Saturday, 25 May 2013

Seton Sands GC - Course no 576

It's not often that a new golf course opens in Scotland, so it was real privilege to play this ambitious little 9 hole Par 3 course on 25 May 2013.  I'd been due to caddy at Archerfield GC early that morning but after chewing the fat with my caddying buddies in the car park for an hour, we were advised that the 9 Frenchmen who had booked caddies had been out on the town the previous night and would not be playing that day.  Their loss, as 25 May was the warmest day of the year so far in East Lothian and a perfect day for golf.  Either they weren't real golfers and/or had had a really epic Friday night out, as none of my golfing buddies would ever let the small matter of a hangover stand in the way of a round of golf on such a perfect day.  Anyway, I thought I'd explore a new golf course that I'd noticed was being built just outside Port Seton in East Lothian within the Seton Sands Holiday Village.  This development is visible from the main road to Longniddry and from the train line to London and I'd passed it a few times over the recent Winter, wondering when it would finally open.  It turned out that the course had only just opened for play at 1000 hrs on the 25th.  I'd arrived at 1015 and there were a couple of guys already playing but I reckon I was the 3rd golfer to play the course.  
The course will probably be catering primarily for the caravanners at the onsite caravan park/holiday village, but despite the large number of established courses in East Lothian, there's probably also a market for a pay as you play par 3 course, suitable for beginners and casual practice etc., so with suitable marketing this new course could be a commercial success.  I hope so, since its a good layout that over time will mature into a decent test for golfers of all standards.  The course is a modest 1404 Yards, Par 27, but the greens are very small, have some pretty severe slopes and in some cases are like inverted saucers, meaning that it's incredibly difficult to hit and hold any green in regulation.  I'm playing reasonably well at the moment and with holes ranging from 132 - 198 Yards I'd expected to make a few greens in regulation.  I did hit the 9th 196 Yard 9th with my tee shot but like all of my other tee shots, I still missed the green, so scoring birdies here will be a rarity, at least until the course softens a bit.  As matters stand, the course is pretty bare in places and was dry and compacted underfoot.  The greens are better but still very young and will take time to settle, but given time, some over-seeding, lots of water, feeding and kind weather conditions, this little course might soon blossom.  This is the 4th green, looking over to the small clubhouse and the sea in the distance. 
Best hole on the course is the 9th, as shown here.  This is a 196 Yard Par 3 played slightly downhill, avoiding a pond to the left.  The green slopes quite significantly away from you and to the right so you need to be pretty accurate off the tee and par is a good score.  I'd noticed that the 2 guys in front weren't scoring well, to put it politely, so by default it looked as though I might have the course record.  My 31 was 4 over par with 13 putts, so not bad.  However, it would have been nice to make at least one green in regulation, and I suspect my course record wouldn't have survived for very long, since by the time I finished there were a considerable number of golfers on the course.  Still, a record is a record, so well done me.
I'd play this little course again sometime and I wish it well.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Fort William GC - Course no 575

Fort William GC lies around 40 Miles East of Traigh at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK.  I played its excellent 18 Hole moorland course on 21 May 2013, the day after my round at Traigh.  The course lies behind the railway line that runs immediately behind the clubhouse (as shown here with Ben Nevis mostly hidden by high clouds).  That's a pity in a way, since the course itself is hidden from passing traffic on the main A82 road, and it would be easy for passing travellers to miss this genuinely hidden gem.
I'd arrived just after 9AM to find the car park empty and the clubhouse closed, as the Club Steward was down in the town getting the morning milk - visitors to Scottish golf courses used to a more frenetic pace of life might be pacing about but I was in no hurry and apart from the green keeping staff, I had the course to myself for most of the round.  The Fort William course is 5464 Yards, Par 68 off the Yellow Tees and a far more demanding 6217 Yards, Par 72 off the Whites.  The Steward suggested I might try the Whites, but since the course is peat-based moorland and the members were still using preferred lies to compensate for the odd damp and soft areas on fairways, I opted for the Yellow Tees.  This was a wise choice, since as the Steward had also suggested "you'll only get what you hit" so there was little run on any of the fairways.  The Fort William course reminded me of nearby Spean Bridge GC and some of the other equally peat-based courses around the Clyde estuary, such as Cowal, Greenock and Port Glasgow.  Since the course is completely hidden from the road I'd not known quite what to expect.  I'd suspected that since the course lies directly below Ben Nevis, it might be a bit hilly, but far from it, this course is surprisingly flat, weaving its way gently through predominantly pine and birch woodland.  Being peat-based, the course looked to be prone to occasional water-logging and that combined with the fact that Fort William is popularly viewed as being the wettest town in Scotland and with huge volumes of water flowing down from the Ben and surrounding hills, I suppose drainage is always going to be a significant course management issue here.

