Sunday, May 31, 2009

From the Rough - Another view of Valderrama

As one of the traveling companions with the blogger, I feel compelled to write a rebuttal to the above, well-written but misguided review. I appreciate and respect the author’s unbridled enthusiasm of his review of Valderrama. I too had that enthusiasm as we pulled into the resort and golfing complex. When there is an individual in uniform controlling the entrance gates to approve (or disapprove) of your playing privileges, you usually are in for a special day. And once inside the gates of Valderrama, you truly believe something special lies ahead. The place is immaculate. It feels like hallowed ground. History was made here. And history will probably be made here again. In short, before you put a tee in the ground, the excitement level is high.

It must be noted that my blogger colleague and I did not play in the same group. He was invited to play with a special, elite traveling group. I played with the third member of our trio of friends, each of whom is on a quest to play the world’s top 100 courses. My golfing partner and I flew into Madrid the day before and drove almost 10 hours south to Spain’s southern coast. Spain is a beautiful country – it is very dry and much more mountainous than ever imagined. Our drive took us through the city of Granada, which is home to the famous Alhambra palace. What shocked us most about Granada was the snow capped mountains that framed the city. These are the Sierra Nevada mountains, not unlike the Sierra Nevadas found in this country. Another highpoint of our day-long trip were the roads in Spain. They are real and spectacular. Perfect condition. No potholes, no traffic. Truly a pleasure to drive in this country. We passed seemingly miles of nothing but olive trees. There are more olive trees than people. Kind of like Scotland where sheep far outnumber humans. Refreshing.

Golfing Letdown

So where did things go wrong? First, as we were about to tee off, we asked the starter if it ever rains in the southern part of Spain. It’s probably a question he doesn’t get too often. After all, they don’t name it the Sun Coast for nothing. But it was a very cloudy this day and it looked darker on the horizon. “No, it never rains in Spain,” he confidently said. I was both pleased and relieved as I had left my rain suit and umbrella in my hotel room. By the third hole, the rain was pelting down. So much for Al Roker sitting in the starter house.

Although the rain was an unwelcome surprise, the bigger let down was the Valderrama golf course itself. This is where the big differences between my blogger colleague and I exist. My second shot on the first hole was my first clue. My drive was on the left edge of the fairway with about 160 meters to the green for a second shot. Not a great drive but certainly playable and acceptable to my level of play. But the second shot would require either a low stinger beneath the cork trees that would have to stop suddenly on a tiny green or a high lofty shot that would have to, by luck, ricochet off the cork trees and drop onto the green (see blogger pictures). It was then that I realized this course was built for Seve, not for Steve, Joe or Jim and their 8 to 14 American handicaps.

The second hole was a bit more ridiculous – cork trees in the middle of the fairway. My drive was where it was supposed to be – in the fairway. My reward for hitting the fairway? A punch shot to advance the ball under the trees. I couldn’t get near the green. And of course there was cork trees overhanging parts of the putting surface.
A quick comment on cork trees. They are fascinating. Never saw them before. Yes, they are spongy like a cork. I like cork, especially when it is released from a lovely bottle of Bordeaux. I don’t like cork when it unfairly obstructs my approach shots to green after green.

By the third hole, I said to my playing partner and traveling companion, “I’ve played this course before. It’s called Harbour Town. Hated that tricked up place and it isn’t worthy of being in the top 100.”

As we reached the fourth hole, the rain didn’t let up but the flow of the round did. We were delayed by the slow play of the two groups ahead of us. This gave us the chance to meet up with a lovely married couple and we joined their twosome. He was from Scotland, she was from Ireland. Golf was obviously in their blood. Money was obviously in their pocket as they were members of both Valderrama and Loch Lomond. Both had game but more importantly they were truly informative about their courses in Spain and Scotland. As for the fourth hole itself, it was more of the same. The picture looks nice but even the blogger admits that part of the green is blocked by overhanging trees.

By the time we got to the ninth hole, the rain was teeming down. Kind of like Octomom when her water broke. It was so intense and unexpected, the rain actually sent our Scottish/Irish friends packing. They had had enough. However, after we shook hands to say goodbye, the Scot, seeing my pathetic frame as if I were in a wet-tee shirt contest, offered me his rain suit. I’m not yet comfortable to jump into another man’s trousers but I quickly seized his waterproof jacket. All I had to do at the end of the round was to return it to Al Roker, who would put it in the Scot’s locker. Another reason to love Scotland, I declared.

