Thursday, 3 November 2016

Royal Troon GC - Craigend Course - Course No 669

We'd just about enough time after our round on 1 November 2016 over Royal Troon's Old Course (and a leisurely lunch) to play the club's 9-Hole Craigend Course.  The Craigend measures 1539 Yards and is a par 29, with holes ranging from 67 to 290 Yards.  It had been used during The Open as a site for TV lorries, studios and general storage and in places the ground was still recovering, but it was still very playable, despite the dying light.

Graeme, Donald and I literally ran round the course in well under an hour, with our last hole being played as the sun set over the Old Course.  Here are some random photos of the course that hopefully will give readers an idea of the course.

Craigend is normally only playable by members of Royal Troon so I'm grateful to Donald and indeed to the club, for the opportunity to play the course.  As might be suspected, Craigend is a good practice course for members as well as an ideal course for beginners and seniors wanting a casual short round of golf.  For the record, I went round in 34 shots, with 16 putts. We'd played the course just as the sun set but if we'd taken our time and lined up putts properly, etc. I suspect the score might have been no better, since we'd have finished the last 3 holes in the dark! 

Our Craigend 9th Hole marked the end of a perfect day's golf.  The club couldn't have been more helpful and friendly, so a great big thanks goes to everyone we met and especially to Donald, for inviting us to play these courses.

Royal Troon GC - Old Course - Course No 668

When I started my journey to play every golf course in Scotland, I didn't really know where it would end.  I was hoping that I'd finish in a blaze of glory, holing out on the 18th of one of our great links courses.  By the Autumn of 2016, I had 682 courses on my list, meaning I'd 15 to go, mainly small pitch and putt and Par 3 courses and only two 18 hole courses. It looked as though the Old Course at Troon, scene of 9 Open Championships, might be the final course on my journey but when the opportunity arose to play the Old Course on 1 November 2016, I jumped at the chance.  Royal Troon's 9-hole Craigend Course is normally only playable by members and their guests, so when Graeme, one of my buddies who is also playing every course said he knew a member who would get us on both courses, I had to go for it.

Regular readers of the blog will know that my progress was slowed down by a major heart operation in January 2016.  I was back playing golf regularly by May and managed to knock off a few new courses, but in early August I was back at the Doc's, this time diagnosed with Shingles, a nasty viral condition that at it's worst is unbearably painful.  Three months later and I'm still taking powerful painkillers every few hours, but the pain is under control and at last I can play (badly). Polly and I played a few courses in Cyprus in October 2016 to help me recuperate. A great place and still pretty hot, but we didn't think the courses there were a patch on those in places like Turkey and Ireland, so we won't be going back there golfing any time soon.

Anyway, 1 November 2016 was one of those rare Autumn days when the weather was absolutely perfect for golf.  Around 14 Degrees C, no cloud and only a very light wind.  We were due to play at 1000 hrs, but since Troon is 102 miles from our house, Polly and I decided to stay locally overnight rather than risk getting caught up in traffic en route.  This is the early morning view from our B&B, with the course laid out invitingly, just beyond the railway line that borders much of the back 9 of the course. All seemed set, but we'd chosen to visit on the 2nd day of the Greenkeeper's main Autumn programme to hollow tine and sand the greens.  So, a few of the holes had temporary greens, including the iconic 8th, the Postage Stamp.  We'd been really looking forward to testing ourselves on the course where just a few months before, Stenson and Mickelson had played what will surely go down as one of the greatest final rounds in any of golf's Majors.

Graeme, Donald (the local member and Assistant Pro at one of Edinburgh's best clubs) and I opted for the Yellow tees, reducing the Old Course to 6170 Yards, Par 71 (with Polly  as our photographer and sole spectator).  A far cry from the Open crowds but there was another difference. Royal Troon sits on the flight path to Prestwick Airport and I don't recall seeing planes flying over the course every couple of minutes during the Open. This is me lining up a shot on the 3rd fairway, just after the latest Ryanair flight landing from goodness knows where had thundered over our heads! Quite entertaining in a way on the Front 9 but after the wind turned at the start of our Back 9, the planes were taking off rather than landing over our heads and the novelty soon wore off.  