As you might expect, water comes into play throughout the course, either in the form of drainage ditches or streams.  Study the excellent signage on each tee before deciding your tactics for each hole, bearing in mind that on some holes you're unlikely to see some of the water hazards.  For example, this view from the 3rd Tee looks innocent enough.  You know that there's water around the front of the green, but it's only after you get nearer you see the extent of the hazard.  This Par 3 is only 110 Yards, but requires a very accurate tee shot.

Indeed, the Par 3's are a particular feature of the course.  This is the 125 Yard 6th, another short hole protected by water front, left and right (and prime midgie territory for later in the season!)  The Stroke Index 1 Hole off the Yellows is the 5th, a 385 Yard Par 4 that requires 2 lusty blows to get near the green in regulation.  I was a yard short but got the par easily enough.  For me, the 401 Yard Par 4 9th was a far harder hole.  The drive needs to clear a mound in the middle of the fairway and your second needs to steer its way through a narrowing fairway that was probably the dampest part of the whole course.  I was happy enough with a bogey and delighted with a gross 38 for the Front 9. 
The Back 9 starts with another really difficult Par 4, this time a 377 Yard dog leg left with a lateral water hazard to the left of the severely narrowing fairway, pinching just where your second shot might land if even slightly underhit.  again, I was happy to escape with a bogey after a poor drive.  This is a view from behind the downhill 14th, looking back up to the formidable North Face of Ben Nevis.  It's a pity that high clouds obscured much of the mountain from view, as it's an impressive sight.  I played the course in a gentle wind, by local standards, but this section of the course was pretty exposed to the elements.
Equally, the 16th tee is a pretty exposed place.  This for me was easily the best hole on the course and at 156 Yards is a simply outstanding Par 3 played steeply downhill to a small green protected by bunkers to the front.  Slopes on either side of the green suggest that a slightly wayward shot might get lucky, but my clear strategy was to hit my 27 Degree Rescue club and trust my swing.  I'll take a straight-looking uphill 6 foot putt anytime and was delighted to hole the putt for a great birdie (if I say so myself).

After that achievement I hit my worst shot of the entire round, a bad hook (is there ever a good one?) way left off the 17th tee.  Luckily, the 17th and 18th fairways run parallel to each other and I was able to rescue a par with a 7 iron, short pitch and another single putt.  The 18th is a downhill 332 Yard Par 4, well protected by a deep water ditch just in front of the green.  I'd not noticed the ditch (or read the tee signage properly!), so that mistake cost me a closing bogey for a gross 38 on the Back 9.  Still, I'll take a gross 76, net 65 (3 under net par) with 32 putts.

Fort William is a really good moorland course, full of interest, with great views of Ben Nevis and the surrounding hills and some really good holes, particularly the Par 3s.  I'd played well on the day and beaten net par, but goodness knows how difficult this course must be off the back tees on a wet and windy day.  I strongly recommend you play this excellent course if you ever get the chance - off the Yellow Tees unless you're either very confident or very, very good.

Traigh GC - Course no 574

Traigh (pronounced "try") Golf Club's course has been described in the media as "probably the most beautifully sited nine hole golf course in the World."  I'm not sure whether anyone is adequately qualified and well-travelled to make such a sweeping judgement, but for me, this little course was an absolute joy to play, in a lovely setting beside sandy beaches, rocky islets and impressive views across to the islands of Skye, Rhum and Eigg.  As a student in the late 60's I'd spent many a weekend camping in the local area, surely one of the most beautiful parts of the West Highlands.  If you've seen the film "Local Hero" (my favourite film) the many beach scenes were filmed just down the coast from the Traigh course.  I'd also passed Traigh GC many times in more recent years whilst working on a major project to upgrade ferry services to the Small Isles (of Rhum, Eigg, Muck and Canna) that operate out of Mallaig, a major fishing port and harbour a few miles north of Traigh, but had never had the time to play the course.  So, Traigh had been on my golfing bucket list for a very long time. 
So what's so special about this place?  For me, it's just the perfect location for a short course.  Here are some photos that I took during my visit to Traigh on 20 May 2013, a rather dull and cloudy day, with sea mist and clouds unfortunately obscuring much of the views across to Eigg and Rhum. 

