I played this really good course on 13 January 2012, a windless and sunny Winter's day. The Vale of Leven course is laid out in moorland above Alexandria, a small town just north of Dumbarton and a couple of miles south of Loch Lomond. At 5037 yards, Par 67 off the Yellow tees, Vale of Leven is pretty short and with only one Par 5 (at 466 yards) length is not so important here. However, the course is quite tricky and accuracy off the tee and on most approach shots is vital. There had been a light overnight frost, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear from the Pro that the normal greens were in play, apart from a couple of greens where work was underway to make course improvements. The only restriction was that balls landing on the fairway had to be placed in the rough to save wear to the fairways over the Winter months. The course was pretty busy so I joined up with Stevie, a local member, from the 2nd hole onwards.
As I was to discover, this course has a number of hidden hazards. The 1st is a simple looking slightly uphill 338 Yard Par 4. I'd hit a reasonable opening drive and had a 9 iron to the green after placing my ball in the light rough. However, a burn runs directly in front of the green, at the bottom of a gully. The green is small and anything short could lead to a double bogey or worse. As shown here, my second found the front of the green, but this was a warning from a course that demands your attention. Most of the holes here look straightforward enough, but stray offline at your peril. An opening par was an encouraging start. This view of the 1st green was also a poignant reminder of my parents, as my Mum had lived for a while in sheltered housing and subsequently in a nursing home, both locations being visible in the background of this picture and my Dad had died shortly before their sheltered housing became available. The healthy walk uphill to the 2nd tee gave me time to reflect on their passing some years ago now.
The 2nd is the only Par 5 on the course, an uphill 466 yarder with a blind second shot over the crest of a hill. The small green sits on a shelf and is tricky to find, I gave myself a par there after my very short second putt was deflected by the impression of a footprint near the hole - well, it was a friendly bounce game! The 3rd hole is a good example of the need for accuracy on this course. At only 266 yards, this par 4 is certainly short, but unless you clear a deep gully your approach shot will be blind. The normal tees were being rested, so the Winter tees in operation were in most cases slightly forward, reducing the length of the course by 100 yards or so. The temporary tee at the 3rd was on a slight down slope and as the hole is slightly uphill, Driver off the tee was definitely the wrong choice. Thankfully my wedge out of the gully plugged on the green only 10 feet away, pin high, yielding a good birdie opportunity. Sadly, I missed the putt by some margin.
Vale of Leven is all about course management and with the 404 Yard Par 4 4th being the Stroke Index 1 hole, that element of my game was to be tested to the full. The hole looks easy enough, but the green formerly shared with the 10th Hole, is difficult to find. I'd hit a good second shot, but was completely blocked out by a small copse of trees. I should have chipped out and settled for a double bogey 6, but I thought that a cute open faced lob wedge might just clear the tall birch tree in front. Suffice to say that a triple bogey 7 was very poor, ruining my run of 3 opening pars. Polly had given me a 27 degree Ping G20 rescue club for Christmas and the 5th, a 174 yard Par 3, seemed an ideal place to give it a try. the three ball in front of us had just left the green when I played a towering shot that plugged around 4 feet from the hole. Stevie followed that with another great shot to within 6 feet and we both got a round of applause from the guys in front. Another missed birdie chance, as the greens were by then slow and bumpy in common with many other Scottish courses at this time of the year.
I'd made it to the turn in 41 and with a clear blue sky and no wind, Stevie and I were talking "warm and "hot" words not normally aired other than in desperate hope in a Scottish January! The names of the holes at Vale of Leven are usually a good guide of what's in store e.g. "The Burn" for the 1st and "The Gully" for the 3rd. The "Cradle" 10th sounded innocent enough and it looked as though my second shot was headed straight for the green. However, another burn runs in front of the green, completely hidden from view until you're almost in it (which is also where my ball finished!) My 4th shot from 30 yards was an almost perfectly played sand iron that bounced a yard in front of the hole, hit the pin and finished a few inches away. The 3 guys in front were passing at the time had not seen my penalty drop and they must have thought, on the basis of this shot and our performances on the 5th that there were some seriously good players behind them. It's just as well they missed my poor double bogey at the 14th a bogey at the 15th! The 16th is another hole requiring absolute accuracy. This is a short uphill 265 Yard Par 4. Find the narrow gorse-lined fairway and there's only a short iron to the green, but there's yet another burn and a deep gully to negotiate on almost highest part of the course, as shown here. I was glad that there was no wind and my 9 iron looked great all the way, plugging a few feet directly behind the pin. I missed the putt after misreading the break, but I'd played the hole well.
This is the 17th, Vale of Leven's signature hole, a 163 Yard Par 3 played from an elevated tee with Loch Lomond just visible in the background. This was a testing hole in calm conditions and must be even more difficult on a windy day. I hit my new 27 degree Rescue club again, finding the back left side bunker. A good bunker escape set up a reasonably easy putt for par, but the green was even slower than I'd expected, so another bogey there. The last hole was played directly into the low Winter sun. This is a 359 Yard Par 4, with the approach shot played blind over a hill. Stevie and I were both on in 3 to within a few feet and our pars were a satisfying end to our round. I finished on 80, net 70 (3 over net par) with 32 putts, so given the conditions that wasn't bad. Stevie was great company (and a better golfer than he thinks he is) and I'd really enjoyed his company and his home course. There's nothing fancy about Vale of Leven. It's just a very good course and well worth a visit. Try it some time and just hope it's not too windy when you're playing the great 17th.