Dumbarnie Links: how golf’s most exciting new course defied Covid-19

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.

The picturesque par-3, 6th hole at Dumbarnie Links

“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. 

“There was one gentleman who came off the 18th so overjoyed with the golf course that he asked me if he could buy 100 rounds in advance…”

David Scott, general manager at Dumbarnie Links

“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.  

Dumbarnie Golf Links
David Scott, General Manager of Dumbarnie Links

“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. 

The natural beauty of the Fife coastline makes for an incredible backdrop.

“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.

Covid-19: Top English clubs find hope as golf tees up recovery effort

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. 

Golf is adjusting to the new normal.

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 Club is one of UK’s top links courses and is situated on England’s golf coast. Credit: Formby GC

Formby Golf Club sits 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. 

“We have had a monumental rise in the number of visitors asking to play … there is hope.”

Stuart Leech, Secretary of Formby Golf Club

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.”

Stuart Leech, secretary of Formby Golf Club.

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. “

The Wisley has a reputation for being a favourite retreat of tour professionals. Credit: The Wisley

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.”

John Glendinning, Chief Executive of The Wisley

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. 

St Andrews: Chariots of Fire and The Old Course

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.”

“The R&A’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.”

Iain Smith, film producer

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.”

The crew of Chariots of Fire filming on West Sands beach, St Andrews.

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.”

The athletes run across the Old Course, which required certain stipulations from the R&A.

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.

The Masters: The day I played Augusta National

A view to the 13th green at Augusta National, home of The Masters

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

MASTERS SUNDAY

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.

MONDAY

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.”

The view along Magnolia Drive towards Augusta’s famous clubhouse.

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.

9AM

“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 champions locker room at Augusta National. Credit Masters.com

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.

The view from the 1st tee at Augusta National.

1040AM

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.

The approach to the 3rd at Augusta National.

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 11th green at Augusta, with water left and the 12th green in the distance.

AMEN CORNER

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.

The iconic 13th green at Augusta with Rae’s creek awaiting anything short.

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.

The 16th at Augusta is a stunning short-hole, the final one of the round.

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.

Tiger Woods takes aim at the narrow tee shot that awaits golfers on 18.

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.

KEY FACTS

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

The members’ scorecard at Augusta National

If you enjoyed this review you will like our write-ups of three European courses with echoes of Augusta National.

https://thewanderinggolfers.com/lahinch/

Ryder Cup: Moortown rightly proud of legacy

Ben Smith and Ray Nicholls visit the venue for the 1929 Ryder Cup and discover how this Alister Mackenzie masterpiece has built on its incredible Ryder Cup history

During its celebrated history, Moortown Golf Club has grown accustomed to hosting the greats of the game and providing the backdrop for significant moments in the history of the sport.

Everyone from Walter Hagen to Peter Thomson, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo have played here, each chapter helping to build the story of this wonderful golf club.

A view across the bunkers which guard the 10th green.

And yet, there can be no question when the defining moment came. Even before you turn left into Moortown’s tree-lined driveway you know.

The sign that welcomes you to Moortown.

The sign proudly reads ‘Moortown Golf Club- venue for the 1929 Ryder Cup.’ And why not? This is, after all, the club that played host to the very first Ryder Cup to be played outside the US but it was also the place where Great Britain won it for the very first time.

It was a moment that preserved Moortown’s place  the history of golf.

The sign proudly reads ‘Moortown Golf Club- venue for the 1929 Ryder Cup.’ And why not? This is, after all, the club that played host to the very first Ryder Cup to be played outside the US but it was also the place where Great Britain won it for the very first time.

There is a sense of history throughout Moortown’s beautiful clubhouse

The beginnings of what would play out had begun three years earlier at Wentworth. Samuel Ryder, an entrepreneur who made his fortune selling packets of seeds, was in the bar having a drink or two and announced that he would give £5 to each of the winning players from the unofficial match between players from the US and Great Britain that had been arranged.

The winners would also be thrown a champagne party with chicken sandwiches – lucky things. That moment would prove to be the spark that lit the fire. In 1927 inaugural Ryder Cup was played in Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts.

By then Ryder himself had donated the little golden trophy that has become so iconic in the sport – Europe and the US still play for it today. At Moortown the reminders are rich and familiar. The club still has copied of the menu for the post-match dinner which took place at The Queens Hotel in Leeds.

At the bottom of the menu card the score is noted. However George Duncan, captain of the victorious British team and proud Scotsman, may not have been impressed to see it reads: ‘England won 7-5.’

Another treasured exhibit is a letter from the great Walter Hagen when he became the first overseas player to be invited to be an honorary member. It reads ‘to my fellow club members in remembrance of the wonderful time they gave the American Ryder Cup team when we lost to your gallant team at Moortown in April 1929.’ There is golfing history all around even before you set foot on the 1st tee. And it lives on.

