Monday, January 01, 2018

The Boat of Garten Golf Club

After playing Pitlochry in the mid-Highlands my friends and I were scheduled to play the following day at Ullapool in the Northwest corner of Scotland. Like much of the Scottish west coast Ullapool gets the brunt of the weather coming across the Atlantic. Looking at a three-hour drive and a forecast that was grim (sheets of cold rain coming in and hanging over the area all day) we called an audible and decided to play at the Boat of Garten instead, only an hour away.

The change was serendipity defined. We accidentally stumbled on a true gem. It was love at first sight between "The Boat" and I. Not since my first time playing Cruden Bay and Jack's Point in New Zealand have I been so blown away.

The Scots have a way with words naming their towns with phonetically pleasing names that roll off the tongue. Where else on earth do you have town names such as the Drum of Wartle, Muir of Ord, Heights of Brae, Lyne of Gorthleck, Spittal of Glenmuick, and of course Boat of Garten? The town and course are located on the River Spey and the speculation is that the town derived its name from a ferry service (or boat) that used to run across the river in ancient times.

The rainbow of flowers near the first tee and clubhouse sets up an enchanting day of golf

The Boat of Garten hasn't been on my radar before (and I suspect is not on the radar of others for the same reason) because it is a wee course, as the Scots would say. It plays 5,648 yards from the tees that visitors are permitted to play from, with a par of 70. What a big mistake on my part judging courses by their length. Some of my favorites are indeed short: North Berwick, Myopia Hunt Club, Prestwick and Cruden Bay, so my epiphany is now complete and I am very much open to discovering the charms of shorter courses.

Located in Inverness-shire, in the Cairngorms National Park, the setting is pristine and magical. Like at Walton Heath and Lytham & St. Annes, the Boat begins with a par 3. At 169 yards, it is a relatively gentle opener provided you are not long, where the green falls off at the back.

The opening hole at the Boat of Garten

The course was immediately reminiscent of Walton Heath and Sunningdale: a beautiful heathland paradise, although the Boat also has a load of silver birch and Scottish broom as well.

The second fairway, a rough and tumble par four

The golf course was designed by James Braid, who visited in 1930 and 1931, changing a previous design from nine holes to eighteen. The course has a roughhewn look with rumpled fairways and a charming lay of the land feel. In their excellent book James Braid and his 400 Courses John Moreton and Iain Cumming describe how during Braid's career course construction was essentially done by hand or with the assistance of horses or earth scrapers, which were used only to smooth out areas for greens. Steel shafts weren't legal on golf clubs in Britain until November 1929, thus the course was designed for play with hickory shafted clubs and a different golf ball. The "going back in time" feel of Boat of Garten is palpable.

The par three third hole carries on the roughhewn look

The third hole, a par three, changes orientation and direction and plays toward a wee rail line that runs parallel to the opening holes, the Strathspey Steam Railway. On the day we played a little two-car work train was sputtering up and back on the track bringing back good memories of the days when my kids would watch Thomas the Tank Engine every day!

The par five fourth hole looking back from the green at the blind hill you just played over

Because Braid kept the original hilly landforms unchanged the course features many blind shots. The par five fourth hole features a blind second as seen in the picture above, seen looking backward from the green. The Boat has a lot of black and white striped poles like the one you see at the rise of the hill, above.  I know not everyone likes blind shots, although I do and find them fun and quirky.

The par four seventh also features a blind shot

How do you make a 369-yard par four hole, like the seventh at the Boat challenging? Blind shots, rough land forms, rolling undulations, uneven lies, humps, and hollows seem to do the trick.

A view of the eighth green shows off the sparkling environment of the Highlands with silver birch across the landscape in abundance

The front nine contains a delightful set of holes, although things really get going on the inward nine.


The twelfth tee at the Boat of Garten is elevated and you play into a chute of trees

The twelfth hole begins the best four hole stretch on the course. Twelve is a 344-yard par four that plays from an elevated tee down into a narrow tree lined fairway. The landing area is larger than it looks from the tee, but it is a harrowing tee shot. The green is elevated. Five time Open Champion and course architect Braid said about the hole, "The 12th is in a superb setting, the birch woods and the mountains beyond, I don't think there is any equals it."

The world class thirteen hole as seen from the tee

The thirteenth is a great hole, representing the only three shot hole on the back nine. Although only 469 yards, it plays uphill almost the entire way through a natural valley and gets progressively narrower from tee to green. It also has an unsettling forced carry off the tee. The top of the hill on the hole contains another directional black and white pole and the flag is not visible until you are less than 150 yards away. A further challenge is provided by the sloping nature of the hole, which cants from left to right from tee to green. 

Your second shot on the thirteenth doesn't provide much clarity on where you should hit your next shot. It's still uphill and blind!

Ring the bell when you finish the thirteenth to let the group behind you know it's all clear

The view from the fourteenth tee box

It is difficult to evaluate and assess a golf course outside of its environment. Certainly, it is easy to fall in love with courses like Pebble Beach or Turnberry because of their scenic beauty. Or with Pine Valley or Morfontaine because of their splendid isolation. The environment at the Boat is just as enchanting, but in a different way. This is the heart of the Scottish Highlands, and as seen from the picture taken from the 14th tee box, the kingdom of mountains, rolling hills, and scenic beauty will win over even the most hardened curmudgeon. That is the River Spey splashing gently below the golfer in a land of enchantment filled with castles and whisky distilleries. After playing the gentle 14th we were in a very relaxed and good mood as we made our way to the fifteen hole.

