Monday, 30 September 2013

Lothianburn Golf Club - closed after 120 years of hillside golf

Lothianburn GC, known to so many members simply as "The Burn" was instituted in July 1893, initially as a 9 hole course. The present 18 hole layout opened in 1929 to a design by the famous golfer and course designer James Braid. The club has had some prestigious golfers in its membership over the years, Tommy Armour being head and shoulders above the rest. TD Armour won the USPGA Championship in 1927 and our own Open Championship and the US Open in 1931.  At the other end of the playing spectrum, I joined the club in 1979 and was a member until 2001. 22 years during which I played in over 200 club competitions, winning no individual medal competitions and only a few team/pairs events. My first handicap at Lothianburn was 22 and by the time we'd moved to East Lothian in 1999, my handicap had improved to an unremarkable 12.  Thinking back, I suspect it's actually quite difficult to take 10 off your handicap without winning anything! Polly first started playing golf at Lothianburn in the 1980s and our 2 girls were also briefly members, so the club was clearly our golfing "home." I'd kept my membership at Lothianburn going for a couple of years, but most of my golf was at the Glen GC and it became too expensive to keep both memberships going. We'd made many friends at the club, including David, who became our best friend at the Glen (he'd moved to North Berwick shortly before we did) but I'd only played Lothianburn a handful of times since 2001 and Polly and David hadn't played it at all since then.  

As with many other clubs in Scotland a broader decline in membership over recent years created significant financial difficulties for Lothianburn, and that, together with rising debts, culminated in the club's decision earlier this year that it couldn't continue trading. The club owned its clubhouse but rented the course land from a local landowner, who also owns and operates the successful New Swanston GC, immediately adjacent to Lothianburn, on the south side of Edinburgh. Lothianburn GC has now ceased trading and its clubhouse is closed, but the landowner is effectively keeping the course open until the end of this year. What will happen thereafter remains to be seen. I gather from friends who had retained their Lothianburn memberships that at least part of the course may be added to the already impressive revised layout at new Swanston, complementing the excellent facilities now available there. The James Braid courses are an important part of Scotland's golfing heritage, so I hope that at least some of the existing holes can be saved.

The current course is a modest 5432 Yards, Par 71 off the Yellow Tees (Standard Scratch Score 68). Like its neighbouring courses at New Swanston and Torphin Hill, Lothianburn GC is laid out on the slopes of the Pentland Hills and is a mixture of parkland and moorland. Before Swanston was redeveloped a few years ago to replace some of its higher holes with some flatter ones on former farmland, Lothianburn was widely regarded as the best of those 3 hillside courses and was always known for its excellent greens.  

David, Polly and I wanted to play our old course together for a final time, so we made the short trip from North Berwick on 29 September 2013 with heavy hearts. Green fees are now payable at New Swanston GC, with Lothianburn being played from the 4th Tee, the closest to the New Swanston clubhouse. I'd played Lothianburn literally thousands of times as a member but never from the 4th. My best score off the Yellow Tees had been a gross 70, net 58 in 1995 and the course layout and yardage had changed slightly since then, but I was curious to see how my current game would stand up to Lothianburn's test, as were David and Polly. I might have another opportunity to play the Lothianburn course before it finally closes on 31 December 2013, but if not, this is an account of my final round, written as much for my own memories as anything else.

James Braid was known for his use of dog leg holes in his designs and the 4th is a good example. This is a 407 Yard Par 4 running parallel to the slope (as indeed do holes 1-8). The prevailing wind is from the west, and this hole runs from west to east, but the wind was easterly on 29 September, so the 4th was playing long.  I'd hit a decent drive and a good 3 Wood but was still a few yards short of the green.  Missing the green to the left would invariably lead to a big score, but I'd hit a good chip to within 4 feet. However, although the greens had been cut the day before, the 4th was a bit hairy and bumpy. Still, a bogey 5 was considerably better than some of my efforts on that difficult hole.  

Below is the 5th, another slight dog-leg, played blind off the tee and almost blind again for the approach to the green. This Par 4 is only 295 Yards and when the wind is from the west the bold shot is to fly the heavy gorse to the right of the fairway, hoping the ball will run down a slope towards the green.  On other occasions, a decent drive over the marker pole would leave this limited view of the green and a shot that plays longer than it looks.  

It can be very windy around the Pentland Hills and as this photo suggests, the 5th green can be a small target, with perils aplenty around it.  I'd hit a good drive, but my 9 iron was slightly left of ideal and I over-hit a short pitch.  Another bogey 5.

The 6th is a flat 135 Yard Par 3. Club selection can vary wildly dependent on the wind direction. Four bunkers front and left come into play and steep down slopes to the right and beyond make finding the green with your tee shot vitally important.  I'd gone slightly left into one of the bunkers, but a good recovery to a yard set up an easy first par.

Next the 7th, a rollercoaster 460 Yard Par 5 and the Stroke Index 1 hole, usually played into the prevailing wind. This is a lovely hole, played towards the T Wood, played downhill from an elevated and wind-exposed tee avoiding the most magnetic bunker on the course, then blind uphill towards a narrow green well-protected by 3 bunkers. The bigger hitters can sometimes reach in 2 but this was always a 3-shotter for me and occasionally considerably more!  I'd hit my drive too far left into the first cut of rough. From there, it was a 27 Degree Rescue and a 9 iron to the heart of the green.  2 putts later and I'd parred the S.I. 1 hole (and by this time David was a remarkable 3 under par!)

