Friday, January 01, 2016

How to Play the World's Most Exclusive Golf Clubs - The Book

It has been exactly ten years since my first post. Hard to believe.

A couple of years into my quest I started writing this blog as a way to remember the places I visited. The pilgrimage was best summed up by the simple four-word tagline I gave it: “Pursuing Golf’s Holy Grail.”  Ultimately my blog has attracted a couple of million readers (which I am still amazed at), and many people along the way told me I should write a book about the experience, although I didn't give it much thought.

Now that the journey is complete, the most frequent question I am asked is, “How did you get on all these courses?” The other common query I get is, “How did you get on Augusta?”  Through my journey I have come to know ten people who have completed the same challenge and they all say the same thing, everyone wants to know how they were able to play Augusta.

Writing the blog was entertaining, but the idea of a book didn’t hold much appeal to me. Several people who have played top courses in the United States self-published books, but I wasn’t attracted to the genre since no one—well, maybe my mother— wants a blow-by-blow of my trips or cares what score I shot. I didn’t want to do another me-too book, but when an experienced publisher contacted me and came up with an interesting twist, I was intrigued. Why not write the book from the perspective of the reader: What’s in it for them? How can someone else play some of these courses?

The golf world is made up of generous people who are benevolent in many ways; now, it is my turn to give back to a game that has given me so much, by passing along the methods and techniques I used to play the world’s great golf courses.

How do you play at the upper-echelon of clubs in the world? In the end, it is simple. All you need is the time, the resources and the connections; although there are exceptions, since I played several top courses for free and without connections.

The focus of the book is insights into how I gained access to the clubs, and techniques you can use if you have a desire to play some of these world-class courses. It will include some wisdom I gained from the journey, and interesting stories about others who have pursued similar journeys. A condensed and expanded version of the blog at the same time, the best stories and pictures are shared to delight the itinerant golfer.

The book is available from and Click on the image of the book below to order on Amazon:

I hope you will find it enjoyable and entertaining.

Because the game as given so much to me, as a small way of giving back I am donating my share of the profits from the book to charities supporting children.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Golf at Yale!

Good news, my forthcoming book has a scheduled date this spring.

Unlike Westward Ho! in England where the exclamation point is a proper part of the course title, the exclamation point after the Yale in the title of the post is all mine; and indicative of strong feelings and the proper emphasis that the course requires. Originally named the Ray Tompkins Memorial Yale Golf Course after a wealthy Yale alumnus who donated the land the course now occupies, today it is known as the Course at Yale.

The bulldog is an appropriate mascot for Yale and its golf course, as you need to be one to walk the challenging terrain the course is built on

Having tangentially heard and read about Yale over the years, it sounded like a good course, although not one worth going out of your way for. Being a Princeton man, there was no logical way to get a connection to a Yalie to access the course so I put it low on my priority list. Descriptions of the course always had a qualifier: best course in Connecticut; best collegiate course. As we say in New Jersey: Marone. Yale doesn't need any qualifiers, it is one of the best golf courses I have ever played, in or out of Connecticut or collegiate golf. It is a devastating good golf course.

Charles Blair MacDonald served as the course design consultant at Yale, although Seth Raynor was the actual architect of the course. MacDonald describes the land at Yale as, "high, heavily wooded, part of it had been cultivated for over forty years...It was a veritable wilderness when given to Yale." Although Raynor was the architect, the day-to-day construction of the course was left to Charles "Steam Shovel" Banks. There is ongoing debate about whether to attribute the course design to MacDonald or Raynor, although for my purpose it doesn't matter. What matters is that the classic triumvirate of MacDonald-Raynor-Banks had a hand in the course with all their wonderful prototype holes.

In his original Confidential Guide Tom Doak mentions that the course was notoriously in bad condition, and therefore probably didn't rate as high as it could. I'm sure he's right, although the course was in quite good condition when I played. Like your author, the course is not pristine or manicured, is a bit rough in spots, but overall is in quite good condition.

Yale points out a glaring issue with golf course magazine ratings. They are opinions and subject to the vagaries of the raters. The fact that the course is not better ranked relative to its peers is a big miss. The critics will complain: too many blind shots; its too short (as a par 70 it's actually not); the conditioning isn't perfect, therefore the course is not worthy to be rated among the best. Humbug. Balderdash. Like anything subjective such as fashion or restaurants, there are trends. Things are in vogue; they are out of vogue. The new sexy courses that are marketed and entice raters with a free round of golf and a free lunch rise in the ranks. Perfect conditioning and waterfalls are in; old school is out. The result is that courses like Yale fade to the background, which in some sense is a shame. On the other hand, it is a blessing in disguise. I played Yale on a Saturday morning and there were only a couple of dozen people there. The feel of the clubhouse and course is understated, a little shabby chic. Flying under the radar seems just fine to the folks at old Eli.

Welcome to Yale. The first green sets the tone and lets you know that convention will not be the order of the day with your flat stick

The third hole "Blind" contains the first of many blind shots you will hit at Yale, this one features blind shots on both the tee shot and the approach

3 blind green
Looking back at the third hole from the fourth tee shows the challenge of the blind shots
5th short
You know are you at a special place to play golf when the course has a hole like this. The 5th "Short" hole at Yale. Breathtaking.

7 lane
The 7th hole "Lane" sweeps up the hill to another challenging green

My playing partners and I had immense difficulty putting at Yale. The greens were in fine condition, but we almost never read the breaks correctly. Perhaps we're just crappy putters? Or more likely it is a mountain course and we kept missing the fact that the greens break predominantly down from a high point on the property that we could not determine? Or, perhaps the subtlety of the MacDonald-Raynor design? 

8th cape
The "Cape" 8th hole around the green. The tee shot is another one on the course where you are unlikely to see your tee shot land as you are blocked out by one of the immense hills

Several of the holes at Yale are prototype holes on steroids. The 9th Biarritz is surely one. The scale of the hole is mammoth from beginning to end. The 213-yard hole has a long forced carry from an elevated tee and is over water. The size of the green front to back is irrationally long and there is five-foot deep trench that runs through the middle of it. Yikes.

9 biarritz

The often-highlighted 9th hole at Yale, designed with a Biarritz-style green on a titanic scale

In Scotland's Gift Macdonald describes how "of the 102 acres cleared twenty-eight were swamps, forty-three stone ledges, and the cleared land was full of rock...Practically 75 percent of the cleared area was ledge and swamp." Nowhere is this more apparent than when the golfer begins the back nine, where the topography is nothing less than stunning, beginning with the tenth hole, "Carries," a 382-yard par four that plays up a large hill to an elevated green, with rocky outcropping omnipresent. Banks called the green "complex and slippery" and he was not wrong. He felt the hole has a strong resemblance to the 9th at Shinnecock Hills.

10 looking back
The tenth hole looking backward from the green shows off the rugged terrain at Yale. The tee shot is blind, thus, like at the third, you ring another bell when you are clear of the group behind you

In a charming twist reminiscent of Prestwick or National Golf Links you get to ring a bell to let golfers behind you know your position. There are so many bells ringing out on the course, at times if feels like you are near a church that rings its bells every fifteen minutes.

11 valley looking back
The 11th hole also shows how perfectly Macdonald and Raynor used the land--with artistry--to route their holes 

The 12th hole, Alps, is a worthy rendition of the famous original at Prestwick as you play straight up a hill to a hidden green. Walking the front nine at Yale is challenging, walking the back is twice as challenging since the elevation changes are steep.

