2019 Year in Review Part One – My Game: READ PART ONE HERE
Unlike the last few years where I had no concrete plans going into the year, meticulous planning went into 2019, as I returned to Scotland for the second time in three years, joined by seven good friends.
In all, including my new home club at Lookout Point CC, I was able to play 17 different golf courses in 2019, with a whopping 11 of them being first-time visits.
It’s a treat to reminisce about the special places I was lucky enough to visit over the past 12 months and as always, this is my favourite post to write every year.
In early April, I played the first of 48 posted rounds at my new home club, Lookout Point CC.
This Walter Travis designed gem, which perennially sits within the top 100 courses in the country, opened for play in 1922 and features stunning vistas of neighbouring Niagara Falls, excellent rolling topography and phenomenal green complexes, a Travis trademark. I had a wonderful first year as a member at Lookout and I look forward to many more years of being captivated by its beauty and design complexities.
In late April, I’d attempt to qualify for the 2019 Ontario Better Ball Championship with my friend Ryan at Eagles Nest Golf Club in Maple, Ontario.
Eagles Nest, a Doug Carrick design that opened in 2004, is a heathlands-style course built on the site of a former sand and gravel pit, with a faux dunescape that wouldn’t look entirely out of place overseas. It’s a very strong golf course, one that also sits within top 100 in Canada and it was great getting back there for a third time, even though we fell short of our qualifying goal.
On June 1st, I’d play the first of four 2019 rounds of golf at my old stomping grounds, St. Catharines G&CC.
I basically grew up at the St. Catharines G&CC, joining as a teenager back in the late 1980’s. I had so many incredible moments as a member and many of my great friendships were made at that club. I got to see some of the nice changes made to the greenside bunkers on the 6th and 7th holes (seen above) by architect and friend of Now on the Tee, Ian Andrew, but spending time with my old friends on the course and on the patio after the rounds was unquestionably the highlight.
In late June, I joined my friends Brian S, Brad G and Yogi M for a round at Glendale G&CC in Hamilton, Ontario.
Glendale, which originally opened in 1919, has a pretty interesting history. It was designed by one of its founding members, George Harvey, a local mason who had a passing interest in golf course architecture. The course is super sporty and sits on a wild piece of property, with lots of undulation and small, tricky greens. The routing is definitely quirky but overall, we had a blast at Glendale. Brad especially enjoyed the day after carding his first ever hole-in-one on the par three 9th hole and we’d celebrate with beer and wings at Jack Astor’s after the round.
On Wednesday August 7th, I took a red-eye flight from Toronto to Glasgow, Scotland, beginning a ten day odyssey that would see us visit 12 different courses and play an incredible 16 rounds of golf as part of #AuldSod2019.
In Glasgow, I’d meet up with Chris H, Howard R and Matt S for the “Pre-Trip” portion of the adventure, with our first round taking place an hour away at historic Royal Troon Golf Club.
Just to give a bit of background, our group stayed at the Marine Hotel in Troon back in 2017 but we did not play the course on that trip, something we wanted to rectify in 2019.
The Old Course at Troon has hosted The Open Championship nine times, most recently in 2016 when Henrik Stenson came out on top in a thrilling final round shootout over Phil Mickelson. The par three eighth hole, known as “The Postage Stamp”, is one of the most famous and notorious holes in the game.
We had a perfect day of weather at Troon, with glorious sunshine and very warm temperatures, and the course was probably better than I had expected going in. Royal Troon is what I’d call a “proper links”, with a classic out-and-back routing that sits on perfect land for golf. There are plenty of strong holes out here but the 8th is a true standout and one of the greatest par threes in the game. We all enjoyed the round at Troon – it’s a superb, championship test and the links were in phenomenal shape.
We finished with a soup and sandwich lunch in the clubhouse after our round and Howard was forced to raid the pro shop as well, as his suitcase full of clothes wouldn’t arrive until later in our trip.
We hopped in our rental car and made a very long drive up north into the Scottish Highlands. We were a pretty unruly bunch by the time we approached the town of Dornoch – tired, thirsty and very hungry, we tried finding a place to stop and eat without success.
We all crushed a huge breakfast the next morning at the Dornoch Castle Hotel before making the very short jaunt up the road to one of the most famous venues in the world, Royal Dornoch Golf Club.
Old Tom Morris is given credit for overhauling the original nine hole design and converting it into the 18 hole Championship Course in the late 1880s. It is known as one of the greatest golf courses in the world, currently sitting 10th on Golf Magazine’s 2020 list of the world’s best and I had been desperately hoping to experience the course and the town of Dornoch ever since reading Lorne Rubenstein’s wonderful book, “A Season in Dornoch”, which gets my highest recommendation.