The 15th hole is one of the best I have ever played and is sui generis. There is a tip-off that something is up when you walk up the hill to the tee box and there is a lookout tower. At the top of the steps is a platform that allows you to look out over the hole to give some sense of what you are about to play, which is a sub-300 yard par four with two blind shots. The idea behind the lookout is to allow the unsuspecting golfer to attempt to get a lay of the land. A brilliant idea, but even after looking out over the hole, it remained an enigma.

The wooden lookout on the 15th tee

The hole’s name is "Gully" and it is a bi-polar hole. Not bi-polar as in schizophrenic or manic-depressive. Bi-polar in that is contains two directional poles to help the unknowing golfer find their way. As unsuspecting American studs we all hit driver off the tee, which was a mistake. It really only requires an iron off the tee so that you don’t land in the gully (which you can't see from the lookout tower).

A closer look at the aiming poles and flag in the distance on the 15th

For whatever reason, I haven't focused my studies on the golf courses of James Braid. I have played a half dozen of his designs: Gleneagles, Walton Heath, St. Enodoc, Nairn, Brora, and Ganton, and like them all. My opinion of James Braid just went through the roof with a hole like the 15th hole, it is just such a brilliant, challenging, and oddball hole.

An even closer look at the approach to the 15th

For emphasis, I repeat, that this is a hole of only 289 yards from the yellow (non-medal) tees. The second directional marker is there to help the unwitting golfer who ends up in the gully (as we all did!) at least have some shot of aiming at the green for their second.

The view from the bottom of the gully on the fifteenth highlights the brilliance (and natural terrain) of the hole

The hole looking back is just as brilliant

The green itself is a sort of punchbowl, and is as challenging as the rest of the hole. Aside from "wow," there is not much else to say about the hole. If the skies were not threatening, we would have walked back to the tee to play it all over again. I would wager to say there is no other hole on the planet like it.

The fifteenth hole's challenging green

The skies darkened (actually it rained very hard) as we were finishing, so I didn't get a chance to get any pictures of the 437-yard par four grand finishing hole. The club history accurately describes it as a hole that builds character.

Every golf course has a personality. The personality of the Boat of Garten is that of a short, half-blind elder statesman that hasn’t lost his ability to charm you. What a place to play golf. I don’t know if the Boat has a cult following like Cruden Bay or Prestwick or North Berwick. If it does, I just drank the Kool-Aid and have joined the cult. I would like to apply to become president of the Boat of Garten fan club.

The Highland setting is very special. I am in complete agreement with Moreton & Cumming, who, in their book on Braid courses, say this about the Boat: "Travel and play the course. Its silence is deafening." And with Robert Burns, "In heaven itself, I'll ask for no more than a Highland welcome."

P.S. - To my friends in Ullapool, fear not, it is included in a future planned trip that will encompass the North Coast 500. I look forward to visiting with the sun shining down on me.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Trump International Golf Links Scotland

What does the Trump International Links Scotland have in common with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, the play Hamilton, and Saturday Night Live? It is totally overrated! While visually stunning, the course has some serious design issues that make is less than enjoyable to play. It’s like a difficult child that tries too hard to be cute and ends up being annoying. Sad!

Clubhouse rainbow
The most heartening part of the course is the clubhouse, because it signals that your misery is about to end. The end of the rainbow marks the exit to the course, your means for an escape 

Opened among much fanfare and publicity, I had high expectations that the course would be great. Unfortunately, there are a host of problems at this new links, among them: 1) the severe nature of the rough; 2) the overly penal nature of the green contours, in particular, the nasty fall-away on all sides, and the multi-tiering; 3) a routing that lacks enough change in direction; and, 4) a steep greens fee.

For the record, this is a blog about golf courses and not politics. My commentaries are about the course, not the man. In the interest of fairness, I approach his courses with an open mind. I liked Trump Ferry Point quite a bit and recommend it. This course, however, totally misses the mark. To my learned friends who are raters who somehow ranked this among the best in the world, I think you’ve lost your minds.

The course is built on a property that sprawls across 2,000 acres adjacent to the North Sea, north of Aberdeen and south of Cruden Bay. The sand dunes on the Aberdeen coast are among the world’s most dramatic, some as large and tall as Grand Central Station. The course sits on a spectacular piece of land and what a shame it wasn’t taken better advantage of. While playing at the Trump course at Bedminster, New Jersey, the manager of the course, who played with us, told us on each hole how Donald had given instructions to the course architect, Tom Fazio, telling him what he wanted to do. It seemed to me that he dictated a lot of the design elements (all for the worse in my view, making the course too difficult), so in fairness to the architect of Trump International Links Scotland, Martin Hawtree, I would speculate that all the design choices might not have been his. My further speculation would be that the owner had difficulty in mind when giving the architect guidance on the course design. It appears to have been designed for an Open Championship it will never get, and not for the recreational golfer. The blue tees play to a sky-high rating/slope of 73.8/140. What a shame that the mandate and result prioritized difficulty above all else.

The first hole, a 500-yard par five, like many holes, plays from an elevated tee. Your opening tee shot offers much promise: the grass is lush, the pot bunkers are artfully placed, and the contrast of the green fairways against the brown of the dunes presents an appealing environment. The fairway on this hole is generous, the tricked-up nature of the course reveals itself, sadly, once you reach the green. There is a false front and the green falls away on the right. As with almost every green on the course, the green is multitiered. The overall impact of the design is to reduce the effective landing area a golfer can hit into to about one third of the actual size of the green. I suppose this is a crafty design element if you have pinpoint control on your irons and can hit a ball through the wind to a target 10 feet by 10 feet in size. I didn’t find it as enticing. I found unnecessary and tedious.

