Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Masters 2012 - Who will win?!


It is every golfer’s favorite week of the year, and you would be hard pressed to find a fan who hasn’t cleared their schedule April 5th – April 8th. It is the week in which you relax and do nothing but watch golf. It is Masters week.

            Every top player in the game is at the Masters Golf Tournament. It is played on the most exclusive course in the World. Not a blade of grass is out of place. A one-word description of the venue for the Masters, Augusta National Golf Club: perfection.
            When picking a winner for this year’s event, the typical names come to mind: Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, all high on everyone’s list. Once a deeper look is taken at this list of “possibles,” the picture expands.
            The current World #1, Luke Donald, cannot be left out of the possible winners list. He’s dangerously consistent. That being said, Donald has not had much success in the majors. He is due to win one of the four majors soon, and I would love to see him play well, but I don’t think he’ll win this year’s Masters.
            Rory McIlroy recently gained the position of #1 player in the World for a short period before forfeiting the crown after the Transitions Championship to a victorious Luke Donald. What stands in the way of Rory winning this year’s Masters? His mental game. Last year, McIlroy entered the final day of the Masters tournament with a four shot lead. On the back nine of the event, he crumbled as if he had never seen pressure before. He ended the tournament tied for fifteenth; the breakdown will go down in the history books. It could be argued that Rory has matured in the past year and become mentally stronger, but will he attain the lead position again this year, but have flashbacks of crumbling down the final stretch? I think he has overcome many of those fears already. I fully expect to see him in one of the last groups come Masters Sunday.
            Phil Mickelson is always a good bet to win the Masters. Although he is often criticized for his “I hit the ball as hard as I can, find it, then hit is as hard as I can again” mindset, he has found success at the Masters. Having won it three times, he is doing something right. He has had the past few weeks to rest up, and apparently his short game is on fire. If he’s hitting it fairly straight, I’d place a cheeky fiver on him come Masters week.
            Tiger Woods is an obvious pick, but his recent withdrawal at Doral for an injured Achilles is worrying. In previous tournaments, he simply hasn’t been able to assemble four low rounds. On the final day of the Honda Classic, Tiger shot a 62. This catapulted him 16 spots to 2nd place. It forces one to ask, “Is Tiger back?”   It is a question that I absolutely hate. Every time he stands over a five footer, the commentators act as if it will be the deciding factor of a “return.” In order for Tiger to be considered back on top form, he needs to win a major. I wouldn’t count him out for the 2012 Masters, especially if he has any more of those 62s left in him.
My good friend Jeff hitting an approach to the 11th
            The simple problem with picking a winner for the Masters is summed up in two givens: the course doesn’t set up for any single type of player and every best golfer in the World is present. There are nineteen qualifications to be invited to the Masters. These nineteen qualifications provide a field of the best 99 golfers in the World. They will all be fighting their hardest for the Green Jacket, the coveted prize for the winner. All this is to say that the big names are always a good bet, but any golfer having a great week could claim victory. Case in point, last year’s winner was Charl Schwartzel, a golfer fairly unknown on the PGA Tour. Who knew much of Zach Johnson before he got hot and won the 2007 Masters? Augusta National as a golf course doesn’t cater to one specific type of player, and this makes it perfect for any one golfer to get on a low scoring streak and shoot low.


            Knowing that I will make enemies of most of my St Andrews golfing friends, I will be attending this year’s Masters. I say that with my hands shaking, knees knocking, and butterflies in my stomach. This is my pilgrimage to Mecca, my meeting with the Pope, my visit to the Wailing Wall. If I don’t pass out or have a heart attack when I walk onto the grounds at Augusta National, I’ll write a follow-up article summarizing the incredible event and my experience. In the meantime, my money is on Woods. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Muirfield

