Return to Scotland, A Trip of a Lifetime, September 1-21, 2017, Part I
In the past two years, Pat has gone to Great Britain…in 2015 to the Cotswolds and 2016 to go to the Chelsea Flower Show in London. I was not invited on either trip and was forced to do my best to find something to do. In 2015 that meant playing 27.5 different courses (half course being a nine holer) over a period of 24 days (Pat joined me for the last 7 days of the trip and we were rained out at Royal Porthcawl…it was pouring and I had played it decades ago, otherwise I for sure would have been out there). In 2016, I had to play 16.5 courses in 11 days, and then flew back home with Pat.
This year, Pat decided to go on a tour of castles and gardens near Edinburgh for 6 days…so I of course scheduled a 21-day trip (18.5 courses), leaving 8 days before Pat and then having Pat join me for the 5-6 days of golf after her tour. She subsequently decided to head across the pond with me and join me for the first 8 days of golf. And, our good friends from Toronto (whom we know from Pinehurst) John H. and his wife Cathy C. decided to join us (and at times just me) for the last 2 weeks of the trip.
Prior to this trip, I had visited GB&I for golf on some 17 trips totaling about 130-140 days and played 97 different golf courses. Being almost 73 years old, one does not know how long before the legs give out…so I decided to treat this trip as if it was my final trip to Scotland. I listed four courses I had not played, five that I had only played once, and eight old great ones that I certainly wanted to play for potentially the last time. Before I knew it, I had an itinerary with 19 courses on it, including 5 of the 14 that have hosted an Open Championship.
We flew to Glasgow with a change in planes in Dublin and arrived the morning of Saturday, September 2. After a short drive south to our hotel in Troon (it was way too early for our room to be ready), we headed further south to Trump Turnberry for our first round of golf of the trip (interestingly, Pat and I were at Turnberry in July 2008; it was our last stop on our honeymoon).
Trump Turnberry Resort and Golf Club-Ailsa, September 2, 2017: Originally opened in 1906 and designed by Willie Fernie, Turnberry and its luxury hotel served as an airbase and military hospital during both World Wars. The Ailsa course was restored by Mackensie Ross and reopening in 1951 and has hosted the Walker Cup in 1963, the Amateur Championship 4 times, the Senior Open Championship 7 times, the Woman’s Open Championship in 2002, and The Open Championship four times:
o in 1977 (the Open which made Turnberry famous) which became known as “The Dual in the Sun” between Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus and they went head to head for the last 36 holes playing brilliant golf (and leaving the rest of the field in their wake) with Watson victorious by a single stroke;
o in 1986, won by Greg Norman for his first of two Open wins;
o in 1994, won by Nick Price; and
o in 2009, won by Stewart Cink in a playoff against 59 year old Tom Watson…in what was almost one of the greatest moments in sports history.
Donald Trump purchased the resort in 2014. He immediately put architect Martin Ebert to work on a renovation of the Ailsa. Put simply, the results are brilliant. I probably had played Ailsa at least 5 times previously, and while it was always a superb course, its conditioning was always “not quite right” and it had several awkward holes…in particular #9 and #18. Ebert shortened the par 3 6th hole, which allowed the 18th be become a straight away 485 yard par 4 headed straight inland towards the iconic hotel (previously, the 18th used a tee from Turnberry’s second course which resulted in an awkward hole with too sharp of a dogleg left). He also converted the par 4 9th into a 248 yard par 3 over a deep gorge to a green set slightly above tee height and over a long gorge. This eliminated a questionable 9th…even with its spectacular drive...and made it possible to change the 10th into a 565 downhill par 5 with a superb green setting. Other holes with major improvements are 8, 11, 14, and 17. The Ailsa now plays to a hefty 7489 yards from the tips (par 71…and most likely as a par 70 for an Open). It is both a very tough course and a very fair course. IMO it will make a superb Open venue.
|View down Turnberry's #18 toward hotel...see wind whipping Scottish flag!|
Ailsa has appeared on every World Top 50 and 100 list I have found (43 to date in total), and had been as high as #3 on UK’s Golf World in 2010 and #5 on Top100golfcourses.com in 2011. Golf Magazine’s 2017 list (release in early September) placed it at #16 worldwide, well up from its #23 in 2015. My own personal opinion would place it around #12 worldwide. And for those of you who claim I only rate highly the courses on which I play well, please note that I had a smooth 45-47 = 92…which may have been influenced by some jet lag, and strong southerly wings (20-25mph).
We did not stay in the hotel but heard it is now quite the place…and the lighthouse is now converted into a luxurious room and half-way house for the course (the latter is considerably cheaper than the former which is rumored to go for about $5,000/night).
|Pat and moi on 9th tee with lighthouse and 9th green (far right of pic)|
After the round we had a quick dinner at Turnberry and drove back to Troon…it was great to get to bed!! Note the pic below…our room at The Troon Marine Hotel was the same room occupied by Arnold and Winnie Palmer when he won The Open at Troon in 1962.
|Outside our room at Troon Marine Hotel...where the King stayed in 1962|
Western Gailes Golf Club, September 3, 2017: Western Gailes is about 7 miles north of Troon along Scotland’s west coast and lies right next to the same commuter train line that runs alongside Troon’s 11th hole and Prestwick’s 1st. It was founded in 1897 and has a long history as a qualifying site for The Open Championship and hosted a Curtis Cup Match in 1972.