The rain on the back nine continued. Admittedly, the golf course improved somewhat. But I think you get the idea that trying to bend and shape shots into covered greens gets old fast. My comments and rebuttal, however, wouldn’t be complete without a note about the “iconic seventeenth hole.” Yes, history was here during the 1997 Ryder Cup. My blogger colleague is correct in saying this is an uncharacteristic hole compared to the others because of the lack of overhanging cork trees around the green (perhaps there was an emergency corkage need for some Contador 2005 Benjamin Romeo). But what was most shocking about the 17th hole was the man-made pond in front of the green. Actually, calling it a pond is an injustice to ponds. If you look closely at the blogger’s second picture, you see the “pond’s” pool liner that is covered by sunken green algae. It’s kind of like the neighbor who has an in-the-ground pool but never cleans it. All that was missing was a diving board and a slide.

19th Hole

I didn’t hate Valderrama. As noted, I was very excited to visit Spain for the first time and play this historical course. I was pumped for a course that I thought would exceed expectations. But with the rain in Spain not staying on the plain and a course that doesn’t reward good shots, my Valerrama golfing experience was disappointing. Plus, and this cannot be ignored, at 300 euros plus 60 euros for a cart, the golf set me back about 480 large. Ouch!

What did I like about Valderrama? I like small greens, and small areolas and Valdy had about 18 of them. Plus the course was in beautiful shape. The scenery was just average – there was a lot of real estate. Keep in mind that this is a resort course. Think Harbour Town, Doral, Palm Desert. If you look really hard, you can see the Mediterranean Sea and the tip of the Rock of Gibraltar. Frankly, the views found within the low country of South Carolina (Yeaman’s Hall), cliffs of Bandon Dunes or windmill at Long Island’s National excite me much more. The biggest plus, as it is with all of our trips, was my playing partner. We were soaked yet thirsty. We reveled in our disappointment of the course yet had a lot of fun. The pops we consumed during and mostly after the round are and will always be a key component of any of our trips.

Finally, perhaps the best way to judge a golfing experience is to ask yourself if you would return. This doesn’t mean a second round in a day – that would be too easy, especially if, like my blogger colleague, money is not an issue (his idea of hard times is no salt on his peanuts or drinking 12-year-old Macallan instead of 15-year-old). Would I make another transatlantic flight to Spain just to play Valderrama? I would do – and have done it – for Scotland, Ireland and England. Spain, despite its rugged beauty and the extreme courteousness of its people, is not a place I would return for another golf experience. There are way too many other places I’ve got to play and re-play.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Galigolf Blogger

Surfing the web recentlyI stumbled across a blogger on the other side of the world that attracted my attention: Gilagolf. Gilagolf is a malay term meaning “Golf Crazy” and this kindred spirit plays golf courses in Malaysia and blogs about them.

There is a real art to writing a critical review, and he has it down. I'm a big fan of this genre and appreciate that not everyone loves every course. He gets an A+ for honesty. Also, him and I philosophically agree that many courses are over-hyped. His writing is very opinionated and is also laugh out loud funny.

Commenting on Fraser's Hill Golf Course: "It’s impossible to recommend this course to anybody, except people who intend to commit suicide. Terrible, terrible experience." On the courses amenities: "No card, no balls, no lockers, no maintenance, no nothing." You won't believe the pictures of the course he has within the post, it looks truly awful. His description of the dog following him around the course is hilarious.

The full write-up of Fraser's Hill is here.

I love his rating system of courses, especially his lowest rating: "Absolutely Astoundingly Crap", which is one rating lower than, "Waste of time and money."

His pictures are truly interesting; While they are obviously playing the same game we play, it looks a lot different. I was particularly struck by the narrowness of most of the courses and some of the geographic land formations (like the one at the top of this post). Malaysia is a mountainous, hot and tropical country that gets a lot of rainfall and the pictures and descriptions show this to great effect. I also like his maps and scorecards within the blog. Getting to courses here looks more like trying to deciper a treasure hunt map than anything else.

His reviews come with warnings on getting to the courses, like this one, "The idea is, DO NOT SPEED in a kampung area unless you have a death wish. Kampung people are very communal so if you mess with their chickens, cats or family, they will likely surround your vehicle and overthrow you."

