Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bonjour Mes Amis!

Well, if the weather holds up, it looks like I'll do it, my friends. Now that a new administration is in place in France, it is safe for me to travel to the country. I have some important business in France with the Sarkozy administration, and a bit of a side trip to play golf could be in order. My passport has a new "Roissy" stamp, reflecting my recent arrival through Charles De Gaulle airport.

It has been over ten years since I have been to Paris and my transport this time was not as glamarous as the Concorde I took last time, but if things work out, this could be quite a trip.

Could it be I will be lucky enough to play my dream French course of Morfontaine this week? Stay tuned for a blow by blow account of this week's activities and please pray for good weather for me.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Baltimore (Five Farms) East Course

The East Course at Baltimore Country Club, known as Five Farms, is ranked #91 in the world. Five Farms, designed by A.W. Tillinghast, officially opened in September of 1926. Baltimore Country Club is located in two locations - one near the city and one north of the city, in the affluent horse-country suburbs. Word to the wise - make sure you go to the right campus if you are going to play the Five Farms Course, which is located in Lutherville, Maryland.

Straight to the point - the course is on the list because it is a Tillinghast gem. It has two of the best par fives he has designed: the par five 6th hole and the par five 14th hole. Tillinghast's other great par five is the 4th at Bethpage Black. The 14th hole at Five Farms is not just one of Tillinghast's best par fives, it is one of the best holes in all of golf, regardless of par or the course architect.

The clubhouse and fences

A road runs through the Five Farms course, as it does at many of the world's great courses. The first two holes are near the clubhouse and then you cross over Mays Chapel Road and play the remaining sixteen holes.

Tillinghast had a great piece of rolling terrain at Five Farms, and he made the most of it. The course is characterized by sweeping fairways, a great variety of dog legs and a nice mix of uphill and downhill shots. There is none of the hole after hole of relatively straight fairways, choked with trees, like you find at Tillinghast's Baltusrol and Winged Foot.

The course also has a nice use of cross-bunkers strategically placed on various holes, and many of the holes have back to front pitched greens. The use of elevated greens is also a characteristic of the course. More than half of the holes have elevated greens, sometimes severely elevated, so that a shot hit short will roll back to the bottom of a hill.

The par three 4th

The unmistakable classic Tillinghast bunkering is present at Five Farms, as you can see from the elevated par three 4th hole.

The par five 6th approach to the green

There are only two par fives on the course, and both are world-class. All the holes at Five Farms have a name. The sixth ("Barn") is the only par five on the front and has similarities to the Road Hole at St. Andrews. There is a red barn on the left side of the fairway that a daring hitter can try to hit over to cut the corner, similar to hitting over The Old Course Hotel on the 17th at St. Andrews. It is a classic risk-reward decision. Going for it will leave you with a shot into the green for eagle. Missing the shot will either leave you O.B. or in deep trouble. The hole is a sharp dogleg left after you drive the ball. The fairway on the hole sweeps from left to right, and there is a cross-bunker in the fairway to catch second shots that are topped.

The "Barn" 6th hole

You can land your approach shot short of the green short and the ball will roll up. A shot hit over the green leaves you with a difficult sand shot back to a green that runs away from you.

A World Class Hole

Hole #14 is a 603 yard par five known as Hell's Half Acre and is outstanding in every regard. The hole is a dogleg to the left and Tillinghast uses the terrain perfectly, following the contours of the hills. The four pictures below try to capture the majesty of this hole. After hitting your tee shot, you have to hit over "Hell's Half Acre", which is a mix of bunkers, high grasses and mounds. If you hit a successful second shot your ball is at the bottom of a hill, leaving you an uphill shot to an elevated, well-bunkered green. The green is very fast with a big front to back slope. There are perfectly sculpted, mature specimen trees framing the hole. The use of trees at Five Farms was done artfully throughout the course. They serve as focal points and backdrops and rarely come directly into play unless you are wildly off line. As an example, see the tree framing the 14th green below.

The approach shot on the fabulous 14th hole

The 14th hole as seen from Hell's Half Acre

14th green

I'm not sure you can pick it up from the pictures, but they are taken from atop a hill and look down to the elevated green, with a big valley in between. The 2nd shot on this par five is a blind shot since the hazards and slope of the fairway blocks your view. As you walk down the hole, the fairway and hazards become ever more visible, and the splendor and strategic options of the hole become apparent. As I walked up the fairway and the hole unfolded in front of me, I kept saying out loud, "wow", it is that good a hole.

