Saturday, December 01, 2012

Wentworth (West Course)

When I first played Wentworth seven years ago I was tired, didn't have my camera and did not do the course justice in my writeup. I returned recently with camera in tow and present this new and improved post.

The Wentworth West Course (ranked #78 in the world) is part of the sprawling Wentworth estate in Surrey. Originally owned by the Countess de Morella, the development rights for the housing estate and golf course were acquired in 1923. The West course was designed by H.S. Colt in 1924. Today, Wentworth has a large golf footprint with three 18 hole courses. Wentworth is located in the Surrey region outside London in Virginia Water, across from the Windsor Great Park, part of the Queen's Crown Estate. Virginia Water got its name from Elizabeth I, the 'Virgin Queen.'

The Wentworth housing estate is large and occupied by the jet set, to borrow an expression from the 1960s. Among today's leading European golf pros who live or have lived at Wentworth are: Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Colin Montgomery. One of the attractions of Wentworth is its proximity to Heathrow airport, but it is also one of its pitfalls, as you can hear the jets all day. The 1953 Ryder Cup was played at Wentworth and Ben Hogan and Sam Snead played on the U.S. team.

Clubhouse Rear
Wentworth's castle clubhouse

Surrey is blessed with sandy soil and beautiful terrain and Wentworth makes the most of it. I must say I hated the course the first time I played it, but this time around I saw that it is better than I realized the first time. The first hole is a nice par five playing 473 yards. Before you hit your tee shot the starter presses a button that puts up red lights on the entry road, so that you don't hit a car if you skull your tee shot. There is a big dip before the first green.

1st Green
Approach shot to the first green on Wentworth's West course

The second hole is a 154-yard par three that plays from an elevated tee to a shallow green guarded by a big tree on the right side of the green.

2nd green
The par three 2nd hole's green

I enjoyed the par four seventh hole very much. It is 396 yards and sweeps down the hillside to an elevated green sited up a big dogleg right. You can see the beautiful Surrey countryside clearly on this hole.

7th from tee
The beautiful Surrey heath land from the 7th hole at Wentworth

The green is interesting and challenging.

7th green
The green on the nice 7th hole on Wentworth's West course

The terrain at Wentworth is demanding and the course is long and the walk wore me out both times I played it. It is one of the most difficult courses I have ever played and is very long at 7,302 yards from the tips. The course's nickname is aptly, the Burma Road. Because the estate is so sprawling, the course is spread out and many holes have hills to walk up as well. The course also has active roads running through nine holes. I did find this to be very distracting. A lot of the world's great courses, in fact, have roads running through them including the National Golf Links of America, Cypress Point, Maidstone and Merion. What makes it different at Wentworth is the overall volume of traffic and the large number of holes where cars cross while you are playing. The view below is off the tee on the 203-yard par three fifth.

5th hole crossing


The long 449-yard par four ninth hole was also very good. If features an active railway along the left side, which, like many U.K. courses is quite charming. The hole features a really interesting and well-protected green.

9th green 1

The green on Wentworth's 9th hole

Ernie Els has made changes to Wentworth over the last decade, many of them controversial, including to the 539-yard par five finishing hole. I rather liked the hole as it stands today. The hole sweeps to the right and the shot to the very small green is over this new burn.

18th Green
The approach to the green of Wentworth's final hole

The estate grounds are idyllic, especially the giant rhododendron plants and the way the roads and houses are set back around sweeping drives. Wentworth also serves as the home of the European Tour and as a result the overall feel of the club is more like a resort or large corporate entity rather than a private club, which it also is. My preference is for more intimate clubs such as nearby Sunningdale.

On balance, I came away with a much better appreciation for Wentworth than my initial impression gave. My chief complaints are the demanding shots the course requires and the fact that between the planes from Heathrow overhead and the cars criss-crossing the course, it feels a lot like the movie Planes, Trains & Automobiles. The Wentworth Estate is also now a favorite place to live for ├╝ber-wealthy people from the Middle East and Russia. There were several mega properties being built on the estate just off the course when we were there, also adding to the less-than-idyllic noise levels. A security-minded bunch, many of the houses feature cameras and some warn of guard dogs and one even has an electric fence.

House on Wentworth Estate
An entrance to one of the large estate homes on the drive into Wentworth

My biggest complaints, however, are the $600 cost of the greens fee and compulsory caddie, and the fact that the round takes over FIVE AND A HALF HOURS!!!!!!! which is frankly not fun. Wentworth does a lot of corporate outings, so on the days they do allow visitors, it is a grueling experience.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Ganton Golf Club

Entry Sign

The Ganton Golf Club (ranked #62 in the world) was formed in 1891 and orginally called the Scarborough Golf Club. It is the course where Harry Vardon served as the  professional between 1896 and 1903. If you don't appreciate who Harry Vardon is, then you had better brush up on your golfing history. One of the greatest players of all time, Vardon won the Open Championship six times and the U.S. Open once.  Ted Ray, winner of the Open Championship and U.S. Open also served as the head professional at Ganton.

