Troon is a Time-travel Wormhole to Machrihanish

Machrihanish is a legendary links course on the Kintyre Peninsula, in western Scotland. Part of the routing was created by Old Tom Morris in 1879, when what was then called the Kintyre Golf Club acquired additional acreage and expanded from 12 holes to 18. Machrihanish has one of the awesomest opening tee shots in golf. Here’s the first tee:

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The rest of the course is terrific, too. The only difficulty with Machrihanish is that it’s tricky to get to. The drive from Glasgow Airport can take more than three hours, with little or no hope of golf along the way. But there’s a shortcut, if you do what 11 friends and I did in 2014: charter a boat from an outfit called Kintyre Express. The trip from Troon Harbor (which is just up the road from Royal Troon) to Campbeltown Harbor (which is just down the road from Machrihanish) takes 75 minutes. That means that the round trip saves you more than enough time to squeeze in one entire bonus round at either Machrihanish or Machrihanish Dunes. Here we are getting ready to set out from Troon:

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And here’s some of what we saw along the way:

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And here’s what Tony looked like when the skipper gunned his engine:

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And here’s what we saw as we approached Campbeltown:

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And here’s where we stayed, just up a long ramp from the dock:

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Three days later, we took the same boat to Northern Ireland—which is even closer to Campbeltown than Troon is. All our golf bags and suitcases went into the hold:

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Kintyre Express has lots of other routes, too. The Troon-to-Campbeltown trip starts at £500 for up to 12 passengers. Thanks to Brexit, that currently works out to only about $55 a head. Kintyre also operates regular ferry service to a number of destinations in the same region. Ask for Mairi!

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Golfer Discovers His Wife is a Fairy Princess

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A friend once told me he woke up every morning hoping his wife would turn to him and say, “Darling, I’ve watched you carefully all these years, and I am now convinced that you really do love me for myself, and I am happy to tell you that I have a $250 million trust fund that I’ve never mentioned before.” Well, she never did (and they’re now divorced). But not everyone is as unlucky in marriage as my friend.

Dan Miller, a reader—that’s him in the photo above, taken on the Ailsa Course, at Turnberry—wrote recently to say that his wife’s employer (which sells software to hotels) had transferred her abroad for at least three years, and that they had just completed their company-financed move to . . . Scotland. He writes:

A nine-week trial run last fall sealed the deal. As I asked my wife when we returned to Los Angeles, last Thanksgiving, “How can we be home and yet homesick?” Between yard sales, Craigslist, and eBay, we sold off or gave away much of what we owned States-side, and began bidding online at auctions in Scotland to furnish our new home, in the market town of Kelso.

Kelso is in southeastern Scotland, right on the border with England. It’s less than 50 miles from North Berwick Golf Club, which is one of my all-time favorites. Here’s Kelso:

Kelso

Miller continues:
Will we land on our feet in the home of golf? So far so good. Establish local bank account? Check. Buy used right-drive car? Check. Join local golf club (specifically Goswick, a James Braid links course just across the border with England)? Check. A few bumps in the road? Yep. But absolutely no regrets. Six weeks into our adventure, Scotland still feels like home.
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Miller himself had no trouble switching continents, because he’s a writer. And, although writers are notoriously lazy, wife-mooching bums, he is at least pretending to pull his weight during this adventure, because he has written and self-published a novel called Machrihanish, which happens to be the name of another of my (and his) favorite golf courses. Here’s a photo he took at Machrihanish, looking back toward the clubhouse:
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And here’s the jacket of his book:

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Why don’t you buy a few copies and take them on your next golf trip to Scotland? Maybe some of his good luck will rub off.

Golf Problem Solved: Cool Sunglasses for People Who Wear Glasses

Golf_Prebuilt_BannerAt the PGA Golf Merchandise Show a few years ago, I stopped at the booths of several glasses manufacturers and asked about golf sunglasses for guys who have serious trouble finding their glasses if they’re not wearing their glasses, as I do. The responses were depressing. One woman showed me a pair that looked less like the wraparounds you see on tour players than like something you might wear while welding. Here’s my prescription: dlo glasses prescription The stronger a prescription, the harder it is to make it work without distortion in a lens that has a pronounced curve, she said, and her suggested solution was to switch to contacts and wear non-prescription sunglasses over those. I gave up, and bought a pair of distance-only glasses in my regular frames but with gray lenses. When my daughter, who was in her mid-twenties, saw them, she said, “No!”

[I have a picture of this, but I’m not going to show it to you.]