TV coverage of The Open had commented that the Front 9 was where to make your score, with the Back 9 where you held on as best you could. Our Front 9 was not as testing as we'd expected.  The holes looked completely different from the Open coverage. The rough had been cut back, the fairways were running slower and our main course management requirement was to stay out of the bunkers.  I 3-putted the 1st for a double bogey 6 but pars on the 5th, 6th and 7th meant I was 5 over after 7 holes. Not too bad after my recent health problems. In fact, I thought the first 6 holes were pretty straightforward from the Yellow Tees.  The 6th played to a modest 518 Yards, but is a really meaty 618 yards from the back tee. We'd been looking forward to playing the Postage Stamp 8th, the legendary 114 Yard Par 3 that is surely The Old Course's signature hole. Sadly, we had to play to a temporary green, in the middle of the above photo, with the heavily sanded green to the right.  The temporary green extended the hole by 40 yards and was a really small target, so we were grateful that it wasn't windy.

The 9th is a short Par 4 of only 375 Yards, wide as you like, requiring only a decent drive to set up an easy iron to a bunkerless green. There's a slight dog leg off the tee, but I misjudged the distance to the corner of the dog leg and had a poor lie in heavy rough.  A double bogey 6 there was disappointing, but I was out in 44 (with the same new ball). Passable, I suppose.

The 10th is slightly shorter than the 9th and is supposedly easier according to the Stroke Indexing, but it's slightly uphill and my single putt bogey was the best I could do. The drive is blind over gorse, so be careful!  "The Railway" 11th is the Stroke Index 1 hole and is always a demanding test at 483 Yards off the back tee, with a blind tee shot to a narrow fairway bordered with OOB to the right and gorse to the left.  From the Yellow tee, the 11th is a far less intimidating 357 Yards.  This is me playing my 3rd shot to the green. 

The 12th is a 377 Yard Par 4.  I'd hit a decently straight drive and opted for a 7 iron punch to a heavily contoured 2-tier green. You know how you scuttle a ball along the ground and it runs forever? Yes, dead straight towards the flag, finishing 4 feet away, as shown here!  My big chance for a birdie at Royal Troon, duly holed. Go me!

The last few holes at Royal Troon are more testing, even from the Yellows. The Par 5 16th is 50 Yards longer from the back tee, and looked easy enough at only 504 Yards, but I still managed to make double bogey without doing anything particularly daft, apart from finding a greenside bunker. This is me missing my first putt, with Graeme waiting his turn.  And so to the 17th, a tricky 167 Yard Par 3, played to a plateau green, well guarded by bunkers on both sides. I missed the green, with my tee shot finishing in light rough.  My rusty short game had held up reasonably well until now but I'd an awkward 20 yard chip over a steep slope to the elevated green.  My treble bogey could have been even worse and I'll clearly need to get some short game practice in!

The 18th was a tough 464 Yards during the Open, but was a modest 344 Yards for us mere mortals.  I hooked a drive into heavy rough and could only move the ball to 60 Yards from the green, as shown here.  The course hadn't been busy, despite the excellent weather.  We'd seen a few guys teeing off in front of us before we teed off on the 1st but there was no sign of them looking out the clubhouse windows as we completed our round.  My main thought at the time was "just don't hit a window with your approach shot to the green".  I needn't have worried, as I hit a good pitch to within 10 feet.  I was just disappointed that I missed the par putt.  Still, a bogey on the last meant I'd stumbled around to a semi-respectable 90, net 79 (8 over net par) with 32 putts.

I'd like to play the course again sometime, but it's £230 for a round in high season and although Royal Troon's Old Course is great fun to play and a good test, I suspect I'd opt for The Old Course at St Andrews, given the choice. This is me, finishing my 668th course in Scotland.  Only a few out of the way Par 3 and pitch and putt courses left and one 18 Hole course at gWest near Gleneagles.  I'm playing at Gleneagles on 7 November 2016, so maybe I'll find a way to access gWest - if not, the search continues. I suspect there are a few small Par 3 or pitch and putt courses I don't know about but I won't lose sleep over them. After open heart surgery you tend to put things into perspective. Playing every Scottish course I know about is fun, but if I miss any I can still rest, knowing that there are more important things in life, starting with life itself.

