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Welsh golf exceeds the hype, in unexpected ways
The 11th at Royal St. David's (photo courtesy of Brandon Tucker/WorldGolf.com)

Welsh golf exceeds the hype, in unexpected ways

Royal St. David’s Golf Club and its singular Welsh backdrop, Harlech Castle

 

The British Open is nearly underway, and naturally there are myriad reasons to visit the U.K. with your golf clubs and, well, none of them have much to do with the British Open or any of the courses that host the Open Championship. Look at Wales, which is right next door to Birkdale (to all of England, to be honest) and the Open has never been held there. Yet the golf up and down the northwestern Welsh coast is outstanding. What’s more, when you venture into this section of the British Isles, you enter a region so remote, so removed from modern resort and tournament conventions, that a golf journey there feels almost, well… Arthurian.

Indeed, a hefty chunk of the King Arthur legend is Welsh, drawn from early poetic sources such as Y Gododdin that are, like the Welsh language itself, pre-Christian. The Druids, the priestly class of the class, considered the Welsh island of Anglesey sacred, and this ancient, mystical feeling still pervades the country’s dark hollows, its untamed coastline, even its trees (The Celts thought them sacred, you know).

Here’s an example of how this world and the modern golfing world can interact:

About 15 years ago my girlfriend, Sharon, who would later become my wife, and I went to visit friends in Market Drayton, Shropshire, just over the Welsh border, in England, and not far from Birmingham. In fact, I was there on assignment, writing a travel piece re. where to play in the Midlands while attending the 1995 Ryder Cup (and we can see what sort of promotional effect that story had; when was the last time you heard of anyone visiting Edgbaston, Beau Desert or Hawkstone Park?).

Anyway, we decided to head west a couple hours, over the Welsh border to seaside Harlech, home to Royal St. David’s Golf Club. I had written a letter to the club secretary requesting the courtesy of the club (remember letters?), and he had kindly obliged. Still, we arrived in coat and tie, ready for an audience and perhaps a drink in the bar before teeing off.

Now, Sharon was a pretty rank novice at this stage. She had her own clubs and arrived at the club looking pretty darned smart in a turtleneck and one of my vintage sport jackets with the sleeves rolled up (remember the ‘90s?). Still, the club secretary was dubious. I don’t know whether he suspected her inexperience (none of us had handicap cards), or he was merely a mild sexist when it came to sheilas playing the course. Whatever the case, he followed us to the first tee to witness our inaugural drives. I’m not sure who was made more nervous by this, Sharon or myself, but she drilled one right down the middle about 230 yards and off we went. Come to think of it, that may have been the day I decided she was the one…

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The 1931 U.S. Open: Golf’s very own Bataan Death March

George von Elm (left) and Billy Burke, combatants in the longest U.S. Open every contested..

The next time you play a round of golf in some modicum of heat and humidity, the next time you trudge up the 18th fairway and feel a bit of lactic acid building up in your thighs, spare a thought for Billy Burke and George Von Elm. These were the unflinching principals in the most extraordinary physical and competitive test golf has ever seen: the 1931 U.S. Open, held some 86 Julys ago at The Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.  As the central characters in what Grantland Rice called “the most sensational open ever played in the 500-year history of golf,” Burke and Von Elm required 144 holes of medal play to produce a winner: Burke, by a single stroke.

Take a moment to think about the parameters here: 72 holes contested over the first three days, followed by 36 playoff holes on Monday and 36 more on Tuesday. Waged in the midst of a stifling, July heat wave — in an era devoid of fitness trailers, cushioned in-soles, and air-conditioned clubhouses — this match was golf’s precursor to the Bataan Death March. It was and remains, needless to say, the longest playoff in U.S Open history. Supreme Court cases have taken less time to adjudicate.

Or so it appeared during the morning round on Tuesday, July 6, 1931, as Burke and Von Elm — with 126 holes behind them and 18 still to negotiate — staggered off the 18th green toward the clubhouse for lunch. Even the most callow observer could see the quality of play eroding, quite understandably, under the enormous dual burdens of fatigue and Open-playoff pressure.

Yet Burke rallied to play his finest golf of the tournament over the final 18 holes. Von Elm, too, rose to the occasion and finished a single shot in arrears.

