Excuse the brag but 2016 was a rather vintage year for yours truly in terms of quality golf courses played.
From a first-ever knock around Loch Lomond – which is every bit as good as the hype – to the new Ailsa Course at Trump Turnberry, to the majestic Carnegie Links at the frankly spectacular Skibo Castle, I had a pretty decent year.
By my own conservative estimate, I reckon that I’ve now played close to 100 Scottish courses, plus many others further afield – some of the world’s most prestigious tracks amongst them. You could say it’s a perk of the job. From Valderrama to Trump International, to Bro Hof Slott, to Royal County Down, I’ve knocked it around numerous ‘Bucket List’ favourites.
What have I discovered? That there’s no substitute for fun. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always nice when you play somewhere of renown, in the same way that it’s ‘always nice’ when you get the chance to drive an Aston Martin or eat in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
However, when people ask me about the best courses I’ve played, I immediately think of places like Dunbar (below), Prestwick (above), Wallasey and the like, places where I’ve enjoyed playing golf more than I’ve enjoyed being there. Fun, after all, is what golf is meant to be. Otherwise, what’s the point?
It has taken me a while to figure that out. I’ve been seduced by reputations, by ‘vistas’, by the envious reactions of friends when they find out about the latest ‘big course’ I’ve played. But none of that compares to actually having a good time hitting the shots.
What makes a golf course ‘fun’? That, naturally, is entirely subjective. For me, it’s mostly about playability, and that relies on sensible design and set-ups that encourage creativity. I have zero interest in 250-yard carries and hacking around in shin-high rough. I’m not sure anybody does, not even the pros who are forced to endure these bland, devoid-of-imagination slogs most weeks. Instead, give me a course I can play. I’m not asking for it to be fair. I’m just asking for it not to be unfair. There is a difference.
It was interesting to see Scottish golf course architect David McLay-Kidd tweet towards the tail-end of last year about the Castle Course at St Andrews (below) which he designed. I played it around the time it opened back in 2008. On paper, it had everything going for it: a great location on the fringes of the town, beautiful views, the backing (financial and experiential) of the St Andrews Links team, and so on.
However, by his own admission McLay-Kidd got the design wrong. Bluntly, he didn’t miss an opportunity to maximise the difficulty of the course. The greens were borderline unplayable and there were peculiar little clumps of heather dotted around the fairways which all-too-often punished otherwise excellent drives. It was, quite frankly, much too contrived. Fortunately, those issues have been addressed now and, by all accounts, the Castle Course is now a top-drawer modern links. Crucially, McLay-Kidd also recognises the error of his ways. “I was seduced by the ‘harder is better’ Tiger proofing ethos sold by the media,” he wrote.
Ignoring the laughable attempt to share responsibility with ‘The Media’ – come on now, David – McLay-Kidd is right to acknowledge an enduring attitude that courses need to be as tough as possible. It’s an arrogant, dangerous perspective, and it needs to change.
In the context of golf course design, a ‘simple’ approach doesn’t always yield an ‘easy’ course. Good design is smart design.
It doesn’t rely on gimmicks or trickery because it doesn’t need to.
It understands that creating a course designed to punish the wayward shots of a 14-time major winner shows a staggering level of ignorance to the requirements of the masses.
It understands that ‘fun’ doesn’t necessarily mean breaking 70 but, instead, creates enjoyment and an urge to play another 18, and another 18, and another 18.
It understands that the best view in the world is scant consolation for losing a sleeve of balls on each nine.
It recognises that length scares nobody but, instead, only succeeds in inhibiting enjoyment.
It knows that golf is an inherently simple game that, in the wrong hands, can become an elaborately complicated monster of Frankenstein proportions.
As a wise man once said, never, ever underestimate the importance of having fun. After all, we’re here for a good time, not a long time.