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Talk Is [Usually] Cheap

My friend Beth, who lives on the 6th hole of a golf course in metro Richmond, recently posted about the futility of talking to a golf ball. She is correct, of course. If your ball starts right, is SLICING to the right, and is being windblown to the right, no plea of “GET LEFT!” is going bring it back unless it either strikes a tree or Sasquatch appears and bats it back into the fairway. That ball will no more listen to you than a spouse trying to get their mate’s attention inside the two minute warning of a tight football game or during the final scene of Gray’s Anatomy,

None of this matters to most golfers. Of course, there are expressions that are absolutely required regardless of the hopelessness of the situation – and some that sometimes work, all logic put aside.

For example … “Get a kick” is a good, all-purpose plea, useful when your ball needs to bounce a certain direction to avoid a hazard (excuse me . . . “penalty area” is the preferred nomenclature, thanks to the Great [Mostly] White Fathers of the USGA) or, worse yet, going out of bounds. Said “kick” can come from a mound, a tree, or for that matter, another golfer who didn’t hear you scream “Fore!”

Note that in this example, we don’t specify a direction; we are merely begging the ball to stay away from harm. The minute one commands a particular re-routing, all bets are off and the golf will either sigh or swear, and then either re-load or take a penalty drop.

“Get legs!” and its corollary, “Hit a house!” (the former when a putt is hit too softly; the latter when it charges past the hole) are generally futile pleas. “Get in the bunker” is generally delivered sarcastically upon striking a misdirected shot – although, if said bunker borders a body of water, the sarcastic tone changes to one of imploring, as it’s much easier to hit out of sand than water.

“Skip!” is a rather tricky proposition, typically uttered when a golfer hits a low screamer over water that will most certainly not clear, but hopes that the ball will act like a skipping stone. My favorite recollection of a skipping ball occurred back in 2010; when playing in a two day tournament in Chase City, VA, my partner John (The Frenchman) Bennett on consecutive days skipped a shot across the same pond on the same hole to help us to a third place finish, a fact recorded in the Mecklenburg Country Sun, complete with photograph.

To this day, The Frenchman has no idea how he pulled that off.

Talking to your playing partners ball can be fraught with danger, no matter how well intentioned. For some, “early calling” a shot – for example, exclaiming “good putt” to your buddy’s effort, only to have it lip out – is an unforgivable sin. My old friend, the late, inimitable Mike (Squeaky) Calhoun (whose vocabulary on the course consisted of two words that rhyme with “trucker”) once threatened to cut someone’s heart out for early calling one of his putts. “Keep your motherf*cking, c*cksucking mouth off of my ball,” Squeaky squawked at the unsuspecting soul, who didn’t utter a word for the rest of the round.

So . . . I make no judgement as to whether a golfer should talk to his ball or not. But he needs to understand the risks, as well as the consequences.

A Weird Masters Week

There’s snow on the ground here in Colorado. And it’s Masters Week.

Now, it’s certainly not unusual for snow to be on the ground here for Masters Week . . . in fact, it’s not unusual for snow to be on the ground for a fair part of the country during Masters Week. But it’s usually accompanied with the promise of springtime, warmer temperatures, and the resumption of golf for a large segment of the population.

But this is 2020, in which the country – hell, the world – has been laid siege to a deadly virus, social unrest, and political strife so bitter that Orwell would have a difficulty in describing it.  Now, the snow here is a reminder that the season is over for us, and unless one chooses to risk a trip to a COVID-19 hot spot (or still believes that the virus is a “hoax”), his clubs are reluctantly going into storage until the snow melts or a vaccine is widely available.

So watching The Masters this year will certainly be different – The (Mostly) Great White Fathers who run the tournament are capable of making many seemingly Herculean horticultural tasks happen (I recall going to a Monday practice round with my old friend Chet in 2016, and noticed that the azaleas in back of 13 green were well past peak. “They’ll take care of that, don’t worry,” Chet remarked dismissively. By open round Thursday, they had either magically recovered or had been replaced), but try as they might, they can never totally conquer Mother Nature (try as they might). I’m surmising there will be a different look to Augusta National – it will be beautiful, for sure, as there will likely be enough foliage from deciduous trees (either native or freshly transplanted) to give the course an autumnal feel “unlike any other,” as Jim Nantz might say. And with the shift back to Standard Time and shorter days, I’m surmising that will contribute to the overall look and feel of the course.

