Like Rome, Sheffield is built on seven hills. High on one of them, on the cusp of the Peak District National Park, you’ll find the beautiful Hallamshire Golf Club.
Perhaps you haven’t heard of it before now – unlike Italy, this has never been a part of the world comfortable shouting too loudly about itself – but rather like the city of Sheffield itself, this is a golf club with so much more to it than first meets the eye.
Stereotypes of Sheffield as a grim, dark place dominated by industry are horribly outdated.
With 30% of the city in the Peak District, it has more trees per person than any metropolis in Europe. It’s now a place of genuine colour and creativity, with artists, designers, top chefs and craft brewers coming together to forge a charming, vibrant new version of Sheffield.
Fortunately for us, it also boasts a truly wonderful golf course. And Hallamshire Golf Club really does reflect the modern city it so proudly represents. Situated three-and-a-half miles from the city centre, the club still feels very much part of Sheffield as you pull off a busy suburban street and into the club with little hint of the magic to come.
There is no long, winding driveway and the clubhouse, while beautifully-appointed, could not be described as grand. But Sheffield is a place which has always prioritised substance over style and from the moment you set foot in the Hallamshire you begin to feel that.
There’s a rare brand of kindness here. Sheffield was once described as a city of people who immediately behave as if they’ve been putting up with you for years – like a warm hug that never judges you. And that feels like a fitting description of the Hallamshire experience – which on and off the course, is nothing short of a delight.
As we enter the pro shop, we’re welcomed like friends. The highly-respected head professional, Joe Froggatt, is talking us through Hallamshire’s stellar list of former pros whose footsteps he is following in – John Jacobs and Pete Cowen both started their careers here – when a member comes in wearing shorts on what is a pretty fresh autumnal day.
“Whatever the weather, however cold it gets, I wear shorts until the clocks go back,” he says with a smile and a spring in his step. We found that warmth and good humour the rule, rather than the exception – a warmer welcome you’ll be hard pushed to find.
The Hallamshire experience is, however, so much more than a friendly smile.
Like the people of Sheffield, the course gets straight to the point. The first four holes is the toughest opening stretch in Yorkshire: from the black tees you’re faced with a 468-yard par 4, a 196-yard par 3, a 428-yard par 4 and 460-yard par 4 – all into the prevailing wind.
But then you remember this is the place where Matthew Fitzpatrick, world No 20 at the time of writing, honed his craft. And you realise it must provide even the best with a stern test. Matthew remains actively involved with the club and clearly cares about its continued success.
In recent years he put forward the idea for a new back tee on the par-4 11th, which the club did once they saw what Matthew had envisioned for the hole. His tour bags and many trophies, including a replica of the historic US Amateur, add a unique sparkle to the clubhouse. His brother Alex, a Walker Cup star in his own right, also grew up on the fairways. So too Alison Nicholas, the Solheim Cup captain and former US Open champion.
No wonder then, the hand-cut greens are as true and quick as anything in Yorkshire – Ganton and Alwoodley included. We could have written a piece purely about the putting surfaces, which add another dimension to the challenge. They should never be taken for granted, as we found to our cost on the first green. They are, however, consistent, fair and delightfully true – nothing short of a joy to putt on, once you gauge the pace. Course manager Gordon Brammah, who retires later this year, deserves enormous credit.
The land on which the course is built, once part of the Duke of Norfolk’s estate, ebbs and flows from the relatively flat opening to a truly wonderful run of holes beginning with the 193 yard, par-3 6th which takes you to the edge of the Peak District, with views across the wide-open spaces towards Loxley and the legend of Robin Hood.
This part of the course, taking in the 6th, 7th, 8th and short 9th, is Hallamshire’s Amen Corner – beautiful, challenging, memorable. The 11th and 13th are also highlights and just as you think the course becomes a little more predictable towards the end of your round, the 134 yard par-3, 17th – named Quarry – delivers a delightful and unexpected surprise.
The history of the club is rich and fascinating too. In 1899, six-time Open champion Harry Vardon played Alexander ‘Sandy’ Herd, himself a winner of the Claret Jug, in an exhibition match which put Hallamshire on the map. The history of that match and of this club, warrants another article all of its own – next time, perhaps. But what then of the present?
That connection with Sheffield itself is more than just words. Dan Walker, the BBC TV presenter and my former colleague at BBC Sport, is a member at Hallamshire. He has felt the support of the club in staging his hugely successful ‘Walker Cup’ charity golf days over the years, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for the wonderful Sheffield Children’s Hospital and bringing the great and good from sport and entertainment to the club.
Dan is out on the course on the day we visit and stops to chat on the 3rd fairway as he tunes up for another charity golf day, this time for the cancer charity Weston Park. He is very much like everything else about the club – genuine, friendly and passionate about his golf and the city of Sheffield. Nothing here is done for effect or show. There is a tangible sense of authenticity to the experience – on and off the golf course.
Sheffield isn’t Rome but this isn’t a city or a golf club trying to be like anywhere else – it simply wants to be the best version of itself and that might just be the secret at the heart of the Hallamshire experience and its unquestionable allure.
There is an inescapable sense of class about everything which makes Formby so special.
You feel it from the moment you turn off Victoria Road, one of Merseyside’s most exclusive enclaves, and into Golf Road which wends its way towards the grand old clubhouse. You feel it in the warmth of the welcome, you sense it as you take in the history that hangs from the walls of the clubhouse and shimmers in the impressive trophy cabinets.
The golf course is, as you’d expect, majestic. Even when you’re in the clubhouse it’s hard to take your eyes off it. It waits beyond the windows, with all its natural wonder, to challenge and beguile you.
Formby would not, of course, be the club it is without it, but when you combine that extraordinary layout with everything else here, it adds up to a truly world-class experience.
Our greatest challenge in writing this was not finding interesting things to include, but deciding what to leave out and store away for another day.
You could write a book about Formby Golf Club. It is steeped in so many wonderful stories, great characters and significant moments and each warrant recognition in their own right.
Walk through the doors of the clubhouse and up on the wall to your left you will find an honours board detailing Formby’s role in hosting the biggest events in amateur golf – from The Amateur Championship itself, to the Curtis Cup, Brabazon Trophy and Arnold Palmer Cup in 2016.
Walk up the grand staircase and you will come upon a vast trophy cabinet which holds trophies bearing the name of Bobby Jones and photographs of the iconic American with his father. The long-standing relationship between Formby and The Atlanta Athletic Club, where Jones grew up playing the iconic East Lake course is well-documented.
Along the corridor is the snooker room, which dates back to 1901 and is a portal to a bygone era. Inside you’ll find two of the oldest tables in the country, as well as priceless artefacts, including hickory clubs, and memorabilia from each of the Amateur Championships the club has hosted. There is a tangible ambience to the room even when it’s empty. John Parrott, the 1991 World Snooker Champion, is a member here and has spent many hours on the Formby baize both practising and playing exhibitions against the likes of Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor to name but two.
In the two club bars downstairs, there are more stories. You’ll find photographs of two victorious Ryder Cup captains, Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie, battling it out in the final of the 1984 Amateur Championship, the Spaniard a 5&4 winner. There is also signed memorabilia from Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer to mark their visits. There are maps which tell the story of the coastal erosion which has forced the club to move the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th holes inland over the years. The ocean is swallowing up two and a half metres per year but Formby have been proactive. Working with renowned golf architects Mackenzie & Ebert the club are planning as far ahead as 2085.
And that is to say nothing of the history of the clubhouse, which burnt down in 1899 and was rebuilt in 1901. Joseph Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line – the Liverpool shipping company that built the Titanic – donated the clubhouse clock in 1909 to celebrate the club’s 25th birthday. Ismay was one of 325 men to survive the sinking.
