by Paul Knowles
Golf Digest says The PGA National Resort’s Champion course “provided the toughest tournament test of golf during the 2013 PGA Tour season.” USA Today called holes 15-17 – more commonly called “The Bear Trap” – “one of the toughest stretches in golf.”
So, of course, when the opportunity arose, we had to play it.
This is the thinking of all devoted golfers, everywhere: “This course will kill me, it will beat me up, I have no chance… so let’s go play!” Such is the game – and the fools that pursue it.
In truth, the Champion course is a bit deceptive. My playing partner – a pretty good golfer, much better than I – parred the first hole, and even after about 13, was saying “This course isn’t as tough as I expected.”
Then came 14-18, and his attitude and conclusions changed, dramatically. Turns out, USA Today is right.
The Champion is one of five fine courses at the PGA National Resort. Last year, I had the chance to play the Palmer and the Fazio, and I enjoyed both of them, very much. I couldn’t play the Champion, because it was occupied by golfers like Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Russell Henley and most of the best golfers in the world, competing in the Honda Classic.
That superb tournament is on again this week (through Sunday, March 1); when we played the Champion, we were surrounded by workers constructing the stands and services that will cater to the estimated 200,000 guests this week.
It wasn’t just the stands and tents that were being prepared for the tourney; the golf course was being prepped, too. This was most evident in the rough – I lost at least four balls that landed no more than two yards off the fairway. We knew where they were – we simply could not find them in the dense, lush, long rough. It gave us a new appreciation for the skill needed if one of the tournament players misses the fairway.
Should you play the course? Absolutely! Any time you get the chance to walk in the footsteps of the great golfers – and to get some insight into their experiences – the answer should always be yes. And this course is beautiful, and brilliantly designed, originally by Tom and George Fazio, and redesigned only last year by Jack Nicklaus.
You don’t have to kill yourself with length – there are six sets of tees, ranging from 7047 yards to 5145. None make it all that easy, though!
Best known holes are the Bear Trap and the finishing 18th, but even the first hole, a Par 4, holds a significant experience, as you stand on the tee, seeing the same first view that the tournament players see.
The course has challenging bunkers, but the real issue is often water – and there is lots of water. It’s often a “course management” challenge – which always makes for great golf.
The Bear Trap seems like water, water everywhere. There is water on three sides of this Par 3 15th; a bunker on the fourth side. I figure the water gets deeper by the week, because of the mass of golf balls at the bottom.
More water on the 16th; the shortest approach, according to a resident pro, “involves negotiating the bunker and the water.” I reached the fringe by skipping my thin approach on the water, not a repeatable strategy, I suspect. The 17th is another water-guarded Par 3. Who would have thought that the toughest three-hole stretch in golf would include two Par 3’s?
And you finish at the famous 18th, a Par 5 dogleg left with a green semi-surrounded with water. This was the site, in 2014, of a four-man playoff that saw Russell Henley defeat Rory, Russell Knox and Ryan Palmer. The tournament, Sunday pin placement is very close to the water; for amateur play, like ours, it sits closer to the centre. Thank goodness.
This course beats you up, and then gives you a lovely selection of restaurants and bars where you can enjoy a beverage, and remember the good shots, no matter how few and far between they may be.
By the way, the PGA National Resort is also a great place to stay, and to dine – and while my buddy and I played the course, our wives enjoyed the exquisite spa. They seemed to feel more positive about their day than we did, but a beverage or two restored our equilibrium.
By Paul Knowles (first published in edited form in Forever Young)
Our tee time in the New Course was booked for 9:30 a.m. the following day, but naturally, we could not wait that long to plant our feet on the grass of St. Andrews Links. Minutes after we drove into town, we dumped our bags in our rooms at the Russell Hotel, and walked the single block to the first tee of the Old Course, and thence to pose for photos on the iconic Swilcan Bridge.
We were not alone. The streets of this fabled Scottish city were full of men (and a few women) with visions of golfing majesty shining in their eyes. It was like being at the end of a religious pilgrimage – but with more single malt Scotch, and odder clothing.
St. Andrews is the shrine of golf, there is no other way to look at it.
Ironically, St. Andrews was indeed a place of religious pilgrimage, and the ruins of a cathedral and a Bishop’s Palace or castle are still points of great interest. But while religious pilgrims stopped coming centuries ago, golf fans have been arriving to play the ancient and venerable game since the 1400s. It was here that golf was invented. It was here that it was codified into a set of highly detailed rules. It is to here that the best in the world come – including the top women golfers in 2013, to play the Women’s British Open. And it was here that we were going to play golf, over the next few days.