His descriptions of playing on courses torn apart by wild boars, quicksand and some ridiculously poor course maintenance will offer the armchair traveler much enjoyment.

His write-up of the Selsa Hills Course, also gets extra style points: "The worst fairway in the whole world can be found here, in Selesa Hills Golf Course," and "Please don’t even think about this course. You’re better off standing in a driving range and have people hit their driver straight at you." He pulls no punches, "Make the turn and it descends into being plain, boring and crappy again. The first nine is a like a girl before marriage. After the turn, it’s post marriage, she becomes lazy, fat and hideous."

Like him, I am also always struck by the raving reviews you see in magazines and on web-sites, especially where the actual experience can be so different. In this vain, he re-writes a marketing piece done for the people at Bukit Unggul, replacing the original flowery prose with his own version below:

“Very few golf courses in Malaysia leave a lasting memory… Bukit Unggul Country Club is NOT one of them. Craved into a 65-hectare valley, the par 71 5,858-metre long 18-hole course is an unnatural piece of crap mutated by renowned American architect, Ronald Fream, who is also a suspect in the latest crime of defacing golf courses around the world. Golfers who play here for the first time instantly realize how screwed they are with each hole of wrong yardage and sadistic treelines that eat your balls. Golfballs, that is..”

“Playing he (sic) sadistic course demands a beretta 9mm and a precise shot to the head to end all misery. Here, a non existent fairway and green maintenance programme by the management ensures a muddy, dirty experience for all golfers, and especially for beginners, remind them just how lousy and useless they are and that they should stay home and curse the day they took up a golf club. Its un-maintained Bermuda Tifways fairways and tees, and bouncy Tifdwarf (do we actually give a darn what Tif actually is??!) greens exist harmoniously among a luch, majestic tropical rainforest, filled with wild boars and monkeys who will not hesitate to attack and kill golfers, simply to make play a true test of agony, like middle age torture, or wearing a corset at your crotch.

Bukit Unggul Country Club is simply an forgettable experience. However it will often return randomly as a nightmare that will revisit you night after night until your dying day.”

There, now that is what I call truthful advertising. Enjoy!

Gilagolf blog

Friday, May 01, 2009

Cruden Bay Golf Club

Victorian beachgoers at the Cruden Bay beach

It's not often I go back and re-write a summary of a course I've played. However, in the case of Cruden Bay (ranked #76 in the world), upon reading my previous write-up, I found it woefully inadequate in expressing my adulation for the course. A large part of any first time experience is how it compares to your expectation. Everybody knows Pine Valley is the top course in the world, and that Pebble Beach and Cypress Point will be spectacular; thus, you go to these courses for the first-time with those expectations. What I have found to be the most rewarding aspect of playing the top 100 courses is finding those that are not widely known and that truly surprise: courses like Yeamans Hall, Woodhall Spa, Morfontaine and most certainly Cruden Bay.

When I first played Cruden Bay early in my golf travels I experienced what the French call coup de foundre, which literally translates into a thunderbolt, or more accurately, love at first sight. Without having had broad exposure to the world's great courses, I found it difficult to immediately articulate exactly what it was about Cruden Bay that I liked so much and that made it so unique. Now that I have seen most of the world's great courses I now understand what makes Cruden Bay so great.

At several of the world's best courses, I've been disappointed upon seeing the course for the first time: St. Andrews, Carnoustie and Hoylake fit into this category. This is not to say that they are bad courses: quite the contrary, I like them all very much; but when you first look at them they look flat and dull. Birkdale and Troon look that way because they are, but let me not get side-tracked.

The antithesis of this experience is Cruden Bay. Driving into the car park for the first time is simply stunning. Below you, in a valley, is set a collection of massive sand dunes. Among the dunes weaves a golf course bordering on the North Sea. What makes Cruden Bay different from other links courses is that the parking lot and clubhouse are situated up on a hill, giving you an amazing view of the entire golf course and the over-sized dunes. This panoramic view gives a perspective that the other courses don't have. Arriving at almost all other links courses you are at sea level, depriving you of a birds eye perspective. At Turnberry, you certainly have some perspective from near from the hotel, but the geography at Cruden Bay is more dramatic. It's a compact little valley and the drop in terrain from the top of the hill to the sea nearby is more eye-catching.

