Short Par Fours, Linksland and Designer Sunglasses:English Reflections on Ganton
by John Beaumont
‘Women playing golf!’ A look of horror came across my son’s face. And all that I’d done was to suggest that we go to Ganton to watch the Curtis Cup match. The situation was further aggravated when I explained that these players were no less than the best amateurs of Great Britain and the United States. ‘Amateurs!’ came the half mocking response. ‘Why on earth would we want to watch them.’ On reflection, his attitude was not all that astonishing. It came from one who has already experienced the heady atmosphere of the Open Championship, where the autographs of ‘Tiger’, ‘Jack’ and ‘Seve’ had duly been obtained. He had even rubbed shoulders with the fashionable and affluent of Europe by trespassing on the informal atmosphere of the Crans Sur Sierre pro-am prior to the European Masters. To the street-wise kid of today a bunch of lady amateur golfers at a quiet part of Eastern England was distinctly uncool.
However, I persevered, knowing that paternal guile might yet win out. After much negotiation contractual terms were finally agreed, much assisted by the fact that I also dangled in front of his face the possibility of a slap-up dinner afterwards. There is an irony to all of this, of course. This is that once my son got a first view of the vivacious Rebecca Hudson playing from the 10th tee at Ganton he was instantly converted to women’s golf! He may not have known the significance of the angle of the club face at the top of her backswing, nor the exact nuance of her hand action in the hitting area. But the message of the designer sun-glasses, perched amid a mass of blonde hair, and the shapely outline of the fashionable trousers, was well within his reach. When you come to think about it, some of the attractions of golf are relatively straightforward.
Golf links and golf courses
Ganton is often referred to as the ‘inland links’. Is it a true links? Well, of course not. It’s not beside the sea. But, not so fast. On that analogy, is Royal Lytham and St. Annes a links? After all, there the sea is not visible at all, though that’s primarily because of the suburban houses that have grown up in the vicinity. That marvellous, but relatively unknown, neighbour of Royal Birkdale, Hillside, affords only one glimpse of the sea, at least to those who manage to stay on its fairways, but it seems undoubtedly to be a links. Why is that? Because, I’m tempted to say, it plays like a links. But, what does that mean? Well, the traditional answer begins by saying that it is much affected by the force of the wind, which gets up to much greater strength around the coastline. But, there is something more about links golf and this relates to sand dunes, undulating fairways, deep bunkers and a relative lack of trees. Here, as in so many spheres of life, there is much in the way of variety. Some of our great linksland has a positive embarrassment of riches, notably at Birkdale itself and, of course, at Ballybunion, its major rival in this respect. At others trees flourish, as at Formby and the aforementioned Hillside. Others have a combination of typical links holes and a number of a more parkland nature. Even Royal Lytham, which in spite of a lack of a sea view plays very much like a links, being only half a mile or so from the sea, has a hole like the 11th, which would not look out of place on a park course.
Where does Ganton fit into all of this? Well, it certainly possesses certain things that exist in common with a true links. The bunkers, which are numerous, are deep (some with revetted faces) and filled with natural sand, within which it is not unknown to find shells. When you take a divot after a shot from the fairways it becomes evident that the course is built on a sandy subsoil. This is because the whole of this area, some nine miles from the coast on the edge of the Vale of Pickering, was once an arm of the sea. The course resides on heathland and is exposed to the effect of the wind. There is much gorse and some broom, though little heather. The impression of a links is increased by the fact that although there are some trees actually on the course, these are not great in number, though many mark out the boundaries. Certainly there are no holes where avenues of trees confine the player on both sides. Only at the 9th, 12th, 14th and 18th do trees normally affect the play of a hole and at the 14th it is a single tree that performs that function. The second shot at the 18th is played between two clumps of pine trees, but neither extends far down the hole. In relation to the lie of the land, most of the fairways, unlike at many links, do not have any really major undulations, the 11th being the only significant exception to this. In general, then, Ganton shares characteristics typical to both inland courses and those by the sea. Those who have not been may get a reasonable impression of it if one says that of the latter it is most like Muirfield, which has often been remarked upon as having several inland features. One does not have to go as far as Andrew Kirkaldy, who referred to it as ‘an auld watermeadie’ to appreciate the basic point there. Even the great Bernard Darwin referred to it as having ‘a certain inland character’. As far as genuine inland courses go, those that come closest in overall impression to Ganton are perhaps some of the Surrey courses, including, say, Walton Heath, though Ganton has much less in the way of heather and those trees that there are consist of firs and pine. It is also much more open on the whole than those southern courses.
