Is This the Best Overseas Golf Itinerary?

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:

In 2013, Foster and his wife joined me for dinner in the dining room at Formby Golf Club, one of my favorite courses anywhere. I actually spent several nights in the Formby clubhouse, in this room:

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:

And right next door to Hillside is Royal Birkdale, whose clubhouse was designed to look a little like an ocean liner:

Birkdale is one of my favorite Open courses. I played it with a young member who had a lot less trouble with it than I did. In fact, he shot pretty close to even par:

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:

My Amazing Eagle at Cabot Cliffs This Morning

Look closely at the edge of the cliff on the right side of the photo below, which was taken by Gene’s caddie on the sixteenth tee at Cabot Cliffs this morning:
Here’s a closer look:

And closer still:
Bald eagles are practically as common as robins in Inverness, Nova Scotia—one of many reasons, though by no means the only reason, to take a golf trip to Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, as a detachment from the Sunday Morning Group did this past week. More about that later.

The End of Sand

I have an article in this week’s New Yorker about sand—and there’s some actual golf in it. Here’s an excerpt, about a round I played in Dubai:

One day, I played golf with an Australian who worked for a major real-estate developer. The course, like Dubai itself, had been built on empty desert, and I commented that creating fairways and greens in such a forbidding environment must be difficult. “No,” the Australian said. “Deserts are easy, because you can shape the sand into anything you like.” The difficult parts, paradoxically, are the areas that are supposed to be sand: deserts make lousy sand traps. The wind-blown grains are so rounded that golf balls sink into them, so the sand in the bunkers on Dubai’s many golf courses is imported. Jumeirah Golf Estates—on the outskirts of the city, next to the desert—has two courses, Fire and Earth, both designed by Greg Norman. The sand in the bunkers on the Earth course is white (the most prized color for golf sand) and was bought from a producer in North Carolina. The sand on the Fire course is reddish brown—more like the desert across the road. Norman’s company bought it from Hutcheson, which mined it at its quarry in Ontario, sifted it to make it firmer than volleyball sand, kiln-dried it, dyed it, and loaded it onto a ship.

Bonus golf-related sand trivia (not in the article):The white sand in the bunkers at last year’s U.S. Open, at Oakmont, and Ryder Cup, at Hazeltine, came from a single quarry, in Ohio. It’s a trademarked brand called Tour Grade Signature Blend, from Fairmount Santrol, a Michigan company that also produces sand for molds used in metal-casting.

The photographs above and below are of an Army Corps of Engineers beach-nourishment project on the Jersey Shore—which I also wrote about. The metal boxes in the photo below are for unexploded munitions, which the Army dumped off the coast after the Second World War and the dredges sometimes slurp up.

Shouldn’t We Just Get Rid of Golf?

I traveled to Colorado, Arizona, California, and Utah without my golf clubs recently, promoting my new book, Where the Water Goes. Among other things, I gave a talk in the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Los Angeles Central Library.

There was a Q & A period at the end, and one member of the audience asked, in effect, whether a good way to cope with drought in the West might not be to get rid of golf. I gave my usual defense (“Blah, blah, blah, blah”). Later that evening, though, I thought of a different answer: Why not cut down all the palm trees in Los Angeles? None of them grow there naturally, and they consume a lot of water. Most people assume that palm trees (and citrus trees) are indigenous to L.A., but they’re not, and they’d die without irrigation. Here’s a photo of a palm-tree planting project in the city in the nineteen-twenties:

Better get rid of the gardens, too:

Nothing you see in the photo above is a native species. The climate of Los Angeles is semi-arid, and without irrigation the city would look like the set of “Rawhide.” There are places in the United States where watering fairways is clearly irrational, but if we’re sane about costs and trade-offs most regions can manage a variety of irrigated outdoor recreational facilities, including parks, athletic fields, and golf courses. More about that in my book.

Winter Golf on a Course That Doesn’t Close

In my part of the country at this time of the year, avid golfers become migratory. Some fly hundreds of miles south and don’t return until spring, but most of us circle the ground closer to home, like Canada geese searching for open water. We study the sky and the Web and the Weather Channel, and when we hear rumors of snow-free fairways we hit the phones. Quite often, the Sunday Morning Group lands at D. Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course, a muny about an hour from where we live. “The Wheel,” as regulars call it, stays open all year. Area golfers whose home courses are closed often winter there.

