Zac Blair's Favourite Golf Courses

zac blair

I’m delighted to introduce Zac Blair’s 10 favourite courses. Zac is one of the go-to players on the PGA Tour for anyone who wants to discuss golf course architecture. He has a real curiosity about what makes a great golf course and spends a lot of time experiencing courses not on the Tour. Zac can often be found on Twitter asking for advice on other great courses to see during the week of a tournament. He will also give his honest opinion of a course - a refreshing change in a world when media training and corporate blandness is so often the norm.

However, Zac is not content with just playing the best courses in the world, he wants to design one too. He has a bold vision to create a homage to the golden age of golf architecture at his planned Buck Club in Utah.

NATIONAL GOLF LINKS OF AMERICA
It’s just the funnest course in the world that I’ve ever played. Anyone can go out and have a great time, you could play with a 15 handicap, 8 handicap, scratch player and professional and everyone’s going to have a good time.
UK Golf Guy Review, NGLA website, 1968 Sports Illustrated Article

ST ANDREWS - THE OLD COURSE
...because of the transition from hole to hole and the strategy involved.
UK Golf Guy Review

KAHUKU
It’s basically the roots of the game. It’s not in amazing shape but it is literally just pure golf.
Golf.com article, Kahuku website

PINE VALLEY
...
because it’s the best collection of holes on 1 actual course (non composite).
Golf Digest Flyover, Golf Club Atlas

CHICAGO GOLF CLUB
In my opinion Chicago has the best set of greens of anywhere I have ever played. It also has some great template holes.
Fried Egg, Chicagology

FISHERS ISLAND
Fishers has some of the best par 4s (3, 4, 7, 9, 10, 12) in the world in a beautiful setting that’s remained pretty intact. Is has amazing use of the land, and it’s also pretty amazing that there are only 1 or 2 fairway bunkers on the course. Raynor let the wind be a factor.

LA COUNTRY CLUB
LACC was my first real look at what a real golf course was with great topography, and awesome routing and great variety.
LA Country Club, Golf World Walker Cup Preview

SOMERSET HILLS
A place that is just extremely fun. Not the most difficult by any means but you could play it every day and be just fine!
Links Magazine, Geekedongolf

ROYAL MELBOURNE
The composite could probably rival Pine Valley for the best collection of holes. It has everything from scale, width, great variety to awesome one shot holes and still plays the way it was meant to play.
No Laying Up Tourist Sauce, Shackleford Golf Channel Analysis

SAN FRANCISCO GOLF CLUB
A great every day course. The green complexes are some of the best I’ve played - proper width, tons of options and you immediately want to go back to the first tee. I would love to see it firm and fast. That stretch from 10 - 15 is all world (I’m shocked when I hear people say the course is just OK). I really think San Francisco is in the conversation of places I’d want to play if I could only choose one course forever.
Fried Egg, Links Magazine

These were Zac’s Top 10 but he really wanted to add something about the one that just missed out!

10a - CYPRESS POINT
It’s an extremely sporty course that gives you a ton of holes to to score on - if you do the right things and stay in position. As soon as you’re out of position though the course becomes quite difficult. 15 - 17 get most of the spotlight but the other holes are as every bit as good... yes even 18!
Graylyn Loomis, Golf Digest, Playing the Top 100

Thanks a lot to Zac for sharing his list. I suspect there are not many PGA Tour players who would respond to an unsolicited Twitter DM within a minute and put the thought and time into doing this. Hugely appreciated and good luck with the Buck Club!

I have some more Favourite Courses lists coming up this week including another PGA Tour player, one of the world’s very top course designers and an ex Ryder Cup Captain!


Tim Gallant's Favourite Golf Courses

Tim Gallant.jpg

An American living in Scotland, Tim Gallant seems to play more of the world’s very best courses than pretty much anyone else I know!

At North Berwick, he is a gracious host to visitors from around the world and he is a great guy to play with - his natural interest in golf course architecture and all things golf shines through! Tim is a great follow on Twitter (@tdgallant) and is a regular contributor on the Golf Club Atlas website. He is a 10 handicap golfer and brings a really interesting perspective to my Favourite Courses series.

NATIONAL GOLF LINKS OF AMERICA
I love the course for its architecture, the scenery for its tranquility and the clubhouse for its history. A winning combination!
UK Golf Guy Review, NGLA website, 1968 Sports Illustrated Article

PINE VALLEY
Every hole is a joy to discover. Not only tee to green, but the putting surfaces themselves are sublime. It is like no other course I have ever seen and it has one of the best sets of 3 par and 4 par holes that I have played.
Golf Digest Flyover, Golf Club Atlas

MUIRFIELD
Simply put, Muirfield is flawless. And think about this: whether you start on the front or back, the challenge is almost identical: Tough 4, short 4, tricky 4, par 3, half par hole, tough 4, par 3, half par hole, great closer.
UK Golf Guy Review, Graylyn Loomis

LA COUNTRY CLUB
There are a ton of half-par holes, chances for glory and chances for recovery. And more than any other course, LA gets it right with conditioning.
LA Country Club, Golf World Walker Cup Preview

ROYAL COUNTY DOWN
Strategic golf is great golf, but sometimes I prefer heroic golf. One that asks the player to hit the do or die shot and doesn’t apologise for insisting. That’s why I love Newcastle.
UK Golf Guy Review, Golf Digest Feature

NORTH BERWICK (WEST LINKS)
A home pick and one I am proud to make. 
UK Golf Guy review, Scottish Golf History, Planet Golf

OAKMONT COUNTRY CLUB
It may be the toughest course in the world, but that’s not why I love it. Oakmont is great to me because it has a variety that few will give it credit for, and has internal contours on the greens that are the best I’ve ever seen.
Oakmont, Graylyn Loomis

MERION
The routing is fantastic. Every hole is unique and I can’t think of a better end to a course than the challenge of 16 - 18. Stylistically, the course suits my eye, and I love the hairy bunker edges.
NY Times, Philly.com

MYOPIA HUNT
If I absolutely had to pick one course to play for the rest of my life, this one may be it. As a ten handicap, it is perfectly suited to my game. Chances for birdies and chances for a no return!
Top 100 Golf blog, Geekedongolf, Planet Golf

SOMERSET HILLS
My favourite Tillinghast design that I have played, and maybe my favourite course around the golf rich New York City.
Links Magazine, Geekedongolf

Choosing only 10 is hard and I’d like to give honorable mentions to those courses which just missed out, next for me are Sunningdale (Old), Prestwick and Crystal Downs.

Thanks Tim for putting this list together. Your membership at North Berwick will make you the envy of many who read this, and your comments about Muirfield’s front and back 9 really got me thinking.

Next up we will have PGA Tour professional and budding golf course architect, Zac Blair.




Geoff Shackelford's Favourite Golf Courses

Geoff Shackelford is a prolific golf commentator and one of the most important voices in the game today. He has many strings to his bow - website host, architecture buff, podcast presenter, TV talking head, golf course architect, author extraordinaire.

geoff shackleford

What I have love about Shackelford is that he comes from a place of absolute authenticity and communicates passionately what he believes is best for the game. He cares about the state of the game, and protecting its future, and that shines through in his work. However he does this with a lightness of touch and a sense of humour that means he never comes across as pious.

Enough fawning? Over to Geoff!

My three principles for a favorite golf course are: can I remember every hole after playing it, do I want to play the course every day, and is it a great place to take a dog for a walk? Those three principles speak to many elements: routing, walkability, atmosphere, intimate scale, beauty, attitude and design ingeniousness. Ultimately, it’s all about fun factor and here are the places I could never grow tired of walking, playing, studying and savoring -

ST ANDREWS - THE OLD COURSE
The contours, the magical turf, the setting, the strategy, the history: it’s a marvel every time I’ve been blessed to see it or play the Old Course at St. Andrews. While the iconic holes provide the Instagram moments, it’s the shots you play elsewhere that provide the most thrills. Some gorse removal and return of more battered and broken down bunkers would be nice. As would seeing good players once again playing the Road as it was at its best.   UK Golf Guy Review

PRESTWICK
If a course could be as cinematic as the Old Course, this is the one in different ways. If the Old Course is The Godfather, this is Citizen Kane. Kind of crazy and funny and surreal, but still brilliant fun to play and study. It’s the perfect size and acreage for a golf course with no dull moments, despite the claims of many that the “new” portions don’t come close to measuring up to the old parts. Over the course of 18 holes you need a bit of everything and Prestwick provides all of the joys imaginable. And such a welcoming staff and membership at such a historic club never hurts.
Golf Club Atlas feature, Planet Golf

NORTH BERWICK (WEST LINKS)
The best collection of holes and the perfect place to play every day. The transformation of this from “too quirky” to “so amazing” over the last 20 years may be the best thing that’s happened in golf architecture. The course I’d most want to play every day. I still haven’t a clue how the Redan spawned what it has, but I suspect like many longer Redan offshoots it was a better hole when the ball went a lot shorter and the hole played almost like a par-3 1/2.   UK Golf Guy review, Scottish Golf History, Planet Golf

ROYAL DORNOCH
Possibly the most accessible links because of the views afforded of scenery and the opportunity to reflect on holes you’ve played or will play. Something about getting above the course after the sixth gives many a better understanding that they might not grasp on more traditional out-and-back links. The holes themselves are all so fun to play. Late evening golf here, playing firm, is as satisfying as the sport can get.
top100golfcourses.com, telegraph.co.uk, Graylyn Loomis, UK Golf Guy Review

CRUDEN BAY
You set out on a voyage of discovery and find nothing but pleasurable golf holes, scenery and intrigue. There is no possible way anyone could tire of playing here. I’m so happy more and more people are making the trip here and are consistently blown away. Recent improvements to the 9th hole have also shut up critics pointing to the lone uninspired hole.  Golf Club Atlas, Cruden Bay Website

SOMERSET HILLS
Perfect scale, unusual setting and you’d never grow tired of this one, either. This is A.W. Tillinghast at his zaniest and the club has always taken care of what they have. Also, the late Frank Hannigan would kill me if this wasn’t on my list.
Playing the Top 100 blog, Frank Hannigan Portrait 

CYPRESS POINT
Design perfection - the 18th is still a strange ending even with MacKenzie and Hunter’s fairway bunkers recently restored. Every hole has character even without the surrounds. The experience has always been perfect, from the staff appreciating how lucky they are to be there, to the simple clubhouse, pro shop and locker room, to the maintenance. Believe it or not, I don’t think the architects get enough credit for how they managed the design creation and execution here. It was trickier than most would think, yet when you play it, the entire thing seems so effortlessly created.     Graylyn Loomis, Golf Digest, Playing the Top 100 

SHOREACRES
My favorite Raynor and one of my favorite places in the game. Another fine example that golf on mostly dead-flat ground with a few dramatic moments thrown in, can give you all the excitement you need. The greens here are so wonderfully bizarre and like with Raynor’s Westhampton, another recently restored masterpiece, you could just hit chip shots for fun all day around most of the greens and find yourself inspired. Superintendent Brian Palmer’s attention to the playing details adds to the prestige and enchanting vibe here.
Golf Club Atlas, Fried Egg

MORFONTAINE (VALLIERE)
Even with a couple of changes needing to be fixed, as close to a perfect nine for fun, architectural intrigue and beauty. If the game had more of these, it would be a lot more popular. Short, quirky, natural and downright dreamy. And you can do it all in a leisurely 80 minutes. 
Geoffshackleford.com, Planet Golf

MUSSELBURGH LINKS, THE OLD COURSE
This combines my affinity for golf, golf history, horse racing and 9-hole fun. I’m always happy playing golf here. The lack of concern for this place over the years by the Honourable Company is confounding. The place that gave them their start, has been under siege many times and just needs a little love. Musselburgh should be a living museum to the early days of the game. It still very much is, but this should be a shrine every golfer insists on visiting to say hello to the ghosts of early golf, early club making and to see what a perfect 9-hole community course could look like. 
Musselburgh Old Links

A huge thanks to Geoff for taking the time to put his list together with so much thought - the observations here are really spot on. Next up, golf course architecture enthusiast Tim Gallant will be sharing his 10 favourite courses.

Pat Goss's Favourite Golf Courses

pat goss

Pat Goss is the Director of Golf and Player Development at Northwestern University and coach to, among others, ex-world number 1 Luke Donald.

I met Pat a few years ago, when he and Luke collaborated with the writers of Freakonomics to look at applying behavioural psychology to help the average golfer score better. I was delighted to be one of those average golfers, although my handicap is up 1.2 since the experiment! Pat has a contagious enthusiasm for the game which shines through. Over to him:

For me to do this list is a bit of an embarrassment. To grow up playing municipal facilities around Crystal Lake, IL and end up doing a list of favorite golf courses you’ve played while leaving off Pine Valley, Seminole and Augusta seems unbelievable. The game has been incredibly good to me! There are plenty of great courses I haven’t played and look forward to seeing, but based on what I’ve been fortunate enough to play here goes...

