The Old Course – St. Andrews

11 09 2012

“This is the origin of the game, golf in its purest form, and it’s still played that way on a course seemingly untouched by time. Every time I play here, it reminds me that this is still a game.” – Arnold Palmer

It is not often that when you go into something with high expectations that those expectations not only get exceeded, but blown out of the water. When Sean and I found out we would be playing on the Old Course at St Andrews we could hardly contain our excitement, by the time we finished the round we were wanting to play again.

The whole experience of playing the Old Course is unique and the experience begins long before you tee off. The course is open to the public, but because tee times are so difficult to secure you must enter a 48 hour ballot and wait to hear your fate. We unsuccessfully entered the ballot on Saturday when we arrived in Edinburgh, and had resigned ourselves to the fact that getting a tee time would be very fortunate. The next day we entered again and as we arrived home from golfing on Sunday afternoon we eagerly checked the list of tee times. Sure enough there we were!!! S. Akeroyd and J. Wynn Tuesday 28 August 6:30 AM. The first names on the schedule.

It was 3:45 AM Tuesday morning when we departed Banchory for St. Andrews, it felt much more like going to an early morning hockey practice in Canada as we loaded the car with our big bags in the chilly morning air. Armed with every map we could find we made the 2.5 hour trek to St. Andrews arriving there just as the sun began to rise at 5:30 AM. As we pulled up to the course all the memories of watching past Open Championships and playing EA Sports golf games were going through our minds as we both became quite nervous, we were about to be the first two people to tee off on the Old Course that day.

After showing the starter our handicaps were below 24 and paying our money to play we headed to the putting green to warm up and to soak in the atmosphere. It truly does feel magical as you look around and see the Old Course Hotel in the distance and the sun rising above the water. After rolling a few putts on the perfectly manicured greens, and taking a few pictures it was time to tee off. We were joined by two single players. Bob, a 60 something year old man from Florida, and Ed, a 30 something year old from Hawaii. Both of these men had been standing in a queue outside the starters hut since 3:00 AM hoping to get on the course. The ballot always leaves room for a few singles to play and these two men were lucky enough to get to the front of the line. Both Bob and Ed hired caddies to help them through their round and by the end of the first hole both Sean and I were glad to have the caddies along with us.

Despite having playing partners Sean and I still got the honour of being the first two to tee off for the day. It was easily the most intimidating shot I have ever hit, thinking of all the greats that have stood on the same tee box while being watched by a number of other golfers all eagerly awaiting their chance to join us on the course. We both managed to put our drives in decent positions and were on our way, slightly more relaxed as we walked down the first fairway.

The round moved very quickly, as the caddies are required to keep the pace of play as fast as they can, and the experience seemed to fly by. It was a surreal feeling playing hole after hole, recognizing landmarks from watching Tiger Woods and other greats play at the home of golf. I narrowly missed going into Hell Bunker on the 5th hole but wasn’t so lucky later on as I found myself in a pot bunker on the 8th hole. After failing at my attempt to get it out I had to play backwards out of the bunker just to salvage a respectable score!

As we made the turn on to the back nine what really stuck out to both Sean and I was the deceptiveness of the Old Course. It contains 112 bunkers but from the tee box you can barely see any of them. A course guide is a must, and caddies are close to essential but if you don’t make adjustments to your game and style then the course will eat you alive as it did to the legendary golfer Bobby Jones who walked off the course after 11 holes in 1921 and initially despised the course. Jones later went on to say of the Old Course “the more I studied the Old Course, the more I loved it; and the more I loved it, the more I studied it”.

The sun continued to shine as we approached the last few holes of the day and as Sean and I began to finally relax a bit and treat it like a regular round we got talking to Willie, one of our caddies. Born in Inverness, Willie had been at the Old Course for 27 years and knew it inside and out. When he found out that we were Canadian he began telling us stories of how he had caddied for Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and other hockey players. These stories made me more in awe as I had only thought about the golfers that had previously teed off there, I hadn’t even thought about the famous political figures, the celebrities and the other athletes! This was walking up the 16th fairway, making me even more nervous for where we were heading next.

