Thursday, 1 May 2014

Newmachar GC - Swailend Course - Course no 637

Polly and I had played the excellent Hawksill Course at Newmachar GC last year and we'd also been due to play Swailend, the club's other course, on that trip.  However, rain had literally stopped play back then and after a night of heavy rain, my chances of playing Swailend on 30 April 2014 didn't seem to be good.  I'd expected both of these courses to be closed, but to my great surprise, both were open.  Not only that, there was a seniors' medal on Hawkshill, meaning that Swailend would not be busy.  That assessment by the Pro turned out to be a masterful understatement, since I only saw any other golfers when I was on the 15th green - and they were on the 4th! 30 April 2014 was one of those days when the rain was little more than smirr. Looked pretty dreich, but just enough to warrant a wet suit and rain hat and more of an irritation than anything else.  The absence of footprints on the wet fairways and greens told me I was the first on the course that day, so for the most part, I only had the greenkeeping staff for company. 

Hawksill is well known as one of the very best inland courses in North East Scotland and is one of my favourites in that area.  However, I find sometimes that when a club has 2 courses, one is a definite second best to the other, either in terms of design, interest or even general upkeep. Not so at Newmachar, because Swailend (a local hamlet) is an absolute gem of a course, more parkland in nature than the predominently heathland holes on the Hawkshill Course. On a lesser course I might have become irritated by inconsistencies of green speeds. The Greenkeeping staff were going round cutting all of the greens and in so doing removing all of the dew and rain droplets that were slowing putts down.  The result was that some greens were far slower than the others that had been cut and swept clear of dew and rain droplets.  This was just another test to be faced and it was actually good fun to work out how each of the greens would play.  I'd played 3 demanding 18 hole courses in the past couple of days and my back was sore and stiff, thanks to the over-soft hotel bed I'd had for the past couple of nights, so I'd no great hopes of a good score over Swailend.

The course itself is 6018 Yards, Par 72 and was in outstanding condition with great definition to the fairways and perfectly smooth-running greens.  The layout is also great and I just loved the whole experience from start to finish.  Polly decided that she'd sit this one out as she had lots of games coming up and didn't want to get soaked.  The weather forecast wasn't good, but I've played in a lot worse and the expected heavy rain didn't really start until we were well on our way home.

Swailend starts with a 289 Yard Par 4 played across the side of a small hill.  An easy enough start, but the 2nd is far more demanding.  This is a difficult 396 Yard Par 4 played largely uphill. Look to the left and there's an even steeper hill to come, which thankfully turned out to be the downhill section of the 3rd, a 494 Yard Par 5 with a blind second shot. I'd started par, bogey, bogey and had seen enough to guess that this would be a really tough test.  This is a view from the 4th tee, a hole that really reinforced that thought.  This little hole is only 286 Yards, but the chances are your drive will not clear the crest of the steep hill that faces you, so you'll have blind second.  Take a walk up and try to remember where the bunkers are before you try to find the green in regulation!

Next, Swailend tests you with its first Par 3. Give way to any players on the 17th tee to your left - unlike the 4-ball I came across later in my round, 2 of whom took Driver and came up well short on this, the 5th Hole, a mere 157 Yard Par 3. The 5th green is longer than it looks off the tee and slopes upwards away from you, so be careful with club selection on this little hole.  Driver was clearly not enough for some!  I managed a decent par with a good (very) long putt and a tap in.  The 6th is a curious hole, a 340 Yard Par 4 that dog legs left.  Anything half decent off the tee leaves you a shot over a fairway bunker to a really low-lying green that tucks itself away in a corner of the course close to a minor road.

Next, a good strong Par 3 played to a plateau green.  It's only 142 Yards but get your club selection wrong and this hole will bite your legs off.  This is the 8th, a flat 497 Yard Par 5 with a twist.  It looks simple enough from the tee and the fairway, but there's a large pond to the left front of the green and an even larger one that start front right of the green and goes all the way round the back of the green.  Chances are you won't see the second pond until you've played your second or even third shot, so be warned. Find the green in 3 and this hole should be easy. I duffed a short pitch and ended up with a bogey.

