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.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

A New Beginning

The short par four 15th at Lookout Point Country Club
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

My new home away from home, Lookout Point Country Club, officially opened for the 2019 season on Saturday and I was up bright and early to take advantage. It was a decent day - temperatures around 13 degrees Celsius with partly cloudy skies but very breezy, which made flighting the ball very challenging on my first round in close to six months.

It was a wonderful walk and a fun round - after starting reasonably well (+2 through 8 holes), I'd start to lose accuracy with my driver on the last ten and end up shooting a season-opening round of 81 (+9). Overall, I hit more good shots than bad and I putted well using a cross-handed grip, something I've experimented with in the past but may try a bit more this season.

The weather this Easter weekend looks terrible in Niagara and we'll be lucky to get one round in by the looks of it. I've got an Ontario Better Ball qualifier coming up in less than two weeks so I'm anxious to get out and work on my game. Lookout has a wonderful practice facility and I plan to take full advantage this year.

I got a new rangefinder last week, the Precision Pro NX7 Pro but I must say, my first impressions are very negative. On a clear day, it wasn't picking up any flags from over 175 yards away and I even had my playing partners try to use it to no avail. Thankfully, I've been in touch with some key people over there and their customer service is wonderful - they've given me a couple of tips and I'm going to give it another shot this weekend but they tell me if it doesn't work, they'll be sending out a brand new unit right away as a replacement. Wonderful service for sure.

I'm also using a new game improvement app called Bebrassie, which calculates strokes gained statistics for every component of your game, offers charts/grids on your shot dispersion and has all sorts of other cool features. It's a very sophisticated program and it requires a lot of post-round editing work and I can see myself tiring quickly of that process. But again, it's very detailed and I'm going to stick with it for awhile and perhaps write a full review here after a month or so.

I really intend to work on my game this year in hopes of getting back to around a 3 handicap, a very tall challenge considering I've made the move to a new and more difficult golf course.

More course reviews to come, with the wonderful North Berwick - West Links up next.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019


Muirfield - The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers
Gullane, East Lothian, SCOTLAND

6728 YARDS (PAR 71)
COURSE ARCHITECT: Old Tom Morris (1891); Harry S. Colt (1923)
LAST PLAYED: August 15, 2017.
LOW SCORE: 72 (+1)

- Golf Club Atlas 147 Custodians of the Game: #45
- Golf Magazine Top 100 Courses in the World 2017: #10
- Golf Digest World's Greatest 100 Courses (Outside USA) 2018: #4
- World's Top 100 2018: #10
- Britain and Ireland Top 100 2018: #4

"Its modest topography might not win over the first time visitor, but the keen architecture student is guaranteed to find lots to admire. The greens are beautifully if subtly contoured, and the quality of the bunkering - both in its strategic placement and in the artistry of its shapes and revetments - is simply the finest on the planet."
Tom Doak, Golf Course Architect, "The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses Volume 1 - Great Britain and Ireland"

The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers holds the claim of being the oldest verifiable organized golf club in the world. Although the game itself is several centuries older, the club's records date back to 1744, when it produced the thirteen original Rules of Golf for its first competition, which was played at Leith Links for the Silver Club. The Company played on the five holes at Leith Links for nearly a century, but overcrowding forced a move in 1836 to Musselburgh's nine-hole Old Course, which was situated within a horse-racing track. The Musselburgh course would eventually be shared by four separate clubs and as a result, became too crowded for the liking of the Company members.

As a result, in 1891, the Company purchased The Howes, another old horse-racing track on the Archerfield Estate at Dirleton, leading cynics to claim that all the Company had done was move "from one race-course to another." The course, called Muirfield, was designed by Old Tom Morris and within a year, it hosted its first Open Championship. This situation caused some ill feeling at Musselburgh, which lost the right to hold the Open from that point forward. This new course was met with wide approval from the start and has been modified and updated several times since, most significantly in the mid-1920's by Harry S. Colt, who would introduce 14 new holes after the club purchased an additional 50 acres of land north of the existing course.

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. Other winners at Muirfield include Nicklaus, Watson, Trevino, Player, Els, Faldo (twice), Vardon and Hagen. That is some list...

