Steamboat Springs Siren Call

I don’t know when the last time was that I fell for a golf course the way I have for Haymaker Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

The setting is hard to beat, of course – Keith Foster’s layout sits on surprisingly level ground in what’s appropriately called The Emerald Valley surrounded by the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains. In the springtime, the peaks are still snow-capped (actually, from the 4th tee, one can still see a bit of snow on the Flat Tops, a range of mountains about 40 miles or so to the south) and the views are spectacular.

Moreover, Haymaker Golf Course best epitomizes the characteristics inherent in a municipal course – deceptively wide fairways that promote strategic play, a few risk/reward holes, and green complexes that will confuse even the best players. And for town residents, there ways to reduce one’s cost per 18 to around $30 a pop – or less if one purchases a season’s pass.

Haymaker has a reasonably benign start – the first seven holes have a linksy quality to them; there’s even a Redan-styled par-3 thrown in for good measure. The par-4 dogleg-right 3rd hole is representative of these starting holes; there’s plenty of room to the left, but if one is willing to try to carry the right side fairway bunker (and risk out-of-bounds on the right), he will find himself with an easy wedge to the green as opposed to a 150-plus yard approach.

The 8th is where the real fun begins. It’s a short par 4 that again dares the golfer to bite off as much as he wants to digest, although this time, there is a carry required over a marsh. Aiming posts provide several lines of play, ranging from the safe to the ridiculous. Once the fairway is safely negotiated, we’re left with an approach to a smallish green featuring a nasty swale that will run one’s ball clear off the green.

But it’s the back 9 that is truly inspiring, starting with the Cape-styled 10th. Again, the architect challenges the golfer with a heroic tee shot over water (while offering a safe, but longer route), but the second requires a nervy shot, as water juts in on the right side of the green and a bunker protects the left front.

Each hole that follows steps up the challenge, highlighted by the par-4 15th, aptly named “Mackenzie” after the famous course architect; its well-protected 3-tiered green being a trademark of the good doctor.

The 15th green at Haymaker.

The 16th, called “Emerald Valley,” may be an even better test, as one is better served to hug the right side of its wide, doglegged fairway (and face its inherent dangers on that side) to have a shorter approach to the shallow, creek-fronted green.

If there is a criticism to be made about the course, it would be the condition of the bunkers, an issue that has been acknowledged by the course management team and the town fathers. The bunkers are certainly playable but can definitely benefit from a maintenance effort to improve drainage. These improvements will likely be considered during 2020 budget discussions.

It’s a minor quibble, especially when one considers the club’s excellent practice facility and comfortable restaurant operation, which remains open throughout the year (the course serves as a cross-county skiing venue during the winter) and features an expansive patio that offers fabulous view of the course and the surrounding mountains. Best of all, Haymaker has made substantial investment in both women’s and youth golf, providing free clinics and leagues for both groups.

But for now, you’ll have to excuse me, as I’m hearing Haymaker’s siren call one more time.

Your author teeing it up on #4 at Haymaker.

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(Brief) Monday Morning Musings

Not that anyone asked, but . . .

  • The Open Championship may have lacked final round drama, but the site, the fans, and especially the victor made for an exceptional weekend of viewing. More Royal Portrush, more Irish links courses, and more Irish golf fans, please!
  • Brooks Koepka arriving late to the final round of this past weekend’s WGC event in Memphis and summarily kicking Rory McIlroy’s butt is as badass as it gets in professional golf.
  • I’ll be writing more about this later, but there’s drama surrounding Michael Keiser’s latest development effort in the Northern Highlands of Scotland, as a group of local citizenry who are fearful of a repeat of Donald Trump’s bullying efforts (and subsequent negative environmental impact) in building his course in Aberdeen has mounted stout opposition to Keiser’s proposed Coul Links. Anyone who has visited any of Keiser’s golf outposts knows that his approach for both golf course and lodging development is understated and sensitive to the environment. The outcome should be . . . interesting.
  • The weather here in the Rockies is ideal for golf right now, and it’s manifesting itself with busy activity at all of the local courses in Steamboat Springs, including the one at which I’m employed. This has cut into my writing time a bit; I hope to get back into a more regular schedule soon. In the meantime, a quick story from yesterday’s work day:
    • My experience at most clubs is that there is a certain small percentage of players/members who complain about . . . well, about everything. One such member at my club has something upon which to harp on a daily basis – the cart seats are damp, someone cut in front of her on the course, there was an off-color remark in the grill room, we’re wasting too many scorecards . . . In any event, Saturday night brought a heavy dousing of rain, which left lots of puddles in our dirt cart paths. This did not set well with this member, so naturally she came in to complain to me and a co-worker:
      • Her: Those cart paths are in awful shape!
      • Me: Yes, we’re aware of that.
      • Her: (walking out the door) They need to be fixed!
      • My Co-Worker (under his breath) So do you.