It may play a bit differently, as well. While the temperatures may be spring-like, the fall tends to be wet in the South, which may lengthen the course somewhat (and give pre-tournament favorite Bryson DeChambeau even more of an advantage). Different grasses have been planted in the fairway, first cut and second cut (there is no “rough” at Augusta, just as there are no pin placements – they are “hole locations” – or no spectators – they are “patrons”), which will likely force some players to rethink club selection and how the ball will react.

There will be no Drive, Chip, and Putt competition for junior golfers this year. And no Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship, the inaugural of which last year produced a finish nearly on a par with that of Tiger Woods.

But it’s the no spectators – excuse me, no patrons – aspect that will likely be missed by both those of us watching and by the players. The Open Championship and The Masters traditionally feature the most knowledgeable fans in all of golf, in which great shots are loudly appreciated. And at Augusta, those cheers and shouts echo through the pines. At the aforementioned practice round, Chet and I stood on the 9th green and heard a loud roar from the 16th. Apparently, Rory McIlroy made a hole in one – mind you, during a Monday practice round. I’ve heard reactions to touchdowns scored at an NFL or major college football games that were not as noisy.

But again, it’s 2020, and we will take what we can get. And hope that by next spring, when The Masters has returned to its usual second week in April spot, things have calmed down, and we can look forward to another season of golf, the promise of spring, and a more certain future.

Golf in a COVID-19 World

I returned to my seasonal job working in the shop at Steamboat Golf Club in May, and have been making up for what I consider lost time (i.e.; winter) by playing as often as time (and my occasionally balky back) will allow there and at our wonderful municipal course, Haymaker. The weather here on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains has been mostly gorgeous, although after another year of abundant snowfall, we use some rain right about now.

Course operations in Colorado’s Routt County (and in pretty much the entire country) have made adjustments to mitigate risks driven by the COVID-19 virus – limited number of players allowed in clubhouses, masks required indoors, heavy applications of disinfectants to rented pull carts, motorized carts, and bathrooms before and after use (Alti-Mate 64 is my new cologne). Rakes have been removed from bunkers, flagsticks are not to be touched, and foam inserts are placed in holes.

Golfers have been, by and large, respectful of these measures, which speaks to the devotion (some call it fanaticism) of this particular sub-species. Even red-hatted science-deniers have cooperated with minimal grumbling. Moreover, because in part of the restrictions on (or cancellation of) other societal activities, courses are busier than ever.

I have people telling me that they’ve returned to game after a long hiatus and are actually enjoying it – or in some cases, at least grateful for having an opportunity to get out of the house while posing minimal health risk to one’s self. Parents are bringing their kids out to hit a few balls – a father brought his two sons out a few days ago, one of whom would typically fall under the category of “sullen teenager.” I went out to greet them after the completion of their round and did my usual “how did it go?” query. Said teenager, practically bubbling over, “Great! I actually got a few shots in the air this time!” I looked at his dad; the smiles beneath our masks were evident.


Because of the example set by the 1% wealthiest people in the United States – and exploited to the extreme by the current occupant of the White House – golf’s reputation has taken a hit. Unlike where the game was invented, where golf is viewed by the Scots as a democratic game to be enjoyed by all, the roots of the game here lie in old-money clubs, a model that morphed into “aspirational” private courses for the new-monied gentry.

The real story is that the overwhelming number of courses in the USA are open to the public, and most are reasonably priced. Sadly, the game remains primarily white, although when one watches the annual Drive, Chip, and Putt competition that Augusta National hosts prior to the Masters, the number of children from Indian and Asian families participating is remarkable and encouraging.

One segment of the population that is helping to keep the game afloat is increased participation by women, a fact that probably has my father spinning in his grave (an often repeated – although totally inaccurate – bromide is that the word “golf” is an acronym for “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden.” You can ask Mary Queen of Scots about that one). When Title IX passed, many parents suddenly learned of scholarships available via collegiate women’s golf programs and got their daughters interested in the game. Professional women discovered the advantages of entertaining potential clients on the course. And others, like their male counterparts, found the challenge and frustrations of the game too enticing to resist.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that a golf renaissance is on the horizon as a result of COVID-19, but in a country that, to use the gentlest language possible, is struggling to grasp the seriousness of the current pandemic (as well as witnessing the boiling over of long-simmering racial tensions), finding refuge by taking a walk (that’s another thing, people – it’s a walking game, dammit!) in park-like surroundings while taking whacks at the little white spheroid seems like a reasonable escape for a few hours.

