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Great Golf Courses

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A groovy golfer grinning on the golf course.
He enjoys that perfect peace, that peace beyond all human understanding, that peace which cometh at its maximum only to a man who has given up golf.
- PG Wodehouse

You see, for the uninitiated, golf is just a boring sport played by wealthy, fat, obnoxious men. However, for millions more - those that have been bitten on the butt by the golf bug - the game is almost a religion. For them, golf is the most difficult, mysterious and addictive of all sports, played in the fresh outdoors. Golf sees man battling not only against his own shortcomings, but against the cruel vicissitudes of nature.

So, in the spirit of h2g2, we present some of the world's great golf courses and open up this great sport to both the uninitiated and the expert.

The Gary Player Country Club, Sun City, South Africa

Thanks to entrepreneurial hotelier Sol Kerzner, the Gary Player Country Club is now probably one of Africa's most prestigious golf courses, as it has since 1981 annually hosted Africa's 'Major', the Million Dollar1 Golf Challenge event.

The course, designed by Gary Player in the late 1970s is always immaculate, despite accommodating some 35,000 rounds of golf each year, and is the perfect venue for the blue-riband2 Two Million Dollar Golf Challenge. Despite being brimful, spectators never feel like sheep stampeding from hole to hole. Instead, it is just a leisurely stroll in the African sunshine, at the end of which access to the gallery at the 18th is assured (if you've got the corporate hospitality pass) without any fuss or bother.

As for the course itself, Ernie Els describes the 545m (par 5) 9th hole as the signature hole at the Gary Player Country Club...

The hole is normally set up so as to encourage the second shot at the green, which can be intimidating. I've gone at the green with 2-irons, but if it's a 3-wood distance I back off. Even after laying up short of the lake, if the pin is cut back left or right, it is a tough shot; a couple of yards either way and the ball can be in the water.

For the best of Sun City, stay in the magnificent 'Indiana Jones'-style Lost City Hotel, or for a more tranquil experience pop next door to the tented camp at Pilanesberg National Park.

Sunset Golf Course, Middletown, Pennsylvania

Sunset Golf Course is the only golf course which overlooks a toxic waste site and the site of the worst commercial nuclear power accident in US history.

That's right... Three Mile Island is just a mile or so away from the golf course. It's also in the flight path for Harrisburg International Airport so you'll occasionally have planes fly close overhead as they approach to land. It's actually pretty impressive to hear the sound of the wind swirling around over your head minutes after the plane has passed, convincing you that any ball you hit will wind up in France. And on the first hole, there are actually airport approach lights in play in the fairway.

But despite its 'unique' location, this municipal golf course offers a lot of fun and it's very cheap ($24 weekdays and $28 weekends with a cart included). It's challenging enough with some tight fairways, some elevation changes and one par 3 (at the 11th hole) that hits over a small pond.

What they don't tell you is that there is a ball magnet under the water's surface and after two years of playing there, I've yet to successfully clear the water there. It's almost become a running joke with my playing partners that I'll put one in with the fishes...

Hershey, Pennsylvania, USA

Hershey, Pennsylvania has an insane amount of golf courses per capita. Three courses with 18-holes and two 9-hole courses. Two of the 18-holes are associated with the Hershey Country Club and are not open to the public unless you are a guest at the Hotel Hershey or are invited by a member. The Hershey Open is held there every summer as part of the tour and the professionals say it is one of the most difficult courses on their tour. There are also lots of elevation changes with this course and it really provides challenges for just about every level of player.

I really enjoy the 18-hole Parkview Golf Course located next to Hersheypark (a Disney-style amusement park). There's a creek running through the middle of the course which seems to come into play just about every time I hit the ball.

Spring Creek is located up stream from Parkview and was originally set up as a juvenile course for the kids of Country Club members and for caddies, but it's a really fun course. Lots of crossings of the creek and several breath-taking elevation changes. Since it's only nine holes, there are no par 5s, just par 4s and 3s, but it really is a great way to spend the afternoon if you're playing hookey from work. The only drawback is that the parking lot is located right along the road, so your boss might spot your car...

Which is why the hotel's Executive Course is so appealing. It's out of the way and isolated. Many people forget that it's even there. But for $13, it's another great way to spend the afternoon.

Since the Hotel Hershey is built atop a hill, many of the fairways have a bit of slope, which can quickly put your ball out of bounds, even if you're in the middle of the fairway. It's even more difficult in the middle of summer when the ground is dry and hard, because then you're almost hitting to the uphill side of the fairway and hoping your ball will stop rolling before it gets out-of-bounds. Again, since it's a 9-hole course there are no par 5s, but it is still a good challenge...