The Front 9 closes with a short Par 4 that I really should have birdied.  I'd only a lob wedge to the flag, came up a foot short of perfect, rolled down into a greenside bunker and took 3 from there for a poor bogey.  Out in 42, still having  a great time and eager for the Back 9.

This starts with a really good par named after Paul Lawrie and continues with an excellent dog leg left Par 5.  Delusions of adequacy set in on the 12th, a 140 Yard Par 3.  This hole is semi-blind, with the green tucked behind some mounding and bunkering and only the top half of the flag visible from the tee.  I'd hit a really good tee shot which went straight for the flag and appeared to roll gently down the hill toards the flag.  Sure enough, right behind the flag but 10 feet away and for once I didn't guess the speed of the green even remotely right.  A good par, but my first hole in one is still out there somewhere, waiting to be played. Keep the faith, Alan, keep the faith.

One of the guys we'd met on Hazlehead No 1 the previous day had told me that Swailend gets tough on the Back 9 from 13 onwards - he was right, by the way. I played the 13th into the only short squall of rain (smirr is just mist really, short of drizzle).  We Scots only have one word for snow, but lots of words for rain, some of which aren't quotable here, since they are usually prefaced by an expleteive and followed by the word "again!"  Anyway, I'd hit a good drive and an even better 23 Degree Rescue to set up an easy 4.  Next, the Stroke Index 1 Hole, a largely uphill Par 5 of 498 Yards, the longest hole on the course.  I scrambled a good par here, sadly followed by double bogey on the downhill 15th, a 418 Yard par played into a strengthening 1- club breeze.  The 16th is a 322 Yard steeply uphill Par 4.  Hit a good drive and then negotiate your way past a set of bunkers that protect a green that hides behind the slope of the hill.  Make your par for a half.  I would have birdied the hole had I read the green correctly but that would have been a bit cheeky, since this for me is one of the most difficult holes on the course.

For me, the most difficult was the 17th, a 404 Yard downhill Par 4 that I played directly into the headwind that had by then developed.  My bogey was actually very good, since this is a fiercesome hole.  The last should be easy.  This is a 343 Yard Par 4 dog leg right with a fairway that's probably 100+ Yards wide.  Unfortunately, I managed to miss it entirely after an awful hooked tee shot, leaving myself with a full 3 Wood.  A bogey was all I deserved gibing me a score of 85 in total, net 74 only 2 over the net par, with 32 putts.  Given the damp conditions, the lack of run on the wet fairways and my tiredness in general, this was a good score on a great course.  Swailend might take second place to Hawkshill, but this is an excellent course well worth playing.  I've already promised to take Polly back there sometime, as I know she'd love the course.

Hazlehead No 2 Course - Course no 636

I played Hazlehead's No 2 Course on the afternoon of 29 April 2014, after my games over the No 1 Course and the adjacent Hazlehead Pitch and Putt Course.  I'd not read up much on the No 2 Course other than the Aberdeen City Council's advice that it was originally a 9 hole course, extended in the 1970's and that since it's more open than No 1, it's thought to be more suitable to higher handicap players.  The fairways are certainly wider and there's slightly less trouble to navigate your way past, but this is a seriously good course and if anything the Council's brief description undersells this excellent course.

No 2 was in great condition, far better than the "work in progress" on No 1 and was just great fun from start to finish.  Don't be fooled into thinking that No 2 is anything less than a serious test of your game, particularly if, like me, you're tackling it immediately after a round over the rigours of the No 1 course.  No 2 starts with a tight 154 Yard uphill Par 3, which plays a lot longer than you'd think.  I hit an easy 20 Degree Rescue and was still a few feet short of the green and with the flag up at the back of the green, I was delighted to start with a dodgy par. From there, you walk a couple of hundred yards left, over a road, to the rest of the course.  The 2nd hole, as shown here, is also steeply uphill and although it's only 282 Yards, this short Par 4 also plays longer, so you might want to take an extra club for your second.

