Chapter One: In the Dunelands of Northern England
In all the rounds I've played in Britain and Ireland -- very like a thousand -- the game at Goswick in the summer of 2001 marked the only time I'd ever had as my companion a man who had first been captain of the club (equivalent to club president here at home) and then, not too long after his term of office, a worker on the grounds crew. But the Berwick-upon-Tweed (Goswick) Golf Club is a very egalitarian institution, to say nothing of a warmly welcoming one, so perhaps I should not have been surprised.
The club, founded in 1889, is located about eight miles south of town in a remote spot on the seaward side of the A1, on the far northeastern coast of England. For the most part, the holes are laid out along the flanks of the sandhills. The classic linksland fairways are undulating, rumpled, even tumbling, the legacy of the receding seas over tens of thousands of years. A number of golfers of national and international repute had a hand in shaping the holes we play here today, including James Braid, the Scot who won the Open Championship five times at the beginning of the twentieth century; Frank Pennink, 1937 and 1938 English Amateur champion and a Walker Cupper; and very recently, English-born Dave Thomas, a four-time Ryder Cupper best known for designing, with Peter Alliss, The Belfry's Brabazon Course, site of four Ryder Cup Matches (Chapter 14).
The club secretary introduced me to Jim Manuel, whom he described as a longtime member, a past captain, and a single-digit handicapper who would be pleased to play with me. And off the two of us went on a pretty summer day, high cumulus clouds in a predominantly blue sky, with a mild breeze that would not prove destructive to my all-too-fragile golf swing.
The opening hole at Goswick, 388 yards long, aims toward the sea, with bunkers on the right of the tee-shot landing area, where the hole bends emphatically around a spinney of fir trees and climbs steeply to a sloping and sand-defended shelf of green in the dunes. The 2nd, a shortish par three over a deep, grassy chasm, is followed by a fine 404-yarder from a high tee in the sandhills. Then come a short par five (good birdie chance) and a superb 410-yarder that bends smoothly left as it rises into the prevailing wind. Bunkers right, left, and short render the dramatic bi-level green elusive.
On the tee of this exacting hole, Jim, a husky man in his mid-sixties with a good head of silver hair, directed my gaze deeper into the dunes, where a derelict old white-washed stone cottage squatted. "That's a fishermen's shiel," he said. "Been there as long as this course, maybe longer, maybe a lot longer. The fishermen would stay there overnight, to be close to their work when it was time to go out before dawn. The beach is just on the other side of that dune ridge."
A 6-handicapper, Jim had muscular forearms and, with a following breeze, would hit his 7-iron 170 yards. He clearly loved the game, playing five or six days a week, and he loved this links. At the par-four 7th he said to me as we stood in the fairway while he chose his iron, "Those trees beyond the green, they're Mediterranean pines. I brought the seedlings back from France about eight years ago and planted them."
Goswick measures 6,294 yards from the regular markers. Par is 72. On the inbound nine, both par fives are short (485 and 480 yards), and there are two short par fours, one of which, the 18th, 263 yards, has been driven more than once from its tee high in the dunes. Still, make no mistake about it, there is a lot of sport on the second half, particularly on a four-hole stretch beginning with the 12th. Testing and charming us are two comprehensively bunkered one-shotters, played from elevated tees on opposite sides of the central dune ridge; the 13th has lovely views out to sea, and the 15th commands the pleasant inland aspect with its pastures and croplands and low hills on the horizon. On both holes, the wind plays havoc with the shot. Equally appealing are two par fours, the 384-yard 14th, its green tucked around to the right in the dunes, and the quirky 12th, 325 yards. Here the second shot rises over an abrupt rough bank, then falls to a completely hidden green, just on the other side, that slopes away from the shot. A number of members have long thought it unfair, so a decision has been made to move the green back forty yards, out of the lee of the hill. It is doubtless fair now, and less endearing.
As we moved into the final holes, Jim explained that he had worked for more than thirty years on the local newspaper. "I was what we called a paste-up man. Then -- this was about ten years ago -- management decided to go to computer to put the paper together. I was made redundant. That was not long after my year here at Goswick as captain. When the greenkeeper was looking to add a man to his crew, I took the job and stayed on it for six years, working on the links."
I asked about his family. He hesitated, then said, "My wife died four years ago today. Lung cancer. And she wasn't a smoker. She had had a fine job -- she was head of the Scottish Power office here in town -- really a very good position. We had our son living with us. He was twenty-seven when she died. Nearly a year later, he moved out. He couldn't bear to stay in the house any longer because it's so filled with memories of his mother. He got a flat not half a mile away."
There was no self-pity in Jim's recital -- not about being made redundant nor about his wife's death nor about his son's decision. I asked him whether his son was a golfer and this brought a smile to his face.
