Friday, March 15, 2019

My New Augusta National Quest - Post 5 - "House Arrest"

#13 looking back   
 Is there better therapy in the world than visiting Augusta with the shrubs in bloom?

I was discharged with a decent short-term prognosis just after Labor Day. The drill for the foreseeable future was to remain at home in an environment that is as sterile as possible, with no visitors. Because of the chemotherapy and transplant my immune system was still non-existent. I survived by taking 20 or so pills a day, having a home nurse come twice a week, and visiting the doctor at the hospital once a week. I was sent home with a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line) in my right arm so that I could get IV medication and so that the nurse didn’t have to prick my hand or find a new vein every time she needed blood.

A PICC line is one of the unnoted miracles of modern medicine. It allows patients who would otherwise be hospital-bound to go home and get their medication there. Among its disadvantages is that it inhibits you from swinging a golf club, not that I had much energy to do so anyway. Transplants take a long time to work and one of their primary drawbacks is that you have extreme fatigue almost all the time because your body has to convert over from your own DNA to that of your donor. The body has roughly 37 trillion cells, so that takes a lot of energy. One of my doctors said that if I committed a crime the police could convict my brother based on DNA evidence, because post-transplant his DNA is my DNA. The other voodoo aspect of the transplant is that my blood type will change from A positive to B positive once it is complete.

Despite the restrictions, it is obviously far better to be home than in a hospital. In addition to my visit to intensive care there were other low points of my stay. “The wife” and I agreed that one was when we were sitting in the hospital room on a murky afternoon watching reruns of the New $10,000 Pyramid on TV. Daytime TV is a vast wasteland and this felt like a nadir if there ever was one. The other low point was when my white blood cell counts began to rise. By design, some of the chemotherapy you are given obliterates your white blood cells and brings their count down to zero or near zero. This is a good thing because these were the bad cells that caused the leukemia. Your body eventually re-generates new white blood cells and I was given a drug called Neupogen, which helps stimulate their growth.

Bone marrow is created primarily in the big bones of your lower back and in your thighs. Once the Neupogen starts to kick in and your white blood cells start to grow again it brings on pain with such an intensity that you can't function. Did you ever hit yourself in the ankle or shin with a wedge when you were walking off a green or coming out of a bunker? Intensely painful, right? The pain of your bone marrow generating white blood cells anew is like that pain times one thousand, and it is one that doesn’t last a minute, but hours. The onset of the pain caused me to curl up in bed and sob, the pain of such intensity that I would have preferred death during those moments.

Enter the miracle pain drugs: opioids. Prior to my cancer, the strongest medicine I would ever take was Advil. I am not a pill popper and my philosophy is that it is better to tough it out, that most pains were transient, and the side effects of most medications usually don’t outweigh the benefits. Not so in this instance. I started with a morphine pump, another miracle of modern medicine. To kill the pain I was given a bag of morphine (an opioid narcotic) attached via an IV tube to a release button that controlled its flow. When you experience pain, you simply push the button and the morphine goes directly into your bloodstream through the IV. As Martha Stewart says, “it’s a good thing,” and the fact that the pain goes away immediately is far better than any craft project or fancy cupcake icing design she ever did.

Opioids can be bad and can be addictive. We all know that now, and it’s easy to judge people who become addicted to them. All I can say is that in my hour of greatest need when taking my next breath was a struggle, they provide needed relief and helped me get through to see the next sunrise.

It turns out that one of the reasons Secretariat was such a successful horse was that his heart was abnormally large. During the depths of my hospital troubles I was saved emotionally not by a doctor, intern, fellow, nurse practitioner, physician’s assistant or registered nurse, but by a nurse’s aide. Alana was her name, an angel from Trinidad. Her job was to take vital signs in the middle of the night, to change sheets and to perform other support functions for the broader medical team. Aside from getting world-class treatment, a big part of fighting through this disease is emotional. Keeping a positive attitude, which is easy to preach, is far more difficult to put into practice when you’re attached to IVs around the clock and it's two in the morning and you're lying awake in the dark. Alana understood that staying connected to reality and not losing sight of what you are fighting for are supremely important. She has the most positive attitude of anyone in the City of Brotherly Love, and it was infectious. Simple things like calling me "sweetie" or telling me I looked great when I knew I was a mess made a big difference. Before I was taken to intensive care she sat next to my bed and held my hand, offering positive encouragement and her prayers.

The University of Pennsylvania Hospital has a rich heritage. It was the first medical school in the country, founded in 1765 by Benjamin Franklin. It has countless PhD’s, distinguished professors and medical prize winners. In my book, Alana is the Secretariat of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, and one of the most tremendous human beings I ever met. May god bless her loving soul.

My last visit to the doctor brought very good news. She said the “the wife” and I could go to the Masters, with some limitations. I can’t fly. Technically I can, but since my immune system remains weak I’d have to wear a respirator and wipe down the area around me on the flying germ factory airplane. Boarding a plane dressed like a fireman and behaving like Felix Unger aren’t my cup of tea, so we’re happily going to make the long drive. We’re going to take it slow on the way there and the way back, doing a tour of Southern cities so as to not stress ourselves out trying to drive too much in one day.

Friday, March 01, 2019

My New Augusta National Quest - Post 4 - "Lucky"

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Despite my current dietary limitations, I am longing to eat one of these

I responded well to the first and second rounds of chemo and the next step toward getting the disease in remission was to find a donor for a bone marrow transplant. Even though the chemotherapy completely wipes out the source of the problem, which is rogue white blood cells, given that I had the FLT-3 mutation, the incidence of recurrence is unfortunately high, and replacing the body’s bone marrow is the preferred course of action. The reason the doctors want to replace the bone marrow is because that is how the body generates blood cells, and the theory is to cut off the problem at its source. In what my doctor rightly describes as voodoo medicine, treatment has advanced to the point where they can give you a shot that tells your body to replace your own bone marrow with that of your donors. How it works is beyond description for a lay person. Lending money and buying stocks is God’s work? Not exactly. This voodoo medicine is God’s work.

For some people finding a donor is a stressful ordeal. The best case is to have the donor be a family member. For those that can't find a blood relative donor, they try via a pool of donors. The donor base statistically favors those of Western European descent. As one of Italian-Irish lineage the transplant specialist felt I would have a good chance of finding a match. Those in other ethnic groups apparently haven’t built up a huge base of donors so it is more of a challenge and potentially life threatening. It turns out that I didn't need to go to the donor pool because I was very lucky: my younger brother was a perfect match as a donor. The transplant team looks to match ten different criteria and the closer you can get to all of them, the better the chances that the transplant will be successful. My bro was 10 out of 10, which is better than birding the 12th hole at Augusta National!

My actual transplant was thankfully a non-event, even anti-climactic. I got an injection and a bag of the life-saving marrow and that was it, the entire procedure completed in less than two hours. Mental note: Osso busso is off the menu from now on.

Transplant complete, now the fight against the disease shifted to the mental. Although the transplant itself was relatively non-invasive, I had to remain in isolation for between 20 and 30 days. Isolation, as in restricted to your hospital room, which has been completely sterilized and scrubbed down. Anyone entering my room had to put on a gown and gloves to keep the environment germ free because my immune system didn’t exist. An infection or virus could kill me. You also have to take an impressive list of medications day and night, and take fluids through IV, including blood transfusions as needed. In the long list of complaints a leukemia patient can have, having to just sit around in a locked hospital room ranks relatively low, although it requires the patience of a saint, something I’m not naturally suited for. The one small act that saved my sanity is that the doctors allow you out of the room, but not off the floor, for a brief time after 10pm and before 6am when the activity level in the hallways has decreased.

On May 1st, I was leading a normal life; four months later I was a vampire: locked in a room 23 1/2 hours a day, consuming blood and coming out for only 30 minutes in the middle of the night. Not that I’m complaining, because the efforts by the medical team are astonishing and I’m above ground with much to be grateful for.

With nothing but free time I got to watch the PGA championship from beginning to end, just as I did in May with the Players Championship. I watched every single shot of the tournament and the Golf Channel’s coverage before and after the rounds. To state the obvious, your choices of entertainment laying in a hospital gurney are limited and it was nice to imagine being out in the sunshine, walking on lush fairways with the wind blowing, rather than smelling cleaning solvents, eating hospital food and watching my hair fall out.

