Pitchmarks #21 - 12th November 2023
Ruminations on a modern classic
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Rumi, from “The Big Red Book”, a collection of 13th Century poems
My usual trick, I guess. Zero preparation; no investigation or groundwork completed in advance of the visit. And it is a function of a lack of spare time, in a way. But it’s also intentional, in order that I absorb these new experiences with as few preconceptions as possible. We get one chance at a first impression, inbound or out.
But in the case of St Patrick’s, at Rosapenna, my reason for being here - for another few days cast adrift from family, the distant dog barking at every falling leaf in case “he is home!” - can be expressed in a single word, a name. Doak. A lifetime ago, as a greenkeeper, I fell in love with golf architecture, with the outdoor art that hides under the surface of this game of ours, quietly enriching it.
As my study of the craft grew wings, I wondered whether I might one day have something more to do with architecture, but like the urge for writing that also lingered in my heart, it was all a bit too scary, so those dreams lay dormant. But in the flush of that first obsession, I saw many things that took my breath away, and it was often in the initial moments that much of the magic would be revealed.
I would hang around golfclubatlas.com, and pick up clues there. And I would read on the subject - “The Anatomy of a Golf Course”, by Tom Doak, would not only inspire but terrify me, too…how could someone compete with a mind like that, bringing together the art and science of design as if it were easy? But through those daunting sources, I would stumble upon sacred afternoons that will stay with me to the grave.
Unforgettable views; moments of clarity. Sudden revelations. Abercromby would taunt me through the corridors of Addington; Simpson lay waiting that first time I reached the sharp corner of his seventeenth at New Zealand. The sandy nostrils in the centre of Woking’s fourth, as the trains that once brought Darwin and Balfour down from the smoke rattle past, ought to be called “Low” and “Paton”. And more…the roller coaster glory of Colt’s epic Swinley trail; the rugged magnificence of Braid’s Pennard.
And then a chance to broaden my horizons, and hammering through an American summer I saw Tillinghast in San Francisco, MacKenzie on the coast with the elephant seals, and Thomas in the city of angels, before he retired to his roses. People and places I’d only heard of now real in the flesh, and all the way, Doak’s descriptions of these citadels of the game would bring meaning to them as I saw them with my own eyes - the great art coming alive before me. But I’d never got to a Doak course…
From the moment I step down from the coach, St Patrick’s feels right to me. The wind blows my hat off as I pull my bag from the boot, and I manage to keep my wallet in my pocket despite the temptations of the charming shack from which we start. But the logo is an early sign that style is important here, so I am pleased to be given a ball marker. Alongside it is a course planner, but yardages mean nothing out here in the wind, so I stash that away and decide to wing it, accepting the price I will no doubt pay.
Doak is a minimalist in an age of bulldozers, so the simple furniture of the place is perfect. Lumps of stone mark each teeing ground; the different sets of tees not known by colour but as “Granite” and “Slate”, etc. And we stand on the first and see what turns out to be a third of the fairway ahead, though the flag is nowhere to be seen. Play out right, the planner probably whispers from the depths of my ball pocket, but we are all drawn to the carpet we can see, and so we hug the left, and find that the green lurks behind an almighty dune; a taste of what is to come.
These themes of camouflage and angles stay with us as the course pulls us in and out of the dunes, revealing at various points its staggering location. On the second, we emerge into a sky that seems endless, and by the fourth tee - perched brilliantly above the most gorgeous of holes along the coast - we four are spellbound by St Patrick’s, and though the wind and Tom Doak batter us, in each other’s eyes there is only enchantment. It is like nothing else, this - hard to describe.
Between gusts of wind, our own commentaries drift across the landscape. One minute “it were fookin’ impossible” comes my way from Yorkshireman Andy, though his battle with the marram grass still ends in a smile. Then a gutteral scream from Clive as he thins a long iron, while Pete goes sprinting after Clive’s errant trolley. We’re up against it here - the wind off the coast pulsing and shifting as the course switches to and fro like a drunken compass needle. Balls everywhere, shots galore. But always smirking, laughing. Loving it, the pure adventure of it all.
On the seventh, my tee shot finds a tiny bunker, the sort that looks as if it is what such hazards once were - places for the animals to hide. Nothing artificial here, except the ball that sits atop the sand, and so I punch one out, and would be pleased with the escape were it not for the fact that I’d not considered that the wind in my face - the same wind that held my ball up and guided it towards the sand - would return much of this crystalline divot my way, and though I close my eyes just in time, it feels like the custard pie in the face of old, and I am still finding sand in my teeth at bedtime.
The tenth is magical in today’s gale - my best drive and two iron sliding behind the dune from which the green peers, and that sense of anticipation to see where it finished is delicious. But even to call them “greens” seems a bit much, for it is just shorter grass on the same flowing contours as the rest of the course. It’s a continuum, St Patrick’s - you move through the links as if no one’s really touched a thing, but here and there the stones tell you where to start, and now and then a flag, slapping in the wind, tells you where you might want to finish, though it won’t be easy.
By fourteen we are flagging not because the course is too hard, or the wind too strong - neither are true - but because this level of excitement and exhilaration is tough to sustain. In staring alone I am consuming calories. But maybe Doak knew how we’d feel, so he throws in another diamond, sliding down towards a paradisal beach then right to an unforgettable green. By the penultimate hole, we are crying out for a par three and some respite, but none of us get anywhere near that score, so it is on to the last in this epic journey through a modern classic.
Somewhere in Doak’s “Little Red Book of Golf Course Architecture”, he warns against building too strict a finishing hole, suggesting that one might learn from the last at Woking, whose flowing tiers were once the backdrop for my working life, and where I was pleased to enable Bob Crosby, the editor of that particular Red Book, to see it in person. At the end of a round, “it allows the golfer to finish on a positive, upbeat note…we are pleased with our par, and the prospect of maybe playing a few more holes”, and I smile as I await my turn on the last at St Patrick’s, for Doak has been reading his own scriptures, it seems, as we finish on a cunning short four, which looks easy and friendly, but will punish lazy decisions.
At dinner, we try to make sense of it all, and some focus on particular holes while others are attached to their scores. But, though I still carry bunker sand in my hair and the pull of the dunes in my hamstrings, I don’t know what to say, and still don’t really. “The world is too full to talk about”, Rumi wrote, and enough words about the details of this new masterpiece have been laid down, it seems to me. I don’t feel there is a mechanism to judge this against other golf courses, and I don’t need to rank it or have an opinion, though there are plenty of articles linked below if you like that sort of thing.
Instead, I try and recall how it made me feel, and what it reminds me of. In golf, the only modern place I know that feels this pure is Coore & Crenshaw’s Sand Hills, a very long way from here. It’s a very long way from anywhere, actually, but though the Pacific is a thousand miles from its fairways and the Atlantic only a few yards from these, they are connected somehow. This sense of drama in the routing, and the fluid brilliance of the green sites…in a field of steady professionals, these are today’s gifted artists. And maybe, in some strange way, it reminds me of “What’s Going On”, Marvin’s classic album of the early seventies - an record that stood firm against the direction of tide, with an emphasis on defiant agency and an ecological cry that was way ahead of its time.
I can only hope that, in fifty years’ time, that the sort of golf that exists here, and at the courses that helped shape Tom Doak himself - the Westward Ho’s and Royal Dornoch’s of this world - are still going strong, unblemished by the professional game or by endless corporate sponsors. For here, in the wind off the ocean and the bobbling run of a chipped recovery, lies the visceral spirit of the game, the essence of golf. We needn’t label it; we should just seek to embrace it and learn from it.
Once upon a time, Old Tom Morris came this way, presumably on a very tired horse. And Rosapenna became a site to head towards, to yearn for. And now, all this time later, another Tom - the one who signed the basement copy of his “Confidential Guide” twenty odd years ago, yet another Red Book - has paid tribute to the past and paved a grassy path to the future. Old Tom would approve, and I fancy so would Rumi…
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
Rumi, from “The Big Red Book”, a collection of 13th Century poems
Links to more orthodox reviews of St Patrick’s can be found here (scroll down a bit):