A final comment on Royal Troon's Old Course.  If you get the chance to play here, make the time to visit the 19th, grab a seat by the windows and watch the world go by.  I guess I've eaten in hundreds of golf clubhouses across the world over the years but I'm sure I've never had the chance to order a cheese and haggis toastie. An unlikely combination, but absolutely delicious, washed down by a pint of cold lager.  I could have stayed for another beer, but we'd another course to play and precious little time before sunset.  If and when I play the Old Course again, I know what I'll be ordering when I get in.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Strathpeffer Spa GC - Junior Course - Course No 667

We'd found from internet research that there was a 5 Hole Junior Course at Strathpeffer Spa GC so my plan was to play this and another local course on my way back down from Dornoch.  I dropped into the clubhouse late in the afternoon of 8 June 2016, but there was no-one there other than the cleaner and no cars in the car park.  I took a stroll up to the practice ground behind the clubhouse but there was no sign of a Junior Course and I wondered whether it had been closed.  Polly and I had played the main Strathpeffer course many years ago.  It's very high on my personal list of "hilliest golf courses played" and I wasn't sure my current fitness level would make an evening round over this great village course an easy task. It was also perfect midgie weather! But don't let those comments put you off, because Strathpeffer Spa is well worth a visit, with stunning views to die for (and that's what I was a bit concerned about given my recent heart troubles). The course is simply stunning, no more so than the opening hole, a Par 4 of 330 Yards with the biggest drop from tee to green of any course in Scotland. Willie Park Jnr, Old Tom Morris and Harry Vardon all played a part in the evolution of the course layout and the quality of their work and imagination is still clearly evident.  A hidden gem, much as I dislike that cliche.

When I fronted up early on 9 June (another perfect midgie day!) the friendly lady in the club shop told me that there was indeed a Junior Course, beyond the 17th green, and I could take my car up a rough track to the car park beside the 9th tee.  Thankfully, there was a good course map.  This is the scorecard I created, using measurements on stones beside the tees -

Hole 1      93 Yards      Par 3       Score 4       Putts 2
Hole 2      69 Yards      Par 3       Score 2       Putts 1
Hole 3      62 Yards      Par 3       Score 3       Putts 2
Hole 4      48 Yards      Par 3       Score 2       Putts 1
Hole 5      70 Yards      Par 3       Score 4       Putts 2

Totals      342 Yards     Par 15     Score 15     Putts 8

This is an excellent facility for young and old alike and would be great for general practice, in addition to the more handily located practice ground.  I escaped just as the first cloud of midgies noticed that food (i.e. my blood) had arrived!  Here are a couple of views from the course - the 1st and 2nd holes (seriously downhill). 

I'd also had the nearby Coul House Hotel's Pitch and Putt Course on my list of courses to play.  This is a seriously upmarket country hotel, set in impressive grounds.  There's a pitch and putt course in the gardens, but with no fixed tees and 9 flags enabling play from anywhere in any order, this course didn't meet our definition of a golf course.  I played the layout as best I could and enjoyed viewing the gardens but at least I've been there and struck the name off our list. Here's a couple of random photos from the course.

Royal Dornoch GC Practice Course - Course No 666

As I've commented previously, one of our main difficulties in trying to play every golf course in Scotland is that there's no fully comprehensive list or even an agreed definition of what a golf course is and is not. For many, a course has to have at least 9 holes but we're going for anywhere that has fixed tees and greens, intended for playing the game in a set sequence of holes.  That of course encompasses some pitch and putt courses, private courses and practice courses. It's easy enough to find the courses that are registered with Scottish Golf and have members, but the more quirky end of our search is difficult to put it mildly.  On my occasional previous trips to Dornoch to play the Championship course, I'd noticed that there was a pitch and putt layout in front of the Dornoch Hotel and I had this is on my list of courses to play.  I also wanted to check out another layout in the area so I drove up to Dornoch on 8 June 2016 (4 hours+).  Sadly, the Dornoch Hotel "course" is no more.  It had previously provided a reasonably attractive frontage to the hotel, but all of the greens and holes (and tees if there ever were any) have merged into a rather untidy looking front "lawn" as this picture shows. Bunkers have been left to weed infestation and the overall effect is rather unappealing. I've no idea what the hotel is like to stay in but I'm certainly not tempted to find out.

On a previous trip to the area in 2012, Polly and I had played Dornoch GC's second course, "The Struie" - see my blog entry No 528.  I'd noticed that there were a few white flags visible between the Struie Course and the Club's large practice ground, adjacent to Dornoch Airfield, but it hadn't occurred to me at the time that this might be a new course to add to our list.  So, after my dismal inspection of the Dornoch Hotel frontage, I drove over to the Airfield, (at the end of Shore Road if you ever want to find it). Sure enough, there were some white flags and on closer inspection this turned out to be a short course of 3 Par 4s surrounding a double-flagged practice green, set aside for short game and bunker practice.  However, there were holes and tees cut half way along each of the Par 4s, making this a 6-hole Par 3 course. I don't know if these were intended as a permanent feature, but there were certainly 6 fixed tees and 6 greens and the guy in front was certainly playing golf.  Indeed, signs such as this one beside the 5th tee made it clear that general practice was not allowed, so the club has clearly intended that the 6 holes should be played as a golf course, rather than with a bag of practice balls from random positions.