Since the golf bug bit me decades ago I have always been obsessed with the game. To me it's not a recreational activity I pursue in my leisure time, but instead it is a way of life. I love the beauty and serenity of being out in nature chasing around a little white ball. I love the camaraderie, the friendships, the etiquette, the challenge, and the self-knowledge you get from embracing golf. Laying in my hospital bed for extended periods of time breathing recycled air really made me lust to get out in nature again. Honestly, just being able to take a walk in the park or to feel the sun beating down on me would be enough. Golf would be a huge bonus.

Being cooped up for such a long time gave me a lot of time to think. And time to dream. Part of the way I managed to get through the first part of this ordeal was to dream about getting out on a golf course once again. I’m still hopeful that I can get to the point where I can make the trek to Augusta next month to watch the Masters. I have to remain patient and take it one day at a time and to remember that I have a lot to be grateful for.

I would remain in isolation in the same room for twenty straight days, although I was lucky because I was on the short end of the range. I’m not sure I could have endured another 10 days. I used to think that the greatest words in the English language were, “Mr. Sabino, you’re on the tee,” while in a special place like Cypress Point or Royal Dornoch. What a fool I was. The greatest words in any language are “Mr. Sabino, you’re discharged.” Finally, I was free to go home and was able to walk out of the hospital without assistance.

And I was one step closer to getting back to Augusta and to playing the game again.

Friday, February 15, 2019

My New Augusta National Quest - Post 3 - "Nadir"

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Hope springs eternal, and I'm hopeful to see this in person in April

Entering the alien world of cancer treatments was an eye-opening experience at all levels. I have been a long-time reader of the works of Atul Gawande, an Oxford and Stanford educated surgeon and Harvard Medical School professor who writes for the New Yorker. He espouses the importance of following a defined protocol and of a seemingly trivial thing: using checklists. He espouses it for the same reason Sully Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles immediately went to their emergency checklist after hitting a flock of birds after taking off from LaGuardia Airport. Because they work.

Maybe Bryson DeChambeau is on to something with his scientific and methodical approach to the game. He is continually rising on the money list with his checklist approach to golf.

One of the reasons I had great care around the clock is that everyone was reading from the same playbook and religiously followed their procedures and checklists. Even if each individual practitioner is of the highest caliber, the system is only as good as its weakest link. The way they all worked together on an integrated basis and handed off seamlessly from shift-to-shift is because they follow their protocol. This was an eye-opening lesson for me.

Although I was in a fog, during those first few hospital days I noticed that the doctors kept saying that I would hit “nadir” on about day 14 of treatment. I wasn’t exactly sure what nadir meant since this isn't the kind of word we typically use in Jersey. My closest prior association with the word Nadir is the activist Ralph. I ended up getting a master class in the meaning of nadir during my initial hospital stay. In retrospect, the reason that use such a fancy term is so they don’t scare the hell out of you. Nadir means hitting rock bottom. Everyone at the hospital works really hard to keep the environment upbeat. Using phrases like “rock bottom” or “crashing” don’t fit the construct.

I also learned during my trial by fire that it’s not the disease that necessarily kills you, sometimes it’s the treatment or side effects. My initial induction chemo included three different drugs and their side effects were far ranging. The evil nemesis that got me is a dastardly condition called mucositis. The chemicals poisons you are given are designed to wipe out a large part of your existing cells but they don’t perfectly discriminate and sometimes attack cells that you need to survive. I developed a severe case, with sores in my mouth and esophagus. As a consequence, I couldn’t drink or eat and eventually had a difficult time breathing because my tongue swelled. At one point I was a real-life patient at the center of a Thomas Eakins painting, encircled at close range by a cluster of white lab-coated Philadelphia doctors, which is not something anyone should ever aspire to.

Nadir for me was when they transferred me off the specialty oncology floor and into intensive case. If the hospital environment itself was an alien environment, the ICU is the real-world version of being in a Twilight Zone episode. It’s a high stress environment that is crowded, has bad light and acoustics, and poor air. There are a lot of monitors and nothing to eat.  Come to think of it, it’s a lot like traveling through Terminal A at Newark Airport.

Unlike a regular hospital floor, there is no idle chatter or banter among the practitioners.The doctors and nurses in ICU behave like Tiger does when holding the lead in a tournament. It’s game day and everyone has their game face on all the time. My doctors were baffled by my particular set of symptoms so they assembled a multi-disciplinary team to discuss my case. It was truly a surreal scene. Due to my condition I couldn’t speak, but I could see ten doctors assembled around my bed in a “U” formation and they spoke of me as if I weren’t there. The team included a pharmacist, my oncology team, and specialists from Infectious Disease, ENT, Allergy, Radiology, Neurology, Gastroenterology and Intensive Care. It seemed like every department was weighing in except the Obstetrics and Gynecology team, although I was in such a daze they could have been there too and I just missed them.

Even with all that firepower they couldn't figure out what precipitated my rapid demise. I will spare you the gory details, but the ICU doctors saved my life. I had to be intubated first through the nose (not for the faint of heart) and then when there were complications, through the mouth, and it was touch and go for a while. God bless everyone who helped save me and “the wife,” who literally stood by my bed for 72 straight hours. It's affirming to recount the story now, after the fact, with a good outcome, but I can assure you in the moment, when you have that many talented people trying to identify the problem and failing to come up with a definitive answer, it is terrifying.

As if I didn’t have enough problems with the cancer, one of the consequences of being in ICU for three days is that I came back to the oncology treatment floor a basket case. Since I couldn’t eat, they had to feed me something that looked like wallpaper paste intravenously (it’s called TPN). It turns out that TPN has a lot of sugar in it, so I developed diabetes. In addition to all the other IV medications and pills I was taking, I had to be pricked several times a day to have my blood sugar level checked and given an insulin shot in the stomach to correct any imbalances. I began May looking like a poorly aging version of Keith Hernandez. In a short period of time I was doing a pretty good impression of a fasting Mahatma Gandhi: mustache still intact, but bald and frail, my days spent largely in bed while occasionally shuffling around in a white sheet.

Ever the optimist, rather than viewing the debacle I went through as problematic, I felt lucky to be in the care of such experienced and determined people who excelled at what they do.

Since I spent the entire month of May in my room, which overlooked the University’s central quad, I got to watch the preparation for the graduation festivities and to dream of one day getting better and being able, first, just to go outdoors, and then, of being able to golf once again. Barring further complications, I’m still hopeful that things can come together and that “the wife” and I will make it to the Masters this year.

Post Script - For the physician readers among my followers, two weeks after the incident I got a visit from the Allergy doctor, a professor at Penn who was part of the bedside huddle. Frustrated by not being able to help, he wouldn't let my case go and went away and did research in the medical textbooks. After reviewing my blood work from the time he concluded that I had a rare condition called 'acquired angioedema' brought on by the leukemia, and he found a specialty medicine to treat me if the condition ever returns.

We live in a time of heightened animosity across many parts of our life these days, especially in the political arena. The cable news driven tribalism that is dividing us is troubling. It is easy to become cynical and have a lack of trust. This is a busy guy, he could have easily gone on to other things after my condition passed. He didn't, which is encouraging to say the least. He is just one small example of people who go above and beyond and shows there are plenty of good hearted, caring souls among us. Among other life lessons he reinforced, such as, persistence matters, he has helped reorient me to focus on the positive and not the negative, something that is increasingly difficult to do in the negative media environment we live in.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

My New Augusta National Quest - Post 2 - "Induction"

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I'm fighting hard every day to get back here

Despite the density and its negative reputation, I have always found New Jersey to be a pleasant place to live. Granted, I don’t live in Jersey Shore country, nor near Bada Bing! Think about the benefits: living one hour from New York City and one hour from Philadelphia offers access to the best pastrami sandwiches and cheesesteaks in the world. From a golf standpoint, it’s also nice to be able to have a short drive to both Pine Valley and Merion and to be a couple of hours from the National Golf Links and Maidstone. I have been healthy my whole life and prior to my diagnosis never gave much thought to medical care. I consider myself lucky that I was treated at the University of Pennsylvania, a sophisticated teaching hospital.

