Let’s Check in With That Guy Who Has Played Every Golf Course in Ireland

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Kevin Markham lives south of Dublin and knows Irish golf better than anyone. He has played every eighteen-hole course in the country and written two excellent books about them: Hooked, a course-by-course guide, with ratings; and Driving the Green, the story of the seven-thousand-mile trip during which he played them all while somehow remaining married:

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I’ve had the good fortune to join him for rounds on four of the very best: Portstewart and Royal Portrush, in 2012, Royal County Down, in 2013, and the Island, in 2014. Here he is (on the left) at R.C.D., with Kevan Whitson, the head pro:

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And here he is at Portstewart:

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Recently, Markham wrote to say that the County Sligo Golf Club—which I’ve played, though not with him—has been undergoing significant changes. His report:
County Sligo Golf Club bears the hallmark of the great Harry Colt. His design work in the 1920s helped establish a global reputation for this links course, which is commonly known as Rosses Point. But times change, and in recent years the club’s profile, ranking, and revenues have declined. The response is a three-phase course upgrade under the guidance of the architect Pat Ruddy, a Sligo native. Phase One, which is underway, includes additional tee boxes, new bunkering, and extended greens, as well as one new green. It is a brave move to alter such a classic links course, but, Ruddy has said the improvements will “move County Sligo back to the very pinnacle of world golf.” One goal is to attract a major event. The ultimate prize would be the Irish Open in 2019, the same year that Royal Portrush is expected to host the Open Championship.

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Ruddy is sometimes accused of creating courses that are too difficult. I once published a list of the five toughest Irish courses, and three of them were his (the European Club, Sandy Hills at Rosapenna, and Druids Heath at Druids Glen). That said, I adore the European Club, and I rate Sandy Hills highly. My issue with Druids Heath is that you rarely see the landing area from the tee, which I find unrewarding when you hit a good drive.
You can see more of Markham’s photos of the Rosses Point renovations, with informative captions, here.
I myself played Rosses Point in 2011. A club competition was scheduled for the day I wanted to visit—the toughest time to play a visitor round in Ireland (or Scotland or England or anywhere else) is Saturday morning, when tee times are usually reserved for members —but David O’Donovan, the director of golf, told me that he and I could play ahead of the pack if I didn’t mind teeing off at 7:26. To make certain I’d be there on time, I stayed at the Yeats Country Hotel, which, according to the website on which I made my room reservation, is 0.0 miles from the clubhouse. I could see the course from my window, and in the morning I arrived at the golf shop a few minutes before O’Donovan.
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Rosses Point had just held a major amateur championship, the West of Ireland (whose past winners include Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy), so the course was in great shape. O’Donovan, who grew up in town in a family of excellent players, insisted that we take a golf cart—an Irish first for me. When you’re in a cart, it’s hard to get a feel for any golf hole, but we did make excellent time.
Rosses Point begins with two good holes up a hill, followed by two very good holes back. Then you tee off over a cliff—on a par 5 called the Jump—and work your way around a stretch of linksland that appears flat from above but turns out to be filled with seductive complications. Here’s the view from the tee on the Jump (although the camera flattens the cliff):
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We finished in two and a half hours, and then, since the kitchen hadn’t opened yet, we played the club’s third nine, which adjoins the lower portion of the championship course. We caught up to and joined an older member, who gave up golf for twenty years to please his second wife but had now begun playing again (and was in the process of giving up the wife). “My game is coming back,” he said—a man at peace.
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Up the Road From the Open: Ordeal by Asparagus, Death by Bacon, and the Formby Hippo

formbyasparagus Less than an hour up the Lancashire coast from Royal Liverpool Golf Club, where the 2014 Open was held, is the village of Formby, which is the home of two terrific courses, Formby Golf Club and Formby Ladies Golf Club. (It’s also the home of a forgettable Florida-style golf course, called Formby Hall.) Formby Golf Club abuts the Ainsdale Sand Dunes National Nature Reserve, one whose attractions is a small plot on which farmers grow asparagus, a once significant local crop. A man I met during a trip to the region last year told me that banquets for area golf-club captains held at Formby Golf Club had once been “ordeals by asparagus,” because diners had to be careful not to drip butter onto their red-silk tailcoats. I visited the Ainsdale dunes one afternoon between rounds, and, among other things, studied an informative historical display.