"He used to be, when he was a boy, and then he stopped playing -- I don't remember why. But a couple of weeks ago -- now mind you, he hadn't played in fourteen years -- he decided to come out with me one evening. It was as though he'd never been away from the game. He's strong. He was hitting the ball enormous distances, thirty, forty, fifty yards beyond me off the tee. He made the course look easy. He finished with 78. I think there's a good chance he'll come back to the game now."
When we had holed out on the 18th and were heading toward the clubhouse, Jim took me on a slight detour, over to the 1st tee. It was bordered on the side nearest the clubhouse with a dazzling bed of impatiens -- red, blue, pink, purple, gold, a starburst of color. "I'm the head gardener these days," he said, laughing as he added, "All right, the only gardener. I try to brighten things up around the clubhouse. Keeps me busy and I don't have to pay the annual subscription [©260: $380]. A few of us are talking about getting over to France for a week's golf this fall."
"Who knows?" I said. "You might even bring back some more seedlings."
"I might," he replied. "I might at that. But we don't want this links to start looking like a parkland course." Now we both laughed, then headed into the modest clubhouse of this democratic organization, where a man can go from captain to grounds crew in a matter of months and be no less highly regarded for all of that. Both roles are at the heart of the game. And at Goswick, it is the game that counts.
The town of Berwick-upon-Tweed can't be more than three miles from the Scotland border. An ancient seaport established where the Tweed River enters the North Sea, it was alternatively English and Scottish over the centuries and was finally surrendered to England in 1482. My wife, Harriet, and I spent the night at the Kings Arms, an eighteenth-century inn with comfortable but scarcely stylish guest rooms, two restaurants (one of them Italian), and a fetching walled garden.
We now head south on the A1 for nearly two hours, then turn left onto the A689 to Seaton Carew, at the mouth of the Tees River. Prior to reaching the club parking lot, we drive through two of the tawdriest blocks on the entire east coast of England: video arcades, bingo games, souvenir shops, pizza parlors, and amusement rides, all the accoutrements of a down-at-heels seaside holiday spot. And that's the good part. The links itself, while bounded on the east by the North Sea, is otherwise bordered by a nightmarish industrial wasteland whose chemical processing plants send flames perpetually skyward from menacing towers. Not to mention the sewage treatment facility, largely masked by a high hedge, that almost abuts the 18th green.
The links, however, triumphs over its surroundings, which prove to be the ignorable (if ignitable) backdrop for a superlative course.
The club was founded in 1874 by a transplanted Scot, Duncan McCraig, M.D., who judged the linksland along the Tees estuary to be, well, exactly what the doctor ordered. In 1925 Seaton Carew brought in another doctor, Alister Mackenzie, who was well on his way to establishing himself as one of the seminal figures in golf course architecture (Cypress Point, Augusta National, Royal Melbourne, Crystal Downs, and other notable courses); he changed a number of holes and created four new ones on land nearer the sea.
In the summer of 2001 I played a course that measures 6,207 yards from the regular markers against a par of 71. My companion was Peter Wilson, the club's honorary secretary and, like Jim Manuel, a former captain.
"My wife, Diane," Peter told me, "is the ladies' secretary. She was ladies' captain twice and she won the club championship a couple of times. I play off 13, she's a 9. She has to give me three strokes -- three-quarters of the difference. If I'll take them." He chuckled at this and I smiled, comfortingly.
A man of medium height and build, with a slightly ruddy complexion and thinning gray hair, Peter was a retired grade-school teacher who finished his career as a deputy headmaster. It was easy to envision him at the head of a classroom, where a sense of humor is invaluable. His 13 looked highly suspect to me as he produced a dozen pars in the round we played. He holed four ten-to-twelve footers, protesting each time that he almost never makes a putt, that this was a round like no other, and that I must have brought him good luck all the way from America.
As it happened, the United States had been prominent at Seaton Carew less than a week before I got there, when the club hosted the British Mid-Amateur Championship.
"This was not the first time the R&A brought one of its competitions here," said Peter. "In 1986 we had the British Boys Championship. But this time there was a big American contingent. Thirty of your countrymen came over. They all play off 2 or better. They may have been a little uneasy when they pulled up -- with all the chimneys and cooling towers and what not -- but once they got a taste of the club's hospitality and then of the links itself, well, they loved the place, they loved it. And they were so polite and so grateful for anything we did for them. They represented their country splendidly, and we hope they'll come back."
Out of deference to my weak legs, Peter and I rode in a golf cart. This enabled him to pack in a full supply of small cigars and chocolate bars. Apparently feeling no need to apologize for the cigars, he did say with a twinkle as he unwrapped a KitKat early in the round, "I do enjoy a bit of sweets."
