Polly and I had been planning to play the two 18 hole courses at Hilton Park GC on 6 July 2011, but the weather had changed overnight. Although these hilly heathland courses were still open for play despite the heavy rain, there were already deep puddles on some fairways and greens when we got there at 0900 hrs. I've played in worse conditions, but since it looked as though either course could shortly become unplayable, we headed south west in search of a links course and drier weather. We'd been planning to play the links course at Irvine GC on 8 July, so we just brought the timing forward and as we drove there, the rain stopped. Irvine Bogside (as the course is sometimes known as) is an 18 hole championship links course on the Ayrshire coast and is regularly used by the R&A as a Final Open Qualifying Course. In 2003 the Club co-hosted the Amateur Championship with Royal Troon and in 2007, the British Seniors' Open with Turnberry. In 2009, the Ladies Home Internationals were also successfully hosted at the Irvine Golf Club. The club had also hosted the Scottish Senior Amateur Championship a few days before we played here and the course was in superb condition with fast running greens, despite some recent rain that had softened the course and left puddles in some fairway hollows. This is a traditional links course with an outstanding display of golfing memorabilia in the old clubhouse recoding the history of the club, which was established in 1887 and owes its present day character to the course design of the great James Braid, one of Scotland’s most celebrated course designers. Irvine is tight, with narrow undulating fairways bordered by unforgiving gorse so anything more than marginally offline is likely to be severely punished. At 6190 yards par 70 of the Yellow tees it's not long, and strategy rather than power is key here - and the odd lucky bounce helps too.
The friendly Club Steward had advised us that the course was difficult and testing and that even the top amateurs who had played in the Scottish Seniors' had not scored well on it. This cautionary advice was backed up by a member we met by the 1st tee, who wished us well and hoped we didn't lose too many balls. I've played a lot of links golf and we both prefer it to parkland play. I'd not played too well in recent days, but I'd a good feeling here. I'd 3-putted the 3rd, but otherwise hadn't hit a really poor shot in the first five holes, yet by the time I boarded the 6th tee I was already 9 over par. I'd simply put my drives in the wrong position off the tee, found a hidden bunker here and there or run through the green into awaiting rough after slightly misjudging a pitch and run. In other words, I'd forgotten to use my brain and read the course. Clearly Irvine was a course that needed careful management and strategy. For example, this is the 4th, a short 289 yard par 4. The railway line is OOB and with gorse on the right, you must hit it straight, leaving "only" a lob wedge to a plateau green. However, the green was 30 or 40 feet above me and I couldn't see the flag. I played what I thought was a good shot, but had left it too short, so another bogey followed.
And what about this, the quirky Par 4 5th Hole? It's only 257 yards, but with no wind to help, there was no way I could fly a drive over the hill and avoid the biggest bunker I'd seen since playing at nearby Prestwick GC last year. My only choice was to lay up short of the bunker, but then I had a blind wedge to the green. I played the shotwell, but Polly told me I'd hit the downslope of a small ripple in the fairway, shooting the ball through the green and into a bunker. A foot shorter and she thought my ball might have stayed on the green. So that was me, 9 over par after 5 holes, mystified by the course, but loving every minute of it. The 6th was a 401 yard Par 4, Stroke Index 1, with a blind tee shot over gorse and a blind second over a hill to a distant green surrounded by bunkers. I hooked the drive slightly, but the fairway was quite wide and I'd finished on an inviting upslope. From there, the only option was to smash a 3 wood, hope for the best and if possible avoid 3-putting the green if I could find my ball, that is. An easy par, really, but that was the only real highlight on the front 9. I'd not lost a ball on the first 8 holes, and I'd hit a great drive up the 440 yard Par 4 9th, only for the ball to bounce away to the right into deep heather. That bad bounce and lost ball led to a triple bogey and an outward 49. I'd hardly hit a poor shot, remember and I was loving the course.
I'd struggle to pick a favourite hole on the Irvine course, as there were so many to choose from. Maybe it's this, the 18th, a 323 yard Par 4, with a blind drive over gorse with OOB down the right and car park and clubhouse windows alarmingly close behind the green. I'd only a sand iron left to the heart of the green but I'd hit some dead ground just short and took a bogey as a result. A bolder shot was needed, but there's a downslope at the back of the green that feeds anything overhit down towards the clubhouse and the car park. Maybe the members can judge it better, but I'd rather have a bogey than hit a car.
We'd really enjoyed our round at Irvine. It's maybe not as famous as Prestwick, Royal Troon and Turnberry nearby, but his is simply a great traditional links course and I want to play it again. Try it yourself and see if you agree. I'd gone round in 94, net 84, with 33 putts so that's my own target for next time. You'll probably beat that score but you'll be lucky to have more fun that I had here.