The 3rd is downhill, crossing the 18th fairway, and is a 184 Yard Par 3.  It was a cool and increasingly foggy afternoon and as it turned out, the guy playing the 18th when I was on the 3rd turned out to be the nearest player ahead of me on the course.  The fog increased my sense of isolation going round, the only other sounds being the birds in the trees.  Just remarkably peaceful, quiet and relaxing, with nothing to think about except the next shot.  The 3rd green slopes down away from the tee, so be careful not to over-club.  That error cost me a bogey.  The first 3 holes were pretty easy, really.  I was only 1 over and thinking that the Council might be right in thinking that the course was more suitable for higher handicappers.  However, Holes 4-6 are as testing as you'd ever need, whatever your handicap.  The Par 4 4th is slightly uphill and at 412 Yards is rated the 2nd most difficult hole on the course.  You need to hit your drive dead straight, as anything left is OOB and anything right will find the rough and leave you facing certain bogey or worse.  I hit what I thought was a decent enough straight drive, but the lack of roll on the damp uphill fairway left me well out of range of the green.  A bogey there was reasonable, though.  The 5th, as shown above, is a great Par 4 hole, steeply downhill and at 415 Yards, well within reach in 2 if you avoid the fairway bunker and large pine tree on the right side of the fairway.  Sadly, another error in clubbing led to another bogey.  As you walk down the 4th, especially after playing No 1 in the morning, your gaze will be drawn to the adjacent 5th, a 405 Yard Par 4 that goes back up the hill your going down.  Three consecutive bogeys on these holes put a bit of the dent in the scorecard, but all was not lost.  Holes 7-9 offer some respite.

The 7th is a 156 Yard Par that should have been easy enough, but I'd missed the green to the right and finished between a bunker and some gorse bushes, with barely enough room to play any direct shot to the flag.  A good 58 degree lob wedge saved the day and almost led to a birdie, but I was happy enough to score a par after such a poor tee shot.  The 8th and 9th holes are short Par 4's so after a sticky time on 4-6, I was out in 37 and playing reasonably well.  However, I'd noticed that the Back 9 was almost 300 Yards longer and with occasionally very dense patches of fog to content with and tiredness setting in after my earlier round on Hazlehead No 1, the Back 9 looked to be far more testing.  It starts gently enough with an uphill Par 3 of 162 Yards, but for reasons unknown I hooked my tee shot into forest on the left, leading to a dodgy bogey that could have been worse. I'd also managed to rip open my new Callaway golf glove - last time I'll buy one of them!  I'd only a shamefully worn out old glove in the bag and was later glad to be able to wash my hands after throwing that one away, but at least it helped on the remaining holes.  The Stroke Index 1 hole on the No 2 Course is the 11th, a 420 Yard Par 4 played slightly uphill.  I would have parred the hole had I not missed a short putt and another miss from no great distance on the 487 Yard par 5 12th hole cost me another bogey. I'd not noticed that the increasing fog had helped to slow the greens down!

The fog got really bad on holes 16 and 17 and my game was briefly reduced to ball retention rather than good scoring.  This is my limited view from the 16th tee on a 111 Yard Par 3.  I managed a par after hitting my 9 iron tee shot to within 20 feet.  Just lucky though, as the flag only became visible once I was a lot nearer to the hole.  I've no idea what the 17th was about.  The card said 414 Yards but it was just a question of hoping I was playing in the right direction and could find the ball afterwards.  A double bogey was decent enough in the circumstances since the course at that point was almost unplayable.

Just as I was fearing that my round would end in dense fog, the last hole was remarkably clear, as shown here.  10 minutes later and another fog bank had rolled in, but at least I managed to squeeze in that last hole before then.  The 18th is a downhill 366 Yard Par 4, played to an elevated plateau green that slopes down away from the tee. I'd come up just short of the green in 2, so it was a bit disappointing to finish with a bogey.  No 2 is a really good test and well worth playing, even in preference to No 1, until such times as its renovation is more complete.  I went round No 2 in 80 gross, net 69, with 33 putts.  2 over net par on such a foggy day was good scoring so I was really pleased.  I'd like to play No 2 again sometime and strongly recommend you give it a try.

Hazlehead Pitch and Putt Course - Course no 635

Hazlehead Park also has a 9 hole Pitch and Putt Course useful either as a starter course for young children or for sharpening your short game skills.  I played this little course immediately after Polly and I had finished playing the famous old Hazlehead No1 Course in Aberdeen on 30 April 2014. 

