Feature Interview with Mark Rowlinson
Mark Rowlinson is the author of many books about golf courses and their architecture. It may be a surprise, then, to learn that he is a classical musician by profession. In his mid 50s, he lives with his wife and three children (aged 18 to 22) in Wilmslow, Cheshire (not much more than a par 5 from Manchester Airport) and is a Life Member of Conwy (Caernarvonshire) Golf Club in North Wales. His sons are low-handicap members of Wilmslow Golf Club – his wife hopes to join, too – but he is sad to say that the meagre profits from golf writing will not pay for him to join! There are several new books plus an update of the Times Guide to Golf Courses on the stocks, and he is involved in writing the centenary books of several clubs in England and Wales.
1. What is your background?
I’m a professional musician. I read music at Oxford, spent the 70s in London as a baritone soloist and also as a Lay Vicar (professional singer) in the Choir of Westminster Abbey. I still sing at an international soloists level. In 1979 I joined the BBC as its Senior Music Producer in Manchester, and over the next 20 years I produced some 3,000 programmes working with many of the worlds great musicians. As a golfer, I began as a teenager at Lilleshall Hall in Shropshire, a charming little country course with a back-nine designed by Harry Colt. In those days green fees were comparatively cheap and my father saw to it that I played many other interesting courses. He it was who persuaded me that the course I was playing was likely to be of far greater interest than my own play over it. He was keen that I should play golf in lovely surroundings, so my experiences were not necessarily architecturally-driven. Instead, he fostered my visual memory for each course and its context.
I was lucky. My mother came from County Downin Northern Irelandand, on holiday as a youth, I frequently played Royal County Down for a few shillings, knowing nothing of its greatness but wondering why I lost so many balls.
Both as a musician and working for the BBC I spent much time working away from home. There was a good deal of captive time. So what do you do if you have a morning balance test and an evening concert in, say, Hexham Abbey? You play golf at Hexham in the afternoon, and you discover that its a very lovely parkland course with many handsome holes and a noble clubhouse. The Abbey, of course, is a breath-taking piece of mediaeval architecture, and a candle-lit concert on the Night Stair is the musical equivalent of a round of golf at The National Golf Links.
It soon became clear that I had better write down accounts of all these different courses or, sooner or later, they would all merge into one great eclectic. These accounts I shared with a few friends and relations, and my golf writing had begun without my realising it. My musical travels took me all over the UK and occasionally abroad. I had many lucky encounters which enabled me to play some great courses at little or no cost a BBC staff salary (contrary to what you might think!) is roughly equivalent to that of a primary school teacher.
It was a chance remark to a friend who was a poetry publisher, with whom I happened, quite coincidentally, to be travelling on a train to London, which led to my writing professionally. I had owned a first-edition of the World Atlas of Golf for many years. It was falling to pieces. I bought a new edition. It was full of little, but major, errors, such as the sentence which no longer means the same thing when a short par 5 has become a long par 4. The book had been updated by someone who did not really understand what they were talking about. My poetic friend happened to know the right person at Mitchell Beazley (who then published it) and, in very little time (a lunchtime conversation, to be precise), I found myself putting it right for a subsequent edition. I have been updating it ever since and contributing most of the new entries.
I then wrote a number of other golf books for a local publisher, which enabled me to make lots of mistakes without too many disastrous consequences. I also wrote articles for publication in Belgium, Denmarkand The Netherlands. In 1999 the BBC found me surplus to requirements. By a lucky coincidence, at about this time, Hamlyn (who were now publishing the World Atlas) asked me if Id like to compile a guide to every single golf course in the British Isles. Of course I jumped at the opportunity. But you do not get to visit all 3,000 courses. Its all done on a giant database and the information is collated from pro-forma enquiry slips, phone calls and (increasingly) web searches.