There is the 81-year relationship between Formby Golf Club and the King’s Regiment, now the Duke of Lancaster’s, and the key role both the club and the regiment played in repelling the German invasion during World War II. And the story behind Formby twice turning down the chance to be known as Royal Formby – another yarn to revisit.
How best then to tell the story of what it’s really like to play this golf course? One tale stood out both for its historical significance and its relevance to the experience of playing Formby today. It centres on Siegfried Sassoon, who alongside Wilfred Owen is one of the two most celebrated poets of the First World War. Born in Kent in 1886, those who fought alongside Siegfried said he knew no fear and fought with incredible courage on the Western Front.
He was injured in battle and during his convalescence played at Formby with Robert Graves, another celebrated war poet. “Clotherland had accessible compensations,” Siegfried wrote. “One of them was the golf course at Formby. The electric train took only 20 minutes and Formby was famous for its bracing air, comfortable club house and superlatively good war-time food. I went there at least one afternoon a week, usually I played alone and often I had the links to myself, which was no disadvantage, since I had always been considerably addicted to my own company.”
Graves also committed those memories to paper. “Officers of the Royal Welch were honorary members of Formby Golf Club. Siegfried and I went there often. He played golf seriously, while I hit a ball alongside him … I limited myself to a single iron. My mis-hits did not matter. I played the fool and purposely put Siegfried off his game.”
Siegfried was, in truth, off his game for the rest of his life as he struggled to escape the sights and sounds of the Great War. It haunted him like it did so many others. Poetry provided an outlet for his anger. In June 1917 he wrote a letter, published in The Times, claiming the war was being deliberately prolonged by the government. It sparked outrage. Only the intervention of Graves, who insisted his friend was not sound of mind, prevented a court-martial.
Siegfried withdrew from military service and died at the age of 80. It was always said, the only place where the guns fell silent in Siegfried’s own mind, was when he spent time walking the fairways of Formby Golf Club.
If you walk in his footsteps, you will understand why. There is an extraordinary sense of peace here, a stillness to it, a calm, a silence. It’s as if the troubles of the world fade away among the dunes, the heather and the pine. All you are left with is the sound of your own thoughts, of the birdlife above and, if you’re lucky, the sight of a red squirrel or two.
As you play the stretch from the 5th to the 15th, which hit rare heights of quality and originality, you do so in almost an other worldly place. Each hole has that sense of peace and stillness. At least it did for us. If you get the chance, walk up to the back tees on the 9th and take it all in. The hole laid out before you, the Irish Sea forward and right, the smell of pines, the silence. It’s a sensation that is, quite honestly, hard to put into words. You have to feel it.
Siegfried is just one of Formby’s extraordinary library of stories. This will not be the last article we write on the club, there is too much to say. But we hope it gives you a flavour of what makes this place so unique.
Formby may sit on England’s golf coast – unquestionably the best stretch of golf courses in the land – alongside Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham and the likes of Hillside and Southport & Ainsdale – but when you start to scratch the surface of everything that goes into making Formby what it is, you also begin to understand why there is no sense of inferiority here. It does not need a royal title to stand out. This place does that all by itself.
Many years ago, an American advice columnist known as Ann Landers, attempted to define what it was to have class. “Class is comfortable in its own skin. It never puts on airs, never tries to build itself up by tearing others down. It can walk with kings and keep its virtue and talk with crowds and keep the common touch. Everyone is comfortable with the person who has class because he is comfortable with himself. If you have class, you’ve got it made.”
If that is to be the definition, then Formby Golf Club certainly has it made.
Ever since the great Dr Alister MacKenzie – the man who would go on to design Augusta National – became a founder member here in 1907, there has been a sense that devotion has been sewn into the springy fairways and perfect greens at this Leeds golf club.
Not only is that the case out on this truly wonderful Yorkshire golf course, where the club has gone to great lengths to retain the hallmarks of strategy, variety and natural beauty that were cornerstones of Mackenzie’s design. But it’s also the case among the people working here.
On the day we visit, secretary Julie Slater stops to say hello just as she is showing her successor around after 25 years at the club. She is not leaving – no-one really leaves – only changing roles. In the pro shop, where we receive a warm welcome, John Green has been head professional of Alwoodley for 31 years. It’s a story replicated throughout the club.
There’s a sense among them all that, once you’re here, why go anywhere else? “Long before the Covid-19 bubble, there was the Alwoodley bubble,” says Julie.
“We are in a busy city but once you are through the gates, all that disappears. You feel like you are transported to a more peaceful place. That makes Alwoodley a unique experience for members and visitors alike. There’s a stillness to it. It’s something we all feel here.”
Alwoodley doesn’t need to shout loudly about anything. This golf club exudes a quiet confidence in everything it does, safe in the knowledge that it’s home to a truly majestic inland course – undoubtedly one of England’s best. And as you pull in past the imposing clubhouse you feel delightfully cut off. The pace slows, as does the pulse. No-one rushes, no-one needs to.
Much of that may stem from the people who work here. Happy people, lots of them. There is a togetherness about Alwoodley which is noticeable in the warmth of everyone you cross paths with.
“The staff almost feel like family and that is partly because so many of us have been here for so long,” Julie adds. “We really are a team. You leave your family at home. And come here to your Alwoodley family.
“Before Covid we held regular staff barbecues out by the course. It was a way of everyone understanding what each other does and doing it on the course meant those who weren’t always able to get out there could see what we were doing, the small changes we were making and ultimately the reason we are all here. That has bred an attitude where everyone is prepared to turn their hand to everything.”
John in the pro shop is a case in point. He’s open and friendly, not just to us but to every visitor who appears at the door of his shop. The course record here at Alwoodley has been broken twice in recent years. It was lowered to 64 by Walker Cup player Stiggy Hodgson in Open qualifying and then to 63 by Harry Hall en route to second place at the 2019 Brabazon Trophy. What about John’s best round over the past 31 years?
“I’ve shot 64 twice,” he says with a smile. “The first time was with a lady playing her very first round of golf. She must have wondered why I was paying so much attention to every shot as we got further and further into the round,” he says with a chuckle.
It’s a sunny day and I’ve forgotten my trusty cap. John patiently helps me pick one out. And then another. None fit my frankly enormous bonce. John explains that each one I try will need to go into Covid quarantine for a week. I call it quits, partly because I feel a bit guilty that hats will get lonely in quarantine, but partly because no hat here is going to fit, no matter how hard I try.
Despite the cap tomfoolery there is no sense that this pro shop is only for those ‘in the club’, it is simply a nice place to be. As is the sprawling practice ground, which is the kind of place you dream of spending a summer’s day getting better.
And what of the course? Well, this is the place where Mackenzie first turned his hand to course design, having been both secretary and captain here. For all my talk of loyalty here, perhaps it’s ironic that it turned out there would be no lifelong relationship between Alwoodley and Mackenzie. He left the club under a cloud in 1930, having been told he was no longer welcome following the breakdown of his marriage to Edith, who served as the ladies’ honorary secretary from 1914 to 1936.
Alwoodley’s loyalty was afforded to her, while Mackenzie boarded the boat to America in 1930 with his second wife, Hilda. He would go on to design 99 more golf courses during his life, in the UK, US and Australia. Three of them, Augusta, of course, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne, are in the world’s top 10 golf courses.
Alwoodley though, is the original. And the course has clues all through it of what was to come from Mackenzie. The par-5 10th here is the blueprint for the iconic 13th at Augusta, for instance. But this is not a course in need of a signature hole. It doesn’t need to try that hard. The fairways are framed by vivid purple heather and relentless heathland which runs for miles. It doesn’t have a bad hole. There are no weak links, it’s consistently excellent, never dipping below that to simply good.
