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Golfing in Cornwall

The infamous Chasm hole that sent the fictional Mr. Haddock and countless real-life counterparts over the deep end no longer exists because of erosion of the cliffside. The precipitous sixth hole along the course's pasture-rimmed northwest boundary--you can practically putt your ball off the tee and watch it roll down to the seaside green--and the seventh, or Ravine hole, are now the signature holes of Mullion. They lead you around to the links area of the course, holes seven through ten. Then, from the par-three eleventh, you climb your way back up and inland again to the latter part of the back nine. At the par-four fourteenth, running straight back toward the sea, I lost a prodigiously shanked drive in the setting sun and wound up with a double bogey. But there among the high cliffs, I couldn't have been less troubled, strolling down the fairway, singing to myself "A Song of Mullion": "Was that a slice?You may be right / But, goodness what a day!"

Back at the clubhouse lounge, I caught up with the course manager, Gerry Fitter. A lean, soft-spoken man in his late fifties, he grew up on the peninsula's northern coast. He seemed a bit surprised by the presence of a Yank at Mullion this time of year.

How late in the season do most Cornish golfers venture?

"We have a hardy membership," Fitter told me, smiling. "I've seen them out here in all kinds of weather. I wouldn't walk a flippin' dog in whatthey go out in."

Geographically, Falmouth is something of a mishmash: a wide, sprawling expanse of grassy upland, or "downs," hard by the sea. The course is essentially a sky-borne stretch of sheep-grazing land, and one needs to be a bit of a sheep to negotiate it. By the time I ascended to the fourteenth green, I felt as though I'd left the earth behind, as though I'd been deposited there by a hot-air balloon, the low-scudding clouds almost touchable overhead. My putt for par wound up just left, and then I watched in amazement as a sudden gust of wind blew it into the hole.

"It's not always this blustery here," Bryan Patterson, the architect, club pro and co-owner of Falmouth, assured me at the club's driving range. A short, sturdily built Irishman, Patterson played as a pro in the 1960s, qualifying for the British Open in 1966. Watching him swat a bucket of picture-perfect drives into the teeth of the gales blowing in off Falmouth Bay, I couldn't help--given my own windblown escapades--asking him for some quick, free tips.

"The best thing I've ever heard about the golf swing Fred Daly told me back in nineteen forty-seven," Patterson said, referring to his fellow pro and countryman, the only Irishman to win the British Open. "He said it should be a pendulum kept at forty-five degrees. These big, ninety-degree, Ferris wheel swings you see now cause too many slices and don't even hit the ball as far."

I would recall those words the following morning standing in the rough along the first fairway at Cape Cornwall Golf & Country Club. Remembering that forty-five-degree pendulum swing, I purposely directed my three-iron tee shot far left of the fairway, out over the ocean cliffs, for the delirious, A. P. Herbert-ish pleasure of watching the wind deposit my shot a good fifty yards to the right of the pin.

Bryan Patterson considers Cape Cornwall a bit gimmicky. But to the nonprofessional, it's an experience not to be missed--a beautifully sculpted nonstop-roller-coaster thrill ride. The grounds had been a farm until only ten years ago, and the fairways were laid out in accordance with the stone walls that once framed the hillside pastures.

I was rolling along on the front nine that morning, about to tee off on the 491-yard par-five fifth hole, when I noticed far out on the horizon the telltale snare of atmosphere just above the ocean. I remembered this from my previous visit. You can time it like a train. A high-speed train. One minute I'd be walking out on the cliffs in the warming sunshine, the next I was drowning in a cold, sideways-driving rain. Rain squalls, fog banks, bright sunshine, full rainbows. They can come in rapid succession in Cornwall. The place is God's weather workshop.

I didn't bother to run, just reached into my golf bag, pulled out my all-weather gear and started back toward the clubhouse as the squall washed over. Peering back across the water-smeared fairways, I saw a lone figure bundled in rain gear, bending over his next shot. "It is," I remembered Bryan Patterson telling me, "a rugged brand of golfer we have here in Cornwall."

Back at the clubhouse--which was formerly the farmhouse, with the adjacent barn and stables now converted into hotel accommodations--I decided to grab a bite by the fireplace and wait out the weather. Outside, the rain soon passed, and under a full-arching rainbow, I was able to get back out and complete my round, savoring the back nine in particular, with its tiered and tufted fairways and clifftop greens.

Among Cornwall's thirty-odd golf courses are a number of notable parkland tracks. I opted to go east and south to where the River Tamar, the border between Cornwall and Devon, empties into Plymouth Sound. Just north of Saltash, on the western, Cornish side of the Sound, is the so-called big daddy of Cornish golf courses, St. Mellion Hotel Golf & Country Club. There are, in fact, two sprawling parkland courses at St. Mellion: the Old course, which was built in the late seventies and has served as the site of several Celebrity Golf Classics and the Tournament Players Championship, and then, completely enveloping and overwhelming the latter course in terms of both reputation and difficulty, the Nicklaus layout.

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