They say you want to be treated by someone who specializes in whatever your particular affliction is. So, if you need have knee surgery you want to go to someone who only does knees, all day, every day. It turns out that Penn is one of the best hospitals in the world for treating my type of leukemia, called AML. They have a large team of doctors who do nothing but treat this insidious disease all day. After my initial 48-hour rapid response I started to receive care from an impressive group of doctors and nurses. The results of my bone marrow biopsy revealed that I had a particularly virulent strain of the disease known as an FLT-3 mutation. As the great Yankee Lou Gehrig said, I caught a bad break.

Leukemia isn’t hereditary and there is no good predictor for it. It just comes, literally, in the case of AML, out of the blue. The standard course of treatment for my mutation is three regimes of chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant. AML is the same form of leukemia that tragically took the life of Australian PGA golfer Jarrod Lyle at age 36. That brave soul first had the disease as a teenager and had it come back twice more, going through the standard course of chemo treatment and a transplant each time. That poor courageous man, may he rest in peace. How anyone could go through this ordeal three times defies imagination and would tax even the most optimistic of us.

You know the odds of survival aren’t great when the doctors and nurses hesitate or look away when you ask them what your life expectancy is with this disease.

It depends.

The worse thing in the world you can do is to Google any disease. You only read the horror stories and of high mortality rates. “The wife” has wisdom and implored me to ignore all of them. Medicine has advanced significantly in the last 10-15 years; the statistics can be misleading or not applicable, and there are new treatments and drugs coming onto the market all the time. Ignore it all the wise one said. Even if there is just a small percentage of survival, you truly must believe that you are among that group and you have to fight for your life every day.

My entire month of May was spent tethered to one or more IV machines. I was getting medication 24 hours a day 7 days a week. And for those who have been lucky enough not to endure an overnight stay in the hospital, count your blessings. Make it a life goal never to do so. Sleep is a luxury, as is normal food. Privacy and personal space don’t exist. It is an artificial, antiseptic bubble that is the anthesis of normal life, although I must say that commuting for so many years through the dungeon that is Penn Station in New York did prepare me somewhat for the ordeal. Between the pain, the chorus of machines beeping and the nurses taking your vital signs or administering medicine every four hours, it is an alternate reality to anything I have ever experienced. I am not complaining, to the contrary, I am exceedingly lucky to have had 24-hour medical care by experienced providers and these people are true heroes.

Between my golf quest and my occupation, I have lived in a bubble the last 25 years. I work in the finance world, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blanfien infamously said in 2009 that he was doing “God’s work.” The thing is, a lot of people that work in finance believe that what they are doing is noble. “I help people save for retirement or for their kid’s education,” you will hear people say, or we “help raise capital for people to start companies and create jobs.”

It’s a righteous way to describe pushing paper around and using other people’s money. It’s hardly noble or “God’s work.” Nurses caring for cancer patients in the middle of the night is God’s work and far more saintly than working on Wall Street. I’m in a bubble no more. The attendant in the ambulance that took me to the hospital was lamenting how she had to work two jobs and recently had her car repossessed. When I asked the nurses why they worked the night shift the answer was almost universally because it paid more money. The Hopi Indians have a word that describes how we value caregivers: Koyaanisqatsi. 

It means life out of balance. How is it as a society that people who put their lives on the line for us, run into burning buildings, and nurture us back to health during our darkest hour aren’t the most prized and well paid? The military have a more succinct description of it: FUBAR. This prima donna now clearly sees that our societal values are backwards.

In any event, I didn’t have much time to think about golf or to dream about my future in May, as the disease overwhelmed me. I was equally overwhelmed by the avalanche of love, prayers, positive thoughts and encouragement from friends and family. Thank you.

Monday, January 21, 2019

My New Augusta National Quest - Post 1

#11 Amen Corner Augusta
Your author in happy and healthier days at Augusta National

I have a tradition on my website, which is to post a year in review summary each January. Well, I didn’t have much to write about last year since I only played one round of golf because it was a true annus horribilis, to coin a Latin phrase. There is no other way to describe my dreadful year. You may have noticed I haven’t posted since May 1st 2018, which is fitting. On May 2nd I was diagnosed with leukemia. My demise began when I was feeling generally tired and having cold sweats at night. I just chalked it up to too much work and travel, too much flying, and too many nights in hotels. “The wife” thought it might be Lyme disease, so scheduled me to have a blood test on the first of May.

It’s never a good sign when a doctor calls you, right? It’s impossible to get an appointment at most doctors and once you get an appointment you sit for extended periods of time in the waiting room while being forced to watch The View. Once you actually see the doctor the visit feels rushed and they mostly do administrative work while staring at their computer. Aside from Joe’s Stone Crab, what other business model do you know that survives while making people wait? Ok, airlines and railroads also, but you get the idea.

I was driving to work on May 2nd (Black Wednesday), and my primary care doctor calls first thing in the morning to tell me that the blood test he drew had a bad result. And that I had to go to the hospital immediately to have another blood test to make sure it was not a mistake. I asked what he thought the problem was and he said that my white blood cell count was sky high and it could be leukemia. I didn’t know what leukemia was and had to ask. It is cancer of the blood.

I drove to the emergency room in Princeton where they re-did a blood test and confirmed that my white blood cells were through the roof. A normal range is between 4 and 11. Mine was 90. Leukemia requires such a specialized treatment that I couldn’t be treated in a good-sized, respectable hospital in a university town. I had to transfer to a hospital that specialized in leukemia treatment. I told the ER doctor that I wanted to go home and get a change of clothes, get some toiletries and that I would have “the wife” drive me down to the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania. Body language and expressions tell far more than the spoken word. He didn’t have to say a word, the look on his face told me my imminent heartbreaking fate.

When he did begin speaking he said that my white blood cell count was so high that I was at immediate risk of death by stroke or blood clot and that the only place I was going was into an ambulance after they began an oral dose of chemotherapy.

I must say that in the world of medicine I am naive. I thought when you get cancer they had to run a battery of tests, you could get a second opinion, you could think about which course of treatment you wanted to pursue and weigh your options. At a minimum, you could go home to get your favorite sweatshirt. It turns out there are two types of leukemia, chronic and acute. I had an acute version which essentially requires emergency intervention and treatment on the spot.

The next 48 hours were easily the worst of my life. Upon arrival at Penn I was greeted by a team of doctors and nurses and admitted to a specialized floor for patients with blood diseases. The veins in my arms endured more than twenty incursions by needles so that my caregivers could run a variety of tests and begin to give me more than a half dozen medications intravenously. You’re heard of death by a thousand cuts. My journey began with death by a thousand pricks. And that was the easy part. The real fun began with my first bone marrow biopsy. In order to properly diagnose the exact strand of the disease the doctors have to extract marrow from the bone in your lower back. Let’s call it an invasive procedure and one where there really is no good way to anesthetize the area.  The procedure takes about 15-20 minutes and you can actually feel the marrow being pulled out in about 20 seconds of pure terror.

My life as I knew it was over.

And the day had begun simply enough. I had woken up, had breakfast and coffee and had a full day of work planned. Now I was under intensive treatment for a dreadful disease and would be in the hospital for the next 30 days. And the worst was yet to come.

Anyhow, the purpose of this post is not to depress you or to seek sympathy. I find writing cathartic and hope it helps. As my normal readers know I have always been a big believer in fate and to switch my metaphors from Latin to Roman mythology, Fortuna had different plans for me than the ones I laid out. Readers had always asked me, what will you do now that you’ve played the top 100 courses in the world? I didn’t really have any meaningful golf related goals so I thought I would wait and see what happened.

Well, this debacle happened.

It has been almost nine months since that dreadful day in May and I now have some new goals I want to achieve. As far as goals go they are basic:

1. Survive cancer
2. Go to Augusta this April to watch the Masters in person one more time
3. Play golf again

For those that have the fortitude for it, I will chronicle my new quest through the blog.

God willing, more to come over the next 12 months on my trials and tribulations, chronicling my fight, with observations about modern medicine, fairness in life, opioids, and golf  . . .

I still have some significant hurdles to overcome but can’t wait to immerse myself in the greatest game once again.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Royal Dornoch Golf Club


Royal Dornoch was the first course I ever blogged about, in a rather short post; after a dozen years I finally had a chance to return and give a more comprehensive write-up. 