“I looked for a rather ghastly finish to a grand struggle,” wrote O.B. Keeler in The American Golfer. “Instead it was, and ever shall remain in my mind, the most remarkable exhibition of recovered stamina and poise and of sheer staying power and determination I have ever witnessed.”

Legend says that Von Elm, a lithe figure with little to lose, shed nine pounds during the championship, while the stocky Burke managed to gain two. “A circumstance,” Keeler mused, “which, if accurate, gives rise to wonder as to his diet.”

Read on to sort through, with me, the fascinating details of this extraordinary championship, staged 80-plus years ago this summer by two fascinating figures whose stories have been obscured by time, during a period when American golf was wildly popular but still adjusting to the loss of its first truly dominant figure.

•••

The 1931 Open was the first since 1920 without one Bobby Jones in the field.

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Coats, Ties and Foursomes: Collegiate Golf in the UK

Coats, Ties and Foursomes: Collegiate Golf in the UK

For all the trans-Atlantic DNA we share with our British golfing brethren, it’s easy and, I daresay, somewhat natural to assume that college golf here in the U.S. is pretty much the same as it is over there. Not so.

Top players from the U.K. (and mainland Europe) routinely travel stateside hone their games at American colleges and universities. Indeed, many of these men, women and their games will be on display later this month (May 19-31) at Rich Harvest GC, site of the 2017 NCAA Championships. But why do they make this trip in such appreciable numbers?

Because collegiate golf in the U.K. — like all college sports there — is decidedly low-key, even compared to the low-stakes Division III golf I played at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., during the early 1980s.

Yet, for my money, one can place collegiate golf alongside beer and period cinema as something the Brits still do better, with more nuance and panache, than we do. Yes, our universities turn out more tour professionals, but for the majority of college golfers, in both countries, that’s not the aim. It’s about competition and its sensible integration with the game’s social niceties — and no one does that better than the British upper crust, whose ethos dominated my university golfing experience abroad. Coats and ties, foursomes in the morning, singles in the afternoon, and no less than two proper English piss-ups sandwiched between them. You can have your vans, your matching shirts and golf bags. To Yanks, collegiate golf in the U.K. may look and feel more like a club sport, but having played both sides of this fence, I’ll go with the Pommies.

At mighty Wesleyan, a perennial golfing doormat, the exercise we underwent during the ‘80s remains recognizable: Throw on a pair of khakis and a golf shirt; pile into a van and meet a different college team, or two, at the course venue; play 18 holes of medal (maybe match play, on that very rare occasion); shake hands, tally up the scores, pile back into the van and drive home to campus. Big-time Division I golf schools don’t play many dual or tri-matches like these any more, I understand. More often they play various invitational tournaments whereby dozens of schools show up in one place, seven guys from each team play medal, and the best 5 scores count. We did this, too, though only once or twice a season.

Collegiate golf in England during the mid-1980s, when I played for the University of London, was nothing like this. Nothing. For starters, and perhaps most important, we rarely played other schools. Instead, university teams were hosted by golf clubs themselves, which trotted out their best players for a day of intergenerational match play and assorted reverie. Here’s a typical match-day regimen:

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B-listed by the USGA, Riviera Ponders What Might Have Been

B-listed by the USGA, Riviera Ponders What Might Have Been

 

[This piece was first posted in 2011. It seemed a good time to revisit, with the U.S. Open visiting yet another public course this June… hp]

I suppose we should count our blessings that a magnificent course like Riviera — a 1926 George Thomas design firmly ensconced in all the Top 100 lists that matter — still deigns to host PGA Tour events. As recently as 2001, when Riviera hosted the USGA Senior Open, club ownership was hell bent on securing a U.S. Open. There were multiple regrassings of the greens, which had not fared well during the club’s last major championship engagement, the 1995 PGA Championship, where our lasting image is a ground-level view of Steve Elkington’s winning putt bouncing frantically into our living rooms while traversing a hefty portion of Riviera’s pockmarked 18th green before disappearing into the cup. The 2001 Senior Open was to be Riviera’s chance at redemption, a very public audition for club ownership, tournament organizers and the course itself.

