By Frank Crowe
With the improvement in golf technology over the years, lighter heads, better shafts, faster swing speeds and balls which press the Rules of Golf and physics to the limits, yet are handy to chip and putt, golf courses have increased in length to such an extent that classic links like Prestwick which hosted 24 Open Championships between 1860 and 1925 have been forgotten by most of the golfing world.
It had no additional land to lengthen the holes or later on no great stadium -style viewing space for spectators to meet modern professional standards, far less acres of room for cars to park and a huge hotel nearby for pampered pros plus A list hangers-on. Perhaps in the case of Prestwick that is just as well, and it remains a treasure for the true, accomplished golfing aficionado and which is on a bucket list along with Silloth in Cumbria and 8-dog greyhound racing at Monmore in Wolverhampton (I’ll explain that one another time.)
Google tells us that the longest course in the world is the Nullarbor Links in Australia, an 18 hole par 72 with the holes spread out at generous intervals 1,365 kilometres along the Eyre Highway which traverses the southern coast crossing the states of South and Western Australia. Most of the holes are to be found at Road Houses and the track was put together by road hauliers. In total the playing bit measures just over 7,200 yards. Major Championship links are about 7,400 yards but are often par 70s with only 2 par 5’s, and an awful lot of long par 4’s. I know I am no longer a long hitter but a series of 400 yard plus par 4 holes fill me with boredom.
My pal Danny, a former champion at Liberton in Edinburgh, found that course too short for him even though he only hit a good one off the tee about 250 yards. Liberton is 5,344 yards and a par 67. Murrayfield where I played a lot of golf is 5,781 yards long, hilly, slopey and a par 70 which he found a more satisfactory test of golf. The other Edinburgh Course I played a lot is Silverknowes which is 6,281 yards and a par 71. It is fairly flat with a few undulations but a good test of golf nonetheless.
Elie one of my favourite away courses is a similar length at 6,273 yards and a par 70. James Braid from adjoining Earslferry, 5 times Open Champion and designer of many courses called it “the finest in all the country”. When I was a boy Kel Nagle and Peter Thomson, also a five time Open winner, heaped praise on Elie. Like, Elie I enjoy a course that is tight and short, and somewhere that doesn’t take days to play like Nullarbor, which for most golfers will at best, be a once in a lifetime experience.
The Shorter Tracks
The great golfer Peter McEvoy OBE devoted his playing life to the amateur game since when he has designed courses and been one of the few forward thinkers in an era of inertia among golf administrators. He has advocated 6 hole courses, designed PowerPlay golf, a shortened more instantly exciting version of the game and was scheduled to turn the Beckhamsted Trophy in 2020 into a mixed gender event breaking six decades of tradition. Beckhamsted is a heathland course in Hertfordshire measuring 6,605 yards off the back tees against a par of 71. The club was inaugurated in 1890 and remodelled by James Braid in 1926. It is set amid trees and boasts of having no tiresome bunkers.
On the other hand these middle-aged white gentleman in charge of most of the UK’s golf courses wring their hands about the loss of members and drop in income over the years but never consider how they might drag this fine game out of the bourgeois mire of a pre-Elvis 1950 time freeze they appear to view it.
Visitors are welcome, says one golf course in its on-line profile but then prescribes a long dress code- must wear a tailored jacket in the clubhouse, no changing in the car park. Golfers must not wear jeans or football or rugby tops when playing, only tailored shorts with long socks (think of Lieutenant- General Baden Powell at the Brownsea Island Scout camp 1907). Shirts have to have a collar and be tucked into the waistband. What if you are a fat bastard like me and your shirt falls out your trousers à la Boris during a long follow through off the first tee?
One of these days I will turn up on a hot day at that course in a 3 piece tweed suit, starched collar and tie (see the accompanying picture of Charles Whitcombe circa 1931 as a style guide). He was one of three brothers who were leading professionals in their day (all three playing in the 1935 Ryder Cup), the youngest – Reg winning the Open in 1938. I shall hack my way round the course looking dismissively at the casual attire of the other golfers. If challenged I shall just reply “I thought there was a dress code!” But surreptitiously these keepers of tradition have actually let their values slip over the years- baseball caps, logoed clothing and shoes with white soles have crept in. I don’t think even Elvis would have been seen dead in some of that stuff. Indeed in the 2 of his 31 films which dealt with motor racing there was not a decal to be seen either on his racing overalls or his racing cars. Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’s grasping manager missed his chance there! There are plenty of Rules in the game of golf and while the R & A must have a have similar dress code for their own premises, worldwide it spares players these details even in their Etiquette section. “Clothes should not unnecessarily distract an opponent” might be a reasonable starting point, except the point from where we must start now seems unreasonable. I am sure the best way to play some of the top pros in a match is to turn up with your cap slightly askew and put a button on your polo shirt in the wrong hole. Should these robotic creatures mention the matter (because it is obviously distracting them and irritating their autism) you should remain aloof and oblivious and put your finger to your mouth, as if to discourage such gamesmanship talk!
This article is all about places where you can turn up in shorts with bright wee socks, trainers, or trackie bottoms and a T shirt, change your shoes in the car park and when it’s quiet, (as it often is) go off and play your own game.
Peter McEvoy, and in more recent times ladies’ professional Fame Tate have promoted shorter courses 9 or even 6 holes so that normal people can nip out and have a game that need not take up the whole day, and can be slotted into the same time it takes to play tennis or squash. The old out -and- in link courses generally have been replaced by tracks with two loops of 9.
It means more players can be sent out at the same time on a busy day or during a competition or one can chose to play only the first or back 9 before work or duty calls. At Stanedge Golf Club near Chesterfield, Fame Tate, former professional golfer, has done wonders by buying and running the 9 hole moorland course as a friendly business, encouraging kids young people and indeed anyone to join her golf academy. There is free coaching on Saturdays, an Open day, family memberships and a £50 a year membership for kids-like the 10 bob my parents first paid in 1964 to get young Frank out of the house in the summer holidays, and lose himself and all his golf balls at the appropriately named Balwearie links at Kirkcaldy.
