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!"  



13 comments:

  1. Great Article Alan! I was a member three times here beginning as a junior. My dad, Stewart Laurie is still there.
    I now live in Melbourne and you've brought back some great memories, thanks.

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    1. Thanks Colin. For me, a golf club is as much about its members as the course itself and I too had great times at the Burn. So sad that the club has gone. I just hope something positive emerges in due course and that at least some of the holes can be retained (though the 1st would be no great loss. Never liked it much and on the evidence of Sunday's game, I still can't play it).

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  2. I played it from 7yo until my early 20's. Some of the fondest memories of my life were on those slopes.

    I managed to purchase a couple of trophies I won at the recent auction, which of itself was horrible. It felt like a bad wake, not even a proper funeral.

    Lothianburn GC, rest in peace.

    Fraser Paterson

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    1. I'd wondered what had happened to the trophies, not that my own name is on any of them. I just hope that all of the memorial benches dotted around the course have now been given back to the families, but when we played it for our last time, the benches were still there, in silent tribute to former members, now dead. I knew some of them.

      I hope you too get the chance of a final game around our old course, before it's finally gone.

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  3. Sad...looks like a very interesting course that would be lots of fun to play

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  4. Jeffrey - sad indeed. The course closes for play on 31 December. Some of the holes may remain as part of an enhanced 27 hole layout for the adjacent New Swanston GC but others are set to be abandoned. Thanks for becoming a follower of my blog, by the way.

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  5. I played here a handful of times, a couple of which were in the snow/ice under the bright blue sky of a crisp Edinburgh winter morning. Lothianburn, for me, was a great example of all that was good about Scottish golf clubs. There was always a welcoming professional in the shop to greet you; friendly members in the lounge afterwards to have a blether with; and a bowl of piping hot soup with a roll and butter to soothe the aches and pains. It was unpretentious, provided unrivalled scenery of Edinburgh, East Lothian and (on a good day) Fife, Clackmannanshire and beyond. The course design made excellent use of the natural topography, affording the opportunity on the 14th hole to feel like you were smashing a drive from the top of the world in to the city.

    Lothianburn wasn’t the greatest course in the Lothians but it summed up what I love about golf in Scotland (and what I miss about golf now that I live abroad). It was relatively affordable, great fun and a total novelty to play. I couldn’t tell you any of my scores from the times I played there, they were never important to me. I could however, regale in detail my memorable moments. The time I drove the 11th green, racing my friends up the 9th fairway every time we played, commando crawling over the ice on the 12th fairway. I love competitive golf and have a single figure handicap but the joy of knocking a little ball around a Scottish landscape on the outskirts of an historical capital city with your mates, having a laugh at their expense when they found the gorse or had to play their ball from a waist high lie was one of life’s little pleasures. The expensive, elite golf clubs in Scotland are great and have their place in the makeup of the nation’s sporting gift to the world. For me, the humble game of man or woman vs mother nature affords me the greatest enjoyment. That’s what Lothianburn did.

    A gem of a course and will be sadly missed by those that will cherish fond memories of playing there.

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    1. Michael - I completely agree. A great course has gone and it won't be the last.

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  6. I cant believe that the Burn is lost! I have great memories of the the Burn. Playing with my Dad Tommy Purdie, being Club Champion, winning the Dispatch Trophy with Whitehill and having a great time there. I started my greenkeeping career there at 16, and moving to Kingsknowe, Broomieknowe, Eden course, Crail Gs. Korinium gc Cyprus. European tour consultant. I wont to know if I can play the course again before it closes. I would also like to thank Bill Dick, a true friend.

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  7. My understanding is that thecourse is open until 31 December, but you might want to check with the pro at New Swanston GC, as all green fees for Lothianburn are payable through him. Our old clubhouse is closed and locked up, stripped of club honours boards and other items.

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  8. HI Alan - well written - very sad that Lothianburn will shortly be no more. I was a member for 20 years or so until golf and I fell out of love. I loved the course in the early morning which is when I most often played. My favourite spot was the 11th and 12th which gave the sense of being miles away from anywhere. My best memory is playing on one early morning and getting a solid drive away on the 15th (an exceedingly rare event). I walked over the hill confident that I was about to see my ball within eagle range of the hole. I was therefore disheartened to see the green empty. But all was not lost - the greenkeeper passed in his buggy going up the course - I bid him good morning. He looked askance at me and muttered, clearly less than impressed, 'There's a ba' in the hole.'

    Ah well - happy days.

    Great blog - onoly just come on it - keep it up.

    Best wishes.

    B

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    1. Great story Bob. The 15th was a real risk and reward hole. Too far left and you probably lost your ball in gorse. Too far right and the bunker came into play. An easy enough hole if you got the drive right and just about the only flat green on the course.

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  9. I would love to play the burn if possible and meet old friends. I had two holes in one at the burn, the first being at the 2nd when I was playing with my dad and the 2nd at the 10th during a medal. Is there any chance of a final round at the BURN. Alan Purdie

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