The Ultimate Open Venue Ranking

The players are all raving about Royal Birkdale this week. There's nothing tricked-up about it and it's definitely proving a test when the wind's up. But 'fair' is the word being used to describe it time and time again (somewhat to the irritation of the hardcore golf course architecture community).

But where does Birkdale rank alongside the other courses on the Open rota? Well, to answer that I've turned to my 'Ultimate Top 100' list - a 'poll of polls' of the top ranking sites - and come up with the Open hit list. Here is what that tells us:

10 Royal Liverpool (90th in the World)

Royal Liverpool

I really loved Royal Liverpool (known as Hoylake). It was a regular host of The Open until 1967 and returned in style in 2006 when Tiger Woods went around a very dusty links only hitting his driver once. McIlroy finally found an Open course to his liking in 2014 when the Open was next there.

I have this course as an '18' on my scoring system and prefer it to both Lytham and Carnoustie which the experts have ranked higher. It is a very playable course, you don't need to hit the ball 280 yards and straight to score well and while it doesn't have the dramatic setting of some of those above it, the golf is a real treat.

One other thing I should say is the clubhouse is a real treasure-chest of golfing memorabilia and the welcome a very warm one. What more can you ask for!?

My Review Here

9 Royal Lytham (67th in the World)

royal lytham open

So, colours to the mast, this is my least favourite Open course. I've only played it once, it was a fairly miserable day and my level of play was poor, so that didn't help! But the course doesn't have that much going for it really. There are no views, apart from of the nearby houses, the rough was incredibly punishing and it was over-bunkered. 

It has hosted some memorable Opens for sure. Seve won here twice and Ernie enjoyed a great week here in 2012.

One day I'll be back I'm sure,  and maybe that will cause me to re-assess, but for now it's at the bottom of my list.

My Review Here

8 Royal Troon (65th in the World)

Tom Watson winning at Troon (From www,royaltroon.co.uk)

Tom Watson winning at Troon (From www,royaltroon.co.uk)

Every decade since the 1950s, Royal Troon has hosted an Open Championship. I was there in 1989 when Mark Calcavecchia pipped Wayne Grady and Greg Norman - it was a fantastic week to attend in the blistering west coast sun.

While few will remember the details of Todd Hamilton's win in 2004 the Stenson/Mickelson battle of last year will live in the memory of those who saw it forever. The star on that occasion though was definitely the quality of play  rather than the course and it would be fair to say the course has never been called an architectural masterpiece. The postage stamp is one of the most famous par 3s on these isles but, beyond that, there isn't much that will stick in the casual observer's mind.

This is the one course I've not been able to play yet but all that is changing in a few weeks! I will let you know then how it ranks for me. 

7 Royal Birkdale (38th in the World)

royal birkdale open

Birkdale is probably the first course on this countdown which can be described as one of the greats. I loved Birkdale and gave it a 19. The course is sculpted by magnificent dunes but the fairways are pretty flat and you won't get many bad bounces around here. If you get the chance to play here then jump at it. It really is that good.

The list of winners on this course is an impressive one, including Watson, Trevino and Palmer. The pros love playing here and it is a course that is really able to identify the best ball strikers and scorers out there.

My Review Here

6 Royal St Georges (26th in the World)

Royal St Georges is England's best course

St Georges is the highest ranked English course on this list, and indeed in the world. On reflection, I think that is probably justified and it deserves just to pip Birkdale to the claim. 

This is a more quirky course than Birkdale. There are some blind shots (although not too many), some tilting fairways and some devilish bunkers. But it is simply great fun. The course will keep you entertained all the way round and won't beat you up. As soon as you come off the 18th you will want to walk straight over to the 1st and do it all again.

This is a great part of the world to visit. Royal Cinque Ports next door is a sensational links and it would be criminal to come here and not play a round there too. The bordering Princes course has a great reputation too.

My Review Here

5 Carnoustie (22nd in the World)

Image from www.carnoustiegolflinks.co.uk

Image from www.carnoustiegolflinks.co.uk

You've probably heard all kind of stuff about 'Carnasty' and how this golf course has the most brutal finish in golf. You may have wondered whether that is all true. Believe me when I say it is even worse! This course is incredibly tough. It is unrelenting in its challenge and I would say for the average golfer, like me, it's just too hard.

The enjoyment you get from playing here is more from the satisfaction of having survived rather than anything else. There isn't much in the way of natural beauty to take in along the way and you don't get to see the sea.

22nd in the world feels like a very inflated position. I have it ranked below some courses not even threatening the top 100 like Gullane No 1. We'll get a good opportunity to compare next year when the Scottish Open at Gullane is followed by the Open at Carnoustie. I suspect the players will feel more beaten up on the latter!

My Review Here

4 Turnberry (20th in the World)

turnberry

I don't have a review up on the site at the moment for Turnberry.  I haven't played the course since the redesign last year which has apparently elevated the course into one of the very best in the world. Indeed, the latest Golf Monthly ranking has put Turnberry on the top of the pile in the UK. The reviews have been uniformly great and I expect this will be increasing over the next few years as more people get to experience it first hand

Previously, some in the golf course architecture world had been a little condescending to Turnberry. They felt it had a little bit of 'fur coat and nae knickers'. Personally, I found that complete tosh. The setting is tremendous and the holes were magnificently framed. I simply can't wait to get over there again to see it.

For some, there may be an issue with the course ownership. The presence of Donald Trump as owner may put off The Open from returning while he is running the Western world (and my wife isn't very happy at the thought of me going to see it either...).

3 Royal Portrush (15th in the World)

portrush open

Portrush has only hosted the Open once before but it is back on the rota and will be hosting again in 2019. There is no question that this course will be one of the very best the players will play on the Open rota. Previously, the criticism had been that the 17th and 18th were weak holes but they will be used for corporate hospitality while two new holes have been created for the 7th and 8th and look great additions.

There is much chat about which is better, Royal County Down or Portrush. While the rankings would say County Down, I would champion Portrush. It's far more playable, more fun and has a better setting. It will be a great venue in 2019.

My Review Here

2 Muirfield (13th in the World)

Muirfield 2 (2).jpg

For many, Muirfield is the best course in Britain. The players are almost universally full of praise when the Open comes here and it is seen as a course which demands a mix of strategy, skill and patience. The course has one big circle for the front nine with another circle inside for the back. As as a result, no two holes play with the wind in the same direction so you need to keep thinking all the way around, and, if you are playing into the wind, it won't last for too long.

I live just a drive and a thinned 9 iron away from the first tee so have managed to play on the course a few times. Forget what you may have heard - the welcome has always been a warm one and the staff nothing but pleasant. The course has grown on me the more I have played it. It is without a doubt a tough track and the rough and bunkers are amongst the hardest you will ever find. However, this is a course you can get around. Visitors can play on Tuesdays and Thursdays and make sure you stay for the lunch and a foursome game in the afternoon

My Review Here

1 St Andrews (4th in the World)

St Andrews view to town.jpg

It will be no surprise to hear that the Old Course at St Andrews is ranked the best of all the courses to host the Open. It is a course unlike any other. Straight out and back, starting and finishing in the heart of the ancient town, this is a course which you will find accessible from the off. 

You will have seen the Old Course many times on the TV, the Open visits here every 5 years now and the Dunhill Links every October. There are still some things that will surprise you though. Firstly, how playable it is - if you favour the left hand side you will stay out of trouble. Secondly, the vastness of the greens - you will have never hit longer putts than on these huge double greens.

And finally, when you make the turn, you will find you just can't help but be mesmerised on your way in at the growing skyline of the Auld Grey Toon. Playing up 17 and 18 is an almost spiritual experience - you will feel the history all around you. What other game allows you to walk in the steps of legends? And what better place to do it than St Andrews?

My Review Here

Open Preview - 4 to Watch

royal birkdale

So, here we are. Open week. Without a doubt this is one of my favourite golfing weeks of the year. The Masters and Ryder Cup are the only other two worthy of entering the debate and The Open probably pips them to the post when it comes to sheer anticipation and excitement. The early morning starts and the late evening finishes, the bright yellow leaderboards, the random Asian player who has a good first day – all of these are traditions which add to the joy of the oldest major of the lot.

The venue this year is Royal Birkdale. For me, this is one of the very best courses on the rota. I've only played it once but loved it – my review is here. I went along when Ian Baker-Finch won in 1991 and remember it being a fantastic course to view as a spectator.

The course is framed by magnificent dunes, has great views and a classic clubhouse. The players profess to liking the course because there are few irregular bounces on the flat fairways. Having said that, don't think that this is an easy course. When Harrington won last time he was over par and the weather forecast tells us to expect some wind this week which will definitely make things tricky. It is a par 70, so expect the halfway cut to be well over par this week.

In coming up with a list of players to consider this week there are a few factors to take into account. Firstly, the Open is a tournament which definitely requires patience. If the wind does blow hard, then keeping your head and not being discouraged if a double bogey comes will be key. Therefore, when it comes to selections, I am staying away from streaky players, or players who tend to get down on themselves when things don't go their way. I'm sure Jon Rahm will go on to some major victories for example but it's hard to pick him this week given his temperament can be a little dubious at times.

The other factor I am taking into account is that this isn't a course which is going to necessarily reward length off the tee. We will see a lot of irons in play this week as often the trouble lies further up the hole and the risks taken won't always be rewarded.

Thirdly, I think it is far from a coincidence that, in the last 6 years, the winner has come from those who have played in the Scottish Open the week before. Players who embrace the links game will feel more comfortable in this environment. Extend that to the Irish Open as well and there is a good pool of players who have had some links golf in recent weeks.

Lastly, the pedigree of the Open winners has been pretty good over the last few years. It's been a while since we had a 'no-name' winner (think Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton) and the Birkdale roll-call is a really impressive one with Harrington, O'Meara, IBF, Watson, Miller, Trevino, Thomson and Palmer - a pretty good line-up.

So, here are a few suggestions of who you might like to think about if you are considering a wager this week. You can check out http://sports.williamhill.com/bet/en-gb/betting/y/6/Golf.html for more markets and prices

Rickie Fowler 16/1
It is no secret that Rickie Fowler is a lover of links golf. He won the Scottish Open in my home town of Gullane a couple of years ago and he has posted a T2 and T5 before. This season he is playing well and is 6th in the FedEx Cup. His scoring average is the lowest of everyone on the PGA tour this season and he is 6th in strokes gained on approaches to green. 16/1 isn't particularly generous, but for me he is the clear favourite this week

Marc Leishman – 45/1
The Australian has finished in the top 5 twice in the last three Opens, missing out in the playoff to Zach Johnson a couple of years ago. He is having a good year with a win at the Arnold Palmer in the spring and finished 5th last time out. I would rather he had played in the last couple of weeks but he is too good to ignore at 45/1

Matt Kuchar – 50/1
Big, smiley, goofy Kooch is the kind of player who has a game that fits with the Birkdale Open narrative. He is a quality ball striker with a great reputation around the greens and has the demeanour to shrug off some of the challenges that will undoubtedly come his way this week. He's not one of the longest hitters (162nd on the PGA Tour this year) but that won't count against him too much this week. Importantly he loves links golf. While his Open record isn't much to write home about he embraces the format which makes him good odds at 50/1.

Padraig Harrington – 66/1
If you're looking for horses for courses then Harrington is your man. He was the winner here in 2008 and it would, without a doubt, be one of the most fantastic stories if he was able to pull it off this week. Harrington showed well at the Scottish Open last week, with the exception of a poor third round, and there is no doubt this guy is a grinder. He will be inspired to do something special out there and you can be sure he will have the fans behind him. Come on Padraig ,one more time......!

OK, maybe THIS is the best value trip in golf!

Image from Castlerock Golf Course

I have written before about how you can access some amazing courses at great prices, but I think this one may beat the lot.

With a little bit of planning, you can play 2 of the top 20 courses in the WORLD, plus a European Tour course, plus an amazing hidden gem, for only £245 all in.

Accommodation in the area is cheap too and it's within an hour's flight of most places in the UK. Tempted? Then read on!

Northern Ireland is the venue. It is home of some of the very best links courses in the world and famed for wonderful hospitality. As with the Highland trip and East Lothian adventure I have previously written about, the secret to getting the best value is to travel a little out of season. I have based the prices here on a trip in March.

March is one of the drier months of the year and the courses should be beginning to show a bit of growth. The good thing about these courses is that the land drains well all year round, so even if it is wet, the turf will be in great condition. 