My journey from these far off days has not entirely been a traditional golf one and here are the highlights from the wee venues that have given me great fun, a commodity singularly lacking in professional golf where its protagonists walk past you at a tournament” in the zone” with their faces tripping them like they are at an office-some even call it that. Welcome to the joyous and unexpected world of fun golf!
So here they are, my nine ranking short course golf facilities.
1 Abernethy Golf Club, Nethybridge
Like a fine malt whisky this wonderful undulating 9 hole heathland links is located in Strathspey, part of the Cairngorms National Park, It has conifer-lined fairways and nowadays there is an excellent clubhouse and café where you can get a bacon roll and homemade cheese scone etc. What more do you want? You don’t need a handicap certificate either. On the Nethybridge website there is a wonderful film shot via a drone showing the fir-lined fairways and lush green turf of this shortish par 33, what can possibly go wrong? There are plenty of dog legs and blind shots, as well as the short second across a road, a long carry at the 7th off the tee to reach the next ridge, a drive past the war memorial at the 8th and a sweeping finish.
For me, back in the day, it was the perfect holiday course. It was 1976, one of the longest hottest summers we had in Scotland and Nethybridge was nicely burnt to a crisp to flatter my lack of recent practise. I could slip away from the extended family who had taken a house in the village, but not to be away too long even if I usually played 2 rounds. It was so hot that a fire had broken out at nearby Slocht Summit above the pass on the A9 on the road to Inverness which we could see from Nethy. Each day the local volunteer Fire Brigade set off to hose the hills all day long, but to no great effect. Each night they came back home tired and wet their whistles at the local pub before setting out the following day to do their best.
It made us think of the 1967 British low budget science fiction film “Night of the Big Heat” starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Although set in winter on an imaginary island off England called Fara, the regulars at the “Swan” inn faced increasingly unseasonal temperatures. Well it was like that for us as the week got hotter and hotter and our pre-dinner dander to the local pub took longer as we struggled down a dusty lane to quench our thirst. It was a rather ramshackle pub but busy with firefighters, locals, tourists and other drouthy souls. I noticed a huge crack in the stone fireplace, not that we needed a fire that fortnight and then there was Willie, the bar manager. He must have been in his late 50s, a big man with a drink problem to match. He always had a pint on the go himself as he served the punters. I realised that if you chatted him up and bought a drink when you got up to the bar get a round in, a wee while later Willie would turn up with a tray of drinks for our assembled company of which he had just become part, compliments of the house.
At Nethy, I played golf about every other day and went for day trips with the family group, my wife, new in-laws and brother-in-law and within a few days we took to having a couple of drinks when we saw Willie walk past our cottage on the way to open his shop at 5pm. We rushed back for our meal then spent bothy nights in the pub as there was no TV in the cottage. The locals all knew Willie but didn’t seem to chat to him much like we did so the landlord’s rounds continued as did the heatwave. Eventually on the Friday night as we walked down for an evening session, we noticed the sun had gone down a bit and the air seemed still but close-suddenly the rain began to fall and we just made it to Willie’s pub as it was becoming torrential. We did have a great night cooped up, out of the elements but as the night wore on I noticed Willie had become pretty drunk. Being a young court lawyer I was perhaps the only one amid the miasma of alcohol and smoke to realise that Willie was contravening section 77 of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976, namely being in charge of licensed premises when inebriated. It seemed, I imagined, potentially as scary a driving a car at night down an unfamiliar road having had too much to drink. Needless to say many of the punters were not far behind Willie and I thought it best we left before the 10pm closing time in case things got out of hand. However, as any policeman will tell you rain is the most effective police officer and as far as I could gather there was no riot, fire or flood as the patrons were just glad the rain had come and somehow all and sundry staggered home safely. I recall it was a very wet night but when we rose the next day to some cool Scottish drizzle and looked across the hillside the fire had gone out. Needless to say the next time I ventured out on the Nethybridge links that holiday it played to every one of its 2,526 yards!
2 Scarista, Isle of Harris
We went a holiday to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris in 2006 when our son Harry had not long started Primary School. It was a good summer. The house we rented up on the hills above the village was appropriately called Myrtle Cottage and a couple of healthy bushes of that variety stood near the front door. It meant we could have a quick drink outside before our evening meal without getting eaten alive by midges. The previous night, after a long drive up from Edinburgh we had stopped at Flodigarry Hotel on Skye where Flora MacDonald lived after assisting Bonnie Prince Charlie escape in the aftermath of the disastrous 1745 uprising. The night we stayed at the hotel it was packed with guests for a wedding the following day.
The couple were from New Zealand and obviously had Scottish ancestry to have organised the ceremony and festivities there. Although our evening meal was a bit delayed we were fully engrossed in watching the wedding group assemble for a pre-nuptials meal. One of the ensemble suggested a pre-meal photo and they all trouped outside only to come rushing in a few minutes later complaining of the biggest midge bites they had ever experienced. You had to laugh, but we worried for the couple, their friends and relatives when we learned that the wedding service was due to be held the next day at the top of the Quiraing a 543 metre high landslip and viewpoint at nearby Trotternish. They must have been eaten alive during an unforgettable service. The next morning we left the throng behind and drove to Uig on the tip of Skye to catch the ferry to Tarbert.
Harris is an island of contrasts, joined to Lewis to the North by an isthmus. Stornoway, the major town in Lewis and indeed of the Western Isles is 37 miles away.
The road had just been improved and the tarmac was still setting as we arrived. My partner needed a trip to Stornoway after a day or two to enjoy a latte and read that day’s Guardian newspaper which had been flown in and was available at the newly opened An Lanntair, an Arts Centre overlooking the harbour. I think it was built on the site of Mac’s Imperial Bar which did a huge carry out trade back in the day on a Saturday night as locals stocked up for the following day’s Sabbath lockdown. That year at the Arts Centre there was a wonderful exhibition of black and white photographs of crofters shot, I think, by a student around 1980. There were pictures of the crofters, male and female and photos of their simple homes with an old plank above the fire on which few kitsch knick-knacks rested. What was amazing is how these wrinkled old people with weather-beaten faces from the incessant Westerly wind looked like Native Americans. Back on Harris we circumnavigated the island. I was amazed at the steep green hills in the North above Tarbert, the bays on the East Coast, to the moonscape-like boulder fields of the South near Rodel. At Leverburgh built by the Lever Brothers over 100 years ago, the main store complete with café and petrol station is like a trading post of the type seen in the Rockies. After a quick trip in the car round the island it was agreed we would return to the West Coast the next day when my partner and our son would laze on the fine beach at Scarista with acres of deserted white sand and fantastic views across the Sound to the nearby island of Taransay where the TV series Castaway 2000 was filmed.