All that was before I talked with Rob Tavakoli, who is a licensed optician and a marketing guy at SportRX, which sells specialized glasses for all kinds of athletic activities. Takavoli is like a golf nut but about glasses; he told me that he’s been obsessed with sunglasses since he was seventeen, or slightly less than half his life, and that when he was twelve he fudged an eye test so that his ophthalmologist would write him a prescription he didn’t need. takivoli Two of Tavakoli’s specialties are sports-specific glasses and sports-specific glasses for people with strong prescriptions, like me. (SportRX employs a technician who specializes in high corrections—a rarity for companies that sell sports glasses, because getting everything right can be complicated and time-consuming.) Thanks to Tavakoli, I now have two pairs, one by Nike and one by Oakley. Both have lenses that are meant for golf—especially for ball-tracking and green-reading—and both are “photochromic,” which means that they lighten and darken in response to changes in ambient sunlight levels. The Nike glasses, whose frames are called Mercurial 6.0, have lenses with a rose copper tint, which becomes quite dark in bright sunlight: nikemercurial The Oakley glasses, whose frames are called Jupiter Squared, have lenses with a lighter, amber-brown tint, and are meant especially for times when sunlight levels are low: early morning, late afternoon, and in the rain—although they darken considerably in bright conditions. (Gray lenses are not good for golf, but they’re good for fishing.)  oakleyjupiter There are other possible frame choices for people like me, and there are many, many additional choices for people whose prescriptions are less daunting. I now consider both my pairs to be part of my golf equipment, and I keep them in my golf bag in hard cases with zippers: zerouv case An unexpected benefit of using both pairs of glasses is that they provide much better protection from the wind than my old sunglasses did, so that on that on blustery days I no longer seem to me crying over my terrible shots. I was grateful for that during my recent buddies trip to Scotland and Ireland, where the wind blows almost all the time, and it’s also a useful feature here at home, where, at the moment, clouds of pollen explode from the pine trees every time someone shanks one into the boughs. And an unexpected benefit of the darker lenses is that match-play opponents have no idea I’m giving them the evil eye while they’re trying to putt. Here I am in my Nike glasses on a sunny day at Machrihanish last month: machrihanishdloIf you have a current prescription, you can order glasses optimized for particular activities directly from the SportRX website, with telephone or online help if you need it. (The website has a helpful “Search by RX” utility, which identifies frames that will work with your prescription—although if your prescription is high enough you will need to call.) One thing you have to do before ordering glasses with corrective lenses is to measure your “pupillary distance,” or the space from eye to eye, but that’s easy to do if you have a ruler, a mirror, and a camera or phone: IMG_1249-001 My personal glasses collection is extensive: progressives, bifocals, reading glasses, computer glasses, backup distance glasses, ancient sunglasses just for driving—plus my two new pairs of golf glasses, which are my favorites and which I would wear all the time if I thought I could get away with it.  collection

Two Useful Sleep-Related Accessories for Golf Trips

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My wife can fall asleep in a room in which all the lights are turned on and sunlight is streaming onto her face, while I can be awakened from a deep sleep by the message light on my cell phone. My friend Tony is similarly afflicted. His wife, in sympathy, bought an LED headlamp, so that she could read in bed without bothering him, but every time she turns to gaze lovingly at his sleeping form she zaps him in the eyes and wakes him up.
Hotel rooms can be a huge problem, even when I’m traveling without my wife. During a golf trip to San Antonio last year, I had to use a Kleenex box and two wash cloths to disable the electric eye on the light switch in the bathroom, which blasted me with daylight-level illumination when I got up in the night to take a whiz:
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Because it’s hard to knock out all the potentially annoying light sources in a hotel room, I now travel with a sleep mask. I’ve tried several, and the one I like the best is made by Dream Essentials. It comes with a pair of ear plugs and what the company’s website describes as “a complimentary drawstring carry pouch,” and it makes me look like the Human Fly:
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It’s especially useful during summertime golf trips to Britain and Ireland, because at that time of year at that latitude the sun never quite goes all the way down. I like it so much that I now use it at home, too.
A sleep mask to avoid, unless you have a hat size of about 5 or enjoy feeling that your eyes are being squeezed flat by an elastic band, is this one, from Samsonite, even though it also comes with ear plugs:
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During my recent buddies trip to Scotland and Ireland, I spoke so convincingly about the benefits of wearing a sleep mask that J.P. went out immediately and bought one at a drugstore up the street from our hotel in Campbeltown, near Machrihanish. He now swears by it, too.
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Great Golf Courses: Machrihanish and Machrihanish Dunes

Machrihanish Golf Club, near Campbeltown, Scotland, May, 2014.