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I also bought a cup of coffee at a mobile stand, which was operated by a middle-aged couple.

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The man, whose name was Phil, noticed my golf cap and invited me to play golf with him and his son, Sean, at Southport & Ainsdale, a few miles farther up the road, where he was a member. We played a day or two later. The course is one of my many favorites in the area.

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Phil is a retired Merseyside policeman. At lunch after our round, I asked him what his toughest case as a cop had been, and he told me about a forty-three-year-old woman who had died under mysterious circumstances. “I attended her autopsy,” he said, “because she was from a tough neighborhood and there was a presumption of foul play.” The pathologist was baffled, but then, as he was finishing up, he noticed something odd in her throat and gripped it with a clamp—like that scene in “Twin Peaks” in which Special Agent Dale Cooper finds a typed letter “R” under Laura Palmer’s fingernail. Phil said, “It was a piece of bacon rind, six or seven inches long. She had choked to death on a bacon sandwich”—an unsettling thought, since that’s what I was having for lunch, and since bacon is pretty much the No. 1 nutrient of the Sunday Morning Group.

Incidentally, Formby has foxes in addition to asparagus:

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And Southport & Ainsdale has rabbits:

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And Formby also has the Formby Hippo—about which I may have more to say later.

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Up the Road from the Open: The Hitler Trophy and the Hitler Tree

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Hesketh Golf Club is an hour’s drive up the Lancashire coast from Royal Liverpool, where the Open is being played. It’s near the northern end of the resort town of Southport, and it has an enviable street address (see photo above). In 1936, the president of the German Golf Union was a brother-in-law of Joachim von Ribbentrop, who later became the foreign minister of the Third Reich. (Ribbentrop was executed for war crimes in Nuremberg in 1946.) In August, ten days after the close of the Summer Olympics, in Berlin, the golf union held an international tournament at Baden-Baden, in the Black Forest. According to English golf lore, Hitler believed that a German golf victory would soften the multiple humiliations that Jesse Owens had delivered during the Games. Seven countries participated, each represented by a pair of golfers. The format was seventy-two holes of stroke play over two days; each team’s score was the aggregate score of both its players. The English competitors were Tommy Thirsk, from Ganton Golf Club, and Arnold Bentley, from Hesketh:

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After thirty-six holes, the Germans led by three strokes. According to a recent history by Derek Holden, Hesketh’s president, “Ribbentrop rashly notified Hitler that there would be a German victory. Elated, the Fuhrer set out for Baden-Baden to present the trophy to two members of his ‘master race.’” But Thirsk and Bentley dominated the final two rounds, and in the end they beat the Germans by twelve strokes and the French by four. Holden continues: “Ribbentrop then raced off by car to intercept Hitler and break the bad tidings. Hitler was furious, ordering his chauffeur to turn the car round.”

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The tournament trophy—a silver-gilt salver inlaid with faceted amber disks that from a distance look like egg yolks—eventually ended up in private hands, but was put up for auction in 2012. Hesketh acquired it for roughly £20,000, raised from members, after outbidding a German golf organization. Last year, Holden told me that he had been worried, initially, that Hesketh would have to compete in the auction with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which had sent a representative, and with collectors of Nazi memorabilia. But Hesketh prevailed, and the trophy is now displayed in the main grillroom.

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Bentley’s winnings at Baden-Baden included a small potted fir tree. He gave it to the club, which planted it on a small rise in front of the clubhouse. During the Second World War, members named it the Hitler Tree and used it as a urinal. You can still see it, if you visit Hesketh. (It’s now quite large, and is seldom—but not never—used as it was during the war.) The course isn’t one of the Liverpool area’s greatest, but its fourteenth and fifteenth holes are two of my favorites anywhere. Here’s the fourteenth, looking back from just beyond the green (with the clubhouse in the middle of the picture and the golf shop on the right, under the flagpole):

Fourteenth hole, Hesketh Golf Club, May, 2013.