Hit ‘em straight.

The GOLF NERD’S 2019 Open Championship Preview

I realize that my love of links golf in general and The Open Championship in particular border on the irrational. The unpredictability of the bounce of the ball, the penal nature of fairway bunkers, the sweeping vistas of the treeless landscape that often take in breathtaking views of the Atlantic, the North Sea, or various firths, and of course, the weather. My heart figuratively skipped a beat when I saw a forecast predicting the following:

 

 

Yes, lassies and ladies, genuine Open Championship weather will visit Royal Portrush this week. If only Tom Watson could somehow contend . . .

 

But let’s get to the matters at hand. Adding to the giddy uncertainty (sorry, can’t help myself) of this year’s Open is the venue itself. Royal Portrush, long considered to be one of the great links courses in the world (and second only to Royal County Down in Northern Island), hasn’t hosted an Open since 1951 for reasons both practical and, sadly, political. We’ll discuss the former first.

 

Portrush is located on the northern tip of Northern Island (on a clear day, one can view it from the Mull of Kintype in Scotland. At times, various ferry services connected the two). While Belfast is easily accessible by air and by land from the south, getting to Portrush was a struggle for years. And while the town of approximately 7,000 adequately handled summer resort traffic, it was nowhere near equipped to accommodate the hoards that gather for an Open. Both of these concerns have been addressed with significant infrastructure improvements, which will prove to be a necessity – for the first time, an Open Championship has been completely sold out; 190,000 tickets sold, and no walk-up tickets available.

 

Politically, the long-standing “troubles” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland made hosting any sporting event in the North extremely risky and bringing the Open there all but impossible. The Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998 opened the door to improved relations between the two countries, which greatly reduced (but not completely eliminated) violence between either’s extremist factions. The recent Brexit controversy has only served to bring anxiety about renewing those tensions.

But for at least this week, Portrush hosts a true celebration of links golf, and along with the recent smash success of Lahinch’s hosting of The Irish Open, should bring welcome golf travel attention to the entire island, regardless of borders. I know it’s on my list.

As no living golfer has played Royal Portrush as an Open venue, trying to pick a winner (always a dicey proposition anyway) is nearly impossible. Here are some totally useless observations that required much more than just a grain of salt if one is considering a wager:

HOME COURT ADVANTAGE! – Rory McIlroy, Graham McDowell, and Darren Clarke are all native sons of Northern Ireland. McDowell and Clarke are members of Portrush, while McIlroy holds the course record of 61, a score he recorded at the age of 16. In considering any of these players, on needs to consider the following:

  • Clarke, who has facially aged better than any Irishman this side of Sean Connery, is, while officially in the tournament, largely in a ceremonial role for this championship. A win by him might possible empty the country of Bushmill’s.
  • McDowell could be a dark horse, or at minimum a decent inclusion to fill out a fantasy team (where such activities are allowed, of course!). He’s enjoyed a productiv season and survived the cut at Pebble Beach in last year’s US Open. But his chances of winning are only slightly better than those of Clarke.
  • The People’s Choice this week will be McIlroy. Although his score of 61 is no longer considered the official record as there have been changes made to the course, Rory knows enough about Royal Portrush, and, of course, his talent is undeniable. But his play in the majors has been spotty since his PGA Championship victory in 2014, and one has to wonder if the pressure on him to win will be unmanageable.

