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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.

Equal Time

I realize that this weekend finds the PGA Tour heading to greater Columbus, Ohio for The Memorial, which is Jack Nicklaus’ entry into the “This Should Be the Fifth Major” competition. From a purely golf perspective, there much to be said in support of this notion – the course, Muirfield Village, is probably the Golden Bear’s best architectural effort, and the strength of the field, while not as meaty as The Players (another pretender to the throne), is certainly stronger than that of The Masters.

Oh, and Tiger has announced that he’s playing, which automatically ensures that every Woods fanboy will drop what he’s doing to tune in, and we will be inundated with past highlights of his golfing conquests.

All of which comes at the expense of a concurrent significant golf event on the LPGA Tour, as the US Women’s Open will be conducted at The Country Club of Charleston [South Carolina]. And while I’m sure there will be all kinds of bombast (legitimate and otherwise) reported from The Memorial, I think it will be worth it for the serious golf aficionado to spend at least a few hours checking in on this event.

I say this flying into the face of some unfortunate observations from Sirius/XM radio host – and noted golf instructor – Hank Haney, who on his radio show stated that “I couldn’t name 4 players [on the LPGA tour]. Wait, yes I could, I’ll just go with Lee.” As The Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz remarked on Twitter, it’s not clear what’s worse, the racism or the sexism inherent in that remark.

Part of Haney’s remarks refer to the fact that there is indeed a strong influx of Asian players playing the LPGA Tour – most notably from South Korea, but others from Thailand and China. [NOTE: Haney’s most famous student is part Asian. You may have heard of him] Why this should be a detriment to watching the play of women professionals is a mystery to me – as with any competition, one should want to watch the best in their craft. Many observers more intelligent than I am have noted that most of us of either gender would benefit from mimicking the smooth tempo and on-plane swings of these players.

And it doesn’t take long to notice the individuality of Inbee Park, Lydia Ko, Minjee Lee, the Jutanugarn sisters, and Shanshan Feng. Not to mention Brooke Henderson, Lexi Thompson, and Charley Hull.

All of that aside – the LPGA takes us to some classic courses that are not in the PGA’s wheelhouse but would be great tests for the 99.99999 percent of the rest of us. The Country Club of Charleston is a great example of this; a Seth Raynor beauty that emphasizes strategy and shot making.  Preliminary reports indicate that the USGA has set up wider than usual fairways, but the greens will be quick and the flag locations, well, “interesting.”

Oh – and as an extra special incentive, the two young women who thrilled us at the Augusta National Women’s Championship, Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi (who I believe is poised to be a charismatic star on the Nancy Lopez level) will be paired in their professional debuts this weekend.

I look forward to making time for both events this weekend. You should, as well.

Hemp Help

When I first started getting semi-serious about playing golf, I was a fairly regular user of marijuana.  It wasn’t a matter of having to light up first thing in the morning, and I certainly never smoked while in my workplace (I was an IT professional for over 35 years), but I found it to be a better way to unwind after work than drinking a lot of beer. This, of course, was before I discovered the joys of fine wine, single malt scotch, and craft cocktails.

Anyway, as an annual reminder that cannabis and golf can be a strange mixture, a group of us would hold a season ending tournament at the now-defunct Whippernon Golf Club in Russell, MA called the Greater Marijuana Open (“GMO” for short). The “Whip,” as we fondly called it, was a 9-hole, par 34 goat hill that rarely received much play and was the perfect venue for our shenanigans.

The format of the GMO was simple – 4 man scramble teams, and each team member was given a blunt that he was required to smoke over the course of the round (roaches were to be submitted to the Rules Committee at the end of the round as evidence of consumption). The low score would be declared the winning team, and we would all repair to someone’s home to relieve our munchies.

At some point, I (mostly) gave up pot, but continued to feed my golf habit. I suppose I made the right choice, although some days I wonder.

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As legalization has begun to spread around the country, more attention has been paid to the medicinal benefits of cannabis. While there is plenty of debate in the medical world about the validity of such advances, there has been plenty of anecdotal evidence of joint pain relief and stress reduction through the intake of CBD, which is the non-intoxicating element of marijuana.

CBD in its pure form has been cleared by the International Olympic Committee as a non-performance enhancing substance and has caught the attention of some professional golfers. Scott McCarron, who has had some success on the Champions Tour, signed an endorsement deal and became an investor in a CBD manufacturer, and Bubba Watson recently announced that he was doing the same. “It was a no-brainer,” claimed Watson, which, given to whom we are referencing, seemed to fit.

[There was some speculation that the gum that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson was chewing during the Masters might be a CBD product. In fact, Golf Gum, while manufactured in cannabis friendly Colorado,  contains caffeine and vitamin B-12 – sort of a chewable 5-hour Energy Drink – but no CBD]

Anyway – I’ve had my share of back pain issues, and recently developed plantar fasciitis in my right foot. I had been taking Tramadol prior to playing a round of golf; while it provided relief, I didn’t like its side effects – plus being an opioid, it can’t be the healthiest remedy.

So I’ve started using CBD lozenges prior to playing, and the results have been promising. Both my back and foot have held up well (and this is during walking rounds); moreover, I’ve found myself feeling calmer while playing.

Placebo effect? I honestly can’t say, and as mentioned earlier, the jury is still out medically. But I say that anything that helps one naturally deserves a try.

At the same time – no more Greater Marijuana Opens for me.