Machrihanish Golf Club, near Campbeltown, Scotland, May, 2014.

Machair is a Gaelic word that means pretty much the same thing as links, the sandy, wind-shaped coastal grasslands where the game of golf arose. It’s pronounced “mocker,” more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat. The word is still used in parts of Scotland—for example, on the island of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. The photo below, of me and my golf clubs, was taken on the machair at Askernish, the ghost course, on South Uist, in December 2008:

owenaskernish2008The word machair is also preserved in a number of places in Ireland and Scotland: Magheramore, Maghera Strand, Machair Bay, Macharioch, and Machrihanish. Those last two are villages on the Kintyre Peninsula, in southwestern Scotland. The southernmost tip of the peninsula, called the Mull of Kintyre, was celebrated in 1977 in a song by Paul McCartney, who owns a house nearby. A few miles north of the Mull is Machrihanish Golf Club, which was founded in 1876, with twelve holes, and was enlarged three years later by Old Tom Morris. Here’s the view from the first tee at Machrihanish — one of the coolest opening shots in golf (the beach is very definitely in play):

machrihanishfirstteeAnd right next to Machrihanish is a second course, Machrihanish Dunes, which was designed by David McLay Kidd, the architect of Bandon Dunes. It opened in 2009. It has my favorite kind of clubhouse:

dunesclubhouseMachrihanish was the setting of Michael Bamberger’s book To the Linkslandwhich was published in 1992. One of the most and least appealing features of Machrihanish is that it isn’t easy to get to. If you’re traveling by car, the round trip from Glasgow can be more than seven hours, without much in the way of golf along the route. Flying is possible, although scheduling can be problematic, especially if you’re trying to connect from an international flight. The workaround my friends and I used during a recent buddies trip—with help and planning from Celtic Golf—was to go by water, on a chartered boat, which was operated by Kintyre Express. We made the trip, from Troon, in less than an hour and a half. The boat ride turned out to be one of the week’s many highlights:

tonyrichardboatWe passed this lighthouse on the way:

lighthousefromboatAnd this is what we saw as we entered the harbor at Campbeltown, the town closest to Machrihanish:

campbeltownviewOur hotel was right on the harbor, a short walk from where the boat tied up:

royalhotelAnd both courses were just a short drive (by van) from the hotel. This is Peter A., putting from a fairway at Machrihanish:

peterfairwayputtThe two guys in the photo below, who were out for a walk with their wives in Campbeltown, chatted with us about golf, and then came back without their wives to tell us a story about Tony Lema. I think they were interested in us partly because I had played two Scottish courses they hadn’t believed any American golfer would even have heard of: Reay and Strathpeffer.

twoscottishguysThe photo below is a view of the water from Machrihanish Dunes. The course was built, with numerous conservation restrictions, on what the British call a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The maintenance crew doesn’t use fertilizer, and there’s no irrigation system. Only a tiny fraction of the land was disturbed during construction. And the course is terrific.
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The photo below is of a former R.A.F. base, which borders both courses. A U.S. Navy SEAL commando unit used to be stationed there. Part of the facility still functions as Campbeltown’s airport. The runway is so long that even I could land an airplane on it, probably.

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After three days at Machrihanish, we got back on our boat and headed to our next destination: Northern Ireland, which is actually closer to Campbeltown than Troon is. Here’s the skipper, loading our golf bags in Campbeltown harbor:

That's Robert G. holding my awesome Sun Mountain Atlas golf-bag travel cover, which I bought years ago, after Northwest Airlines snapped the head off my driver during a trip to Bandon Dunes. It has traveled all over the world with me. I'm sorry to say that Sun Mountain doesn't make it anymore.

That’s Robert G., on the left, holding my awesome Sun Mountain Atlas golf-bag travel cover, which I bought about ten years ago, after Northwest Airlines snapped the head off my driver during a trip to Bandon Dunes. My friends call it R2D2. It has traveled all over the world with me. I’m sorry to report that Sun Mountain doesn’t make it anymore.

On the way to Northern Ireland, we passed the Mull of Kintyre, an area of weird currents and whirlpools, a place where a guy had recently drowned, a goat (basking on some rocks) that was descended from goats that were brought to Ireland by the Spanish Armada, and what used to be the cottage of Gugliemo Marconi—whose name was not derived from machair, and who may or may not have been a golfer, but who was one of the inventors of radio. In fact, he made his first long-distance transmission was from the cottage, which is right on the water, to an island a few miles away. Here’s the cottage as it looks today:

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The weather was perfect during our trip. The skipper took us close to both coasts, so that we could get a better view.

