Thursday, March 27, 2014

Swinley Forest Golf Club

Swinley Forest is completely different from any other club that I have visited. "Extremely exclusive" and "very unusual" only begin to scratch the surface of the club. The membership is comprised largely of British aristocracy and high ranking members of the British military. The Duke of Edinburgh (the Queen's husband) and the Duke of York (the Queen's son) boast membership at Swinley. There is a real sense of occasion when pulling through the imposing gates onto the property. The beautiful traditional clubhouse is exactly what you would expect at a club whose course is ranked #92 in the world.

The 17th Early of Derby founded Swinley Forest, which opened in 1910. The founding principles of the club were eccentric, and nearly all of them have endured to the present day. It has only been in the past decade that the course has been measured. The club history book explains that "every previous attempt to have the course measured was instantly vetoed as being too professional and therefore 'not Swinley.'" Scorecards have also only been consistently printed and used in the last decade. Swinley Forest exists solely for the pleasure of its members, most of whom think the rest of us wring the enjoyment out of golf by taking it too seriously. I saw this personally as the two members in the group ahead skipped from the 11th hole to the 15th, but not before telling me, "feel free to skip ahead with us or play on. Whichever you fancy." 

Complete serenity at Swinley Forest is created both through the beautiful setting and the fact that there are never more than a handful of members playing the course. Even then, most members are just hopping out for a few holes with their dog. The course reminded me of a heathland Augusta National in many ways, especially with an "open" feeling to the course and beautiful vistas across the property. After finishing my round, I had a shower in the locker room and proceeded to join a number of members for lunch in the clubhouse. It is important to emphasize that the exclusivity of Swinley Forest certainly does not equate to unfriendliness. I was treated very well by both members and staff alike. 
Water bowls for dogs are found many of the holes.
Swinley Forest does not host medals, or any serious competitions, on their course. It is also rare that they participate as a club in competitions elsewhere. A section of the history book expands on this topic. "Swinley has two comparatively recent annual fixtures, when they play Sunningdale and the Seniors. They will also sometimes turn out a side for some commemoration or pertinent tournament, such as the Colt Cup... The Club will also field a side for like-minded groups such as the Nibblock Golf Society, made up of members from Augusta National Golf Club and Pine Valley Golf Club." Members do not have handicaps. Outside of the occasional match, those lucky enough to claim Swinley Forest as a home club simply enjoy the great course, and don't worry about such trivial things as scores. 

The course at Swinley Forest is an excellent example of heathland golf. The course architect, Harry Colt, described Swinley in his humble manner as "his least bad course." This is a particularly impressive statement considering Colt's extensive list of great designs, a number of which sit in the top 100 in the world. The overall length of Swinley Forest measures just over 6,000 yards, but with five par 3s and one par 5, the course does not feel short at all. Colt also made excellent use of the terrain, with some very challenging uphill par 4s. While much allure surrounds the club due to its exclusivity and quirky traditions, it is the course itself that takes center stage after spending a day at the club.

Hole #1 - 389 yards
In keeping with Colt's design philosophy, the first hole has a wide fairway and few bunkers. Colt thought that the first two holes should have open fairways, and get players onto the course in a quick manner.

Hole #4 - 184 yards
The fourth hole is one of the best par 3s that I have played while in the UK. This bold statement is backed up by a Redan green sitting on a natural shelf, which is protected by a viciously deep bunker on the front left. This hole is an example of the great use of terrain on the course.

 Hole #5 - 497 yards
This elevated tee shot provides an excellent view of the dogleg right par 5. A bunker sits at the corner of the dogleg, and a small lake protects an area where shorter hitters would lay up.

The green is guarded by a number of fairly shallow bunkers. The foliage and heather would be visually stunning during warmer times of the year.

 Hole #6 - 424 yards
The view from this tee is grander than it appears in the above photo. The drive is fairly open, but the challenge during my round was found at the green.

This green complex was similar to others on the course in that one of the bunkers, which appeared to be greenside, was actually thirty yards short of the green. There were a number of holes with similar optical illusions in the bunkering. 

 Hole #7 - 400 yards
This uphill par 4 plays longer than its yardage and features a line of heather covered mounds 260 yards from the tee. The approach shot plays much longer than the yardage and the front right portion of the green is bunkered.

