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Golf Illustrated Edition Six out soon

Thursday 14 February, Chris Jones


In the beginning, the idea was so audacious that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw leaned on the side of saying: “No. Thanks, but no.” Could you actually strip a high-profile American golf course of its perfect emerald sheen and transplant it back in time half a century and beyond? Could you teach the American golf consumer that sandy and scruffy and rough-hewn did not equal cheap and low-rent? Would the United States Golf Association agree to contest its men’s national Open on a course bereft of treacherous rough? Could you convince maintenance workers that weeds and organic matter and wayward pine needles were fine, that since God himself had put them there, who was a green superintendent to quarrel?

Coore and Crenshaw, golf-design partners since the mid-1980s and the creators of more than two dozen well-regarded layouts nationwide, wrestled with the invitation to restore Pinehurst No.2 that was first cast their way in the late summer of 2009. Don Padgett II, the president and chief operating officer since 2004 at the historic golf resort in the Sandhills of North Carolina, had come to believe that the Donald Ross magnum opus had become too green, too narrow, too rough-infested and too much the antithesis of the Scotsman’s original concept of wide fairways, strategic latitude and trouble outside the fairways that accurately captured the natural landscape.

The resulting renovation has been one of the most dramatic – and successful – in the history of golf course architecture, and it is detailed in stunning beauty in the sixth edition of Golf Illustrated, which has just been sent to the printers.

Course design is also at the forefront of an interview with Tom Doak, a often outspoken architect who is leading the way in terms of the modern minimalist design approach. You don't get much more traditional than Sunningdale, and that is the focus of a sumptuous photographic essay, looking at the history, courses and characters of the Berkshire club.

Elsewhere, this edition celebrates some of the greatest clubhouses in the world; we meet artist extraordinaire Graeme Baxter; pay a visit to the British Golf Museum; meet 'the starters' and tell the story of Walter Hagen's remarkable exhibition tour, when he was almost arrested, imprisoned… and eaten by a tiger.


 

The Search for the Perfect Swing

Thursday 31 January, Chris Jones

Some say it’s Wild Bill Mehlhorn; most say it’s Tommy Bolt. But no, the angriest golfer ever was the Iron Byron swing machine. In its three-year development and testing period, Iron Byron broke countless clubs – even after striking some pretty acceptable shots. If its technique mimicked its namesake, the genteel Byron Nelson, its temper most certainly did not.

“One of our biggest problems was stopping the swing without snapping the clubshaft,” recalls George Manning, the engineer who headed up the project to build golf’s first mechanical golfer. “Timing the club’s deceleration was both vital and tricky. If we triggered it too early, it affected impact; if we triggered it too late, the club stopped too abruptly and snapped – usually up near the grip end. The sight of a lethal metal shard flying through the air was not uncommon. Normally they somersaulted forwards. We learned very quickly always to stand behind the machine during testing.”

Manning eventually found the solution – disc brakes in multiple layers, controlled by air pressure applied at precise times. It would prove just another hiccup in the quest to build a machine that was not just club-breaking but genuinely groundbreaking.

The Iron Byron owed its existence to the simple fact that equipment makers had begun to feel the need to deal with fact – and not opinion – in evaluating their new products. Until the early 1960s, club testing was essentially a case of collecting a group of elite players, giving them a hit, and asking them what they thought. Anything – from liking the colour of the head to whether the golfer had quarrelled with his wife that morning – might compromise their feedback.

A more rigorous, scientific approach was called for – and that call was answered by the largest shaft manufacturer in the world: True Temper. The firm, at the time based in Ohio, provided shafts for all of the game’s major clubmakers. Frustrated by the fact the precision of their shaft-making process was not matched by the exactness of their testing, they decided to commission the construction of an objective, opinion-free, mood-free golf-ball-slugging automaton.

 

Brancaster: Gateway to Heaven

Thursday 13 December, Chris Jones

Many dreamily wonder what is on the ‘other side’ when they’ve holed life’s final putt, and hope the passing through the pearly gates will lead to a golfing nirvana. There just might be the mortal equivalent in the small Norfolk seaside enclave of Brancaster. If the filigreed black wrought iron gate at Royal West Norfolk Golf Club was to echo its heavenly sister, we need not fear death.

A short sandy and sleepered path with cambered timber walls holding the dunes at bay, leads to this enticing entrance to the fairways beyond. Two granite gateposts bear the names of members that fell in the two Great Wars, and are a poignant reminder that what lies in wait for a golfer should not be taken too seriously.