At Moortown the women golfers still play for their own Ryder Cup. And not just in name. The trophy was donated by Samuel Ryder himself as a thank you gift to the local women who helped make the 1929 Ryder Cup such an enduring success story.

The view across the 18th green at Moortown with clubhouse to the left

Moortown was selected by the PGA to host the match only 20 years after its foundation. And it was given just four months to prepare for two-day event that would set records for both the number of people attending and gate receipts. Not long when you consider the PGA of American have just announced that Congressional Country Club will host the 2036 Ryder Cup. This was, however, not just any course. It has been designed by Dr Alister Mackenzie, the Yorkshireman who went on to design the fabled Augusta National, his final masterpiece, in 1933. He died a year later.

The first public reference to a Ryder Cup happening at Moortown came on Wednesday, December 12, 1928. Tucked away on the back page of the Yorkshire Post is a story with the headline ‘Ryder Cup match for Leeds.’ It begins, ‘a pleasant surprise has come to golfing enthusiasts in Leeds.”

The work began immediately. The course would be extended by some 300 yards, largely by pushing tees further back.

Moortown is always beautifully presented.

The course we play is not exactly the one Hagen et al played in 1929, but not much has changed. The opening hole is a relatively straightforward par-5. The original design saw a stream run across the fairway at around 300 yards but that stream was filled in for the Ryder Cup. The order of holes is different today with the 8th playing as the 6th in 1929 and the 17th, a par-3 today, a par-4 for the match. Today the course is still as wonderful as ever, with one excellent hole after another. The natural heathland is given space to breathe, the bunkering is excellent and in the 10th – Gibraltar – Moortown boasts a par-3 that sits on a rocky plateau peppered with bunkers, that would not look out of place at The Masters. It was the hole MacKenzie built first at Moortown. It is also the one that lives longest in the memory.

The Americans arrive (silent movie)

The Americans set sail from New York on April 10, 1929 in order to have 10 days to practice in British conditions. They arrived in Plymouth six days later aboard RMS Mauretania with Hagen immediately granting the British press an interview. He conducted it still in his cabin, while shaving and dressed in his pyjamas. Asked about the American uniforms, Hagen said: “we got the finest dark blue knicker suits that you ever saw and we will wear these at Moortown if the weather is fine.” It would be far from fine, but more on that later. Hagen added: “We shall have a tough time before we can win the Ryder Cup again, I’m sure of that. You have got a good team that will make us go.” Hagen and his teammates then headed to London to meet their opponents over an opulent lunch at the luxurious Savoy Hotel.

The British team prepare for the Ryder Cup (silent movie). 

The British team headed north to Harrogate and based themselves at Majestic Hotel, practising at Harrogate Golf Club. The Americans, however, would go south to the Kent coast to play Royal St George’s, where Hagen had won The Open Championship the year before. On the first day of practice, the Americans received word that they would not be permitted to play with steel shafts. Steel had been approved for play by the USGA but the R&A would take another year to agree to their introduction. It was a setback for the Americans, although Fred Whiting, the pro at St George’s, was suddenly recruited to provide new hickory-shafted golf clubs to the entire US team.

On the week of the Ryder Cup itself, both teams practiced at Moortown separately. By the Wednesday, the Yorkshire winter came back in force. While the British team returned to Harrogate to use the baths, the Americans stayed to brave the conditions and to, according to one unnamed player, ‘become acclimatised to your cold English weather.’ It was to be a rude awakening. By mid-afternoon the course would be under an inch-thick blanket of snow. Observers at the time suggest that the Americans continued despite the snow, wearing “two pullovers, mackintosh jackets and mittens.

It is all in sharp contrast to our round at Moortown back in the present day. The weather is mild, the ground firm and the breeze strong enough to cause problems. But the course is in excellent condition from tee to green. It’s a magnificent layout, with a string of excellent long par4s and a series of holes at the start of the back nine that run along the moorland. The course is constantly being improved. After studying aerial photos taken by the RAF in the 1920s, the club restored many of the original MacKenzie bunkers that had been covered up by grass in the years since. It’s a real and very memorable treat.

There are no caddies at Moortown these days but there is one story worth revisiting from the days of the Ryder Cup. Ernest Hargreaves was a 16-year-old local boy who had grown accustomed to caddying for members of Moortown. On the Monday before the Ryder Cup, Ernest waited patiently for Hagen’s taxi to arrive. When it did, he was there to offer his services as a caddy for the match. Hagen agreed.

The 12th green at Moortown

And despite the Americans falling to a famous defeat, Hagen asked Ernest to caddie him as he attempted to defend the Claret Jug at Muirfield. Which they duly did together. Although Ernest and Hagen would eventually part ways, the youngster went on to become Henry Cotton’s caddie and have a career in the game and all because he had the courage and foresight to approach Hagen in the car park.

Walter Hagen in full flow.