Looking back, the greens held up well enough but attendance was poor and it turns out not to have mattered a lick. The intervening years have witnessed a sea change in the USGA’s attitude toward the siting of its marquee event, and Riviera isn’t much discussed at all when future U.S. Open sites are the subject.

Why? Well, the 2002 Open at Bethpage really changed the way the USGA views itself and the national championship. The PR value of holding the tournament on a truly public course proved an undeniable boon to the USGA’s image and coffers. Crowds were huge, TV ratings soared, merchandize sales went nuts, and the USGA found a truly effective way to fight the impression that golf is game played exclusively by rich guys in bad pants. Private clubs weren’t barred going forward, by any means, but look at the list of Open sites played since 2002 and scheduled through 2017:

2017 – Erin Hills Golf Course, Erin, Wis.

2016 – Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.

2015 – Chambers Bay, University Place, Wash.

2014 – Pinehurst No. 2, Pinehurst, N.C.

2013 – Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.

2012 – Olympic Club, San Francisco

2011 – Congressional Country Club, Blue Course, Bethesda, Md.

2010 – Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach, Calif.

2009 – Bethpage State Park, Black Course, Farmingdale, N.Y.

2008 – Torrey Pines Golf Course, South Course, La Jolla, Calif.

2007 – Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club

2006 – Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamoroneck, N.Y.

2005 – Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, No. 2 Course, Village of Pinehurst, N.C.

2004 – Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Southampton, N.Y.

2003 – Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club, North Course

2002 – Bethpage State Park, Black Course, Farmingdale, N.Y.

That’s 16 events, fully half staged at courses the public can play. Bear in mind that the USGA, starting in 1895, didn’t hold the Open at public course other than Pebble Beach until it visited another very expensive resort venue, Pinehurst No. 2, in 1999. The chances of a legitimately great but still private club cracking the rota of courses for Open consideration have literally been halved, and a place like Riviera doesn’t have a prayer.

Of course, there are other considerations when choosing Open venues. The USGA likes geographic diversity; it seeks to move the event around (again, to fight the image that the game is run by northeastern elites). It attempted for many years to find a Midwestern venue that would suffice. Medinah and Olympia Fields were found wanting — enter the public Erin Hills, in Wisconsin, scheduled to debut as host in 2017. The same issue applied to west coast venues (which also afford the USGA and NBC the opportunity to televise, very lucratively, weekend rounds in prime time). Pebble Beach is a natural (and technically public) but it’s interested in hosting only once a decade. This was the opening Riviera was hoping to fill, but instead that tryout went to Torrey Pines in San Diego, in 2008. Then it went to Chambers Bay, yet another muni, in Tacoma, Wash.

There are other aspects to the USGA’s formula. Opens require a vast amount of space these days. Note the presence of multi-course public facilities on this list, allowing onsite parking and space for long rows of hospitality tents and merchandise tents worthy of Barnum & Bailey. At Riviera, squeezed onto a superb but tight piece of ground, densely flanked by fancy homes, the window of opportunity appears to have closed for good.

Feeding the Faithful: Golfing the East Coast of Scotland, by Rail
The estimable Balgownie Course at Royal Aberdeen GC

Feeding the Faithful: Golfing the East Coast of Scotland, by Rail

WHEN GOLF was first conceived, participants arrived at the course on foot or horseback, or, if the company was honourable enough, by carriage. For this reason, it remained for centuries a parochial, largely Scottish pursuit. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, all of British culture was transformed by an industrial capacity that, among other things, launched a transportation revolution.

Trains would change golf forever.

In particular, completion of the Forth Rail Bridge, in 1890, widely exposed the bounty of Scottish links courses for the first time — to the rest of Britain and ultimately the world, which still marvels.

The advent of train travel did something else: It spurred the development of “new” Scottish links built specifically to accommodate the rail-enabled.

Golf may not have been formulated with trains in mind, but the idea and practice of “golf by rail” shaped and grew the game during the late 19th century, its first true boom period, an age we now drape with garlands like “ancient”, “timeless” and “classic”. The railway made the game what it was, what it remains in the minds of many. Without this transformation, the romantic golfing vintage we so idealize (the one we still travel to Scotland to find) might never have materialized.