1. CYPRESS POINT
Everything about this experience is incredible. 17-mile drive, the Pacific Ocean, and Monterey are all sense heightening. When I first played Cypress Point I expected the whole day would be playing a great course, but you’d basically be waiting to get to 15 through 17.  However, that wasn’t the case. I’ve never played a course that played out in multiple different scenes and built anticipation like Cypress. Playing down 1 you see the ocean and the anticipation begins, and then you play an incredible set of holes through pines that makes you feel like you’re in North Carolina or at a Heathland Course. Then, on 7 you turn the corner to play an amazing set of holes through dunes that gives you a lot of options and risk/reward. Then, you play some really strong golf holes, 11-14, that head you out to the beckoning ocean. You finally arrive and finish the most spectacular scene in golf as you play 15-17. Truly an incredible experience and great day.
Graylyn Loomis, Golf Digest, Playing the Top 100

2. NORTH BERWICK GOLF CLUB
Absolute pure enjoyment to play. The quirkiness is fun and includes multiple stone walls, and as someone who loves the history of architecture, to play what’s credited as the original Redan hole is really cool.  It was also enjoyable and interesting to play a completely different version of the Biarritz than we see in the US.  I knew the North Berwick version of the Biarritz was a good challenge when my caddy, who is a good player himself, told me from a wedge distance that my only chance to hit it on the green was to run a 6-iron. I love that stuff. I’m also a sucker for any place that has a kids course and a charming town.
UK Golf Guy review, Scottish Golf History, Planet Golf

3. LAHINCH GOLF CLUB
I loved everything about the experience and couldn’t have been more excited to play two original Old Tom Morris designed holes. Who doesn’t love a partially blind par-3! Again, fun, quirky and charming - a hospitable place.
UK Golf Guy Review, Graylyn Loomis

4. ROYAL DORNOCH GOLF CLUB
After a long day of coaching at Castle Stuart, I drove up and arrived after 6 pm, teeing off at 6:30 with one of the professionals from the shop.  We had the course to ourselves and finished just before dark.  Playing until 10 pm on a beautiful Scottish summer evening was part of the charm.
top100golfcourses.com, telegraph.co.uk, Graylyn Loomis. UK Golf Guy Review

5. SHINNECOCK HILLS
One trend you’ll catch on my list is that hard isn’t necessarily fun, in my book.  However, Shinnecock is the exception to that, which probably further shows what an amazing place it is.  First, to sit on the porch at the clubhouse with the expanse of the course below you, seeing nearly every hole, really gets you excited for the day. It may be the best and strongest test of golf I’ve played.
UK Golf Guy Review, Golf Monthly History

6. SWINLEY FOREST GOLF CLUB
I had always been excited to play the Heathland courses around London, especially knowing their history and influence on the Golden Age of Architecture. Swinley was my first course on a recent Heathland trips, and it blew me away. It was a beautiful walk with incredible bunkers, strong ground movement around the greens, interesting features and the purple of the heather. An amazing day.
UK Golf Guy Review, Swinley Forest Website, Graylyn Loomis

7. CHICAGO GOLF CLUB
The oldest 18-hole course in America with wonderful template holes and the history of CB MacDonald and Seth Raynor as the architects is another great experience. Incredible vistas throughout the course, beautiful blowing fescue (which they’ve worked diligently to keep playable), strong green complexes and great bunkering make for a good test and truly enjoyable walk. The understated aspect of the club is also part of the experience and speaks to the club’s commitment to being a great golf club of historical significance.
Fried Egg, Chicagology

8. MAIDSTONE CLUB
Since the work Coore & Crenshaw did this really jumped my list. Maybe the best dunes in America, sandy and fast ground, and the location right on the ocean make for a great day.  Part of what makes Maidstone fun is the whole experience.  Walking by the pool with the cabanas, lunch at the beach club (perhaps with a Southsider), the ocean access, as well as a great logo add to the atmosphere.
Maidstone Club, Graylyn Loomis

9. THE CLUBS OF THE NORTH SHORE OF CHICAGO
From Evanston GC on the south to Shoreacres on the north. Just load in Evanston on your google maps, put it on satellite imagery, and start dragging north up Lake Michigan to Lake Bluff, and you’ll be blown away by the sheer amount of golf courses. This is one of the strongest concentrations of great private clubs in the US. All in incredible condition with a great history of designers including Donald Ross, Harry Colt, Seth Raynor, and Charles Alison. There are too many great courses to single out one!
Fried Egg,

10. TWIN PONDS GC AND CRYSTAL WOODS GC
Twin Ponds was a 9-hole, par-28 with a range, putting green and small chipping area that is now a Home Depot. Crystal Woods is a family owned public facility in Woodstock, IL. Without the junior accessibility provided by these two facilities, and without the support of John Swenson at Twin Ponds and John and Jay Craig at Crystal Woods, I wouldn’t have been exposed to golf. I had many great days of golf at both courses and couldn’t be more indebted for the opportunity these courses provided me. These two courses are why I’m so passionate about municipal and accessible golf.  Golf needs more of these.
Crystal Woods Golf Club

Many thanks Pat for your selections. Tomorrow we will hear from the brilliant Geoff Shackleford.

Alan Shipnuck's Favourite Golf Courses

Next up in our ‘favourite courses’ series is Alan Shipnuck.

Shipnuck is the leading long-form writer in the game today. He was a twenty year old intern when he wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated and has twice been the recipient of an award from the Golf Writers Association of America. He breaks more exclusives than anyone in the world of golf and is not one to shy away from controversy. His golf.com podcasts, especially his Major wraps with Michael Bamberger, are among the very best in the business. He is currently taking on the whole of European Twitter in the build-up to the Ryder Cup.

If you are looking to explore his work further, may I direct you to this article on Masters winner Patrick Reed, this masterpiece on Pat Perez and this tour de force on the tragic death of Wayne Westner - all penned in the last couple of years. Nobody does it better.

 On the range at Muirfield with the great Alan Shipnuck

On the range at Muirfield with the great Alan Shipnuck

Shipnuck has seen many of the world’s best golf courses. His Scottish road trip, chronicled in this article, is a must read for those planning a similar adventure. I met Alan on the range at Muirfield during that trip and battled the 30mph wind in the group behind him. Safe to say his elegance with the pen wasn’t matched with his irons on that occasion!

So here are Alan Shipnuck’s favourite 10 courses with some links if you want to delve a little deeper with these courses. You will see there is a nautical theme!

1. CRUDEN BAY
A nonstop thrill ride of fun, quirky holes up, down, and across wild terrain.
Golf Club Atlas, Cruden Bay Website

2. PEBBLE BEACH GOLF LINKS
Demands more heroic shots than any other course and offers the most majestic view in golf.
UK Golf Guy Review, Monterey Herald History, Youtube - Tiger Wood 2000

3. NORTH BERWICK (WEST LINKS)
The quintessence of Scottish golf, with so many unexpected twists and turns and some truly iconic holes.
UK Golf Guy review, Scottish Golf History, Planet Golf

4. CYPRESS POINT
The first ten holes are peak MacKenzie in terms of bunkering and green complexes, while 11-17 is quite simply the best golf on the planet.
Graylyn Loomis, Golf Digest, Playing the Top 100

5. ST ANDREWS - THE OLD COURSE
The most fascinating and charming course we have, and there’s nothing like those greens.
UK Golf Guy Review

6. MACRIHANISH GOLF CLUB
It begins with the best opening hole in the world and then just keeps on coming, with one great hole after another through heaving dunes.
Macrihanish Golf Club, Golf Empire

7. NATIONAL GOLF LINKS OF AMERICA
The template of C.B. Macdonald’s and Seth Raynor’s skill, weaved into the ideal terrain.
UK Golf Guy Review, NGLA website, 1968 Sports Illustrated Article

8. LAHINCH GOLF CLUB
It has the kind of unforgettable holes that compels a man to cross an ocean.
UK Golf Guy Review, Graylyn Loomis

9. MONTEREY PENINSULA COUNTRY CLUB (THE SHORE)
As elegant and beautiful as a painting, loaded with risk-reward shots that stir the soul.
MPCC site, Golf Course Gurus,

10. CASTLE STUART GOLF LINKS
A stunning new design that feels like it’s been there forever.
UK Golf Guy Review, Top100GolfCourses.com

A big thanks to Alan for taking the time to put this list together. I love his selection - dramatic courses by the sea which don’t go for spectacle at the expense of quality.

Tomorrow’s favourite courses come from Pat Goss, Director of Golf & Player Development at Northwestern University, coach to Luke Donald, and another man who has played many of the world’s great courses.



Darius Oliver's Favourite Golf Courses

The second of our series on ‘Favourite Golf Courses’ brings us Darius Oliver’s selection

planet golf darius oliver

Oliver is the author of the famous ‘Planet’ series of books which can be found in the country’s finest golf clubhouses and on the most discerning golfers’ bookshelves. He has visited over 1,500 golf courses and his Planet Golf website is the internet’s go-to resource for top end golf course reviews and historical course rankings. He is also a co-author of the authoritative Confidential series of books.

Not content with just visiting and writing about golf courses, Oliver is also a golf course designer. His much-acclaimed creation at Cape Wickham sits at number 40 in the Ultimate Top 100 course ranking.

Here is Darius’ list of his favourite courses, with some reasons for his selections. I’ve added some links to help you explore the courses a little more.

NORTH BERWICK GOLF CLUB
The first course I played in the UK, and the one I don’t think I could ever play too often. Impossible to experience without a smile. 
UK Golf Guy review, Scottish Golf History, Planet Golf

CAPE WICKHAM
Personal bias perhaps, but I think it has the most exciting, most spectacular collection of holes on any modern course. And it still has improvement in it. 
Australian Golf Digest, Youtube

ROYAL COUNTY DOWN
Hole for hole my favourite course anywhere outside of Cape Wickham. 
UK Golf Guy Review, Golf Digest Feature

ST ANDREWS OLD COURSE
With a links pass and without the crowds, this would probably be my #1.
UK Golf Guy Review 

ROYAL ADELAIDE
Charming, quirky, beautiful old golf club with one of my all-time favourite holes (the 3rd). 
Golf Club Atlas Photo Tour, Planet Golf

PRESTWICK GOLF CLUB
Like North Berwick, I adore Prestwick and am almost depressed walking off 18 that the fun has to end.
Golf Club Atlas feature, Planet Golf

THE HILLS (FARM COURSE)
Opens in December and is about the most gorgeous par three course anywhere in the world. Can be played quickly, at various lengths and with only a handful of clubs if necessary. 
Planet Golf, Mountain Scene

GOLF DE MORFONTAINE
Lovely club all around, but I’m particularly obsessed by their short course. I wish it were in Australia. 
UK Golf Guy review, Top100golf blog, Geoff Shackleford Article

CYPRESS POINT
No explanation needed, surely? 
Graylyn Loomis, Golf Digest, Playing the Top 100

WOKING GOLF CLUB
I love Heathland golf outside the winter months and could happily play out my golfing days here.
Woking Website, Golf Club Atlas

Darius added: ‘There are differences between what I regard as the best courses, and those that are my favourite. For example, I’m involved in a new par three project at the Hills in Queenstown, New Zealand which makes my Top 10 as it’s one of those rare courses I could happily play every day for the rest of my life.

The others on my list would fit that same criteria, being courses that would never bore me and that I could enjoy even as I got older and my game (hopefully not) deteriorated. Most are in the UK and Australia, just because of the nature of the clubs, the grasses and the fact that the game is much more interesting when the ball bounces and rolls.

In terms of the list, I regard Royal Melbourne (West) as the premier golf course in Australia. I’m not a big fan of Legend couch fairways, however, so it doesn’t make my list as I find it less enjoyable off the tee now than in the past. Royal Adelaide makes the list as the private club in Australia I would join if they were all equal distance from my home.

The courses most unlucky to miss out are Royal Dornoch, Royal Melbourne (West), Somerset Hills, Sand Hills, Sunningdale, Bandon Trails, Friar’s Head and Kingston Heath.’

Many thanks to Darius for putting his list together. Few humans have seen more golf courses than Darius so he brings a really interesting perspective.

Next time we have the top 10 choices from probably the world’s leading golf writer, Alan Shipnuck.

Mike Clayton's Favourite Golf Courses

I played at Swinley Forest last week. Sitting in the clubhouse after the round, I reflected that I was hard pushed to think of a round of golf I had enjoyed as much. The course wasn’t quite going to score a Doak 10 or appear in a top 10 list of the best courses ever designed, but for pure joy it was pretty unbeatable.

That got me thinking about my top 10 favourite courses. I also thought about those in the game I really respected and wondered what their selections would be. Not the courses they rated highest technically, but those they simply enjoyed playing the most. So I asked them!

You will hear from players, writers, architects, teachers and critics. A huge thanks to them for giving up the time to share their thoughts and rationale. I hope you find them as fun to read as I did.

Mike Clayton golf.JPG

I start with someone who has pretty much fulfilled all of those roles at one time or another. Mike Clayton played on the Australasian and European Tour in the 1980s and 90s - winning 8 times. He set up Mike Clayton Golf Design in 1995 which has developed into the design firm Ogilvy, Clayton, Cocking, Mead and whose resume grows impressively with every year. His creation (with Tom Doak) at Barnbougle Dunes is lauded the world over as one of the very best courses built in the last 50 years.

Mike also is a very important voice in the development of the game. His thoughtful approach, drawing on years of experience and an appreciation of the game at all levels, makes him one of golf’s most sought-after commentators. The State of the Game podcast, which he co-hosts with Rod Morri and Geoff Shackleford, is unsurpassed when it comes to thinking about the challenges in the game today and a potential path for the future.

So here are Mike’s Top 10 choices, his reasons for selections and some links from me that you may enjoy:

SWINLEY FOREST GOLF CLUB
Geoff Ogilvy calls this his favourite course because he can play it with his Mum and his Dad and they all have an interesting round, answering the varying questions the course asks. It’s beautiful, masterfully built by Colt and one of the game’s great treats. And it’s the ultimate proof there is no need to make golf difficult to make it great.
UK Golf Guy Review, Swinley Forest Website, Graylyn Loomis

GOLF DE MORFONTAINE
It should be no surprise that the best 18 hole course in France was elegant. Perhaps it’s the game’s most elegant course. The rolling terrain on perfect sand amongst birch and pine makes Tom Simpson’s masterpiece one of the game’s most sought after rounds. And arguably the big course isn’t even the best course on the property. Simpson’s extra little 9 shows off some of the game’s boldest, and greatest, greens.
UK Golf Guy review, Top100golf blog, Geoff Shackleford Article

PRESTWICK GOLF CLUB
Golf before people thought it should be fair.
Golf Club Atlas feature, Planet Golf

NATIONAL GOLF LINKS OF AMERICA
It’s the first great US golf course.
UK Golf Guy review, 1968 Sports Illustrated Article

SAND HILLS GOLF CLUB
The modern game changer.
Top100golfblog, Holy Grail Golfer

ROYAL MELBOURNE GOLF CLUB
The best and the most fun in the Southern Hemisphere.
No Laying Up Tourist Sauce, Shackleford Golf Channel Analysis

PARAPARAUMU BEACH GOLF CLUB
Not New Zealand’s best but the most affordable and accessible first class golf there.
Golf Club Atlas feature, Paraparaumu Wesbite

NORTH BERWICK GOLF CLUB
See Prestwick!
UK Golf Guy review, Scottish Golf History, Planet Golf

ROYAL WORLINGTON AND NEWMARKET GOLF CLUB
The best 9.
Top100golfcourses.com, Royal Worlington website, Fine Golf

NOTTS GOLF CLUB
Great inland English golf.
Notts Golf Club website, National Club Golfer, Top100golfcourses.com

A big thanks to Mike for these selections. His love of traditional golf courses which can be enjoyed by all shines through.