INSIDER INFORMATION! – Brooks Koepka is the one US star who made his bones on the European Tour, and his caddie, Ricky Elliot – surprise! – was born in Portrush and remains a member. Koepka supposedly is leaning heavily on Elliot for local knowledge and is keeping it to himself to the point that not even Tiger Woods is privy. That aside, the main reason for putting a quid or two on Brooks Koepka is, well, he’s Brooks Koepka.

TIGER! TIGER! TIGER! – Golf prowess aside, Tiger is a one-man content generator, and while his play since The Masters has ranged from dismal to middle of the road, there’s been no shortage of speculation about his performance at Royal Portrush:

  • “He rested!” “He’s rusty!”
  • “The weather favors him! He can work the ball either way against the wind!” “The weather hurts him! His back won’t hold up!”
  • “He’s no longer named in the lawsuit against his restaurant!” “But his girlfriend is!”

And so on. The fact is, Tiger could win the damn thing. He could also miss the cut, badly. Neither would surprise me. My prediction – no matter what the outcome, every one of his shots will be televised.

THE GOLF NERD SAYS!What the hell do I know? Particularly when it comes to The Open. But I believe the following:

  • Take Koepka over McIlroy
  • Henrik Stenson has looked good recently, and it was only a few years ago that he won it
  • I don’t feel it for Tiger this week
  • The defending champ, Francesco Molinari, hasn’t been the same since The Masters
  • Justin Rose? Maybe. Jon Rahm? Nah.
  • Because it rains so much in Ireland in general, Royal Portrush will show better on television than any other of the Open Championship venues, and will most likely have many observers swooning.

As I mentioned in my piece about The Irish Open – best to set your alarm clock early, and best to set another clock to Irish time so you can enjoy adult beverages guilt free.

East Lothian Memories

While PGA Tour rookie Matt Wolff, only months removed from  was making history at the 3M Open by winning in only his third professional start with his one-part boogie-woogie/one-part Jim Furyck-like swing, Spaniard Jon Rahm fired a final round 62 to capture the Irish Open for the second time in three years (Jon O’Rahm has a bit of a ring to it, no?). Quirky Lahinch yielded some spectacular golf, and the town of 700 handled the throngs of spectators quite nicely. I’ve yet to travel to Ireland; after watching this, I need to find a way to get there.

So while the Tour moves on to the John Deere Classic in the Quad Cities (where a charter plane awaits to transport qualifiers for the Open Championship to Royal Portrush), most of the top ranked players will be taking on The Renaissance Club, this year’s site for the Scottish Open.

The Renaissance Club is likely the most exclusive course in Scotland (even its stuffy nextdoor neighbor, Muirfield, allows outside play a couple of days a week), so for most of us, we’ll be having our first look at Tom Doak’s seaside links design. Doak is a master of using native environments to create natural masterpieces (Pacific Dunes may be the best example of his work); that alone should be enough of an incentive to tune in this week.

Scotland features several strong golf regions, but most would argue that Fife and East Lothian (both located east of Edinburgh on opposite sides of the Firth of Forth) offer the best variety of courses in the country. The rivalry between the two boroughs extends back to the days of the famous challenge matches that featured Old and Young Tom Morris of St Andrews vs Musselburgh’s Willie and Mungo Park.  The Renaissance Club is the latest addition to the East Lothian coast.

When one leaves Edinburgh towards East Lothian and chooses the coastal A199 route, he/she will encounter several seaside villages and courses, each one seemingly more charming than the next. The center of all golf activity is the town of Gullane (pronounced GULL-in), which is home to three fine links courses (creatively named Gullane #1, #2, and #3), as well as The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, a/k/a Muirfield, which is universally accepted as the finest links in all of Scotland and is usually ranked no worse than the 5th best course in the world. Muirfield has hosted many memorable Open Championships, including Lee Trevino’s chip-in to break Tony Jacklin’s spirit in 1972 and Phil Mickelson’s popular 2013 victory.

Just to the east of Muirfield lays North Berwick, whose West Links should be experienced by any golfer who values both superior shot making and history of the game. The West Links features two holes whose design has been copied worldwide – the 15th, a mid-length par 3 called Redan which features an angled green protected by nasty front bunkers, and the 16th, whose bisected green earns the name Biarritz.  Charles Blair Macdonald, the Scottish immigrant who was instrumental in bringing golf to the United States, used both of these holes as templates and passed that knowledge on to his associate and protégé, Seth Raynor.

