Making the Royal rounds
HOYLAKE, England - An October drizzle began after lunch, mixing with the wind off the Irish Sea to provide a cold, wet afternoon game at the famed Royal Liverpool Golf Club.
"Rain makes the game more authentic," said Charlie Grimley, my partner for the Liverpool round, on my quest to play three of England's Royal golf courses, as designated through the centuries by kings and queens. My list also included Royal Lytham & St. Annes and Royal Birkdale, site of last summer's British Open Championship. I would finish with a visit to golf's ancient roots at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.
As an amateur golfer who sometimes labors to break 100, I felt blessed to walk the fairways of some of the world's best courses, which are open to travelers at a time when many of the top tournament championship courses in the United States are difficult, if not impossible, to get to play. Because of their exclusivity, a regular Joe can't even have lunch in the clubhouse.
Hungry for U.S. tourism dollars, England's old bastions of golf are setting out the welcome mat to men and women travelers. And with the British pound dropping substantially, greens fees have become downright affordable. Through Oct. 31, a trip around Royal Lytham & St. Annes' 18 holes costs about $189, including lunch. A weekday round at Silloth on Solway is a bargain at about $55.
You don't just show up here; you arrange a tee time through a tour operator or through a Web site. I can attest that the system works.
Anxious at my first Royal, I was braced to feel that I didn't belong, that I was trespassing on hallowed ground. But my fears were unwarranted. Perhaps Britain's stiff-upper-lippers have gone to charm school, because I was welcomed warmly by staff and members at all three Royals.
Each club, all within an hour's drive of the city of Liverpool, had my tee time noted and my rental clubs ready when I arrived. At two courses, I used a coupon that came with the golf fee for a light lunch in the clubhouse. I sat with a bowl of vegetable soup at a window overlooking the 18th greens at Liverpool and Lytham, anticipating the rounds to come and imagining past championship crowds and famous finishes.
The weather at Royal Liverpool made no effort to be hospitable to a visiting American.
With temperatures in the low 60s that felt like 50s in the wind, I was decked out in a warm undershirt, flannel long-sleeved shirt, fleece windbreaker, and green rain jacket with rain pants. In the drizzle, I swooshed - that's the sound of plastic pants rubbing against the thighs - to the first tee. I hit a poor shot that found the left rough, then slung my rented golf bag over my shoulders, thankful for the relatively recent invention of the dual strap that evens the load over both shoulders.
On most courses in the United Kingdom, you won't find motorized golf carts - called buggies here - and if you want a caddie, you'll need to arrange that ahead of time. The Royal courses, like most of the other courses in England, Scotland, and Wales, are designed for competition between players who carry their own clubs, in a test of both skill and stamina. Weekend American golfers accustomed to riding around in a cart may want to get into walking shape - 18 holes usually covers more than four miles per round - before heading across the Atlantic.
I could have used a pull cart at Liverpool, as I did when I played alone at Lytham and Birkdale. But I didn't want to disappoint Charlie, my playing partner. Charlie, who grew up near Liverpool, was chagrined enough because of the lightness of the rain, which stopped altogether after 10 soggy holes - reducing the challenge, as Charlie saw it. Like other golfers from the United Kingdom, Charlie has his entertaining stories of playing competitive rounds during rain driven horizontally by swirling winds off the sea.
Our battle against the elements was authentic enough for me.
Royal Liverpool, built in 1869, played long and difficult, with greens that you couldn't see from the fairways and winds that blew your ball left or right if you hit the high shots that usually would work in the United States. The Royals are links courses, which generally mean a windswept landscape with bumpy, sandy soil and prodigious bunkers.
I made heavy use of my 5-iron, punching my way around the course, a bogey-plus golfer for 18 holes. (Note to nongolfers: A bogey is one shot over par. Bogey-plus is a humdrum quality of play producing a score that might reach a total of 100, versus the goal of 72.)
The weather cleared a bit for my round at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club.
Asked his advice for someone playing Royal Lytham for the first time, club pro Eddie Birchenough said, "Don't keep score. The course is a special place, but it will just beat you up."
And it did, though I've never so enjoyed such a thorough beating.
Lytham's narrow fairways are framed by tall grasses on dunes of sand and short trees that permanently lean sideways from the wind. Greens are high in the centers and slope to the sides, so a shot to the green may trickle into a bunker.
Bunkers are score-killers, 197 of them placed to gobble up just about any shot that doesn't go where you planned - especially shots that were not planned at all. Many of the fairway bunkers are so deep that your only goal is to hit your ball out, with no hope of advancing toward the green.
Lytham is easy to forgive because it's such a pretty course, from the first tee along a gentle path by the impressive red-brick clubhouse to the daunting greens on the sixth hole, protected by six bunkers, and the ninth hole, surrounded by nine bunkers. I counted 15 bunkers barring my way to a well-deserved bogey on the 18th hole.
The entrance to the Royal Birkdale Golf Club is a simple country road through a pasture. Birkdale has hosted nine Open Championships, and the awe of being an ordinary golfer getting to play this extraordinary course struck me on the first tee.
Out popped Bert Beddows from the starter's hut. Beddows, formerly a Royal Marine, now the official starter at Royal Birkdale, was my first golf starter attired in tie and tweed jacket, quite a change from the typical American in T-shirt and shorts. Beddows is not shy. As he ticked off my name from his list of tee times, he chatted, offered advice, and set the standard of reverence for a round at Birkdale.