I had played Western Gailes once before in 1981. A few years prior, the club had rebuilt holes 3-5 having lost the land that housed the original holes 3-5 to make way for a new road at the north end of the club. At the time there was almost no vegetation alongside these new holes and they looked completely out of place. Somehow, 36 years can make quite a difference. Today, these holes look they have been there since 1897.
The layout of WGGC is very simple…the property is a long thin sliver of land between the Irish Sea to the west and the commuter railway line to the east. The clubhouse lies on the eastern edge and holes 1-4 head north (to the right as you exit the rear of the clubhouse), then holes 5-13 head south, and 14-18 back north. The prevailing wind is out of the south (as it was this day), the stretch from 5-13 seems to never end and tests the golfer’s stick-to-itiveness. WGGC plays to 7014 yards from the back (par 71).
The weather this day was awful. The weather all trip was not great and this day was the worst. It rained for about 13-14 of the 18 holes and the wind blew at about 15mph in mid-50’s temps. Pat had the brains to stay back at the hotel…but as most of you know, good judgment is a rare commodity in my brain. After a solid par on #1 it was downhill from there and I finished the day with an 89. These were very tough conditions and this is a very tough course. Additionally, true links golf is tough to get used to….and while I have played a fair amount in my lifetime, playing it only occasionally is not the same as living here. The lies are very very tight, and you need to know how the land moves in detail because the game here is played mostly on the ground (as opposed to in the air in the USA). The greens and fairways are very firm and the ball can run and run and run (especially with the wind)…so when hitting to the green, you need to understand the shape of the ground from 10-20 yards short of the green all the way to the cup…does, it move up or down, left or right? It takes a bunch of rounds to gain and retain that knowledge.
Best holes are probably:
#6--a short par 5 of 498 yards, turning right off the tee to create a fabulous Cape driving holes to a tight fairway (much less room right than it seems on the tee) and a tough approach to a deep (38 yards) narrow green (at one point 7 yards wide);
#7—198 yard par 3 alongside the Irish Sea; another deep (31 yards) green that is very narrow up front (9 yards wide) and guarded by 6 bunkers;
#17—470 yard par 4 turning left; tee shot must thread fairway bunker left and railway line right…then approach is blind over a long dune cutting diagonally across fairway.
Overall this is a great, tough, fair golf course, which unfortunately is overshadowed by its more famous neighbors along the west coast (Prestwick, Troon, and Turnberry). Well worth a visit if you are on the west coast.
St. Andrews, The Old Course, September 4, 2017: When I first started planning this trip, September seemed to be the ideal time. I later learned (too late to make a change), that September is the worst time if you want to play The Old Course and/or Muirfield. The R&A holds their Fall Meeting in September and other important golf organizations hold major events in Scotland in September as many of their members/participants are planning to go to the Fall Meeting. As a result, available “slots” at The Old Course and Muirfield are much more limited. While I was able to schedule times at both, I was very fortunate to be able to do so, and the dates meant that Pat could not join me and/or required long drives to get there and back. The Old Course looked truly impossible until I was introduced to Simon Holt from Connoisseur Golf, an agency that packages high end trips to Scotland. Simon is trying to finish a World 100 list and we had talked a couple of times about his remaining courses, etc. He lives in North Berwick and belongs to North Berwick GC, but his official office is in St. Andrews. When I asked him about the possibility of playing The Old Course, he was not encouraging but later contacted me to advise that Connoisseur had a threesome scheduled to play it 9/4 at 1pm…with room for as 4th. That was before Pat decided to leave on 9/1 instead of 9/9. So when she decided to go over with me, we knew she could not play TOC that day.
We left Troon around 8:30am and arrived about 11:15 for lunch with Simon. I had hosted him back in June at Brookline and he is just a great guy. Loves the silly game of golf and makes a living at it while arranging fabulous trips for other golfers…what could be better? We arrived at the first tee around 12:30 and hung out in anticipation of our start. There I met my three playing partners, two from Calgary and one from Vancouver…all good guys. I have been fortunate enough to play TOC about 10 times (first time in 1970), and trust me…it never never gets old. There is no feeling in the game like teeing off in front of the R&A on the #1 tee…except the feeling one gets putting out on #18!!