There is no lack of opportunity to play golf in St. Andrews – although you had best come with a variety of clothing, ready for anything, because anything is very likely to happen. St. Andrews Links now comprises seven individual golf courses, including the original – the Old Course – as well as the New Course (opened in 1895), and five others. There are several other fine courses in the immediate area, including the spectacular Kingsbarns Golf Links, a short drive up the coast.
Ever golfer wants to play the Old Course, although that is not as easy as it seems. There is an advanced lottery for tee times – our twosome failed to get a time. There are tee times available some days, to walk-ons. There are very expensive golf packages that guarantee a time. And there are also individual hotel packages, such as the one we purchased at the Russell Hotel, which guarantee a tee time on the Old Course, and another on the New Course – if you stay for five days, including four meals. In truth, it’s worth it – the Russell is a warm and friendly little hotel, the meals were good, the bar is cozy, and the course is a brief walk away. One other glitch – to play the Old Course, a golfer also needs to have an acceptable handicap, and hard, written evidence of. Current cut-off is 24 for men, 36 for women. No such handicap is needed for the other six St. Andrews Links courses or other nearby courses.
One quick observation: if you cannot get a tee time on the Old Course because of scheduling or a high handicap, come anyway, and play a week of golf on all the other courses. They are terrific links courses. Besides, a bad shot on the New Course puts you right on a fairway on the Old Course, anyway! Not that this is recommended.
The New Course was our first experience with “links” golf. I’m sure there are detailed definitions of “links” style, but suffice it to say – it’s challenging and sometimes darned near impossible. The word “links” refers to land along the sea; and that’s true of all the St. Andrews area courses. The rough is tall and wild; the bunkers are deep, some sodded to a height taller than the golfer; the rough will include gorse and heather; the greens are huge and fast, fast, fast, and sometimes shared between two fairways – with differently coloured flags at either end of the green. If all that is not challenge enough, we played in 40 mph winds – the same velocity that caused the postponement by one day of the Women’s British Open tournament later in the summer. But when you have a tee time at St. Andrews, you play. We were actually a bit lucky – we faced wind, and cool temperatures, but a minimum of rain. Others, with different tee times, played in downpours during the week. But they, too, played.
I finished my first game of golf in Scotland with an embarrassing score, not a par in sight, and a huge grin on my face. It’s not about the score – it’s the experience. In this case, that cliché is actually true.
The Old Course welcomed us the following afternoon. And it is a welcome – the starter checks your handicap papers, and then presents you with a small cloth bag with sundry goodies bearing the Old Course logo. You probably already have several, by the time, after browsing in the shops – hat, ball marker, sweater, etc. But the little bag is pretty neat, too.
It is suggested that you hire a caddie for the Old Course, and we did. We were paired with a lovely couple from near London, England; the wife, Lynne, was the best golfer in our foursome.
And then comes the moment, as you stand on the tee, in front of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse, with caddies, fellow players, and passers-by, all watching you hit your first drive. To our amazement, each of the four of us hit a creditable drive down the first fairway – and we know for a fact that not every nervous golfer manages that feat!
No reason to get cocky, though – my second shot found the Swilcan Burn – the deep creek that crosses the fairway. So did my fourth. Sigh.
The Old Course is challenging, demanding, beautiful, intimidating, unforgiving, rewarding and unforgettable. The scores – well, we do not speak of this. What each member of the foursome does speak of, however, is getting a birdie on the Old Course. Now, there is a golfing memory to treasure.
I birdied the 11th hole, a par three. My playing partner, John, birdied 17, which is reputed to be the toughest hole on the course. Those moments will be with us, and we will be insufferable about them for a very long time to come.
For our third course, we had chosen Kingsbarns, which some veterans of the Scottish pilgrimage had recommended. They were right – Kingsbarns is a beautiful course laid out along the sea, with superior course conditions. We played the green tees – 6,174 yards. And on almost every tee, we paused for a moment to simply drink in the amazing panorama.
You not only play along the sea – on the par 3, 15th hole, you play over it, with a rocky inlet between tee and green. I reached the green in one, by the way.
I had barely finished the 18th hole, when I started to scheme about ways to return to St. Andrews and play all of those courses – and several others – again. There is something highly addictive about the combination of golfing history, challenging play, unique environment and sheer natural beauty that literally touches your soul – there is something almost spiritual about St. Andrews.
And yes, there is much more than golf, here – the oldest university in Scotland, historic sites like the Cathedral and the Castle, a unique aquarium with seals, penguins and – unexpectedly – meerkats. It’s a fine walking city, with good restaurants and pubs.
But mostly, it’s populated with gob-smacked golfers, who simply can’t believe they are going to live their dream, if only for a day or two.
For more information, visit www.standrews.org.uk and www.kingsbarns.com.
FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
By Paul Knowles
It’s one of those golf courses where the actual game is almost secondary to the overall experience. Cobble Beach – 10 minutes north of Owen Sound, Ontario – is, in a word, breathtaking. Golfers can be excused if, from time to time, they forget about ball and driver and simply reveal in the beautiful views that occur on virtually every hole. In fact, the starter will tell you to forget your next shot, occasionally, and turn around to appreciate the scene.
Consider, for a moment, the Par 2 17th hole. Depending on your choice of tee, it measures between 107 and 156 yards, sharply downhill. With five bunkers guarding a relatively small green, it demands your full attention. But there is no chance that is going to happen, because immediately behind the green is the beautiful expanse of Georgian Bay. To the left is a new, faux lighthouse – one of several unique and attractive constructions at Cobble Beach.
The best answer is to take a moment to take in the view – and then get back to golf. But the truth is – you could do that as many times as you approach your ball, because every one of the 18 holes at Cobble Beach offers wonderful views.
For most Ontario golfers – and winter recreation lovers as well – Cobble Beach remains something of a hidden gem. For those who know it, that’s good news – the course is seldom crowded. But for those who don’t, it’s a shame.
Cobble Beach advertises itself as a “links-style course,” which conjures up images of St. Andrews, the Scottish home of golf. There are plenty of courses that try to hitch their wagon to that tradition – but Cobble Beach is one of the few that has earned the right to do so.
But while the golf is terrific, there is year-round appeal at Cobble Beach. Which is good news for the locals – and there are indeed locals, since this is also a golf course residential development. For visitors, there are accommodation options: an Inn, with 10 beautiful suites, and five cottages that sleep six. Of course, there are packages combining accommodation, golf and food.
Ah, food. A highlight, year-round, is the Sweetwater Restaurant (in cold months, open
only Thursday to Sunday). We dined after our round, and found both the service and
the food superb. As befits a clubhouse, there is a patio overlooking the 18th fairway
and green – and of course, Georgian Bay. The club house is also home to the pro shop
and a delightful spa.
Cobble Beach hosts events, year-round, from corporate affairs to winter-time Family
Days, to the very, very elegant Concours d’Elegance, a gathering of the most beautiful
and rarely seen automobiles, right on the 18th fairway. This will be the fourth annual
Concours at Cobble Beach.
But it must still be argued that the best thing about Cobble Beach is the golf. Cobble
Beach Golf Links was designed by Doug Carrick, one of the best golf course designers
to be found, but the course was the vision of original owner, Willis McLeese, who died
at the age of 97 in 2011, but is still spoken of in awe and affection by the staff you meet at Cobble Beach. Ownership of the course and residential development remains in the hands of the McLeese family.
When we first teed off, we were greeted by a friendly marshall, who offered helpful tips about the often tricky lay-out – and who followed us later to offer to take a photo of our threesome with fairways and lake in the background.
The course measures 7,134 yards from the back tees; 5,221 from the forward. We played the “regular” layout – 6,105 – on the premise that old guys have nothing more to prove.
All of the elements of links golf are there – meadow-like rough, “hummocky” terrain, small pot bunkers, ponds, swales and valleys – and the views, always the views. It’s tough to get depressed about your game when you can look up and see the scenery always on offer. There isn’t a bad hole on the course – my favourites, from an observer’s point of view (we won’t talk practical application, here), might be 9, a long, gorgeous trek between a pond and the Bay with the clubhouse as backdrop; 15, where the green is guarded by everything except a dragon; and the previously mentioned 17. (There’s a fine “fly-over” feature on every hole at http://cobblebeach.com/course/).
The rates are reasonable – highest is $125 “9:30 a.m. to 12 noon,” July 1- September 25. Low season rates dip as low as $59. Even in high season, there is an all-day rate of $99, and all initial round fees include power cart and use of the range. All of this is, of course, in Canadian dollars – a powerful argument to enjoy the best of links golf on the shores of Georgian Bay this year.