"I see you are using an iron," Beddows said, as I eschewed a bigger club and chose a 5-iron from my rental bag for a safer tee shot that I hoped to hit into the center of the fairway.
"Tiger Woods used an iron on this hole," he said.
Beddows took a position about 10 feet from me and stood watching, evaluating my swing like a commentator at a professional tournament, as I smacked a less-than- successful shot. It hit the fairway but trickled into the left rough about 175 yards out.
"Backswing a little fast," he said, respectfully, as he returned to his starter's hut to await the next golfer needing advice or encouragement.
Charlie Grimley, my playing partner at Liverpool, would have been disappointed in the weather that delightful day - dry and warm, with sunny skies and gentle breezes off the ocean.
I hacked my way through 18 holes, noting the subtle difficulties of the course, which wound around sand dunes packed with tall grass so thick that an errant ball would be lost forever.
At every hole, I would imagine Tiger Woods. Then I would hit about halfway to where his shot would have landed. Birkdale is designed to punish mistakes by good golfers who hit long shots. The course is more merciful to ordinary players whose shorter shots find less danger. By laying up in front of the guarding bunkers, thus reducing the difficulty of my final approaches to the greens, I managed to play respectable bogey golf - thanks to Beddows' admonition to slow my backswing.
After the round, I prolonged the glorious experience by sitting with a beer on the clubhouse patio next to the 18th green, watching other golfers finish Birkdale.
Nearly every golfer wants to play the fabled Old Course in St. Andrews.
The Old Course, where local citizens have had the privilege to play for more than 400 years, sits in the middle of the busy medieval city of St. Andrews, on the edge of the North Sea. The layout looks like a combination of golf course, sheep pasture, and wild backcountry gathering place for socializing, which it is. On Granny Clark's Wynd, a dirt road that runs across the first and 18th fairways, local folks often stroll as if they own the place, which they do.
To play the Old Course, you can book a tee time through tour operators or take your chances in St. Andrews on the daily ballot: You play if your name is drawn. If not, you try again the next day.
A spot on the daily ballot of the Old Course opened for me when a man from Chicago was unable to join three friends who had booked as a foursome.
In a gusting wind off the ocean and an occasional light rain, the Old Course played even tougher than it looked - windswept, with open fields like pastures, double greens, hungry bunkers, and roughs with shrubs that would grab and hide your ball. I marveled at how the game had remained the same in Scotland for more than 500 years while it had changed - gentrified, citified, manicured - in other parts of the world.
With my partners, I smiled for all 18 holes, despite errant shots and putts left short. I finished with a par after a 12-foot putt and basked in the applause of spectators, who tend to gather near the 18th green at the edge of downtown.
Nearly three dozen other courses of note lie within an hour's drive of the Old Course, including the impressive Castle Course that opened last summer.
So with enough time and money, you could play golf here at a different course every day for a month. At four miles to a course, you could walk 120 miles of rugged golf.
Don't forget to bring sturdy shoes, layers of warm clothes, and rain gear, because golf on this side of the Atlantic doesn't stop for inclement weather. So prepare to embrace it.
Links to the Links
As golf grows as a vacation activity, tour operators, cruise lines, and regional tourism offices are adding golf courses to their lists of travel possibilities. For travel packages, surf the Internet at sites such as GolfOdyssey.com, GolfVacationInsider.com, FairwayGolf.com, PerryGolf.com, GoGolfandTravel.com, TravelGolf.com, and GolfHolidays.com.
The area near Liverpool, less than three hours by train from London, is England's Golf Coast. It is home to one of the highest concentrations of championship courses in the world, including three Royal courses, all available to travelers.
The top courses cost less than $200 to play, including lunch, but dozens of other courses are available for public play with rates as low as $55. For a bargain, look for Silloth on Solway.
On the Internet, go to www.EnglandsGolfCoast.com for a guide and video. Some courses are adding motorized carts to appeal to American visitors.
Most golfers head first to the delightful city of St. Andrews.
"If you come here for a week and can't get on the Old Course, either you have incredibly bad luck or you're not trying," says Mike Taylor, a St. Andrews resident and guide for tours to local fishing villages, hiking paths, and ancient ruins.
Your chances improve in bad weather, he says, especially between October and April. The Old Course is closed on Sundays for picnics and such. Check the Web site, www.standrews.org.uk, for NB ("no ballot") dates, when there is no public play.
If you're not playing golf, you can watch the action from the St. Andrews clubhouse, a modern building open to the public. It overlooks the 17th hole of the Old Course and the first tee of the New Course, built in 1895. You can sit at the picture windows upstairs, observe golfers flailing away at the notorious Road Hole, and have a bowl of soup.
"Some people come to play all the name courses," says Gary Slatter, director of golf at the Fairmont Resort's Torrance and Devlin courses on a bluff above the city.
"It can be more fun, and economical, to play each course twice. Most courses have a second play for 5 to 10 pounds, so you can play 36 holes for about 100 pounds [about $140]," Slatter says. "If you wanted, you could play 54 holes a day."
The Fairmont has equipped its Devlin headlands course with motorized buggies. The Torrance links course, with views of the Castle Course and downtown St. Andrews, is only for walking.
Know your handicap
For some courses, including England's Royals, you will need a statement indicating your official handicap. Some set a maximum of 21, others 26. Golfers without a club membership can buy a handicap certificate after listing scores at Global Golf Handicap, www.gghandicap.com.
- David G. Molyneaux