Although I hear fly fishing has its charms, too …





Hello, darlin . . . it’s been awhile . . .

(Oops, wrong site)

But it HAS been awhile, and given the current state of affairs (in case you missed it, we’re in the midst of a major pandemic or a gigantic hoax, depending on whether or not your head is in the sand or in some other dark place that shall remain nameless. I prefer to believe the former), I thought it would be an appropriate time to check in on the state of things in the world of golf.

As you doubtless know, pretty much all of professional golf activity is on hold, and there is a great deal of variance among the states (and in some cases, in individual counties within states) as to how to proceed locally with the game. Here in the higher elevations of Colorado, this has been until very recently a moot point, as snow cover had pretty much rendered our courses unplayable; however, in other parts of the state, courses have been open for a good part of the winter. Once the realization set in that what we were dealing with was a bit more serious than the common cold, course managers took what have come to be the standard precautions – maintain social distance, don’t remove or touch the flagstick, cups are raised so that a ball is considered “holed” if it strikes the cup, a single rider per cart (if carts are allowed at all).

Steamboat Golf Club, the track at which I’m employed during the summer, is ready to play; however, the county powers that be have required that it stay closed until “stay at home” orders have been lifted on April 26. Meanwhile, over in Moffat County (a mere 40 minute drive from Steamboat Springs), Yampa Valley Golf Club in Craig CO opened 9 holes this week. While Steamboat Springs is dealing with over 30 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (and one death), Moffat has reported zero cases, which either means they are extremely fortunate or are about to get slammed.

Not even an admitted golf addict like myself would consider the game an essential business (essential to one’s being? A different matter altogether), but the variance in policy has led to some minor malfeasance. Massachusetts, for example, has closed all golf courses. Bordering Rhode Island has issued an edict stating that anyone entering from out of state would need to undergo a 14 day quarantine. Three golfers from the Bay State took the rather desperate measure of meeting at a McDonald’s and transferring their clubs into a vehicle with Rhode Island plates. An employee of The Arches turned them in; they now face a court date.

This so much reminds me of those days growing up in Massachusetts, where the drinking age was 21, but in neighboring New York, being 18 got one into a liquor store or bar. This led to some pretty harrowing trips back across the state line after a night of partying for my friends and me – and I’m sure there were plenty of grim outcomes for a lot of would-be revelers.

As someone who walks the fine line between believing in the innate goodness of people versus witnessing truly idiotic behavior, I find myself torn on whether or not course should be open at this time. The Optimist tells me that the majority of people who play the game would have enough sense to observe the special rules in place and be grateful for the opportunity to interact with friends who would otherwise be unable to do so. The Pessimist … well, there’s too many reasons to list.

For now . . . it’s hitting balls off of the deck while wearing a mask for me.


The Pinehurst Sessions

My non-golfing friends (yes, I actually have some of those) often ask me what attracted me to the game. I think there’s several levels to which one can appreciate golf – the satisfaction of finally hitting a shot squarely after many futile attempts (and the frustrations one experiences when he/she can’t repeat the action on demand), the strategy required to navigate a well designed course which begets an appreciation for course architecture, the history of the game, and, of course, the beauty of the playing fields.

But as I’ve aged, what I’ve come to appreciate most are the people I’ve met who play it. From the usual gang of reprobates with whom I associated at clubs in Connecticut, Virginia, and Texas to the random folks I encounter on golf trips or when I golf as a single, one develops a bond with his fellow hackers, whether while trying to win a $2 Nassau bet or telling tall tales in the 19th hole.

One of my favorite people anywhere is a fellow I met while on a golf trip to Pinehurst with our usual traveling road trip gang from the Golf Club at the Highlands in Chesterfield, VA. What made this friendship unique is that we didn’t actually meet on the course and have never played golf together.


I was in the process of a divorce and out of work during the fall and winter of 2009 – 2010. Not surprisingly, I found myself on the golf course quite a bit until we got hit with about 6 inches of snow right around Christmas time. Now, the Richmond area will get snow from time to time, but usually disappears within a few days. Not this time – the rain/snow line that in most years stopped about 40 miles north in Fredericksburg had dropped to the south of us, and for the next few months The Highlands, along with the surrounding local courses, was closed, and we had to drive a few hours to the Tidewater area to feed our golf habit.