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The golf gods were welcoming on my return visit to Royal Dornoch, rolling out a lovely rainbow as I made my way down the first fairway


One of the finest pieces of writing ever done about golf was written by Herbert Warren Wind in 1964 titled North to the Links of Dornoch, which he penned for the New Yorker. It is an exceptionally written long form essay about the wonders of golf in Scotland. Readers wishing to delve more into it can find it in the book Following Through : Herbert Warren Wind on Golf. Not only does he give an extensive history of the course, but also tells the tale about how at the time of his visit Royal Dornoch was not visited very often because of its location far to the North. He credits Pete Dye with making the trek up and then began to spread the word about it. In Dye's words: "No other links has quite the ageless aura Dornoch does. When you play it, you get the feeling you could be living just as easily in the eighteen-hundreds or even the seventeen-hundreds. If an old Scot in a red jacket had popped out from behind a sand dune, beating a feather ball, I wouldn't have blinked an eye."

Wind's comment about the course is as true today as on the day it was written: "No golfer has completed his education until he has played and studied Royal Dornoch."

Although golf has been played on this land since the sixteen-hundreds it was Old Tom Morris that laid out the "modern" nine holes in 1885. According to Wind, "... in 1904, the wholesale changes that transformed Dornoch from just another course into a bona-fide championship layout were carried out under the direction of a remarkable all-round golf man, John Sutherland, who for over fifty years served as the club's secretary."

Wind continues, "Dornoch is a loop-type course--in this instance, eight holes out, ten holes back--but the repetitiousness generally inherent in this kind of layout has been avoided with a fine resourcefulness. On the eight outward holes, which are set along a shelf of high land, the tees have been placed so that the fairways do not swing quite the same way on any two holes, and as a result the wind hits the golfer from all directions. The incoming holes manage a similar diversity by rambling up and down between the crusty higher land and the duneland by the sea."


Lucky is the golfer who visits the linksland of Dornoch when the gorse is in bloom

My return journey (this is my third visit, although the first time I brought a decent camera) was during October, and it was cool and windy. As the local forecast for the day stated, with the usual understated Scottish elegance: “Weather on the turn. A bit drafty.” Since rain was coming in in waves, it prevented an abundance of pictures, but enough for me to give you a flavor.

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1st green from behind

As is widely known Donald Ross spent considerable time at Dornoch. For those wondering about his penchant for inverted bowl greens like at Pinehurst, the opening green gives a clue.

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The golfer missing the second green left faces a tricky uphill shot: putt or hit a wedge fat?

The second hole is a par three with a plateau green, like the first. If you miss left of the second green, this pictures shows the severity of the wee hill you must navigate. The first two holes are away from the Dornoch Firth and are somewhat isolated. It is only when you walk from the second green to the third tee that the expanse of Dornoch becomes visible. As my friend and fellow golf fanatic Paul Rudovsky puts it, "the rest of the course to the north is open in front of you and the sight is something to behold. It is like someone opened a curtain."

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The par four fifth hole features a raised greens protected by riveted bunkers

As a classic links, Dornoch has everything you would expect including sand dunes covered with gorse, as can be seen above the fifth hole. The sixth is another perfectly executed par three of roughly 150 yards, also with an elevated green with steep slopes to the right.

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The rumpled, downhill fairway on Dornoch's 7th hole as seen from the base of the hill looking back.

It took a while for me to remember the holes at Dornoch and by the time we reached the par four seventh I remembered why this is such a revered course. Seven has a blind tee shot and the fairway tumbles down the hill toward the North Sea along ancient fairways.

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The tricky green on the 7th is situated near the water


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The green on the 9th hole, the epitome of pure links golf




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The 14th fairway at dusk. The 445 yard hole features no bunkers and doesn't need any!

More from Herbert Warren Wind on Dornoch, "I should imagine that Dornoch usually elicits a golfer's best game. It doesn't overawe you with its length. It keeps you on your toes by making it clear from the outset that it rewards only shots that have been well thought out and executed. And it encourages you to hit decisive shots by providing vigorous, close-cropped turn, on which the ball sits up beautifully, and very true greens, which are a joy to putt. I found Dornoch all I had hope it would be -- a thoroughly modern old links with that rare equipoise of charm and character that only the great courses possess."

The finish at Dornoch is as strong as on any golf course. The par four sixteenth rises up a vertical hill from tee to green and has an oversized putting surface. It is one of my favorites on the course. It is such a simple and elegant use of terrain, it is a wonder you don't see it used more in golf design. The 17th might be the most fun of all the holes on a course with plenty of them. A par four of roughly four hundred yards features a blind tee shot. The course guide describes it aptly as "from the heights to the depths!" because the fairway falls into a big valley. Your shot (either second or third) is at an obtuse angle to an elevated green. Eighteen is a demanding 450-yard par four that isn't too challenging tee to green, but when you approach the final green you see the gully that protects the green. Whoa.


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From my original visit to Dornoch, playing at dawn in a two-some

The English writer, Dell Leigh wrote the following about Dornoch in 1925 and it is still true today, "The very journey thither is a pilgrimage of pleasure of the kind which remains crystal clear in the memory long after the return to the drab side of life. And the very fact that one cannot say in bold words that the links are definitely this, that or the other thing instills into the mind a predominant feeling - the desire vehemently expressed, to play over them again, and then once more."

I can't wait to return again.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Castle Stuart Golf Links

I have been reading and hearing great things about Castle Stuart for years, but have been unable to work it into my travel itinerary until now. The course debuted on Golf Magazine's top 100 list at #56.

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The Art Deco clubhouse looks out of character from the outside, but is warm and inviting inside, the abundance of windows providing sweeping views

The golf course was designed by Gil Hanse, whose only previous design I have played was the Boston Golf Club, which I found to be a nice track, but hard. (His renovations/refreshes at both Myopia Hunt Club and LACC are superb). Castle Stuart is a winner on all fronts. In particular, Hanse's ability to route holes puts him at the top of the industry.

Set along the Moray Firth near Inverness, Hanse had a great piece of property to work with: a waterfront setting littered with large sand dunes and gorse. He took full advantage of it. The nature of the property can best be seen below with a picture of the ninth hole taken from above on the lookout tower atop the clubhouse.


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The ninth green with dunes and gorse seen in the rear

I played Castle Stuart on an October day with classic Scottish weather. The forecast: "Heavy bursts of rain," which turned out to be accurate. Sheets of rain came through occasionally followed by interludes of sunshine. The wind was also consistently blowing 20 mph or so.

Based on what I saw at Castle Stuart, I like Hanse's philosophy, which strikes the correct balance between being challenging, yet at the same time is fun for all skill levels. He gives a tiger line for those that want to be aggressive, but also leaves open less challenging lines for those without pinpoint accuracy.

The first two holes are a relatively gentle par four and par five that were routed between the Firth and massive sand dunes covered in gorse. I like the design choice of immediately throwing the best landscape and views at the golfer rather than holding them back as finishing holes (although he does that also). 

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The third green at Castle Stuart with an elevated green

The third is a 290-yard par four with a green that is appropriately challenging given the length of the hole. Hanse again frames the hole beautifully along the Firth. I am particularly sensitive to the quality of a course's routing and the green's being appropriate to the length of the hole due to my recent negative experience at Trump International Links Scotland, where the correct balance was not struck, the greens were too severe and all hard, and the round was not pleasant.

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The par three fourth hole with Castle Stuart in the background

Along with his ability to route holes in a nice varied direction, Hanse gets an A+ in the art of framing. Look at how the 176-yard par three fourth hole takes advantage of the environment. This hole plays away from the Firth and has no bunkers, but is still a challenge given the green contours. It's a picture postcard.



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The fifth hole again features a great use of the surrounding elements as framing

The fifth hole is a long par four that plays to an uphill green with gorse running almost the entire length of the hole on the right side. Hanse strikes the correct equilibrium and understands that greens can't be too tricked up in a wind-blown links environment; on the other hand, they are no pushovers, either, with subtle contours and breaks.

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The long and narrow 6th green

The sixth hole is a par five of 522 yards and I am embarrassed to admit that on the day I played it was directly into the wind, requiring five shots just to reach the challenging, elongated green. The finishing holes on the front are all good with a nice change in direction so as not to wear down a golfer unnecessarily in the wind.