The club is unique for many reasons, one of which is due to the fact that the game most commonly played by members is foursomes, more commonly known as alternate shot. The club also was in the news for the wrong reasons in recent years due to the fact that it had a male-only membership policy, one that was finally abolished so that the club could maintain its spot in the Open rotation.

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 we were lucky enough to be playing 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, all while enjoying some of the finest weather during our entire trip.

After the very challenging 446 yard opening hole, one usually played into a prevailing wind, things perk up on the 365 yard 2nd, as you get your first glimpse of the Firth of Forth. An out of bounds stone wall runs down most of the left side, pushing play towards the right side of the fairway. However, you will then have a very challenging approach over the four greenside bunkers all situated on the right side of the green. This is where you quickly realize that proper placement of your tee ball is imperative if you want access to the open sides of the greens.

The 3rd, a mid-length par four measuring 375 yards, looks more menacing than it really is. The fairway narrows to the width of a walking path about 290 yards from the tee, with bunkers on both sides of the fairway. The approach will need to be played long in order to clear the two pot bunkers in the front right.

The par three 4th hole features a slightly elevated tee shot to a plateau green, with bunkers in front and short grass hollows behind and on both sides. A very challenging shot when the wind is up.

If the 5th hole is playing downwind, as it was the day we visited, it likely qualifies as the best birdie opportunity at Muirfield. At only 510 yards, this par five is eminently reachable in the right conditions but will require a long and accurate drive into an angled fairway that is very well-protected by five bunkers lining the right side. I was able to make an eagle here, one that kick-started a round that would end up being quite memorable when all was said and done.

The 6th is a very long par four, measuring 467 yards and it may just be the most demanding tee shot on the golf course, as it's played semi-blind up a hill with no discernible aiming markers. From there, the hole moves down and to the left, with the approach made more difficult by a hidden hollow short of the green, making distance that much harder to judge. Things don't get any easier on the mid-length par three 7th, a 185 yarder that is played uphill and into the prevailing wind to a perched green completely exposed to the elements.

After the 443 yard par four 8th, the par five 9th returns to the clubhouse and plays much longer than its yardage due to the fact that it too plays into the prevailing wind. It's a great second shot hole, as a cluster of bunkers protects the natural entryway into the green down the right hand side of the fairway about 50 yards from the green, forcing many to lay up short and attempt a wedge third shot. The layup is no bargain either, with a stone out of bounds wall running hard down the left hand side of the fairway right in the landing zone.

The 10th is another brute. It's a 470 yard par four with a very narrow fairway, three menacing bunkers lining the right side and a prevailing southwest wind that pushes balls in that direction. The green is partially obscured by two centre-line bunkers about 100 yards short but the green is open in front and accepts a running approach.

The 11th, a 387 yard par four, is an absolute delight. The tee shot is completely blind, essentially the only shot of its kind at Muirfield, over the top of a hill to what you'll eventually see is a pretty generous fairway. The panoramic view that awaits upon cresting the hill is one of those special moments in golf, with the sea in all its glory beautifully framing the landscape. The approach is no bargain here, with a small and very undulating heart-shaped green enveloped by seven bunkers. In my mind, this rates at the most picturesque hole at Muirfield.

The par four 12th is 380 yards long and takes you back towards the town of Gullane, with the hillside offering a lovely backdrop. It's a routine driving hole, with most of the challenge lying at the narrow green, with five bunkers lining the right and a large depression area back left.

The 13th hole is one of the world's great uphill par threes, reminiscent in some respects to the 11th at Shinnecock Hills and Sand Hills Golf Club's 13th, among others. This hole measures 191 yards from the championship tee and features a perched green that is long but extremely narrow, a mere 15 paces wide. There are two deep bunkers to the left and three to the right and any tee shots that end up in the sand usually mean a bogey at best. Truly world class in every respect.

Two long par fours come next, with the 445 yard 15th providing the most interest, especially at the green, called "Camel's Back" by the members due to its many humps and hollows. Three putts must be commonplace here. Meanwhile, the 186 yard par three 16th is yet another very challenging one-shotter to a severely sloping green protected by seven bunkers on the right and front left.

The finish at Muirfield is outstanding and the 576 yard par five 17th, which usually plays much shorter than its yardage due to the prevailing wind, is on the short list of the world's greatest three shot holes. You have plenty of room out to the right off the tee but if you want to challenge this green in two shots, you'll need to drive your ball down the left side, which brings a string of five bunkers into play. From there, you'll next notice four bunkers, including the famed "coffin bunker", lined up in the middle of the layup area between 100 and 130 yards from the green. If the hole is playing into the wind, you'll likely need to layup short but with the normal prevailing winds coming from behind, you'll likely attempt the more heroic approach and try to challenge the green. And what a green site this is, with the putting surface set back into the dunes behind bunkers left and right of a very narrow entrance. A simply exhilarating par five.

The par four 18th is one of the great finishing holes in championship golf, a 471 yarder to a narrow fairway made even tinier by the prevailing crosswinds. The approach must clear two centre-line bunkers about 40 yards short of the green and the putting surface is long and tilted sharply from back to front, with deep bunkers left and right. The historic clubhouse sits in the background on this most worthy of closing holes.

Muirfield is notoriously difficult but on this day, I was particularly inspired, making an eagle and four birdies, including the 17th and 18th holes, to fire a three under 33 on the back nine and a one over par 72 overall, one of my finest rounds in years. Making that putt on the 18th for a closing birdie was a particularly memorable and emotional experience.

However, the true "Muirfield Experience" doesn't end on the 18th green. From here, we headed for the men's locker room, showered and then changed into a coat and tie, allowing us access to the clubhouse dining room and the most spectacular lunch that you can possibly imagine. A full salad bar, carved meat stations and many other foods hot and cold await in the dining room, as you mingle with members and guests alike. From there, four of us retired to the lounge with a glass of red wine and some Kummel, where we were able to take in some of the incredible history that lines the walls in the Muirfield clubhouse.

I would have been perfectly content just hanging out here for the rest of the day but we had more golf to play!

As previously noted, most of the golf played at Muirfield is with two balls, more commonly known on this side of the pond as alternate shot. Any afternoon games at Muirfield must be played in this format so we got back into our golf gear and went out for a quick 18 holes of alternate shot action. We'd end the day on the beautiful patio in front of the clubhouse and adjacent to the 18th green, sipping on ale and telling stories about our day.

I probably looked forward to this day more than any other on this particular trip and as such, I had incredibly high expectations for my day at Muirfield. I'm happy to say that those expectations were exceeded in every way. The club has a hard-earned reputation for being a tad formal and stuffy but we were welcomed with open arms from the moment we arrived and I felt completely comfortable both on and off the golf course.

And what a golf course this is! Muirfield is on the very short list of the most ingeniously bunkered golf courses in the world, with very well-defined edge work, some incredible artistic flair and most significantly, some of the most superb and strategic bunker positioning I've ever seen. There is great variety in shot values throughout and the greens are well-contoured, very well protected and all provide great interest both on the putting surfaces themselves and in the immediate surrounds.

The fact that this was accomplished on what would normally be considered a pretty routine and unremarkable piece of land, set well-away from the sea, further accentuates the greatness of the design.

The club is steeped in history and that's never more apparent than when you are walking through the clubhouse and seeing the incredible artifacts lovingly displayed throughout. The locker room is a treat and as indicated, the famous Muirfield lunch is not to be missed.

That all said, it's the golf course that shines above all else here.

Muirfield is famously private but accepts limited outside play on Tuesday and Thursdays, assuming you book well in advance. If you have the ability to plan ahead and have the means, a day at Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is unquestionably one of the finest experiences you can have in this great game and comes with my highest recommendation.

