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Golfing in Cornwall

"St. Mellion is potentially the finest golf course in Europe," Jack Nicklaus stated on the occasion of the course's official opening back in July 1988, a day in which he and fellow golf luminaries Tom Watson, Sandy Lyle and Nick Faldo, all on hand for the inauguration, had to stand by and watch a classic Cornish storm nearly swallow the place whole. Nicklaus's creation is without question a breathtakingly dynamic bit of landscape architecture. But ten years after that inaugural downpour, St. Mellion is literally in danger of drowning. In another fit of effusiveness about his own creation, Nicklaus called St. Mellion one of the finest "galleried courses in the world," meaning, in this case, the sloping of fairways on either side so that spectators can look down on the action. It's a design better suited to places like Southern California or Florida, with relatively sporadic rainfall. In Cornwall, such a shape can readily result in a very scenic canal system.

The gracious young woman at the St. Mellion pro shop warned me that course conditions were a bit mucky and disheveled. There had been a good bit of rain in recent months, she explained, and as a result, a whole new drainage system was being built finally to alleviate St. Mellion's persistent flooding problems. But the sloppy, sliced-up fairways notwithstanding, I'd never known a round of golf such as that, each hole a kind of idyllic diorama drawing you into its spell: number nine's monstrous mogul-scape; the par-three eleven's pond-buffered green, with flocks of pheasants strolling behind it; and then the par-five twelfth, often called the most beautiful in Cornwall--the tee shot over water leading to a long, tree-bound fairway bordered on the right by a brook that cuts in front of the green and must be crossed on a stone bridge. St. Mellion has to be played again and again if only to help you get over your awe of the place and the nagging compulsion it creates in you to make every shot as perfect as its surroundings.

I set out the following morning for the ancient port of Padstow, on Cornwall's northern coast, and Trevose Golf and Country Club. The championship course was laid out by Harry Colt, designer of Swinley Forest, Wentworth and Sunningdale, among others. (There are two nine-hole layouts on the property as well.) Like St. Enodoc Golf Club, on the opposite side of Padstow Bay, Trevose is one of Cornwall's great links courses.

The first tee lies alongside the clubhouse and the club's luxury bungalows and flats, high on a crest overlooking Constantine Bay. But once you've launched your tee shot down the 443-yard first, you descend into one of the dreamiest golf days you'll ever have, a day among the dunes and the swooping gulls. Especially on the front nine, nestled alongside the shore of the bay, you will feel like you're at the beach with a set of clubs--everywhere the sound of the sea, and the wide-open sky and, looking far inland, the white smoke rising from village chimneys.

There was little wind that day and no standing water--Trevose's sandy subsoil readily absorbs rain--and the roughs were cut so low that the wide fairways seemed to meld into one boundless, ever-forgiving fairway. Heavily bunkered, sloped greens, however, wreak havoc with one's short game. No one has bettered sixty-six in Trevose's seventy-five-year history. Still, I managed my best round of the week and was tempted to play again, but since this was my last day, I drove around to the other side of Padstow, to the legendary St. Enodoc Golf Club.

The main, or Church, course at St. Enodoc does naturally what St. Mellion was constructed to do: dwarf and overwhelm you. There's something foreboding about St. Enodoc--its high dunes (the infamous Himalaya Dune at the sixth hole all but eclipses the sky), deep hollows, tussocks and plateaus all carved and crafted by North Atlantic gales. You actually get a knot in your belly embarking upon this landscape, that sense of awe mixed with unsettling belittlement that the Romantics called the Sublime.

Where the course winds its way around to the shores of Daymer Bay at the eleventh and twelfth holes, you come upon the once-sand-swallowed St. Enodoc Church, for which the course is named. Excavated and refurbished in 1864, parts of the church date back to late Saxon times, some one thousand years ago, and with its stumpy, slightly warped thirteenth-century tower, it looks from a distance like a wet sa nd sculpture about to succumb again to the elements. In the churchyard, beside the twelfth hole, is the grave of England's former poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, who holidayed every summer at nearby Trebetherick until his death in 1984.

As with A. P. Herbert and his beloved Mullion Golf Club, Betjeman waxed lyrical about the St. Enodoc course. And as I finished the last of my rounds on this craggy, mystical, windswept peninsula, I could see why:

Ah! seaweed smells from sandy caves
And thyme and mist in whiffs,
In-coming tide, Atlantic waves
Slapping the sunny cliffs,
Lark song and sea sounds in the air
And splendour, splendour everywhere!

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