In the back of my mind was our spring outing to Pinehurst, which was scheduled around mid-March. The weather that time of year could be iffy, but snow wasn’t a concern most of the time. Our trip organizer made phone calls as the date neared, and we were assured that both the course that was hosting us and the others we had scheduled were fully operational.

We lit out on a Thursday morning and while it was cold, there was no snow on the ground when we hit the North Carolina border, which elicited a symphony of honking horns and cheers from our mini-caravan. Our good cheer abated, however, when we got to the bypass highway near Raleigh, as we spotted a steady stream of vehicles coming from the opposite direction with lit headlamps – and snow on hoods and rooftops. These are not things one cares to see when heading for a golf destination.

Thankfully, when we made the exit onto US 1 south, the snow had turned to rain and mist, which finally stopped when we reached Pinehurst. We unloaded our bags, checked into the Little River Inn, and played a very cold and damp 18 at its Dan Maples-designed course.

The Inn had its own restaurant and bar, of which we took full advantage. It had been a long day of driving and slogging through wet terrain, and I couldn’t wait to put my toes up. I made my way to my room and was about ready to crash when my mobile phone rang. It was one of the guys from our crew urging me to come down to the lounge – “Poppy, you gotta come down and sing with these guys – they got guitars, mandolins, everything!”

I cringed. In my younger days, I was a pretty fair guitarist and bluegrass banjo picker, but I rarely played anymore – usually for a few friends at parties. I still liked to sing – and I’m not exactly sure what drove me to put my clothes back on and head down to the lounge, but I did.

There were 4 guys from Canada – primarily from Nova Scotia – who were on the final night of their own golf trip. The guitarist was a friendly looking guy who greeted me with a quizzical smile.

“Lost Highway, key of D?” I asked with feigned nonchalance. He nodded, glanced over at the mandolin player, and thus started a jam session that lasted until about 2 in the morning.

The guitarist’s name was Greg Simm, and there wasn’t a song that I suggested that he didn’t know and couldn’t play. We covered Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Bob Dylan, Jerry Jeff Walker, and lord knows how many other artist’s songs. The exhaustion of the day disappeared – no doubt fueled by the drams of Scotch that the appreciative folks who were listening kept passing me – and just about everything we played seemed to click.

Eventually we tired out. I suggested that we all end the evening by singing O Canada (Vancouver had hosted the Winter Olympics that year, and the anthem was stuck in my head), and the 5 of us somehow found the right harmonies to pull it off. We hoisted glasses for one last round and exchanged contact information, handshakes, and hugs.


Greg and I kept in touch over the ensuing years via various means, and I came to learn that he was indeed a fulltime musician, having done a ton of studio work with an eclectic collection of musicians. Occasionally he would send me samplings of various projects that he had in progress or had recorded in the past which always left me smiling and shaking my head over how talented this guy was. It didn’t matter if it was folk, bluegrass, country, western swing, rock, or even New-Age type pieces, he would handle it beautifully.

In addition to gigging and recording, Greg and several other musicians travel to Bannif Island for several weeks each year, delivering musical instruments and offering instruction to the native Tribes that inhabit the island. As I was to learn over the years, this was indicative of his generous nature and spirit.

We crossed paths again in 2016 – I had made a trip out to Cape Breton Island to play the two amazing courses at Cabot Links, and I met up with him in an outdoor bar in Halifax the night before flying home. We had a few drinks and caught up a bit, reminiscing over what I had laughingly referred to as “The Pinehurst Sessions.” He was scheduled to fly out to Saskatchewan early next morning to tour with Kim deLaforest, a talented fiddler and singer, but said to me, “Hey, I know where there’s an open mic night going on across the river in Dartmouth. Let’s go play a few!” We drove over the river to Dartmouth, and got up on the stage inside a dusty old Irish themed pub. I looked over at Greg, said, “Lost Highway, key of D,” and we were off once again.


We kept in touch over the next few years, either through email or text. It seemed like whenever I posted some music on Facebook, Greg would comment about the time he had recorded something with that artist, or interviewed him, or had some other encounter with him. I joked that rather than making a list of musicians he knew or with whom he recorded, it would be much easier to list with whom he hadn’t done so. He got a kick out that – and then asked if he could call me; he had an “unusual situation” going on.