Red kites soar overhead and roe deer are regularly spotted running across the fairways. If you haven’t heard of Alwoodley, then those who have are probably happy for it to stay that way. Those in the know may not thank me for saying it, but this is a golf course that should be high on your must-play list. The golf course is, of course, the centrepiece. But in truth, Alwoodley has it all.
As you walk off the magnificent par-4 18th and take it all in with a cold drink on the sprawling terrace overlooking the first tee and 18th green, it isn’t hard to understand where that deep-seated sense of loyalty to Alwoodley comes from. We were feeling it after 18 holes, never mind 18 years.
He was small, pretty slight and didn’t hit the ball as far as me. Sure, he had a classic Hogan-esque swing, shaped the ball both ways and had a short game to die for, but I could deal with this guy. Or so I thought.
“Hi, I’m Ben Smith, good to meet you,” I said as we swapped scorecards before our round.
I played well that day. Really well. I drove the ball beautifully, my iron shots were pure, I even chipped and putted nicely. But it wasn’t good enough.
By the turn I was three shots behind Donald and what made my frustration all the more acute was that he was clearly upset with the way he was playing, despite being one under par. By the time we shook hands on the 18th, he was five shots better than me on the card and went on to win the tournament at a canter. And, as in turns out, many more to come.
I finished in the top five but I was disconsolate. My mum came to pick me up in the car and all I could say to her over and over again was: “If I can’t beat the guy who goes to school in the next town, how can I possibly think I could I win The Open?”
I often wish I could travel back in time to that point and tell my 14-year-old self that the young guy who I had finished five shots behind would go on to become the world’s No 1 golfer, the world matchplay champion and a Ryder Cup hero. Not to mention the £20 million-plus he has earned in prize money.
By the time I played in the same event a year later at Beaconsfield Golf Club, Donald was even better and my interest had begun to wane.
He left the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe to take up a golfing scholarship at Northwestern University in Chicago and the next time I saw him he was on the television and on his way to becoming one of only a handful of rookies to win $1 million (some £620,000) in his first season on tour.
What does it all mean? Well, it means I get to pretend and daydream that I could, perhaps, have also been a few shots behind Luke when he was World No 1. The truth, of course, is that Mr Donald may, in reality, have saved me at least a decade of frustration pursuing a dream that would have most likely ended with disappointment. But we can all dream, right?
This article was originally published in The Times of London when one of our Wandering Golfers, Ben Smith, was a sports writer and editor for the award-winning newspaper.
In these parts, the story goes that during the 1950s Huddersfield was home to the highest number of Rolls-Royces per capita than anywhere else on the planet, save Beverley Hills.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the wool trade meant there was extraordinary wealth, prestige and opulence here. None of that is hard to believe as you drive through the gates of Huddersfield Golf Club and emerge from the woodland and onto the Fixby Estate.
In front of you lies a hugely impressive golf course and, at its centre, Fixby Hall, the imposing grade-2 listed manor house which acts as a grand clubhouse today. “It’s a magnificent sight,” says Eva Lambert, chairman of the club. “You see almost all of our wonderful front 9 right there in front of you on that drive into the club. It never gets old. It’s really special.”
Its first professional for instance, Alex Herd, was Open champion in 1902. Back then members would describe how the now lush green course would be turned black by the smoke pumped into the Yorkshire skies by the mills scattered across this valley. There were no showers for golfers to use in the clubhouse at the time but there were foot baths as so many would find they had black, ash-coated feet, when they came to change shoes at the end of a round.
James Braid, JH Taylor and Henry Cotton – a trio who won The Open 13 times between them – were visitors to Fixby in the early days while another Open champion, Roberto de Vicenzo, visited a little later. The Argentine is a part of Fixby folklore having found the green in two on the par-5 5th from a fairway bunker some 220 plus yards out. “And the story goes that he got there with a 5-iron. I don’t think those who saw it will ever forget it.” says club president Mike Webb. Mike is our host and guide on our visit to Fixby.
He is naturally gregarious, warm and funny. He has seen it all and it’s hard to imagine a better ambassador for this golf club. He joined Huddersfield in 1967 aged 13. Both he and his younger brother Charles have been captain and president. Sport was always in the blood with their father Yorkshire tennis champion and their mother having appeared at Wimbledon.
Mike recalls Gary Player various visits to Fixby, the first visit coming in the Leeds Cup in the 1950s. Player takes up the story. “As I came to the last, I needed 5 to win the tournament. There was a stone wall and I thought that I could bank my shot off the wall on to the green. I went for it and the ball hit me in the jaw and knocked me down. They gave me some smelling salts. Dazed, I then chipped the ball on to the green. “I thought, great… four shots. I then holed the putt for five and thought I’d won, only to find out I was given a two-shot penalty for hitting myself!”
Despite that incident, Player famously said he wished he could take Fixby’s springy fairways with him wherever he played. “Gary always was prone to a bit of hyperbole,” Mike says with a wink.
History is everywhere. On the putting green we meet John Chew who tells us he has been a member here for 40 years but that his stint pales into insignificance against a couple who, between them, have been members here for an extraordinary 150 years. Mike later says the club will be planting a tree close to the 10th tee with a plaque to honour the couple’s extraordinary anniversary at the club.
Loyalty, in many cases lifelong, is not unusual at Fixby. But despite the wealth of history this is also a club that is both innovative and forward thinking. In 2004 the club re-laid every green on the course to meet the USGA’s exacting standards. While the club boasts some of the best young amateur golfers in the country, particularly among the girls – thanks in large part to the influence of Alex Keighley, the highly regarded female head professional. As we arrive, well before 8am, she is already on the club’s excellent practice facilities teaching. “I don’t know a single member who doesn’t like her,” Mike says. Alex led the field after round 1 of the 2003 British Open and enjoyed a stellar career as an amateur representing Great Britain & Ireland. Mike describes her openness, expertise and general charisma around the club as a breath of fresh air.
Times have changed since the days of Johnny Fallon, who was the club’s head professional for 47 years. Fallon finished 3rd in the 1939 Open Championship and runner-up to the great Peter Thomson at the 1955 Open, on both occasions at St Andrew’s.
In the same year, he played in the Ryder Cup before captaining Great Britain & Ireland against a strong US side led by Arnold Palmer at East Lake GC. “He was a character,” Mike says. “I remember a youngster who came in for a lesson. He bought Johnny a drink before they went out and as he did, he looked up at the honour’s boards in the bar.
“He said to Johnny ‘do you think one day my name could be up there on those boards?” Johnny replied, “the only way your name will be up on those boards, lad, is if you are killed in action!”
Playing in the three-ball behind us on our visit is Dean Hoyle, the former owner of Huddersfield Town Football Club, who is a member here. Behind them is another three-ball which includes the former Welsh Women’s Amateur Champion, as well as the former Yorkshire Women’s champion, who kindly picks up and returns my 9-iron which, it turns out, I’ve left on the side of a previous green. After our round, Mike runs into the captain of the England Women’s over-80s tennis team who, it turns out, used to be his mother’s doubles partner. If the seniors are going strongly, the juniors are too, having won the national title in 2018. The men’s scratch team won the Yorkshire 1st division championship. No wonder then, the trophy cabinet here is comparable to Liverpool FC’s.
And what of the course? It’s as good as the history suggests it will be, a wonderful examination of your game that you will never grow weary of. There are so many good holes and constant variety of angels and lies.
It’s pretty too. From the tee of the stunning par-4 12th, you can see Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire and Derbyshire. This hole and the devilish par-3 13th were added to the course in 1969, when Gary Player returned to officially open them alongside Peter Oosterhuis, Joe Carr and Rodney Foster (see insert image above). “We want people to leave here feeling that they have been presented with a rigorous test of golf but also an enjoyable one and we want them to have felt welcome. We firmly believe Huddersfield belongs in the conversation alongside the likes of Fulford, Moortown and Lindrick. Ganton and Alwoodley may be right up there in Yorkshire, but we are not far off.”
