Bulldog's Blog: Coast to Ko, old links courses thrive
Driving in the U.K. is, in a word, difficult. If you are on the Motorway, it’s a relative piece of cake. But if you’re on an alternate road with an A (A72), it can be a little challenging among cars parked on the side of the road. I’m sure many of the cars driven by Americans have been returned with left-side mirrors gone or severely damaged.
Of course an A road is better than a B (B7033), which is an alternate to an A road and for some reason narrower and trickier.
On all three types of roads, the traffic comes at you almost at the same speed – and you wonder if you're going to make it and then there's the cars in your rearview mirror. It’s almost like trusting it on the golf course.
I’ll leave the roads alone for a minute and return to them after I talk about Royal Lytham.
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Play changes view on Lytham
My first taste of Royal Lytham was when I came to the Open Championship in 1988 to watch the greats play in a major championship. It was my first-ever major and I was a fan, a spectator watching golf and loving it.
I had planned on staying to the end, but Mother Nature got involved during the third round and play became impossible. They washed the third round out for those players who already finished, which were few, and started over again Sunday.
It was the first Monday finish of the Open Championship, but I had to be back at work in London, so I missed Seve Ballesteros winning.
I would return to Lytham with Tom Lehman’s win, then again last year with the surprise win of Ernie Els.
I never knew what to make of Lytham; it was different than the other rota courses in a lot of ways with houses, train lines and no sea in sight. But when you play it, you understand its place.
Unbelievably well bunkered, precision off the tee is paramount even though it looks like it has wider fairways then many links courses. You find a bunker off the tee, it’s a penalty plain and simple; just ask Tiger Woods or Adam Scott.
The greens are relatively flat, but as with every links course they can be difficult to read and also to get the speed.
My experience at a course is not necessarily tied to how well I play, but the course and the caddies.
At Lytham I had a great caddie, Peter, who was smart and knew the course backwards and forwards.
A friend I was with, John, had played Formby with me and loved it. Now we played Lytham and he felt the same way about it.
I have to agree, the course was much more than I expected. It's so challenging, but not overly long. It tests every part of your game, but the variation of the holes makes Lytham very enjoyable.
I also think it's is a very picturesque course, which you can see from some of the photos.
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Getting there half the battle
Now back to the roads. The whole reason for the discussion above is when we left Lytham to drive back up to Scotland, the iPhone GPS took us on a road that went past a military base, was narrower than a bike path and had traffic coming both ways.
Every time a car would slow down and get so close to the left side, you could hear the branches scratching the oppositte side. Of course, the cars coming toward us didn’t touch the brakes and flew by at Mach 1.
The trip up to Scotland is beautiful. You see a lot of rolling mountains, they just don’t seem like hills, and it's a very desolate feeling.
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Prestwick's history unmistakable
Playing Prestwick the next day was a personal desire. I had played it years ago in a driving rainstorm and quirky was an understatement in my book.
Again, I had a great caddie in Terry. I mention these guys’ names because if you're going to make the trip, you should ask for them; it makes the experience.
Prestwick is so old it just oozes golf history. At some point when you're standing on the fairways, you know not only did Old Tom Morris play here, he worked here before eventually moving to St. Andrews.
Not sure how you top that.
Prestwick was hard and fast, but like all the courses at this point, the greens were watered and slower. Clearly the concern for losing the greens was in play due to the unseasonable heat and sun Scotland was experiencing during the last three weeks.
Which also meant that my waterproofs have stayed packed away for the entire trip, a very odd experience.
Blind tee shots, blind second shots and well-bunkered holes makes Prestwick a difficult gem, but one you fall in love with.
My caddie, Terry, was great. He’d been here almost as long as Old Tom and knew the golf course like the back of his hand. It has been impressive how good the caddies have been, especially since many of these courses don’t have caddie programs and have a small pool to draw from.
I also have to say how impressive lunch has been at every one of the courses. Very good soups and adequate menus for lunch have made the post-round festivities worthwhile.
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Western Gailes epitomizes links
The next course I ticked off the rota was Western Gailes. By far my favorite course in the west of Scotland, Western Gailes is an unbelievable experience. Every hole is solid and many of them provide a great view of the water and beach.
It is a true links in every definition and is as beautiful as any links course in Scotland.
Hamish, who I actually believes lives on the property because of his knowledge of the course, was my guide. As usual, he did a great job and has caddied for many of the important visitors to Western Gailes. What he was doing with me is unclear.