An undeniable sense of expectancy washes over those who clunk down on the handle and squeakily swing the heavy gate open. They have just stepped out onto one of the most unique golf courses on earth – an experience to uplift the soul however hard the North Sea winds are buffeting.

The anticipation builds and the ‘adventure’ starts a little time before you arrive. Approaching the coast from a smidge out of Brancaster village on the Docking Road can just nudge your senses awake if you gaze over St Mary The Virgin church tower to three-quarters of a mile beyond. Perching there is the understated and sentimentally shabby chic clubhouse sitting, almost precariously, on the water’s edge. With a little squint you can make out a few wind-whipped flagsticks on the holes that stretch directly east from there, and depending on the time of day, it may seem as though they rumble out on an impossibly slim peninsula.

Drop on down into the flint-walled collection of cottages and cross the A149 Hunstanton to Cromer coast road and sneak down Broad Street opposite and within moments the lane narrows and shimmies its way through banks of reeds for half a mile to the clubhouse. There may well be puddles on the road even on the sunniest of days – a conundrum to the uninitiated. This gives a clue as to why Brancaster (the more common name for the club) is unlike virtually any other in the world. Its geography defines it.


 

Behind the rebirth of John Letters

Friday 02 November, Chris Jones

John Letters. Time was, of course, when those two simple words formed the ultimate euphemism for quality in the golf equipment industry. Formed in 1918 immediately after the conclusion of hostilities in the First World War by the man of the same name, the Glasgow-based Letters company was, for much of the remainder of the 20th century, a much-admired byword for craftsmanship in the club-making business.

The man himself started life as a blacksmith, before getting a job with a golf ball manufacturer Miller & Taylor. He became a very keen golfer and his motivation for starting up his own company was to make affordable golf balls and clubs.

During his business life, he was the hub, around which the whole company revolved; and he never employed an accountant, preferring to keep all the books himself. As well as a successful businessman, he was also a lay preacher and a first class wrestler.

Just as the genius engineer Karsten Solheim would become maybe a quarter of a century later with his iconic Ping “Anser” putter, the John Letters company was both a trailblazer and an innovator, always trying for something new, different and better. Even before the Second World War, Letters were using steel shafts in their clubs rather than the traditional and soon to be outdated, hickory. But it was in the immediate post-war years that the company really came into its own as a market leader.

In 1946, Letters introduced the Golden Goose putter, the design that – pre-Ping – was to become one of the most familiar sights in the bags of so many of the world’s best players. Not only that, they worked; some of the game’s finest putters had a Golden Goose in their bags. New Zealander Bob Charles, for example, won the 1963 Open and a host of tournaments wielding the club to great effect. And Mark McNulty (formerly of Zimbabwe, now an Irishman) has long been one of the greatest on the greens using a Golden Goose.

Still, it was with the launch of the “Master Model” irons in 1947 that Letters firmly established itself as the No.1 brand in British club making. In that same year, Fred Daly became the first Irishman to win the Open Championship and he did it using Master Models. One year later, eight of the 10 men representing Great Britain in the Ryder Cup matches versus the United States had Master Model irons in their bags.

That level of dominance was no flash-in-the-pan either. Nor was it short-lived. Almost two decades later, a promising young Scottish amateur by the name of Bernard Gallacher was turning pro and in no doubt as to what clubs he should be using in his new career. “I played with John Letters clubs as an amateur,” says the three-time Ryder Cup captain. “And when I turned pro there was never any doubt as to what brand I wanted to use. I knew John Letters made the best irons. The Master Model clubs were, in fact, similar to the Macgregor irons most of the leading Americans seemed to be using at that time; but the Letters clubs were better. Plus, my golfing hero was Gary Player and he had his name on Letters clubs. I wanted to be like him. What really convinced me was the Letters family though. They were real experts when it came to making clubs and had the respect of everyone in the industry.”

The Letters company were ahead of their time in so many ways, not least in the area of fitting clubs to an individual’s needs.

“I would go to the factory at Hillingdon in Glasgow,” Gallacher says, “and speak directly with the club-makers themselves on the shop floor. My clubs were built from scratch. I’d try out every kind of shaft and grip along the road on the range at the Haggs Castle club. And if anything wasn’t quite right for me we’d keep changing it until I was happy. In respect of proper club fitting, the company was decades ahead of its time.”

