Barney’s and my drives on the sixth hole this past Sunday:
Classic Dog’s Balls.
Among the advertisers on the Golf Channel broadcast of the current LPGA Tour event is the Duluth Trading Company, which is promoting its Ballroom Jeans. Those aren’t jeans that are nice enough to waltz in; they’re jeans that have extra room for your balls. A women’s sports event may seem like an odd place to advertise a product intended for overweight middle-aged men—but keep in mind that the main viewing audience for LPGA Tour events is overweight middle-aged men.
The photograph above is of the clubhouse at Indian Hills Country Club, in Kansas City, in about 1950. The course was designed by A. W. Tillinghast in 1927, and the photograph was taken by my father’s father, who was a member. I came across a big box of his slides recently, and for several days I’ve been obsessed with scanning them. Here’s my grandfather himself, at about the same time, during a trip to California with my grandmother:
As the father of a friend once said of Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca (the greatest golf movie ever made), “Those pants are a little tight under the arms.” Here’s a picture my grandfather took of my grandmother (feeding something to a chipmunk) during a car trip to Colorado in 1945:My grandparents traveled to Florida almost every winter, until my grandfather couldn’t drive anymore (my grandmother never learned). The picture below, which my grandfather took in the early fifties, goes a long way toward explaining why people who live in Florida have trouble with seawater even when the wind isn’t blowing a hundred and fifty miles an hour:
That brings me to Mike Riley, who is an occasional correspondent and a member of the Big Dogs, a regular men’s group at the World’s Second-Best Golf Club, in northwestern Florida. The Big Dogs are usually more weather-averse than the Sunday Morning Group is—fifty degrees and sunny is too wintry for most of them—but, to their credit, they’ve developed some useful weather-related clothing technology:
Even more to their credit, they didn’t evacuate their golf club this past weekend. On Sunday morning, Riley wrote to me, “It’s official. Big Dogs are going to play under hurricane warning. Not unprecedented, but first time since Opal.” (Opal was a Category Four hurricane that hammered the Gulf Coast in 1995.) Riley’s post-round report:
Our foursome finished in 2:29 no time for pictures. Gonna be hard to figure bets, clubhouse lost power while we were on the front nine. Gusts to 60. Pictures really wouldn’t have done much justice. Two pins snapped in the wind and oak tree fell as we were playing number 8. 18 players in the game today with 18 carts. We played during Hermine in 2016 but were on the west side of that storm which is the side to be on. It was only a cat 1 but it did a number on Tallahassee.
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is kind of hard to understand, at least for me, and it isn’t a good fit with golf; Sandy, in 2012, was also just Category One, yet it wiped out several courses in my part of the world. Maybe we should measure hurricanes the way golfers have always measured wind, in terms of extra clubs required for normal shots. At Portstewart once, I hit Baby Driver on a hundred-and-thirty-yard downhill par 3 and was the only member of my foursome to reach the green, and on a couple of occasions in Scotland and Ireland I’ve played in what I would guess were seven- or eight-club winds. What’s the most a reasonably adventurous golfer could comfortably handle—a ten-club wind, gusting to twelve? Unless someone has a better idea, I’m going to call that the maximum.
My first driver—which was partly responsible for my decision, at the age of thirteen, to give up golf for more than twenty years—was a two-generation hand-me-down with a head that could have filled in as the foot of a Queen Anne chair. Nowadays, though, even seven-year-olds demand titanium. A few years ago, I played in a senior event with a guy from another club who carried an ancient Spalding persimmon 3-wood, but he was the only Luddite in the field and he never hit a good shot with it. Golfers who still use clubs with wooden heads are invariably older than seventy, and they are stubborn, cheap, ignorant, or a combination of all three. You seldom see actual wood anymore even in the golf bags of estranged wives, who occupy the lowest rung on the club recycling ladder.
