I?ve been on something of a golfing odyssey this week. Five rounds on four different courses: four played competently and one played at Carnoustie.
Along with eight other journalists, I was kindly invited on a trip to Dundee organised by International Pairs. I was delighted to attend, not just for the golf and the experience but also to get a couple of undisturbed night?s sleep. My daughter is four months old now and almost sleeps through, almost but not quite.
International Pairs was the brainchild of a Hampshire businessman called Ross Honey. When it started in 1998 it was just a county event but it?s grown into the largest competition in the world for club golfers. Participating clubs pay an entry fee of £250 and can select their representative pair in any way they choose, through any format. It could be foursomes medal play or a fourball knockout, it could even be a raffle prize.
Each winning pair at club level goes to one of seven semi-finals held at top-class venues like The Players Club or Blairgowrie. Semi-finalists will be put up for a night in a local hotel. The leading pairs at the semi-finals will move on to the UK final at Carnoustie in October. The winners from there progress to the 2008 World Final, where pairs from all over the globe will compete to be crowned World Champions. It?s a great competition and a way for club level golfers to experience tournament golf around some high quality courses. For more information on International Pairs go to www.internationalpairs.com
We were put up in Dundee?s comfortable Apex Hotel and were set to enjoy rounds at Ladybank, Carnoustie and Panmure. Dundee is a great base because you can take pretty much any road out of the city and find a golf course within 20 minutes. Carnoustie is just 10 miles north and St Andrews is 15 miles south.
The first game of our trip was at Ladybank. It?s an Open qualifying venue and will host one of the International Pairs semi-finals later this year. Tight and tree-lined with firm heathland fairways, this is a thinker?s course where strategic play from the tee is a pre-requisite. I have a mental block when attempting to be strategic. I?m just as likely to hoick one into the trees with a 4-iron as I am with a driver.
I don?t think I?ve ever played a round when I?ve hit so many low punch shots trying to avoid overhanging branches. I?d become very good at it by the end of the game. On the 17th I was under yet another tree and played a 150-yard chip with a 5-iron that ran up to 3ft. Just call me Seve.
Ladybank is definitely one of the best inland courses in Scotland, superbly maintained, wonderfully peaceful, challenging but fair. All in all, it?s a joy to play. A special mention goes out to the soup we had before the game. It was very green yet tasted delightfully meaty, just how did they do that?
After a hearty supper in the Apex hotel and a couple/few glasses of red wine I was ready for bed. I could easily have hit the bar like a few of the other boys, but displaying rare conscientiousness I decided sleep was the best preparation for the rigours waiting in the morning. Next stop Carnoustie.
Carnoustie is very hard. The ball is magnetically drawn to the bunkers and it invariably ends tucked up into the face of them. The greens are huge and, although exceptionally true, they?re seriously tough to read. The wind is continuous and powerful. Into its teeth 350-yarders become two good blows, with the breeze at your back 440-yarders can be a drive and a flick. It?s a challenge from start to finish with no chance to relax.
Having double-bogeyed two of the opening three I was beginning to question my bar-avoidance tactics of the previous evening. By the time I?d limped in with 28 Stableford points, a broken man with the hint of a tear in my eye, the bar seemed a very good option. Carnoustie?s difficulty is evidenced by the fact my 28 points was good enough for second place, just one off the winner! I felt considerably more cheerful after discovering that.
We finished our game just before 2.00pm and had four hours before the next scheduled activity. It was a good chance to go back to the hotel and catch forty winks or perhaps write up a few notes. Or, to go on a nostalgic pub crawl visiting boozers that various members of the party had frequented over the last 30 years.
Back in Dundee we were treated to a fascinating tour of Captain Robert Falcon Scott?s ship the Discovery. Since 1986 she?s been docked in Dundee where she was built in 1900-1901. I was struck by the workmanship and the quality of materials used in the construction of the Discovery. She?s incredibly robust as she was built to travel through pack ice. Between 1903 and 1904 Discovery was stuck in the Antarctic surrounded by twenty miles of ice. She was rescued and went on to serve as a cargo vessel and was used for expeditions as late as 1931.
After disembarking I made my way with some excitement into the visitor centre. Of course I was interested to read further on Scott, Shackleton and the Discovery, but my enthusiasm primarily centred around the whisky tasting set up on the top floor. The Famous Grouse Experience aims to give an introduction into the world of malt whisky. You are encouraged to recognise the subtle flavours and aromas of different malts and to understand how these are created. I found the experience interesting and intoxicating.
I wasn?t expecting a good performance as we made for Panmure the following morning. After the whisky tasting we?d enjoyed a lovely meal at the Hilton, then returned to the Apex for some lovely drinks in the bar. I believe I got to bed at 2.30.
Panmure will host local final qualifying for this year?s Open. Ben Hogan famously used the course to prepare for the 1953 Open at Carnoustie and he rightly held it in high regard. It?s a fantastic track, much underrated in my opinion. Humps and hollows, streams, gorse, pot bunkers, thick rough: Panmure has it all. The greens were running beautifully and the fairways were relatively lush given the dry weather over the previous weeks.
It?s an old school club full of charm and character and, with a membership restricted to just 500, the course tends to be quiet. Before playing the secretary warned us about three of the older members who play every day and cut across from the 6th green to the 14th tee. ?You might see three elderly gentlemen in a buggy.? He said. ?If it looks like they?re going to cut in front of you?. They are.? Brilliant.
My performance in Saturday?s medal at Banchory deserves only a cursory mention. I put in another solid yet unspectacular round of 71. I?d like to take this opportunity to apologise to my playing partner Jim for describing the game as pointless as we sat in the clubhouse after the game. My rationale for the statement was that I?d battled round for four hours to return a nett score right on CSS. My handicap won?t come down or go up and I?ll be nowhere near the prizes. Of course the point of the game was to enjoy a round of golf in good company and simply to have competed. Sorry Jim.
If you?ve done the sums and worked out I?ve only mentioned four rounds, I?m impressed you?ve read to the end. For those brave souls: I had another game at Banchory on Thursday evening.