Everyone knows it rains a lot in Britain. If you listened to my fellow Australians, who moan incessantly about the Old Country’s weather, you might even think it rains there all the time.
No one complained about it more than my fellow Australian pros whilst playing the European Tour in the 1980s. Every summer seemed to be awful. It felt as if the only time you saw blue sky was when your plane flew above the clouds.
There were days when it was safe to leave the umbrella in the locker. Occasionally, a nice run of weather settled in. I remember such rare moments by recalling hot Ashes series, burned-off, fast courts at Wimbledon and bone hard, bouncy Open Championships.
The Open of 1976 was so hot that Birkdale’s willow-scrub caught fire and American pros discovered the joys of Southport’s hotels sans air conditioning. As they found out, 1970s Britain was not designed for hot weather.
2006 was also a hot summer, remembered for Tiger Woods’ masterful performance at Hoylake, where he won The Open hitting irons from every tee save for one snap-hooked driver off the sixteenth on the opening day. Aside from his peerless irons, the abiding memory of the week was how burned off the golf course was following weeks without rain.
None of the locals cared. The course was universally praised by players who found perfect turf to play from, and holes where what the ball did after it hit the ground was just as important as what it did in the air.
What was amazing, and entirely predictable, was the reaction in Australia. I dare say it was the case in America too. “The course looked terrible,” seemed to be the common reaction from those who think the game’s only legitimate colour to be green and Augusta National what all championship golf courses should look like.
At the top end, golf in the United States is run using budgets way in excess of what we in Australia or those in Britain are accustomed to having. Golfers paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in joining fees are unlikely to be satisfied with anything less than Augusta-type perfection. They expect no bad lies, perfect white-sanded bunkers and verdant green grass.
Golf courses need to be more restrained users of water; expansive and expensive irrigation systems are not the answer. As Tom Weiskopf once said, the only time a course really needs a fairway irrigation system is during a prolonged drought.
The 2018 Open at Carnoustie was another burned-off, crispy brown championship and one where the most difficult course in Britain garnered universal praise from both players and observers for the multi-dimensional examination it provided.
Australia’s suburban golf courses, especially the more highly rated ones, tend not to be allowed to brown off as they did in times past and as they still do in Britain. We use more water and constantly worry about it running out.
Fescue, the grass of the British links, is a cool climate grass. Whilst a few courses in the far south of the continent, including Barnbougle Dunes and Cape Wickham, use it, it’s a much different grass from regular couch or kikuyu. It doesn’t have such a voracious thirst. If it can take a sip from time to time, it recovers when the rains return.
When it comes to golf, we Australians tend to have more of a ‘green is good’ mentality. Too often, our tendency is to see the game predicated on ‘fairness’ and predictability. It was never that way in golf’s early days. It would be hard to find three more ‘unfair’ and unpredictable courses than The Old Course at St Andrews, Prestwick and North Berwick (pictured above). For any Australians considering a golfing trip to Scotland, these are the three courses to see before all others. Why? Because they will change – or confirm – the way you think about the game.
Either way, you can learn all you need to know about golf design by playing in Scotland.
Recently, I was discussing the virtues of these three great links with a widely travelled member of a famous Melbourne sandbelt club. In the same sentence, he professed to be a traditionalist then went on to argue all three were absurd versions of golf. Each to his own, but it is hard to come to grips with the illogicality of his argument.
These courses are the genesis and essence of the game. Everything else is simply an interpretation of them.
If you’re a traditionalist, you will embrace the look of 2006 Hoylake and 2018 Carnoustie, the concept and challenge of bunkers directly in line with the hole (as opposed to being down the sides of the fairways), and the odd blind shot.
The British game looks quite different to what we have in Australia, where there is nothing resembling somewhere like North Berwick. It’s not because we don’t have the land but because if an architect built that much quirk into a modern course, it would unquestionably be damned by the (polite) majority as “silly”. These amazing courses are both quirky and multi-dimensional in their challenges, which has been the key to their enduring popularity.
There are multiple ways of playing them and answering their fascinating questions. Their purpose is to confuse the golfing ‘engineers’ – those who like it best when the game is predictable, who think that there should be a formulaic, two-dimensional way to play.
Ultimately, that road can only lead to boredom and a game with its joy and fascination slowly seeping out of it.
Whilst locked down here in Melbourne during this awful pandemic, my London office keeps telling me that less than 8mm of rain has fallen in most areas of the British Isles since the end of March – in stark contrast to the biblical floods that greeted me when I was there at the end of last year visiting our clients, The Addington and Royal Dublin. I hope that the current drought is reminding British and Irish golfers why hard and fast conditions provide far more excitement for those who thrive on the challenge of overcoming unpredictable, random conditions.
It is only a shame that the current travel restrictions mean tourists from countries where such play is frowned upon are not being reminded too.
Mike Clayton is a partner at the golf course architecture firm of Clayton DeVries & Pont, headquartered in London with offices in Australia, the United States and the Netherlands. This article first appeared on the Golf Australia website in 2018 but has been significantly re-edited by the author.