12 Alps Toward Green 
The Alps hole, the 12th at Yale, keeps going, and going and going. Uphill all the way to a blind green.

The Redan hole is also on a massive scale. The original Redan at North Berwick plays 192 yards. The Yale version, the 13th,  is 196 yards, although from the championship tee it plays 212. The original Redan plays from flat ground to the well-known and challenging green. The version here plays from an elevated tee. It is a bigger and more muscular hole than the original, and a pure delight to play.

13 Redan
A fantastic rendition of a Redan hole, the 13th at Yale

The short 14th hole at Yale is a par four of 365-yards from the championship tee:

14 Knoll

The table top green of the par-4 14th "Knoll" hole

I enjoyed the 17th hole quite a bit, named "Nose," it is a 425-yard par four. Your tee shot must carry water and you navigate over a large wall of a hill that is all you can see from the tee. The hole and the green are sparsely bunkered and they don't need to be. It is a case study of using land forms as proper and challenging hazards. Elevating the green creates a severe penalty for missing.

17 Nose 

The dearth of bunkers on the 17th "Nose" hole creates an interesting challenge

I liked all the holes at Yale and it is hard to pick a favorite. The best known hole is clearly the Biarritz ninth, with its legendary carry over water to a seriously challenging green. I expected this to be the hole that shined through and the one that would be the most memorable, however, I find myself thinking back about the "Blind" third hole with very fond memories, although I think the three hole stretch from ten through twelve is difficult to beat. If I had to single out one hole, though, it would be the fourteenth "Knoll," which plays only 353 yards from the blue tees. You likely won't see your tee ball land given the hilly terrain. Charles Banks described your second shot on this hole as a "lift and hold shot. The green is elevated on all sides and slopes to the left." As Godley and Kelly point out in Golf at Yale it is a "deceptively compact par-four, made challenging by its tilts, angles, and uneven lies." And, I would add by the narrow nature of the green and your intended target.

The finishing hole is a doozy. A par five of 621 yards from the tips it plays over a crazy combination of hills. Especially for the first time player, there is little sense of where to hit and what would constitute a good golf shot. The terrain is monumental and it appears to not have been sculpted at all, just the original crazy and jumbled land forms. To say that you have to hit your tee shot uphill understates the case. Likewise, the shot down from the high ground encompasses a precipitous fall. It is made all the more interesting by having two distinct fairways you can play. You can go to the right and across the top of the mountain or to a lower plateau on its right. The humps and bumps make it quite unpredictable where your ball will kick unexpectedly. I suppose this is why some don't rate the course as high as it deserves to be. People want fairness in golf today, although this is not really the essence of the game. Bad bounces are part of the deal and the unpredictability of bounces on the course is part of the charm, just the way it is with links golf in the British Isles. There are literally an infinite number of ways and combinations to play this excellent hole.

What a great finishing hole, I personally put it just behind Pebble Beach's 18th as one of the great finishing holes in the game. Too bad the weather turned cloudy and I couldn't get any good pictures.

As you can see I played the course on the perfect fall Saturday with peak seasonal color. The temperature was comfortable and crisp. When the winds shifted you could vaguely hear the band playing occasionally from the nearby Yale Bowl. The leaves were rustling, bells were ringing and there were periods of absolute silence. Is there a better place to play than in a quaint New England collegiate town on an invigorating autumn day? C. B. Macdonald wrote, "To-day there is no better test of golf than the Yale course anywhere, and as years go by it will become more attractive." And it has.

The Course at Yale is private, although you can be introduced as an unaccompanied guest by someone affiliated with the University, including students, faculty or alumni. All they have to do is call the pro shop and grant permission for you to play. If you appreciate classic golf courses I suggest doing so and savor the experience.

For details on all the methods you can use to gain access to the world's best courses, you can pre-order on Amazon:

Monday, June 15, 2015

What Makes Pine Valley Pine Valley?

You know you're having a good summer when it includes an early invitation to play Pine Valley! I am blessed to live an hour away.

Perennially ranked as the #1 golf course in the world, Pine Valley has it all. While many courses have some or many of the elements outlined below, none have the distinct combination of them all.  After being exceptionally lucky to have played the best golf the world has to offer and after my return visit and a period of reflection, below are my thoughts on what makes Pine Valley Pine Valley. Eighteen reasons (one for each hole); but it's the 19th reason that gives away the true secret:

Pine Valley Tea House near #8
Pine Valley's half-way house between the 8th fairway and 12th tee

1.       A visionary founder – George A. Crump, an affluent, low-handicap Philadelphia hotelier and sportsman, who had toured the British Isles and played its great courses before envisioning Pine Valley.

2.       The routing – It’s elegant, unforced and unparalleled. A subtle (yet difficult) use of water as a hazard enhances the design. Crump abhorred “parallelism” and it shows. 

3.       Pedigree – While clearly Crump’s vision, the list of those he consulted and who had a hand or influence over the course is a who’s who of the Golden Age of architecture’s greats: Hugh Wilson, C.H. Alison, Alister Mackenzie, George Thomas, C.B. Macdonald, Robert Hunter, H.S. Colt, Donald Ross and Perry Maxwell. Too many cooks didn’t spoil this stew.

4.       It’s unorthodox approach – There are expansive waste areas, no rakes, and no yardage markers. Quite the opposite of the typical course today’s professionals’ play, where you hear howls of protest if every lie isn’t perfect.

5.       Perfect fairways – Land on the fairway and the unorthodox approach ends. The fairways are manicured to perfection.

6.       The greens – A significant part of Pine Valley’s difficulty emanates from the greens. The fairways are in fact wide, but hitting and holding the greens are the real challenge in Clementon. And they are among the best conditioned on the planet (honorable mention to Winged Foot, Augusta and Carnoustie).

7.       Privacy – It is largely true, you don’t see other golfers or holes most of the time you are playing because of the pine trees and the routing.  And you really are cut off from the outside world. Especially notable in this regard is the 13th-hole and its splendid isolation.

8.       Forced carries – Off almost every tee!

9.       The difficulty – Par of 70, rating of 75.2 and a slope of 155 from the 7,009-yard tips. The course deserves its fierce reputation. Okay, you're not a big-hitter so you play the white tees. Sorry, it doesn't get much easier at 6,532 yards, the slope rating only goes down to 153.

10.The risk/reward options available – There is always a shorter carry available off the tee for the safer player. And an aggressive line available for the tiger. The issue is missing your intended line. The penalty isn’t small. It’s like stepping on a land mine.

11. The mix of long and short holes – With a par four of 320 yards and a par three of 145 yards, the course doesn’t overwhelm the golfer like other difficult courses such as Oakmont and Bethpage Black. In fact, the course is deceptive in that you often think it shouldn’t be that hard if you play it properly. It is the ultimate thinking man’s course that rewards brains over brawn.

12. The intangibles – The hidden location, the mystique, the little town hall and their own police department, the legendary stories, the snapper soup, the sherry on every table, the coleslaw, the discrete valet car parking, the wet towels on a hot day, the enforced no cellphone policy, the understated clubhouse, the overnight cabins, the quirky halfway house, the short course, the pro shop, their esteem for amateur golf, the speed of play, the Crump Cup…

13. The driving range – Among the best in the world, although calling it a driving range is an insult. It is a multi-faceted practice area that has everything you need to warm-up for the stern test to come.

14. The members – Low handicappers and gentleman. Their selection process somehow weeds out what many clubs miss, douches who are overly impressed with themselves because they are good at golf. Pine Valley just has good golfers who love the game. You can feel the reverence for the game while on property. Bravo.