The stately entrance gates to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The beautiful clubhouse at Muirfield
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Matt S tees off the par four 1st hole at Muirfield
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

The tee shot on the par four 2nd hole
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Bunkers line the right side of the approach area on the 2nd
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

Looking back down the 2nd from behind, with the out-of-bounds stone fence menacingly close to the green
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

Another view of the 2nd green, with this photo taken from the 16th tee
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Our group makes our way up the par four 3rd hole, a 377 yard par four
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

Dan stands just in front of the green on the 3rd
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The 3rd green, as seen from the 4th tee
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

The tee shot on the 182 yard par three 4th
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Looking back towards the tee from the 4th green, with the Gullane hillside providing a picturesque backdrop
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

A deep greenside bunker on the 4th
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

A panoramic view of Muirfield from the 5th tee, with the fourth green in the foreground
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

The tee shot on the 510 yard, par five 5th
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The uphill second shot into the 5th
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The 7th hole, a par three measuring 147 yards
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Another stone out of bounds wall runs down the left side of the par five 9th hole
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

A great look at the beautiful bunkering at Muirfield, as displayed near the 9th green
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Dan rips yet another one down the middle on the long and tough par four 10th hole
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

An absolutely stunning vista awaits as you crest the hill on the par four 11th
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

A view from the right side of the fairway on the 11th
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

This is me teeing off on the 12th, a 380 yard par four
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

The approach shot into the 12th at Muirfield
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Four bunkers are seen and one is hidden (back right) near the green on the 12th
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

The incredibly challenging uphill par three 13th at Muifield
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The 13th green is perched high above the tee and offers a splendid view of the surrounding sea
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

The approach shot into the par four 15th hole
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The par three 16th, a 186 yarder
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

A great look at what awaits on your second shot on the fantastic par five 17th, with four cross bunkers in the distance
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The famed coffin bunker on the 17th hole at Muirfield
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The pitch shot third shot into the par five 17th
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The tee shot on the 418 yard, par four closing hole
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

A glorious view looking back toward the sea and the 18th tee at Muifield
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The final approach into the 18th, with the gorgeous clubhouse in the background
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The bunkering at Muirfield, both positionally and stylistically, is among the best in all of golf
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Such artistry!
(Photo Courtesy of Matt Schmidt)

Enjoying a glass of wine in the clubhouse after an amazing lunch, with jacket and tie absolutely mandatory (from left: yours truly, Andrew, Ed, Matt S)
(Photo Courtesy of Matt Schmidt)

The lads enjoy a post-round beverage on the beautiful patio at Muirfield
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The glorious view afforded to those sitting on the patio just off the 18th green in front of the clubhouse at Muirfield
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Smiles a mile wide after enjoying one of the great experiences in world golf (from left: Andrew, Steven, Dan, Ed, yours truly, Howard, Chris and Matt S)
(Photo Courtesy of Matt Schmidt)

Monday, February 18, 2019

Turnberry Resort - Ailsa Course

Trump Turnberry - Ailsa Course
Turnberry, Ayrshire, SCOTLAND

7489 YARDS (PAR 71)
COURSE ARCHITECT: Philip Mackenzie Ross (1951); Martin Ebert (2016)
LAST PLAYED: August 14, 2017.
LOW SCORE: 79 (+8)

- Golf Magazine Top 100 Courses in the World 2017: #16
- Golf Digest World's Greatest 100 Courses (Outside USA) 2018: #10
- World's Top 100 2018: #14
- Britain and Ireland Top 100 2018: #5

"Turnberry has long been regarded as a 'Jewel in the Crown' of Ayrshire, Scottish and British golf - in fact, world golf - given the Ailsa’s consistently high position in worldwide ranking lists and it has always been a players’ favourite. That owes much to the stunning coastal setting of the links but also to the partnership between the Ailsa Course and the Turnberry Hotel which has always set the highest levels of luxury."
From Mackenzie & Ebert's Official Website, International Golf Course Architects

The evolution of the Ailsa Course at Turnberry is among the most fascinating in the annals of golf history.

Willie Fernie, the 1883 Open Champion, is credited with the design of the original 13 hole course in 1901. The gorgeous, James Miller designed hotel opened five years later, adjacent to a new railway that would allow visitors from all across Britain easy access to the course.

It was a very popular destination in those early days but World War I would see the land turned into an airbase and military training centre, while the hotel was converted into a wartime hospital. After the war, the course was rebuilt and given the name "Ailsa", with a second course, "Arran", also being reworked.

The advent of World War II saw this process repeated, as once again the course would be turned into an airbase, with the Royal Air Force conducting all of its aerial training on the site and the hotel was once again turned into a hospital for the wounded.

