I’ve never played at St Andrews. That’s a poor admission to make, for any keen golfer. Playing at the Home of Golf is a sporting ambition which I must one day address, since although I’ve played some of the best seaside courses in England, Wales, and the west of Scotland, so far only Stonehaven has witnessed my hacking on her eastern coast.
It’s always a marvellous battle with the elements on a links course. The wind, the dunes and the sea make such fine companions, that the experience can become almost sacred.
I’d certainly count my days at Royal Porthcawl as amongst the best of my entire life: for if ever there were a place to spend the rest of your days, then this is it. You can see the ocean from every single hole, and splash into it from several, too. Memories of Guy Wolstenholme beating a young Tiger Woods there on the rain-lashed last day of the 1995 Walker Cup only add to the legend of this South Wales links.
Last Monday saw my annual assault on the fearsome test of Royal St George’s at Sandwich. It’s always a privilege to play an Open Championship layout, and this one is sublimely difficult and marvellously scenic – or is that sublimely scenic and marvellously difficult ? A stiff northeaster was blowing in off the sea, which made the famous Maiden short hole especially challenging, played straight downwind. There’s only one way to do it – select pitching wedge, wrap your ball in velcro, hit it as hard and as high as you can, and pray that the ball stops somewhere on the green. It worked, this time.
The beauty of such fine courses is that for all the gradual changes that have been made over the years, and Sandwich has seen radical redesign since the Open was first held here, ultimately it is nature which always holds sway as the chief architect. Fine land and fine scenery make for great golf courses. St Andrews is a perfect example – and the reverence attached to the place means there have probably been fewer changes made here than at many championship venues. And although the course seems almost wildly eccentric to the modern eye, with its crossing fairways and double greens, the links has been supremely influential in the minds of golf architects everywhere.
I could talk about the 17th, the famous Road Hole, with its cavernous bunker. And indeed I would, if it didn’t bring on nightmares of many similarly deep and dreaded pits lurking at Sandwich. Trust me – you don’t really know what a bunker is, until you’ve experienced one with four steps leading down for the player to enter at the back, and a vertical, turf-riveted face eight feet high in front. These are infernal places where you can, and will, spend hours on end. It’s certainly no coincidence that the most dangerous trap on St Andrews’ 14th hole is simply called ‘Hell Bunker’.
And yet, the most imitated hole in golf is neither of these. It is the much more straightforward-looking 11th hole, which, consciously or not, has stirred the minds of golf course architects around the world. At 172 yards, it’s far from intimidatingly long by modern standards. And the defining feature of the hole, Strath Bunker, is actually quite a small hazard. But it’s the placement of Strath which is so acute. It was Nature, in her wisdom, that laid out a narrow plateau here behind the foreshore. Maybe the small sandy hollow set in the face of the ridge was once a place for sheep to shelter from the biting North Sea wind. But when golfers ventured onto the land in the middle ages, the plateau became a green, with that small sandy pit set deep into its front right face.
Such a simple configuration, but it’s a design classic. The green is set across the line of play, and is narrow from front to back, making it difficult to hit. The special challenge here for the majority of players, right handed, is the location of the bunker, which leaves only two routes to attack the green.
A fade shot, curving from left to right, seems perfect for the task in taking the bunker out of play. But fade shots so often come up short, especially into the wind. And any stroke on this path, less than perfectly hit or judged, will inevitably land short into the ridge at the front of the green, from where it will sink as perfectly into Strath Bunker as a single malt falls into glass on a soft Scottish evening.
So that leaves a draw, curving from right to left. Perhaps that seems safer, until you counter that this strategy exposes you to a route right over the pit of the bunker itself, and until you reason that the lower flight of a draw leaves you with almost no chance of stopping the ball on the green beyond. And with the green sloping sharply towards the front, there is simply no recovery option from the back.
So how about playing left ? No – a much bigger bunker awaits. Play short of Strath, and then pitch on ? That’s no good either, since there’s a veritable desert of sand awaiting there.
It’s such a sweet and subtle design, and so widely copied, on holes far more famous than this one. Just take a look at the famous 12th at Augusta, one of the most photographed holes anywhere in the world. In reality, now we can see it as nothing more than a daughter of our good friend Strath, transported 4 000 miles from the Kingdom of Fife to Georgia. All of the elements are there. A fiendishly narrow, sloping green, with a bunker set right into the front right face. Trouble left and short (Rae’s Creek). And a tricky wind, swirling in the pines, rather than across the beach.