Image from Royal County Down website

Image from Royal County Down website

Thursday 
Early flight to Belfast City Airport. Pick up a hire car and drive (c. 1 hour) to Royal County Down. 

This is currently ranked the 3rd best golf course in the world - higher than St Andrews! In the peak of summer, on a weekend afternoon, this would cost you £220, but we are getting this round for £90. It is probably going to be the hardest course on the trip so it's worth playing it early, while you are still fresh and not too much Guinness has been consumed.

After the round, drive north to Portrush - our base for the next three nights. Portrush is your typical seaside town with plenty of bars, restaurants and seaside activities to be had!

When it comes to accommodation there are plenty of guest houses and B&Bs around but do have a look at Airbnb. You can get a great looking 4 bedroom house in the heart of town for £80 a night so, if there are 4 of you, that would work out at just £60 each for three nights' accommodation.

You'll probably be a little tired after your early start and drive, so maybe just a quick fish and chips and a pint before retiring to prepare for the next three rounds within a very short distance.

Friday
The European Tour came to Portstewart in summer 2017 and the players raved about the course. The front 9 was heralded as one of the best runs of links holes anywhere in the world. It seems destined to be on more visitors wish-lists than ever before as a result of the great reviews but, for now, you can play in March for a mere £60.

Friday night in town is likely to be pretty busy, even at this time of year, so it's worth booking ahead if you are looking for a meal. There are plenty of places to eat with new ones coming and going all the time, but the Bushmills Inn is a good option.

Saturday
A short drive away is Castlerock Golf Club. The top100 golf site has this as the 5th best course in the land. What is truly amazing is that we are getting 18 holes here for £35! In fact, on a weekday, it is only £25. That is truly phenomenal!

As for Saturday night entertainment, make sure you don't leave town without taking in a few pints at the Harbour Bar while you watch the sun go down It also has a good restaurant if you find it hard to move too far...

royal portrush golf club

Sunday
For me, we have saved the best to last. Royal Portrush is an absolute delight of a golf course to play. It isn't so punishing that you will feel destroyed out there, but you will know you are playing something very special. A huge amount of work has been done in the lead up to the 2019 Open Championship, with 2 new holes opening which promise to elevate this course even further in the rankings.

Access to the course is limited but plan ahead and you can play on a Sunday between 10:30 and 11:50 for £60. Leave it a month and, in April, the same round will cost £190! 

It will take you just over an hour to get to George Best International Airport for a flight back home. You might be a tired, but I'm prepared to bet, also smiling at the amazing golf you'll have enjoyed.

So there you have it - four great rounds of golf for the price of just 1 a few months later. Sure, you are taking a little risk with the weather but the courses should be in good condition and you will be welcomed with open arms.

Cost-wise the golf and accommodation would come to around £300. Flights from London (including clubs if you book wisely and book well in advance) will add another £100. Finally, budget for another £100 for car hire and food and drink which means you could do this for £500 all in.

If you are on an even tighter budget consider doing 36 holes on one of the days and you will save a few more quid on one day's less accommodation, food and car hire.

I will continue to look for the best value golf trip in golf but if playing high-quality courses is high up on your list of requirements, I challenge anyone to beat this trip!

Arccos 360 - a gamechanger for golf wearables

Last year I wrote about my experience with both the Arccos and Gamegolf wearable golf devices. The upshot was that the idea was great but the execution just wasn't good enough. They both proved pretty much unusable over time. I can only imagine that my blog spurred the folks at Arccos into action because late last year they released the Arccos 360. And believe me, it's a gamechanger.

There were two main problems with the original Arccos system. Firstly, it was just unreliable. Some clubs wouldn't register when you hit them and fiddling around changing batteries mid-round was not conducive to good performance.

Then when I was getting a fitting for a new set of clubs the pro looked at the devices at the end of every club and pronounced them too big - he sowed the seeds of doubt in my mind and so, after almost a season's play they were consigned to the drawer never to see the light of day again. I wasn't alone, three friends of mine all went for the Arccos system when they first saw them, and none of them stuck with them for more than a few months.

Anyway, I am a sucker for new gadgets and when I saw the new and improved version was coming out I was eagerly awaiting the release. I've played about a dozen games with them now so here are some thoughts. But if you want the edited highlights - they've fixed the problems and using the system is now pretty close to faultless.

The Arccos 360 sensors are unobtrusive

The sensors at the top of the club are about half the size of their predecessors and very light indeed. That means I don't worry about the swingweight questions raised by my pro with the larger original version.

There is also no faffing around with batteries and they need a 'one time only' pair rather than the previous design which involved taking batteries in and out a lot and a little praying.

The process of pairing each club the first time was a doddle and they were up and running within a couple of minutes.

The only slight question mark for me is what happens in a couple of years. The website says the following - 'Arccos 360 sensor batteries are not replaceable. We guarantee these sensors to last a minimum of two years. Internal testing, however, has shown that the batteries may last longer than two years'.

Elsewhere on the site is says they should last for five years. I guess time will tell. Maybe they figure that the next generation will have come along by them and everyone moved on, or everyone will be paying a subscription for new services so they will send them out for free.

The other thing that is great about the 360 versus the original is that the sensors seem to pick up pretty much every shot you play - which wasn't the case before. The only slight catch is that you need to have your phone in your front pocket for it to pick up the sound of the ball to register your shot. They are a little sketchy on how that all works but frankly I don't really want to know. The phone in pocket thing really doesn't bother me at all and I've not been distracted by it once yet.

So there we are. The two problems before had been the sensors were both too big and they didn't work reliably, those problems have both been addressed.

arccos 360 apple watch

The other thing that has changed for me since my first experience is I now have an Apple Watch which works together with the Arccos 360 really well.

I use it for two things.

Firstly, you just need to glance at the watch to get yardages to the front, middle and back of the green (and a club recommendation in non-competition mode). There are other GPS apps which do something similar but the other thing this gives you is the ability to add a 'gimme' putt to a hole so you really don't need to take your phone out your pocket all the way around the course now to keep track of your game.

However, I do find myself pulling my phone out of my pocket to look at the Arccos app during the round for a couple of reasons.

I tend to use my putter around the green quite a lot and you need to let Arccos know this should count as a chip for your stats rather than a putt. You can do that after the round but I tend to do it on the way to the next tee. The other thing I sometimes do is manually move the flag position if I remember so the Arccos algorithm can take that into account when coming up with your stats.

The other thing I use it for is for showing me distances using the maps and built in GPS. You can touch any point on the map on your screen and a target will come up which shows you both how far away that point is and what that would leave you next to the middle of the green. On a course you don't know well that is really helpful and allows you to plot your way around in a way you can't with just a scorecard in your hand.

So, that's about it for the way around the course. It's when you finish a round that the analytics really kicks in.

For every round Arccos will calculate your 'handicap' for different parts of your game (driving, approach, chipping, sand and putting) and an overall handicap. Again, they are relatively opaque on what goes into the creation of this score but it is kind of similar to a 'strokes gained' type methodology. You can look at that on the app or website for either an individual round or your average over 10 rounds.

It definitely gives you a good sense of which areas of your game you should be working on and may change your strategy on the course.  For example, my driving numbers were awful in the early part of the year and I could see the positive impact moving to a three wood from the tee had on both my stats and my scores when I made a move for a couple of rounds.

You will also be able to see a bunch of other statistics for your game - fairways hit, putting stats, up and down etc both for individual rounds and your game as a whole. For every club in the bag you will get average distances hit. The algorithms are pretty good at being able to tell if you a punching a 6 iron back onto the fairway form the trees so as not to include in your overall numbers. It is this technology which allows the app to make the club recommendations on your watch on your way around.

arccos loch lomond

The other thing which I enjoy on the app is the ability to pull up any round you have played and go back and look at every shot you took. This is good fun when you are re-living the round afterwards, or looking at a course you've not been to for a while before playing it again.

It can be quite sobering too. Melting a drive down the middle and finding out it went 40 yards less than you would have guessed does bring a bit of a reality check!

For many, that will be enough. Some nice stats and the chance to have a momento of your round. I imagine lots of users never log-in to the dashboard on the website but it is quite something. I won't be able to do it justice here but there are a plethora of features -

  • Edit shots with precision after a round
  • A heatmap of every shot played so you can see which gave you shots gained or dropped
  • Overlay shots played from multiple rounds on a map of a hole to look for trends
  • Plots different attributes of your game versus others of same handicap
  • Shows you where your misses are (clue, most people are short!)

I haven't spent that much time yet looking at all the ins and outs of the site but there is plenty to get stuck into and I think a bit of focus could really help you develop different strategies for holes on your home course.

Next week Arccos are releasing a new product to go alongside the Arccos App - Arccos Caddie. It will use all of the data on your game, combined with an analysis of the hole your are playing plus current conditions to give you advice on how to play the hole.

This will be a subscription based model and you can see the attraction for sure. It will be interesting to see to what extent the algorithm copes with a higher handicap where consistency is a problem but advances in data science and AI should mean this only gets better and better.

However, none of that would matter if the basic functioning of the sensors still wasn't there so well done to Arccos for leading the way. Let's see what the future brings!

The Best Golf Podcasts of 2017

golf podcasts

If 2016 was the year of the golf podcast explosion then this is the year we see which ones have real legs. Which have become bland and formulaic and which are 'must listen' whenever they come on your iTunes feed?

Well, the latter half of last year marked a real turning point in the genre as many players really embraced them. Speith, McIlroy, Mickelson - they have all talked to podcasts at length. This is genuinely transformational for the golf fan. Previously (apart from the odd snatched interview at an event) you may have read an interview in a newspaper (unlikely, but very occasionally sensational) or golf magazine/website (90% utter fluff but occasionally excellent). Now we have some of the real superstars of the game talking at length, giving us insight like never before. They have pretty much cut out the middle man and are talking directly to their fans.

Jamie Kennedy, the social media manager for the European Tour, recently asked what makes for a good golf podcast. I suspect the answer partly depends on how much of a golf geek you are. I don't think there is an official scale for this, but, to help you frame what I have to say, I would be at the Padraig Harrington end of obsession!

So firstly, here are a few of the criteria which I think make for an engaging podcast -

Presenters with attitude and intelligence
Subject matter, guests, frequency - these are all important, but if you feel no connection with the host it can be tough. There have been new podcasts which, on paper, look like they should be great, but then you tune in and within 10 minutes the monotonous drone of the presenter's voice means you just have to turn off. It's tough, but some written-word journalists really find it hard to make the transition to the spoken form.

The ones which really work are those who have a strong point of view, are able to communicate it in an engaging way and aren't shackled by their employer or standing in the game. It was why I loved Lawrence Donegan when he used to do the ByTheMinGolf podcast. He didn't really give two hoots about what people thought. Last year I was slightly disparaging of the No Laying Up Podcast but for me they are now the undisputed number one. They have attitude and intelligence which makes for a great listen.

I am not sure the European Tour will ever be able to produce something so engaging as No Laying Up given their position in the game and I think the broadcasters find the same problem. Sky haven't cracked the podcast yet in the UK - will they ever be able to make yo feel there is an edge in what they say? I suspect not.

Insight you won't get elsewhere and subjects that really engage
There is really no point having a podcast which merely recounts events we have all witnessed ourselves with 'one guy's opinion' of it. It's not interesting and is unlikely to make it to the top of your podcast list.  

The broadcasts I like are the ones which genuinely help me learn something new, give me an insight I wouldn't get elsewhere. The Chubby Chandler interviews on ByTheMin were great, Michael Clayton talking on State of the Game about what developers are demanding in golf course designs - these are genuinely mind-opening and add to my knowledge of what is going on in the world of golf.

I think it is hard for a show to really engage if it just spends every week looking back at last week's event and looking forward to next weekend's. Addressing broader topics make for a more interesting show. Of course it would be wrong not to talk about topical issues sometimes, but taking a broader perspective is often more interesting.

Don't have guests who just go through the motions
The Rory McIlroy interviews with NoLayingUp and The Clubhouse this year were fantastic, you felt like he was happy to talk about anything and give honest answers. The key here is for the presenters still to be journalists and not PR lackies. Asking questions which may sometimes be uncomfortable and not necessarily endearing themselves to the players is important in making it an interesting listen.

Phil Mickelson did the nascent Shipnuck podcast earlier this year. Now Shipnuck is an amazing writer, possibly the best in the business, but he is not great as a broadcaster. Though Phil was so mesmerising it didn't matter!

