Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Loch Lomond Golf Club

Which golf course is the toughest to get on in the British Isles?

Well, in my case it is Loch Lomond (ranked #56 in the world), located thirty miles north of Glasgow in Scotland. I have completed playing 23 of the 24 courses in the British Isles on the world top 100 list. Although most are private clubs, they follow long-standing tradition and allow visitors to book a round as long as you follow their rules and protocols. The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (Muirfield) is the second most difficult course to get on, just because they restrict tee times more than any other club. However, they do allow you to play without a member, as do all the others. Loch Lomond Golf Club is a very private affair. You must play with a member, and you cannot just ring up the club and book a round.

Organized in 1994, Loch Lomond was setup in the tradition of Augusta National or Pine Valley; it has an international membership and doesn't really serve as a local golf club in the traditional sense. In fact, Loch Lomond is constituted as a 'destination' club to be 'savored' only a few times a year. Membership is organized around specific geographic regions. The club has appointed specific 'Club Captains' to assume leadership and membership responsibilities for these geographic regions and ensure a particular geographic mix of members.

Loch Lomond has the most pompous approach I have ever seen to membership. They describe themselves as a "private and discerning international golf club." Their P.R. sounds a bit pious to me. They describe Loch Lomond as "a singular place to meet on the world stage...It is a sanctuary not just for golf aficionados but for world thinkers." What does that even mean? World thinkers? So it's the Davos of golf clubs? The U.N. of the links? Get a grip on yourselves, boys.

Also taken from their marketing literature, "Loch Lomond has a state-of-the-art, exceptionally amenitized spa in a walled garden." An exceptionally amenitized spa? What is an amenitized spa? Does that mean they put out a lot of fruit and little shampoo bottles the members can take home? I wonder if colon cleansing is included among the spa treatments? It sounds like some of the people that write the marketing pieces here need to have their pipes cleaned. Perhaps a bit of a high colonic will prevent them from abusing the English language like this. Their marketing piece is like something written by a chain-smoking, over-lipsticked, highly-caffeinated realtor in Nevada: adjectives gone wild. Their rhetoric borders on being as obnoxious as Donald Trump's. One gets the feeling that there are a lot of raised pinkies as they drink their cocktails at Loch Lomond.

Members of this high-minded include Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie and His Royal Highness Prince Andrew. It also has an unusual feature that I have never heard of before. They limit the amount of play that members may have. Most clubs have a limit on guest play, but I've never heard of limiting member play. Members are limited to playing the course no more than fourteen times in any given year. The guest policy is, by definition, restricted since you have to play with a member.

Rossdhu House at Loch Lomond

Although the club is very exclusive, the course is known to the public because each year, the week before the Open Championship, the Scottish Open is played here. This allows outsiders a peek at what has been called the most beautiful setting in the world. Their clubhouse, Rossdhu House, is an 18th century Georgian mansion, and serves as a focal point in the scenery with the loch and the mountains in the background. It looks very special indeed.

Apparently, their approach to running a golf club hasn't work out as planned. They went into receivership in late 2008, making it more difficult for me to play the course. I've known two members over the years but both dropped out due to the increasingly high dues and the restrictions. I was offered a chance to play recently, but I guess they are so desperate for revenue that they're trying to soak anybody that comes near the place. I'm sorry, but a £600 guest green fee is just wrong. This highfalutin, haughty approach is an outrage.

In this era of de-leveraging, the Loch Lomond Golf Club model is coming apart at the seams. How many people can now afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to join a vanity club like this?

I take their bombastic approach to things as a challenge to be overcome, which I accept with pleasure. I have done this twice previously and this one should be easier since there is no language barrier like there was when I tried to book a tee time at France's Morfontaine and Japan's Hirono.

I am now singularly focused on getting onto Loch Lomond and I will keep you appraised of my developments.
Maybe this would be a good time to break out some of that "In Residence at the Lodge" letterhead I picked up at Sea Island and write them a letter. Perhaps they will be impressed. I'm working on some florid language of my own to approach the club with.