Meanwhile I was a stone’s throw away at the Isle of Harris Golf Club where I enjoyed a sporty game of golf on the beautiful 9 hole links.
When I played there the empty starter’s hut was a shipping container in which there was an honesty box and a framed picture containing a copy of the ten shilling note Nick Faldo paid to play the course. It has a few more facilities nowadays but the honesty box remains. Green keeping at this remote location is very good however there is a constant battle with rabbits and grazing sheep and sometimes things can get a bit rough and ready but it all adds to the charm of the place.
The 9 holes, laid out in 1930 measure 2,314 yards and par 34 is 34. “Quirky” and “spectacular” are words often used to describe this unique golfing venue. I had a few pars but some of the blind holes caught me out and I had a 10 as well on one occasion, but what the hell, it’s fun and you’re on your holiday. What I loved too were the wild flowers that appeared everywhere. As we were leaving Tarbert at the end of our holiday I saw a painting of the course in a local shop. It is called Scarista from the Golf Course (2004) in oils by R. J. H. Gadd. I see that Roger Gadd is still painting beautiful landscapes of islands, Scotland and Northern England. My picture was well worth the money and has had pride of place in my office and study since. You can play golf and smell the flowers too!
After a wonderful week of weather and sights we left on the last ferry on Saturday evening to avoid a quiet Sabbath.
It was a bit of a mistake as the vessel had been plying the route from Uig and Lochmaddy all day during the peak season. It had to load additional vehicles on the mezzanine decks which took extra time consequently the 6 pm ferry left about nine and was packed. There was a band playing in the saloon, four accordionists and a snare drummer. It was a hot sweaty night and the band seemed to have a pint after each number, yet play faster and faster. Young Harry went to a supervised soft play area and when we collected him later he was covered in bruises from the boisterous play but confessed that he had had the time of his life! Fog fell as we drove from Uig through Skye and in Spean Bridge we were stopped by a drunk who staggered out in front of my car and brought us to a halt. It was clear from his pupils he was elsewhere. Pockets of fog made the journey tricky as we traversed from Spean Bridge to Dalwhinnie then a deer jumped in front of us. It was so sudden I only had time to swerve but we squeezed past unscathed. We got home to Edinburgh about 4 am and I slept until noon. It was a memorable holiday but the tangible reminder, the picture of Scarista in bloom, is particularly poignant.
3 Musselburgh Old Course
This 9 hole course hosted the Open six times between 1874 and 1889 and also staged many big money matches involving the leading professionals of the day like the Morris’s, Old Tom & Young Tom, Andrew Kirkcaldy and Willie Park Jnr. In those days it was used by three clubs: The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers until they moved out and set up at Muirfield, and Burgess and Bruntsfield Golf Clubs until they decanted back to Edinburgh in 1897. It is one of the oldest courses in the world and while there are records of golf being played at St Andrews in the 15th century there are only documented records relating to golf being played at Musselburgh since 1672. Mary Queen of Scots allegedly played here in 1567, presumably in a full length skirt with a faithful Maltese Terrier hiding among her petticoats. Mind you it was a busy year for Mary as her husband Lord Darnley was found dead after the house he was residing in blew up in February of that year. Mary had a game of golf a few days later which really upset some of the Scottish bigwigs, more than her being a staunch Catholic in Reformation Scotland. She had become fond of the game when she lived in France and was married to the Dauphine the heir to the throne. Apparently she was the first to use caddies. The Earl of Bothwell was tried for the murder of Darnley but acquitted in April 1567 and he and Mary married the following month. Timing, one of the fundamentals of a good golf game, does not seem to have been her strong suit. Bothwell was Mary’s third husband. The marriage became tempestuous and ultimately Bothwell fled to exile in Denmark and Mary, by now having shanked several partners was imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle in June 1567 where she miscarried before escaping the following year.
With that history and the fact that the course now shares its ground with Musselburgh Racecourse I had to make a pilgrimage to this remarkable Municipal Links. There is a starter’s hut and shop and you play the short first into the centre of the course over what is now a sanded corner just after the winning post. Other UK racecourses to have a golf course include Kelso in Scotland, Gosforth Park, Market Rasen, Hereford, Ludlow, Doncaster, Wincanton, Sandown Park and Warwick in England. My Editor also recollects playing on part of Ayr Racecourse in the 1970’s. Musselburgh has some tricky holes and greens on a flattish course where bunkers and a few bumps make some of the shots blind. The course measures 2,468 yards off the yellow tees and 2,968 yards of the medal tees for a par 34. Originally the first 3 holes were in the opposite Easterly direction and skilled players used to deliberately slice their shots on to the road presumably to get the ball to run further then they played back on to the course using brass-soled clubs known as brassies which were invented at Musselburgh in 1885. Nowadays the course wends its way around the inside of the racetrack and crosses over at the fourth hole to the bottom Easterly corner.
The 4th hole is named Mrs Forman’s for good reason. Until recently there used to be a pub of that name behind the green and conveniently golfers could get a refreshment served out the back window.
Legend has it that one golfer, dissatisfied with his round, and let us charitably assume he was playing the course twice walked off the 13th green and went into Mrs Forman’s premises and did not emerge until some time later. By then he had forgotten how he had arrived there and left his caddy car, bag and clubs on the course never to return. I wonder what the gentleman’s thoughts were when he came to at home on the sofa and still had his golf spikes on!
Musselburgh still cherishes its heritage and you can hire hickory clubs at the Starter’s Hut to savour the full ambiance. Next time I may turn up with a hickory shafted putter but will have the latest Ping driver and some decent irons on the bag. I need all the help I can get!
