Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Did Tom qualify?

As I mentioned in my last blog entry about Bruntsfield Links, I'd agreed to caddy for Tom Coyne on 22 June in a Regional Qualifier for the 2015 Open Championship.  With 7 places in the final qualifying round up for grabs and well over 100 professionals and top amateurs from all over the world playing at Bruntsfield, competition would be tough.  Tom's preparation was to play around 110 courses over the previous 56 days, travelling the length and breadth of Scotland and a few rounds south of the border.  We'd arranged to meet for an evening practice round over Bruntsfield Links on Saturday 20 June, but Tom got fog-bound at Benbecula Airport after playing some of the Western Isles courses, so that plan had to be abandoned.  He did get the chance to walk the course on the 21st, but his first  ever shot at Bruntsfield would be "for real" and with the closing chapters of his planned new book on the line, the stakes were pretty high.  I'd not really thought of it that way, but as Tom said, this was a once only shot at The Open and understandably, he didn't want " A Course Called Scotland" to close with an embarrassing anti-climax.

Last time we'd met, at the Glen GC early in his epic journey around Scotland, Tom looked pretty fit, but I had to have a second take when this lean, sun-tanned guy sauntered into view in time for some warm up shots before his allotted 1134 tee time.  He'd apparently lost 22 pounds in his 36 holes a day marathon (Tom - there's another dieting book there) and he thought his cholesterol count was still OK despite 50+ full Scottish breakfasts over the past 8 weeks!  

With so much as stake, Tom looked pretty calm when the PA announcement "and from the USA, Tom Coyne" called him to the tee.  A slightly dodgy opening drive into the right rough, a good 7 iron and a couple of putts later, and Tom was on his way.  Being last off in his threesome, Tom could watch what the 2 Pros in our group were playing, which I thought might be helpful.  Mark and Callum had both taken long irons at the 387 Yard 2nd, but Tom preferred his Driver, the idea being to go for the left side of the fairway, setting up a short pitch to the flag.  10 minutes later, a trip into the woods far right of the fairway and a treble bogey was a real set back.  With a couple of Par 5s coming next, we'd hoped to regain ground, but it wasn't to be.  Bogeys rather than birdies were very unwelcome and Tom was not settling into the round.  We needed something good to happen, and quickly.  However, an outward 43 (7 over par) put Tom right out of contention.  The aim for the back 9 was respectability and Tom did himself proud, with a far steadier performance.  Easy pars on 10 and 11 and an unlucky bogey on 12 helped steady the ship and we were soon onto the 13th tee.  I'd found the 13th to be the most difficult hole at Bruntsfield in my earlier round there, so it was great to see Tom hit a fabulous drive and a 6 iron to within 6 feet of this 455 Yard hole, slightly uphill, wind behind.  The 13th green is close to the 3rd green and although Tom might not have recognised him, the unmistakable figure of Andy Oldcorn was watching from the 3rd as Tom holed his short putt for an impressive birdie.

Tom's game really steadied from then on and as his confidence grew, he began to relax and really enjoy the experience.  However, a dodgy drive on the formidable 17th led to a disappointing double bogey and with only the 347 Yard 18th to come, Tom's race was run. He was due to fly back home next day regardless of his score, but it was clear there would be no early return for final qualifying.  We'd a long wait to play the last.  After almost 110 rounds in the past couple of months, countless miles, shots and aching muscles, there was only one hole left.  Understandably, Tom was determined to par the final hole of an epic trip that had seen him tackle the greatest and most humble courses in Scotland, experiencing the worst and best golfing weather that Scotland has to offer.  Tom's Driver had not been his best club that day, so we agreed that 3 Wood might be be more sensible.  Thankfully, Tom hit a great drive setting up a 9 iron second shot, slightly uphill, to possibly the most undulating green on the course, right in front of the clubhouse windows and a few dozen spectators (but that's a few dozen more than usually watch Tom playing).  Tom hit one of his classiest shots of the day and I advised him to take his time walking onto the green and enjoy the moment.  OK, he knew that he'd not qualify, but this was the end of a long, long journey.  I'd an inkling of how he felt, having passed a few personal milestones on my own journey around Scottish courses and I was really hoping he'd hole the 20 foot uphill putt for a remarkable closing birdie.  He missed by a mere foot and holed out for a truly great par, given the circumstances. 