I'm also dusting off my recording equipment and am about to make some calls...

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Sea Island (Seaside Course)

Bobby Jones teeing off at the Seaside Course

On a recent trip to Sea Island, Georgia to play Ocean Forest, I also had the opportunity to play the Seaside course. Golf at Sea Island has evolved over the years through the design of four separate nine-hole courses. The first nine hole course was designed by Walter Travis, and the second was a combined design of the original nine-hole Travis course plus a new set of nine holes designed by H.S. Colt and C.H. Alison. Colt and Alison's original design was changed again by Tom Fazio in 1999 as part of Sea Island's plan to change its four original nine-hole courses into two eighteen hole courses.

Having seen a lot of Alison's work in Japan, I think he is one of the finest architects the game has ever seen, though his best work doesn't get a lot of exposure because it is in Japan. His course designs in the United States are hard to see because they are at private clubs such as Burning Tree, Milwaukee Country Club and Century Country Club. Thus, the Seaside course is a rare opportunity to see the work of Alison. The course was designed prior to Alison's trip to Japan in the 1930s so it is some of his early work.

It is difficult to tell how much of the original design features of the Seaside course remains intact today. Having looked at course maps from various points in time, it looks like a meaningful amount has been changed. Yet, many of the original holes Colt and Alison designed do remain, even if some of the routing has changed. Most importantly, what are today's fourth and fifth holes are surviving examples of the original layout. The land the Seaside Course was built on was dredged out of the nearby marsh and steam shovels and mule teams were used to sculpt the land and move dirt.

Even though the private Ocean Forest course is ranked #84 in the world, I liked the public Seaside course better. Ocean Forest is over-rated because of who its members are, and Seaside is under-rated because it doesn't have eighteen great holes. However, the front nine at Seaside are so special that it is worth the trip to play it.

The Golf Course

1st green at Sea Island Seaside Course

The first unique thing you notice about the Seaside course are the distinctive red wicker baskets instead of hole flags, like those at Merion. Most of the green designs are like the first green seen above, with slopes and shaved areas that repel shots hit short away from the green. Most of the greens are small.

Of course, I jinxed myself by mentioning how great the weather was when I played Cypress Point. The golf gods were listening and got even, so the pictures here are not as brilliant as I would have liked, due to the cloudy and foggy day. On the bright side, it gives me an excuse to have to return to Sea Island and play again.

The tee shot on the second hole shows off one of the principal design features the architects had to work with, namely, routing a course through the lowcountry marsh. Many holes have a forced carry off the tee like the one here.

The third green at the Seaside Course

The third green again shows the design feature of an inverted bowl with the oak trees in the background. This is a demanding 200 yard par three that normally plays in a crosswind.

Fourth hole looking toward the green

I've played some good golf holes in my day. The Road Hole at St. Andrews, sixteen, seventeen and eighteen at Carnoustie, the Island Green at Sawgrass, the Postage Stamp at Troon, the 15th and 16th at Cypress Point and the 18th at Pebble Beach. The fourth hole on the Seaside Course is right up there with them. Not only is the design brilliant, but with marsh and ocean as a backdrop, it is visually dramatic as well. A link to the best holes is here.

SI 4 from tee
The 4th looking from the tee toward the flag in the distance to the left

The fourth hole is 421 yards on the card, but is one of the severest dog-legs in all of golf. The hole makes an acute left turn at 300 yards to a green situated on the other side of the marsh at a ninety degree angle from where you are standing on the tee.

The 4th carry off the tee over the marsh

The tee shot is a forced carry over marsh, and the left side of the fairway is preferred because it lessens the length of your second shot to the green. The entire left side of the hole is bordered by the marsh and White Heron Lake. If you play too safely, you end up in the bunkers on the right, so not only is it a nice risk-reward hole, it is one with a severe penalty for being too greedy and a penalty for being too conservative.