After the war ended, there was some thought given to just abandoning the idea of refurbishing the site, as both the hotel and the golf course were in need of considerable restorative work. However, the government was convinced to fund the resurrection of the facility and Mackenzie Ross was hired to reroute and redesign a new Ailsa Course, which would finally open for play once again in 1951.

The Ailsa course became world renowned in 1977, when it hosted its first Open Championship. To this day, the "Duel in the Sun" is considered to be on the short list of the finest tournaments in major championship history, an event that saw Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus separate themselves from the rest of the field and play at a level many had never seen before on such a big stage. With the blazing sunshine showering the course in a golden hue, viewers across the world were spellbound by the quality of the golf and the course itself. Watson would end up matching Nicklaus' long birdie putt on the final hole with a tap-in birdie of his own to win that incredible championship and cement the notion that the Ailsa Course was among the world's best. The Open Championship would return to Turnberry three more times over the years, in 1986, 1994 and 2009, with Greg Norman, Nick Price and Stewart Cink winning those events respectively. That 2009 Open was incredibly memorable, as a 59 year old Tom Watson held the championship lead on the 72nd hole, only to bogey it and ultimately lose in a four-hole playoff to Cink.

Donald Trump would purchase the resort in 2014 for the bargain sum of $60 million and has invested an estimated $200 million more into hotel, clubhouse and golf course improvements. Martin Ebert was hired to rework a number of holes, including the once controversial par four 9th hole, turning it into a stunning par three adjacent to the iconic Turnberry lighthouse. Ebert's work has been met with wide acclaim, with the general consensus being that the course has been significantly improved.

That all said, the chances of the Open Championship returning to Turnberry anytime soon seem remote. In 2015, the R&A announced that the 2020 Open Championship would not be held at Turnberry despite the fact that the Ailsa Course was previously considered likely to host the event. This announcement came shortly after Trump was admonished for allegedly making insensitive and ill-advised comments by golf's governing body. While Trump was forced to relinquish control off all his business interests upon becoming President of the United States, his company, now run by his sons Donald Jr and Eric, still owns the Turnberry Resort and the R&A seems unlikely to reward an Open to the course while he's in office.

We are all worse off for this development, as Turnberry's Ailsa Course is unquestionably one of the world's greatest venues, both for its dramatic views and the testing design capable of challenging the best players in the game.

Our day at Turnberry started with a little warmup session on the delightful "Wee Links", a pitch and putt course that sits at the foot of the imposing Turnberry Hotel. It's a blast to play and we played to about nine of the greens before venturing to the first tee on the Ailsa Course.

Compared to Prestwick, which we had played the day before, Turnberry's Ailsa Course gets off to a relatively benign start. The first three holes are mid-length to long par fours that run parallel with each other - all three are solid holes in their own right but your head somehow keeps swiveling toward panoramic views of the Ailsa Craig, while your mind is on the long stretch of glorious seaside holes that are soon to come.

The par three 4th hole, appropriately named "Woe-be-Tide", is the start of that exhilarating eight hole coastal sequence and it's here that you get your first look at the famous Turnberry lighthouse, set well in the distance. The hole itself is set hard against Turnberry Beach and features a significant forced carry over sand to a green set just to the left of a large dune.

The fifth hole is a par five measuring 531 yards from the championship tee and features a cool green site set in a cove at the bottom of the dunes. This hole will likely play as a par four at any future Open Championships and will be played from one of the other tee decks.

The seaside walk from the 5th green to the par three 6th tee is among the most enjoyable and stunning imaginable and this hole was shortened considerably during the most recent course renovations conducted by Martin Ebert, providing a site for a new elevated tee deck for the 18th. The sixth now measures only 171 from the back tees, as opposed to the previous length of 231 yards and features a small, elevated green site that sits above a steep slope to the right and rear of the putting surface. With wind always a factor, hitting this green is a considerable challenge for all despite its modest length.

The 7th is a 575 yard par five called "Roon the Ben", which translates to "Round the Mountain". Indeed, your tee shot on this dogleg left requires accuracy to avoid bunkers lining both sides of the hole and your second is hit well uphill to a green protected by two bunkers short right and a valley of deep rough to the left.