When I got his call, we chatted a bit – he wasn’t aware of my recent relocation to Colorado – and I finally asked him about his “unusual situation.”

It turns out that his step-daughter, who has been in his life since the age of 12 and is now 29 – is suffering from a rare form of cancer that her doctors do not know how to treat. Greg had stopped touring during the summer, but, much like professional golfers, musicians need to play to get paid, so he has been busy putting together a support staff for his wife when he hits the road again at the end of the month.

“I haven’t really shared this with a lot of people,” Greg told me. “It’s something that I watch and that I feel helpless about. But I wanted to talk to you about it. You’re a good guy.”

“Well, so are you. And I don’t say that about too many people, especially those who I’ve only met in person twice in my life.”

He laughed. “It’s a diminishing pool these days, isn’t it?”


Usually during a round of golf, we get confronted with decisions – should I chip from off the green or putt it? Do I lay up or try to clear the water? Punch under a tree or try to curve around?

And I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t decided to go downstairs to meet up with Greg and his guys in the lounge of the Little River Inn that night. It certainly wouldn’t have changed Greg’s way of life, or prevented his stepdaughter’s illness.

But I’m glad I did it. And I’m glad that for at least a few minutes, I could ease a friend’s burden. And someday, we’ll actually play a round of golf. And sing a few songs while we’re doing so.

Steamboat Springs Siren Call

I don’t know when the last time was that I fell for a golf course the way I have for Haymaker Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

The setting is hard to beat, of course – Keith Foster’s layout sits on surprisingly level ground in what’s appropriately called The Emerald Valley surrounded by the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. In the springtime, the peaks are still snow-capped (actually, from the 4th tee, one can still see a bit of snow on the Flat Tops, a range of mountains about 40 miles or so to the south) and the views are spectacular.

Moreover, Haymaker Golf Course best epitomizes the characteristics inherent in a municipal course – deceptively wide fairways that promote strategic play, a few risk/reward holes, and green complexes that will confuse even the best players. And for town residents, there ways to reduce one’s cost per 18 to around $30 a pop – or less if one purchases a season’s pass.

Haymaker has a reasonably benign start – the first seven holes have a linksy quality to them; there’s even a Redan-styled par-3 thrown in for good measure. The par-4 dogleg-right 3rd hole is representative of these starting holes; there’s plenty of room to the left, but if one is willing to try to carry the right side fairway bunker (and risk out-of-bounds on the right), he will find himself with an easy wedge to the green as opposed to a 150-plus yard approach.

The 8th is where the real fun begins. It’s a short par 4 that again dares the golfer to bite off as much as he wants to digest, although this time, there is a carry required over a marsh. Aiming posts provide several lines of play, ranging from the safe to the ridiculous. Once the fairway is safely negotiated, we’re left with an approach to a smallish green featuring a nasty swale that will run one’s ball clear off the green.

But it’s the back 9 that is truly inspiring, starting with the Cape-styled 10th. Again, the architect challenges the golfer with a heroic tee shot over water (while offering a safe, but longer route), but the second requires a nervy shot, as water juts in on the right side of the green and a bunker protects the left front.

Each hole that follows steps up the challenge, highlighted by the par-4 15th, aptly named “Mackenzie” after the famous course architect; its well-protected 3-tiered green being a trademark of the good doctor.

The 15th green at Haymaker.

The 16th, called “Emerald Valley,” may be an even better test, as one is better served to hug the right side of its wide, doglegged fairway (and face its inherent dangers on that side) to have a shorter approach to the shallow, creek-fronted green.

If there is a criticism to be made about the course, it would be the condition of the bunkers, an issue that has been acknowledged by the course management team and the town fathers. The bunkers are certainly playable but can definitely benefit from a maintenance effort to improve drainage. These improvements will likely be considered during 2020 budget discussions.

It’s a minor quibble, especially when one considers the club’s excellent practice facility and comfortable restaurant operation, which remains open throughout the year (the course serves as a cross-county skiing venue during the winter) and features an expansive patio that offers fabulous view of the course and the surrounding mountains. Best of all, Haymaker has made substantial investment in both women’s and youth golf, providing free clinics and leagues for both groups.

But for now, you’ll have to excuse me, as I’m hearing Haymaker’s siren call one more time.