15. The caddies – The Navy Seals of the caddie corps.

16. The natural terrain - The sandy soil makes this ideal golfing terrain, as does the natural land-forms and elevation changes. Unlike many esteemed golf courses Pine Valley achieves greatness without awe-inspiring views of the water. It does so purely on merit and not on beauty, (the course's beauty is rugged and fearsome) or based on memorable shots that professionals have hit during tournaments.

17. It has no weak holes – How many other golf courses can you say honestly that about? Bobby Jones said it best when referring to Pine Valley, “…I do remember every unusual hole, and I can tell you that I will remember every hole on that course.”

18. It’s longevity – Who many other courses have stood the test of time and are almost unchanged from their inception? It is a testament to the quality of the effort.

19. It’s in New Jersey - When people talk about great golf regions they mention “Philadelphia.” You do fly into the City of Brotherly Love to play Pine Valley, but it is in the Garden State indeed

6th hole from tee-2

The par-4 sixth hole from the tee

#12 green

The approach to the short par-4 12th green

13 green complex

The approach the difficult par-4 13th green

15 from tee

The difficult par-5 15th hole. The entire hole tilts from left to right, and notice how it gets progressively narrower as it approaches the green, which plays up-hill and has a false front

When traveling around and experiencing different clubs and their traditions, several common threads appear, and there are certain clubs others like to emulate. You hear often about Augusta, obviously, since they have such great traditions. The other course I have heard about often is Pine Valley: "Our course is like Pine Valley... you can’t see other golfers out on the course, it’s like Pine Valley…the clubhouse is very understated…it’s like Pine Valley…the club is trying to replicate the feel of…Pine Valley…the waste areas are like…Pine Valley..." You get the idea. But there is only one Pine Valley.

My favorite hole on the course is the second. It is the quintessential Pine Valley hole with a forced carry over a waste area to a generous fairway, although one hemmed in by trees. The second shot is UPHILL to a green that is accurately described as challenging. Hit good shots and you are rewarded. Be a little loose and a snowman isn't far off. I'm also a fan of the par-4 12th hole, which is only 327 yards but is the only true dog-leg left on the course (the 13th is also a dogleg left, although does not bend as sharply at #12) and is an understated but challenging hole since the green is narrow and set at an angle to the fairway. I also like seventeen with a fairway set at an angle to the waste area, and another hole which has an uphill (and blind) shot to the green.

P.S. and good news – the pro shop now takes credit cards, with one exception. It seems like the bean counters in corporate home offices are wary of two things being charged to corporate cards: visits to strip clubs and loading up on logoed merchandise at Pine Valley, thus the club only takes personal credit cards and no corporate cards.

For my original write-up of Pine Valley: click here

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Winged Foot Golf Club - East Course

There has been much written about many of the world's greatest golf courses: Herbert Warren Wind gushing about Dornoch and Ballybunion; several books have been written about Bethpage; the romance of Hogan's Alley at Riviera, etc. The course in the top 100 rankings which gets little written about it is Winged Foot's East Course (ranked #66 in the world) designed, like the West, by A.W. Tillinghast. How is it that a course that ranks higher than Valderrama, Cruden Bay and Yeamans Hall is highlighted so little? Could it be that the course if simply riding the coattails of its bigger brother Winged Foot West (ranked #18 in in the world)? Which holes make it a top 100 course exactly?

I am blessed to live close to so much good golf and was fortunate to play Winged Foot East and West back-to-back on the same day so I could have a fresh comparison of the two courses. I didn't do justice to the East course on my first trip, so this post will focus on it.

Winged Foot is the only club in the world that has two ranked courses on my list, although a strong case can be made for both Sunningdale and Royal Melbourne to have two, but that's another story. Both golf courses at Winged Foot opened for play on September 8, 1923.  

The defining characteristics of both courses are the greens, which almost all slope back-to-front and have narrow entry areas. In the 1920s the press dubbed them "bottle-necks." Being above the hole is not recommended. In their 1923 brochure announcing the opening of both courses, the golf committee warned the golfer about the first two holes on the East course. "A dollar bill couldn't lie level on either of the first two greens with their pitches and roll." The second hole is named "Man O'War" because of the necessity of keeping your shot left, or, as in horse racing, in the pole position, to keep out of trouble. At the time of the course's opening "Man O'War" was a popular race horse.

6 east
The par three sixth hole, Winged Foot East, "Trouble"

The par three sixth plays uphill and is about 200-yards long. The hole's name, "Trouble,"--aside from the pitch of the green and the bunkers--is derived from the fact that there is O.B. down the entire right side. It has classic Tillinghast bunkering.

One of the defining features of Pine Valley is how each of the holes are isolated from the others. Not so at Winged Foot, where you see other holes when playing your hole and essentially have vistas of the whole property while playing.

Although all the greens on the course slope back-to-front there is never a time you think they are unfair; the ninth green, for example, has a hump in the rear that serves as a backstop. Tillinghast's description of Winged Foot sums up how much effort he put into the greens, "The holes are like men, all rather similar from foot to neck, but with the greens showing the same varying characters of human faces." If I do have one small criticism of Winged Foot it is, as Tillinghast himself says, that there are many similar holes; I find this to be particularly true on the front nine of the West course where almost a half-dozen holes are of the same basic type tee-to-green. The East has more variety in the style and types of holes.

tenth green east

The 10th green Winged Foot East

The tenth hole on the East Course plays back toward the clubhouse and is relatively simple, at only 353 yards. Although, as members will tell you, when the pin is tucked back left in a narrow part of the green behind bunkers, the hole is anything but easy.

11th green east
The narrow 11th green, Winged Foot East

The eleventh hole is named "Broadway" because like the Great White Way, it bends slightly to the right. This hole is a great illustration of how narrow some of the approaches to the greens are; the difficulty of the greens is in direct proportion to the hole's modest 364 yards. Beware of short par fours. What Tillinghast takes away in length, he makes the golfer pay for around the green. The greens are made to accept shots coming in only on the line of play; being on either side of them you will find yourself playing army golf, marching back-and-forth across the green after failing to hold a delicate pitch shot on them.

  12th green
The 12th green on the East Course

The par five twelfth is a difficult hole from tee to green and the #2 stroke index hole; what makes it particularly difficult is the approach shot to the green. As the opening day booklet says about twelve, "One big trap almost closes the green in front so the third shot must be pitched." It is a brilliant design, and why the 536-yard hole still gives players fits today. Try to land a long iron or wood into that narrow and well protected target.

13 green east
The "Cameo", 13th hole at Winged Foot East viewed from the side

Tillinghast was a master of par three design, and the 13th hole on the East course is the best hole on the entire property in my view. Named "Cameo" it plays only 140-yards but is very narrow and requires a perfectly struck shot. As with all of the greens on Winged Foot's East course, if you are left or right, pitching a shot back onto the green requires precision because the greens are only designed to be approached from the front. The picture above is from the side, and you can get a good sense of how narrow the landing strip is from the tee.

14th hole east
Winged Foot East's 14th "Hell Bent", which doglegs to the right

The East course only has fifty-three traps, so this is golf of the strategic vs. the penal variety that you may find at a course like Oakmont. Although there are relatively few traps, they add to the scenic beauty of the course because your eye is drawn to them, and they are placed with maximum effectiveness to catch wayward shots.