The 8th is a 355 Yard Par 4, wind against when we played it.  The green is just visible from the tee, but the tee shot must be hit left of that, over a large hill.  The second shot, as shown here, can be anything from a wedge to a 5 iron.  Right of the green leaves a bogey or worse on the cards.  I was just short in 2 with my 27 Degree Rescue, but another easy par.
The 9th is Lothianburn's heart attack hill, a sometimes fearsome uphill 324 Yard Par 4, that can be Driver, 3 Wood and a short iron on a windy day.  Right of the fairway is dead and the green itself can be lightning quick. Indeed, one August Medal competition that I played in had to be abandoned after the green became unplayable in a hot and strong wind. It was an otherwise perfect summer's day, but this green slopes steeply from back to front and the pin position was such that unless a putt was holed, chances were it would roll down the steep slope in front of the green.  If memory serves, I had a 9 after first reaching the green in 3. Yesterday, I was again on in 3 but single-putted from a yard for another par.  I was sometimes relieved to even bogey this difficult hole.

The 10th as shown here is the shortest hole on the course at only 106 Yards and is usually little more than a flick with a wedge, on a calm day. However, the wind tends to swirl around this part of the course, thanks to the T Wood nearby and 6 deep bunkers that surround the green must be avoided. I played an easy 9 iron to the back of the green and had an equally easy par, but I've lots of scar tissue from this hole and memories of far higher scores. Sh--- here at your peril.  From there, it's a short walk through the T Wood to the 11th and 12th Holes, another great section of the course.

This is the 11th, a 267 Yard Par 4 that's almost defenceless on a calm day.  The ideal line is the left side of the green and anything past the small bunker around 220 Yards out leaves just a short pitch to an uphill green.  However, on a windy day OOB to the left comes into play, as does a steep downslope to the right of the fairway.  The green itself is long and narrow and breaks more than you might think.  I'd hit a good drive beyond the bunker and had only a lob wedge to the green.  2 putts for another par.

The 12th is another good short Par 4 at 293 Yards.  The ideal line is usually left of centre to set up a short wedge played blind uphill to the green.  OOB lurks immediately behind so accuracy is essential. This is David bombing another drive off the tee.  I played the hole perfectly and made the 8 foot birdie putt.

The 13th is yet another short Par 4, this time 228 yards uphill with OOB to the right of the fairway and behind the green.  It's usually possible to drive the green, but I went too far left, leaving a very short lob wedge steeply uphill. I found a small gully at the back of the green and rather than take the putter, I foolishly attempted a chip out of a fluffy lie.  My fluffed chip led to a bogey on one of the easiest holes on the course. I remember making an eagle 2 here many years ago in a 3-club competition with a couple of well-hit 5 irons.  Yes, me hitting successive well hit shots with an iron, but it's true.

The 558 Yard Par 5 14th is perhaps the most memorable hole at Lothianburn, a steeply downhill hole with OOB on both sides.  There was usually time to admire the view before trying to find the fairway with your drive.  Until recently, an OOB line ran all the way between the 9th and 14th, affecting only play on the 14th.  However, that line now starts well down the 14th, making the tee shot far easier than "in our day."  I much prefer the earlier tougher version, which contributed to the 14th being Stroke Index 2.  I hit a great drive down the left side of the fairway, (well past the "plateau", for those who know the course) followed by an easy 8 iron downhill and another one steeply uphill to the small green. A couple of putts for another par.  I was 2 over par after 11 holes, so not bad....

The 303 Yard 15th is the easiest Par 4 on the course.  Played with the prevailing downwind from the west, this hole is easily drivable. You simply go as left as you dare towards whin bushes and hope your ball carries over the crest of a steeply side-sloping hill and rolls all the way down to the green.  With the wind coming directly into our faces it was more of a test and a weak pitch and run left me with a 30 foot putt which was slower than I'd expected.  Still, a bogey 5 was poor on such an easy hole. (Polly tells me the 15th had previously been a steeply downhill Par 4 but is now a long Par 3, as is the 18th, tightening the Ladies Scorecard).

From the easiest to the most awkward. The 16th is a slightly downhill 306 Yard Par 4, with gorse on both sides of the fairway.  The fairway also slopes from the centre down to the right towards gorse bushes, so only a very straight drive will do.   This is Polly and David on their way to the green.  The fairway looks wide enough, but I've come to grief many a time on this hole! 

I'd hit the perfect drive and had 89 Yards to the pin into the strengthening easterly wind.  An easy wedge to 10 feet and a straight single putt gave me another birdie.  Back to 2 over par.

The 17th is an uphill 307 Yard Par 4 with a narrow fairway and trouble looming either side. Only a long and straight drive will do and with the wind behind that was done, setting up an easy lob wedge to the green.  I hit that a bit too hard and was in light rough at the back of the green. A bogey from there was disappointing, though.

The downhill Par 4 18th is 281 Yards from the elevated Yellow Tee and again, straight is your only option, since gorse awaits anything remotely offline, particularly to the right. This fairway tends to dry out and get very hard and fast, adding to the difficulty, as the photo below shows. The green is easily drivable with a westerly wind, but I was still 20 yards short. A good pitch and run to 6 feet set up my 3rd birdie.  I was round the "proper" Back 9 in level par 36.

Of all the holes at Lothianburn, the 1st is my least favourite.  A 236 Yard Par 4 should not be difficult, but this one most definitely is. The wind is usually coming at you from the green or from your front left, bringing OOB and gorse into play to the right.  Rocky outcrops on the left of the fairway tempt you either to go far left to leave a long pitch to the green or to go for the narrow band of fairway between the rocks and gorse.  Find that narrow band and it's just a short pitch to a small shelved green protected by bunkers and more gorse.  A path to the right of the hole is popular with hillwalkers, so we had to wait a while and I just lost my concentration. The gorse bushes to the right of the fairway had plagued my golf at Lothianburn over the years, so it was no great surprise to see my drive finish there.  I did well to make a single putt with my second ball for a double bogey 6.