Shane Bacon had Rickie Fowler on the day before the Masters and gave the listener a few minutes of pretty much nothing. My advice next year - don't even bother.

Be Dependable
Building a regular relationship with a podcast is important I think. You can be pretty confident there will be a No Laying Up podcast most weeks. I have recently discovered the GolfWeekly podcast and every Thursday I know it will be there waiting. It helps that the presenters are really engaging and have a point of view on everything but I enjoy the fact that I can depend on it being there.

Conversely, the reliability of the BytheMinGolf podcast has been disappointing. Whenever they do one it is the best thing I listen to that week, but it appears to have finally died a death. That's a real shame.

State of the Game is a glorious show. It is the 'One Foot in the Grave' of golf podcasts by a bunch of grumpy old men, but they fulfil the 'attitude and intelligence' criteria with aplomb. However, the longest time between broadcasts has been 3 months and there have only been 7 in the last 12 months. This makes it tough to really get into it, but is a real treat when it comes!

You can see here how some are definitely more diligent in their production than others - 

Doesn't try too hard to sell me underwear
I think I have some cultural challenges I need to overcome! In the UK we have quite a clear demarcation between advertising and journalism. Our North American cousins seem to have a less distinct position.

I find it really odd when the Shackhouse comes on and Shack and House spend the first couple of minutes having a 'genuine' conversation about how much they are both loving the Callaway Chromesoft or the underpants they are wearing (I kid you not) and what a difference they are making to their daily lives. In last week's Shackhouse, 4 of the first 18 minutes were spent on promoting their sponsors. It does feel like CallawayFM at times. They are probably the most obvious offenders (to my uneducated ear) but others are at it as well. When I am driving to work and can't fiddle with the iPhone to forward through it, it is really annoying, especially as I can't get the underwear delivered to me in Gullane regardless of the quality of the gusset. 

Now, I do understand that in this new media world these guys need to monetise their listenership, but I wish there were less invasive ways of doing it. No Laying Up are doing it light touch (and I imagine they are getting some big offers) but I wonder if they will manage to hold out. I have been listening the the S-Town podcasts recently. I don't recall any mentions of golf in the series (it's based around a manic depressive, poisoned, suicidal horologist) but the 15 seconds of sponsor mentions were not a distraction from the main event.

So, those are some of the things I look out for and given this is a rating website here's how I rate them -

THE MUST LISTENS

no laying up golf podcast

No Laying Up

Last year I accused this show of being a little too painfully Millenial focused. I take that all back now. I'm 43 and love listening to it. It is without a doubt the best in the business. 

Solly is the main host and he has a great outlook on the golf world. They have had some phenomenal guests on (Rory phoned them up to get a slot) but they have an energy which is contagious. When it comes to a point of view, none have a stronger outlook than these guys.

They will also quite happily move away from just talking about the professional golf tours - the recent accounts of trips to England and Ireland were great listening for a golf course geek.  

I have no doubt that these guys will continue to engage and only grow in their success. It wouldn't be surprising if in a year or two they have their own audio stream on a golf network or online streaming. Hell, Sky should get them doing that on the red button tomorrow.

State of the Game

state of the game podcast

Without a doubt the grand-daddy of them all. We are up to episode 72 but the first one was out in January 2012, with John Huggan on board. Now the frequency has declined but the standard has  been maintained, despite Huggan's exit. I am a big fan of all three of the current hosts, Rod Morri, Geoff Shackelford and Mike Clayton and the quality of guests is uniformly great. Joe Oglivie's appearance in episode 45 sets the standard in podcast guests others should strive to!

This podcast tends to be less about the week to week goings on of the PGA tour and more about issues effecting the broader game of golf. They have a particular dedication to talking about how far the golf ball is going today and the problem that creates, however they are always entertaining. It's just a shame that the episodes are so few and far between.

Golf Weekly

This was a new find for me this year and I would really encourage you to have a listen if you haven't before. It is broadcast from Dublin and there is a skew towards Irish golf and golfers but that's not a problem as there is a real pace and energy to the show which means that it is a pleasure to listen to - even when the topics are a bit more parochial.

The Clubhouse with Shane Bacon

Unlike other podcasts which have 2 or 3 hosts talking either to each other or with a guest, this is just Shane Bacon every week in conversation with a guest. There are a few regulars such as Kyle Porter but often hosts of other podcasts like Geoff Shackleford or Tron Carter from No Laying Up come on. The guest line-up over the last 12 months has been stellar - Rory McIlroy, Keith Pelley, Justin Thomas..... 

The only slight criticism (and it is slight) is that I think Bacon plays it a little safe sometimes in his questions. He is employed by Fox Sports and maybe this is the reason. It feels like it could maybe get a little edgier than it does at times.

Shackhouse

So last year I was all over Shackhouse. I am a big fan of Geoff Shackleford's contributions to State of the Game and his blog, but the Shackhouse has gone a little off the boil for me.  

Firstly, the advertising is too invasive for my liking. I know they need to make money, but it's a real pain to listen to. It does feel at times like they are just an extension of the Callaway PR team. Also, Joe House grates on me a little. He sounds a bit like a zany Muppet - maybe Fozzy Bear - and it gets a little dull hearing him talk in frenzied tones about how he is going to 'allocate my CAP-IT-AL'.

Having said that, when they calm down and have a good discussion or interview, the quality is usually pretty high and this is a show I listen to pretty much as soon as it comes out very week - so I can't dislike it that much.......!

THE POSSIBLES

The Fried Egg Podcast

the fried egg podcast golf

Fair play to them, the Fried Egg podcasts are knocked out with some regularity. I've probably only listened to 7 or 8 of them though and, if truth be told, I'll see who the guest is before deciding whether to tune in. The topics under discussion are mainly about golf course architecture which I like. Tom Doak recently did 2 shows which were very interesting to listen to.

The reason I'm finding it hard to get engaged with it is that the host doesn't have a very naturally relaxed broadcasting style meaning it can be a bit plodding at times. Having said that, if the guests are good they carry it through. I think it's improving so I will stick with it for a while.

iSeekGolf Podcast

iseekgolf podcast

This is one of the latest podcasts to arrive on the scene and has real potential. iSeekGolf.com is Australia's largest golf website so this pod does have a slight Antipodean bias. The main host is Rod Morri from State of the Game and he is simply excellent. He has such a natural warm style - keeping the pace going well with just the right level of probing and tenacity in his questions. At the same time it feels like you are just eavesdropping on a chat between some well informed friends.

It will be tough to have the same level of discussion as he presides over with Shackleford, Clayton et al but the initial signs are really good. On last week's show Morri indicated that they might be looking to bring State of the Game into the iSeekGolf fold, to much excitement in the world of golf blogs. I fully expect this to be right at the top of the list next year.

The First Cut with Kyle Porter

OK, it is far too early to opine on this as it's only 2 weeks in - but so far so good! Porter is one of the new generation of young thrusting golf bloggers who don't care about convention and laugh in the face of rule 15.3. They all pop up on each other's podcasts and have 'hot takes' left, right and centre. Porter is definitely one of the best. He is also a very good writer for CBS.com - his article about playing Augusta this year will give you chills.

GlobalGolfPost

Firstly, the good things about these guys. They are pretty reliable. We have a podcast most weeks and the subject matter is pretty good. But the problem is that they are not great broadcasters yet. Sean and Cassie just don't set the world on fire with their style and I don't think that they give enough to engage with them. It feels a bit staid and plodding which is a shame - too often I feel they are reading something out rather than having a natural conversation. If they lose the scripts and relax a bit and I suspect they will get a lot better.

THE DEARLY DEPARTED

ByTheMin Golf

Farewell Lawrence and Huggy. I can only assume that these two have gone off in a different direction given there we haven't had a show since February but anyone thinking of starting a golf podcast should listen to these guys for the gold standard. Relaxed, informed, provocative. What more could you ask for?

Is this the best value golf trip ever?!

highland golf dornoch

Golf can be an expensive business. In Europe almost every course is accessible, but at a price. To play the new Turnberry on a weekend this summer will set you back the eye-watering sum of £350. For one round of golf! This makes it the most expensive green fee in Europe - President Trump must be so proud.

However, if you look around, sometimes you can find something pretty special. And here's an offer: You can play three truly exceptional courses - Royal Dornoch, Castle Stuart and Nairn with 2 nights' accommodation for £365 per person. Yes, that's right. For pretty much the same cost as one round at Turnberry, you can play these three quality tracks and have a bed to lay your head in.

rain dornoch

First things first, of course there is a catch. This offer is available only in April, October and November. However, that needn't be an issue. April is the driest month of the year in these parts and the course is coming out of hibernation, with hardly any chance of a ground frost. And while October and November are wetter months you can still get some lovely days. Frankly, this part of the world is capable of surprising you with the weather (either way!) at any time of the year.

The Golf

The quality of these three courses is pretty impressive. Royal Dornoch has recently been heralded as the 5th best course in the world by Golf Digest Magazine and in my ultimate poll of polls ranking, I have it as number 7. This is better than Muirfield, better than Portrush, in fact only St Andrews ranks higher in mainland UK!

Dornoch is simply a delight to play - you can read my full review here. Tom Watson describes it as the most fun he has ever had playing golf. I genuinely believe that if this course was situated in a more accessible place then it would be second only to St Andrews as the most frequent host of The Open. It is simply immense. It will test every shot in your bag but, as Watson says, you will have great fun.

Nairn may be the least heralded of the three courses but you will enjoy your round here without a doubt. It is famed for its incredibly conditioned greens and the course has been worthy of hosting a Walker Cup where the likes of Donald and Casey have teed it up. This is one of those courses which you wouldn't fly to the region just to play it but when it is there in front of you it would be a shame to miss.

castle stuart golf

And so to Castle Stuart. This is a fantasy golf course. I played it twice - in appalling weather - and fell in love with it. I have ranked it higher than Pebble Beach, Winged Foot and Kingsbarns. It leaves the likes of Royal Lytham and Carnoustie behind by a country mile. It is officially ranked 65th in the world but I have it in my top 10 for sure.

The course has been designed to be accessible to all. Fairways are generous and it's hard to lose too many balls. The lines you take from the tee are key to scoring well - this is a course that rewards the brave, but doesn't overly punish the weak.

The course has a tremendously natural feel to it and it's impossible to play without a smile on your face. If I could only play one course for the rest of my life, Castle Stuart would be a very strong candidate.

The Deal

So, for £365 you get to play all three courses, in April, October or November, and have 2 nights' accommodation at Culloden House, the Royal Golf Hotel Dornoch, the Kingsmills Hotel or at Castle Stuart Golf on-site Lodgings. You can get all the details here.

Let me put that into perspective. If you were looking to book the same trip for the first week of May then the golf alone would cost you £475 and 2 nights at Culloden House would be £270 a person making a total of £745.  Therefore this deal gives you a better than half price deal on some of the very best links courses you will find anywhere in the world.

The Area

Ok, you will be in and out in 3 days and probably won't have that much time to take in the local sights but both Inverness and Dornoch are great places to stay.  Inverness has quite a few good restaurants and the pubs and nightclubs will keep you occupied if that's your thing. Johnnie Foxes rarely disappoints! If you are looking for something a little less hectic then definitely consider staying in Dornoch, it's not a big place but has golf in its blood and you will get a really true Scottish experience if you spend a couple of nights in the local pubs.

Getting there

If you are in Scotland anyway then Inverness is a 3 hour drive from Edinburgh or a couple of hours from Aberdeen. However, if you are London-based it is probably even more accessible. Skyscanner tells me there are 38 flights a week now from London - with Easyjet or BA - and it is only an hour and a half away. Average ticket prices are under £50 each way. Castle Stuart and Nairn are both within 15 minutes drive of the airport so you can be teeing off just a couple of hours after leaving the south, truly in a different world!

I spend a lot of time looking for different opportunities to play some of the best golf courses in the world and too often they are hard to get on and ridiculously expensive. It's fantastic to see these three great courses getting together and making play so accessible. My advice would be to get booking now before they change their mind!

 

Saturday at Augusta Diary

FullSizeRender.jpg

I won't try to do a recap on yesterday's golf. Suffice to say that it was a great day to be at Augusta National. But here are some observations you may not get from the TV or online. Probably for good reason!

Half price tickets (kind of) 

Tickets for the Masters are notoriously hard to get. For hard, read expensive. These days Stubhub has revolutionised how you can get tickets for the Masters if you haven't had badges passed down through the family for generations. They even have a collection point just outside the exclusion zone for touts. 