While we are on the subject of Cotton, there is a story worth ending on. The 22-year-old Englishman was star rookie of the British team in 1929. He would win his singles 4&3 over Al Watrous and, of course, go on to win The Open Championship three times during a stellar career. It was at Moortown he met Hagen.

Cotton picks up the story. “Walter was making big money and spending most of it while living life to the full. One day I said to him, ‘I would love to have one of your clubs.’ ‘What club would you like?’ he answered. I had fancied a number eight of today from his bag marked, then, a ‘mashie niblick’. He said, ‘Come and pick it up some time,’ and so whilst in Paris I went to Claridges in the Champs-Élysées where he was staying, telephoned his room, and was invited to ‘Come on up, Kiddo.’ He had a suite of connecting rooms, something like 407 to 415, so I went to 407, knocked on the door and when there was no answer to my ‘Hello?’ I pushed open the door. Inside was a girl wearing a negligee. ‘Mr Hagen?’ I enquired.

“She appeared not to know who he was but indicated that I should go to the next room. To my great embarrassment I then went through a whole series of rooms, one after the other, all full of half-dressed young ladies. I eventually found Walter lying on his bed with the telephone still in his hand – he hadn’t put it down after speaking to me and he was fast asleep. I didn’t know what to do, but there were a whole lot of clubs in one corner and obviously he had sorted some out. I didn’t want to wake him, so I helped myself to an eight-iron, left a goodbye and thank you note and went quietly away.”

It was a different time. A more interesting time, perhaps, but although much has changed over the intervening 90 years, Moortown remains as magnificent as ever, a club assured of its place in history.

KEY FACTS
Phone number: 0113 268 6521 
Designed by: Dr Alister Mackenzie
Green fee: £90-£50
Length: Par 71, 6980 yards 
Website: moortown-gc.co.uk

Ryder Cup: How Lindrick saved golf’s showpiece

Ben Smith and Ray Nicholls visit for the venue for the 1957 Ryder Cup, which not only delivered a home win after 24 years without one but did much to reinvigorate the event 

Lindrick, perhaps more than any other club, can claim to have saved the Ryder Cup as we know it.

By the time ’57 came around, the event was on its knees. The US had won every match dating back 24 years. Interest was waning. No one wanted to sponsor it and with only months to go before the Ryder Cup was due to be played, the end was in sight. The Ryder Cup needed a saviour.

The tee for Lindrick’s iconic 18th hole 

Sir Stuart Goodwin, a Yorkshire industrialist, answered the call. He had found golf relatively late in life having been intrigued by the skill shown by an exhibition match at Lindrick between British captain Dai Rees and team-mate Fred Daly. When he was approached by the British PGA to see if would fund the forthcoming Ryder Cup he agreed to make a donation of £10,000.

The Ryder Cup was saved. His one condition? That the match be held at his home club: Lindrick.

The tee shot at the short par-4 8th at Lindrick

The sign that welcomes to you Lindrick

Today the club bears all the hallmarks of a Ryder Cup venue with a proud and significant history. From the ‘Welcome to Lindrick’ sign that is emblazoned with the Ryder Cup logo, to the majestic clubhouse with the memorabilia that adorns it. On the day we visit we’re greeted warmly by Luke Allen, Lindrick’s Assistant Professional and then by every member we encounter as we explore the beautiful clubhouse and practice areas. We eat lunch in the Ryder Cup room overlooking the iconic par-3 18th, a hole and that is listed as one of the 500 greatest in the world and one that Peter Alliss himself chose in his favourite 18 holes in all of golf.

Our round at Lindrick bears out that this golf course remains a tremendous challenge, beautifully presented. That is borne out by the quality of the members, with Lee Westwood, Danny Willett and Matthew Fitzpatrick all calling Lindrick home and all celebrated throughout the clubhouse. It is an ongoing connection with the Ryder Cup.

The greens at Lindrick are particularly impressive: slick, subtle and smooth. It is easy to see why Charles Scatchcard, writing for Golf Illustrated on September 26, 1957, would write, “with its springy moorland fairways, cut through vast seas of golden gorse and limestone rock, Lindrick’s course ranks as one of the finest in the country.”

Lindrick’s greens can be delightfully quick and hard to read 

Lindrick’s place in the game is assured. Since 1957 it has hosted the Curtis Cup, the Dunlop Masters, the PGA Matchplay Championships among many others. These days it is a regional qualifying course for The Open championship and regularly appears in top 100 lists. It is easy to see why.

In choosing Lindrick as the Ryder Cup venue in ’57, Goodwin felt it could favour the British team. The plan was to get the fairways and greens firm and fast-running and to grow the rough through the putting surfaces.

The strategy would attempt to catch the Americans, more used to softer targets, overshooting the green and finding rough.