Indeed, the very idea of golf travel was born in this time. By 1890, the railways had cozied up to several superb links in the Scottish lowlands. It only made sense: Rail connected population centers, which lay mainly along the coast, close to sea level where terrain was flattest and bed construction easiest. Just a short walk from these new “centre city” train stations lay the common lands, the links, where, for example, in East Lothian, clubs like North Berwick, Muirfield and Gullane already resided. Today they remain as practical to play by train as they did in the 19th century — which is to say, perfectly practical for golfers with a sense of history and adventure.

The Forth Rail Bridge, the world’s first steel span, made this travel scenario a practical reality in Fife, revealing the birthplace of golf to the game’s myriad new zealots.

“As the train neared St. Andrews and I noted the gradually increasing numbers of the faithful,” wrote A.W. Tillinghast on his first trip to “that Mecca for golfers”, in 1895, “I marveled that the popularity of the ancient game had continued, unabated throughout the centuries.”

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Baronets & Collieries: Encountering Fowler’s Beautiful, Wild Place

Baronets & Collieries: Encountering Fowler’s Beautiful, Wild Place

Herbert Fowler is one of those architects whose name, curiously, isn’t readily attached to the many great golf courses he laid out and/or substantially retooled. Cruden Bay? That’s a Fowler. Royal North Devon? Fowler’s fingerprints can be found all over this west country masterpiece. Indeed, his renovation of the Old Tom Morris original (a.k.a. Westward Ho!) fairly well accounts for the superb course we know today.

This lack of name recognition begins to explain why a venue like Beau Desert Golf Club, which Fowler designed nearly 100 years ago in the Staffordshire hamlet of Hazel Slade for the Sixth Marquess of Anglesey, rings few bells. Yet a better heathland course golfers are unlikely to come across, as indeed many have not.

Herbert Fowler

For his own part, The Marquess (nee Charles Henry Alexander Paget) recognized immediately that Fowler had created something extraordinary on his Beaudesert estate. When the course was completed, in 1913, Paget whisked Fowler off to the family’s “other” ancestral estate at Plas Newydd on the Welsh island of Anglesey. There the architect laid out a second course for the Marquess, Bull Bay Golf Club, another obscure Fowler product you’ve probably never heard of.

The majority of Fowler’s brilliant work was done in his native England, but he did get around. Fowler was the man who transformed a ho-hum par-4 at Pebble Beach into one of golf’s most heroic, par-5 finishing holes. His Cape Cod design at Eastward Ho! (whose peculiar moniker now makes perfect, book-ending sense) is an old-world delight. Fowler also refurbished the ancient Welsh links at Aberdovey where venerated golf writer Bernard Darwin learned the game and played all his life.

Darwin would complete the Fowler circle by eventually visiting Beau Desert’s 160 acres of elevated, exposed ground some 25 miles north of Birmingham. Afterward he asserted that, “Here might be one of the very best of courses, for the turf is excellent and there is a flavour of Gleneagles about it. It stands high and is pleasanter in hot weather than cold, for the wind can blow there with penetrating shrewdness.”

The Ryder Cup may have played nearby at The Belfry; Little Aston may be the region’s most fashionable golfing address. But the finest course in this part of England is Beau Desert. And yes, Herbert Fowler designed it.

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A Few Words (not 1000) on the Power of Golf Imagery

A Few Words (not 1000) on the Power of Golf Imagery

 

In my work, I gather and view killer golf photography all the time. Those of us in the trade often refer to these beauty shots as “golf porn”. This particular photo — the back tee on the 16th at Cape Kidnappers GC in Hawkes Bay, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island — has always intrigued me for what it lacks and what it delivers (full disclosure: This course is a client of my firm, Mandarin Media). My job is to get magazines and website to print or post an image like this, but I don’t know that many have done so. It’s a funny shot, captured by Chris Mclennan. Maybe editors choose others from Cape because while the 16th is a magnificent, incredibly photogenic par-5, this image doesn’t give any indication of that. It attaches the viewer’s eye to no golf hole whatever, not that we can see or even vaguely discern. On the other hand, any golfer looking at this photo could and should think to himself, “How bad could this hole possibly be?” I was traveling with some fellow golf writers earlier this month and the subject of Cape Kidnappers came up. One tried to argue that while Cape is a magnificent course (Top 50 in the world according to all the trusted rankings), and among the 10 most photogenic courses on Earth, it’s not that scenic for the golfer actually playing the course.  I beg to differ, and I imagine that anyone standing on 16 tee — a thousand feet above the South Pacific, looking back at five holes with similarly perched vantage points — would beg to differ, as well.