Some of golf's most esteemed architects have had a hand in shaping Ganton including J.H. Taylor, H.S. Colt, Alister MacKenzie and James Braid.  The Ganton railway station, now gone, was 300 yards from the course and caddies used to meet their players at the station and accompany them to the clubhouse.

Located in Yorkshire, Ganton has hosted three British Amateur Championships and a Walker Cup (2003). It also hosted the 1949 Ryder Cup, won by the United States and captained by Ben Hogan. My regular readers know how much I love the British Isles and visiting Ganton is no exception. The course is located in North Yorkshire which has beautiful rolling countryside and impossible to decipher thick accents. The nearby North York Moors are a national park and the areas surrounding Ganton are comprised of moors rich with bracken, heather and grass that give off a glowing color. The area has a purple hue in the summer from the bursting heather. There is something mysterious and romantic about this part of England and its old stone walls and alluring views.

Entry Drive
The nice entry road into Ganton

Ganton is golf from the old school. Aside from 150-yard markers, there are no yardage markers at Ganton. The tops of the flag sticks DO NOT have a GPS target in them. This is golfing the old fashioned way, played by feel, trying to judge the wind and distance by eye or from the distance measured by a bunker or a tree. No golf carts here. This is pure golf.

I suppose that deep bunkering is part of the character in the north of England because Ganton also has deep, penal and large bunkers in the style of nearby Woodhall Spa. These are bunkers so deep that you need a ladder to climb in and out of them.  I played Ganton without a caddy in sunny, windy conditions. The winter sun was at a low angle in the sky with the crisp air filling my lungs. 

10th bunker
A bunker on the 10th hole is typical of the deep bunkers at Ganton

The course has a relatively easy start and the front nine isn't terribly difficult or dramatic, although you quickly get a sense that it is wise to stay out of the bunkers and to look around at the idyllic countryside in all directions. Ganton is not unusually short by today's standards, with back tees of 6,935 and would be a real challenge with the wind blowing. The growing conditions in this part of England are ideal due to the rain and cool temperatures, thus, the greens and fairways are as good as any course in the world.

I think the back nine is far stronger than the front. The course's strong finish picks up steam on the sixteenth hole, seen below, with a huge and rough cross bunker running across the fairway. The hole is 446 yards and has a line of trees along both sides. You can see some of the pastoral beauty in the distance in the picture below. Farming has been going on in this area for over 1,000 years.

  16th Cross Bunker  
The view of the 16th fairway as seen from the tee

I particularly like the 258-yard par three seventeenth hole, where you must hit your tee shot across the entrance road to the course. Yorkshire men are known as a hearty breed, and this hole is built for them.

17th tee shot
The difficult par three 17th as seen from the tee box 

The 435-yard eighteenth features a blind tee shot on the drive and a shot over the entry drive as your second. The shot below shows the tee shot over gorse bushes, a big sand hole and other local flora, especially gorse. If you hit your tee shot to the left, you have no shot to the green and are blocked out by trees.

  18th tee shot
The blind tee shot as seen from the 18th tee

After the round, one of the great pleasures of this quest is retiring to the clubhouse to have a sandwich. At Ganton it is egg mayonnaise on brown bread or roast beef with classic English mustard, with the edges trimmed off as they do here, accompanied by a local beer. Or, if you are so inclined you can have sausages and cakes with tea after the round as a hearty group sitting nearby us did.

As is the custom for most proper English courses, you must have on a jacket and tie to enter the dining area at Ganton, even though you are far from the big cities.  I can appreciate that they are trying to uphold the standards and traditions of proper English clubs. The classic English club, Ganton has everything that is quintessentially English: The locker room has separate hot and cold water old-fashioned faucets. The TV is tuned to the BBC. The course is surrounded by beautiful English hedges that grow so perfectly here given the growing conditions. Of course, there are dogs being walked through the course by non-golfers.

The Ganton clubhouse is a throwback to an earlier era, probably not changing much since Vardon's time. Their locker room is seen below.

Locker Room  
The historic locker room at Ganton

It is important that clubs and courses like Ganton remain in the top 100 rankings. It is certainly easy to have courses like this replaced with the newest $20 million Tom Fazio made-for-US-Open-design. To do so would be a shame. The history of the game is important and places like Ganton are standard bearers for upholding its traditions.