The 2nd is the most difficult Par 3 and although only 144 Yards plays longer than you'd expect. The hole is slightly uphill played to a narrow shelved green cut into the side of the hill, played over an old quarry. During Centenary celebrations in 1993, the club had a series of novelty events, one being a Bloodsome Scramble, with 4-person teams made up from Junior, Senior, Gents and Lady Members.  This competition worked along the usual Texas Scramble lines except that teams were obliged to play their worst shot each time, rather than their best or most favourable. The competition was eventually abandoned after one particular Lady Member got stuck in the quarry, requiring the team to play until all 4 balls reached the comparative safety of the green.  With upwards of five 4-member teams waiting on the tee, the poor lady simply couldn't get her ball back in play.  I tried a 7 iron, came up a couple of yards short in heavy rough and limped away with another double bogey.  I never liked that hole and my good round was fast unravelling.

Our last hole, the excellent 427 Yard 3rd Hole is the longest Par 4 on the course and being predominantly straight into the wind is, for me at least, normally the most difficult hole.  The drive is played from an elevated tee to a fairway that slopes steeply from left to right.  I'd hit a really good drive and had around 200 Yards to the green.  A copse of trees begins some 50 yards to the right of the green, narrowing the fairway considerably and cross-bunkers 30 yards short of the green add to the need for an accurate second.  I hit a really good 3 Wood as my second, barely 5 yards right of where I wanted it but this went (just!) OOB, leading to a disappointing third successive double bogey.  I'd gone round in 79 gross, net 68, with 28 Putts.  If that's my final round at Lothianburn, it's not a bad way to finish.  I'd matched the Standard Scratch Score of 68 despite a dramatic collapse on the last 3 holes.  I'd also beaten David by a single Stableford point after he found troubles of his own on some of the closing holes, despite his hugely impressive start.  Polly just had a bad day on the greens despite trying her heart out, as usual.  Lothianburn could be humbled on a calm day and the Back 9 in particular is sometimes quite easy (my best Back 9 was a gross 31, offset by an outward 40).  I remember my great friend at Lothianburn, Jim Easson, coming in with a net 59 in a medal competition, only to see his score beaten by a 58! 

However, it was rarely calm, so we were used to playing hillside lies in pretty stormy conditions and as we were occasionally reminded by our aching muscles, Lothianburn's hills and the weather conditions could be as much a test of fitness as your golf game. 36 holes round there on a windy day could be hugely demanding. With the top of the course (the 13th green) being over 900 feet above sea level on the slopes of the Pentland Hills, it might be assumed that this was a summer only course.  Not so.  Jim, David and I were part of a hardy band who gathered around dawn every Sunday morning, rain, snow or frost to play our winter golf.  OK, we had to adopt some odd rules e.g. in snowy conditions we'd clear the snow away, tee up on the fairways and count a maximum of 2 putts per green.  If we played early enough it was usually possible to see the entry holes our yellow balls made in the snow - any later and we were competing with skiers and sledgers.  Happy days and great friends, every one. RIP Donny Robertson, RIP.

It's a real shame that after 120 years of hillside golf at its best, Lothianburn GC is no more and that the course as we know it today may be gone inside a few months.  Unfortunately, nothing is forever and other courses in Scotland will doubtless close next year and for years after that. The simple fact is that there are far too many courses in Scotland for the number of regular golfers to sustain. Other pursuits that don't involve such substantial time and financial commitments have taken hold.  The bulk of clubs will of course survive and some will prosper but Lothianburn GC as we knew it is dead.  Our memories will live on, of shots good and bad, heroic failures and fleeting success; of lasting friendships, old friends long or in some cases not so long dead. I still have the club's Centenary book, written in 1993 by Bill Pritchard OBE.  Bill was a great guy who did a huge amount for the club but like so many others who feature in his book, is probably dead by now, like the club he and so many other members loved so much. To that book, I'll add my scorecard from yesterday. Not a perfect round, but pretty good nevertheless. Lothianburn wasn't perfect either and its hills didn't attract the number of visiting golfers that would have improved its finances, but it was also pretty good and was our home club.  We were proud of it and now its gone.  As we Scots might say, "I'm awa' for a guid greet!"  

January 2019

The pain of losing an old friend is always there.  Lothianburn was only one of hundreds of Scottish courses but it was a friend to many, comfortable in its own skin and even now, over 5 years since it closed for good, the memories linger.  So, what's become of it?  The 3rd and 4th holes have been woven into the revised New Swanston GC layout, making that course flatter and more easily playable and the clubhouse is still there, as I think, a small business hub.  The rest of the land is now grazing for horses, with fencing and sheltering seemingly all over the course, with our erratic irrigation system now providing water supplies as necessary.  The layout of the course is still clearly recognisable but the grass now grows wild, where its not been trampled by horses, eaten or crapped upon. 

I walked around the top of the course in early January 2019, but I didn't linger and I don't think I'll walk that way again.  This is a view of what remains of the old 13th green, the highest point of the course, looking down the old 14th fairway and the clubhouse building.

This is the old 12th, with would you believe, some horses and Highland cattle in the distance.

The 14th tee.  The OOB ditch splitting the 9th and 14th fairways has disappeared but anyone who has played here will see that the 14th green is still there.

Finally, this is the 13th hole, as viewed from the green back to the tee.

It's sad to see our old home in such a state and equally disappointing that many more Scottish golf clubs will be closing for years to come.

Some years ago I started writing a separate blog about some of the more bizarre experiences I've had when playing the great game of golf.  This is what I wrote about some true incidents at Lothianburn.  Enjoy!  

"Lothianburn GC was founded in 1893 and has over the years been primarily an artisans club, attracting members from the working classes rather than the toffs.  When I joined the club in 1979 I quickly fell in with a great bunch of guys, including Bobby Moore (no, not that one!), Ray Stephenson, George Anderson, and his son David.  Bobby, Ray and George were all retired miners from the nearby Bilston Glen colliery, long-since closed.  David was a big strapping lad, well over 6 feet and at a guess, near 18 stone.  David and I would regularly play Bobby and George on Sunday mornings and have a great laugh, usually at each others’ expense. The standard of golf was moderate at best but we were all pretty quick witted and there was no mercy for the meek or wayward. 