Fourteenth hole, Hesketh Golf Club, May, 2013.

Sunday on TV: Two Great U.K. Links Courses, Two Great Golf Trips

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The Scottish Open—that is to say, the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open—is being played at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club, in northeastern Scotland. My friends and I played two rounds there in 2008. The photo above is of some of the guys on the first tee. St. Andrews is just eighty miles to the south, but you could skip it and still put together a terrific golf trip, playing only courses within bicycling distance of Aberdeen. Maybe start at Carnoustie, on the northern side of the Firth of Tay. Then Forfar, a heathland course, definitely worth the twelve-mile trip inland:

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Then Royal Aberdeen, which you can study on TV on Sunday (the Golf Channel in the morning; NBC in the afternoon):

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Then Murcar, which is so close to Royal Aberdeen that players on one course sometimes accidentally play onto the other. Here you are looking toward Murcar from Royal Aberdeen:

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And here you are looking toward Royal Aberdeen from Murcar:

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Then Trump International, which I haven’t played yet but which I walked when it was nearing completion. Then maybe Newburgh-on-Ythan, where I played with two other guys named Dave. The course isn’t the greatest, but if you like to walk you can drive a couple of miles up the road and hike into a nature preserve whose many fascinating features include some enormous sand dunes, which are also visible from the course:

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You can also explore the remains of the village of Forvie, which was swallowed by blowing sand in the 1400s. All that’s left are some piles of stones and part of the village church, which was built on high ground:

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Then Cruden Bay, which is one of my favorite courses anywhere:

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Then maybe Peterhead (where I played with the pro), Inverallochy (where I accidentally set off the clubhouse alarm), and Fraserburgh, whose first and last holes could use some work but is otherwise terrific:

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There you go: a great golf trip, and you’ve put barely a hundred miles on your rental car. And if there are non-playing spouses along you can stop for occasional sightseeing without driving more than a mile or two out of your way:

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Meanwhile, in England, the Women’s British Open—that is to say, the Ricoh Women’s British Open—is being held at Royal Birkdale, in northwestern England. (You can study the course on ESPN2.) My friends and I visited Birkdale in 2010 and I returned in 2013. Here’s Ray in 2010:

Ray at Royal Birkdale, May, 2010.

Ray at Royal Birkdale, May, 2010.

Birkdale lies near the center of what may be my favorite golf trip, the route for which runs along the Lancashire coast from Royal Liverpool, where the British Open will be played next week, about an hour to the south of Birkdale, to Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where the Open was played in 2012, about an hour to the north. I have an article about that trip coming up in a future issue of Golf Digest. In the meantime, I can tell you that in 2010 nine of us played fifteen rounds in eight days on eleven of the courses between Liverpool and Lytham, and at dinner on our last night in England the nine of us named eight of them as the one we’d most like to play again.

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Scientists, Psychologists, and the Mayo Clinic Take on the Yips

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I had an article in the May 26 New Yorker about the yips. The term  was coined around the middle of the last century by the Scottish golfer Tommy Armour, a sufferer, who defined it as “a brain spasm that impairs the short game.” (Stephen Potter, in his book Golfmanship, published in 1968, quoted Armour and added, “‘Impairs’ is a euphemism.”) Yipping typically involves an involuntary twitch of a golfer’s hands, wrists, or forearms. The late British golf writer and television commentator Henry Longhurst once said that he didn’t have the yips but was a “carrier.”

Henry Longhurst, cocktail in hand.

Henry Longhurst. In the olden days, some forms of the yips were called “whiskey fingers.”

