Ryder Cup: Moortown rightly proud of legacy

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

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

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

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

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

The sign that welcomes you to Moortown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moortown is always beautifully presented.

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

The Americans arrive (silent movie)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 12th green at Moortown

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

Walter Hagen in full flow.

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

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

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

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

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

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Ryder Cup: How Lindrick saved golf’s showpiece

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

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

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

The tee for Lindrick’s iconic 18th hole 

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

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

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

The sign that welcomes to you Lindrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 5th tee at Lindrick 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lindrick scorecard
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Ryder Cup: mythical Ganton retains its magic

Ben Smith and Ray Nicholls visit the venue for the 1949 Ryder Cup and find that not only does it remain one of Britain’s elite courses but that it retains its sense of history 

Ganton Golf Club is an extraordinary place.

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

The 16th green at Ganton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hogan was furious with the British press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The locker rooms at Ganton are unaltered from the days of Hogan

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

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

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

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

The clubhouse at Ganton

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

The scorecard for Ganton.
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Ryder Cup: Yorkshire’s vital role in golf history

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

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

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

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

Twelve British clubs have hosted the Ryder Cup.

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

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

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

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

Ganton, Moortown and Lindrick Golf Clubs offer that challenge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Burnley Golf Club: the friendliest club of all?

Funny story.  Burnley Golf Club: 10am.

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

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

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

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

“Haha, no it’s not,” I say. “We’re not falling for that one. Hahaha.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The view from the 8th green at Burnley Golf Club

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

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

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

The view towards the 10th green at Burnley Golf Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scorecard at Burnley Golf Club

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

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

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

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

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West Linton Golf Club: a find off the beaten track

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

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

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

The 3rd tee at West Linton

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

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

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

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

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

The view from the 5th tee at West Linton

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

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

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

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

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

The beautifully kept green at the excellent 8th.

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

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

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

The scorecard at West Linton Golf Club

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

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

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

——————-

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

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Trump International Golf Links, Doonbeg: review

Doonbeg is a study in contrasts: the rugged and quintessentially Irish beauty of the Clare coastline with the 2006 American-built stone castle that overlooks it. The flat farmland that stretches for miles around with the towering sand dunes that dominate this visually stunning golf course.

And yet anyone who has stood here,  felt the power of the ocean forcing its way along the coastline and tasted its rain washed air, knows what a special piece of land this is. The backdrop is Doughmore Bay and its crescent-shaped beach which clings to the golf course like a child to its mother – 16 of 18 holes in sight of the Atlantic at some point. It’s hard to go wrong with this canvas. 

The 17th green at Doonbeg

Nature is, however, both a friend and an enemy in this part of the world.

The course has been battered by a two huge winter storms since 2013, a timely reminder not only of the power of mother nature but also just how much this golf course and the land on which it sits, is at her mercy. 

In recent years, the fairway on the 18th has been significantly narrowed  by the erosion, while the course’s two best par 3s the 9th and 14th were badly damaged. That none of that is even remotely noticeable during our round is down to the tireless work of  Director of Golf, Brian Shaw and the work of the highly-regarded architect Martin Hawtree, who has updated Greg Norman’s original design. Between them, they have produced a golf course that feels like it has been built with hands and shovels, not bulldozers. It is immediately clear that this entire resort makes the most of  the incredible natural beauty of the land. And although we know that greens have been ripped out and replaced, tees moved and bunkers added – you would never, ever know it. 

The approach to 18 at Doonbeg

Whatever your political views (and this is a piece about golf and not politics) the resort is hard to fault. Some 300 jobs now exist here where they did not before and that makes the man who created them as popular as any man. The isolation of this resort is part of its allure, but no detail has gone unnoticed.

The resort is modern luxury meets manor house, chimneys everywhere and tall glass windows set beneath granite arches. The staff are as welcoming as you will find anywhere in Ireland. The public areas as beautifully done, the restaurants are delightful and lively, and there are a multitude of diversions for non-golfers, including dolphin watching, treatments in the spa, or the simple joy of drinking a pint while watching golf and the endless ocean beyond.  

The steps up to the main reception

I was, however, here to play golf and not watch it – thank the Lord. And having eaten a hearty lunch overlooking the 1st tee, it was our turn. I had heard the opening hole here described as the most beautiful in all of golf. Quite a claim.

It’s a gentle 567 yard par-five that plays slightly downhill to a green surrounded on three sides by towering, 10-storey sand dunes. From the fairway the Atlantic Ocean can be glimpsed through gaps in the dunes.