Your author teeing it up on #4 at Haymaker.

(Brief) Monday Morning Musings

Not that anyone asked, but . . .

  • The Open Championship may have lacked final round drama, but the site, the fans, and especially the victor made for an exceptional weekend of viewing. More Royal Portrush, more Irish links courses, and more Irish golf fans, please!
  • Brooks Koepka arriving late to the final round of this past weekend’s WGC event in Memphis and summarily kicking Rory McIlroy’s butt is as badass as it gets in professional golf.
  • I’ll be writing more about this later, but there’s drama surrounding Michael Keiser’s latest development effort in the Northern Highlands of Scotland, as a group of local citizenry who are fearful of a repeat of Donald Trump’s bullying efforts (and subsequent negative environmental impact) in building his course in Aberdeen has mounted stout opposition to Keiser’s proposed Coul Links. Anyone who has visited any of Keiser’s golf outposts knows that his approach for both golf course and lodging development is understated and sensitive to the environment. The outcome should be . . . interesting.
  • The weather here in the Rockies is ideal for golf right now, and it’s manifesting itself with busy activity at all of the local courses in Steamboat Springs, including the one at which I’m employed. This has cut into my writing time a bit; I hope to get back into a more regular schedule soon. In the meantime, a quick story from yesterday’s work day:
    • My experience at most clubs is that there is a certain small percentage of players/members who complain about . . . well, about everything. One such member at my club has something upon which to harp on a daily basis – the cart seats are damp, someone cut in front of her on the course, there was an off-color remark in the grill room, we’re wasting too many scorecards . . . In any event, Saturday night brought a heavy dousing of rain, which left lots of puddles in our dirt cart paths. This did not set well with this member, so naturally she came in to complain to me and a co-worker:
      • Her: Those cart paths are in awful shape!
      • Me: Yes, we’re aware of that.
      • Her: (walking out the door) They need to be fixed!
      • My Co-Worker (under his breath) So do you.

Hit ‘em straight.

The GOLF NERD’S 2019 Open Championship Preview

I realize that my love of links golf in general and The Open Championship in particular border on the irrational. The unpredictability of the bounce of the ball, the penal nature of fairway bunkers, the sweeping vistas of the treeless landscape that often take in breathtaking views of the Atlantic, the North Sea, or various firths, and of course, the weather. My heart figuratively skipped a beat when I saw a forecast predicting the following:



Yes, lassies and ladies, genuine Open Championship weather will visit Royal Portrush this week. If only Tom Watson could somehow contend . . .


But let’s get to the matters at hand. Adding to the giddy uncertainty (sorry, can’t help myself) of this year’s Open is the venue itself. Royal Portrush, long considered to be one of the great links courses in the world (and second only to Royal County Down in Northern Island), hasn’t hosted an Open since 1951 for reasons both practical and, sadly, political. We’ll discuss the former first.


Portrush is located on the northern tip of Northern Island (on a clear day, one can view it from the Mull of Kintype in Scotland. At times, various ferry services connected the two). While Belfast is easily accessible by air and by land from the south, getting to Portrush was a struggle for years. And while the town of approximately 7,000 adequately handled summer resort traffic, it was nowhere near equipped to accommodate the hoards that gather for an Open. Both of these concerns have been addressed with significant infrastructure improvements, which will prove to be a necessity – for the first time, an Open Championship has been completely sold out; 190,000 tickets sold, and no walk-up tickets available.


Politically, the long-standing “troubles” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland made hosting any sporting event in the North extremely risky and bringing the Open there all but impossible. The Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998 opened the door to improved relations between the two countries, which greatly reduced (but not completely eliminated) violence between either’s extremist factions. The recent Brexit controversy has only served to bring anxiety about renewing those tensions.

But for at least this week, Portrush hosts a true celebration of links golf, and along with the recent smash success of Lahinch’s hosting of The Irish Open, should bring welcome golf travel attention to the entire island, regardless of borders. I know it’s on my list.