Having played all of the golf courses, mentioned, we at The Wandering Golfers feel well positioned to confirm Mike’s view. Fixby is unquestionably one of Yorkshire’s best golf courses.
The rich history, the majesty of the golf course, the brilliant and challenging variety of holes which demand every shot in your repertoire and some that aren’t, the warmth of the people and the facilities – Fixby really does tick all the boxes. It may not get the acclaim or visitor footfall that other great courses in Yorkshire do, but it will as word spreads and it should. To call it a hidden gem is not befitting of a club of this stature.
Huddersfield may no longer have the riches of days gone by, but hidden away on the beautiful Fixby estate, it still boasts a Rolls-Royce of a golf club.
“There are no strangers here, only friends we haven’t met yet. “
With those words my time in conversation with the wonderful Neil Hampton, general manager of Royal Dornoch Golf Club, draws to a close.
In the time we’ve spent talking he has left me thinking there can be no better ambassador for this extraordinary course and the majesty of the Scottish Highlands anywhere on earth. I’m also convinced he is one of the most contented men on the planet. Let me explain.
There’s an tangible pride in the way Neil speaks about Dornoch, both the town and club. There’s palpable emotion in his voice as he recalls his late father and the paternal pride he saw in his eyes when he brought him to Dornoch for the first time at the start of his time in post. And all of it just sweeps you along. “One of my Dad’s great sayings was ‘we’re here to help you play golf, not to stop you,’ and that is something I have carried with me,” he tells The Wandering Golfers.
“The day before I started the job here, I brought him up to the club. He was towards the end of his life; he was on oxygen and I had to change his tank every few hours so he could keep breathing. We came up to the club and I had to go inside to deal with a few matters. While I did, he took a seat on the front benches outside and chatted to people walking past.
“A few hours passed, and I realised I needed to change the tank. I dashed out to see Dad. But he wasn’t wearing his mask. ‘’Son,’ he said. ‘I haven’t needed oxygen since I sat down here. The air, you see, is different here. It’s fresh air, real fresh air.’ It was a wonderful moment. He was happy here that day, smiling and full of joy. It’s a great memory, one that I cling on to. He only died two or three months later but before he did, he told me that day had been the proudest of his life to see his son taking the job at Royal Dornoch.”
The Hampton family are steeped in golfing pedigree. Neil’s Dad knew just how special Dornoch was in golfing terms when he visited that day. This golf course is, after all, a place of pilgrimage for golfers the world over. And having been the last man in Scotland to have been both the head pro and the greenkeeper simultaneously at a club, Neil’s Dad knew about golf and the distant allure of Dornoch better than most.
Despite its remote location, some 30 miles north of Inverness, this golfing mecca has been an established fixture in the top 10 of the world’s best courses for decades. Only fools come to the Highlands to seek out the Loch Ness Monster. Those in the know, drive north of Inverness with their golf clubs in the back of their car and a hip flask in their back pocket. They drive to Dornoch.
They have been playing golf in these parts for more than 400 years, but because of the setting it feels like a natural wilderness, it feels unspoilt by the march of time. Yellowhammers flit through the gorse. Dog-walkers come and go.
When the gorse glows yellow in the frequent sunshine, the fairways glisten and the white horses gallop across the blue waters of the firth, there are few places to match it. “Something special happens to people when they drive into Dornoch and pass the war memorial on the road in,” Neil adds. “Their world changes, it slows down, they rediscover their smile. And that is not just visitors, that feeling never wears off here.
“We realise we are fortunate to live somewhere very special.”
There is a microclimate in Dornoch which ensures it has a lower average rainfall than London and more hours of sunshine than anywhere in the UK. “The next time you come up, I’ll take you out to the first tee, Ben. We will look south west, and you will see the big black clouds coming over the Struie Hill. But then they will split up, some will go down to Tain in the south and some will go up to Golspie in the north. And we will stay dry.
“We are on the same latitude as Moscow, but we don’t get the snow. We are a little further north than New York but we don’t get the heat in the summer. It’s just perfect.”
Tom Watson, whose photograph hangs in the clubhouse alongside Jack Nicklaus and others, famously said that he had had more fun playing Royal Dornoch than any other course on earth. Even after he had won three Opens, it is said he never really understood why lovers of links golf were so insistent that it was the purest form of the game until friends brought him to Dornoch in 1981. Watson’s visit followed Ben Crenshaw’s 12 months earlier ahead of the Muirfield Open. “Let me put it this way, I nearly didn’t come back,” he would famously say when asked if he had enjoyed the links.
Many professionals are members of Dornoch, several of them live overseas. But Dornoch is no stranger to visitors and members from far flung lands. Out of a membership of 2,100 members more than 700 live overseas. “One of our members missed Dornoch so much during the Covid-19 lockdown that he got on a plane from the United States and quarantined himself for 14 days just to come and play here again.”
This is not a new phenomenon, however. Dornoch has been welcoming distant members for more than a century. As far back as 1913, the club had more than 100 members who lived in London – a journey that would have taken days. As the world has come closer together, the number of overseas members has grown and grown. “If people walk off the 18th green and have just loved the course, they will say ‘can I join?’ And we say, ‘of course you can, here’s a form and off we go.’ It’s a club that is really open to that all the time.
“Rather than having a waiting list where you don’t get to play any golf, we have two courses. And you can play our second course while you are waiting to be upgraded to the full membership. While you are waiting to be upgraded you still get access to the championship course, albeit on a limited basis.
“Outside of that there are no tiers of members here at Dornoch. You are either a member of your not. And whether you live here in the heart of Dornoch or in California, you pay the same. You get treated the same. Like a great friend.”
Visitors are also welcomed. In days of old it was always said that a visitor green fee at Royal Dornoch was actually much more. “In the old days, it was made to feel like a temporary membership. You are welcome into the club to enjoy it as a member. And that endures,” Neil says. “We take visiting golfers seven days a week. You can find yourself playing just before or just after the members. So, when they come into the bar after your round you get a real sense of what it’s like to be a member here and the locals will be asking you ‘what did you think of it?’ You’ll feel like a member for the day.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that listening to Neil talk about his passion for Dornoch, for golf and his overwhelming sense of contentment at where he is and what he is doing, is uplifting, inspiring and, at times, emotional.
The magic of Royal Dornoch is, of course, centred around one of the world’s great golf courses. That is a given. But it is also carried and passed on to others by people like Neil. “When people drive into Dornoch, they’re already smiling. All we have to do is keep that smile there.”
This global pandemic has been difficult enough for golf clubs which have been around for centuries.
Imagine, then, trying to open a new one. That was the reality facing the team at the breathtakingly beautiful Dumbarnie Links, on the Fife coast, and it was a challenge they embraced wholeheartedly.
“It’s been harder than anything I’ve ever had to do” David Scott, the general manager at Dumbarnie tells The Wandering Golfer. It must then have brought him an overwhelming sense of satisfaction that those who have played it have spoken with one voice: special, magnificent, stunning, wow.
“We’ve been thrilled with the reaction, “ Scott adds. “I’m sure at some point we may find someone who isn’t happy with the course, but we’ve not found anyone yet and we have had more than 5,000 golfers play here now. So that is testament to Clive Clark, our Chairman and golf course designer, Malcolm Campbell who played such an important role in making this place a reality, our management company OB Sports, and the incredible team I have here.”
Dumbarnie had originally been slated to open on May 16 with more than 3,000 overseas visitors, primarily from the United States, booked in for the early months. The lockdown imposed by the government meant they were not able to open until May 29th. But that was only half the story.