The 1st green at Doonbeg

The bunkering challenges you off the tee and on your second shot, whether you go for the green in two or not. There are no fewer than eight bunkers within 50-yards of the putting surface. And the natural amphitheatre created by the dunes does make it a stunning way to start. 

The 3rd is a short par-4 with a large bunker at the elbow of a gentle dog leg left before the gargantuan 4th, measuring 659-yards (one of the longest holes in Ireland) from the back tees comes into view. Our day at Doonbeg was brought to life not only by the beauty of the landscape and the excellent golf course but by the two brothers who carried our bags. 

Ben Smith on the 9th tee, flanked by caddies Douglas and Odhran Lynch. 

It took us 7 holes to work out that our caddies Douglas and Odhran Lynch were brothers. Their stories, humour and wit kept us laughing even when the  course was punishing our wayward drives. It was an education – in golf and life. And a pleasure to spend a few hours in their company. You could do worse than to ask for them. Although if Douglas tells you a putt comes from the left it may well come from the right! That’s my excuse and I am sticking firmly to it!

The pick of the front nine are the tremendous par 4 6th and the spectacular par 3 9th. At only 365-yards, the 6th it is not long but accuracy from the tee is paramount and anything left will end up on the beach, which the tee sits directly above. The 9th is a challenging par 3, with the stunning beach running the entire length of the hole. Anything left and you will be shouting down to the dog walkers and surfers to ask for your ball back. Good luck with that. 

The 6th tee at Doonbeg

Anything right and you will end up blocked out by a vast sand dune. It’s a really terrific par 3, although not the best on the course. That is to come. 

The back 9 begins by turning away from the ocean but really gets going with the brutal 13th that should, on the face of it, be a birdie opportunity at just over 500-yards but in reality is anything but. Likely to play into the prevailing wind, the second shot requires a big carry and a piercing ball flight to avoid the bunkers and dunes that line the way. A 3-shot approach is a good idea. 

But it’s the 14th that really steals the show. Another stunning par 3. This is and perhaps always had been the signature hole here at Doonbeg. Writing in his terrific book, “A Course Called Ireland”, Tom Coyne described it as “perhaps the most beautiful 100-yard hole I’d ever played, the green stuck into the side of the beach head like a saucer of grass hanging over the ocean.”

The view from the tee at the incredible 14th

And that describes it beautifully still. It’s a 150-yard hole these days but it’s still breathtaking. The tee high above the green. The ocean just five steps to the right. On that day, I knocked it to six feet. I missed the putt, of course, but I was already surprised and delighted at how much I was falling for this place. 

There are six sets of tees at this golf course, the largest difference from back to front is 161 yards. So although it is like wrestling a bear from the back tees when the wind is up, it doesn’t have to be for everyone.

A long putt for birdie at the par 4 15th

The 18th is an excellent finishing hole, with the ocean once again back at your side for the final 432-yards of your round. A good tee shot up the left side should leave a mid to short iron into a green that slopes sharply away to the left and that is protected by the beach and the ocean to the right.

The windows of the clubhouse are a pitch-and-run away and the overriding emotion as you walk off the 18th green and back past the 1st tee on your way to the bar, is ‘is it OK if I just go out and play that again now, please?’. 

The 18th green at Doonbeg

I genuinely didn’t think I would like Doonbeg as much as it did. I was prepared not to , I was prepared to be critical, if I am honest. And yet all that melted away not because of the luxurious resort but because of this magnificent golf course. It may not have the history or even some of the subtle charm of its near neighbours, Lahinch and Ballybunion, but make no mistake, this is first and foremost a really tremendous golf course and then a fabulous resort. 

All I can suggest is that you, like me, park any preconceptions (and I had plenty) you might have at the door and let the golf win you over. Because it will.

The immaculate grass paths between holes at Doonbeg

  • Best hole: The 14th – 138yd Par 3. The best view on the golf course, the 14th is without bunkers but there is plenty of protection elsewhere. The green is some 20 ft below the tee, framed by dunes and with the ocean only a few yards to the right of the putting surface. When the wind blows, good luck…
  • Most memorable hole: The 18th 432 Yard Par 4. A fantastic closing hole. Once again the ocean runs down the entire length of this par 4, shades of Pebble Beach, with well -placed bunkers down the left to catch the careful tee shot. The approach must be long and straight. Anything left will catch the slope and run away or the bunkers. Anything right and you will need your bucket and spade to get it back. As impressive a sight as you will find.