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The all-world par four tenth hole

Our rain gear got a full workout all day when we played Castle Stuart. The golf gods, however, parted the skies when we played the tenth and eleventh holes, rewarding all that good clean living. And what a good thing. The tenth plays from the top of a gorse-covered sand dune, and, like the opening holes, the start of the back nine takes advantage of the beautiful location on the Firth. The tee shot plays at an angle to the fairway, but the downhill nature of the shot lets even the high handicapper drive like a champion!

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The tenth seen from a slightly lower perspective

Avoid hitting left on your approach to the green, as participants in the Scottish Open learned to their detriment when the tournament was played here, since that will either leave your ball in a watery grave or on a precarious, sandy lie.


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The par three eleventh takes maximum advantage of the Moray Firth

What's not to like about the 130-yard par three 11th hole, also beautifully framed. Shades of Pebble Beach's 7th here. Don't be short. Or long. 

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The twisty and undulating fairway on the par four thirteenth

The mark of a good architect and golf course is how the holes they design away from dramatic settings play. You could argue it is hard to design poor holes when you have great dunes and water views. Hanse takes maximum advantage of the land contours here as evidenced by the dog-leg right and challenging par four thirteenth. The walk from the 12th green to the 13th tee is hard (heart attack hill). The course provides free water half-way up the trek, and, mercifully, a bench to sit on when you reach the tee so you can catch your breath. I suggest catching it fully because the hole is challenging. The green is difficult to approach but the view of the distant Kessock Bridge helps ease the pain.

The weather turned cold and quite rainy on the closing holes so I couldn't take any more decent pictures, although I must say I have never been so happy to be outdoors, wind-blown, and wet, the course is that much fun, even in sub-optimal conditions.  The closing holes route back around to finish with long views across the Firth, capping off a masterfully routed course. In my view, this is among the best routed courses in the world along with Cypress Point, Pine Valley, Royal Melbourne, Carnoustie, Sunningdale, and Royal Portrush. Hanse starts you out by the water, takes you away, brings you back again, takes you inland once more and finishes again back along it!

Sometimes when I finish playing a highly touted or high profile course, I'll have to think about my impressions and assess whether I really liked the course or not. There was no such thought process after playing Castle Stuart; no need to mull it over. Cha-ching, this is a "no doubt-about-it" great golf course.

Congratulations to both Gil Hanse for a thoughtful and balanced design and to the owner Mark Parsinen (who also developed Kingsbarns) for another wildly successful course. I look forward to returning and playing again in brilliant sunshine!

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Our bags and shoes went into the drying room and we went into the bar for a post round lunch and to warm our innards

Thursday, February 01, 2018

The Walker Cup is one of the greatest sporting events ever

The 2017 Walker Cup, conducted over the North Course at the Los Angeles Country Club (LACC) this past September, was the latest episode of one of the greatest sporting events ever. The event celebrates amateur golf, and it is deeply rooted in the aristocratic traditions of the early game. The event was first announced at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in January 1921. The occasion was the U.S.G.A.’s annual meeting, and George Herbert Walker of St. Louis, at the time the retiring president of the association and an investment banker, thought it would be a good idea to establish a tournament similar to the Davis Cup in lawn tennis, which was established in 1900. He donated an outsized sterling silver trophy, which he commissioned Tiffany & Co. to hand craft. The three-foot tall cup (which is engraved with the name “International Challenge Trophy” on it) is awarded to the winner of the biennial event.

Walker was the founder of the investment firm G. H. Walker & Co., which was headquartered at No. 1 Wall Street. As befitting a man at the top of the heap, he was a member of the best clubs including the National Golf Links of America in Southampton. He was also a member of the Links in New York City, a private club established by Charles Blair Macdonald in 1916 whose focus is promoting and conserving the best interest and true spirit of the game of golf. It was during a meeting at the Links with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews that the idea took root.

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In his 2008 history of the Bush family Jacob Weisberg describes George H. Walker as a “Midwestern prince” whose privileges included a personal manservant and his own nurse. He developed an affinity for golf while attending a Jesuit boarding school in England. A very successful (described as brusque) banker, he helped finance the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. When he moved to New York to set up his investment firm he was backed by Harriman railroad money and lived in a mansion on Madison Avenue, and later, at one of the toniest addresses in the metropolis: 1 Sutton Place. He also owned estates on the North Shore of Long Island and in Santa Barbara, California, in addition to a ten-thousand-acre hunting lodge in South Carolina. Both he and his wife had their own chauffeured Rolls-Royces. In addition to being the benefactor of the Walker Cup, George established the “Walker’s Point” estate, the family’s 176-acre compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

The Walker Cup was established during an era when amateur athletics occupied a more prominent position than it does today, especially among pastimes pursed by the rich: the America’s Cup in yachting, the Newport Cup in polo, and the Davis Cup in tennis. As originally conceived, the Walker Cup was meant to be a broad international competition.  The original plan was to have teams from the United States, the British Isles, France, Canada, Sweden, Italy, Norway, and Spain compete in an “International Golf Team Championship.” The victorious team would then host the next match in their country. The idea evolved between conception and the first tournament and it was launched (and remains today) an Anglo-American tournament, alternating back and forth across the Atlantic.

The first match established the congenial tone and sense of good fellowship for the contest. British and Irish players arrived in New York on the RMS Carmania and were met on the pier by the president of the U.S.G.A. and then whisked to the posh Hotel Biltmore at the Westchester Country Club and then to the Links club for lunch. The first match was contested at C.B. Macdonald’s National Golf Links of America with a match play format: foursomes (alternate shot), followed by singles matches.

Fast forward ninety-five years and the best amateurs in the world gather in the heart of Los Angeles. If those with advantages have a center of gravity in the city of Angels, a strong case can be made that it is at LACC. The private club is located smack dab in the middle of the action, with chock-a-block action on all four points of the compass around them: just to the south are the skyscrapers of Century City; immediately west is the U.C.L.A. campus in Westwood; Beverly Hills abuts to the east, and the northern border is shared with the ritzy Holmby Hills neighborhood and the secluded enclave of Bel-Air. (LACC is actually located in Beverly Hills, but as discrete aristocrats do, they understate the case by declaring their residence Los Angeles). For those familiar with household street names rather than those of neighborhoods, the club is just south of Sunset Boulevard, slightly west of Rodeo Drive and to the north of Santa Monica Boulevard, with Wilshire Boulevard roughly separating the club’s North Course from the South. Like a fertile waystation in a vast desert, LACC is a 325-acre oasis of green in the sprawling urban hardscape of Los Angeles. The club occupies arguably the most valuable parcel of contiguous undeveloped real estate in the country. The captain of the U.S. team, “Spider” Miller, described it spot on: “It’s like New York, if Central Park was a golf course.”

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The fits-like-a-glove clubhouse at LACC

What does perfection look like? Well, like beauty, love, or happiness, defining sensibilities is a tricky proposition. Although elusive to define, the Walker Cup matches at LACC came as close to being flawless or without defect as can be achieved. For matters of such weight I find it useful to look to the Italians, who specialize in such things and have for centuries. They even have their own word for it: sprezzatura. It means effortless grace, doing something cool with nonchalance. To enter the grounds of Los Angeles Country Club is to enter a world of privilege. Normally visitors drive up the discrete entry off Wilshire Boulevard (and with the requisite credentials) pass the guard gate and drive around to the parking lot. Admission backstage is typically through the clubhouse. For the Walker Cup, parking was on the South Course across Wilshire Boulevard. After crossing the busy thoroughfare and walking up the entry drive, smiling visitors stepped in through a gate near the guard house. Once behind the hedgerows that run the perimeter of the property, the overwhelming initial impression is how verdant the rolling terrain is, partially because there is such a striking contrast against the backdrop of the newly refurbished white columned clubhouse that stretches out imposingly over the opening and closing holes.

The U.S.G.A. does a flawless job of picking courses for the Walker Cup. One of their secrets (which is hiding in plain sight) is that they select the best courses ever conceived and built. Since it is a match play event without big crowds, they have the luxury of selecting courses suited for the format. A large number of the revered courses they choose were designed during the Golden Age of golf course architecture. Courses like Cypress Point, the Garden City Golf Club, and the Kittansett Club. Entering the cloistered setting of LACC it becomes immediately clear that the guardians of the game did well picking this venue. Wholly consistent with a tournament started by a patrician and aristocratic investment banker with both an office and a residence at the premier location on the street, George Walker would approve of this location for his tournament.