On the other side of the pond there was little concern, however. The Ryder Cup had become a formality. The British team had won in 1929 and 1933 but since then it was a story of total American dominance. Not only had they won seven in a row but players from the US had won 35 of 48 major championships contested since the war.

The Great Britain & Ireland Ryder Cup team 1957. Peter Alliss centre, back row. 

So confident were the Americans of winning again that they renewed their insurance on the Ryder Cup trophy even before they left for Lindrick. But the US team lacked the star quality of past years, with the ageing Ben Hogan and Sam Snead declining to play. That said, there was still a sense that all the Americans had to do to win was turn up.

The 5th tee at Lindrick 

The opening day of the match did little to dispel that feeling. The Americans won all but one of the opening foursomes matches. It was a disastrous start for Rees and his team. But a wind of change would blow in overnight. Rees held a fortnight team meeting and the British PGA sent word to cut the greens shorter, meaning they played faster.

It was to be a very different home side in the singles and the crowd played their part. Scot Eric Brown defeated the fiery American Tommy ‘Thunder’ Bolt 4&3 to set the tone. Bolt was furious the crowds cheered at his mishaps. “They cheered when I missed a putt and sat on their hands when I hit a good shot,” he claimed. “Good relations, hell! Don’t make me sick. Individually (the British) are pretty nice folks. But get them together and they are about as miserable a bunch of people as you could ever have the misfortune to run into in a supposedly civilised world.” His team-mate Ed Furgol, who was beaten 7&6 by Rees, would tell Bolt to “pipe down – you were well and truly licked.”

All afternoon, roars filled the air around Lindrick Common, as one British victory after another was registered on the scoreboard in front of the clubhouse. Alliss was the only home player to suffer defeat and one match was halved. It was a comprehensive victory: 7.5 points to 4.5. The Times report on October 5, 1957 read: “Britain’s golf writers and most of the 15,000 partisan fans had given up on them even before a shot was hit. But it was another story when the results went up on the board. “it’s like another Waterloo,” said one spectator while all around him jumped for joy and cheered … the British won six of the eight singles matches to carry off the golfing upset of the century.”

Defeat did not sit well with the Americans. Bolt would go on to describe the Yorkshire crowd as ‘the worst in the world’. It was a comment that would later be disowned by the president of the US PGA, Harry Moffitt, who later remarked that several players had told him how fair the crowds had been. Some of Bolt’s felt differently and  congratulated their conquerors. “We were properly thrashed,” said Furgol. “The British professionals are among the finest in the world,” added US captain Jackie Burke.

However, three American golfers, including Bolt, refused to attend the prize giving and reception which followed the match, the final discourtesy of a Ryder Cup that ended bitterly but did so much to breathe life into the Ryder Cup, for a short time at least. The President of the US PGA made a speech which ended with a comment that would serve as a portent. “Don’t bother to insure the trophy. We hope to have it back soon,” he said.

The honours board at Lindrick shows the Ryder Cup was just the start. 

Britain, which in 1979 became Europe, would have to wait until 1985 to get their hands on the trophy again. In the years before 1985 the purpose of the Ryder Cup would be called into question again. Step forward Tony Jacklin, captain in 1985. He would lead Europe to victory in 1985, 1987 (on US soil) and help them retain the trophy in 1989. The contest was alive again. What no one knew at Lindrick in ’57 was that a 13-year-old Jacklin was there to witness that famous victory. It inspired him to turn pro five years’ later.

Lindrick, it seems, may have saved the Ryder Cup more than once.

There is a confidence and warmth about the golf club. The course is varied and absolutely immaculately presented from 1st to last. And although it will never host a Ryder Cup again, Lindrick can be safe in the knowledge that without its contribution in ’57 it would not be the event it is today.

KEY FACTS
Phone Number: 01909 475 820
Designers: Tom Morris, Alistair McKenzie and Ken Moodie.
Green Fee Range: £200 to £40
Length: Par 70 – 6665 Yards
Website: lindrickgolfclub.co.uk

The Lindrick scorecard

Ryder Cup: mythical Ganton retains its magic

Ganton Golf Club


Ganton Golf Club is an extraordinary place.

There is a stillness to it, a timeless elegance. It’s as if when you leave the busy main road that flanks it and turn down a long narrow drive you are transported to a place of calm and serenity. Even in the fierce and frequent winds that sweep through the Vale of Pickering, there’s a sense of peace here.

The 16th green at Ganton

Ganton Golf Club dates back to 1891 when Tom Chisholm of St Andrews created a layout that has hosted every major event an inland links course can.

That said, this is not a place which needs to sell itself. Understated class is the order of the day. As we turn left into the club, we pass the 18th green, with putting green close-by, to our left and the clubhouse to our right. The vast practice ground is a pitch from the 1st tee.

Ganton from above. Bottom right is the par 5, 9th.

We walk into the pro-shop where the highly-respected head pro Gary Brown welcomes us warmly as any visitor could wish to be greeted.