The scorecard for Doonbeg
  • Best par 5: the gigantic 4th will test the very best golfers with challenges and hazards off the tee, in the landing areas and around the green. A really excellent par 5 that never lets up until the ball is in the bottom of the cup.

KEY FACTS
Phone Number:  +353 65 905 5600
Designer:  Greg Norman and Martin Hawtree.
Green Fee Range: €95 – €180
Length: Par 72 – 7,026 Yards
Where it ranks: Voted the best golf resort in Ireland 2017. 
Website: www.trumpgolfireland.com

WHERE TO STAY
This one is easy. At the hotel. It’s beautiful and luxurious and the pillows are as soft as clouds. There is plenty to do for families and the food is excellent. 

A bedroom at Doonbeg

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
If you want to venture outside the resort, which you should, you absolutely must visit Tubridy’s Bar & Restaurant in the village of Doonbeg. The food is fresh and the menu inventive. The fish is excellent but so is the steak. You can’t go wrong to be honest. The Guinness is cold and smooth and there is an excellent variety of whiskeys on the menu too. Give it a try. 

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Lahinch Golf Club: truly a wonder of the golf world

Even at first glance, it’s obvious Lahinch is not just another seaside town.

Golf is woven into the fabric of this unprepossessing village on the County Clare coast. It feels like it’s on the lips of a everyone in town, in the craic. It’s in the pubs (one is called the 19th hole). It’s wonderfully unavoidable. And that’s because the churches, shops and homes of this charming place sit just a pitching wedge to the south of what is a truly stupendous golf course.

Lahinch goat
The goat is the symbol of Lahinch golf club

Lahinch Golf Club is a mythical destination for golfers all around the world. It’s a place of impossible beauty, challenge and, above all, adventure. It’s a calling, a pilgrimage for many. And nothing about it disappoints.

Despite its standing, there is no air of pomposity or privilege. There are no gates or walls to prevent people from getting in. The opposite is true, in fact. Local kids could be found practising on the putting green on the day we played: learning the game, laughing with friends, being made to feel this club somehow belongs to them. The warmth and humour of staff was only exceeded by the pride in belonging to Lahinch. Who can blame them?

This, after all, will be the venue for the 2019 Irish Open. Not because Lahinch bid for the right to host it but because Ryder Cup legend Paul McGInley asked if it would do him the honour of hosting the tournament.

The 11th at Lahinch

This course is no stranger to the greats of the game. For years, they have come here ahead of The Open Championship, to acclimatise, practise and get the feel of the game. Mark O’Meara was a regular visitor in the 90s, Jim Furyk, and Greg Norman too. Phil Mickelson is an overseas member. And of course Tom Watson, who has done so much to enhance the reputation of links golf in these parts. But golf is always changing.

Paddy Keane, Lahinch’s charming general manager, comes out to meet us before our round. He is a man with a vast to-do list but he is also clearly a man bursting with pride that his club will have its moment in the spotlight.

The town sits right behind the 2nd green

The bond between place and golf club is something you see a lot in Ireland. The grand private clubs of the United States or England tend to want to protect their exclusivity. But on the links of Ireland, at least, community and every day town life are braided together as one. But few do it as wonderfully as Lahinch. And it only adds to the allure. So the Irish Open here will be an event for the many, not the few. It will touch in some way, everyone who lives here, not just those who work at the club or even play golf. It’s a place that lives and breathes as one.

And so to the golf. What of it? The practice area across the road from the 1st tee is beautifully set up, even if it is only to tune up your short game. The starter is a bundle of energy, barking instructions that are both important and useful as you prepare to get going. I remember thinking I wish I had recorded a video on my phone of what he said but it was marvellous nonetheless. The rain stopped just as we began our round. And didn’t return again until the 16th tee.

The opening hole is a gentle start, a 373-yard par 4, with room to miss the fairway on either side. The par 5 2nd is an excellent hole at 523 yards, shaping downhill off the tee and to the right.

But it feels like the course really begins on the 3rd tee. Beyond the tee, slate grey and whipped into foam flecks by the stiff westerly that blew straight back into his face, is the ocean. Red flags, standing out starchily on a lifeguard’s turret, a playground filled with children and the noise of joy sits just the other side of a fence. This is the kind of tee shot where you stand over your ball, screw up his eyes, put your hands on his hips and gaze towards the narrow, dune-flanked corridor of a landing area up and over a mound. All carry. 