With holes ranging between around 60 -100 Yards, this course has tiny greens only a few yards across.  Although my short game is reasonably good these days, it was very difficult to hit and hold these surfaces, particularly on the holes with plateau greens.  I went round in a pretty reasonable 31 strokes, 4 over the par of 27, with 14 putts.  I'd play it again as a warm-up if I ever visited Hazelhead Park's other courses again.

Here are a few photos of the course. Note the plateau green on the final photo.  This green is about 5 yards wide and a yard above the surrounding fairway.  I shudder to think how that hole plays in really dry conditions! Not for the faint hearted.  And there are still some who don't think that pitch and putt courses should be counted as golf courses?

Hazlehead No 1 Course - Course No 634

Hazlehead is a large public park in west central Aberdeen with 3 golf courses, rather unimaginatively named No 1, No 2, the 9 Hole Course and a 9 hole pitch and putt course, in addition to acres of open greenfield space and mature woodland walks etc.  I'd played the 9 Hole course a couple of years ago (see Blog entry 551) and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to playing the challenging No 1 course reputedly one of the finest parkland courses in North East Scotland. The park and its golf courses are all owned and operated by Aberdeen City Council.  

Regular readers of the blog will know from my entries about other local authority-owned golf courses that in general, there tends to be poor investment in course maintenance and upkeep and that playing such courses can be a pretty underwhelming experience. I wondered whether Hazlehead No1 would be any different. The Council's website says that "Course 1 provides even the most experienced golfer a true test of their abilities.  Designed by Alistair Mackenzie, the head architect behind Augusta National which has been at the forefront of some of golf's greatest triumphs in the masters, this course is specifically laid out to make the player think. Narrow fairways surrounded by trees and gorse can be unforgiving for wayward shots, however the reward for correct club selection and a bit of bravery can outweigh any fears in approaching the challenge.  Hazlehead No 1 course will allow any golfer to mark how they have progressed and is a must for golf enthusiasts.  The tranquil surroundings offer you a great escape and will allow you to become fully engaged in your game." Inspiring stuff if true.  David, our great friend from the Glen GC, played his childhood golf at Hazlehead and remembers it as one of his all-time favourite courses, so Polly and I were really looking forward to playing it.  29 April 2014 was the date, the day after our excellent time at Westhill GC.

Sadly, 29 April was one of those dull, grey Scottish days, with a cool easterly breeze blowing in off the North Sea. No rain, but very damp underfoot and occasionally misty.  I'd heard various negative reports about Hazlehead No 1, mainly that the Council had let it deteriorate through poor maintenance and neglect to the point that it had become an embarrassment, unworthy of its history and fame. There were certainly signs of this, but I was delighted to see that whatever state the course had been in, the Council was taking positive action to address problems. Indeed, the course had recently been closed for a while to allow major harvesting and management of mature pine forest throughout the course, tees had been rebuilt, and worn out/damaged sections of fairway had been re-turfed.  Weed growth on greens etc had been addressed and overall, the course looked to be pretty good condition for early season.  Being built on largely peaty soil and weaving its way through mature pine forest, heather and gorse, Hazlehead No 1 is not an early season course so I'd not expect it to be in great condition until later in the year, when forestry work may be more complete and patching etc on fairways has blended in more fully. It's clearly been in a fragile condition of late, but  there were enough signs there when we played it suggest that No 1 is on its way back.

Overnight rain meant that underfoot conditions were pretty soggy and there was no run on any of the fairways.  The greens were smooth-running but desperately slow to the point that for a long uphill putt on the Par 3 9th, my putter was completely the wrong club.  A rescue club or 3 Wood might have got the ball up to the hole.  Here are some photos from our round on No 1. As can be plainly seen, the course was wet, but picture, if you will, a dry warm Summer's day and a fast-running No 1 before you.  Looks pretty good to me!

For me, one of the bests tests the of a quality golf course is that in even the worst of weathers it can still look beguiling and attractive.  No 1 is still all of that, in spades.  Mackenzie's basic design is still there and despite it still being "work in progress" No 1 is well worth a visit and superb value at £20.70.