“I’ve had to call on all my skills that I have built up during my career to ensure we opened when we did,” says Scott, who was previously at the acclaimed Kingsbarns and The Old Course Hotel in St Andrews prior to that. “I was very fortunate to be able to hand pick my team when I started this job and the work ethic and togetherness they’ve shown has been incredible. They’re all diamonds – their attitude throughout has been ‘the answer is yes, now what’s the question?”
As he says, Scott began his role in January. Office manager Lia Jannetta followed soon after. In April, head professional Blair Cross followed along with Callum Graham, food and beverage manager and head chef Chris Skinner. But when Covid hit, work on the clubhouse ground to a halt. The builders were unable to continue and left the site. “We needed to find a plan B and quickly.
“We were not able to furlough our staff because of when they started and so, at times, they found themselves doing jobs they probably didn’t ever envisage themselves doing when they signed up. We were in a challenging situation, work needed to be done on the course and around our unfinished Maintenance Facility.
“Ditches needed to be dug for all utilities and telephone lines, and so Chris our chef and Callum found themselves pulling on work boots and overalls and being knee-deep in sandy subsoil. Blair, our pro, was out on the golf course putting yardage markers on all sprinkler heads and tee yardage plates on every tee. When you think that we have five sets of tees at Dumbarnie that was a huge undertaking.
“What that has done is brought the team together. Often at clubs there is a ‘them and us’ situation between the operations staff and the maintenance teams. But because of the way our team worked together during lockdown, there is an enormous sense of mutual respect there now. It may sound corny when we use the hashtag #TeamDumbarnie on tweets but in this case it really isn’t.”
The Scottish golfing public have played their part too. Dumbarnie is not a member’s golf club. It is open entirely to visitors and with so much of the forecasted revenue having been due to come from overseas golfers – paying £235 per round – restrictions meant that for a few weeks after opening only Scots and relatively local golfers could visit. “We had more than 3,000 rounds booked from our tour operators bringing overseas visitors in. And when Covid hit, that just disappeared. The vast majority have rebooked for next year but because our rack rate for Scottish golfers is £115 and for those in Fife just £94, it meant we would need to do almost twice the rounds. And I am delighted to say we are just about there with an average of more than 100 golfers on the course each day.”
Dumbarnie is already seeing lots of golfers returning to play time and again. Some have gone further still. “There was one gentleman who came off the 18th and was so overjoyed with the golf course that he asked me if he could buy 100 rounds in advance right there and then, rather than having to pay each time. That said it all, really. And I nearly fell over when his friend said, ‘go on then, I’ll have 50 rounds in advance, please.’ It’s just testament to the very special golf course we have here.”
There is already a sense that Dumbarnie Links is destined to establish itself as one of the very best courses in Scotland and therefore the world. The course and the land it sits on, just south of St Andrews, is majestic. In terms of golf courses which skirt the beaches and ocean so extensively and effortlessly, it is matched only by the iconic Pebble Beach in California. With six holes that play directly towards the Firth of Forth, the visuals are unmatched and with three short par-4s and a dusting of spectacular par-3s this is not a golf course you need to arm wrestle. That it is already in the conversation alongside Kingsbarns and even, whisper it quietly, the Old Course itself, is all you need to know about this place.
“The course has been designed so that it can provide a real test for the very best players – we can go to 7,620 yards off the tips – but it’s also very playable for golfers who aren’t at that level. We’ve five sets of tees – the blues are 6,400 yards – and this course doesn’t beat you up. We want you to enjoy it. There’s a good chance a golfer off 10 can shoot level or even under their handicap.
“I love the par-3s – they are very special with a good mix of length and direction. We have a three drivable par-4s – offering thought-provoking ‘risk and reward’ decisions to be made. It’s great fun for golfers. We have a couple of holes with dual fairways – the 5th and the 15th. It is a thinking person’s course, you have to plot your way around with brain, rather than brawn.
Our fairways, on average, are 45 yards wide. And we have set the greens up in such a way that you can chase it up there and use the slopes if you wish. Our greens are not upturned saucers, they are built into the dunes around the green, with many times, the greens being an extension of the slopes and dunes around the green. You can just imagine our caddies telling our American visitors to run it in low with a 7 iron from 100 yards – that’s what links golf is all about. We want people playing those shots if the wind is up.”
Not even a pandemic could stop Dumbarnie from opening its fairways to the world in May. And, it seems, very little else will prevent this extraordinary new golf course on its inexorable rise to join the pantheon of great links courses not just close by in Fife, but further afield in Scotland and the world.
Very little about our world feels normal these days. Spending a few hours walking the fairways of your local golf club with friends is, let’s face it, about as close as it gets.
This Covid-19 pandemic is not a disaster in a traditional sense, even if the trauma is comparable. It is not an event confined by time and space like a hurricane or a terrorist attack. No, there is a growing realisation that even if golf represents a rare escape from our current troubles, it may be some time yet before we fully return to anything close to normal. We should be thankful, of course, that the wide-open spaces of a golf course, staggered and organised tee-times and natural social distancing meant golf was one of the first activities to return after lockdowns were eased across the world. But although the sport, thankfully, can go on, golf has not escaped the impact of this pandemic.
Some clubs have benefited, having seen a vast influx of new members. Others are facing a huge revenue deficit with overseas visitors unable to fulfil bookings, leaving clubs struggling with significant deficits. International golf travel has been decimated.
At the very top of the game, The Open Championship has been cancelled, the Ryder Cup, which famously thrives on the vociferous support of fans on both sides, postponed and the remaining majors scattered across an unfamiliar golfing calendar and played with no fans or grandstands in sight. Nothing in life feels quite as it should.
The Wandering Golfer has examined how golf is coping with the pandemic and this the first in a series of articles looking at England, Scotland, Ireland, US and the rest of the world.
We begin by looking at England.
Formby Golf Clubsits on England’s spectacular golf coast, holding its own alongside the likes of Royal Birkdale, Hillside as well as Royal Lytham and Royal Liverpool a few miles along the coast. It is a championship links with a rich and fascinating history and a reputation which draws visitors from all over the world. Stuart Leech is secretary of the club: “The year began so well. The bookings we had taken, particularly from overseas had put us on track for what would have been another record year to follow on from what was a record year in 2019,” he tells The Wandering Golfer. “And then Covid hit and suddenly we were facing a new reality for which none of us had a blueprint. We had to close the clubhouse. Lockdown was a difficult time. Coming into the club was eerie. It was just me and a reduced green-keeping team going about their work on the course.”
It was an uncertain time. Some 65% of Formby’s visitor revenue comes from the many thousands of visitors, primarily from the US and Europe, who visit each year. The club was forced to refund more than £40,000 in bookings, but such is the allure of the course that many groups chose to delay their visits rather than cancelling them altogether.
In difficult circumstances, Stuart and Formby found strength and with it purpose. There was togetherness and communication between clubs on how to overcome the many challenges and, when the time was right, how to welcome golfers back. “We wanted to use that time to learn and to lead to some extent,” Stuart says. “We are a club others look to and we wanted to set an example on the right way to come back. I was frequently on zoom calls with golf course managers both here in the UK and overseas to discuss and agree on policy so there was agree of uniformity about how we did things.”
When golf did return, it did so with gusto. “It was incredible,” Stuart adds. “We’ve never had so much demand for tee times. In June, we did triple the amount of member rounds that we’ve ever done. And when we brought competitions back, we found that where we normally have between 140 and 160 members entering, we were up at around 220 – which is unheard of. And that has been reflected in enquiries from elsewhere – we have had a monumental rise in the number of visitors asking to play, particularly from outside the area. And because we have had to push so many of our overseas visitors into 2021, we have more on the books for next year that we’ve ever done. So, there is hope.”