The tee shot at the 4th at Lahinch

My tee shot, for once, was perfect. Bounding down this 418-yard par 4, to within a 7-iron of the green. The putting surface sits below the fairway and behind it the ocean awaits, it’s a picture perfect golf scene. The next two holes, Klondyke and Dell, are unique and charming.  Klondyke is a reachable par-5 at 472-yards. You tee off with the waves of Liscannor Bay crashing behind you and must land your ball between the dunes and into a deep, narrow valley. From there, you are faced with a towering dune in the centre of the fairway – the Klondyke.

To reach the green you need to hit it over the aforementioned dune, where a hardy man will stand with a red flag or a green one telling you when the green ahead is clear. When it’s wet or wild he retreats to a small shelter that clings to the far side of the dune. Who can blame him?

The world’s best will be here for the Irish Open next year and it will be fascinating to see what they make of this wonderful, whimsical golf hole. The man with the flag will be there too, although when asked if that would be the case, he replied with a wink ‘no! I’ll be playing in it!

The 5th green at Lahinch.

The 5th is equally whimsical. Dell, a 148-yard par 3, requires only a short iron but there’s no flag or even a green visible from the tee. You hit at the rock atop the steep dune right in front of you, then walk through a gap to see where your ball came to rest on the shallow green, enclosed on three sides. The caddies will often look on from higher ground to watch shots come in and have even been known to cheer as if the player has made a hole in one, placing balls in the hole while golfers walk toward the hidden green. Beware.

The opening 11 holes are as good as anything you will find anywhere in the world, with the greens at three, six, seven, eight and eleven all within near sight of the ocean. The par 3, 156-yard 8th is a stunning hole. One of many. The par 5 514-yard 10th is another tremendous hole, shaping around the beach where river turns to sea.

The 13th, a driveable par-4 at 279 yards, is another wonderful hole, with towering dunes and a dip on the right of the fairway that eats up wayward tee shots and makes par a huge challenge. From the 14th tee on, the course settles down a little and you know you have left the best of it behind.

Not every hole can be as good as the opening 11 at Lahinch, which are indisputably some of the most beguiling in all of links golf. It is generally thought that the front nine here and the back nine at Ballybunion Old just up the coast, would make a course unbeatable anywhere in the world. It has to be said, Lahinch itself comes close to that boast all on its own. It’s natural to expect the round to tail off somewhat over the closing holes after such a wonderful run of holes on the front nine. But it’s a high bar. 

The clubhouse after the round was abuzz. Great characters and storytellers, recounting their best shots, drinking away their worst but everyone to a man, woman and child, toasting Lahinch. I will count the days until I return. And I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone who has the opportunity and means to go. It’s a real treat. Please don’t miss out.

The scorecard for Lahinch Old Course

  • Best hole: The 8th – 156yd Par 3. A majestic par 3 surrounded by the ocean on two sides. Take an extra club to carry the ball uphill and all the way to the hole and avoid the bunkers right and left at all costs. If you end up in the right hand bunker you will be playing downhill and it’s almost impossible to stop the ball.

  • Most memorable hole: The 4th – 472yd Par 5. A straight drive down the right side of the fairway will leave you a chance of clearing the V’ in the Klondyke. Take a club less and run the ball into the hidden green using the natural run of the links. The green runs right up against the road behind, so don’t go long!
  • Hardest hole: The 15th – 439yd Par 4. As the course begins to flatten out, the 15th is a reminder that Lahinch can still bite. A tee shot down the right side of this fairway, avoiding the bunker at 270 yards will open up the safer left side of the green for your second shot. But it will take two good shots to get home.

KEY FACTS

Phone Number:  +353 65 708 1003
Designers: 
Old Tom Morris, Alister MacKenzie and Martin Hawtree.
Cost:  €201 to €160
Where it ranks: On the first page of any list of repute.
Length: 6,613 yards from the white tees. Par 72.


WHERE TO STAY

The Lahinch Golf and Leisure Hotel.
A wedge away from Lahinch’s famous Blue Flag beach and a short walk to the golf club, this hotel is right in the heart of this wonderful village. The rooms are comfortable and mine was modern and recently refurbished. The breakfast is hearty and you are right in the thick of the pubs and restaurants that come alive in the evenings.