Darius Oliver, host of the ‘Planet’ golf series and designer of the highly acclaimed Cape Wickham Links shares his favourite courses tomorrow.

McKellar and The Golfer's Journal - bucking the digital trend

Golf magazines have traditionally had a formula which it doesn’t take a genius to work out. Pick up any edition of a monthly golf magazine and it’s likely you will see some trusty old favourites. You can learn how to hit your driver further and eliminate your slice too. Looking for inspiration for a golf trip? The nearest Marriott hotel will be reviewed in all its glory. The letters page will inevitably have a couple of submissions advising that the game is in a terrible mess because of some old fuddyduddies chasing kids off the practice putting green.

It is a pretty tried and tested formula and probably appeals to the more casual reader, but some have thought there was an opportunity for a publication aimed at a more hard core golf audience. Step forward The Golfer’s Journal and McKellar. These are publications aiming to see out their days, not in a doctor’s waiting room, but on the bookshelves of the most discerning golf fans. In a world where more and more magazines are closing or going online this may appear to be an odd move, but they are hoping the quality of content and production will buck the trend.

IMG_9185.JPG

That two journals should appear at the same time is probably a function of today’s golf media world. Many bemoan the loss of the traditional golf journalist. UK national papers have been jettisoning their golf correspondents at an alarming rate. The Times of London - one of the most venerated titles in journalism - no longer has a golf correspondent. Only the Telegraph and Mail have a full time golf journalist these days. In the US the situation is just as dramatic with one writer, Doug Ferguson, providing commentary to most of the nation's printed newspapers.

And yet, golf discussion and writing is thriving in many places - if you know where to look. Podcasts have revolutionised our insights into players and provide in-depth discussion of issues of the day. When Rory McIlroy took to the airwaves of No Laying Up a couple of years ago we heard from a top player directly in a way that had never happened before. Where McIlroy led, others followed and suddenly we were hearing directly from all of the leading players. The quality however, is variable. A snatched 10 minute interview organised at a sponsor’s request rarely works, and it is often the more obscure subject matter that provides the best content.

The niche website/social media feed has also been a source of rich content, discussion and debate in recent years. Foremost of these is probably Andy Johnson's Fried Egg which covers golf course architecture in an accessible and intelligent way - introducing many to the subject who may otherwise never have known their Redan's from their Biarritz.

So, while Fleet Street may have declined, interest in quality golf writing has burgeoned in recent years and the Golfer's Journal and McKellar have both stepped into this market.

McKellar is the brainchild of ex-Guardian golf correspondent, musician and novelist Lawrence Donegan and golf writer and architect buff Tom Dunne. Its self-stated aim is to 'bring together the finest writers, illustrators and photographers to celebrate golf’s history, to chart its future and to examine what makes the contemporary sport exciting, from travel and architecture to profiles of its most prominent personalities'.

The Golfer’s Journal (TGJ) is published by the creator's of The Surfer's Journal and has lofty ambitions, to 'cover the game wherever it may be played, casting a sophisticated light on the culture, history, places, and characters that define the game’s unique personality and undeniable allure'.

Without a doubt there are a lot of similarities between the two. They are both intended to be kept for years to come and be revisited, they both have in-depth articles on subjects you would not normally stumble across and seek to promote a more cerebral discusssion of golfing matters than you might usually find.

They also both come at a price-point significantly higher than your traditional golf magazine - both come in at around $20 per issue including shipping to the UK.

However, there are differences too. TGJ is supported by advertising from 'a select few premium sponsors that share our ethos and passion for the game' whereas McKellar has no adverts and makes its money from the cover price. TGJ is working really hard to create a brand around it - there is merchandise available, days to meet up with other supporters and promises of more innovation to come. McKellar feels more like a hobby project - slightly less polished.

TGV is printed on high-end glossy paper and filled with amazing full-bleed photos. Articles are often long and you get the sense that a huge amount of thought has been put into what content makes the cut. 

McKellar is a smaller publication - 80 pages to TGJ's 140 and printed on smaller, less glossy paper. Think more Reader's Digest than Conde Nast. The articles are shorter too and can be read in a few minutes.

As a result, the magazines feel different, despite having similar aims. The best way I can describe it is The Golfer's Journal feels like a coffee-table publication where McKellar would sit happier by the bed, or the toilet. 

McKellar has gone very hard on the quality of the journalism. The writers are really top drawer - in the first edition Geoff Shackleford, Mike Clayton and Lorne Rubenstein all contribute. Donegan talked about what they are trying to achieve on the excellent iseekgolf podcast recently and this is clearly a priority. He also eschews the traditional dawn or dusk golf course photography, which he points out can make pretty much any place look great.

There are no such concerns from The Golfer's Journal. Photography is at the heart of the publication and some of the images they have printed will stay in the mind for a long time. Every article is accompanied by beautifully shot images and there are many beautiful photo essays.

From both journals I have really enjoyed discovering new personalities, courses and stories in the game of golf and they have definitely inspired me to further reading. I would thoroughly recommend the biography of Titanic Thompson, possibly golf's greatest ever hustler, who I would never have heard of had it not been for edition 1 of the The Golfer's Journal. McKellar's article on Shell's Wonderful World of Golf led to several lost hours on youtube.

I would say that a good 80% of the content hits the mark. I have found a couple of the TGJ articles a little too reverential in their tone and possibly a little too 'up themselves' as we say in these parts. An article in McKellar about a college golf coach didn't do much for me. But these are small quibbles - I  really forward to both publications dropping through the door.

Both of them have launched podcasts to talk about some of their articles in more depth - I have found that listening to them after reading the articles works best. The Golfer's Journal podcast covers more wide-ranging topics, with some familiar voices from the No Laying Up team amongst others. This week the McKellar podcast branched out beyond just talking about the articles they have published which is great news as Lawrence Donegan hosted an excellent podcast a few years ago which had been sorely missed.

The Golfer's Journal will come out quarterly and it is possible to subscribe for two years worth of editions. Details of McKellar's publishing schedule are a little more sketchy - they haven't launched a subscription option yet - but we can expect another one later this year. On the iseekgolf podcast Donegan said they needed to sell under a couple of thousand editions to break even. Let's hope they sail past that and these two journals stick around and maintain the high standards they have set. The world of golf writing is all the better for them.

A Golf Trip to the Netherlands

When I told people I was off to Holland for a golf trip there were quizzical looks and three basic responses: 1. Are there any decent courses in Holland? 2. There won’t be many hills to climb there and 3. Are you really going for the golf or is it an excuse for a trip to Amsterdam?

 The magnificent Utrecht de Pan is worth a trip to the Netherlands on its own

The magnificent Utrecht de Pan is worth a trip to the Netherlands on its own

The reality is that there are some cracking courses, more hills than you would expect and Amsterdam was saved until the last night.

I’ve had Holland as a target venue for the annual golf trip with my mates for some time. In fact, half a dozen years ago we decided to make the trip but found that the logistics beat us. We try to do the trip over a weekend and we just couldn’t get onto the courses we wanted outside of a weekday.

The quality of courses has been a really well-kept secret, but in recent years word has been spreading. The latest Golf World Top 100 courses in Continental Europe had 4 Dutch courses in the Top 10 - the 4 we visited. I’ve put our itinerary with some notes on the courses below but I know that you're wondering what should you expect from a golf trip to Holland? Well, I'm glad you asked:

The courses are great value
We paid 400 Euros in total for golf on the four best golf courses in Holland at the end of May – tremendous value. Utrecht de Pan is one of the very best courses I have played and it cost us a mere £85 to play. That is simply tremendous. Visitor play is relatively light at these courses and they definitely aren’t trying to fleece you. If you were to look at all the golf trips I have done and consider the relationship between course ratings and green fees, this trip would give you the best bang for your buck.

Come equipped for all weathers
We had great weather on our trip. However, almost every person we met was keen to tell us how very lucky we had been with the weather. I was slightly taken aback as I had assumed the climate here was pretty benign. However, a bit of research showed me that there were more wet days in this part of the Netherlands, in pretty much every month of the year, than at home in Scotland, and the temperatures weren't usually much better either!

So make sure you come equipped for all weathers. The good news is that the wind blows pretty hard at the coast so expect whatever weather you have not to last too long.

Brace yourself for the greens
It became apparent early on in our trip that there was something up with the conditioning of the courses. There is a new EU directive coming into effect which restricts the use of pesticides on European golf courses. The Dutch Golf Federation has agreed to apply this regulation early and this is proving to be a major challenge for the courses. Tee boxes were shabby, greens were running rough and, to varying degrees, looked poor at all the courses we played.

Members at all the courses were really worried about the outlook and there was talk of ripping up the greens at Kennemer and re-laying with a different grass on a sandier base. There's an interesting article here which explains how some Danish courses handled the same challenge. Something will have to be sorted out soon to avoid the reputation of these great courses suffering enormously.

Hire a car – but you’ll need your wits about you
While there is not a massive amount of driving required to play the top 4 courses in the Netherlands you will be best served by hiring a car. Utrecht de Pan is an hour away from the coast and Royal Hague is the best part of an hour south of Kennemer with Noordwijkse in between. Driving on the motorways is a breeze but in the towns you need to be pretty on the ball. There are bikes everywhere, trams galore and we saw 2 accidents in 72 hours. Keep your wits about you.

It’ll take a bit of effort to piece it all together
In many ways the clubs here are set up like some of the old-school British establishments. Visitors are welcome at all the top courses, however times are very limited and there isn’t a massive amount of flexibility around that. For most of them this means playing during the week at times when the members don’t want to play. Kennemer is the only one that will let you play at the weekend which is worth bearing in mind when it comes to putting an itinerary together – although they only allow 12 visitors on the course at any time. Also, there are not online booking facilities. An email or phone call is required to get things going, although I found them all to be responsive, if not flexible. Koninklijke Haagsche also has a further complication in that it doesn’t allow fourballs but we got out early and as it was quiet they were happy for us to go as a four.

You’ll get a warm welcome…
Foreign visitor play in the Netherlands is still pretty light and wherever we went members were really keen to have a chat, find out what we thought about their course and most importantly how we felt it compared to others we had on our itinerary! The clubhouses themselves were really great buildings and we were very well fed and watered. Be aware though that there seems to be a challenge with accepting credit and debit cards, so make sure you have some cash in hand.

Finally, everyone speaks English perfectly, so have no fear about being able to communicate here. They may well put your own grammar to shame!

And so to the courses. Here’s a slight variation on our itinerary which I think would stand you in very good stead. This works for a Monday-Thursday trip. If you want to finish on a Saturday you will need to reverse the routing as Utrecht only allows play Monday-Thursday and you can play Kennemer on a Saturday!

Monday
Arrive at Amsterdam Airport. Under 2 hours from pretty much anywhere in the UK with regular flights, this is a cheap and accessible trip. Pick up hire car and drive to Kennemer Golf Club (45 minutes).

Kennemer (click on title for full review)
Host to more than 20 Dutch Opens, Kennemer was an absolute delight. It reminded me a lot of Gullane – this was probably the most classic links course of all of those we played. The ground was running very firm and fast and we could open our shoulders and get a really authentic links experience. There are three 9 holes courses here which you can play in any combination – A & C are the two we played. It’s the kind of course which will put a smile on your face. A lovely clubhouse looks over the estate and there is a particularly welcoming atmosphere.

 Kennemer is a true Colt Classic

Kennemer is a true Colt Classic

Overnight accommodation in Zandvoort aan Zee. Zandvoort is a nice little seaside town with plenty of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and a beachfront for bracing walks. It’s likely to be busy in high season and at weekends but don’t expect Blackpool levels of year-round debauchery! We stayed at the Amsterdam City Hotel which had a good selection of rooms, in a good location, at very reasonable rates.

Tuesday
Noordwijkse
Half an hour south of Zandvoort, Noordwijkse is probably the least illustrious of this quartet but it is still a course that can more than hold its own on this tour. It doesn’t have the polish of some of the other courses and it would probably be fair to say that the course could do with a little TLC. However, the course was good fun – again a linksy feel to it with some holes running through the trees to mix it up a bit. We actually played here the afternoon after Koninklijke Haagsche and this was more fun to play - you can make a score here without having to be incredibly straight. Before playing we expected this to be the ‘weakest’ course on our trip but it was much more than a fourth round filler.

 Noordwijkse is a good fun journey through links and forest

Noordwijkse is a good fun journey through links and forest

Back to Zandvoort for another night of seaside fun.

Wednesday
Koninklijke Haagsche
Pack up your bags and bid a fond farewell to Zandvoort and head the ¾ hour to Koninklijke Haagsche, just north of The Hague. For many years this course has been rated number 1 in the Netherlands and one of the best in Europe – it’s one of only 2 Continental European courses to appear in the Ultimate Top 100 courses in the world.

I’m afraid though that the course didn’t quite do it for us. The very gnarly rough had been grown in in places to make too many of the fairways unhittable; the greens all seemed to be on upturned saucers with false fronts and run-offs galore; and the dramatic changes in elevation sapped our energy too much. If I had to split 10 rounds between the four courses on the tour this wouldn’t get more than 1 play. Others seem to love it so maybe we just weren’t in the right frame of mind.  The last hole was rather lovely though and the clubhouse did a good lunch, so all was not lost!