Twelve of us made the trip on Sunday. We had meant to go the Sunday before, but just enough snow fell to shut down all the golf courses within a hundred miles of our town. The Wheel has two eighteens, the Black and the Red. We played the Black, which most of us prefer, although when we started there was so much fog that it was hard to be sure which course we were playing. The fog lifted, then returned, then lifted again, then returned again—and I discovered that my laser rangefinder doesn’t work when a golf hole looks like this:

The fog burned away for good while we were playing the second nine. At the base of the 150-yard marker pole in the middle of one fairway, I found an owl pellet, containing the indigestible parts of whatever the owl had eaten recently (in this case, mostly mice). The owl must have been perched on the marker pole when he coughed it up:

In the grillroom after our round, we ran into some old friends: The Boys, a transplanted winter men’s group from other local courses, including H. Smith Richardson, also a muny, a couple of miles away. The Boys use two custom scorecards when they move to the Wheel: one for when the ground is frozen and one for when it’s not. (They change the stroke indexes of a few holes when the fairways are like concrete, to compensate for extra roll.) Here’s the back of their frozen card:

Their organizer is Mark Haba, who runs a machinery company in Bristol. He collects the money and makes up the day’s teams, using a system that involves printed charts, a zippered binder, and six numbered poker chips. “We count two balls,” he told me, “one gross and one net.” They also play what they call “Chicago” skins—which, as near as I could tell, are just skins. They had thirty-two players on Sunday; their complete roster, including alternates, lists a couple of dozen more:

The main difference between The Boys and the Sunday Morning Group is gastronomic: they eat pizza; we eat bacon cheeseburgers:

Also, unlike us, they don’t give extra handicap strokes for wearing shorts (as Fritz, Barney, and I did on Sunday).

Other than that, we’re basically interchangeable—as cold-weather golfers tend to be.

Playing Golf With Donald Trump

I’ve been slow about adding new posts to this blog, mainly because I’m no longer “in association with Golf Digest.” I’m not going to stop, but, after a little rest, I’m going to aim for something more like once a week. In the meantime, I’ve written an article for The New Yorker’s website about a day I spent with Donald Trump back in 2012.

Fred Astaire, Trick-shot Artist

circa 1938: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987), the American singer and dancer on the golf course. (Photo by John Miehle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Photo by John Miehle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fred Astaire’s proudest achievement in life, he told an interviewer in 1982, was “a 4-wood I hit on the 13th hole at Bel-Air Country Club in June of 1945.” (It landed on the green and rolled into the cup.) His handicap was 10, approximately. He was a worse player than Humphrey Bogart, but a better one than Glenn Ford, who portrayed Ben Hogan in “Follow the Sun,” very possibly the worst movie ever made.

Fred Astaire at the Masters in 1946 or 1947. Anyone recognize the competitor on the right? His badge identifies him as Player 29. (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Astaire wanted to incorporate golf into a dance routine. “Fooling around at Bel-Air one day,” he recalled, “I did a few impromptu rhythm steps just before hitting one off the tee, and was surprised to find that I could really connect that way.” He demonstrated for the director of the movie he was working on—Carefree, co-starring Ginger Rogers, released in 1938—and they incorporated it into the film.

There’s a widely told story that Astaire did the sequence in one take, and that his shots all landed within a few feet of each other—all untrue. RKO set up a driving range on its lot in Encino three weeks before principal photography began, and Astaire practiced the moves for two weeks. “I had about 300 golf balls and five men shagging them, a piano and Hal Borne to play for me,” he recalled. The final sequence involved many takes over two days, and what you see in the movie was pieced together from the best bits. In the clip below, the golf stuff starts about a minute in. Notice that Astaire wears two golf gloves (with buttons!) throughout.

Bobby Jones And Fred Astaire At The Augusta National Golf Club (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Same Masters. This golfer I can identify. (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Who Needs Bunker Rakes?

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Golf, much more than other sports, is a game of good and bad luck. A great drive rolls into a divot: bogey. A lousy drive bounces off a boundary stake: birdie. Such unpredictability isn’t a defect. The tension between happy accidents and undeserved disasters helps to turn mere hackers into obsessives and philosophers. To make tennis comparably thought-provoking, you’d have to shift the lines during rallies and randomly lift and lower the net.

Yet golfers complain. Instead of savoring the game’s sublime inconsistency, we yearn for courses as predictable as tennis courts. We grumble when greens aren’t flawless, when fairways aren’t uniformly carpet-like, when sand is either too fluffy or not fluffy enough. A friend of mine once skulled an explosion shot, then slammed his wedge against his bag and cursed the greenkeeper’s crew for having failed to undo the effects of the previous day’s hard rain. Tour pros are even more finicky. If the sand in one trap isn’t indistinguishable from the sand in every other, they gripe.

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Complaints about “unfair” bunkers are especially contrary to the spirit of golf: aren’t hazards supposed to be hazardous? On TV, the standard greenside-bunker shot is about as thrilling to watch as a two-foot putt. You know the guy is going to spin it close, and he knows he’s going to spin it close—otherwise, he wouldn’t have yelled “Get in the bunker!” when his ball was in the air. Sand’s function in a tour event is often just to make the surrounding grass seem troublesome.

There’s a simple remedy: follow the example of Pine Valley, the legendary New Jersey golf club, which for decades has been listed at or near the top of nearly every ranking of the best courses in the world. Pine Valley has many, many bunkers—some small, some large, some soft, some hard some coffin-shaped, some bottomless, some seemingly miles across—but no rakes. The club’s maintenance regularly smooths everything out, but, if your ball ends up in a footprint (or behind a rock or under a cactus), that’s your tough luck, and you deal with it. As you should.