Tom had done the back 9 in 2 over par and returned an 80, 9 over par in total.  He wasn't remotely last, but it would have been understandable if he'd been pretty downcast after such a long build up to this Open qualifying round, with so much riding on it.  Mark and Callum were pretty stoic after their own scores had not been good enough to make the cut for final qualifying, but Tom's big smile coming off the 18th said it all.  He'd completed his epic journey by fulfilling a lifetime ambition to play in The Open and achieved a highly creditable score in the circumstances. His new book could have a positive ending and I was glad to have helped, albeit only marginally, in his final effort.  The gold-plated US Dollar coin I gave him as a new ball marker before the round didn't bring him much luck, but I hope that improves in due course! Tom is a fine golfer and an even better human being.  Although I've had many enjoyable times caddying over the past 5 years or so, that round will live long in my own memory as one of the most enjoyable, so thank you Tom, it was a privilege.  We'd had a side bet on the US Open, with £5 on whether Justin Rose or Brandt Snedeker would finish highest.  My debt duly paid (no luck, Justin), I'll be trying hard to get my money back if and when Tom gets over here again, with time to play another new Scottish course.  After all, he's played less than a sixth of the courses we have here and he's missed some great (and more humble) tests.

"A Course Called Scotland" will doubtless cover his trip from start to finish and I'm really looking forward to reading it.  If it's anywhere near as good as "A Course Called Ireland" it will be an absolute joy.

Update - the new book is being published on 3 July 2018.  I read a near final draft in early 2018 and although I'm no book critic, if this isn't golf book of the year internationally, I'll be very surprised.  Bruntsfield Links features prominently as do some lesser known tracks, alongside the wit and wisdom of a master story teller.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society

I'd played this course many years ago and really enjoyed it, but a curious turn of events led me to playing it again.  Some years ago, when planning a trip to play the wonderful links course at Carne GC in Ireland, I came across an extract from a book written by American golf writer Tom Coyne, entitled "A Course Called Ireland." This proved to be just about the best golf book I've ever read, full of humour and uniquely Irish episodes, as Tom walked his way around the Irish coastline, playing all the golf courses he came across.  I guess I've now played most of the courses he found, including gems such as Westport, Tralee, Ballybunion and Ardglass, and I really understood his experiences and love of Irish golf and its people.  I still remember asking for directions from a young lad in wildest Connemara and not understanding a word he said, but I digress! More recently, I read somewhere that Tom would be trying to play 107 courses in the UK over a 57 day period, including 90 in Scotland, for his planned follow up book  "A Course Called the Kingdom."  Knowing that I'd already played most of the courses in Scotland, the Golf Services Manager at my home club, Glen GC, asked me what I was doing on 4 May, as Tom was booked to play the Glen as part of his marathon trip.  I jumped at the chance to play with Tom and a couple of his American friends, Gene and Billy.  Here's Tom on the Glen's 14th fairway, with our famous 13th behind him. We'd a great time going round, swapping stories of our various golfing experiences. The scores weren't important, but somewhere around 78 for the 2 of us sounds about right.

The really important points from that game are that Tom told me his final round of his "Kingdom" trip would be at Bruntsfield Links on 22 June, at a Regional Qualifier for The Open Championship, no less.  When Tom learnt that I worked as a caddy, he asked me to caddy for him at Bruntsfield. I've caddied the odd round for a few top golfers, but a bag in the Open (even a Qualifier) will be a real thrill. I'd not played there for 20+ years, so I thought it would be sensible to play it again!  And so I played Bruntsfield on 3 June 2015 on a cool, sunny and windy day.

The Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society is the 4th oldest in the World, having been established in 1761. The Society's current course is in Barnton, one of the most affluent residential areas of Edinburgh dates back to 1898, as laid out by Willie Park Jnr. See for  more on the history of the club and on the history of golf in Scotland more generally.  Although the name might suggest otherwise, the Society's course is actually parkland in nature and measures 6130 Yards off the Yellow Tees, Par 70. The Open Qualifier will be played over a course measuring around 6550 Yards, but at least I'd get an idea of the layout and green characteristics to help Tom, since after 106 rounds in 56 days, I doubt he'll not have much time (or energy!) for a practice round. Fortunately, the Society's website at is really good, with great photos and descriptions of individual holes.  