The fourth green is tucked in the corner behind the 5 furlong start. It is a tricky track for sprinters and favours the course specialist.
When I was a boy I waited up late at night to hear the racing results from Musselburgh on the radio. They hold a lot of evening meetings in the summer and the highlight was often the selling handicap for the lowest rated horses. In the field often were Pheidippides or Le Garcon D’Or both ancient nags who still retained some form and were unlikely to be bought at the subsequent auction after the race, should they have been victorious. We all know how the original Pheidippides, an Athenian herald, ran 150 miles in 2 days in 490BC to warn the Spartans of the arrival of the Persians at Marathon. He then ran another 25 miles from the battlefield to Athens to give news of the victory over the Persians then collapsed and died.
The equine equivalent was a unique animal. Originally he was owned by Phil Bull; the classics master turned punter and founder of Timeform and won the Gimcrack Stakes for 2 year olds in 1957. He ran in the 2,000 Guineas the following season and despite being unplaced was thought good enough to send to stud, but proved infertile. He returned to the course and in 1960 ran third in the Royal Hunt Cup at Royal Ascot. He ran for another 9 seasons and Pat Eddery, then a 7lb claiming apprentice scored on his final victory at Doncaster in 1969. Despite being an entire horse (a male horse that has not been gelded) he was easy to train and very affable in the stables. However when out on the course he just ran as fast as he could and the jockey had to hang on for dear life. He was a great favourite with the punters and despite having only one eye he knew how to get that left hand bend first after 2 furlongs then try to hold on to the winning post.
Le Garcon D’Or was another hero winning his 34th race ( 20th century record) at Musselburgh in June 1972 as a 14 year old then turned out the following year to run in the race named after him before an honourable retirement after 179 starts. Needless to say he was a great favourite with the locals who would shout “Garkon!” to encourage him to stick his nose in front. More recently Tangerine Trees who won the Prix De L’Abbaye at Longchamp on Prix De L’ Arc De Triomphe day 2011 won the big sprint at Musselburgh twice and a big race at Beverley. He clearly liked a sprint with a bend in the middle!
Musselburgh has held flat racing since 1816 and jump races since 1997. It is a fair track and with sandy soil set near the Firth of Forth racing is rarely cancelled because of the weather. Jump racing has proved popular with big trainers such as Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicolls bringing horses from down South to run in Cheltenham trials races. So there you have it a great wee historic golf course where racing also takes place. Sadly both sports cannot be accommodated for me at the same time. At the New Year meeting the Powderhall Sprint for male and female athletes takes place in front of the grandstand. Take my tip though, don’t bet on anything that can speak – and that includes professional golfers!
4 Ellary Golf
When I got together with my partner in 1998 she had a group of friends who took a house somewhere in Scotland around Christmas. It was a busy time at work for me but in 1999 I organised things to join the group at a house on Kintyre on this estate on the shores of Loch Caolisport.
When I heard there was a small private golf course there I was even more determined to join the party. I packed a small carry bag of clubs and sat out several very wet days and poor weather as patiently and politely as I could. We had a good New Year and got to bed at some time of the morning. The weather had abated slightly so as soon as I could, I set out on New Year’s Day to play the delightful 6 hole course that, modestly calls itself the Ellery Golf Practice Area. Due to the weather the course was somewhat unplayable to the extent that even with spikes on, I fell on a slight slope when the turf broke away underneath me as it was saturated with the incessant rain we had experienced. Nevertheless I played 2 rounds of the 1,119 yard par 22 course. I scooted round the Tong Garden, Folly, Water Trough, Tin Shed, Water (a short hole across the bay, think of Pebble Beach in miniature) and Shore. It was a tiny gem. When I mentioned it to friends, even those with an encyclopaedic of the Mull of Kintyre, they had never heard of this delightful links and some doubted it existed until I produced a scorecard. It is a private course-a really private one not like these ones that are just posh.
In the ensuing 20 years the estate has been tastefully developed into a holiday destination with 9 cottages and 4 chalets. I am pleased to see the Practice Golf Course near the main house is still available to holiday makers free of charge.
5 Portobello Golf Course, Edinburgh
I first played this 9 hole layout in 2002 in the run up to Ernie Els win at Muirfield in the Open. My friend Danny played regularly with me at that time. He liked to play at Murrayfield and we had the occasional game at Liberton which I enjoyed but Danny wanted to go further afield. We had a summer challenge where we played the great Municipal Links of Edinburgh, Silverknowes, Carricknowe and Craigentinny then built up to play the magnificent Braids (No 1 as we still called it) with its fine views of the city, excellent condition and tight gorse-lined fairways. Poor wee Portobello was not on this list as Danny thought it too short, flat and uninteresting. I thought it sounded exotic like the great racehorse Porto Bello trained, back in the 1960s when I was a schoolboy, by the legendary Staff Ingham based at Epsom. It won a string of races as a 2 year old, including the Nunthorpe Cup at York against older horses at the end of the season. Anyway I had to sneak off and play Portobello, the course, on my own and quite enjoyed it. Since it was a short course and the weather had been warm and dry I brought out my old Pinsplitter blades, and Lynx Black Cat forged titanium driver with a mere 330 cc head for the occasion and carried them with a single strap bag. Who the hell designed these ghastly twin strap jobs? I do not find them comfortable at all and awkward to take on and off. At the end of a round I have additional aches and pains. Actually the best wee bag I had was a Ping one with a single strap which was fairly rigid and stuck up invitingly when laid down to play a shot. It was easy to lift up and put on. Need I say more? Pity I gave it away to a young aspiring lady golfer!
Portobello is a fairly easy course and I played quite well that day until my tee shot at the 7th landed in a greenside bunker. The bunkers are raked by the ground staff first thing and then left to nature. Rakes might get nicked by passing “schemies” so are conspicuous by their absence, in any event far from being filled with finest Tay sand the surface is hard and topped with a sprinkle of yellow stony stuff. After a few hopeless blows and with the ball still in the sand I realised I should transport my brain back 100 years –prior to Gene Sarazen’s prototype sand wedge to the days when bunkers were just like the one I was in and a niblick was the weapon of choice. For some reason the 9 iron nestling in my bag had never been my favourite club, but with a decent loft and little bounce from the sole I got the ball out and sank the putt for a double bogey 5: Lesson 1; keep the ball out of Porty’s bunkers.
