This piece was published in the Royal Liverpool Golf Club Magazine, 2023-24. You can view it online here.
How vanlife changed Sam's life.
By Mark Gorton.
“It was one of the firmest Opens ever, in recent years anyway, and it triggered my interest in course architecture which quickly became a passion. Looking back, it was a significant moment for golf. It showed that green speeds and thick rough weren’t the greatest tests. Firm surfaces and great architecture remain as relevant as ever.”
14 years after Tiger’s victory, as the COVID pandemic changed the world, Sam, his wife Harriet and their two dogs began an epic journey. Property development had been their thing, but now, as the brakes were applied to the sector, the couple cooked up an idea to take a break of their own. Inspired by the increasingly popular concept of ‘VanLife’, they decided to take a few months off by visiting - and in Sam’s case playing - every links golf course in England, Scotland and Wales.
“We bought the biggest van we could find and, without thinking too hard about just how many links courses are out there, decided to give it a go. We had some great tradespeople who converted it into a camper. It had to be comfortable enough to entice Harriet along, and for my quintessential ‘golfers back’!
“Research was a lockdown project and by September the links list was 160-odd long. By the time we left it had bumped up to 182, and would finally come out at 225.”
The Coopers’ mission, which would end up taking two years, began at Royal Liverpool with a farewell photo. Their first destination was Kintyre. “In the three months before Christmas I played 75 courses. We were incredibly fortunate - there were maybe just three or four rainy days. It was cold, yes, but almost always bright, especially on the east coast of Scotland. We slowly worked our way round - the quantity of courses is staggering! Plenty between Kintyre and Inverness, and then even more on the stretch to Aberdeen.
“Come November we were planning on heading home for a fortnight’s break with family and friends, but there was a circuit breaker lockdown in England. In Scotland, golf was still possible. It wasn’t 100% normal but not far off. We’d made it as far as Stonehaven, on the border to Angus – but the Tiers didn’t allow us to travel onwards. Luckily, East Lothian dropped down to Tier 2, meaning we could head straight there. The next day I was standing on the first tee at Muirfield.
“Scotland is incredibly dog friendly, so even though Harriet doesn’t play golf, we were all able to turn a round into a little outing. I also learned how proud the Scots are of their golf, and how deep the connections are between the clubs.
“The number of people who tried to help me on my way was extraordinary. ‘Where are you going next? Well, you should play with my pal So-and-so.’ I was never left wanting for a host – which, of course, adds another dimension to each course. The stories, histories and anecdotes added to each experience. I learned so much.”
The Coopers left East Lothian on December 18 to enjoy Christmas at home, only for lockdown to rear its head again. In the home they’d built in West Kirby, not far from Hoylake, they asked, ‘What next?’
“After spending three months in a van it’s maybe not surprising that we started noticing spaces and rooms we hardly ever used, and it wasn’t as if we could entertain people. We decided to sell, downsize for a bit and embrace the travel again. By June we’d got everything sorted, put our things in storage, and houseless we headed off into what did feel a bit like the unknown.”
They spent a few weeks in Northumbria, then Sam went down to The Open at Royal St George’s, while Harriet caught up with her family in Cheshire. Solo Sam enjoyed a week on the south coast of England. “There’s not much links golf there so there were a few long drives between courses, but it was 30 or so degrees every day. If the van got a little hot, I’d park up for a dip in the sea. It all seemed pretty idyllic.”
Naturally, blogging the trip in the social media age drew some attention.
“I didn’t set out to ‘work’ in the golf world. I had my industry, but people kept asking for things. With every course played, my interest and passion for architecture just grew and grew. I started writing bits and pieces. Golf publications began to get in touch asking me to write for them. People who’d enjoyed videos I’d made began to commission me – I even filmed footage for the Golf Channel’s coverage of The Open at Royal St Georges. I think the footage went out to almost 10 million people. It was nice doing ‘media’ things in golf, but the architecture remained my passion.”
What began with a yearning for a change of scene and the chance to enjoy both courses and coastlines was turning into a serendipitous life changing experience.
“The architecture firm Clayton, DeVries and Pont was formed as a partnership between three of the best known global practices in 2019. In Britain, their profile might not be quite as large just yet, but for those who were interested, it was a big deal.”
Mike Clayton used to live in Britain when he played on the European Tour in the 1980s and 90s. He now lives in his native Melbourne, responsible for restoring most of those world famous Sandbelt courses. Frank Pont is based in The Netherlands, so has worked in Britain for a long while. DeVries is American, responsible for crafting several world top 100 courses from scratch.
“They’d noticed my writing and must have thought we were on the same page! I met up with Frank in the summer of 2021 and he asked outright;
It's been a busy couple of years since then. Sam is now the main associate in Britain and business is growing quickly. “Frank and I spend a lot of time together, but all three partners have taken an active role in my architectural education.”
By the end of 2021, Sam had managed 175 of the 225 links. The stints in the van were shorter in 2022 as the last 50 were finished in “fits and starts”. November 2022 brought the end of this extraordinary tour, at Elie. “To our knowledge,” says Sam, “no one else can claim to have played all of Great Britain’s links.
“I have been lucky beyond measure in recent years. But the best fortune was learning to play golf at Hoylake. My Dad would bring me down with a cut down club as a kid. I’ve just always loved links golf.
“I firmly believe the ball along the ground is twice as interesting as the ball through the air. Another Championship at home will be special. Roll on July!”