Sky Sports’ Ewen Murray: What gives a golf day its ‘wow’ factor
As we reveal our inaugural ranking of Europe’s Top 100 X Factor Courses, Sky Sports’ Ewen Murray explains the elements required in a golf day to leave you wowed.
The X Factor on a golf day out is something that’s talked about in clubhouses throughout the world and there are various opinions on what is required to give a visit that extra special element.
Some focus 100 percent on the golf course, whereas others, myself included, tend to look at the whole experience, from arrival to departure.
It also surely depends on what type of golf you prefer the most: links, parkland or heathland. I happen to enjoy all three and some that stand out in my memory are fairly exclusive clubs that not all will have the opportunity to enjoy.
Two are in France. Morfontaine on the outskirts of Paris and, in the Loire Valley, Les Bordes (below). One old, one relatively new.
Morfontaine was a trip back in time. Set in superb heathland, its rural and gently rolling topography is unrivalled. Heather, birch, pines, rocks and fescue grasses gave me the impression God presented this land to golfers. I did not want the round to end and each hole enjoyed individuality.
Les Bordes is more parkland in nature and was designed by the excellent Robert von Hagge at the request of Baron Bich. Around 30 years old, playing this course is a unique experience. About 1,000 yards longer than Morfontaine, it has a similar atmosphere.
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The golf course is all you see when playing. There is an abundance of carp-laden lakes, all of which come into play whether it be off the tee or around the green.
There are lodges close to the rustic clubhouse where you can stay, but once you drive through the gates it’s really just you and the course. A ‘get away from it all’ experience, a brilliant design and with French cooking and some of the finest crushed grapes in the world, this is X Factor at its very best.
However, take plenty of balls. No matter what tees you play off, you’ll find many of whatever brand you choose will end up resting alongside the carp!
Ballyliffin (above) is another that on first sight will take your breath away. It’s on the Wild Atlantic Way, which boasts some of the country’s finest vistas. And like everywhere in Ireland, it offers hospitality only they can; to me, that’s a big part of enjoying a day out when experiencing different courses.
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As a Scot, it may come as no surprise to learn I’m a links lover. I adore the rolling fairways, the uncertainty, the ever-changing weather and skylines, the acceptance of good shots, with a bit of luck included.
I really wish the ball had been better controlled over the last 30 years and that frying pan-headed drivers hadn’t got past the design stage. It renders many courses obsolete. I don’t mean they’re not playable or you don’t enjoy them – it’s just you’re not playing them the way they were intended.
In Scotland, I had many wonderful days as a youngster playing some outstanding courses. Dunbar (above), Elie, North Berwick, Montrose, Edzell, Monifieth, Royal Dornoch, and Gullane No.1 was always a tough test. I could go on and on. These courses are generally shy of 7,000 yards. With today’s increase in driving distance, with technology’s ‘help’, the bunkers are in the wrong places and there are too many short-iron second shots, so the real challenge of these and so many wonderful courses within our shores has diminished a little.
My heathland favourites in Britain would be Sunningdale and Walton Heath – all four courses there, Old and New. We are blessed to have these, along with Liphook, New Zealand and Swinley Forest.
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A day at Sunningdale is highlighted by the glorious layout (above), but we mustn’t forget the sausage sandwich hut at the 10th hole of their two courses. A must-visit.
Walton Heath, coming up to 120 years old, is a day to treasure. Its enchanting clubhouse is a welcome break between rounds over these two Herbert Fowler-designed courses.
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Liphook boasts arguably the finest-conditioned greens in England and with changes afoot ahead of their centenary, it will continue to be a favourite of many who’ll make the pilgrimage there in the years ahead.
Stateside, I’m not a great fan of Pebble Beach. It’s a beautiful place, but it comes a long way behind its neighbour, Cypress Point. Again, Cypress is the most exclusive, but if you ever get the chance to play there, drop everything and give yourself a treat.
Much is talked about the par-3 16th, and rightly so. Standing on that tee, watching the sea otters is hypnotising, but the rest of the course also offers charm and classic design.
I’m sure the people of this club would like a stronger finishing hole, but the other 17 holes more than makes up for that. I played there with Howard Clark when we were covering the McDowell US Open at Pebble in 2010. The memories are still vivid. The best I’ve seen in America, although I haven’t played Pine Valley (above).
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Another course that has that special feel is Winged Foot (below), just north of New York. It’s everything you’d want for in that once-in-a-lifetime round.
The day you’ll remember forever will include more than just the golf course. The welcome is the first impression that will linger long in the memory. To feel welcomed throughout the day is important. The ambience means as much as the course, because you have carefully chosen the venue. Lunch between rounds or breakfast on arrival should be looked forward to and, on leaving, one should take some fine images away with you.
While I’m not a fan of the changes in equipment, I am a huge admirer of the advances in agronomy. A course in top-class condition is a must and the standard of greenkeeping today is higher than ever. There is nothing worse than planning the venue, having high expectations and then seeing your hopes dashed by a poorly presented course. Thankfully, they are now few and far between.
A day as a visitor to a course is a special experience and a combination of so many aspects give you the X Factor you are always looking for. Those are just a few of mine.
– Ewen Murray was brought up in Edinburgh and played on the European Tour before becoming Sky Sports’ main golf commentator in the early ’90s.