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It’s finally about to happen, if it hasn’t already. My lack of expertise in reviewing a golf course will be exposed.
How? I think Castlerock Golf Club is a better golf course, from what I remember, than Royal County Down.
Absurd! Royal County Down may be the best golf course in Northern Ireland if Royal Portrush is not. Both of them could be, from what I’ve heard, in the top 10 of all golf courses in the world.
So on my next trip to Northern Ireland, perhaps in two years, I want to get back to County Down to see what I missed from a trip there seven years ago. Maybe I have a more trained eye -- or more sensitive one -- that better ascertained the features of links golf when I played Castlerock in June 2012.
I stumbled onto Castlerock by studying courses from Northern Ireland on one of the golf travel websites. I first noticed Portstewart because its green fee was discounted close to a third off from the price of Royal Portrush. But I saw just a few miles away that Castlerock was even cheaper, more toward the concept I espouse of “Golf Like You‘re Poor.” The pictures and commentary on the club’s website looked inviting (after the 1908 opening of the 18-hole layout credited to Scottish pro Ben Sayers, it had a touch-up from Harry Colt in the mid-20s), so off I went. It would cost about $105 to play there compared to $210 at Portrush, the Irish Open venue just up the road on the Antrim Coast. Not stuff for the poor, but at least it was a better fit for my budget.
The seaside village at Castlerock has a 6,800-yard course that cards par 73, though the pros would take par-5 holes like the 477-yard fifth and the 490 at No. 17 and cut par to 71. I surmise that’s what holds back Castlerock from anything close to County Down or Portrush consideration -- no championship distance.
To me, it matters not. There’s plenty of challenge here, and fine qualities of links golf, starting not too distant from the elevated fairways at the two opening holes that offer display of the close by North Sea and Ireland’s Inishowen Head. Pin positions cut to the right at the par-5 third hole require approach shots with care, because nicely struck balls to the very firm greens will not hold the ball from rolling toward a 15-foot dropoff down to the fourth tee. Down there you’ll find the start of a par-3 of some 200 yards to a well-bunkered layout surrounding the putting surface.
I quickly noticed the firmness of the greens back on the first hole, when my 7-iron approach rolled 30 feet past the ball mark, and that’s even into an uphill green. In what may be the only divergence from the expected links play, those greens do not roll fast.
The wee bit of water that comes into play at Castlerock makes an appearance at No. 4, but that burn from the sea’s inlet hugs closer to the green at No. 6 -- a gem of a hole even if it’s the shortest par-4 on the property at 347 paces. The green falls sharply back down to that burn, but there’s hardly a chance of spinning one back into it because of the firmness of the greens here.
From here on out as Castlerock bounces rather nicely through the dunes. It’s particularly bumpy when No. 8 doglegs right along them, No. 9 (I think the best par-3 here, better than No. 4) has a green that sits down right in the dunes, No. 13 (“Swallow Hill,” they call it) has a hump dominating the fairway and No. 17 gets the highest point on the course because the tee box is perched right in there on the grassy ridge. As high up as you may be at 17 tee, you still can’t see the pot bunker in the swale plunging down and coming into play for your second. Your approach shot in is ruined if you’re down there. And a big dune rivaling the one at Swallow Hill is blind to the tee shot at No. 18. But, in this one’s case, it’ll not affect you unless you miss the fairway right.
The only thing left to do after the walk up to the elevated final green is to order a pint from the clubhouse’s upstairs bar and drink from it while leaning against the rail from the outdoor perch overlooking the grounds. The only thing better would be to get back down just a few feet away to No. 1 tee and have another go at it.
Maybe you can tell I’m not much of a golf-course reviewer, but also can see I love Castlerock for its sharp little layout. When I leave Texas and go back to Ulster, I will play Royal County Down again. But there’s no way I’ll miss a trip back here. It’ll never be on the Open Championship’s rota, but it’ll always be on mine.
Tim Price is working on his second book covering a facet of sports history. It's due out in Spring 2014. In the meantime, read his blogs and reviews can be read here or at Tim Price Sports Books. You can also follow him on Twitter @golflikeurpoor.
When the Champions Tour event in San Antonio was moved last year to the new Pete Dye design at TPC San Antonio, how ironic it was that Bruce Lietzke was the fellow trying to turn on his mates to Dye’s work.
Lietzke was the PGA Tour‘s “player consultant“ for Dye on the design of the Canyons Course at TPC San Antonio. But as a young PGA Tour member during the late ‘70s, Lietzke showed up in Dallas for the Byron Nelson Golf Classic when it was played at Preston Trail Golf Club and snickered when asked about the holes there that had been redesigned by Dye. He repeated a line he heard in the locker room from fellow tour player John Schroeder, who thought a stack of large rocks beyond the fourth hole would be a dead ringer for the San Diego Zoo, if only a polar bear could be added.
There are plenty of rocks at TPC San Antonio, but there are some nice fairways and greens laid down there in the middle of all that. In fact, the fairways are mostly wide enough and the greens mostly not too severe that I’ve actually seen the term “user friendly” given to describe Pete Dye’s work here.
“If you hadn’t told me that Pete designed this place,” Hal Sutton told me after playing the Canyons last year, “I would not have guessed.”