Polly and I enjoyed its twists and turns, the variety of holes and the sheer tranquillity of the place, which in parts reminded us of Blairgowrie Rosemount/Landsdowne, and some of the other excellent heathland/forest courses we've played together over the years.  But perhaps the most amazing aspect of this course is that with the No 2 Course and the other golfing facilities at Hazlehead, this major public park is within a few miles of the city centre.  I hope the Council continues to invest in this famous old course and that its fully restored soon.  Most of all, though, I hope that David gets the chance to revisit his childhood memories soon, playing this old course again.  We usually play for a Pound in our bounce games at the Glen, so David, your challenge is to beat my gross 85, net 74, with 35 putts, as played off the Yellow Tees, from where the course now plays to 5957 Yards, Par 70.  The usual Pound says you don't - challenge accepted?


Westhill GC - Course no 633

Polly and I had planned to play this 18 hole heathland/parkland course in the western suburbs of Aberdeen a couple of years ago at the start of a trip to the area, but the weather was awful, we knew there would be another opportunity and getting soaked wasn't the most attractive option. So, when I was planning my latest trip to Aberdeen, Westhill was a priority.  Even when we first visited the course in the pouring rain it looked pretty interesting so we were really looking forward to this one.  28 April 2014 dawned bright and sunny so Polly and I set off on what would be a 3 day trip to play another 5 courses.  The forecast for days 2 and 3 was pretty poor but as we reached Aberdeen, the temperature was close to 20C, the sun was out and there was no wind.  Better still, we pretty much had the course to ourselves.  As the name suggests, this course is built on a hill.  The first 4 holes are particularly hilly, but after that the course is relatively easy walking and mostly reasonably flat.  The fairways are a mixture of heathland with tight lies and parkland with more lush and softer turf.  The greens were faster than they looked, flat and true running, so no excuses.

Westhill is a 5482 Yard Par 69 course and starts with a blind tee shot over the crest of a hill, with pine trees to the left and OOB to the right and a cambered fairway that demands an accurate tee shot. Get that right and it's a flick to the green on this very short 259 yard Par 4. Sounds simple enough, but the green is very tricky and runs away from you, front to back, with various humps and hollows to add to the confusion.  I was only 20 feet away in 2, but my 20 foot putt went 30+, hence the opening bogey.  Your next hole is a 193 Yard Par 3. improbably steeply downhill.  Polly had waited for the greenkeeper to finish looking for small weeds on the green, to no avail. He stepped aside eventually, satisfied he had sprayed any offending invaders, much to Polly's relief.  After we'd said hello to the man after playing the hole, he told us that the safest place to stand on that hole was often in the middle of the green - and he was right.  Had he been anywhere near the pine trees to the left of the green, he'd have been in real danger!  Sad but true.  This is a view of the 2nd green.  The hole plays a lot shorter than you might think, so be warned - and say hello to the Greenkeeper.  A lovely man who obviously loves his course.

The 3rd hole is uphill again and blind. This Par 4 is only 315 Yards, but get past the marker and the fairway slopes steeply downhill, falling away to the right. The green is tucked away on a little shelf, as shown here (top photo), so again, accuracy is key. The 4th is even shorter, at 271 Yards and is easily driveable, being steeply downhill. However, your tee shot will be blind and you need to go down the narrow left side of the fairway.  The 4th green falls away at the back, so do not be long. Trouble awaits back there, so unless you're entirely sure where you're going and can hit your drive deadly straight, this little hole may punish you.  The photo below is a view of the 4th from half way down the fairway.  Note the bunker to the front right of the green, ready to trap the unwary.

I'd started bogey, par, bogey, par and since accuracy off the tee can be an erratic aspect of my game at best, I was becoming concerned that if the rest of the course was as tight, scoring would not be easy.  The long walk to the 5th tee is through a leafy glade, so it comes as a pleasant surprise to find that what had been a tight hilly heathland course had become far more open and parkland in nature.  The 5th itself had been re-modelled over the winter with new tees and a large pond added to this gently downhill 504 Yard Par 5, the longest hole on the course. This is a really good hole and to the left of the 5th green you get a sneak preview of the 6th, as pretty a little Par 3 as you'll find, as shown below. This hole is only 124 Yards, with a lateral water hazard running in front and to the left of the green - if you avoid the pond, that is!