Trump 1
The opening hole at Trump Links Scotland dazzles with beauty

The third hole, a par three set in the dunes, follows the same formula as the first two holes: a multi-tiered, tricked-up green that repels balls from all directions. The golfer must enjoy the sound of the nearby North Sea as they play this hole since this is a close as you will get to it. This is another missed opportunity in my view, although, in fairness, my guess is that more holes couldn't be built near the water due to environmental regulations today and they weren’t allowed to get closer like the other great links in this country built a century earlier? Given all the hype, I anticipated this would be a course that takes great advantage of being near the sea. Nearby Cruden Bay occupies a headland and you have views from on-high looking out over the water frequently. With only one or two exceptions you are blocked out of  sweeping views of the water by the high dunes at Trump International.

Trump 3
The par three third green shows the overdone nature of the terrain on both the approaches and the greens

Would you be surprised at this point to learn that the par-five fourth green is also uber-undulating and repels almost all balls aimed at it? Really? 

Trump 4 green
The fourth green complex

The fourth hole confirmed a nagging suspicion that I developed on the first three holes: that the greens on the whole course are unfair and too penal. While the array of bunkers to the elevated green is visually beautiful, playing golf on the hole is not fun. Again, the effective landing area to not have a ball repelled off the green is too small. And, the course design inexplicably takes away bump and run shots, one of the bread and butter shots in the home of golf. The elevated nature of almost all the greens is not suited to true bump and run shots. Instead, we played pitch shots all day, flying them through the air to get over the false fronts and to the correct tier. All this particular green is missing is a windmill on the back.

Trump 4
The pretty fourth hole as seen from the fairway

While I'm in the middle of my tirade, did I mention that the rough on the course is thick and dense? A ball that does not land on the fairway is lost. With certainty. There is a zero probability that you will find a ball that goes awry. Nil. Zilch. Bye Bye.

This can be frustrating to say the least. My armchair architect design observation is that the fairways are too narrow for a windy environment. Ok, I can hear some readers saying, hit the fairway and you won’t have a problem, you hack. Easier said this done in a country known for the stiffness of its chilly breezes. And, I am fine with a penalty for a poorly hit shot. Why not design it like Shinnecock Hills, where if you hit into the fescue you can at least find your ball and then hit a wedge out? At Trump International Links Scotland you have no such chance because your ball is immediately and irrevocably lost. The areas off every fairway may as well be water, since the result of an off line shot is the same: you return to your bag to fish out another ball.

Trump 5th
We enter a picture of the fifth green as exhibit A, your honor, to show the crazy nature of the greens and their surrounds

The par-3 sixth hole was my least favorite on the course and one of the least enjoyable holes I have ever played. It is a postage stamp green with heavy rough left and a long and big drop off right (the course guide describes it with masochistic glee as a cavernous drop). The wind was blowing stiff from left to right the day we played and my ball landed on the right side of the green and then bounced hard right and was lost. Are we having fun yet? Like all the greens on the course, the effective landing area is about one third the actual size of the green, making it unduly penal. I have played difficult holes in my day, including the original Postage Stamp hole at Royal Troon. Difficult, but, at least if you miss by a little bit you can still chip or pitch or hit out of a bunker. Losing a ball left or right (or I’m sure short shots are lost also) is not conductive to an enjoyable day on the links. Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

Every golfer in my group lost our balls on our tee shots on the 7th, 8th, and 9th holes. By the ninth hole I was thinking of taking up tennis or bird watching. The entire point of playing golf is to have fun and no-one in our group (high handicappers and low) had fun. The course is just too much of a grind. My regular readers know that I am an average golfer. The others in my group were low handicappers and they had the same reaction and results as I did. The near-scratch golfer in our group was so frustrated he simply hit a 3-iron off every tee on the back so as not to lose balls.

Lest you think the author exaggerates, imagine your ball flying into this? Arrivederci, as we say in Italian.

When you think of great golf courses, one common element they all have is a great routing with a continual change in direction. Examples that come to mind are Cypress Point, Pine Valley, Carnoustie, Sunningdale, Prestwick, Cruden Bay, Royal Portrush, Royal County Down and Castle Stuart. This change in direction is particularly important on links courses where the golfer needs an occasional respite when the wind is up. Carnoustie, for example, has no more than two holes that play consecutively in the same direction before there is a change. Trump International Golf Links inexplicable doesn’t have such a routing, which would have been easy enough to do, one suspects, through the dunes.

The routing at Trump Golf Links Scotland fails the enjoy-ability test. The first four holes are routed out from the clubhouse toward Aberdeen in the south. The course then changes direction with the following seven holes(!) routed back in the opposite direction. It isn’t until the 13th hole that the course deviates from its strict north-south heading and plays east toward the North Sea. Seventeen holes on the course play parallel to the water (and the wind on the day I played) and only one goes east-west. Over time I think the course will have to be softened in order to make it more playable, however, this unconventional and unvaried routing might be the kill shot, I’m not sure they could reroute holes to improve the play-ability without going back to the drawing board.

The course routing lacks enough change in direction to be among the best in the world. Personally, I wouldn’t even rank it among the top 500 courses I have played. In fairness, on the day I played, the prevailing wind was a cross wind: it was blowing off the mainland out toward the North Sea. Apparently, the prevailing wind is from the south, which helps somewhat because at least the golfer is hitting either into the wind or down wind, although I stick to my basic premise about the lack of variety being bad. Playing seventeen holes in a cross-wind is not fun. Golf course architects surely know that the winds in Scotland are changeable? Why would you route so many holes parallel on the sea? It really makes no sense to me. Why route all the holes along the dunes, why not route some back and forth to play through the dunes, like at nearby Cruden Bay? I’m still scratching my head.

