Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Tournament

After our windblown round at Irvine Golf Club, we checked in at Troon's Barcelo Marine Hotel. Its imposing stone edifice is well-located near Troon's market area, immediately adjacent to world famous Royal Troon Golf Club and the Irish Sea. We arrived in time to have cocktails at the welcoming reception for the Ayrshire Golf Classic in which Lisa and I would be competing over the following four days. Sad to say that this competition was to be the last Ayrshire Golf Classic after a ten year run. The tournament organizer, Ian McCaig had determined that with the current economy, the tournament could no longer be operated profitably. The classic had previously attracted as many as 100 entrants, but this year's field was a paltry 24. Ian had advised me when I submitted our entries months earlier that numerous women had competed over the years, but before we left for Scotland, we were surprised to learn that this year Lisa was the only female entry.
With the limited field, we were able to meet and chat with most of the players at the reception. Their geographic diversity was impressive: they included Les Stewart from the Channel Islands; Richard Armstrong from Northern Ireland, Theo Meister and Serge Galley from Switzerland; Jean Ma Royet from Belgium, Alastair Macfarlane, a transplanted Scot now playing out of Sao Paolo, Brazil; Nigel Porter from Hexham, England; Colin McAllister- a native Scotsman and published poet whose home golf club is St Andrews New; Paul Meikle, a young 5 handicapper playing out of Leven Links, next door to my Scottish club, Lundin Golf Club; and two other Americans, Marshall Taylor- a veterinarian from Dayton, Tennessee and Jeff Elledge from Palatka, Florida.
Still a little woozy from our tough round at Irvine Golf Club, Lisa and I consumed our share of single malt. Northern Ireland's Richard Armstrong was most convivial company , while Marshall Taylor, the drawling Tennessean, and a self-admitted golf nut , regaled us with accounts of his numerous Scottish golf trips. The diminutive Ian McCaig welcomed us all. The reception was a good way to start things rolling. Our sole complaint was our cramped room on the non-ocean side of the hotel. After one night in these quarters, Lisa used her excellent negotiation skills to secure us a larger suite with a view of the sea and the Royal Troon championship course at no additional cost.

Monday was to be a huge day for us. With unbridled ambition, we had scheduled a late afternoon game at Royal Troon in addition our round in the Classic at Dundonald Links. One of Lisa's U.K. golf goals is to play all the links that comprise the Open Championship rota. So far we had played the Old Course at St. Andrews, Carnousite, Royal Liverpool, and Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Royal Troon was on her list, and it would have been a shame to miss it as the Marine Hotel overlooked Royal Troon's 18th fairway. Given our tournament schedule, and Troon's limited availability of visitor tee times, I determined that our only chance to play the championship links would be late Monday afternoon, and to that end, I booked a 3:40 PM tee time on the club's internet site.
Before arriving in Troon, I asked Mr. McCaig to give Lisa and me early tee times at Dundonald so that we would have no difficulty arriving at Royal Troon on time. Somehow our request was overlooked, and we teed off in the middle of the pack at 10:10 AM. Still, golf in Scotland tends to move quickly and I estimated that 5 hours and 30 minutes should be adequate time for us to play Dundonald, grab a quick bite, and drive 15 minutes back to Troon. Monday dawned wet, chilly and very windy. When we stepped out of our car at Dundonald, the breeze was so strong we had trouble making headway to the clubhouse. We both wore several layers with goretex rain suits- an absolute must in Scotland. However, the conditions were so bleak that we were robbed of the sense of excitement that the opening day of a competition normally brings.
I had decided that my Sarazen putter had to go, and purchased a YES putter in the clubhouse. Dundondald's pro made his best marketing pitch assuring me that the YES putter with its soft insert is currently the weapon of choice on the European Tour. So off we trudged to the first tee. Lisa and I were paired with the Tennessean, Marshall Taylor, and the aforementioned Richard Armstrong, the gracious Northern Irishman.