  15 East
The 15th hole at Winged Foot East, "Shrine"

The approach to the elevated green on the sub 350-yard fifteenth hole is over a brook, and as see pictured, the green falls off sharply to the right and rear. The East course finishes with a bang. The seventeenth hole is called "Lightning," since a "bolt of Jove" would be required to move the ball from some of the 207-yard hole's traps. The eighteenth is called "Taps," on a course that opens with a first hole named "Reveille," and "sails happily to a rising green."

A strong case can be made that the best stretch of holes on the property are the East course's eleventh through fifteenth. I am a big fan of the East course and personally prefer playing it to the West; I think it has more shot variety and is a more interesting routing.

Both are fabulous courses where you have to hit and hold the greens or you will have a long day. Although my feet hurt after playing 36 holes and from being on them for close to ten hours, my spirits were soaring as we retired to the majestic clubhouse for a drink. The total golfing experience at Winged Foot is the epitome of private American club golf, with its historic grand clubhouse, experienced and learned caddies, and world-class courses. Those that only play the major championship-hosting West course are missing something special if they skip the East.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

East Lake Golf Club

The grand East Lake Tudor style club house

East Lake Golf Club (ranked #97 in the world) is located in the Atlanta neighborhood of East Lake, only six miles from the city center. The skyscrapers of downtown are visible from the top of the property when you are on the fifteenth green. Going back to East Lake conjured up good feelings, especially since the route to the course is along I-20 which is signposted Augusta. This is especially true since the author has played Augusta and birdied its twelfth hole! The good associations continue when the rushed golfer heads to the half-way house near the first tee to grab a quick sandwich and among the selections is a pimento-cheese. I was glad to play East Lake again with my camera and in summer conditions since my prior visit was during the winter when the greens were overseeded.

The original golf course was laid out by the designer of many undistinguished golf courses, Tom Bendelow, designer of Medinah. In 1913, Donald Ross redesigned the Bendelow course which originally featured two par four and half holes and oddly finished across the lake from the clubhouse. The remodeled course featured a routing plan that provided each nine holes to conclude at the clubhouse. 

The interior of the clubhouse, a Bobby Jones shrine, seen above is the Great Hall

In 1963, the Ryder Cup was held at East Lake, which was won by the U.S. and featured Arnold Palmer as the playing Captain. In preparation for the matches, the course went through a facelift for three years, during which most of the old course was rebuilt and many of the holes changed to provide the quality championship layout the tournament merited. The alterations were performed under the direction of golf course architect George Cobb. In 1994, Rees Jones restored Donald Ross’s original golf course layout making East Lake an eclectic Bendelow-Ross-Cobb-Jones design.

East Lake was the course Bobby Jones played growing up as a youngster and he played the course for a period of 41 years. The interior of the clubhouse is a shrine to Bobby Jones. It includes his Calamity Jane putter, the original scroll conferring the 1958 Freedom of the Burgh of St. Andrews on him, his hickory shafted clubs and his original lockers. It also includes full size replicas of all four of his Grand Slam trophies from 1930, which is fitting because it was only at East Lake that all four were together in one place.

East Lake, like Los Angeles Country Club, is a city course hemmed in in its entirety by a perimeter fence. The course is built on gently rolling hills and with the exception of holes 4, 6, 8 and 17, the holes are routed east-west to play directly into the wind or down wind. After a gentle starter into the wind, the par three second hole plays down wind. You can see below the gently sloping hills and the typical shaved fall-off areas surrounding the green.

  2nd hole

The par three 2nd hole

  4th approach

The par four 4th hole rises up the gentle hill to a green that is approachable with a bump and run shot

The fourth hole and the eighth hole, which runs parallel to it, have depressions that run along them. These depressions were dug out during the Civil War to protect encamped soldiers (presumably Confederates) from attack along Fayetteville Road. As you can see, there are areas to run the ball up to the green at East Lake, but Rees Jones made most of them rise with one-to-two foot elevation changes just before the green to make that more difficult.

  5th from tee
The par five fifth hole from the tee; the hole plays downhill, down-wind

One afternoon Bobby Jones was playing the fifth hole, a good 544-yard downhill par five that bends down the hill. He had to stand and wait for a long time for a group ahead of him to hit and he became so frustrated that he picked up his ball and walked off the course to go build his own course. The course he ended up building was nearby Peachtree (ranked #87 in the world).

9th green 
The par five, downhill 9th hole with its approach shot over the lake

The 551-yard par five ninth hole was my favorite on the course. It sweeps down the hill from a tee box at the top and you have to play your third shot over the lake to a very well protected green. The majestic clubhouse in the background adds to the grandeur of the hole.

9th closeup 
The green complex on the 9th hole

The front nine plays on the west side of the clubhouse and the back nine plays on the east side; and on the back, with the exception of the seventeenth, the holes run parallel to each other as you play up and down the hill. The back nine is the more interesting of the two.

12th green
The elevated twelfth green, with a typical long high-lipped bunker

You can see the style of the bunkering at East Lake from these two pictures of the twelfth and fifteenth greens, which are the product of Rees Jones. They are long and have high lips, making pins tucked right behind them very difficult to access; particularly because these two holes play down wind, the golfer faces an uphill-downwind shot with little margin for error, and the reason they come into play so much, even though in total the course doesn't have that much sand.


The difficult uphill par five fifteenth

The "signature" hole at East Lake is the eighteenth, which is a par three finishing hole which plays 207 yards uphill into the prevailing wind. I was on the green in regulation, but the green is so large I might as well have been off. With its bent grass greens, the direction of the grain is a big factor when putting at East Lake, much more so than other courses I have played. Knowing whether you are into or against the grain is a big deal. I had a couple of putts where it was both, the putt began into the grain and then shifted to down grain due to the contours of the green.

Today the course is owned and run by the East Lake Foundation, a local non-profit whose mission is to give back to the East Lake neighborhood, which it has been instrumental in reviving. Atlantan Tom Cousins was the driving force behind this unique structure. He purchased the course in 1993, brought in Rees Jones, invested $25 million and donated it to the foundation. Their mission, "Golf With A Purpose" is supported by corporations from around the country who are the primary members of East Lake. I am glad I was able to return and do a proper review after all these years. It was a really nice relaxed round on the rolling hills. We had world-class caddies at East Lake, one of whom was receiving a college scholarship from the club. 

The locker room features East Lake's signature Ginger Snaps

The cozy club house is filled with leather chairs and makes a great place to repair to after the round to soak up all the Jones memorabilia. The course is very welcoming and professionally run with a Southern hospitality that I love. Ginger Snaps were Jones' favorite and the recipe used to make them was apparently his mother's.

East Lake has dropped off the world top 100 rankings of late which is too bad. As much as I love the new minimalist designs of Coore-Crenshaw and others, to some degree all the new modern courses are crowding out important courses like East Lake and Ganton and Colonial. It is better to have a balanced set of courses making up the top 100 since these are important courses that the serious golf fan should come to know so that they can better honor the legacy of this great game.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Streamsong Golf Resort

I know I said Augusta would be my last post, but I wasn't anticipating golf at Streamsong.

The winning formula for a new golf resort over the last fifteen years has consisted of a visionary developer acquiring some inexpensive land in a remote location, almost always near the ocean; hiring a new golden-age minimalist golf designer or two, and building some great golf courses. The visionaries have included an eccentric Chicago millionaire, Mike Keiser, who began the trend with Bandon Dunes. This was followed by a Tasmanian spud farmer, Richard Sattler, with the Barnbougle resort in Australia, and a golf obsessed Canadian, Ben Cowan-Dewar who moved his family to a remote Canadian village to pursue his dream. The golf architects of choice in our modern times are Tom Doak and the team of Coore & Crenshaw. So, will the formula work if the visionary developer is a NYSE listed commodity company and the inexpensive land is not near the water?