Glen Golf Course, North Berwick, Scotland

The Glen Golf Course in North Berwick, some 25 miles east of Edinburgh, is part of a remarkable area centred around Gullane, which has ten 18-hole courses along a seven-mile strip of road. Three of them are already of an international standard, while two new top quality courses will shortly add to the number when completed in 2003. In this exalted company, which includes Muirfield (one of the hosts to the British Open - see below) the Glen is neither the hardest, nor the longest. It is, however, outstandingly attractive.

Running along the top of a series of cliffs overlooking the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, it has views of a series of offshore islands which harbour huge colonies of constantly wheeling sea birds, as well as longer panoramas stretching to Edinburgh in the west and Fife some 12 miles away across the Firth of Forth.

Having been a visitor dozens of times while on holiday in the area, I heartily recommend it to golfers of all standards. The views alone quite takes the sting out of a golf ball on the beach!

Mhlambanyatsi Golf Course, Swaziland

Deep in the heart of Swaziland's Usutu Forest is Mhlambanyatsi (meaning 'where the buffaloes drink'), a privately-operated forest town that, with its 'black-and-white' road-kerbing and white-painted rocks, still reeks of the sultry colonial indolence of days gone by.

At an altitude of around 2000 metres in the middle of a high veld mountain range, the town's 9-hole golf course (which you play twice, off different tees second time around) is surprisingly flat - indeed a windsock gives notice of a somewhat furtive turf airstrip that's tucked in between the fairways.

As at its more illustrious near-neighbour, the Royal Swazi, any prospective golfer will be mugged at the gate by the wannabe caddies. Visitors from more egalitarian shores usually seem shy to take a caddy, but this is a mistake from several perspectives. Firstly, and perhaps most graciously, these fellows don't have work. Nor most likely do they have food. So you should take a caddy and help the man to feed both himself and his family. It's called redistribution of wealth. Secondly, from a perspective of self-preservation, consider the status of your unguarded car in the eucalyptus-lined car-park. Mending four flat tyres after 18 holes is no picnic. And thirdly, here's one Researcher's experience...

I arrive at Mhlambanyatsi just in time to grab a caddy, and meet the three others in my four-ball who seem to be waiting anxiously for me to pitch up. It is a sponsored golf-day and I have been assigned to the blue team. My round partner is the pretty Holly Hunter-esque wife of the Forest MD, while our two rivals, in red, are the son of the late Chief Justice and a land-surveyor for whom work seems to be more hobby than necessity. All three of them appear to know what their clubs are for. I shudder. This is going to be a long day in the sunshine.
With some trepidation, I tee-off on the first... amazingly, it's no grass-cutter and instead sails over the ladies tee (one round of drinks saved). I await for it to peel off right into the car-park and out of bounds, but it doesn't happen... my ball plops down in the middle of the fairway. My caddy is impressed - he thinks he's going to have an easy day. 'Ha, think again my friend.'
By the time we reach the 14th hole, I am showing my true colours... I am down to three useful clubs, a wood for off the tee; a putter for the greens and a pitching wedge for the rough. The rest are redundant. Moreover, it is starting to rain the sort of rain you can almost set your clock by in Swaziland in summer... heavy pregnant clouds have been accumulating above us all morning, and sure enough, bang on time, they start to dump both water and electricity on us in Hollywood proportions.
We climb up to the high 15th tee and look down towards the green where a beer and hideous cocktail, courtesy of the event organisers, await. Unless you're Fred 'Boom Boom' Couples3, the idea is to play short and then to pitch over the stream and on, which I do, I think. But when we reach the green, the drink-station personnel happily inform me that my ball is in the bunker, which on inspection is now transformed into a water-hazard. My caddy does not hesitate. Like Jean Van der Velde4, shoes off, trousers rolled up, he's knee-deep in the bunker feeling for my ball with his feet. I feel a sense of duty and join him. Together, our efforts yield one recovered ball, but it is not mine.
It is then that common sense prevails and we are summoned back to the club-house. The Swazi high veld is renowned for its iron ore and perhaps, as a result, the country is said to endure one of the planet's highest occurrences of lightning strikes. When play resumes, the 16th fairway is mostly lake and the 17th green is an island with a moat. With a well-justified sense of foreboding, my caddy (bless him) doesn't bother to reunite his feet with his shoes.