The 16th at Lothianburn is an awkward shortish Par 4, slightly downhill.  The fairway slopes sideways from left to right with anything slightly offline running down into heavy gorse.  The safe shot is down the left of the fairway.  There’s a stream beyond the gorse on the right followed by Out of Bounds and an access road that runs up to the largest dry ski slope in the UK.  We’d noticed a council workman repairing one of the streetlights a couple of hundred yards down the road.  He’d probably been replacing a bulb and had just finished screwing the large spherical glass outer casing over the bulb before climbing down his ladder.  Now Bobby (also known as Sammy, for reasons I never thought to ask.  It was just one of those facts that didn’t seem to require explanation) was by far the best golfer amongst us and was usually pretty straight off the tee.  It was actually pretty difficult to go Out of Bounds off the 16th tee and Bobby was playing pretty well that day.  Accordingly, it was pretty amazing to see Bobby’s tee shot go straight right and the more so when his ball shattered the light fitting that the council workman had just replaced. 

I guess it was our laughing that got the workman started, but he fair bolted up the road to remonstrate furiously with Bobby.  Indeed, he was clearly accusing Bobby of having deliberately broken the light fitting, shaking his fist at Bobby from the safety of the road, with the stream and the Out of Bounds fence between him and the 4 of us.  The language sadly degenerated to the industrial.  There was a miners' bond between Bobby and George that transcended mere friendship and one would always stand up for the other if necessary, so it was no great surprise when George, who could be pretty coarse when the need arose, replied saying “Deliberate, don’t be so fucking stupid, man!  The daft old bastard couldnae even hit the fucking golf course!” This prompted further hilarity and the retreat of the workman, back to his van.  There are in life statements that are simply unanswerable and this was one of the best. Unfortunately for our workman, we were all walking the same way, down the fairway and the road, with George gleefully repeating his views along the way. 

Big David was my regular playing partner and the kindest, gentlest and mild-mannered of guys, but he was never the greatest of putters, a weakness that would be his downfall one very wet Saturday morning.  We’d been drawn together with a third player in a monthly medal competition.  We’d had a good soaking on the way round, but with only a couple of holes to go, David was still hanging in there despite some pretty mediocre putting on slow wet greens.  The 17th at Lothianburn is a tight uphill Par 4 with gorse on either side of the fairway.  The green is small and rectangular, with a grassy bank behind it that runs up to the adjacent 18th tee. 

When your game is off there’s always a tipping point during a round when it becomes inevitable that the game’s up and that instead of getting cut, or being within the buffer zone your handicap is going up by 0.1 despite your best efforts.  For David, that moment came when his 3rd putt on the 17th lipped out.  4+ hours in the cold and wet finally took their toll and although David was usually very even tempered, it was easy to sympathise with him when he threw his putter, javelin-fashion, towards the grassy bank behind the green.  As I’ve said, David was a big lad and with the rain having softened the grassy bank to a muddy slope, his putter drove a few inches into the ground, head first, the shaft vibrating furiously.  David had to pass his putter en route to the 18th tee and had clearly not calmed down by the time he reached his errant club.  So, he grabbed the putter handle and yanked it angrily out of the ground.  Unfortunately, the force of the throw or his tug on the buried club had broken the shaft, meaning the putter head remained buried.  This on its own left me and our third player in fits of laughter, made all the worse by David’s subsequent gentle smoothing over of the hole left by the putter shaft and his ever so softly spoken message “and you can fucking stay there.” David went on to finish his round, soaking wet and putterless.  There are some tricky drives at Lothianburn, the most tricky for me being the 18th, requiring a long uphill drive over gorse bushes.  I managed the drive eventually after having to back off a few times in fits of giggles, much to David’s further annoyance.   I suspect he putter head still lies where David left, it all those years ago. 

David and I had won a Volkswagen-sponsored better ball pairs event at Lothianburn in 1983 and qualified for the national finals, held at Whitecraigs GC in Glasgow.  We’d been picked up in Edinburgh by a Volkswagen rep and driven through to the course, and all players were given VIP treatment throughout.   We’d had to wait for a couple of hours before playing off, but we were able to pass the time by watching the closed circuit TV coverage of play.  However, this only made us more nervous and David in particular was feeling the pressure.  When our tee time finally arrived, we were introduced to Arthur Montford, then a famous Scottish football TV commentator, who was making the player announcements on the 1st tee and doing the commentary on play on the 1st hole.  The 1st at Whitecraigs is an uphill 135 Yard Par 3 with Out of Bounds to the right, just beyond some high pine trees, with the club car park lying immediately behind the trees. We’d agreed that David would take the first tee shot.  Arthur’s commentary was something like –

Next on the 1st tee is David Anderson, representing Lothianburn GC.  David is a telecoms engineer and with the wind blowing across the hole from the left, David is playing an 8 iron (after the slightest of delays and the sound of shattering glass) …. and would the owner of car number W81BSC please see the Club Secretary….

David had shanked his opening shot Out of Bounds, through the windscreen of a parked car and Arthur was clearly inventing the car number, quick-witted as ever.  Although David was absolutely appalled by his opening shot, I was just the opposite, with another fit of giggles, such that Arthur duly introduced me “Next up, eventually, and also representing Lothianburn is Alan McPherson, aiming well left I suspect…”  I scrambled an unlikely par and we were off and running, hopefully out of camera range.