The question, though, is whether this change in technology necessitates a change in terminology. Various prominent television commentators, Johnny Miller among them, have decided that it does. They refer to woods as “metals,” saying, for example, that a certain player has elected to go for the green with a “fairway metal” of some kind—perhaps a “3-metal.” Jim Nantz, on CBS, sometimes refers to a fairway wood generically as “a metal-headed club.”
There are three things wrong with this trend. The first is that it creates more confusion than it eliminates, since almost all modern golf clubs, including irons and putters, are “metal-headed.” The second is that “wood” is no more anachronistic than “iron.” (Irons haven’t been made of iron since Britain was ruled by Romans. Should we start calling those clubs “alloys”?) The third is that avoiding “wood” is excessively fastidious, like objecting to the use of the (useful) word “hopefully.” The television commentators are proposing a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.
Besides, retaining an archaic expression creates the possibility for creative revisionism later on.
“Why are woods called ‘woods’?” your great-great-granddaughter may ask you someday.
“Well, Little One,” you can explain, “there was an awfully good player back around the turn of the century. He hit the ball farther than anybody else, and he won every prize there was to win. In fact, I taught him everything he knew. Woods were named after him.”
The British Women’s Open is on this week, and it’s being held on one of my favorite courses: Kingsbarns, in St. Andrews. The Golf Channel’s coverage so far seems to be limited to putts, commercials, and talking heads, but occasionally the camera drifts past a few holes, on its way from the leaderboard back to the commentators’ booth. I’ve played Kingsbarns only once, and that was thirteen years ago, but I still often think about it, and I want to go back.
Kingsbarns looks like a links course but is actually an optical illusion. It was carved (by an American! in 2000!) from a featureless swath of seaside pastureland—but despite its lack of an ancient pedigree it’s a terrific course and it’s unusually fun to play. In addition, the clubhouse is the right scale (small), and it has a good bar with the most amazing panoramic windows, plus leather chairs you could sleep all night in.
During my single round, in 2004, we were held up on every shot by a painfully slow group ahead of us. On the suggestion of our bus driver, we complained in the bar and were given all our drinks for free (then left a tip that was big enough to cover pretty much the entire tab). That night, we ate at a restaurant recommended by the same driver, who had overruled the recommendation of our caddies. The suspicion on the trip was that the driver was receiving kickbacks from the restaurants he took us to, although I was inclined to trust him, having eaten in a few caddie-recommended pubs over the years. Here’s the Kingsbarns clubhouse:
The clubhouse at Royal Birkdale Golf Club, where the Open is being held this week, was designed to look like an ocean liner cruising through a sea of fescue. Here’s the original conception, in a watercolor sketch that was submitted to the club in the early 1930s by the Liverpool architect George Tonge. (The painting is on display in the clubhouse):
The club has monkeyed with the building since it was built, by removing a number of the original Art Deco details and adding boxlike extensions, but the basic idea is intact. The building’s design influenced other architecture in the region, including this house, which is just up the road from the club:
And this one, which is across the road from the house in the photo above:
The Birkdale clubhouse also very directly influenced the design, by Alfred Ernest Shennan, of the clubhouse at Childwall Golf Club, in Liverpool, twenty-five miles to the south. The Childwall clubhouse, which was built in 1938, actually retains some features that were later removed from the Birkdale clubhouse, including its nautical-looking decks and railings:
One possible addition for both buildings: a few lifeboats suspended from the roof? A closer look at the Childwall clubhouse:
One nice thing about the Birkdale clubhouse is that you can see it from distant parts of the course, and can therefore use it to orient yourself as you wander through the dunes. A tiny bit of it is visible in this photo (of Ray), from a great trip that the Sunday Morning Group took to Lancashire in 2010:
In an earlier post, I mentioned that the resort at Cabot Links—on Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia—comes close to my conception of the ideal. I’ve written before that all you really need on a golf trip, in terms of accommodation, is a comfortable bed and a good shower, and that, in fact, the ideal arrangement might be a good shower with a comfortable bed in it. My room at Cabot wasn’t quite like that (although the shower was big enough to hold a bed), but it had many other desirable features (photos at the bottom of this post), among them:
And pushcarts and lockers were free, the caddies were fun to be with, the restaurants were nice but not too nice, the staff was almost unbelievably cheerful and accommodating, there were chocolate-chip cookies on the first tee, and we saw bald eagles every day.