I will bet anyone who will take me up on it £10 that the course will look quite different in ten years time. In order to salvage it, the fairways must be widened, the rough must be thinned and the greens must be softened. Not much can be done I suspect about all the parallel holes, but at least it won’t be a complete debacle.

To prove that I’m not a total curmudgeon, I did like the back nine better than the front; the fairways are a bit wider, it has the one hole (the par 3 13th) that changes direction toward the North Sea, and the holes are slightly more fair and interesting. The 10th hole was probably my favorite on the course, a par five that gets progressively more narrow as you approach the green. The hole also rises from tee to green a significant elevation. The course guide says that the hole plays through The Great Dunes of Scotland, in italics. I’m not familiar with this term and assume that it is a marketing ploy to try to name these dunes similar to the way that Royal St. George's has the Sahara bunker and Royal Portrush has the Big Bertha bunker. Since I didn’t ask permission to use the term in my blog I hope I don’t get a letter from the courses’ lawyers claiming I infringed on their copyright!

Trump 10-2
The nice par five tenth hole works well from tee to green provided you can hit a ball precisely on your intended target line with no deviation whatsoever

The par four 14th hole is also beautifully framed by the rugged dunes. I can see how many are awed by the amazing dunes, and if the wind weren't blowing and it weren't so penal it might actually be a very pleasant place to play golf.

Trump 14-1
The 14th hole plays in isolation among the dunes

The course is unmistakably pretty as seen in the contrast of the enormous sand dunes set against the lush green grass above.

Trump 15
The rugged 15th dwarfed by the massive dunes

The overdone green contouring, fall-aways and false fronts continue until the end of the round. Variety is the spice of life. Here, no such variation exists; the repetition simply tedious.

Trump 17 
The miniature golf style green on the 17th hole

On the positive side, the course conditions were fabulous, the grass is lush and the greens (if you can ever get on them) and in good condition and fast. Giving credit where it is due, the holes do have a variety in length. There is a nice combination of short, medium, and long par threes and fours. The staff was amenable and friendly and the clubhouse was surprisingly understated and tasteful.

If you are in the Aberdeen area my recommendation would be to skip this course altogether and play at Royal Aberdeen, Murcar Links, and multiple times at Cruden Bay. Your experience will be fun and your greens fees more reasonable: Trump (£235), Royal Aberdeen (£180), Murcar Links (£130), and Cruden Bay (£125).

One area that I did find the course is distinctive: we played on a Saturday morning and the course was empty, people didn't seem to be flocking to the venue. Not many public courses can make that statement. My further prediction is just like Trump Bedminster was at one time ranked in the top 100 because of a P.R. blitz and then dropped off after the fanfare subsided, Trump International Golf Links will continue to sink and will settle roughly in the same spot as Western Gailes (the course it most closely resembles), well out of the top 100 ranked courses in the world.

The good news is that in a country of must play golf courses, when it is hard to fit in all the golf you want to play as you are planning an itinerary and traveling around touring great courses, the choice here is easy. This is a must skip golf course.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point

The Bronx doesn't get enough respect. The fact that it now has a quality golf course, maintained in top condition, designed by one of the game's greats is something to celebrate! The course is the first new one in New York City since Lyndon Johnson was president and this in itself is a huge accomplishment.

tugboat whitestone
A tug boat passing under the Bronx-Whitestone bridge on the East River as seen from the 16h hole at Trump Ferry Point Golf Links

The charms of the Bronx are very often overlooked: the magical 700 acre Botanical Garden, Fordham University, Van Cortlandt Park (which is 400 acres larger than Central Park), Manhattan College, the authentic atmosphere and food of Arthur Avenue's Italian neighborhood, Yankee Stadium, and more. I remember the excitement as a kid when we would get loaded onto the bus for a field trip to the amazing Bronx Zoo. Visiting the largest zoo in the country was always a day to remember because it was the only time we were allowed to bring gum and snacks on the bus.

Natives sons and daughters of the Bronx are an impressive group: Alan Alda, the greatest baseball announcer in history Vin Scully, Ed Koch, James Caan, Regis Philbin, and Lauren Bacall. The list of people who lived in the Bronx is equally as impressive: Edgar Allan Poe, Lou Gehrig, Woody Allen, John F. Kennedy (can you believe he lived in the borough from 1927-1929?), Al Pacino, Mark Twain and Stanley Kubrick, to name just a few.

The Bronx also played an important role in the evolution of golf. The first public golf course in the United States was in the borough: the Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course, which opened for play in 1895. Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Harry Vardon, Joe Louis, Willie Mays, Sidney Poitier, and the Three Stooges all played at Van Cortlandt. The golf course was revitalized during the Giuliani administration and is today a respectable course kept in good condition.


Because of the name preceding the Ferry Point course I know it is difficult to talk about without getting into politics. This is a golf blog and not one that covers the Donald so to the degree that I can I will stay away from politics. The Trump organization operates the course under a twenty year lease with the city and their commitment includes investing $10 million to build the greatest clubhouse that will ever be built. I know there is much criticism about the deal, although I will say that Michael Bloomberg is no dummy and he was mayor when it was signed, so I'm not sure it's a bad a deal on balance as some people think it is.

The course is located in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, next to Ferry Point Park, pictured below. The park looks like it gets a lot of use and is ill kept, so if there is criticism directed at the city, it seems to me there are plenty of things to complain about, including not investing enough in the Bronx across the board.