Ganton and history
Ganton is still not as well known as some British courses. It is not situated in an area that is on the usual tourist trail. The nearby seaside town of Scarborough is attractive, and neighbouring Whitby features in the original of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But, there is not a great deal of historic notoriety in that area. Looking at it from an American perspective, Ganton is not close to the usual haunts of such tourists, London, Stratford-upon-Avon, or Oxford. Furthermore, the course has been deleted from the hitherto estimable and authoritative World Atlas of Golf in its latest revised and updated edition. It is no longer referred to at any point in the book, which seems ridiculous. It says a great deal about modern trends that the course that replaces Ganton in the book is The Belfry, but perhaps this topic is not one to be dwelt on here.
In a sense it is Ganton itself that provides the history in this area, golfing history that is. Harry Vardon was at one time professional there and that fine player of the same era, Ted Ray, also had associations with the club. Both men in their time won the Open Championship and the United States Open. The course has been the scene of many notable events down the years. In the early days of the developed game, when challenge matches were bringing it to the public notice, Ganton played a major role. It was here in 1899 that Harry Vardon trounced Willie Park by 11 and 10 over seventy-two holes, the last thirty-six of which were played at Ganton. Later in the same year Vardon and John Ball defeated Park and F.G. Tait there in a thirty-six hole foursome. More recently, shortly after the Second World War, a unique tournament took place there, in which six American woman professionals played in turn with each of six British men professionals over eighteen holes of stroke play. On a personal note here, my father, who acted as a referee at this event, used to tell me about the moment when the great Babe Zaharias, ‘caught short’ out at the 11th hole, strode into the neighbouring gorse bushes with a loud ‘when you gotta go, you gotta go’! And she did.
Ganton has been the venue for both the Ryder Cup (1949) and now this year the Curtis Cup. In two years time it will become the first club to host the three major historic team contests between the British and the United States, when the Walker Cup is held there. In addition, I have it on good authority that in the early 1980’s the course was offered the Ryder Cup again, but declined it. Those were, of course, the days before corporate pressures started sadly to affect the choice of venue for this great competition.
The status of the course in the opinion of the governing bodies of golf can be seen by the fact that when the Amateur Championship first moved to a ‘non-links’ (in the true sense) it was to Ganton that it went in 1964. It has since returned there, but to no other inland course thus far. The British Youths Championship was won there in 1985 by Jose Maria Olazabal, his last tournament as an amateur, and the course is due to complete a clean sweep of ‘Amateurs’ by hosting the Boys Championship. It almost goes without saying that the Ladies Amateur Championship has been held there, in addition to all the major English competitions, each on several occasions. One of the ironies in all this is that although several professional tournaments have been held at Ganton, this has not occurred in recent years. It is a matter for some disappointment that the professional tour, outside of the Open Championship and the occasional outside tournament, has moved away from the old classic venues.