There’s a 16th century wall that comes into play throughout the course, no more so than on the 13th hole. Known as “The Pit,” it’s a short par 4 that requires a nervy approach shot over that wall which borders the right side of the green. Much like the 5th at Lahinch, designing a hole like this today would likely bring howls of indignation, but anyone with a golfer’s soul would love it – as well as the rest of the West Links of North Berwick.

There are other fine links along the East Lothian coast, from Musselborough (where one can play with hickory shafts and gutta-percha balls) all the way to Dunbar. If you decide to make the trek across the pond, include both Fife and East Lothian in your itinerary and decide for yourself which is better.  You won’t be disappointed with either.

[Note: For more ruminations on Scottish golf, check out Golf In Scotland, The Walking Game, The Kingdom, Waiting in Line at St Andrews, and Carnoustie Follies.]

Lahinch and the Start of Links Golf Season

I’m not an expert on golf course architecture by any stretch of the imagination, but to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart’s famous statement regarding pornography, I think I know a good course when I see it. And I am truly looking forward to this week’s Irish Open, particularly since it is being held at one of golf’s wonderfully quirky courses,

The Old Course at Lahinch.

Old Tom Morris was the first to formalize the design at Lahinch, including  the famous par-3 5th, known as The Dell. Its green is hidden among a bevy of dunes; a white rock provides the golfer with an aiming point towards the flag. Uptight American golfers tend to despise holes like this (when Wisconsin’s Erin Hills was first built, it featured a replica of The Dell that was greeted so poorly by the general golfing populace that it was eliminated after a couple of seasons); personally, I’d love the to have a go at it.

The great Dr Alister MacKenzie was brought in some thirty years later to do some renovation work, including the addition of several of his trademark triple-tiered greens. Finally, Dr Martin Hawtree (who, among other efforts, “helped” Donald Trump design Trump International in Aberdeen) rerouted the course, bringing the Atlantic Ocean more into view on several holes as well as restoring the magnificent MacKenzie greens that had been neglected over the years.

But the most important design feature of Lahinch, intentional or otherwise, is, as honorary tournament host and 2014 Ryder Cup Captain Paul McGinley notes, is the pub located some 100 yards away from the 2nd green. After all, this is Ireland.

Perhaps the most legendary member of Lahinch was John Burke, who won the South of Ireland championship there an extraordinary eleven times (Other winners of “The South,” as it’s called by the locals, include major champions Darren Clarke and Graham MacDowell, as well as the aforementioned McGinley). In addition to his golfing prowess, Burke was a fighter in the IRA and participated in the Rineen Ambush, a crucial engagement in the Irish War for Independence. Heady company, indeed.

The Irish Open kicks off my favorite time of year in professional golf, as we get to see pure links golf throughout the month of July. This year is particularly intriguing, as besides getting to see Lahinch, a lot of us will get a first look at Tom Doak’s Renaissance Club, which hosts this year’s Scottish Open and is a worthy addition to the already golf-rich East Lothian coast. And, of course, the Open Championship returns to Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush for the first time since 1952.

But it’s Lahinch that takes center stage this week, and I suggest you set two separate clocks – one to wake you up early so that you tune in to the proceedings on  The Golf Channel, and one set to Greenwich Mean Time so that you won’t feel guilty pouring yourself a Guiness and enjoying a pint with your Irish hosts.

My Summer (Snow Notwithstanding) in Steamboat Springs

I started working at Steamboat Golf Club part time in May. It’s is a sporty little 9 hole track located on US 40 about 5 miles west of downtown. Nine holes sets you back either $30 on a weekday or $35 on the weekend, $1200 gets you a full membership with cart privileges, and $229 will provide one with 10 nine hole rounds for himself and friends.  The Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains provides a dazzling backdrop for the first few holes, and while it will never be accused of being a championship track, the course is well-conditioned with small, well-maintained greens and can trip up even the best of golfers.