Cruden Bay from Carpark (2)

The magnificent setting of Cruden Bay as seen from the carpark

Cruden Bay was originally designed by Old Tom Morris in 1899 and then re-designed by Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler in 1926. Cruden Bay is located along the Aberdeen coast of Scotland about two hours north of Carnoustie. If there was ever an apt description of the term 'hidden gem,' then Cruden Bay is it. The golf writer James Finegan says of Cruden Bay: "Out sized, non conformist, unpredictable and flamboyant." These same words also describe course re-designer Tom Simpson to a tee, and the combination of Morris' original holes combined with Simpson's flair for the dramatic make this a special place.

The first two holes are par fours that are similar in style and play from elevated tee boxes, down into a valley, to greens set on a plateau. You are playing alongside the town of Cruden Bay with O.B. along the left side.

The first sign that the course is not going to be traditional starts at the third hole. It is a 285 par four with a big chocolate drop mound in the middle of the fairway 80 yards from the green, making it potentially a driveable green; however, the mound is so large that it is a blind shot if you go for it. The green sits down in a hollow with several hills and hammocks around it and in front.

The fourth is a world-class par three that plays along the village of Port Erroll. Driver is often in order on this ~200 yard hole, depending upon the wind.

Cruden Bay - 2nd Tabletop green
The table top green on the second hole, looking back toward the fairway

To get from the fourth green to the fifth tee you walk between closed-in large dunes up a hill. The fifth is a 445 yard par four that plays from the top of the dunes down into a dramatic narrow snaking valley below you. Although the course is short, holes like the fifth demand long and accurate shots.

The par five sixth requires three shots, even for long hitters, due to its dog-leg and well-protected green sited within a mound of sand hills. You have to make sure you hit over the devilish Bluidy Burn with its dramatic falloff into the water, reminiscent of the Eli Burn on the seventh hole at North Berwick and the Wee Burn running through the 16th hole at Turnberry. Scotland has the most wicked burns in the world, a geographic feature we really don't have in the U.S. We have streams that don't look and feel like these burns do. The burns remind me of Dick Cheney: small, narrow, tricky and truly hazardous.

The narrow approach to the 7th green

The seventh hole ("Whaupshank") is a par four with an elevated green situated between two dunes. Like all holes at Cruden Bay, it is a whimsical hole that snakes and twists through the dunes with a sharp dog-leg left. There is very little that is conventional on this course.

It is because of holes like the eighth that make Cruden Bay a course that has developed a cult following. It is a 248 yard par four that plays to an elevated green enclosed by dunes. English golf writer Dell Leigh, writing in his 1925 book Golf at its best on the LMS, describes the eighth as sitting "in a valley between stately hills; the hole which produces in the long hitter a frenzy of self-adulation." Leigh was writing about the original Old Tom Morris hole; Simpson had the foresight not to change it so the golfer can experience the same excitement today.

8 from ninth tee

The exhilarating 8th hole looking back from the green, a 258 yard up-hill par four

The world of golf has much sterner tests than Cruden Bay: courses such as Carnoustie, Oakmont and Olympic. Muirfield, Merion and Shinnecock are more historic. Turnberry, Pebble Beach and Kingsbarns are more scenic. But for pure fun, Cruden Bay cannot be beaten. The course defies being pigeonholed because it doesn't fit neatly into any category. It is a one-of-a-kind golf course. Golf at its simplest is a game. I think we sometimes lose sight of that fact. The point of golf after all is to have fun and enjoy yourself. Cruden Bay would be ranked #1 in the world if having fun was the only criteria utilized. There is something about Cruden Bay that lightens your spirits and brightens your mood. It makes me see golf through the eyes of a five year old: everything is exciting; there is a sense of discovery around every corner; life is good and full of promise; curiosity abounds.

The ninth hole atop a hill

Cruden Bay - view from 9th tee (2)
View from the 9th tee with a perfect crescent shaped below below

The ninth and tenth holes play on top of the dunes with dramatic views and shots played down a large hill. There are many times when the Cruden Bay landscape almost seems lunar and surreal. The ninth and tenth tee boxes are two of those places. If you look north over the beach and ocean you can see the ruins of Slains Castle, which provided the inspiration to Bram Stoker when he wrote Dracula.