After that initial round I motored off in a sudden heavy summer rain shower to Gullane, the charming village next to Muirfield (and 3 Gullane courses). The previous weekend I had seen a set of Maxfli forged Australian Blades at a decent price in the window of a pop-up shop, but the premises were closed. I got there the next day after my golf and did a deal with the shopkeeper who had been on the professional tour in one of the company trailers supporting professionals, who can often be the most demanding and finicky customers. The Maxfli’s had just gone out of production but this chap had gathered up a set of heads and made up the clubs with a specially selected batch of shafts and grips. They were great clubs, but perhaps the Dynamic Golf stiff shafts were a tad heavy for me however I mixed them in some more playable Maxfli Revolution cavity long irons and enjoyed using 6- iron to sand wedge of that set until something better came along.
Latterly, as I have played less and been as busy, I have played Portobello more and enjoy its simple charms. There was a fuss when some land was needed to build the new Portobello High School which lies on the South Boundary of the course but this was accomplished with minor changes to the lay out only. The Council threatened to cut the course further due to dwindling numbers. They were going to open it up to Frisbee users but fortunately that plan seems to have foundered. Mind you we golfers are under attack from all sides-builders and developers wanting to build more expensive flats with views-very few affordable homes feature in these grand designs but allowing a golf course to be taken over for Frisbees that seemed a step too far. I can’t imagine it would be a money spinner.
Anyway you have sneaked off for an hour of two and are standing on the first tee at Portobello. Before you is a fairly flat, undaunting 2,210 yards set against a par of 32 off the yellow tees, but there is more to it than that and the smallish greens can make it tricky. Hole 1 is 382 yards usually downwind and I can usually get a 6 after mucking up a decent drive and scrabbling on to the putting surface in 4 or 5. I like hole 2 a wee dog leg of only 323 yards. Well it is a dog leg for me after I have sliced the ball into some adolescent trees and given myself limited options to tackle the green. Despite these problems I have had a few par 4s and possibly a birdie. Hole 3 is a shortie at just over 100 yards and is pretty straightforward. Hole 4 is a longer par 3 with a blind approach to the green once you have cleared the bunkers about 30 yards from the putting surface. Hole 5 is usually downwind and at 274 yards is usually a drive and a short iron from the rough somewhere for me. Don’t run off the back of the green however as it can be tricky coming back. Then the fun begins. I think the 6th is a gem. It is usually into the wind and that is where my swing begins to falter. It plays longer than 315 yards. I often get caught in the bunkers on the right about 200 yards but try to play for position up the left to avoid the cross bunker further on to reach the oblique green. I have already mentioned hole 7 a straight par 3 where being bunkered is bad news because of the state of the bunker which is not very deep. There is a nice big green and a 2 or a 3 can be on the cards.
Hole 8 at 320 yards doglegs to the left and there is a tight out of bounds on the left to catch your duck hook but if you are lucky your ball bounces off a dog walker and back into play à la President Gerald Ford. Your second shot to a small well- guarded green is tricky and 4 is a good score. Finally you have to walk back a bit from the 8th green into the bottom corner of the course to tee off for the signature 9th hole. It is 193 yards to an elevated green guarded by bunkers. There is a dense clump of trees on the right to finish off the sliced shot where one has little chance of recovery. To the left a wild hook will go out of bounds and maybe hit a passing car. The green is sloping and tricky, and 3 is a good score. All you have to do then is walk off the course, cross Stanley Road, change your shoes and drive off. There is a clubhouse and a starter’s hut and best of all no dress code. Maybe some time, since it is not too far from Portobello Beach, I will get into the seaside spirit and turn up dressed as a pierrot in a clown’s outfit, (like the one who used to do shows on the beach) just for a laugh.
The other Municipal 9 holer in Edinburgh is at the Braid’s Golf Centre, now known as the Wee Braids. It runs to 2,515 yards and is a par 34 but that is only part of the story. It ascends vertiginous slopes at the top of the Braid Hills where the infamous Braids No 2 used run cheek by jowl with the radio masts. I think some of the wacky holes that were there have been replaced by more open ones lower down. There are still plenty signs from the Braids era with blind shots, punishing climbs and spectacular downhillers
Sadly I never got round to playing the Braids kids’ 9 hole course further along Braid Hills Drive towards Morningside. It seemed a great place to drive up, dump the children for an hour or so and pick them up later. It had fine views across the valley to Craigmillar Park Golf Course and the Observatory. There was a wee café too but it didn’t make enough money and shut down a few years back. When I am out walking my dogs in the Hermitage of the Braids we often climb the hillside and walk alongside the abandoned course and I look wistfully at a nice elevated green tucked in a corner. At other times when walking the dogs at Cammo estate near Barnton in Edinburgh, we can still see the vestiges of a course which shut in 1939 (My old school former pupils, the Royal High School Club, held tournaments there in the early 1900’s). Use them before we lose them!
6 Bruntsfield Links Pitch and Putt Course
This is one of the oldest existing links in the world, golf having been played here since the 15th Century. Originally it was a 6 hole course played by the posh boys from Royal Burgess from 1735 and Bruntsfield 1761. They were both moved out to Musselburgh (along with HCEG who played on Leith Links) in 1876, then both relocated again in 1897 to courses which abut one another on the North side of the city at Barnton, while HCEG were relegated to Muirfield. The “long game” as it was known finally moved out in 1890 when the Braid Hills course was opened.
The course is owned by the Council and is a 36 hole, par 108 for pitch and putt. It is free and is open for play in this format from late April (after the mid-month Edinburgh Spring Holiday when Musselburgh holds its first flat race meeting of the year).