We didn’t win the event, but we played pretty solidly and thoroughly enjoyed our day.  We stayed on a for a few beers and the prize giving dinner.  The Volkswagen MC made some standard remarks about the quality of the course, the outstanding play on show, the catering etc. before introducing a hastily edited film of the competition highlights.  I’m usually not bad at multi-tasking but I’d not really expected to see David’s opening tee shot in glorious slow motion, just as I was downing my latest beer, hence the spluttered giggles and wet trousers.  David was presented with his OOB ball, much to his embarrassment and Volkswagen kindly settled the repair bill.

I had some truly great friends at Lothianburn when I was a member there but as with any golf club, there were one or two  complete muppets who were best avoided.  To spare potential legal action, embarrassment or worse, I’ll call this individual John.  John was an arrogant sod who had a very guid conceit of himself. He’d play regularly with his teenage son but I really can’t remember anyone else who’d willingly give him a game.  He was a handy enough and fiercely competitive golfer and not slow to talk up his latest exploits, not that anyone I knew was remotely interested.  Lothianburn had been founded in 1893 and 100 years later a grand 100 a side friendly match was held between Lothianburn and Baberton GC on our home patch.  I drew the short straw of partnering John and although the match was clearly a celebration of both clubs’ 1993 centenaries, John was clearly determined to win and didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to be offering our opponents any factual information (not advice!) about individual holes and hazards on the course.

Our opponents in turn quickly got the measure of John and our match proceeded rather more seriously than I, or as suspect our opponents, had expected.  John was happy enough talking about himself, though, and after a few holes mentioned that he didn’t get to play as much golf as he would like due to his heavy commitments as a rugby referee.  This information clearly got the attention of one of our opponents from Baberton, an athletic looking and sturdily built guy in his late 20’s, who asked which league John officiated in, as he’d never come across him in his own rugby circles.  I can’t remember which league John mentioned, but it was something clearly local to the Edinburgh and Lothians area.  “That explains it” said our opponent, who added that as he played for Hawick’s first team, (Hawick being at the time one of the very top clubs sides in Scotland!) he’d not expect to meet John any time soon on a rugby field.  This left John somewhat deflated for once but what really made my day were the drives at the 15th.  This is a shortish Par 4, with the drive played way left to a marker pole from which a well struck ball might run steeply downhill to the green.  The green is readily reachable from the Yellow tees but is far more difficult from the White medal tees.  John was a better player than me and certainly longer off the tee.  Our opponents both drove the green.  John’s got snarled up in rough only slightly off the ideal line and for one of the rare times I drove the green from the Medal tee, much to John’s surprise.  I don’t remember the outcome of our 4 Ball and in such a celebratory match it shouldn’t have mattered anyway.  Suffice to say that the overall outcome of the grand match was declared a draw, with honour preserved on both sides.  Some time later, John took his membership to another Edinburgh club.  He wasn’t really missed, but I sometimes thought back to that day when playing the 15th in subsequent medal competitions!" 

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Green Valley Golf Academy - Course no 620

This excellent looking golf range and teaching academy in the village of Castle Kennedy near Stranraer also has a 6 hole 1086 Yard Par 20 golf course. I'd passed it several years ago (when it was called the Castle Kennedy Golf Centre) en route to Ireland, and I'd planned to play it early on 24 September 2013, then travel the 32 miles South to play the course at Burrow Head before driving home. Unfortunately, the Academy didn't open until lunchtime that day, so rather than hang around I played Burrow Head first, adding to my diesel costs for the trip.  Burrow Head was just a tick in the box kind of a course, but I'm pleased to say that Green Valley was much better.  For a start, the course has been built with serious golfers in mind and offers a decent challenge.  The greens had suffered from bird damage, with several areas showing clear signs of birds having pecked extensively looking for worms etc. A pity, as the small greens were otherwise in great condition. The fairways could have been more closely cut, and it would have been helpful had the one member of staff on duty been able to find where the scorecards were stored, but I liked the layout and really enjoyed the course, despite those reservations.

This is the 1st, a 318 Yard Par 4.  Clear the pond or reload.  I got the drive away OK, but my 9 iron just missed the small green, which was far faster than it looked, so an opening bogey.  The 2nd is a flat 148 Yard Par 3.  I'd just missed the green but a good lob wedge and easy putt gave me a par.  Much the same at the 99 Yard 3rd.  The 4th is a 135 Yard Par 3, with the green enclosed by OOB on 3 sides.  I finished just off the green with an easy 7 iron and pitched in from there for a birdie. The 5th is a 238 Yard Par 4 with the green almost as enclosed, this time by bushes and marsh. My drive was slightly short and a thinned  lob wedge went through the green, stopping just short of real trouble. However, a decent pitch from there set up an easy putt for another par.  I was still level par with a hole to go.

This is the last hole at Green Valley, a 148 Yard Par 3 over the pond that had been in play on the 1st.  I hit an easy 27 Degree Rescue to within a yard of the left side of the green and had a simple job from there for my closing par.  Level par 20 strokes, and 6 putts, net 3.7 under par, so a good score. I liked the facilities at Green Valley and would play this little course again if I had the time to spare when in the area. Not bad at all for the £5 Green Fee.

Burrow Head Holiday Village Pitch and Putt Course - Course no 619

St Medan GC claims to be the most southerly golf course in Scotland and is a fine course. However, when in the area on holiday recently, Stu found this small 9-hole Par 27 pitch and putt course that's just a few miles further south, near the village of Isle of Whithorn (not an island by the way!) in Dumfries and Galloway. The Burrow Head Holiday Village is basically a large top of the range caravan site, right on the coast. The pitch and putt course forms part of the leisure and recreation facilities available for holidaymakers and is generally an easy test for experienced golfers, aimed primarily at family entertainment rather than serious golf.  Accordingly, some might question whether we are right to include this little course in our list of Scottish golf courses.  As we've said before, it's difficult to draw the line, so we include any course with fixed tees and greens, irrespective of the length or number of holes.