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Here we are landing in Ballycastle, where the first thing we did was go to a grocery store and buy about a thousand dollars worth of junk food. Then back to golf.

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Traveling to Golf by Air, Land, and Sea

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I don’t like to fly on the same plane with soccer teams, Cub Scout dens, Shriner lodges, or similar groups, because it’s too easy to imagine the headline the following day: “Plane Carrying All Members of Small Order of Spanish Nuns Goes Down in North Atlantic.” So I felt more than slightly anxious when, a few minutes before our scheduled departure, two dozen members of a Scottish cheerleading team, who had had to run to make their connection, boarded our plane. I learned later that the team was from the Blast Cheer & Dance Academy, in Glasgow, and that they had just won an international title of some kind at a big competition in Virginia Beach, Virginia. 

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Miraculously, the flight went smoothly, and on Saturday morning at 7:30 eleven friends and I landed in Scotland, ready to play golf. We were met at the airport by a bus from Celtic Golf, which planned our trip.

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Our bus driver’s name was Dave, and that’s also the name of a quarter of the people on our trip. The only kind of people we have more of is lawyers. When the lawyers reply-all to golf-trip emails, the boilerplate disclaimers at the bottom pile up like litter against a parking-lot fence.

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That first day, straight from the airport, we played two rounds, one at Western Gailes and one at Dundonald, which is next door. Everybody loved Western Gailes and was basically OK with Dundonald, which is owned by the people who own Loch Lomond. The picture below is from Western Gailes, and two of the people in it are named Dave.

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Dave the driver had told us to be ready to roll at 10:30 the next morning. I didn’t see Peter A. as we were loading our stuff onto the bus, so at 10:35 I called his room from the front desk of our hotel. He picked up after about twelve rings, and said, Yeah, yeah, I’m on my way—and five minutes later we left. That afternoon, he told me that he had actually been asleep when the phone rang, and that he had set a personal record for getting dressed, packing a suitcase, and vacating a hotel room.

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That morning, the bus took us not to a golf course but to Troon Harbor, where we boarded a chartered twelve-passenger motorboat, owned by a company called Kintyre Express. The boat took us to Campbeltown, the home of Machrihanish Golf Club, on the Kintyre Peninsula. 

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Machrihanish is hard to get to by car; going by boat knocks a couple of hours off the trip. Nice scenery, too.

lighthouseMachrihanish has been on my golf dream list for a long time. I’ll have more to say about it later. After three days there, we had to get back on our boat, and move on to our next destination, so that we could play more golf, but somewhere else. I’ll have more to say about that soon, too. In the meantime, here’s what Tony and David M. had for dinner our first night in Campbeltown:

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Why a Golf Course is Not a “Links”

Rosapenna, Ireland, 2011.

Most people think of the word “links” as a synonym for golf course, but it’s actually a geological term. Linksland is a specific type of sandy, wind-sculpted coastal terrain—the word comes from the Old English hlinc, “rising ground”—and in its authentic form it exists in only a few places on earth, the most famous of which are in Great Britain and Ireland. Linksland arose at the end of the most recent ice age, when the retreat of the northern glacial sheet, accompanied by changes in sea level, exposed sand deposits and what had once been coastal shelves. Wind pushed the sand into dunes and rippling plains; ocean storms added more sand; and coarse grasses covered everything. Early Britons used linksland mainly for livestock grazing, since the ground closest to the sea was usually too starved and too exposed for growing crops. When significant numbers of Scotsmen became interested in smacking small balls with curved wooden sticks, as they first did in 1400 or so, the links was where they went (or were sent), perhaps because there they were in no one’s way. In some parts of Scotland, linksland is called machair, a Gaelic word. It’s pronounced “mocker,” more or less, but with the two central consonants represented by what sounds like a clearing of the throat. (Machair is the root of Machrihanish, a legendary links course on the Kintyre Peninsula, in western Scotland.)

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, 2007.

The major design elements of a modern golf course are the synthetic analogues of various existing features of those early Scottish playing fields, and the fact that golf arose so directly from a particular landscape helps explain why, more than any other mainstream sport, it remains a game with a Jerusalem: it was permanently shaped by the ground on which it was invented. Groomed fairways are the descendants of the well-grazed valleys between the old linksland dunes; bunkers began as sandy depressions worn through thin turf by livestock huddling against coastal gales; the first greens and teeing grounds were flattish, elevated areas whose relatively short grass—closely grazed by rabbits and other animals, and stunted by brutal weather—made them the logical places to begin and end holes. (“A rabbit’s jawbone allows it to graze grass lower than a sheep,” the Scottish links consultant Gordon Irvine told me, “and both those animals can graze grass lower than a cow.”)