Richard Armstrong, Lisa, Bill, and Marshall Taylor

The first hole proved for me a harbinger of things to come. After two good shots on the downwind par 4, I was 15 feet from the hole putting for birdie. After I grounded my YES putter behind the ball, a gust of wind nudged the ball slightly off of its position. That's a one stroke penalty. Instead of two putting for a par and two points in the stableford format, I carded a bogey 5 and one point. After that misfortune, I tried to hover my putter above the ball so that I would not be penalized again if the ball moved. That proved awkward and my new putter misbehaved much as the Squire had done. Also my continuing problem of skulling short irons from tight lies recurred on several shots during the round.
Lisa found that the forward (or "ladies tees" to use a growingly politically incorrect term) do not give women much of a break in Scotland. While she typically plays courses of about 5200 yards in the U.S, the yardages of the forward tees in Scotland averaged around 5700- a big difference for a shorter hitter. Still she persevered in the relentless rain and wind with solid ballstriking. While both of our playing partners were most companionable, there was little conversation as it was all we could do to manage our equipment, play our shots, and mark our scores down. There was also a lot of looking for balls as Marshall in particular was frequently off line. Scorekeeping was a real hassle. The card tended to disintegrate as the round progressed no matter what steps were taken to keep it dry. Dundonald is a newer course, designed by Kyle Phillips who also designed the wonderful Kingsbarns near St. Andrews. Though the sea is not in sight, the course still has the look of a seaside links with bumpy terrain, gorse, whins, heather and forbidding reveted bunkers.
After a final skulled wedge on the par 5 18th thereby ruining that hole, my stableford total was a shabby 21 which means I shot somewhere around 90- generally horrible for a 7 handicapper- but given the conditions, I would have found an 85 acceptable. Lisa was surprised to find herself only one point behind me with 20- very commendable given the lengthy forward tees. Generally you need to score over 30 each round in a stableford competition to be competitive. A player shooting a hot round might garner as many as 36 to 40 points. But the conditions were such that the leading scorer -- the transplanted Scot, Alastair Macfarlane managed only 28 points.

Lisa and I had been so focused enduring the elements in the tournament that we lost track of time. The conditions had slowed play down to a crawl and we discovered to our horror when we reached the warmth of the Dundonald clubhouse that we had only 20 minutes to make our tee time at Troon. I had prepaid for the rounds and hated to see our pounds go to waste. With no time to grab lunch, we grabbed our clubs and still shivering from our exposure to the elements raced back to Troon.

Royal Troon clubhouse

We arrived at the Royal Troon pro shop out of breath, hungry and full of apologies for our late appearance. The staff could not have more understanding of our plight or more accommodating. The club starter assured us we could delay our tee time for a bit and hustled us over to the tea room where this lovely middle-aged comforting Scottish woman instantly provided us hearty chicken soup and a toasted sandwich that under the circumstances was nothing less than heaven-sent. The server seemed an angel to us.
Gulping our repast down in record time, we presented ourselves again to the starter who accompanied us to the first tee. There we met our caddies Tim and Brian. We had a light moment on the first tee as there had been some delay in processing my credit card, and the club steward had self-consciously presented the receipt at the tee for my signature. I remarked, I thought humorously, that this was the first time I had ever been solicited for my autograph on the golf course. The steward topped me by rejoining that this was the first time he had ever sought an autograph on the course. There was a good laugh all around.
The early holes at Troon play downwind, and I carved out three pars to start the round. The wind was still howling, but at least the rain had subsided. When I missed a shot on the fourth hole, my caddie Tim went to work with a number of strong suggestions regarding how I might improve my shotmaking. Many of the Scottish caddies are good players, and Tim was no exception as he played off 7. My experience in Scotland has been that the better playing caddies are sure they know exactly how to fix your swing. And Tim had some credibility having recently guided Andy Bean to a 10th place finish at the Senior British Open. Maybe I was exhausted or perhaps I was simply not in the mood to listen, but Tim's well-meant advice grew tiresome. Lisa's caddie Brian sensed that she just wanted to get around the course and he treated her more gently. Lisa did receive a good tip regarding nasty weather apparel from Brian. He wore a stocking cap over his ears, and then a normal golf cap over the stocking cap. Lisa adopted this procedure for the rest of the trip finding that this dual hat system kept her ears warm and the rain off her face. Unlike Dundonald, the sea is always in sight at Troon; it is the epitome of a classic links course. Though bleary-eyed, I did hit the green with a punch 6 iron on the famous "postage stamp" 8th before I promptly 3 putted with my misbehaving YES.(or is it NO) putter. I also parred the famous "Railway" 11th where Jack Nicklaus took a 10 in the '62 Open Championship won by Arnold Palmer. Whatever my misgivings about Tim, he was fantastic at locating my wayward shots and there were several of those on the windward back nine. Suffice it to say that walking 36 holes in atrocious weather is a grueling adventure in anyone's book.