Later, other notable players would take the same route to golfing success. A huge number of celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Sean Connery, Jack Lemmon, Judy Garland, Danny Kaye and Eartha Kitt, insisted on playing John Letters clubs. Even Paul Lawrie, Open champion in 1999, played the clubs between 1988 to 1992.
“They had a terrific facility in Glasgow,” says the two-time Ryder Cupper. “I was down there a lot and I still have the irons they made for me. They were the first I ever had with my own name on them.”

Still, in any business, even the production of top quality merchandise is no guarantee of continued success. And so it was for John Letters, especially when the family relinquished overall control. Purchased by the Dunlop company, which then moved its club-making facilities south to England, Letters struggled to maintain its previous position in a market increasingly dominated by the mass production of clubs, even after two members of the clan – Jimmy and Hope – regained control, until their retirement in the early 1990s.

In 2005 the company was purchased by former club professional John Andrew, who founded the Direct Golf mail order company in 1991. Happily, Andrew’s history and experience as a PGA member helped incline him towards the quality end of the club-making business. 

“Though I came to the company primarily as a retailer, it was my passion for club manufacture that made me look at what we could achieve together,” says Andrew, a Yorkshireman. “It is such an iconic name in the industry, one I felt could still be a force to be reckoned with, if handled properly."

 

The 2012 RE/MAX Long Drive Championship

Friday 19 October 2012, Chris Jones

England’s Dan Konyk and Sweden’s Jorgen Trank – the finalists of Europe’s only 2012 RE/MAX Long Drive Championship – stand side-by-side, eyeballing the expansive practice ground of the PGA Catalunya resort. Unfurling in front of them is a whitewash grid, 450 yards long and 50 yards wide. Any moment now, the pair will be called forward to hit six golf balls. They will have just two minutes and 45 seconds to complete the set. The longest ball within the grid wins.

Behind the golfers, two speakers lustily pump the happiest Eurohouse nightclub music imaginable into their 12-yard tee zone, courtesy of a DJ set up to the side. Behind the speakers a buoyant gallery, 200-strong, throngs the pair, hollering encouragement. If it’s not quite an amphitheatre, it’s certainly a bearpit. In the background, the pine and pepper-scented flora that pervades this fine golf resort struggles to compete with the sensory overload. If this is golf then it is a distant relation, like BMXing to the Tour de France, or Nascar to the M25.

At the far end of the grid four lads, armed only with hard hats and a Bushnell range finder, await the bombardment. They are so far away from the tee box that the swing and the crack will be a full second apart. A walkie-talkie buzzes through to say that Trank’s set of balls will be number one, and Konyk’s number two. The scene is set.

To the south, an eagle rises above the treeline. Formidable against a cornflower sky, it mercifully elects to stay out of Long Drive airspace. Oblivious, Trank and Konyk fidget and pull restlessly at their shirt sleeves. They deserve to be here. They have hit the two longest shots during the qualifying rounds, at 416 and 417 yards. But that is now history. At stake is €3,000, not to mention a place in the RE/MAX world finals in America – where the top prize is $150,000.

But now a strident computer-generated noise – a gun shot, or possibly a lightning flash – calls the players to action. Trank and Konyk, syllables as hard and brutal as the 5-degree drivers they wield, step forward as one to address the first ball. Then, in front of 200 raucous Spaniards, 20 losing competitors, one questionable DJ and one nonplussed eagle, the place erupts.

 

Bandon, Trevino and McLay Kidd in edition four of Golf Illustrated

Friday 07 September 2012, Chris Jones

We paid a visit to Bandon, along with Keiser, to find out what makes the place tick. The stunning images are enough to make you book a visit yourself.

Scottish designer McLay Kidd made a name for himself with his work on Bandon Dunes; his portfolio now includes the Castle Course in St Andrews, Queenwood in Surrey and Machrihanish Dunes in Scotland.

It was at the latter where Golf Illustrated met him, at the site where he used to play on the beach as a child, and tell his dad: “I want to build a golf course here.”
Incredibly, years later, he did. We spent the day with Kidd to get his thoughts on modern design, the modern game, what he thinks about ‘celebrity’ designers… and when he feels the game’s governing bodies have done a disservice to golf.

Elsewhere, we go from the sublime to the ridiculous – from telling stories at the Texan home of Lee Trevino, to smashing 450-yard shots at the World Long Drive Championship.  The master story teller Trevino still has some great views on the game and when he talks, you just listen. And we go behind the scenes at PGA Catalyuna to reveal the tricks and the technology needed to smash the ball such prodigious distances.