Ferry Point Park next to the golf course

The wind and weather on the day I played was wet, humid, and crappy, such that LaGuardia Airport arrivals were on runway 22, which routed low flying planes directly over the golf course. On a weekday afternoon a plane lands at LaGuardia every 90 seconds. During our four and a half hour round 180 planes descended from the low clouds and landed on the field (with two go-arounds among the flights, which I am assuming were planes that came in too close to the one ahead or at the wrong height), which is located only two miles from the eighteenth green across the East River.

It's coincidental that the last round I played before Ferry Point was also a public course: Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The two courses offer some interesting parallels and contrasts. Aside from the fact that both are daily fee courses, they both have great views of bridges. I had noted the charming sound of the fog horn on the Golden Gate while playing at Lincoln Park. This is New York, after all, and the noises were not as pleasant as those in the City by the Bay. Instead, there was a continuous roaring of low jets overhead and an occasional FDNY siren on the city streets, mixed in with the sound of Jake braking as big rigs made their way down the Whitestone Bridge.

The golf course is a good one, designed by Jack Nicklaus, and despite Donald's assertion that he was instrumental in completing the course, the actual facts show that it was largely complete when he took over and that his contributions were related to the finishing touches, such as overseeing the grass growing in and building the clubhouse. The course is built on 192 acres of a former city landfill.

2nd green
The second green shows off the conditioning of the course, which is impeccable

Golf course architects usually rave about how they were given the perfect piece of land to build a course on, but no such claim can be made here. The "links" were all shaped atop former waste heaps and had to be contoured to form the course.  (For purists among us, a true links course is one next to the ocean with sandy soil, dunes, and tight lies.) As such, the course is a faux-links course with no trees, except on the perimeter of the property, but they do not come into play. The primary difficulty for the golfer is the fescue and high grasses if you are off the fairway, which I found were very gnarly and a real hazard. The course conditioning was as good as any private course I have played and I enjoyed the round right from the start.

Although this piece of property is isolated on the end of a peninsula, there is no doubt during your round that you are in the city. Case in point is the view from the sixth tee, of St. Raymond's Cemetery, seen below. It has been operating since 1842 and is still active today. We heard noises coming from the burial ground (from the living) and it contains an interesting mix of deceased dating back to Civil War veterans. The jazz great Billie Holiday is buried there (her rendition of Strange Fruit is as good as music gets). This being the Bronx, the cemetery also includes a nice selection of mobsters: "Mad Dog" Coll, an Irish gangster, is buried here as is "Fat Tony" Salerno, the one time head of the Genovese crime family. The archdiocese calls it one of the busiest cemeteries in the United States and although I'm no expert on the subject, this seems about right given what we saw and heard.

6th tee
St. Raymond's Cemetery as seen from the 6th tee box

I have played a fair number of Nicklaus courses and found Ferry Point to be among his more enjoyable. On a number of Nicklaus courses (particularly his early ones), he demands shots that assume you can draw and fade the ball at will. Here, the course is not too demanding, although, equally it is no push over. I particularly like the routing, which is varied, with a nice balance of par 3s, 4s, and 5s, and a good amount of change in direction. There are long, medium, and short par three and fours. One of the predominant features here is shaved short grass around the greens which allow you to hit bump and run shots should you so choose. Likewise, should you go sideways or long a deft touch is called for to get back onto the greens cleanly.
10 green
The par-4 tenth green has a subtle swale in front 

The 11th as seen from the tee. There is a lot going on here

I liked the whole course, but liked the back nine better. I also thought it was the easier of the two. The 11th hole, as you can see from the image above, has a lot going on. First, the apartment buildings in the back frame the hole in the distance. In the middle-distance the fescue provides a backdrop, and in the immediate distance there is a plethora of bunkers. The short par 4 is only 302 yards from the blue tees, so obviously Jack wanted to make it more challenging the more of the hole you try to bite off. I found it difficult to pick and commit to a target with so much distracting the eye.

My favorite hole was the 12th, a par three of 166 yards from the back and 139 from the blue tees.

12 in hollow
The well protected 12th green at Ferry Point

The 12th green is surrounded by shaved collection areas on three sides (right, left and back) and is protected by a jagged-shaped bunker in front that conceals the front of the putting surface, which is slanted, oddly shaped, oblong, and at a right angle to the golfer.

Donald J. Trump allegedly got a hole in one on the 12th as the course was opening. There was much skepticism among associates working at the club as to whether this was fake news or not, which is not shocking. Unsurprisingly, there is a plaque celebrating the occasion.

Fake news comes to the Bronx. Sad!

12 collection buttocks

This picture shows the shaved area right of the 12th green. The buttocks shot was unintentional, but is a good visual illustration of what our group thought of the plaque that was put up celebrating the faux hole-in-one

I liked the finishing stretch (16-17-18) and think they are the best consecutive holes on the course. Sixteen is a demanding 437-yard par four that requires a precision shot to a well protected green, with great views in every direction. 

16th green
 The 16th green with the battleship gray Bronx-Whitestone bridge in the background

All the par threes on the course were particularly well framed by the mounding and the fescue, including the 17th.

The par-3 17th plays 142 yards. It has beautiful views and sits near the East River Channel

  17th green 

A closeup of the 17th green shows off the course conditioning and the beauty of the hole

The 18th is a 500-yard par 5 playing along the tidal river. I thought the course's greens were fair: there are not too many undulations in them, the breaks are more subtle, but still challenging. I only missed one fairway all day, speaking to their width, because I usually hit less. My other observation, which the caddies confirmed, is that the course plays longer than the card. Approaches to the greens are almost always one club longer than you think. I'm no physics or solid waste expert, but the suspicion is that it has to do with playing atop a capped landfill. Either that or the greens are slightly elevated and I didn't hit my shots crisply.


