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Chasing Perfection

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The homeward side at North Berwick Golf Club’s West Links, in East Lothian, Scotland, is one of the finest nines in the game. Legendary holes abound, led by the inimitable, wall-crossing par 4 at the 13th—The Pit—and the original Redan. Sandwiched between these two wonders is a hole that is seldom discussed, yet anyone who has played the West Links likely will remember it well. 

This frame captures the essence of North Berwick, as golfers contend with the ancient boundaries of the town itself.

That would be Perfection.

It’s not known exactly who gave the hole its name, though it’s easy to imagine it delivered with a side of irony — a sly wink and a nudge, for it is a thoroughly unusual contraption, something that would almost certainly not be built today. In his 1951 classic, A Round of Golf Courses, Patric Dickinson described the hole in terms that remain broadly accurate: “Perfection,” he wrote, “has drama. A good drive, and you will be faced with a steep blind slope—to pitch over, as it seems, bang into the sea. A high target-post at the back of the hidden green stands on the very edge of the rocks. There is plenty of room over the hill … and a pitch a bit to the left will come in nicely across the slope with more margin of error possible than the dead bull’s-eye shot. Perhaps there always ought to be a bit of luck as an element in perfection, as beauty is enhanced by mystery and irregularity.”

The perfect suggestion

The authors of many linksland classics have been lost in the fog of centuries, but by Scottish standards, Perfection is a recent creation. In the early 1890s, North Berwick gained the ability to extend the links west of the Eil Burn, onto a parcel of land that is now home to the stretch of the course from the seventh green to the 12th tee. The club, of course, would also concurrently consider how these new holes might be woven into the existing routing.  

In 1890, according to club historian Douglas Seaton, the 14th was the last in a run of three consecutive short holes. Indeed, turn-of-the-century amateur golf star and journalist Horace Hutchinson suggested the name “Perfection” had simply ported over from its previous incarnation as a par 3. The green of this hole was situated where a good drive today might come to rest, short of the imposing sandhill that hides the player’s view of the sea. In a moment of inspiration, the “energetic young secretary of the Green Committee,” 25-year-old Jack McCulloch, saw that the green for a two-shot hole could be set on the far side of the dune, mere steps from the beach. Greenskeeper Tom Anderson, who would soon thereafter emigrate to the U.S. and gain renown as a professional player and hickory club maker at the Montclair Golf Club in New Jersey, carried out the changes.

Fear on the tee

The revisions to Perfection created the tee shot toward the semi-obscured, wildly undulating fairway that we know today. There was (and is) no bailout: he left-hand boundary is defined by a ridge clad in marram grasses with the beach beyond, while on the right the land abruptly falls off to a lower shelf, where the sight of the fourth green some 200 yards away has jangled the nerves of generations of slicers. The truly daunting task for players armed with brassies and niblicks, though, was the approach. In the early days, the diagonal cross-bunkers built into the dune were shored up by a wall of railway ties set at nearly a 90-degree angle. Though the sleepers have long since been removed, this crossing remains one of North Berwick’s critical moments. As the late Philadelphia golf writer James Finegan put it, “Just choosing the right club — never mind swinging it well — prompts fearful indecision.”

Of course, that “fearful indecision” is driven largely by that omnipresent factor in links golf: the wind. To a certain extent, the drive and approach change roles depending on whether the day has served up a headwind or tailwind. Down the breeze, finding safety in the fairway might take as little as a 5-iron, but keeping the next shot on dry land takes some nerve. Conversely, into the wind a full-throated 3-wood might be called for off the tee, while the short iron faces the threat of ballooning off course.

Secrets still unknown

The complexities continue to multiply when one considers the green itself, a low-lying disc defined by a trio of broad lateral ridges that create small bowls and valleys. Although seasoned hands know that a peek at the flagstick’s location can be had from a particular point in the fairway, there are times when that information simply doesn’t matter; the combination of wind and fairway position can render certain hole locations roughly as accessible as Shangri-la.

In other words, Perfection is a local-knowledge hole of the first order, a place where a member can spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets.

A Christmas bell

Perfection will never be North Berwick’s most famous hole, but it is among its best. If the stock-in-trade of the St. Andrean is the worm-burning bump-and-run, the equivalent skill among denizens of the West Links is the artfully measured pitch, and the 14th only bolsters the claim made by Bernard Darwin — patron saint of golf writers — that this endlessly charming links is “an exceptionally good school for learning the art of approaching.”

It also scores high marks for beauty, and as the final four holes cut back inland, the 14th green represents the round’s last close encounter with the sea. And, of course, it is deeply imbued with the capricious nature, the “rub of the green,” that is at the heart of why so many find so much joy in links golf. North Berwick native Simon Holt expresses it perfectly: “I love the moment,” he says, “when you walk over the ridge and see where your ball finished up … it’s like seeing what you got for Christmas.”

Whether it be a shiny red bicycle or a lump of coal, we must accept our lot. And however we fare in our quest for Perfection, yet more ingenious golf at North Berwick awaits. So ring the bell, now, off we go.