A room at the Lahinch Golf and Leisure Hotel

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

The restaurant in the clubhouse at Lahinch is excellent for food and drink, but if you want to venture into the village you can’t go wrong with The Moy House features, which has a modern menu with Irish influences built on amb, duck, game, lobster and shellfish. Once the food has gone down, walk across to Kenny’s Bar on the main stretch, a block from the golf course. From there proceed up to Kettle Street for a uniquely Lahinch experience at Frawley’s Bar, where proprietor Tom Frawley has been singing and pulling the Guinness for over 80 years.

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Hebden Bridge Golf Club review: a Yorkshire gem

Ben Smith visits Yorkshire golf’s diamond in the rough, a memorable course that sits more than 1,000ft up in the stunning Pennines 

Golf is changing. Where once it was played by folk with wooden clubs. Now it’s a game played by super humans, capable of reducing 600-yard par 5s to a thunderous drive and an easy 6-iron

Hebden Bridge Golf Club

Golf courses are changing too. They’re getting longer, both in yardage and the time it takes to play them. More expensive too. It’s still the game we all fell in love with but it’s important to remember that there are courses, if you look hard enough, that can take you back to those more innocent time.

“Hebden is not like any other course you’ll ever play. You will always remember the day you visited and smiled from start to finish.”

It was in that spirit that we wandered to the Yorkshire dales, a stone’s throw from the iconic Pennine Way, to find a course that is a delightful throwback. 

The honesty box at Hebden Bridge

Hebden Bridge GC is an adventure before you even get there. You climb up and away from the charming West Yorkshire village and wind your way through victorian housing and then fields until you get to the very top. And it’s there, at what feels like the top of the world (1100ft above sea level in fact), that you will find this delightful golf club.

The views carry to York and Leeds in the east and west into Lancashire. When the sun is out and wind behaves as it did for us, it’s hard to imagine there’s a more breathtaking setting for an inland course in England.

Ben sends an 8-iron towards the 8th green

On arrival, it was obvious we would not find a pro-shop selling £400 drivers, no pro shop at all as it turned out. No parking spaces for captains, vice-captains, past captains or captain my captains. No cars except ours. No people in fact. Sunday afternoon in August. Sun shining, warm and we had the course to ourselves. Entirely to ourselves. 

We knew the club operated an honesty box for green fees. So we filled out our tickets, placed our £10 into envelopes provided, took a scorecard and posted our money. The last ticket stub had been from three days previous.

A view back down from the 9th tee towards the 1st green and the valley below. 

This is a 9-hole golf course, with a second set of tees that allow you to play around a second time. It’s not long. The longest hole is 394-yards, in fact, but it is fantastic fun. The first hole plays away from the clubhouse to a green that is raised up above a fairway that slopes from left to right and has as many ups and downs as a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride.

The vibrant purples of the heather, illuminate the areas around the greens and fairways. Finding a lie where the ball is on the flat is rare and shots need to be carefully placed to avoid being swept away. But what you find, pretty quickly, is that you can’t wipe the smile from your face. 

The 2nd green at Hebden

The second, a short par 4, runs back along the edge of the mountain, go left and you will need to drive for 15 minutes in your car before you can start looking for your ball. The 3rd is a longish par 4 with a green that slopes sharply towards the back, taking shots that are overhit sharply away.

The 4th is a lovely hole. The fairway can’t be seen from the tee but it’s there and wider than you might think. Anything right and you will never see your ball again. I was 50 yards short of the green in one and walked off with a 5.

The only car in the club car park

The 5th is the longest hole on the course at 394 yards and requires a tee shot over the brow of a hill to a well-guarded green that has a slope in front that makes you think it’s closer than it really is. And the 6th doglegs left around a dry-stone wall to a green that nestles into the hillside.

The 7th is a hole like few others. A par-3 that tees off from right in front of the clubhouse to a green some 75ft above you, with the wind whipping across the tops. The green has a false front and any shot to the right will dive down the slope and leave you desperately scrambling to get back up onto the green. The 8th climbs higher still. A second successive par-3, this time 178-yards long. 

With a bank of heather and thick rough to the left of the green and a sharp drop to the right, it’s a small, square target to hit. The ideal shot is into the slight slope on the left edge of the green that will run the ball gently back down to the flag. It’s the highest point on the course and it’s worth taking a minute to drink it all in. Stunning. 

The 9th tee is another kodak moment. Although if you are with a trolley, don’t go down the back of the 8th green or you will find yourself, as I did, having to go down 50ft of stone steps to get there. This par-4 demands a long straight drive over the thick stuff and onto a fairway that slopes right to left. The green, which sits in front of the clubhouse, is guarded by bunkers but the overwhelming feeling is that you have come to the end of a lovely round. 

