To open, I'll talk about Tom Watson. But to be clear, this isn't about Tom Watson or any of his eight major titles (per se), but rather a newfound appreciation I have for the part of his game that I have largely ignored until now.
More specifically, his play at The Open and on links-style courses. I was born and grew up largely after Watson's Open run came to an end -- he won at Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland the year after I was born and then added four more before I turned 10 ... but this all came before I gained a love for the sport.
So why do I bring him up? I got my first (well, second) taste of links golf recently when I played at Tarandowah Golfers Club near Putnam, Ontario. I had played there when the course was in its infancy (play began there in 2008), but it wasn't until this year that I returned.
How could I have been so foolish?
I have become so used to parkland or stadium golf that, for the most part, that's all I associate with playing the game. My recent post about Forest City National being my favourite course still stands as it offers me all I could want in a course: tree-lined fairways, manicured bunkers, greens so nicely rolled you could mistake them for a dance floor.
At Tarandowah, I got greens just as good (in some cases better), but the rest was ... something else. Something that, until I tapped in on the 18th green, I had no idea was missing.
Let's get some of the technical stuff out of the way right now: Tarandowah was designed by Dr. Martin Hawtree, who intentionally made this course different than anything else around it. There is nothing about this course that feels like it was engineered to be how you see it; the rolling fairways, multiple bunkers (more on that shortly) and long, wind-swept fescue that lines virtually every playable aspect of this course make it a wild ride for those who aren't used to links golf. There are no sight lines apart from what you concoct in your head, unless you happen to get lucky to have trees in the distance, a silo or perhaps a few dark-ish clouds to landmark where you want to line a shot up.
The pot bunkers are everywhere and total 106 spread out over the 18 holes. It really is a wonder I didn't spend more time playing out of them, as my ball only went tanning on the beach twice -- I did have the misfortune of finding a fairway bunker on a less-than-stellar tee shot that required me to escape with a pitching wedge at an angle I didn't really want to take, but that is part of the game when you step foot on a links track.
MatchPlay Golf Marketing's David Cowx told me the most common feedback that Tarandowah gets following a round there by non-members tends to 'it was fun' and that it presents a challenge most people aren't used to.
"The wind plays a huge factor in links-style golf, and certainly at Tarandowah," he said. "So having to hit shots at different trajectories and using the ground to your advantage is one of the keys to playing well here. Links golf is a very different experience and those who embrace the challenges really enjoy it."
Hawtree wants the focus to be on the course and not on outside distractions. Consider Tarandowah the opening act, main attraction and the third encore all rolled into one. You stand on the first tee and all you really see are some trees off in the distance, with a sole 150-yard marker drilled into the middle of a seemingly tight fairway. You need your creative juices flowing right off the hop if you want to score well, and even then you have to leave behind everything you know about your regular game if you want to immerse yourself in the links game. When asked about how a player (such as yours truly) who shoots in the 80s for the part part can expect to fair at a place unlike his usual track, Cowx didn't sugar coat his response.
"There is a learning curve on how to play links-style golf, and course management and imagination are keys to scoring well here," he said. "It takes a little experience to start shooting your expected score here, that's for sure."
There are plenty of choices for favourite hole of the round, but I'll split it between two fo them: Hole 14 gently bends right to left and is uphill all the way to the green. No less than 13 of those aforementioned bunkers dot the landscape on this hole, and you're lucky to have a swirling wind at your back for at least part of the ascent to the flagstick. The second choice here is Hole 6, a short-ish par-4 that makes you decide right away what your second shot is going to be: going for the big shot off the tee means all the fun stuff (bunkers, fescue, uneven footing) comes into play. Laying up mean you'll have a good luck, but you still have to fly the other stuff.
Those are typical choices a player encounters at Tarandowah, and that's what made me think about Watson. That he so embraced links golf and opened his mind to what is a normally unconventional way of thinking about getting around a golf course (at least on this side of the Atlantic) is something to be lauded once you've had a small taste of golf's origins.
The only problem with that is you won't want to stop at just a sip. There's a reason Tarandowah appears on so many lists of best links options to play in this country - it's just that good.
Tarandowah Golfers Club is located at 15125 Putnam Road, Springfield, ON. You can book your tee times online or by calling the pro shop at (519) 269-9656.
All images provided by Thousand Words Photog.