Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Gleneagles ... the golf!

So this was a dream come true. A chance to play at one of golf’s classic courses.

Gleneagles, a one hour drive from Edinburgh houses The Kings and The Queens course, each 92 years old, and alongside them the 15 year old PGA course.

On day 1 of our family trip I was up early for my 8.30 tee off on the Kings course. It's a magnificent setting, steeped in history and it's a daunting prospect to tee off on the first hole - it was going to be hugely embarrassing to scuff my first drive. Great golfers play here and was I going to show myself as worthy? Luckily, I kept my head on my shoulders and my driver in the bag and teed off with a 3 wood (which would be my practice for the next 35 holes as well) and I was off to a cracking start. A 200 yard drive straight down the middle of the fairway. I was ecstatic and relieved ... now I could get on with the game.

The course is truly unique. I have played some grand courses around the world, in Europe, the US, Asia and the Middle East, but this is set like no other I have seen. Modern courses are laid out and planned from the ground up. Consideration made for the construction of hills and water traps etc…, but the 2 old courses at Gleneagles are carved out of the Scottish Hills. The Kings in particular is ridiculously hilly, but has a landscape that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.

the spectacular landscape

My approach toward the first green was fair, but a careless last chip saw me triple bogey. As my usual golf score is in the region of 110-115, double and triple bogeys are commonplace to me, but I strive to improve and had set myself a goal to be shooting under 100 by the end of this year this start did not bode well for me, although I consoled myself that this was likely to be the hardest golf course I would ever play.

So taking the pressure off myself, I teed up on the second hole and with a straight drive, a confident chip and a confident double putt, I was a on a par ... and perhaps a role.

The rest of the round just flew by. It was the first time I ever played by myself and with no pressure of time with players behind me or for any competition, I took each shot with care and precision, and played the course to my ability. I planned for a bogey on each hole instead of carelessly going for shots I was only ever going to be able to make 1 in 10 times.

I continued to double bogey a number of holes on the front nine, but was pleased with my play, and especially my short game, but a big turning point came on the 155 yard par 3 eighth hole. A wide green sitting atop a small hill and the green sloping aggressively from left to right, the course guide advises you to hit the right hand side of the green and let the ball role. It warns against missing the green totally because of the steep banks all around. I chose my club correctly and struck the ball beautifully as it sailed towards the green, and specifically, the right hand side of the green, but the wind picked up as it fell and was blown marginally to the edge. I watched in horror as my ball left the green and rolled on the bank. It started to roll and I let my eyes drop to the bottom where I saw a devastatingly placed deep bunker awaiting. But by some fortune, a clump of grass caught my ball just 10 yards down the slope. I was spared the worst and I had a chance. I played a clean chip and got my ball back on the green and left myself with a 20 yard downhill putt with a slight break. Remembering there was no pressure, I composed myself, looked at the line and gave the ball an ever so light tap. It rolled well, slowly but surely on the immaculate green and with decent momentum from the slope. As my ball approached the hole I was waiting for the break, which happened at the last moment. On its last legs, the ball reached the hole dropped in with a satisfying "plop". I had another par! I was elated. I had felt for the past 18 months my golf game had stagnated, and didn't know how to get myself to the next level, but this started to feel like the right progress.

The par 3 eighth hole on the Kings course

3 more pars and a bogey later, I came in with a total score of 101. I was so close. By far and away the most satisfying game of golf of my life ... from every angle. The best course, the most challenging and the most scenic, but also the most consistent and considered golf I had ever played.

So I hesitated to play another round. I didn't want to leave this place with a sour taste in my mouth by playing a lousy round. Why spoil a perfect memory? But I couldn't resist. With the PGA course closed for the Johnny Walker tournament, I booked a round on the Queens course. Less undulating than the Kings, but more narrow, I teed off at 8am on a rainy morning. I don't normally do rain golf, but I didn't want to lose this opportunity, and in addition, the serenity of playing these gorgeous old courses is so calming to the mind ... So off I went.

My consistency came through again with immediate effect. With a par and 3 bogeys on the front nine and exactly the same on the back nine, I was in for an even better round, even though the game was marred by that early rain and then a thick fog that reduced visibility to less than 100 yards at some point!

The visibility on the 12th on the Queens course

I continued to play my safe game (still no driver used at all) and my approach play was the best it has ever been and my putting was reassuringly reliable. I have a clear memory of my play at the sixth. A 407 yard mazy par 4. A modest drive needed a strong second to get me anywhere near the elevated green. I chose my club and hit a sweet shot perfectly between 2 bunkers at the foot of the hill which housed the green on top. A clean pitching wedge stroke carried my ball the required 50 feet to the back of the green and a long putt saw my ball stop a couple inches from the cup. It ended as bogey, but I was tremendously pleased with my play and course management.

The tee and rough crossing on the 18th hole of the Queens
Going against my instinct, I tallied up my score at the end of the front nine and started to keep score on the back nine after each hole (something I hadn't done on my earlier round on the Kings as I didn’t want to burden myself with any pressure), but as I knocked in 3 bogie's and 1 double bogey between the 14-17th holes, I was sitting 93 with just the last par 4 to play. Even a double bogey was going to be enough. I was overjoyed ... until I saw the tee for the 18th! A tee box on one side of a valley, the contents of which would be more suited to an African jungle than a golf course made this an intimidating drive. The shortest line across was 180 yards in a straight line. Easily achievable for me with a clean hit, and I had been hitting cleanly most of the day ... but it's the psychological aspect of hitting across chasms or vast bodies of water that throw off your concentration. I had to convince myself that this was same shot I had played hundreds of times on the driving range and all day today. I kept my head down and took a light swing, and the ball flew ... straight and true! I cleared the valley and landed just off the fairway. There were just 200 yards to go to finish the hole and the course. I kept my head and opted for a 5 iron with a plan to drop the ball 50 yards short of the green and leave myself an easy finish. My swing was good and the contact was clean, but I had misread a bunker trap in my path and landed myself in trouble. It took me 2 to get out, and then another shot to the green. I did my best to hole it in one last putt, but the distance was too far and with a total of 7 on this last hole, my round completed in exactly 100.

I can’t say I'm disappointed. It's still my best score ever and it was one of the most enjoyable rounds of golf I have ever played. From the vertical walls on the bunkers to the deep bracken filled roughs. From the sculptured fairways to the immaculate greens, this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and one I hope I get to repeat again.

Beautifully sculpted fairways
Near vertical walls on the bunkers!

For now, I come away better and more confident than before and something crossed off my bucket list !

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