The holes here are all in the 50-70 Yard long range - there was no scorecard.  My scores of 4, 3, 3, 4, 3, 3, 3, 4, 3 for a 30 total with 13 putts reflect the condition of the course rather than its difficulty.  Frankly, the greens were awful, but it's late season and no doubt the course is presented to a higher standard during the Summer months.  Here are a few photos showing the general layout and condition of the course. 

As I've suggested, the course isn't much of a test for serious golfers, apart for the 8th that is.  This is the view from the 8th Tee, with the flag barely visible beyond heavy rough. Maybe the tee had been moved away from a worn or boggy area, but I didn't see any signs of a more obvious location.  I'd been carrying my putter, 9 iron and lob wedge and I reckon the 8th was around 55 Yards.  My 4 was actually quite good in the circumstances.  I wouldn't play the Burrow Head course again, though. St Medan GC is a far more interesting challenge for the serious player.

Portpatrick Hotel Par 3 Course - Course no 618

I'd arranged to stay at a local Bed and Breakfast place in Portpatrick after my game at Lagganmore on 23 September 2013, almost next door to the imposing and rather grand looking Portpatrick Hotel that dominates the skyline of this little village. Polly and I had noticed on a previous visit to the village (en route to a golfing holiday to Ireland) that the hotel had a 9 hole Par 3 Course.  I played this little course before retiring to the comforts of the nearby Crown Hotel (great beer and food, by the way!)

There's little positive to say about this Par 3 Course other than that I went round in 31 strokes, with 16 putts.  The course is quite hilly, with very poor greens that made putting a lottery.  The same "temporary" flimsy photocopy scorecard that I was given on my previous visit 2 years ago was still in use.  The course clearly suffered from drainage problems and was boggy in parts. Here are a couple of views of the course.  First, the 1st green - one of the best, which isn't saying a lot.  Next, a general view of the course from the 5th green, looking back down to the hotel.  The hotel itself looked pretty good, but I wouldn't want to try this little course again.  Once was enough, to satisfy the ambition to play every Scottish course.

Lagganmore Golf Course - Course no 617

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm trying to play every course in Scotland with 2 of my buddies, Craig Watson and Stu Fleming.  Craig gets married in a few days time and we'd planned a small stag do during which the 3 of us would play some of the courses in the far south west of the country. Craig's job is keeping him very busy so that plan fell through.  I'd still 4 courses to play down there, including one that Stu found recently, so I decided to go down there on my own, between caddying jobs and other commitments.  We'll no doubt have other trips in due course.  So, I set off on 23 September 2013 to play the courses at Lagganmore near Portpatrick, Portpatrick Hotel, Burrowhead and Castle Kennedy.

According to its publicity, "only 2 miles from Portpatrick and 6 miles from Stranraer, Lagganmore Hotel and its 18 hole golf course enjoys a superb elevated position overlooking Dunskey Castle and the North Channel - on a clear day the coast of Ireland and the Mountains of Mourne can be seen across the water." From previous visits to Portpatrick to play at the excellent Dunskey GC courses I've seen the Northern Ireland coastline but 23 September 2013 was a dull misty day, with moderate visibility and I could just about see the water from parts of the Lagganmore course in between banks of drizzly mist.  The course was wet underfoot after overnight rain but conditions were pretty reasonable for the time of year, so I was surprised to find when I arrived that no-one was playing the course.  There was one other car in the car park, but the hotel was similarly devoid of customers (and yes, it really is that colour!).  The owner hadn't opened the place for lunches and told me that they might soon be closing for the coming Winter.  I've no idea whether this business makes money, but on a reasonable day for late-season golf the place was alarmingly quiet.  The greens were still wet from the light rain that had fallen and it was clear from the absence of footprints that no-one else had played the course that morning.  There were still no other visitors by thew time I left in mid-afternoon, so it looked as though my £10 green fee would be pretty meagre takings for the day.

As I'd suspected, the reference in the hotel's publicity to an "elevated position" was code for "hilly."  The course is moorland in nature and at 5376 Yards, Par 69 from the Yellow Tees, is moderate in length.  The fairways are generously wide and with little in the way of serious rough, the course looked easy enough. However, the greens are quite small and were surprisingly speedy and with several blind shots coming in to play on the Front 9, I had to pick my around very carefully, particularly on the 7th, the Stroke Index 1 hole.  This is a largely uphill 494 Yard Par 5, playing to its full length after the overnight rain.  A marker pole in the far distance is well out of range but a decent drive gives you sight of a second marker pole, indicating the top of the modest climb on this hole. From there, the fairway slopes steeply downhill towards a small and very shallow green set at an angle to the fairway.  I suggest you have a careful look at this green and its frontage when you've finished playing the adjacent 5th hole, noting the stream immediately in front of the green.  Chances are you won't see this stream before playing your 3rd shot on the 7th, (assuming you've reached the second marker pole in 2!)

Some might think that any Par 5 should be reachable in 2 for the biggest hitters, but despite being relatively short, this is a genuine Par 5.  It would be a very brave soul who would go for the green in 2, since their second would be completely blind to an alarmingly small target. The green also slopes from left to right and towards the stream, so even a short 3rd shot needs to be accurate. For the record, I was on in 4 and managed a bogey after just missing an unlikely par from the back left of the green.  

Water also comes into play on the 9th, a 128 Yard Par 3. From the tee, as shown here, you don't see the stream that cuts in front of the green, but you can certainly guess it's presence from the small bridge that's visible to the right of the green.  Long and left is OK, but I went short and right, costing me a bogey and a newish Titleist Velocity ball.  I'd reached the turn in 41, 6 over par.  The Front 9 had been moderately hilly and open.  The Back 9 is almost 400 yards shorter.  I was glad I'd not opted to play off the White Medal Tees, as the Back 9 starts with a 608 Yard uphill Par 5 (thankfully a more manageable 513 yards off the Yellow Tee).  The 10th is still a long hole and the fairway was soft and boggy, possibly explained by the fact that it lies at the bottom of a steep hill (where much of the Back 9 is located).  At this point I should have studied the course map a bit more closely.  I was using my larger Sun Mountain bag and a pull trolley rather than the lighter stand bag and it was a fair climb to the 11th Tee.  Tip - leave your bag at the back of the 10th.