Edition four of Golf Illustrated also celebrates the Ryder Cup that never was, golf in south-west England, the undervalued role of the Secretary, the science of sand and the incredible story of the World War II prisoners at Stalag Luft III (where the Great Escape took place), who built their own golf course within the camp.

Exclusive interview with Rory's Dad

Friday 24 August 2012, Chris Jones

All Rosie and I ever wanted to do was give Rory the best possible chance to do what he loved. There was never any other agenda and I’m sure if you asked Kenny and Marian McDowell, they would say the same thing about Graeme.

Becoming a golfer wasn’t our dream, it was Rory’s dream. We just did our best to give him everything we could to help him make his dreams come true. It looks as though all the hard work has been worthwhile. But even if Rory had never made it as a professional golfer, we’d still be immensely proud of him, he’s such a good lad.

I played golf because, as a boy, I lived in a council house 200 yards from Holywood Golf Club. I spent all my summers there with my two brothers and my dad. I used to bring Rory to the practice ground when I played plenty. I’ve got a picture of him hitting a ball when he is one year, nine months old and wearing cords and a sweater knitted by his mother! He loved it from the time he was a toddler. He was holding a golf club before he could walk. He’d be sitting in the pram with a plastic golf club in his hand and Rosie will tell you that we were often woken up by the belt of a little plastic club over the head.

It soon became apparent that Rory had a real talent for the game so I handed him over to Michael Bannon, who was the professional at Holywood, and let him get on with it. We’ve never looked back and Michael’s still with him to this day.

We have always been happy to let Rory take responsibility for his own actions. He’s always been a very good lad, never in any trouble. So we have always been happy to give him space and learn things himself and then come to us for advice.
As he got better and better at such a young age we wanted to make sure he got all the opportunities he could to improve his game. We didn’t have much money, but we worked as hard as we could so we could say that we gave him the very best chance we could by sending him away to compete in tournaments all over the world from Hawaii to San Diego and Hong Kong.

He just lived at the golf club. You couldn’t get him to come in out of the cold half the time.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I had to drag him in off that course when it was lashing rain and his little hands were almost blue from the cold. Even when we got home he’d be chipping balls over the settee or standing in the hall chipping balls through the open door of the washing machine.

Yes, Rosie and I worked hard to give Rory everything we could. But that’s what all parents do. You do everything you can to give them the best in life.

I’d work from 8am to noon as a cleaner at a sports club and from 12 to 6 I was a barman at Holywood Golf Club. Then, after going home for tea, I’d return to the sports club from 7pm-midnight to work behind the bar. I am a working-class man and that’s all I knew to get the money we needed for Rory to be able to learn and compete at golf.

Rosie worked the nightshift at the 3M factory so we lived off my wages and saved Rosie’s so we could take Rory away to the Junior World’s in San Diego in the summer time. It became our summer holiday. It was hard, but as Rosie says, we can’t say we didn’t give him a chance. Sometimes, you might get a bit browned off or tired but Rosie would always cheer me up. ‘Gerry,’ she’d say, ‘one day this could be all worthwhile’. We wanted to give our child the best opportunity – after all, he’s the only one we have.

When Rory was 17 I decided to take more of a back seat and allow him to do his own thing. I stopped caddying for him and not long after that and the Walker Cup at Royal County Down, he turned professional.

He was well looked after by Chubby Chandler and while we were always there as his parents to offer advice we weren’t going to be sports parents, just his mum and dad.

There have been more highs than lows since he turned professional. Watching Rory win his first tournament in Dubai was a huge thrill for us all and while we were disappointed for him after the Masters last year, we knew he’d be fine once we spoke to him on the phone afterwards.

Rosie was very upset and so was Rory but we knew he’d learn from it and he did. Being at Congressional to watch him win the US Open last year was just the greatest thrill you could imagine.

We’re so proud of everything he’s achieved. Being there at the Honda Classic when he became world number one was a very special day. But what’s more pleasing is seeing the way he handles everything. You just want your child to do the right things and to treat people with respect. Everything else is a bonus and it’s been one hell of a journey for him so far.

 

Prestwick Golf Club

Friday 10 August 2012, Jock Howard

Prestwick Golf Club is an anomaly. If you were to try and build a course like this nowadays, you would be labelled as daft as a hairbrush, and quietly handed over to the men in white coats. It is arguably the most classic of all the classic courses in the British Isles; old-fasioned, tradional, eccentric links golf at its very best; complete with blind shots galore, humpy bumpy fairways which look like moonscapes, greens the size of thumbnails, and bunkers the size of coal mines, not to mention the railway sleepers in their faces!

