Ambushed, however, in the most charming way. And by a golf course of all things!
There I was, armed with a well-oiled swing and the finest balata balls known to man, expecting a cakewalk around a 5,884 yard course. That was until I stood on the first tee and felt a sense of foreboding comparable to opening my visa card statement.
Not only was the opening par-3 a 229 yard nerve jangler, but I could also see the nearby green for the par-3 15th. Why did this cause me such apprehension, you might ask? Well, how about 13 pot-bunkers - each of which are capable of swallowing an average family station wagon - around a piece of immaculately maintained grass which wouldn't be out of place at Augusta National?
I have heard, and indeed said, on many occasions that a "course" may be as rewarding for a high handicap player as well as the seasoned pro. But not this time. This is simply because you need to strike a good ball in order that you complete your round free of embarrassments. I didn't, and, as a result, I am well placed to not only provide you with a glowing testimonial to this golf club, but also write an in-depth review of its sand traps.
However, I certainly do not wish to deter those potential visitors who might consider a round at Cornwall's oldest club, because it truly is an exceptional 18 holes. And I say that with hand-on-heart.
In December of 1889, the Vicar of Lelant, F. F. Tyack suggested to local dignitaries that there should be a golf course across the Towans near to the village. What seems apparent is that the Reverend was something of a go-getter, because the course was formally opened on the 6th of January, 1890. Now that's what I call shifting!
Shortly before 1896, the course had been extended to its full 18 holes, all of which remain largely in the same position today. For me, a traditionalist who likes to tread hallowed turf, this is an important fact - not least because these would have been the same holes trodden by a certain Jim Barnes. To those of you not familiar with his name, this gentleman was not only British Open Champion in 1925, but U.S. Open Champion in 1921, U.S. P.G.A Champion in 1916 and 1919, and, World Champion from 1921 to 1925.
It is my opinion that the supreme player that Jim Barnes became would have undoubtedly been due to his years spent here at West Cornwall. He would have honed his ability to play the inch-perfect pitch, been able to open his shoulders and boom a massive drive, but, most of all, learn the importance of the crucial second shot.
For me, I only wish that I could have walked the course before actually playing it. Then I would have seen the dangers that await on blind holes, understood where best to play the initial tee shot, and realised precisely what awaited me before I started. Of course, this statement would be true wherever one decides to play, but West Cornwall is an exceptional case.
The ground is natural - created by the development of ancient sand dunes - and largely unmolested by ambitious course planners. No-one has deliberately shifted thousands of tons of earth in order to increase the challenge, or, planted shrubbery where none would naturally be. Golf in the raw, without a doubt.
Unfortunately, I was three-quarters the way through my round when I realised a startling fact: in almost every case the terrain before the green was anything but flat. Humps and hillocks meant that chip & run shots required remarkable forethought, and a tee-shot for a par-3 would usually require a lofted club in order to land squarely on the putting surface.
The subject of the "putting surface" brings us on to another aspect which impressed me about West Cornwall..... the greens are magnificent. Not only are they maintained to a standard which would put many championship quality courses to shame, but they represent a test of putting which is hard to equal. I must stress, however, that the excellence of the greens at almost every Cornish links course is without question - one only has to play Mullion or Trevose to realise this fact.
Of the entire eighteen, almost all of the holes are memorable. The 1st is a hugely demanding par-3, and the 2nd, a relatively short par-4, gives no time for relaxation. Indeed, the gateway to the viciously sloping green has to be the smallest through which I have ever attempted to play, guarded on either side by tall dunes.
The 4th is perhaps one of the toughest holes on the course, requiring an arrow-straight tee shot to avoid the churchyard of St. Euny to the right. A good strike will provide a better chance of a successful second shot to the green, whereas a poor clout will leave you blind and at the mercy of the unforgiving surrounding to the green.
My great fortune, however, was that I managed to somehow share my round with one of the club's members. Derek Moses has been playing at West Cornwall for over three decades, and it is testament to the club that he retains his membership despite living over 300 miles away in North Yorkshire. His advice might have proved invaluable to someone of greater ability than I, but even with his words of wisdom, I could not save my game.
Away from the quality of the course itself, West Cornwall benefits from the all-important view. The panoramic vista which begins at Hayle Estuary - and the echoes of its harbour's busy past - ends with a view to the exquisite seaside town of St. Ives in the distance. In between lies the open sea and Godrevy Lighthouse, the same beacon immortalised in the Virginia Woolf novel "To the Lighthouse".
So there you are. Even if your game is going to pieces, at least there's something nice to look at! And that brings me right back to the rigours of the course.
The 11th is my personal pick as the toughest of the eighteen. A straightforward drive, which should tend towards the left in order to avoid a rabbit warren festooned depression, will still leave you with a devilish second shot which must travel over a sharp rise. The green - you will be thrilled to hear - is located snugly between two potentially nightmarish lies, and has similarly daunting rolls and gradients as every other on the course.
Then there is the 16th. As the longest at 521-yards, it does at least have a reasonable area upon which to drive your tee shot - that is, of course, presuming you still have any nerves left. Much to my glee, I managed to negotiate the gradual funneling to the green, only to poke a simple putt too far on its lightning-quick surface and end up thrashing my way out of the steep gully in four.
At least the 18th allows for a comparatively simple finish to the round, although even I could not resist a final visit to a lonely bunker. That said, I could have no complaints - I had been thoroughly humbled by a golf course which I foolishly thought would prove a straightforward task.
The obligatory visit to the nineteenth hole was also called for, and a fine clubhouse it is too. It still retains many of its turn-of-the-century features, and pays its respects to one of the modern day players it has fostered, Philip Rowe - his Walker Cup bag having pride of place next to the bar.
I suppose that I could finish this review by trawling up the old clichÉs: "You have to be mad not to play here", "a great challenge to all golfers", etc. So I will. Because, actually, they really do apply.
West Cornwall Golf Club,
Tel: +44 (0)1736 753177
Fax: +44 (0) 1736 753401
5,884 yards, par 69. Weekends £30.00
Professional: P. Atherton.