Conversation turns to the story that dominated the build-up to the ’49 Ryder Cup. That particular story was not about golf, but meat. It prompted the great Ben Hogan, America’s non-playing captain, to say, “every time I pick up a paper I read about meat. I can’t even find any golf news. Next time I guess we’ll leave our clubs and home and just have a meat show.”

The US Ryder Cup team, 1949. Captain Ben Hogan is in the centre.

At that time, post-war Britain was in the grip of rationing. Limits, introduced on Jan 8, 1940, had been imposed on the sale of meat, clothing, petrol and flour. Bartering for extra food outside shops was a way of life. Restrictions were gradually lifted as the years went on but by the time the Americans arrived, only flour and clothes were no longer rationed.

Hogan had become aware of the shortage as he recovered from the crash that almost cost him his life. Only months before the Ryder Cup, the man with a swing from the Gods had survived a head-on collision with a bus on a foggy February night in Texas. In throwing himself across his wife Valerie to protect her, Hogan had suffered a double-fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collarbone and left ankle, chipped ribs and blood clots. A surgeon was flown from New Orleans by an US Air Force plane to save his life.

Hogan was furious with the British press

From his hospital bed, Hogan prepared meticulously. He recruited an esteemed New York butcher to put 600 sirloin steaks, 12 sides of ribs, 12 hams and 12 boxes of bacon on board RMS Queen Elizabeth bound for Britain. The Americans, who travelled with their wives, were to spend a month in England, not only to prepare fully for the Ryder Cup at Ganton but to play in the British Masters at St Andrews and the British PGA Matchplay at Walton Health, which boasted a winning cheque of £2,620

But, at first, it was the meat that made in the biggest headlines. Reporters explained to Hogan the influx of food in their tightly rationed islands warranted headlines. “Maybe so,” he replied. “But you don’t go around every day printing what Lord so and so had for lunch, or tea or dinner. I don’t get your angle. Those steaks and hams have been in your papers for 12 days now. We bought it over for our own table and to entertain the British golfers and their wives.”

If that was to be the first controversy of the 49′ Ryder Cup, it was not the last. Two years’ earlier at the 1947 Ryder Cup at Portland Golf Club, Hogan had been involved in a dispute over the depth of the grooves on his irons. On the last afternoon of practice, Henry Cotton, then British captain, had demanded the irons of Hogan and the American players be examined to see if they were legal. All passed inspection.

Hogan returned the favour at Ganton. Bernard Darwin, chairman of the R&A’s rules committee, was summoned from his pre-dinner bath, so the story goes, and agreed with Hogan, deciding that some irons did not conform to the rules leaving Ganton’s head pro, Jock Ballentine, to work through the night to file them down to a legal depth.

The 1st green at Ganton. The course was in immaculate condition

During our day at Ganton Golf Club we learn that very little on the course has changed since those days. It remains a golf course of the very highest quality: the best in Yorkshire, among the very best in Britain. The practice ground we warm up on was not there in ’49. The players fired balls down the 1st although with many of them playing 36-holes on practice days they may not have needed much more.

In 1949 the 12th was a par-3 as pictured above.

The only significant change in the layout comes on the 12th, which for us plays as an excellent short par-4, with dog legs to the right. in ’49 it was a par-3 to the corner of the dog leg. The impenetrable gorse which lines the fairways at Ganton these days and is a fantastic feature, had not been planted when the Ryder Cup was played. It was a more open course, more prone to the elements than even it is today.

The greens which are delightfully receptive to well struck shots during our round, were described as being ‘as hard as concrete’ during in ’49. The British players, more used to chip-and-runs, had the better of the opening day, only for the Yorkshire rain to come overnight, softening the greens and allowing the Americans to fly the ball at the flags on day two, as they came from behind to win 7-5.

Inside the clubhouse at Ganton Golf Club
The locker rooms at Ganton are unaltered from the days of Hogan

A few years ago, a couple arrived at the club with two golf balls. They were, they explained, related to a local man who had caddied for Snead in ’49. All the American players had used local men to carry their clubs. Snead, though, had rewarded his caddie with two Spalding golf balls after his 6&5 victory over Charlie Ward. The family had kept them for almost 60 years aware, perhaps, of their historical significance.

The charming locker rooms also remain unaltered. This is where Hogan and Sam Snead changed their shoes. You feel the hand of history as you do the same. It is impossible not to at Ganton, it’s in the air. And it endures.

Our day ends with a drink and a moment of quiet reflection in the clubhouse. Ganton Golf Club is a special place and not only because of its storied history. The Ryder Cup is just one chapter of it, there is much more to learn and understand. It is, quite frankly, hard to sum up in writing but all you need to know is that it is a genuine privilege to play golf here.

If you ever get the chance don’t pass it up.