The price of a ticket for the Saturday round gradually increased from around $1,500 to over $2,000 when it looked like Tiger might be teeing it up. At the beginning of this week it seemed that $1,800 was the likely price. 

But then, I woke up yesterday morning to see they had dropped close to $1.000. Apparently that is quite common on the ticket exchanges, especially when middle aged fans are involved as they like to be nice and organised!

There is a gentleman called Jonny D who has been selling tickets from the same spot on Washington Road for 16 years, by coincidence right outside my window at the ironically named Augusta Best Inn.  He had some very good anti-sell on Stubhub (you have to return the badges and there are long queues, they're killing the honest tout trying to ply his trade) which was compelling. And he undercut them a bit too.

Even writing this now, on the morning of one of the most stacked leaderboards for years, tickets are almost half the price for the last round now than they were a week ago. 

Anyway, the purpose of all that was to give some pointers if you ever find yourself trying to get a ticket - my advice is that unless Tiger is involved hold the nerve! 

 An underage drinkers' dream!

I feel slightly insulted that I haven't been asked to show ID in a bar once on this trip. Maybe at the age of 43 I finally have to accept those days are gone. However, it turns out the Masters is the place to come if you are looking for a little underage drinking. The legal age to drink in the state of Georgia is 21 but there were exclamations of joy from those younger being served without the usual request to show some ID, maybe the whole property has its own law or something! 

.....but there's a curfew

After about 4 o'clock people kept spotting my watch and asking if I had the time. After the third time this happened I asked whether there was something going on I needed to be aware of. Maybe a Nicklaus/Player wrestle-off or something. But no, alcohol sales ended at 5. There was a manic look in some patrons' eyes.

I noticed yesterday that the fans were more alcohol-fuelled than last time I was here. In the stands behind the 12th tee a fair number were pretty cut when the curfew came down and the golf did seem like a bit of a distraction from the drinking.

Viewing is so easy

Viewing at Augusta is a real pleasure. The stands that are strategically located over the course are very rarely full and people are constantly going up and down which makes it easy to get in. The stands at 11/12, 13 and 15 had seats available with only a short wait all afternoon from what I could see.

Mickelson and Spieth took a lot of the gallery with them. I picked up the Garcia/Hoffman match from the 11th and saw every shot, often from really close up, from just strolling along the side of the fairway. There was a Spanish/European contingent walking with them and the atmosphere was great.

They definitely don't oversell this event, no Ryder Cup here, and the experience is chalk and cheese with The Open. The amphitheatres they have carefully molded into the grounds definitely makes a difference.

Xenophobia is alive and well in Augusta

The TV broadcast won't show it but there is a definite US bias in the crowd, in a way you just don't get at The Open the other way. No-one was abusive about Mickelson when he won at Muirfield but there seems to be a real 'them and us' mentality by some of the more vocal fans here.

Maybe, it's because of the Ryder Cup problems they've had over recent years but it was really obvious out there. And some of the comments I heard towards Sergio were quite something. More often than not the insults were prefaced by 'The Spanish....' (insert insult as desired).

The alcohol didn't help as it was definitely worse at the end of the round but the shouts of 'get in the water' when he teed off on 16 were only aimed at him from what I saw. The European contingent clearly felt nothing but sympathy though when his playing partner Hoffman was the one to find the pond.

Isolation has its pros and cons 

The no cellphone policy at Augusta is very strictly enforced - there's airport style security and you would lose your tickets for life if found with one. His is great in many ways. There's no texting your mates to say you just had a chat with Mark O'Meara's wife (what a lovely lady) or you are wearing your favourite golf top today so look out on the telly. No, you just take it all in with your eyes and take away the most amazing memories.

The only thing is, that means you don't really know the half of what is happening out there. There are scoreboards everywhere and they are updated really quickly. However, they only show the top 10 scores and the scores of those playing the hole you're watching.

So yesterday when we decided to wave goodbye to Westwood after an early bogey we didn't give him two thoughts for the rest of the afternoon. Had we know he was on the charge on the back 9 we'd have picked him up somewhere but we were in blissful ignorance as he didn't break the top 10.

It can't be beyond the wit of the organisers to arrange something which means fans have a better idea of what is happening without ruining the integrity of the event. Maybe give everyone a little radio as they come in with only one channel. Hell, I'd even put up with an afternoon of Monty chatting in my ear for that.

It's just Disneyland for golfers

The place really is amazing though and unless you see it it's hard to appreciate just how perfect it is. There are no rough edges anywhere. From the minute you turn off Washington Avenue you enter into an oasis. Even the parking lots have a Disney feel to them.

Everything about the place just looks and feels perfect. Ground which has been walked across all week is still green, the rest rooms wouldn't feel out of place in a top hotel, you never queue for more than a few minutes - even in the mecca that is the merchandise shop.

And yet for all that, it is the course that is the real star. Every hole asks questions, and sometimes the answers are terrifying. You can sometimes see it in the players' eyes. 

I really hope that Sergio does it this afternoon but Spieth was quite something again yesterday. He was teeing off some time after 2 but at 10 o'clock he was on the putting green by the 1st tee. I watched him for 20 minutes and he barely issued a putt. He was focussed but also had a visible spring in his step, looking around all the time and bouncing on his feet.

He'll be a hard man to beat but it should be a fairly compelling afternoon's watching.

 

How Tiger, and the weather, still move the needle on Masters Tickets

Ticket prices may be high but the food is still cheap!

Ticket prices may be high but the food is still cheap!

Visiting Augusta to watch the Masters is always said to be one of the hardest tickets in sport. This year though, it's getting cheaper every hour to walk the hallowed fairways of Augusta.

Tickets to the event are sold out, and have largely been for decades. If you are one of the lucky few to have a 'patron's badge' then you renew it every year for a couple of hundred bucks but you can hawk them for much more on the secondary market for sales which thrives.

As long as you are not within 2,700 feet of the entrance to Augusta National you can sell your entry ticket for whatever you can get for it. There are active markets on the likes of Stubhub and the price of tickets (sorry badges) for fans (sorry patrons) is almost like a school project in the perfect market of supply and demand.

So, this year I have been watching the price of tickets on Stubhub.  You can pick the badges up from their bespoke office just outside the exclusion zone and if there are any problems you will be fully recompensed and given another badge to get in. What's not to like (apart from the price).

The price of tickets on the Stubhub market had been building gradually but surely over the last couple of weeks.  In the middle of last week Tiger was said to be doing everything he could to make it for the first tee and the prices of tickets kept going up.  Last Friday morning a ticket for entrance on Thursday would set you back $2,200 before taxes which add another 20% on.  And then Tiger told the world to forget it, and a bunch of Augusta residents' hearts sank.

Within hours the value of a ticket for Thursday had shrunk to $1,700 and they have only gone one way since.  By Tuesday afternoon you could pick a Thursday ticket up on Stubhub for a mere $1,300.  OK, it is still a ridiculous amount of money but if you are looking for evidence on how much Tiger moves the needle, look no further.

If your heart is bleeding for those trying to hawk their Thursday tickets then spare a thought for the Wednesday guys. Bizarrely, the Wednesday tickets were going for almost the same amount as any of the actual tournament days on Stubhub.  And then the weather forecast came. The weather tomorrow looks hideous, if the par 3 does take place it will be against all odds.  

On Friday morning, before Tiger broke the ticket-owners hearts, Wednesday tickets were up to $1,500 a pop.  At time of writing, just after lunch Augusta time on Tuesday you can pick them up for $360 each.  

Just remember, there's no money back if it's abandoned.......

I'll post later in the week on what happens to ticket prices right up to the day of play and how they compare on the exchanges to the hawkers on Washington Road.  As you may have guessed, I'm looking for a Single on Sunday!

If you are thinking of going to August to watch the Masters one year then read my top ten tips here.

Top 10 tips for a visit to Augusta

I was lucky enough to spend a glorious week in April a The Masters a couple of years ago and it was a truly tremendous experience.  I've been to Opens, Ryder Cups, the US Open and many national tournaments but, as you would probably imagine, Augusta National was something quite different. So, if you are lucky enough to be planning a trip here are a few tips which may help you get the most out of it -

 

1. Consider staying in Augusta - it's cheaper than you think.  

A lot of the tours from the UK will have you staying in places like or .  These are up to a couple of hours out of Augusta and as such the days will be very long and the time you can spend on the course will be partly influenced by your organiser's transport schedules.

 

We rented a house within 20 minutes walk of the first tee.  It was a fantastic feeling to wake up knowing that you are a mere stroll from going to watch the Masters.

 

The Friday evening was the most magical experience. Rory Mcilroy was one of the very last out and battling to make the cut.  The course really emptied for the last hour or so and my friend and I walked around with just a handful of people - including Rory's Dad and tennis playing girlfriend at the time.    They were more than happy to chat away as the sun set and had we been scrabbling to get out of the car park or onto a bus we would have missed out. 

 

Hotels are famously expensive but check out Airbnb or the official rental service for some options.

 

2. If you go on a practice day don't forget your camera.  

 

Cameras are forbidden on every day of the tournament - this is the only event that holds out against them. However, on a practice day you are allowed to snap away to your heart's desire and the pictures sure make a nice screensaver! 

 

3. Don't just stay in our place - walk the course.

 

One of the great things about the Masters is that the course is far from busy at any time.  They don't say how many patrons/punters are on the course at any one time but at no time did we ever feel we couldn't see the action.  Indeed at times it was slightly surreal just how close you can get to the action.

 

The other fantastic thing which you don't really appreciate on the TV is that only the players, caddies and a scorer are allowed inside the ropes at any time - that means that you don't run the risk of having James Nesbitt or any similar hanger-on blocking your view.

 

There are stands/bleachers on several holes on the course and again these are really accessible.  I have spent days at the Open behind a stand hearing the cheers going up trying to work out what is going on.  No such concern here, we wandered down to the stand behind the 12th tee, overlooking the 11th green, with a couple of groups to come through on the Sunday with no problem before nipping over to the stand behind the 13th.

 

Also, there are fantastic vantage points all over the course.  You have probably heard the course is more hilly than it is on TV (!) and that really lends itself to many great spots to watch a few groups coming through.

 

4. Get the most from the green seats

 

This takes a bit of getting used to.  Most patrons will have a green seat clutched in their hand as they enter the gates, if you don't have one you can buy one inside.  It's best to put an identifier on your seat (there is a little place at the back for a business card, how quaint!). Anyway, you basically go and put your seat down anywhere you want on the course (we did manage to get by the 18th green on Sunday but it was an early start....) and then feel free to either sit in it or just leave it until you want to use it.  It will be there, unmoved, and waiting for you to claim it.

 

When you get back to your seat you may well find someone else sitting in it.  That's the done thing, you just politely let them know that's your seat and they will move on with a smile and find the next empty seat.  This is very powerful information because it obviously works both ways.  When you are out on the course and you fancy a sit down just sit in a green seat.  

 

As I say, it does take a bit of getting used to but when you get in the habit it's great!  

 

5. Keep you eyes open and chat away

 

Without a doubt Augusta has a very interesting bunch of spectators and as such you can have some great conversations.  On the very first day we were there, before even going out to the course we were getting some breakfast and struck up conversation with the couple next to me.  I explained that it was my first time and the gentleman explained he had been coming for over 50 years and his father, Claude Harmon, had won it back in

 

If you're following Lee Westwood the odds are Ant, Dec and Alan Shearer will be nearby and more than happy to have a chat.  Well Ant and Dec were, Shearer was a bit miserable. 

 

If you are a golf dweeb then there are plenty of golf journalists to spot out there and most were really happy to discuss what was going on or indeed anything else.  Alan Shipnuck was particularly animated about his trip to the Scottish Links.

 

The members stand out because of their green jackets, which they wear regardless of the temperature and are more than happy to tell you some anecdotes about the course, although no invitation was forthcoming to join them for a round which was weird.

 

6. Enjoy the food and hang on to your beer cup.

 

You will have read about how cheap the food is on the course.  This is true, although when you are there for 5 days it is safe to say it becomes a little bit samey! We got through a few beers over the course of the week but on the last day we collected a fair few of the hard plastics cups they were served in - I think I came home for a dozen.  They are quite substantial cups and three years later are still pressed into daily service in my household.  Nice and  showy for summer barbecues too....

