Magnificent Distractions – Two Ryder Cup Snafus

phil-mickelson-750x400

There are three certainties in life. Death, taxes, and Phil Mickelson verbally lighting someone up at the Ryder Cup.

Let’s go back to 2014, when in the pre-competition presser, the lefthander, when asked how the team was getting along, answered, “Not only are we getting along together, but we also have avoided filing lawsuits against each other,” this pointed at Rory McIlroy and Gram McDowell, who were on opposite sides of litigation against the former’s former management company.

And after another colossal US failure, Lefty left so many tread marks on captain Tom Watson that the latter got endorsement offers from both Michelin and Greyhound.

So it should come as no huge surprise that at this year’s opening presser, Phil, as only he can, gave Watson some company under the bus in the person of 2004 captain Hal Sutton. While extolling the virtues of current skip Davis Love III and the newly formed Ryder Cup task force (an idea Mickelson championed), he brought up the ill-conceived partnership of himself and Tiger Woods. Among other things, Mickelson cited that Sutton had informed the pair that they would be playing together two days before the start of the matches. Woods prefers a high spin ball, Lefty a low spin ball; ergo, Phil claimed that rather than getting familiar with the course, he had to spend an inordinate amount of time on the range get familiar with the unfamiliar balls characteristics, which hurt his preparation.

(Sutton, reached later in the day, was not amused by this:

“Somebody has to be the fall guy. If it needs to be me, I can be that,” said Sutton. “The world saw what happened. They saw it. I didn’t have to cover it up. I find it amusing that that’s an issue at the 2016 Ryder Cup. I think Phil better get his mind on what he needs to have it on this week instead of something that happened 10 years ago. If I still need to shoulder the blame for Phil’s poor play then I’ll do that.”)

Mickelson has never shied away from speaking his mind. This has been noted by many of his Ryder Cup teammates, and in particular by captain Davis Love III.

In our recent Three Club Wind podcast, my partner Brian Robin spoke of the pressure put on the Ryder Cup captain, particularly on the US side, which has won exactly once in this millennium. One gets the sense that this year, Phil Mickelson is assuming the de facto role of captain. If so, the pressure falls squarely on his shoulders. He better deliver.

 

danny-willett

Meanwhile, on the Euro side, a controversy was brewing in the person of one Pete Willet, the brother of Masters champion Danny Willet. Pete gained a good bit of notoriety during Danny’s Masters victory with his hilarious in-stream tweets. Based on that, he has become a columnist for something called the National Club Golfer, and wrote this less than complimentary piece about the US team and spectators. Among other things, he had this to say:

Team USA have only won five of the last 16 Ryder Cups. Four of those five victories have come on home soil. For the Americans to stand a chance of winning, they need their baying mob of imbeciles to caress their egos every step of the way. Like one of those brainless bastards from your childhood, the one that pulled down your shorts during the school’s Christmas assembly (f**k you, Paul Jennings), they only have the courage to keg you if they’re backed up by a giggling group of reprobates. Team Europe needs to shut those groupies up.

They need to silence the pudgy, basement-dwelling, irritants, stuffed on cookie dough and pissy beer, pausing between mouthfuls of hotdog so they can scream ‘Baba booey’ until their jelly faces turn red.

They need to stun the angry, unwashed, Make America Great Again swarm, desperately gripping their concealed-carry compensators and belting out a mini-erection inducing ‘mashed potato,’ hoping to impress their cousin.

They need to smash the obnoxious dads, with their shiny teeth, Lego man hair, medicated ex-wives, and resentful children. Squeezed into their cargo shorts and boating shoes, they’ll bellow ‘get in the hole’ whilst high-fiving all the other members of the Dentists’ Big Game Hunt Society.”

News of this piece spread like fire at Hazeltine; naturally, it reached Danny, who was forced to make a hasty apology for his brother. But I can already see the “great, unwashed, Make America Great Again swarm” making life difficult for the Masters champ this weekend.

Oh, this is going to be fun.

Advertisements

The Ryder Cup Comes to Hazeltine

 

My old college buddy Z-Man is a member at Hazeltine National, a past US Open and PGA Championship site, and the host course for this year’s Ryder Cup. Z invited me to play there a few years ago. We originally planned on three rounds; at the conclusion of the second, I felt like I had gone 15 rounds on consecutive days with Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier. We spent out what was to be our third round hanging out at Lord Fletcher’s on Lake Minnetonka eating pan-fried walleye, downing Bloody Mary’s, and watching young ladies of Scandinavian descent hop on and off various motorized nautical vehicles. It was one of the few times I did not regret making a planned tee time.

