Never, Ever Take One of These on a Golf Trip to the British Isles

You won't need one of these if you travel to the British Isles to play golf. Royal Lytham & St. Annes, England, May 13, 2013.

You won’t need one of these if you travel to the British Isles to play golf. Royal Lytham & St. Annes, England, May 13, 2013.

I’m in northwestern England playing golf this week. I didn’t bring an umbrella, and I’m glad I didn’t, even though there’s rain in the forecast for every day from now until the end of time. The trash can on the second tee on almost any links course in England, Scotland, and Ireland often looks like the trash can in the photo above, because American golfers typically come to the British Isles prepared for the rain but not for the wind. One hole is usually enough to destroy almost any umbrella. And carrying a “wind-proof” model isn’t the solution, because if your umbrella can’t be turned inside out it will carry you to sea, assuming you’re strong enough to hang on. Here’s why:

Wind-sculpted trees, thirteenth hole, Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

Wind-sculpted trees, thirteenth hole, Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

The wind was blowing hard yesterday, but the trees in the photo above look that way on calm days, too. Even scrubby little bushes get squashed in the direction of the prevailing wind. (I first wrote about the terrific golf courses of northwestern England almost twenty years ago. The opening sentence of my article was “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.” A Golf Digest copy editor, who apparently had never heard of Bob Dylan, changed “weatherman” to “weather report”—and that’s the way it ran.)


Not carrying an umbrella will lighten your luggage by a couple of pounds, and it will spare you a lot of annoying housekeeping while you play. And you won’t miss it at all, if you have a rain suit, a rain hat, and a pair of rain gloves. The rain gloves are especially important, because if you have a pair of those you won’t need to even think about trying to keep your grips dry. In fact, if you have rain gloves you almost don’t need to carry a towel. And after my first trip to Scotland, in the early nineties, I stopped carrying an umbrella at home, too. Way too much trouble!

Golf in the (United) Kingdom: No Need to Pack Shorts

Lower right: the shorts rule at Hillside Golf Club, May, 2010.

When I played Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2008, on assignment for Golf Digest, a local man in the group ahead of mine was wearing shorts—a great rarity on golf courses almost anywhere in the British Isles. A sign at Hillside Golf Club (a fantastic non-Open course, next door to Birkdale, where I’d played the afternoon before) warns golfers that shorts are permitted only if they are “tailored” and worn with “tall hose”—a requirement that neatly defeats the purpose of wearing shorts. Lytham used to have a similar rule, but relaxed it after a busload of barelegged Americans exhausted the golf shop’s supply of tall hose.

Tony at Hillside, properly attired, on a later trip, May, 2010.

The first hole at Hillside doesn’t look like much, but the course gets better and better from there, and the second nine is really terrific. (Greg Norman once called it the greatest second nine in Britain.)  The tenth is a “short” par 3, which plays uphill and into the prevailing wind to a seemingly sheltered but impossible green. You watch the group ahead of you nosing around for lost balls on every side. They wave your group up, and then you lose all your balls, too.

Tenth hole, Hillside.

Toward the end of my round in 2008, I got stuck behind four bad golfers, one of whom was constantly throwing up grass to gauge the direction of wind that was so strong it was knocking over his golf bag. I passed the time by chatting with four visitors from the Isle of Man, who had caught up to me from behind. They gave me a British 10-pence coin with the Manx triskelion—the symbol of the Isle of Man—on the reverse. It was my favorite ball marker until I lost it.

The three legs of Man: my favorite ball marker until I lost it.


Beef Box*: Another Reason to Get Rid of All the Television Commentators

If you’ve been watching the Open on TV, you’ve undoubtedly heard the commentators refer to this or that hole as the “easiest” or “hardest” at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. They’re always wrong, and here’s why: there’s a difference between an easy hole and an easy par. A par 5 on which the scoring average is 4.5 is a harder hole than a par 3 on which the scoring average is 3.5, even though the par 5 is easier to birdie. The ease or difficulty of any golf hole is determined solely by the number of strokes taken to play it. Whether that number is higher or lower than “par” is immaterial.

A club near where I live recently shortened a par 5 by thirty yards and renamed it a par 4. The consensus among members is that this change made both the hole and the course “harder.” Actually, though, it made both of them easier, since the hole and the course are now thirty yards shorter than they were before—the same effect  as adding thirty yards to everyone’s tee shot. The hole is now tougher to par than it used to be, but it’s nevertheless an easier hole, since the average number of strokes needed to play it has come down.

To see this more clearly, forget about par for a moment. Imagine that Tiger Woods has challenged you to a two-hole match, on the second and twelfth holes at Augusta National, and that he has offered to give you one handicap stroke, which you may use on either hole. Would that stroke be more useful to you on the second (a 575-yard par 5) or on the twelfth (a 155-yard par 3 where Tom Weiskopf scored a cumulative 20 during the first two rounds of the Masters in 1980)?