I have now visited Ganton twice and I must say they are some of the friendliest people I have encountered each time. The long-time pro greeted us and was happy to give the history of the course. The caddie master went back to his house to get me a plug so I could charge my phone while we played. The members were also all welcoming and proud of their below-the-radar gem of the golfing world.

By chance, as we were driving back to our B & B on the A171 we spotted the Hare & Hounds because there was smoke rising from the chimney on the chilly night we went by. Inside, it the most English of pubs, with regulars and visitors happily mingling in a lively atmosphere. The fireplace burns coal and the food is locally sourced and provided the perfect ending to a perfect day.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Kingsbarns Golf Links

New pictures updated from my recent trip to Kingsbarns. I like the course more every time I visit.

18th green
The exciting finishing hole at Kingsbarns Golf Links, Scotland

The first golden era of golf course design was in the 1920s when some of the best all time architects were alive and designing: Alister Mackenzie, Seth Raynor, A.W. Tillinghast, H.S. Colt and George Thomas. "The Roaring Twenties" were also a time of unprecedented global prosperity with markets booming around the world. Of the 100 top courses in the world an astonishing 28 are were built in the 1920s.

We are lucky to live in the new golden era of golf course architecture. Kingsbarns (ranked #65 in the world) is one of the new generation of courses that have graced the world in the 1990s and 2000s, specifically having been built in 1999. The new golden era is characterized by architects such as David Kidd, Tom Doak, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and Kyle Phillips, the designer of Kingsbarns. This new group has designed many new courses that rank in the top 100. This new generation of world-ranked courses follows a dearth in good design. During the entire forty year period between the 1940s and the 1970s, only nine courses were worthy of inclusion on the top 100 list, and most of them were toward the latter half of the period and were designed by Pete Dye.

Part of the reason we are in a new golf course design renaissance is the favorable economic environment we find ourselves. A new generation of multi-millionaires, fueled by entrepreneurship and rising real estate and capital markets, have had both the vision and the money to put together some of the these great new courses.

Kingsbarns, located in the Kingdom of Fife, south of St. Andrews in Scotland, is a course I like very much. I have been fortunate enough to have played Kingsbarns three times on two different trips.

1st fairway
The great 414-yard opening hole at Kingsbarns takes you right out to the North Sea

The course is varied and interesting and a lot of fun to play. A lot of land was moved to build the course and critics of Kingsbarns cite this as something that detracts from it, since it is not pure links land. Hogwash! The course is great and feels and plays like a links course.

3rd fairway 1
The 516-yard Par 5 third plays along the water and is a terrific hole

From my point of view, there really is no let-down at Kingsbarns. I find the opening holes to be very exciting. The third, in particular plays along the North Sea and is a great par five in the dunes. If your blood isn't pumping with excitement by the time you reach the third green you need to have your pulse checked. The green, seen below, is demanding. Be sure to avoid the deep bunker front, right.

3rd green
The third green at Kingsbarns

The fifth hole is a 424-yard par four that plays back toward the opening hole. Your approach shot is over some big humps, hollows and gorse, seen below. The hole's name, "Tassie", means small cup or goblet and refers to the punch bowl nature of the green.

  5th green
Approach to the fifth green at Kingsbarns

I have been keeping track of the greatest holes in the world as I progress through the courses, and Kingsbarns has a couple on my list. The driveable par four sixth hole is on the list.

  6th from tee 
The world-class driveable par four sixth hole at Kingsbarns

The sixth is 337 yards and the tee shot is over a little valley. The play is to the right since a strip of land protrudes out of the hillside. If you can hit your ball about 220-240 yards, it will ride the slope all the way down to the hole. A hole-in-one is possible and eagles are also in the offing. The hole's name "Auld Links" refers to the original 1793 Kingsbarns 9-hole course that existed near this part of the course.

6th green
The fantastic sixth green at Kingsbarns

The sixth green is set in a little cove, and as you expect from a short hole, the green is difficult with a lot of undulations. Laying up into the valley isn't really the play from my point of view, since it leaves you with a blind shot to the green. It is tons of fun to play this hole. The hole reminds me of the sixteenth at Royal County Down, because you have to hit your ball over a valley to land it on the green if you are going for it.

8th green 
Green on the par 3 eighth hole at Kingsbarns

The par three eighth hole, seen above, plays only 168 yards from the back tees and 132 from the front. It also plays down hill and possibly down wind as well. As you can see, the green is two tiers and the lower tier is 10-12 feet below the upper. A very good hole.

