Wednesday, August 07, 2019

#AuldSod2019 - The Return to Scotland

A shot of the clubhouse and 18th green at Royal Troon Golf Club
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

In a few short hours, I will be heading to the airport in Toronto and embarking on a ten day trip to Scotland, my second visit to the home of golf. In 2017, we played 12 rounds in eight days but this year, we're outdoing ourselves, with an incredible 16 rounds of golf booked over a ten day period.

Oooh baby!

My trip begins with a red-eye out of Toronto tonight and an early morning arrival in Glasgow on Thursday. I'll meet up with three friends for the "Pre-Trip" portion of the trip and we'll immediately depart for Royal Troon Golf Club on the Ayrshire coast.

In 2017, our group stayed at the Marine Hotel in Troon right alongside the 18th fairway but we did not play the course on that trip. The Old Course at Troon has hosted The Open Championship nine times, most recently in 2016 when Henrik Stenson came out on top in a thrilling final round shootout over Phil Mickelson. The par three eighth hole, known as "The Postage Stamp", is one of the most famous and notorious holes in the game.

From there, our foursome will head north into the Scottish Highlands, where 36 holes await us at Royal Dornoch Golf Club.

Old Tom Morris is given credit for overhauling the original nine hole design and converting it into the 18 hole Championship Course in the late 1880s. It is known as one of the greatest golf courses in the world, currently sitting 15th on Golf Magazine's 2017 list of the world's best and I've been desperately hoping to experience the course and the town of Dornoch ever since reading Lorne Rubenstein's wonderful book, "A Season in Dornoch", which gets my highest recommendation.

The next day, we will head about a half hour north to Brora Golf Club.

James Braid laid out the links at Brora in 1891 and I'm a big fan of his after our round in 2017 at Elie, another charming Braid design just outside of St. Andrews. Brora is known for the sheep that roam and graze on the property and the electric fences that surround many of the putting surfaces to keep them off the greens. The club is a bit off the beaten path, so to speak but I'm a big fan of hidden gems and I'm guessing that our day at Brora will be one of the highlights of the trip.

We were originally planning on doing a distillery tour after our round at Brora but recently changed course and added a second round that day, visiting nearby Golspie Golf Club.

Golspie is yet another wonderful James Braid design, with the course sitting off the Dornoch Firth. It's notable for its mix of classic links, heathland and parkland holes and has stunning views from all holes of the Dornoch Firth on one side and the backdrop of Ben Bhraggie on the other.

We wrap up our time in the Highlands with a round on the modern masterpiece, Castle Stuart Golf Club.

The brainchild of developer Mark Parsinen, who also brought Kingsbarns Golf Links to life, Castle Stuart overlooks the Moray Firth and was co-designed by Gil Hanse, a noted American architect, with the course opening for play in 2009. Castle Stuart already sits within the top 100 courses in the world and has hosted the Scottish Open an incredible four times.

From there, we will head four hours south and meet up with the other four members of our group in East Lothian. Their trip begins with a round at Gullane #1 but us "Pre-Trippers" will miss out on that while making the trek from the Highlands. The eight of us will all meet up for the first time after their round and the next day, we'll be playing 36 holes at the phenomenal North Berwick Golf Club's West Links.

The Children's Course runs alongside the famous West Links at North Berwick Golf Club in Scotland, as seen from the Macdonald Marine Hotel & Spa
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

We enjoyed a 36 hole day at North Berwick back in 2017 so this is the first course that we felt compelled to see again on this trip - simply put, it's that good!

North Berwick has long been a "hidden gem" on Scottish golf itineraries and is a favourite of pretty much anyone who visits, with great template holes in a spectacular, seaside setting. It's awesome, it's on great land in a great location, it's a charming, quaint town and it's fun personified. I absolutely loved North Berwick and can't wait to see it again this year.

We have our second and final repeat viewing the next day, as the group once again heads back to one of the greatest clubs in the world, the famed Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, perhaps better known as Muirfield Golf Club.