Oh, you get the Pete Dye trademarks here, don’t worry about that. A litany can be made: the green drops off severely on the first hole, a pot bunker dissects the green at the third so much that front pin positions look like they’ve been cut onto someone’s porch, the green at the par-3 eighth has a “fallen” back half, fairways at the ninth and even more so at 14 are built into platforms above long, stretching bunkers. The list can go on.
The pros certainly found it tame here last year. Fred Couples won the Champions Tour event on this course at 23-under (rounds of 65-62-66).
For the average golfer, though, the only way this Pete Dye design can be held as “user friendly” is when it’s put in context with its sister course here, the Greg Norman-designed Oaks Course. Every time I look over there and see its torn-into-the-earth contouring of the bunkering and the severely sloping greens I can’t help but think that place should have swirling razor wire and guard houses erected. The average golfer would find better treatment in Rahway or Attica.
Dye’s course lacks brutal length (tees can stretch to 7,100 yards, but a good setup can be found on the tees measuring 6,600 yards or shorter). It is, however, like the usual layout in the Texas Hill Country. If you miss the fairway by just a bit, good luck finding your ball. It’s down in what golf now euphemistically calls “native area,” and it’s a nearly automatic penalty.
But the natural look of this place is a strength. This course works away from the huge resort hotel here and doesn’t come back from a peaceful tour along a nature preserve until the 18th hole. There are some houses that can be seen lined up off in the distance, the massive hotel too, but the view is mostly live oaks and cedar trees out there in the gentle hills. Except for the wind that blows onto these ledges, it’s quiet and sweet.
Dye’s design here, I think, actually gets a bit boring in places. After a standout first hole that opens with a tee shot over a gentle hint of a canyon, the holes are rather similar looking starting at No. 2. Several holes have an almost cookie-cutter design to them.
But there are some highlights. The par-5 sixth hints of a blind shot with an elevated landing area off the tee. The next hole runs nicely back up that hill from the other direction, and then the next hole at the eighth is a pretty picture. It’s 165 yards from the back with a green propped up there amid a background of nature preserve.
But then the cookie cutter is back out until the 12th, a 532-yarder that is uphill all the way. The 14th has a good look to it with the massive build-up job of crafting a fairway doglegging to the left onto the Hill Country ledge. Then the 16th is maybe the best hole on the course, its tee shot spanning a canyon that cuts in from the left to make it look more like Torrey Pines than South Texas. It can play as long as 224 yards, but Dye left behind a “safe zone” landing area short and to the right.
That Hill Country nature preserve out there is staying. And, unlike many of the design features over at Greg Norman’s design that already is getting tweaks from a bulldozer next door, all of the familiar Pete Dye features likely are staying, too.
TPC San Antonio was not listed in the "golf course" section of secretinthedirt.com where other reviews are posted, so the review is posted in this blog. Other writing by Tim Price can be found on timpricesportsbooks.com or on Twitter @golflikeurpoor.
It can be no shock to see that participation in golf is dipping at the same time that our economy has suffered through historic drops. But can the blame extend beyond the economy, and does golf possess a future that could make it go the way of horse racing? I never thought it would happen.
Here’s one of my problems in golf: The trees can’t knock my drives toward the fairways, and my email’s spam filter can’t block the lousy offers I get via golf courses from landing in my inbox. Good ones do roll my way, even if they drop into the hole at the rate of my birdie putts.
You can put a red number on my scorecard now because I just got an email with a really imaginative golf offer. It comes from Woodlake Golf Club, which was the site of the PGA Tour’s Texas Open during a stretch in the ‘70s including the year NCAA champion Ben Crenshaw came down from University of Texas following his college eligibility and won in his first try on tour.
This is a course that has struggled the past few years with its condition, and I wonder if it will survive the development of real estate that’s been eating up the open ground along the northeast edge of San Antonio. But there’s been little struggle that I can tell with the management of the course, at least in terms of using imagination to get people to play there.
The latest move has the Woodlake golf operation teaming up with American Express’ “Small Business Saturday.” A cardholder is required to register online to get a one-time $25 credit if a good or service is purchased at a participating small business this Saturday (Nov. 26, 2011). Woodlake is participating, so it looks like I’m in line for a refunded green fee, range balls and change left over for a snack between nines.
There’s still some computer red tape to go, and perhaps some fine print that I may have missed. So we’ll see how it goes. I don't have to play Saturday. As long as I buy the round on Saturday, I'm good to go when I have time to get back out there (I can even get the card bought over the phone and not worry about driving out there until I'm ready to play).
This course normally offers some every-day value for a golfer always on the lookout for it. But the greens became spotty about a year ago, a new superintendent was hired, then the Texas drought came along and hasn’t helped matters out there -- I imagine; I haven’t played there in a while.
But this offer gives me reason to go out and check the place again, and possibly return it to my playing rota. I need that, I need a place like this, because more places that offer value and stay vibrant can work to keep green fees down. The operator of the municipal courses here has announced a green-fee increase. So I’ll vote against their green-fee increase by slapping down some plastic on the counter of the golf shop across town.
I imagine the credit card’s mindset is to get people to look at an alternative to the big-box stores. I like the alternative. Particularly, I like being able to make the choice. And I like it in golf.
You can follow Tim Price on Twitter @golflikeurpoor and read his blogs at Tim Price Sports Books.
I wouldn’t be doing my Golf Like You’re Poor job if I didn’t take a short break from my current “day job” duties and write up this tip: Keep your eye on Groupon.
I know: it’s rare that Groupon comes with a deal relating to golf. But once it does, it’s highly worth it....