 Royal Hague is a bit of a beast if truth be told!

Royal Hague is a bit of a beast if truth be told!

Following your round at Koninklijke Haagsche, drive the hour to Utrecht. Utrecht is a great university town with a history back to the Middle Ages. We stayed in the NH Centre hotel which was well located and had good rates. This would be a good town to spend a little time walking around and there are plenty of cafés and restaurants to sit outside. Just be careful driving around here. Bikes have right of way, there are bus lanes everywhere, roads are narrow. All round it was a bloody nightmare!

Thursday
Utrecht de Pan
Make the 15 minute drive to Utrecht de Pan golf club. I say 15 minutes, but leave longer. I have never known a golf course be so hard to find. Forget Google maps, it was useless. I have put some navigation instructions in the course review, but you should still leave plenty of time.

It is, however, well worth finding. The golf course is simply phenomenal. In so many ways it reminded me of Morfontaine and it is almost impossible to give higher praise than that. This is a real Colt Classic. Carved out of the trees, the course feels like a secluded oasis of charm and wonderful design. From what I've read, there has been quite a lot of restoration work done on this course of late and my fears about trees coming into play too much weren’t justified - the tress had been taken back so they framed the holes but were rarely in play. The heather around the fairways was punishing at times but this wasn’t a course where we got through lots of balls. This course really was one of the very best I’ve played. That it is accessible to all for 85 Euros a round is just amazing. I would say it is worth getting on a plane to Amsterdam just to play here.

At the end of your round make sure that you leave some time to sit on the terrace and have something to eat – the barman here kept the beers flowing faster than anywhere I have found on my travels to date! You can then either head back to Schipol (within an hour) for a flight home or head into Amsterdam for one more night sampling what this great country has to offer.

 Utrecht is old school charm with a stunning heathland course

Utrecht is old school charm with a stunning heathland course

Golf in the Netherlands is a secret to many but I would thoroughly recommend a trip. The golf is fantastic, the cost relatively low and the welcome will always be warm!

 

Some tips for playing Scotland's Golf Coast on a budget

 North Berwick is one of the very best courses in the world, and loves welcoming visitors!

North Berwick is one of the very best courses in the world, and loves welcoming visitors!

I consider myself incredibly lucky to live where I do. Gullane in East Lothian is a wonderful village. Just over half an hour from Edinburgh, and all the Scottish capital brings, but rural - with wonderful beaches and a caring community.

East Lothian can lay claim to being one of the golfing Meccas of the world. Within 10 miles of Gullane there are 12 golf courses, any of which would grace a golf trip itinerary. Muirfield and North Berwick are both in the top 40 of my Ultimate Top 100 courses in the world and there are 9 East Lothian courses in the top100golfcourses.com top 50 in Scotland.

The climate here is good (albeit it by Scottish standards!). It is the sunniest area of Scotland and the driest too. The greens are usually in tremendous condition all year round and the sandy soil and drainage means that even the heaviest rain rarely affects things for more than an hour or two.

This is a part of the world where golf plays a fundamental part in the community. The pub names give it away - The Old Clubhouse in Gullane and the Golfer’s Rest in North Berwick. You will see people walking down the streets of both those places with golf clubs on their backs every day of the year and no-one ever blinks an eye at you leaving your clubs in a corner of a restaurant while you have a meal. If you want to try something different, Gullane even has a shop that hires hickory clubs.

At Gullane Primary School the 4 houses that compete for the annual shield are named after local courses - Kilspindie, Luffness, Muirfield and Craigielaw - and the school's summer fair has a variety of golf related games to raise school funds. It’s just that kind of place.

The great thing about golf here is that it is pretty much accessible to all. However, such is the popularity of the area that in the peak summer months green fees can be high and accommodation prices go up to.

If money is no object then have a look at how to do East Lothian in style here. However, if you are looking for something more affordable, then, with some careful planning, you can enjoy this amazing golf location for a very reasonable price. Here are my top tips, and a draft itinerary, for doing East Lothian on a budget:

Pick your month with care
When planning a trip to East Lothian there are several factors to take into account, but weather will be high up on the list, as will green fees. Here are some stats to help you plan.

 Rainfall in North Berwick and golf green fee

You can see here that the winter months may be dry and cheap but the sunshine hours are really restricted. The only months I would definitely avoid are November - February as they are cold and there's not much daylight. You can have days here where the streetlights don’t go off all day! Another thing to consider is that, even though the greens are great all year round, in November - February you will be playing off a mat.

Conversely, the hours of daylight in the summer are amazing - you could comfortably play four rounds in a day if you were so inclined.

However, July and August can often be wetter months - we’ve had some stunningly wet Augusts of late - and the green fees are higher. Above I have used the weekday green fees at North Berwick as a guide, and you can see that from April to October you are paying full whack.

If you are looking for a combination of a good value green fee with the best chance of good weather you could do a lot worse than look at March. It’s the driest month of the year, the days are getting longer and the green fees are still good. You should bring your thermal underwear though as the average high temperature is only 9 degrees C, but on a calm day with the sun out, fear not, it will feel much warmer. I would recommend trying for the end of the month as the clocks will have changed by then so there's will be more light in the evenings and less chance of a frosty start.

Stay local
I regularly hear from visiting golf parties at kicking out time in the Old Clubhouse on a Friday night is that they regret their decision to base themselves in Edinburgh.

It may be only half an hour away but I would recommend staying locally and, if you want to sample a night out in town, to get a taxi in to Edinburgh rather than trying to do it the other way. There are plenty of good pubs and restaurants around here to keep you entertained and it saves on a trip at the beginning and end of every day.

I would recommend staying in either Gullane or North Berwick. There are pros and cons to both. Gullane has more golf courses but is smaller, and quieter. North Berwick has more pubs and restaurants and feels more of a proper town.

There is a good smattering of hotels and bed and breakfasts around but you are likely to find Airbnb the cheapest option and lots of places have sprung up over the last couple of years.

There are plenty of options around for food and drink as well and I've called a few out in the itinerary below. 
 

 The Old Clubhouse is within 100 yards of Gullane Golf Club and a great spot for a post (or pre) match drink.

The Old Clubhouse is within 100 yards of Gullane Golf Club and a great spot for a post (or pre) match drink.

Don’t play one and go
I saw the redoubtable American golf writer Alan Shipnuck on the driving range one morning at Muirfield. He had arrived at Glasgow airport fresh off a transatlantic flight the previous day and driven straight to the first tee at North Berwick. After a night in Greywalls he was playing at Muirfield in the group ahead of us before doing the 2 1/2 drive to St Andrews for an afternoon tee time at the Old Course.

He wrote about it in this fantastic article thus:

Back at Greywalls, waiting for sandwiches we would eat in the car, a gent asked, “Where are you playing next?”
“Old Course.”
“Lovely! I hope the weather is good tomorrow.”
“Actually, we’re playing it today.”
“That doesn’t seem possible.”
Variations of this conversation would be common throughout the trip, and it always left us feeling self-satisfied with the ambition of our itinerary.


This is a feature of many Americans trips to Scotland. Their vacation days are so precious (the average American only gets 16 days holiday a year) that they try and squeeze every Open course in to a trip.

My advice would be not to even try. You will miss out on so much by ‘Open-bagging’ and not staying in one place for a few nights. There is so much great golf around East Lothian that it would be criminal to play only one and move on.

Chat to the locals
Hopefully you’ve got the idea now that this is a place where golf is central to many people’s lives, and certainly it’s a knowledgeable crowd. People will generally be only to happy to hear about your trip, your views of the courses and generally to engage. Even if you’re English, you should be fine!

So, with all that in mind, I have suggested an itinerary for a short trip that comes in at under £300 for four rounds in March, including golf and accommodation. I’ll do an update of my ‘East Lothian in luxury’ guide in the near future but I think this one should be accessible to most!

Day 1
Arrive in Edinburgh and travel to East Lothian and play at Dunbar Golf Course. Dunbar is about 45 minutes east of Edinburgh - it's worth hiring a car to get you around and in March won't cost you much at all. There's been golf played at Dunbar for 400 years but the course you play on today is a James Braid layout from the 1920s. After the first couple of fairly average holes the course becomes classic links. It's not long, but you'll have great fun. There's been a new greenkeeper in town for the last couple of years who is getting rave reviews.

After the round, drive 20 minutes to North Berwick for the night. There are AirBnB options at this time of year for around £100 which will sleep 4 easily. Have a drink at the Auld Hoose or The Golfer's Rest and a bite to eat at Herringbone or The Grange and you won't go wrong. 

Day 2
Drive 10 minutes to Gullane and tee it up at Gullane 1 in the morning. Gullane 1 is the course that you will largely see used for the Scottish Open. 16 of the holes are used for the tournament with a couple from Gullane 2. The course is a wonderful Scottish Links which starts in the village before going over Gullane Hill to the Firth of Forth and then returns back to the village. The course is the toughest of the three Gullane courses but it won't beat you up and is great fun to play. The rough can be fairly brutal in the summer, but in March you will be fine and the greens are amazing all year round.

 The 2nd at Gullane Number 1 plays as the opener on the Scottish Open course

The 2nd at Gullane Number 1 plays as the opener on the Scottish Open course

I would recommend trying to get off at number 1 as early as you can and then having lunch in the clubhouse before going out again in the afternoon on Gullane 3. This may be the shortest of the 3 Gullane courses but you will have great fun. It's a par 65 with only one par 5 but the par 3s and 4s all vary nicely in length and the greens are just as good here as on number 1.

If you do want to venture away from the Gullane properties then Kilspindie is just a 5 minute drive away in Aberlady and is another real gem of a course by all accounts. I have my first game there in a couple of weeks so will add a link to a review then.

For dinner I would heartily recommend eating just across the road from the golf club at the Main Course - a very friendly Italian restaurant and maybe having a pint in the Old Clubhouse (better for a drink than food in my experience).

Day 3
Playing the West Links at North Berwick in March may be one of the best value golf experiences you can find. The golf course is one of my very favourites in the world. Its world ranking has been consistently rising and it's now up to 38. I have it higher than that. I just love this golf course. It's everything you could want in a golf course - fair, playable, breathtakingly beautiful, characterful and quirky. No-one would ever build a course like it again but thank goodness this golf course has emerged over the last 400 years. It's one you will never forget. 

So there we are, you have played 4 great golf courses in 3 days for under £250 in green fees (Dunbar £50, Gullane 1 £75, Gullane 3 £29. North Berwick £85).

The only 'must play' course you've missed in this trip is Muirfield, but the green fees there would break this budget at any time of year. Take this trip though and it will leave you with memories for life, and probably saving up to add Muirfield the next time you come!

The Renaissance Course - are the Tour gambling with the Scottish Open?

 Few have been behind the locked gates of the Renaissance Course, just 5 minutes from Gullane Golf Club

Few have been behind the locked gates of the Renaissance Course, just 5 minutes from Gullane Golf Club

The Scottish Open has been fabulously reimagined in recent years and is now one of the most prestigious events on the European Tour. However, there is a risk that today's decision to take it to the exclusive Renaissance Club in East Lothian will undermine that progress.

For the first decade of this century, the event was held at the magnificent Loch Lomond - a wonderful course, but not the best test for players wanting to hone their links game a week before the Open.

When Loch Lomond got into financial troubles, the event moved to the newly opened Castle Stuart for the next three years and the field immediately praised the move to a links course. The course was wonderfully photogenic, great fun to play and didn't beat the players up the week before a sterner test at The Open. Soon, players were waxing lyrical about the event and when Phil Mickelson won there in 2013, before driving down and winning at Muirfield the following week, many thought the ideal formula had been found.

The sponsors, Aberdeen Asset Management, and co-promoters, the Scottish Government, then had the great idea of taking the event on the road. The idea was to showcase the best links courses in Scotland, starting with Royal Aberdeen in 2014. Gullane followed in 2015 before they headed back to Castle Stuart in 2016 and on to Dundonald last year.

Even though links courses abound in Scotland, their ability to host professional events is hampered by the lengths players hit the ball these days. I wrote further about the impact on our courses here but, in a nutshell, courses like Western Gailes and North Berwick would just be over-powered. And, given the space constraints, they might both also struggle with the logistics of holding an event of this scale. There has been talk of Cruden Bay hosting but there is concern about what changes would have to be made to lengthen the course enough to make it a viable option.

If truth be told, the event probably suffered a little last year in Dundonald. The Kyle Philips course is perfectly pleasant but long-term event supporter Phil Mickelson said that he didn't really fancy learning a new layout and the course didn't win many rave reviews.

All this means that the options for future Scottish Open host courses are limited. Gullane, Castle Stuart and Royal Aberdeen work well but other choices all come with challenges. For example, Royal Dornoch would be amazing but is probably too isolated and Trump International would come with too much controversy. Aberdeen Standard Investment CEO Martin Gilbert said in the Scotsman last year of the Trump Aberdeen option 'Politics aside, Trump would be an ideal venue, but you can’t put politics aside.'

On many levels the move to the Renaissance course makes sense. It is close to Edinburgh and transport links are good, the course has lots of space for visitors and infrastructure and was built with tournament golf in mind so won't be over-powered by the modern player.

But on certain other levels it just doesn't feel right.

Firstly, the turf here doesn't play like a links course. Castle Stuart managed to get it right pretty much from day one and Gullane has the advantage of centuries of play. But for whatever reason, the turf at the Renaissance doesn't run like those. Maybe it will in the decades to come, but I suspect the players will be disappointed with what they find as an Open warm-up.

Secondly, Tom Doak is a great architect but I haven't heard the Renaissance described anywhere as his best work. Indeed in his 'Confidential' series he gives it a 'Doak 7’ while his collaborators give it a 6. The course itself is a bit of a slog in places and, while the carries won't bother the pros, it isn't like anything you will find on an Open rota course. Doak has come up with some wild greens which will make for some frustrated golfers at times - again, not like much you'll find on an Open course.

