Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Top 10 Best Experiences at Bandon Dunes

It has been ten years since my first visit to Bandon and I finally made it back; I had forgotten how good it is. I played both Pacific Dunes and Bandon Dunes early in my quest without my camera, so I am updating the course profiles and including an overview of the entire resort. To be honest, it took me a decade to return because I don’t like to play golf in high winds and I thought the courses get loads of wind all the time. As I am often, I was wrong. Although there are times when the wind can howl, there are an equal number of days when it is calm. In general, the wind picks up throughout the day, so morning rounds tend to be more placid.

I came home from my June visit with a sun tan; we had only one round where there was a two club wind, otherwise it was in the mid-seventies with brilliant sunshine and minimal winds.

  bd stiff flag
Woe betide the golfer at Bandon Dunes when the pin flags are standing upright in a stiff wind

Before looking at each course individually, I’ll start off with some do’s and don’ts at Bandon:

Top recommendations while at Bandon Dunes

1. Play Bandon Dunes in the morning when the winds are lower
2. Play Pacific Dunes in the morning when the winds are lower
3. Play the 13-hole par three Bandon Reserve course to rediscover that golf doesn’t have to be a full eighteen-hole round in order to be immensely enjoyable
4. Play Old Macdonald in the afternoon as the sun is setting
5. Putt on the Punchbowl course, drink in hand, at twilight
6. Sit in front of the roaring oversized fire pit outside McGee’s pub and enjoy a cocktail or a cigar
7. Order the ultimate comfort food (Grandma’s Meatloaf) at McGee’s pub
8. Go for an early morning or late afternoon walk on any of the courses and listen to the sounds of nature and absorb the isolated surroundings
9. Have a card game or play pool in the Bunker Bar in the Lodge
10. Have dinner at the Pacific Grill; the food is inventive and delicious
11. Take a caddie

Top things to avoid while at Bandon Dunes

1. Walking Bandon Trails as your second round of the day. The walk is very difficult.
2. The bunkers left of the par three 17th "Redan" hole at Pacific Dunes. Yikes!
3. Using your lob wedge around the greens. Putt or chip with a less lofted club since the lies are so tight.
4. Acting like a complete wanker by playing music on the course. *

The Bandon Experience

Is it just me, or do you fantasize while traveling that you could see yourself permanently relocating to the location you are visiting? I have fantasized about living in Scotland, Rome, Florence, Queenstown, New Zealand, the Caribbean, Charleston, and many more locations. My latest fantasy is to move to the Oregon Coast. What do you think? Play some world-class golf courses, ride my 4 x 4 along the broad beaches along the coast (even though I don’t own a 4 x 4), take up fly fishing, take some day trips to the Willamette Valley wine country? Life would be good.

The Bandon Dunes resort, located in Southern Oregon, five hours from Portland, represents the best that golf has to offer. The resort, conceived and built by entrepreneur Mike Keiser, was developed with an ethos that I find refreshing in our age of rampant commercialism. The resort was built with the philosophy "Golf as it was meant to be." All the courses are walking only and were designed in the traditional style you find in the British Isles. This is links golf with no cement cart paths, no formalities, and an abundance of caddies. In this regard (the overall philosophy), Bandon Dunes is superior to other resorts in the U.S., many of which were built with the intention of hosting large crowds and major championships.

Bandon Dunes is closest to golf's founding philosophy: it is public and was designed to put great golf above all else. When he conceived of the resort, Keiser also selected relatively unknown (at the time) architects: the Scotsman David McLay Kidd for Bandon Dunes and Tom Doak for Pacific Dunes, which turned out to be brilliant moves. Rather than imposing pre-conceived notions on this special stretch of sand dunes, each developed the courses in a minimalist philosophy and achieved great results.

I saw Mike Keiser interviewed on The Golf Channel when Bandon Dunes hosted the 2006 Curtis Cup and they asked him what he was most proud of. His answer was that the courses at Bandon were packed in the winter, often times while it was raining, and that group after group continued to tee off nonetheless. It is a testament to how good it is. You have to like love Keiser’s philosophy. His vision is that the Bandon Dunes Resort becomes a great venue for amateur golf and that they would play host to amateur, not professional, events. His basic philosophy is to run the resort to break even, not to gouge golfers. I personally find this philosophy to be a breath of fresh air in a golf world increasingly obsessed with housing developments and courses built to host major championships and with escalating fees. I was continually surprised at how reasonable the golf, food, and drinks were the entire time I was on property.