Hazeltine is one of the three most difficult tracks that I’ve played – Carnoustie and Bethpage Black being the other two. There’s nothing unfair about Hazeltine – but as noted course designer Tom Doak has said about Carnoustie, Hazeltine is depressingly efficient in drawing out the deficiencies in one’s game. Miss a fairway, play from 2 ½ inches of bluegrass rough. Get on the wrong side of a pin location, face a slick downhill putt that regularly stimps at 11 ½ for the members.

The course’s first foray into major championship golf was to host the 1970 US Open. To say that it played to less than stellar reviews would be roughly akin to acknowledge that Donald Trump may be prone to hyperbole. Tony Jacklin was the victor, the first British player to win since 1924; however, the most memorable comment came from runner-up Dave Hill who, when asked what the course lacked, replied “Eighty acres of corn and a few cows. They ruined a good farm when they built this course.”

After fending off bankruptcy, Hazeltine underwent significant renovation and was tapped to host the 1991 US Open, which produced a far more exciting tournament. The late Payne Stewart and Scott Simpson were tied after 72 holes; Stewart prevailed in the playoff to claim the second of his three major trophies.

The PGA Championship has been held there twice and produced two rather unlikely winners, with one Tiger Woods being the equally unlikely victim in both instances. In 2002, Rich Beem, who not long before this was selling mobile phones and the subject of Alan Shipnuck’s raucous “Bud, Sweat, and Tees: Rich Beem’s Walk on the Wild Side of the PGA Tour”, played the golf of his life and performed a victory snake dance on the final hole (Woods, for his part, was pulling off ridiculous shots like this).

The 2009 PGA was even more bizarre, as Woods had the lead into the final round, a position which, as we had been reminded countless times during his career, he had never surrendered in a major championship. But Woods uncharacteristically faltered, limping to a 3 over par 75 while the golfing world witnessed the spectacle of South Korea’s Y.E. Yang becoming the first Asian-born winner of a major championship. And a few months later, Tiger would have an entirely different set of issues to face.

The hole at Hazeltine that stands out the most to my recollection is the par-4 16th , which Johnny Miller has described as the “hardest I’ve ever played in my life”(as an FYI, it should be noted that the 16th is rated as the 9th handicap hole, but Miller is not far off in his assessment).  One must drive over Lake Hazeltine while making sure he doesn’t run through the fairway, lest his ball finds a bordering creek. There is seemingly about a 5 square yard area in the fairway that gives one a good peek at the green, which sits on a peninsula in the aforementioned lake. When I played it the first time, it took the Z-Man a good minute or so to convince me where to aim my tee shot, such was the incongruity of the landing area.

For the Ryder Cup, Hazeltine may not play as difficultly as I’m describing, as the host captain generally has the final say in regards to course setup. From what Z-Man tells me, it looks like US skipper Davis Love III, in an effort to help out the bombers on the American team, has requested that the normally fierce rough be cut shorter to lessen its punishing effect on any wayward drives. This bit of pseudo-chicanery is quite common in this series by both sides – for its part, when the Euros host the Cup, the greens are typically slower and the rough is higher.

This will be DL3’s second crack as the American captain – he was at the helm in 2012 at Medinah when, after taking a seemingly commanding 10-6 lead into the Sunday singles matches, the US team collapsed spectacularly, allowing the Euros to duplicate the US’s improbable 1999 comeback.  But apparently, the players prefer Love’s laid-back personality (as opposed to that of Tom Watson, who Phil Mickelson openly called out in the presser after the last US debacle at Gleneagles in 2014) and to be fair, it was a somewhat improbable comeback by the Europeans.

His counterpart, Darren Clarke, has already set his team (Love still has four picks to make) which will feature 6 Ryder Cup rookies. Past US nemesis Ian Poulter is sidelined by injury, and some eyebrows were raised by Clarkie’s selection of Thomas Pieters over Russell Knox. Luke Donald was also passed over; however, Clarke can still call on Ryder Cup veterans like Justin Rose, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy (although his performance with the putter lately has been abysmal), and the forever irrepressible (or, depending on which side one supports, annoying) Sergio Garcia to make life miserable for the home side.

Meanwhile, Love will have some interesting decisions to make with his remaining slots – he had hoped that Ricky Fowler would automatically qualify at the Barclays at Bethpage (Patrick Reed, who became something of an instant hero/villain at the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, did so with his victory there), but ol’ High Tops (who is now sporting a moustache that would embarrass a porn star) faded on Sunday, and is now part of a mix that includes Jim Furyk (making a decent run coming off a wrist injury), Matt (Mr Bronze) Kuchar, Bubba Watson, and J.B. Holmes, all of whom have Cup experience – albeit in a decidedly mixed fashion. Poor Furyk has experienced more frustration in the Ryder Cup than just about anyone, Kuchar has been decent, and who knows what to expect from Bubba, who has more mood swings than the Trump campaign. The wild card may be Holmes, whose only appearance in the Ryder Cup was a brilliant one in 2008, which, coincidentally, was the last year that the US came away with a victory.