 The three new holes at the Renaissance definitely do bring a new dimension to this course but it doesn't play as a traditional inks course

The three new holes at the Renaissance definitely do bring a new dimension to this course but it doesn't play as a traditional inks course

Thirdly, this is second only to Loch Lomond in the whole of Scotland when it comes to  exclusivity. You can only play the Renaissance Course once in your life unless you are invited by a member. Yes, you read that right - once in your life. The whole place is cloaked in a veil of opulence and exclusivity. At a time when there is so much talk of growing the game, it seems a real shame that the Scottish Government (who are still invested in the tournament through Visit Scotland) and Aberdeen Standard Investments feel that it is appropriate to play here. 

Alex Salmond writes in his book about why they didn't take the Scottish Open to the Renaissance Course before. He said, 'It is reasonably certain that Martin (Gilbert) has come under a fair bit of pressure to take the tournament further along the coast to Renaissance, the new and hugely impressive development near North Berwick, but at £100,000-a-whack for family membership it would not communicate an ideal message about Scottish golf being open to all'. 

The Renaissance course seems to just want to be a plaything for the uber-rich. It does nothing at all for the local community - local charities and school fundraisers all benefit from Archerfield and Gullane but the Renaissance never get involved.

Stewart Duff, Course Manager at Gullane talked to me recently about how great it is to have the Scottish Open this year starting and finishing in the heart of the village. You can see it as you drive into Gullane and it puts the community firmly at the heart of the event. . 

My worry is that there is a risk that the quality of the field will suffer at the Scottish Open when players realise the course isn't going to give them a good links test the week ahead of the Open; the fans won't be bothered to attend a course that has done nothing to introduce itself to the golfing community of Scotland; and the event will be diminished as a result.

I really do hope I'm wrong but this is a real gamble to take. I hope the benefits are worth this risk.

An interview with Gullane Course Manager Stewart Duff ahead of the Scottish Open

 Stewart Duff - Course Manager at Gullane

Stewart Duff - Course Manager at Gullane

I spoke to Stewart Duff, course manager at Gullane Golf Club ahead of next week’s Scottish Open. It was a great chat covering how he will be setting up the course next week, how he widens the fairways for the pros and what it takes to get the greens running to Tour standards. Thanks a lot to Stewart for the time. 

UKGG: When did you find out that the Scottish open was coming back to Gullane?

SD: They always announce who’s getting it next just before the tournament starts, so last year that was at Dundonald but we maybe knew six months in advance of that.

UKGG: I guess the Tour must have been happy with what they saw in 2015?

SD: It seems to work. It’s just a great location. It’s not like when the Open's at Muirfield and you don’t even know it’s there. You can see this as you drive in or drive out of the village and it feels like when the Open used to be here 20-odd years ago. The place used to be jumping, the shops were busy and there were no parking restrictions. It was just fantastic. So the European Tour sort of recreated that and the village feels included  in the competition.

UKGG: There was a concern in 2015 that the course may be just too close to the road - but that seemed to work out fine.

SD: There was a lot of concern and it’s always been the main criticism of the course. It’s maybe why the course ranks so lowly in the Golf World and Golf Monthly rankings as there are always a lot of comments about the road. But the European tour have screened it off so you’re not aware it being there and there’s dampening too so you don’t hear the traffic. It’s surpassed expectations for the European tour and ourselves.

 The road behind the 18th at Gullane is screened off for the Scottish Open

The road behind the 18th at Gullane is screened off for the Scottish Open

When we were walking around trying to set up the course initially and trying to pick the right composite course for the event it was very much the view of the European Tour that it should start and finish in the village. They just know what they’re doing and they’ve got it right.

UKGG: How involved are the European Tour in how you set the course up for the week?

SD: They are constantly looking at the condition of the course. I remember the last time, in 2015, they were coming through in the winter months, and early spring. It was such a cold spring and we didn’t get growth until the first two weeks in June  Every time they’re were coming they were saying ‘this is great, this is great’ and then bang the growth came and they looked at the rough and said ‘Oh my God what’s happened to the rough’!

UKGG: How does it compare this year because it was a harsh winter?

SD: We wintered really really well, surprisingly given the harsh conditions. Spring was good and the only thing has been the dryness. It’s going to really benefit the fairways and the look of the course but it’s a constant battle to keep the glass cover.

It’s been very, very dry. Luckily we had about 30mm of rain on one day about two or three weeks ago and that has really helped, it was getting close to dust before that. We got the moisture levels back up and now it’s just started to edge back down again.

UKGG: Will you still be watering the fairways through the next week?

SD: We watered them on Sunday. I would love to say that was the last water on the fairways and I’m going to drought them right through to the tournament, but it just depends how sunny it gets, how hot it gets and how windy it gets.  We may have to top them up again but the whole idea is to get them dry, hard and fast.

UKGG: And how’s the rough looking?

SD: The rough is looking great. After that rain, a few pockets thickened up so I borrowed a big rake from Dunbar Golf Club. On the left of the first hole there was some lovely tall fescue which was looking great but then we got that rain and it started to thicken up. It was up to waist high and we needed to thin it as it could have been a horrible start for any player. We’ve been around the course and thinned it out a bit. The European Tour agronomist is here on Thursday and he may want some tweaks here or there. Everybody’s got a different view. You’ve done what you think needs done and then someone else comes in and says maybe do this or that.

 While the fairways are wide at Gullane, the rough can still be punishing

While the fairways are wide at Gullane, the rough can still be punishing

UKGG: How does the course play when you’re setting it up for a tournament compared to a normal summer?

SD: An average player thinks it’s just a flick of a switch to get the greens going from 8.5 to 10.5/11 on the stimp but it’s not as simple as that. It’s not as easy as just dropping the height of the cut. We are just starting double cutting morning and then in the evening time. We started that yesterday, just about a week in advance. In 2015 we started it two weeks in advance as we had a big surge of growth. So it’s very much reacting to the weather conditions and then you start intensifying the things you’re doing.

In terms of tees, fairways and aprons we normally just cut them twice a week, but in tournament week we’re cutting them every day, so that’s not anything members are going to normally get. This is tournament preparation. Depending on conditions we might drop the height slightly but what you’re trying to do is take all the growth off the greens or just get minimal growth. The guidelines are to get them rolling at 10/10 ½.

What we like to do for the evening cut is take very, very little off. Then you know that you’ve got your timing just perfect. You need a good coverage of grass going into a competition. If you going into competition week and you’re cutting, cutting, cutting to get speed then your greens are going to get really weak. So it’s all about the preparation.

UKGG: Gullane is famous for its amazing greens all year round, does that put a lot of pressure on you?

SD: I think our greens are probably better in the winter time because there’s very little growth on them so they’re probably running faster, but not as smooth. Then in the summer you get the growth so they run smoother, but a bit slower and you’re constantly fighting to get the speed up on the greens.

UKGG: What did you think when you saw what happened at Shinnecock?

SD: No disrespect to the USGA, but I do think they get it wrong. I think they push them too much, too hard and it makes it farcical. But the R&A and The European Tour seem to have it right. They’re aware of the weather conditions on a links course, when the wind gets up even to 12 or 15 miles an hour it makes a huge difference

The R&A have learnt from Muirfield when they dried them out too much in 2013, they were stimping at 15 after a day’s play. As a greenkeeper you probably want them tricked up to protect the course but you don’t want to make a mockery of the players. At Birkdale last year they were rolling at 9 on the windy days

Golfers have to watch what they want and ask for. You’ve got committees saying they want them running at 10 every day but if you do that you’re putting pressure on the grasses so you need more fertiliser, fungicide and water - that’s not sustainable.  And secondly when the wind picks up it’s a problem.

Also every extra foot in pace puts extra time onto every round. Here at Gullane, ideally we have them at 9 every day but tournament play, providing it’s not too windy, will be 10/10.5.

 The first will play straight up Gullane Hill to the narrow green, normally the second hole at Gullane 1

The first will play straight up Gullane Hill to the narrow green, normally the second hole at Gullane 1

UKGG: There’s a lot of talk about how far pros are hitting the ball. This year is on track to be the longest average driving distance ever on the PGA tour. Is that something you think about when you're setting the course up?

SD: We’ve got a template for each hole and where the pinch-point should be. Surprisingly, in 2015 the Tour wanted the landing areas widened because they’d seen the rough getting up. Average width is about 30 yards for these guys which isn’t too tight. Castle Stuart’s a lot wider and I think the golfers like that.

UKGG: It’s shaping up to be the strongest field in Europe this year. Why do you think that is?

SD: I think this is perfect for the pros the week before the Open. It’s not too dissimilar from Carnoustie, apart from the hill and the elevation, but playability wise it’s going to be quite similar. It’s a great build up and you don’t want to beat these guys up. It’s just nice prep work for them leading into the Open.

Switching to the links courses, no disrespect to the inland boys who have great courses, has been great. These guys aren't used to playing links courses. It was really smart thinking by the European Tour.

UKGG: There’s a bit of a question as to how many different courses can host the event, as even though Scotland has a lot of links courses, you need a lot of space and the courses need to be long enough.

SD: I think it’s a bit of a challenge for the Tour. I’d love to see maybe 5 courses on a rota so they get it once every 5 years. I'm not sure if the clubs or the Tour would want that but it would be fantastic. Having it every year at one place is tough on a course, the membership and the staff.

UKGG: How many people will you have working on the course next week?

SD: We’ve got 25 full time and we bring in 10 or 11 guys. This year we have gone far and wide. We’ve got guys in from the States, from France, from Australia. I thought it would be good to have an international feel to it. I always send someone up to Kingsbarns every year. We sent people to Castle Stuart and it’s great experience for them.

UKGG: If you could choose the weather now for the week what would you ask for?

SD: I’d have the same as we had in 2013 at Muirfield. The course was white, burnt-out looking, a proper links course. Probably the best ever presented links course I’ve seen. So that’s what I’m after, the burnt-out look.

UKGG: And do you think you’ll get it? There’s still a bit of green out there!

SD: Well, as I say, if I don’t water the fairways that’ll help, but it’s all timing. I’ve got the Ladies' event to think of as well though. It’s very much like a game of snooker. You’re always thinking about your next shot all the time. I’m thinking ahead to the next tournament and opening it up to the members.

Then we’re into August and September which is a busy invitational time for the golf course. So that’s in the back of my mind. Nature has a way of balancing things out though. We’ve had a drought for two months, sure as dammit we’ll get two months of rain, that’s the way it works.

UKGG: Is there anyone particularly when you look at the field you think will do well?

SD: Who can pick? It’s so difficult. Rose seems to play well here, he did last time. Stenson did well at Troon. It’s just great seeing these guys. I’m dying to see Reed - it’s going to be great seeing him.

UKGG: It must be fantastic seeing these players playing your course?

SD: It’s a fact that everybody underestimates their own course. We’ve had loads of amateur events, qualifying events and no-one's ripped it apart. I remember on the first day in the commentary in 2015 them saying they were going to rip it apart, but they didn’t.

All you need is 15mph winds, we average 12mph in Gullane, and that offers the protection as well as the rough and the bunkering. The wind really gets in the players’ heads. Another great defence is our greens. These guys are used to big undulating greens but ours have very subtle borrows and I think the last time they found it hard to see those borrows and that seemed to help the course as well.

 The 18th hole is again lengthened with a new tee cut into the hill

The 18th hole is again lengthened with a new tee cut into the hill

The Scottish Open is played at Gullane Golf Club from July 12th - July 15th and the Ladies Scottish Open from July 26th - 29th.

 

Golf in Paris - much more than Le Golf National

The world will be watching Le Golf National year as it plays host to the Ryder Cup. If truth be told, Le Golf National is never going to win any awards for great architecture and, apart from the few amphitheatre holes, it won't set your pulse racing. It is a step up from the dire PGA Gleneagles and Celtic Manor for sure, but if you are looking to play quality golf around Paris, there are far superior options. Here are some ideas for a pretty great golf trip around the French capital -

Fontainebleau (click on course name for detailed review)
If I had a Euro for every time I heard the phrase 'hidden gem' in the context of a golf course, I'd be a rich man. Yet, that's exactly what Fontainebleau is. This Tom Simpson course will test guile over length and is just a delight to play. The course is carved into the forest but isn't so tight as to intimidate.

This is an old-school members' club but they are happy to take visitors and you will get a warm welcome. The course is built on sandy ground and, even in a very wet May, it was in cracking condition. Only 45 minutes south-east of Orly airport, this makes for a great first stop on a trip to the area.

 The wonderful Golf Club de Fontainebleau

Les Bordes
Keep going another hour and a half south into the Loire and you will come across the amazing Les Bordes. Believe me, it is well worth the trek out of town to play here. For years this course has been shrouded in rumour, myth and secrecy. It was consistently ranked in the top 2 or 3 in Europe but little was known about it as it was virtually impossible to pay unless you were with one of the dozen members. 

That's all changed now (for a while at least) and you can get a game here if you ask nicely, and stay overnight at one of the lodges - details are on the link. The experience will live with you forever. Robert von Hagge created a brute of a golf course, as hard as anything you will ever play. As if to prove the point, there is a board up in the clubhouse with the names of all of those who have broken 80! 

The course will be immaculately presented and you will have the place pretty much to yourselves. For me, it was too brutally difficult to rank as one of the great courses of Europe but I would recommend making the trip if you are playing in Paris so you can judge for yourself. 

Saint Germain
This Harry Colt course has undergone some restoration in recent years and it is a really pleasant place to add to a Paris golf trip. In a previous era, when the ball didn't go as far and you could hold a professional golf event on a course under 7,000 yards without fear of humiliation, the greats like Faldo and Ballesteros strode these fairways. It would be put to the sword by the pros these days but the members haven't tried to trick it up unnecessarily.

It's not massively generous off the tee though and the green areas have a lot of swales and burrows, so accuracy off the tee and a good short game are the secret to scoring well here.