2. Given your artistic background, do you see merit in studying golf course architecture as a form of art?
You’ve only got to look in any of the course architecture books, from Colt and Mackenzie to Trent Jones and Fazio, and it is immediately apparent to what extent art is a part of the best golf design. Their sketches alone are works of art. In addition, the quality of work from todays finest golf photographers often reveals how stunning the best courses can be. But where I see the real parallel is in the subtlety of detail employed by the greatest architects to influence the mind of the player. It is no different in music. Why a particular Lied by Schubert is great is often to do with the exact placing of a particular chord or its spacing, the treatment of this syllable or that, the dramatic timing, suggestion within the accompaniment and so on. Listeners do not need to know technically why a specific piece moves them in a particular way. It is just the same with golf. Mackenzie knew exactly where to put a bunker not only because it accorded with his shot values for the hole in question but also because of its artistic qualities, leading the eye in a certain manner, balancing features on the other side of the hole etc. It is this visual subtlety that I sometimes find lacking in contemporary course design. But are we really the people to judge the latest courses? It can take a century or more before a piece of music is universally recognised for its greatness. Many of the older courses are great not only because of their design but also because of the history that has taken place there.
There is one other area in which my artistic background is relevant. As a singer and musical scholar I seek the truth. I cannot accept a compromise or fudged answer. I wont get everything right, but I strive to get as close to what the composer intended as possible. Its the same with golf courses, except that not all club administrators are as punctilious as composers see below!
3. What is your role in regards to The Times Guide to Golf Courses?
Basically I compiled the whole thing, everything from telephone numbers and addresses to course descriptions and green fees. There was no way I could visit all the courses at a rate of one a day it would have taken 10 years and the budget certainly would not have supported that sort of thing. Many clubs were extremely helpful, others downright obstructive. The silly thing is that you could not predict who would help and who would obstruct. You might think that all the commercial venues (resorts, pay-and-play) would be keen to encourage visitors, and that the strictly private clubs would not bother to help. Some of the most private clubs were very helpful and some of the big resort outfits could not care less. My main objective was to give readers the sort of information for them to be able to select the right courses to visit visitors of this website looking for interesting architecture; someone planning a society outing on which some will be experienced players, others complete novices; those looking for quiet country courses on which the woodpeckers and nuthatches are as important as the challenge of the golf, and so on.
4. What has been your role with The World Atlas of Golf?
Much of it is updating of information. Almost every course is altered in some way from one edition to the next, requiring, at least, revisions of course cards and tiny amendments to the text. The authors of the original edition were distinguished Pat Ward-Thomas, Herbert Warren Wind, Charles Price and Peter Thomson. Obviously, I try to keep what they wrote as intact as possible, sometimes just changing as little as a single word in a whole page. It is salutary to realise that in 1976 they envisaged a long iron or even fairway wood second shot on holes of, say, 420 yards. But some alterations have greater consequences and, occasionally, a complete entry has to be entirely rewritten. Each new edition is prompted by sales and those sales have to be reflected in the new entries, which I write. So, a few years ago, there was a considerable expansion of the entries for the Iberian peninsula. The most recent edition involved upgrading several very famous American courses from gazetteer status to main entry and replacing them with further prominent UScourses in the gazetteer. Again, some clubs are very helpful, and I am pleased to acknowledge the assistance I received from Shinnecock Hills, Southern Hills, Baltusrol, Bay Hill and the Olympic Club. Ill not divulge which were the unhelpful clubs, but it was a deciding factor in why several eminent candidates did not get inclusion this time round! On the subject of American courses, there was a big expansion of that part of the gazetteer in the late 80s, before I became involved, and there were one or two upgrades to main entry status (Royal Troon and Ballybunion, for instance) by the golf journalist Derek Lawrenson.
5. Was Ballybunion Old really that obscure when the World Atlas of Golf was first published in 1976 as to not warrant inclusion as a main featured course?
Yes, Ballybunion was relatively obscure then. It was really Tom Watson who brought international fame to Ballybunion when he visited in 1981, at the insistence of Sandy Tatum who had discovered it in 1979. Irish tourism was not at all as it now is. You could pretty well walk straight out onto any Irish course in those days, and the green fee would not break the bank. Travel in Irelandthen was slow. Most Americans visiting Irelandat that time were there primarily to look up family relations. In Donegal or Sligoyou could often drive for an hour or more without encountering another motor vehicle! I am lucky to have experienced it in the 1960s. My father and I played golf on many wonderful and remote courses for almost nothing. Unfortunately, I had not then realised how useful that experience might one day be – I cant even remember which courses we played! Golf there is now seriously expensive.