Slains Castle as seen from Cruden Bay

The fourteenth and fifteenth holes are two of my two favorites on the course. Like Cruden Bay generally, they are full of quirks, but I found them exhilarating. Fourteen has a blind second shot to a bathtub green. What's a bathtub green you ask? One that quite literally is shaped like a bath tub and is sunken down into the ground. Just like the Punchbowl sixteenth green at National Golf Links of America, when you are on the green the outside world is muted. You are totally detached from civilization.

Why don't you see more bathtub style greens? From a practical standpoint, the green most assuredly doesn't work, since it doesn't get the proper amount of air and light, is difficult to maintain and playing shots into it doesn't always distinguish between shots hit well and shots played poorly. Ok, so it's not practical to have holes like these, but it misses the entire point of Cruden Bay. The R & A isn't going to hold a championship here, and it is not a proving ground for your manhood. It's a fun golf course. Personally, I like an occasional hole that has these unique element of playfulness, which has more similarities to billiards or pinball with shots banked off the sides of hills and hollows and crazy kicks of the golf ball.

Fourteen Green
The 'bathtub' 14th green

Cruden Bay - 14th green from 9th tee
The 14th green as seen from above from the high tee on the 9th hole

Look to the right of the bathtub green in the picture and you can see a tee box. This is the tee box for the 200 yard blind par three fifteenth hole. The huge sand dune you see on the left is your target. When you are done playing the hole you ring a bell to let the group behind you know you're done.

I can hear the skeptics now. Blind shots? Ringing bells? Multiple par fours under 290 yards? A bathtub green? Back-to-back par threes? Only two par fives on the whole course? Par is only 70, 6395 yards from the back. Horrors. I understand those that prefer golf courses in the conventional and traditional sense might not like Cruden Bay. Sounds like trickery you say. Well, many of the world's great courses have characteristics just like the ones I describe above. Cypress Point has back-to-back par threes; coincidentally, they both happen to be on the 15th and 16th holes. Quaker Ridge and Chicago Golf Club only have two par fives. Lahinch has its brilliant blind par three Dell hole. Pine Valley and Royal County Down have several blind shots, and you ring bells at Prestwick and the National Golf Links of America.

So these quirky elements in and of themselves are not unique to Cruden Bay and are clear evidence that having quixotic features on a golf course alone don't make it bad. What makes Cruden Bay unique is that it crams all these features into one course. It doesn't have one or two quirky holes like many of the world's best courses mentioned above. The distinction at Cruden Bay is that virtually every hole is quirky or has some kind of unconventional feature. It is this cumulative effect of the design that makes it such a fanciful place to play golf.

Admittedly, Cruden Bay has a weak finish. Sixteen is a downhill par three with a green that slopes away from you, so you must play it short and run it up. Seventeen and eighteen are decidedly weak holes that play back to the clubhouse and are uninteresting.

I've spoken to a lot of well-traveled golfers, and it's no surprise to me that almost all of them rank Cruden Bay among their personal favorite courses. The first time I saw Cruden Bay was on a golf trip with eight men touring Scotland. This was prior to my now obsessive quest to play the top 100. We were so enamored of the place that on the spot we changed our plans to stay an extra day so we could play the course over and over again. On every trip to Scotland I try to play Cruden Bay.

Bernard Darwin wrote of this great course, "I think it is typical of Cruden Bay, which is a place extraordinarily difficult to keep away from for those who have once come under its spell." I'm often asked what I'm going to do when I'm done playing the top 100 golf courses in the world. Well, I'm going to go back to Cruden Bay to play it over and over again!

The Udny Arms Hotel

The course is located in a rather isolated location away from any real population center and as a result the members serve as caddies for visitors. They are a very welcoming and friendly group who are happy to share their wonder of the golfing world with visitors. When we visited we stayed at the Udny Arms located in nearby Newburgh, which is sadly now out of busines. A family owned B & B, it was cozy and inviting. Being isolated you might assume they would serve basic meat and potatoes fare. In fact, the food there is world-class. The bar areas are cigar friendly and the wait staff makes you feel at home. Don't expect American size rooms or 200 channels of cable television. As is typical in Britain the amenities are basic, the showers are tiny but there is a facility to make a cup of tea in each room. It is one of my favorite places to stay in the world. Have the sticky toffee pudding while there and watch one of the three BBC channels provided.

Cruden Bay is also a special remembrance for me because it was the first time I experienced first-hand Sheldon in action. The forthright manner this good looking gentleman asked the Amazon barmaid what time she got off was worth its weight in gold.

Early Lawn Bowling at Cruden Bay