Saint Germain isn't in quite the same league as Fontainebleau and doesn't come near to Les Bordes or Morfontaine but it will leave you more than satisfied and it oozes history. You can play on certain weekdays and Saturdays in the height of summer when the Parisiens head south. Make sure you take time to enjoy a meal or a drink on the terrace looking over the putting green and 9th green - it's a lovely spot.

Saint Germain is to the north-west of Paris, about 30 minutes north of Versailles which would be a good base to play here and Paris National. 

 There are some spectacular false fronts at Saint Germain

There are some spectacular false fronts at Saint Germain

Le Golf National
Unlike pretty much every other course on this list, access at Le Golf National isn't a problem - this is pure resort golf. The course is centred around a Novotel hotel in an industrial park to the west of Paris. Sounds nice doesn't it?! 

As I say in my review, it's not an awful golf course by any means, but you will only really remember the first couple of holes and and the last few where water comes into play. The rest are fairly bland. This is a tough course too when they want it to be with a lot of rough in play which can get really hard to play from.

My memories may be slightly sullied by the poor condition the course was in at the end of May - no run on the fairways and bumpy greens. But, more than that - the place has no soul. That's not the end of the world, but every other course on this list beats it hands down for atmosphere.

 The par 3 second at Le Golf National requires both length and accuracy off the tee

The par 3 second at Le Golf National requires both length and accuracy off the tee

Morfontaine
Morfontaine is the undisputed number 1 golf course in Continental Europe. Tom Simpson designed this course in the 1920s to be the playground of a French nobleman. The course is simply magnificent. It is a heathland course with many holes framed by tall pine trees. The ground runs fast and every hole has new features to marvel at. It's not a long course, but you will be asked questions of your short game you may never have been asked before. The whole place has a magical feel to it. The clubhouse is like entering someone's private home and the tranquility of the whole course is quite something to behold. 

The 9 hole Valliere course was the original layout at Morfontaine and you need to play it if you are there. Geoff Shackelford puts it well when he says in his article, 'Memorable, playable, fun and fascinating, Valliere features some of the most outrageous man-made greens in golf.'

So that all sounds very good doesn't it? But there is, inevitably, a snag. This is one of the most exclusive golf courses in the world and getting a round is one of the hardest achievements in golf. The first time I played it I went through Private Golf Key but, be warned, it is expensive. If you ever meet a member, be sure to keep in touch!

One other course to consider is Golf de Chantilly which is close to Morfontaine. It's another one with a great reputation and open to visitors. I’ve not played it yet but Michael Clayton is one of the many to sing its praises.

There are a couple of things to take into consideration when planning a trip. Firstly, this is quite a tricky trip to do over a weekend as access will be hard at most courses then. You should be OK at the National and Les Bordes but for the others you will need to work on a weekday game. Also, do not underestimate the Paris traffic. At rush hour you can find short distances take for ever!

A golf trip to Paris takes a bit more effort than the obvious candidates of Spain or Portugal but you will be richly rewarded. I have always found the welcome very warm and don't worry if you don't speak the language, English is widely spoken although some attempts at a bit of French will be appreciated.

If you want a bit more inspiration for a golf trip to France have a look at my country guide here or my recent article on playing in the south where the quality may not be quite as high but it's more accessible and has a better climate! 

 

 

 

 

Long Island - is this the epicentre of the world's best golf?

The golfing world will turn its eyes to Long Island later this month when Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, once again, hosts the US Open. And there is an argument to be made that this area hosts one of the best stretches of golf courses anywhere in the world.

If you stand at the Shinnecock clubhouse you are within a 30 minute drive of four of the world's top 100 golf courses, with a fifth, just outside the top 100, bang in the middle. I’ve been lucky enough to play four of the five (Maidstone is still to be tried) and have summarised what you can expect from the courses and clubs if you can get a tee time. Click on the links to read my full reviews.

Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (ranked 5 in the world according to the Ultimate World Ranking List)

I think Shinnecock is the best golf course I have played, and I would rate it higher than the two other courses I have played that are above it in the rankings (Royal County Down and The Old Course).

One of the key reasons (and this may come to appear a bit silly, depending on how the USGA set the course up in a couple of weeks) is that I found it tremendously playable. We played it as a par 70, off the 6,500 yard tees, and it was an absolute joy. We could open our shoulders on the tee - the fairways were wide and running fast and firm - and, while there was some rough, I don’t think we lost a ball between us.

It was a wonderful second shot course. Coore and Crenshaw have increased the playing area of the greens, but the run offs were pretty punishing if we didn’t hit the right spots. The greens have fantastic nuances and it’s, all round, a great course - fun but challenging, when set up for the members and their guests.

There have been changes to the course for the US Open, and I’m sure it will play very differently when the pros do battle. Some of the new tees they have put in are breathtakingly far back and the rough has been grown in. Let’s just hope the USGA puts the course back the way they found it when they’re done!

Our caddies were tremendous. Mine had caddied for Woods, Nicklaus and Clinton so he had seen a few things, but made us feel relaxed and the advice was spot on.

The clubhouse is small but perfectly, architecturally formed. The food is exactly what you expect from a club of this stature, but I would say the welcome is a little more formal than jovial. That was fine, but we saw a few more smiles from the staff at the other places on this list.

In a nutshell, this must be as close as you get to golfing perfection and it is going to take a lot to knock it off my number 1 slot!

National Golf Links of America (ranked 6 in the world) 

Of all the courses I have played, this is the one I most want to see again. I didn't get quite the feeling of euphoria that I had expected playing here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty darn good, but from what I had read, I had expected to fall head over heels in love with it.

Famously, the course is CB Macdonald's recreation/interpretation of some of the best holes he had seen in the UK. He took the concepts behind the classics and tried to weave them into a course which is both challenging and fun to play. Anywhere with driveable par 4s, windmills in play and bunkers straight out of St. Andrews will be somewhere to remember.

The course is definitely fun to play, but at times they take 'quirky' to extremes. This is a course where you need to need to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth and, if you have the right mentality, you will have a blast.

In recent years the National has been ‘discovered’ by the world. Back in the mid-1980s, Golf Digest didn't rank it in the top 50 golf courses in the USA! Well, they sure have noticed it now and it is seen by many as close to a national monument!

The welcome was very warm. The caddie shack was a well-drilled operation and Threewood,  my caddy, was Mayor Bloomberg’s regular guy and had caddied for Matt Fitzpatrick in the Walker Cup so there were no bad reads!

The clubhouse was phenomenal. Packed with history, full of quirks (like the course) and incredibly welcoming. The steward gave us a tour and encouraged us to take plenty of photos. There is a whole blog to come on the best lunch in golf, but NGLA is certain to feature high up on the list. The amuse bouche was a whole lobster, and it just got better from there - think high-end comfort food - and the Cloudy Bay wine was priced with no mark-up! No wonder the members here were all smiling from ear to ear.

Friar’s Head (ranked 22 in the world)

Friar's Head is ranked as the third best course in the world to have been built in the last 50 years according to my Ultimate World Rankings - only Sand Hills and Bandon Dunes rank above it - and it continues to rise up the list. I rate it in my own list above courses such as Muirfield and Royal St George’s and it beats NGLA too. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have created something simply stunning.

Holes are carved out of the dunes and the trees and the course transitions effortlessly between the two. This course is very true to the Coore and Crenshaw philosophy that ‘traditional, strategic golf is the most rewarding, and the creation of courses that present this concept with the greatest artistry is the ultimate goal’. 

This is not a course you can overpower. It will challenge you mentally and physically and ask questions of every club in the bag. So many holes will live in the memory forever that it feels rude to pick out one, but the walk up the ‘stairway to heaven’ to the magnificent 15th tee and from that green to the 16th tee will take your breath away. 

The course is incredibly underplayed. I’ve played it twice and on both occasions there was no more than a handful of other people there. On my second outing they were struggling a little with a couple of the greens but even that didn’t diminish the experience. 

The welcome was warm, the practice facilities may be the best I’ve ever seen and there is a lovely 9 hole warm up course for your short irons. The clubhouse is huge, but in no way intimidating. The people here seemed interested to find out more about us and to talk golf. They did seem to be in a battle of the hot dog with Sebonack! It’s Wagyu dogs here, Kobe at Sebonack.

The course wouldn’t be long enough to host a pro event, and that isn’t what they’re looking for, but it is a real shame that only a few people will ever get to see this course. It deserves to be recognised more widely for the masterpiece that it is.

I can't wait to get to Sand Hills and Bandon Dunes to see with my own eyes if they can surpass Friar's Head. If they do, they will be as close to perfection as anything built in my lifetime.

 Sebonack Golf Club (ranked 41 in the USA)

If the National is a museum to golf, then Sebonack is pretty much the opposite. The clubhouse is a monument to opulence, towering over the 1st and 18th holes and the clubhouse of NGLA nestles like a maintenance building beyond. The membership fee is rumoured to be well north of $500,000. When I played, in early October, the course was busy and showed signs of being pretty heavily played. The hedge fund managers of Manhattan seem to make the trip here a lot.

The course was designed by the surprising pairing of Tom Doak and Jack Nicklaus. Doak is famous for designing courses which flow naturally from one green to the next tee, using the ground that God has given us - or certainly making you feel that way. Nicklaus is known for deploying a cookie-cutter approach, creating amphitheatres around ‘signature’ holes which invariably move from left to right, often making the courses unwalkable.

And yet when the owner came calling they found it impossible to resist the offer and they collaborated to design a course which has been described, slightly cattily, as Nicklaus’s best work, if not Doak's.

I found the course perfectly pleasant, but it is a marked step down from the other courses reviewed here. While it has flirted with the top 100 rankings, I don’t think we will see it there again.

The greens are fairly wild in places (Doak went to town on these) and there are a few pretty ordinary holes - holes 5 - 8 in particular. However, things liven up on the back 9 and the holes by the water have a particularly Scottish feel to them.

Don't get me wrong, in many other parts of the world this golf course would be the best in the area. But alongside the majesty of Shinnecock and the delights of NGLA it was probably always going to take more of a back seat.

So there you have it. I don't think there is anywhere else in the world that has such a concentration of great golf course design and I can't wait to see the world's best do battle over Shinnecock again in a couple of weeks.

Golf in the sunny South of France

 Terre Blanche is the best golf course by some margin in the South of France

Terre Blanche is the best golf course by some margin in the South of France

There are many golf trips that those of us based in the UK are familiar with. The long weekend in the Algarve, a trip to La Manga for some winter sun or even a jaunt to Turkey are not unusual. France, however, is rarely mentioned and yet there is plenty to like about a trip over the Channel.

If you are looking for real high-end golf in France then it is hard to argue with a trip to Paris to sample the delights of Morfontaine and Fontainebleau and the trials of Les Bordes. I’ll return to that area nearer to the Ryder Cup but, for now, let’s look further south.

The Côte d’Azur is well served by Nice airport. It’s only a two hour flight from London and EasyJet will get you from there for less of the price of a train to Manchester. The climate lends itself to golf. You probably want to avoid the winter months as some of the courses in the hills may be a bit chilly, and the height of the summer can be a little too hot to be pleasant. However, April, May, June and September are pretty much perfect months, with temperatures in the 20s and low rainfall.

Cannes weather.jpg

If you are flying into Nice I would suggest picking up a hire car, It is by far the best way to get around - public transport would be nigh-on impossible and taxis are expensive and logistically challenging.

You should give yourself a good hour to get through Nice airport especially in peak season (I have seen grown men cry in the car hire queue) but then you will find it’s easy to get on the autoroute and out of town.

I would recommend staying in Cannes rather than Nice and to base yourself there. There are plenty of accommodation options. Airbnb has made it very affordable to stay in some great locations, at a fraction of the cost of a good hotel. Cannes has a bit more of a holiday vibe than Nice, with plenty of restaurants, bars and nightclubs, meaning this trip won’t be all about the golf.

Golf is an unexpectedly popular game in France and, having played probably over a hundred times in the country, I can happily say that the welcome I have had is much warmer than the Gallic stereotype.

Golf-wise, there are a few good options. You won’t get any truly world-class courses in the area but there are a couple of really strong options and some other more relaxed ‘resort’ type tracks.

There are four courses which would give you good variety and a nice balance of playable and hard. Click the course names to see my full course reviews -

 Wide open but great condition at Grande Bastide

Wide open but great condition at Grande Bastide

Golf de la Grande Bastide
Half an hour inland from Cannes, Grande Bastide is the perfect first round course. It's wide open and won’t beat you up and is always in great condition around the greens. Victor Dubuisson holds the course record with a 68 but I think that tells you that not too many of the European greats have teed it up here! Access is easy enough and you will get a tee time for €43 to €80.

Golf Country Club de Cannes-Mougins
Unlike Grande Bastide, Cannes Mougins has welcomed many of Europe’s finest through the gates. The course hosted the Cannes Open from 1984 to 1994 with Seve, Woosnam and David Feherty all winning here. While the course wouldn’t cope with the distances professionals hit the ball now, it is still a very pleasant walk. Plenty of trees, water in play and a bit of elevation change all make for a course you need to think your way around. The club is pretty old school but very welcoming and the terrace is a great place to have a beer after the round. Access here is possible but a little more limited at weekends so you may want to factor that into your planning. Green fees are from €120 on a summer weekday to €150 at weekends.

Chateau de Taulane
It’s a bit of a trek to Taulane - an hour and half away in the hills - but you will be richly rewarded when you arrive. This Gary Player course definitely falls into classic ‘hidden gem’ territory. It’s carved into the trees and both nines culminate at holes in front of the clubhouse, over water. There’s a hotel here and some good deals available with the golf if you fancy making a night of it. Were this course a little more accessible I think it would feature much higher in the European rankings.