As I sat in the clubhouse having lunch with my friend John, I had an idea: Why not jump in the car and drive over to St. Andrews?
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St. Andrews' game of chance
It was a two-hour drive. When we arrived, we grabbed a parking place on the road that runs parallel to the 18th hole.
At this point, it’s not very clear what will happen. The Old Course times are determined by a ballot that is on a 48-hour clock. Those who want to play Friday must get their names in the ballot by Wednesday before the ballot closes. Then you take a look later in the day and see if you were selected.
Since we didn’t plan on coming, we had no tee times. And since it was the last day of open play, with the St. Andrews golf club having a medal on the Old all day Saturday, our chances were limited.
So when we turned up around 4:00, we knew we had about an hour or so window.
First we talked with the starter, who asked if we had our clubs. They were five minutes away in the car. He suggested we go get them and return, not promising anything.
We did that and returned and sat on a bench by the putting green.
Fifteen minutes later we had paid our money, arranged a caddie and were on the first tee of the Old with two total strangers.
But as every day had been in Scotland since I arrived, it was perfect; the breeze was up a little, but the sun continued to shine.
Scotty was my caddie since my usual caddie, Heather, already was on the course.
Ran into Lydia Ko, the New Zealand amateur, on the course at the 11th hole. She was working with a local caddie and through the grapevine I heard she had spent a couple of days on the Old before Friday.
As I drove back to Edinburgh on Friday night, it was hard to believe that we accomplished the unlikely double of Western Gailes and the Old Course in one day. But it’s been that kind of trip.
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Pounding the pavement again
OK, so just to get you up to date, it’s Saturday and I’m in Edinburgh dropping off my friend at the airport.
And of course I run into one of those quaint customs in Scotland, I have to pay a pound to drop off my friend. The airport is set up that you have to go one way to drop off passengers and then you see the sign, 1 pound to exit. Are you kidding me? No, they weren’t, and so luckily I had a pound coin.
I would love to find the nitwit who thought that up.
Well it was off to St. Andrews again for the Women’s British Open. I had planned to be there since February and booked my room far in advance. Who knew that Inbee Park would be going for the Grand Slam.
Please don’t get me started on if it is or isn’t a grand slam.
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PHOTOS: St. Andrews, Crail, Dukes, more
Pictures of St. Andrews in advance of the 2013 Women's British Open, as well as Crail, Dukes and more.
Change in weather for Dukes
I had planned to play at the Dukes course, which is owned by Herb Kohler and is about five miles out of town in the foothills.
I had played there once before and was not a fan, but it was a much better experience the second time around. I played with two caddies from the Old Course, Heather and Ronnie, good friends I can honestly say and it was a good time even though Heather beat us 2 and 1.
Again the weather cooperated, but during the round a front that had been forecast moved in and changed the temperature greatly – good old cool-and-overcast Scotland was returning after almost three weeks of warm and mostly sunny days.
Sundays in St. Andrews are different with the Old Course converted to a park; you have to find another place to play golf. Of course it’s not a problem, but when you wake up to rain, your desire to sort out a venue is not as great.
However, the weather in Scotland is unpredictable. It can change from horrible to passable to great in an hour or even less, which is what happened on Sunday afternoon.
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Sun returns for Crail
The clouds lightened, sunshine took hold by 5:00 and that sent us off playing golf under a long, setting sun off the coast on the Firth of Fife at Crail.
Crail, instituted in 1786, has the original old links that are called Balcomie Links, which Old Tom strolled a time or two. It also has the new Craighead Links that is the first design project of Gil Hanse, who has evolved into one of the preeminent architects in the world.
Craighead was opened in 1998 and has been a great place to play.
But the Balcomie is for me, because it touches the water on most holes and is in view on every hole.
One of the benefits of making the trip to Crail, which is about nine miles from St. Andrews in the East Neuk or corner of Fife, is that you can take the short, 3-mile trip to Anstruther for the best fish & chips in the area.
It didn’t disappoint and with a full belly you can cut across the East Neuk and make it back to St. Andrews in half the time.
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Women's Open awaits
One last thing: My trip to Scotland is in its last week. Today has been spent preparing for the Women’s British Open coverage and also taking a picture of some of the contenders on the Swilcan Bridge.
Tomorrow starts the week in earnest, but hopefully a couple more rounds of golf await before the week is finished.