After a good drive on #1, I dumped 6-iron into the Swilken Burn for a double, then settled down and played well on the rest of the front nine, until fading on the back to a 41-44 = 85. There were three pieces of good news. First, I started making crisp contact with most of my long shots, and started putting well…and I parred both 17 and 18 which made me feel great. Pat walked the town and later caught us as we were playing 17. The round was interrupted about 3 times by rain squalls but the weather was much improved from Sunday.
|On the Swilken Bridge off 18th tee with me bride...last time here July 4, 2008. Smiling because am with her (and my par on 17).|
I presume I don’t have to list TOC’s championships or World 100 rankings. But to put it simply, it has hosted:
29 Open Championships
16 Amateur Championships
8 Walker Cup Matches
1 Curtis Cup Match
1 Senior Open Championship (2018)
World Top 100’s:
All 43 lists…two placed it #1, 18 (of 41) placed it in top 5, 35 (of 41) placed it in top 10, and 42 placed it in top 15…never lower than #20.
This course had no original architect, is (IMHO) the most important course in history in terms of architecture (it represents the definition of strategic architecture), is almost as flat as a pancake but the land is wonderfully rumpled, been played by every great professional and amateur player in the history of the same except Ben Hogan, has hosted more men’s majors than any other course save Augusta National, is simply fun and a joy to play, takes dozens of round to start to understand, continues to confound some of the best players in the world without being tricked up...and does all of the above after several centuries of play!! Simply amazing and truly unbelievable!!
Others have described individual holes better than I ever could…and this information is readily available on the web…so go research it, or better yet, make the trek and play it. You will most likely hate it at first, but it is an amazing experience.
After the round, Pat and I had dinner at a wonderfully simple Italian restaurant in town…Little Italy…well worth a visit.
And then we had a 2:20 drive back to Troon…not fun but worth every second!
Prestwick Golf Club, September 5, 2017: Unfortunately after a long day on Monday, we had a tee time at 8:30 at Prestwick Tuesday morning (as we had a flight out of Glasgow airport at 5:10pm that evening).
Prestwick GC was founded in 1851. For those of you who are not aware, Prestwick hosted the first 12 Open Championships from 1860-72 (was not played in 1871…more later) and then an additional 12 times (24 in total) with the last time being 1925. Prestwick’s original course contained 12 holes, and was expanded to 18 holes in 1883. The Open, crowds, and all the logistics involved (even then) had outgrown Prestwick’s limited space.
After our round, the Club’s Secretary, Ken Goodwin was kind enough to show Pat and me around the clubhouse and afford us the opportunity to view some of the original scorecards and other artifacts from early Opens. When the Open was first played in 1860, the winner was awarded possession of the Championship belt for one year…with the belt being permanently awarded to any person winning the Open three consecutive years. After Young Tom Morris did just that in 1868, ’69, and ’70, the Open was cancelled for 1872 until another award could be developed. As an aside, in 1870 (still using the 12 hole course), Young Tom Morris played the first hole…578 yards in length…in three strokes using hickory shafts and gutta-percha balls. Think about that for a minute or two.
The Gold Medal first was awarded to Young Tom Morris when he won again in 1872 (and has been awarded to the winner every year since). In 1873 the “Claret Jug” (officially known as the Golf Champion Trophy) was first awarded to the winner (although Young Tom Morris’ name is also engraved on it for his 1872 victory).
Prestwick organized the Open until 1871. The funds for the Claret Jug were paid jointly by Prestwick Golf Club, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, and The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (Secretary Goodwin showed us the actual invoices between these clubs), and these three clubs administered The Open from 1871 through 1920, when the R&A took over total responsibility for the event. From 1872-93 The Open rotated between the home courses of these three clubs (The Old Course, Prestwick, and Musselburgh…until The HCEG moved to Muirfield in 1892). In 1894 the Open was held in England for the first time at St. George’s GC (today’s Royal St. George’s GC).
Those of you who wish to know more of the history of golf in Scotland between 1850 and 1880 or so should read Tommy’s Honour, or see the movie of the same name released earlier this year, or better yet, do both.
Today’s Prestwick plays to 6908 yards from the tips, and is simply a delightful course to play. I was most pleased to see Prestwick included in Golf Magazine’s World Top 100 this year (at #100) for the first time. It has been on 13 of the 43 World Top 100 listings I have found, and has consistently been in the 30-35 range on Darius Oliver’s Planet Golf and was #59 on The Golf Architects survey. It demands clear thinking, knowledge of the layout (given the 5 or so blind shots), at times precise accuracy, and patience. For those of you who have been to our home in Pinehurst, the 12th tee at Prestick is the stage for that photo of me at the top of my backswing, in semi-perfect position with Ben Crenshaw looking on. That photo (which I had blown up as large as it could) might well be included in the world’s largest bonfire Pat is planning should she outlast me…with all my old scorecards and yardage books making up the bulk of the fire. Brian Morgan…thank you again for that photo!
Our play was interrupted by rain squalls several times again, but we were getting quite good at quickly donning and removing rain jackets! My start of double bogey/birdie was typical of the round and I ended with a 43-43 = 86.
After the round was the fascinating tour conducted by Ken Goodwin, then off to Glasgow airport for a flight to Islay (one of the islands off Scotland’s west coast) and then drive/ferry ride/drive to the adjoining island of Jura. More in next post.