There’s a retired gentleman named Blaise who does some carpentry work on the course’s bridges who told me about the time Tom Watson showed up at the club back in the late 1970’s. Avid golf readers may have come across John Feinstein’s wonderful tome “Caddy For Life,” which recounts the story of Bruce Edwards, Watson’s long time caddy who met his demise far too early from the ravages of ALS. Bruce’s brother Brian is a dentist in Steamboat Springs, and apparently Watson and Bruce paid a visit. Steamboat Golf Club was the only game in town at the time, so the two decided to give it a whirl. Apparently, Watson was impressed with the shot-making required on several of the holes, no doubt referring to #2, a short par 5 made challenging by a narrowing landing  area about 250 yards from the tee box, and the par 4 5th, another shortish hole with a tight fairway that requires a deft pitch approach over a small pond to a shallow green.

There are plenty of colorful characters who tee it up at SGC – “Muck-luck,” a retired entrepreneur who is the president of the Men’s Club and sports a long ponytail, “War Pig,” a shorter, slightly younger version of “Muck-luck,” and Steve, the local caterer who plays in the morning, knocks back a couple of Corona’s, and leaves me and whoever else is on that shift delicious sandwiches for consumption. And the ladies don’t lack for individuality, either – there’s Sandy, a retired teacher who’s taught at least half of the town’s full-time residents, Lindsay, another retired teacher who also coached golf at the local college, and Rene, a bubbly Italian who is a ski instructor.

As for my job – I take tee times on the phone, get folks out to the first tee, set up and clean carts, occasionally pour drinks, display merchandise . . . basically, whatever needs to get done. I’m generally in there for three or four days a week. The pay is minimal, but free golf is nice – not only here, but at the three other courses in Steamboat.

If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by.

US Open Wrap-Up

Unlike last year’s debacle, the US Open was played this year on a course with greens that had actual grass. The USGA made sure of that by dumping over 400,000 gallons of water on Pebble Beach in the run-up to the event (twice the normal amount usually applied to the grounds} in response to warmer than usual temperatures in the Bay Area that, combined with windy conditions, had the potential of drying out the course to unplayable limits. In actuality, the reverse occurred – a marine layer (certainly not uncommon to these parts) settle in ath the start of the tournament, resulting in cooler temperatures and softer conditions.

The USGA can hardly be faulted for this; unfortunately for US Open purists, this resulted in the tournament taking on the characteristics of a regular PGA Tour event, albeit with more punishing rough than usual. The silver-tongued/silver-toned golf maven Peter Kessler held nothing back regarding his feelings about the goings-on at Pebble Beach:

“The US Open is a total disaster. Fairways 2x too wide with irons from tees. 7 iron or less to each hole. Greens super soft and slower than Tour stops, so there is no awkward angle ever on little shots. At real Opens, Rose would have shot 85. Fox gets an F. Happy Father’s Day. Pk”

https://twitter.com/peterkessler/status/1140120092535115776

Now, Kessler takes a back seat to no living creature when it comes to overvaluing his own opinion – at least when it comes to golf – but there’s truth to a few of his points. To wit:

Pebble Beach and Merion are the two shortest courses that are part of the unofficial US Open rotation. Narrowing fairways – a standard USGA practice – on these courses simply means that rather than hitting driver accurately (long a criteria in winning a US Open), players can hit fairway woods or irons off the tee to reach desired approach areas.

As for “super soft greens” – yes, Pebble Beach was overwatered, and we witnessed a good number of approaches that may not have held otherwise. As mentioned above, the USGA was placed in a difficult position and chose to err on the side of caution.

But this all begs a larger question – are Pebble Beach and Merion obsolete as US Open venues

The answer, unfortunately, is likely yes, at least if those courses are to be held to traditional US Open standards. There’s no room to further stretch these courses to current professional length standards, and further tightening said courses would result in play bordering on the farcical. Of course, this situation might not have occurred if the USGA had taken a stronger stance in regulating equipment (I’m 66 years old and in decent – not great – physical condition, and I’m driving the ball at least as far as I did 10 years ago), but that’s a different subject for another time.