Hebden Bridge will never feature in a top 100 list. Probably not even in Yorkshire. It is not a critically-acclaimed design the greens aren’t perfect and it is a little rough around the edges. But it is dripping with charm and quirkiness. It is not like every other course you have or ever will play. And the great joy of it, is that you will always remember the day you pitched up (pardon the pun), probably had the course to yourself and smiled from start to finish. I hope those of you who read this take me up on that challenge, to keep places like this going in the age of the 400-yard drive and 5hr round, there is still a place for a course that reminds us what golf is really about.

PS. Incidentally, the next morning one of the Wanderers (who shall remain nameless) realised he could not find his wallet. He was in the process of turning his house and car upside down in search of it, when his phone went. It was a man whom he had never met. But a man who was in possession of his wallet. We had managed to leave it on the floor of the car park at Hebden Bridge Golf Club. A man had arrived the next day to find it lying on the floor. He had managed to find a membership card for our wanderer’s home club and called the number on the card. He asked for his phone number and delivered the good news. Now, I would like to think that would have happened at most golf clubs around the world – we are a good lot – but it only added to the charm of the club and the course. Please go.

The Hebden Bridge scorecard
The Hebden Bridge scorecard

KEY FACTS

  • Phone Number: 01422 842896
    Designers: Thornber, Sutcliffe, Jackson, Peckover and Heyhurst
    Cost: £15 high season for 18 holes. £10 for 9 holes. Honesty book
    Where it ranks: Nowhere, but that’s its charm.
    Length: 5,173 yards from the back tees. Par 68.

Best par 3: The 161-yard 8th is a fabulous hole. The green is a tiny target high on a hill. But it is reachable with a short or medium iron that lands softly on the left edge of the green and runs down towards the flag. Anything right is gone.

Best par-4: The 345-yard 1st is a brilliant par 4. A straight drive is a must. Anything right will leave you with a long second. If you can aim up the left side of the fairway with a slight draw, you will leave yourself a short iron or even a wedge into the green, which is a small target and is well defended by heather and long rough on the left and a short drop off on the right. A great way to begin your round but also a hole that demands concentration and respect.

Most memorable hole: For once, I won’t pick one. All nine holes were memorable. The whole course. Great fun. Next time I go back, I will try and play it with four clubs. And a bunch of imagination. Definitely the way to go. 

WHERE TO STAY: There is a Bed and Breakfast right at the front entrance to the club. We didn’t stay in it but perhaps we should have done. Perfect location and a 1 minute walk to the 1st tee.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK:  If you are prepared to drive for 10 minutes and it’s a delightful drive, I would recommend the Hinchcliffe Arms on Crag Vale (which was part of Stage 1 of the Tour de France in 2014). Good local ales, excellent hearty meals and a delightful rural setting. 

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Ballybunion & Killarney: The Wild Atlantic Way

‘We want you to come and play in the Irish Open Pro-Am,’ said the voice on the phone. ‘McIlroy is playing this year and if you are open to it, we’ll try and get you in the same group.’

How do you respond? Childhood dreams flash before your eyes along with the thought that maybe, just maybe, this is the moment the world realises that you, and not Rory, are the next big thing.

“Ballybunion is truly extraordinary – a place where nature, with all its mercurial magic, has conjured up as ruggedly beautiful a golf course as exists anywhere in the world.”

And that was it. How could any golfer refuse. Killarney, a stunning course. With a day to warm up at Ballybunion Old, one of the world’s best. And all I have to do is write about it?

The flight into Shannon was straightforward. As was the journey to Killarney, my base for the coming week. I tossed in turned in my hotel bedroom – no wonder. The next morning Ballybunion, a mythical name in golf, awaited. Those images I had seen a thousand times ran through my mind, one after the other. Verdant greens. The blue sea. The black Guinness. Sleep could wait.

Tomorrow would be a day for dreams of the waking kind.

The verdant green of Ballybunion Old

1. Ballybunion Old

The 1hr drive from Killarney up to Ballybunion, via Tralee, was a brilliant introduction to this part of Ireland – the wild Atlantic Way – mesmerising landscape, sea-salted shorelines, a rugged and unspoilt beauty, a feeling of endless possibilities. As you wind your way along the narrow roads from the town of Ballybunion towards the golf course, you are struck by the remoteness of the place but also the jaw-dropping beauty of the land. Towering sand dunes dominate the links. Verdant green patches light up the avenues, tumbling down the hills, disappearing behind dunes and all framed by the deep blue of the Atlantic ocean in the distance. Stunning.