The 4th fairway

Your second shot to the green requires you to hit the ball a precise distance. Even if you play more conservatively and aim away from the marsh to the fairway approach, your distance has to be perfect or you will go into the marsh on the other side. The hole requires back-to-back perfectly placed risk-reward shots that places a premium on well struck balls and penalizes poorly struck ones.

The fourth hole was originally named "It Is" which was short for "It is unlucky if played carelessly." Perfectly named.

The 4th approach to the green

The green has big slopes in it and is well protected. The fourth hole is the #1 ranked handicap hole on the course, without question.

The fifth at Seaside, approach to the green

The fifth hole is the mirror opposite of the 4th. It is a 388 yard par four that is a sharp dog leg right over the marsh. It also requires you to hit back-to-back risk-reward shots with a high penalty for error. The fifth hole was originally named "Marsh" and again is both visually dramatic and requires precision. Those playing cautiously away from the marsh have to be careful not to hit too far through the fairway to the left.

The fifth green sited between the marsh and the trees

The creativity required to design two holes like this back-to-back is what makes Colt and Alison such brilliant golf course architects.

The sixth green shrouded in fog

The sixth hole is a short par three at 164 yards from the back tee. It is a nice respite following the harassing fourth and fifth holes. Such is the brilliance of the design at the Seaside course. The routing of the course through the marsh and dunes is brilliant.

The seventh green falls off at the rear

The seventh hole is a challenging 531 yard par five. The fairway zig zags with sand bordering the left side of the fairway and the marsh down the right side, while the green falls off at the back, penalizing shots hit long.

A shot of the 8th green from the fairway bunker

Eight is a short par four with a tee shot over marsh and a large bunker in play on the right side off the tee. This makes the effective landing area on the left side of the fairway very small. The hole finishes you off with a devilish, well-protected, harshly sloping green.

The ninth hole provides a strong finish to the front nine. The back nine feels like a different course, because it largely is, although the theme of alternating long and short holes, risk-reward shots and forced carries over marsh continues. There are some good holes and the routing is interesting and varied, as is the front, but it lacks the sizzle that the holes on the front nine have. When Bobby Jones played the course, the current front nine played as the back nine on a different composite course. Jones said, "Second nine is one of the very best I have ever seen." Who am I to disagree with Bobby?

The Seaside Course is a really unique place to play golf. We saw several bald eagles, which nest nearby, flying overhead while we played. The feel of the Seaside course is the lowcountry meets Merion; it is a throwback to an old-style design that requires the golfer to do more than just hit the ball long.

Sea Island Resort
The Sea Island resort has been owned and run by the Jones family (no relation to Rees or Bobby) for generations. The current generation, Bill Jones III, runs the business and resort.

No expense was spared when Sea Island was built, including at both the Cloisters hotel and the Lodge. Dark woods are prominently featured, but done tastefully. It is not as overbearing as the Breakers in Palm Beach or the Boca Raton Resort; it has more class. They do a lot of little things right at Sea Island, which adds up to a very nice experience. Bach's Brandenberg concerto was playing on the Bose CD player when I entered my room, for example. The employees all pronounced my simple name correctly, instead of making it two syllables instead of three, like many people do. There was stationery on the desk with my name engraved on it, underneath which "In Residence at the Lodge at Sea Island" was printed. I felt a bit like an English King or Howard Hughes. I imagine they used this type of thing occasionally, dashing off a letter from Balmoral or The Desert Inn, whilst in residence.

There are dozens of real wood-burning fireplaces throughout the resort. It has better service than a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons, which is a high standard to surpass.

The resort has more five star ratings than The Pentagon has five star generals. At Sea Island, the Lodge, the Cloisters, the Spa and the Georgian Room all have received five stars from Mobil, which is a rare feat. It is also one of the few civilized places in the world where you can still smoke a cigar without persecution. You can smoke in the locker room at Ocean Forest, in the locker room at Sea Island and in the elegant cigar lounge at the Cloisters.