Terre Blanche
There are two courses at Terre Blanche (45 minutes inland from Cannes) but only the Chateau is open to visitor play. There is no doubt at all that this is the best course in the area, a clear step above the rest, and it fully deserves its place as 15th best course in Europe. The conditioning is always immense and this is a course that you will need to think your way around rather than merely overpower. Not unlike Taulane, it is carved out of the trees and there is plenty of elevation change to cope with. The course is attached to a very high quality hotel, previously a Four Seasons property, but tee times are available to all. While the website says you can only book 2 weeks in advance, they have always been able to accommodate me with more notice. It is pricey though at €180 in the peak season. However, if you tee off in the middle of the day when the sun is hottest you can get a discount! Here are some pictures to whet your appetite -

There are a few others in the area which I have played but not written up yet which you may want to consider -

Golf De Saint Donat
I am a big fan of Saint Donat. It’s very welcoming, not too long, but with a really interesting layout. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it, like Grande Bastide, as a less ferocious warm-up round

Golf Claux Amic
You can smell the perfume in the air as you knock it around this course just outside Grasse, about 30 minutes inland from Cannes. It's quite hilly, has lovely views, some blind shots, not too long and is good fun.

Royal Mougins
Royal Mougins took on the Cannes Open for a couple of years in the 90s. The course is packed in to quite a small area and while perfectly conditioned at times it feels a little too cramped. The par 3 2nd is probably the signature hole, with a 200 yard tee shot down and over water required. It’s high-end golf here so expect to pay up to €200 each in the summer months.

Monte Carlo Golf Club
High up in the hills above Monaco is the Monte Carlo Golf Club. Another tour venue from days of yore, where Ian Woosnam shot a 60 in the last round to win, back in 1990. It’s a tight course and I have no fond memories beyond the views. It's not on my list for a return visit next time I’m in the area!

So there you are. 2 hours from London, a warm welcome, pristine courses, no long queues of pissed-up Brits zooming around in their golf carts. What more can you ask for?

A thank-you!
A quick thank-you to Feedspot for including me in their list of Top 100 blogs you can see here. Only number 82 though so plenty of room for improvement!!

The Best Golf Podcasts of 2018

The explosion of golf podcast continues, seemingly unabated. And there is clearly a market for them. This is my third annual review of the best golf podcasts and, in those years, the golf podcast review blog has been in the top 5 pages visited on my website.

Last year I discussed what makes a good golf podcast. This year I will dwell a bit on what I like about my regular listens (with a little constructive feedback where appropriate!). It would be almost impossible to listen every week to all of the different options out there, but, if you are looking for some pointers on which ones to try, hopefully this 2018 golf podcast guide will help.

no laying up podcast

NO LAYING UP

The phenomenon that is No Laying Up continues. The team behind it have even given up their day jobs and are turning a podcast and twitter account into a whole franchise.

The brand has grown up quickly as it has found its position in the golf world. They are not just producing ‘hot takes’ and frat style ‘banter’. Instead there is thoughtful commentary and analysis delivered in an engaging way. As an aside (not strictly about podcasts) if you want to see one of the best 'new media' course write-ups ever in the world of golf, then have a look at this essay on Tara Iti.

On the podcast front they have had a great year. They have really developed their commentary on golf course architecture (the Mike Clayton episode was a real highlight) and in-depth player interviews (Matt Fitzpatrick was a goodie). Just this week, the Mark Broadie interview took the discussion around shots gained far beyond what you would have expected from a podcast a couple of years ago.

They have moved the podcast a little away from discussion of specific tour events (which they are picking up on Periscope and Twitter) and towards less time-sensitive broadcasts and this has worked well. I think the strongest podcasts this year have been those where Solly (or, at the most, one other person) have been interviewing.

The Dustin Johnson interview was really the only miss for me, and that’s because it sounded at times like a gaggle of fan-boys trying to ingratiate themselves with the world's number 1 golfer. The standard for pretty much every other podcast over the year (and there has been one a week on average) has been tremendously high.

As you can tell, I am a massive fan. They have commercial support from Callaway but it is never intrusive. I hope that the move to full time works for them. Intelligent commentary, delivered in an engaging manner, is a great combination that deserves to flourish.

IMG_7029.png

STATE OF THE GAME

Here, I am in danger of repetition from last year. State of the Game is the best in the business. The combination of Rod Morri, Geoff Shackleford and Mike Clayton is gold-dust. However, their podcasts are so few and far between these days that they may need to be retired from the list. Fortunately, Morri hosts the iSeekgolf podcast now, Shackleford has his Shackhouse and Clayton has the media profile of a Kardashian these days, so you can hear plenty from all of them in various places. I would argue though that they are never better than when together.

the fried egg golf podcast

THE FRIED EGG

Andy Johnson from the Fried Egg has perhaps done more than anyone else over the last couple of years to promote discussion about golf course architecture. His website offers a huge depth of resources on the subject and, if you are looking for a starter, I would thoroughly recommend his golf architecture 101 section.

Last year I was a little critical of Andy’s broadcasting style. It did take me a little while to get used to his voice, which, for some reason, brought to mind a small town, American serial killer. Anyway, I have got used to it now and can see past this! Serial killer or not, he has some great in-depth discussions with illuminating experts in the world of architecture - the recent ‘Yolk with Doak’ series being a particular highlight.

IMG_7023.png

THE ISEEKGOLF.COM PODCAST

I wrote last year of the emergence of this Australian-based podcast and now, a year (and 50 broadcasts) on, it has definitely found a firm place in my must-listens. As you'd expect, there is an Antipodean slant to the commentary and guests, but that is rarely an issue for those of us at the other side of the world.

Rod Morri, of State of the Game fame, is the main host with Adrian Logue alongside and they are knowledgeable and articulate, as it frequent contributor Mike Clayton. These guys are unashamedly traditionalist in their outlook but still recognise that the game has to adapt to thrive and grow and they have much to offer on this subject.

In a golf podcast innovation, they have introduced a ‘Book Club’ section where they encourage you to read a book in advance and then they discuss it with an expert/the author. A nice idea which has produced some strong content so far.

shackhouse podcast

SHACKHOUSE

Geoff Shackleford is one of the best voices in the game today and I am a huge fan of his volume of work. He is clearly a bright guy who understands golf architecture and the professional game on a deep level. He is able to bring much of this insight to the Shackhouse podcasts. However, I think that a couple of years in, they could do with having a look at some of its basic feature.

Firstly, the advertising is just way too intrusive. One recent broadcast had more than 3 minutes of advertising before getting to the golf discussion. Also, reading out statements about Callaway being the best equipment manufacturers in golf, as if they are the broadcasters' opinions, just doesn't ring true (especially since Shackleford said on a State of the Game show that everyone knew Titleist was the best ball in golf!). I also could do without the regular attempts to make me listen to the co-host’s food podcast.

Secondly, they should cut back on the golf betting talk - at times it feels like it is just a fantasy golf/betting podcast. Such a waste of Shackleford’s insight.

And thirdly, I think they need to really question the balance of time devoted to Shackleford’s knowledge and House’s ‘average fan’ chat. I really don’t know what the latter brings to the listener.

I do still listen but it feels like they are only scratching the surface of what we could get from possibly the strongest voice in the game.

golf weekly podcast review

GOLF WEEKLY

The title of this podcast is a bit of a misnomer. Unfortunately these podcasts has been somewhat sporadic over the last 6 months. However, when one does come out, I am quick to listen as it is one of the very best.

This is an Irish based pod from a national talk radio station so there is a clear skew towards all things Irish. But, like the iseekgolf.com podcast this in no way diminishes the output. Ex-European Tour player Peter Lawrie is now a regular contributor and he brings a new level of insight to proceedings.

This podcast is pretty focused on discussing current European and PGA events so I find it is best listened to fresh - you don't get much from dipping into the back-catalogue. Having said that, any of the episodes with Paul Kimmage or Padraig Harrington will stand the test of time and are worth a listen.

The broadcasts are ad free - I think they are basically done on the side by presenters of other programmes - and the relaxed style is instantly listenable. I just wish they actually were weekly.

golf.com podcast

GOLF.COM

Some of these are great, others I swerve and subject matter is key here. The ones that engage me are normally hosted by Alan Shipnuck. Shipnuck’s style has come on a lot over the last couple of years. He has always been a great writer but came across quite formally in the early days of podcasting.

He seems to be more relaxed now and is never better than when in conversation with fellow journalist Michael Bamberger. Those episodes, often involving reminisces of covering great events of the past, really do have a richness you don’t find elsewhere in the world of golf.

SOME NEW ADDITIONS

I’ve listened to most of the above for a good length of time and would have no hesitation in recommending them. There are others that I dip into from time to time but have failed to make it into my list - The First Cut with Kyle Porter, The Clubhouse with Shane Bacon and The PostCast.

There are some newcomers though which have impressed so far.  I will be auditioning them over the months ahead for next year's review -

THE GOLFER’S JOURNAL

The podcast offshoot from the new high-class golf publication ‘The Golfer’s Journal’ has had a strong start. It acts as a companion-piece to the Journal itself (review on that to come) as well as bringing stand alone episodes of interest.

THE CUT: THE BBC GOLF PODCAST

Why they didn’t name this ‘The Chipping Forecast’ I will never know. However, this recent addition from the BBC duo of Iain Carter and Andrew Cotter has made a good start. They are voices who really should be heard more than just during the main BBC golf coverage, so well done to them and the BBC for deciding to go down the podcast route. The rest of the world will benefit from our licence fee too! Hopefully they will keep up a regular output and bring on some strong guests. I don’t think the hole left by the ByTheMin podcast has ever been properly filled, hopefully The Cut can do just that.

SKY SPORTS GOLF PODCAST

This isn’t really that new, in fact they have pumped out an episode pretty much every week for over a year.  I hadn’t got around to listening until recently though because I do find the Sky Sports studio coverage a little bland. But, from what I have heard, this podcast has an energy and zip to it, with good guests from the European Tour and I think it will make it into my main list next year.

FEED THE BALL

This is a relatively new podcast with golf course architecture at the core of most of the interviews so far. The host, golf journalist Derek Duncan, is incredibly knowledgeable and has a very natural presentation style. He doesn’t get in the way of his guests but, from what I've heard so far, they feed off each other. Probably one for the more hard-core architecture fan, but the recent Peter Kessler interview was one of the best I have heard for a long time.

If you are looking to find a golf podcast to add to your schedule, I hope you have found this useful. There are some others out there, and more are springing up all the time, so please do let me know if you think there are any I should add to my list ahead of the 2019 review!

golf podcast review

Masters Ticket Prices Set New Highs

FullSizeRender.jpg

If you are looking for evidence of the excitement building around this year's Masters then look no further than the price of a ticket for the last round. Sunday tickets are currently trading on Stubhub at amost $2,400 a pop, that's a whopping 44% up on the price at this stage last year.

Ticket prices this year had been relatively stable compared to last year, at around $1,800 each, until the last 72 hours when Masters fever seems to have kicked in.

FullSizeRender.jpg

What happens next will depend a lot on how the leaderboard shapes up over the next few days. If we have a Woods/McIlroy showdown on Sunday afternoon then prices will surely hit new highs. If we have a less glamorous pairing heading off last, then they could drop significantly.

If you are thinking of heading to Augusta and haven't got a ticket yet then you may want to hold off on your purchase. Last year, prices fell during the week. Despite a strong leaderboard on the Sunday, tickets were available on the morning from Stubhub for around the $1,000 mark. Few people want to take the risk of being left high-and-dry without a ticket so buy them in advance. If you can hold your nerve you may get a relative bargain.

While Stubhub is one option for buying a ticket, many still like to pick theirs up from touts nearby to Augusta National. The advantages are that you don't have to queue to pick them up and return them at the Stubhub office, and you are also likely to get them a little cheaper than from the online broker.

The downside is that if your ticket is a fake or has been cancelled (as apparently is happening a little more this year) you may have to work a little harder to get your money back.

I can recommend Jimmy D who sets up next to T-Bonz, just outside of the legal exclusion zone. He’s been there for over 20 years and works many major sports events across the US. He will undercut Stubhub a little and will be there if you have any problems, which he says has only happened once or twice before.

It is a shame that mere mortals cannot easily get inside the gates at Augusta National as the tickets have largely been in the hands of the same patrons for years. For many of the good people of Augusta, scalping Masters’ tickets is a tradition unlike any other. Whether this will be a bumper year for them will depend on what happens over the next couple of days.

 

5 picks for the Masters

DSC_0324.jpg

It's impossible to thumb through my Twitter feed for more than a couple of seconds this week before stumbling on yet another 'top picks for the Masters' article. And the world probably doesn't need another one! However, given the amazing success of my tips for last year's Open (hopefully you are still spending the each way winnings from Kuchar at 50/1 and Leishman at 45/1) I feel it would be remiss of me not to add to your Twitter clutter. So here goes!

The Masters should be the easiest of all the Majors to pick the winner. This year there are only 87 participants and it's easy to whittle that number down quite quickly when you take away all those who qualify by virtue of their past champion status, amateurs, first time participants and winners of various global 'grow the game' initiatives.

Augusta is also not the kind of place where you can just turn up and find your game. Realistically, we are looking for players who are sharp at the moment and, since experience counts for a huge amount here, it does no harm at all to have a good knowledge of the course.

At the head of the betting this week are McIlroy (10/1) and Spieth (12/1). McIlroy was clearly dialled in at Bay Hill recently but, outside of that week, his iron play hasn't been good enough this year - he's languishing in 93rd place in the PGA Tour for strokes gained approaching the green. Of course, when he gets it going, he's one of the very best in the world, but he definitely puts the pressure on himself at Augusta and that could go either way. 10/1 isn't value.

Watching Jordan Spieth putt this year has not been for the faint-hearted - he is an amazing 185th on the PGA Tour for strokes gained putting. He found something last week at Houston for sure, but there must be demons in his head. While his course pedigree is pretty special, he simply doesn't fit the form category.

I'm sure it isn't hyperbole to say that Tiger Woods will get more attention this week than any other golfer has, at any tournament, for the last decade. What he has achieved in the last few weeks is beyond what even the most devoted fan could have hoped for. While he is capable of golf that no other player today is, I think there are too many questions about his driving and mental fortitude to say he represents value at fifth favourite. Another to avoid.

So, with that in mind, here are my 5 To Watch this week. (And just for the record, if it is a McIlroy/Spieth/Woods playoff on Sunday night, you won't find many people happier than me!)

Ian Poulter - 66/1
What a difference a week makes. Poulter's journey to this year's Masters has been better-documented than most and there has to be a concern that he has used up too much adrenaline over the last two weeks. However, Poulter is possibly the world's most streaky player. So, if he can keep the putter going this week, 66/1 may look generous. Also, he has decent form here. He's made cuts in 10 of the 11 times he's played here, including a 6th place finish in 2015. Can you imagine the joy for European golf fans if there's a Poulter chest thump on Sunday night as he takes down Patrick Reed? Dare we dream?!

Has a chest ever been thumped with such fervour as Poults'?!

Sergio Garcia - 33/1
Many years ago, in the world before the internet, a book came out every year, full of stats and betting selections, written by professional golf tipster Keith Elliott. He had all kinds of hypotheses for how to find a winner, including the nappy factor! Basically, he said that a golfer performed better than normal in the weeks after the birth of a child and were worth a punt! There was something in it for sure, but unfortunately not enough European pros were having babies at the time to allow me to give up a life of working to profit from this insight.

Sergio has had a quiet season so far as he has been getting ready for the arrival of little Azalea. But when he has teed it up, he has been steady. When it comes to strokes gained he's 11th off the tee and 1st for approaching the green.

His putting needs some attention but there is something in the view of Chris from No Laying Up, that you don't need to be an amazing putter to win around Augusta. Rather, you need to know where to put the ball on the green to give the easiest putt and have the skill to put it there. Sergio definitely has that skill and the last year has shown how much he is in love with Augusta. 33/1 definitely represents value.

Phil Mickelson - 18/1
While I think it is too early to call Woods' comeback for a bet, I have no such doubts about Phil. It seems that the stars are aligning perfectly for him to win at Augusta. Everything is screaming that this will be his week. He's on great form (a first, second and third already this season); he's hitting it beautifully (second on the PGA Tour for strokes gained); he's incredibly experienced at Augusta (no player in the field under 500/1 has played more often); and he's still left handed (the 13th is a lot easier to play as a wee cut off the tee than a soaring draw). 

Confidence is key at Augusta (it's why I'm opposing Spieth, McIlroy and Woods this week) and I suspect that no-one in the world has more than Mickelson at the moment. This place was made for him.

Bubba Watson - 18/1
Bubba may be chasing Phil hard in the confidence stakes going into this week. Two wins in the last 6 weeks is pretty incredible given the 2017 he endured with his fluorescent balls. He benefits too from his love of the course and its appeal to the left-handed golfer

 Still the best moment ever in the Butler Cabin

Still the best moment ever in the Butler Cabin

I'm not sure how many fans' or players' hearts will leap if they see Bubba's name climbing up the leaderboard over the next few days. If you are looking for evidence that he doesn't get much love from his fellow pros then exhibit A would be the anonymous survey of PGA pros where he topped the list of names (by some distance) of 'players you wouldn't help in a fight'. Exhibit B would be his failure to be selected for the 2016 Ryder Cup, despite missing out by 1 spot for automatic qualification and being 7th in the World Rankings at the time. From a European fan's point of view, a dramatic drop-off in form now he is locked in for the 2018 team would be awesome, but I suspect he will have a good showing here first.

Justin Rose - 16/1
This is the least original selection of the week. I have barely seen a preview that didn't mention him, which makes the 16/1 still available all the more notable. His global form of late is fairly formidable, his iron play as pure as ever and he will only have gained knowledge and support from his performance here last year. He's finished second in 2 of the last 3 years and never missed a cut here. Johnson and Thomas may be lower odds but, over four rounds this week, I'll take Justin. 

Top 10 tips for a visit to Augusta

I have been lucky enough to attend The Masters twice, and both times had 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, I have a few tips which may help you get the most out of it.

augusta viewing

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 Columbia or Athens. These are up to a couple of hours outside of Augusta and, as such, your days will be very long and the time you have to spend on the course will be dependent on your organiser's transport schedules.

On my first visit, we rented a house 20 minutes walk from the first tee. The second time, we stayed in a motel nearby. It was a fantastic feeling to wake up knowing that we were a mere stroll from the Masters.

The Friday evening in 2014 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 from the time. They were more than happy to chat to us as the sun set. Had we been scrabbling to get out of the car park or find our bus, we would have missed out.

Hotels can be 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 content - the pictures sure make a nice screensaver! 

masters practice.jpg

3. Don't just stay in one place - walk the course.
One of the great things about the Masters is that the course is not busy. They don't say how many patrons/punters are on the course on any given day, but we never felt we couldn't see the action. Indeed, at times, it was slightly surreal just how close we could get to the action. Last year I saw every single shot that Garcia and Rose hit - until the 18th hole when I only missed their tee shots.

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 - that means that you don't risk having a C list celebrity 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, finding myself stuck behind a stand, hearing the cheers going up trying to work out what is going on. No such concern here. On the Sunday, with a couple of groups still to come through, we had no problem wandering down to the stand behind the 12th tee which overlooks the 11th green, before nipping over to the stand behind the 13th.

Also, there are fantastic vantage points to stand on all over the course. You have probably heard from some of the commentators that the course is more hilly than it looks on TV (!) and that really lends itself to finding a great spot to watch a few groups coming through.

DSC_0169 (1).jpg

4. Get the most from the green seats
This takes a bit of getting used to. Most patrons will have a green folding 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!). Then, you simply 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 you are 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 return.

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 useful information because it obviously works both ways. When you are out on the course and you fancy a sit down, you are welcome to sit in any available 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 to people
Without a doubt, Augusta has a very interesting bunch of spectators and 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 us. 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 the title back in 1948.

In more recent years, if you had been following Lee Westwood, the odds were that Ant, Dec and Alan Shearer would 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 and most have been really happy to chat. 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. 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 does all become a little bit samey! We got through a few beers over the course of the week and collected a fair few of the hard plastics cups they were served in - I think I came home with 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...

masters food.jpg

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 whole day, you will grow to hate it. Instead, leave it at a shopping check-in and pick it up at the end of the day. The queues weren't too horrible.

masters merchandise

8. Enjoy being out of contact for the day
There is really no way you can get a mobile phone into the ground. There is airport style security to navigate and even if you did manage to get past that then is no way you would survive a sly check of Twitter. There are cameras in the trees...

It is a strange, but slightly uncomfortable feeling being out of contact with the rest of the world for 12 hours. It is a very unusual position for most of us these days. In fact, the only other time I've managed it in the three years between Masters trips has been on a long haul flight. But it forces you to take stock, contemplate what is unfolding before your eyes and actually smell the roses. Or azaleas in this case.

One frustrating aspect of this policy is that there is no way to stay in touch with anything happening on the course but the group you are watching. There are lots of leaderboards which get updated to oohs and aahs from the crowd, but I think selling a radio with on course coverage, like at the Ryder Cup and The Open, would enhance the experience. It's interesting to see afterwards what was being said on social media compared with how it felt on the course at the time.  

So, hard as it might be, try to enjoy the feeling of isolation from the rest of the world. It's a bit like playing a three club challenge - interesting to do from time to time, but probably not something you'd want to do every day.

9. Book restaurants in advance
Augusta isn't blessed with that many great restaurants, but there are plenty which are perfectly serviceable. TripAdvisor is normally your friend - just make sure you book ahead as the top few do get very busy.

Palmetto (1).png

10. Get to Palmetto
While your trip will probably be focussed primarliy on the Masters, I would encourage you to try to play some golf as well, if you can. We played 2 rounds - once at the slightly bizarre Sage Valley and once at Palmetto. Palmetto is an absolute delight. It's a course which Alister MacKenzie had a big hand in creating and there are definitely some hints of the genius that made Augusta here. It's a fun course which is only open to visitors to play during Masters' week every year.
 

The 10 most under-rated golf courses on the planet

Many golf courses in the world are household names and those feature high in my list of the top googled golf courses. However, what about the courses which the experts rank highly but go largely under the radar when it comes to the world's googlers?

To find out, I have taken the top 100 courses on my Ultimate Top 100 list and compared the rankings on that list with their positions in the list of Google golf course searchs for the last 12 months. That gives us this top 10 of the most under-rated (well, definitely under-searched relative to quality) golf courses out there -

10. Chicago Golf Club
Ultimate Top 100 Ranking - 26. Google Search Ranking - 58. Difference - 32.
All but 2 of the top 10 least searched courses are private golf clubs and Chicago Golf Club is a secret to many. One of the 5 founding members of the USGA, this was the first 18 hole course in the USA. It was designed by CB Macdonald originally and redesigned by the great Seth Raynor. There are only 120 members and you have to be invited by one of them for a game if you want to play. So, if you ever do meet a member, be nice!

9. Kingston Heath Golf Club
Ultimate Top 100 Ranking - 16. Google Search Ranking - 50. Difference - 34.
I was surprised to see Kingston Heath in this least searched list, but its geography is probably the reason for the appearance. Indeed its neighbour, Royal Melbourne, just misses out on the list in position 12, probably for similar reasons. Kingston Heath is one of only two courses on this list that anyone can get a game on with a bit of planning. Visitors are welcome on Mondays, Thursday and Fridays and the course receives nothing but rave reviews from all those who play it.

8. Golf de Mortontaine
Ultimate Top 100 Ranking - 39. Google Search Ranking - 74. Difference - 35.
I read this article by Geoff Shackleford about Morfontaine and was determined to find a way to get a game. It is one of the very few uber private courses in Europe and yet, where there's a will, there's a way - details on how to get a tee time are included in my review. It is a phenomenal golf course and a wonderful place but often there will be no more than a handful of people on the course on a day. I've played it twice now and there is absolutely no doubt this is both the number 1 course in mainland Europe, and mainland Europe's best kept secret.

 Morfontaine is one of the most idyllic golf courses you will find anywhere in the world.

Morfontaine is one of the most idyllic golf courses you will find anywhere in the world.

7. Cypress Point
Ultimate Top 100 Ranking - 1. Google Search Ranking - 35. Difference - 35.
That's right. The best golf course on the planet is also one of the most under-searched! I reckon if I went to my golf club on Sunday morning and asked 100  players to name the best golf course in the world, I would be lucky if more than a couple came up with Cypress Point.

It is veiled in secrecy - the course is rarely seen on television and your golf magazine won't have photo-shoots from the practice range. No, this is the very best golf course in the world which very few will ever see. Apparently the first tee time every day is available to unaccompanied guests but for the rest you need to be with a member. If you do want to get a taste of what the course holds, be sure to check out The Match by Mark Frost - my review is here. A fantastic story of a bygone age on this magnificent course.

6. Shanqin Bay Golf Club
Ultimate Top 100 Ranking - 56. Google Search Ranking - 94. Difference - 38.
We are going ridiculously private here. This Coore and Crenshaw course, overlooking the South China Sea, is said to have only 50 members and getting a game here takes a lot of ingenuity. China has a lot of awfully drab looking golf courses but this absolutely isn't one of them. It looks amazing but will likely remain a mystery for most for years to come.

5. Kawana Hotel Golf Course
Ultimate Top 100 Ranking - 54. Google Search Ranking - 93. Difference - 41.
Anyone who stays at the Kawana Hotel can get a game on the Fuji course which is Japan's second best course. However, because my results only show English language terms (I am not picking up Japanese searches) and it seems not many Westerners are planning a trip to Japan. Those who do make it out there though are rewarded by a truly unique experience. If you are thinking of going then check out these tips from John Sabino on what to expect on a Japanese golf trip!

4. Prairie Dunes
Ultimate Top 100 Ranking - 24. Google Search Ranking - 71. Difference - 47
Prairie Dunes, in the windy state of Kansas, is described as an inland links course. Its website says 'Prairie Dunes is an American original, and one of the most scenic courses anywhere. You could never mistake photographs of it for any other American course, although it has often been confused with the very best of the British Isles'. Again, it's a private course, but I get the sense it may be a little more accessible than many on this list (it even has a website with a nice walkthrough here). But is is in the middle of nowhere, with little passing traffic. TPC Sawgrass this is not!

3. Hirono Golf Club
Ultimate Top 100 Ranking - 37. Google Search Ranking - 90. Difference - 53.
Another Japanese entry, but unlike Kawana this is firmly in the territory of 'hard to get on'. Sabino compares it to Pine Valley or Morfontaine which is pretty illustrious company to keep. You probably won't have much luck just calling up the club to get a round, but it is possible to find a high-end organised trip with a bit of digging on the interweb.

2. Friar's Head
Ultimate Top 100 Ranking - 22. Google Search Ranking - 83. Difference - 61.
I absolutely adore Friar's Head. This Long Island Coore and Crenshaw course may only be 15 years old, but it is simply sensational. And yet very, very few people outside of the hardcore, golf architecture community have heard of it. The course meanders through magnificent dunes and is fun, accessible and breaktaking - you can read my review here.

It is very private for sure, and you will need an introduction from a member to get on, but if you do get the chance to play this course, then drop everything and go!

 The phenomenal Friar's Head is one of golf's best kept secrets

The phenomenal Friar's Head is one of golf's best kept secrets

1. National Golf Links of America
Ultimate Top 100 Ranking - 6. Google Search Ranking - 70. Difference - 64.
The National, or NGLA, is a near neighbour of Shinnecock Hills and ranked just one place below it, at number 6 in the world. Yet, when it comes to google searches, it pulls in only a tenth of the volume of its well known neighbour. The National is another Maconald/Raynor creation but hasn't had huge mainstream media exposure over the years. The only tournament of note it has hosted being the Walker Cup.

 The iconic windmwill at NGLA

The iconic windmwill at NGLA

And yet, those who do go will come away with huge smiles on their faces. When I played it I found the welcome tremendously warm and the course a delight. It has raced up the world rankings in recent years as its reputation has soared. However, the course simply doesn't impinge on the consciousness of the casual golf follower. For that reason, it takes the title of the most under-appreciated golf course in the world!