We had a complete 180 degree turn weather-wise from the day before, with driving rain and winds gusting to 60mph throughout. One of the world’s best – great routing, incredible variety and superb conditioning made for a great day even if this weather was likely the most brutal I’ve ever played in. Despite that, we were crazy enough to still play 36 and it took its toll, as I lost seven balls to the gorse bushes in those two rounds and my water-logged shoes were rendered useless for the balance of the trip. Still, an amazing experience and we ended the day with a brilliant dinner at the Royal Golf Hotel alongside the first hole.
The next morning, we ventured further north to visit the incredibly charming Golspie Golf Club.
Golspie was designed by James Braid, with the course sitting off the Dornoch Firth. I’ve been a big fan of Braid’s ever since playing the exquisite Golf House Club at Elie back in 2017.
Golspie is notable for its mix of classic links, heathland and parkland holes and has stunning views from all holes of the Dornoch Firth on one side and the backdrop of Ben Bhraggie on the other.
Golspie was a very late addition to our itinerary and it was a delightful place to play. We had perfect weather that morning and the three different environments offered some unique and compelling golf.
After some delicious fish & chips in town at The Trawler, we headed up the road a bit further for a much anticipated round at Brora Golf Club.
Brora is yet another wonderful James Braid design, with the links originally opening for play back in 1891. The course is perhaps known best for the livestock that roam and graze on the property and the electric fences that surround many of the putting surfaces to keep them off the greens.
The course features nine holes hard by the sea on the way out, with the incoming nine right alongside away from the water. There are amazing holes on both sides, including a wicked “Plateau” late on the back nine, one that featured hundreds of sheep grazing on the hillside and on the fairways. Brora is yet another lovely and charming town course and like Golspie earlier in the day, one that would be a delight to play every day.
The next morning, we bid a fond farewell to the town of Dornoch and headed south toward Inverness, where a round at Castle Stuart Golf Links awaited.
The brainchild of developer Mark Parsinen, who also brought Kingsbarns Golf Links to life, Castle Stuart overlooks the Moray Firth and was co-designed by Gil Hanse, a noted American architect, with the course opening for play in 2009. Castle Stuart already sits within the top 100 courses in the world and has hosted the Scottish Open an incredible four times in its short lifetime.
Overall, I think it’s a really strong golf course. The distinctive “shelves” of land at Castle Stuart must have provided some challenges with the routing but I think Hanse pulled it all off with aplomb, with stunning panoramas and thoughtful design choices throughout. We really enjoyed it – the weather wasn’t ideal but despite rain and cold temperatures most of the day, it never was a major bother.
After a solid lunch in the clubhouse, we started on a three and a half hour trek south, first stopping in Edinburgh to drop off our rental car. The rest of the trip would see us utilizing the services of St. Andrews Executive Travel and one of their eight passenger coaches. Our first stop was to Gullane to meet up with the other four members of our travelling party, who had just arrived in Scotland that morning and were now just finishing up their rounds in the pouring rain at Gullane #1.
We got reacquainted with Andrew L, Harris N, Jeff S and Steve S over dinner and drinks at the Marine MacDonald Hotel in North Berwick – Andrew and Steve made the trip with our group in 2017 while Harris and Jeff were first-timers in Scotland. They were in for a treat, as the next morning, we hopped on the coach for the short 3 minute drive to the exquisite North Berwick Golf Club and their famed West Links.
Our group enjoyed a 36 hole day at North Berwick back in 2017 so this is the first course that we felt compelled to see again on this trip – simply put, it’s that good.
North Berwick has long been a “hidden gem” on Scottish golf itineraries and is a favourite of pretty much anyone who visits, with great template holes in a spectacular, seaside setting. It’s simply superb – whimsical and inspired at every turn and it’s moved up even higher on my personal list of favourites. I’m glad Jeff and Harris, the two first-timers, got the chance to experience this wonderful links while the rest of us were delighted to return.
We had a ridiculous meal that night in town at Osteria and the next day we’d head to one of the most famous clubs in the game, The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, better known as Muirfield Golf Club.
Muirfield (click link for the Now on the Tee course profile) has hosted 16 Open Championships and most recently, it was Phil Mickelson finally lifting the Claret Jug on these historic links back in 2013. Muirfield is commonly ranked among the top five or ten courses in the world, with its distinctive routing and excellent bunkering being celebrated.
We had the good fortune to visit in 2017 for the first time and the experience is so unrivaled that we were compelled to build our entire trip this year around a repeat visit, booking this day an incredible 18 months in advance. As indicated, the bunkering is perhaps the best in the world for positioning and design and the course is superb throughout. Topping off the experience is the famous Muirfield lunch, with mandatory coat and tie. We lucked out again with the weather, with gorgeous sunny skies and light winds. A day at Muirfield is one of the finest experiences in golf and a must for those interested in the history of the game.
The next morning, we’d play our final round in the East Lothian area at Tom Doak’s only Scottish design, The Renaissance Club.