The golf course was designed by George Thomas, Jr., a Philadelphia native with his own patrician background. Born into a wealthy banking family, he attended an Episcopal prep school and the ivy-clad University of Pennsylvania. Like George Walker, Thomas was an investment banker in his early days. Thomas moved to Beverly Hills in 1919 and (as a sideline) designed a respected collection of golf courses. Although the Riviera Country Club is his most widely recognized design, his handiwork at LACC was when he reached his apex. Nicknamed “the captain,” he served with heroism in the First World War as a pilot, having been shot down three times. Thomas was a real Renaissance man. In addition to his world-class abilities as an architect of golf courses, he was also a competitive dog trainer, fisherman, and yachtsman. One of his lasting legacies was his work in commercial rose hybridization, an area he wrote several books about. When you walk through the club entrance one of the compelling facets that draws you in is the long narrow bed of perfectly manicured, multicolored roses that showcase the varieties he developed. Just like us, the roses apparently like the dry, sunny, and humidity-free conditions of Southern California. The subconscious mind makes a quick note: bubble has been entered. One no longer inhabits the latticework of freeways and urbanity that defines L.A. Behind the gates of LACC, the mind and body relax; life has switched from black to white to full technicolor; all five senses are awakened.

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The showcase of roses in front of the clubhouse

I stood near the clubhouse and practice putting green for a full thirty minutes upon arrival, simply soaking in the atmosphere of the club, the spectacle of the Walker Cup environment, and the beauty of the rolling terrain framed by the Santa Monica Mountains in the distance. Waiters and waitresses clad in formalwear stood like sentinels on the Reagan Terrace of the clubhouse (the 40th President was a member), the LACC flag fluttering high above the scene, below the flag of the California Republic and the host nation. Golf cognoscenti and industry insiders were milling about in anticipation, as were many of golf’s dignitaries, including the rule makers of the governing bodies. Excited spectators entering the property for the first time marveled at the conditioning of the fairways and greens. It was a brilliant, warm day to be soaking it up. Members were out in abundance in their crested jackets, as proud as a parent beaming at their child’s graduation ceremony, strutting around between the clubhouse and the pro shop. The members were easy to identify in their blue blazers with the red, white, and green LACC crest proclaiming their place in the world the same way the denizens of Washington Avenue wear their green jackets in April.

One of the elements that makes the Walker Cup so special is the unfettered access you have to the club. On my prior two visits to LACC I was unable to buy anything with the club emblem on it because the pro shop accepts neither cash nor credit cards. A purchase requires that it be put on the member’s account, which makes it more than a bit awkward, their intent that it serves as a deterrent working as planned. Not so at the Walker Cup, so I took full advantage of the opportunity. Unlike professional golf events, the Walker Cup does not have grandstands for spectators. They don’t need any because the crowds are small and you are free to walk essentially anywhere you want (even on the greens if you so desire, although that is bad form) as long as you don’t obstruct play. Only a few areas are roped off, chiefly so you don’t interfere with the players’ ability to walk on or off a tee or green. I took the opportunity to follow the morning practice rounds, following the U.S. team, who were warming up in two groups of five. What a thrill to be able to stand on the fairway less than 10 feet behind a player to watch them go through their pre-shot routine, and to hit the ball. The ten players on each team are among the best amateurs in the world. They play a different game than you or I do (maybe not you, surely me). The torque and flexibility they have at such tender ages is a joy to watch, inducing just a twinge of envy. It is a marvel to see how they consistently hit the ball long and straight: “Far and sure” as early practitioners of the Royal and Ancient game called it.

The other impression I had of the competitors was how young they were. In the Walker Cup program produced for the 2013 matches held at the National Golf Links of America, Anthony Edgeworth describes the matches as a “timeless continuum.” His double entendre of the competition and the players resonates: “The perpetual youthfulness of the Match, its rosy-cheeked visage reappearing unwrinkled and optimistic every two years” rings so true. These young bucks have so much talent and promise, and it was apparent by the looks on their clean-shaven faces that they knew they were lucky to be playing on one of the games unrivaled courses in an environment of hushed tones. It is a thing of beauty to be able to appreciate them up close.  

White pants after Labor Day? A fashion faux pas in the real world, but we left that when we turned off Wilshire Boulevard. At LACC the U.S. team was sporting spotless trousers the color of freshly fallen snow. Each of the players wore a snug crimson baseball-style cap adorned with a blue “W.” Lithe young collegians, they pulled it off without a hitch because they have sprezzatura; their poised looks as effortless as their swings. In a stark contrast to the professional game there was no clutter: no Waste Management or Bridgestone logos on the shirts, nothing to mar their pristine uniforms or golf bags. Nor were there advertisements on the caddie bibs. A compelling part of the tradition of the matches is that the players take club caddies. The local loopers were wearing white bibs and white hats with the LACC logo on them and based on their smiling and sturdy faces they understood that participation was an honor.

After watching the warmup rounds, I took the occasion to walk the course from beginning to end, alone. The peacefulness and solitude of the environment is a juxtaposition to the frenetic environment outside the club’s perimeter. Mostly, it was a joyous walk of solitude. The only sounds making it through the bubble were very L.A.: the occasional whirring of helicopters swooping around the vast city overhead. I walked on tee boxes and down fairways in a dreamy state imagining how I would hit my shots if I were playing. I had forgotten how dry the environment in South California is. The low humidity levels and desert-like landscape creates a dry and dusty milieu. The air was scented by eucalyptus and ancient sycamore trees, their gnarled trunks rising from dry river beds were a reminder that this is a style of golf quite distinct from that played in the wetter Northeast. I had equally forgotten how hilly the terrain is on the course. After the gentle opening par five, the long second hole opens up a stretch culminating on the eighth green that is simply breathtaking. It is as good a stretch of holes as you will find on any golf course the world over, over a uniquely hilly terrain. Thomas used the barrancas (Spanish for gully, canyon or ditch) and sloping hillsides to route a masterpiece, achieving perfect form and harmony with the environment. Leonardo da Vinci attained sprezzatura with his perfectly proportioned “Vitruvian Man.” George Thomas’s achieved the same with LACC’s North Course.

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The sharply rolling terrain of LACC’s North Course as seen on the sixth fairway

An especially poignant part of the Walker Cup is the flag raising ceremony at the conclusion of the practice rounds, the day before the official matches begin. The setting for the flag raising at the 46th Walker Cup was the first fairway of the North Course, the very place where these young phenoms would be hitting their tee shots the next morning. A dais and three flag poles were set about fifty yards down the fairway with spectators kept a respectful distance away. The hatless players were arrayed on either side of the dais lined up in a row of white chairs wearing their newly-minted blazers. Off to the right was a collection of distinguished jacket wearers, each identified by their distinctive emblems, sitting in their own cluster of white chairs. Any club that has hosted a Walker Cup is asked to send a representative to the match. Among them there was a gentleman sitting in a green jacket that had a crest with a thicket of grass and a red wicker basket poking up through it (Merion), a gentleman with two linksman on his jacket, a symbol borrowed from old Delft tiles. He was accorded extra respect among the jacketed group because his club hosted the first Walker Cup in 1922, at the National Golf Links of America. A ruddy faced gentleman with a regal logo featuring a harp with a crown over it (Royal County Down) sat smiling through the proceedings. This was the General Assembly of golf’s inner circle.

I stood among the well-coiffed ticket-holders and waited the twenty minutes or so that it took for the members and other luminaries to gather. The gathered coterie was in all their sartorial splendor, for the club was hosting a celebratory mixer immediately after. Virtually everyone standing in the fading afternoon light could be featured in a commercial for a fashion or fitness product. I personally find it irritating to watch television advertisements by drug companies, which feature idealized people. I always think, these are fabrications; normal people aren’t that fit or good looking or well dressed. Nor do they exist in the scripted, perfect settings that have been conjured up for them. These are just projected images of perfect people that don’t exist. Except they do, at LACC, and they were all at the Walker Cup with carefree looks, exhibiting panache without effort. Cary Grant epitomized sprezzatura, and pulled off an impeccable look every time he appeared on screen. So too did the gathered crowd at LACC, wearing their cocktail party best.

Where the scene had the sharpest contrast and the most poignancy was among the kids. Privileged teenagers (and pre-teens) stood among the crowd wearing perfectly pressed slacks, loafers, crested club jackets, pocket hankies, and designer sunglasses, looking all the world like the mini moguls that they are. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise, this is Southern California after all, and they no doubt grew up on diets of bean sprouts, avocados, and kale, with almonds as snacks after yoga. The English golf writer Bernard Darwin, grandson of the famous naturalist, was famously called upon to play in the first Walker Cup when a member of the British team became ill. Natural Selection is still alive and well, as exhibited by the vitality of the establishment at the flag raising. To paraphrase Cecil Rhodes's comment about the English, "To be a member of LACC is to win first prize in the lottery of life." The gene here pool is quite strong.

To kick off the gala a Marine band marched out stiff-backed in their crisp dress uniforms, adding
further dignity to the proceedings. They began with upbeat patriotic songs played at just the right pitch in the background as wispy clouds scattered high up in the azure sky. They would in turn play the national anthem of Ireland, followed by that of Great Britain, as the tricolour and Union Jack were raised in succession. Finally, the American national anthem was played as the Stars and Stripes were hoisted. The president of the U.S.G.A. then spoke, followed by the executive director of the U.S.G.A., the president of the R & A, and the president of LACC. Each had their respective blue jackets on with their identifying patches (a circle with an eagle in the center for the U.S.G.A. and the image of St. Andrew holding the saltire inside a championship belt topped with a crown for the R & A).

The highlight of the proceedings were the opening comments of Bush 43, who spoke with sincerity and wished both teams his best, with a special emphasis added for those competitors from Texas. George is the namesake of the cup-giver, as he would no doubt call his great-grandfather. He had lunched with the U.S. team and described them, in his usual laconic and choppy style, “Good upright citizens. Good people.” It was he who called the Walker Cup “One of the greatest sporting events ever,” and it really struck me as true.

The two-day matches themselves are a throwback to old school match play golf. The morning foursomes matches were conducted without fuss. The players got up to the ball and hit without undue analysis and thinking. Their uncluttered minds appear freer than those of professionals and most recreational golfers. Chalk it up to confidence and ability. From time to time while following a match, I would stand on the tee box to watch the first player drive the ball. If I didn’t walk at a good pace, I almost missed his playing partner hitting the second shot. They would reach the ball, figure out the yardage and pull the trigger: golf as it was meant to be played, without equivocation. The gifted golfers hit their shots with only a smattering of fans following along in deferential silence. There was a sense of reverence and respect that only the Masters comes close to replicating, although here the scale is smaller and the overall experience is better because you are standing in the thick of the action.

The golf played was of the first order and it was a joy to watch the players walk the undulating terrain with purposeful, confident strides. Although there is little fanfare, the event is consequential, since there is no greater honor than to play for your country. The players are competitive and want to win, but there is no sense of it being overdone. The knowledgeable fans were ecumenical in their praise; the visitors were accorded as much respect for good shots and putts as the home team. There were no chants of “U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!” or other overt displays of rooting, simply polite applause and discrete encouragement. Yelling at the Walker Cup (“mashed potatoes,” “get in the hole,” or “you ‘da man”) would be met with the same enthusiasm as shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater.  The brainless morons who infect other tournaments stay away because their fate here for such offenses involves voltage. While the penalties for such behavior are not explicitly spelled out I would suspect first offenses are punished by being hit with a Taser from a lurking highway patrolman. I also wouldn't rule out of consideration that second offenses are met by death in the electric chair.

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California’s Highway Patrol standing by as needed at LACC

The Masters carefully describes those that make the trek to Augusta as patrons, not fans. In a similar vein, the Walker Cup does not have fans either. In the leadoff to the program from the 2013 Walker Cup held at the National Golf Links of America, certified WASP, honorary chairman of the club and the event, and former chairman of Morgan Stanley, the late S. Parker Gilbert, addressed his opening letter to: “Friends of Amateur Golf,” which hits the nail on the head. Those that make the effort to come and follow the matches love the amateur game. Like at the Masters, small details are not overlooked: LACC was thoughtful in its concessions for visitors, included making British and Irish fans feel at home. The lunch selections included bangers and tater tots as well as Guinness and Smithwick’s on tap.

Even though the event was staged in a city of four million people, there were inexplicable so few spectators that at times it felt like a private exhibition match for LACC members. On more than one occasion walking along with the players or standing near a putting green I felt like an interloper unintentionally eavesdropping on their private conversations. Without an inkling of boasting the end-of-summer chats advised how a family had just returned from their second home in Montecito, or from a trip to Catalina, and that the youngest daughter had just returned to Stanford. The membership here is an impressive lot, a concentration of C-suiters, creators, owners, and rule makers in the land of Teslas.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention the Americans won the matches handily, but that is beside the point. Respected golf writers on both sides of the Atlantic have for years sung the praises of the matches and captured the essence of what I experienced. From the British Isles, Michael McDonnell: “In the modern winner-at-all-costs climate the Walker Cup is an anachronism because winning and losing are never taken too seriously and at times seem downright irrelevant.” Herbert Warren Wind added, “There is no explaining how it happens, but a singular atmosphere develops on these occasions.” The Walker Cup is about the competition and not the results.

Credit to the U.S.G.A. for selecting LACC as the venue and for setting the course up in a traditional manner. There were no tricked up greens, narrowing of fairways, or other unnatural changes made. They recognized that the course is near perfection as it is and had the wisdom not to do much.

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The rolling swaths of green create an oasis in the middle of the mega city

Admittedly, my sample size is small, having attended Walker Cup matches at only the National Golf Links and LACC, however, based on my experiences at both I would have to agree with 43 that this is undeniably one of the greatest sporting events ever. Ticket prices are cheap ($40 for a practice round and $75 on match days), it is uncrowded, held on the best venues, and the golf is world class. Match play is also a better spectator format than stroke play. Match play is not as good a format for television and therefore the contemporary game is dominated by stroke play events, which is a shame because the ebb and flow of match play is so much more exciting and unpredictable. While there are other world-class sporting events, namely Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, the Tour de France, a Notre Dame home football game, the races at Saratoga Springs, and the Masters, the Walker Cup is just a cut above because of the intimacy of the affair.

To me the Walker Cup goes beyond golf and represents one of the few remaining bulwarks holding the line against our societal race to the bottom. Like the Masters, it is a beacon of civility in a world with a multitude of disruptions and a systematic lowering of standards. The cup serves a dual role: not only is it a great sporting event, but it showcases and upholds a tradition of politeness and decorum that is waning in our increasingly vulgar and coarse world. Call me an elitist, a snob, or someone with a serious case of WASP envy, but I soaked up the clean cut, polite, and learned environment of the Walker Cup with zest. It is a soothing tonic from a world of sweatpants, cargo pants, ripped jeans, tattoos, and nose earrings. There is nothing garish, brash, or tawdry about the affair; no doubt it is because the events are held within bubbles with a different stratum of society in attendance, however, this is the traditional role of the aristocracy, ensuring high standards are kept up. Good character trumps trendiness. The keepers of golf are doing well as they remain the protectors of the traditions and good manners that golf was founded on.

I find it enlightening to speculate about what a time traveler would make of all this. Bobby Jones was a young collegian when he played in his first match after studying mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, while he was on his way to Harvard. He competed in the first five tournaments and his record was 9-1. Imagine if Jones were to come back; which tournament would he most recognize? No doubt the tournament he created, the Masters, would still look quite familiar, as Augusta National have held true to his vision. I would think he would also be quite pleased at how the nature of the Walker Cup has not changed, remaining timeless and in good taste.

My visits to LACC have been among the most memorable and truly enjoyable in all my travels. Kudos to the club for donating all proceeds of hosting the matches to the Southern California Golf Association to be used in furtherance of growing the game. While the starry-eyed players may not have chauffer driven Rolls-Royces or manservants in their future, their future prospects are open-ended given their talents and stations in life.