During the BBC’s broadcast of the final round of the 1970 British Open, at St. Andrews, he agonized vicariously when Doug Sanders left himself a three-foot putt on the final hole to win the tournament. “Oh, Lord,” Longhurst said on the air. “Well, that’s not one that I would like to have.” Sanders hesitated over his ball for what seemed like minutes; noticed something on the ground and bent to remove it (“Oh, Lord,” Longhurst said again); froze once more; and shoved the ball to the right of the hole. “Missed it!” Longhurst said as the ball went past. “Yes, a certainty. That’s the side you’re bound to miss it.” In the video below, skip to 21:23 to hear Longhurst’s full commentary and watch the gruesome outcome:

Among the people I interviewed but didn’t quote is Dick Hyland, who is the head professional at the Country Club at DC Ranch, in North Scottsdale, Arizona, and a longtime yips sufferer. Before I went to see him, he wrote down some of his thoughts about his own experience with the yips on a yellow legal pad, and gave me the sheet (clicking on the image below will enlarge it to a more legible size):

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Another person I talked to is Debbie Crews, a sports psychologist and a consultant to the women’s golf team at Arizona State. She has participated in three studies of the yips sponsored by the Mayo Clinic, and she’s about to participate in a fourth. Even for golfers who don’t have the yips, Crews is a good person to know. Here’s one thing I learned from her: most of us would putt better if we had someone tend the flag even on medium-length putts, because our brains are better at judging the distance to targets that protrude above the ground.

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Remarkable Golf Swing: The Bruen Loop

bruen loopWhen I was in Northern Ireland recently, I saw a photograph of a golfer I knew nothing about: Jimmy Bruen, shown above, who was born in Belfast in 1920 and held the course record at Royal County Down for twenty-nine years. He won the British Boys’ Championship, at Royal Birkdale, when he was sixteen.

This, remarkably, is what sixteen-year-olds looked like in the olden days.

This, remarkably, is what sixteen-year-olds looked like in the olden days.

He played in the Walker Cup two years later, and was credited by his teammates with inspiring Britain and Ireland’s first-ever victory over the United States (and their last until 1971). He had qualified for the team by shooting 71-71-68-72 on the Old Course at St. Andrews, a feat that caused Henry Cotton, who had won the Open in 1934 and 1937, to write: “Fancy a 17-year-old doing 282 in four rounds on the Old Lady of St. Andrews. I know what a stern course it is, long, difficult and tricky, but here was a mere boy playing it with a wise head and a technique which left everyone gasping.”

That technique—which came to be known as the Bruen Loop—was highly unconventional, as you can see in the photo at the top of this post and in the video below. The British golf writer Pat Ward-Thomas described it this way:

He drew the club back outside the line of flight and turned his wrists inward, to such an extent that at the top of the swing the clubhead would be pointing in the direction of the teebox. It was then whipped, no other word describes the action, inside and down into the hitting area with a terrible force. There was therefore in his swing a fantastic loop, defying all the canons of orthodoxy, which claims that the back and downswing should, as near as possible, follow the same arc. There must have been a foot or more between Bruen’s arcs of swing.

Henry Cotton, Open Championship, 1937.

Henry Cotton, Open Championship, 1937.

Bruen routinely drove the ball over three hundred yards, and he had a deadly short game. (He won the British Boys’ by chipping in for eagle on the twenty-seventh hole of the final, making him eleven up with nine holes to play.) He lit up Irish golf before the war, and he won the first post-war British Amateur, in 1946. (He was the first Irishman ever to win it.) Cotton called him “the best golfer—professional or amateur—in the world.” He was widely favored to win the 1946 Open, but withdrew because, he said, his business left him insufficient time to practice. (He was an insurance broker.) He severely injured his wrist while working in his garden in 1947, and, following surgery that was only semi-successful, virtually stopped playing competitive golf. His last Walker Cup was 1951. He died in 1972, at the age of fifty-one.

Ward-Thomas wrote: “Bruen was the most fascinating golfer I have ever seen or probably will ever see. There was no limit to what he might have achieved had not the War come and had he so desired.” George F. Crosbie published a biography in 1999. The Golfing Union of Ireland established the Jimmy Bruen Shield in his memory in 1978.

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Phil Mickelson’s Open Victory and the Difficulty of Mentally Influencing the Outcome of Recorded Sporting Events

Rick Hunt, a reader, was at the Open both days this weekend. He took this photo on Saturday

Rick Hunt, a reader, was at the Open both days this weekend. He took this photo on Saturday

In 2006, my wife and our two children and I flew from New York to Las Vegas so that we could rent an R.V. and spend ten days visiting the remarkable national parks in southern Utah and northern Arizona, after first taking a guided tour of the greatest man-made object in the universe, the Hoover Dam.