6. Are there several courses that you personally would like to see added to the next edition of The World Atlas of Golf?
Of course there are everything from Rye to Crystal Downs. But its not quite as simple as that. The editor and his team, rightly, have views and there is a good deal of discussion about which courses are introduced or expunged. Some of it is even decided by the flat plan if you want to introduce a new course, where does it go and what are the knock-on implications? Removing a course, for whatever reason, can have considerable consequences. The tight budgets put a big constraint on redrawing existing artwork. To some extent, also, theres a need to reflect present day trends. After all, new courses such as HarbourTown, Fujioka and Bali Handara made it into the first edition. For that matter, has anything of interest to the non-involved reader ever taken place there? With a few exceptions, such as The National Golf Links, there are stories to be told of heroic deeds at all these courses. There is so much more perspective if we can relate the course architecture to the exceptional feats achieved there by Hogan or Nicklaus, Jones or Woods. Readers can identify more with a course they see every year on television rather than one that maintains closed doors or shuns the limelight.
7. What was the logic behind the recent changes to the famous 7th and 17th holes at Hoylake?
As I understand it, the 7th was changed (some years ago and after much gnashing of teeth) simply because it was unpredictable one good shot would hold the putting surface, another bounce out of bounds. It might be full of character but it isnt in tune with the philosophy (or financial implications) of golf at the highest level today. The alterations to the 17th, as with the rest of the new ones, are mainly to do with spectator safety and movement, The old green was hard up against a fence you can hardly build a spectator stand on the road outside. The other factor is, surely, that the second shot on what was a hole of some 390 yards would now be a choice of one wedge or another for todays big hitters. The fear of trying to shape a long iron from right to left past four bunkers and away from the fence, as it was for us, does not exist for them. The new hole is over 440 yards in length, making the closing stretch seriously long over 2,400 yards for the last five holes.
8. Is it proper to refer to courses that have heath but that are heavily treelined as ‘heathland’ courses?
My Collins English Dictionary gives the definition of heath as a large open area, usually with sandy soil and scrubby vegetation, esp. heather. In Britainthere are many acknowledged heathland courses which have an abundance of trees Sunningdale and Liphook, for example and neither of those had many trees when first laid out. On the other hand, roughly halfway between them, is Hankley Common which, for the most part, is wide open with hundreds of acres of wind-swept heather, a naturalists paradise. Heather requires considerable management and a few years neglect soon sees the establishment of bracken and birch and the disappearance of the heather. Trees might provide shelter from the wind or the sun and have often become part of the strategy of the course, but they can bring drainage problems, while a mixture of shadow and lack of air circulation quickly destroys greens. Many clubs are removing trees (if they are allowed to by local regulations) and it is not just for the advantage of the heather. Walk round Alwoodley with Nick Leefe, Chairman of the Green, and hell show you how they have opened up the original sightlines that Mackenzie knew. There is absolutely no difference to the playing strategy, considerable benefit to the condition of the course and more of a sense of playing Mackenzie and his mind than simply keeping out of the trees.
9. Overseas visitors to England that are fortunate to play The Addington often fall under the spell of J.F. Abercromby’s imaginative use of the rugged topography. Yet, the course is rarely if ever included amongst your country’s top 100 rankings. Is there any accounting for the difference in quality that overseas visitors seem to place in the course vs. the locals?
I agree that The Addington is an inspiring course. I have Golf Worlds Top 100 (November 2002) before me at this time and there are 12 new entries (Kingsbarns, Woburn (Marquess), The Wisley, Donegal, Tenby, Nefyn, Luffness, Southport & Ainsdale, West Hill, Tralee, Enniscrone, Old Head of Kinsale). Clearly there were twelve casualties and there will have been similar drop outs in past years. In their commentary the writers do point out that, with their large and impressive panel of experts, fractions of a point make huge differences From 40th down, 52 places are covered by just five points out of 100, and just one point separates places 48th to 60th. There are probably 100 other courses which could have sneaked in to the last quarter of the list, such as Liphook, Isle of Purbeck, Ashridge, Southerndown, Pyle & Kenfig, Boat of Garten, Elgin, Wallasey, Sandiway, Beau Desert, Chart Hills, Broadstone, Parkstone, Hayling, Stoneham, Seacroft, Brancepeth Castle, Seaton Carew,
Coombe Hill, Camberley Heath, The Addington, not to mention future Ryder Cup venues, The Belfry, Gleneagles PGA and Celtic Manor! I rather suspect, however, that The Addington is quite happy with the situation. It is beautifully laid back, doesnt blow a trumpet, and certainly doesnt need to. It is greatly loved by those who are in the know.
10. MacKenzie is revered in the United Statesand Australiaand to say that MacKenzie worked on one’s course is virtually a badge of honor. How is his work perceived in Great Britain and Ireland?
I think it is a badge proudly worn in this country, too. Theres an active Mackenzie society with matches between the clubs, and some members also partake in expeditions to Royal Melbourne, Crystal Downs, Cypress Point and the rest. I get the impression that there is a desire to restore Mackenzie courses to something approaching the original if they have the material from which to work. Theres a considerable variety to his extant courses I played Cavendish and Alwoodley last week on successive days and they could hardly have been more different, which, I think, shows how responsive he was to the ground on which he was working. He didnt fall back on stock responses. That said, we have nothing which quite compares with Cypress Point (but who has?).
11. How true to MacKenzie’s original designs are Alwoodley and Moortown? How would you compare and contrast the two?
As far as truth is concerned, you cant get much closer than the word of Nick Leefe, Chairman of the Green at Alwoodley, a Mackenzie fan and scholar. So Ill leave the Alwoodley bit to him:
The routing at TAGC (The Alwoodley Golf Club) is exactly the same as in 1907, save the green at 10 which was moved back 30 / 40 yards in 1928. This change was already recognised by MacK, as he indicated this on the original map (dated we think 1910) we have at Alwoodley, and he suggested further land be bought from the Earl of Harewood.
As a consequence of the greens being moved back in 1928, new tees were put in for the 11th. We have only just abandoned the old 11th tee which we used as a winter tee. The new tees at 11 play over the front bunker by the green. This is the only bunker which is now in the ‘throat’ of any green at Alwoodley and, as you see, it was not designed that way. MacKenzie usually leaves you several ways to play into the green, including putting from 30 / 40 yards and designed Alwoodley with very large greens.
Green sizes at Alwoodley were much larger in the very early days than they are now. We kept, as best we could, all the undulations when we re-laid to USGA specs in 1996 / 97. The size of the greens has reduced over the years, with generations of greenkeepers mowing more and more circular and smaller, year on year (greenkeepers creep), and with the advent of pop-up sprinklers many years ago which fixed the green perimeters.
The Ladies Red course today is very similar to the original MacK layout.
MacK always moved his next tee forward from the previous green and liked this to be as close as possible. New tees have now used up that space and some are behind the previous green but still, at TAGC, it is still only a short haul from one green to the next tee.
We describe ourselves as heathland. The dictionary says ‘ open area of scrubby vegetation including heath / heather’, whereas moorland is an ‘unenclosed area of heather, bracken and moss’. Not a great deal of difference but I guess moorland areas are much larger with fewer scrubby trees ??? The old heaths seem to be disappearing these days and are limited in number.
Alwoodley is on a patch of acidic heathland with heather, gorse and silver birch being the main features. As you well know, we ruthlessly take out any trees that impinge on the original sight lines from the tees. Because of the acid character, we have few worms except in imported new turf, new drainage lines etc etc.
The heathland has to be managed, and this means the removal of self-seeding saplings, gorse and heather control.
Moortown is longer than TAGC and difficult off the very back, but all the ratings and received wisdom would suggest that in Yorkshire Ganton is 1st, Alwoodley a close 2nd, Lindrick 3rd and Moortown 4th (Golf World / Nov 2002)
Clearly, Alwoodley is in good hands. I think those who know Mackenzies work in the USA would find Alwoodley remarkably restrained. They would probably say the same of Moortown. These were, after all, his earliest essays in golf design. That is not to say that they are uninteresting far from it but they are still very English courses. Sadly, Moortown has been forced to make changes, basically because the old golf club next door sold up and housing was erected. For safety reasons, then, they had to close a short hole, knock two holes into one and build two completely new holes. Alwoodley is almost entirely heathland, but Moortown has a number of holes which are more parkland in character. Lovers of Mackenzies work should, of course, visit both, and Moortowns famous short hole, Gibraltar, brought visitors from far and wide when it was first built said to be the first entirely man-made hole. It has almost as many imitations as the famous Redan at North Berwick.