The clubhouse at Ganton

KEY FACTS
Phone Number:  01968 660970
Designers: Tom Chisholm, Robert Bird, James Braid, Alister MacKenzie, Harry Colt, John Henry Taylor, and Harry Vardon.
Green Fee Range: £130 to £55.
Length: Par 73 – 6739 Yards
Website: gantongolfclub.com

The scorecard for Ganton.

Ryder Cup: Yorkshire’s vital role in golf history

The Wandering Golfers visit Yorkshire’s three iconic Ryder Cup courses to trace the story of their place in golfing history and see what kind of test they present today.

It’s not often golf can reach beyond the sport and capture the imagination of a new audience. 

The Ryder Cup, however, carries that power. It is an event built on prestige, not prize money, one that conjures up vivid, enduring memories and brings to mind the names of the courses on which the battles have played out. 

As part of our exclusive Ryder Cup series, we visited Yorkshire’s three iconic Ryder Cup courses –  Ganton, Moortown and Lindrick to tell their story. 

Twelve British clubs have hosted the Ryder Cup.

Scotland has held it twice – at Muirfield and Gleneagles. Wales once, at Celtic Manor in 2010. And the proud county of Yorkshire has hosted it on three separate occasions, at three different but wonderful golf courses.

The 18th green and clubhouse at Moortown, Leeds. Venue for the 1929 Ryder Cup. 

There are very few sports where fans can not only step onto the field of play but play on it too. Golf offers that rare opportunity and so once a course has hosted a Ryder Cup it becomes a calling for golfers everywhere, a place of pilgrimage where mere mortals can visit and attempt to recreate the superhuman feats that have gone before.

The 18th green and the clubhouse at Lindrick. Venue for the 1957 Ryder Cup.

Ganton, Moortown and Lindrick Golf Clubs offer that challenge.

Had none of the three hosted the Ryder Cup they would still be wonderful courses in their own right. But that each of them has, adds another layer of history, tradition and mystique that marks them out as special places to be. They share similar values, a collective heritage and global reputations. 

The view from behind the 16th green at magical Ganton. Venue for the 1949 Ryder Cup.

It was with that sense of adventure that the team at The Wandering Golfer set out not only to play Yorkshire’s renowned Ryder Cup courses, but to bring to life the incredible stories of when they hosted an iconic event. 

To read about our visit to Ganton and it’s Ryder Cup history click here.

To read about our visit to Lindrick and it’s Ryder Cup history click here.

To read about our visit to Moortown and it’s Ryder Cup history click here.

Burnley Golf Club: the friendliest of welcomes the prettiest of settings

Funny story.  Burnley Golf Club: 10am.

The clubhouse is quieter than it should be for a big golf day. No welcoming party. No bacon butties. None of those banner things. No people. We walk into the clubhouse. “Hi, we’re here for the golf day,” I say. “The golf day?’ says the pro. “Yes, the golf day. You know. The. Golf. Day,” I say.

The 3rd tee at Burnley Golf Club with the 2nd green to the right

There’s a moment when no one speaks. It’s quite a long moment. 

“Erm,” says the pro. “We don’t have a golf day today.” A smile spreads across my face. I have seen this one before. The witty pro playing a prank on the unsuspecting visitor. No chance I am falling for that one today, absolutely no chance, I think to myself smuggly. I have seen this one coming. 

“We’re not falling for that one,” I say. “Hahaha.”

The pro is not laughing. He’s not even smiling – he’s just staring back at us. He turns his computer around to face us, points to the golf day, points to the day of the week. He’s right, it isn’t today. It’s not even tomorrow. It’s two days’ from now. It’s quiet in the pro shop again. Very quiet. 

I have felt this way before in my life when I turned up at London Luton Airport rather than Heathrow for a flight. That wasn’t my fault either. I promise. We’re still standing there. We’ve driven for 2hrs to get here. 

The pro is laughing now. We looked bemused. A neat little role reversal. And then comes a sentence to lift our flagging spirits. An unexpected one. A joyous one. “You can still play if you want. I won’t charge you,” says the pro. 

Hope. “Really?” we say. This is pity. He thinks we’re simpletons who don’t know our days of the week. I don’t blame him. But we’ll take it for free golf.

The clubhouse at Burnley Golf Club with the 18th green in view

And that was how it began. A scramble to the car, shoes on, bags ready. 1st tee. And go. Burnley Golf Club may go down as the friendliest welcome I have ever had at an golf club in England. Not only because the pro gave us a free round but because the golfers around the 1st tee, usher us forward to play the short par-4 opener that rises steeply to an elevated green.

At the 2nd, the group of four in front of us wave us through. On the par-4 5th, another group of three golfers do the same and with good spirits.

We’re feeling so good we even pluck up the courage to tell passing golfers the ‘we turned up on the wrong day story- hahaha, what larks’. Ray, another of The Wandering Golfer team thinks he hears one of them utter the word ‘muppets’ as we walk to the next tee. I’d like to think it was actually something like ‘enjoy the view from the summit’. Maybe.