This latest round at Muirfield, or the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (HCEG), marks the second time that I have played the course. The first time we played the exclusive track, the wind was blowing 40 mph+, which made for a frankly unenjoyable round. With this second visit, we were able to fully experience Muirfield for everything that it offers, from a challenging golf course to an incredible lunch. The overall experience at Muirfield is hard to beat. It is different from nearly every other club and it oozes tradition.
View up the 18th with the historic clubhouse in the background
            Upon arriving at Muirfield, we dropped our bags in the beautiful locker room before making our way to the very friendly bookings secretary with whom I had been dealing when arranging our tee time. Lucky for me, my home club (BFCC) has a unique connection to Muirfield.  I learned that the booking secretary had even been over to North Carolina to play my home track! After checking in, we had a nice coffee in the smoking room before changing out of coat and tie and proceeding down to the range to loosen up after the long drive from St Andrews.
Deep, small bunker on the par 3 13th
            Two things are vital in order to shoot a low round at Muirfield: don’t miss fairways and avoid bunkers. Very thick and high rough borders every single fairway. The rough was extremely tough. Keep in mind that we played the course in March, when the rough is lower than the summer. Combine this penal rough with bunkers seemingly everywhere and you have a good idea of the course. The bunkers are extremely well placed. Any errant tee shot or approach shot risks falling into one of these scoring death traps. A birdie on the final hole sealed my score of 77, but what was I most proud of? I only went in one bunker!
Driving off the 7th tee
            Post-round, we took a long shower in the locker room, changed back into our coat and tie, and proceeded into the large dining room to join some members for the feast of a lunch. We began the feast with cold cuts of meat, fish, salad, soup, and the like, piling our plates high enough to draw a “Have you been dieting?” from the member sitting next to us. A delicious cut of roast beef served as a main course followed by a massive choice of puddings and/or cheese, which capped off the mouthwatering meal nicely.
            As mentioned in my first Muirfield post, the dining room is steeped with history. Anniversary silver plates from clubs such as the R&A, Pine Valley, and Augusta National adorn viewing cases surrounding the banquet style tables. Ancient clubs, balls, and trophies hang on the walls. The surroundings and ambience add greatly to the “full Muirfield experience” of which you hear nearly everyone who has played the course speak.
View of the 12th green with bunkering on the right, and unseen bunkers hidden on the left
            What happened after our meal is where our day at the HCEG differed from that of the normal visiting golfer. We retired to the smoking room for a glass of kummel to soak up the last drops of the club before heading home. We were peering into the dining room trophy case when the clubhouse director of staff came by and asked if we would like to see “the real stuff.” He took us past the dining room into the Muirfield Room, where members can relax, watch TV, or eat breakfast when staying in one of the overnight rooms located upstairs in the clubhouse. We were then taken into a back hallway which contained original framed scorecards from historic rounds at Muirfield. Among these cards were Walter Hagen’s original 1912 course record scorecard and Nick Faldo’s final round scorecard of 18 pars to win the 1987 Open Championship. This corridor led to the Captain’s Room which consisted of paintings and a boardroom style table. I can only imagine the conversations that have taken place in that room...
The approach to the 9th green with difficult bunkers spotted up the fairway
            This exclusive peek into the members’ areas of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfer’s clubhouse marked the end of our day. As we passed back through the iron gates towards the car park, we all shook our heads knowing we had just seen what every golfer dreams of seeing, knowing few ever will.
            I have heard and read reviews of Muirfield claiming that the golf course is overrated. I disagree... The golf course isn’t very picturesque, but it is a very difficult and well-designed test of golf. If any aspect of a golfer’s game falters, the course will tear it apart. The design tests nearly everything in the game. I am looking forward to watching the 2013 Open Championship after having experienced Muirfield in both its docile conditions and its most brutal.            