The 476 yard par four 8th hole is among the toughest at Turnberry and plays uphill the whole way. With a narrow fairway protected by three bunkers on the right side of the landing area and an immense bunker short left of the green, only two perfectly played shots will result in a birdie chance, with pars and even bogeys still welcomed by most players on this wonderful test.

It's sensory overload by the time you reach the 9th tee. Formerly a controversial par four with a hog's back fairway that made it practically impossible to finish on short grass, Ebert has converted the 9th into a thrilling par three that tips out at a lengthy 248 yards. Any shots from the isolated back tee will require a hybrid or fairway metal that need to be carried over a rocky inlet of Turnberry Bay, while shots from the other tee decks feature a more modest carry. The iconic lighthouse is in full view just left of the green and the panoramic views on this area of the property may be unmatched in world golf. It's a breathtaking site and even the greatest of cynics will acquiesce to its beauty and challenge.

From here, you make your way to the lighthouse, which now is home to a quaint and very comfortable halfway house. At this point, it was raining pretty hard so we warmed up with some food and drink before heading back out to play the final nine holes.

Ebert's course renovations saw the 10th hole converted from a solid par four into an exhilarating par five that doglegs around the rocky coastline. The fairway is wide and inviting and the majority of the challenge is faced on your approach, where you can elect to layup or challenge the notorious "doughnut" bunker that is about a hundred yards short of the green.

The last of the seaside holes comes on the reconfigured par three 11th, which now has a greensite located much closer to the bay and rocky outcrops. This hole extends to a brawny 215 yards from the championship tee markers and concludes one of the most thrilling stretches of seaside golf imaginable.

The 12th begins the closing stretch that sees your eventual return to the clubhouse from the furthest reaches of the course. Named "Monument", the straight forward par four features a monument on the hillside right of the green that commemorates those who died fighting at Turnberry during the World Wars. By the time you reach the plateau green on the 409 yard par four 13th, you will see the remnants of the airstrip used during the Second World War.

The 14th is yet another hole that has seen positive changes in the recent renovation and is now a 568 yard par five after previously being a long par four. The hole plays uphill on the approach and features one last look at the glorious lighthouse in the background before you make your way towards the finishing stretch.

The hotel beautifully frames the challenging par three 15th while the long par four 16th, measuring 479 yards from the back tees, features a burn that winds just in front of a green that slopes considerably towards the hazard, gobbling up any long iron approaches that aren't well struck.

The 17th hole, formerly the easiest on the course, has been converted from a mid-length par five into an exceptionally challenging long par four that can stretch to over 500 yards.

The 18th, renamed to commemorate the historic "Duel in the Sun", has benefited from the addition of a new elevated back tee, lengthening the hole and straightening out what used to be an awkward dogleg into a suitably rewarding finisher.

I have to admit that I came into my day at Turnberry with relatively low expectations. It's a very expensive place to play and the controversy surrounding its owner also didn't help build anticipation for my visit.

However, I was charmed right from the start, with impeccable service in the pro shop and locker room to the enchanting pre-round warmup on the "Wee Links". And, as you can likely tell by my lengthy review, I was pretty much blown away by the entire experience of playing the Ailsa Course.

Many enthusiastic visitors proclaim it to be the "Pebble Beach of Scotland" and that was something that our itinerant group of eight debated in our coach as we enjoyed the long ride from Ayrshire to East Lothian after our day on the Ailsa. To a man, those who had played both courses proclaimed Turnberry to be the stronger of the two courses from one to eighteen from an architectural perspective and I'd also argue that the collection of seaside holes at Turnberry comes close to matching the drama and beauty of the historic links in California.

We played Turnberry on a cold and dreary day and dealt with driving rain and 3-4 club winds for almost the entire back nine, limiting the amount of photos that were taken on the closing holes. But the weather did nothing to dampen our spirits and our enthusiasm for the Ailsa Course. It sits on the most glorious of sites and you can't help getting a bit spiritual as you walk those incredibly scenic seaside holes, especially the three holes closest to the famous lighthouse.

