Railway lines and golf courses

Railway lines and golf courses

At first site railways are noisy and intrusive, a legacy of industrial expansion that has no place near a golf course? Yes, at prima facie you could think they are the complete antithesis of everything a tranquil golf course should be. At a push you might argue that in the days of steam locomotion they passed the aesthetic test, but today’s soulless commuter trains long ago lost that argument for you. Justification is at hand though, but you need to understand their relationship with the games growth to appreciate it, but when you do, you’ll come to realise that they were liberating and symbols of equality that became instrumental in fuelling the second golf boom of the late Victorian period. We could be flippant and suggest that when the railways came to England, the English went paddling to the seaside. When they came to Scotland, the Scots went golfing, but we wouldn’t want to denigrate the English like that of course (even if there is a grain of truth in it).

As we’ve mentioned in previous postings, golf’s pioneers were limited by personal mobility. The advent of the train altered this. Of those courses you see hosting the Open Championship, Royal Lytham has 4 holes that are bordered by a railway line (screened by trees now). Birkdale’s courses are bisected by a railway line, and Carnoustie’s 9th hole is called ‘the Railway’, even if you could argue it’s more of a factor on other holes. Nowhere has the artery of the railway played such a big part in the games development as it has on the Ayrshire coast though, and this is where we’ll focus.

There are 16 courses along a 10 mile stretch of track, and with this another subtle characteristic of the games development in Scotland emerges. This line serves Glasgow, and although it would be wrong to suggest that golf is widely accessible across the social classes (there are still issues) these aren’t as apparent in Scotland as they are in England. You’re much more likely to encounter knowledgeable golf fans from a broader social spectrum north of the border. Why? Well that’s beyond the scope of this post to explain, but we’ll speculate that it owes something to a combination of a greater commitment to egalitarianism in Scottish culture, combined with the equalising affect of rail travel making it more accessible during the formative 1880’s. Indeed, a series of challenge matches were often played during this period between the games luminaries of the day. They would typically draw massive crowds to watch. This simply couldn’t happen if the game were reserved for those of the highest social orders

You only need to look at some of the clubs and their founding dates on this line though to appreciate the contribution that the ‘iron horse’ made.

Kilmarnock Barassie – 1887
Royal Troon – 1878 (the Portland course was built slightly later)
Irvine Bogside – 1884
Prestwick St Nicholas – 1877
Old Prestwick – 1851
Western Gailes – 1897

The two exceptions are Glasgow Gailes which at 1787 is the ninth oldest course in the world, and Dundonald, which dates to AD 2005, and is testimony to the most recent golf boom, which witnessed the hitherto unconsidered purpose building of new links courses.

We’ll concentrate on two holes in particular, as it begs the obvious question (and we suppose easy answer) to what do you do with a railway line on a golf course? Well you declare it out-of-bounds, naturally enough. Not a lot else you can do really? But in doing so, you automatically create a test.

On any composite course of Scotland’s greatest holes the 11th at Troon, ‘The Railway’ would normally qualify. In 1997 an emerging golfing talent waited his turn on the tee. As he did, a train trundled past and duly recognising the man concerned, some guy called Woods who’d just stuck 12 shots on the field at Augusta a few months earlier, decided to sound a salute to him. Tiger smiled and acknowledged the cheeky driver. A few minutes later he drove off and found the thick gorse. The British media had pre-prepared ‘Tiger lost in the jungle’ and this is what they got. By the time Tiger Woods stepped off the green his campaign was in ruins.

The Railway Hole. In 1962 Jack took a 10 here
Image by Kevin Murray

Another hole that would have claims to a composite course is Prestwick’s opener, again called ‘Railway’. In truth it would probably have to cede primacy through no fault of its own to the stunning first at Machrihanish, but the first at Prestwick is one of the most famous opening holes in golf. You need to hit 160 yards to reach the fairway. Around 200 yards will leave a short iron to the green. It’s a simple formula. The line provides an out-of-bounds all the way down the right, and yet the left is littered with vegetative hazards and devilish humps and hollows. Basically flirting with the railway is actually the safest route, but how close dare you go. Welcome to Prestwick, and you haven’t even got to the third yet! Mind you, it’s perhaps worth recording that today’s first hole might actually be a little easier than that used in 1860 for the inaugural Open Championship. The 1st hole measured 578 yards to what is now the 16th green. In 1870 Tom Morris Jr holed out in three strokes using hickory shafts and a gutty golf ball. A stone cairn to the west of the Clubhouse, marks the first tee of the original 12 hole course, on which the first Open was played. Six of the original greens are still played on today.

Finally we thought we’d take the opportunity to slip a steam railway into our review, even if this one is way up in the Highlands. The Boat of Garten hardly needs any additional assistance when it comes to dramatic scenery. It’s a bit like playing golf in the Alps. The only missing component perhaps is Julie Andrews skipping across some upland meadow but the course benefits additionally from being bordered by the River Spey on one side, and the Strathspey steam railway on the other. Little steam gently saunter their away along

It’s perhaps worth noting that the influence of the railway wasn’t restricted to the coastal links courses. Gleneagles owes its development to an industry magnate who was so impressed with the countryside in which his railway led, that he resolved to build a golf course and hotel there

Actually, during the writing of this, it half occurred that ‘Visit Scotland’ should persuade Scotrail to run steam trains for the duration of forthcoming Open Championships hosted at Troon. In the first case they’d significantly add to the aesthetics that will of course be broadcast around the world, and in the second case they’d probably be no slower than the crates currently rattling up and down this line

The Ayrshire courses are played on the West Course tour, which also takes in Turnberry. To find out more about this tour click on the image below

Trump Turnberry, Troon & Prestwick

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