In September it becomes a 9 hole winter course for the remaining months – up at the top end near to the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative Shop in Alvanley Terrace. This wee track is cris-crossed by paths so you have to be careful of punters ambling by. Both courses are maintained by the City of Edinburgh Council, helped by a few loyal volunteer Club Members. Clubs can be hired at the nearby historic Golf Tavern which is always worth a visit anyway, as is Bennett’s Bar down the road beside the King’s Theatre. It is a proper old fashioned pub too with big mirrors and bar staff decked out in white aprons just like you will find at the legendary La Mort Subite bar in Brussels.
So you start off at the Green Hut near the Golf Tavern and wend your way across the links and down the hill towards then turn back close to General Maczek Walk and the Meadows play park then back to Glengyle Terrace.
General Maczek, a veteran of World War 1, was a Polish Tank Commander in the 2nd World War who helped liberate France and crush Wehrmacht and SS Panzer divisions. He was decorated by Poland, France and Britain and died in Edinburgh in 1994 aged 102. My Editor (Alastair Allanach) has for another unrelated project compiled a short illustrated history of Maczek which can be accessed here.
I have a couple of pitching wedges and putters tucked away already to go and play this links when time allows. I have a steel set with Stroke Master John Panton wedge which has a groove along the insert in the middle of the sole to reduce bounce and a Ping Anser 4 which features a slant hosel. If that lot aren’t working I have a BeCu set with a Mizuno Tour Proven Pitching wedge and a Ping Cushin putter with a slot cut into the sole and a slightly bent shaft with no hosel. The trick is to go with a couple of golf balls and no tees and just hit the ball as it lies. That is the best practice for the real thing. To tell the truth after about 20 of the holes I get a bit pissed off and head off for a coffee or a cup of tea and a cake in Marchmont Road. I would never make a good David Leadbetter pupil.
So there you have it. This is a gem, it’s free, bags of history and nice to play unmolested as joggers, cyclists whiz by the margins of the course safe in the knowledge that you have the exclusive right to be on the course afforded by the Magistrates of Edinburgh and dated 23 September 1890 in your favour.
7 Inverleith Park Pitch & Putt RIP
Back in the 1980s and 90s when I had a busy job and a young family too was good to escape the odd nice summer evening to the pitch and putt course at Inverleith Park near Stockbridge in Edinburgh. It was a bit rough and ready but enjoyable nonetheless. I remember playing it when I was at school in the 1960s and probably in the 1970s too when home from University.
Stockbridge Golf Club initially played from 1885 in an area of Stockbridge Public Park which is now built up and contains the posh tenements of Comely Bank and Learmonth. The Club moved into nearby Inverleith Park and was certainly playing there in 1913, and it is not clear when the course closed but if the 1st World war didn’t kill it off the 2nd one must have. It had rights to play from 6 to 8 am but at other times the public presumably had right of way. Many of its recorded fixtures and outings were at away venues.
The pitch and putt course was laid out in the 1950s or 60s in a field to the West of the park next to East Fettes Avenue and across the road from what is now Broughton High School’s synthetic games’ pitch. When I first attended as a young lad, the Starter occupied a cubby hole set at the southern end of the changing rooms block and Bowling Club Premises. It had a stable door and I recollect an elderly gent dozing over his paper and dishing out balls and a club if you didn’t have your own stuff.
Sometimes I must have been out for a wander with mates and we ended up there and found the only club you could rent was a 4 iron. The ball was of the indestructible variety more suited to the concrete confines of a crazy golf set up. You were meant to chip and putt with what would now be regarded as a long iron assuming you had one in your golf bag. Needless to say our scores were astronomic and the only fun which could be had with this unsuitable implement was to tee up a ball that you had found in the rough at the foot of the trees which framed the course. The uphill 5th was ideal for this ploy and we took it in turns to smash the ball as hard as we could so that not only did it fly the green 75 yards away but carried two lines of tall trees at the top of the hill and flew over picnickers and assorted dossers and landed in the pond. It was a blind shot so we didn’t have the satisfaction of seeing the splash or the discomfort of sunbathers if your shot was not that spectacular.
Various economic downturns took seemed to effect this little course and after a while the starters hut shut and you could turn up and play for free with your pitching wedge and putter. Sometimes I preferred to use an 8 iron which was probably the right club in this theatre. I do not ever recollect seeing flagsticks but there certainly none during the “free” era. Holes were cut in the centre of each green and left to their own devices for the rest of the season. The result was each hole was “crowned” by golfers walking around the hole to pick up their ball and as the season wore on the hole became enlarged and somewhat irregularly shaped as I imagine the Honourable Company of golfers and their ilk encountered during the 18th century.
Why am I telling you about this seemingly insignificant place which wouldn’t even make the Gola League of golf venues compared to St Andrews ?
Well it is the locus of an Irvine Welsh short story in a chapter entitled “Park Patrol” in “The Acid House”. Brian, a thinly disguised Irvine becomes a thinly disguised Seasonal Park officer at Inverleith, and lands the cushy job in what he called the “golf starter’s box” where he had little to do except read books e.g. biographies of serial killers), play with himself and slope off for a pint now and again. His bothy had a Baby Belling for cooking and an electric fire. He had spare keys cut so that he could sneak back at night and sleep there, he being otherwise homeless. All he had to do was watch out for the Park Patrol who came round and checked up on these casual workers. He shared the block with a group of footballers and enjoyed forgetting to put on the immersion heater so that after their game they could only have a cold shower. The narrator enjoyed arguing with the players and blaming the Council for never getting the temperamental immersion fixed.
I don’t know how Irvine was so hard on the footballers as he claims to have been a casual back in the day and is a lifelong Hibs fan. Like myself he hates rugby but as in the Proclaimers’ song “Letter From America” which bemoans the loss of Bathgate and Linwood (where lorries and cars were once manufactured) and Methil (where there was an oil rig facility) there should be a line added Inverleith Pitch and Putt no more! Not only has the wee course closed, part of it has been flattened to make a fourth rugby pitch!. I am sure the other 3 pitches slightly to the East are better managed as the ground there is used for cricket in the summer.
I don’t know if a scorecard or course plan ever existed but I have a vague recollection of a summer tournament. So dear readers, my expert editor has made sense of all of this with the aerial map showing the old bowling green which was also obliterated along with the first and fourth greens for the rugby boys, and compiled an accurate course map which shown above.