I thought that the 6th, 7th and 8th holes were a brilliant stretch of golf, characteristic of the course. The 7th, appropriately named "Dogleg", is a 345 yard dogleg left with a sweeping hill to a well protected fast green that slopes front to back. The 8th hole ("Sidesaddle"), seen below, is a 345 yard dogleg right, also with sloping terrain to a well bunkered green. This is typical of the routing at Five Farms, a dog leg right, followed by a dogleg left, that makes for such an interesting and varied layout.

8th hole - "Sidesaddle"

Baltimore Country Club was founded in 1898, two years after Merion. The course has hosted several major championships, although the 1899 U.S. Open was played on a course that is no longer in existence at Roland Park. The Five Farms course hosted the 1928 PGA Championship, 1932 United States Amateur and the 1965 Walker Cup.

Having played seven of Tillinghast's courses thus far, I would rank Five Farms behind San Francisco and Bethpage Black but ahead of both courses at Winged Foot and Baltusrol. It's a more interesting layout than these latter four tracks.

I was hosted at Five Firms by a fellow golf aficionado who was a real gentleman and has played as many world-ranked courses as I have. We shared a real love of the same courses particularly National Golf Links of America, Yeamans Hall, Myopia Hunt Club and Sand Hills. The professionals at Five Farms are the most fashionable and well-dressed pros I have ever met. Aside from a world-class layout, Baltimore has everything I like in a course: we played fast, walked with caddies, there are no cart paths to mar the beauty, and cell phones have to stay in your car.

Friday, September 14, 2007

St. George's Golf and Country Club

Canada is a great and under-appreciated country, often overshadowed by its big, loud, boisterous and crazy cousin to the south. However, it is only right to give Canada the respect it deserves in the world. It is clean, has stunning beauty, welcomes immigrants, is tolerant of people of all races and religions and of great importance to a cigar smoker, has normal relations with Cuba. I will always remember that the Canadians helped America immensely during the debacle of a hostage crisis under Jimmy Carter. The Canadian embassy in Tehran rescued and evacuated six American hostages at great risk to themselves. It was appreciated then as now. Thank you, our friends. Canadians also played a major role in liberating Europe, taking Juno beach in the D-Day invasions along the Normandy coast. Canadian troops are also fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Like an unappreciated friend, it is a reliable comrade and one that we shouldn't take for granted, although they do need to rein in those Québécois, in my view.

Much like Canada in general, the golf courses of this great nation are underrated as well. Canada has some spectacular golf courses that consistently rank among the world's best. If there were more balance among the golf course raters (read less Americans), no doubt more Canadian courses would make the ranks. However, let's not get too far off on a tangent here and focus on the course at hand, which is St. George's Golf and Country Club (ranked #95 in the world), located in Toronto.

St. George's Golf and Country Club

Not to be confused with Royal St. George's in England, St. George's Golf and Country Club is located in Etobicoke, Ontario, part of greater Toronto. The course was originally known as the Royal York Golf Club and opened for play in 1929. The golf course was designed by the famous Canadian golf course architect Stanley Thompson. Thompson built or remodeled almost ninety courses over a ten year period in the 1920s, including Highlands Links, ranked #64 on the top 100 list, located in Nova Scotia. Thompson also designed the Canadian courses Capilano, Banff and Jasper. Royal York always had a great reputation as being one of the best in the world. It was ranked #62 in the world in 1939.

After reading Thompson's biography, I think I would have liked him very much. "The Toronto Terror", as he was called, liked cigars, 15-ounce steaks and whiskey. My kind of guy. He also liked to wear fedoras and three-piece suits with a watch chain hooked into his vest pockets.

Canadian architect Stanley Thompson

The golf course was built as a public golf course owned by Canadian Pacific Railways Hotel and was converted into a private club in 1934. The course played host to the Canadian Open in 1933, 1949, 1960 and 1968, and someday, hopefully, will serve as host again.

You immediately know that St. George's is going to be a great golf course when you stand on the tee and see the beautiful first hole winding its way through the rolling terrain. Thompson used the rolling terrain here very well when he routed the course. His par five holes in particular are very good, demanding holes.