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Archerfield Golf Links


When I received the invitation to play at Archerfield Links, I knew very little about the course, and had only heard the name in conjunction with other East Lothian courses. After doing some research, I found that Archerfield was a private member’s club that catered to wealthy golfers looking for full five star treatment. I was eager to play the round and compare it to other “full service” American clubs that I have played such as Kiawah Island Cassique or Grandfather Mtn. Golf Club.
        Upon arriving at Archerfield, the Ferrari surrounded by Porsches, Mercedes, and other cars of that caliber let us know we would be sharing a locker room with the upper end of society. We dropped our bags at the entrance where they were taken around the back and a host of concierge figures showed us to the locker room. While this sort of treatment may come standard in high-end country clubs and resorts in the US, it is a rare and savored experience here in Scotland.
Very large and well-furnished Archerfield clubhouse
        The locker room was extremely spacious and an attendant immediately offered us fresh fruit and ice water upon entry. The locker room had everything a golfer could want. Despite a slightly feminine d├ęcor, it served as a great place to relax pre or post round in order to discuss business or the days’ happenings. I’ll save the PowerShower rating for later in the write-up...
        After changing shoes in the locker room, we made our way to a large driving range (another course feature not often enjoyed in Scotland) followed by a visit to the massive short game practice area. When we proceeded to the first tee, I was expecting to play a large, modern links course, built to combat the old classics and one day fight its way onto the Open rota. I found the Fidra course to be on the other end of the spectrum, and was pleasantly surprised.
Par 3 4th hole, with the Firth of Forth looming just beyond the Pine Trees
        The Fidra Course at Archerfield Links is hard to categorize in terms of links course vs. parkland course. After playing the round, I would agree with most that the course falls into the category of links. That being said, it has many parkland characteristics. In many ways, it reminded me of Pinehurst, in North Carolina, with pine tree lined fairways and frustratingly difficult to hold, crowned greens. The first eleven holes are in the trees with the remaining seven holes venturing out into a more “linksy” design.
Large waste bunker on 12 uncharacteristic of a links design!
        The opening hole eases the golfer into the round with a broad fairway and massive crowned green. We came to find that massive crowned (upside down bowl) greens were found on nearly every hole... This made for extremely challenging approach shots when down wind. It was incredibly difficult to make an approach shot stay or "hold" on the firm and sloping greens.
        The second hole is a picturesque dogleg right working through thick groves of pine trees. Dogleg style holes were extremely common. This put a premium on placing drives on the correct side of the fairway in order to have a suitable angle into the gargantuan greens.
View from 2nd tee. The fairway works around the trees to the right revealing the green
        Something for which I respect the designer, David J. Russell, is his choice of length in the course. We played from the medal tees reaching 6,550 yards, only outstretched by the championship tees at 7,000 yards. The length was extremely fair. The biggest guard of the course was strategic bunkering and crowned greens with deviously subtle breaks.
An example of the massive crowned greens (11th green pictured)
        In a day where every new course’s goal seems to be hosting a Major or a tour event, it was a nice change to play a course that seemed to have been designed purely for the enjoyment of the members and their guests. Not to be misunderstood, the course was challenging and long in places, but it was not a 7,400-yard beast designed to conquer tour players while destroying the average golfer in the process. Archerfield won't be hosting a tour event, but it is an undeniably enjoyable round of golf.
View from 18th tee (bunker size reference in photo below!)
        The finishing hole was a long, dogleg right, par 5, featuring massive fairway bunkering right in driving distance (as seen in the photo above). The bunkers were so massive (as seen in the photo below), that the golfer’s only choice was to play out backwards or sideways. Once past these bunkers, a single trap guarded the green. I really liked this finishing hole, realizing that a good drive could yield a birdie, but a bogey was almost guaranteed if caught by a bunker.
One of the massive fairway bunkers on the 18th
        Post-round, we entered the locker room where the attendant immediately offered to shine our shoes. Then came the best part of the day: the shower. The showers in the locker room of Archerfield received a nearly unheard of 9/10 on the PowerShower rating system. An extremely warm, spacious, and luxurious PowerShower after the round was the perfect way to thaw out after the round.
The Archerfield Manor setting the mood upon entry to the grounds
            The Archerfield Links website says, “We're certainly not about clubhouse cliques, old-fashioned dress codes or petty rules. After all, this is the 21st century. We like to think we play a different game: more relaxed, more welcoming, more about you and your enjoyment of two great golf courses.” This sums up the course well. They have managed at Archerfield to successfully model their course off the modern high-end clubs in America. It is a relaxed atmosphere with staff that can cater to your every whim.
        While the golf at Archerfield was enjoyable and challenging, it is the overall experience that I will remember most about the day. The full service treatment, the good round of golf, the massive locker room, good food, and everything else that accompanied the round all added up to a great day.

PS. I will look forward to comparing Archerfield to its equally modern next-door neighbor, Renaissance Club later this Spring.