12. From the early 1900s with such courses as Walton Heath, Sunningdale and Huntercombe to the opening of West Sussex and the commencement of WWII, the level of architecture across Great Britain and Ireland was at an amazingly high level. Can you point to what factors went into such a prolonged stretch of excellence?
First of all there were the architects, among them Abercromby, Alison, Braid, Colt, Fowler, Hawtree, Hotchkin, Hutchison, Mackenzie, Ray, Simpson, Taylor, Vardon and Williamson. They had either been distinguished golfers with big international careers and vast accumulated experience or they were gifted, well-travelled and well-educated amateurs. Most of the amateurs worked with each other, in one partnership or another at some time or other, and there was a great deal of shared wisdom. They worked all over the world (even, one or two of them, in the States) and were able to call on a huge depth of knowledge to bring imagination into solving the problems they encountered on the ground. Their upbringing had been on the classic courses of Scotland(and the few then extant in England) and they had the finest holes of St Andrews, North Berwick, Hoylake, Westward Ho! and so on as models for everyday golf.
Then theres the land. These men had little or no interest in working on unsuitable land. If it didnt have the right sort of natural drainage and enough feature to suggest natural holes of the first order they could leave the project alone they were not short of commissions. (There are plenty of dull courses from this era, too, it must be admitted). Because their course designs were based on the indigenous features there was little earthmoving to be done, and those same features still define these courses today. We may reach their greens with shorter clubs and take fewer strokes to go round the course, but most of their shot values remain intact today.
Golf was a game enjoyed by the wealthier classes. The landowners had had good public school educations with all the advantages of an old-boy network. If they wanted to build a golf course they already played golf to a decent standard, knew what they were trying to emulate (at a high level) and knew how to find a good architect. Most members clubs were established by professional people, if not the gentry, and if, perhaps, they designed their own first layout it was usually not long before they had called in one of the big names to make alterations.
There were very few restrictions on where you could build and few, if any, nature conservancy considerations. Many of our classic courses could not be built today.
Many of these architects were operating also in Continental Europe, parts of the British Empireand in Japan. In many ways this was a golden age there, too. For that matter, it was also a golden age in North Americaand many of the reasons stated above for the excellence of British architecture are common also to North America.
13. With so many wonderful models to draw inspiration, what happened to golf course architecture in the 1960’s, 70’s and beyond in GB&I?
Most golf courses suffered during the war, a great many becoming vegetable gardens. Much of the work done in the late 40s and 50s was restoration. Turnberry is perhaps the pinnacle of such restoration. But there were new courses, not least the wonderful Southerness (also by Mackenzie Ross). Frankly, there wasnt much need to build new courses. Few clubs had waiting lists and there was nothing like the traffic over the courses there is today. As the 80s progressed there was a pressure to build more courses and it came at a time when farmers, for the first time, wanted out of agriculture. But there isnt the money in UKgolf that there is in the States. Many of the new courses built in the 80s and early 90s went bust Loch Lomondis a prime example. When I played all 83 Cheshirecourses in 1993 there were five new, big-money golf developments, CardenPark, Tytherington, Shirgley Hall, Mottram Hall and Portal. Four of them fell into financial disaster and only Mottram (a De
Vere Hotel) is still in its original ownership. You simply could not sell shares at Ã‚£10,000 or more to corporate or individual members, as you might easily in the US, apart from one or two prestigious developments around London. No one is going to pay a Ã‚£2,000 annual membership when there are decent courses whose annual subs are Ã‚£350 or Ã‚£400 a year. The new courses that are successful are those done very simply. You get nine basic holes going and start to bring in the green fees. When your cash flow allows you make improvements, perhaps a modest wooden clubhouse to replace the caravan and portaloos with which you started out. It might take you ten years before you can extend to 18 holes, maybe fifteen before you can begin to construct more complex greens. But you will still be in business when many of the more ambitious projects have been through the hands of the receivers. What is more, you are providing a useful facility for beginners, those who perhaps cannot
afford a private members club fees, juniors, ladies and all those who cannot stand the stuffy rules of some of our more pretentious clubs.
14. What is the current state of affairs of golf course architecture in GB&I? What are three courses built in the past decade that you highly recommend?
I rather suspect that the bulk of the new work being done by our principal course designers is abroad certainly their most interesting. In the Iberian Peninsula, Turkey, Cypress and other areas of golf development in Europe they hold their heads as high as any, including the biggest names from the States. There they manage to obtain realistic budgets for major undertakings. In this country most of their work is renovation or alteration. We have this extraordinary obsession with big name architects, and Nicklaus (father and sons), Weiskopf, Palmer, Normanand Trent Jones (father and sons) have been drawn to the British Islesfor prestigious projects in recent years. At least in Irelandthey recognise their own, when they are good, and the wonderful Eddie Hackett was rightly revered, Tom Craddock and Pat Ruddy have been justifiably feted, and Christie OConnor Jnr and Des Smyth are, happily, landing contracts for major projects. At first sight, it is extraordinary that American architects have been awarded contracts in the heartland of Scottish golf, at Kingsbarns and Crail. However, from what I can gather (I havent seen either yet myself), they are something special. None the less, I am bound to wonder whether native architects would ever have been given such exceptional budgets and resources.
As far as three courses of the past decade are concerned, I wish I had more experience of the new Irish courses. Id love to know Doonbeg and Powerscourt myself, but the plain fact is that the cost is prohibitive. From all Ive read, Kingsbarns is clearly in the top flight. I rather suspect that The Carnegie Club/Skibo Castle will prove that native architects (in this case Donald Steel) are quite capable of delivering the goods at the highest level when there is sufficient money around. Sadly, it, too, is far beyond my purse. However, I do know Chart Hills from personal experience and I think that it augurs well for the Faldo teams aspirations. I loved the fact that no two holes were in any way alike. You could say that it is a fault, that there should be some unity of style. I confess that even the look and feel of the bunkers was totally different on every single hole, but the variety of challenges set was so fascinating that I found my attention held in a way that is usually lacking in other contemporary projects.
15. Please outline an ideal six day golf trip for a student of golf course architecture who flies into Manchester.
Apart from the word Please this reads like an examination question! First, let me say that Manchesteris an excellent airport into which any serious golfer should fly. Within an hour or sos drive you can be at Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham, Formby, S &A, West Lancs, Hillside, Wallasey, Alwoodley, Moortown. The list is impressive. Its not much further to the wonderful courses of the coast of North Wales and, for anyone on a limited budget, youll not get much better golf in finer surroundings than Aberdovey, Harlech, Nefyn, Porthmadog, Pwllheli, Holyhead, Bull Bay, Conwy, North Wales, Maesdu and Prestatyn. Its nearer to two hours to reach Ganton, but then its a half-days drive south to reach Woodhall Spa, and you can return via Sherwood Forest, Notts and Lindrick.
But, assuming your student of golf course architecture has plenty of stamina, let him or her arrive by one of the several flights from the USAwhich arrive at ManchesterAirportin the early morning. Shrugging off jet lag and getting a swift breakfast in one of Wilmslows plentiful cafÃƒ©s, one could tee off at Prestbury at 9.30 or 10.00 to enjoy a really beautifully presented Harry Colt course, scenic, hilly and very strategic. Its also an excellent introduction to the English parkland scene and will immediately introduce the student to the fundamental differences between English and American greens, how you get a ball onto them and what you do subsequently. After a sandwich in the clubhouse it is but a half-hour drive to Cavendish in Buxton, one of Alister Mackenzies later courses in this country (1925). It is only about 5,700 yards long, but I see, in the imaginative use of the land, parallels with Pasatiempo and the greens are certainly on the cusp of being extreme. You will sleep well after such a dose of mountain air, and Buxton is a delightful old spa town with plenty of hotel accommodation.
Early next morning its off to Sandiway, a course originally designed by Ted Ray. It is not particularly long at 6,400 yards, but par is 70 and standard scratch score 72, which begins to give an indication that this is not a course to be trifled with. It is an excellent test of all departments of the game, a course with at least one of everything except, perhaps, a long par 5, and calls for fine play if ones handicap is to be matched. After lunch, the drive to DelamereForest(Herbert Fowler) is only some ten minutes. I should love to suggest that you make the journey down to BeauDeserton Cannock Chase, which is one of Fowlers loveliest courses, but the M6 is too congested a motorway to guarantee that you will not spend far too many precious hours sitting in stationary traffic queues. Delamere, though, is no less special and its opening a sequence of long par 4s interrupted only by a long par 3 suggests that it might be arduous, but there are shorter two-shotters, some of them among the very best of their kind. Well find you a quiet country pub for the night.