Augusta’s 12th is not a long hole. ‘All’ it demands is perfect judgement of distance, and for Sunday’s pin placement, the courage to commit to a shot across the bunker. That’s easy enough, until you’ve got The Masters almost in your grasp. Just ask Greg Norman and Sandy Lyle how easy they think the hole can play. Both came to grief here, and whilst Sandy’s Scottish blood saw him home, somehow, in 1988, Greg’s 1996 challenge faded like a poorly-struck eight-iron on the breeze. And only a few blades of grass saved a shaken Fred Couples from a watery fate en route to his green jacket in 1992.
There are many short holes designed on a similar theme around the world. No two pieces of land are the same, so they’re often subtly different, whilst still paying homage to Strath. Just amongst the courses I’ve played, there’s the fourth at Sunningdale, with heather in front of the tee. The seventh at Stoke Poges, where the green is angled more left to right. The second at Blumisberg in Switzerland, where the Strath-Kind is monstrous and twelve feet deep. So many examples, more famous than these, and much too numerous to list them all.
Another round on Friday. It was parkland golf, in deepest mid-Kent this time, far from the sea. Certainly, on a course called Hemsted Forest I should have expected trees. And more trees. The company was grand, but I played like a dog.
But something happened as the early autumn sunshine drifted towards a showery afternoon. Soft rain started falling as I hacked my way out of the woods on number ten, but it was only a few drops, and my pitching wedge into the green flew against a perfectly illuminated backdrop of darkened grey sky. It was only whilst the ball was in the air that I noticed the rainbow behind the green, and then a double rainbow. Maybe that will bring us the pot of gold, I opined, cornily, to my companions.
We walked on towards the eleventh tee, in brighter mood. And there she was. A pretty par three, not long, but played over a ravine. A wicked slope to the left, falling down towards a pair of sandtraps. A narrow, strongly elevated putting surface, sloping sharply from back to front. One small bunker set into the front right face of the green. An almost perfect Kentish Strath.
I look at the card. Just 129 yards – a thrashed and rash pitching wedge in my student days, but a stiffer, less certain and wiser nine-iron in my rusty middle age. With distance in hand, it’s a simpler shot, with less reason to fear the bunker. The shot flies well, not special perhaps, but solid, and straight. The usual up-down-up-down darted glances which follow any well-struck shot from ball to flag. The ball lands softly, eight feet short. Rolls up, just right of the pin.
And then it disappears.
There’s complete silence on the tee. My partners aren’t quite sure, although I think I know. There are no hollers, or high fives, but it feels like time to break the moment, so I give a big smile and offer my hand to each in turn. There’s no putter needed on this hole today.
Next up is my old friend Alan. ‘I’ll never follow that,’ he moans. ‘But it’s been done before’, I say. ‘Two aces in the same group’. He’s not so sure, but hits it well, and the ball lands inches from my pitch-mark. A lower flight from his seven-iron, and the ball lands harder, before hitting the flagstick a foot from its base and bouncing away to two feet for a certain birdie. Three strokes under par, with two guys still to play.
It’s a memorable round. I put the ball away, to save the moment. And just as well, since although my next drive flies true and straight, smoking 280 yards with pure adrenaline, my concentration and game just aren’t quite there now. Two balls disappear into the woods on the way home, but it’s the 19th we want to reach.
The Steward looks concerned as I order for champagne for us, and drinks all round in the Clubhouse. There are two societies playing here, and it’ll cost me 150 quid and a hundred handshakes before I fall into my friend’s car for the journey home. But it’s worth every penny. Thirty-two years I’ve waited for this moment. Maybe twenty holed second shots on par fours – even the odd eight-iron third, sunk on par fives. But never a hole-in-one, until today. And tradition must be served, so served she is.
Just one shot, one day, one moment in a lifetime’s golf. But it means so much more than that.
It’s one over Strath.
62. On the links
125. The green and the gold – 2006 Ryder Cup
85. A homage to London’s Gherkin
106. A Highland reel – Pitlochry, Perthshire
66. A dream from Detroit – 2004 Ryder Cup