The dramatic 18th finishes at the base of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge

Like the two boroughs it connects, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge is under-rated with an alluring, streamlined Art Deco appearance. Its slender profile and trim steel lines gracefully span the East River Channel. The bridge was opened by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia the day before the 1939 World's Fair to much fanfare. The next day President Roosevelt arrived in the Bronx by train from Washington D.C. and had 2,000 policemen lining his route over the bridge and on the adjoining roads as he rode to the World's Fair.

throgs 18

The course offers views of two beautiful suspension bridges, the Throgs Neck Bridge is further away from the course, seen here in the distance in the rain

For those looking for something not to like about the course and the club operation, you are going to be disappointed. I didn't find anything. The course is good and the food and service provided on property are also very good, as were the caddies. I liked Ferry Point better course than Trump's Fazio-designed course in Bedminster, which I found too difficult and the environment a bit too glitzy.

The course is good for local employment (almost everyone we interacted with lived in the Bronx) and the food is sourced from the nearby Hunts Point market. One of the knocks of Ferry Point is the price to play, and it is a fair point. The fee for a New York City resident is $146 to walk on a weekday, $175 on a weekend. For non-residents, it is $200 on a weekday and $227 for a weekend. There is something more than mildly paradoxical about a bunch of white guys from Westchester, Long Island, and New Jersey playing a city course in a borough where the majority of residents are non-white. The parking lot on the day I played was full of BMWs, Audis, and Jaguars with plates indicating that the cars were from the suburbs. There is no subway near the course, making it difficult for a non-driving city resident to play the course, although they could certainly take a taxi. On the other hand, New York already has many public lower fee courses, including several in the Bronx, and having a higher end crown-jewel course with commanding views in the city's portfolio isn't entirely beyond defense. As I said at the beginning, if you look past the Trump circus, having such a nice Jack Nicklaus public course should be a point of pride for the city. If you can afford it, the course is worth playing.

Throughout the course are venting pipes which release the methane gasses trapped below. Only occasionally do you smell something a little off, which for someone from New Jersey, made me feel right at home!

Friday, September 01, 2017

Lincoln Park Golf Course - The San Francisco Treat

The Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco

On a recent West Coast trip I decided to take a detour from all the world-ranked, private, and resort courses I typically play, to visit the city-owned Lincoln Park Golf Course in San Francisco. The course is within the city limits, located (appropriately) next to the Lands End section of Golden Gate National Park. This end-of-the-continent location commands rich views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands. Few parts of the world are blessed with a rocky and windswept shoreline sitting high above the water, creating vistas as dramatic as the ones here. I grew up playing golf on municipal courses and did not have the foresight to take lessons when I began. Mine is a homegrown swing honed on ill kept courses, so this round was a throwback to my early golfing days.

My apologies for the subdued nature of the pictures accompanying this post. The day was gray and overcast and I had my phone and not my camera with me. I arrived at the course on a Friday morning at 8:30 a.m., and to my surprise there was no one there and I went straight out as a single. A quick glance at the scorecard and my brain made a mental note that I was going low because the course is so short.

The conditioning at Lincoln Park is as you would expect at a busy city-owned course. The grass is interspersed with a liberal amount of clover and there are bare patches and swaths of mud. This is not a criticism of the course superintendent or maintenance crew: they work within the confines of what the city provides and golf is almost never a top priority within overall budget spending. The course was in good playable shape on the day of my visit, even if the turf was a little squishy and the greens a touch spongy.

Lincoln Park takes its name from our 16th president and the course has a minimal number of bunkers. Its defenses are the narrow corridors you play through, the steeply sloping terrain, and tiny greens. The other defense against low scoring are trees overhanging fairways and greens. I suspect the trees are long overdue of trimming, or, this is an intentional design feature to make the course more challenging. The typical clammy and damp air along the ocean also makes club selection tricky since the ball doesn't travel as far.

To state the blindingly obvious, San Francisco is a city of steep hills. Lincoln Park is thus a golf course of steep hills, uneven lies being the order of the day. I was surprised the handful of times during my round that I didn’t have a ball above or below my feet. The good news is that all the greens are essentially flat, which is appreciated, because after the challenges presented by the sidehill, downhill and uphill lies it is nice to have putting surfaces that aren’t an additional obstacle. In an unusual quirk, all the greens are the same shape: round. No kidney shaped greens, no square or rectangular putting surfaces, no figure eights or hunchbacks, swales or punch bowls. Just flat and round. The other thing they have in common is that they are all below average in size. Lincoln Park is the antithesis of a course that rewards length. Hitting driver doesn't really yield results here. The course rewards accuracy and the ability to shape shots: a genuine shot maker's delight.

The starting hole sets the tone for the day: a 316-yard par four that plays closer to 350 yards because of the steep gradient of the hill you must navigate. The hill is in some ways the easy part of the challenge to overcome. An overhanging tree down the fairway on the left side comes into play off the tee, and an overhanging tree on the right side comes into play on your approach to the small, round green. The entire hole plays along the side of an incline, which runs from the top of the property down to the Pacific. Welcome to Lincoln Park.
  2nd green
The circular, small 2nd green at Lincoln Park

The second hole is a 257-yard par four dogleg right that sweeps along the same hill as the first. Anything left of center will inevitably spring down the hill, creating a troubling angle from which to approach the elevated (and you guessed it) round green, that is protected by an overhanging tree. It's somewhat cruel that a shank lie is presented to the golfer this early in the round, creating just enough doubt for the ensuing holes to put you off balance.

