I love golf.
Outside of weddings and child births, some of the best times of my life have been spent playing, watching or experiencing this majestic game. This blog will describe the three greatest golfing episodes of my existence (so far).
St. Andrews (Scotland)
I am lucky to have visited the Home of Golf several times. My older sister was a student there and so I took every opportunity to visit with my Clubs. There can be no comparison, however, for the very first visit that you make to such a special place.
And so it was, as a 12 or 13-year-old, newly addicted to the game and consuming it at every opportunity that first discovered the Old Grey Toun.
It was less than 12 months previously that I had watched (on the tele) my early golfing hero Nick Faldo produce a vintage display around the Old Course to become Open Champion. It was with a mixture of awe and disbelief therefore that we parked up in the town and strolled right into my television to stand in the Road Hole bunker and take the obligatory photo on the Swilken Bridge.
One of the many magic elements to this place is how open to the public it is. Most of the worlds greatest courses are very private but the 18th at The Old Course almost literally arrives at its destination in the middle of the town and you can stroll around to your heart’s content without fear of arrest.
As a Junior golfer at this time, I paid £20 for a 3-day ticket to play the New, Jubilee and Eden courses – such a wonderful thing as a new golfer. I did not play the Old Course on this occasion, but timing our visit as we did with the annual playing of the Links Trophy, we followed three scratch golfers around the 18 holes. This was one of the first occasions that I learnt that walking the course with good golfers can offer a different but in some ways even better experience than actually playing.
There are lots of other golf related activities to enjoy outside of the courses. The wonderful Himalayas putting green is fantastic fun and I do wonder why it has not been copied more around the world. I could while away days in the many second-hand bookstores dotted around, which as you can imagine have a much healthier golfing section than you would normally expect to find. Although, as a young teen my first visit was alcohol free, the public houses are plentiful and atmospheric and the Jigger Inn alongside the 17th fairway is special.
Should be at the very top of every golfers bucket list.
Whilst on a short visit to the Sunshine State around 10 years ago now, I was lucky to get an invite to play the exclusive Seminole Golf Club.
The invite was through a member, which is basically the only way to gain access to this most private of Clubs. It is a place that likes to keep itself to itself. Indeed it is very easy to miss the entrance, which is secluded and highlighted by a very small (by American standards) sign.
The highlights start before you hit the course with, I would have thought, the single greatest locker room in all the world. Wood panel lockers and battered old armchairs give a comfy, old-school feel to the place, but it is the old honors boards that perhaps give you the best sense of how highly regarded this track is. Each year around the Florida swing of the PGA Tour, the Club holds a members/guest tournament. Past winners include Hogan, Snead, Woods, Els, Hogan, Rose & Garcia. Famously Hogan used to use this course in preparation for the Masters, and when you reach the first tee you start to realise just why this would be.
Located on a relatively open and flat sandy expanse of land with the Atlantic Ocean alongside the Eastern edge, this is fast, running golf at its most extreme, brutal and most magnificent best. The fairways run around a 12 on the stimp and the greens are something else entirely. The bunkers are plentiful and huge and the wind from the ocean ever-present.
It is difficult to describe just how tricky greens of this pace are – but imagine putting on your kitchen lino – then add in slope and the effect of the wind and you may get some idea. I have never played Augusta, but I can but think that Hogan would have been relieved to get there for the Masters for some easier greens after practicing on the Seminole putting surfaces.
With incredible ocean vistas and immaculate service, if you are fortunate enough to get a chance to play here, clear your diary and thank your lucky stars.
Royal County Down (Northern Ireland)
A few years ago, I got the chance to play in a tournament at RCD and I jumped at the chance.
The initial experience did not go well. Arriving at Bristol Airport Check-in at 4am for the RyanAir flight to Belfast, there was no record of my booking. It turns out I had booked for the previous day! A £20 return flight turned into a £350 last minute ticket. Whoops.
It was pouring with rain as we made our way towards the course from Belfast. We were tired and hungry and looking forwards to a lovely brunch in the clubhouse. When we got there – as you can imagine in the unplayable conditions the place was deserted. We settled down in the lounge with a newspaper and waited for some service. 10 minutes later a gentleman arrived and we enquired about food – only to be told that it was a members only day and we had to leave the clubhouse entirely! There was nobody there!
Fortunately the following day dawned with a stunning sunrise. A picture perfect day for a practice round. The course did not disappoint. I will lay anybody a score that I will never play a better 9 holes than the front 9 at Royal County Down. It is just one incredible hole after another, like a little bit of heaven reserved for golfers. The vistas are breathtaking, with the Mourne Mountains behind you, the Irish Sea to your right and a sea of gorse and undulating velvet fairways to your left.
Having compared the place to heaven, it is also true that your score can quickly go to hell. It is brutally tough with blind carries, thick rough, penal bunkering and lightning fast sloping greens.
The back nine also contains a number of world-class holes but does not quite reach the consistent heights of the front side. Nevertheless I was truly blessed to enjoy such a day on such a course. My evening was spent whiling away the hours on the practice putting green. Perhaps my favourite day of golf ever.
The tournament? Rained off after 9 holes. It is a chance you take with golf in this most green of lands.
There are still many more destinations on my golfing bucket list. I can’t wait.