Me, standing in awe before one of the many fascinating dioramas in the visitors' center at the Hoover Dam, June, 2006.

Me, standing in awe before one of the many fascinating dioramas in the visitors’ center at the Hoover Dam, June, 2006.

Our flight coincided almost exactly with the final round of the 2006 U.S. Open, and because I am a good father I grumbled very little about having to spend the afternoon traveling with my loved ones rather than lying on the couch at home and staring at the TV. My saintly attitude was rewarded during the flight: there were video screens in the backs of the seats on our plane, and I got to watch the tournament anyway. In fact, the broadcast lasted almost exactly as long as the flight. The picture broke up as we were touching down at McCarran International Airport, in Vegas, but by then the tournament was all but over. Phil Mickelson had just pushed his tee shot on the final hole into the corporate tents to the left of the eighteenth fairway, but he had the thing sewn up, and, besides, the guy’s a magician. Good show, Phil!

The next morning, in my wife’s and my room at the Bellagio (or wherever), I turned on the TV to watch Open highlights. Weirdly, the guys on Golf Central weren’t talking about Mickelson; they were talking about Geoff Ogilvy, whom I scarcely remembered having noticed during my life, much less during the broadcast the day before. Suddenly, I worried that what I had watched on the plane had been not a live program but a videotape of some historical triumph of Mickelson’s. It took me five minutes of careful Golf Channel viewing to figure out what had happened.

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Naturally, I blamed myself for Mickelson’s last-hole double-bogey, since I was mentally rooting for him toward the end of the tournament, and the in-flight broadcast cut out at the moment when he needed me most. And this week I blame myself for his victory, at Muirfield, because I wanted Tiger Woods to win but was unable to mentally undermine his opponents: instead of watching the golf tournament on TV, I was (selfishly) playing in a golf tournament of my own.

Rick Hunt, at the Open. If I'd been there myself, I might have had better luck influencing the outcome.

Rick Hunt, at the Open. If I’d been there myself, I might have had better luck at influencing the outcome.

Influencing the outcome of televised sporting events is harder than many people believe, because a technique that brings victory today may have the opposite effect tomorrow. Mumbling obscenities, swaying hypnotically, and making hula-like hand motions in front of the screen will usually keep a long putt from going in—especially if the hole remains on camera and the putter is Lee Westwood—but the same method sometimes fails disastrously, perhaps by accidentally nudging an errant ball onto the correct line.

Curiously, the best method for salvaging victory when things are going poorly is to turn off the TV—a tactic whose effectiveness is explained by quantum mechanics: unless they are observed directly, athletic competitions, like muons and mesons, exist in all possible states simultaneously. Turning off the TV during a big tournament restores the universe’s indifference to the final score, thereby giving Tiger (let’s say) a chance to rediscover his swing. This quantum effect may also explain why viewers are able to influence even videotaped sporting events—as long as the viewers don’t know in advance how everything came out.

For that reason, I had planned to remain ignorant of the Open outcome so that I could watch a recording of the final round when I got home and bring in the winner I wanted. Sadly, though, as I was standing in line at the scorer’s table I overheard some guy telling some other guy that Mickelson had won.

I watched the recording anyway, but without much enthusiasm. I had to hit the mute button many times, because the announcers were so annoying, and I found myself wishing that someone would invent an app (or whatever) that would turn Curtis Strange’s accent into something less grating (converting nahn, fahn, and mahn into nine, fine, and mine, for example); would automatically bleep out the phrase “plenty of green to work with”; and would prevent Andy North from referring to Royal Birkdale, where the Senior Open Championship will be played next week, as a “links-style” golf course.   

Hacker (real name), Royal Birkdale, May, 2010.

Hacker (real name), Royal Birkdale, May, 2010.

 

Four Miles From Muirfield is the Golf Course I Dream About

Four miles, as the golf ball flies.

Four miles, as the golf ball flies.

If my wife ever throws me out of the house and they won’t let me move into the Crow’s Nest at Augusta National, I’m going to hide out in North Berwick, Scotland, just a few miles along the coast from Muirfield Golf Club. I’ve played North Berwick pretty many times over the years, and it’s probably the course I think about the most, except for my home course. Among the many permanently memorable holes is the thirteenth, a par-four, on which the green is on the far side of a very old stone wall:

Thirteenth green, North Berwick Golf Club, Scotland, May, 2008.

Thirteenth green, North Berwick Golf Club, Scotland, May, 2008.

On a visit in 2004, I missed the green to the right and tried to chip through an opening:

DCP_3091I missed the gap, and then l was really in trouble. During two of my most recent visits to North Berwick, I stayed in a small hotel overlooking the course, called Blenheim House. Sad to say, the young couple who owned it, Milton and Ailsa, gave up last year and sold it to someone else. I don’t know if it’s back in business.

R.I.P.: Blenheim House Hotel, North Berwick, May, 2008.

R.I.P.: Blenheim House Hotel, North Berwick, May, 2008.

One of the great things about that hotel was that you could get to the golf course simply by walking through a gate in the back garden:

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Here’s the gate, viewed from the golf-course side. The people in the windows are eating breakfast:

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During the relatively few daylight moments when I wasn’t playing golf, I gazed at the golf course from the window in my room. Here’s what I saw:

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The cylindrical stone building at the far right is the starter’s shelter; the semi-subterranean white structure just to the left of it is the golf shop. The eighteenth green is at the far left, and the clubhouse is out of the picture to the left of that. The opening tee shot at North Berwick usually calls for something like a five-iron, and the second is essentially blind, and several of the other holes are almost as unusual. When I looked out my window one morning, before breakfast, I saw a guy walking a dachshund just east of the course:

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Here’s what my room looked like. As you can see from the size of the suitcase, this was before I had realized I could cram all the clothes I need for an overseas golf trip into a carry-on bag:

P1040668One afternoon in 2007, when I was in Scotland on a Golf Digest assignment, I teed off at North Berwick by myself. After a few holes I was joined by an old man, who had come through a gate leading to one of the houses overlooking the course. He had lost his wife sixteen years before, he said. He walked along with me and asked me questions and held the flag while I putted, and I played really well for as long as he was there. He said that if someone offered him a plane ticket to New York he would go in five minutes, and I briefly considered trying to work out a temporary life swap. He said that he had once been to Chicago, and that while he was there a shoeshine man had asked him if he was French. He said no, Scottish, and the shoeshine man said, “You speak English very well.”

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On the fourteenth hole, the old man and I caught up to and joined three Swedes. He knew them already, because he had run into them the night before, in the bar at the Blenheim. They were part of a group of six, and they had played Muirfield the previous day, and they were going home in the morning. One of them said that the flight from Edinburgh to Stockholm was just an hour, and that he would be going straight from the airport to his office—a thought that made everyone temporarily adopt a grim facial expression. The old man walked along with us until he got back to his gate. It turned out that he was very interested in Swedish girls, and other girls.

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That night, I stayed not at Blenheim House but at the Mallard Hotel, in Gullane. Incidentally, “Berwick” is pronounced BARE-ick, and “Gullane” us pronounced GILL-en. There are three golf courses in Gullane: No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3. Muirfield Golf Club is virtually next door and can be seen from the top of Gullane Hill, and a caddie at Gullane once described it to me as Gullane No. 4—although Muirfield members don’t think of themselves that way.

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I ate dinner that night at a pub called the Old Clubhouse. Directly across the street from both the pub and my hotel was the Gullane Golf Club’s six-hole children’s course, which costs nothing to play, as long as you’re not an adult. As I walked to dinner, I saw a man and his nine- or ten-year-old daughter. He was teeing up balls for her, and she was hitting the most gorgeous draws with a driver. She was hitting from a tee toward a green, but she was using the hole as a driving range. What a swing! And beyond the children’s course I could see Gullane No. 1 and No. 2.