Day three brings our first skirmishes with links golf. It will not take an hour to reach Wallasey. P Turners lovely pictures (see his correspondence in the discussion group) are testament to the character of this fine old links course. We may not know how much of Tom Morriss work survives (if any) but it is clear that his spirit is still very present. If we have any golf balls left we should then essay Royal Liverpool in the afternoon. It is not the work of a single architect, and it had been modified over the years long before Donald Steel made the latest amendments, but it is a fascinating study in seaside architecture. When you first set eye on the site you could not believe that such a captivating and demanding course could be found on such apparently unprepossessing ground. Your eye has not yet noticed the distant dunes which make the stretch from the 8th to the 13th so handsome, yet as play proceeds you will find a kind of beauty in the even flattest of the holes. Breeding will out!
Id love to suggest that you stay in this part to experience the joys of Caldy and Heswall, but you simply have to play Royal Birkdale, one of our most respected Open Championship links and the architectural masterpiece of the Hawtree family, now in its third generation. It is, undoubtedly, the fairest of our reguilar Open Championship courses. But what to warm up on? Personally, Id go for Hillside (Hawtree back nine) or Formby (Park, Colt, Pennink, Steel) simply because they have so much visual delight, but theres history aplenty at Southport & Ainsdale while West Lancs is a deceptively tough track and an example of the work of C.K. Cotton, a gifted architect frequently overlooked. Availability of starting times might, in the end, decide the outcome.
Four days completed, Royal Lytham yet to come. What should we do on the 5th day? Well, you could get on the motorway and drive over the Penninesto Leeds(little more than an hour away) where Alwoodley and Moortown represent Mackenzie at the start of his career and provide a welcome variation at this stage from unadulterated links golf. Those whose passion for links golf is, as yet, undiminished might like to whiz up the M6 northwards (where it is so much quieter and unlikely to be congested) to take in Silloth-on-Solway (David Grant, Willie Park and the ubiquitous Alister Mackenzie), one of my all-time favourite links courses, and the incomparable Seascale (Willie Campbell, George Lowe). The latter is overshadowed by the ominous presence of the Sellafield nuclear processing giant, but its a gorgeously old-fashioned links, heaving around on humpy ground. It has so much character that its occasional eccentricities are not only forgiven but also welcomed.
Lets assume, though, that weve returned from Yorkshire, having spent the night in a lovely country pub in the Forestof Bowland, one of Englands least spoiled treasures. Theres just time to iron out the gremlins in the swing at Clitheroe before attempting Royal Lytham. Clitheroe is not, perhaps, James Braids last word in architecture, but the setting is glorious, surrounded by gorgeous hill country, and theres many a charming hole and plenty of variety. I love it. At last its time for Royal Lytham. First impressions are not auspicious. It appears to be a non-descript area of flat ground surrounded by housing and a railway line. There are no views of the sea. Yet from the very first hole (unusually, a par 3) it is immediately apparent that this is a severe test. George Lowe, Harry Colt, Tom Simpson, C.K. Cotton and Colin Maclaine are the architects who have developed the course over the years. Tony Nicksons excellent book The Lytham Century will give you the history and it describes in detail the development of the course. Recent Opens have brought about no major changes, merely a greater proliferation of bunkers. Bobby Jones won the first Open Championship there in 1926, but it was 70 years before another American lifted the trophy there, Tom Lehman in 1996. Another American, David Duval, displayed great discipline in winning in 2001. What a shame he is currently struggling so patently! I have not played all the Open Championship courses, but I always think that, for the middle-handicapper, Lytham is the most intimidating of those I know. The early holes seem broad enough, if long, but the back nine simply brings you to your knees with the ferocity of its bunkering and narrowness of its fairways. The awful thing is that several of these later holes are nominally drive-and-pitch holes. Just try it!
Exhausted, we settle into a hotel room somewhere near Manchester Airport for an early morning departure dont attempt a last-minute journey on our motorways!