Why is the course on the top 100 list? For a variety of reasons, including the meandering fairways, the great use of terrain, the difficult greens and the imaginative elevated bunkers. The course is built on terrain containing a cornucopia of hills, valleys, ridges, nobs, inclines, hollows and hillocks. As Tom Doak mentions in his Confidential Guide to Golf, Thompson routed many holes alongside or through valleys rather than over them. This lead to a world-class golf course. Doak picked St. George's as one of his thirty-one Connoisseur's Choices, and I can see why.

Par three #3

The par three third hole, seen above, is indicative of the style of Thompson's work. It is a long par three that is well bunkered. The general feel on this hole standing on the tee is one of hitting your ball two hundred yards down into an amphitheatre. On many holes at St. George's, including this one, there are bunkers located above the greens. He uses all the available terrain on every hole and has an attention to detail that results in the course having a real uniqueness.

The par three 6th hole

Many Thompson routings contain five par three holes, and St. George's is no exception. The par three 6th, seen above, plays over a ravine to a well-bunkered, two-tiered green. This hole shows to great affect how many of your shots at St. George's are framed by the use of the terrain and hills.

Approach to the 4th green

The fourth hole, a par five with the approach to the elevated green seen above, is the #1 handicap hole at St. George's. Thompson made his par fives here very difficult. Unlike most courses, the par fives are the #1 and #2 most difficult handicap holes on the course.

The 14th green

The greatest stretch of holes on the course are numbers twelve through fifteen, which are routed through the hilliest part of the course. The 12th hole has a green greatly elevated from the fairway off on the left side of the hole. The 14th, above, is a picturesque hole. Again, notice the elevated bunkers above the 14th green. True to his name, The Toronto Terror left us with many downhill sand shots above greens that slope away from you.

View from the seventh tee box

In the picture above you can see some of the contours that make this great terrain for a golf course.

The fifteen hole, a 558 yard par five, is my favorite hole on the course. The fairway winds its way through the hills like a luge run, bobbing and weaving along until it reaches a highly elevated green at the summit of a hill. Thompson follows the natural contour of the land, and the fairway sweeps around the mounds, hummocks, knolls and hills as if you were riding on a roller coaster.

The meandering 15th fairway

Ian Andrew, a Canadian golf course architect, was brought in to restore the bunkers in 2002. While I have no perspective to judge on since I didn't see the course prior to the changes, to me the bunkering seems brilliant. Since Ian is a fellow Blogger, you can read about his restoration in more detail if you'd like by clicking his name above.

As you might expect for a course located in this climate, the club has a large curling facility attached to the clubhouse that serves as a cart storage building during golf season. Although the course is in an urban setting, you really don't get that sense at all while playing the course. You can hear road traffic near the 13th green, but aside from that, similar to playing courses like San Francisco Golf Club and Los Angeles Country Club, St. George's is an oasis in the city.

I found St. George's to be a very fair course, but difficult if you do not hit good shots. It is a good walking course. We played St. George's at my favorite time of day, dusk, and played at a brisk pace with a delightful host. Our host has also played many of the world's great courses, and I knew we were kindred spirits when he expressed a love of Sunningdale, which I heartily share. We finished the evening having drinks and food out on the deck with a view of the Toronto Skyline as our backdrop, as a purple-hued full moon began to rise over the CN Tower. Certainly, a more pleasant way to end the day, than say, sitting on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

St. George's can hold its own against any course on the list, and the Canucks should be rightfully proud of this gem. I can't wait to make the trek out to Nova Scotia to play Thompson's Highlands Links.

Along with the Rocky Mountains, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Molson and Ice Hockey, great golf should also be added to the short list of things we associate with Canada.

Post Script - Toronto

I have traveled several times to British Columbia and Quebec, but this was my first time to Toronto and I was surprised to find it reminded me more of Los Angeles, but with more trees. Surprised, since I was expecting a smaller, cleaner version of New York, given all you read about Toronto standing in for New York in so many movies. The city is spread out over a large geographic area with many traffic-clogged freeways. As in L.A., there is a distinct lack of hustle and bustle downtown. The Forest Hills neighborhood reminded me of Beverly Hills. Actually, it seems nicer than Beverly Hills. I don't see any of the influence of the activist/urban planner Jane Jacobs on the city, although she lived there for many years. The ghastly cement/brick residential towers surrounding the city center would be right at home in The Bronx or Glasgow.