First green, Gullane No. 1, looking back toward town. The knobby thing at  top right overlooks North Berwick and is visible in the photo with the rainbow, below.

First green, Gullane No. 1, looking back toward town. The knobby thing at top right overlooks North Berwick and is also visible in the photo with the rainbow, below.

The next year, I went back to Scotland with eight friends from home, and we spent the first two nights of the trip in North Berwick. On the second day, we saw this:

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And that evening we saw this:

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I almost feel picking a fight with my wife, to see if I can’t tempt her to give me the boot.

How to Get Properly Inebriated at the British Open

Muirfield Golf Club. Lunch, anyone?

Muirfield Golf Club. Lunch, anyone?

In 1891, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers—the world’s oldest golf organization, whose members created the game’s first written rules, in 1744—moved from Musselburgh to Muirfield, a short distance to the east, and hired Old Tom Morris to create a private course for them. Today, Muirfield Golf Club has a deserved reputation for being tough on Open competitors and an undeserved reputation for being hostile to visiting Americans. It’s true that outsiders are limited to specific tee times on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the club actually welcomes thousands of unaccompanied non-members every year, and you can now make your reservations online. Once the Open crowd has cleared out (and the tournament rough has been harvested and fed to area livestock), you should go.

OTM layout

The modern Muirfield is mostly the work of Harry S. Colt, who reshaped and enlarged Morris’s layout in 1928, and Tom Simpson, who removed a hundred of Colt’s bunkers a few years later. (The first three holes follow the routing of Morris’s first four; the rest are different.) The course is every bit as good as people say it is, although the most appealing activity on the grounds may be not playing golf but hanging around the clubhouse. A few years ago, Alastair Brown, the secretary, described Muirfield to me (over lunch) as “a lunching club with a golf course attached to it,” and a playing partner at a course nearby described it to me as “a retirement place for men who like to get pissed and play golf.” An ideal day at Muirfield, Brown said, was once described as “two-and-a-half, two-and-a-half, two-and-a-half”: a brisk 18-hole foursomes match in the morning, followed by a two-and-a-half-hour lunch, followed by a brisk 18-hole foursomes match in the afternoon. George Pottinger, in a history of the club published in 1972, described one former captain as “a great post-lunch player”—a compliment that presumably had less to do with his skill as a golfer than with his ability to handle alcohol.

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In the United States, foursomes is usually known as Scotch foursomes or alternate shot; it’s the signature game at Muirfield. Members play it fast: you walk up the fairway while your partner is hitting his drive, and you don’t wait for him or anyone else before playing the next shot. Hitting just half the shots gets the non-lunch portions of the day over faster, and ensures that someone always has a hand free to hold the kümmel, a clear, anise-and-fennel-flavored beverage, which is sometimes called the golfer’s liqueur. (It’s also a favorite at Prestwick and Troon, two other Scottish clubs where foursomes is a cherished game.)

The golfer's liqueur.

The golfer’s liqueur.

Muirfield has its own handicapping system, named after C. J. Y. Dallmeyer, a club captain in the 1950s, who invented it: if you go three-up in a match, you give strokes to your opponents until you’re back to one-up. Dallmeyer also initiated a heavily lunch-oriented New Year’s Day tournament, called the Captain’s Frolic, in which serious drinking is virtually mandatory. (The rules of the competition, Pottinger wrote, are “as hilarious as possible.”) Brown told me, “The way the members play golf is the antithesis of championship golf.” The paradox, of course, is that championship golf is also a club specialty, and has been for more than a century.

muirfield open

You have to wear a jacket and tie in the Muirfield dining room, but the atmosphere in the entire club is seductively informal. The gate looks imposing, but there’s no bag drop and there are no guys standing around waiting to wipe off your clubs. You change your shoes in the locker room and get on with it, and even visitors are encouraged to linger. In the dining room, no table has fewer than six chairs, an arrangement that forces groups of golfers to mix, and the food is served cafeteria-style. And diners who don’t live in fear of their cardiologists sometimes bypass lunch itself and move straight from the bar to the dessert table, where the specialties include rhubarb crumble, sticky toffee pudding, and ice cream from S. Luca of Musselburgh, a locally famous dairy—which might be a good place to stop on your way back to your hotel, assuming you’re still in a condition to find it.