High Handicappers' English Favourites

The Bridlington Links

A club that welcomes the paying public, at reasonable prices, the Bridlington Links is ingenious in managing to squeeze all the facets of links golf into a long-ish (7150 yards) course, and even throw in a couple of target-style American holes as well. An unprepossessing first hole gives way to a meandering front nine, picking through bunkers. A splendid two-shot par 5 carries you over water twice, and a par 3 plays over a ravine, requiring an elevation of nearly 20 feet from tee to green. The front 9 finishes with a sumptuous par 4 with a tricky little lake. The 10th hole take you out along the cliff tops - the rough is deep heather and very punishing. The 11th plays past a Second World War pillbox on the course of its gargantuan 670 yards. Played well (by a 24-handicapper's standards), your third shot should leave you with a spectacular gentle pitch over a gully to the green. Care is required at the 14th, as any overshoot will leave your ball dropping down the cliff-side, and inward along the cliff edge with its spectacular views.

The greens are cut very slick here, and the 18th has the feel of an old 'country club' hole as you play up through dense trees towards the clubhouse. Sublime and cheap.

The Whitby Golf Club

The Whitby Golf Club is a links of a more earthy nature. Drawing comparisons with Pebble Beach because of its challenging terrain, it is a short, but fun course. Several holes cross a gaping ravine in the cliff edge, several greens have blind approaches and the rough is shallow gorse. Great target golf in an American-Links hybrid.

Royal Portrush, Northern Ireland

Located on the north coast of Northern Ireland about 15 miles from the Giant's Causeway, Portrush has in the words, of South African golfing great Gary Player, one of the best championship courses in the world. It received its Royal moniker when Edward VII played on the course when he was Prince of Wales and it is the last Irish links course to have hosted the Open.

The course is a typically rough and testing links course, and is laid out on the dunes to the east of Portrush. It is made all the harder by the winds which come off the Atlantic. It has hosted the Senior British Open on numerous occasions in recent years and many of the greats have enjoyed their rounds at Royal Portrush - some of them even having played in both the Open and the senior version on the same course.

Portal/North Portal Golf Course

This is a 9-hole golf course in North Portal, Saskatchewan, Canada, and Portal, North Dakota, USA. The first eight holes are in North Portal, and the 9th hole and club house are in Portal.

A ball hit to the 9th hole takes an hour to land. The reason is, Saskatchewan doesn't go on daylight saving time, but North Dakota does. So, if you hit a ball, for example at 8pm, its 9pm when it lands on the 9th green. There is no visible border crossing, just a gravel road, so you can buy American or Canadian beer and cigarettes at the golf club.

One night a week is Men's Night - Golf and steak for a reduced price, and the women get the same deal another night. Membership is really inexpensive. Being in a small town, people drive their golf carts from all over town to go to the course.

Muirfield, Gullane, Scotland

It goes without saying that Muirfield is one of the finest golf courses in the world. Its heritage as the venue for who knows how many British Open Championships speaks volumes as to the quality of the course.

On the southern side of the Firth of Forth on the east coast of Scotland, east-south-east of Edinburgh, Muirfield is without doubt a links course. Its sandy soil makes for immaculate drainage and the toughest rough you are ever likely to encounter. With concrete-hard greens cut to within a nanometre of their life (and therefore lightning fast), bunkers so deep that Hitler would have thought twice about invading, and fairways that only open up after 200 yards... anyone would have thought they didn't want you to get to the green!

Every round at Muirfield is different and it doesn't forgive any mistakes... see how Tiger Woods was destroyed on the third day of the 2002 Open. Each hole challenges you in a new way - the bunkers aren't wide expanses of sand with low lips, they're craters with vertical walls - do you risk hitting the lip and ending up back in the sand or do you consign yourself to dropping a shot by playing out backwards?

It is a members only course, which means that it's almost always deserted which is lucky for we few who are sons/grandsons of members... anyone fancy a round? I believe that it is possible to fork out a small fortune for the pleasure of playing, but weekends are generally off limits and it's worth getting an introduction only because they can be quite snooty. Women aren't allowed in the clubhouse at all and it's very old school tie, but it's still one hell of a course.

The Moon

Just before departure from the Moon on Apollo 14 mission, Alan B Shepard drove a golf ball on the lunar surface. He drove with a 6-iron with an extended shaft to enable him to play in his bulky suit. However the moon's lighter gravity made this man's longest drive at the time despite the unconventional attire of the player.

1Since 2000 it has become the Two Million Dollar Challenge.2Of the highest quality.3Long-hitting US golfer.4French golfer who famously 'threw' The Open in 2000 with a series of bizarre shots on the 18th, one of which saw him knee-deep in water contemplating hitting the ball out of a river.

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