Ganton in perspective
So, how does Ganton measure up today in an era of much improved greenkeeping, when the developments of ball and club go on apace and threaten to put the essential harmony of the game out of balance? Generally, the answer must be a very positive one. It has a subtlety that provides it with more defences than would be the case at a course where the hazards are more obvious. Particularly strategic is the positioning of the many bunkers. As Patric Dickinson sums it up in his classic work, A Round of Golf Courses, ‘the secret of Ganton lies in its subtle ‘use of ground’ and its brilliant, suggestive bunkering’ (p.33). In fact, such is the understatement at work here that it is difficult to highlight specific holes, since the whole always seems somewhat more than the sum of the parts. The course is not excessively long by today’s standards. The greens, though perfect, are not as undulating as many elsewhere. The bunkering around the greens does not seem particularly severe, perhaps because the subtle undulations do the work instead. However, the frequent change of direction that characterises the routing of the holes makes for a constant and varying challenge. But the central reason why Ganton is something special is the number of holes on which there is need for the player to really think before acting, to use his brain as distinct from brawn, and plan his way through the examination posed by the hole. Where this is particularly so is in relation to the short par fours, of which Ganton has more than most great courses. This hopefully says volumes about the trend, now at last perhaps breaking up, whereby many modern architects have ignored the test that such holes can provide. Both short par fours (and short par fives, as witness such holes as the 13th at Augusta) can be of high quality, even in an era of great length from the tee on the part of professional players. The Open Championship played earlier this year on the Old Course at St. Andrews provided an object lesson in this in the way that players were forced to plot their strategy at the delightful 12th hole. Whatever the strength and direction of the wind there is always interest and challenge posed, even though the hole measures only 316 yards. What has often been at work, of course, in the antagonism on the part of some towards such holes is the obsession with protecting the great God ‘par.’ Hopefully, this will soon become seen for what it is, an artificial restraint on potential creativity on the part of architects.
The overall quality of Ganton is a subject for more extended treatment, perhaps at another time. For now it is enough to examine these short par fours in order to get a flavour of this great course. Traditionally, there have been said to be three of them, the 3rd, the 14th and the 17th. However, in these days it is best to look upon the 17th as being in most conditions a very long par three. It measures 257 yards from the very back tee, but the prevailing west wind is in the player’s favour and this generally puts the green within range. But, what a fine blow this hole demands over a road and scrub land (which at one time used to be a huge sand pit, now overgrown) to a green defended by deep bunkers on both sides, but particularly severely on the right. The green, which is exposed to the effect of the wind, is perched at the top of a fair rise and has a relatively narrow entrance. This hole demands enough strategy of its own, being in the nature of a risk and reward hole, and a par three is dearly bought. Incidentally, even if we rate the 17th as a par three, thereby putting three holes in that category, Ganton probably has more par fours than almost any other major golf course, since there are also only two par fives there.
The two remaining holes, the 3rd and the 14th, are authentic examples of short par fours. The 3rd hole at Ganton measures 334 yards. It used to be shorter than this. Dickinson, writing in 1951, refers to it as measuring 250 yards. Frank Penninck, in his Golf (1952) refers to it as a par three hole. However, Peter Allen, in Play The Best Courses (1987) claims that the present back tee was put in for the Ryder Cup in 1949. It may be that he is confusing this with the 14th, which was played for the first time from its present back tee in that match. One thing is for sure and that is that the present back tee is not new. I certainly recall a time when it was overgrown and in competitions a tee somewhat further forward was used, the hole then playing about 285 yards (this was the present medal tee, now recorded as making the hole 287 yards). Then, the back tee was spruced up and brought back into use.