 Hole #8 - 146 yards
The 8th hole is another stellar par 3 at Swinley Forest. The bunker-less hole has a large slope falling off the right side of the green. If you miss on the right side of this green, a lofted shot from 25 feet below the green is required for a par putt.

 Hole #9 - 434 yards
The sweeping right to left fairway presents a beautiful view from an elevated tee. Thick heather protects both sides of the fairway.
The bunker-less green was larger than it appears from the fairway, but this hole was another very challenging par 4 on the 6,000 yard course.

 Hole #10 - 205 yards
The theme of particularly strong one-shot holes should be apparent by this point. The par 3 10th is well bunkered and the sloping green is deceptively small. The entrance to the green is open, and shorter hitters are able to run the ball onto the putting surface.

Hole #11 - 285 yards
Swinley may only be 6,000 yards, but the 11th was one of only two par 4s under 360 yards. This hole was still no slouch, with heather and bunkers catching any wayward shots.

Hole #12 - 455 yards
The 12th has only greenside bunker and the putting surface slopes heavily back to front. The rhododendron thicket behind the green is one of the largest that I have ever seen, and I can only imagine its beauty when in bloom.

 Hole #13 - 174 yards
This par 3 is framed beautifully by the trees surrounding the back of the green.
Two front bunkers guard the great green complex. It was in this nook of the course, looking back towards holes played earlier, that the beauty and openness of the property really came through.

 Hole #15 - 450 yards
This 450 yard uphill par 4 is another challenging and long hole on the course. The fairway is appropriately wide, but bunkers and a large false front guard the green.
The green slopes heavily back to front and the main objective on approach shots should be reaching the back half of the sloping surface.

 Hole #17 - 170 yards
The final par 3 of the course caps off a masterclass in one shot holes. The raised green slopes off on all sides into heather and deep bunkers. An accurate iron shot is required to hit this small green. I wish I could have had a bucket of balls to practice all afternoon on this hole.

 Hole #18 - 368 yards
The dogleg left finishing hole features a creek running across the fairway. Mid to long hitters can carry the stream and an approach shot is left from the point at which the photo above was taken. The uphill approach is completely blind, and distance control is important as the green slopes back to front.
Bell, originally given by Queen Elizabeth II to an American warship, marks a clear green
I played Swinley Forest the day after playing golf at Wentworth (review here). The two clubs stood a long way apart in their ideologies. The corporate feel at Wentworth was replaced with understated tradition at Swinley. The best way to finish this post is with another quote from the history book that sums up the club very well. "Swinley is an anachronism, living in its Edwardian past. But it is an anachronism that works. Nearly one hundred years on, the membership is drawn from virtually the same families, with a few boasting an unbroken line from a founding member. All subscribe to the original ideas and criteria - a quiet atmosphere, with agreeable colleagues and an old-fashioned lunch."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wentworth Golf Club (West Course)

My visit to Wentworth marked my third foray into the great golf that England has to offer. I was excited to play at Wentworth, which has hosted the Ryder Cup in 1926 and 1953 among many other European Tour events. The West course was designed by Harry Colt in 1927 on the Wentworth Estate, and the prestigious club quickly made a name for itself. 
I found my day at Wentworth to be full of interesting juxtapositionsUnfortunately, there is a sense that the club is run by corporate offices, rather than a committee of golfers trying to offer the best to the members. A corporate feel leaks out of every pore, but just occasionally, a bit of the traditional English club shines through. I will outline some of the reasons below. 
The price to play Wentworth (West) is exorbitant. Between January and March, the price is £195 per round, followed by £250 per round in April, and £360 (caddie included) per round between May and October. In another strange twist, golfers have to purchase range ball coins from the pro shop at £5 for a small bucket. This felt like eating dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant and being charged for bread with your meal. Additionally, a large section of the range is "sponsored" by TaylorMade. This "TaylorMade Lab" is a large fitting center attached to the practice facility, and their branding surrounds you everywhere. I hit my TaylorMade practice balls with a Dustin Johnson advertisement staring me down. It was as far away as you could get from a traditional English club.
A sign on the first tee
In terms of course design, little of the original Colt design is recognizable, obscured by a layout clearly made for European Tour golf tournaments. A passage in the West course StrokeSaver reads, "...with recent advances in golf ball and equipment technology it became necessary to carry out a programme of restoration and modernization in order to restore Colt’s original shot values. There was no better man to head-up that sensitive task than long-time Wentworth resident and respected golf course architect Ernie Els, also a seven-time winner on the West Course... This project involved the construction of 18 new greens including a spectacular new finishing hole... All green side and fairway bunkers were reviewed, remodeled and where necessary repositioned more in keeping with today’s shot patterns." I would argue that Els's work was a full redesign rather than a restoration. Thirty bunkers were added to the course, along with hundreds of yards of length to make the course suitable for European Tour events. The result is a very challenging, aesthetically pleasing, and enjoyable golf course. However, the course lacks character in areas, and it resembles very little of Colt's original design. 
 Hole #1 - 465 yards
The first hole is a short par 5, which features a gorgeous approach shot. The tee shot is straightforward, except for a road and accompanying traffic that pass in between opening shots. Roads dissecting the course were common, with over 11 holes featuring roads, by my count.