As no living golfer has played Royal Portrush as an Open venue, trying to pick a winner (always a dicey proposition anyway) is nearly impossible. Here are some totally useless observations that required much more than just a grain of salt if one is considering a wager:

HOME COURT ADVANTAGE! – Rory McIlroy, Graham McDowell, and Darren Clarke are all native sons of Northern Ireland. McDowell and Clarke are members of Portrush, while McIlroy holds the course record of 61, a score he recorded at the age of 16. In considering any of these players, on needs to consider the following:

  • Clarke, who has facially aged better than any Irishman this side of Sean Connery, is, while officially in the tournament, largely in a ceremonial role for this championship. A win by him might possible empty the country of Bushmill’s.
  • McDowell could be a dark horse, or at minimum a decent inclusion to fill out a fantasy team (where such activities are allowed, of course!). He’s enjoyed a productiv season and survived the cut at Pebble Beach in last year’s US Open. But his chances of winning are only slightly better than those of Clarke.
  • The People’s Choice this week will be McIlroy. Although his score of 61 is no longer considered the official record as there have been changes made to the course, Rory knows enough about Royal Portrush, and, of course, his talent is undeniable. But his play in the majors has been spotty since his PGA Championship victory in 2014, and one has to wonder if the pressure on him to win will be unmanageable.

INSIDER INFORMATION! – Brooks Koepka is the one US star who made his bones on the European Tour, and his caddie, Ricky Elliot – surprise! – was born in Portrush and remains a member. Koepka supposedly is leaning heavily on Elliot for local knowledge and is keeping it to himself to the point that not even Tiger Woods is privy. That aside, the main reason for putting a quid or two on Brooks Koepka is, well, he’s Brooks Koepka.

TIGER! TIGER! TIGER! – Golf prowess aside, Tiger is a one-man content generator, and while his play since The Masters has ranged from dismal to middle of the road, there’s been no shortage of speculation about his performance at Royal Portrush:

  • “He rested!” “He’s rusty!”
  • “The weather favors him! He can work the ball either way against the wind!” “The weather hurts him! His back won’t hold up!”
  • “He’s no longer named in the lawsuit against his restaurant!” “But his girlfriend is!”

And so on. The fact is, Tiger could win the damn thing. He could also miss the cut, badly. Neither would surprise me. My prediction – no matter what the outcome, every one of his shots will be televised.

THE GOLF NERD SAYS!What the hell do I know? Particularly when it comes to The Open. But I believe the following:

  • Take Koepka over McIlroy
  • Henrik Stenson has looked good recently, and it was only a few years ago that he won it
  • I don’t feel it for Tiger this week
  • The defending champ, Francesco Molinari, hasn’t been the same since The Masters
  • Justin Rose? Maybe. Jon Rahm? Nah.
  • Because it rains so much in Ireland in general, Royal Portrush will show better on television than any other of the Open Championship venues, and will most likely have many observers swooning.

As I mentioned in my piece about The Irish Open – best to set your alarm clock early, and best to set another clock to Irish time so you can enjoy adult beverages guilt free.

East Lothian Memories

While PGA Tour rookie Matt Wolff, only months removed from  was making history at the 3M Open by winning in only his third professional start with his one-part boogie-woogie/one-part Jim Furyck-like swing, Spaniard Jon Rahm fired a final round 62 to capture the Irish Open for the second time in three years (Jon O’Rahm has a bit of a ring to it, no?). Quirky Lahinch yielded some spectacular golf, and the town of 700 handled the throngs of spectators quite nicely. I’ve yet to travel to Ireland; after watching this, I need to find a way to get there.

So while the Tour moves on to the John Deere Classic in the Quad Cities (where a charter plane awaits to transport qualifiers for the Open Championship to Royal Portrush), most of the top ranked players will be taking on The Renaissance Club, this year’s site for the Scottish Open.

The Renaissance Club is likely the most exclusive course in Scotland (even its stuffy nextdoor neighbor, Muirfield, allows outside play a couple of days a week), so for most of us, we’ll be having our first look at Tom Doak’s seaside links design. Doak is a master of using native environments to create natural masterpieces (Pacific Dunes may be the best example of his work); that alone should be enough of an incentive to tune in this week.

Scotland features several strong golf regions, but most would argue that Fife and East Lothian (both located east of Edinburgh on opposite sides of the Firth of Forth) offer the best variety of courses in the country. The rivalry between the two boroughs extends back to the days of the famous challenge matches that featured Old and Young Tom Morris of St Andrews vs Musselburgh’s Willie and Mungo Park.  The Renaissance Club is the latest addition to the East Lothian coast.