Monday, January 01, 2018

The Boat of Garten Golf Club

After playing Pitlochry in the mid-Highlands my friends and I were scheduled to play the following day at Ullapool in the Northwest corner of Scotland. Like much of the Scottish west coast Ullapool gets the brunt of the weather coming across the Atlantic. Looking at a three-hour drive and a forecast that was grim (sheets of cold rain coming in and hanging over the area all day) we called an audible and decided to play at the Boat of Garten instead, only an hour away.

The change was serendipity defined. We accidentally stumbled on a true gem. It was love at first sight between "The Boat" and I. Not since my first time playing Cruden Bay and Jack's Point in New Zealand have I been so blown away.

The Scots have a way with words naming their towns with phonetically pleasing names that roll off the tongue. Where else on earth do you have town names such as the Drum of Wartle, Muir of Ord, Heights of Brae, Lyne of Gorthleck, Spittal of Glenmuick, and of course Boat of Garten? The town and course are located on the River Spey and the speculation is that the town derived its name from a ferry service (or boat) that used to run across the river in ancient times.

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The rainbow of flowers near the first tee and clubhouse sets up an enchanting day of golf

The Boat of Garten hasn't been on my radar before (and I suspect is not on the radar of others for the same reason) because it is a wee course, as the Scots would say. It plays 5,648 yards from the tees that visitors are permitted to play from, with a par of 70. What a big mistake on my part judging courses by their length. Some of my favorites are indeed short: North Berwick, Myopia Hunt Club, Prestwick and Cruden Bay, so my epiphany is now complete and I am very much open to discovering the charms of shorter courses.

Located in Inverness-shire, in the Cairngorms National Park, the setting is pristine and magical. Like at Walton Heath and Lytham & St. Annes, the Boat begins with a par 3. At 169 yards, it is a relatively gentle opener provided you are not long, where the green falls off at the back.

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The opening hole at the Boat of Garten

The course was immediately reminiscent of Walton Heath and Sunningdale: a beautiful heathland paradise, although the Boat also has a load of silver birch and Scottish broom as well.

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The second fairway, a rough and tumble par four

The golf course was designed by James Braid, who visited in 1930 and 1931, changing a previous design from nine holes to eighteen. The course has a roughhewn look with rumpled fairways and a charming lay of the land feel. In their excellent book James Braid and his 400 Courses John Moreton and Iain Cumming describe how during Braid's career course construction was essentially done by hand or with the assistance of horses or earth scrapers, which were used only to smooth out areas for greens. Steel shafts weren't legal on golf clubs in Britain until November 1929, thus the course was designed for play with hickory shafted clubs and a different golf ball. The "going back in time" feel of Boat of Garten is palpable.

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The par three third hole carries on the roughhewn look

The third hole, a par three, changes orientation and direction and plays toward a wee rail line that runs parallel to the opening holes, the Strathspey Steam Railway. On the day we played a little two-car work train was sputtering up and back on the track bringing back good memories of the days when my kids would watch Thomas the Tank Engine every day!


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The par five fourth hole looking back from the green at the blind hill you just played over

Because Braid kept the original hilly landforms unchanged the course features many blind shots. The par five fourth hole features a blind second as seen in the picture above, seen looking backward from the green. The Boat has a lot of black and white striped poles like the one you see at the rise of the hill, above.  I know not everyone likes blind shots, although I do and find them fun and quirky.


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The par four seventh also features a blind shot

How do you make a 369-yard par four hole, like the seventh at the Boat challenging? Blind shots, rough land forms, rolling undulations, uneven lies, humps, and hollows seem to do the trick.

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A view of the eighth green shows off the sparkling environment of the Highlands with silver birch across the landscape in abundance

The front nine contains a delightful set of holes, although things really get going on the inward nine.


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The twelfth tee at the Boat of Garten is elevated and you play into a chute of trees

The twelfth hole begins the best four hole stretch on the course. Twelve is a 344-yard par four that plays from an elevated tee down into a narrow tree lined fairway. The landing area is larger than it looks from the tee, but it is a harrowing tee shot. The green is elevated. Five time Open Champion and course architect Braid said about the hole, "The 12th is in a superb setting, the birch woods and the mountains beyond, I don't think there is any equals it."

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The world class thirteen hole as seen from the tee

The thirteenth is a great hole, representing the only three shot hole on the back nine. Although only 469 yards, it plays uphill almost the entire way through a natural valley and gets progressively narrower from tee to green. It also has an unsettling forced carry off the tee. The top of the hill on the hole contains another directional black and white pole and the flag is not visible until you are less than 150 yards away. A further challenge is provided by the sloping nature of the hole, which cants from left to right from tee to green. 

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Your second shot on the thirteenth doesn't provide much clarity on where you should hit your next shot. It's still uphill and blind!




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Ring the bell when you finish the thirteenth to let the group behind you know it's all clear

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The view from the fourteenth tee box

It is difficult to evaluate and assess a golf course outside of its environment. Certainly, it is easy to fall in love with courses like Pebble Beach or Turnberry because of their scenic beauty. Or with Pine Valley or Morfontaine because of their splendid isolation. The environment at the Boat is just as enchanting, but in a different way. This is the heart of the Scottish Highlands, and as seen from the picture taken from the 14th tee box, the kingdom of mountains, rolling hills, and scenic beauty will win over even the most hardened curmudgeon. That is the River Spey splashing gently below the golfer in a land of enchantment filled with castles and whisky distilleries. After playing the gentle 14th we were in a very relaxed and good mood as we made our way to the fifteen hole.

The 15th hole is one of the best I have ever played and is sui generis. There is a tip-off that something is up when you walk up the hill to the tee box and there is a lookout tower. At the top of the steps is a platform that allows you to look out over the hole to give some sense of what you are about to play, which is a sub-300 yard par four with two blind shots. The idea behind the lookout is to allow the unsuspecting golfer to attempt to get a lay of the land. A brilliant idea, but even after looking out over the hole, it remained an enigma.

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The wooden lookout on the 15th tee

The hole’s name is "Gully" and it is a bi-polar hole. Not bi-polar as in schizophrenic or manic-depressive. Bi-polar in that is contains two directional poles to help the unknowing golfer find their way. As unsuspecting American studs we all hit driver off the tee, which was a mistake. It really only requires an iron off the tee so that you don’t land in the gully (which you can't see from the lookout tower).

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A closer look at the aiming poles and flag in the distance on the 15th

For whatever reason, I haven't focused my studies on the golf courses of James Braid. I have played a half dozen of his designs: Gleneagles, St. Enodoc, Nairn, Brora, and Ganton, and like them all. My opinion of James Braid just went through the roof with a hole like the 15th hole, it is just such a brilliant, challenging, and oddball hole.

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An even closer look at the approach to the 15th

For emphasis, I repeat, that this is a hole of only 289 yards from the yellow (non-medal) tees. The second directional marker is there to help the unwitting golfer who ends up in the gully (as we all did!) at least have some shot of aiming at the green for their second.

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The view from the bottom of the gully on the fifteenth highlights the brilliance (and natural terrain) of the hole

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The hole looking back is just as brilliant

The green itself is a sort of punchbowl, and is as challenging as the rest of the hole. Aside from "wow," there is not much else to say about the hole. If the skies were not threatening, we would have walked back to the tee to play it all over again. I would wager to say there is no other hole on the planet like it.

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The fifteenth hole's challenging green

The skies darkened (actually it rained very hard) as we were finishing, so I didn't get a chance to get any pictures of the 437-yard par four grand finishing hole. The club history accurately describes it as a hole that builds character.

Every golf course has a personality. The personality of the Boat of Garten is that of a short, half-blind elder statesman that hasn’t lost his ability to charm you. What a place to play golf. I don’t know if the Boat has a cult following like Cruden Bay or Prestwick or North Berwick. If it does, I just drank the Kool-Aid and have joined the cult. I would like to apply to become president of the Boat of Garten fan club.

The Highland setting is very special. I am in complete agreement with Moreton & Cumming, who, in their book on Braid courses, say this about the Boat: "Travel and play the course. Its silence is deafening." And with Robert Burns, "In heaven itself, I'll ask for no more than a Highland welcome."


P.S. - To my friends in Ullapool, fear not, it is included in a future planned trip that will encompass the North Coast 500. I look forward to visiting with the sun shining down on me.