In any event, Hazeltine’s history suggests that we should expect the unexpected, which, given the dearth of US wins in recent history, might indicate a victory for the red, white and blue. My prediction will come once the US team is finalized, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince me. Maybe Dave Hill needs to convince the powers that be to plant some corn.

All I know is that Z-Man will be there, no doubt knocking back a Grain Belt beer or two and moaning about the lack of rough on the course.

Dog Days

It’s 102 and slightly humid here in the Metroplex. My attention span is not at its finest . . .


Jimmy Walker’s PGA Championship win means that we have four first time major championship winners this season, which, for the time being, puts to rest “Big Three” or “Big Four” talk in the professional ranks. Walker is something of a late bloomer, having toiled in 188 PGA tour starts before carding his first victory in 2013 at the age of 34. He won four more times over the next two years, but was experiencing a rather indifferent 2016 campaign before going wire-to-wire at Baltusrol.

Perhaps even a bigger upset than Walker’s victory was the fact that the PGA Championship actually finished on schedule, given the several weather delays that occurred. This prompted a breathless discussion as to whether or not the tournament should move to May – as if there’s a single month of the year that guarantees good weather. Golf is an honest game, but not always a fair one. That’s its beauty and its curse.


Sharon and I tried our best to follow the PGA Championship, but found ourselves over the weekend basking in the gorgeous scenery and refreshing weather that makes Steamboat Springs, Colorado one of the more enjoyable destinations in the world. Perhaps better known for its world class ski resort and ski-jumping training center, Steamboat also is home to a couple of really strong public-accessible tracks; Robert Trent Jones Jr’s Rollingstone Ranch is affiliated with the Sheraton resort, and is a scenic, albeit sometimes squirrely layout. We did get in a couple of rounds at Haymaker, a truly delightful links-style course that features a wide variety of holes, including the drivable par-4 8th, an expertly rendered Redan-styled par-3, and (perhaps my favorite hole) the appropriately named “Cattle Drive,” a 590-yard beast of a hole that is somehow playable because of the 6600-foot altitude, firm fairway turf, and a slightly downhill grade. Best of all, Haymaker is extremely walkable, and they also feature “golf bikes” – big-tired bicycles with a compartment in the back to load up clubs and balls. And the beverage cart features a $3 beer each day.


One of golf’s emerging personalities on the other side of the pond is one Andrew “Beef” Johnston, who comes to us with a burly physique, wild beard, and a gregarious personality that is at once humble and outsized. Beef won the Spanish Masters on the European Tour earlier this year, and announced during his post-victory presser that he was going to get hammered.  He gave a pretty good accounting of himself at both the Open and PGA Championships, and if by some chance (unlikely that it may be) Darren Clarke were to choose Beef as a captain’s pick in this year’s Ryder Cup, I may be forced to switch rooting allegiances.


Despite the fact that he had carded a 59 earlier in his career, Jim Furyk was probably the last guy in the world that I would have expected to fire a PGA Tour record 58 at TPC Cromwell this past weekend (fortunately for Furyk, he was diligent in checking his scorecard and noted that his fellow competitor – and scorer – had mistakenly recorded a 3 instead of a 4 on the 14th hole, which would have resulted in a disqualification had Jim signed for it). Furyk missed a good portion of this season, having undergone wrist surgery earlier the year, but seems to have recovered quite nicely from it. Being a Ryder Cup veteran (albeit one with a losing record), US Captain Davis Love may consider Furyk as a captain’s pick. After the debacle at the last Cup in Gleneagles, he may have had the best quote of all. Asked during the post-mortum press conference what the US team needed to do to reverse its fortune, Furyk replied, “I don’t know. But I’m tired of this shit.”


Despite my misgivings, I will likely tune in to watch Olympic golf this weekend. Although whoever is advising Ricky Fowler on his hairstyle needs an intervention.

Trials and Triumph at Royal Troon


Golf needed this.

After Jordan Spieth’s meltdown at Augusta.

And the rules fiasco at Oakmont.

After the flack and posturing over the absence of many of the game’s top players at the Olympics next month.

Golf needed this. And Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson delivered.

Stenson/Mickelson was not quite dramatic as Watson/Nicklaus in the latter pair’s famous “Duel In the Sun” at Turnberry in 1977, although the circumstances were similar. In both instances, the combatants separated themselves from the field by a substantial margin and simply did not back down. The edge still has to go the Duel in the Sun, as that particular contest literally came down to the final hole – and literally the final stroke, as Nicklaus had fashioned an improbable birdie from the tall fescue on the 18th and rolled in a 35 foot putt, mentally shrinking the hole for what had previously seemed to be a gimmee on Watson’s two-foot putt. But Tom rolled it in, and his stature in the game was cemented.