The clubhouse and locker room are very well-appointed and comfortable and lacked the ostentatious touches I had perhaps expected before arrival - Trump and his team acted with appropriate restraint during the renovations both on and off the golf course and I can only applaud the work and admit I was wrong in jumping to any conclusions before stepping foot on the property.

Turnberry's Ailsa course is unquestionably one of the most stunningly beautiful seaside links courses on the planet, features compelling architecture and remains a serious challenge for the best players in the world. I truly hope the Open returns one day to this historic site and I can say with absolute assurance that I will personally be back someday to enjoy the world-class experience that Turnberry provides.

Built in the early 20th century, the imposing Turnberry Hotel can be seen from almost every part of the property
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The clubhouse at Turnberry, where many millions were spent on renovations and upgrades
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The delightful "Wee Links" sit at the base of the Turnberry Hotel and this pitch and putt is a wonderful amenity at this world-class facility
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Huf slaps home his par as Matt S and I look on from the Wee Links
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

Matt S almost holes out his pitch, with Howard, Chris and Dan (from left) looking on
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Matt S hits off the 1st tee on Turnberry's famed Ailsa Course
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Looking back towards the tee, as Matt S and his caddy make their way toward the 1st green
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The approach shot on the 1st hole on the Ailsa Course
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

A lovely panoramic of the 1st green from the left, with the Firth of Clyde in the background
(Photo Courtesy of Matt Schmidt)

The challenging tee shot on the 425 yard par four 2nd
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Greenside on the 2nd hole at Turnberry's Ailsa Course
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Howard rips one off the par four 3rd tee
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

A look at the green on the 3rd, as seen from the 2nd tee
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Matt S putts to knee-knocker distance on the 3rd green
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Matt S tees off on the par three 4th hole
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Andrew with a very difficult bunker shot on the 4th
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The long approach shot to the 531 yard par five 5th hole
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Andrew pitches up nicely on the 5th, with the ever-present Turnberry Hotel providing a great backdrop
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The glorious walk from the 5th green up to the 6th tee, with Turnberry Beach on the left and the iconic Turnberry Lighthouse in the distance
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

The short but challenging par three 6th hole
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Huf blasts one out of the greenside bunker on the 6th hole
(Photo Courtesy of Chris Hufnagel)

Yours truly trying to figure out the tricky 6th green
(Photo Courtesy of Matt Schmidt)

Andrew driving down the par five 7th hole at Turnberry
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

The steeply uphill second shot on the par five 7th hole
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Just in front of the 7th green, with the 8th hole in the distance on the left
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The tee shot on the very long par four 8th hole, which measures 476 yards from the championship tees and plays well uphill
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The approach shot into the par four 8th hole from the right side of the fairway
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

A look at the 8th green from one of the bunkers short and right, as a storm makes its final approach
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

The redesigned 9th is now an exhilarating par three measuring 248 yards from this championship tee
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Dan G, Chris H, Steve S and Ed M (from left) on the glorious par three 9th tee, as the rain starts coming down hard
(Photo Courtesy of Chris Hufnagel)

Andrew L, yours truly, Matt S and Howard R (from left) get our turn on the beautiful 9th
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

That's me hitting my tee shot on the 9th
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

Another amazing panoramic of the par three 9th hole on Turnberry's Ailsa Course
(Photo Courtesy of Matt Schmidt)

Howard finishes off this seven footer on the 9th green
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

A look at the 9th green, as taken from the deck near the lighthouse
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The beautiful and famous Turnberry Lighthouse
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Matt S, Howard and Andrew try to warm up in the little grill room located inside the Turnberry Lighthouse
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The tee shot on the newly redesigned par five 10th, measuring 565 yards from the back tees
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Our group is ready to go after a nice little break after the ninth hole
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Yours truly teeing off on the par five 10th
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

The uphill approach into the 10th, with the famous "doughnut" bunker dictating strategy on the layup
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Looking back down the tenth, with Andrew attempting his birdie putt while Matt S watches intently
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The dramatic par three 11th hole, called "Maidens"
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Andrew blasts out of a greenside bunker on the par four 17th hole
(Photo Courtesy of Howard Riefs)

All smiles despite the torrential rains on the 18th tee - Howard, Andrew, yours truly and Matt S (from left)
(Photo Courtesy of Matt Schmidt)