Lincoln Park was designed early in the twentieth century on a tight piece of land, clinging to only 100 acres, thus, it plays a scant 5,146 yards from the tips. I know, I can hear alarm bells starting to go off in your head. Hum . . . seems like somewhat of a gimmicky course. Kinda’ short isn’t it? Can something this short be taken seriously? Well, three of the dumbest assumptions you can make in life are: 1) judging a book by its cover; 2) judging a person by their looks; and 3) judging a golf course by its length. Although only 5,146 yards, the course is a par of 68. Terrain matters in golf, and when you have to hit so many shots into steep uphills, judging a course by yardage alone is a mistake. Also, there is only one par five and several of the par threes play over 230 yards, sometimes with greens well above the elevation of the teeing ground.

The first two holes are the appetizer and things go up tempo in a hurry after the openers; the experience elevates significantly from here. Walking off the green, the unsuspecting golfer navigates a steeply graded walking path. Through the trees, the observant golfer might spy a glimpse of the eastern tower of the Golden Gate Bridge rising majestically out of the water as the walk proceeds around the beautiful Beaux Arts-style Legion of Honor (an art museum) and then across the El Camino Del Mar. 
  Marin Headlands
The Marin Headlands covered in a typical enchanting shroud of fog as seen on the walk between the 2nd and 3rd holes at Lincoln Park

California is blessed with the prettiest walk between holes of any course in the world: namely, between the 15th and 16th at Cypress Point, located 130 miles south of Lincoln Park. Other great walks in the game are in Tasmania (Barnbougle Dunes 4th to 5th), Nova Scotia (Highlands Links 12th to 13th) and Georgia (the walk over Hogan’s Bridge at Augusta). The walk from the 2nd green to the 3rd tee here is worthy of inclusion among this list of the best. As you walk around the museum and across the road the scene fully unfolds. Each step forward reveals another part of the panorama until eventually you see the full 1.2 mile suspension bridge in all her majesty. This is unquestionably one of the most beautiful views in the world: the Golden Gate Bridge guarding the entrance to San Francisco Harbor with the Marin Headlands across the water.  It is a great place to take a deep breath, to slow down and savor the moment, and to enjoy the sea air and the spectacle.
  Golden Gate 2-3
The Golden Gate Bridge as seen on the walk from the 2nd green to the third tee, one of the prettiest views in the world of golf

The Golden Gate Bridge is painted orange so that it is easy for mariners to see in the fog. Its towers soar 746 feet above the ocean floor, about the height of a 60-story building, and they are a sight to behold. I had the representative Bay Area summer conditions when I played: cool, clammy, overcast, and foggy. Four holes on the course (the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 17th) play on the western side of the El Camino Del Mar and they are the ones that offer the most dramatic views of one of the prettiest harbor entrances in the world.

The third hole is a relatively easy 156-yard par three that plays uphill. I say relatively because it isn’t that hard if you stay away from the tree that overhangs the left side of the green.

  3rd green-001
The third green, set in a murky and dark location near the Pacific

I found it difficult to get a crisp picture of the third hole because there is a heavy canopy of trees drooping ominously above and to the right of the green. The area is constricted by a dense thicket of cypress trees all around. A mystical location, you half expect Shivas Irons and Seamus MacDuff to appear magically out of the fog on this isolated and mist-ridden part of the property.

The fourth hole plays 321 yards down a hill and it has the requisite cypress tree sitting over the circular green. It is a good thing that Lincoln Park does not have many sand traps, since they really aren’t needed given the steep terrain and narrowness of the holes.
  Legion of Honor
The 6th tee is situated immediately right of the Legion of Honor

Would you be surprised to learn that the 359-yard par four fifth hole also has a tree overhanging the green? What makes this hole challenging is a different hill that sweeps down to the Pacific from the top of the property. The Legion of Honor is built at the crest of the property and all the fall lines emanate from it. Five plays sideways across the slanting incline that runs down from right to left. Keeping its form consistent throughout the round, the fifth green is circular as well in case you were wondering.

For those Hitchcock fans among us, the Legion of Honor is one of the locations used in the film Vertigo, as Jimmy Stewart (Scottie) follows Kim Novak (Madeleine) around through the city while she is in a trance.

  6th green-001
The sixth green sits over the rise of a hill and is blind from the left side of the fairway

The sixth hole plays back across the road and behind the Legion of Honor. The original 150 acres that the course was built on shrank to 100 acres when the museum was built in 1924. The sixth is a relatively easy par four at 285 yards, if you play smart. The hole starts to dogleg sharply before it reaches 150 yards, so proper club selection and positioning are required so that your (blind) approach shot to the green is positioned in the correct place.

Golf features links courses, desert courses, parkland courses, and courses built on heathlands. I class Lincoln Park differently: this is golf of the urban variety. Nowhere is this more pronounced than on the seventh hole. After walking through a stand of trees that block the sixth hole from the seventh you emerge into the city grid. The tee box is separated from the street by a chain link fence, and tumbling down the adjacent hillside is a row of colorful Victorian houses. 

  7th from tee-001
The view of the nearby Outer Richmond neighborhood from the 7th tee

Once you get situated on the tee you begin to absorb the narrowness of the hole, its 334 yards are the slenderest on the front nine. The tops of a few skyscrapers are visible far in the distance. Your line of play on the blind tee shot is the Bank of America building in the distance because you want to favor the left side, with most shots kicking right on the side hill. The second shot will likely be blind unless you crack a drive over the top of the hill.