I measured the course layout to produce the following scorecard

Hole 1    161 Yards      Par 3     Score  3     Putts  1
Hole 2    173 Yards      Par 3     Score  5     Putts  2
Hole 3    188 Yards      Par 3     Score  3     Putts  1
Hole 4      96 Yards      Par 3     Score  4     Putts  2
Hole 5    175 Yards      Par 3     Score  3     Putts  1
Hole 6    102 Yards      Par 3     Score  3     Putts  2

Totals     734 Yards     Par 18    Score 21    Putts 9 

This course was in excellent condition and looked to be ideal for juniors, seniors and newcomers to the game.  This is a view of the 2nd hole, with the village in the background - the church spire being Dornoch Cathedral. If you're ever in Dornoch to play the outstanding Championship Course (and that's surely a bucket list course if you like links courses) the little course by the Airfield would be a good warm-up.      

Friday, 13 May 2016

The Nestie Golf Course - Course no 665

The Nestie is a 6-hole short course operated by the Carnoustie Golf Links Trust and opened in May 2014 as part of a wider redevelopment of the Buddon Course at Carnoustie.  The Buddon now has 2 new holes and the Nestie was built on what was formerly the Buddon's 1st fairway, immediately to the left of the 1st hole on Carnoustie's Championship Course.  The Nestie is described by the Trust as a junior course, but  it's also open to adult members and non-members alike and is only reserved for juniors at specific times.  As such, it's a good practice facility for anyone playing one of Carnoustie's three main courses and being free, with clubs available for hire from the adjacent Pro Shop, it's ideally located for casual play by any visitors to the town and for complete beginners to learn the basics.  See the Buddon Course 1st tee and Championship Course 1st tee webcams on for aerial live streaming showing the Nestie Course. This is a photo I took from the 1st tee.  Note the greenkeepers hard at work in the background.

I'd arranged to meet Craig at Noon on 11 May 2016, who as regular readers of the blog will know, is one of the 2 guys that I'm playing all of the Scottish courses with. Craig lives within a Par 5 of the 1st tee on the Championship Course and is a member of one of the 5 clubs that have playing rights over the Carnoustie Links.  The 3rd and 4th Holes were closed for maintenance when we met up, so it initially looked as though my 210 mile round trip might have to be repeated at a later date.  Craig and I played the 4 remaining holes that were open and I practiced for a while around the old 1st green of the Buddon Course, now used for general practice.  Thankfully the Greenkeepers finished their work pretty quickly and the Nestie was fully open by 1330 hrs.  This is a view of the 3rd Hole, looking back to the Championship Course 1st Tee and the iconic hotel that overlooks the Championship Course.

As the photo above suggests, the Nestie wasn't in great condition.  The fairways had been heavily scarified and the greens were pretty bumpy and slow.  Scoring was generally difficult, as balls would take unexpected bounces and putting was really tricky.  This was my score on the completed full round -

Hole 1 -  65 Yards, Par 3 Score was 4, with 2 putts
Hole 2 -  66 Yards, Par 3 Score was 3, with 2 putts
Hole 3 -  64 Yards, Par 3 Score was 4, with 2 putts
Hole 4 -  44 Yards, Par 3 Score was 4 with 2 putts
Hole 5 -  55 Yards, Par 3 Score was 2 with 1 putt
Hole 6 -  40 Yards, Par 3 Score was 3 with 2 putts

So, 20 strokes in total with 11 putts on a course measuring 334 Yards in total.  Not the most demanding or interesting course I've played on my travels around Scotland, but good practice nevertheless and I'm glad that the Links Trust had the wisdom to add this little course to the excellent facilities at Carnoustie.  This is me on the 1st tee.  I don't know exactly when my next new course will be as I've got a golfing holiday to Turkey coming up later in the month.  At least I'm back playing again and looking forward to more trips around some of the more remote parts of Scotland on my continuing quest to play every course.  

For any readers who have not played the Carnoustie Courses before, the Championship Course can be an absolute beast and the Buddon and Burnside courses are also challenging in their own right, particularly on windy days!  Even if you're not playing, a trip to the Pro Shop beside the Championship Course 1st Tee is quite an experience - particularly if you're not expecting to pass what I assume is an exact replica of the Claret Jug!

Friday, 6 May 2016

Recovery - Complete!