Even if it wasn’t, it is hard to disagree on this day of all days.

The sun is shining on the golf course and it is in really wonderful condition. The greens are as good as anything we have played in months. Fast, beautifully manicured and true. I mean really, really excellent.

 

The view from the 8th green at Burnley Golf Club

The opening five holes are challenging and offer a hint of what lies ahead. Blind tee shots are certainly a feature. As are changes in elevation. The best of the opening stretch is the 2nd. A blind tee shot needs to the right of the marker post to a fairway that gathers everything to the left. Your drive also needs to be short of the ditch at around 270 yards. The approach is from around 170 yards to a flattish green which is, not unusually here, a delight to put on. It’s a strong start and the views across the valley are wonderful. 

We cross the road towards the 6th tee. We’re up on the moorland now. The fairways narrow a little and the scenery is all around us and spectacular.

The 6th, another short par 4, runs alongside a wall with OB to the right. The green is tucked cleverly down in a dip. Another nice hole. The 7th is a good par 3, down to a green well protected by bunkers and by thick rough right.

The view towards the 10th green at Burnley Golf Club

The course really starts to come to life on the 10th. We fire our tee shots, blind again, over a marker post and onto a fairway below. The green is beautifully positioned between an avenue of trees with bunkers either side.

The par 3 11th is another excellent hole. Short, yes but not straightforward. Bunkers await. An amphitheatre of rough, curves around behind the green. It’s a delightful setting for a par 3 with the green long from back to front.

The long but narrow green at the excellent par 3, 11th hole

By now word has spread. As we approach the 15th tee a gentleman playing an adjoining hole introduces himself. “You must be the two who turned up on the wrong day,” he says with a smile. “I’m Alan, the club secretary, you’re very welcome.” And that was the feeling from start to finish at Burnley Golf Club. We genuinely were made to feel very welcome, which isn’t always the case in this game we all love. But here it seems to be par for the course. 

The last thing Alan says to us as we look down at the 15th fairway is “Turf Moor is the line!” And it was. The home of Premier League club Burnley was indeed the line for another sweeping par-4, even better if you can hit it with a slight fade. The finish at Burnley was a strong one. The second shot at 15 is likely to be 180 yards plus and often into a breeze.

By the time we reach the 18th tee we are only 2hrs 45 mins into our round. We’ve been challenged by a good course, played some good golf, at times, putted on some of the best greens you’ll find anywhere and taken in the views across the three peaks and beyond. Hard to beat. We’re fortunate that the wind is almost non existent. You could imagine when it blew …

We fire our tee shots away down the hill that carries you back down the clubhouse on 18. It’s a fitting and spectacular finish to the round.

Hit your tee shot well and it will stay in the air for what feels like an age before finding the fairway. The green is well protected and sloped front to back but two solid shots will get you home and safe. And that is it.

We shake hands and wander back into the pro shop to thank Sam for his kindness. He didn’t know we wrote about golf when he offered us a round at Burnley. Maybe he will now. The course gave us lots to write about. 

It’s absolutely worth a visit. The only slight difficulty for first time visitors is the number of blind tee shots particularly on the front 9 but the course is in really magnificent condition and you are guaranteed a warm welcome.

We will certainly be back… hopefully on the right day next time.

The scorecard at Burnley Golf Club

Best par 3: The 11th – 129 yards: a beautiful setting and a well protected green. Take one more club than you think and fly it all the way to the flag. 

Best par 4: The 3rd – 395 yards: unless your name is Rory McIlroy lay up short of the hazard off the tee and then flush your second to get home. 

Best par 5: The 8th – 516 yards: there is only one par 5 on the card but it’s a good one. Drive up and over the hill to find the fairway. Long hitters will get home in two although the green is a relatively small target. Great views. 

KEY FACTS
Phone Number: 01282 455266
Designer:  James Braid
Green Fee Range: £15-£45
Length: Par 69 – 5,943 Yards
Website: BurnleyGolfClub.com

West Linton Golf Club: a find off the beaten track

The name of West Linton may not spring immediately to mind when you’re planning an Edinburgh golf trip but having played this golf course, I’m here to tell you that from now on, it must.

Edinburgh has no shortage of wonderful places to play – Muirfield, Gullane, Royal Musselburgh and North Berwick – but if you’re prepared to venture off the beaten, and very expensive, track there’s a course that will give you a warm welcome, a great day and have you coming back for more.

West Linton is a conversation village, 17 miles south-east of Edinburgh.

The 3rd tee at West Linton

The village sits in the stunning Pentland Hills. And a short drive up the hill from the heart of it,  lies a golf course embraced by some of the most beautiful countryside you will find anywhere. West Linton Golf Club began life in 1890 when Robert Millar, a local teacher, established what was a 9-hole golf course on this stunning piece of land. Sir George Sutherland took over ownership in 1925 and immediately sought out the much heralded-designer James Braid, who drew up a plan for an improved course. It wasn’t, however, until 1974 that West Linton became the excellent golf course it is today.