I felt increasingly tired and achy, and several times at night I’d wake up in a sweat, then get the chills. I’ve tried to be really careful about ticks—and I’d managed to avoid tick-borne illnesses for eleven years, after missing my daughter’s college graduation with Lyme and ehrlichiosis—but my symptoms felt depressingly familiar. My doctor agreed, and put me on Doxycycline, the preferred Lyme antibiotic, without waiting for the results of the blood test.
People often say that once you’ve had Lyme you’ll always test positive, but that’s not true. Lyme antibodies can remain in the blood for months after treatment, and in some cases for a few years. But they eventually disappear. And, in fact, when my test results came back they were negative for both Lyme and ehrlichiosis. But they were positive for babesiosis, which the New York Department of Health describes as “a rare, severe and sometimes fatal tick-borne disease.” WTF!
Babesiosis is caused by a parasite that attacks red blood cells, and is therefore similar to malaria. My friend Ed was hospitalized with it a couple of years ago, and was very seriously ill, but sometimes it’s so mild as to be symptom-free, or virtually symptom-free, and in those cases the Centers for Disease Control recommends doing nothing but paying close attention. (The treatment is semi-nasty, and different from the one for Lyme.) Anyway, my doctor decided that I probably have Lyme, too, even though it hadn’t shown up in the blood test yet—you can get a full banquet of tick diseases from a single bite—and that I should complete my three-week course of Doxycycline. That means playing golf in long sleeves, long pants, a huge hat, and lots of sunscreen, because Doxycycline makes your skin extremely sensitive to the sun. In fact, Gene’s daughter once went skiing while taking it, and high-altitude solar exposure caused the whites of her eyes to temporarily turn brown.
On the other hand, I’ve had four of my best rounds of the year since I started taking the pills.
Eight friends and I recently spent four days playing six and a half rounds at Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, on Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia. There would have been twelve of us if three of the five lawyers in the original group hadn’t dropped out. The first lawyer to bail was Howard, whose principal objections were: (a) traveling to Cabot takes longer than traveling to Scotland; (b) playing two golf courses three times each is a waste of a good golf trip; and (c) overseas golf itineraries should consist solely of famous old courses that have been famous for a long time.
Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
It’s true that Cabot is slightly tricky to get to. Unless you have your own airplane, you fly to Halifax and then drive for three hours. But the flight is a breeze, especially by comparison with any flight to the British Isles—it’s less than two hours from either New York or Boston—and the drive, which follows the coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is pleasant in itself, especially if, as in our case, you’re being driven in one of Cabot’s fleet of eleven-passenger Mercedes vans. And once you’ve arrived at Cabot you don’t have to travel again until it’s time to go home. (There’s an ice-cream stand across the street, but you can walk.)
As for repeatedly playing the same two golf courses, I think three rounds could be considered the minimum ideal exposure to any great golf course. Repetition on that scale is hard to pull off if you’re racing death to the end of your bucket list, but you can’t fully appreciate a course until you given yourself opportunities to make up for bad shots and stupid decisions in earlier rounds. Besides, the best courses improve with repetition.
Both courses at Cabot also belong on the surprisingly long list of new and relatively new courses that hold their own in any comparison with the great courses of the past. (Cabot Links was designed by Rod Whitman, a Canadian protégé of Bill Coore’s, and Cabot Cliffs was designed by Coore and Ben Crenshaw.) And Cabot comes very close to my conception of the ideal golf resort.