The Bandon Dunes Resort has one of the largest caddie programs in the United States and I give credit to Keiser for emphasizing this and supporting the profession. Playing at the Bandon Resort reminds me of playing in Scotland, Ireland, and England; the lies are tight and most of the courses are links style. The courses are enhanced by the fact that the location is pristine. In this remote stretch of Oregon the air is clearer, there is no pollution or large industry nearby and the colors of nature are made sharper by the simple, bright elements. It is not unusual to turn around while playing and be astounded with the beauty of a brilliant blue sky offset by puffy white clouds and the verdant landscape. Building courses along an ocean-side precipice and allowing golfers to promenade along the towering cliff tops with a 360-degree panoramic view was a stroke of genius.

Bandon Dunes

David McLay Kidd is on record as saying he never put anything down on paper while building Bandon Dunes. He just built it. The man is a clear genius being able to do this. I have (obviously) played a great deal of golf in Scotland and Bandon Dunes truly feels like you are playing golf in the British Isles: the tight feel of the turf is the same, as is the gorse and sand dunes. Little things, like the way the walking paths are routed are genuine, as are the unkempt but authentic and aesthetically pleasing views on the course. For those that haven’t played golf on the other side of the Atlantic, Bandon Dunes is as good an approximation of playing there as can be.

One of the areas where Kidd exceled in the design of Bandon Dunes is in the framing of holes and shots. To a degree I can’t remember on other courses, he gives interesting targets and aiming points on each shot. Greens and fairways are framed by sand dunes, the ocean, pot bunkers, and gorse. His course routing is so natural it looks like it has been there for a century and is part of the natural landscape. In Kidd’s own words, “it’s natural, unabashed, simple, honest, uncontrived, beautiful, adventurous and a thousand other things that man cannot dictate, design or affect.”


There are so many holes to like at Bandon, but I single out a few below. The third hole, a par five, shows off the way Kidd has framed holes beautifully:

  bd5-3
Bandon Dunes 5th hole

A picture is truly worth a thousand words as shown on the par three sixth, which is breathtaking. It's a jaw dropper and as pretty as any hole in the world:

  BD 6 green
Bandon Dunes par three 6th hole

The 12th is another stunning par three set against the backdrop of the Pacific:

  bd12 (2)
Bandon Dunes 12th hole

I am also a big fan of the bunkerless par five 13th hole that tests you with uneven lies and links-style unpredictable bounces. I liked the short 14th hole, an inland 359-yard par four that has a true feel of links golf. The hole's green is set among large gorse bushes surrounded by sand dunes, and depending upon the wind the green may be driveable on any given day. I had the feeling walking up to the green that I was in a place like Cruden Bay or Royal Dornoch.

  bd14
Bandon Dunes 14th hole

The 17th hole has one of the best views in golf from the tee box. The view of the large dunes and broad beach below, set against a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean prove quite a distraction to golf. The hole itself plays away from the ocean, but has very good risk/reward options and plays to an elevated green.


The finishing hole at Bandon plays back to the clubhouse and is inevitably a letdown as it doesn't have the dunes and scenery of the first seventeen holes, although it is otherwise a brilliant golf course.

Pacific Dunes

Designed by the now famous architect Tom Doak, Pacific Dunes is a worthy companion to Bandon Dunes. One of the signatures of Pacific Dunes are the rippling fairways, which Doak says are the original contours of the land. It was a strong decision on his part to leave them the way they are. Another feature of Pacific Dunes is that a lot of the approach shots play to elevated greens.

The par four 4th hole is a spectacular hole that plays along the Pacific Ocean. If you find yourself at Pacific Dunes with a slice (as a right hander) the likelihood is a lost ball at the 4th, probably more than one, since the ocean hugs the hole the entire way to the green. Not that it matters. The dreamy view is so spectacular that it is difficult to concentrate on the golf. The hole is set along a high bluff with land that tumbles down to the broad beach along the rugged Pacific Coast. This is simply one of the best golf holes you will play anywhere in the world on one of the best golf courses in the world.