The 3rd hole, as presently played from this tee, is a fine hole, despite still being very much on the short side for a par four. What toughens the hole a little is the fact that the prevailing wind is against the player. The hole is basically flat, although there are some significant fairway undulations. There is out of bounds down the right, though the boundary fence is not close in and it would take a very wild slice to go over it. However, even without this as a significant threat, the tee shot is demanding and the key to the hole. The fairway is quite generous, although it does narrow between 260 yards and 290 yards out from the tee. There is gorse on both sides of the fairway, but it is particularly threatening on the left. About 292 yards away from the tee and covering the right side of the fairway is a largish bunker which also extends further on so as to protect the front right of the green. Against the prevailing wind this bunker is well out of range from the tee. The main threat comes from another and closer bunker. This covers most of the left side of the fairway at a particular point. It is of considerable size, stretching from about 232 to 261 yards from the tee, and sits at an angle to the player, diagonally from the right at its nearest point to the left at its furthest. The green is most heavily guarded at the right and the easiest approach is from the left. Thus, the question for the player is exactly how much, if any, of this bunker should he try to carry so as to obtain the best possible position from which to play his second. The green has some subtle undulations and putts are not easily holed and so if a birdie is to be achieved the closer the second can be placed to the hole the better. The insidious nature of this particular bunker is beautifully captured by Patric Dickinson:
‘Bunkers are of two kinds: there are the solid crushers of golfing crime, obvious as the tread of policemen’s boots; these catch and deal with such old lags as the nasty short slice, the smothering quick hook; even the head-up top: but there are other bunkers: beautiful alluring sirens, daring us to steer too near them, rallying our faint hearts to carry over them, and sneering at our feebleness if we take the middle course (‘middle-aged course’ they mock). Ganton’s bunkers are peculiarly sweet-singing creatures that lie about in exquisitely nonchalant attitudes, just off the line a beautiful example is the third hole; another is the 6th. But there is a great number of them and all of them welcome little golf balls in ‘with gently smiling jaws’ (p.35).
So what of the question of alternative strategies from the tee at the 3rd in the light of the threat from this bunker? One might be thought to be to play between the bunker and the rough on the right. This is a trap, however, since of course it flirts with bunker itself, the depth of which makes it very difficult to make the green from there should one drive into it. Besides, as stated earlier, the best line from the tee is to the left, so nothing is gained by this strategy. A true alternative, however, is to play short of the bunker, which can still enable a second from the left, because of the angle, referred to earlier, at which the bunker lies. The disadvantage is that the second shot becomes that much longer and so more demanding. All in all, then, despite the fact that the hole is rarely mentioned in descriptions of Ganton, the 3rd does exemplify the many possible strategies that might be adopted on what has sometimes been seen as a straightforward hole. This leads naturally on to the 14th, a hole that has been examined in some of the standard texts.
The 14th hole at Ganton measures 283 yards from the Championship tee. The green is not visible from the tee. The most usual wind is from the right. A very thick stretch of gorse runs down the left side of the hole, close in to the straight line to the flag, until just before the green. The straight route to the green is menaced by a large and very deep bunker, which requires a carry of 240 yards to clear it. Thus, anything slightly left of the straight line can be left unplayable. In addition, even if the cross bunker is carried, there are two further bunkers just to the right of the straight line before the green is reached. A ball in these leaves that awkward length of bunker shot, just too far for a standard explosion, and difficult to judge if taken clean. The reward for a long and true drive over the bunker is potentially great, but the green itself is narrow and guarded close in by a bunker on the left and by humps and hollows on the right.
If the challenge of the cross bunker from the tee is not taken on, the hole still poses a number of subtle questions. Visibility from straight behind the bunker is not good, but if therefore the safe tee shot is aimed further right into what is a temptingly wide looking area, there is a potential further hazard. A single tree stands in the edge of the right rough, but because of its structure provides a potential obstruction to many a second shot from the right. It has to be taken into consideration. All in all the 14th is a lovely hole demanding careful thought and execution. The great Ganton finish is often reckoned to begin at the 15th, perhaps because that hole is a relatively orthodox long par four. I prefer to include the 14th as well, because of its subtlety and therefore contrast with the more obvious rigours that are to come.
Despite all of its history Ganton is still not one of those courses referred to in many assessments of the great courses of the British Isles. It is submitted that this is because its greatest virtue, its quiet subtlety, is not one that in these days of an ‘in your face’ mentality in golf course architecture, as in so many other things, is given much credit. The great struggle for the Curtis Cup that took place there this year showed just how well suited the course is to the modern ladies’ game, where the power of strike has increased so significantly. But, it is still a fine test for the top class men, an illustration that great length is not all that matters in design. It is a course that has a universality that will continue to appeal. It is one that can take even designer sun-glasses in its stride.