 Hole #3 - 442 yards
This par 4 is one of several character-lacking holes on the course. The straight hole features a grouping of bunkers in the landing area, followed by two green side bunkers on the front left and right of the green. It is by no means a bad hole, but follows the formula required to comply with "USGA tournament specifications."
Additionally, the conditioning of the greens was disappointing given the time of year and greens fees. You would expect any course that charges £195 to have the highest quality conditions, even during the spring months. Further, the 2nd hole was even played to a temporary green, set 40 yards short of the putting surface.

 Hole #4 - 485 yards
This dogleg left par 5 featured yet another stunning approach shot. Longer drives reach the bottom of the hill, while shorter tee shots have to contend with the creek crossing the fairway for a layup. One of the largest private homes that I have ever seen borders the right side of this hole. 

 Hole #6 - 342 yards
This green complex on the sixth hole represents much of the bunkering found later in the round. Bunkers flank the right and left entrances to the slightly raised green. Many of these raised greens create semi-blind approach shots, which don't necessarily detract from the round, but do make it difficult having never seen the course.

 Hole #8 - 388 yards
The 8th hole is a short par 4 that, while fun to play and nice to look at, would not resemble Colt's original design. The approach shot is over a lake to a raised green guarded by a single bunker on the front right.

 Hole #10 - 174 yards
This great par 3 is a glimpse of one of Wentworth's traditional features. This classic one shot hole is a long, narrow green with two bunkers right of the green. The hole is a great use of the landscape and could be found on any top 100 heathland course in England.

 Hole #12 - 475 yards
This unique tee shot has to be played over, or between, the large trees guarding the fairway. The dogleg left par 5 was one of my favorite holes on the course. Shorter hitters would definitely struggle with the trees and tee shot... Imagine Augusta National's Ike's Tree taken to the next level.
Layups are guarded by a small stream crossing the fairway, and a raised green is yet again guarded by two bunkers on the front left and right. 

Hole #15 - 458 yards
This is the number 1 handicap hole on the course, and, although it cannot be seen in this photo, a stream runs up the right side of the hole before eventually crossing the fairway at around 300 yards from the tee. Bunkers guard the green that slopes off the back. 

 Hole #17 - 549 yards
Two par 5s conclude the round and this, the 17th, is the first of the difficult duo. The dogleg left hole features a beautiful approach shot to a green with no bunkers, which may likely be the only bunker-less green on the course.

 Hole #18 - 491 yards

Tough third shot...
The finishing hole was completely re-designed by Els and his team. The par 5 is a sharp dogleg right, with an approach shot over a small lake. The hole is fun and challenging, but it follows the template for a European Tour finishing hole. This is not a bad attribute, but it has no resemblance to Colt's original design, and this fact will bother design purists. 