S. Luca's original location.

S. Luca’s original location.

Reader’s Trip Report: Merion (as a Spectator) and a New Game

Moe Dweck (left).

Moe Dweck (left).

Moe Dweck, a reader in Maryland, who (like me) writes a golf blog and (also like me) probably has a real job of some kind, wrote recently to describe his experience at the U.S. Open, which he attended with friends:

A bunch of guys traveled up to Merion on the Friday of the Open for some spectating and a cheese-steak. (By the way, the cheese-steak at Mama’s Pizzeria in Bala Cynwyd is off the charts. Went classic: white cheese, green peppers, and grilled onions. It is the Philly bread that makes these unbelievable.) The course looked the same to me as it did twenty years ago, but with much narrower landing areas. I think the U.S.G.A. overdid that aspect of the set-up more than slightly. But, overall, the presentation of the course was just awesome to witness in person.

(Parenthetically, let me add that I agree with Dweck about the severity of the set-up, and that I don’t share the U.S.G.A.’s crippling anxiety about birdies. Bubba Watson’s recovery from the pine trees on the first playoff hole in the 2012 Masters would be at or near the top of almost any golfer’s list of the coolest meaningful shots in majors in recent years, but nothing like it would be possible in an Open, because if Watson had missed an Open fairway by the same margin he would have been up to his knees in fescue.) Back to Dweck:

The truth is that the course stood up to the challenge, like it did in 1971 and 1981, because of the greens. One of the writers in Golf World pointed out that it is not the undulations of the greens at Merion that make it tough but the tilts. Could not agree more. On the short eighth, it was nearly impossible to get a ball to stay close, even with a sand-iron in the hands of a pro. Nothing more needs to be said about tilt than the lean on No. 5. I hope the U.S.G.A. continues to present the men’s and women’s Opens on classic old courses like these. Taking the driver out of the hands of a pro is not a federal crime, so I am not sure what all the whining is about. 

Back in April, Dweck wrote to describe a game that he and his regular golf buddies had played on their home course during Masters weekend—a game they called Virtual Pro-Schmo. What they did was take the best Masters rounds from the previous day and treat the guys who shot them as virtual partners in their own game. They transposed each Master’s competitor’s hole scores, in relation to par, onto a scorecard from their own course, then put all the cards into a hat and picked. If a schmo’s virtual pro partner had birdied Augusta’s first hole the day before, for example, then the only way the schmo could improve their best ball on the first hole would be to make an eagle; if the virtual pro had made a bogey, then the schmo had work to do. My friends and I meant to try Dweck’s game during the U.S. Open, but we forgot. We’re going to try to remember during the British.

Actually, we might use another format Dweck told me about, which he and his friends used during the Open. “We called it Beat the Pro,” Dweck said. “Thirty-two guys participated. Each one picked a pro-opponent scorecard from a hat. (We used eight guys’ scores, in relation to par, from the Thursday round at Merion.)  We gave our guys 110 percent of their handicap, and they played a quasi-skins format, in which they got three points for every hole on which they beat their pro and one point for every hole they pushed. Winners were the guys who had the most points against the field. I got to knock around Luke Donald. The guys who drew Sergio had to deal with an eagle on No. 2 (which is a par-3 on our course, so they needed a hole-in-one to push) and a quad on No. 15 (a par-5 for us, so a net nine or better scored points there.) Lots of fun.”

My friends and I are going to try this, too, sometime, if we remember. Here’s a picture of Dweck and some of his friends:

Alan Levine, Josh Tremblay, some guy, Rusty Minkoff, and Moe Dweck at some point in the past, during a buddies trip to Laurel Valley Golf Club, Ligonier, Pennsylvania.

Alan Levine, Josh Tremblay, some guy, Rusty Minkoff, and Moe Dweck, during a buddies trip to Laurel Valley Golf Club, Ligonier, Pennsylvania.