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The Open Championship courses: A bucket list trip

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I fell in golfing lust with the 1st tee at the Old Course in St Andrews the moment I laid eyes on it back in 2010. Since taking up the game at age 12, I’d always hoped that one day I would get the chance to play the Old Course and walk in the footsteps of all those amazing champions that had been there before me.

The 1st and 18th holes are wonderfully surrounded by the St Andrews township on one side and the ocean on the other. There are normally a few tourists wandering around watching people tee off, and there is a constant stream of golfers teeing off every 10 minutes from 6am till 6pm in the summertime. It’s just such a special experience to be welcomed on to the 1st tee by the starter, told that the course is over 600 years old, that it’s the birthplace of golf, and to proceed when ready. By this point most golfers are a nervous wreck and are simply hoping they don’t miss the ball.

After experiencing the Old Course for the first time, I knew that I had to bring my kiwi golfing buddies back to experience it for themselves. I knew they’d love it so I started organising tours, with the first tour in 2013 to St Andrews and Troon, on the Scottish west coast, for 10 of us. We played all the big courses – Old Course, Carnoustie, Kingsbarns, Troon, and Turnberry plus some smaller hidden gems. Then followed a trip for six of us to Ireland in 2015, then another back to Scotland in 2016 for eight of us.

All 10 in one hit?

On each trip we had played a couple of the courses that hosted the British Open (or The Open Championship as it is now known) but I wanted to put together a trip that played all, or as many of, the 10 Open Championship courses in one hit. A bucket list trip for any golfer. Planning for the 2018 “Open Rota” trip started while flying back from the Scotland golf trip in 2016 as I knew it would take two years to put together.

Stephen Brent golfing
Stephen Brent golfing

With the help of St Andrews golf tour operators, Connoisseur Golf, I managed to put together a trip that would take in 9 of the 10 Open Championship courses plus a few other gems over a three-week period between the end of May and the middle of June. I then managed to gather up the eight golfers needed, including fellow lawyer Richard Smith of Duncan Cotterill and the trip was on.

Here’s how the trip rolled …

Sunday: We all met up in Edinburgh and headed to the airport to pick up the van. Unfortunately, there were two problems at this point… one, the van wasn’t as big as hoped and, two, the boys had failed to follow my instructions to pack light. It was like a game of tetris trying to fit eight golf bags, eight suitcases, and eight large blokes into the van but we managed it in the end and headed to St Andrews to get acclimatised. We arrived about 4pm and walked straight on to the fairways of the Old Course. The Old Course is actually owned by the local trust and on Sundays it turns into a public park with no golf allowed. Kids and dogs are running all over the fairways, kites are flown, Frisbees fly … it is fascinating to see and everyone is so very respectful of the greens, tees and bunkers.

Monday: A warm-up game at the Jubilee Course, which sits very near the Old Course and was opened in 1897. It sits right beside the New Course which was opened in 1895. That’s new in Scotland terms. A combination of jetlag, nerves and excitement contributed to a tough day for the boys with 33 lost balls. The lads asked if the Jubilee would be one of the harder courses we’d play and I had to quietly tell them that it was probably one of the easier ones. Jaws dropped, some stared into space, others started mumbling to themselves incoherently. Irik, who had just lost all the golf balls in his bag, headed straight to the store to buy dozens more.

Tuesday: The Old Course, the spiritual home of golf, the widest first fairway, and the scariest opening tee shot. We had an early tee time and the haar (a cold sea fog) had rolled in so the first tee shot disappeared into nothingness. Luckily, the haar disappeared rather quickly and it was a glorious day for the group. Most tore it up, with Richard Smith scooping the spoils with 47 stablefords. Everyone took caddies and they make the experience at the Old Course so much more special with their knowledge and banter. My caddy asked me if I knew that each hole had a name. I’d never heard of any names before so bit and asked “well what’s this one called?” He replied “Number 12 sir”! followed by rapturous laughter from the group. Only three balls lost, so a much better day.

Wednesday: Carnoustie. Affectionately referred to by the locals as “the Monster” or “Carnasty” and with a layout of 14 rather long par 4s, three hard par 3s (one of which often requires driver off the tee even for longer hitters) and a treacherous par 5 along a fenceline … it’s easy to see why it gets its names. Playing it just a few weeks before the actual Open Championship meant that all the grandstands were in place and felt very special indeed. Boys…broken…but smiling. Yours truly … 76 off the stick to take the money … boom! Only eight balls lost, a very good day indeed.

Thursday: Royal Troon. The place where Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson magnificently duelled it out in 2016. One of the perks of playing Royal Troon is that you get to play the neighbouring Portland Course in the morning before tackling the big course in the afternoon. Portland is a great wee track and perfect warm up. Royal Troon itself is a fantastic links course and includes the famous “Postage Stamp” par 3, 8th hole. The shortest hole of the Open Rota but probably the toughest, with one of the bunkers nicknamed “the Coffin” … you can guess why. Twenty-six balls lost , a couple of guys asking for their mothers at this point in the trip.

Friday: Trump Turnberry. Purchased by Donald Trump a few years back, the course has been transformed into something incredible. It was one of my favourites before the trip and the new design has made it even better. Simply fantastic with amazing views and brilliant new hole layouts. Trump’s name is everywhere though – it’s a bit over the top but the course outshines it all. After playing we headed to Cairnryan Port to catch the ferry to Belfast. Twenty-three balls lost.