The gorgeous clubhouse at Muirfield provides the backdrop as you approach the 18th green
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Muirfield has hosted 16 Open Championships and most recently, it was Phil Mickelson finally lifting the Claret Jug on these historic links back in 2013. Muirfield is commonly ranked among the top five or ten courses in the world, with its distinctive routing and excellent bunkering being celebrated. A full day at Muirfield is one of the great experiences in golf and once again, we will be lucky enough to play our own ball in the morning, have the famous Muirfield lunch (jacket and tie absolutely mandatory!) and then head back out for a boozy alternate shot match in the afternoon.

I'm especially excited to get back to Muirfield due to the fact I played one of my finest rounds of golf ever there in my first trip, making an eagle and four birdies, including the 17th and 18th holes, to shoot an incredible 72. A day I'll never forget...

Our final day in East Lothian sees us visit Tom Doak's only Scottish design, The Renaissance Club.

Jerry Sarvadi, an American businessman, played a lead role in developing the course and would eventually move to North Berwick with his family to run the day-to-day operations of the club, which opened for play in 2008. We will be playing Renaissance only three days after the conclusion of the Ladies Scottish Open, one of the premier events on the LPGA Tour so I'm guessing the course will be in magnificent shape. The 2019 Mens Scottish Open is also taking place at Renaissance in early July so it's a big year for the club - two major world tour events and hosting our itinerant group of eight golf fanatics. Not bad!

After our round, we head north for the final leg of our amazing trip, setting our anchor in the city of Aberdeen. Our first round the next morning is at Murcar Golf Club, another hidden gem from what I'm told.

Murcar was originally designed by Archie Simpson in 1909 and revised by James Braid in the 1930s. The course is located on a classic stretch of links land with massive sand dunes, undulating fairways and is covered in whins and heather with some magnificent views across the North Sea.

Later that afternoon, we will head a few miles south for a game at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club's Balgownie Course.

Founded in 1780, Royal Aberdeen is considered to be the 6th oldest club in the world. The club relocated in the late 1800s and the Balgownie Course, designed by Archie and Robert Simpson, opened for play in 1888. The club has hosted many great events over the years and is well known for their immense dunes, among the largest in the country, that must be navigated during the round.

I'm also very excited about the following day, where we will play two rounds at Cruden Bay Golf Club.

Long known as one of the great hidden gems in Scotland, wide acclaim over recent years has propelled Cruden Bay on to many World Top 100 lists and as a result, the course is a preferred stop on most Scottish itineraries. A few guys in the group played Cruden Bay in 2017 but I wasn't one of them so I'm greatly looking forward to the day. Old Tom Morris and Archie Simpson designed the course in 1899 and like Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay features massive dunes and a glorious seaside setting. This is one of the most anticipated days of the trip for yours truly.

We conclude this epic adventure with a round at the controversial Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeen.

The course was designed by Martin Hawtree and opened for play in 2012 but the development was heavily scrutinized by many conservationists throughout the process and that scrutiny continues to this day, with the fires fanned even more due to Trump's time in the White House. As a result, I will admit this is the course I'm least looking forward to on our trip but perhaps that's not entirely fair - I've heard plenty of accolades from people I greatly respect about the experience and even those who aren't effusive in their praise say they respect the course quite a bit. The landscape is supposed to be as dramatic as any in the world of golf so I will give it a fair chance. That said, it's the last course we see on our trip and for the sake of comparison, I came away feeling lukewarm about Kingsbarns in 2017 when it was the last course on that vacation so perhaps there will be some parallels in 2019.

16 rounds in 10 days...I may not be able to walk when I get back to Canada! I literally can't wait for this trip.

You can look forward to detailed reviews of all the courses upon my return. In the meantime, feel free to follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, as I document this incredible experience each day.

Thanks for reading, as always.

Friday, May 17, 2019

This Week on the PGA Tour: 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black

The spectacular par five 4th hole on Bethpage State Park's Black Course
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The 2019 PGA Championship sees the tournament move from its decades-long August date to mid-May, with this year's event being held at the notorious Bethpage State Park Black Course.