 

7. Check your shopping into the 'pick up' queue

 

The merchandise tent is everything you have heard it is and more.  The selection of goods is phenomenal and the quality is excellent.  It is impossible not to get the credit cards out and spend more than you had intended.  However, do not make the mistake of then having to carry a plastic bag around for the entire round, you will grow to hate it. You can instead leave it at a shopping check-in queue and pick it up at the end of the day, the queues weren't toohorrible 

 

8. Enjoy being out of contact for the day

 

9. Book restaurants in advance

 

10. Get to Palmetto

The Trials of a Walking Golfer

Walking golf course versus carts

‘We’re not going to wait for you, you’re just going to slow us down’. As welcomes onto a first tee go, it was a rather unusual one. A friend and I were playing at the wonderful Yas Links in Abu Dhabi earlier this year and we had elected to walk rather than take a buggy.  After all, it did seem a shame to play one of the most spectacular golf courses built in the last 20 years and not get as much enjoyment from the experience as we could.  However, the rather aggressive Irish gentleman who we were to spend the next 5 hours with didn’t quite see it that way.

He was labouring under the mistaken view that golf is faster if you play in a buggy than walk it. Now, I probably play golf a little too fast.  Sometimes I need to think a little bit longer before I pull the trigger or take a practice swing over those 2 foot putts. But, I do move at pace. Of a summer’s night at my home course I will get around 9 holes in under an hour, sometimes playing two balls. My Dad (who is now in his eighth decade) and I played 18 at North Berwick a few weeks ago in 2 hours 15 minutes and both shot our handicaps.  All of this popped into my mind as that welcome was made on that tee box at Yas Links.

However, I simply let him know that I didn’t think we would be holding him up and that, if we did, of course he should move on. I was confident of the assertion partly because I could see there were already two groups ahead of us on the short 1st hole, so we were in for the long haul, and secondly, I had seen his partner’s practice swing.

In fairness to the guy, after 2 holes where we had waited on every shot, he did have the good grace to admit he had been wrong on the first tee and he was thinking about getting rid of the buggy himself.

I have an inherent prejudice in favour of walking in almost every case.  For me, golf is not about speeding up to the ball in a cart and hitting it.  It is about appreciating the environment you are in, feeling the turf under your feet as you walk around.  It’s also about the social interaction.  If you are in a buggy all day you don’t get the chance to have a proper chat with your playing partners or build the tension as a match gets tight.

I can think of only a handful of courses where I would choose to take a buggy rather than walk if I played again. Several talk about the long walk from green to tee but this is rarely a real barrier.  Two do come to mind, and they are both Jack Nicklaus creations. The abomination that is the PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles is best totally ignored if you are in the area, but if you do have the misfortune to endure it, then take a buggy. There is no flow whatsoever to the course and you need to take a buggy to give yourself any possible chance of pleasure such is the distance covered by the course. The other one I would call out is Monte Rei in Portugal.  Another Nicklaus layout, the course itself is much better than the PGA but the walks to those elevated tees, towering down over a left to right hole, really do take it out of you.

A lot of golf courses do encourage you to take a cart but it is rare to find those who actually demand it. I have fond memories of my friend Rich remonstrating with the lady in the pro shop at Terreblanche explaining that it was his human right to be able to walk the course.  I have no idea at all why they insist on it as the course is eminently walkable, it just displays an ignorance of what golf really is. There are other courses, like Finca Cortesin in southern Spain where it makes sense to take a cart given the nature of the terrain, and they may look at you like you are a little mad for walking, but will let you get on with it.

There are times when I will take a cart.  In the middle of a big golf trip where there has been a little over-indulgence, I will gladly take the wheel, or when it is just so hot there is a risk to survival.  However, on those occasions it just reinforces what a false economy it sometimes is.

The worst situation is when you have no choice but to stick to the cart paths.  This then leads to the sight of me trudging 70 yards across a fairway with half a dozen different clubs in my hand, before the long walk back to find the cart is parked 50 yards behind.

Like many, I have succumbed to the joys of a pedometer on my watch and recently measured the number of steps I took walking a 6,500 yard course.  The tees were fairly close to the greens and I came in at 11,000 steps.  I was forced to take a cart at Saadiyat Beach Golf Course earlier this year and, over the course of the 4 hours and 30 minutes, I walked 7,500 steps - not really that much of a saving over a walking golfer but a lot more faff.

I also genuinely think that walking a course helps your game.  You have time to contemplate what is to come, get a feel for the conditions around you, feel the green under your feet as you walk to put your bag down.  All of these nuances add up and if you are physically able to do it, I really think it will help your scoring.

Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not some kind of cart fascist and for those who really enjoy taking one, or who couldn’t get out any other way that’s fine.  But I do feel a little sorry for those who have only ever played the game in a cart – and such people do exist.  They are missing out of one of the real pleasures in life -  teeing it up first thing in the morning, striping it down the middle, swinging your bag over your shoulder and marching off with a heart full of hope!

Playing with a Caddy - a survival guide

The caddy at NGLA went by the name of Threewood - he was one of the best!

The caddy at NGLA went by the name of Threewood - he was one of the best!

Maybe it was an early experience of playing with a caddy that scarred me for life. We were on the 9th hole at the Red Course in Rabat. I was standing over a 2 foot putt to scrape a Stableford point, which I ever so slightly pulled to the left - I don't think I was too sensitive to be annoyed at the howls of laughter which emanated from my caddy and his partners in crime. I use those words carefully as it was walking down the 10th fairway that I noticed they were all sucking on one of the cola flavoured Chuppa Chups which had been lurking at the bottom of my bag. It was not a happy finish to the round.

That was a particularly bad experience but it has taken me quite a long time to get used to playing with caddies in tow. You see the thing is, I'm not really a great golfer and it has been known, from time to time, for me to get a little tense on the golf course. If there is a gathering on a first tee then the nerves jangle just a little more and the idea of another 4 people witnessing every shot of my round initially filled me with dread.

Of course, I have now realised that caddies see all kinds of horrors on the course every day and my 14 handicap is probably one of the better experiences they are likely to have. Oh, and I play fast which is vitally important to them - allowing them to get back to the clubhouse and get another loop in or get off to enjoy the rest of the day.

There have been some other lowlights. At Sandy Lane in Barbados it is mandatory to take a caddy.  That's not the end of the world and not unusual at all on the other side of the pond. The only thing is, it's mandatory to take a buggy as well.  The caddy's role was to stand on the back of the buggy as we drove around so he could rake bunkers and give advice - at $100 a pop! My playing partner had to take him to one side on the 4th and advise him to quit the comments before he was ejected from his perch.

There have been some highlights too. I remember playing at the Wild Coast in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, many, many years ago. Our group all had female caddies and I put my drive into a lake on an early hole. My caddy simply stripped off her dress and jumped into the water and came out with the cry of 'Titleist 3?'.  I was only 17 at the time but I can see it as clear as if it were yesterday...

Probably the most unusual pace I have played golf was at the Celebrity Golf Club in the remote town of Tema in Ghana. The course was made up largely of 'browns' rather than greens - a mixture of oil and sand - and the course wasn't exactly overplayed. It was really basic, but the people we met there were incredibly helpful, at times to the point of influencing the game. There were 2 of us playing and whenever we got to our balls, wherever we had hit them, they were in a perfect lie, with a wonderful line to the green. Our fore caddy really worked hard for his tip that day.

The American caddy experience takes a little getting used to as it is the norm for them to carry two bags at the same time. The first time I came across it was playing the Blue Monster at Doral.  Now, I had problems with that place for more reasons than just this, but safe to say our caddy struggled somewhat that day as I was hooking it and my partner was slicing it. Taking a caddy on that occasion definitely added a good half hour to the round. Yet, we later discovered it is the norm. Most top-end, private clubs in the US insist on you taking a caddy who carries 2 bags - only at Sage Valley have we seen a single bag carrier.

One of our caddies at Shinnecock had looped for Clinton (Bill), Woods and Nicklaus!

One of our caddies at Shinnecock had looped for Clinton (Bill), Woods and Nicklaus!

Here are some tips if you do end up with a companion for a 4 hour stroll -

1.  Lighten the bag before you get there.  Even before the handshakes take place they will be in your bags, looking at what they can take out to make the bag lighter.  I had assumed they would all be delighted when they saw my Mackenzie golf bag but the lack of a stand sometimes raises a comment early on.

2. Remember their names. I know this might sound obvious but I have been caught out several times. You will find yourself conversing not just with your caddy but the others as well as you go around and names can be useful for that!

3. Don't worry, they've seen it all before. One of the best caddies I ever had was at Queenwood. The caddy standard there is pretty darn high - mine was an ex-tour caddy for Ryder Cup players - but he made me feel at ease immediately by saying today was about me, not him, and he had seen all kinds of horrors on the golf course, there was nothing I could do to beat them!

4. Find out what the expected tip is from the caddy master. Most caddies are self employed and the course acts as an introducer. Check in advance what the charge is - there is often a fixed fee and a recommended tip,. Ignore it at your peril and over-tip if you had a good experience. It's good karma!

5. Let them know what you're looking for. Some caddies will try and do everything - give lessons, pull clubs, plot you round the course, read every putt. Others will just carry your bag. Try to find what works best for you and then lead them that way. For me, the lesson thing is an absolute no-no and I don't really want them telling me which shots to play as they don't know my game as well as I do. Making that clear early on - in the nicest possible way - helps set some ground rules!

6. They know the course - use that to your advantage. This really is when I get the most out of a caddy. They will not just give yardages but also give advice on different ways to play the hole, things to watch out for, lines to go for - that can really be invaluable. I wish I had taken one at Royal County Down when I played it, it could only have helped!

7.  If they can read the greens then follow them to the death, if not - stop asking! To me, this is when a caddy can really make your round. Many of them will have seen each green thousands of times, they will know every break and every slope - use this to your advantage. If however, you get a couple of bum reads early on then stop asking.  If you keep getting the reads but ignoring it, it can lead to a little atmosphere - just tell the caddy that you've 'got them 'from now on. I would even consider asking the caddy master before a round to get me one who is the best at green reading and get him or her - it can be that important. 

8.  Just be yourself. Unless you are a real douche-bag of course, in which case try to be someone else. Generally though I try not to play or act any different because there is a caddy carrying my bag.  I'll chat to them a bit - but not to the exclusion of my playing partners.

9.  Get some stories.  This one requires a little judgement.  Sometimes you can get a caddy who wants to make the round all about him.  I had one of these once at the Renaissance in East Lothian.  The guy was an ex European Tour caddy who had verbal diarrhoea.  He just wanted to get his anecdotes out and have a bit of 'banter' with us.  I abhor the use of the word 'banter' but this guy personified it.  It was awful.  But, if you get it right, you can hit gold-dust. Threewood at NGLA was one of those.  He had caddied for Matt Fitzpatrick there in the Walker Cup, was Michael Bloomberg's looper of choice and knew the course incredibly well.  He was by no means garrulous but had some great snippets and I could happily have him carry my bag for every round I ever play.

10. Under no circumstances, whatever happens, be 'that guy'. I've only seen this happen once.  I was playing at Kingsbarns and a French guy playing with us wanted a caddy. Now the caddies at Kingsbarns have pretty much seen it all and are some of the best around. The Frenchman started well - he was a low single figure golfer and had some good game. All was well for 9 holes but on the back nine his swing lost him. The thing is, for some unknown reason, he decided that the caddy could bear the brunt of this. The throwing of clubs for the caddy to pick up, the muttered oaths, it was all pretty awful. In the end I think he realised he had gone too far and gave a more than generous tip but there is no doubt that that evening in the bar the Frenchman would have been the topic of some conversations. So try not to be that guy, even if they do steal your Chuppa Chups.

NEW Ultimate Top 100 Golf Course Rankings – two new entrants in the top 20!

The stunning Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia

The stunning Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia

Golf Course rankings can be quite divisive things.  There are some pretty awful ones out there (c.r. the latest Golf Digest effort) as well as some slightly eccentric ones (Planet Golf has Augusta at number 14 which raises a few eyebrows).

However, in at attempt to come up with a definitive list of the top golf courses in the world (some people would genuinely abhor the idea but what the hell, others will quite like it) I have aggregated the most comprehensive lists I could find into a ‘poll of polls’.   Recent updates from Golf Digest and Planet Golf have led to two stunning looking new entries in the top 20 and a few shifts at the top.