Conventional wisdom says that Augusta’s twelfth is a “harder” hole than the second — Jack Nicklaus once called the twelfth “the toughest tournament hole in golf” — but wouldn’t you rather have your stroke on the second, which is 400 yards longer? If you wouldn’t, you should. Tom Weiskopf notwithstanding, the second is a harder hole. Woods has a very good chance of reaching the green in two, while you’ll have  to play well to get there in three.

*With apologies to Joe Pyne.

British Open Countdown: St. Annes Old Links Golf Club

Airplane, roller coaster, Yankees headcover, Other Gene, out of bounds: St. Annes Old Links has it all.

Just a few blocks from Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where this year’s Open is being held, is St. Annes Old Links Golf Club. From the parking lot, it looks like a down-at-heels muni, and it’s usually ignored by non-locals. You can see the whole course without turning your head, there’s an airfield over the fence, and the northern vista is dominated by the roller coaster at Blackpool, a seaside holiday spot whose nearest American analogs are Coney Island and some of the tawdrier parts of the New Jersey coast. (Prosperous Britons view Blackpool as beneath them, but your children wouldn’t.) Still, the course is far better than it looks, and it’s worth a visit (as is the roller coaster).

The roller coaster in Blackpool in 1983, when I rode it twice.

St. Annes is of historical interest as well, because it occupies part of Royal Lytham’s original site: the tenth and eighteenth holes are direct descendants of the earliest layout, and their greens are said to be the oldest in the region. The course has more than a few undistinguished holes, but it also has some tremendous ones. Maybe the best is the 450-yard, par-4 seventh, called Penance. Its left side is flanked by grassy ditches, which serve the same depraved purpose as the church-pew bunkers at Oakmont. Shots to the green generally play into a fierce wind, and they tend to end up at the bottom of a trench, in one of the numerous bunkers, under a spavined bush on a bank that hugs the rear left corner of the green, or against a shed just beyond the bushes. Another superb hole is the ninth, a claustrophobia-inducing par 3, which Bobby Jones liked well enough to measure, in 1926, for possible reproduction elsewhere.

Ninth green, St. Annes Old Links. That’s the clubhouse beyond it.

You might also see a helicopter. That’s Brendan on the left, walking toward the roller coaster.

British Open Countdown: Birthplace of the Beatles

Other members of the tour group I joined in 1983, Strawberry Field, Liverpool. The photographer is Steve Shipman.

Almost thirty years ago, on assignment for a British newspaper and an American magazine, I traveled to England with a tour group of sixty-seven American Beatles fans. (The tour members’ interest in the Beatles was not casual; one woman had tried to kill herself, twice, after the murder of John Lennon.) Our itinerary was divided between London—where we visited EMI’s Abbey Road Studios, drove past the apartment where Brian Epstein committed suicide, and stripped leaves from a shrub on property formerly owned by Paul McCartney—and Liverpool, which the tour members viewed as the promised land, and which is twenty-five miles as the seagull flies from Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where the Open begins this week.

Penny Lane, Liverpool, 1983.

The statement “We’re going to Liverpool on holiday” has no exact equivalent in American English. (Roughly comparable: “We’re spending our honeymoon in Cleveland.”) Londoners snorted derisively when we mentioned our destination. “It’s an industrial city but not an industrious one,” I was told, through smirking laughter, in a London pub. Even Liverpuddlians were taken aback by the tour members’ enthusiasm. They were used to being the butt of jokes, not the objects of adoration.

The “shelter in the middle of the roundabout,” Penny Lane, Liverpool, 1983.

For a non-fanatic, Liverpool’s charms are harder to see, but they exist, as I’ve been reminded each time I’ve returned. The city’s suburbs and their fabled golf courses are lovely—specially Formby and the villages of the Wirral. The city itself is not as bleak as it’s made out to be; even in the seedier precincts along the wharves, you can catch glimpses of what used to be one of the world’s premier seaports. And, of course, the Beatles.

Celeste Simone Sabatini, American Beatles lover, Liverpool, 1983.

At the time of that initial trip, I was still almost a decade away from discovering golf; when I first went back, in the mid-1990s, I had time for nothing else. The Beatles were still a presence, though. One day, when I couldn’t get on anywhere else, I played a round at Southport Municipal Golf Club. The course wasn’t much, and many of the regulars were local lowlifes who had been prompted by the excitement of the Ryder Cup to give up rugby for golf, which they treated as a contact sport.

Still, I had fun, as I always do. One of my playing partners was a retired businessman who had recently given up tennis for golf but whose age, he said, made him undesirable as a candidate for membership at the distinguished private clubs in the area. When I asked him about his working years in Liverpool, he said, “I knew Jim McCartney, who was Paul’s father. We were both in the cotton business, and his office was next to mine. There was a time when we were both dealing in Iranian cotton. I had better shippers and was offering a better price, but Jim was getting all the business. I later found out why: he supplied a signed photograph of the Beatles with every order. He used to fret terribly about Paul’s future.  He desperately wanted him to go to university, because what sort of future could there be for a musician?”

Sunbathing, British-style, on the beach at Blackpool, 1983. The tower in the upper right hand corner is visible from Royal Lytham & St. Annes.