There is very little elevation change on this narrow strip of linksland. Hills are no prerequisite of first-rate links golf. What we look for are rippling sand-based fairways, greens that are both naturally and strikingly sited, straight-faced bunkers that thwart the gambling recovery, penal rough, and even, to spice up the stew, an occasional blind or semiblind shot. We get all of this at Seaton Carew, especially the perfectly sited greens. We find them tucked a bit right, a bit left, a bit up, a bit down, perhaps in a cleft in the sandhills (the 4th and 5th) or in a dell of dunes (the 11th) or on a plateau (the 3rd) or framed by low mounds right and left (the 1st).
This links is studded with superb holes, like the exposed 3rd, 161 yards, knob to knob, with a steep falloff at the left; the 165-yard 6th, played from a raised tee down to a semiblind green (we can see the flag, not the putting surface) in an amphitheater of rough-cloaked mounds; the 371-yard 12th, heading straight toward the sea, the fairway narrowing as it rises gently to a generous, dune-framed green; and the celebrated 17th. It is an Alister Mackenzie design, it is called "Snag," it measures 397 yards, and it bends almost imperceptibly right. We must drive to the right of a spine of hillocks if we are to get a good look at the small, fan-shaped green. Bunkered tightly left and right, it is mildly elevated but at varying levels. A mound at the left front of it is an additional complication. Standing there in the fairway, perhaps 170 yards to go, we actually find ourselves wondering if it is possible to hit and hold this green.
At lunch in the spiffy and spacious clubhouse, Peter told me that he and Diane, in their camper, were driving up to St. Andrews in September. She was to partner with a Seaton Carew member, who belongs to the R&A, in a mixed competition on the Old Course. He seemed quietly pleased to be the spouse on what was a rather prestigious occasion.
About half an hour from Seaton Carew, in pretty County Durham countryside, is the Hall Garth Hotel, a cluster of stone buildings dating to the sixteenth century. Ask for Room #5, "Rosedale" -- spacious, comfortable, tasteful, and with a fireplace (albeit nonworking). Be sure to dine in romantic Hugo's, where the food is top-notch.
The other two courses in this chapter, Seascale and Silloth-on-Solway, though also in northern England, are on the opposite coast. As the crow flies, Seascale is some ninety miles due west of Seaton Carew, but the drive, partly through the beautiful Lake District and the Cumbrian Mountains, could well take three and a half hours.
The town of Seascale, with a population of about 2,500, is not picturesque, but its setting, on high ground above a golden beach of the Irish Sea, is undeniably attractive. The Seascale Golf Club was founded in 1893. At the far end of the links, on a hill above the 11th green, stands the Sellafield Power Station, the local electric utility's nuclear power plant, complete with the obligatory giant cooling towers. It would be going too far to call this facility a blot on the landscape, but it is certainly a powerful -- for some players, an ominous -- presence.
Against a par of 71, the course measures 6,416 yards from the back tees, 6,103 yards from the regular markers. A couple of short par fours -- one steeply uphill, the other level -- open the round. They are not promising. The 3rd, however, is distinctly reassuring: From a high tee with a magnificent view over the links to the sea, this 407-yarder spills downhill, bends around the corner of a pasture, then ripples along to a green partially blocked by a sandhill at the left front. It is a hole full of ginger and fascination. And no hole that follows lets us down.
At Seascale we seem ever to be changing levels, whether negotiating humps or hollows or little falloffs, perhaps climbing or descending moderate slopes or tackling bona fide hills. This is not mountain-goat country, understand; nor are the stances and lies awkward. It's simply that the terrain is always in motion, giving the holes added interest. And the vistas, whether inland over the Lakeland hills that prompted some of Wordsworth's poetry or out to sea, are captivating. The majestic 9th, 387 yards, finds us driving from a high platform straight at the Isle of Man, some twenty miles across the Irish Sea. It is essential to keep the tee shot left, where it will finish on a plateau fairway 165 yards from a smallish green sitting far below. The second shot is unnerving: A hillock covered with tangled grass defends the left front of the green, subtly urging our iron shot right, and right into the sliver of stream along the edge of the putting surface. There is no strategy involved here, just the need for very precise ball-striking.
The final four holes, all two-shotters, are wonderfully diverse, starting with the 312-yard 15th on an elevated tee beside the railway line, where our drive must be fired over the 14th green (the links is a bit squeezed here). Sixteen, the hardest hole on the course and one of the best, is ferocious: a 473-yard par four, often playing more like 523, much of it over a tumultuous fairway on the lower ground, then steeply up to a blind punchbowl green sealed off by a bold and rugged embankment. The charming 17th brings us back to the railway line -- and a pretty view over the beach beside it -- for a drive so abruptly uphill as to be almost vertical, but this leaves only an 8- or 9-iron to a receptive green with a pair of pot bunkers on each side. As for the home hole, 353 yards, it's an eccentric delight with a deep hollow defending the green in front -- the large putting surface slopes away from the shot -- and three hidden bunkers lurking in the back.