The 17th hole at St. Andrews. The most famous hole in golf. The Road Hole. We knew what to expect, but it didn’t matter. Walking up to the tee box brought back all the nerves from the first tee and it didn’t help that you can’t see where your tee shot lands as you have to go around the Old Course Hotel, or in Sean’s case over it. All four of us managed to find the fairway and as we walked towards our approach shots we saw our first glimpse of the Road Hole bunker. Three of us managed to avoid the bunker, Ed hit his approach directly into it.

The walk up the 18th fairway was an experience in itself. After safely hitting our tee shots we walked (and stopped for pictures) on Swilkan Bridge, where Jack Nicklaus so famously waved goodbye to the world of golf, we then walked up the fairway towards the town of St. Andrews, feeling like celebrities as we were the first golfers of the day to finish and all the tourists wanted a picture of people playing the 18th hole. After the customary handshakes I had a tough time leaving the course. I spent about 5 minutes in awe, just looking back over the 18th fairway and thinking about the fantastic day we had already had, despite it only being 11:00 AM

After a quick bite to eat we took a tour around St Andrews and went for a walk along the West Sands beach, where the famous scene in Chariots of Fire was filmed. It was then back in the car and back to Banchory.

It truly was a magical day at the home of golf and its hard to believe that the Old Course was one of the first courses ever designed. I have yet to see anyone design a better course after all these years. The creativity needed and the all around test it gives every golfer is like nowhere else I’ve ever played. I hope one day that I get the opportunity to play the Old Course again, but I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the chance to do it once.



11 09 2012

It was 2:00 PM on Saturday August 25th, I was tired from taking the overnight train from London to Edinburgh, my friend Sean even more exhausted after flying from Vancouver only 48 hours earlier and joining me on the train. We were walking around the beautiful city of Edinburgh but fading fast, agonizingly waiting until 3:00 PM when we could pick up our rental car. We decided the best way to do this was to get ourselves a mid afternoon snack and coffee at a local cafe just down the road from St. Mary`s Cathedral. As we sat down I noticed one of the men sitting next to us looked oddly familiar. After checking with Sean, we realized that this man was none other than David Hasselhoff, in town for the Edinburgh fringe festival and regaling his friends with stories of Baywatch and appearing on Johnny Carson`s show.  Quite a celebrity encounter, but it wouldn`t be the most famous person we saw on our journey to the north of Britain, I`ll save that story for later on in this post.

After our day in Edinburgh we were able to get our rental car and begin our three hour trek through the north east of Scotland to Banchory, where Sean`s sister Nicole lives with her boyfriend Mike. As we were driving up to the A90 and through the country roads we anticipated that Banchory would be our base and from there we could drive all over the north of Scotland on a road trip. This was our plan, but upon our arrival that plan quickly changed as we fell in love with the area and didn`t want to leave!

Located about 18 miles southwest of Aberdeen, along the River Dee, Banchory is a small but very beautiful town overlooking the famous Scottish countryside and far enough out of Aberdeen that it is much more peaceful and relaxing than the city lifestyle I have grown accustomed to this past year. Our accomodation was Nicole and Mike`s angelic Riverstone Coach House, which allowed us a great base and saved us the hassle of finding accomodation every night. Mike, who unfortunately was away for work, left us a very detailed welcome package about the area and had prepared notes about all the local golf courses, something we were very keen to check out. Mike`s parents live within 2 minutes walk of the coach house and were very gracious in having us over a couple of times for drinks and dinner.

Sean and I spent much of our time in Aberdeenshire playing golf. Living in London has had a dramatic effect on my golfing opportunities so personally I was very excited to get back out on the links, especially in the home of golf! What Sean and I were really hoping for however was a true Scottish experience on the golf course. We were `lucky` enough to get this as we teed off at Stonehaven in 35 mile/hour winds and sideways rain.  It was easily the wettest round of my life (and thats saying something being from Vancouver!) but it was exactly what we had wished for and it did feel a bit like playing in The Open Championship.

Despite knowing Sean since I was about 5 years old I learned something about him on this trip. He is very knowledgable when it comes to Scotch Whiskey and this turned out to be very helpful as we explored the different regions of northeastern Scotland. This was particularly true as we were fortunate enough to be given the keys to Mike`s quaint family cottage in Glenlivet which was walking distance from the Glenlivet whiskey distillery where a few years earlier Sean had become a guardian of the whiskey. Following our tour of the distillery the guardian was allowed to take a guest up to a secret room for a glass of a 21 year old Glenlivet whiskey. The following morning we drove back to Banchory up the stunning, but chilly northeast coast. Accompanied by Nicole and Mike`s dog, Abby, we walked along the beaches of Hopeman and drove along the coastal road and back down thr0ugh the countryside. The weather cooperated and the views were simply incredible.

On our final full day in Scotland we wanted to make sure we did something very traditional. There was talk of going clay pigeon shooting, but instead we decided on going to the Braemar Gathering where they were hosting a highland games. As we drove the hour from Banchory to Braemar we started driving through streets lined with people seemingly awaiting our arrival. After we ducked into an incredibly convenient parking spot we quickly discovered, somewhat disappointingly, that this was not how Braemar welcomes Canadian visitors, but rather it is how they welcome Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles and Camilla. As we entered the grounds to watch the caber toss, tug of war, 80 metre run and the sack race, the royalty did the same. It was quite different than last time I saw the royal family as this one was simply a coincidence.

It was a wonderful week in Scotland and I have to say a big thanks to Nicole, Mike, Becky, Ian, Mel, and Abby for making it such a fantastic experience.

What I Learned from my Czech Mates

22 08 2012

In my last post about my trip to Czechia I thought I would tell you a bit about the lighter side of my trip. While it was a very educational trip, we did have our share of fun and I did learn some interesting and quirky facts about Czech culture, as well as get to see some things that I found particularly fascinating. Here is a list of what I learned from my Czech Mates.

1.) Jaromir Jagr is by far the most popular Czech athlete: Despite a long list of great hockey and soccer players the country holds a soft spot for the mulleted one. Our tour guide made sure to point out his home town and Czech national team jerseys available in tourist shops all had Jagr “68” on them.

2.) Tourism in Prague is absolutely crazy: The astronomical clock was the peak of the tourist chaos, but anywhere we went we were overwhelmed by North American and Western European tourists. Perhaps its the recent opening up of the city from the Iron Curtain, perhaps its because its so cheap, but it was a very interesting sight.

3.) The Czech Republic has exceptionally good beer: From Budweiser to Pilsner Urquell, to Kozel, to Staropramen to Samson…every beer we had in Czechia was very well made. Its probably a good thing I don’t live there

4.) The twin sons of famous director Milos Forman are making a living performing street theatre in small Czech towns: I’m not exactly sure why they are sleeping in trailers and performing in small town squares in the Czech Republic, but they were drawing big crowds! Here is a link to a part of the entertainment

5.) The best nights are usually the random ones: The Forman brothers hired a Jazz/Folk singer Yael Rasooly to perform for guests as they entered the show. It turned out the Israeli born singer went to school in Toronto and we managed to talk her into giving us a live Jazz Performance on the streets of Telc.

6.) Brewery Tours in Czechia could improve significantly: On our tour of the Samson Brewery we were overwhelmed with technical facts about how to make beer for nearly two hours. The health code seemed non-existent as there was beer all over the ground, the wires ran wildly around and the tasting room was in the actual brewrey.

7.) The street theatre in Prague is quite impressive: From the one man to the six -piece bands, you can’t walk around the Old Town of Prague without hearing some quality music.

8.) Watching 30 professors sprint towards a steam train is quite entertaining: As a surprise on our excursion we got to see a coal steam train departing. Despite the fact it wasn’t departing for 8 or 9 minutes all the professors (many retired) ran off the bus with their cameras and snapped every picture they could. I got this video of the steam train leaving, something that was close to home for me and Dad, as his father used to work on these trains back in South Africa.

9.) Seeing a hand crafted Nativity scene was much more interesting than I expected: When it was listed on the programme I wasn’t too sure how fun this would be, but as you can see by this video this nativity scene is incredible. It took the creator over 60 years to hand craft it.

10.) Christmas is not an ideal time for Carp in Czechia: Fish ponds are rampant throughout Czechia and at Christmas time Carp is the fish of choice. These fish are generally sold to families alive and kept in the family bath tub until they are needed to be cooked. The consequence of this is that the kids often get quite attatched to the fish and are usually quite devastated when they are killed prior to Christmas dinner – usually with a club to the head.