While it might not be as romantic a story as the first three, the answer is a resounding yes.

The modern style clubhouse at Streamsong paradoxically fits in and looks appropriate

I would like to add my voice to the chorus of praise being heaped on the Streamsong golf courses in Florida. My mental image of Florida golf is flat terrain, palm trees, thick Bermuda grass and lots of water. Streamsong is the opposite of “typical” Florida golf, located east of Tampa and South of Orlando in the geographic middle of the state. I know this offers a simplistic view of Florida golf; the reality is, the state has some pretty diverse courses such as Calusa Pines and World Woods. But, you get my drift, which is that this is not like Doral, PGA National, TPC Sawgrass, Bay Hill, Seminole or the myriad of flat courses with an abundance of water hazards.

This part of Florida is less traveled and semi-rural; the town that Streamsong is located in has less population than some blocks in Manhattan. The large amount of jobs created by Streamsong is a mini boom to the area, which is dotted with farms and ranches. Florida is the third largest state in terms of cattle production and this is visible as you drive to Streamsong. The other big industry in this part of Florida is phosphate mining, which brings us to why the courses were built. The Mosaic Company has been extracting phosphate, a key component of fertilizer, in the area, for years. In fact they still are, as you drive to and play the course you can still see their facilities all around you. Some very wise executives at Mosaic, who are clearly among us golf obsessed, had the vision to take the land that was mined and re-purpose it into a golf resort. 

One of the benefits of the way phosphate is mined (apologies to my tree-hugging readers) is that it is extracted from beneath the ground, thus large amounts of earth are removed and piled up. 12 million yards of earth were moved between the two courses, Tom Doak has estimated. This process took an otherwise flat terrain and created sand dunes and lots of elevation changes. The other natural benefit of Streamsong is that Florida was at one time under water, thus the soil is very sandy, having been a sea bed in earlier millenia. In fact, our caddie told us they frequently find sharks teeth among the sand.

Having played Bandon, Cabot Links and the Barnbougle resorts I can state definitively that Streamsong can proudly join the ranks of golf destinations worth going out of your way for. At several times throughout the day I was reminded very much of playing at Barnbougle in Tasmania in particular. The picture below gives you a good sense of why. Florida does not come to mind when looking at this picture, taken from the third tee of the Coore & Crenshaw course.

A vista from the Coore/Crenshaw course, 3rd tee looks nothing like Florida

My memory is not particularly good and I personally find the names of the courses, Red and Blue to be confusing. When thinking back I often got confused trying to recall which was Red and which was Blue. A little multiple-choice trivia question to begin. The courses were named Red and Blue because:

(a) Tom Doak happens to live in a blue state and Coore/Crenshaw in red states and the owners were making a political statement.
(b) The third course is going to be called White and the owners are going with a patriotic theme.
(c) The course names represent the color of the ink the course architects used when routing the courses on a map simultaneously when looking for potential designs.

The correct answer is the more mundane C. It would be simpler if they named them simply the Doak course and the Coore & Crenshaw course. 

Although there are trees at the perimeter of both courses, they do not come into play, both are wide open and bumping and running the ball are a delightfully consistent part of the golf here. The tee areas at Streamsong blend into the fairways and are not really distinctive tee boxes. This no doubt makes mowing and maintenance easy, and creates a lot of options on tee placement.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than the fifth hole on the Blue (Doak) course. The hole is a downhill par three of between 102 and 150 yards depending on the tees you play and where the pin is. When we got to the tee someone in my group pointed out that you could actually putt the ball to the green given that the flag was front left and there was fairway all the way from tee to green. As I am always up for a stupid challenge I decided to tee off with a putter and ended up about a foot short of the green! 

 The par three fifth hole on the Doak course at Streamsong gives many options including putting off the tee

The green is quite large lengthwise, at first I thought it might be part of a double green complex, but it is not. I walked it off at 245 feet from side-to-side, so most of the time putting may not be a good option, but it did create a lot of debate about whether this was a good design feature or not; personally I liked it. Streamsong lists holes-in-one on their website, including the club used for those that have already gotten them, and they range from a 54 degree wedge up to a 7-iron. One of my new goals is to get listed on the site with the club listed as “putter”. 

My favorite hole on the Doak (Blue) course is the par three seventh which is “the” picture hole everyone captures when playing Streamsong, and for good reason. It is such a picturesque hole of between 178 and 203 yards, and a delight to play over water into such a secluded area between the sand dunes.

"The" picture hole at Streamsong, the par three seventh on the Doak (Blue) course

Another hole I really liked is the sixth hole, which, coincidentally, has the same hole number and reminded me of the sixth hole at St. Enodoc in England, one of Tom Doak’s favorite courses. The dominant feature on the hole is the huge "Himalaya" sand dune on the left side of the hole near the green. 

Streamsong Doak (Blue) sixth hole with a Himalaya sand dune

 I left my ball in the “cleavage” between the two humps on the green!

The enticing green, Streamsong Blue, sixth hole

The other hole I really liked is number thirteen (not pictured) similar to a hole at Pacific Dunes, a par four of between 279 and 312 yards that gets progressively more narrow as you get to the green, which is set up on a hill and is well bunkered.

Some of the greens on the Blue course are border line tricked up, like the twelfth, a par four, with its massive humps and slope.

The very tricky twelfth green, Streamsong Blue

Putting is one of the strong suits of my overall deteriorating and currently mediocre game, and I found the greens on the Blue course to be very difficult to read and putt on, as did the other three golfers in my group. It takes quite a bit of time to adjust to the putting on both courses given that almost all the greens have pretty good contours.

I know I am comparing the holes at Streamsong to a lot of other courses, but I do think they are apt. The tenth (Blue) reminds me of Kingston Heath near Melbourne with its flat terrain and abundance of bunkers. In some respects this shouldn't be too much of a surprise since the terrain and sandy soil are very similar here to the Sandbelt region of Melbourne.

Streamsong Blue, par three tenth hole, shades of Kingston Heath 

The Blue course has a gentle start to ease you into the round, the first half dozen holes being relatively easy. The first tee shot plays from atop a large sand hill downwind to a wide open fairway. It is good for the ego to begin your round this way. The tee box is one of the highest points on the property which has a total elevation change of 75 feet. The easy start is more than made up for with the difficulty of the finish. Sixteen is a par three of over 200 yards playing into a cross-wind and sloping left to right all the way. I think the hole is too penal given the cross-wind, the severity of the slopes and the bunkers. I get it, golf doesn't always have to be fair, rub of the green and all that, but sometimes the balance is tipped too far like it is here.

The seventeenth is a LONG par five, approaching 600 yards from the back tees. I’m not sure if the prevailing wind is the same as the day I played, but it was into us. In addition to the length, the hole gently rises from tee to green. The second shot is a crucial one where you have to decide whether you can carry the large bunkers set at an angle to the fairway up a sloping hill. It’s a big hole, reminiscent in some respects of the fourth hole at Bethpage Black.

Bethpage Black meets Sand Hills on the 17th at the Doak Course, Streamsong

I played the Blue course in the morning and then immediately played the Coore & Crenshaw course, which has a difficult start. For those looking for a maximum challenge, play the Blue first followed by the Red and you have the most difficult half dozen holes on the property in a row.