But, on arrival at the airport, we learn that the flight is delayed by seven hours. This is where Manchester scores. Within an affordable taxi ride there are umpteen fine courses which will provide the perfect bonne bouche to the trip: Wilmslow (many, many famous architects over the years, gentle and beautifully kept), Ringway (Colt and Braid, with a more than decent collection of longer par 4s), Reddish Vale (Mackenzie, idiosyncratic, not in the loveliest suburb of Manchester, but thought-provoking in Spades), Knutsford (10 holes, designed by a couple of schoolmasters, but enchanting and noble), Dunham Forest (very attractive woodland course [architects???] where Alex Hay and Dave Thomas were professionals in their time), Hale (very secluded 9-holer of great charm which numbers several judges amongst its distinguished membership), Stockport (Barrie, Herd and Braid). And if theyre all booked up, my numbers in the phone book.
16. Please compare the bunker depth and placement at Woodhall Spa vs. those at Ganton. Is one any more ominous or frightening than the other?
This is another of those examination questions! I think it all depends on which part of the bunker you get in. Woodhall Spa is, to some extent, summed up for me by the apochryphal story of the 85 year-old lady golfer who resigned her membership there.
Its the bunkers, she said.
Yes, they are very deep, arent they, replied the Secretary, and its so difficult to get the ball up onto the putting surface.
Young man, I can get the ball onto the putting surface easily enough she said. Its just that I cant manage to climb out, myself, after Ive played the shot.
Some of the bunkers at Woodhall Spa are very deep, especially on holes such as the 4th, where one of the green-side bunkers must be 12 feet below the putting surface. Others are long and sinuous. But you are not particularly frightened on the tee. You are rewarded for executing a good shot by a long run on landing because the ground is so well-drained. Its the same at Ganton. Both are entirely fair courses. You can see what you have to do on every shot. You can be incredibly unlucky at Woodhall Spa if you just topple into the sort of bunker that did good service in the First World War as a trench. You may have no backswing to go forward, backwards, or even sideways. On the other hand, you are sometimes rewarded with a lie almost as decent as if it were on the fairway. At Ganton, the ground is more undulating, so it is not just a question of one particular bunker or another. One bunker in the right place renders the next shot a guaranteed loser. Generally, I would say that Ganton does not have quite such vicious bunkers, but I remember a time when I managed to drive one of those bunkers beside the 3rd green.. Get in the wrong part of any bunker on either course and the penalty is several strokes, not just fractions of a stroke. They are both wonderful courses and I look forward to attending the forthcoming Walker Cup at Ganton eagerly.
17. Is there a particular architect in Great Britain and Ireland that you don’t think has received his proper due?
Tom Simpson. I know hes respected in this country for CrudenBayand his development work at a number of other British courses such as Royal Porthcawl, but I am bowled over by his courses in Belgium and those that I know in France.
18. Many first time visitors are mightily – and understandably – impressed with courses with dramatic settings/topography like Royal County Down and Cruden Bay. What are a couple of examples of subtle courses that require repeat visits to gain an appreciation of their true merits?
Slightly more than a couple, but you Yanks usually allow yourselves the odd Mulligan: Swinley Forest (Colt), Alwoodley (Mackenzie), Stoneham (Park), Saunton (Fowler), Beau Desert (Fowler), Luffenham Heath (Braid), Royal West Norfolk (Hutchinson/Ingleby), Seaton Carew (McCuaig, Mackenzie, Pennink).
19. If you were confined to playing just one course for the rest of your life what would it be?
Had you asked me ten years ago, I probably would have said Royal County Down, which is a fabulous course in an idyllic spot. But I no longer hit the ball far enough to be competitive on such a challenging links, even on handicap. I suspect that, nowadays, I should plump for Beau Desert, a Herbert Fowler gem on the high ground of Cannock Chase in the English Midlands. I am made to think on every hole. The stroke index is organised to help me on those holes I can no longer reach in regulation. The upland surroundings are uplifting (trees cutting off the worst views of the relicts of local coal mining and industry). Subtlety is the order of the day, not brutality, yet my occasional low-handicap guest will not burn the course up. Conditions are good, even in winter. The members are friendly. What more could one ask for?