If you have never played Prestwick Golf Club on the historic coast of Ayrshire, then your golfing education is not complete. There are very few golf courses in the world (arguably the Old Course at St Andrews) which you can say this about. The feeling of history as you tread those hallowed fairways where the first 12 Open Championships took place is tangible. This is where the Open (and so competitive golf) started, and you can learn so much about the traditions and development of the game, just by visiting.

If you have never stood on the 1st tee at Prestwick, with the Ayr – Glasgow railway line running tight all the way down the right hand side, then you probably haven’t really experienced first tee nerves. It’s a short par-4 of just over 300 yards, and yet it has ruined many a players scorecard, before they’ve even got going!

And, they just keep coming at Prestwick. The 3rd has the famous and massive bunker known as the Cardinal. The 5th is a blind par-3, where you aim a mid-iron over a stake in the hill, and then climb expectantly up and down, to see your fate. The 15th ‘Narrows’ has a fairway so thin, that you have to walk single-file down it. The 17th was described by Open Champion, Harry Vardon, as “the finest hole to be found on any links”, and is a par-4, where your second is again ‘blind’, played over a massive dune and a just-as-massive bunker.

But, it’s not just the course at Prestwick which is so beguiling. You could spend a very happy day there without a golf club in hand, just breathing in the history and the memorabilia on the walls. This is where Old Tom and his even more brilliant son Young Tom left indelible marks. Young Tom, who was arguably the greatest talent the game had ever seen, learnt how to play the game here. When you go to Prestwick, it is impossible not to come away with a greater appreciation of just how great these early professionals were.

And, last but not least, the lunch at Prestwick is legendary; and has been described by many independent commentators as the best golf lunch in the world. You sit in the main dining room at one vast, polished, mahogany table and indulge in anything from Bloody Mary Soup to Line Caught Halibut with a Seafood Biryani or Rost Aberdeen Angus Beef with Red Wine Jus. Somewhat inevitably, you will then be persuaded to partake in the club drink – kummel. This is an aniseed-tasting liquor which fortifies you brilliantly for what is ahead on the course…

An Exclusive look inside TaylorMade

Thursday 27 July 2012, Chris Jones

The magic kingdom – the place they call Disneyland – is 50 miles further north up the San Diego Freeway from golf’s Kingdom, the place where the great and the good of the game, as well as the downright lucky, come to road test the latest equipment designed, built and sold by TaylorMade. Aladdin’s Cave has nothing on this place, where the walls have cameras and everyone who comes through the door has their own three-dimensional digital avatar.

“I can honestly say this is by far the most technologically advanced golf facility in the world,’’ says Duane Anderson, scrolling through a computer database of golf swings and putting strokes that would hold the fascination of a golf nerd from now until eternity. Steve Stricker’s putting stroke? Check. Justin Rose’s swing? Of course. Dustin Johnson bombing it from one end of the facility to the other? Something to behold, even in digital form.

What exactly goes on in the Kingdom, and what draws such big names here? Well, there is the great desire from every golf professional to get their hands on the equipment that suits their game best. This is no ordinary golf testing facility. John Doe can’t just walk in off the street and start bashing balls. You have to be a TaylorMade-sponsored golf professional, or you have to have received an invitation. “Dustin and Justin love it down here because it is so private and they can just get on with their work.”

Dustin and Justin also love it because of Duane, who spent six years out on the road, tending to the needs of PGA Tour pros. These days he is back at base camp, ready to snap to attention. Even on his days off. “Justin called me on the Saturday morning of the US Open at Torrey Pines,” Anderson recalls. “I was out playing golf with my buddies actually, and he said ‘I need to work on my putting’ and I asked him when and he said ‘this afternoon’. “He had missed the cut and was really disappointed. He said the problem was his putting stroke and that he’d only had one good tournament all season – so we got him up on screen and had a look.

Turns out there was nothing wrong with the stroke – it looked great in fact – but there was an issue with his putter, which had virtually no loft on it, which meant he wasn’t getting the roll he needed. He’d gone six months trying to work out what was wrong and we got to the bottom of it in an hour or two.”

Impressive stuff, as is TaylorMade’s global headquarters, which lies just across the street from the Kingdom. If Rose and Johnson, as well as the likes of Sergio Garcia, are the most public face of the world’s most successful driver and metal woods manufacturer, then the 900 people (1,600 in total around the world) who work on the Carlsbad assembly line are the engine room. This is where it all comes together. This is where the dream of one man continues to build and grow.