It may only be 6,161yds but it packs a punch with its motto ‘Cherish the Good Turf’ an indication of things to come. From the car park the view across the moor to Mendick Hill are immediately captivating. The clubhouse is warm and welcoming, the food is great and the laughter audible. It’s not fancy or opulent but then it doesn’t need to be. Golf is the star of the show here. 

The opening three holes are a gentle introduction. The 1st, a short par-4, is no more than a fairway wood and a wedge, but with out of bounds to the right and thick heather to the left it is immediately obvious that placement is going too be rewarded over brute force. 

The 2nd is a gentle par-3 and the 3rd should be straightforward if you can get a good drive away up the right and short of the two bunkers. The 4th, know as Muckle Knock, is the start of an excellent run of holes. Like the 3rd, there is out of bounds all along the right but this is one of two par 5s and it’s demanding even in firm and fast conditions at 525 yards. With the fairway sloping right to left and bunkers challenging the long drivers on each side, the tee shot must be long and straight. To get to the green in two requires a well-struck second to a green that sits against the slope but on which balls will race to the left and into the deep bunker left of the green. 

The 5th turns back towards the clubhouse and is a brute of a par-4 at 470 yards with a relatively small green. The 6th and 7th are beautiful to look at it and, once again, demand precision. The 8th is arguably the hardest hole on the course at 447 yards, with a blind tee shot that must avoid OB and thick rough to the right and stay on a fairway that takes everything to the left. The approach must avoid a gaping bunker on the front left waiting for anything that running into the green. A good miss is front right of the green here. 

The view from the 5th tee at West Linton

The par 3 9th is an excellent hole. The green, an upturned saucer, is shallow and difficult to hit. And the 10th, which turns  back towards the clubhouse looks far more straightforward than it ever seems to play, with the slope running right on this short par-4. The back nine is an excellent test of golf. A number of strong par 4s starting with the 10th. Which demands a powerful drive to the corner of the slight dog-leg right and then a fizzing iron shot to carry the bunkers short of the green. This is one of four par-4s in excess of 440 yards that are spread out across the scorecard. The last of them is the start of a fierce finishing stretch. I stood on the 16th tee at 1 over par. 

Three holes and three bogeys later any hope of breaking 70 was gone. And it was easy to see why. “Crooked Jock”, as the 16th is known, demands plenty. The fairway rises and then falls down a green that sits surrounded delightfully surrounded by heather. The drive is partially blind to a fairway that slopes left to right. It’s a wonderful hole where a 4 is always a good score. 

The putting green next to the 1st tee at West Linton

And your round at West Linton ends with back to back par 3s, which face in opposite directions and present different challenges, both stern. The 17th, ‘Wee knock”, is the easier of the two even if it is far from a week knock for most. Measuring 196 years it requires a long accurate iron shot to a small green that slopes subtly and demands absolute precision. Arguably the hardest hole on the course is 18. 

Very few clubs finish with a 230-yard uphill par 3. But West Linton is one of them. That is complicated by out of bounds right, the club car park within yards of the back of the green and heather and nasty rough down the left. Only a real well struck long iron or wood will get you home to a green that slopes back to front. Good luck. You will need it. A 3 will almost feel like a birdie here. 

The beautifully kept green at the excellent 8th.

As I mentioned earlier, the motto of the club ‘cherish the good turf’ may have more to it than the obvious. But it speaks of the beautiful grass you will play off on the immaculate fairways here. The greens are fast and true. It really has the whole package. We promise. 

On the day we played final preparations were going on for the arrival of the professionals on the Tartan Tour the next day. And it is easy to see why this is a course that is often chosen for events such as these. So when you next find yourself planning out trip to Edinburgh and its beautiful golf courses, make sure you place West Linton Golf Club firmly in your plans. 

You’ve been told about a well-kept secret here, so make the most of it. 

The scorecard at West Linton Golf Club

  • Best hole: The 18th – 230yd Par 3. A brute. Quite frankly. As tough a par 3 as you will find for all sorts of reasons. Are you brave enough to take enough club and avoid all the trouble around you off the tee? Four is not a terrible score. 
     

  • Most memorable hole: The 8th 447 Yard Par 4. A fantastic hole. Long. Challenging. It has the lot and a blind tee shot to boot. Fire over the marker stick and then aim your second to the right edge of the green regardless of flag position. A 

  • Best par 5: The 505-yard 15th – Lang Whang. An excellent hole and an even better name. 

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KEY FACTS
Phone Number:  01968 660970
Designer:  James Braid and Robert Millar.
Green Fee Range: £20-£50
Length: Par 69 – 6161 Yards
Website: http://www.wlgc.co.uk