Covid has forced a number of changes at clubs, designed to minimise the risk, which range from raised holes, no bunker rakes, no touching the flag and online bookings, to name but a few. At Formby they’ve gone a step further. “Scorecards are, at least for now, a thing of the past,” Stuart adds. “Our app means that our members can enter scores digitally as they go around, which is not only safer but also easier for us as a club to process. We have also made pin position sheets available online so that members can print them out before they arrive at the club. These are small changes, but it is all the tiny details that can make a difference and help to keep all of our members safe.”
Golf has taken a hit, no question, but whether there are challenges, Stuart also believes there is opportunity. “Grass roots golf has seen an influx of new people coming into the game. That, in itself, is something that we have all wanted to see for many years. The challenge now is to keep them. I hope we are able to capitalise on that as a sport. “
If Formby is one of the north’s great clubs, The Wisley is one of the south’s most exclusive private member clubs. The 27-hole layout, which borders the gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society, is like Formby, consistently ranked amongst the best courses in England and is known for being a firm favourite with tour pros and celebrities alike. John Glendinning is the club’s CEO, having spent a decade at Close House previously.
“Closing the club down when we did, was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to take,” John tells The Wandering Golfer. “We’d been forced to close the clubhouse in early March because a staff member had displayed symptoms of Coronavirus and the safety of our members and our staff was always paramount in our thinking. But as we watched Covid spread in the way it did, we realised we had to go a step further.
“It wasn’t straightforward because we were conscious that some members wanted to continue to play, what was, and is, essentially a very safe sport. But we just felt that it was impossible to guarantee anyone’s safety at that point and on March 23rd, a few hours before the Prime Minister brought lockdown into effect, we sent an email to our members closing The Wisley down. At that time, we were in touch with a number of other clubs, but none were quite ready to close down in the way we did on that day.
“Our members were wonderful. And I got a number of messages from them which basically acknowledged that golf is, ultimately, a luxury and that our health has to come above that. It was wonderful that in many cases, our members’ biggest concern was the safety of the staff at The Wisley and actually not putting them in harm’s way.”
Lockdown meant John working from home like many millions around the country. And like Stuart at Formby, he was on two weekly conference calls with other clubs – one with other top clubs in the UK and the other with clubs from around the world. “The conversation was focused on what reopening might look like and we were fortunate that clubs in Germany and Denmark reopened ahead of us which helped us foresee the challenges that we might face and ask them what they would do differently if they had the chance to start again. The key for us as managers, secretaries and executives was to take a uniform approach. Our members are often members of a number of different clubs and we didn’t want them to go elsewhere and find a different set of rules.”
As with Formby, when the The Wisley did reopen the demand was off the scale. “During May and June, there was an incredible appetite for golf from our members,” John adds. “In June we did double the number of rounds than we saw in June 2019. And that has been matched by the membership enquiries – which have gone through the roof. We have been absolutely inundated. And that is despite it being £40,000 to buy a share in The Wisley – all our members are shareholders – and then £6,500 a year in fees.”
We have read much about how habits have changed during Covid and that has been reflected at The Wisley. “Many of our members work in the financial sector and have traditionally commuted into the city – that has now stopped because of this pandemic.
“I think it’s fair to say that lockdown has led many of them to re-evaluate their lives and their lifestyles. Having spent more time away from work, there is a greater appreciation of their life away from the office, their time off and exercise. Traditionally we would have expected the morning to be busy at our club and the afternoon to be quieter. But with many of our members working from home, they are starting work earlier than ever but also finishing earlier and then coming down to the club to play a round in the afternoon.”
Habits are changing, golf is adapting but the game, thankfully, will continue and recover. And with a national push now underway to promote regular exercise and healthy living, golf may continue to benefit with recent studies suggesting that golfers can walk up to 69% further than the scorecard yardage during a single round. The demand for the sport has never been higher and while it is wonderful to feel something close to the world as it was, as we stride down the fairways, what is certain is that none of us will ever take this wonderful sport for granted ever again.
The next part of the series will focus on golf in Scotland.
The evocative opening moments of Chariots of Fire have long been part of cinematic history.
The iconic images of young British athletes striding out across a windswept beach in slow-motion are set to one of cinema’s most remarkable soundtracks, written by the Greek composer Vangelis. To golfers the world over, they are also memorable for another reason.
Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, the film’s two protagonists, are among the athletes who run up West Sands beach in St Andrews, hurdle the railings and run across the first fairway of the Old Course itself, before skirting the hallowed 18th green and disappearing up the steps of the Royal & Ancient. But how did such an iconic opening scene end up being shot at an equally iconic location?
“The original scene was set on the beach at Broadstairs in Kent – which was historically accurate – but our unit was never going to be anywhere near there, and so, because we were filming nearby, St Andrews popped up as an idea,” says award-winning film producer Iain Smith, who was a unit manager on the film. “What started as ‘beach only’ grew into the scene setter it is in the film, where the runners cross the hallowed turf of the Old Course.”
In the first edit of the film the words – BROADSTAIRS KENT – appeared on screen as the runners approached the most famous scene in all of golf. Laughter among the audience the film was tested on prompted producers to subsequently, and wisely, remove it from the final film. “We actually shot the whole sequence twice,” Smith tells The Wandering Golfers. “First time round we were able to get the residents to move all their cars from the sea-front. But the footage was unusable because we had a strange camera shutter flicker that made it unwatchable.
“So, I had to set it all up again, but this time the residents had had enough of us and were unwilling to co-operate. So, for the second go, I built a half mile long camouflage screen to conceal all the parked cars. I had the bright idea of asking RAF Leuchers if they could help and they jumped at the task. I think they were all bored stiff, and my call was a clarion call to arms. They were great.”
But that was not to be the last drama at St Andrews. “I remember the morning we shot that famous scene very clearly,” Smith says. I went down to the beach at 4.30 in the morning to make sure that everything was in place ahead of the crew’s arrival. To my horror I saw that a naval frigate had moored offshore and was unavoidably in the middle of the shot, and obviously not in period. I panicked and ran the long mile to the nearest red phone box (no cellphones back then) and stood, out of breath, wondering who on earth I could call at that hour of the morning?
“I didn’t know anyone in the navy but of course I did know some good people in the Air Force, at Leuchers. So, I rang my number there and a very clipped military voice answered, “Duty Officer, how can I help?”. I explained my predicament. He said, “Are you sure there’s a ship there? We really deal with airplanes.” I said, “yes, I realise that, but I can see it with my own eyes. It’s right in front of me”. He hummed and hawed a bit and said, “No. Nothing there. We’ve got no record of anything at all. Are you absolutely sure you’re not imagining it?”, and at that moment the frigate started to pull away. It had disappeared round the headland by 5.45. My knees went all wobbly. The day could begin. Not a lot of people know that story.”
And how did the film negotiate with the R&A to get permission to run across the Old Course and so close to the 18th green itself? “I was fortunate that I had family connections with the Church of Scotland through my grandfather, who had been a prominent minister in Edinburgh. So, I was one step ahead when it came to making a film about Eric Liddell. Because of that, I had already negotiated support in principle from the Church. When the Old Course came up, I had to use every persuasive tactic I could to get the Club Captain’s approval. The Church of Scotland made a call, I believe, and clinched it. The club’s permission required our assurance that the ‘athletes’ would only run across the sacred turf in their bare feet, which is exactly what they did.”
Chariots would go on to win four Academy Awards for best picture, best original screenplay, best costume design and, of course, best original music score for Vangelis. “During shooting we certainly knew we were making something above average,” Smith says. “The script was so good, and the cast was magnificent. And the crew were top class. The brilliant David (Wendy) Watkin was our cinematographer. Jonathan Benson our charismatic 1st AD.