11.) The currency in the Czech Republic is still the Koruna: Having not done a ton of research before I left (see the note below as to why) I had been expecting to use the Euro as I had done in Slovakia in February. The move to stick with the Koruna is looking smarter and smarter as the Euro continues to struggle.

12.) Going from being extremely into the Olympics to not even paying attention was really weird: I spent the week before I left soaking up the Olympics and attending events, when I got to Prague the Olympics were all of a sudden the last thing on my mind. It was weird leaving halfway between, but I think I got the better of the two weeks in London!

Please look at the pictures for more things I learned in Czechia!

Eastern European Excursions

22 08 2012

One of the things that excited me about moving to Europe was the rich history of the continent. The place is filled with fascinating architecture and a wide array of facts about how a particular city, region or country has changed over hundreds of years. This year I have had the opportunity to explore a little bit of the history of this wonderful continent and it has really rejuvenated my passion for history and for teaching. Every time I visit a country in Europe I find myself wanting to go to several others to learn more about the history and to actually see the places I spent so much time learning about at the University of Guelph. During my time in the Czech Republic I was fortunate enough to be included on two excursions as part of the International Conference of Historical Geographers. These excursions offered some striking insights into the the history of the Czech Republic and allowed me to see a lot of the country.

As you can see in the pictures below, many of the towns we visited are still dominated by buildings erected during specific eras in the past. Standing in the square of Telc or Cesky Krumlov, or in the UNESCO heritage village of Holasovice, it is easy to believe that these places have changed very little in hundreds of years. Old buildings, stunning architecture and few signs of recent change suggest that one has walked into a living museum or stepped back in time. But what these landscapes don’t reveal, at least to the first glance or the typical tourist (fixated on the astronomical clock I mentioned in the last post) is the political and military turmoil that had occurred in this territory through the last century.

On our first excursion we went north west, to an area formerly know as the Sudetenland, to have a look at some of the border towns along the Czechia/German border. Guided by a young, knowledgeable Czech couple, our first stop was Prisecnice, a town that once had a population of 2,500 but was now located at the bottom of a resevoir, destroyed because it was never repopulated after the Second World War. We quickly discovered this would be a common theme of our trip as the repopulation of the Czech Germans resulted in the loss of approximately 3 million permanent inhabitants and in the depopulation of a large portion of mountainous and agriculturally unfavourable areas. Prisecnice was one example of more than 1000 villages that have disappeared since the Second World War.

As we continued on our excursion we discovered that some of these towns had made efforts to reinvent themselves. Located in the Czech mountains Bozi Dar had transformed from a 19th Century mining town to becoming almost uninhabited in the post World War II era, only to be redeveloped in the 1970s as a winter sports centre. While this has allowed the town to survive, the number of year round inhabitants has dropped significantly to only 200 as of 2011.

Another example is the town of Jachymov, where large deposits of silver were discovered in the beginning of the 16th Century. This became the second largest town in Bohemia through the 16th and 17th Century but because of the political and military strife of the 20th Century the population has rapidly declined. During the 1950s Jachymov survived as a location for labour camps for political prisoners of the Communist regime and became a closed town. Although almost 65,000 people passed through these camps during their exsistence the towns population continued to decline and now the town of 3,000 people has reinvented itself as a spa town.

Perhaps the most interesting example we saw of the impact of Czech German relocation occurred in Valec, a small Baroque town rich with beautiful statues and a gorgeous park. The statues and historical buildings in this town were in the process of being kept up with European Union money, but the interesting juxtapostion in this town was the condition of the houses. As you can see in a couple of the pictures below, the monuments and the chateau were upkept beautifully while the houses appeared to be on their last legs. We got the chance to meet the mayor of this town (who looked much more like an old Czech hockey player than a politician, with his flowing mullet and fu manchu) and he explained to us the difficulties of trying to rejuvenate a town on the Czech German borderlands.

Our second excursion, a three day journey around the wonders of Southern Bohemia, gave us a bit of a different perspective on Czechia and the development of towns around the south west portion of the country. The most intriguing part about towns such as Pisek, Jindrichuv Hradec, and Ceske Budejovice was despite the fact they are still densely populated towns the architecture does not reflect the changes in the Czech lifestyle throughout the last century. These towns, along with the others we visited (mentioned above), were typically European in the sense they were all connected to the Vltava river and centred around a square but were also designed in a specific period of time and have remained that way through all the turmoil of the 20th Century. Baroque and Renaissance architecture are prominent throughout Southern Bohemia, and these towns have been kept up in this fashion.

The one exception to this was the town of Tabor, located about 90km south of Prague. This was the home town of Michal, the younger of our two tour guides on the second excursion. As we walked into the centre of this town I mention to Dad that this was easily the most livable town I had seen on our excursion. Although there were some Baroque and Renaissance style buildings the town had buildings from every era right up to the current, post Communism, time period. Throughout the trip Dad and I had noticed a significant difference in attitude between Michal, and Marek, the older tour guide. Marek was brought up in the Communist era and it was very clear he preferred not to discuss things such as the Prague Spring or the Velvet Revolution. He mentioned to the tour group that this was quite common even today in the education system. Teachers, who lived through the communist regime, had a tough time teaching it and often overlook that era when teaching the history of their nation. Michal was much more open about his life growing up and we noticed that his english was also much more fluent than his older colleague. While Marek did a wonderful job on the tour, it was clear he had not learned english at a young age as Michal had and he struggled with a few terms.

While Czechia is a place filled with a history of political and military animosity it would be very difficult to tell that if you were unaware of the history. The architecture has been restored rather than rebuilt and the towns really do feel like something out of the 15th, 16th or 17th Century. The irony of course is that while there is all this history in Czechia a lot of it is only just being uncovered in the last 20 years. Tourism is rampant in all of Czechia (Prague in particular) because it has only recently become accessible to the world outside of the Iron Curtain. As we get further removed from the communist era I predict much more will be uncovered about the history of the country and the architecture will move forward rather than standing still. It would be very interesting to do a similar tour in 30 years and see just how much has changed throughout Czechia.

Czeching Out Prague

20 08 2012

It was approximately 10:30 AM when I landed in the Czech Republic. It had been a long day as I had spent the previous Sunday watching the Olympics in Hyde Park and through the middle of the night had made my way to Luton Airport to catch my 7:30 AM flight. As I made my way from Terminal 1 over to Terminal 2 I realized that my day of travel had been nothing compared to my father who I was about to see. Dad, arrived in Prague after a 21 hour journey from Vancouver via Toronto and Frankfurt. Although it was a long day for both of us, heading to the Czech Republic was very worthwile and the 8 days we had there were memorable. I plan to break up this trip into a few posts that I hope you will enjoy.

The first entry will focus on the 4 days I was able to spend in Prague.

Dad and I were able to meet up in Prague because of the International Conference of Historical Geographers being held at Charles University and because of this we were able to experience things other tourists may have missed. This began with a boat cruise down the Vltava river on our first night and ended with a traditional Czech dinner near Prague Castle where we filled up on traditional Czech food and beer.

Because Dad was there for work I spent most of the days touring Prague on my own. Fortunately it is a very easy city to navigate as most people speak English and the layout of the town is relatively straight forward. Our hotel was located just south of Old Town which allowed for a beautiful walk every morning down the Vltava river, past the Charles Bridge and into the Old Town square.

Although Prague is a city of 1.3 million people it is one that is extremely walkable. The journey up to Prague Castle is filled with gorgeous views and the fact it is centred around a river makes it very easy to not get lost! I spent the majority of my time just exploring the city, and learning what I could about the Czech culture.

Dad was able to join me one morning for a few hours of sightseeing so we decided to go to the Jewish Quarter, the smallest district in Prague.  This was a very emotional experience because of the past history of the quarter. During the Second World War there were 92,000 victims taken from this area and sent to Concentration Camps throughout Eastern Europe. The area is filled with synagogues that provide information about the Jewish culture and the history of the Jewish population in Prague, something that interested us both greatly. The Jewish cemetery is where the size of the atrocities in the second world war really hits home. When we entered the memorial building at the cemetery we were both taken aback by the display. It was very simple, the names of all the 92,000 victims on the wall. Upstairs were drawings from children who suffered through the holocaust, another thing very tough to look at.  This was followed by a trip to the actual cemetery which shows just how densely populated the Jewish Quarter truly is. It wasn’t the funnest morning, but well worth seeing, especially for a history teacher like myself.

Following the few hours in the Jewish Quarter Dad and I rushed over to Old Town square to watch the Astronomical Clock go off when 11:00 AM hit. While this was a sight to see, the true amazement for Dad and myself was the incredible amount of tourists in Prague. This is a common theme throughout the city and it is quite astonishing to see the price increases as soon as  you enter the square! The price for a meal in Old Town square compares to London pricing, but if you walk outside of the Old Town you can get that same meal for 1/3 of the price!

Prague is a city that lends itself to the photographer and I have tried my best to take a few shots of the city. I hope that you enjoy them!

Blenheim Palace

18 05 2012

The final day of traveling Dad and I did before returning to London was to Blenheim Palace. Located about 8 miles out of Oxford, this is the enormous home of the Duke of Marlborough, but is perhaps more famous for being the birth place of Sir Winston Churchill.

While the palace itself is well worth seeing, it certainly is not the main attraction when visiting. The gardens, landscaped by Capability Brown, are simply spectacular. The whole design is based to look natural but is actually set up to provide stunning views of the palace and the other areas around the 2100 acres. Fortunately the weather held up enough that Dad and I were able to walk around the majority of the property and get a few decent pictures of the gardens and the palace (attached below).

Unfortunately I was not allowed to take pictures inside the palace but it was certainly worth the visit, if only to see the room dedicated to Churchill. As is well chronicled, Churchill was quite an eccentric fellow and the palace certainly shows this. One of my favourite examples was a copy of a letter Winston wrote to his father about losing a watch he had been given as a gift. Churchill was requesting money from his father, but it was not to replace the watch, but rather to pay workmen to reroute the river that he had dropped the watch in!

Blenheim Palace was well worth the day trip and I’m glad we decided to see it! It was not on our original plan but with the unreliable weather we felt it was the best option for the grey, overcast day.

Overall the 10 days Dad was here were outstanding. It was great to catch up and see family, but also to have new experiences and to get out of the busy city of London for a few days. I look forward to the next time I get to see Dad, in Prague later this summer!

The Oxford Adventure

18 05 2012

The second part of Dad’s trip was a bit nostalgic for both of us as we went to Oxford for a few days. As some of you may remember we lived there from August of 1998 to July of 1999 so the visit was filled with memories for both of us. The purpose of this trip was purely pleasure as we arranged a walking holiday around the city and the county of Oxfordshire.

Notwithstanding the weather being typically British (ignore what I said a couple months ago about great weather!) we made the most of our time together and set out on a 16 mile walk on day 1. We began in the small town of Abingdon and walked back towards Oxford along the River Thames, a beautiful walk in the picturesque English countryside, only briefly interrupted by dirt bikers, other walkers, and the occasional British pub. A perfect day, and a great opportunity to catch up with Dad, although he did not let me forget the fact that I quickly fell asleep when we returned home and he was able to stay awake despite being almost 40 years my senior and jet lagged!

Day 2 in Oxford was centered around the big Oxford v. Cambridge boat race that takes place every year. It just so happened we were in Oxford for the event so we thought it was a good excuse to go to the pub at 230! We spent the morning walking around the outskirts of the city, stopping by the two places where we lived some 14 years ago, and then ended up watching what turned out to me one of the more eventful boat races of all time (if you didn`t see it click here to watch the highlights). Although it was not the best race I have ever seen it will certainly be one I will never forget.

After spending some time in Oxford it really began to feel familiar again on day 3 as we walked through the town so we could catch the bus to Chipping Norton and walk in the Cotswolds. While the other two walks we did were beautiful in their own right, the Cotswolds were stunning. The views of the countryside seemingly went on forever and the scenery felt like something out of a classic English novel or poem. This walk ended up being close to 20 miles and was perfect until the last mile when I managed to step in deep puddle of mud! With my shoes covered in mud we managed to trek to the pub for a much deserved pint before heading back into Oxford.

We spent one more day in Oxford, and I will discuss that in detail in my next entry. It was wonderful to get back to a city that was a significant part of my childhood and to spend more time appreciating the countryside, something I neglected to do as a 14 year old!

Attached are a few pictures from the Oxford Adventure,

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