Yesterday’s finish came pretty damned close. Consider that Lefty shot a bogey-free 6-under 65, including an improbable save on the 12th – and still finished three shots behind Henrik Stenson, whose final round 63 actually included 2 bogies, including an opening hole three putt that had most of us wondering if final round major championship nerves had set in. Three consecutive birdies later, we had the answer, and were treated to a mixture of spectacular shot making and courageous scrambling by both golfers, culminating with Stenson closing the door on a game Mickelson in the final holes.

It’s been a long road for the Swede, who has seen both ends of the spectrum in his career. Stenson won the World Match Play in 2007 and the Player’s Championship in 2009, but then fell into a spiral that saw him drop to 230th in the world rankings. He fought his way back; in 2013 he scored several impressive victories and won the FedEx Cup (he also finished runner-up that year at the Open, finishing three shots behind .  . . Phil Mickelson).

He has continued his good play since then on both the PGA and European Tours, and was a key contributor in continuing Europe’s Ryder Cup dominance in 2014 – and speaking of which, wouldn’t a Stenson/Mickelson match-up at this year’s proceedings at Hazeltine be absolutely delicious?

Stenson is said to be the possessor of a keen, dry sense of humor, and at times has been known to snap a club or two in anger. Perhaps most infamously, he once stripped down to his underwear to play a shot from a hazard, which created a bit of a ruckus among the more crusty golf aficionados. I daresay that being the Champion Golfer of the Year in record setting fashion will dress up his resume.

As for Phil . . . he did everything right except win the tournament. His own 63 in the opening round was bogey-free, and but for a stray blade of grass and the combined pact with golfing Satan by Nick Price, Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller working against him on 18, he would have achieved golf immortality with the lowest round in major championship golf history.

This was the 11th runner up finish for Mickelson in a major, which cruelly also makes him the bridesmaid to Jack Nicklaus in that category. There have been times when he’s been his own worst enemy in arriving at those finishes, but in the final round at Troon he played brilliant, courageous golf. In his victory speech, the first person that Stenson thanked was Mickelson for pushing him to play the best golf of his life. While this was a gracious thought, it was likely of small consolation to Phil, who has not won since his 2013 victory at Muirfield and, at age 46, could be seeing his chances at another major championship dwindling.

Then again, it was pointed out in one of the earlier rounds of the outstanding coverage provided by the Golf Channel and NBC that the average age of an Open Champion is about 10 years older than any of the other majors. I hadn’t really thought about it, but in the last 6 years, 5 winners have been at least 39 years old (Rory McIlroy being the exception). Stenson and Mickelson combine for 86 years on the planet.

I suppose what this brings to light is that links golf presents a number of unique challenges – the penal bunkering, the firm, bouncy turf, slower greens, and, of course, the weather; all of which require adaptability in shot-making and not a little bit of patience in accepting the ever changing, unpredictable conditions.

Tom Watson almost pulled off an Open Championship at the age of 59. Maybe Phil gets another chance. But this one had to hurt.


I have to believe that the R&A was thrilled with the outcome of this year’s Open – not only by the quality of play by the champion and runner-up, but by the fact that there were no major controversies regarding rules or procedures.

The week didn’t start that way, as the deadline for Olympic commitments coincided with the Open’s practice sessions and press conferences. Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson were “game time decisions,” both decided against going, citing health and security concerns. Johnson, as is his wont, gave a brief answer at his presser and moved on to other topics. Spieth, on the other hand, bent over backwards and tied himself in knots explaining that if it were any other year, he’d be thrilled to go, that it was the hardest decision in his life, and so on. He also pronounced that he felt better about his swing than he has all year . . . and proceeded to spend the first three rounds playing most of his tee shots from the right rough.  A final round 68 may provide some momentum for the upcoming PGA Championship (moved up in the schedule by two weeks to accommodate the Olympics), but he still seems frustrated on the course.

But it was Rory McIlroy who gave golf scribes their juiciest bits, stating in no uncertain terms that the Olympics were not an event to which he aspired, that it was not his sole responsibility to grow the game, and that if he did tune in, it would be to watch swimming or track and field. This sent the Defender of the Rings into an uproar – I thought Brandel Chamblee would explode on the Golf Channel set – and McIlroy did somewhat couch his statements later, citing his involvement with youth golf programs and the First Tee as evidence to his commitment to the future of golf. He did not, however, back off from his feelings about Olympic golf.

As I’ve stated previously, there are several flies in the Olympic golf ointment – the scheduling, the format, and the manner of qualification make for a weak field and a boring tournament [at least this is the case on the men’s draw. On the women’s side, there seems to be firm commitment from virtually all of the top qualifying players. I’m predicting an all-South Korean podium].