Rarely has so much satisfying links golf been packed into so few acres, surely less than a hundred. This is marvelous stuff.
Ten miles north, on the coast road, is the Blackbeck Inn: OK for a night -- small, simple rooms (but comfortable enough) and basic cooking (but large portions).
In 1983 the then-secretary at Hunstanton Golf Club (Chapter 4) said to me, "I believe that the finest little-known course in the country is up in Cumbria, on the Solway Firth. It's called Silloth-on-Solway." It took me eighteen years to follow up on this tip. I could only berate myself for not having come much sooner. For Silloth is a great course.
The drive due north from Seascale on the coast road, A595, takes an hour and a quarter. There is no difficulty in finding the golf club, which is squarely in town, at the bottom of the main street. And overlooking the village green, two blocks up the street, is the Golf Hotel, a cozy inn with acceptable meals in both the dining room and the bar, which, for hotel guests, has "flexible hours."
Silloth-on-Solway Golf Club was founded in 1892. In their landmark The Architects of Golf, Geoffrey Cornish and Ron Whitten say that the course is the collaborative effort of Willie Park (four-time Open Championship winner, between 1860 and 1875; designer of Gullane #1, among others) and Willie Park, Jr. (Open champion in 1887 and 1889; designer of the Old Course at Sunningdale and, among others, Formby, Edinburgh's Bruntsfield Links, and the North Course at suburban Chicago's Olympia Fields, venue for the 2003 U.S. Open).
What we find here, miles from anywhere, is that rare combination of great golf holes in a setting of transcendent beauty. From high tees like the 8th, we can take in, across the open water, the coves and beaches and hills of Scotland's southern shores and, to the southwest, the Isle of Man. Due south on the horizon and soaring above 3,000 feet are Lakeland Fells such as Skiddaw.
But the borrowed grandeur of Silloth's surroundings is only part of the picture. The links itself is beautiful, a beauty that stems principally from the course's naturalness. How often we find ourselves playing along exquisite dune-framed valleys, heather and gorse and the long golden fescues gladdening the heart (though imperiling the stroke), the target green perhaps nestling in a hidden dell (the 1st) or, teasingly, on a plateau (the 3rd) or starkly against the sky on the crest of a hill (the 13th). It is all the fulfillment of our fondest dreams of links golf, played on sand-based turf over rumpled fairways through mighty sandhills, the green sites at one with nature, the implacable pot bunkers with their steep, revetted faces imparting tension to a swing that by all rights, on this inviting course, ought to be free and easy.
Silloth has its share of blind shots, the inevitable result on rolling terrain of moving almost no earth to build the course. A hundred and ten years ago, all course designers were minimalists, adhering to a lay-of-the-land philosophy. They had little choice in the matter -- there was no bulldozer.
The course measures 6,358 yards from the whites. Par is 72. The layout is lightly bunkered. Most greens are open across the front, with room on this crumpled terrain to execute bump-and-run shots. The course generally plays firm and fast, so it's important to have a feeling for finesse shots. Tee through green, this turf is perhaps unsurpassed at the sea anywhere in England.
The problem with discussing individual holes here is that not one of them, with the possible exception of the 495-yard 17th, itself entirely acceptable, is other than sparkling. So let's look at just one short hole one two-shotter, and one par five.
The 187-yard 6th plays from a high tee down to a green stoutly defended out front by a pair of low "cartgate" sandhills (the path between them would accommodate a horse-drawn cart). Eating into each of these sandhills is a deep bunker. The hole is simplicity itself -- and it is superb.
The 7th, 403 yards long and a gentle dogleg left, begins on a low tee in the dunes. The drive is launched into a fairway full of mounds and humps and hollows, and the second shot, not only blind but likely to be long since we are playing into the prevailing wind, is hit uphill, disappearing over a crest and drifting down to a picturesque punchbowl green framed by charming if inhospitable dunes.
At only 468 yards, the par-five 13th looks on the card to be a birdie opportunity. But it too is played into the prevailing wind and emphatically uphill, with impenetrable gorse lining the left side of the hole virtually all the way. The drive must clear a low ridge. The second shot must clear another ridge and climb steeply to high ground. The bunkerless green, arrestingly set against the sky, is of the pesky crowned variety, inclining to shed the pitch, sending it determinedly toward the falloff right or the falloff left. The delicate little recovery for a one-putt par is, at best, a dicey business.
Over recent years, as the motorways have made Silloth-on-Solway more accessible and people with an eye for outstanding golf holes have found their way here, praises have rained down on this great and inspiring and exhilarating links. I think I'll let the nonpareil Bernard Darwin have the last word: "Never in my life have I seen a more ideal piece of golfing country -- there is everything that a golfer's heart can desire."
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