Askernish, South Uist, Scotland, 2007.

On the great old courses in the British Isles, the most celebrated holes often owe more to serendipity and to the vicissitudes of animal husbandry than they do to picks and shovels, since in the early years course design was more nearly an act of imagination and discovery than of physical construction. One of Old Tom Morris’s best-known holes, the fifth at Lahinch, in southwestern Ireland, is a short par 3 whose green is concealed behind a tall dune, so that the golfer’s target is invisible from the tee—a feature that almost any modern architect would have eliminated with a bulldozer. The greatest hole on the Old Course is often said to be the seventeenth, a long par 4 called the Road Hole, which violates a long list of modern design rules: the tee shot not only is blind but must be hit over the top of a tall wooden structure that reproduces the silhouette of a cluster of nineteenth-century coal sheds; the green repels approach shots from every direction and is fronted by a vortex-like circular bunker, from which the most prudent escape is often backward; a paved road runs directly alongside the green and is treated as a part of the course, meaning that golfers who play their way onto it must also play their way off.

The Road Hole, 2008.

Over the centuries, every idiosyncratic inch of the Old Course has acquired, for the faithful, an almost numinous aura. Alister MacKenzie once wrote, “I believe the real reason St. Andrews Old Course is infinitely superior to anything else is owing to the fact that it was constructed when no-one knew anything about the subject at all, and since then it has been considered too sacred to be touched.”

Royal Aberdeen, Scotland, 2008.

Masters Countdown: Seventh Hole

 

A not especially intelligible drawing of Augusta National's seventh green, from the program for the first Masters, in 1934, when the seventh had no bunkers.

The seventh wasn’t much of a hole in the early days. (The consensus, as described by Clifford Roberts, the club’s co-founder and chairman, was that it was “the only weak hole out of the eighteen.”) Alister MacKenzie, who designed the course, likened it to the eighteenth at St. Andrews, but the resemblance was superficial. Both holes were short, and both had large greens and no bunkers, but in comparison with the venerable and surprisingly difficult closing hole of the Old Course, the seventh at Augusta was a pushover. Many players today would have been able to drive it.

In a letter to MacKenzie in 1933, Roberts wrote, “I think the real criticism . . . is that it lacks character. Ed Dudley [the club’s first professional] made a suggestion which appealed very much to me. He proposed putting a bunker in the middle of the face of the green and letting it wedge into the green. In other words, his thought is to partly develop this green into two sections, the same as is true of one of the greens at Lakeside, California. Bob [Bobby Jones] did not have very much to say about this proposal, but I do not think he was much impressed by it. I think, in truth, that Bob is really hesitant about making any alterations or incidental refinements till you can come here and see the layout.”

Perry Maxwell

Nothing significant happened until 1938, when Horton Smith—who had won the first and third tournaments—suggested elevating the green and fronting it with several deep bunkers. He also suggested moving the green twenty yards back and to the right. Jones and Roberts both approved. The design work was done by Perry
Maxwell, an Oklahoma banker-turned-architect, whose best-known course is probably Tulsa’s Southern Hills. Maxwell had been a partner of MacKenzie’s during the final years of MacKenzie’s life. (Their last joint project, completed in 1933, was Crystal Downs, in Frankfort, Michigan.) The transformation of the seventh green, which cost $2,500, was paid for by Lewis B. Maytag, who was one of the club’s earliest members and was the head of the Maytag Company. In addition, the driving area was tightened through the addition of a grove of pine trees on the left side of the fairway. (There were already trees on the right.)

Maxwell made several less dramatic changes in other greens—among them the first and the fourteenth, to which he added pronounced undulations. Such undulations were his trademark and were known as “Maxwell rolls.” MacKenzie was no longer alive at that time, but he undoubtedly would have approved: he loved dramatic contours. In The Spirit of St. Andrews, he wrote wistfully about the early greens at Machrihanish, a legendary links course, designed by Old Tom Morris, on the Kintyre peninsula in western Scotland: “Some of the natural greens were so undulating that at times one had to putt twenty or thirty yards round to lay dead at a hole only five yards away. These greens have all gone and today one loses all the joy of outwitting an opponent by making spectacular putts of this description.” For the disappearance of such features, MacKenzie blamed a preoccupation with the elimination of “unfairness”—a word that he scornfully placed in quotation marks.

Today, the seventh is 450 yards long—110 yards longer than it was for the first Masters—and the landing area is narrow. Just fifteen years ago, the seventh was considered a birdie hole, even by members. Now it’s a tough par for any player whose tee shot ends up in the pine straw.