Memorable holes on the back include the par five twelfth hole that is often compared to the eighteenth at Pebble Beach, rightly so. In my opinion, the views at Kingsbarns are as good as those at Pebble Beach, as is the hole. Avoid the big bunker guarding the green on the left side. There are some old stone walls down on this part of the course too, which add to the charm.  I also like the par 3 fifteenth hole, which plays over water. And the long par 4 seventeenth hole has a diabolical green! 

What do I like so much about Kingsbarns? It has everything I like in a course:

1. An interesting routing, not just an out-and-back layout
2. Holes of varying length which test your skill on short shots as well as long. I'm not a big fan of having to hit 80% of your shots all day as long shots.
3. Six holes along the Ocean that rival any course in the world for scenic beauty
4. The ability to hit a variety of shots - bump and run, pitches, and a variety of wedge shots
5. Challenging but fair greens - some contoured significantly, some not, but appropriate for the size of the green and the type of hole
6. An intelligent use of terrain and elevation - some uphill shots, some downhill, but not overdone.

The course should rank higher in the world rankings in my view. It is, I believe, the first modern course worthy to be put on the rotation to hold an Open Championship. To me, the place the feel of a Scottish equivalent of Bandon Dunes.

About 80-90% of the people that play Kingsbarns are visiting Americans. They have a great caddie program as well and I recommend taking one. The clubhouse is great and I recommend the onion rings.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Members Only


Well, conditionally welcome, if your name is on our list. This month we feature a sampling of the guard gates, warning signs and protective fences guarding the elite golf courses of the world from the unwashed masses.

Pine Valley Golf Club, Clementon, NJ

Yeamans Hall, Charleston, SC

Southern Hills Country Club, Tulsa, OK

Seminole Golf Club, June Beach, FL

Sand Hills Golf Club, Nebraska

Quaker Ridge Golf Club, Scarsdale, NY

Oakland Hills Country Club, Bloomfield Hills, MI

Cape Kidnappers, New Zealand

The Country Club, Brookline, MA

Morfontaine, Senlis, France

Los Angeles Country Club, Los Angeles, CA

The Honors Course, Ooltewah, TN

Sebonack, Southampton, Long Island, New York

Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Southampton, Long Island, New York

Shinnecock's next door neighbor

Another private Hamptons gem!

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The First Man to Play the World's Top 100 Golf Courses

This is the tale of the first man to play the World's Top 100 Golf Courses in the world. A trial lawyer from New Orleans, Louisiana, he completed the task in a mere seven years. The editors of Golf Magazine played with him on his final round and presented him with a hand-lettered, framed list of his accomplishment.

His name is Jim Wysocki and he completed the task in 1986, two years before the next person to do so. Prior to golf magazines' publishing top 100 lists, Golf Magazine published the "50 Greatest Golf courses in the World." Wysocki also holds the distinction of being the first  to complete this initial list. He did so in 1982.

Jim Wysocki pictured in a Times-Picayune article from October 20, 1982

It took some time to find Jim's story, as he did it in the pre-Google/Internet era. I had to research the old fashioned way, looking at old newspapers in his home town. Some interesting things struck me: The article says that he somehow played three top 100 courses on three continents on one day in London, New York and Tokyo. Last time I checked flying to Japan crosses the date line in the wrong direction so I don't think he actually did it in one calendar day. It helps that Sunningdale, Garden City and Tokyo are close to the big city airports, and even if it wasn't in the same day, playing these three back-to-back-to back is still quite a feat! As a frequent traveler, I would love to be able to get one of the "good-conduct passes" he mentions to get through customs.

It was as hard to get onto Augusta for him as it is for everyone else. He also accomplished the task in the era before MapQuest and GPS technology. He planned the trips using paper maps!

Jim was also an amateur pilot and tragically he died in a Cessna plane crash in Louisiana in 1989, three short years after his accomplishment and in his early 50s. In his honor The James Wysocki Award is granted each year to students at Tulane who excel in Trial Advocacy.

As the unofficial keeper of the list of golfers who have completed playing the World's Top 100 Golf Courses we proudly add James Wysocki to the #1 position and pay tribute to his trailblazing. He accomplished quite a feat. Even today more men have been to the moon than have played the top 100 courses in the world. Many thanks to Top 100 golfers Randy Pace and Robert McCoy for cluing me into Jim's story.

James A. Wysocki - Golf Enthusiast and Pioneer

His story as told by by Ronnie Virgets of the Times Picayune on July 30, 1986:

New Orleans – Jim Wysocki is the first and only man to play every one of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Golf Courses in the World, and it has taken him seven years, about 9,000 strokes and a score of 1,800 over par to brag about it.