In my last post, I mentioned that I'd be having major heart surgery.  The operation (a triple heart bypass, no less) was on 18 January 2016 and was a complete success.  The recovery was long and difficult and not something I'd want to ponder on too much. Suffice to say that after 15 long weeks I'm almost back to full fitness.  The physios cleared me to start playing golf after week 12 and I should be OK to get back to caddying by the end of May.  

So, it was back to the golf at long last, starting with a few holes at the Glen GC and Dunbar GC, the 2 courses where I'm a member. At the Glen, we're about to open a new 9-Hole course, using the first 4 holes of the existing course, a new tee half way along and adjacent to the existing Par 4 14th hole to create a new 165 Yard Par 3 and finishing with the last 4 holes of the existing course. We'll also have a separate score card so under our definition of what constitutes a golf course, our new Fouranback Golf Course has to be added to our list of Scottish golf courses.  It's not officially open yet, as the new tee still has to bed in but it's just about possible to play the new layout by dropping a ball beside the new tee.  I did just that a couple of weeks ago, for my first 9 holes after the operation.  I went round in a very rusty 45 strokes, but on 3 May 2016 I managed an encouraging 37, only 2 over par.  I'll do a full report once the course is open.

The big test of my recovery progress was to be a full 18 holes at Dunbar GC on 4 May. Polly had been playing nearly every day for the past week so decided she'd just walk the course with me.  To set the scene fully, there was a group of 11 visitors immediately in front of me. The 1st Hole at Dunbar is a gentle 460 Yard Par 5.  Hit a decent drive, lay up in front of the stream that cuts across the fairway 20 yards short of the green, hit any kind of pitch onto the big green and an opening par is there for the taking.  Having done that, the first 4-ball of visitors let me play through on the 2nd tee.  The 2nd is also a Par 5, and far more demanding. I rushed the tee shot, found a tricky lie in the rough and needed a good 3 wood to make the green in regulation.  Another par on the card and the 4-ball of visitors ahead of me waived me through on the 3rd, after playing their tee shots and reaching the side of the green.  The 3rd is a 152 Yard Par 3, played from an elevated tee to a long narrow green that's completely surrounded by deep bunkers.  The flag was at the back left of the green, but the green is right outside the clubhouse windows and is also overlooked by golfers walking to the pro shop, on the practice putting green and the 1st tee. So, the 3rd is by far the most intimidating of the Par 3's at Dunbar and there's usually a crowd of casual observers - and the occasional ghoul in the bar watching for errant shots and bunker trouble.  Not a hole to trifle with or play badly!  This is a view from the tee, taken immediately after my round.

I'd forgotten my Skycaddie so Polly went back to the car - the car park is also adjacent to the 3rd, just to add to the pressure.  With the wind behind, I reckoned the hole was playing short, so I opted for an easy 7 iron.  The greens were running pretty fast so I thought that a ball landing on the down slope beyond the front bunker would run another 30 yards or so. I didn't really take long over the shot. I just hoped I'd hit the green and avoid making a fool of myself in front of the guys who'd waived me through and I was ready with the excuses - first game back after surgery, rusty swing etc. However, I hit the tee shot very well and the ball went almost exactly where I'd wanted it to and after running 70+ feet on the green, it went into the hole for my first hole in one.  I've been playing golf for around 45 years so I suppose it's about time I got lucky.  Polly missed the ball going but arrived well before I did, so hugs and handshakes all round and 2 bottles of whisky on the bar counter afterwards (and just where did all of these golfers suddenly come from?)  Luckily, I had my phone in my pocket, so here's me and the ball (now retired!) that did it for me.  I hope it takes me another 45 years to repeat the feat, but somehow I think I'd need to get lucky again long before then.

The rest of the round was pretty unremarkable and I needed that 1 on the 3rd in order to break 90 (i.e. 89).  However, this round was all about personal recovery and the closure of a very difficult chapter in my life's story.  I was pretty tired going up the last and I needed some strong painkillers to ease the various pains in my legs, arms and ribs. I'd been very fit immediately before the operation so it was a huge shock to find that after it I could barely walk a few steps without needing a rest. This round proved to me that my recovery was effectively complete. OK, I still need to get stronger and fitter before re-joining my caddying buddies, but I feel I'm no longer the recovering heart patient, I'm back to being the guy that loves playing golf and pursuing the ambition of playing every course in Scotland, just for my own satisfaction.  Next stop Carnoustie, where there's a wee course I've not yet played. I'm also playing  the excellent course at West Kilbride GC next week with some old golfing buddies, so I suspect that more celebratory whiskies will be purchased!