When Lisa and I awoke Tuesday and heard the howling wind, smashing surf, and pounding rain outside our seaside window, we realized that improved conditions were not in the offing. We hauled our aching bodies out of bed and down to the hotel's buffet breakfast. Initially, Lisa and I had not been paired together for the day's round at the Kilmarnock Golf Club (commonly called "Barassie"), but Nigel Porter cheerfully agreed to switch tee times so Lisa and I could play together. Most tournaments would not allow such a switch, but McCaig was fine with it because he wanted everyone to be happy with their experience. As he put it, the tournament was "75 % social, 25% competition." All of these courses are close together, and it was a mere ten minute jaunt up the coast from Troon to Barassie.
The conditions at Barassie were much like what we experienced the previous day at Dundonald except it was raining even harder. Barassie is yet another of the James Braid designed courses. The club has hosted the British Amateur and will serve as a qualifying course for this year's Open Championship at Turnberry. The course is not exactly seaside but the terrain is bumpy linksland all the way. And gorse was everywhere! It is spectacular in May- all flowering in bright yellow, and with a pleasant scent that hints of suntan oil. We were paired with Switzerland's Theo Meister, an 8 handicapper, and the Belgian Jean Carpentier, whose English was halting. Jean, a 28 handicapper with the winning smile and disposition reminiscent of Maurice Chevalier struggled in the miserable conditions. But he retained his perpetually sunny disposition and grinned broadly when he happened to hole a pitch for birdie from 50 yards. Theo started well but faded stating he had trouble playing in such harsh conditions. Join the club! The real revelation was Lisa. Again, she struck the ball well throughout the round. After walking off 18 bedraggled, she found she had scored a very competitive 24 points over the stern Barassie layout. I did better too with 26 points. Somehow, Alastair Macfarlane had found a way to cope with the daunting conditions as he amassed a stunning tally of 33 points. This gave him what seemed like an insurmountable lead of 12 points on the field. I was 14 back; Lisa 18.

One of the comical episodes of the trip was watching Lisa and Jean with their respective language barriers trying to recap their scores after both of their cards disintegrated in the rain. All of the players drowned their sorrows in the club bar. We were all fairly beat up and no one was in a hurry to leave. The food and drink at the golf clubs is always good, and by now we had become friendly with most of the players. Serge Galley, a Swiss with a very deep voice that gave him a mysterious air flirted in the continental way with Lisa .

We chatted with Ian McCaig who filled us in on the tournament's history and why he was placing it in mothballs. One of the problems was that from a marketing perspective, the organizer must start from scratch each year. Just because a player enjoyed playing one year does not mean he or she will return the following year. That is certainly true with Lisa and me. We played the Carnoustie Country Classic for two years and enjoyed it thoroughly, but then decided to try something else. So we understood where Ian was coming from. I would recommend to any golfer wishing to play in Scotland to seek out competitions because they are invariably a less-expensive alternative to paying the usual visitors fees.

The forecast for Wednesday's third round at Western Gailes was more of the same. But as has been noted by others while in Scotland, You have to "weather the weather whatever the weather whether you like it or not." I should note that we have had mostly clear weather in our five previous trips to the U.K. We were assured by many that this weather was an aberration.

Bill weighs how many layers will be required at Western Gailes

Like Royal Troon, all of Western Gailes' holes have good views of the Firth of Clyde. The scenic rippling dunesland heaves to and fro like a tumultuous sea.