  pd4 green
Pacific Dunes 4th hole

The par three eleventh is another favorite hole. Since Pacific Dunes was one of Doak's early courses I tend to like it more than some of his more recent designs. He has increasingly gone crazy on the greens with too many breaks, humps, hollows, and tricks. His early works like Pacific Dunes are challenging without being over the top.

  pd 11 green
Pacific Dunes 11th green

The 17th hole at Pacific Dunes is a "Redan" replica, and one of the hardest holes on the property, if not in the continental United States. The effective landing area to place a good shot is about 10-15 square feet. Too far left leaves you in penal and steep bunkers. Too far right leaves you in hidden bunkers. Too long leaves an impossible chip. Adding to the perverse pleasure is the predominant wind which blows left to right, asking the golfer, if they are brave enough, to take dead aim at the penal bunkers, so that your ball will blow into the best position. The Redan replica on Pacific Dunes is a better version than the one at Old Macdonald and second only to the Redan at the National Golf Links in America.

Bandon Trails

I am not going to write much about Bandon Trails out of my respect for Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. I absolutely adore their design work. I have played many of their courses, including Sand Hills, Friars Head, Chechessee Creek, Hidden Creek, Cuscowilla, and Streamsong. And I have walked Lost Farm in Tasmania. I really like their design philosophy, which I find to be pleasing and not too taxing: wide fairways and an intelligent use of  bunkers, but not an overabundance of them, and challenging greens with shaved areas around them to penalize you if you don’t hit a good shot.

I found Bandon Trails didn’t follow their usual design philosophy. To me the course was overly penal. The fairways were not as wide as they usually are on a Coore-Crenshaw course. More importantly the design is such that shots anywhere near the bunkers are drawn into them like metal to a magnet, even well struck shots in a good position on the fairway. I also found the hilly location extremely difficult to walk. The course also didn’t have the same stunning visual appeal that I find on their other courses. Maybe it was because the course was crispy and baked out and because the greens were sanded? Lest you think I’m just an irritable old fool with a crappy golf game (and you wouldn’t be wrong), I played with three others golfers whose handicaps range from two through twelve, and we were unanimous in our opinion.


I did like the second hole at Bandon Trails, a downhill par three set among sand dunes pictured below. Note the course environment seen in the picture is starkly different than Pacific Dunes and Bandon dunes: it is hilly and in a coastal forest away from the ocean.

  BT 2-1
Bandon Trails 2nd hole par three

The 300-yard downhill 14th hole is an excellent risk-reward hole that plays to a tiny and challenging green. I don't know the amount of elevation change from the tee to the green, but it has to be over 100 yards.

Employees at the resort like the course quite a bit, which you can understand. If the wind is blowing and you don’t want to play near the ocean, the course provides a good respite.

Old Macdonald

If I understand the intent correctly, Old Macdonald is meant to be patterned after the National Golf Links of America in New York, Mike Keiser’s favorite course (and among my personal top five courses in the world). I’m not trying to be a jackass, but I have played the National Golf Links of America more than a half dozen times and I didn’t immediately equate Old Macdonald with the National. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Prestwick in Scotland with its wide open expanses and the location close to—but not directly on—the ocean. The style of golf was also reminiscent of Scotland in general.


I liked Old Macdonald, but I didn’t love it. The opening three holes and very good and I thought the eleventh hole, a replica of the Road Hole at St. Andrews was as good a replica as can be created without putting a hotel in the way on the tee shot. Strategically, it is a near perfect emulation of this classic hole. And the sixteenth hole, an Alps replica, is also excellent, and offers a blind shot to the green.

  OM11 Road Hole
Old Macdonald 11th Road Hole

The course was built with only one type of grass, so the tees, fairways, and greens are all the same; it has tight lies and plays fast and firm. If you don’t land your ball at least ten yards short of your intended target it will fly past where you intended it to. Adjusting to fast and firm conditions takes some getting used to and I actually like being able to use a putter from far off the green as a test of creativity.

The reason I didn’t love the course is that there is not enough variety. The course has giant sized greens, collectively the largest of any course in the country. And the greens are unrestrained in their breaks and contours. Occasional holes interspersed throughout your round with wild and undulating greens are fun. A course with eighteen holes of them risks becoming tedious. Personally, I think the design went too far and that some holes with smaller greens or with flatter surfaces sprinkled in would have made for a better result.