The 12th tee will get your attention, as will the view, steeply uphill.  At 63, I guess I'm allowed the odd senior moment.  I've been playing golf now for over 45 years, but I honestly can't remember walking 20 or so yards towards the fairway without first having hit my drive.  By way of limited explanation, there was a direction sign steering golfers clear of a muddy area just beyond the tee, and I'd simply followed it, as you do.  Lagganmore felt a long way from anywhere, with no other golfers around, but at least I'd not been spotted.  But this is an old fool who can still play a bit, since I subsequently threaded a good drive through the narrow gap and had an easy par on this steeply uphill 251 Yard Par 4.

From there, the course turns left for the 13th, a 324 Yard Par 4 that plays far longer than it looks, going downhill then up.  By this time I was looking for the top of the course (still a long way off at the 16th!) as the novelty of going up and down hills pulling a trolley over some occasionally boggy ground was wearing pretty thin. I'd dropped shots on the 10th and 15th, but otherwise I'd a reasonable score going.  The 16th purports to be a 158 Yard Par 3.  One of the "joys" of caddying is working for guys who'll say "it's 158 so I'll play my 160 yard club, thank you" failing to take account of the terrain.  Here, you'd be well advised take up to a 3 Wood and hit it as far as you can up the steep hill hoping to find the small green and avoid 3-putting.  I managed that OK and was 8 over.  It's a short walk to the 17th Tee, but you might want to have a look around before playing, as I guess the views would be pretty spectacular on a clear day.  I could still see a lot of the surrounding countryside, but had almost no view the 17th itself, a steeply downhill (at last!) 368 Yard Par 4.  Pretty much all you notice is OOB to the left and a sea of gorse.  Logic suggested that a decently wide fairway might lie beyond the gorse to the right of the photo above.  Go for the middle turbine in the wind farm on top of the most distant hill, right of centre on this photo, to leave yourself a short iron pitch to the green, avoiding the pond to the right. I'd hit a good drive and a 9 iron second to set up another easy par on a hole that could be tougher. Personally, I'd have put the green a bit closer to the pond, as it only comes into play you're seriously offline. 

The last is a simple 257 Yard Par 4 finishing in front of the hotel.  That colour again.  I'd gone round in 77, net 66, or 3 under net par, with 27 putts.  Lagganmore has some good holes and was in pretty good condition when I played it.  I don't know whether it gets played much by local golfers, who have some really excellent courses to choose from, such as Dunskey, Stranraer and Wigtownshire. However, it's certainly worth playing if you're in the area (and great value at a very modest £10 a round).

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Whitecraigs GC - Wee Course - Course no 616

Whitecraigs is in my view one of the best 18 Hole parkland courses in the Glasgow area. I'd played it in 1983, in the Scottish final of a pairs competition sponsored by Volkswagen, with my partner David Anderson.  I know the year, since I still have the trophy after we won the qualifying competition at our then home club, Lothianburn GC, some weeks earlier. We didn't win the national final.  If memory serves, we were 6th, but not bad! I'd not noticed it at the time, but Whitecraigs also has a 9 Hole Par 3 Course, so I made the short trip from nearby Linn Park Golf Course to play Whitecraigs' Wee Course on 4 September 2013.  This course is a 970 Yard Par 27, with holes ranging from 80 to 131 Yards.  As might be expected, the greens were tiny and difficult to find off the tees.

This is the 1st, the shortest hole, at only 80 Yards. With the flag on the right, I played a gentle sand iron off the slope to the right of the green.  This stopped just short of the green but a 20 foot chip set up an easy par.  The 2nd is a more challenging slightly uphill 129 Yard Par 3.  I missed the green again but a chip and putt rescued the par.  The 3rd  hole lies downhill to the left of the 2nd and is a 92 Yarder played over a stream to a small shelf of a green cut into a bank with pine forest immediately behind the green.  A deep bunker protects the right side of the green.  I'd only missed the green by a yard, so another chip and putt and another par.

The 4th is an 87 Yarder, downhill.  Yet another missed green, short pitch and single putt par. This is the 5th, a 97 Yard downhill hole played over a stream.  Hit the bank in front of the green and you might roll back into the water. There was also a yellow flag on the left side of the green presumably to off a more difficult hole option, protected by a bunker short of the green, as shown.  Just for fun, I played a ball at both holes and actually found the green both times.  I birdied the 5th i.e. the flag on the right of the green.  The 6th lies up the hill to the right side of this photo and at 131 yards is the longest hole. I missed the green quite comfortably and didn't get my pitch very close either, so a bogey on that one.

The 7th is a downhill 119 Yarder with pine forest to the left and behind the green.  I hit an easy 9 iron deliberately to short right of the green to allow the slope to feed the ball down to the hole.  I just missed the hole and finished only 4 feet away, but missed the birdie putt. This is the 8th, played from a gap in the forest steeply downhill, with a stream ominously close behind the green.  The hole is 127 Yards and is quite tricky.  Left or long is dead. I managed to find the green with an 8 iron tee shot for an easy par.

This is the last hole, a 108 Yarder.  Another stream protects the green and there's another water hazard to the right.  I hit a poor shot short of the green and followed that with an equally weak chip en route to a second bogey.  Still, 28 shots is only 1 over par, so not bad.  13 putts was also OK on tiny greens that were slower than they looked.

I'd not seen Whitecraigs up close for 30 years, but the main course looked just as impressive as I'd remembered it and the old clubhouse hadn't changed either.  I guess that when I finally finish the challenge of playing every course in Scotland I'll have a rough list of courses that I'd like to play again.  Of the Glasgow courses, I'd certainly want to play Whitecraigs again.  If I have to wait another 30 years, so be it, as I'd have played another 3000 or so rounds of golf by then!

Linn Park Golf Course - Course no 615

Linn Park is an 18 Hole parkland course, one of the 6 courses and 4 pitch and putt courses owned and operated by Glasgow City Council.  I played here on 4 September 2013, meaning I've now played all 6 of the full-sized courses, the others being Alexandra Park, Lethamhill, Littlehill, Knightswood and Ruchill.  I'll play the 4 pitch and putt courses sometime next Spring as I doubt that I'll have time to do so before they close down in a few weeks' time in advance of the coming Winter. I'd heard from locals that Linn Park is a late season course that's prone to flooding, hence my visit in September, after our mainly dry and sunny Summer.  That apart, I didn't know what to expect.

The course is short, at only 4878 Yards, Par 68, off the Yellow Tees and is pretty hilly.  Overall, the course and its greens in particular were in good condition and there's a decent course here, but in common with most courses operated by local Councils, Linn Park looked to be suffering from under-investment, from tee boxes and flagsticks to green-keeping equipment. There's a decent course map on the back of the scorecard (if your eyesight is good enough to read the small print) but more marker poles and route indicators would improve the presentation of the course.  As matters stand, most tee boxes weren't numbered and the small (3-4 feet high) plastic flagsticks looked as though they'd seen better days on a local putting green some time ago.  There was still some dew on the course when I played, meaning that grass clippings were sticking to my ball, but at least the fairways had been cut.  

The Front 9 is particularly short at only 2092 Yards, with the longest hole being the steeply downhill 270 Yard Par 4.  This hole would have been easily drivable, even for me, had it not been for grass clippings on the fairway, but I don't want to give you the impression that the course is not without its challenges.  The 1st hole is only 252 Yards, but your drive is uphill and the second shot to the green is almost blind, even more steeply uphill.  The 2nd is a 90 degree dog leg left 245 Yard Par 4, with high trees blocking any prospect of cutting the corner.  The 3rd is a 212 Yard Par 3 completely blind up a hill with no marker pole to offer any guidance.  This is the 4th, a 254 Yard Par 4 dominated by a large tree to the left of the fairway.  The green sits almost behind this tree and as I discovered, is almost inaccessible if your drive finishes on the left side of the fairway.  I parred the hole OK, but only after a decent single putt from 15 feet.

The 7th is an uphill  215 Yard Par 3 played to a small shelf of a green cut into the hill. Another single putt after a good chip with my still new 58 degree Cleveland wedge saved the par.  This is the 9th, a 252 Yard Par 4 with a blind drive over a small hill.  An easy sand iron pitch to 10 feet set up my only birdie of the round.  I was out in 3 over par, but any thoughts of a really low score were dampened by my double bogey on the 10th, the Stroke Index 1 Hole.  This is a 392 Yard Par 4, dog leg left.  Your drive needs to be threaded between stands of mature pine to set up a long second up to the green.  There's also a water hazard running across the fairway just beyond the gap, so only a long and straight drive will do.  From there, your eye will be drawn to a fairway bunker some 150 Yards in the distance, with a green perched on top of a hill some 50 Yards beyond the bunker.  That's actually the 7th green, so be warned.  Indeed, I've no idea what purpose that bunker serves, as it is well out of range for all but the very biggest hitters (and I doubt that many of them would be playing here on a regular basis). The 10th is by far the most difficult hole on the course.

The Back 9 is 2786 Yards and is a bit tougher than the Front 9.  Having said that, I drove through the steeply downhill 258 Yard Par 4 11th, but missed an easy birdie putt.  The 482 Yard 12th is the only Par 5 at Linn Park, but is easy enough if you hit a couple of decent straight shots and avoid a stream that cuts in front of the green.  This is the Stroke Index 2 Hole for reasons that escape me.  By this time I'd caught up with a couple of dodgy looking characters (both clearly beginners) sharing a bag of clubs.  I'd passed them earlier when playing from the 8th Tee, when they were also sharing a joint (OK, I confess, I know the smell) and a couple of beers on the 11th Tee (it was by then around 0930 hrs).  It's quite unusual to find such characters on Scottish courses, particularly so early in the morning and the sharing of clubs is strictlyforbidden on our courses.  However, I was curious and there were enough other golfers nearby to suggest I wasn't about to be mugged.  The characters in question were indeed more than a little relaxed, as they topped up their alcohol and cannabis levels on the next tee.  Having been brought up in Glasgow, I'd no trouble with the local dialect, interspersed as it was with some more colourful phrases.  They let me play through OK, and I soon left them far behind.  I suspect that one of them might have won a hole with a long putt or similar, as the cry of "ya spawny bastard" was clearly audible when I was on the 18th green (they being some 600 Yards away on the 15th green at the time!)  By the way, "spawny" means "undeservedly lucky" or "jammy" another adjective that could have been substituted to the same effect.  These guys were harmless enough, on the course anyway.

The 18th is a slightly uphill 367 Yard Par 4, named "Past Caring."  There's OOB to the right and a large cross bunker around 230 Yards out from the tee, but it's not a hugely difficult hole if you avoid going past the hole with your approach.  Do that (like me!) and you'll face a steeply downhill putt and a likely bogey (also like me).  In reality, Linn Park isn't all that difficult.  I went round in 78 gross, net 67, with 30 putts. One under net par was pretty good, but could easily have been better had I known where I was going.  The small flagsticks were also off-putting, making it was tricky to decide on distances.  I doubt I'd want to play Linn Park (or indeed any of the Glasgow Council's courses again).  There are far better tests in the Glasgow area and after my round at Linn Park, I was off to one of the best, Whitecraigs GC.