Group of golfers at the Old Course
The guys before heading into the Haar at the Old Course

Saturday & Sunday: Rest days exploring Belfast including a visit to the Titanic Museum, a Black Cab History Tour of the Troubles, and quite a few pints of Guinness…mmmm delicious. We stayed at the Europa Hotel, which we were told was the most bombed hotel throughout the Troubles – 36 times in 20 years. Belfast nowadays is vibrant, fun and feels quite safe. The Irish sure know how to have a good time.

Monday: Royal Portrush. Hosting the Open in 2019 for the first time in 68 years, so there is a real sense of excitement and anticipation about the place. The course has had a few holes redesigned as requested by the R&A and it now has a brute of a par 3 that requires 200m of carry over gorse infested cabbage. Royal Portrush is Darren Clarke’s home club and we did see him on the day but no time to take any selfies, unfortunately. Apparently he’s not known to be too generous with his time but we sure had a blast at his course. Twenty-two balls lost. Guinness required.

Tuesday: Royal County Down. A course not on the Open Rota but in my mind, one of the best courses on the planet and it’s Rory McIlroy’s home course. (I have to admit I have a bit of a man-crush on Rory). Apparently it can’t host the Open due to a lack of infrastructure (practice facilities, carparking, etc), which is a real shame because the layout is fantastic, the views magical and the locals very friendly. It’s consistently ranked as the No.1 course in the world outside of America (of course because the Americans would never allow a non-US course to be actual no.1) so is a must visit if you are ever just south of Belfast with your clubs. Twenty balls lost. Straight after the round we head to Belfast Port for an overnight ferry to Manchester, which is a whole other story in itself and totally unpublishable.

Wednesday: Royal Liverpool. We arrive into Liverpool Port at 6:30am and stupidly decide to try driving into the middle of town to our hotel in rush-hour traffic. After dropping our bags we head out to Royal Liverpool for lunch in the magnificent clubhouse and then a 3pm tee off. The clubhouses at these big courses are just amazing, filled with photos, trophies and history. The course itself was very hard with long, long rough and very narrow fairways but still a total pleasure to play the course where McIlroy won his first Open in 2014. Small issue with leaving the course however, only seven golf bags packed into the back of the van and the eighth was not discovered until Friday morning and in a completely different town. Twenty-eight balls lost. Warm, flat beer needed….ewwww!

Thursday: Rest day … the boys needed it. Most called their mothers.

Friday: Royal Lytham & St Annes. One of my favourites of the trip. It’s hosted the Open 11 times and twice hosted the Ryder Cup between Europe and the United States. Again the rough was up, the fairways very tight, and most bunkers deeper than 6 feet but I found the layout really fun to play. Upon arrival we did, however, discover only seven sets of club in the van so Irik became the butt of many jokes for the rest of the trip. The forgotten set of clubs meant an unexpected three-hour detour home via Royal Liverpool, where Irik’s clubs had sat outside for two days in the carpark without being pinched. It said more about his old set of clubs than the area itself. Sixteen balls lost.

Saturday: Notts Golf Club, Hollinwell. Not on the Open Rota but a course used as a qualifying venue for entry into the Open. A friend of mine, Colin, is a member there and had offered to host us with some of his golfing buddies. Three of our eight decided to rest so five of us had a blast playing this fantastic track and enjoying some truly fabulous hospitality.

Sunday: Rest day. We headed to Old Trafford to take in a charity football match. 71,000 people at a charity game – it was incredible.

Monday: Royal Birkdale. Home of the 2017 Open where Jordan Spieth played the miracle shot from the carpark to get himself back in contention on the 13th and then go on to win the Open with a barnstorming finish. The tee shot off the first is one of the hardest I’ve ever seen and I think half of us were reloading off the tee after firing one out of bounds. After that, the course actually got a little easier but was still a real test of our golfing skills. Twenty-six balls lost. The drive from Birkdale to Edinburgh took four hours.

Tuesday: Muirfield. Our final game. Playing Muirfield is quite the experience from the moment you arrive at the gate. You are welcomed, shown around, and generally made to feel very special. Visitors are only allowed at Muirfield on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the format being singles in the morning, then change into jacket and tie, three-course lunch and a couple of wines in the stately clubhouse (“strictly no photos allowed inside, please sir”), then change back into golf gear and head out for another round in the afternoon. All very civilised. Our boys had had enough golf by this point so we opted to forgo the afternoon round and take our time over lunch, while reminiscing about a magical three weeks of golf. Only nine balls lost.

Wednesday: The group disbanded and headed out its separate ways, with all feeling happy, sore, and proud.

A total of 215 balls lost by eight players over 11 rounds (Notts & Portland excluded), or approximately three balls lost per person per round. Not a bad effort actually, given the toughness of the courses.

I would highly recommend the UK to any golfing enthusiast. The courses are truly special and the hospitality is just fantastic. You are made to feel most welcome wherever you go. The people are so very friendly and the 1st tee at the Old Course is a place where every golfer should visit … just hit it straight … FORE right!!

Stephen Brent is a partner in Cavell Leitch’s Queenstown office. Needless to say, he plays a bit of golf, alongside his business and commercial property practice.

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