Tough audiences can consider some of the nuances of Wysocki’s feat. Since 1979, the 47 year old New Orleans lawyer has spent almost every weekend and vacation getting to golf courses like Royal dar-Es-Salam in Rabat, Morocco to Bali Handara in Bali, Indonesia. He’s shanked drives in Sardinia, buried six-irons in Sweden and rimmed putts in the Dominican Republic.

But it was the tricky seven-footer slightly up-hill on the 18th hole of the Yale University Golf Course that made Wysocki proudest.

A group from Golf Magazine, the guys who had started it all, showed up play with Wysocki in his final round. Publisher Pete Bonanni was there, with editor George Peper and writer Robin McMillan.

After Wysocki and teammate Bonanni won $2 on the round from Peper and McMillan, Peper gave the now-famous weekend golfer a framed list of all 100 courses with the dates he had played them, all hand lettered.

A picture of the list presented to Wysocki in 1986. From Times-Picayune July 30, 1986

On top was the legend, “To the only man to play each and every one of Golf Magazine’s top 100 Greatest Courses – presented July 3, 1986, with incredulity, by the editors.” “I looked up the dictionary definition of ‘incredulity’ when I got home,” Jim Wysocki said. “It says something about ‘an unwillingness to believe.’”

When he finished his seven-year task, “I had two completely opposing emotions,” Wysocki said. “The first was almost total depression; The biggest challenge of my life was now gone. The second was almost total exhilaration; As soon as that put dropped, I would be the only man in the world that had done it.”

He says he remembers having his putting concentration broken by the appearance of elephants from the game preserve adjacent to the Sun City course in Bophuthatswana, South Africa. And once he was chased from a water hazard at Shinnecock Hills by the biggest and fiercest swan in Southampton, NY.

Still not impressed? How about 299,000 miles logged in the completion. 12,000 of them by private plane and 3,000 more on the QE2? How about playing three different courses on three different continents on one day?

“My wife Christine says in so many words that I’ve got my priorities all screwed up,” Wysocki says. Mrs. Wysocki shouldn’t have been surprised, though. After all, it was her father, Gus Longoria, that gave Wysocki a taste for golf.

“I only played golf about a half-dozen times a year.” Gus was the one who pushed me into joining Metairie Country Club and starting to play regularly,” Wysocki says. “He wanted someone to play golf with.”

In 1979, Golf Magazine first published a blue-ribbon committee’s ranking of the world’s best golf courses. “It was only a top 50 list then, and we had already played about 10 of them,” said Wysocki. “And I figured, what the heck.”

Jim Sysocki moves with the self-assurance of one who feels firm in the king’s gratitude. He began collecting books about golf courses, about 400 of them. He soaked up golf history and architecture the way a well-kept green soaks up an afternoon shower. And he began ordering street maps of every city that housed a course on Golf Magazine’s list. “Part of my nature is to get into things with both feet,” Wysocki says with a straight face.

His favorite tale of compressed golf came on July 24th, 1984. On that day, he teed off on the first tee at Sunningdale, England at 5:08 a.m. By day’s end he had added rounds at Garden City, NY and Tokyo. “The Japan Air-Line people were great,” he recalled. “They arranged me good-conduct passes through immigration and customs, or else I wouldn’t have made it.”

The most memorable hole of them all? “That would be the 18th at St. Andrews,” Wysocki said without hesitation. “It ends just in front of the stone clubhouse that sits there imposing, majestic, site of all those British Opens. And there are always townspeople who come out and sit around the 18th green and watch the golfers come in.”

How to get onto Augusta National

The story of how he got onto Augusta from a Times-Picayune story on October 20, 1982:

“You can’t imagine how many avenues I took and I was turned down,” he says. He tried a former United States Attorney General and failed. A U.S. district judge and failed. A vice president of Lykes Brothers whose brother is a member and failed; a sportswriter and failed.
He finally accomplished the impossible in a round-about way. His wife Chistina’s sister introduced him to a couple who introduced him to their daughter whose husband is a doctor in Meridian, MS. The doctor has a sister in Augusta who is married to someone in the trucking business. His trucks are insured by a company whose vice president is Phil Harison. Phil Harison’s father is Montgomery Harison who helped found the club.
It was that easy. Got the picture?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Original Golf Magazine List of Greatest Courses

In the process of researching my next post I came across the original list that Golf Magazine published in October 1979. In fact, it was not a "top 100" list but was the "50 Greatest Golf Courses in the World". It wasn't until 1982 that Golf Magazine expanded the list to 100 courses.