I enjoyed my round at Wentworth. Arriving at the castle clubhouse and observing the gargantuan 30,000+ square foot homes bordering the course certainly create a sense of occasion. However, two questions rattled around my brain during the round. First, does the course deserve to regain its previous world top 100 rating? Not in my opinion. The design now lacks character and subscribes to the formula of so many other European Tour courses. Second, and more important, would I recommend that someone spend £360 to play the course in the summer? Considering that you could play two rounds on the St Andrews Old Course and stay one night in a local B&B for the same price... the choice is yours.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

North Berwick (West Links)

North Berwick is one of the genuinely fun golf courses of Scotland. Ancient stone walls dissect many of the holes, exposed rock surfaces on a number of the fairways, and stunning views frame large sections of the course. The town of North Berwick is charming in its own right, and the locals become part of the experience as they spill across the golf course onto the adjacent beaches. The experience of playing North Berwick is very memorable, and because of this, it has gained a cult following among many of the better travelled golfers in the world. It is rare to find a knowledgable golfer who doesn't love the quirkiness and design of North Berwick.
North Berwick Golf Club clubhouse
Four golf clubs play their golf over the North Berwick West Links, but it is North Berwick Golf Club that manages the course and serves as the major club in the area. I have been treated incredibly well every time that I have visited North Berwick Golf Club. A sign outside of the clubhouse reads, "Your green fee ticket entitles you to temporary membership of the North Berwick Golf Club where you will be made welcome by the members." The membership and staff take on this creed wholeheartedly, making guests feel genuinely welcomed and at ease.  
The famous painting "Golf At North Berwick" by Sir Francis Grant
The North Berwick West Links are filled with character and exemplify the story of many historic Scottish golf courses. Organized play began on the links in 1832 with a course comprised of six holes. Land was acquired from one of the members in 1868 to extend the course to nine holes, with one of the new holes being the famed Redan. Course development then escalated with the same family allowing nine new holes to be built on their land, expanding the layout to eighteen holes. Many of those eighteen holes were very short, and a final expansion in 1895 gathered enough land for a course of respectable length. Ben Sayers oversaw routing changes in 1932 that established the layout seen today, albeit with minor changes. This amalgamation of design changes and course growth created something a modern course designer simply cannot replicate.

Hole #1 - 312 yards - "Point Garry (out)"
Picture taken from the back of the raised first green

The start to the round immediately alerts golfers to the quirky and unique course that lies ahead. The blind green is marked by the white pole in the distance, and a long iron off the tee sets up an approach from the area of the exposed rock on the left. The beach runs down the right side of the hole and is in play as a large hazard. The green, also seen above, is deceptively large and offers an excellent view of the beach and the Bass Rock in the distance.

Hole #2 - 414 yards - "Sea"
The 2nd hole hugs the beach and the white flag can be seen in the distance once the photo is enlarged (click on photo). Golfers can bite off as much hazard as they dare, but hearing the waves crash next to the tee subconsciously moves the aiming point further and further left.

Hole #3 - 460 yards - "Trap"
The approach shot on the 3rd hole is the golfer's first introduction to the ancient stone walls criss-crossing the course. Strategy is affected as longer golfers can get fairly close to the wall with their tee shot and the wall can be difficult to clear off the tight links turf. The wall is approximately 155 yards from the green, so laying well back from the wall leaves a lengthy approach.

Hole #4 - 168 yards - "Carlekemp"

This par 3 becomes even more difficult when heavy summer rough surrounds the green. The green complex is particularly interesting with an open entrance and well bunkered left and right sides. Because the putting surface is so narrow, a very accurate tee shot is required to hit in this green in regulation.

Hole #6 - 139 yards - "Quarry"
The 6th is another strong one shot hole at North Berwick. A valley, or old quarry of sorts, lies between the tee and green with a deep bunker sitting at the bottom. The green is very large, and with the wind into our faces during our round, I hit my 175 club into this back pin.

Hole #7 - 344 yards - "Eil Burn"
Longer hitters should be aware of this tee shot during the summer months. Long running shots can end up in the burn, which is just short of the green. I found this out during my first round at North Berwick, when I ripped a drive down the center and found my ball swimming in the burn. The best play is to lay back on this hole, leaving a full club into the green rather than a half shot flirting with the burn.