 

 

The Mother of All Faux Tuscan Hill Towns?

The Mother of All Faux Tuscan Hill Towns?

What is it about the Tuscan hill town that holds such incredible architectural and social appeal? It can’t be the Seinfeld references alone, can it? My wife and I once spent a lovely week between Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, where one French resort, Pont Royal, featured one such village in miniature — one would have thought the French would not deign to pay their noisy neighbors this sort of homage.

And then there are the many sprawling golf clubhouses that have, of late, taken on this popular design theme: I’m thinking of The Bridges GC near San Diego and whole bevy in Florida, China even. The Italians don’t fancy their golf in any great numbers. But something about this tableau has really hit home with golf developers.

I can’t prove it, but Casa de Campo may have started this trend. Altos de Chavon doesn’t just sit high on the cliffs above Rio Chavon (right next to the Dye Fore 18). It fairly well hangs out over those cliffs, and its lofty perch is but a detail. This is something of an architectural marvel, an entire Tuscan hill town designed by Dominican architect Jose Antonio Caro and created by Italian master designer and cinematographer Roberto Coppa. Local artisans handcrafted the cobblestone pathways, decorative ironwork, furniture and buildings using the volcanic rock and coral displaced by construction of the resort. The village began to take shape in 1976. Frank Sinatra christened altos De Chavon in 1982 with a concert at the amphitheater.

Last night we sampled the considerable atmosphere high above the river (where several scenes from “Apocalypse Now” were shot), and it’s somethin’, boy. After a sumptuous meal at one of the many restaurants in the village, La Piazzetta, we wandered around and through the narrow streets and piazzas, stopping in at a local bar or two (just to make sure they weren’t some Disney-inspired prop), and taking in the incredible views up and down the Rio Chavon basin.

I can attest that it’s all real, not some whimsical creation of the resort. Apparently the place is overrun by tourists and wedding parties during the day; the chapel there, St. Stanislaus Church, is the nuptial venue of choice for women across the DR. There are boutiques, museums and galleries. After night falls, the locals come out and make it more inviting still.

 

 

Casa de Campo: Polo Capital of the Caribbean

Casa de Campo: Polo Capital of the Caribbean

Casa de Campo makes no apologies for the luxuries it purveys, and so it should come as no surprise that the resort serves as a sort of Mecca for Caribbean polo, the sport of kings (and anyone else who can afford to show up to a match with the requisite 6-7 horses). If you play polo, odds are you already know that Casa manages some 300 horses for guest play, for all manner of recreational riding, for breeding and sale. For the neophyte, it’s a fascinating window on a sport we hear about (mainly through Prince Charles references) but rarely see.

Cali Garcia-Velez is the man who manages all things equine at Casa de Campo, and he would appear well suited to the role. A Dominican native, Garcia-Velez is tall and dashing (a dead ringer for the actor Will Arnett), a son of the rancher who used to manage the cattle on this vast property, and a former polo professional in his own right.  While Casa has its own polo fields, today Garcia-Velez ably escorted a few of us media scum to a match held at a private ranch some 15 minutes from the resort.

“You see that guy there,” he said, pointing to #4 in black. “He’s riding one of our horses. I sold it to him. He came to me for an upgrade and he couldn’t be happier… In polo, it’s all about the horses. And the guys who can afford it will always have the best horses. That’s just the way it is.”

This was no arms race we witnessed today, as the late afternoon sun bathed the field and surrounding sea of sugar cane in a soft, pale-pink light. In the DR, there are maybe 30 polo players of a high standard and they converge on fields like this one, and those at Casa de Campo, for a match or two each week during winter, the high season. They come from all over the island but mainly from here, Greater La Romana, and Santo Domingo some 90 minutes away.

The action is non-stop, as Red and Black (four players to a side) gambol from one end to the other, flailing and bumping, at speeds you cannot appreciate until you’re this close. Outside the lines, the mood is decidedly more casual and festive, with families spread out on blankets behind one goal and still more gathered in the thatch-roofed clubhouse at midfield. They all greet Garcia-Velez with familiarity. The drinks/conversation flow as play proceeds through the first three chukkers, or periods, which last some 7 minutes apiece.