“But I remember seeing the final picture cut (without music) and feeling disappointed. It dragged a little in the second half. Warner Bros asked David (Putnam, the producer) and Hugh (Hudson, the director) to cut something like 14 minutes out, and Vangelis then delivered his inspirational score. That transformed the film into the award-winning movie it became. That was when I personally realised, we had all contributed to something very special.”
Vangelis, it would later transpire, wrote the music as a tribute to his father who had died some three months before. His father had run for Greece himself, so the story took on additional poignancy. Chariots has been sent up many times over the years, not least by Rowan Atkinson during the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Chariots of Fire will always have a place in cinematic history and for golfers making the pilgrimage to The Home of Golf, it only adds a little more flavour to place that could not be more special.
Jamie Gavin re-lives the day he followed in the footsteps of the greats of golf and played the course that sits top of every golfer’s bucket list
I had read and re-read what was in front of me four or five times before I could muster anything like a reaction. When I finally looked up, I tried to speak but words failed me.
So, I looked back down at the piece of paper again which had my name on it. Just above my name read the date and beside that was the famous logo of Augusta National Golf Club, where I was working for the BBC. But it was what was written below my name that had shocked me into silence. Arrival Time: 9.40am. Tee Time: 10.40am. . “Please present this card at the Main Gate to gain entrance to the Club grounds.”
“On the 13th green, surrounded by those azaleas in the spring sunshine, I allowed myself a glance back down the fairway and the clarity of context returned and thoughts of scores and scorecards subsided. Amen.”
There it was, staring back at me: an invitation to play Augusta National the following day. The man who had presented me with the envelope was standing there, arm outstretched. “Congratulations, you’re playing the course tomorrow.” I shook his hand, but still no words. .
Then, a million thoughts. A million questions. “I haven’t got any clubs, what about my flight back tomorrow? I haven’t hit balls for a couple of weeks, what about a putter? I won’t have my putter. How am I going to concentrate on covering the rest of this tournament? What about a glove? Balls? How on earth am I going to sleep?” A few phone calls later I’d managed to hire a set of clubs from a local golf shop, rebook on a flight 24 hours later, book a cheap hotel in Augusta for an extra night, hire a car to drive to the airport afterwards and ring my regular golfing partner Jef back at Didsbury Golf to tell him the unfathomable news. “Play well mate, enjoy” he said as we ended the call.
It was still real.
After an early night and much anguish about what awaited me the following day – The first tee shot… Amen Corner… what would I shoot? I’d managed to doze off but awoke early. Across the room my suitcase for the journey home was fully packed and my golf outfit for the day, carefully selected, was laid out perfectly on the cream carpet complete with my trusty lucky red Titleist hat that had faded to pink through over-use.
My invitation sat next to it – I hadn’t let it out of my sight since my moment of speechlessness the previous day. So it was, definitely, still real. Today was the day I was going to play Augusta National. The holes that I had watched from as young as I could remember on television. Today was the day I would walk those fairways, attempt to play some of those iconic shots.
BBC golf commentator Ken Brown had given me some sound words of advice the previous evening, my very own piece of Ken on the Course gold. “It’s really a second shot golf course so if you miss a green, make sure you miss in the right place, because there’s some places you can’t get up and down from out there. Enjoy it… good luck.”
A taxi arrived just after 8am. First, we would have to go to the golf shop on the edge of town, where I quickly selected some hire clubs, bought a glove, some balls, tees, and a pitch mark repairer – and left my entire suitcase containing all my worldly possessions as collateral. “I’ll be back this afternoon, thanks so much, you don’t know how grateful I am,” I said to the owner, who’d opened up his entire shop an hour early in order to cater to my urgent golfing needs – the desperation in my voice on the phone the day before must have been palpable.
“Don’t arrive at the course early” someone had said the day before. “They won’t let you in until the time on your invitation.” So, we sat and we waited. The taxi driver and I, watching the clock in the front of his cab tick over in a supermarket car park just off Washington Road in Augusta, after making the short journey from the golf shop. 9:30… 9:31… 9:32… small talk had long since subsided. “I’ve never driven down Magnolia Lane before” he said. “In all my years working in Augusta, never been there.”
He was excited too. But I couldn’t have been anything compared to the giant knot in my stomach that had been growing all morning. 9:35… 9:36… “I think we’re probably alright now.” He wound down the window and showed the security guards my invitation. A quick check of the list, a nod of the head and we were in.
As we drove down Magnolia Lane towards Founders Circle, I tried to take in as much as I could. Few things in life so hyped actually live up to their billing but this was, actually, magical. It would become a theme for the day. “Mr Gavin, feel free to change in the Champions Locker Room upstairs. Breakfast will be served through there, and your caddy will meet you on the range with your clubs when you’re ready to head out.”
Other players, mostly members of the media, had a similar look of bemusement as the one that must have been etched on my face as we changed our shoes next to a glass cabinet in which a Green Jacket hung impeccably. I had been allocated Phil Mickelson’s locker for the day, where I placed my shoes before heading down to meet my playing partners. We introduced ourselves over breakfast in the clubhouse of Augusta National, looking out onto the 1st tee, where we would, in less than an hour from now, be hitting actual golf shots on the actual Augusta National golf course.
The incredible breakfast spread was worthy of multiple visits, but there was only time for one. To the range next – where a perfect pyramid of Pro V1s awaited, along with my legendary local caddie. “What’s your handicap?” he asked, introducing himself. “Four,” I replied. “We’re gonna have some fun today,” he declared, decked out in the famous pristine white boiler suit worn by all caddies in the Masters Tournament, which had finished a matter of hours earlier. Now it was almost my turn.
The grandstands, leaderboards and Sunday pins all remained in place from the day before. We would play from the members tees, a significant distance forward from the Tournament tees used by the professionals who had battled it out in near-perfect conditions over the previous four days. Twenty minutes on the range was followed by a ‘quick’ putt – ‘quick’ being the operative word – my first two efforts embarrassingly de-greened with my new putter for the day. Good start.
I had often wondered while watching the Masters what a four-handicapper might shoot round Augusta under tournament conditions. I was about to find out. The time had finally arrived. The man who had handed me the envelope the day before was there again to announce us onto the tee, less than 24 hours after he’d delivered what felt like the most exciting news of my life.
Like much of the Bobby Jones and Dr Alister MacKenzie layout, the 1st at Augusta has a generous landing area to the left of a bunker which sits on the corner of a slight dog-leg right. Just as I’d seen Jordan Spieth do the day before, I took driver out of my bag, teed my ball up on the perfect teeing area (everything is perfect) and went through my pre-shot routine in front of my playing partners and their caddies – it felt like the whole world was watching. It felt like everything I had ever done in my life had led me to this moment.
My hands were shaking but that was just the tip of the iceberg of what was going on beneath the surface. “Relax” I told myself. The advice was futile. I’d already reached a level of nervousness far greater than I knew how to control. This was it. Hands shaking a little more, I stood over the ball and somehow managed to draw the club back. Before I could breathe out, I was holding my finish pose having, I was sure of it, connected with the golf ball. I watched as the little white dot in the perfect springtime Georgia blue sky sailed towards the bunker on the right I had aimed away from. Towards the bunker…towards the bunker… and over it!
My adrenaline fuelled tee shot sailed over the sand and cut the corner, splitting the fairway. For a brief and surreal moment all was well in my world. This would, ultimately, be the high point of the round from a golfing point of view. I’d left myself a gap wedge into the green, but nervous adrenaline pumped through my body once more and my second shot at Augusta National sailed over the first green and through the back. I had already missed in one of those places Ken had said you could not miss – a horror third shot awaited. Needless to say, I failed to get up and down. +1 after one.