The first; you teed off to the right of the starter’s office and the hole was 95 yards away to the East just beyond the bowling green. This the only teeing area which remains visible. Hopefully you did not hook the ball over the hedge and land amid the bowlers. As a long-term slicer I don’t recall doing that. The first green was to the North of the Western rugby posts. The outline of the bowling green can still be seen. When it closed the Edinburgh Petanque Club took over about half the area. At that time the changing hut (which is now covered in graffiti and gang tags) bore the legend “She was long, thin and tarty and drove a Maserati!” Unfortunately I think that was just a figment of that tortured soul’s vivid imagination.
The second was 100 yards down to the North East corner of the field near to a holly bush and the crossroads in the middle of the park with a memorial/disused fountain to the left. After leaving the first green you walk slightly to the North and were protected by the bowling green hedge from wayward shots behind you from the first tee. The third ran up the East side next to the middle walk in the park and was fully 120 yards long to a slightly raised green.
The fourth was downhill yards into the middle of the course. The tee was set in a gap in the trees and you had to play off downhill lie. The green has been flattened by the rugby pitch but a circle can vaguely be seen on the grass. The fifth was 85 yards long uphill to a raised green. To protect pedestrians crossing the park two lines of tall trees were located behind the green. During one storm about 5 years ago 5 of these substantial trees fell like dominoes after a storm and these have now been replaced by staked trees. The 6th was a very short hole along the top, no more than 45 yards opposite the middle of the staked trees, but it was often quite boggy there after a spot of rain and sometimes that bit of the course was flooded.
The seventh was a tricky 55 yarder over a low ridge to a small green which was difficult to hold in which case you had to chip back over a bank at the rear of the green. The tee was a wee bit forward so that the hole was not a blind one.
The eighth was 120 yards long over a blind summit to a green close to the trees at the North West corner. You could lose a ball there in the thick surrounding grass but the green was often scalped and quite fast so you were better to be long and avoid having an approach shot of putt which would race past the hole and off the back of the green.
Finally to the ninth; it was 85 yards over a ridge, but the green was built up so it was not a blind shot – probably for safety’s sake for those waiting on the 1st tee. I seem to recall a medal tee back in the corner nearer the 8th green which would make a 100 yard blind tee shot.
I kept a diary of a sort (a la Adrian Mole?) from aged 8 in 1960 until about 1990 when the pressure of work was such I didn’t fancy recording that day’s events after completing a days’ work at 2 am. I found a few relevant entries from 1984 when my daughter Catherine was 15 months’ old.
Sunday 9th September – did various breakfast chores then “at 10 30 took Catherine out in the car and she fell asleep so drove to Jim Farmer’s golf centre where I bought a few balls and looked at clubs. I took Catherine for a walk in the Karrimor [a backpack with a frame]…. in Hunter’s Bog” [the valley below Arthur’s Seat where legend has it Royal High Boys learned to shoot rifles during the War when in the Cadet Corps]. Then back home after doing endless gardening chores – “We drove back to Duddingston where I bought a super set of new George Nicoll Pinsplitter irons 3-9 + sand and pitching wedges. [I managed to source a matching 2 iron later.] Also got a new waterproof jacket.”
I see however on Saturday 15th September 1984 after endless chores and getting Catherine her first walking shoes, I went down to Craigleith Road for afternoon tea with my parents. “Took Dad pitching and putting. Had 4 or 5 twos including 2 chipped into the hole. Played well with my new pitching wedge and retained to the wooden putter.” I can only think that means while I used 2 of my new irons to good effect, I kept with the trusty old pre-war Pinsplitter No 9 putting cleek which had an imitation wood steel shaft.
I did see a young man recently practising his pitch shots the wrong way uphill at the ninth during the lockdown and more recently a father and son chipping balls to each other on the rugby pitch near to the 7th green.
Funnily enough the park rules don’t actually prohibit playing golf provided you do not cause annoyance, offence alarm or distress to any other park users. Ball games are only specifically prohibited Edinburgh Public Parks at Princes Street Gardens, Saughton Walled Gardens and Lauriston Castle Gardens. Under Rule 10 which covers short hole golf course other people are prohibited” from going onto playing surfaces when they are in use, and are prohibited from walking onto greens at all times”. You have right of way on this short course provided you are careful so I imagine you could play holes 2, 3, a bit of 5 and 6-9. Maybe this wee course isn’t dead after all and in the summer, once the gang mower has done its work on the course, I could mow the greens a bit closer, and have a 6 1/2 hole layout all to myself.
Diary entry from 1984
I see however on Saturday 15th September 1984 after endless chores and getting Catherine her first walking shoes with the wife I went down to Craigleith Road for afternoon tea with my parents. “Took Dad pitching and putting. Had 4 or 5 two’s including 2 chipped into the hole. Played well with my new pitching wedge and returned to the wooden [shafted] putter.” [I will need to think what that one was but it may have been the Joe Anderson Special (1 iron) putter with extra loft to cope with shaggy greens]
Nothing like an original historical reference!
8 East Links Putting Green, North Berwick
My first games of putting were in Beveridge Park Kirkcaldy mainly with my Dad and Uncle Jimmy Gibb but sometimes with Uncle Jock, a diminutive 1st World War veteran. He was a butcher to trade but signed up as a volunteer soon after hostilities were declared. Amazingly he got through the whole war with long spells in the trenches without a scratch – he reckoned he was too small for the Huns to see. What he did hate were his army issue combination underwear which he found very itchy so at an early stage he discarded these garments, threw them over the trench into No-Man’s Land and “went commando” thereafter.
He was a canny putter with a cleek, lining up the blade ahead of the ball then putting the club behind the ball and sweeping it away to some success. The Kirkcaldy putting green was a fairly standard flat park job but it was fun for all ages and just the thing after a row round the pond in a boat, and consuming an ice cream. The putting green was close to Boglily Straight which was one of the fastest stretches on the motor cycle track which skirted the park. Bob McIntyre, the great Scottish racer of the 50s and early 60s would have gone past at over 100 mph despite trees lining the course. A camber on the narrow tarmac and gutters made with cobbles making each apex a nightmare for the brave riders.