Nothing I found during my time on this spectacular golf course changed that first impression. Ballybunion Old Course is a truly extraordinary golf course. A place where nature, with all his mercurial magic, has conjured up as ruggedly beautiful a course as exists anywhere in the world. And in my view, it should always be in the conversation when the discussion turns to the world’s greatest golf course. It deserves to sit at the top table.

While a professional, James McKenna, laid out the original Ballybunion course and Tom Simpson supervised the extension of it, there is a sense that with this golf course nature herself did the hard work. And could not be surpassed. That’s the essence of this place. Golf beside the ocean, among the dunes and battling the elements provided by nature and the elements. Pure golf.

It is easy to get carried away when recalling this place, forgive me. Our arrival at the Old Course was warmly received. The clubhouse is not showy or flash but it doesn’t need to be. The summer sunshine surrounded by a sky as blue as in your dreams. The first tee awaited. What we hadn’t banked on was the funeral taking place in the cemetery by the 1st hole. The starter, with his warmth and wit, told us we would need to wait until the ceremony was over.

It was a mark of respect, a reminder that golf for all the joy it brings, is not a matter of life of death. Only in Ireland, you might think, and you might be right. But no one was permitted to hit it a ball until the hearse with the bereaved family were around the corner and gone.  It was surreal. But wonderful.

And we were off with a solid drive down the right of the 1st fairway. It is often said that Ballybuinon doesn’t really get going until the 7th tee. And while I would not go that far, the opening six holes are certainly a preparation for the delights of what is to come. Yes, the 2nd fairway rises steeply up and away from you. Nothing is straightforward or mundane. But the 7th tee is where Ballybunion moves up a gear or four and leaves the rest of the field in its dust.

The 7th green at Ballybunion (credit: Gary Lisbon)

This par 4 is one of the most beautiful golf holes on earth. The Atlantic runs its length to your right, close enough to fly a wedge into the seething surf.

The fairway narrows between the dunes and the landing areas are tight. But the reward for a solid tee shot is a chance to find the green, with dunes to three sides, and the sea behind. The 11th is every bit as good. Another visually breathtaking hole that carves its way through the dunes, playing downhill to several tiered forwards that are lined with thick rough and heather all the way from tee to green. A piercing drive ran through the fairway but i found a good lie, then the green and two putts. Thank you very much. One I won’t forget.

There are so many moments on this round that remain vidid long after your scorecard has turned to dust in the bottom of your golf bag. 14 and 15 are top par 3s, with 15 the pick – a par 3, 210yds, downhill, with your tee shot flying towards the deep blue endlessness of the Atlantic. You could be forgiven for taking your eye off the ball. But try not to. The 17th is excellent, a dog leg left. And then comes the moment you are not prepared for. The last.

The scorecard for Ballybunion Old

The 18th on a day you simply don’t want to end. Once you climb the hill back towards the clubhouse, do yourself a favour. Walk up the stairs in the clubhouse and out to the terrace that looks down onto the 18th green. An order an ice-cold pint of the black stuff. Then sit down and watch the sun drop down into the Atlantic. Take every moment in. And remember that feeling.

KEY FACTS
Phone Number: 
 +353 68 27146
Designers: 
James McKenna and Tom Simpson
Cost:  £185 in high season.
Where it ranks: Ranked 16th in Golf Digest’s Top 100 courses in the world.
Length: 6,802 yards from the back tees. Par 72.


2. Killarney (Killeen)

The Killeen course, Killarney

And so to Killarney and the Killeen course. After a day of golfing witchcraft at Ballybunion, even the prospect of sharing a majestic lakeland course with some of the best players in the world felt a little after the Lord Mayor’s Show. But bear with me, it was an awful lot of fun. There are, after all, not many days when you walk onto a practice putting green to find Darren Clark and Graeme McDowell putting next to you. You feel every fibre in your body retract with the tension. That goes to a whole new level when you step onto the range.

We have all watched that scene in Tin Cup when Kevin Costner gets a sudden dose of the s-word on the range at the US Open. Every amateur’s nightmare.

Thankfully it wasn’t something I had to live out but hitting balls while sandwiched between Rory McIlroy and Ernie Els is both an extraordinary privilege and thrill but also the scariest thing you can possibly do as a golfer.