When one leaves Edinburgh towards East Lothian and chooses the coastal A199 route, he/she will encounter several seaside villages and courses, each one seemingly more charming than the next. The center of all golf activity is the town of Gullane (pronounced GULL-in), which is home to three fine links courses (creatively named Gullane #1, #2, and #3), as well as The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, a/k/a Muirfield, which is universally accepted as the finest links in all of Scotland and is usually ranked no worse than the 5th best course in the world. Muirfield has hosted many memorable Open Championships, including Lee Trevino’s chip-in to break Tony Jacklin’s spirit in 1972 and Phil Mickelson’s popular 2013 victory.

Just to the east of Muirfield lays North Berwick, whose West Links should be experienced by any golfer who values both superior shot making and history of the game. The West Links features two holes whose design has been copied worldwide – the 15th, a mid-length par 3 called Redan which features an angled green protected by nasty front bunkers, and the 16th, whose bisected green earns the name Biarritz.  Charles Blair Macdonald, the Scottish immigrant who was instrumental in bringing golf to the United States, used both of these holes as templates and passed that knowledge on to his associate and protégé, Seth Raynor.

There’s a 16th century wall that comes into play throughout the course, no more so than on the 13th hole. Known as “The Pit,” it’s a short par 4 that requires a nervy approach shot over that wall which borders the right side of the green. Much like the 5th at Lahinch, designing a hole like this today would likely bring howls of indignation, but anyone with a golfer’s soul would love it – as well as the rest of the West Links of North Berwick.

There are other fine links along the East Lothian coast, from Musselborough (where one can play with hickory shafts and gutta-percha balls) all the way to Dunbar. If you decide to make the trek across the pond, include both Fife and East Lothian in your itinerary and decide for yourself which is better.  You won’t be disappointed with either.

[Note: For more ruminations on Scottish golf, check out Golf In Scotland, The Walking Game, The Kingdom, Waiting in Line at St Andrews, and Carnoustie Follies.]

Lahinch and the Start of Links Golf Season

I’m not an expert on golf course architecture by any stretch of the imagination, but to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart’s famous statement regarding pornography, I think I know a good course when I see it. And I am truly looking forward to this week’s Irish Open, particularly since it is being held at one of golf’s wonderfully quirky courses,

The Old Course at Lahinch.

Old Tom Morris was the first to formalize the design at Lahinch, including  the famous par-3 5th, known as The Dell. Its green is hidden among a bevy of dunes; a white rock provides the golfer with an aiming point towards the flag. Uptight American golfers tend to despise holes like this (when Wisconsin’s Erin Hills was first built, it featured a replica of The Dell that was greeted so poorly by the general golfing populace that it was eliminated after a couple of seasons); personally, I’d love the to have a go at it.

The great Dr Alister MacKenzie was brought in some thirty years later to do some renovation work, including the addition of several of his trademark triple-tiered greens. Finally, Dr Martin Hawtree (who, among other efforts, “helped” Donald Trump design Trump International in Aberdeen) rerouted the course, bringing the Atlantic Ocean more into view on several holes as well as restoring the magnificent MacKenzie greens that had been neglected over the years.

But the most important design feature of Lahinch, intentional or otherwise, is, as honorary tournament host and 2014 Ryder Cup Captain Paul McGinley notes, is the pub located some 100 yards away from the 2nd green. After all, this is Ireland.

Perhaps the most legendary member of Lahinch was John Burke, who won the South of Ireland championship there an extraordinary eleven times (Other winners of “The South,” as it’s called by the locals, include major champions Darren Clarke and Graham MacDowell, as well as the aforementioned McGinley). In addition to his golfing prowess, Burke was a fighter in the IRA and participated in the Rineen Ambush, a crucial engagement in the Irish War for Independence. Heady company, indeed.

The Irish Open kicks off my favorite time of year in professional golf, as we get to see pure links golf throughout the month of July. This year is particularly intriguing, as besides getting to see Lahinch, a lot of us will get a first look at Tom Doak’s Renaissance Club, which hosts this year’s Scottish Open and is a worthy addition to the already golf-rich East Lothian coast. And, of course, the Open Championship returns to Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush for the first time since 1952.

But it’s Lahinch that takes center stage this week, and I suggest you set two separate clocks – one to wake you up early so that you tune in to the proceedings on  The Golf Channel, and one set to Greenwich Mean Time so that you won’t feel guilty pouring yourself a Guiness and enjoying a pint with your Irish hosts.