Maybe the Olympics will surprise us. After watching what transpired this week at Royal Troon, I doubt it.

The Golf Nerd’s 2016 Open Championship Preview

[Before we start – a plaintive plea to the men and women of the Royal & Ancient]

Dear R&A,

While I respect your position as one of the two main rule-making organizations in the world of golf, I have to say that, along with your comrades at the USGA, you seem to be somewhat clueless when running the oldest major championship in the world (for evidence, please refer to Open Championship, St Andrews, 2015).

The Open Championship has become my favorite major to watch. I am an unabashed lover of links golf, and thoroughly embrace its unpredictable nature. Unlike the USGA, you are not necessarily concerned with “protecting par” (although there was that nasty bit of business at Carnoustie in 1999 when the greens superintendent – unbeknownst to you – ran amok, narrowing fairways to a microscopic 12 yards in some cases) and more or less allow the elements to dictate play.

And to your credit, your institution of the 4-hole playoff (as opposed to sudden death or a full 18 the next day) as a tie breaker was a very inspired move. Last year’s denouement was exhilarating.

Also – we get that there is no replacing Ivor Robson. Don’t even try.

But for the love of Old and Young Tom, Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Peter Thompson, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Arnie, and Sir Nick – PLEASE do not muck things up this year. Make decisions decisively and in a timely manner, and make sure the field understands them.

There’s no need for you to be the story.

Thanks for listening,

The Golf Nerd


This will be the 9th occasion that Royal Troon has hosted the Open. It’s been a mixed bag of prior champions – Arnie, Bobby Locke, and Tom Watson have claimed the crown there. Arnie’s was particularly important, as he almost singlehandedly reintroduced the Open to American golfers and fans. On the other hand, the list of others who have won is not quite as glittering – Tom Weiskopf (who never quite seemed to reach the heights predicted for him), Mark Calcavechia, Justin Leonard, and (gasp) Todd Hamilton.

I played Royal Troon back in 2012, and quite honestly, I don’t recall a lot about it other than the famed #8 hole, a/k/a “The Postage Stamp.” That name is derived from the size of its green, which from the tee box (a mere 127 yards away) seems impossible to hit to begin with. Add the usual stiff breeze off of the Firth of Clyde, and one wonders how the 71 year old Gene Sarazen managed to score 1 and 2 in the two rounds he played at the Open in 1973. George Sutherland, a young friend and excellent golfer who has played many rounds at Troon (and who is also The Golf Nerd’s Official UK Correspondent), tells me that he’s used everything between a three-iron and a 58 degree wedge to try to hit the green.

My friend Ben Hadden managed to birdie The Postage Stamp the day we played there (an event that seems to always come up in conversation whenever we get together). Other than that, no one in our group played particularly well – it was a miserable day, about 48 degrees, windy and damp. Our caddies couldn’t wait to bolt to the nearest pub once we paid them. But there’s no doubt that Royal Troon is a stern test regardless of the conditions.

A few more pearls from my buddy George:

Everything you need to know about the members is summed up by the 6th hole. It is the longest par 5 in the world, and can’t ever be beaten. There is about 300 yards of wasteland behind it, so they can just keep on moving the championship tee further and further back whenever another course tries to take the crown. They NEED to have that damn crown.”

The 11th (Railway Hole), where Tiger took his 11, (something in double digits but can’t remember exactly) is about a 250 yard carry from a blind spot where you just aim at the post. The fairway is also very narrow and is lined by gorse. We could see some high scores there.”

“…it is very fair and old-fashioned, and that’s what I like about it. If you hit good shots, you get rewarded- no shit bounces and crappy rolls. Its real defense are its narrow fairways, deathly thick rough and strategically placed bunkers and greens. Once you get to the greens, the majority are pretty flat and easy to hole puts on compared to your usual course on tour- it’s getting there that’s the problem.”


The current hot commodity on tour is Dustin Johnson, who has fashioned back to back victories at Oakmont and Firestone and needs to be included in the potential victor’s conversation this year, along with the New Triumvirate. Others to watch are Lee Westwood, who since his divorce is playing some of the best golf of his career, and Sergio Garcia, who has a Tour victory under his belt this year and who may thrive on Troon’s relatively benign putting surfaces.

But as we’ve noted, the Open is unpredictable, particularly so at this year’s venue. I’m going to throw out a few names that might be good dark horse picks:

  • Danny Lee – he is one of the Tour’s hardest working players and has seen his effort pay off over the eighteen months. He notched a victory at last year’s Greenbrier Classic, made the Presidents Cup team, and has been a consistent presence on the leaderboards. He had a strong finish this past weekend at the Scottish Open in Castle Stuart. And I admittedly have a local bias in Danny – he’s a member at our home club and lives in our neighborhood. I don’t know him very well, but he will always smile and say “hi” to me and other members, and the young men who work in the bag room tell me that he treats them very well. Finally, he’s a true Citizen of the World – born in Korea, a naturalized citizen of New Zealand, and a current Texas resident.