Western Gailes

The course is tough but not horribly penal. Augmenting the pleasure of this round was our pairing with tournament leader Alastair Macfarlane. Here was a gentleman in every sense of the word; Lisa felt that Alistair was a calm relaxing presence who helped her play better. And play well she did, scoring 23 points. Lisa missed very few long shots, and she began to get the hang of the Scottish "bump and run" shot punching little eight iron shots with aplomb. She drove her ball on the par 3 13th into the wind over the menacing burn and found the promised land near the hole for a great par. But that wind! Let me give you an example of its strength: Western Gailes' signature par 3 7th hole, named "Sea", played dead into the wind at 143 yards. I struck a 5 wood ( a club I normally hit 200 yards) as well as I could hit it. I was short by a full 20 yards. To cap my frustration , the wind caused me to miss an 8 inch putt for bogey and thus I failed to record a stableford point on the hole. The "No" putter blew another 2 footer on 18. Maybe the Squire was not so bad after all! Still I had a good ballstriking round, and finished the day with 27 points which was second best for the day. I jumped up to 4th place. Alastair tallied 25 points to stay securely in the lead.
Lunch in the clubhouse was very pleasant. Alastair was very effusive with praise for both of our games, and knowing we were journeying back to the east coast at the conclusion of the tournament, generously offered to arrange a game for us at Gullane Golf Club. This is typical of how golfers look after each other and network in Scotland.

After a good soak in the hotel's indoor pool and Jacuzzi, good trooper Lisa begged off and opted for rest. I soloed at the hotel bar and met up with many of our group who were huddled around the television watching the football match between Chelsea and Manchester United. The winner would face Barcelona in the European Cup finals. Despite my lack of affinity for soccer, I found myself with the others rooting fervently for the underdog Chelsea squad. Some bad calls at the end cost Chelsea the match, and most of our gathering were incensed at the injustice of it all.

Thursday's final round was played at historic Prestwick, the site of the first British Open in 1860.

Prestwick clubhouse

Prestwick, like St. Andrews was not really built; it was found. No earthmovers eradicated the huge dunes that blocked the path on several holes. Hence, players at Prestwick must contend with numerous blind shots. No less than four of the holes are famous: Number 1 "Railway" is a tight par 4 with the railroad threatening on the right; the Prestwick railroad station itself is within yards of the first tee.(Troon, Barassie, Irvine, Western Gailes, and Prestwick all have railroads paralleling several holes)

the 1st tee at Prestwick adjacent to the railway station

Bill strikes his opening tee shot at Prestwick

Number 3 "Cardinal" is a dogleg par 5 featuring the mammoth Cardinal bunker replete with railroad ties (or "sleepers" as the Scots refer to them) which inspired U.S. architect Pete Dye to incorporate the use of railroad ties in his bunker designs; number 5 is "Himalayas" a blind 190 yard par 3 over a massive dune; number 17 requires a blind second shot over "the Alps, " with another massive bunker protecting the hidden green. Prestwick is a charming museum piece which still has teeth, particularly when there is wind. Of course, day 4 of the Ayrshire Golf Classic was the blowingest wind of all. We played with American Jeff Elledge who was not faring well in the tournament. but he did uncork the event's best shot on the 16th, driving the par 4 to within 10 feet of the hole and narrowly missing his eagle putt. I did my usual thing: good driving, poor putting, a couple of missed wedges; my final four holes really left a bad taste in my mouth. I only scored 2 points. I made a mess of the Alps with a duffed wedge from the base of the mammoth dune followed by a skull over the green: rubbish. Lisa had her worst round carding only 14 points; I finished with a poor 21.

Jeff Elledge, Lisa, and Bill

Incredibly Alastair held on to his lead despite carding only 19 points in the final round. His total of 105 won by 4. I finished 6th with 95 while Lisa was in the middle of the pack with 80.Marshall Taylor rallied to pass me and finished 4th.

The tournament awards dinner followed at the Marine Hotel. We all were able to fit at a single long banquet table, and it was all well done. I chatted with St. Andrews' resident poet Colin McAllister who knew his share of good golf jokes. On my right was Leven Links' Paul Meikle who insisted that we should hook up the next time I visit Lundin, which I hope is soon. Ian gave Judd Martt's Scottish prayer at dinner, "Some have meat etc."

Tournament host Ian McCaig

Marshall and Jeff were heading for another tournament at the Carnoustie Country Classic. On the way, they would play the Old Course the next day as they had been successful in making the ballot. They were nice enough to ask us to fill their foursome, but we were headed for North Berwick in the morning. We took parting photos of our good friends Jean, Marshall, Alastair, Richard, and Marshall It was pleasant indeed, but poignant as

Lisa with Jean Carpentier (below)

from left to right Les Stewart, Bill, Marshall Taylor, Colin
McAllister, Paul Meikle and Alastair Macfarlane (top)

the survivors! (below)

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