  7 fairway-001
The tee shot on the 7th, with the 52-story Bank of America building (left) in the distance as your target
  7th green
The small, circular 7th green

Sound is an underrated aspect of the golfing experience: be it the sound of the ocean crashing close by with gulls flying overhead on a links course, or the wind rustling the leaves and flags on a parkland course in the fall, the sounds on a golf course are an integral part of the experience and of being outdoors. One benefit of playing in foggy conditions was that I got to hear the deep pitched fog horn on the Golden Gate tooting the morning I played; its low sound reverberated across the fairways intermittently, adding charm to the experience and continually reminding me that I was not in Joisey anymore. 

The eleven is a 265-yard downhill par four which features one of the easiest tee shots of the day. Your approach shot to the green is blind, alas, there are no worries, since the red and white striped radio tower in the distance (the iconic Sutro Tower) rising between Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro is an ideal aiming line to hit the small, circular green!

  11th approach-001
The approach to the 11th green with Sutro Tower in the distance

Twelve is a 203-yard par three that plays uphill, making it an effective shot of 230-240. This is no joke of a hole and demands precision to hit the small, round green.

The thirteenth has the narrowest chute to hit through that I have played with the exception of the third hole at New South Wales in Sydney. The only par five on the course, it plays a respectable 500 yards with a blind second shot thrown in for good measure. The Sutro Tower is again an excellent line. The weather in San Francisco is a continual fight between sun and clouds, and as you can see on the day I played the clouds were victorious, with a damp fog rolling in and out all morning.

  13th tee shot-001
The narrow chute of trees frames the tee shot on the 13th. Yikes.

The fourteenth hole (a 259-yard par four) has the requisite overhanging trees, and fifteen plays significantly longer than the 282 yards the scorecard indicates because of the change in elevation. 282 yards sounds simple, but the left-to-right sloping hill repels balls from its apex, with gravity doing the rest, pulling them down into an uncomfortable hanging position. Your second shot will likely have a ball significantly below your feet with a (dare I say it again?) shank-inducing lie to a green that is semi-blind. Simple is not the word that will come to mind as you mumble to yourself walking off the green in a state of agitation after using all your will to avoid a hosel rocket on the hole.

Sixteen and seventeen are meaty back-to-back par threes. Sixteen plays 239 yards, albeit downhill, but through another narrow alley of trees. Seventeen is the highlight of the round. Not only is it a robust 240 yards from tee to green, but this hole plays the closest of any on the course to the Pacific. It features the best views of the iconic bridge and the craggy headlands across the bay. Take the time to enjoy the view and the environment; it’s good to be alive. What a brilliant idea to locate a golf course here. With a greens fee of only $46 for non-residents ($27 for residents and only $16 to play the back ten holes before 7:30 a.m.), this is tough to beat in the world of golf. Lincoln Park, although shorter than the nearby U.S. Open venue, demands the same skill level and focus; I think of Lincoln Park as a poor man's Olympic Club (although shorter, it has better views).
The view from the 17th green in a pre-1933 postcard, before the bridge was built 

The same view from the 17th circa 1940 with modest tree growth
  17th green
The view from the 17th green today, with a glimpse of the Golden Gate through the trees. Cutting down trees is an underrated way to maintain a golf course. Removing them would improve the airflow to the green and do wonders for the view

Eighteen is a nice par four finisher but I don’t remember much about it because the excitement of playing the 17th was still fresh in my mind. Prior to a golf course occupying this spot the land was a potter's field (cemetery) where the plots were organized by ethnicity. The 18th fairway occupies what was the Italian section. The clubhouse is modest, small, and just a touch beyond the point of shabby chic, but fits the course like a glove.
  18th and clubhouse
The 18th green and clubhouse, a block off the street grid of the city

The course has an interesting and respectable pedigree from a design standpoint: the original three holes of the first course (1902) were laid out by Jack Neville (co-designer of Pebble Beach) who was an early advocate for locating a course in the city. He subsequently expanded it to six holes. The course has been changed and redesigned many times over the years, but it seems to me, always by people who were thoughtful or experienced. Cornish & Whitten attribute the subsequent course to Tom Bendelow (designer of Medinah) with a redesign in 1921 by the Englishman Herbert Fowler (designer of Walton Heath and co-designer of Cruden Bay), and finally a subsequent revision was done by Jack Fleming.

The course (and in particular the practice putting green) is close enough to the city streets that neighboring street lights illuminate portions of it after sundown. None other than the 1969 winner of the Masters, George Archer, honed his putting skills on this very same green. Practicing at Lincoln Park puts Archer in good company, as both Johnny Miller and Ken Venturi used to play here when they were young men learning the game.

Lincoln Park is the type of course where you are embarrassed to admit your score because you think you should have shot a lower number, but somehow the course did not relent, and your score is worse than you imagined (at least mine was). The course also confirmed for me what I already knew in spades: I’m a better flat lie player. I suspect I am not alone. 

Lincoln Park was an affecting round of golf and it was good to go back to my origins and remember what playing from scrappy lies and with no frills is like. I would love to play Lincoln Park again on a sunny day.
  cable car
A California Street cable car passing through the Financial District

Post Script

I have always been a massive fan of San Francisco. It has the sophistication and depth of New York without its overwhelming qualities and grit. I have been blessed to visit the city scores of times and it never gets old. I am with Ernest Hemingway who selected my three favorite cities when he wrote: "America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland."