Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wade Hampton Golf Club

Wade Hampton Golf Club (ranked #88 in the world) is located in Cashiers, North Carolina near Asheville, close to the South Carolina border. Cashiers is in the Western mountainous part of the state where the Great Smokey and Blue Ridge Mountains are located. The course takes its name from a confederate soldier known as "The Giant in Gray," General Wade Hampton III. Hampton's family owned the land the course was built on for generations, and they summered in the area; they also had a hunting lodge nearby. The Hamptons used to harvest ice from the lakes and where the eighteenth green sits today there was previously one such ice house.

Wade Hampton sporting a serious handlebar mustache

Hampton was the highest ranking Confederate cavalry officer under Robert E. Lee's command. He fought in the Battle of Antietam, the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Fredricksburg. He was injured numerous times at Gettysburg. After the war he served as Governor of South Carolina and as a U.S. Senator. The likeness of Hampton seen above greets you in the form of a big painting hanging in the pro shop.

The course was designed by Tom Fazio, and he remains an active member today. The club was opened in 1987 with 120 charter and founding members, all from below the Mason-Dixon Line: seven from Augusta, Georgia and the remainder from Florida, Alabama and North Carolina. Although the membership has changed somewhat since the club's founding, Wade Hampton remains a below-the-radar Southern club. Similar to Fishers Island, in order to be a member of the club, you have to own property or a house bordering the course, making it a small, tight knit group, which explains why it took so many years for this cantankerous Yankee to get invited to play.

At the guard-gated entrance we were greeted with a big "Good maw-nin." Once through the gate you make a "ryat" followed by a "layft" to get to the clubhouse.

The course has a program where they sponsor young adults from South Africa to apprentice as caddies and in other jobs to learn the golf business. These well-mannered youngsters add some nice character to Wade Hampton. The course also has the nicest staff of any course I have visited. As at the Honors Course and Muirfield Village, your car is valet parked. EVERY employee greeted us warmly and welcomed us to the club. This was consistent all day long; they have really developed a culture of service excellence here that is unmatched.

The dramatic, downhill par 5 opening hole at Wade Hampton

Cashiers sits at 3,650 feet in elevation. The course begins on the highest point on the property with a 534 yard par five that plays down into a big valley. The course is essentially built into the mountain and has a lot of elevation change. The major characteristics of the course are its brilliant use of the elevation, its lushness and the creative routing through the large and omnipresent trees.

The downhill par three sixth hole

The par threes at Wade Hampton, as with most Fazio courses, are all very good. The sixth hole is a good example. It plays 152 yards downhill. In a very interesting design feature, the water in front of the green flows over a large granite slab that slopes down the hill. Two of the golfers in our group (yours truly included) came up short and the ball bounced off the rock onto the green. Apparently, there has been a hole in one recorded on this hole from a ricochet off the rock.

Seventh hole from the tee

The seventh hole is a 376 yard par four with a forced carry over both scrub and water. Wade Hampton was blasted through granite and carved out of thick forest, and you can get a sense of the density of the trees and foliage on the course from this picture taken off the seventh tee. The hole is a good risk-reward hole since you can choose how much of the water to take on with your tee shot.

The par three 11th

The 172 yard par three eleventh is another downhill beauty that uses the trees and bunkers to perfectly frame this verdant hole.

At least twelve holes at Wade Hampton play from an elevated tee box and the thirteenth is the most dramatic of them all. The 406 yard hole plays from an elevated tee and the second shot is also down a hill to the green.

The dramatic par four 13th hole with the mountain backdrop

What makes the thirteenth hole so dramatic is how close the granite face of Chimney Top Mountain is to you. It is not in the distance, but quite close to you as you play the hole and about 1,000 feet high. It's hard to focus on playing the hole, the grandeur of the mountain is so distracting. This was one of my favorite holes, along with the eighteenth.

The par three 17th hole, framed by two giant hemlock trees

The tantalizing seventeenth is also a very dramatic par three. It plays 190 yards downhill, with a small stream running in front of the green. The green is framed by two giant hemlock trees and the mountain. Wade Hampton is one of only a handful of mountain courses ranked in the top 100, the others being Highlands Links in Canada, Homestead (Cascades) in Virginia and Naruo in Japan.

18th green
The 18th green with the lovely clubhouse in the background

The eighteenth is a really good short par five finishing hole that gets progressively narrower from tee to green. Down its entire left hand side there is a stream and the fairway slopes right to left. It is equally as magnificent viewed from either the tee or the green. The intoxicating clubhouse provides a welcome distraction as you approach the green. It has a series of cascading porches, verandas and patios and exudes understated Southern elegance. The boys put some serious money into this hideaway.

18th fwy back
The 18th fairway looking backward from the green

There are probably only a handful of courses better to play on than Wade Hampton on a sunny summer day; certainly almost none away from the sea. Playing at Wade Hampton is like being inside a Thomas Kinkade painting: Idyllic, with bucolic scenery and an idealized version of the world.

With the exception of the par four thirteenth, I liked the par threes and fives on the course better than the par fours. The par threes all make great use of the downhill terrain and are perched in special locations, tucked into corners around the property. The four par five holes were all very well designed and rewarded bold shots, but also gave a safe play for the higher handicapper. The course is quite difficult, with slope ratings on the various men's tee boxes ranging from 136-146.

During my visit I stayed at the High Hampton Inn, which is less than a mile from Wade Hampton down Highway 107. It is an old-style traditional inn where you still have to wear a jacket and tie at dinner; it has no air conditioning, no TV's; and still has its original 1930s knotty pin wood interiors. We sweated profusely at dinner but still enjoyed the show put on by the old-time Southerners who frequent this region in their seersucker suits and summer linen outfits, strutting their stuff up in the mountains. Our food at the buffet dinner was awful and the lack of air conditioning led me to develop a serious case of prickly heat. Plus, the place was also over-run with toddlers and kids. On the positive side the breakfast was quite good and the place has serious ambiance. One night staying there was enough, since I'm too uncouth to appreciate it and I miss my MTV.

My regular readers know I'm a big fan of the South and enjoyed playing Yeamans Hall, The Honors Course, Kiawah and Harbour Town. Wade Hampton is no exception. Wade Hampton is hard to get to, and frankly, like a lot of out-of-the-way places I have played like Sand Hills and Barnbougle Dunes, that is part of the charm. I drove the three hours from Atlanta to Cashiers, the last 45 minutes of which you ride on the single lane South Carolina State Highway 107. It is a long and winding road which snakes steeply uphill with 'S' turn after 'S' turn in the back woods, with the occasional old broken-down general store or barbeque shack. I continue to love the countryside, traditions and feel of the Old South, although I wouldn't want my car to break down on any of these back roads. It's not hard to see why Deliverance was filmed near here.

Only one more course in the South to play. I'm livin' the dream out here!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Sunningdale Golf Club

On a few occasions I have written about courses that I've played on before and really liked, most notably, Maidstone. I haven’t played Sunningdale in years and recently played it again. I had forgotten just how much I like it. This time with digital camera in tow, I got some nice pictures and thought I would update the post.

Located right down the road from the Wentworth Estate in Ascot, Surrey, adjacent to land owned by the Crown Estate (The Queen) is Sunningdale, one of the world's great golf courses. Sunningdale Old (ranked #44 in the world) was designed by Willie Park Jr. in 1901 and was tinkered with over the years by H.S. Colt who served as the secretary at Sunningdale. Once you enter inside the electronic entrance gates, you are in an oasis. The clubhouse, locker room, pro shop and property have a good feel to them, and the course has an intangible quality that makes it special.

I have always liked clubs of the understated variety, those that just have a good vibe about them. Sunningdale is comfortable, welcoming, traditional and has a patina and character that you only get through graceful aging.

Heathland courses such as Sunningdale were developed primarily because of the underlying land's resemblance to seaside links courses. They take advantage of sandy soil, the absence of mud in the winter and good drainage. Most of the area around London has a clay base and thus is not ideally suited for golf. Sunningdale, in the Surray heathland, is one of the brilliant exceptions.

Golf is sometimes referred to metaphorically as a walk in the park. In the case of Sunningdale, it is literally true. The course is surrounded by deep woods and is idyllic and peaceful. Its scenic beauty stacks up against the world's best. It achieves a high ranking in the world without being located near the water and without having hosted any Open Championships. The combination of the natural terrain, sand, birch trees, heather, gorse, pines and water come together beautifully to create a unique environment. It feels like one big classic English garden. Sunningdale is the quintessential English golf club in many respects. Aside from the stately English clubhouse, there are walking paths around the course where people stroll about with their dogs in peaceful solitude, and like Britain in general, it's delightfully quirky.

1st grn
The first green in a park-like setting

I like a relatively easy starting hole, and the short par five first (492 yards) with O.B. down its right side, eases you into the round. Sunningdale reminds me a bit of Pine Valley. You can see the similarities between Pine Valley and Sunningdale throughout the round. This is not entirely surprising given Colt's influence on the design at Pine Valley.

3rd green from rear
The 3rd green could just as well be at Morfontaine

Aside from Pine Valley, Sunningdale also reminds me of Morfontaine because of its heavily wooded heathland setting in a forest. Sunningdale was built at a time when it was not in vogue to actively move terrain. Willie Park, Jr. is an important architect Thus, Sunningdale is a historic course, in addition to being so spectacularly beautiful. The Old course follows the natural contours of the land brilliantly. I like the use of cross-bunkers 60 to 80 yards from many greens, which creates doubt when hitting approach shots. Park's mixture of long holes, short holes, uphill and downhill is the ideal combination. The demanding par four (489 yard) second hole wakes you up after the easy first hole. It asks that you hit to the proper angle off the tee over heath. Mind the ditch down the left side of the hole if you want to score well. The blind second shot is to a well protected, canted green.

6th hole
The sixth hole with its beautiful cross-bunkering

Sunningdale arguably has one of the top five routings of any golf course ever built (Pine Valley, Carnoustie, Sand Hills and Cypress Point in the mix). The shot variety, change in direction, change in elevation and mix of holes is top of the heap. Aside from the top shelf routing, the other defining features are forced carries over heather and scrub and the very well-placed cross-bunkering. You can see these to great affect in the picture of the 433 yard par four sixth hole, above.

The seventh is just a fantastic hole from tee to green and one of my favorites in the world. The tee shot is completely blind and plays to a hill that slopes sharply from right to left. The hole plays 406 yards and dog-legs to the right.

7th back
The seventh seen looking back from the fairway to the tee

Shots hit to the left will roll down the hill, potentially leaving you a shot blocked by trees. Even if you are not blocked by trees, the left side leaves a much more difficult angle to approach the uphill green from.

7th green-1
Approach to Sunningdale's 7th green

The elevated green is extremely well-protected. It is also large and slopes from back to front. The best tee shot is to the right side of the fairway, on the top of a little plateau that gives you a clean shot at the green.

7th back from green
The seventh green at Sunningdale looking back

The seventh is the middle of a fabulous three hole stretch that offers great shot variety and scenery. The 277 yard ninth is another very good example of a risk/reward hole with an extremely large green and well placed bunkers just short for those that try to go for it from the tee. The tee shot is essentially blind. Nine is an easy hole, which is a good thing, because the next hole is decidedly not.

10th from tee
Sunningdale's signature 10th hole

Sunningdale's 475-yard par four tenth hole is also a world-class hole. The hole plays from the highest point on the course down into a massive sweeping valley up to a well-protected elevated green. It's a real cracker and difficult.

The well-stocked halfway house off the tenth green offers traditional English fare including lovely egg mayonnaise or bacon & chicken sandwiches. You wait at the halfway house for the group ahead to ring the bell on the eleventh green when they are done to indicate you can proceed.

I like short quirky par fours like the 322 yard eleventh, which makes for a nice breather between the two hardest holes on the course. This is classic Sunningdale. After beating you up, it hits you with a short par four to balance off being too harsh. The twelfth has a tee shot similar to the blind third hole at Royal Adelaide. I would imagine some people wouldn't like Sunningdale because it has some blind shots and several short holes. Charles Blair Macdonald and I were in synch with our love of the 12th hole. He patterned the 8th hole at National Golf Links (named "Bottle") after Sunningdale's 12th.

12 from tee 
The genius 12th hole from the tee, featuring fairway bunkers placed on a diagonal to the line of play, separating a two-level fairway

The genius in the routing is that hard holes are followed by those of relative ease. A long hole is usually followed by a short one, etc. Sunningdale does not have a weak set of holes anywhere on the course. What makes them all good is the risk/reward nature of them combined with their natural beauty.

Another nice feature of Sunningdale is that the walk from green to tee is always delightfully short, but never forced. Unlike Park’s design at Maidstone, there are no holes or shots across other holes.

12th green
The approach to the twelfth green

Aside from a world-class golf course, Sunningdale also has a very strong Bobby Jones history. It was on Sunningdale Old during an Open Championship qualifier in 1926 that Jones shot what was described as a perfect round. The standard scratch score on the course at the time was 75. He shot a 66 with a 33 on the front and a 33 on the back. He had 33 full shots and 33 putts. The highest number written on his scorecard was a four. This feat is even more incredible if put into its proper context. He was using hickory shafted clubs and a golf ball that was nowhere near those of today's standards. On ten holes he hit his shot to the green with a two iron or a wood. The more I learn about Bobby Jones, the more I see why he is a golf legend.

18th green
Sunningdale's "Stockbroker's Tudor" clubhouse behind the 18th green

I’ve had some difficult rounds on my travels, but at Sunningdale everything finally clicked and I played to my true potential. About time. It was nice to finally have some payback for pounding all those balls on the range and suffering through so many poor shots. The round was made even more pleasant by having a caddie who has carried bags here for forty years.

As with the first time I played here, I had a very nice apres-round Guinness to celebrate. Sunningdale has a lot of members who work in the financial industry, aka "The City.” Where else can you overhear a conversation like this on the front porch after a round over drinks? "We spent the winter in St. Moritz; our next big adventure is to Antarctica. In between, we'll have a “short” two week trip to Kilimanjaro. And of course, we’re spending June and July in Cannes. It’s quite easy now to just have a Bloomberg installed in your holiday home so you can keep up with the markets and “pop in” to London for one or two nights if necessary to attend to business." They were not discussing this to boast. Quite the opposite, in typically English style they were being discrete and spoke in a near whisper. Although my rabbit ears are a big detriment when I’m trying to fall asleep, they come in handy for listening in on conversations. It gives you a good sense for the type of membership Sunningdale has. They're not living paycheck-to-paycheck (more accurately in Britain pay packet-to-pay packet) at this most aristocratic of clubs.

As I've said before, I have had few finer experiences than sitting in the Sunningdale clubhouse after the round of golf with a pint reflecting back on a brilliant day's golf. Sunningdale is in a small group of courses that combine the best of both worlds - a world-class golf course with a great, warm and inviting club. Others are Maidstone, Somerset Hills, Yeamans Hall, The Valley Club of Montecito, Morfontaine, Royal Liverpool and San Francisco Golf Club, to name the best of the bunch.

Bobby Jones sums up the club in one succinct statement that perfectly captures my sentiments: "It's a wonderful course, Sunningdale, I would I could carry it about with me. I wanted to bring it back home."