Ok, keep going. After a wayward drive on the par-5 2nd, I made it into the left greenside bunker for three and took aim at the flag from the sand. “Stop,” said my caddie. “Aim 15 yards left of where you’re aiming and you won’t be far off.” “But the hole’s over there?!” I thought. Turning my body away from the pin, I aimed 15 yards left my original target. My club slid underneath the sand with a little thud, and the ball landed a couple of yards onto the putting surface before beginning to roll down the contours. And roll… and roll… and roll. It was now on almost the exact path of Louis Oosthuizen’s albatross in 2012. It’s going in! It stopped a matter of inches short of the hole. My caddie and playing partners applauded. For the first of umpteen occasions that day, I was grateful beyond words to the man in the white boiler suit and his intricate knowledge of the course, and at the same time completely taken aback by how much I was at mercy to the slopes of Augusta National. Today, golf was going to be a team game. +1 thru two. Keep going.
A pair of double bogies on three and four brought me back down to earth. But that was just the start of Augusta’s revenge. I’d committed myself to holing out every single putt, no matter what, and to abiding by the rules to the letter of the law. I was going to find out what I could shoot, whatever that number might be. Another blocked tee shot on the 5th left me in trouble down the right and once again I could only make it into the greenside bunker for three. But this time my bunker play deserted me. A knifed one through the back of the green and a return chip into the bunker later, I was starring at double figures, only to make a ‘clutch’ six-footer for a nine. Yes, a nine. +1 thru two became +10 thru 5. Keep going. Stop the bleeding.
The pin on the par-three 6th was back-right – in its traditional Sunday position. (Everything had been left the same way as the day before). Miss left and you’re back down a severe slope at the front of the green facing a wicked, sloping uphill 80-footer. Miss right and you’re off the green having to land it on a five pence piece to get up-and-down for par, or risk going back down the same hill. Following my caddie’s advice, I hit a towering 6-iron 6 foot right of the pin – as good as I’ve ever hit. Back in the game. This was it – I was going to make my first birdie at Augusta. I walked onto the green Ian Poulter-style – chest out, ready to make amends with a 2 only to watch my slightly downhill putt shaved the hole on the right and ran another eight foot by. I was further away than where I’d started. And perhaps inevitably I missed the one on the way back for yet another dropped shot. Ouch
My blind approach to the raised 7th green went closer still, catching the famous slope at the back of the green and drawing ever-closer to the Sunday pin position. Surely this time. But again, my birdie attempt took a subtle break and slipped by. A bogey and double-bogey later on eight and nine (two three putts) I was stood on the 10th tee – perhaps the most glorious spot on golf course apart from Amen Corner. From this elevated position the whole of the property rolls out beneath you – an expanse of perfect green broken only by white sands and tall trees, all of which stretched out before my eyes.
The one aspect to Augusta which is hardest to describe is the sheer severity of the slopes. It’s essentially built on the side of a massive hill, and nowhere is this more stark than the elevation change between the 10th tee and the 10th fairway below you – a bigger change in elevation than the top to the bottom of Niagara Falls. And it was at this spot my game finally came back to me – a care-free swing produced about 10 yards of draw which began to lick around the corner of the dogleg left. I had succeeded where Rory McIlroy had failed in 2011 and found the middle of the fairway below. As I made my way down to my ball, for the first time I managed to take a moment (and a photo) to take it all in and appreciate where I was and what I was doing. That is, before a pushed 6-iron approach resulted in another missed green – again in the wrong place – followed by another three-putt and another double bogey.
Amen corner awaited – and I felt like I needed help from a higher place.
The par-4 11th is statistically the most difficult hole when the Masters is played but from the members tees it plays a lot easier. I managed to recover from a wayward tee shot to make par and break my run of double bogies before making the short walk up the hill to the 12th tee and perhaps the most famous hole in all of golf. It was all there in front of me. A thin sliver of green to aim at, Rae’s Creek and the Hogan Bridge just in front of it and an abundance of azaleas behind.
Once again, a mixture of angst and serenity flooded my senses. I hit what I thought was a perfect 8 iron but like so many before me, I had misjudged it by the smallest of margins – another fascinated fool. I watched as my ball pulled up in the bunker just short. From there, I made bogey.
There’s so much beauty on 13 but the tee shot’s a beast. Anything left is a lost cause, so naturally I subconsciously reverted to going right – Mickelson territory. From the pine straw, I looked up, pictured that unbelievable second shot to the treacherous par-5 green and imagined my ball drawing round the tree in front of me and finding the putting surface. But where Phil flourished, I failed. Luckily, I pulled up short enough of Rae’s creek to muster a par – and at +1 thru the holes of Amen Corner I felt I had at least landed a faint blow back as some sort of payback for my pummelling to this point. On the 13th green, surrounded by those blooming azaleas in the spring sunshine I allowed myself a glance back down the fairway and the clarity of context resumed – thoughts of scores and scorecards subsided. Amen.
THE FINAL STRETCH
I still hadn’t got to grips with the greens and another three-putt double on 14 was followed by a par five on 15. And so, onto 16, yet another stunning spot.
With Augusta’s familiar amphitheatre now empty, the true beauty of this par-three was revealed. Redbuds reflected in the water which your ball must carry in order to reach the putting surface. The man in the white boiler suit said 8-iron was the club and the previous 15 holes taught me not to question his judgement. Another deep breath was followed by my best shot of the day – and a towering, drawing golf shot landed softly before starting to make its way down Tiger’s slope and towards the pin.
The caddies got very excited – I was on to something this time. Forget Tiger territory, I was in hole-in-one territory. The ball kept rolling, closer. It came to rest 8ft behind the pin (from the tee it looked like 2ft) and surely this was my birdie moment. As I drew the putter back, imagined how I might celebrate finally getting one back on the course. Is a fist pump appropriate? At least I’d be able to say I’d birdied the legendary 16th! But this brought another surge of adrenaline which flowed through my veins, down the putter shaft, and I watched again in horror as the ball broke at the last moment and sailed another six-foot by. The one on the way back didn’t trouble the hole either.
Another bogey on 17 followed. And there I stood on the 18th tee, flummoxed but philosophical, beaten but bullish, and definitely not wanting this to end. Ever. Savour every shot now. If the gap between of trees on the 18th hole at Augusta National isn’t narrow enough – the tee shot is all uphill.
One more deep breath. I gave this one plenty, a slight cut down the corridor to follow the shape of the hole. My approach pulled up just short and I was able to enjoy the walk up the (severe) hill to the 18th green, savouring the sympathetic applause from the packed galleries of patrons (or at least that’s how it played out in my head). I took one last look behind me to appreciate the giant scoreboard that towered above this part of the course – the champion’s name firmly in top spot – and now more than ever I was able to marvel at the magic of the pros – especially around the greens. But I failed to get up and down for the grandstand finish – appropriately my final action at Augusta. It all added up to 94 shots. The most I’d taken in a round of golf since I was 12. But today at least, the score was just a small part of the story.
I’d experienced every emotion going, but that’s the game of golf isn’t it? Life’s long and complicated journey in microcosm. Of all those feelings though, the one that endures is gratitude. I am grateful beyond words for the opportunity to have graced the hallowed turf. For a few hours, I had lived out the craziest dream – the greatest thrill of my life and a day I will savour forever. And that was the day I played Augusta National. What I wouldn’t give for another go.
Phone Number: 01909 475 820 Designers: Bobby Jones and Dr Alistair McKenzie Green Fee Range: you can have all the money in the world and still not get on Length: Par 72 – 7,768 yards Website:Augusta.com
If you enjoyed this review you will like our write-ups of three European courses with echoes of Augusta National.