Hole #9 - 502 yards - "Mizzentop"
The angle from which I took this photo does not portray the sharp dogleg left shape of this hole. Two bunkers guard the inside of the dogleg and deter longer hitters from attempting to cut off the corner. The raised green is heavily bunkered, but a backstop saves longer approach shots from running over the green. These holes at the turn were part of the later expansions on the course, and I really like them. That being said, they have different character from the original sections of the course. More specifically, holes 6-12 have a different, but not necessarily weaker, feel than the rest of the course.

Hole #10 - 153 yards - "Eastward Ho" 

The downhill approach shot to this well bunkered green leaves golfers particularly exposed to the wind. This is another great par 3 green complex at North Berwick. Although it was not initially apparent to any of the golfers in our group, the putting surface slopes from right to left. This heavy slope, disguised partly due to the raised green and bunkers, caused misreads and three putts in our group.

Hole #13 - 362 yards - "Pit"
Looking forward while approaching the green
Looking backwards from the green towards the tee
The 13th is one of the most famous holes at North Berwick and is certainly one of the most photographed. One of the course's many stone walls runs directly in front of the green, cutting off the fairway from the putting surface. The green is sunk, and a large dune frames the back of the green. This is one of the most distinctive holes on the course. A modern course could never get away with having a wall directly in front of the green. There is a real urge to drop a handful of balls and practice approach shots to this green while standing in the fairway.

Hole #14 - 358 yards - "Perfection"

The 14th is said to have been named "Perfection" because it required two perfect shots to hit the green. With modern club and ball technology, the hole has become quite short, but two good shots are still required to hit this green. Bunkers stand in the fairway about 225 yards from tee, and a 135 yard approach is left in from that point. After hitting your approach shot at the white marker post, an amazing view is found at the top of the hill looking down at the green and the Firth of Forth beyond. In firm and fast conditions, a running ball landing short of the green is the best play.

Hole #15 - 178 yards - "Redan"

The Redan hole is the last par 3 on the course. The hole is famously the most replicated hole in golf course architecture. A large number of the top 100 golf courses in the world feature a Redan hole, but the original stands alone. The Redan hole features a green that slopes from right to left and away from the player. Landing a shot on this raised right hand side will propel a ball down and left towards the heart of the green. Bunkers can be found short of the green and off the lefthand side of the green. There are many ways to play the Redan hole, depending on the pin position, which is one reason that it is such a great design. Once you begin to look for Redan layouts, you begin to see them on many of the great courses of the world.

Hole #16 - 360 yards - "Gate"
The green at the 16th hole is the most unique green on the course. It is made up of two islands, with a massive trench dividing them. The photo above is taken from the rear island, and the pin can be seen on the front portion of the green. Both of the putting areas on this green are very small, and it is difficult to hold approach shots anywhere near the pin. The trench dividing the two sections of green is nearly four feet below the higher levels of the putting surface.

Hole #17 - 405 yards - "Point Garry (in)"

The 17th is a fairly nondescript tee shot with the correct line being the Bass Rock seen in the distance. A single fairway bunker guards the landing area from which the blind approach shot is struck towards the large green. The red flag seen on the horizon line in the top photo is the 17th flag. The green is a bowl shape, sloping heavily from back to front and running off on the left side. Excellent views can be seen from this raised green.

Hole #18 - 269 yards - "Home"
Berwick Law, an ancient volcanic plug, dominates the skyline.
Some write off the finishing hole of the course as weak and short, but I find it to be part of the charm of North Berwick. It is reminiscent of the St Andrews Old Course's finishing hole, with cars lining the right side, clubhouse in the background, and a "valley of sin" guarding the front of the green. The hole is certainly a birdie opportunity for longer golfers. Interestingly, visiting golfers are issued a card with the club's insurance details to produce when they hit the cars lining the fairway. Thankfully our group went damage free on the last hole.

You're covered if you take out a windshield with a drive on the 18th
The recognizable Bass Rock off the coast at North Berwick
Many golf writers and other members of the media played North Berwick while visiting the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield. The response to the course was overwhelmingly positive, and their reviews and photos added to the following that North Berwick has gathered over the years. There are a number of unique Scottish courses that fall into a similar category as North Berwick, most notably Cruden Bay and Prestwick. These courses will not be hosting the next Open Championship, but after playing most of the great links courses of Scotland, my rounds at these unique courses stand out as some of the most memorable.