The Good Fathers of Winged Foot, the hosts for next year’s US Open, are already chirping that there will not be a winning score of 13-under shot at THEIR course. And it’s no doubt true. Take a gander at what has transpired there in the past:

Year Major Winner Score Margin of

Victory

Runner(s) Up
2006 U.S. Open  Geoff Ogilvy 285 (+5) 1 stroke  Jim Furyk
Phil Mickelson
Colin Montgomerie
1984 U.S. Open  Fuzzy Zoeller 276 (–4) Playoff  Greg Norman
1974 U.S. Open  Hale Irwin 287 (+7) 2 strokes  Forrest Fezler
1959 U.S. Open  Billy Casper 282 (+2) 1 stroke  Bob Rosburg
1929 U.S. Open  Bobby Jones (a) 294 (+6) Playoff  Al Espinosa

 

I’m not sure what happened in 1984, but the course came back with a vengeance in 2006. This, of course, was the year that Phil Mickelson for once admitted that he had made a tactical error on the final hole, choosing to play it aggressively and squandering what seemed to be a sure victory.

There is a certain masochistic pleasure in watching the world’s best players struggle with difficult conditions, but at the same time, one can only imagine the howls of protest if Pebble Beach is ever removed from the rotation. Yes, the Peter Kesslers of the world may howl, but whatever the score, no one can argue that this year’s US Open wasn’t entertaining.

Oh – about that. Brooks Koepka did not three-peat, although it was certainly not for lack of trying. From tee to green, he was mostly solid, but did not convert enough putts. Which brings us to a deserving winner, Gary Woodland.

Woodland has contended in major championships before, but until now has been primarily known for 1) initially attending a Division II college on a basketball scholarship, 2) hitting the ball prodigious distances while offsetting that advantage by being a woeful putter, 3) being Koepka’s physical clone, and 4) this wonderful moment.

And when the tall Kansan clung to a one stroke lead over Justin Rose going into the final, with Koepka lurking three shots back, few thought he would hold on. But Woodland, who usually shows about as much emotion as a Tibetan monk, showed up smiling on the first tee on Sunday, looking noticeably relaxed. Instead, it was Rose who went in reverse while Woodland went about his business.

Most will point to two brave shots on the back nine that solidified Woodland’s victory. On the long par 5 14th, he was left with an uphill shot of about 270 yards. He ripped a three wood that wound up just off of the green, giving him a simple up and down to make birdie.

More impressive was his par save on the par-3 17th. His tee shot found the hourglass-shaped green; unfortunately, he was in a position where if he putted the ball, the closest he would get to the hole would be about 15 feet. Instead, he pulled off this nervy shot which allowed him to take a two shot lead to 18 and effectively seal the deal.

STRAY SHOTS:

  • Covering golf on TV (much like setting up a course for a US Open) can often be a crap shoot. After a rocky start in 2015, Fox’s coverage has steadily improved, particularly in its camera work. Unlike a large segment of the population, I don’t view Joe Buck as a vile pustule inflicted upon the sports viewing public; however, Shane Bacon’s commentary is enthusiastic without going over the top, and I found his chemistry with Brad Faxon more entertaining than that of Buck and a surprisingly bland Paul Azinger.
  • While the crowds at last month’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black were next level obnoxious, the spectators at Pebble Beach did their best to rise to the occasion, with plenty of “IN THE HOLE” and “BABA-BOOEY” dorks in attendance. And while we’re at it, we don’t need “USA” chants at a tournament that hosts an international field.
  • I realize that Tiger Woods moves the needle, but complaints about not showing more of his hot back nine on Sunday (which resulted with a less than scintillating finish of T-21) are ludicrous.
  • Much has been made about Jordan Spieth’s critical comments to his long-time caddie Michael Greller after Spieth felt Greller had misclubbed him twice on the 8th hole in the second round. Player/Caddy relationships can be tricky – I remember Jhonnatan Vegas being asked about his bagman Luis Sira. Vegas replied, “I spend more time with Luis than I do with my wife.” He paused, then sighed, “That’s not good.” By the end of the year, the two had split. I’m wondering if Spieth and Greller have reached that stage – the former has seemed frustrated with his game for some time. Then again, Bubba Watson and Ted Scott have thrived in their mercurial partnership.
  • In a few more weeks, the run-up to the Open Championship begins, which means that we’ll be treated to an embarrassment of links-golf riches. Lahinch (Irish Open), The Renaissance Club (Scottish Open), Royal Portrush (The Open Championship), and Royal Lytham and St Annes (Senior British Open). Set your alarm clocks early.