For the golf crazed, it gives us something more to do. I have long been looking for a reason to go to Italy to play golf and this list provides the incentive. The Pevero Golf Course in Sardinia was designed by Robert Trent Jones in 1967 and is on the original list. It rates a passing note in the original limited edition Confidential Guide to Golf Courses by Tom Doak and notes that it was funded with money from the Aga Khan. Sadly, like many courses that are new and initially hyped, but fade from the lists, Pevero is now a footnote among the world's greatest courses (a 1960s version of the idiot Trump courses).

The Pevero Golf Course in Sardinia

There are some shocking absences from the original list including Sunningdale (Old), National Golf Links of America, New South Wales and Royal Portrush. Asia and the Mediterranean also rate a lot high than they do today.

The 1979 list, which is organized by geography and is not numbered:

United States
Augusta National
Baltusrol (Lower), Springfield, NJ
Butler National, Oak Brook, IL
Champions Golf Course, Houston, TX
Cypress Point, CA
Firestone Country Club (South), Akron, OH
Harbourtown, GC, Hilton Head, SC
Medinah #3, Medinah, IL
Merion (East), Ardmore, PA
Muirfield Village, Dublin, OH
Oakland Hills (South), Birmingham, MI
Olympic Club, San Francisco, CA
Pebble Beach
Pinehurst #2
Pine Valley Golf Club, Clementon, NJ
Riviera Golf Club, Pacific Palisades, CA
Seminole Golf Club, North Palm Beach, FL
Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Southampton, NY
Southern Hills CC, Tulsa, OK
Winged Foot (West), Mamaroneck, NY

Canada and Latin America
Club de Golf Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico
El Rincon Golf Club, Bogota, Columbia
Glen Abbey Golf Club, Oakville, Ontario, Canada

Britain and Ireland
Ballybunion, GC, County Kerry, Ireland
Carnoustie Links, Dundee, Scotland
Muirfield, Scotland
Portmarnock Golf Club, Dublin Ireland
Royal Birkdale, Southport, England
Royal County Down, Newcastle, Northern Ireland
Royal St. George's, Sandwich, England
St. Andrews (Old Course), St. Andrews, Scotland
Troon, Ayrshire, Scotland
Turnberry (Ailsa), Turnberry, Scotland
Wentworth, Surrey, England

Club de Golf Sotogrande (Old Course), Cadiz Spain
Pevero Golf Club, Sardinia, Italy
Real Club De Campo, Madrid, Spain
Royal Golf Rabat, Dar-es-Salam, Morocco

Pacific, Far East and South Africa
Bali Handara Golf Club, Bali, Indonesia
Hirono Golf Club, Kobe, Japan
Kasumigaseki (East), Tokyo, Japan
Kawana Golf Club (Fuji), Ito, Japan
Royal Durban Golf Club, Durban, South Africa
Royal Hong Kong Golf Club, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Royal Melbourne (Composite), Melbourne, Australia
Royal Selangor Golf Club (Old), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Singapore Golf Club (Bukit), Singapore
Taiwan Golf & Country Club, Taipei, Taiwan
Wack Wack Golf & Country Club (East), Manila, Philippines

Royal Golf Rabat, Dar-es-Salam, Morocco

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Greatest Day of Playing the Top 100 Golf Courses

The greatest day in the history of playing the world's top 100 golf courses was July 24, 1984.

More to come...

Apologies to my loyal readers for not posting of late. I have been unable to play of late on my doctor's orders recovering from surgery. My posts will resume with frequency later this year, but later this month a tale of joy and sadness for those following the quest to play the world's top 100 courses!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Royal North Devon - Westward Ho!

As you can see from the sign that hangs above its front door, Royal North Devon, originally known as Westward Ho!, is the oldest golf course in England. To put that in perspective, it was founded when Abraham Lincoln was President in 1864. Westward Ho! is the name of the village the course is located in, and the exclamation point is an integral part of its name. The village name comes from the title of Charles Kingsley's novel "Westward Ho!"

As part of my golfing pilgrimage to Devon and Cornwall I decided to pay a visit to Royal North Devon. As you can see from my photos, I didn't come for the weather; I hit a typical English grey day. In my St. Enodoc post I wrote about how the hedgerows in Cornwall were so severe that it was hard to drive. I spoke too soon. The hedgerows in Devon are even more stifling. Check out this one-lane road boxed in with hedges that I went through on my way to Royal North Devon. How you are to avoid head-on collisions driving like this is beyond my limited imagination.