A proper match is six chukkers; the players change horses after each one. On one level the game is simple: whack the ball between posts 24 feet apart, positioned at each end of a field 300 yards long and 150 wide. On another level, there is great nuance to the strategy, the game’s physicality and officiating. It’s good to have an expert sitting close by, imparting the finer points.

But again, this is a casual Saturday afternoon match in January. The week of Presidents Day, and again over Easter, the polo communities from across the Caribbean and Florida will descend on La Romana for the two biggest tournaments of the year. As Garcia-Velez is telling me about this, along with the reasons for Argentinian Polo dominance, and what a polo pony really costs, the players thunder past en masse. The conversations — ours and those taking place all around us — come to a studious halt, as all eyes follow the action to the north goal.

 

 

 

Casa de Campo: 5 Things You Need to Know
The 4th at Dye Fore, evidence of the gorgeous views here and why you need a good short game to score here. (Larry Lambrecht photo)

Casa de Campo: 5 Things You Need to Know

The 4th at Dye Fore, evidence of the gorgeous views here and why you need a good short game to score. (Larry Lambrecht photo)

Having played the Links Course this morning, the Golf Road Warriors have now sampled all three tracks here at Casa de Campo. With that sort of first-hand experience in tow, I’ve taken it upon myself to issue five vital directives to golfers mulling or already planning a visit here:

1)   Play the Links Course first — If you’re coming from a winter clime and haven’t touched your clubs in months, this is the place to work out the kinks. The front nine is especially playable; it’s not till hole 12 that it gets at all penal — in the form of several lakes that require serious negotiation. Even then, Pete Dye has fashioned an extremely comfortable, attractive piece of eye candy here, a Florida-style faux links with enough elevation change and design interest to place it head and shoulders above 98 percent of the courses you’ll ever find in Florida.

2)   Play Teeth of the Dog next — The temptation is to head out there right away, what with all those ocean holes and the beautiful pictures you’ve no doubt seen in advance. But get a round under your belt first; get the feel of the greens and considerable wind here at Casa de Campo. A quick session with the staff at the Jim McLean Golf School here wouldn’t be a bad idea either. You don’t want to get out there with all those expectations and stink it up.

3)   Play Dye Fore third, when you’re good and ready — The scale of this course and the views from various spots along its 18 holes (down the Rio Chavon canyon, or down to the Marina on the front nine) are truly extraordinary. But Dye Fore is not for the faint of heart (or, for that matter, some New Englander right off the plane after three golf-less months). You’ll want two rounds under your belt before you tackle this beast. But do tackle it. The risk-reward dynamics here are stark, oversized and (should you negotiate them with dexterity) extremely satisfying. My favorite? The gigantic speed slot on the par-5 18th — a veritable half-pipe carved from the left-center of an uphill slope 60 yards wide. Wow.

4)   Bring your “A” short game — Dye courses have the reputation for being difficult, and talk of threading a drive down a half-pipe probably doesn’t help. But that rep is too simple to be true. Pete’s fairways are always generous, with bunkering that, while legion, nearly always funnels golfers down the right path. However, his green complexes are often all-or-nothing affairs. Miss and you’re bunkered (often deeply bunkered) or mired in some swale that requires a putt up a steep, shaved face, or a delicate flop shot to a plateau putting surface, or a bump-and-hope into said steep-shaved face. If you can handle the short sticks, if your sand game is handy, you can score on all three courses here, especially Dye Fore and the Links, where the greenside features are most severe.

5)   Don’t worry about bringing enough golf balls — There are two reasons for this. First, these courses aren’t ball-eaters, thanks to the super wide fairway corridors. Yes, there’s a lot of water on the back nine at the Links, and the Caribbean laps against 7 holes at Teeth of the Dog. But that’s about it. Second, the grounds staff at Casa de Campo has scrubbed the course clean of lost balls, shined them up, grouped them together by brand, and will gladly sell them back to you at very reasonable prices  — a win-win practice Director of Golf Gilles Gagnon fully endorses.