The opening hole at Killarney

Having survived the range, the next challenge was the first tee. Or the 10th in my case. The promise of being paired with Mr Mcilroy had gone, sadly. In his place the less well know Richard Bland, currently world 425. The four-ball was made up of two well-known Irish hoteliers. McIlroy was, however, in the group one hole behind me. Which had the affect of ensuring that the crowds who wanted to catch a glimpse of the biggest star in Irish golf, ran ahead to get their spot and ended up watching yours truly and his four-ball. Lucky them. Not very lucky me. The galleries were ten deep around most greens.

As if the pressure wasn’t enough.

In my naivety, I had planned to put my bag on a trolley and go around like that. Everyone else had a caddie. And within one hole, so did I. A youngster, no more than 14, came up to the ropes and asked if he could caddy for me. How could I refuse. For him, it was the chance to taste the limelight for me, perhaps a better chance to concentrate on my golf, rather than pulling along my trolley. What could possibly go wrong? And on we went.

A view across Killarney Lake

I played solidly, to my surprise. And even got a warm round of applause from the throngs of McIlroy fans around the 12th green (my 3rd hole) for a chip that almost dropped in. The trust golf galleries have in the pros ability to consistently find the middle of the club face is extraordinary and based on years of evidence. When the amateurs get involved, the risk goes to a much higher level. The irony was that the only injury on the day was caused by McIlroy himself in the group behind – one of his 350yd drives landing square on the head on one of the crowd behind me. Ouch. As we approached the final stretch of holes the atmosphere built, the galleries grew.

The scorecard for the Killeen course

The 18th at Killarney is a magnificent hole – a 440yd par 4. A tough drive with water left, three bunkers at driving distance to the right – a gentle dog-leg left. My drive flirted with the stream on the left but landed safely, leaving me 165yds to the centre of the green, over a pond. A big pond. To a green that was surrounded by not one but three grandstands, all packed in anticipation of Rory McIlroy. Of course. My 7-iron looked dead on line all the way. It was struck well. The flight was perfect. The distance, however, was not. And much ball plunged into the bank of the pond and bounced into the water with a resounding plop much to the amusement of the crowd.

That was the signal for a change of fortunes. As we headed for our 10th tee, (the 1st on the card), the crowds had long gone, following the big names who were all on the homeward nine now. My young caddy sensed this pretty quickly. And as I pushed my tee into the ground at the 1st tee, shouted something about his mum needing him back for his tea and ran off in the opposite direction with all the conviction of an Olympic sprinter.  Who can blame him? I would have done the same thing. Off he went. Haha.

The remainder of the round was delightful, actually. Without the crowds and the razmataz, it was easier to see the mesmeric beauty of this resort, sitting as it does on the banks of Lake Killarney, surrounded by mountains. The Killeen course was set up for the pros on that day. It is long and challenging but it is beautifully laid out. And perfectly presented. A true test of every shot you have. And I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

And so, that was it. I shot a round of 81. Which, on the day, wasn’t the worst. It was, in fact, better that one professional on the day, who will remain nameless.

KEY FACTS
Phone Number: 
+353 64 663 1034
Designers:
E Hackett, W O’Sullivan and Tom McKenzie
Cost:  £111 in high season to £50.
Where it ranks: Ranked 16th in Ireland’s Top 100 courses.
Length:  6,590 yards from the back tees, par 72

Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast

The contrast between the serenity of Ballybunion and the buzz of Killarney and the Irish Open was stark. And yet it was also a perfect illustration of the quality and variety of golf available on the Wild Atlantic Way. I didn’t play Tralee, or the mythical links at Old Head to name but two. You could spend a month in this part of the world and not see it all and experience all it has to offer both on and off the golf course. This is Ireland at its very best. And I can’t wait until my next trip. It can’t come soon enough.


THE REST

WHERE TO STAY:  The Great Southern Hotel, Killarney. A delightful property right in the heart of Killarney that has played host to many famous folk over  the years. Queen Victoria’s entourage stayed in the hotel when she visited Killarney in August 1861. While in the 1960s, Jackie Kennedy stayed here with her children – the presidential suite is named after her. Click here for more info.


WHERE TO EAT:  Rozzers, Killarney. This really is a must-visit dining experience on any visit to Killarney. Geraldine and Michael and all their wonderful staff not only love what they do and care deeply about their restaurant but they went the extra mile to give us a memorable night. The sheer quality of the food on offer sets it apart and the setting at the excellent Killeen House Hotel is delightful. Click here to make a reservation, to see the menu or for more information.

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