Cape Wickham, off the Australian cost, enters in 16th place and Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia at number 17.  Cape Wickham is the creation of Darius Oliver, while Cabot Cliffs is a Coore and Crenshaw design. These courses have only been rated in 2 of the publications (one of them Oliver's own!) so I have tweaked the methodology a little to accommodate them but everything I read says their high rankings will be justified.  What’s also great is that unlike so many of the new top courses these are accessible to all, at very reasonable prices.  The only problem is working out how to get there……….

Actually, while for those of us in Europe Cape Wickham may be something of a forlorn hope I am vaguely thinking that Cabot is doable.  It is almost as handy for those of us in Europe as it is for those on the West coast of the US in fact.  There are flights to Halifax daily from the UK (including from Glasgow).  The flight only takes 6 hours there and 5 back and the time difference to the UK is only 4 hours so jetlag shouldn’t be too bad.  When you get there it’s another 3 hours by road to Cabot so it makes for a long day, but I suspect the reward when you get there is worth it.  There are two courses at Cabot. The Links is ranked at number 92 as well so it would definitely be a trip which guarantees some high class golf!  I’m considering it for a weekend trip in 2017 so will let you know how it goes.

Cape Wickham looks pretty good too!

Cape Wickham looks pretty good too!

Looking to the future, there are some other courses on the horizon which may well get on the list before too long.  Coore and Crenshaw are doing their thing again at Sand Valley, Wisconsin, which opens up in 2017.  The initial pictures look great and there are some cracking reviews in. The Australian architect behind Ellerston (ranked 70)  is building something spectacular at Ardfin in the remote Scottish Island of Jura.  Now, it’s not clear at this stage what the model is going to be in terms of being able to play Ardfin but golf course architecture buffs are salivating at the pictures coming out from it.

Elsewhere, there has been a bit of distinction at the top.  Shinnecock and Augusta were tied in the last rankings at joint 4th but Shinnecock has pulled ahead just a little. I managed to play it a few weeks ago so will be reporting back on the site before too long.

For every new entry, there has to be a drop out and the European and Mid Ocean Club both fell out of the list this time.  That leaves Quaker Ridge and Kauri Cliffs on the bubble in 99th and 100th place;  with the quality of new golf courses being knocked out these days expect more changes soon!

If you want to have a look at the full list then you’ll find it here and it will be interesting to see how it evolves in the months and years ahead!

Ryder Cup Course Rankings - A Feast of Mediocrity

Muirfield is the highest ranked ever host of the Ryder Cup

Muirfield is the highest ranked ever host of the Ryder Cup

It is a long established maxim that it really doesn't matter which course the Ryder Cup is held on as we aren't there to enjoy a good course - it's all about the drama created by the players. Indeed, the European Tour took this to the extreme by taking the event to a farmer's field in the Belfry in 1985.

However, it is quite noticeable just how poor the course line-up has been over the years. Using my 'Ultimate top 100 list' (the definitive poll of polls of the top courses) no top 10 course has ever been used, with only Muirfield in the Top 20.  The US has a bunch of courses which rank in the 40s - 60s but Europe has pretty much given up now on hosting the event on a great course (read my review of the 2014 Gleneagles track to get an idea of what to expect there!). 

Lytham St Annes has hosted the Ryder Cup twice

Lytham St Annes has hosted the Ryder Cup twice

Host courses by world ranking -

13     Muirfield (1973)
22    Pinehurst No 2 (1951)
36    Royal Birkdale (1965, 1969)
44    Muirfield Village (1987)
45    The Country Club - Brookline (1999)
46    Kiawah Island (1991)
54    Oakland Hills (2004)
65    Royal Lytham St Annes (1961, 1977)
67    Oak Hill (1995)
81     Valderrama (1997)
84    Walton Heath (1981)
 

It would be fair to say that the future doesn't look much brighter for architecture lovers.  The French edition is going to the Golf National in 2018 which has some nice amphitheatres for fans to get a good view but some fairly average holes in there too.  The US are using Whistling Straits and Bethpage in 2020 and 2024 respectively which will definitely be a notch up on the yet to be renovated Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome.  Yes, that one.

The National Golf Links of America is a perfect Walker Cup venue

The National Golf Links of America is a perfect Walker Cup venue

In contrast the Walker Cup has absolutely knocked it out of the park when it comes to the quality of courses. There is no strong commercial element to the event and crowds are obviously just a fraction of the Ryder Cup but boy, they have really taken this event to some amazing tracks, and continue to do so. Have a look at this -

1      Cypress Point (1981)
2     Pine Valley (1936, 1985)
3     Royal County Down (2007)
4     The Old Course (1923, 1926, 1934, 1938, 1947, 1955, 1971, 1975)
5     Shinnecock Hills (1977)
9     National Golf Links of America (1922, 2013)
13    Muirfield (1959, 1979)
14    Merion (2009)
18    Turnberry - Ailsa (1963)
21    Winged Foot (1949)
22   Sunningdale (1987)
24   Royal St Georges (1930, 1969)
27   Chicago (1928, 2005)
43   Portmarnock (1991)
45   The Country Club - Brookline (1932, 1973)
55   Royal Aberdeen (2011)
65   Royal Lytham St Annes (2015)
66   Royal Porthcawl (1995)
77   Garden City (1924)
88   Royal Liverpool (1983)
93   Quaker Ridge (1997)

The next three venues are Los Angeles (41), Royal Liverpool (88) and Seminole (26).  If I could have a free hand at selecting the next four venues for the Walker Cup then how about Royal Dornoch and Swinley Forest for the UK and Ireland and Sand Hills and Friar's Head for the US?

When it comes to quality of courses I think we can safely say The Walker Cup wins by a clear margin but with money talking the way it does, don't expect any changes to the Ryder Cup selection criteria soon! 

Medinah vs Gleneagles - A Spectator's Experience

I've been lucky enough to go to some of the great golf events over the years.  I pretty much made the trip to the Open every year as a teenager and many times since, I have done all four days at Augusta, I once found myself in Pebble Beach while a US Open was on by chance.  But until recently I had never been to the Ryder Cup.

Well, that changed in style.  Four years ago I travelled with a friend for 4 wonderful days in Chicago for the Miracle of Medinah and then last time went closer to home for the Glory of Gleneagles (or whatever we called it).  I'm incredibly jealous of those European fans heading to Minnesota this week for the Happiness/Horror of Hazeltine. - they're in for a treat.

In case you don't want to read on I'll nail my colours firmly to the mast now.  As a spectator on the course Medinah was phenomenal, Gleneagles was just fine.  Now of course the drama on the last day helped, but Medinah crackled for all 3 days.  Gleneagles, well it happened, and Europe won - but it just didn't give the memories of Medinah and I think the European Tour have a part to play in that.

THE VIEWING EXPERIENCE

I cheated and was in a hospitality tent for this shot!

I cheated and was in a hospitality tent for this shot!

I am far from alone in not being a lover of the PGA Centenary Course.  But before Gleneagles I had been swayed by the argument that the course doesn't matter in the Ryder Cup, it's all about the matches. The only problem was that as a spectator it was virtually impossible to follow a match around.  The routing didn't easily flow from hole to hole, the walks between them were impractical and you simply couldn't see every shot.  Nicklaus has created a pretty rotten golf course on a great piece of land.  There is not bobbing between holes possible where you can keep an eye on a few matches at a time.  Just forget it.

Medinah on the other hand was a joy.  You could walk the course easily and there were many great spots where you could see couple of holes and a tee shot and be able to follow the ebb and flow of a few games.  Sure, it didn't have the 'amphitheatres' of Gleneagles but you could buy a periscope from Phil Mickelson's dad in the exhibition tent (I kid you not) and see everything.

There was a great spot at Medinah,  just behind the par 4 16th green.  After the players had putted out you could nip  to the par 3 17th tee and watch them tee off before going back to the 16th to watch the next group come through and then watching the action from the 17th green.  From there I watched Poulter's comeback on Saturday as well as Donald and Garcia take down of Woods and Stricker as well as 'that' Justin Rose putt on Sunday. 

THE FANS

Ryder Cup Medinah First Tee

Chicago isn't really a golfing Mecca.  Sure, there are some great courses in the area but the fans probably aren't the most knowledgeable in the golfing world.  What they tended to do as soon as the gates opened was go to one of the big grandstands and then sit there for the session which meant there was more space for 'walkers' on the course.  While they may not have been the most knowledgeable fans they were pretty loud (although predominantly with the shout 'USA' which got a bit wearing) when things were going well for the US and amazingly quiet on the Sunday. 

There have been suggestions by some (Paul Lawrie amongst them) that the local fans may have overstepped the mark at times.  I never saw that at all - and I followed him around for a few holes on the Sunday.

There was something very very special about being a European fan on American soil, both when the pressure was on and when then the comeback came.  There may have only been a couple of thousand of us but the support was phenomenal.

There were some obvious problems in Gleneagles.  It was pretty cold, the audience was predominantly middle aged male Scots and you couldn't really follow any matches around.  That meant that even when Europe were doing great stuff it never really caught fire. 

I took my young son on the Saturday and I don't think he saw another child there the whole day.  The tickets were expensive and that created a pretty staid audience.  The US contingent of fans there had none of the exuberance of the Europeans in Medinah.  It was all just a bit flat compared to what I had seen 2 years before.

GETTING CLOSE TO THE ACTION

Watching Poulter turn the knife on 16 on Saturday

Watching Poulter turn the knife on 16 on Saturday

I think you know what is coming.  At Medinah you felt like you were walking in the steps of you heroes.  You could get close to the players and their coaches/families - often exchanging words and there was a real sense of you were part of the action.  When Poulter holed out on 16 on the Saturday I remember him turning and staring what felt right at me and letting out a massive roar.  Other members of the European team were standing next to us to one side with the Americans to the other.  I hadn't been camping out at the spot for hours, rather following around as any fan could.

One of the bad things about Gleneagles viewing was that there were a phenomenal amount of hangers on standing in front of the ticket paying audience.  There were over a hundred people inside the ropes which was an absolute farce.  The European Tour have let that get ridiculously out of hand and it needs to be stopped for Paris.  Why on earth I had to find a better spot to watch when Peter Jones from Dragon's Den and Brian from Westlife stood right in front of me I will never know!

The on course coverage was brilliant in Medinah.  You could buy a little radio and listen to the BBC 5 Live commentary while walking to the course, or flick over to the US TV audio feed.  It was quite telling that even the US fans were listening to Ian Carter et al, such was the quality of their coverage.  Again, it just added to the atmosphere on the course and let you feel part of the action.  Of course, in Gleneagles you could listen to the radio station of your choice and there were plenty of big screens keeping you informed as to what was going on at all times too.

THE AMENITIES

The toilets at Medinah were hideous and the food turgid.  Gleneagles beat both hands down!  It was expensive, for sure, but there was plenty out there.  Having said that, Gleneagles felt like you were in the middle of a giant scale corporate event that had been planned on a grand scale.  It felt overblown and too stage managed.  In Medinah you felt like you were walking around a golf course enjoying the Ryder Cup.

So, there you go.  I hope that Hazeltine offers some of the same great opportunities to fans that Medinah did and doesn't take too many leaves from Gleneagles' book.  If it does then there will be some amazing memories for fans of both sides to savour in a way you just can't get on the TV. And I hope the European Tour pause for thought about what it feels like to be a fan at the European events when they set out there future venues, although I'm not sure the money involved will let that happen

How To Play the World's Most Exclusive Golf Clubs - A Review

how to play the worlds most exclusive golf clubs

First things first, I really wanted to like 'How to Play the World's Most Exclusive Golf Clubs'.  The author, John Sabino, has the website which I have read more than ever when planning my dream golf trip.

http://top100golf.blogspot.co.uk/ is a fantastic resource for anyone trying to make an assault on the greatest golf courses on the world.  It gives you a little history, plenty of information on the courses and, more often than not, you are left with a real impression of what the place is like - sometimes you can almost smell the locker rooms through the descriptions given!

The build up to my recent trip to Morfontaine (write-up to come before the end of the year I promise!) was heightened by his description, not just of the course, but of Sabino's efforts get there.  He set himself the challenge of playing the top 100 courses in the world.  For a European reader this may not seem an impossible task but access to courses in the US and further afield is far, far harder than on these shores. According to an appendix to the book, only 30 players have ever managed the feat - and not a British player amongst them!

So, if I'm honest, it was with a little trepidation that I approached this book.  I already have a couple of self-published tomes for people trying to play lots of golf courses, which have left me a little cold. I am delighted to say though, that this book is a delight and a joy to read - one that will stay on my bookshelf for many years.

The reason is that Sabino doesn't just rehash the content on his site.  Sure, there are some anecdotes which feature on his blog (which you may only notice if you have read every entry several times like I have!).  But the great thing about this book is that Sabino doesn't major on the actual on-course experience but rather how he managed to get a game there in the first place. Yes, there is some flavour of the experience itself, but this is often additional to what you can read on his site. 

The beauty of this book is that it gives practical tips on how to play these great courses.  It is clear that the author is a wonderful networker, and many of his conquests can be put down to that. He also acknowledges that he is helped by being a banker and that he set up a blog which became one of the highest ranked in the golfing world.  These are not traits that many would find possible achieve, even if they wanted to!

It may be impossible for us mere mortals to replicate his success but he does provide many tips which anyone can use - hell he just phoned up one exclusive course and asked!!

His story is a quite amazing one. The one course which had eluded him was Augusta. What better way to end the journey than by playing 18 holes with a former Masters champion on the Sunday before the Masters, shooting the breeze with Tiger Woods and Nick Faldo on the tee.  If this was made up, it would be deemed too incredible for inclusion.

This book is not a self-published vanity job.  It is produced to a very high standard by a reputable publisher and has been well edited.  At the end of the book Sabino lists how he got on to every one of the top 100 courses in the world as well as some 'top lists'.  These are fascinating.  Which clubhouses are the best?  Which lunches?  Which caddies?  All a source of much debate but this book just fuels the fire.

The book whetted my appetite considerably and I hope I'm lucky enough to enjoy some of these great experiences over the years.  If you want to take on the challenge yourself and join this exclusive group of golfing die-hards then my ultimate list of the world's top 100 courses is here.  This book will help you have a go!

Golf Analytics - Arccos and Game Golf

I’ve always been interested in stats about my golf game.  How many fairways I’ve hit, putts I’ve taken, where the strengths and weaknesses of my game are statistically. Now, I am a very average 14 handicapper and you may well ask why such detail matters, and you may well be right, but I do get some enjoyment from knowing I can putt like a 5 handicapper and something strangely affirming to know I play like a 20 handicapper from the tee.  In recent years there have been innovations to help with this and I have eagerly jumped at the chance to learn more.

The idea that you can use GPS now to inform performance on the course is one that intrigued me from the off.  First out the blocks was Game Golf and then this was followed by Arccos.  There are others but I have tried both extensively so feel these are the ones I can comment on the best. This is not designed to be a definitive guide to the features, there are plenty of places on the web to get a blow by blow account of how to set them up.  Instead this is just a few thoughts about both and where I ended up.

gamegolf

Firstly, GameGolf.  The problem with this one is that you have to tag the end of the club against a GPS device you attach to your belt before every single shot.  After the round you hook the device up to your computer and download all the information, adding any shots you may have missed. They have tried to turn the nuisance of having to tag into a positive ‘tagging helps you get in the zone’ type stuff but in reality it doesn’t.  It just plays in the back of your mind ‘did I remember to tag’ and to be honest you feel a bit of an idiot sometimes when you’re beeping away before every shot on the course.  They have now launched a Game Golf live but tagging is still central to the experience.

I used GameGolf for about 30 rounds but frankly it was just too much of a pain to remember to tag every shot and then download all of the data and make the changes to the wrong tagging etc so I just gave up in the end.  Grrr.

That’s why when Arccos came along I was so excited.  You just screw the widgets into the end of the club and play away to your heart’s content, as long as your phone is in your pocket every shot would be stored.  Quite a lot of people have moaned about the phone being in your pocket think but it never really bothered me. This was going to be the answer.  The analytics engine was really great. 

There were so many great features – ranges and average distances by club, strengths of different parts of your game.  It’s also possible to overlay on a hole all the different rounds you have played and how you have scored from different places, fantastic stuff.  I could see which holes I played well on from different places and this was really going to help me shave some shots off my handicap.

arccos

I also loved on Arccos that I could go back and look shot-by-shot any round I had played in the past, great to relive the memories or plan the next round.

This was all too good to be true of course. What really bothered me was that the sensors kept packing up.  As a result I spent a really irritating amount of time on the golf course trying to reset the sensors, put in new batteries and generally swear and curse. 

The customer service was great and they sent me new ones but there always seemed to be one club which wasn't registering or playing up.  A friend of mine who also bought the system spent two hours staying up the night before we played The Old Course trying to get the things to work, replacing all his batteries just to give up in the early hours of the morning. 

The data you get from both systems is great.  As a fan of Mark Broadie and all the shots gained type data this was right up my street. The Game Golf interface was good, the Arccos one fantastic. 

But the on-course experience wasn’t enough to compensate for the hassle factor.  I know 4 people who have bought Arccos and 3 who bought Game Golf - none of them are using them any more.

Eventually, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when I went for a fitting for new clubs.  The pro doing the fitting took one look at my set and asked why I had come for a fitting if I was going to put these plugs on the end of every club.  He got them on the scales and said that the swingweight adjustment was significant enough to affect the fitting and I should think long and hard before using them.  Now, I am a 14 handicap hacker so would it really make a difference?  I doubt it.  However, the seed of doubt was planted in my mind.  Would the benefit I have from tracking my progress be offset with the pesky swingweight change?  I could find nothing on the web to validate either view apart from the official blurb from Arccos saying it would be fine.

So in the end I gave up.  It was too distracting on the course constantly wondering whether clubs had tagged correctly and then combined with my swingweight thought I just didn’t bother putting them on the clubs when the new ones arrived.

In a nutshell, the problem with both systems was that neither system was reliable enough and became more of a distraction on the golf course than a benefit

I'm sure the industry will continue to develop and one day it will be both reliable and not a distraction.  Arccos have some tie up with Callaway and Game Golf have worked with Golf Pride grips so hopefully that innovation will be with us before too long.  In the meantime, I will just play in blissful ignorance of the statistical minutiae of my game. And anyway,  it doesn’t take a genius to know I need to improve my driving!

East Lothian Golf in Style!

It is perfectly possible to have a great golf trip to East Lothian at a reasonable price but if you really want to experience the ultimate tracks at the height of the season then it's going to cost you a little, no make that a lot, more. However, you are likely to come away with a great appreciation of some of the best links golf that the world has to offer.

For this trip I have selected a combination of the very best old, and very best new courses. The one thing you are guaranteed wherever you go is a warm welcome. Unlike in the US, it is possible to play pretty much all the top courses in the UK with a bit of planning. So here goes, the ultimate East Lothian golf trip.

Time of year to visit
It's really hard to recommend a particular time to visit but, if pushed, I would plump for June I think. The days are long and it is often drier than later in the summer. You will pay premium prices for the golf but the courses will be in truly tremendous condition. These are some of the best links greens in the world.

Day 1
Gullane 1 (click on name for full review).  It would be criminal not to play this course when you're in the area. Previously an 'unknown gem' to many, it has recently hosted the Scottish Open and has been a regional qualifier for The Open for years. The view from the top of the hill is breathtaking.

Stay overnight in five star the Renaissance Club and enjoy a dram looking over the challenge that faces you tomorrow.

Day 2
AM. The Renaissance Club.  This is one of the few really private courses in Scotland. However you can stay and play here as part of a 'one time experience'. It's not cheap, you'll be pushing £500 a head for the green fee and stay but this Tom Doak course has garnered a lot of praise. It is a tough track but worth playing, if just to see what Doak has done with his only Scottish course to date.

The Renaissance has some new spectacular holes on the coast

The Renaissance has some new spectacular holes on the coast

PM. Archerfield is just next door to the Renaissance and has recently hosted a European Tour event, the Scottish Seniors and Ladies Opens. It is a far more forgiving experience than its neighbour but great fun and the service is second to none. Again, not an easy tee time to get but you can sign up for a 'visitor's experience' for a price.

Stay overnight at Greywalls Hotel.  Greywalls is probably one of the most famous hotels in golf. While not affiliated with the club, the small hotel looks over the 10th tee at Muirfield. It's crammed full of photos and anecdotes from pros and celebrities who have stayed there over the years and the Gents toilet is not to be missed! You can dine in the fabulous Albert Roux restaurant and sample some of the finest fare Scottish golf has to offer.

The view over Muirfield from the restaurant at Greywalls

The view over Muirfield from the restaurant at Greywalls

Day 3
Muirfield.  This is simply one of the best links golf courses in the world. Indeed, it comes out at no. 13 in my 'poll of polls' of the world rankings and is the 4th highest ranked links course in the world.  Much has been written about the unwelcoming nature of the club but I have to say I have never had anything but the warmest of welcomes and the staff there really seem to want you to make the most of of your stay.  All details are on the link above but, suffice to say, after a brilliant 18 holes, the lunch is awesome and you must stay to enjoy the afternoon foursomes, probably fuelled by Yorkshire puddings and red wine.

Stay overnight at Greywalls again. You may want to dine there or take the 10 minute ride to North Berwick to get a bit of a taster for what is to come.

North Berwick - simply spectacular!

North Berwick - simply spectacular!

Day 4
North Berwick.  I think this is the most fun links course anywhere in the world. OK, it's never going to host an Open as the pros would destroy it these days but I have purposely put this course in last. It beats Muirfield for enjoyment and is a fitting last round to what will be one of the best golf trips you could create anywhere in the world.

So there you have it.  A no-expense spared trip to one of the best areas for golf in the UK.  All in this will cost you the best part of £1,500 but you will be hard pushed to find a better set of golf courses so close together anywhere in the world.

MORE SCOTLAND GOLF COURSES HERE

How to discover East Lothian Golf without breaking the bank

The European Tour is back on British soil this week for the Paul Lawrie Matchplay at Archerfield Links.  Archerfield is a relatively new addition to the East Lothian Golf Coast and sits just between the venerable names of North Berwick and Gullane.  However it is far from a cheap tee time and you could play off the very best courses the country has to offer for pretty much the same price as a round there.

Later this week I'll be giving some tips on how to organise the ultimate trip to East Lothian, but today, here is how to do it for less than £300 including food, accommodation and watering.  It takes a little work but is well worth the effort!

Firstly, plan for a trip in the Spring.  These are all links courses and are in magnificent condition all year round.  If you visit after March 1st there is no danger of playing from mats and the greens will be running as pure as most would in the summer.  The great advantage of playing at this time of year is that access to courses can cost at least half what it does in the summer.  OK, there is a slight risk with the weather but March is actually the third driest month of the year in North Berwick (FACT!) and there are on average over 5 hours of sun a day. Just bring you thermal underwear and you'll be fine!

North Berwick is a links classic

North Berwick is a links classic

Secondly, rather than staying in a hotel, stay at one of the many Bed and Breakfasts in the area.  Not only will you get a warm welcome with lots of tips on how to get the most from the area but also a cooked breakfast thrown in!

Thirdly, if you choose the courses well, you can do 36 holes in a day even in March which helps both keep the costs down and means you can pack in 4 rounds over only three days. The only really compromise I have had to make on courses is that I have chosen between North Berwick and Muirfield for the 'premium' course.  For me to leave the area without playing at North Berwick would be criminal so it was a relatively easy choice!

So here it is, if you have any questions just leave a comment and I'll get back to you and look out for the ultimate East Lothian trip later in the week-

Day 1 -

Arrive and play at Dunbar Golf Club.  It is a classic links course which has hosted numerous prestigious events including qualifying for the Open. It clocks in at £50 a round

North Berwick is only 20 minutes from Dunbar and is a great place to base yourself.  There are many great restaurants in this wonderfully pretty harbour town.  You can check out recommendations and tips on the North Berwick review page.

You will be able to get a B&B in the centre of town for around £30 a person if you share a room.  Tripadvisor rarely lets you down and there are options popping up on Airbnb now too.

For dinner, a stroll into North Berwick and you should get a good meal with change from £20 in one of many places. The Grange is a particular favourite of mine. I sat on the table next to Rory McIlroy once - North Berwick's that kind of place.

Gullane 1 has some breathtaking views, and penal bunkers

Gullane 1 has some breathtaking views, and penal bunkers

Day 2

Gullane 3 and Gullane 1 (Click names for full reviews). In less than 10 minutes you can drive from North Berwick to Gullane, probably the most hardcore golfing village you will find anywhere in the world!  Gullane 3 is a short course you can get round in under 3 hours which will set you up for the test that is Gullane 1, where Rickie Fowler took the Scottish Open in 2015. 

The courses are always in magnificent condition and many say these are the best greens 'off-season' in the whole of Scotland.  For only £86 you will get to play both courses in March, an absolute steal.

It's light in the latter half of March until 7pm so there is no problem at all in getting in 36 in a day with plenty of time for lunch where I'd recommend you try out the Old Clubhouse or Golf Inn, both in the heart of this great village.

After you've enjoyed Gullane 1 it's back to your digs in North Berwick and out for a couple of drinks before turning in.

Day 3

North Berwick - For me this is the most fun course I have ever been to.  It is eminently playable but home to some great golfing architectural wonders.  You can see the sea from many holes and the beach comes into play on many occasions.  It's simply a wonderful experience. 

The club is incredibly welcoming to guests and frankly it is worth the trip just to play this course alone.  From March 1st there are no mats in play and the course is simply magnificent!  Oh yes, and at this time of year it's a mere £75 a round - bargain.

So there we have it.  3 days, 4 courses and an experience you will never forget.  The golf comes in at £211, you should get 2 nights accommodation for another £50 and if you eat carefully and don't have too many drinks, you can get it done for £300.  OK, given the temptations on display, call it £350........

MORE SCOTLAND COURSE REVIEWS HERE

 

10 Top Tips for Visiting the Open

IMG_2795.jpg

It was 1986 when I first went to the Open.  As a 12 year old boy there was little that could beat spending four days from dawn to dusk watching my heroes do battle over the Turnberry links. My Dad was working in the hospitality suites and he dropped me off every morning and picked me up every evening. OK, it rained solid, the wind blew hard and it was bloody freezing but I can still remember it vividly as a great few days.

I've been back to many Opens since, living just 400 yards from the first tee at Muirfield meant that the 2013 edition was a particular thrill.  I have been lucky enough to go to the US Open, the Masters and Ryder Cups; they are each wonderful experiences too and they all have their own very distinctive feels, the scale of the Open is unlike any other.

Some say that the only place to watch a golf event is the television.  While I can understand why some are of that view, with a little planning you can get a huge amount out of a trip to the Open and if you have never been I would urge you to give it a go. Here are some tips to help you have a really special day.

Do a little research

It doesn't have to be a lot but it's worth finding out a little bit about the course beforehand. Watch a video flyover, read a little history. Just a bit more context of the course and research on where the drama is likely to be will help you enjoy the day even more.

Get there early, or stay late

Open in the evening

The Open is one of the very few events that has no two tee start, with one set of players going off in the morning and one in the afternoon. Instead everyone goes off the first tee and they start early and finish late.  

The first group goes off around 6.30am and the last one at 4ish in three balls.  I have been on the course when the first guys have teed off and left when the last ones have finished and they are often great times of the day.  The crowds are thin, there is a real sense of camaraderie among those watching and access is no problem.  Go along at 6.35am this Thursday morning and you will come across Mark o'Meara and Chris Wood teeing it up. That's not a bad start to the day.

Wear Golf Shoes

There is one school of thought that says you shouldn't go to watch a golf event like you're dressed to jump over the ropes and spring into action if called on.  Some say you look a little, well, silly.  I say ignore such people.  I guarantee that you will see someone fall on their arse at some stage on your day at the Open and don't let that person be you.  The long grass gets pressed down and takes on a glassy quality, you will find yourself scrambling up dunes to get a good view.  Wear your golf shoes with pride!

Take a Radio

If there was one bit of advice I would give to anyone going to the Open I would say take a radio. There are two options for listening on course - good old BBC Radio 5 Live which will have several hours of coverage every day and the Open's own radio station with non-stop action.  

Listening as you go around means you will get an idea of who is making a charge, how the course is playing and adds flavour to your experience.  It's also pretty cool to watch a player hitting a shot and listening to the commentary live at the same time.

If you're there on the Sunday afternoon it is critical to knowing which group is best to catch up with and even if you don't then see every single shot from the winner you'll really be on top of what is going on.  

I would also suggest you do take a radio rather than listen on your phone.  The radio will soon kill the battery on your phone and the signal will go in and out so an old fashioned AM radio will do the trick perfectly.  If you are under the age of 20 then look them up on ebay.

.......and bring a Powerpack

Even if you're not listening to the radio on your phone the odds are you will kill the battery during the course of a day.  There is a really good Open App where you can track the players on the course and of course Twitter will be full of commentary.  You can make calls away from the action and discreet photos from a distance won't get you kicked out (although for the love of God don't stand next to the players with your camera out filming away, it's really annoying for everyone apart from you!).

So, pack a powerpack like this one and you will be able to surf to your heart's content!

Consider a rucksack

Every year you will see hundreds of people trudging along in the wind and the rain carrying a plastic bag with goodies from the merchandise tent or carrying their radios, programmes, powerpacks and binoculars.  Their hands will be shrivelled and and faces glum. Don't let that person be you - a rucksack is the cure to all your ills!

Get ahead if you're watching a group

Following a group around can be surprisingly easy to do with a little planning.  Their is a 'red route' from the 1st to the 18th which will allow you to wind your way around taking in the best vantage points and crossing the holes at the appropriate moment to place you for the next.  

The secret to following one group all the way around and see every shot is to get ahead. Rather than stand on the tee watching every shot go ahead to the landing zone, you'll be in front of most of the other fans and will get a good perspective to see the shots.  If the players hit it on top of me then I sometimes stay there but otherwise go up to the green to watch their approach shots and putts before going down to the landing areas on the next hole.  

Now, of course it's nice to watch a few drives close up but you will get a much better view if you keep moving.  To get the most out of that then listen in on the radio and.........

..........pack the binoculars

This might strike you as being a little hard core but a small pair of binoculars will help as well.   One of the most common things you will hear from your fellow spectators on the course is 'who hit that'. A pair of binoculars and copy of the draw sheet (where you will find out which caddy has which bib colour on) will allow you to be the man/woman with the answers.

Smell the Roses

Chasing around after a group all day has its attractions, especially when the competition is coming to a climax but actually there can be just as much fun in staying put in one place for a while.  Firstly, do spend a bit of time at the practice range, bunkers or putting green.  You'll be able to get really close to the players and see them going about their routines and tuning up in normally a fairly relaxed atmosphere.  Just seeing the sheer effortless nature of their swings can be a real inspiration for your next outing!

Secondly, it's well worth staying in one place for a while. The Open has more seats on the course than any other golf event on the planet so take advantage of them.  Watching a few groups go through one hole can be a great way to see how different players go about the same challenge.  A short par 3 or reachable par 5 make for a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours and get some thrills on the way, especially if you see a few high numbers thrown in as well!

Spend Wisely

A day at the Open won't be the cheapest day you will ever spend.  The cost of entrance is steep and refreshments are pricey.  Having said that, there is quite a good selection out there and enjoying a beer in front of the big screen with the huge hole-by-hole scoreboard changing next to you is a pleasant way to spend a while.

There is also quite a lot of 'free' entertainment  - for juniors there's normally some tuition and various challenges for all ages. If you are a Mastercard or HSBC customer there's access to a special hospitality area (handy if it's raining).

Back in the day the tented village was a wonder to behold.  All of the manufacturers would have stands as well as the inventors of weird and wonderful gadgets, purveyors of historical books, artists and tour operators.  It was kind of like a golf bazaar.  That has long gone now.  The R&A have turned it into a high end clothing tent with everything branded to within an inch of its life.  Where that works at Augusta, it's charmless and  corporate here.  However, if you do really decide you have your heart set on buying some gear then you may want to consider just buying it on the Open site.  You won't have to lug it around all day and if your size and colour isn't available on the course, the odds are it will be online.

And Finally.......

With a bit of planning you should have a great day at the Open.  You will be able to get up close to some of the best players in the world and if you put a bit of planning into it will see a huge amount. It's quite likely that this will whet your appetite to play these great courses and that's one of the great things about British golf - you can do just that!

All of the courses on the rota are accessible with a little planning. Sure, they are expensive but if you are able to put away no more than five pounds a week you would have saved enough to get on any of the courses in a year's time.  

There are tips on this site for planning trips to all of the great courses. None of them would disappoint but if you have to choose then I would encourage you to have a look at my write-ups of St Andrews, Royal St Georges or Royal Birkdale which may just be the pick of the crop. Enjoy!

 

 

 

My Mackenzie Golf Bag

mackenzie golf bag

When it comes to golf equipment I am a bit of a sucker. There was the brush tee which guaranteed the perfect angle of flight with my drives, the Short Game Wizard which ensured I would turn into Seve around the greens and when it comes to golf bags I got through many over the years. Big ones, little ones, dark ones, light ones. You name it, I’d carried it.

But then I saw a tweet a few years ago with a picture of a carry bag, I’m pretty sure it belonged to Adam Scott. It was a Mackenzie Walker and I simply fell in love. It looked pure class – soft leather and an elegant design which is evocative of a bygone age where golf was so much simpler. I really, really wanted one..

The catch was the price. It would be the single most expensive piece of golf gear I own. As fortune had it I had my 40th birthday coming up and a bunch of very generous friends wondering what to get me. While the $1,000+ bill would be a stretch I kept inviting more people to my party until the price per head became acceptable! Game on.

The bags are all hand made in Oregon, and a lot of love and attention clearly goes into each one. There is a great Q&A from Golf Club Atlas here if you want to find out more, well worth reading.

I spent months lovingly looking at different images on the web and trying to get as much information as I could about the bag. When it arrived it was even better than I imagined it would be. Apart from my very closest family I think I can safely say that this bag is my favourite thing in the world! It is everything that I could have wanted and more.

It is a real headturner and never fails to get an admiring comment. I simply can’t imagine playing golf without it. Having spent a long time looking for as much information as I could get and seen some of the questions out there I thought I would do a little Q&A. If you have anything else you would like to know though please don’t hesitate to ask and I will do my best to answer!

How easy is the bag to carry?
The bag has a great balance to it. It is designed to be slung across the shoulders and there is a little tag at the bottom to put your thumb through which means that it just sits perfectly. So from an ease of carrying point of view it just kills it, as our American cousins may say.

How much does the bag weigh?
Clearly it depends how much stuff you put in it. The leather bag itself doesn’t feel like in any way heavier than a normal bag. It’s a very soft leather which jumps into your hand!

How many clubs fit in the bag?
You can fit 14 no problem and it’s still easy to get clubs in and out. I normally carry 12 without any concern at all.

What can you fit in the pockets?
There are 2 good sized pockets – one on the front and one on the back. They are both the same size. If necessary I can put in a waterproof top in one, trousers in the other and still have room for plenty of balls, a rangefinder etc. Normally I go without the waterproofs and there is tons of room there – I haven’t had to compromise once although it is a good time to rationalise some of the rubbish we carry around!

Plenty of room in the pockets!

Plenty of room in the pockets!

What’s it like in the rain?
One of the key things to remember is that the bag will dry! For the first couple of rounds the leather strap did bleed a little but it wasn’t an issue. In a normal shower or drizzle there are no problems. I did once play 27 holes in torrential rain and the bag took on a lot of water, after the round I emptied it and stuffed it with newspaper and within 36 hours it was back to normal.

How does the bag wear?
Beautifully. The leather becomes a lot softer over time and the colours evolve. After 2 years it looks like it’s a 20 year old bag – in a very good way. It develops even more character and more. Mackenzie say that if any repairs are required they will take care of them – it has a lifetime guarantee. I will be testing this at the end of this golf season as the rim has worn through a little and will report back on how they deal with it.

What was the ordering process like?
Choosing the bag is great fun. The site has many wonderful images to peruse and then you can customise to your heart’s content – although at a cost. Now, if there was one criticism I could level at Mackenzie it would be around the management of expectations around delivery of the bag. It took a little longer to get the bag than expected which was a bit frustrating at times. It’s addressed in the great interview with GCA here and sounds like they are sorting it. This is a thing of beauty which will last a lifetime and all good things come to those who wait I guess!

Any advice for transporting the bag
I'd never bothered before but since getting my Mackenzie I now always use a Stiff Arm protector which means the risk of a snapped driver is lessened. 

Is it worth the money?
Let’s be clear, this bag is expensive. And yet…… This is a bag for life; while I have the strength to carry a bag this will be the one. I just love it and feel so lucky to have one. If you get the chance, and if you’re the kind of person who likes walking with your clubs on your back and a spring in your step then I would encourage you to get one. You won’t regret it!