My maternal family originated from North Berwick so we often went for a day trip there and on a hot summer’s day playing putting on the hilly East Links was a new and tricky experience for me. I have played the West Links putting green too and it is no less challenging though a bit flatter but the East one has it for me. Normally this Municipal facility is open from mid-April to mid-September to synchronise with Edinburgh Holiday weekends, and is located near to the start of The Glen as the Eastern golf links are known.
The other putting green worth mentioning in this context is The Himalayas at St Andrews. The St Andrews Ladies’ Putting Club was founded in 1867 when a course was laid out by Old Tom Morris. The ground was very rough then and a cleek (lofted club) and putter were needed but nowadays the green is kept to a high standard by the club. There is a 9 hole course for children and the very challenging 18 hole course from which it gets its name. There is a Clubhouse for the ladies only membership and the course is properly maintained, unlike many putting greens featuring worn crowned holes trampled down by the punters. A new layout is set up each week and has been open to the public since 1920; it is easily accessible from the Old Course and the West Sands.
9 Powderhall Putting Green
I had thought when writing about the semi derelict Inverleith golfing facility I had perhaps plumbed the depths of the golfing food chain. However the other week when I was out walking my faithful cocker spaniels Smudge and Bella we found ourselves walking from East Claremont Street in Edinburgh towards St Mark’s Park. Before I could take the pedestrian/cycle path from Broughton Road to St Mark’s Park, I spotted for the first time a sign for Powderhall Bowling and Putting which claimed to be open 4 days a week but the gate was padlocked. It looked as though it had been shut for some time and as far as I can trace since at least 2014 although it is said to have been used more recently by Broughton Primary School for games.
It was not helped in my view by it’s proximity to Powderhall Refuse Processing Centre which toxic processing had been adjacent thereto. Clearly bright sparks in Edinburgh Council realised they could relocate refuse, re-cycling and administrative offices to the Disposal Site at Seafield where its proximity to the sewerage works and the resultant Seafield smell rendered any fancy notions of bijou flatted dwellings being built on Council land nearby a non-starter. The towering Powderhall works had been flattened and together with the arid and forlorn bowling green and putting area the whole lot looked ripe for yet more residential development in what planners would describe as a “brownfield” site.
Sadly I had never putted at Powderhall but a quick Google search revealed an enthusiastic post from the Ham and Egger Files. These valiant guys describe their adventures on the Crazy World of Minigolf Tour.
During a break in the over 50s and over 60s British Cycle Speedway at nearby Redbraes Park in August 2011 these intrepid guys from the Midlands played the 9 hole Powderhall putting green with John winning 22 to 24- not too shabby scoring. The putting green was one of three bowling greens which had been given over to putting. It was the Minigolf Tour’s 266th venue since when (until the end of 2019) they have played almost another 700 hundred venues making a total of 941 courses since 2006. Many of the venues are crazy golf or adventure golf courses as well as putting greens but golf purists take note these guys are having fun and lots of variety. It is a growth area of golf as can be seen from their vibrant website. I must make sure I pack John Reuter Jnr Bullseye putter in my car boot and practise left and right handed putting in case I see a crazy golf venue on my travels.
Meanwhile Powderhall Bowling and Golf looks forlorn and the Clubhouse is boarded up and become a magnet for graffiti. Golfers take note when your premises are strewn with gang tags and other rubbish you know the game’s a bogey!
Then I spotted online a “tell-us-about-Powderhall “event consultation- a “place brief” no less. A faceless group of Council functionaries and the self-styled Collective Architecture and Urban Pioneers “would like to look at the future potential for Powderhall which would include elements such as new mixed tenure housing, educational facilities, community and commercial uses.” All very laudable but these proposals do not offer much opportunity for minds to be changed. We are told the development “offers the potential to re-establish a positive relationship between Powderhall [and] the adjacent parks”- read no new green spaces then and certainly less than before. The tool used to drive this hypothesis is “The Place Standard” a circle divided into 7 concentric areas for some reason (perhaps mirroring Shakespeare’s The Seven Ages of Man from As You Like It – Jacque’s melancholy soliloquy in Act II Scene VII?) Phrases are arranged at the fourteen points of the compass in such a manner as to deter the casual reader. I have listed them in numbered form for all to see…
- moving around
- public transport
- traffic and parking
- streets and spaces
- natural spaces
- play and recreation
- facilities and amenities
- work & local economy
- housing& community
- social interaction
- identity and belonging
- feeling safe
- care & maintenance
- influence &sense of control
The Clock layout looks attractive but difficult to read and when the elements are listed in a readable form they are vacuous and tautological. Where are the shops? The bowling and the putting? As far as can be gleaned half of the former green bowling/putting space is earmarked for a nursery although “some of the bowling greens could in future be shared with Broughton Primary School and the local community” There is community concern over loss of green space and this is in an area where Powderhall Dog Stadium, B & Q and other sites have been taken over for high density housing. There has been no on-line consultation portal for ordinary residents to have their say only a few events which had limited publicity. A shadow group of stakeholders seems to have inside track. Quite what will emerge from the current economic mess is not clear but I think some of the aspirational ideas will be traded for more cash for private housing developments. Plans to revitalise the B-listed Stables block foundered when funding did not come through but proposals for 250 new homes are still to the fore. Any golfing element has been swept away and if we are not careful golf, in whatever form we know it, could be airbrushed away.
I have written a lot about these smaller but no less interesting courses. Since the format is a short one, nine is enough. Hopefully you have your gems or a similar like near you. Golf for me has always been a hobby and a relaxation. A place where I can leave the office suit and tie behind, decide on a whim today is the day, spot a gap in the family diary and head off in a few comfortable clothes, spend a quiet hour or two and head home. However badly I have played there will have been a few good shots, a bit of fun and such concentration as I developed was at least sufficient to block away the troubles of the day. I will always take that, compared to the fantasy of having to make a par 4 at the 18th to win-unless it is at St Andrews Old Course. For me that would be a big welly up the left, pin high, then trickle a wee 8 iron on to the green and into the hole for an eagle!
© Frank Crowe May 2020