I had the opportunity to play the course back in 2011 and I was fortunate to get the true "Bethpage Experience", sleeping in my car in the parking lot the night before in order to secure an early morning tee time.

Check out the link below if you're interested in reading up on one of the more unique public golf experiences in the world:

COURSE PROFILE: Bethpage State Park - Black Course

Enjoy the tournament this weekend!

Friday, May 10, 2019

2019 Ontario Better Ball Qualifier

Toronto's skyline offers a picturesque backdrop on the par five 9th hole at Eagles Nest Golf Club
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

For the first time in seven years, I decided to test myself by playing in one of our provincial championship qualifiers.

My buddy Ryan and I battled 39 other teams in frigid conditions on Tuesday April 30th at Eagles Nest Golf Club in Maple, Ontario, just north of Toronto. It was one of eight qualifiers to determine entry into the 2019 Ontario Better Ball Championship, which takes place in mid-May at Oakdale Golf & Country Club.

Ryan and I last tried out for this event back in 2012 at Highland Country Club in London and fell a few strokes short that year. Based on previous qualifiers, we knew we'd likely need a score of par or better to move on to the actual championship so we had birdies on our mind as we teed off mid-morning at Eagles Nest.

Things started out decently, as I'd rip my first tee ball long down the middle of the first fairway and we were off. Ryan and I both made pars on the mid-length par five first hole but we'd be in tough on the long, uphill par four second. I actually hit a gorgeous five-iron past pin high to about 20 feet but my first putt would tumble down the hill, past the hole and end up an agonizing ten feet away. I'd suck it up and knock that uphill putt into the middle of the cup for the satisfying par save after Ryan missed his own par putt earlier.

Unfortunately, we'd both bogey the third hole, with Ryan not able to get up and in from over the green while I wasn't able to do the same from the front right bunker. After a good two putt par on the 4th from yours truly, we both missed short par putts on the par three 5th, with Ryan's miss from only about three feet.

At this point, I was +2 on my own ball and Ryan was +4. Not the start we wanted.

Ryan would start to take over on the par four 7th, a tough dogleg right par four. He'd hit a great approach to about 15 feet and with me sitting 10 feet away for par, he'd calmly knock it in for our first birdie of the day.

The picturesque par three 8th was next and after Ryan hit it into a greenside trap, I'd hit pitching wedge to about 12 feet. Ryan almost holed his bunker shot and easily tapped in for par, giving me a good birdie run but I'd hit it through the break and we'd have to settle for a par. Then, on the par five 9th, both Ryan and I had birdie putts from about 15 feet - I'd miss but Ryan would make again, pulling us back to even par on the day and giving us a fighting chance to qualify, especially seeing our playing partners struggle to a 43 (!!) on their best ball.

Unfortunately, we'd start to fall apart from here, with us both bogeying the 10th and 11th holes to drop right back to +2. This was especially egregious for me, as I had only a wedge into the par four 10th and couldn't take advantage of it.

Ryan would keep us in it on the back side, as I lost my rhythm with the driver and was getting into constant trouble. I'd double bogey the 16th and 18th holes, hitting into three water hazards in the process and we'd stumble to a 40 on the back nine and a final total of 76 (+4), good for T22nd out of 40 teams. Only seven spots were up for grabs and as expected, we would have needed a 71 just to squeak in, so we have plenty of work to do if we want to try again next year. I finished 38-44-82 on my own ball, as I struggled quite a bit on the last few holes.

Overall, it was a great experience to get back into that level of competition and Eagles Nest was a fine host, with the golf course in really good shape all things considered. I hope to do more of that this year - I'm joining the men's league at Lookout Point CC and plan on competing in their men's invitational event in early June, known as "The Brooke", one of the longest running invitationals in the province. I've been playing decently to start the season, especially considering the incredibly cold and wet spring, notching a couple of 76's and winning a few bucks in my side games with friends along the way.

If this weather ever makes a turn for the better, I'm expecting good things to come from my game.