Jerry Sarvadi, an American businessman, played a lead role in developing the course and would eventually move to North Berwick with his family to run the day-to-day operations of the club, which opened for play in 2008.
We played Renaissance only three days after the conclusion of the 2019 Women’s Scottish Open, one of the premier events on the LPGA Tour. The 2019 Men’s Scottish Open was also here in early July so it was a big year for the club. A crew was taking down the last of the grandstands while we played – I played exceptionally well here, shooting a 75, my lowest score on the trip. The course was in great shape and we enjoyed impeccable service throughout the day.
After a really good lunch at Renaissance, we piled into the coach and headed north to the city of Aberdeen for the final leg of our trip. Upon arrival, we dined at The Marcliffe Hotel and then prepared for yet another 36 holes the next day, starting with an early morning round at Murcar Links Golf Club.
Murcar was originally designed by Archie Simpson in 1909 and revised by James Braid in the 1930s. The course is located on a classic stretch of links land with massive sand dunes, undulating fairways and features some magnificent views across the North Sea.
This is a hell of a sporty test, as you weave your way up and through the massive dunes and it was great fun. Matt S, Harris and I played a two club challenge and it was a wicked test in high winds – I played 18 holes from 6500 yards with only a 4-iron and an 8-iron! We also got the most friendly welcome imaginable in the clubhouse after the round and had an enjoyable conversation with a group of members over a couple beers while waiting for our other foursome to finish.
We’d say our goodbyes and immediately head next door to the wonderful championship test on the Balgownie Links at Royal Aberdeen Golf Club.
Founded in 1780, Royal Aberdeen is considered to be the 6th oldest club in the world. The club relocated in the late 1800s and the Balgownie Course, designed by Archie and Robert Simpson, opened for play in 1888. The club has hosted many great events over the years and is well known for their immense dunes, among the largest in the country, that must be navigated during the round.
Now this is what I’d call a proper championship test. The out-and-back design sees the much celebrated front nine weave among the dunes and hug the coastline of the North Sea. Many consider this outgoing nine to be among the best in golf but the incoming side is just as strong but perhaps more straightforward and on slightly gentler ground. Overall, I absolutely loved this golf course and we had a cracker of an afternoon, with blazing sunshine and mild temps. A splendid day.
Simply put, Royal Aberdeen has to be the least talked about great golf course in the world.
Next up was another long-awaited 36 hole day, as we’d visit the spectacular Cruden Bay Golf Club.
Long known as one of the great hidden gems in Scotland, wide acclaim over recent years has propelled Cruden Bay on to many World Top 100 lists and as a result, the course is a preferred stop on most Scottish itineraries. A few guys in the group played here in 2017 but I wasn’t one of them so I was greatly looking forward to this day. Old Tom Morris and Archie Simpson designed the course in 1899 and like Royal Aberdeen, Cruden Bay features massive dunes and a glorious seaside setting.
Despite some brutal early day weather (about 0.75 on the Royal Dornoch scale), things would improve in the afternoon and the course was a revelation. Massive dunes, exquisite views and awesome, FUN architecture, Cruden Bay is the real deal and a must-see for any visitors to the Aberdeen coast. I had incredibly high hopes coming into this day and they were exceeded.
This is a special place.
We had a great dinner that night at Silver Darling down on the waterfront and concluded the trip the next morning with a game at the Trump International Golf Links, just outside Aberdeen in Balmedie.
The course was designed by Martin Hawtree and opened for play in 2012 but the development was heavily scrutinized by many conservationists throughout the process. That scrutiny continues to this day, with the fires fanned even more due to Trump’s time in the White House.
As a result, I will freely admit that this was the one course I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to on this trip. However, putting aside the politics, the course is really quite strong. Aesthetics are off the charts, the land is incredible and there are many interesting design choices. That said, I wasn’t a fan of the greens, with too many multi-tiered “waterfall style” surfaces that you’d find in North America, not on a seaside links.
We ended the trip with one of the most incredible dinners imaginable at Dishoom in the heart of Aberdeen – it gets my highest recommendation.
Special thanks go to Chris for all of his incredible work building this itinerary – it was pure madness but I wouldn’t change a single thing. What a spectacular trip…I hope to return again soon.
The last golf course I saw in 2019 was the incredibly underrated Burlington Golf & Country Club.
Burlington (click on the link for Now on the Tee course profile) was incorporated in 1922, with the first nine holes opening a year later and the full 18 holes completed by 1924. Stanley Thompson, in his peak period as a golf architect, designed the golf course with able assistance from Burlington’s first head professional, Andy Anderson.
The course features great land, lovely views and is a demanding par 70 design that will delight and challenge players of every level. I loved my day at Burlington and hope to visit again soon.
What an incredible year. Luckiest guy alive, without question.
Thanks to all for reading.
2019 Year in Review Part Three – Looking Ahead