I'd add a few colourful plants and make this the signature hole, given the chance.  The next few holes are also good, with the 8th being far more testing than I'd expected.  This is a slightly downhill 417 Yard Par 4 and it's easy enough to avoid the stream that cuts across the fairway. However, for your second shot you might not see the depth of the green which rises to a second tier at the back, where the flag was positioned when we played it.  If the flag is at the back, your second shot will be a lot longer than you might think.  Only a 20 foot putt saved my par!

I've been lucky enough to play hundreds of rounds with Polly over the years, so I tend to know what's coming in particular circumstances and the 10th at Westhill was certainly a good example of that sixth sense. For starters, the Ladies Red Tee was 48 Yards further back than my Yellow Tee and was steeply uphill and blind, looking alarmingly narrow.  I was just hoping the Yellow Tee would be more forgiving.  I should have known better than point out that she was getting a stroke and that the Men's Medal Tee was even further into the depths of the gully we were standing in.  Her dark look forecast trouble ahead for yours truly if Polly's drive didn't split the fairway and sure enough, her dead right drive appeared to be just that - dead.  From the Men's Yellow Tee this Par 4 is all of 222 Yards, if you can find it.  As this photo suggests, there's a broad path of sorts turning sharp dog leg left from the tee to the green, rough on the steep banking to the leftt, higher rough and a downward slope to the right.  This "path" is actually the fairway and only a complete idiot or someone with a masterfully stright drive would try to cut the corner of the dog leg.  In conversation with Westhill's Pro after the round, it seemed the sensible player/visitor should take a 7 iron or such, try to keep it reasonably straight and hit a short pitch to the green, hoping to avoid the bunkers either side of the green.  Idiot that I am, I walked off with a dodgy double bogey.  Polly fared even worse.  She doesn't swear as a rule, but my sixth sense told me that "ridiculous" "stupid" etc. meant something far more extreme and that if I had any sense I'd pray something good would happen, and quickly.

No such luck.  The 11th was the Stroke Index 18 Hole for the Ladies and looked to be a simple enough 150 Yard poke with an iron to a green protected by a single bunker short right.  Polly doesn't hook as a rule either and as her ball careered wildly left into rarely trodden territory, my suggestion of a Mulligan did at least soften the blow of a lost ball and her dented pride.  I was happy enough for us both to walk off with bogey 4s - the 11th green is 2-tiered and difficult to read.  Well, that's my excuse!

The Par 12th runs parallel to a road, so be careful not to hook your drive.  This hole is only 336 Yards, but the green is narrow and slightly raised up from the fairway so accuracy is again important.  The green also slopes uphill front to back so there's little forward run on second shots.  I was happy enough with a tap in 4.  Westhill then hits you with a couple of really testing holes, the 13th being an awkward 492 Yard Par 5 that plays far longer than that and narrows the further you go.  The 14th  is a meaty 431 Yard Par 4 and justifiably the Stroke Index 1 hole on the men's scorecard.  I played this hole very well and just missed par from around 15 feet.  The 15th is an uphill 160 Yard Par 3 with another 2-tiered plateau green, playing at least 190, so don't be short.

The 16th is another blind hole, this time a 405 Yard Par 4, played over the crest of a small hill, down to a tricky green. The 17th didn't appeal to me much. Maybe it was just the yappie dog in a neighbouring house, but this 181 Yard Par 3 was just too flat and featureless for my taste.

And so to the 18th, a terrific uphill 369 Yard Par 4 that felt more like 400+.  This hole is a Par 5 off the White Tee and at 478 Yards looks to be a gem of a closing hole. For readers not familiar with Scotland in the Spring, the yellow bushes to the right of the fairway are gorse, horribly prickly plant that is completely impenetrable.  The only negative to this hole is the climb back up to the clubhouse.  If you ever get the chance to visit Westhill don't leave your car in the top car park, as we did. The climb from the 18th green to there is pretty testing!
We'd caught Westhill on a lovely Spring day and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  This is a serious challenging and interesting course, well worth seeking out.  OK, there are flatter courses in the area, but I strongly recommend you give it a try.  I went round in a 83, net 72, against the par of 69 off the Yellow Tees, with 33 putts.  Not bad, but see how you do and take care on the 10th!