Let’s say you hit a good shot to the first green but it hits a knob and bounds off the back. You putt back up toward the hole but you miss your line by two inches, and a ridge takes the ball and shoots it back off the green. You then take two more putts to get up and down. On the second hole it is the same thing. And then on the third rinse and repeat. Get my point? It’s the repetition that becomes frustrating.


Definitely play Old Macdonald, but expect over-sized, taxing greens. I may be a golf snob (may be?) and my standards are very high and I tend to over-analyze things, particularly because my mindset was to compare the course to the National Golf Links. Many people fall in love with the course, although an equal number don’t. I only got a chance to play it once and I imagine it grows on you after you figure it out, or if you play it with a white hot putter and hit every ridge line perfectly.

The Punchbowl

What is the Punchbowl? A 100,000-square-foot putting green with thirty-six holes routed as a course, each with a cup holder to hold your cocktail; with ocean views and waitress service; and it's free.

Sign me up! What a treat it was to play the Punchbowl course, which is located adjacent to the clubhouse at Pacific Dunes. Play it at least one night when the sun is setting. What a blast.

Punchbowl
The Punchbowl putting green

Bandon Preserve

Coore & Crenshaw’s best work at the resort is the Bandon Preserve, their 13-hole par three course. This is classic Coore-Crenshaw: fun, challenging, visually appealing, and not overly penal. What a pleasure to play on either your arrival or departure day, or as a warm-up or second round on any day.

The holes range from an 85-yard blind par three to a challenging uphill 150-yard tester. You have an ocean view and broad vistas from virtually everywhere on the course.

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Bandon Preserve 6th hole

My favorite hole on the Preserve was the sixth hole, which is nestled between a sand dune and a precipice that cascades down the hillside into large gorse bushes. To the left of the gorse is the unspoiled Oregon coastline and the Pacific Ocean. It is truly an idyllic spot. When I die, I would like to have my ashes spread around the sixth hole of Bandon Preserve.

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Bandon Preserve 6th hole, my final resting place

Not that you need another reason to play the course, but proceeds of the greens fees from playing at the Preserve go to a conservation organization that supports the Oregon Coast.


This is a special place to tee it up. Bandon Preserve is better than the par 3 course at Augusta!

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Bandon Preserve 9th hole

Summary

As with other links courses, one of the things that makes the overall resort so interesting is the varying wind conditions. The courses play substantially different depending upon how the wind is blowing. The prevailing wind in the summer is different that the prevailing wind in the winter (from the north in the summer and the south in the winter) and the winds can even shift throughout the day. Although there are times that the wind howls, there are also times when it is calm.

I recently completed reading the book The Making of Bandon Dunes by Steve Goodwin, which is partly a biography of Mike Keiser. I highly recommend it. His philosophy is just so good and his iconoclastic style so unique that the more I learn about him the more I really like him. Keiser is quoted in the book regarding why many new courses aren't as good as those he had built here: "Most golfers are average golfers, but the new courses are being designed for pros, or for the 1 percent of the golfing population that can hit a drive three hundred yards. For the rest of us, these courses are just too hard. There's nothing fun about being asked hole after hole to do things that you can't do."

Goodwin also captures the essence of Bandon well, referencing Mike Keiser he says, "...he had perfectly expressed the feeling that he had about what a round of golf ought to be, the feeling of expectation and adventure. They'd captured the flow and rhythm of the game, presenting a sequence of surprising holes, stirring holes, each one different from its predecessors but all of them forming a single, harmonious whole."

Beyond the amazing golf, the overall resort is world class - the cabins and lodges are very nice with a fireplace in each one, and the food is very good. In the same way Augusta does a good job at everything in terms of the Masters, Bandon likewise does so for the recreational golfer. It’s the little things that make a big difference; they anticipate your needs. Your golf bag is ready before you ask for it. Shuttles to the courses run like clockwork. And how great is it that they provide cup holders on every hole on the Punchbowl course? And poker chips in the Bunker Bar? They also follow the Masters formula on reasonable prices, which surprised me every time I got a bill. The place is cigar friendly and the remote location is one that allows you to slow your life down. It is a location to immerse yourself in and to appreciate. The game needs a little less commercial emphasis and a little more of the approach Keiser advocates. Plus, the out-of-the-box things he has done like the Punchbowl and the par-3 course are commendable.

The tranquility of the location is relaxing. While there, aside from an occasional Coast Guard helicopter flying offshore there were no planes flying overhead. The predominant sound you hear is that of the surf crashing; there is no distant highway noise and they don’t have lawnmowers or leaf blowers running while you play since they do all the maintenance in the early morning so as not to disturb your peace during the round.

What course is best?

One of the inevitable consequences of playing the world's best courses is the debates about which courses you like better, particularly those located next to each other. Do you prefer Shinnecock or the National Golf Links? Wentworth of Sunningdale? Well, in my case, I give a slight edge to Bandon Dunes over Pacific Dunes as my favorites, although both are fabulous. I thought Bandon Dunes had better vistas, great golf holes, and a more imaginative routing than Pacific Dunes, although it is also a world class golf course. In my own personal world rankings. I would put Bandon Dunes much higher than its current ranking. The locals tell me that when the wind is up Pacific Dunes is better to play because Bandon Dunes has more holes into the prevailing wind than Pacific does. I would rank the par three course as my next favorite, followed by Old Macdonald and Bandon Trails. 

Which resort is best?

With regard to the best golf resort in the United States, the contenders would be Bandon, the courses of the Monterey Peninsula, Pinehurst, and Streamsong. Bandon and the Pebble Beach area gain an edge because they have tremendous water views and I’m splitting hairs; to some degree it’s like trying to choose between a Chateau Mouton Rothschild and a Chateau Lafite Rotschild. Neither one of them is going to suck. My personal leaning goes toward Bandon for three reasons: 1) Pebble can be either a debilitating six-hour round or a rushed four-hour round with a marshal at every hole pushing you along. Bandon has  pace of play down perfectly; 2) You get more value for your money at Bandon; the prices are more reasonable and the service is as good as it gets; 3) Bandon’s philosophy embodies the true spirit of the game more. The resort transports you splendidly to an isolated cocoon away from civilization and you don’t have to leave the property and can really connect with nature.

The entire vibe at the Bandon Dunes resort is outstanding. Keiser and his team have obviously put a lot of time and energy into cultivating a storied culture, and into making sure the resort has the right feeling. It is one of the most service oriented places I have ever visited, golf related or not. The employees there refer to the owner as Mr. Keiser and speak of him in reverent tones. They should. He made the Herculean task of building such a complex in such a remote area look effortless. His approach is so good I nominate Keiser to be the next president of the U.S.G.A. Hell, he seems to have such good sense and judgement I would vote for him if he ran for President of the United States.

If you've never been on a golf trip to Bandon Dunes, you should go as soon as you can. Bandon Dunes doesn't play second fiddle to anyone. As they used to say, it is nulli secundus

* Music on Golf Courses

Apologies upfront for my little polemic.

What hath god wrought? What is this new pestilence invading golf courses?

I played in a charity outing a couple of weeks before visiting Bandon and the group behind us had loud music playing out of their golf cart. I chalked it up to the usual numb-skulls you find in New Jersey and brushed it off as a one off. 

While at Bandon we played through a group that had music blaring from their golf bag. Are you kidding me? I know some people think that technology is cool and it's a wonder that you can now carry around all kinds of music on your phone and there are portable speakers that sound great. What they are missing is that MUSIC HAS NO PLACE ON A GOLF COURSE. Why isn’t this blindingly obvious to anyone with a brain larger than a pea? Should you play rock music loudly when you are at church? How about when you are in a court room? Or in a hospital intensive care unit? The answer is obvious. You know that you shouldn't, even though no one has ever told you not to do it. It's common sense. Should you play rock music loudly when you are playing at Bandon Dunes? The answer is also obvious. 

It is quite a selfish act. Golfers that play loud music on golf courses are without question those same fools that scream "mashed potatoes" while at tour events. They have no place in our game. Don't ruin the ambiance for everyone else. Put in ear plugs if you have a disorder that requires you to listen to rock 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Or wait until you get home and play it as loud as you want in your den. If you turned off the music, you would experience one of the great joys of the game. Why not take advantage of one of the most remote golf experiences you will ever have? Being alone with nature and hearing the sounds of chirping birds, the rhythmic din of the ocean waves crashing in the distance, and the sound the wind makes blowing through long grass is priceless. The silence at Bandon is bliss. Enjoy it!

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 Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com. 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, hilly...no 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.

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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

clubhouse
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. 

  DSCF9001-001
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.

  fifteen

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. 


DSCF9022
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.