The par three sixth on the Coore & Crenshaw (Red) course, Streamsong

The Coore & Crenshaw course and the Doak courses have many similarities as the two designers don't have very different styles in their minimalist design approaches. Tom Doak calls the courses "cousins" rather than "twins" and I think that is right. I found the Coore & Crenshaw design has more of the course out in front of you and less blind shots. On the front nine of the Doak course alone the second shots on the first and fourth holes are blind as is the tee shot at nine. The Doak course has wider fairways and wilder greens. The Coore & Crenshaw course has slightly narrower fairways and slightly less sloped greens.

I enjoyed the Coore & Crenshaw course, as I always do, since their design aesthetic suits my eye. I particularly enjoyed holes fifteen through seventeen, probably the best three hole stretch on the property. Number sixteen is a Biarritz style hole of between 160 and 208 yards that plays over the same lake as the seventh hole on the Blue course.

 The sixteenth "Biarritz" hole on the Coore/Crenshaw Course

Closeup of the Biarritz green, the 16th hole on the Red course

The predominant impression coming away from Streamsong is the sand dunes, however, both architects also took advantage of the savanna the course is on. One of the things that makes Cypress Point so special is that the course has six holes routed through the dunes, six holes routed through the trees and six holes routed along the water. Streamsong doesn't have any holes routed across the water obviously, but there is more variety that meets the eye, particularly the holes routed through the grassy plains part of the property that abuts the trees. These include the ninth and tenth of the Blue course and the twelfth and seventeenth (below) on the Red course.

The seventeenth hole Streamsong Red at dusk shows off the variety of challenge

There is much debate about which course is better and which people prefer playing. I am not going to join that particular debate as I like both courses a lot. They are both similar in the sense that they are courses that encourage you to use the ground to bump and run shots and both place a premium on putting. I can't tell you the last time I walked and played 36 holes in a day, but I did happily at Streamsong. Like at Sand Hills, Cabot Links, Barnbougle and Bandon, Streamsong is one of those places when you finish your round you want to head right back to the first tee and play again. For those who can't access Sand Hills in Nebraska, Streamsong is a credible public alternative to see the genius of Coore & Crenshaw. The courses are built on 2,300 acres of the 16,500 that Mosaic owns in this area and nature is in abundance. While playing we saw a large turtle crossing one fairway and we saw an ominous looking long black snake in the rough. Some bunkers had unsettling sized paw prints in them from Bobcats which inhabit the area. Other wildlife present include deer, wild hogs, wild turkey and the more typical for Florida: alligators lurking in the water.

A shot from the seventh hole, Coore & Crenshaw course, similar to Sand Hills in Nebraska

So where do the courses rank among Florida golf? Where do they rank in the world? How is it compared to Bandon? I would say they rank pretty high among Florida golf, along with Seminole among the top three. It is less windy than Bandon, making it a big plus in my book. Plus, you can leave New York in the morning, fly down and play a round before sundown which makes it very convenient. Arguably it is easier to get to Streamsong than it is to Kiawah or Pinehurst. Hard to say where these courses would land in the world rankings, but I think it is safe to say they belong there as they rank ahead of a dozen or two of the courses currently on the list. Maybe I am suffering from rating and ranking fatigue (pretty ironic coming from me) given all the new courses coming on line and all of them hyped as top 100. Putting aside the rankings, they are special courses to play and worth a journey.

Both courses are designed for walking and it is strongly encouraged. I have a lumbago and am getting old, but with some help from my Advil I found the courses easy to walk. After 9:30 am you can take a cart and a fore-caddie, although the carts can only go around the perimeter of the course, so you probably walk as much as if you didn't have a cart. Streamsong also offers an interesting option for playing. A six hole or twelve hole round is available after 2:00 pm, which I think is a great idea.

The new hotel doesn't quite fit in, it looks more like a corporate headquarters or hospital building, but that is pretty much the only thing on the whole property that doesn't perfectly fit in

Service was outstanding throughout the day, everyone was chipper and attentive and my caddie, Noah Zelnik, a former tour caddie and PGA player was as good as I've ever had. Kudos to the nameless visionary executives at Mosaic who had the fore-sight to develop this into something so appealing and classy. The property is isolated enough that you see no cars nor do you hear background din from a highway, and the hotel has a place on its roof where you sit out and take advantage of star gazing since there is no "light pollution" in the area.  It was bold to setup the courses to strongly encourage walking so that you could truly take nature in and enjoy the ambiance of the quiet and beautiful surroundings.

I can't wait to go back.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Augusta National Golf Club - A Cinderella Story

"I shall never forget my first visit to the property... The long lane of magnolias through which we approached was beautiful. The old manor house with its cupola and walls of masonry two feet thick was charming. The rare trees and shrubs of the old nursery were enchanting. But when I walked out on the grass terrace under the big trees behind the house and looked down over the property the experience was unforgettable."

Augusta Entry Drive

The quote leading off the post is not mine, but is from Bobby Jones. His recollection is from seeing the property before the course was built and it is still the perfect description of it to this day. My attempt to capture my day at Augusta is below. Lou Holtz once said, "I'm often asked to explain the mystique of Notre Dame. I reply, 'If you were there, no explanation in necessary. If you weren't, no explanation is satisfactory'." For those who haven't had the opportunity to play it, it is quite difficult for words to do it justice. For those who are among the lucky ones who have, no explanation is necessary.

Augusta National Golf Club (ranked #5 in the world) is the hardest course in the top 100 to get on. I probably have to qualify my prior sentence so I don't get bombarded with email from Down Under reminding me that Ellerston Golf Club is probably the hardest in the world to get on, but that's another story and wasn't on my to do list. It took me fifteen years to get invited to Augusta National, but I finally managed to do it in style. All the pictures on this post were happily taken with my camera, and as you can see, the conditions were perfect when I was there. It was 74 degrees and sunny with a slight wind.

What better circumstances are there to play Augusta National than when the azaleas are blooming, when the course is in tournament condition and with a Masters winner or two? Well, none.

I saved the best experience for last, and walking off the eighteenth green of Augusta National as the last hole to complete my quest is the only way to finish. I am one very lucky bastard.

After I was invited to play at Augusta National it was overwhelming, and it took several days for me to come back down to earth. Because I am just a little anal and clearly I like lists, I immediately began to keep three: 1) People who were previously my friends who told me they now hated me from jealousy; 2) People who offered to caddie for me if needed; and 3) People who wanted "Augusta National" and not "Masters" logo items that you can only buy in the pro shop in the clubhouse. Sleeping the night before playing at Augusta was restless at best, the sense of anticipation was crushing. Sitting in my hotel room prior to the round, I was a clinical example of adult ADHD and displayed all the symptoms in classic form: inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. I was babbling, moving things around the room senselessly and not listening to a word my wife said.

What was it like?

Short answer: Wow!

Long answer: It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, if a bit overwhelming. Driving under the canopy of trees lining Magnolia Lane is something I never dreamed would happen to me, so the range of emotions that I felt when it happened were wide, as I was trying to comprehend my dream being realized. The most prevalent feelings were joy, fear, excitement, disbelief, exhilaration and anticipation.

As anyone who has ever been to the Masters knows, everything about the place is perfect. Walking through the door of the plantation-style antebellum clubhouse is as memorable an experience as riding down Magnolia Lane. Having previously been to the Masters twice, I had already experienced the jaw-dropping awe of the property and its rolling hills. Not that it ever gets old, because it doesn't. Being anywhere on the verdant Augusta grounds is special, no matter how many times you have been there. This time, being able to walk into the clubhouse, an act previously verboten, was truly amazing. I do believe I had the biggest smile of my life on my face when I entered.

As with everything else in this adult version of Disneyland, the interior of the stately clubhouse is flawless. It is the antithesis of glitz and ostentation; it is simple, but elegant; the ultimate embodiment of understated Southern charm. There are scores of little touches they get right, including a mounted display board in the entry foyer. The board has slots that hold the engraved names of members who are currently on the property. They slide little brass name plates in and out as members enter and leave the property. I did my best not to gawk at the board, but did recognize a couple of names, including a former Secretary of State who was present. The clubhouse, with a two-story veranda around the entire building was built in 1854; is a veritable museum; touring it is special, as it holds the permanent Masters trophy, special golf clubs donated to the club from past champions and a big oil painting of President Eisenhower. Ascending the winding stairway leads you to the second floor, which houses the dining room where they hold the champions dinner each year and the champions locker room. Starting with Bobby Jones, and thinking about all the great golfers who have been in the clubhouse and walked over these hallowed grounds over the last 80 years gives me goosebumps.

My warm-up was on the driving range used during the Masters instead of on the members driving range. I have obviously played a lot of good golf courses and have experienced teeing off at some famous locales that are pressure packed, such as the Old Course at St. Andrews and the first tee at Merion with lunch in progress. Hitting my first tee shot at Augusta was the most nerve-racking of all and shortened both my breath and my back swing. My palms were sweaty and my stomach full of butterflies. The first drive is over a big swale, and although the fairway is wide, the target area is not, since it narrows between the huge bunker on the right and the big Georgia pines on the left. In retrospect, it was one of the narrowest fairway landing areas on the course. Making contact with the ball on the first tee was special. Having the ball actually go my normal distance down the fairway was a bonus!

I played well on the first six holes, then the gravity of the situation hit me and I fell apart for two holes. It is really hard to comprehend that I was lucky enough to be able to actually play Augusta National. Many thanks to the caddies who helped me stay calm and in the present and enjoy the moment. Just as all roads lead to Rome, all golfers dream of the back nine at Augusta on a Sunday afternoon, and here I am in just such a spot.

The practice putting green is near the tenth tee at Augusta National. After we teed off on ten, a multiple-time winner and Ryder Cup captain walks up to the tee and says, "Do you guys mind if I join you on the back?" Hard to conceive of, right? My playing partner says, "No problem with me, John, is it ok if he joins us?" What am I going to say, "No, I'm sort of in a groove, why don't we continue as a two-some!" My fairy tale story continues...

Nelson Bridge #13 Augusta
Nelson Bridge over Rae's Creek from the 13th tee to the 13th fairway, as seen from Hogan Bridge

From tee to green there is no rough; so, truth be told, putting your ball in play is actually not that hard. The course plays 6,365 yards from the member tees. The fairways are generous, they look and feel like carpets, and every lie is perfect. The greens are also perfection, without question the best in the world.  The most difficult shots tee to green are those you have to hit off of the pine needles if you hit off the fairway. The real tests of Augusta National are chipping, holding your ball on the greens and putting. The greens are fast, as you would expect. They are significantly harder on the back nine, in my humble opinion. In particular, I found the thirteenth, fourteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth to be like putting on the top of a glass table.

I am an average golfer (15 handicap) and if there is one hope that I had going into the round it was to play Amen Corner well. A sense of calm and peace overtook me as I walked onto the eleventh tee. To be able to hit the same shots the professionals hit is a dream every golfer has. To be able to pull it off and not cease up was a treat. One of the highlights of my life was hitting the middle of the eleventh green in regulation (the hole plays 400 yards from the member tees) with a shot that got a "great shot" shout out from two former tournament winners. Luckily, my birdie putt was captured by my alert caddie who knew the gravity of the moment and took the camera out of my golf bag without being asked. I rolled it to within six inches. I was not disappointed with a tap in par to start Amen Corner. Walking over the Hogan Bridge is something that cannot be described; it is a solemn, spiritual experience.

Birdie Putt on #11 Augusta
Putting for birdie on #11 on a brilliant day with the azaleas in bloom

Standing on the twelfth tee I mentally blocked out the water, the ultra-shallow green, the bunkers in the front and in back, and everything else. I adjusted perfectly for the one club wind, visualized the shot, saw only the flag and took a very deep breath. I ended up hitting one of the best shots of my life, eight feet from the hole. This is the reason you stand on the range year after year and hit tens of thousands of practice balls; so that when you need to, you can pull off the shot of your life, and it was satisfying. On #12 the member tee and the pro tee are in the same place, so I had the exact same shot they hit during the Masters, a 155-yarder over Rae's Creek. My putt broke a good cup and a half and when it landed in the bottom of the hole for birdie, it was hard to absorb. I have had my ups and downs with my golf game over the years, but it was very satisfying to birdie what Jack Nicklaus calls, "the hardest hole in tournament golf." I was one under through two holes on Amen Corner, and hit a drive straight down the middle of the thirteenth fairway.  I didn't so much walk over Nelson Bridge as I did float over it.

#13 tee Augusta
The view from the back tee on the thirteenth

My luck ran out when my ball rolled back off the thirteenth green, but I was still overjoyed, having just lived every golfer's dream. When the legendary golf writer Herbert Warren Wind coined the phrase "Amen Corner," he described it as your second shot on the 11th, the entire 12th hole and your tee shot on 13. In the original true sense of Amen Corner, I played it to near perfection. My favorite hole was the thirteenth; it is just breathtaking and on a scale that most golf holes can never achieve. The back tee on the thirteenth is one of the most peaceful places in the world. It sits in a little alcove set among the splendor and beauty of Augusta, and standing there one has not a care in the world.

#13 green Augusta
The approach to the par five thirteenth green over Rae's Creek

I am blessed, and for some reason the golf gods were good enough to let me play to my handicap when I played Augusta National. As is typical, I had my ups and downs. I hit my tee shot on sixteen into the water,  pulled my ball through the Eisenhower Tree on seventeen, hit my fair share of chip shots fat and three putted more than normal, as the greens were tournament ready. After my final putt dropped on the eighteenth green I shook hands with two green jacket winners. To say I was in a state of elation is a gross understatement. At that moment, I was the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

As an added bonus, after the round I also got to play the par three course and to have a drink in the champions locker room. It is quite small and intimate, with only three tables that seat four at each. The veranda outside the room overlooks the circular entry drive and Magnolia Lane. The room was full when I entered and I will leave it to your imagination as to who was in the room and what happened next. If I told you, you wouldn't believe me anyway. Hollywood couldn't have scripted it any better.

I have a big imagination. You have to, to envision playing Augusta and completing this quest. My experience at Augusta National exceeded anything I could have ever imagined. Any one of my experiences that day are remarkable in and of their own right. Are my descriptions hyperbole? Not in the least, when you experienced what I did as the culmination of a long journey. Collectively, they are truly hard to take in and represent a dream come true. The title song from The Wizard of Oz sums up my day:

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high
There's a land that I've heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream,
Really do come true.

Would you go if invited?

Links Magazine did a readers poll a couple of years back and asked the following question, "You're on a business trip in Atlanta and have an important meeting that cannot be rescheduled. The night before the meeting, you receive a last minute invitation to play Augusta National Golf Club the following morning. What do you do?"

57% responded that they would skip and meeting and play
43% said they would attend the meeting

The 43% are clearly out of their mind. Are you kidding me?

What PGA players think about Augusta

Sports Illustrated polled the players in 2012 about the Masters. Their answers are below and my opinion in parenthesis.

1. The 11th hole was ranked as the hardest. (I think the seventh and tenth holes are harder)

2. The 12th hole was ranked as the best hole and as the favorite shot on the course (hard to disagree)

3. The 13th hole was ranked as their favorite hole (I agree)

4. 62% of them had never tried the pimento cheese sandwich!

5. 50% of those polled said the major they would most like to win would be the Masters

Some of my favorite quotes about Augusta

"The course is perfection, and it asks perfection" - Nick Faldo

"You get the feeling that Bobby Jones is standing out there with you" - Lee Janzen

"I always said that if they have a golf course like this in heaven, I want to be the head pro" - Gary Player

Augusta truisms

There are three truisms that anyone who has been to the Masters knows:

1. The neighborhood the course is in is more befitting to a suburban strip mall in New Jersey and is lined with Waffle Houses and fast food chains.

2. The steepness of the terrain doesn't come through on TV. Especially how much the first hole plays down and up. Also, the uphill shots required on nine and eighteen are much more dramatic when seen in person, given the big elevation changes. The most dramatic hole of all is the tenth, which plays almost straight down hill.

3. The entire property is perfect. Quite literally perfect. There are no weeds. Nothing is out of place. Those who have been to the Masters know how perfect it is, including the wooden pine bathroom houses that are spotless. The interior of the clubhouse is also perfect. I don't know if they paint the place every day, but the interiors of the buildings look like they were freshly painted. The flooring is polished, the carpets are spotless and look freshly laid, and the lucky people working there are charming and gracious, and make you feel at home. No detail is too small to overlook at Augusta National. Inside the clubhouse they don't use an electric vacuum cleaner since the noise would disturb the perfect ambiance of the place. Instead, they use an old school push style that makes no noise.

Unlike any other

Pine Valley is the #1 ranked course in the world and Cypress Point is #2, and an absolute dream land. Everyone talks about Pebble Beach, and you get chills playing the Old Course at St. Andrews when they announce your name on the first tee. But the course EVERYBODY asks about when I tell them what I've been doing is Augusta. Have you played Augusta? How did you get on Augusta?

I have played in some unreal and memorable places. My day at Loch Lomond was exceptional. My experience and the ambiance of the hunting lodge at Morfontaine is still something I think about all the time. It is also pretty hard to beat an overnight stay at The National Golf Links of America. Yet, this is the one to tell the grand kids about (some day). Everyone I meet in my life from now on will hear about my birdie on the twelfth hole.

#13 looking back 
The 13th fairway looking back toward the tee shows the massive curve around Rae's Creek

Augusta trivia

Some interesting trivia facts about Augusta taken mostly from David Owen's The Making of the Masters:

1. The tress that line Magnolia Lane were planted before the Civil War

2. President Eisenhower never attended the Masters because of possible security problems

3. Before there were tour caddies, golfers recruited bellhops from the local Bon-Air Hotel to serve as caddies

4. Cliff Roberts handled Eisenhower's personal finances and investments

5. The golf shop makes change with new bills because Clifford Roberts didn't like dirty bills

6. There are no tee times at Augusta National. Captains of industry are very civilized and no doubt don't all show up at once. The limited number of cabins for overnight play self-regulates the number of people that play, as most members don't live locally.

7. The two nines originally played in reverse. The 1934 Masters was the only one played with the front and back opposite of the way they play today.

8. Augusta has no slope and course rating from the U.S.G.A. thus you can't really post your score after playing. I'm not sure why they never had the course rated, perhaps to do with privacy and limiting access?

What will you do now that you are done playing the top 100 courses?

People have asked me this question a lot. I contemplated giving up golf altogether, since what I just did can't be topped. Like Bobby Jones, I thought, wouldn't it be great to go out at the top. Jones retired at his peak in 1930 after winning the impregnable quadrilateral, as he termed the Grand Slam. My friends reminded me that I'm no Bobby Jones, so a few other ideas I'm kicking around:

1. Go back to Cruden Bay and play it over and over and over

2. Go and sit in the Sunningdale clubhouse for a week drinking Guinness and smoking cigars

3. Try to join the Links Club in New York

4. Eat at the top 100 restaurants in the world

5. Move to Queenstown, New Zealand, herd sheep and drive a taxi while playing golf at Jack's Point a lot

How did you get on the course?

Unfortunately, like in Las Vegas, what happens at Augusta National stays at Augusta National. This will remain my secret. That is, unless my book deal comes through with its big advance, in which case I will give all the details :). What I can say is that asking to play is futile. Like joining the club, you can't ask them, they have to ask you. Asking to play is an automatic no. Think about it, members would be inundated with requests every day if you could ask them to play since this is the course every golfer obsesses about. In this regard, Augusta National is truly unlike all other golf courses in the world. If you meet a member of Shinnecock Hills or Riviera or many of the other top courses, chances are you can ask them and as long as you are not a total JO, you can usually get invited, as they are proud to show off their course, especially to those that appreciate the history of the game and golf course architecture.  A prior post of mine does outline the ways you can get onto the course:  A Dozen Ways to Play Augusta. Good luck if you are trying, and sorry, I can't help.

What are your favorite courses and holes?

Alas, a complex question best answered by this post: The Best Holes and Courses. My day at Augusta was by far the best overall experience of my journey playing the top 100 courses given what happened to me on that day. In terms of the course only, I would rank only a half-dozen or so courses above it including Cypress Point, Sand Hills, the National Golf Links of America, Merion, and Sunningdale. My top five holes in the world are the thirteenth at Augusta, the fifteenth at Cypress Point, Maidstone's fourteenth, Kawana's fifteenth and the seventh at Sunningdale.

Was it hard to play the top 100 golf courses in the world?

Yes. To put the feat in perspective, by completing my quest I become only the 23rd person to do so, the same number of men who have been to the moon: The list of those who have completed playing. I tried to calculate the percentage of people in the world that have done this and dividing 23 into 7 billion gave a result with a lot of zeros after the decimal point. The odds of winning the lottery are higher than the odds of playing all 100 of the top golf courses in the world.

The hardest courses to get on aside from Augusta are Morfontaine in France, Hirono and Nauro in Japan, Wade Hampton in North Carolina, San Francisco Golf Club and The Golf Club in Ohio.

Thank you 

A heartfelt thanks to everyone who has been kind to me along the way, particularly those that hosted me and had to tolerate looking at my terrible swing. Thank you to all my loyal and supportive readers. Special thanks to my mates Tom, Chris and Sheldon who accompanied me to many of the world's great golf courses and are fabulous company. We have shared many laughs together. Thank you for being such good friends, I couldn't have done it without you. The biggest thanks of all goes to the most tolerant and greatest wife in the world! Thank you.

One of the lessons learned from this experience is to be patient. I pressed hard to get on Augusta for years and for the last two had sort of given up, and figured completing the top 99 courses in the world would be a pretty good feat. Little did I know that all those previous no's and rejections in my attempt to play the course were for a reason. Fate had decided that my quest should end with the ultimate climax. Just like in your game, sometimes when you give up, you play your best. Other lessons learned: be nice to everyone you meet, think big, have perseverance and persistence, and believe. There is no way to pay everyone back that helped me, so I will continue to pay it forward and share my luck and good fortune with others.

This will be my last post now that the quest is complete.

Post Script - Did I mention I birdied twelve?