medinah displays its history to very good affect with memorabilia from Tiger's victories and many other historic pictures and collectables. The interior of the clubhouse is striking and it does impress, as you can see below.

Under the Green Dome

The Entry Foyer

At 60,000 square feet, it has room for everything. The pictures below were taken in the ball room of the clubhouse that is quite grand; it even has a stage for performances.

I especially like the architectural detailing of the pilasters in the ball room seen above and below.

History of A Championship Course

All three courses at Medinah were designed by Tom Bendelow. The course has hosted the US Open three times (1949, 1975 and 1990), the PGA twice (1999 and 2006, both won by Tiger Woods) and will play host to the Ryder Cup in 2012. The #3 championship course is one of the longest in championship golf at 7,500+ yards. One of the key features of the course is the man-made Lake Kadijah that comes into play several times, including early in the round on the second hole, seen below.

The par three second hole

I can see why Medinah hosts major championships. The world's best players like to bomb the ball and Medinah definitely has length. In addition, the greens are fast. There is plenty of room for tents, parking, concession stands, etc. The clubhouse, locker room and practice facilities are all world class and it is close to a major airport, actually quite close to one of the biggest in the world - O'Hare.

Holy Shit!

Unfortunately, hosting a big tournament and a great golf course are two separate and unique things. Medinah is not a great golf course and is completely overrated. It suffers from the same thing Wentworth does - it's a great course to host a professional tournament - it can handle large crowds, etc., but the course has no personality and requires no imagination to play it. I am not taking anything away from the club and the PGA and USGA for hosting tournaments there; no doubt it's a great choice for what they are trying to achieve. The problem is, the course is weak. Certainly long, but weak when compared to the world's other great courses.

I found the par threes to be BORING. Holes 2, 13 and 17 are almost identical par threes. All require you to hit a tee shot over the man-made lake to an uninteresting green. By the time you get to the 17th tee you think to yourself, "This looks familiar." Actually, it is familiar since you've played near identical holes at #2 and #13. These are the signature holes?

The 10th hole is the least idyllic hole I have ever played in my life. At Maidstone you experience the Atlantic Ocean lapping along the sands. At Casa de Campo, the waves crash around you. At Crystal Downs you have the beautiful view of the countryside and lake below. At Medinah, you get the noise of US-20, which runs down the entire left side of the hole. The lovely tee box is shown below.

While playing this hole, it was so loud I couldn't even hear my playing partner when he spoke. The same din from the highway is present on the 15th green and 16th tee. The hole is actually a pretty good par five; you just can't appreciate it with all the noise.

Like Wentworth, the other issue I found at Medinah is that there are a lot of jets flying over head. It is apparently directly over a landing pattern for O'Hare. O'Hare has parallel runways and often times you will see not one, but two low-flying jets. Sometimes, planes can be charming when near a golf course. I have played both the Old Course at St. Andrews and Royal Dornoch with the sounds of RAF jets taking off and landing and found it actually added to the ambiance. At the Moray Golf Club in Scotland, a runway from RAF Lossiemouth. It is at the end of one of the fairways. I found it exhilirating to have a fighter jet take off occasionally. I didn't find that here, probably because a plane flew overhead about every 30 seconds all day. I took the picture below from the 12th fairway. Notice the landing gear down and the passengers waving to us below.

I found the course to be shitty the day I played. Not shitty in the figurative sense. Shitty in the literal sense. To be precise, shit from Canadian geese was everywhere. I'm sure there are times when the course is in immaculate condition. Unfortunately, I was not there during one of them. I'm sure I will be accused of being unfair, but I can only call it by what I see firsthand. If you will allow me the liberty to repeat myself for emphasis: There were turds on every tee box, there was feces in the fairways and there was poop on the putting greens. Lest I be accused of making this up, through the wonders of my digital camera I present as exhibit 'A' the 8th green seen below.

Why doesn't the course invest in some border collies and be done with the geese? We played this green at about 1:00pm, so there was plenty of time for the greenskeeping staff to clear it off. Perhaps they were pre-occupied with the squirrels. Several of the greens had fairly significant holes in them, apparently from squirrels who thought they would be a good place to bury acorns. I kid you not.

While I am not a golf course architect, I can sum up what's wrong with the course with an analysis of the 15th hole. A 392 yard par four, it has a large stand of trees on the left side of the fairway, some of which overhang, making an approach shot from the left side of the hole difficult. The bunkers were also put on the left side, under the trees, leaving the entire right side of the hole open, with no hazards. A drive to the right leaves a clear shot to the slightly elevated green. It doesn't take a genius to see that this is not brilliant design. It would probably have been better to put the bunkers on the right side of the fairway to cause the golfer to hit the ball left and thus have a more restricted shot at the green. Or to require a precise shot in the middle of the fairway. All you have to do is aim right and you're fine. My point is, when a layman notices stuff like that, it's probably not a sign of brilliance in architecture.

In the interest of fairness, the trees at Medinah are beautiful, and they do create a park-like effect overall. I found the 12th hole interesting; it has a big slope from the left side of the fairway to the right side the entire length of the hole as you can see if you look at the cart riding toward the green. The picture was taken from the green looking back.

The 14th is an interesting par four with good use of the hilly terrain and a challenging shot to an elevated green. The 16th and 18th aren't bad and again are routed in an interesting fashion as are some of the elevated greens on the course, as pictured below.

As you've probably guessed by now, I didn't like Medinah. I was actually so taken aback after playing that I actually had to double check that I indeed had played the championship course - #3, since Medinah has multiple courses.

Indeed, I had.

To make my day even more special, we were paired up with a "gentleman" who had gotten on the course as an unaccompanied guest through "a friend of a friend of a friend," as he put it. The "sausage king of Chicago", he was a local purveyor of fine meats stuffed in animal intestines. He did a perfectly good impression of Tony Soprano on the golf course. He rode in a cart, although he could certainly have used the exercise. He had a cell phone strapped to his belt and would occasionally talk into it walkie-talkie style to provide color commentary to his friends "Joey, I'm on the 14th tee at Medinah, you know what I mean?" He wore a button down shirt with the first six (of seven) buttons un-buttoned so you could see his lovely white tee shirt. And the shirt was intentionally not tucked in all day. Call me a snob if you like, but this pretty much sums up everything in golf I don't like in a playing partner. Thank goodness, at least he played fast.

If you go to play Medinah I suggest doing so during baseball season. Go to Wrigley Field and see a Cubs game so the trip won't be a total disappointment.

And be sure to scrub your hands very good after playing to remove all the fecal matter.