Our rooms—all of which overlooked both the golf course and the water—were nice, but not too nice. The food was good, but not ridiculous. The staff was unfailingly friendly and accommodating without ever seeming overbearing. The week after our visit, one of the members of the women’s version of our club’s Sunday Morning Group went to Cabot with a friend. They liked it so much that, before they left, they signed up for a return visit, in the fall. All the guys on our trip are going to go back, too, Howard be damned.
I have an article in the summer issue of Links called “England’s Golf Coast.” It’s about a remarkable thirty-mile stretch of linksland that runs along the Lancashire coast between Liverpool and St. Annes, in northwestern England. The Golf Coast includes three of the ten courses on the active Open Championship Rota—Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale (where this year’s Open will be held), and Royal Lytham and St. Annes—but you could skip all three and still have an unforgettable trip. I’ve visited the area several times, most recently in 2013, and my friends have been talking about going back ever since our first trip there as a group, three years before that. The courses are so closely spaced that you can park yourself and your luggage in one place—no need for a coach and driver. In 2010, nine of us stayed mostly in three three-bedroom apartments in this building, in Southport:
The cost worked out to less than fifty dollars per man per night. The longest drive we had to golf was about an hour, and many of the courses we played were just a few minutes away. Here’s Barney in the living room of one of our apartments:
Below are photos of courses and people I mention in my Links article, taken during various trips over the years. First, St. Annes Old Links, which is next door to Royal Lytham and includes ground that was once part of its routing. Here are two members I played with. We wore rainsuits not because we expected rain but because the wind was blowing hard enough to shred ordinary golf clothing:
This is me in 2010 at West Lancashire Golf Club, known locally as West Lancs. It opened in 1873 and was the first Golf Coast course built north of the River Mersey. As is true of many courses in the area, you can travel to it by train from central Liverpool:A great guide to golf courses on the Lancashire coast is Links Along the Line, by Harry Foster, a retired teacher and a social historian. He rode along when I played Hesketh Golf Club, where he was a member for many years. (He died in 2014.)Hesketh isn’t my favorite course, but a couple of its oldest holes, on the second nine, are among my favorite holes. This view is back toward the clubhouse (the red-roofed white building near the center):
Hesketh has both a fascinating history (ask about the Hitler Tree) and a cool address:
The Formby course encircles a separate golf club, Formby Ladies. Don’t skip it, as I did until 2013, to my permanent regret. Among the women I played with was Anne Bromley, on the right in the photo below. Her father was once the head professional at Royal County Down:
Formby Ladies isn’t long, but if you aren’t careful it will eat you up. The club has an excellent history, which you can study over lunch in the clubhouse (known to members as the Monkey House):At a nature preserve down the road from Formby, I met a retired Merseyside policeman and his wife, who own a coffee concession. He invited me to join him and his son, an aspiring professional, for a round at Southport & Ainsdale, which hosted the Ryder Cup in 1933 and 1937 and the British Amateur in 2005.The first hole at S&A is a par 3, and it’s a corker:Right next door to S&A, on the other side of the railroad tracks, is Hillside:
In both 2010 and 2013, I spent one night in the Dormy House at Royal Lytham and St. Annes—part of a stay-and-play package that’s one of the greatest bargains in links golf. The view from my bedroom was across the practice green (and through mist) toward the clubhouse and the eighteenth hole:Here’s what the wind at Lytham—which wasn’t blowing when I took the photo below—has done to the trees. Many years ago, I wrote an article for Golf Digest whose opening line was “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.” The copy editor, who had apparently never heard of Bob Dylan, changed “weatherman” to “weather report.” I was mortified, but it turned out that none of the magazine’s readers had heard of Bob Dylan either. Anyway, leave your umbrella at home:You should play Royal Liverpool, of course, but don’t overlook Wallasey, just a few miles away:Wallasey was the home club of Dr. Frank Stableford, who in 1932 invented the round-rescuing scoring system that’s named for him. Here are the eighteenth green and the clubhouse:And, of course, if you somehow get tired of playing golf you can take any of a number of interesting side trips: