The View from the Spire: Best Holiday Ever
I recently found this article that I wrote several years ago for an online magazine. It encapsulates my best ever holiday and coincided with me reading The Grand Slam by Mark Frost. Whilst this is the shortened version – it perhaps demonstrates my excitement for the Masters, taking place in Augusta at the tail end of this week. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you my best ever holiday…
All golfing holidays should involve St Andrews – if not physically then as part of their design.
Having walked the dog on the West Sands; about to make the short skip over the 1st and 18th fairways of the Old back to the car; it was difficult to avoid a sizeable crowd in 1900’s attire surrounding the 1st tee and all traces of modern life removed. All dressed the same and far too accurate to mean anything other than I had stepped from a time machine. Leading everyone with precise movement, a man with megaphone and video camera as someone whispered, “we’re filming a movie; A Stroke of Genius – about a guy who played golf”.
Over four months in 1930, that ‘guy’; self taught Robert Tyre Jones Junior, a 28 year old amateur, won the British Amateur, The Open, US Open and US Amateur Championships. An achievement so extraordinary, writers dubbed it the Grand Slam. It turns out Jones also had a unique relationship with St Andrews having been awarded freeman of the city – hence the filming.
Now great holidays should, ipso facto, include good companionship, lifelong memories and a good book. My book was The Grand Slam by Mark Frost – about Bobby Jones, America and the story of golf. Jones was an Georgian, and in 2007, fortune provided a means shaping the core of a Jones’ pilgrimage starting with an invite to The Masters in Augusta. Golf here means East Lake and Peach Tree in Atlanta and Augusta Country Club, which coupled with taking in the Masters makes true golfing heaven!
Sunday: East Lake, formally Atlanta Athletic Club, the oldest course in Atlanta and Jones’ home course. Home of the Coca Cola Championship on the PGATour and at 7,206 yards a challenging test – even with my handicapper but it was important that our journey started as Bobby’s did. My partners and I, embarked on what a long and ultimately a tortuous round – taking the same punishment golfing greats had across 17 major tournaments (including the 1973 Ryder Cup) and causing much frustration, not least with the par three 6th – America’s first island green! Playing against “old man par”, as Bobby himself testified, is the simplicity of the game and its death knoll. Even Bobby’s house, behind the 12th, home until his death in 1971, offered little lift to sunken spirits! A wonderful experience though.
Monday: Augusta Country Club. With one week, we had no shortage of golfing invites – selectively we took offers relevant to Jones and one such gem was Augusta Country Club. This pleasant course, bordering Augusta National and sharing Rays Creek’s coloured green waters, proved a welcome relief after East Lake! The practice day crowds over the fence at Augusta, motivated us, often in a timely fashion – we even took time to watch play around Amen Corner from the 9th; creeping in to bushes behind the 13th tee where Langer, Seve and Olazabal giggled. Motivated about the game, and our better ability to play it – we shot par asking ourselves could this get any better?
Tuesday: The answer – yes! August National, co-designed by Jones is the most storied and exclusive golf clubs – founded in 1933 (after Jones’ Slam) and home of the Masters (Jones’ tournament). Today was practice day and after years watching, the early season wake-up to golf on the manicured turf finally marked our arrival at golfing mecca. We drove up Magnolia Lane (thanks to corporate ticketing!) and had VIP area access. On this day, Tuesday April 3rd I realised my golfing dream – while chances of playing Augusta were slim, getting close to players was novel and walking the course, experiencing first hand, evils lurking so close to tees, fairways and greens was frightening. I admired professionals playing well, seeing the yardstick that differentiates good amateurs from great players and was not envious of the task of the latter.
We stayed in a quiet suburb of the small town where for one week each year, everyone catches golf fever; everywhere a rich temporary golfing oasis; foods stalls, merchandise and locals with stories to tell. One wisened local informed me that Sergio Garcia’s family rented the same house the previous year. This was living the dream!
Wednesday: an early trip to the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame where we saw Jones’ memorialised bronze shrine before joining a slow moving Bobby Jones Expressway back to the National. This was par three day where excited golf fans crammed around the former indigo plantation for this event as unique and well supported as the major next door! Clark took the honours today, and had to prove history wrong by replicating victory over the next four days – a feat never before done. The highlight was watching the triumvirate of Nicklaus, Player and Palmer playing together. I was there when Palmer pulled his ball into the water on 9, only to take out another ball and knock it in for a three!
Thursday: Atlanta – and play at two respected municipal courses – Bobby Jones GC and North Fulton GC – both designed by Jones’ in early years as a designer. 36 holes in a day is tough enough, let alone in April in Georgia however the courses were both beautiful (Bobby Jones plays in a neighbourhood along Peachtree Creek) are both shorter, more enjoyable but would nowhere match what we would experience next.
Friday: Peachtree Golf Club is private and steeped in history having held the US Open and Amateur equivalents. The bentgrass greens are the story here; fast, undulating and well-bunkered, and 10 of them multi-tiered for difficulty. The meandering creek feeds several lakes bringing water into play on 14 of the holes. 7,043 yards long it transpired this as our best experience yet! Sheer golfing beauty!
Dinner followed at Piedmont Drivers Club – the most prestigious private club in the South; a Club to match any anywhere. No golf for us sadly – whilst beautiful, there wasnt time – just fine expensive wines and a tailored menu to match.
Saturday: Tension mounts at Augusta – it’s the business end of the first major and the biggest golfing stakes around. For players; a testing front nine awaits; treacherous Amen Corner; then opportunities to pick up a stroke or two. Sunny but unseasonably cold today, Johnson stuck to a game plan of not going for any par 5s in two – starting 2 behind Goosen he ended the day leading. It’s very different on competition day!
Sunday: revolving 73 stories above street level, lunch was reserved for the Sundial Restaurant. A full 360-revolution, it was reflection time – the courses, the players and Bobby Jones. This holiday, like all good ones, left us hungry for more – we could have stayed longer but it was our small pilgrimage to the maestro.
Jones’ was considered one of five giants of 1920’s sport alongside Babe Ruth and is the only person in history to have had two ticker tape parades in New York. He exemplified principles of sportsmanship and fair play – the USGA sportsmanship award is named in his honour. In the end, the strain of competition on Jones’ physical and emotional wellbeing was such that, after the Grand Slam he retired from golf.
Before we departed, and as our goodbye, we visited Oakland Cemetery, where Jones is buried with wife Mary. Like the man himself, his final resting place was understated and matter of fact.
At the airport I watched Johnson complete the par 5’s on 11-under par to win the 2007 Masters – old man par plays a funny game sometimes!
Interestingly, some week later I was playing the New at St Andrews and was told that the initial letters of St Andrews’ courses spelt out B JONES. By design or not, what closure to the story and what was my best holiday ever.
For those interested, available on the BBC iplayer is a great programme of the greats who have savoured victory around the indigo plantation. Its called Green Jacket: Made to Measure and available to view here.