Hedgerow in Devon

A hedgerow near Royal North Devon

When I got to the first tee box I could tell that something was up right away. You hit your first drive at Royal North Devon from an elevated tee box over a fence to a pasture area. The tee box is on private property but the rest of the course is not; it is on common land. To get to the first fairway you have to go through a fence with a difficult to open gate. The gate is to keep out animals. One of the things I like about the English is their eccentricity. Like the game of golf itself, the English are hard to figure out. Common land is one such thing. It has a complicated history, as does land ownership in Britain generally, but the concept of common land evolved from medieval times. In sum, it gives people and animals the right to use the land as if it were a public park! My friends at L.A.C.C., with their fancy guard gate and perimeter fence, just let out a collective sigh of relief. It's a good thing the New World doesn't have common land. The horror!

As I was walking down the first fairway I saw horse shoe marks all over and horses grazing to the left of the fairway. Not one or two impressions in the grass mind you, but quite a few hoof marks. Game on at Royal North Devon. This is going to be interesting.

Horseshoe marks on the fairway at Royal North Devon

The front nine plays near the water and the back nine through grass and marshland away from the water. The course is a classic out-and-back layout and does not route back to the clubhouse after nine. Similar to St. Andrews, the course is very flat and wide open.

The first hole is a 478-yard par five that eases you into the round. The second hole "Baggy" runs parallel to the ocean and is a 422-yard par four. I noticed that I had to walk very carefully at Westward Ho! because there are loads of rabbit scrapings on the front nine. Rabbit scrapings are little holes that rabbits dig in the ground to hide and stay protected. From what I could tell based on the number of scrapings, there are lots of rabbits in the vicinity.

The fourth hole is a "Cape" hole that plays 350 yards and doglegs sharply to the left. You can see the massive set of railway sleepers that line the bunker that you must hit over from the tee. This is a man-sized bunker that runs the entire width of the fairway and is at a higher level than the teeing ground.

RND 4-1

The view from the tee box on the 4th hole at Royal North Devon

Notice the poles and white cloth fences that protect the green as seen below. These are found on all the greens at Royal North Devon. Their purpose? To keep sheep and horses off the greens, of course!

RND 4th green

The green on the fourth "Cape" hole

Royal North Devon is a rough-hewn course and is not in the least bit polished. Therein also lies its charm. Playing at Royal North Devon is the antithesis of sitting in a golf cart for a five hour round waiting for the group ahead of you to line up their fourth putt. This is golf at its simplest and purest. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the common land, the course is a bit rough around the edges. There are also no yardage markers, but only simple grey rocks to mark off 150 yards. The greenskeeper here clearly doesn't have Augusta envy like almost all courses in the U.S. This is a course where you play the ball where it lies, commune with nature and go back to the game's roots. If golf is a metaphor for life, then Royal North Devon is its best example. It's not all neat and tidy. Rub of the green as it's called.

Horace Hutchinson describes the course in his book Golf in 1890, "The bunkers on St. Andrews links are for the most part well defined, but on many of the very best links, Carnoustie, Prestwick, Westward Ho!, Sandwich, there is a lot of loose ill-defined rubbish, the sandy out-blowings of bunkers, which is very hard indeed to play out of." His description is still apt.

A good illustration of this is the picture of the sixth hole from the tee box. This 408-yard par four plays along the ocean and has a fairway that is shaped by the natural slopes of all the dunes. The hole is completely exposed to the wind coming off the water.

RND 6th from tee

View of the par four 6th, "Alp" hole

As common land, Royal North Devon is open to the public at all times and the locals seem to have access from any and all directions. Along this hole and the ocean is a path where people are strolling about, walking dogs and enjoying the outdoors. There are signs all over the course reminding you, the golfer, that the walkers have the right of way. Even in the less than ideal weather, there were a lot of dog walkers.

Around the sixth hole I couldn't help but notice that I had been dodging poop the entire time I was walking the course. Loads of poop. Of various varieties. Rabbit, dog, horse and sheep were all present and accounted for. There are a lot of bowels moving out on the common lands at Royal North Devon! Not since playing Medinah have I seen so much fecal matter on a golf course.

In case you think I am exaggerating the issue with stool on the course, local rule #8 listed on the back of the scorecard is the "Embedded Ball and Heaped or Liquid Manure" rule. It reads, "A ball which lies in or touches HEAPED OR LIQUID MANURE may be lifted without penalty, cleaned and dropped..." I rest my case.

Royal North Devon also features a lot of blind tee shots. There are aiming poles on quite a few holes, especially on the back nine. The back nine plays away from the water and features an abundance of marshland grass as can be seen in the photo below. These grasses are called 'Great Sea Rushes' and you want to steer clear of them since they eat golf balls. Horace Hutchinson describes these "Rushes" as a "peculiar kind of long rush, very sharp and stiff pointed, which we sincerely hope to be peculiar to itself."

RND 11th tee

The aiming pole on the par four 11th hole

The thirteenth hole is a 442-yard par five named "Lundy." It is a unique hole in several regards. First, it is short for a par five. Second, it is really a sheep pasture masquerading as a fairway, and third, the green is diabolical.

RND 13-2

Sheep grazing on the 13th fairway at Westward Ho!

One of the original club rules, published in 1864, states, "As the Burrows are public pasture, great care must be taken not to drive, frighten or injure any horse, cattle, sheep or geese." I almost hit a sheep with my drive. It is hard not to. Luckily, my ball landed safely on the grass.

Left of the thirteenth fairway is grazing land for sheep. They obviously don't have any regard for where the grazing lands end and the golf course begins, so they graze wherever they please. The grazing is quite heavy on both the twelfth and thirteenth holes. I must say that not even at Brora in Scotland have I seen so many sheep on a golf course. This is not the occasional sheep mind you. There were hundreds on the hole as I played it, as you can see below!

RND 13-1

The full herd of sheep on the 13th green at Royal North Devon

If this isn't worth flying to England to see, I don't know what is? My yoga teacher has been emphasizing that I should not judge. Just take it in and accept it for what it is, she advises. This is the mindset you need when playing at Royal North Devon. Experience it for all its glory. Certainly, keep a keen eye out on where you step. Take a deep breath through the nose to stay in the present. Bring a towel to every green to wipe your ball before lining up your putt. Make sure you dodge the heaps of dung as you put your golf bag down. Strive for a tranquil state. Forget the conventional, be open to new things. Watch for rabbit holes and slippery poop. Let your mind and body be as one. Enter a state of serenity. Don't let the mind wander. After all, if I wanted to experience a cookie cutter set of golf courses I could have taken a trip to Myrtle Beach. Instead, I am expanding my horizons.

RND 13 green

The small, hard to hold green on the 13th hole at Royal North Devon

Have I digressed? Back to the golf hole. How do you make a very short par five a difficult hole? Put in an inverted saucer green, make it circular and only 25 feet in diameter. Holy shit (pun intented), was it hard! I am embarrassed to say that I four putted the darn thing after being 10 feet off the green in two.

To emphasize my point about the animals at Royal North Devon, this is how I found the seventeenth tee box as I walked to it. It had about a half dozen horses grazing and doing their droppings near by. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Royal North Devon is a trip!

RND 17th tee

The 17th tee at Royal North Devon

After you putt out on the 18th green, you leave the common land and go back through the fence to the civilized world of the clubhouse, safe from the animals. I immediately went to the ancient locker room at the conclusion of my round and washed my hands very well!

I am glad I made the trek to Royal North Devon. It has a rich and storied history. It was originally designed by Old Tom Morris and has hosted the British Amateur championship three times. I am a voracious reader and early golfing history frequently mentions many storied links courses often by their pre-Royal names. Specifically Prestwick, St. Andrews, Sandwich (Royal St. George's), Hoylake (Royal Liverpool) and Westward Ho! (Royal North Devon). That's some pretty lofty company Royal North Devon keeps. The other four courses have all changed quite a bit. You can't really visit Sandwich anymore, you are visiting Royal St. George's. The same with Hoylake. What a treat to be able to actually visit an old-school course like Westward Ho!

To be sure, Royal North Devon has some uninspiring holes. The eleventh, fifteenth and seventeenth come to mind, but on balance Royal North Devon is an experience worth having. There are at least a half dozen really good holes (the 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th, 13th and 16th).

The course received its "Royal" patronage from Edward the Prince of Wales in 1865. Edward was the son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He would go on to become King Edward VII. The Prince was indeed a golfer and laid out a course at Windsor. He was the first Royal to serve as Captain of the R & A. He also granted Royal status to both Dornoch and Portrush. The Prince/King led an active life outside of golf, and it is well known that he had many mistresses. A particularly virile monarch, it is rumored that he had at least 55 liaisons. His Majesty is pictured below. God save the King!

I mean no disrespect to the course or club at all with my descriptions of the course conditioning or the abundance of droppings. As my readers appreciate, I am simply pointing out facts and not trying to sell magazines or hype anything; thus I give the unvarnished truth. Not to point out such an obvious and plentiful set of facts would misrepresent an integral part of the experience here. Royal North Devon remains a true rarity. It offers the golfer the possibility to transport himself back 150 years and see what golf was like before it became a popular pastime and when it was played on common lands. The club is also very welcoming and accommodating to visitors, and the clubhouse is a veritable museum with its trophies, artwork and match boards showing results back 150 years.

I hope by the next time I visit they trim back some of those bloody hedge rows in Devon so I can see where I'm going!