The other good news for Tom is that the course is already in great condition with the greens in particular being true and smooth running. There's nothing quirky about it and accuracy rather than brute force is vitally important. For example, the opening hole is a 410 Yard  Par 4. The fairway slopes from left to right and there's an uphill second shot to a severely undulating green, primarily sloping from front left to back right. I'd left myself a short pitch to the green which finished just 6 feet below the hole, so an opening par was encouraging. The 2nd, as shown here, is a shortish downhill Par 4, easy looking, but the green is elevated on all sides, sloping from left to right. I'm guessing the 22 June pin position will be front left, bringing a tricky looking bunker into play!

Next come a couple of Par 5s, back to back.  The 3rd is only 487 Yards and is a Par 4 from
the Yellows. The 4th is the longest hole on the course, at 529 Yards for me and is the Stroke Index 1 hole. This is a lovely looking hole, with a downhill tee shot and a narrow 2 tier green. Next, the first of 4 Par 3s at Bruntsfield. This is 195 Yards from the Yellow tee, but will be a formidable 230 Yards for the Open Qualifier. I missed a 3 foot putt for par after finding a bunker, but this is a really good hole.  Next, a short Par 4 dog leg right, but the second shot is uphill and you won't see that the green slopes from back left down to front right. I was playing pretty well and only 3 over par when I got to the 7th, a 142 Yard Par 3. The green slopes wickedly from right to left, but the pin was on a flattish section on the left side, meaning the line was straight at the copper beech tree, as shown here.  An easy 7 iron duly took the borrow and finished 20 feet behind the pin.  The greens at Bruntsfield were great to putt on so I wasn't really surprised when my birdie putt actually dropped.  A couple of pars later and I was out in 37, only 2 over.

I liked the 325 Yard Par 4 10th, but I suspect there are easier ways to make par than carving your drive into the trees to the left, chipping out, hitting a wedge to 25 feet and holing the putt! I suspect that some over-ambitious would-be Open Qualifiers might be tempted to take Driver here, but the tee shot is blind OOB lurks to the left and bunkers protect the small green.  A more cautious approach might be more sensible, Tom. I thought the 13th was the most difficult hole on the course and at 445 Yards is the longest par at Bruntsfield.  The hole plays into the prevailing wind.  The pin was tucked away front left of the green, bringing a couple of bunkers into play. Generally, the bunkers here didn't look too testing but finding one here with my third shot still cost me a double bogey.  From there, holes 14-17 were pretty much downwind. The short Par 5 14th is a birdie opportunity, as shown here, but the green slopes from back right down to front left and is heavily contoured, so a long second shot is testing, particularly with OOB to the right of the fairway.  

The 17th was a 370 Yard Par 4 for me, with a generous fairway and a steeply uphill second, but I gathered from talking to the Greenkeeper that there's a Black tee which makes the hole a very demanding 447 Yards. The green is also pretty tricky so a par here is good - I stumbled to a bogey after a poor second.  The closing hole is a short 337 Yards from the Yellow tee and finishes in front of the clubhouse windows. I'd hit a decent drive but finished in light rough to the left of the fairway. I'd 116 Yards left to the middle of the green but by then it was a 2 club wind, and 9 iron was not quite enough.  I'd finished a few feet short of the green which is probably the most undulating on the whole course.  I borrowed around 8 feet for a 40 foot putt and even then that wasn't enough.  At least the pace was right and I holed out for a closing par, going round in 76 gross, net 4 under, with only 28 putts.  I'd really enjoyed the course and hopefully learnt enough to help Tom.  Even if all I do is carry his bag I'm sure that would help, as I'm not sure that 107 rounds over 57 days is the recommended preparation for an Open Championship Qualifier. Here's a last look at Bruntsfield. The green fee isn't cheap but it's well worth paying to play this excellent course.