Great Britain, Great Golf
by Andrew Warshaw
Few sporting events are as keenly anticipated as the Ryder Cup, the biennial competition between the best golfers from the United States and Europe, providing three days of nail-biting excitement (September 27-29, 2002).
The tournament, first held in 1927, alternates between the two continents and was postponed last year as a mark of respect for the victims of the Sept. 11 atrocities. This year it is back in Britain, staged once again at its spiritual home at The Belfry, near Birmingham in the Heart of England.
The event’s return to the UK will inspire golfers everywhere to come and play in the game’s birthplace. Nowhere in the world offers such variety and opportunity, but where should you start?
The vicinity of The Belfry itself, perhaps – North Warwickshire -- which has no fewer than eight high quality courses; then there are Sandwell Park and King's Norton, equally fine ones also near Birmingham. England’s second city, 118 miles north-west of London, has superb shopping and nightlife and, surprisingly, a larger canal system than Venice. Much has been rejuvenated and lined with bars, restaurants, designer shops and miles of traffic-free walkways.
One of the most exciting aspects of golf in Britain is that there is always another course round the corner. Within a few minutes of any journey by car or train, you are bound to come across a welcoming club, whether a remote course of isolated splendour or a modest nine-hole layout.
Some parts of the country even retain unmanned golf clubs with so-called honesty boxes where the visitor is trusted to leave his or her green fee in an envelope.
Most clubs welcome non-members, even those where the Open Championship is played. Whether you intend to tour around and play, or plan your tee-times in advance, the majority of clubs have no restrictions, though it is best to telephone first to check on tee-time availability.
Nowhere epitomises the traditions of British golf more than Scotland, where the game began 600 years ago. It has more than 540 courses, including St. Andrews, Muirfield, Royal Troon, Turnberry and Carnoustie, all of which are used for the Open Championship, staged every July.
The Open courses, being somewhat exclusive, operate a strict playing policy. Yet even St. Andrews, the most famous course in the world, opens its doors to visitors at certain times of the week provided you are prepared to be flexible, bring a handicap certificate and are willing to pay upwards of £90 for a round. Because of the demand, you will probably also be asked to put your name in a ballot for a tee time on the day before you want to play.
All over Scotland, there are other courses whose names might not roll instantly off the tongue but which will give you endless hours of pleasure. This is where the best value is to be had, with discount golf passes, available from regional tourist boards, giving exceptional value. In the Borders, for example, so often missed by tourists hurrying north to Edinburgh from England, a three-day ‘Freedom of the Fairways’ pass from the Scottish Borders Tourist Board costs £55 and covers 20 courses. The region’s highlight is undoubtedly the Roxburghe at Kelso, owned by the Duke of Roxburghe.
The country, quite rightly, is known for its coastline links courses, so when you plan your visit, make sure you give yourself time to play the likes of Nairn, Dornoch and Royal Aberdeen. All manner of activities await the non-golfer, in particular salmon fishing, walking or cycling through spectacular scenery; wonderful lochs and glens; castles; fine dining and, of course, renowned malt whiskies.
Another Celtic part of Britain offering superb opportunities is Wales – which borders England to the west. This small country, blessed with great natural beauty including a magnificent coastline, has a wide choice of courses. It will host the Ryder Cup in 2010 – at the Celtic Manor Resort near Newport – but it would be a shame to wait until then to sample the sport there.
The Celtic Manor, a stunning course which has been developed into a 1,400 acre resort, including a health spa, in less than a decade, also hosts the Welsh Open (August 8-11), one of the newer events on the European Tour. Others range from the Royal St. David’s, described as the world’s toughest par 69, set beneath 13th century Harlech Castle; to Royal Porthcawl, one of the world’s best coastal courses, whose 18th hole is played towards the sea, the prevailing wind and the setting sun.
Many British courses operate a convenient ‘pay and play’ policy. At these, all you do is pull off the road, get your clubs out and begin. Almost all, whether private or municipally owned, have clubs, trolleys and buggies to rent. Most are open all the year round, although at times during the winter months you may be asked to carry your bag if conditions are too wet or muddy. Green fees can change from season to season and most clubs charge more at weekends, though many offer cheaper rates for teeing off late in the afternoon.
Wherever they go, visitors with a non-golfing partner can feel confident that there is a good range of other attractions to enjoy. Whether you book into one of the many resort hotels, which have superb spas and fine dining to complement the golf, or take advantage of a small, family-run hotel, there will be much to see and do.