For a better idea of the course features and surrounding landscape, see the club website's photo gallery at

The 9 Hole course at Traigh is short, at only 2346 Yards, Par 34, but if you ever get the chance to play here, don't assume that this is an easy course.  Just take a few spare balls and hope you're on form, because this place will seriously test your game.  The 1st is only 130 yards, but is steeply uphill.  You'll only see the top part of the flag and chances are a tricky wind will be blowing.  I'd hit an easy 7 iron through the green and had a nasty downhill lob wedge pitch to a fast running green and got lucky with a 10 foot putt to save par.  The course is built on some hills that have developed out of ancient sand dunes and a long drive is needed on the Par 5 452 Yard 2nd from the top of one old dune to the summit of its neighbour, where the fairway starts.  You can chicken out by going left, down towards the 3rd green, but this just makes the hole hugely long, with even more of a climb up to the green.  I'd just managed to find the fairway into a strong headwind, but the hole dog legs to the right, with gorse guarding the right of the fairway, so a cautious second shot was required.  Even then, my third, a 50 yard pitch, was steeply uphill and totally blind to a small basin green nestling between more gorse bushes.  I was delighted to walk off with another par.  Two holes played, 2 blind shots and not an old ball in my bag!  
That particular oddity stems from 2 weeks' golfing in Majorca, a trip that Polly and I had returned from only a couple of days before my game at Traigh.  There are some excellent courses on Majorca, but in our view the 4 we played were somewhat over-priced.  Pula GC was the best we played, the others being Son Servera, Capdepera and Canyamel.  The link between these courses is that in their own ways each is very difficult, hence the absence of old balls from my golf bag!  Anyway, back to the 3rd at Traigh.  This is a semi-blind downhill 173 Yard Par 3.  You might just see the top of the flag dependent on the pin position.  The key here is to hit your ball well short (130 yards or so) and let the ball run down onto the green - or get stuck in the rough if you're even slightly wayward.  I'd hit and easy 6 iron and was pleased to find my ball had stumbled its way onto the green.  Another par.
The 4th is an uphill 249 Yard Par 4, with gorse on both sides of a fairway that narrows to almost nothing the further you drive from the tee.  I hit a cautious 3 Wood and had yet another total blind shot to  a small wickedly sloping plateau green.  This is a view from some 20 yards closer than my drive.   I missed the green left and had to settle for a bogey, but this is a seriously tricky hole.  Don't even think about going for the green, as par on this one is a real prize.  Traigh then teases you with a shot Par 3 where you can actually see the bottom of the flagstick from the tee.
The 5th is only 125 Yards, but as this photo suggests, it's awkward, with a tidal inlet to carry.  I missed the green to the left, fluffed a pitch and dropped a shot.  The minor road that passes the course runs just behind the green, so don't over-club!

The 6th is a bit like the 4th, with a narrowing fairway bordered by gorse, and an uphill blind second shot.  This hole is only 264 Yards, so is very short for a Par 4, but the key here is finding the fairway and trusting your sense of direction and distance for your blind pitch to the small green.  I risked taking the Driver, hit my drive straight and had only a short pitch, so a par here was very satisfying. 
Traigh then hits you with its Stroke Index 1 Hole, a 446 Yard Par 5.  Although the course is built on ancient dune land, this fairway was pretty peaty, with little run, meaning you only get what you hit through the air.   Just for a change, your second shot will be blind, but there's tons of room.  It's just that the green is small, so chances are you might miss, even if you hit a great second shot.  That's what I did anyway, but I'll always take par on a Stroke Index 1 hole.   I suspect the 8th is actually a more difficult hole.  This 337 Yard Par 4 requires a good long drive but your second will be steeply uphill, over an old dune.  The marker pole is a good line but the green sits on a narrow shelf just over the top of the hill, so the longer your drive the better chance you might have of hitting your second shot high enough to clear the ridge and hold the green.  Again, you need to trust your sense of direction and distance.  Chances are you'll be playing your second sheltered from the prevailing westerly wind and once your ball clears the top of the ridge the wind will come into play.....  I was happy enough with a bogey after just missing the green with my 7 iron second. 
And so to the last, a steeply downhill 170 Yard Par 3, with OOB to the left and the road within range if you over-club, as shown here.  The 1st tee is also well within range so take your time, enjoy the view, savour the moment and this glorious place.  You might also marvel that you've just forked out a meagre £15 for the green fee, a real bargain.  There are many more famous courses in Scotland, but I can't think of many courses that would be more enjoyable.  Traigh is just perfect as it is and I strongly recommend you try to play it, even if only once (and preferably before the midgie season starts, as I did).  Add it to your own golfing bucket list, take some old balls, your camera and take your time to enjoy.  Better still, allow yourself the time to explore the local beaches and coastline and if the weather is really kind, take a day cruise around the Small Isles from Mallaig on Calmac's MV Loch Nevis (outstanding value,at £17.50 for a non-landing all day cruise).

I managed a very dodgy par at the last after over-clubbing (a 3 Wood!).  I'd gone round in 37 gross, net 31.5, well under net par, with 15 putts and no lost balls.  I'd got lucky a few times, so 37 was as good as it could have been.  However, this particular round wasn't about the score, it was about satisfying a long-held ambition.  Traigh is pretty remote as Scottish courses go and you're not likely to pass it by chance, but I'd encourage you to make the effort to play this little gem of a course.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

North Inch Golf Course - Course no 573

This is an 18 Hole parkland course in the centre of Perth, operated by Perth and Kinross Council.  Whether or not any of the present holes can lay claim to be the earliest recognisable golf course, the North Inch was certainly amongst the first locations at which the game was played. This is confirmed by royal enactments in 1450. King Robert II forbade the playing of golf on the Inches, urging people instead to practice archery in preparation for an invasion from south of the border.  Relations with our English neighbours have improved since then, but I'll resist the temptation to comment further, given the current preparations for a referendum next year on Scottish independence.  This is a blog about golf, after all.
The current North Inch course is laid out along the banks of the River Tay and is pretty flat and low-lying, making parts of the course prone to flooding.  Indeed, when I'd turned up 18 months or so ago to play here, half of the course was closed and the other section had temporary greens and tees, so I gave it a miss.  When I finally played here on 2 May 2013 the course conditions were pretty good overall, though there were still signs of flooding and water damage on some fairways and greens.  The course is short at 5154 Yards, Par 68 off the Yellow Tees and is relatively trouble-free if you're careful, offering encouragement to beginners and higher handicappers, but there's ample trouble on some holes if you get careless.  For example, the 2nd is a slight dog leg Par 4, but with this pin position I should have favoured the left side of the fairway, since my second shot was almost stymied by a large tree.  In mitigation, the local pro was giving a group golf lesson near the 3rd tee and I was trying to stay clear - that's my excuse anyway.  I'd opened with 3 bogey 5s on the first 3 holes, measuring 372, 356 and 445 Yards, but I needn't have worried, as the rest of the Front 9 was pretty straightforward. 
Indeed, the Front 9 measures a very modest 2418 Yards overall, ending with this, an 89 Yard Par 3.  I'd chipped an easy wedge pin high left but I'd not noticed that the contours of that part of the green feed down to the bunker - careless again.  It's easy enough to hit the green on this short hole, but it's also important to find the right part of the green - a more difficult challenge, for me at least.  A decent sand escape to 6 feet set up the par putt, but this particular green (and a few others) was heavily sanded, so I was really pleased to get the par.  I'd parred Holes 4-9 to go out in a very respectable 36. 
The 11th, a 343 Yard Par 4 (411 Yards from the Medal Tee) is the Stroke Index 1 Hole at North Inch.  You need a good long and straight drive to the corner of the 90 degree right dog leg to set up a medium iron to the green.  I got the drive OK, but I should have moved my ball as it finished in a pretty muddy and bare lie.  I was hitting the ball pretty flush, so what could go wrong?  I topped a 6 iron, narrowly missing a stream which cuts across the fairway, another careless mistake that cost me a bogey.  Indeed, I bogeyed the first 4 holes on the Back 9.  Some semblance of order was restored on the 201 Yard Par 3 14th.  I'd missed the green long and left with my 3 Wood, but a chip to within 2 feet ended the bogey run.
And so to the best couple of holes on the course.  The 15th, as shown here, is a challenging 366 Yards Par 4, which I played into a stiffening breeze.  Anything left or hooked is swimming or disturbing the anglers on the riverbank.  I've never understood the attractions of fishing, standing around for hour after hour hoping to catch something that in all probability you throw back anyway.  When the dreaded Scottish midges are in season, I prefer to keep walking, offering at least a moving target. I'd  deliberately hit my drive over the fairway bunker, leaving myself 150 Yards or so, over a tree.  I just needed to clear a greenside bunker by a few yards in order to run onto the green.  However, I finished half-plugged in the steep face of the bunker and was lucky to scramble a bogey.
This is the 16th, a 79 (yes, 79!) Yard Par 3.  You don't need anything fancy, just don't go left or short and don't 3 putt.  You'll also probably have an audience, as there's a walkway through the course to the right of the holes that's very popular with joggers, folks walking their dogs etc.  This being Scotland, a good percentage of your audience will either golf themselves or know a good shot from a bad one, so just try to look as though you know what you're doing.  I hit the green OK and managed to avoid 3-putting.

 You might also have a gallery watching you drive on the 17th, a 280 Yard Par 4 that's really easy if you hit a straight drive.  Go right or left and you risk being blocked out by trees.  The last at North Inch is a 490 Yard Par 5.  I'd hit my drive into trees between the 18th and 3rd fairways, but I'd a clear sight of the 3rd tee and from just short of that, I had only a short wedge to the 18th green.  However, I missed the green on the left side and needed a good chip and a single putt to rescue my closing par.  I'd gone round in 76 gross, net 65, with 29 Putts.  Three under net par is pretty reasonable, but then again, this isn't the most difficult Par 68 I've played and with fewer careless shots, I might have scored even better.  The course didn't look at its very best after the Winter just gone, but it was still an enjoyable walk.