Rake-free bunkers would make televised golf a lot more interesting to watch. They would even be good for choppers like you and me. Pristine, consistent bunkers are expensive to build and maintain. Why not let a course’s sandy areas take care of themselves, and spend the savings on something more obviously beneficial, like cutting back overgrown trees? Most golfers, who can’t hit sand shots anyway, wouldn’t notice a difference. (That guy I mentioned earlier skulls balls from well-conditioned bunkers, too.) Everyone else either would learn an arsenal of useful new shots or would get better at doing what bunkers are supposed to make golfers want to do: stay out of them in the first place.

Back-Roads Scotland: Tain Golf Club

Tain is an Old Tom Morris layout on southern side of Dornoch Firth. It’s less than five miles in a straight line from Royal Dornoch, and less than ten miles by car. I played it in 1992, on my first golf trip to Scotland. Jerry Quinlan, of Celtic Golf, who planned my trip, had arranged for me to play with the club’s general manager and one of the members. I got lost in the town and didn’t arrive at the club until exactly eight, when we were supposed to tee off. Here’s where I got lost:

The manager, whose name was Norman, and the member, whose name was Ian, were already on the tee when I pulled up. Ian looked peeved and impatient. I jumped from my car, pulled on my shoes, breathlessly hit a drive without a practice swing or a waggle, and took off after them.

Norman and Ian, it turned out, where playing in a club competition. Even so, they played at a pace that would have staggered the average American golfer. I have friends at home who think I play ridiculously fast, but I had to concentrate to keep up. I watched them closely, to make sure I put down my bag on the side of the green that was nearest the next tee, and I always had to be aware of whose turn it was to do what. No plumb-bobbing!

If there was any doubt about the playing order, one of them would quickly establish it. “First David, then myself, then Ian,” Norman said on one hole as he pulled the pin. Each golfer was expected to line up his putt or select his next club while the others were putting or hitting. Even so, we played more slowly than the two players behind us, who occasionally had to wait.

Tain is surrounded by farms and separated from Dornoch Firth by fields full of sheep; at one point, I had to retrieve my ball from a pigpen, which was out of bounds. Still, my round was one of the happiest of my trip. After I had jogged along with Norman and Ian for a couple of holes, they apparently forgave me for being late, and from then on we chatted between shots. Norman told me where to aim on every tee—the bunker on the left, the last tree on the right—and I manged to hit my ball on the proper line surprisingly often. Later, it occurred to me that my unaccustomed accuracy was probably the result of my aiming at something. Before that day, I don’t think I had ever aimed a drive at anything smaller than the entire fairway—in effect, aiming at nothing.

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After our round, Norman and Ian bought me a beer in the clubhouse bar. The two players who had been behind us were also there. Ian good-naturedly complained to them that they had talked too loudly during their match, and that their voices had bothered him. “If you had been playing at the proper pace,” one of them said, “you would have been too far ahead to hear me.”

Atlantic City Country Club: Great Golf Course, Great Locker Room, Great Bar

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Every autumn, the Sunday Morning Group takes an end-of-season golf trip to Atlantic City, which, in addition to being a cesspool of sin, depravity, and despair, is a terrific low-cost, high-quality golf destination. During this year’s trip—our seventeenth—we added a new course to our rotation: Atlantic City Country Club. It’s now one of our all-time favorites, along with Twisted Dune, the Bay Course at Seaview, Renault Winery, and Scotland Run—courses that would stand out anywhere. Here are a few reasons to visit ACCC, which has been open to the public since 2007:

  • The club was founded in 1897, so next year will be its 120th anniversary.
  • In the olden days, a bell was rung to warn golfers that the last trolley back to Atlantic City was about to depart. Timing was an issue because high tide sometimes covered the tracks, making the schedule irregular. Also, everyone was drunk.

  • The term “birdie,” in its golf application, was coined there in 1903, when Abner Smith, a member from Philadelphia, hit his approach stiff on the what was then the twelfth hole. He exclaimed that he had hit “a bird of a shot,” and the term caught on, partly thorough his own encouragement. (That hole, with a different green, is now the second. The original second green has been preserved, for historical reasons, as a remote practice area.)
  • The men’s locker room is one of the greatest male sanctuaries on earth:

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  • The U.S. Amateur was held there in 1901.
  • The U. S. Women’s Open has been held there three times. In 1948, it was won by Babe Zaharias, who celebrated afterward by playing the piano in the club’s Taproom.
  • Arnold Palmer played there often in the 1950s, when he was in the Coast Guard and stationed nearby, and he has an honorary locker (which was shrouded in black, to mark his death, during our visit):

  • Al Capone, Bob Hope, Willie Mays, and Joe Namath also played there and also have honorary lockers.
  • Oh, yeah, and the course—which was designed partly by Willie Park, Jr., among others, and was reworked in 1999 by Tom Doak—is swell, too: