Tag Archives: golf

Change of Scene

After living through the pressure cooker that is the Masters, many PGA tour players welcome the respite that comes after the three hour drive to Hilton Head SC and the Harbor Town Golf Links, home of the RBC Heritage (starts today 4/18 and runs through the weekend). The setting and vibe could not be more contrasting.

Augusta National is set deep in a hilly forest of Georgia pines.

Harbor Town is laid out on flat land, surrounded by Spanish moss-laden live oaks, condos, and Calibogue Sound.

Augusta National features wide fairways and greens large enough to land small aircraft if they weren’t so damned undulating.

Harbor Town’s fairways are so tight that, as the late Ken Venturi noted, golfers need to march single file down them, and greens that are mostly flat and thimble-sized.

Augusta National’s main landmarks are Magnolia Lane and its classic clubhouse.

Harbor Town’s main landmark is a candy-striped lighthouse overlooking its 18th hole.

The opening ceremony of the Masters features legends of the game teeing off.

The opening ceremony of the Heritage features the previous year’s champion teeing off with a hickory shafted club while a canon booms.

The winner of the Masters is awarded The Green Jacket, an honor so coveted that many winners wear it virtually everywhere they go.

The winner of the Heritage receives The Red Plaid Jacket. Despite claims to the contrary, I don’t see them getting a lot of wear in public.

The (Mostly) Great White Fathers of Augusta leave their fingerprints on every aspect of The Masters, including TV coverage, media access, on-course rulings, and crowd control (love those black-suited Pinkertons!).

The sponsors of The Heritage just want to be sure that their logos are prominently displayed and their commercials get aired.

Tiger Woods has won The Masters five times.

Tiger Woods played The Heritage once and finished tied for 18th.


When Pete Dye designed Harbor Town in the late sixties, it was not so much a response to Augusta National as it was a rejoinder to trends in golf course architecture in general at the time, particularly to the reliance of generic runway tees and tepid shot values that were the hallmarks of Robert Trent Jones, the most prolific course builder of that time.

Harbor Town introduced to the golfing world many of Dye’s trademarks – angled tee pads, pot bunkers, visual trickery, and, of course, those railroad ties that serve as bunker facings on many holes. Dye borrowed this idea from Prestwick, the original site of the Open Championship. Its 3rd hole is named Cardinal in reference to the giant fairway bunker that intersects its fairway; it resembles a cardinal’s hat and features the aforementioned ties.

I played Harbor Town twice back in the late 80’s at a time when I was still pretty much a novice, and while Ken Venturi’s assessment of its fairways may be a slight exaggeration, he wasn’t far off the mark. Even when my drives found the fairway, there were times when I found myself aerially stymied by large, overhanging live oak branches (it was at Harbor Town where I stopped appreciating the aesthetics of Spanish moss).

I had my best luck on the par-3 holes (a very strong set of one shotters) – no trees to negotiate from the tee box – but for the most part, it’s easier wading through a bunch of Walmart shoppers than keeping a ball in the fairway at Harbor Town.

But Hilton Head in general is a fine destination indeed, with plenty of other, more user-friendly courses to play (as well as a number of exclusive gems such as Long Cove, Wexford Plantation, and Colleton River). There are miles of beaches, many dining options, and, despite the seeming never ending traffic on US 278, the atmosphere is surprisingly laid back.

And even though Harbor Town can seem claustrophobic, the rush that one feels when he/she hits the 17th tee and tries to gauge the wind off the sound is palpable.

And on 18, the fairway opens up to be about 60 yards wide, but the sound that borders the left side of the fairway and the lighthouse in back of the 18th green make a vivid final impression of a unique golf experience.

Just don’t nail the condo out of bounds on the right, like I did.


Sage Advice, or Self Indulgence? You Decide.

One of reasons that I feel uniquely qualified to write about golf is that I’ve played the game at most every level that the somewhat serious golfer can imagine (my handicap index has ranged from 24 to 5 and now currently sits at around 10) and the peaks and valleys that accompany that experience.

I’ve won a couple of club tournaments and absolute tanked more than my share.

I’ve had stretches of play that have given me pause about taking my game to the next level, and others that would literally depress me for days.

In 1992, I had a case of the shanks that lasted almost an entire season and nearly drove me from the game.

I’ve played on cow-pasture courses in New Hampshire and the Open Championship sites of Scotland – and enjoyed both experiences.

I’ve waited overnight in my car to line up for a starting time at Bethpage Black (next month’s PGA site) and queued up at 4:00 AM to get on The Old Course of St Andrews.

I’ve witnessed at least 15 hole-in-ones and have never personally made one (not that I’m bitter).

At the same time, I’ve holed out from the fairway at least a half-dozen times, ranging in distances from 100 to 175 yards.

And I’ve broken a window of a house bordering a fairway.

These days, my game is best described as “perplexing.” No matter how much I stretch prior to a round, my back usually is balky to the point where either Advil or a Tramadol and a couple of beers are required to loosen it. On most days, this results in a round that will start shakily, but once everything kicks in, I’ll go for anywhere from 7 to 10 holes where I will rarely miss a shot. At some point along the way after that, I’ll completely mess up a hole and then, depending on my mood, recommit to the final few holes (to varying degrees of success) or laugh the whole thing off.

It’s a strange way to go about playing, and at times confounds the hell out of my playing partners, particularly when there’s a bet or a tournament involved. And trust me, if there’s something on the line, whether it’s a beer or $20 (I’m not a high-stakes player), I’m definitely grinding, particularly if there’s a partner or team counting on me.

But it’s my reaction over a bad shot that confuses people. Once in a great while, the occasional “goddam” or worse will be uttered, but most of the time, I find myself either shaking my head or, in a lot of cases, outright laughing.

It hasn’t always been that way. When I first started, clubs would fly, curses would fly, and tantrums would run rampant. I soon learned that club throwing was pretty much verboten, but the curses would continue, and the tantrums were replaced by silent, self-directed tongue-lashings filled with self-loathing (one of the overlooked but nonetheless verifiable truths of the game is that if we spoke to others the way that we do to ourselves on a golf course, we’d not only not have any friends, we would likely be locked up).

Along the way, I read some of the work of sports psychologist Bob Rotella and the straight-forward teaching of the late Harvey Penick, both of which helped guide me toward playing some of the best golf of my life.

But one of the other overlooked but nonetheless verifiable truths of the game (there are many of these) is that no matter how well one plays, or how one tries to manage his/her expectations, he/she will always feel like that should have played better. It’s like clockwork – shoot a good score, and my mind will immediately spit out, “Man, if you hadn’t missed that short putt on #12, you would have REALLY had some round!”

I’m turning 66 this year, which, despite what Gary Player might say, puts me well into the back nine of life. And there have been plenty of personal embarrassments that the game has bestowed upon me, which are lovingly recorded in other entries of this blog that will entertain and astonish you.

So these days, I laugh. Or try to, anyway.

Augusta Tries to Grow the Game

One day was celebration of a return to glory.

The other was recognition of the remarkable ability of a gender.

One can argue which of these was more significant. All I know is that Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley has to be wearing a broad smile after what transpired at his club the past eight days.


The climax of the Tiger Woods Redemption Story is what’s dominating news cycles, social media, and sports talk radio this morning, and frankly, it should be. His victory, highlighted by a vintage Tiger dagger on 16 (he nearly recorded the third ace of the day on that hole), also provided a certain measure of revenge against his previous two major championship vanquishers – Open Champion Francesco Molinari (who looked rock solid for three and a half rounds until he joined the Death By Rae’s Creek Fraternity at the 12th hole) and PGA Champion Brooks Koepka (who had chances late in the round but couldn’t convert some makeable putts).

From a pure golf standpoint, how Woods ultimately won was something of a departure from his usual M-O. Must of us are accustomed to Tiger recovering from errant tee shots and holing every putt in sight, and while there were a few Big Cat sightings in Augusta’s pines and a couple of bombs holed out, what sealed the tournament for him was the way he managed the course.

They say that experience counts at Augusta, and Woods’s play throughout the competition was, pardon the pun, masterful. He understood when to attack, and, more importantly, when to back off. Nowhere was this more evident than on Augusta’s 12th hole, perhaps the most perplexing par 3 hole in the world. Many have postulated on how best to judge the wind; apparently the theories of Molinari, Koepka, and Tony Finau were faulty, as all three of them dumped their tee shots into Rae’s Creek.

Tiger was having none of that. Having played there enough to understand that firing at the Sunday flag on 12 is a fool’s game, he rifled a 9-iron over the front bunker, leaving a lengthy but dry putt. That unspectacular shot essentially won the tournament for him.

The reaction to his victory has been . . . well, interesting. Sports media, of course, loves a good story, and the story of Tiger Woods has been as wild as that of any major celebrity. It’s also leading the speculation of him reaching Jack Nicklaus’s major victory mark of 18 and a possible Grand Slam (“He’s won at Bethpage! He’s won at Pebble Beach! He’s won at – oh wait, they haven’t played the Open Championship at Royal Portrush since 1952 . . . No matter, he’s going to do it!”).

Social media reaction has been mixed, as many have chosen to judge Woods on his (and his handlers) past moments of arrogance and sins of the flesh (I wonder how many of the latter voted for Donald Trump?).

For me, the real story was Tiger’s post-victory celebration with his family, the reception he received from his fellow competitors as he marched to the scorer’s area, and, most of all, the manner in which he fielded questions from the assembled golf media. While he will always keep some distance between himself and the press, his joy and humility were palpable. And his final statement to them was downright funny – “Now I have something for show and tell on Monday!”

While Tiger’s win can be considered another one for the ages, what transpired at Augusta on the Saturday prior to the Masters may have broader long term implications for the future of golf.

The Augusta National Women’s Amateur, first announced last year by Chairman Ridley, was an unqualified success; the perfect confluence of setting and personality. Seventy-two of the world’s best female amateurs were invited to the event, one which featured a rather unusual format – the first two rounds were played at Champions Retreat in nearby Evans, Georgia on Wednesday and Thursday, which reduced the field to 30. But all participants were afforded the opportunity to play a practice round at Augusta National on Friday, with the 30 finalists teeing off on Saturday.

So while the course provided the setting – particularly the second nine (along with all the other jargon that The Great (mostly) White Fathers of Augusta impose of the golf community, I learned this year that there is not a front nine and back nine there; instead, it’s “the first nine” and “second nine”) – the personality was spread among the participants, almost all of whom were beaming as they finished their rounds.

The main fireworks came from the final pairing of Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi, who pulled away from the rest of the field and put on a display of shot-making that left even the most hardened golfing chauvinist awestruck. Ms Fassi is a next-level star-in-waiting – a native of Mexico and a star at the University of Arkansas, she possesses a powerful swing and a thousand megawatt smile. Her interaction with the “patrons” (translation from Augusta lingo – “spectators”) was on a level with that of Lee Trevino, and should bring a breath of fresh air to the LPGA.

Jennifer Kupcho, on the other hand, was a bit more reserved – although she, too, could not hide her delight at playing at Augusta. And she pulled off two of the gutsiest shots I’ve seen on the 13th and 15th holes that for all intents won the tournament for her. The Wake Forest senior should also make some noise in the future, as well.

More than the quality of play exhibited by these two young women was their obvious mutual respect and sportsmanship. They conversed throughout the round, applauded each other’s shots, and, at the risk of gushing, did the game of golf proud.


Which leads me to the fulcrum of my gist.

Much has been said about the impact of Tiger Woods on golf. The argument goes that he would bring more people – particularly young people of various ethnic backgrounds – into the game. One look at the Augusta National sponsored Drive, Chip, and Putt competition (held for ages 7 through 13 the day after the Women’s Amateur) would certainly support that point. And the obvious spike in television ratings when Tiger is in the field cannot be denied.

At the same time, some have tried to make the point that Tiger’s absence from the game has resulted in a downturn in participation and the closing of golf courses. That’s giving The Cat a bit too much credit. Course closings are more of a result of a projection made back in the 80’s and 90’s that retiring baby boomers would take up the game in droves. That has simply not turned out to be the case.

Where the game’s best opportunity for growth has been – and will continue to be – is participation by women. Many savvy parents have recognized the opportunities presented by Title IX and steered their daughters toward the game. And as more women have climbed the corporate ladder, familiarity with the game affords exposure to more clients.

My friend Sharon, a retired insurance executive and avid golfer, will watch her local high school girl’s golf team practice from her back patio. I once asked her what appealed to her about watching them.

“How intense they are,” she replied. “The control and command of the game at such a young age.”

“That’s good insight,” I replied.

She continued.

“The way they cheer for each other and walk down the course together. They realize the competition is within yourself and not who you are playing with.”

I think she has something there.














Carnoustie Follies

As I’ve grown older, the Open Championship has become my favorite tournament of the professional golf season, in part because of my familiarity with the Scottish venues (I’ve managed to play all of them) but also for the unpredictability of the outcome. I think no course better exemplifies that latter than Carnoustie. Tom Doak, the noted course designer and architectural critic, says, “It’s not that Carnoustie is unfair; it’s just that it’s depressingly efficient at pointing out the flaws in one’s game.”


There’s little charm to the town itself (which is not the easiest to access), and the course lacks the scenic beauty of Turnberry or the anticipation of the return back to town that St Andrews features. On the other hand, there’s enough variation to the routing to present the golfer with different challenges in dealing with the wind, and the finishing holes are without question the hardest of any major championship track.


My experience and thoughts about Carnoustie are decidedly mixed. The round I played there was a combination of heroic shots and slapstick error – I shot 94 while making 11 on the famed par 5 6th (known as “Hogan’s Alley”), a 9 on the 10th hole, and split a freshly-bought pair of Scottish pants up the seam of my thigh, inspiring one of my playing partners to call me “Breezy.”


On the other hand, thanks to the hard surface and a stiff helping wind, I managed a 300 yard drive on 7 and made par on all of the three shot holes, including a near miss for birdie on the brutish 16th, a hole that played that day at 225 yards into the same wind that produced my prodigious drive on 7. I said to my caddie, “This is driver, right?” He responded, “Hopefully.” As it turned out, I made such solid contact that I thought the ball might fly over the green. The wind knocked it down, and the shot landed as softly as a well-struck pitching wedge might have about 15 feet away from the hole.


I should also add that I did manage to avoid Jean Van de Velde’s disaster of 1999 by heeding my caddie’s advice and carding a safe bogey 5.


And the course staff was genuinely welcoming and accommodating.


I left Carnoustie grateful both of having had the fortune to play it and for not having to tee it up there again. On further reflection, I think the latter thought was a bit harsh. I’ve spoken with several friends of varying degrees of skill who absolutely loved playing there. Maybe a warmer day and an intact pair of trousers would influence my own thoughts about the place.


All that not withstanding . . . I rank Carnoustie as my second favorite Open venue, behind St Andrews and just a smidge ahead of Muirfield. Aside from the 1999 setup, (in which the then-greenskeeper ran amok, allowing the heather to grow almost waist high and narrowing some fairways to a ludicrous width of 15 yards), it doesn’t require any tricking up to present a tough, fair challenge to the world’s best golfers.

Winning scores there have ranged from +8 to -7.


Unlike the USGA, the R&A doesn’t insist on certain course conditions to conduct its championship (a quick aside – what the USGA has done to Shinnecock Hills the last two time the US Open was conducted there should be grounds for criminal charges). Most of the courses in in the rota will only irrigate tee boxes and greens, giving the rest of the land a baked brown look that doesn’t come across particularly well on television and leaves many US viewers who are used to green, tree-lined courses with pristine conditions shaking their heads.


Links golf is a different game. One must contend with gusty winds and penal bunkers (not to mention the occasional monsoon-like shower), and be willing to use the ground to bounce shots on to the green instead of flying the ball to the hole. Some golfers simply can’t adjust their games to this kind of environment. Those who are will to do so wind up embracing it – the most famous example being Tom Watson, who arrived at Carnoustie in 1975 not knowing what to expect and would wind up winning the Open that year and four more times afterwards. He damned near won it at the age of 59 in 2009.


I’ve made the trip to Scotland four times and, who knows, there could be a fifth visit in the future. And if there is, I think I’ll give Carnoustie another go. Hogan’s Alley owes me one.

No Complaints This Year – The Golf Nerd’s US Open Preview

Last year’s US Open brought howls of indignation from most of the golfing world, citing everything from Fox’s spectacularly awful initial attempt at golf coverage to the site of tournament (apparently my opinion of Chambers Bay was outside of the mainstream).

Fox has addressed at least part of its issues, removing a surprisingly bland Greg Norman from its broadcasting team and replacing him with straight-shooting Paul Azinger, whose presence on TV has been limited to the Open Championship over the past few years. Azinger is honest, funny, and fearless in his commentary, and should make Joe Buck much more comfortable as a lead commentator. On the other hand, we’ll still have to suffer with the inane on-course comments of Natalie Gulbis, whose best assets won’t be seen on camera very often, much to the chagrin of the male population  viewing at home.

As for this year’s site – it’s hard to argue with Oakmont, a course which most folks would acknowledge to be the gold standard for US Open tracks; a tough, penal layout, with greens so slick that Sam Snead once remarked that he couldn’t mark his ball because the coin that he used to do so kept sliding off of the putting surface.
Yes, Oakmont’s greens are legendary for their speed; so slick are their surfaces that the USGA asks the club’s superintendent to slow them down to run at 13 on the Stimpmeter (the greens at most tour events run between 10.5 and 11.5; a member at Oakmont can typically expect to experience a speed of 15 for daily play). To achieve such green speeds at most any other club would amount to committing agronomical suicide, but the makeup of Oakmont’s putting surfaces is unique, consisting of a rare strain of heat tolerant poa annua (most of us know poa annua as a cool weather grass that can be either a blessing in areas like the Pacific Northwest or a blight on bent grass or Bermuda greens in other parts of the country) that can be rolled as often as one likes.

If that’s not enough to give one pause, Oakmont offers up over 200 bunkers, including the notorious “Church Pews,” which stretch over 100 yards and invokes language that would most assuredly would not be welcomed in any self-respecting parish, as well as the requisite US Open wrist-shattering rough. And you will not see any short par-5’s being turned into brutish par-4’s in order to conform to the USGA’s maddening efforts to “protect par” at Oakmont, a course which could readily host a major championship at a moment’s notice.

Oakmont has hosted the US Open eight times, the most famous of which was in 1962 when a young Jack Nicklaus bested a heavily favored Arnold Palmer in The King’s own backyard. Arnie’s Army was extremely inhospitable to the Golden Bear (which Palmer hated to see) but that did not seem to bother Jack very much. It was his first professional victory, and far from his last.

In 1973, Johnny Miller carded what was to become one of the most spectacular final rounds in major championship history that hardly anyone saw, torching Oakmont with a 63 that several possibly bitter Oakmont members attributed to a rainstorm that blew through the night before to “soften” conditions. Miller was so far back going into the finale that he was only televised for a few holes. He then had to wait another hour before the final groups made it in, none of whom were able to catch him.

The last time that Oakmont hosted the US Open was in 2007. Like Johnny Miller, Angel Cabrera, the eventual winner, finished well ahead of his two closest pursuers, Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods, both of whom missed birdie putts on the final hole that would have forced a next day playoff. Cabrera seemingly went through a pack of cigarettes on each nine he played during the Open; when asked about this, he replied, “Some guys consult with psychologists. I smoke.”

Other Oakmont winners include Tommy Armour, Ben Hogan, Ernie Els, and Larry Nelson, who along with the aforementioned, are all multiple major championship winners [NOTE: One could win a lot of bar bets by posing the question, “Who has won more majors, Larry Nelson or Greg Norman?”]. It’s not a course for the faint of heart, and whoever survives this weekend will most certainly be worthy. I look for a big hitter who can muscle the ball from the rough and negotiate those slick greens.

It says here that Jason Day will tack on another major this weekend. And the winning score will be even par.

But the star of the Open will be Oakmont.

The Road to Pebble Beach

It was a beautiful weekend here in the Metroplex (sorry, friends up North), so the Golf Nerd Goddess and I hooked up with our respective gender golf groups on Saturday, and then played together with our friends Dianne and Susan on Sunday (we’re talking about golf here, you perverts). Yes, yes, I know that it was Valentines Day. Rest assured that we enjoyed a very romantic Saturday evening without having to resort to watching “50 Shades of Grey” (a title that could also describe Ben Hogan’s golf wardrobe).

In between our rounds, we checked in on the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am (or as us curmudgeons will forever call it, The Crosby Clambake, in honor of its founder). The Crosby has always signaled the unofficial start of the professional golf season for me; partially for the field (generally strong), some for watching various celebrities and other members of the moneyed gentry embarrass themselves (or, in some rare instances, demonstrate surprisingly strong game), but almost always for the course. And at this year’s event, the weather was spectacular to the point of surreal – impossibly blue waters of various shades set against the native grasses that comprise Pebble Beach, all bathed by abundant sunshine and a sky that would put Carolina Blue to shame.

I have never played Pebble Beach. I did make it out to the Monterrey Peninsula once, having some spare time from a business trip and almost regret having done so, as the day I traveled there was much as I described above. I parked near the Lodge, made my way out towards the 18th green, gazed back along the Pacific shoreline that borders that iconic finishing hole, and felt tears welling – partially from the sensory overload, and maybe even more so from the fact that I didn’t have my clubs with me.

I emphasize the weather because it’s more unpredictable than John Daly’s love life (speaking of Mr. Daly, he managed to shoot an opening round 65 and still miss the cut). Over the years, the tournament has seen hail, severe thunderstorms and fog that would make Carl Sandburg swoon. The time of year does not seem to matter; when Tom Kite won the US Open there in June of 1992, the wind blew so hard that many players were hitting 5 or 6 iron into the 103 yard 7th hole,

All that aside, Pebble Beach is definitely on every golfer’s bucket list, although at $500 a round, the operators of the course and resort are doing their level best to keep out the riff-raff. Add in rounds at Spyglass Hill and Spanish Bay plus accommodations, and you are not far from buying a decent late-model compact car.

So the GNG and I have an agreement by which the next time she shoots a personal best score, we’re going to Pebble. Both of our games have been suffering a bit lately, so it might be awhile before we get there – although she may have found a key to get us there this past weekend.

On Sunday, Sharon tried out a new driver, the Dunlap XXIO. It’s actually manufactured for senior men who have slower swing speeds (without getting into golf techie-talk, the weight difference between this driver and a “normal” driver is far more noticeable than, oh say, the PSI between a “properly” weighted football and what the Patriots are alleged to have done against the Colts), but it seemed to suit her quite nicely, and she smacked some really strong and straight drives. [NOTE: for the uninitiated, there are two clubs in a golfer’s bag with which he or she form symbiotic relationships; those being the driver and the putter. Well, in some cases it can be somewhat passionate – Ky Laffoon , a pro who played during the 1930’s and 1940’s, once was so disenchanted with his putter that he tied it to the back of his car and dragged it along the road for about 10 miles . . . and then shot it.]

Anyway, Diane, Susan, and I were all excited over the results that Sharon was achieving from the XXIO to the point that she should really consider buying it. We finished our round, and Sharon approached Kevin, the head professional at our club. Watching from a distance, her expression changed from one of hopeful promise to that of one having just learned that the new car she had just bought needed a complete transmission overhaul.

I walked over to see what the problem was. Sharon turned to me and said, “Kevin says this club costs $800.”

I looked at Kevin, a very amiable sort from England, and asked, “Are you serious?”

Afraid so, mate. That’s a Asian manufacturer, very expensive.”

So . . . we may have taken a slight detour on the road to Pebble Beach. Anyone know where we can find a used Dunlap XXIO?

You Always Hurt the One You Love

I recently had a chat with an old golfing buddy of mine, a retired three-star general who has seen service in Vietnam and later was on NATO’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (his nickname, not surprisingly, is “The General” – sometimes it’s just best to go with the obvious). The General is a very good golfer; his handicap is typically in the single digits and though well into his 60’s, still has plenty of length off the tee. We were commiserating over my recent putting escapade; he commented, “Some game we love, isn’t it? Glad I made a living doing something else.”

I made a joking response – “Yeah – combat had to be easier.”

He responded, “More predictable.”

While to the undying gratitude of a nation, I’ve never seen combat duty (or wore a military uniform), but I have to think he’s right. How else can one explain the great drive that precedes the chunked approach shot; the nifty birdie followed by a double bogey (fondly referred to by golfers as PBFU – “Post Birdie F*ck Up”); the solid front 9 backed up by a horrendous backside; the 75 on Saturday that becomes a 90 on Sunday? Hell, even at his most dominant, Tiger Woods won slightly more than 20% of the tournaments he entered, which in any other sporting endeavor would have him seeking other employment.

Yes, General, this is indeed some game we love. I think about the 1999 Open Championship, when after playing 71 holes in brilliant fashion at Carnoustie (an already difficult track rendered nearly unplayable thanks to a sadistic course superintendent who had narrowed some fairways to a ridiculous 12 yards in width), Jean Van de Velde came to the final hole needing only a double bogey 6 to capture the Claret Jug. Instead, he butchered the hole so badly that he actually waded into the Barry Burn (a narrow creek that is brilliantly leveraged throughout the course to wreak havoc) to contemplate hitting a shot, at which point Curtis Strange, commentating for ABC, proclaimed, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen on a golf course.” Ultimately, Van de Velde took his drop from the creek, pitched on, and made an 8 foot putt for a triple bogey 7 to put him in a three-way playoff, ultimately losing to Paul Lawrie. If I were Van de Velde, I certainly would have been considering a change of occupation at that point.

I had my own adventure at Carnoustie a few years back. It’s certainly not my favorite place in Scotland. The town, which is not particularly charming, is hard to reach, and the course itself is  perhaps the least scenic of all of the noteworthy Scottish links. Noted course designer Tom Doak describes it thusly: “It’s not that Carnoustie is unfair; it is just depressingly efficient at exposing the flaws in one’s game.”

To be fair, several of my golf acquaintances have told me they love the course, usually because either they shot an exceptional score when they played it, or because they bested Van de Velde’s final hole 7 on the 18th. I can proudly raise my hand to the latter, having lipped out a 6-footer for par to cap off an infuriating round of golf.

I made 8 pars during my round at Carnoustie, which under normal circumstances would have had me tracking towards a score in the mid-80’s, which on a course of that caliber would have been a quite satisfying score. That was not to be the case for yours truly.

After a start of three bogeys and two pars, our group came to the par 5 6th hole. There are three fairway pot bunkers strategically placed in the fairway. The golfer can either play to the right of the bunkers, which lengthens the hole considerably, or shoot through a narrow gap between the bunkers and the out of bounds markers that constitute the left boundary of the fairway. In 1953, Ben Hogan took the latter path successfully in all four rounds en route to his only Open Championship win; this hole was henceforth referred to as “Hogan’s Alley.”

Naturally, we all wanted to take the aggressive route through Hogan’s Alley. It was my misfortune to find one of the fairway bunkers, and was forced to play out sideways. I extricated myself successfully – but to my horror, the ball rolled merrily through the “alley” and out of bounds – which meant replaying the shot, with penalty, from the same bunker. I again got the ball out; this time keeping it in play – but now lying 4 with a good 250 yards remaining to the green. Three shots later, I arrived there, but I somehow managed to putt off the green and into a bunker.  Another three shots later, I was in the hole, carding a rather impressive 11 shots for the hole.

Amazingly, this was not the most embarrassing moment of the round for me.

Earlier in the day, a few of us were walking through St Andrews. I spotted a really cool pair of plaid pants in a shop there (my friend Ben had previously bought a pair during the trip, and I felt the need to do some styling of my own) and decided they would be the perfect sartorial statement for Carnoustie.

So . . . returning now to our hero’s travails . . . after the disaster at Hogan’s Alley, I recovered nicely with a par on the 7th (a combination of a helping wind, a sweeping right to left hook, and a severe case of red-ass produced my longest drive of the day, and indeed the entire trip) and a respectable bogey on the difficult 8th hole.

Unfortunately, the 9th was not so kind to me, and I wound up making double-bogey. While reaching into the hole to retrieve my ball after holing out, I heard a tearing sound. My new pants neatly split along the inseam of my right leg, encompassing the entire length of my thigh. This, of course, was the source of much merriment among my friends, although I was not particularly amused.

Fuming, I hacked my way to make a 9 on the next hole, and declared my disgust for Carnoustie, the game of golf, and mankind in general.

And then proceeded to par 4 of the next 6 holes. Yes, General, this is some game we love.

What Makes You So Special?

A few posts ago, I recalled some words of wisdom from Chris Goff, a golfing friend in Connecticut, who, upon witnessing me three putt from about 8 feet, said to me, “Don’t worry, man, you ain’t the first and you won’t be the last” – his point, of course, being that not only is perfection on a golf course unobtainable, but it’s foolish to even contemplate it. In other words, shit happens.

I try to keep those words in mind when things go south for me in the course of a round, but every now and then I do wonder if the gods of golf are testing me. Take my round yesterday . . . please (sorry, Henny). The less said about it the better, although the entertainment value provided to my playing companions earned me a drink after the round, so there was that.   I did manage to play a greenside bunker shot from my knees on the 12th hole that somehow wound up on the 8th green (about 100 yards away, which is actually pretty impressive when you think about it). But the coup de grace occurred earlier in the round.

The second hole at Cottonwood Valley (one of the two courses at our club) is a par-3 three over a pond (a canal, really) that typically plays about 130 yards. It’s not a particularly scary shot; usually the biggest challenge comes from the wind, which typically quarters from right to left and slightly toward the tee box. The flag yesterday was located in the front right portion of the green, which is something of a “sucker pin” – if a player’s shot is even a little short, it will roll back down a small hill, sometime all the way to the water. The safe play is to the middle of the green.

Which is what I tried to do, except that the wind took the ball further left, leaving me on the green but with a 40 foot putt with about 10 feet of left-to-right break. I put a pretty good stroke on it; the ball took the break, hit the back of the cup, and popped out.

“Damn,” I grimaced.

Only it didn’t stop. It continued rolling toward the edge of the green, almost coming to a halt . . . but gravity kicked in, and the ball sauntered down the aforementioned hill, and gently plopped into the water.

Naturally, this was a great source of merriment to all concerned; even I had to laugh. There ensued some discussion of how I was to proceed, and without boring you with a lengthy discussion of hazard drop options, the rules allowed me to putt from the previous spot. I managed to keep the ball on the green this time; another two putts and I wound up with a six on a par-3 that I had hit in regulation, which is probably not a record but pretty damned close.

When I recounted this story in the Grill Room, it was greeted with the appropriate amount of amusement and sympathy. Someone reminded me that Tiger Woods once did the same thing at The Masters, which I’m sure will be the only time that he and I are mentioned in the same breath.

I can divulge this and other horrors that occur out on the links because – well, something like it happens to everyone who plays the game. An old friend of mine in Virginia, Martin, struck a drive off the toe of his club; the ball flew dead straight at what could best be described a 90 degree angle to where it should have, striking a condo whose owner probably bought with the thought that no one could ever possibly hit it. Then again, he never met Martin, whose swing at impact featured him actually falling away from the ball  – think of a Michael Jordan jump shot, sans elevation.

But there’s one incident I can describe that I like to think did not have precedent. This happened in a club tournament where the other competitors in my group consisted of Spice Daddy, Fat Boy #1, and Holmes, three of the more colorful members of ours (or any other) club. We had all hit decent drives on the par-5 3rd hole, but Fat Boy pulled his second shot into some thick rough. As we looked for his ball, Holmes (who was riding in my cart) found a baby blue robin’s egg that evidently fallen from its nest. Holmes picked it up, looked at me devilishly, and said, “Poppy, watch this – I’m going to slip this in Spice Daddy’s pocket.”

We finished out the third hole and went on to #4, a vexing par 4 that featured an approach to an elevated green having more turns than the track at Watkins Glen. We all reached the green (Holmes somehow keeping the egg intact, which I thought was remarkable), and putted out. Spice Daddy had made a big-breaking 8-footer to save his par, and an apparently sincere, appreciative Holmes put his arm around Spice, complimenting him on his putt.

We then proceeded to the 5th hole, and Spice reached into his pocket to get a tee – and pulled his hand out; egg yolk dripping off his hand. “What the –“, he exclaimed . . . and saw Holmes and me giggling over in our cart. Spice let out a series of expletives, but he was laughing, as well.

I’d like to think that Spice was the first – but after this story, he won’t be the last.

Late Season

When you are a golfer in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, or virtually anywhere that’s north of the Carolinas, the shorter days, cooling temperatures, and falling leaves (the latter of which makes finding a ball – even one that is in the middle of the fairway – an excruciating task) signal the effective end of the season. Sure, there’s gorgeous Indian Summer weather in October, and November may bring the rare “bonus” day, but playing the final rounds of the year is generally grim business. No one wants to finish on a sour note that will hang over his head along with the gray, cloudy skies of winter.

I moved to Virginia in 1998, and while foul winter weather is not an impossibility there (there was the Ice Storm of 2000, for example, which shut down all of metro Richmond and caused me to miss the [at the time] most exciting Super Bowl in history), it was rare not to be able to play year round there, particularly for Yankees like myself.

Prior to that move, I had spent my entire life well north of the Mason-Dixon line. I grew up in a small town in western Massachusetts, passed my college years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and actually returned to Massachusetts after graduation because the winters there were less severe than those in Wisconsin. I lived in the Hartford, CT area for about 15 years before heading to the Dominion State. While Connecticut is considered “Southern New England,” there was certainly nothing “southern” about the weather. While sometimes we’d catch a break and be able to start play in late March, we’d more likely be put off until April, particularly during years like 1994 and 1995, both of which brought winter snowfall accumulations of over 100 inches.

Once in awhile, we’d catch a break whereby there had been little or no snowfall, and we’d find a course – typically near the coast, like Shennecossett in Groton or Winnepaug in Westerly, RI – that didn’t mind grabbing a few bucks from fanatics like us. We’d bundle up to the point where we could barely walk (much less swing a golf club), load up a few flasks-full of “swing-lube” (of varying proof), and whacked balls across frozen fairways and greens. This, of course, was not without its challenges – for one thing, trying to get a tee in the ground was next to impossible. One of our guys eventually solved this problem by sticking a Coleman blow-torch in the bag, which not only sufficiently melted the teeing area but also served as a full-proof method for lighting a cigar.

Getting the ball to stop on an iced up green was another matter – we learned how to land the ball short of the green and let up run on up (a shot that, unbeknownst to me at the time, came in quite handy once I started traveling to Scotland to play golf).

On the positive side, a well-struck tee shot would roll forever, and most ponds serving as water hazards would be frozen over as well, which actually provided some creative shot making opportunities. One thing we never did, however, was to walk out on the ice to retrieve balls (there would be a surprising number of spheroids sitting tantalizingly on the frozen surface, but while we may have been crazy, we weren’t stupid).

So – upon moving to Richmond, I set a temperature threshold of 40 degrees for play. I met my friend Andy, another Yankee transplant from Berwick, PA who was equally enchanted by the “warm” Virginia weather, and we would head out pretty much any time there was no snow on the ground. I do recall the first time we played together; it was at The Dominion Club in the Far West End. It was a perfect late October day; we had skipped out a few hours early from work. While the weather was fine, daylight hours were becoming more scarce, and as we played the 18th, we could see a gorgeous harvest moon appear just over the horizon as we approached the green. Looking back towards the tee box, a gorgeous sunset was in progress. I’m not sure I’d ever seen anything like that before; I know I haven’t since.

For the first seven or eight years of my time there, a combination of enthusiasm for the game and mild winter seasons kept me going through the winter, and the 40 Degree Rule seldom came into play. But one’s blood thins a bit over time, and while I would continue to go out and play on colder days, it was probably more out of a sense of obligation and curing some cabin fever than anything else. And the 40 Degree Rule gradually crept upward.

I now live in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, and the issues here are different, with 100-plus degree days being pretty much the norm during the summer months. But everything is relative, I suppose. A series of thunderstorms blew in on Friday night, dropping the temperature into the 50’s. My buddy Pat (who grew up near me in Dalton, MA) and I kept our Saturday 9 AM tee time. I had on wool pants and sweater; Pat donned the latest high-tech warm weather gear. We look at each other and laughed. “You know,” I said, “if we caught a day like this today in New England, we’d be out here in shorts.” He nodded, and flipped a tee to see which one of us would hit first.

By the way, we finished in 2 hours and 45 minutes, playing through the only other group that was ahead of us. Like I said, everything’s relative.

A Thin Line

At this year’s Byron Nelson Classic, Jhonnatan Vegas was grinding over a testy four foot par putt on the 18th hole at TPC Las Colinas. He and his caddy, Luis Sira, had looked it over from every conceivable angle. There was a definite left to right break; the question was, how much, and how hard to strike it? He had lipped out a two-foot birdie effort on 13; that had to be preying on his mind. Finally, he stood over the putt and pulled the trigger. The ball took the break, caught the inside left edge of the cup, and dropped in the hole. Player and caddy high-fived and hugged on the green, and then strode triumphantly up the roped-off walkway to the scorer’s table, accepting congratulations from followers and fans.

Did they win? Nope. They made the cut. On the number. Which meant that they would make money that week.

Making the cut is huge for a lot of players, and even bigger for caddies, who are very much reliant on the performance of their man. Much has been written about guys like Steve Williams (Tiger Woods) and Jim (Bones) McKay (Phil Mickelson), both of whom have had long and lucrative careers carrying for consistent, successful players. And it’s that lure that has brought more young men (and a few women) into the caddying game. Depending on the agreement, a caddy will make 8 to 15 percent of what his player earns, an allowance for expenses, and a bonus for victories.

Obviously, there’s a flip side to this – witness Masters Vegas and Sira. Jhonny (yes, Virginia, that’s how it’s spelled, and as my good friend and talented writer/comedian Barry Friedman has noted, “Jhonny Vegas would make the coolest TV detective name ever”) won at The Bob Hope classic back in 2011 and seemed poised to make his mark on tour, but a shoulder injury sidelined him in 2012. He was able to play his way back on tour via medical exemption, but has struggled since then. He finished this season 122nd on the money list, which barely allowed him to keep his tour exempt status. So making that 4 footer in Las Colinas this past May was critical for both him and Luis.

I met Luis through a friend who housed him during “The Byron;” he and Jhonny are both from Venezuela. Luis is very serious about his job (prior to hooking up with Vegas, he carried for two-time major winner Angel Cabrerra, who I had the honor of meeting via Luis), but a pretty free-spirited man once he’s finished for the day – which is probably fortunate for him, as making a living based solely on the fortune of another person is risky business.

Luis also introduced me at that time to Sam, a young caddy from New Zealand who has been trying to find a regular bag for quite a few years. At the Byron, Sam was caddying for Ryo Ishikawa, a ridiculously talented young player from Japan. Ryo’s regular caddy was an Australian who didn’t want to be away from his family for 6 or 7 weeks, so Sam got tabbed for the job. He was back in town recently, and the Golf Nerd Goddess and I caught up with him for dinner and drinks.

As you might expect, the GNG and I were curious about the caddying life and the relationship between player and manservant. As to the latter, Sam really stressed the trust factor – “Showing up on time is probably the most important aspect of the job,” he mused, “It’s amazing how fast word gets around if you screw that up” – as well as understanding the player’s temperament and rules of engagement. “Some guys just want you to hand them a club and back away. Some will ask you for a yardage, you tell him ‘It’s 154 yards,’ and they will fire away based on that alone. Ryo, he’s extremely analytical – you give him a yardage; he’ll immediately start factoring in the wind, whether the shot is uphill or downhill, the slope of the target area, the curvature of the earth . . . what my job is, I need to understand his personality, what will motivate him if he gets off to a rough start, how to calm him down when he gets excited.”

“So you’re really a psychiatrist, then,” noted the GNG.

“Well,” Sam smiled, “that a big part of it.”

Part of the job has gotten easier over the years, says Sam. Yardage books have become much more accurate, which has eliminated the need to find landmarks and walk off yardages “manually.” But, he cautioned, it’s still a good idea to walk the course regardless, relating a story that “Bones” had told him about how one year at Torrey Pines, he had not bothered to do so (his man, Mickelson, had practically grown up on the course and they had played it numerous times on tour). He gave Phil a familiar line off the tee on one hole – only to find that when they arrived at his ball, it was squarely behind two freshly planted trees. “So I always walk the course now,” Bones told Sam.

Plus the bag is heavy and the hours long – besides actual tournament play, the caddy is expected to be on the range and practice green with his man before and after each round, plus be available during practice time.

As for the lifestyle – Sam is friendly with a lot of his fellow caddies; there are a group of 10 to 15 of them who arrange to split transportation and lodging costs. Plus, he notes, it’s beneficial to make friends along the way to stay with when the tour rolls into town. A surprising number of the guys are married – Sam, for his part, is “trying to have a relationship with a girl from Florida, but it’s hard.” It’s something of a gypsy life, but he loves what he does.

And things might be changing for him. Starting in a few weeks, Sam goes to work for Trevor Immelman, a winner of the Masters in 2008 and over $12 million in earnings on tour. Immelman has suffered an injury to the hand and ribcage shortly after winning the Masters, but, given the earning opportunities that winning a major affords, he decided to try to play his way through it and only made things worse. It’s been a rough few years, but he’s now healthy again and has limited status on tour this year.  Sam figures that they have probably 25 events that they can play in, including the Masters (for which, as a former champion, Immelman has a lifetime exemption).

The Tour starts up again next week in Napa Valley. It would be a nice story – the one time star making a comeback with the hard-working caddy looking for a break. No matter what, at some point there’s going to be a short, tricky putt that will need to be made – maybe to win a tournament, maybe to make the top 16 to qualify for next week’s tournament (if not already exempt), or maybe it’s to make a cut to get a paycheck. It’s a hell of a way to make a living, and I’m sure neither of them would want it any other way.