 

  • Greg Chalmers – ok, this is a real stretch, but hear me out. After over 300 PGA Tour starts, the Australian won the Stableford event in Reno a few weeks ago. Greg has always been a terrific putter; unfortunately, that’s been coupled with being one of the shorter hitters on tour. He’s continued to work on his game, and recently picked up some extra distance. Again, I have a very small connection to him – he was part of a panel discussion at our club a few years ago prior to the Byron Nelson tournament, and spoke frankly about life on the PGA Tour and the struggles he experienced (one of his funnier stories involved his only appearance at the Masters, where on his opening tee shot he nailed a spectator squarely in the forehead – “I could see the imprint of the ball there,” he told us. Fortunately, both patron and golfer survived the incident). It was gratifying to see him win in Reno, which, along with the automatic two-years Tour exemption that came with it, also gave him entre into this year’s Open Championship, a tournament he openly confessed to dreaming of winning. If Todd Hamilton can win at Troon, why not Greg Chalmers?

 

  • Shane Lowry – because we need a hefty Champion Golfer of the Year from Ireland. Plus he dropped one of the all-time great f-bombs at the Honda Classic earlier this year. Those are as good reasons as any, right?

If You Build It . . .

How best to describe Cabot Links and its two (and, apparently, soon to be more) marvelous courses?

Let’s start with its bar; specifically, the outdoor patio, which sits adjacent to the 18th green of the Links Course. And when I say adjacent – there’s less than ten yards between the three-foot high stone fence that borders the patio and the green (amazingly, in the three days we spent there, only one approach shot from the fairway of the 447-yard finishing hole actually found its way to the patio). The atmosphere is congenial among the patrons as we watch golfers finish up, rewarding good shots and putts with golf claps and encouragement and less than stellar ones with good-natured jibes.

The patio, the accompanying bar, and the formal restaurant upstairs (as well as the lodging) all face to the west; a good portion of the Links Course and the Gulf of St Lawrence provide a stunning backdrop.  A steady flow of golfers and caddies (both courses are walking only) make their way around starting at 7:00 AM and continue well into dusk, the players at that point silhouetted against a gorgeous sunset.

IMG_3083

About 50 or so yards up a hill, the Cabot House is serving up pub fare while Celtic musicians from Cape Breton Island perform for a mix of appreciative locals and curious golfers. Fiddlers of all ages rotate with the band; on the night Sharon and I attend, the evening climaxes with a 12 year old girl playing the hell out of a Scottish dance tune. An elderly local woman notes our appreciation – “The youth here – they’re born into this music.” We believe.

Oh – and about the golf . . .

_______________________________________________________________

Cabot Links is located in Inverness, Nova Scotia, an old coal mining town that one would not necessarily associate with golf. But Cape Breton Island is a place full of Scottish immigrants, and along with their love of music, there is also a strong golf tradition. Stanley Thompson’s Highlands Links, located on the Atlantic side of the island next to the Keltic Lodge in Ingonish, was long ranked in various Top 100 lists, and there are several other worthy tracks (Bell Bay in Baddeck, in particular).

And then Michael Keiser came along.

Keiser is the man responsible for Bandon Dunes, the multi-links course paradise located on the southern Oregon coast. Unlike his chief rival in the golf resort business, Donald Trump, Keiser prefers a low-key approach, seeking out sites that have potential despite their remote locations, hiring first rate course designers/architects (Tom Doak, Ben Crenshaw/Bill Coore),  and allowing golfers to seek them out.

Cabot Links definitely fits that bill. When we cross the causeway linking mainland Nova Scotia to Cape Breton Island, there is a small blue traffic sign directing the driver to Cabot Links – and then nothing more until one arrives in Inverness, where a washed driftwood sign announces the entrance to the lodge. The town itself is, on the surface, unremarkable – but as we engage the locals, visits the local pubs, consume the fresh seafood and local brews, and drive the Cabot Trail, the place grows on us exponentially.

Oh, right – the golf . . .

_________________________________________________________________

We tackle the Cliffs Course first. A Crenshaw/Coore effort; it’s the newer of the two tracks and has already appeared in Golf Magazine’s World’s Top 100 list.  It’s a dazzling effort, consisting of 6 holes each of par 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s. If I were to compare it to a Scottish course, Kingsbarns would come to mind – not exactly a true links, but with fantastic views of the sea from every hole. There are several forced carries from the tee box that have me reconsidering my tee choice (I played the Cliffs at 6,300 yards, which on the surface seems manageable, but when one considers that 6 of the holes are par 3’s, that number becomes considerably longer).  But I soldier on, accompanied by my faithful caddie Thomas Watts.

Thomas is as every bit as knowledgeable and supportive as any caddie I’ve had in Scotland (Sharon reported the same about her looper, Robert), and when I actually execute his instructions, the results are quite pleasing – we get to the 6th, a medium length par-3 whose green is nestled amongst several dunes.  “Don’t shoot at the flag, Gary,” Thomas admonishes me, “the right side of the green is where you want to be.” Sure enough, my shot catches the right side of the green and, taking a circuitous route, winds up about 6 feet from the hole. I manage to resist the urge to lift my head on the putt and drain it for a nice birdie.

Unfortunately, I don’t heed his advice on the very short par 3 12th, opting to hit a gap wedge instead of a pitching wedge. The wind knocked down what looked to be a perfectly struck shot and left me in a nasty bunker. From there on in I was extremely obedient.

While I could go on about each hole at the Cliffs, the real stunners are the finishing 3, starting with the jaw dropping 16th, certainly the most dramatic par-3 that I’ve played. While not particularly long (176 from the tips; I teed it up from 148), it’s all carry with really dire consequences both short and right, with those jagged cliffs staring you down.

The 17th is a short but deadly dogleg right par-4 that can result in scores that range from 2 to 7 (or more). Depending on the wind and the golfer’s nerve, one can use anywhere from driver to mid-iron off the tee, but the shot needs to be perfectly placed, or it’s either the drink on the right or the junk on the left. I managed to reach the top of the hill, leaving a short, downhill pitch. Sharon’s tee shot was even better; it trundled over the hill, took the contour, and rolled to about 30 paces in front of the green.

The finish is quite worthy, a straight away par-5 that invites one to let out as much shaft as he can . . . but the landing area is the left side of the fairway, which gently slopes to the right and can direct what seems to be a safe shot towards a watery grave (I learned the hard way).

 

IMG_3054

The only complaints that I can make about the Cliffs Course are 1) lack of a warm-up range and 2) immature fescue greens that are at times painfully slow. The first is being immediately addressed and the latter will most certainly improve over time. But as a combination of beauty and challenge, the Cliffs Course is hard to beat.

After our round at the Cliffs, Sharon and I met up with a non-golfing friend of ours at the patio back at the Links Course. It was Canada Day, so in addition to the already convivial atmosphere present there, we took in a marvelous fireworks show.  A lovely end to the day.

_________________________________________________________________

The weather during our first few days in Inverness was, to borrow from Dan Jenkins, dead solid perfect. We had expected much cooler temperatures than the blistering 95-plus degree furnace blasts that we were experiencing in Dallas/Ft Worth; while that was case, it was still warm enough for us to ditch the cool weather gear we had packed.

But when it comes time to tee it up at the Links Course, it’s definitely a day fit for a Scot, overcast and quite breezy, which seems quite perfect for that day’s round. The Links, with its firm, rumpled, and largely treeless terrain and wildly undulating greens, lives up to its name, encouraging the style of golf that one would play on its Scottish and Irish counterparts.

Sharon and I are paired with a couple from Connecticut, Carol and Ray Underwood. Ray is a player of some note on the Amateur circuit in his home state, and is a lot of fun to watch. He and Carol rented push carts while Sharon and I took caddies (Wesley and Tom, respectively).

While serious about his game, Ray is quite friendly and possesses the golfer’s penchant for fatalistic humor. When I hit a good drive on the 6th hole, he tells me that it was a “mother in law shot.”

“What’s that?”

“It looks good going away.”

Meanwhile, Sharon and her caddie seem to be clicking; she’s striking the ball really well and playing some really nice bump and run shots. We get to the par 5 11th – and then the wind really picks up. Number 11 is hard enough as it is at 580 yards, with a tilted fairway and severely uphill second shot. Into the wind makes it seem impossible. Even Ray struggles here, making bogey – the first one he’s made all day.

When we get to the 14th – a par 3 that measures a mere 95 yards – Tom smiles and says, “Ah, I think you’ll find this an interesting one.” It is, indeed, somewhat reminiscent of the famous 7th at Pebble Beach. Bunkered front, left and right, and if the shot is long it’s in danger of sliding down to the beach some 50 feet below the green. The problem today is that the hole is playing dead downwind; all four of us hit what look to be perfect shots . . . and then watch helplessly as our balls run through the green; fortunately, the grass is high enough to keep us from rolling too far down the hill in back of the green.

We get to the 18th – where we’ve been watch folks come in from the patio the previous two days – and all I can think about is not embarrassing myself in front of the guests. As it turns out, I needn’t worry – a perfect drive, a well-struck 4 hybrid that is just off the green pin high to the right, and a nifty chip that winds up less than a foot from the hole ensures a par. Unfortunately, the cloudy, windy weather has left the patio pretty much empty, save for an attendant offering cold post-round towels. I politely decline.

_________________________________________________________________

There’s something pure about Cabot Links; it’s comfortable without being pretentious. Most everyone we spoke to were first time visitors like ourselves, and were utterly charmed by the courses, the surroundings, and the staff.

It’s the latter that is particularly gratifying about our stay. Inverness (and much of Cape Breton, really) has been economically depressed since mining operations shut down back in the 1970’s. Building this resort has brought some much needed (albeit seasonal) revenue to the area (currently, in addition to the restaurant and lodging staff, there are also some 200 caddies employed, and most of them stay pretty busy). The freshness and optimism of the enterprise is evident with everyone who works there.

We are told that Michael Keiser is on property at least once a month to check up on operations while scouting locations for additional courses. A site for a par-3 course has already been chosen, and there is talk of a third 18-hole track as well.  A spa and exercise facility is also in the plan, hopefully ready for next year.

Sharon is ready to go back. And so am I. So should you.

FullSizeRender (3)

Real World Ramblings

 

So potential Olympic golf participants are dropping like flies – ok, maybe that’s an unfortunate simile given the Zika virus threat in Rio de Janeiro. But so far, 11 top ranked players have pulled out, many of whom have cited Zika as a compelling factor (Jason Day is the latest to announce).  To be fair, athletes in other sports have similar qualms, but in the case of golf, I think Adam Scott was maybe a bit more forthright in his reasoning; that being that it doesn’t fit his schedule. Scott took a beating from former Olympian Dawn Fraser and Jack Nicklaus (“a sad, sad day for golf”) for bypassing the Olympics, but truthfully, professional golf has no place there. The game has its own major championships and international competitions. In order to accommodate the Olympics, the golf tours had to compress their schedules so that there is now a two week gap between the Open Championship and the PGA Championship, with the Olympics following two weeks later. It’s a lot of travel with no tangible return for the golfer, other than a piece of gold, silver, or bronze.

The Olympics are a showcase for folks like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and the like – names to which the greater population pay attention every four years and then recede in the collective unconsciousness. While professional basketball and ice hockey have somewhat embraced the Olympics, they are team sports with recognizable names that glitz up the competition. The qualifying rules for Olympic golf pretty much guarantee a weak field, and the format (72 hole individual medal play) is not particularly compelling.

If golf is to remain in the Olympics, make it strictly for amateur players and design the competition to include some team aspect.

Although the thought of Miguel Angel Jimenez strolling through the Olympic Village with a cigar in one hand and a fine port in the other is intriguing.


The recent “Brexit” vote (and is it just me, or are these compacted references – “Bradjolina”! – just a bit too precious?) had USA golf fans wondering (or perhaps it was wishful thinking?) about UK golfers’ continued participation in the Ryder Cup on the European side. European Tour officials were very quick to respond that Justin Rose, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy et al  are still in the mix. Davis Love III and the US team will still have their work cut out for them at Hazeltine this September.


Given the horrendous devastation and human cost from the flooding in West Virginia, the PGA’s decision to cancel the Greenbrier Classic was essentially a no-brainer. The event will certainly be missed, as it’s become a Tour favorite ever since Jim Justice took over the historic resort in 2009. The Greenbrier has hosted over 20 Presidents, and its Old White course, a C.B. MacDonald/Seth Raynor favorite, is as fine an example of classic architecture that can be found in the United States.

Many years ago, four of piled into a rented Ford Pinto (complete with automatic transmission) and made a mid-semester break trip from Milwaukee to Charlottesville, VA. At that time, Interstate 64 ended in Charleston, WV, which meant that we had to take US 60, a meandering route cut through the Allegheny Mountains where we alternatively encountered breathtaking views, strip mines, and small towns that looked to have been abandoned.  We would get stuck behind 18-wheelers climbing mountains. The driver would stick out his arm to wave us past him; I’d pull into the left lane, floor the accelerator, and nothing would happen for what seemed to be an eternity until the transmission kicked in.

This all went on for almost three nerve-wracking hours when from out of nowhere, a verdant green valley appeared and a sign read, “Welcome to Greenbrier County.” We all collectively exhaled as we drove past the majestic resort. I had never seen such beautiful country – nor seen so many businesses that posted photos of Sam Snead, who was the resident pro at the Greenbrier for years. Restaurants, car dealerships, real estate offices – the Slammer was ever-present, including the place where we stopped to eat. A kindly older waitress took a look at us as we walked in– we all sported a ‘70’s post-hippie look – and sweetly noted, “Y’all aren’t from here, are you?”

I ache for the folks of West Virginia, and hope there is a road to recovery for those most impacted. And that folks can tee it up at Old White again in the not-too-distant future.