Sunday, October 01, 2017

Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point

The Bronx doesn't get enough respect. The fact that it now has a quality golf course, maintained in top condition, designed by one of the game's greats is something to celebrate! The course is the first new one in New York City since Lyndon Johnson was president and this in itself is a huge accomplishment.

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A tug boat passing under the Bronx-Whitestone bridge on the East River as seen from the 16h hole at Trump Ferry Point Golf Links

The charms of the Bronx are very often overlooked: the magical 700 acre Botanical Garden, Fordham University, Van Cortlandt Park (which is 400 acres larger than Central Park), Manhattan College, the authentic atmosphere and food of Arthur Avenue's Italian neighborhood, Yankee Stadium, and more. I remember the excitement as a kid when we would get loaded onto the bus for a field trip to the amazing Bronx Zoo. Visiting the largest zoo in the country was always a day to remember because it was the only time we were allowed to bring gum and snacks on the bus.

Natives sons and daughters of the Bronx are an impressive group: Alan Alda, the greatest baseball announcer in history Vin Scully, Ed Koch, James Caan, Regis Philbin, and Lauren Bacall. The list of people who lived in the Bronx is equally as impressive: Edgar Allan Poe, Lou Gehrig, Woody Allen, John F. Kennedy (can you believe he lived in the borough from 1927-1929?), Al Pacino, Mark Twain and Stanley Kubrick, to name just a few.

The Bronx also played an important role in the evolution of golf. The first public golf course in the United States was in the borough: the Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course, which opened for play in 1895. Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Harry Vardon, Joe Louis, Willie Mays, Sidney Poitier, and the Three Stooges all played at Van Cortlandt. The golf course was revitalized during the Giuliani administration and is today a respectable course kept in good condition.


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Because of the name preceding the Ferry Point course I know it is difficult to talk about without getting into politics. This is a golf blog and not one that covers the Donald so to the degree that I can I will stay away from politics. The Trump organization operates the course under a twenty year lease with the city and their commitment includes investing $10 million to build the greatest clubhouse that will ever be built. I know there is much criticism about the deal, although I will say that Michael Bloomberg is no dummy and he was mayor when it was signed, so I'm not sure it's a bad a deal on balance as some people think it is.

The course is located in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, next to Ferry Point Park, pictured below. The park looks like it gets a lot of use and is ill kept, so if there is criticism directed at the city, it seems to me there are plenty of things to complain about, including not investing enough in the Bronx across the board.

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Ferry Point Park next to the golf course

The wind and weather on the day I played was wet, humid, and crappy, such that LaGuardia Airport arrivals were on runway 22, which routed low flying planes directly over the golf course. On a weekday afternoon a plane lands at LaGuardia every 90 seconds. During our four and a half hour round 180 planes descended from the low clouds and landed on the field (with two go-arounds among the flights, which I am assuming were planes that came in too close to the one ahead or at the wrong height), which is located only two miles from the eighteenth green across the East River.

It's coincidental that the last round I played before Ferry Point was also a public course: Lincoln Park in San Francisco. The two courses offer some interesting parallels and contrasts. Aside from the fact that both are daily fee courses, they both have great views of bridges. I had noted the charming sound of the fog horn on the Golden Gate while playing at Lincoln Park. This is New York, after all, and the noises were not as pleasant as those in the City by the Bay. Instead, there was a continuous roaring of low jets overhead and an occasional FDNY siren on the city streets, mixed in with the sound of Jake braking as big rigs made their way down the Whitestone Bridge.

The golf course is a good one, designed by Jack Nicklaus, and despite Donald's assertion that he was instrumental in completing the course, the actual facts show that it was largely complete when he took over and that his contributions were related to the finishing touches, such as overseeing the grass growing in and building the clubhouse. The course is built on 192 acres of a former city landfill.

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The second green shows off the conditioning of the course, which is impeccable

Golf course architects usually rave about how they were given the perfect piece of land to build a course on, but no such claim can be made here. The "links" were all shaped atop former waste heaps and had to be contoured to form the course.  (For purists among us, a true links course is one next to the ocean with sandy soil, dunes, and tight lies.) As such, the course is a faux-links course with no trees, except on the perimeter of the property, but they do not come into play. The primary difficulty for the golfer is the fescue and high grasses if you are off the fairway, which I found were very gnarly and a real hazard. The course conditioning was as good as any private course I have played and I enjoyed the round right from the start.

Although this piece of property is isolated on the end of a peninsula, there is no doubt during your round that you are in the city. Case in point is the view from the sixth tee, of St. Raymond's Cemetery, seen below. It has been operating since 1842 and is still active today. We heard noises coming from the burial ground (from the living) and it contains an interesting mix of deceased dating back to Civil War veterans. The jazz great Billie Holiday is buried there (her rendition of Strange Fruit is as good as music gets). This being the Bronx, the cemetery also includes a nice selection of mobsters: "Mad Dog" Coll, an Irish gangster, is buried here as is "Fat Tony" Salerno, the one time head of the Genovese crime family. The archdiocese calls it one of the busiest cemeteries in the United States and although I'm no expert on the subject, this seems about right given what we saw and heard.

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St. Raymond's Cemetery as seen from the 6th tee box

I have played a fair number of Nicklaus courses and found Ferry Point to be among his more enjoyable. On a number of Nicklaus courses (particularly his early ones), he demands shots that assume you can draw and fade the ball at will. Here, the course is not too demanding, although, equally it is no push over. I particularly like the routing, which is varied, with a nice balance of par 3s, 4s, and 5s, and a good amount of change in direction. There are long, medium, and short par three and fours. One of the predominant features here is shaved short grass around the greens which allow you to hit bump and run shots should you so choose. Likewise, should you go sideways or long a deft touch is called for to get back onto the greens cleanly.
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The par-4 tenth green has a subtle swale in front 

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The 11th as seen from the tee. There is a lot going on here

I liked the whole course, but liked the back nine better. I also thought it was the easier of the two. The 11th hole, as you can see from the image above, has a lot going on. First, the apartment buildings in the back frame the hole in the distance. In the middle-distance the fescue provides a backdrop, and in the immediate distance there is a plethora of bunkers. The short par 4 is only 302 yards from the blue tees, so obviously Jack wanted to make it more challenging the more of the hole you try to bite off. I found it difficult to pick and commit to a target with so much distracting the eye.

My favorite hole was the 12th, a par three of 166 yards from the back and 139 from the blue tees.

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The well protected 12th green at Ferry Point

The 12th green is surrounded by shaved collection areas on three sides (right, left and back) and is protected by a jagged-shaped bunker in front that conceals the front of the putting surface, which is slanted, oddly shaped, oblong, and at a right angle to the golfer.

Donald J. Trump allegedly got a hole in one on the 12th as the course was opening. There was much skepticism among associates working at the club as to whether this was fake news or not, which is not shocking. Unsurprisingly, there is a plaque celebrating the occasion.


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Fake news comes to the Bronx. Sad!

12 collection buttocks

This picture shows the shaved area right of the 12th green. The buttocks shot was unintentional, but is a good visual illustration of what our group thought of the plaque that was put up celebrating the faux hole-in-one

I liked the finishing stretch (16-17-18) and think they are the best consecutive holes on the course. Sixteen is a demanding 437-yard par four that requires a precision shot to a well protected green, with great views in every direction. 

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 The 16th green with the battleship gray Bronx-Whitestone bridge in the background

All the par threes on the course were particularly well framed by the mounding and the fescue, including the 17th.

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The par-3 17th plays 142 yards. It has beautiful views and sits near the East River Channel

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A closeup of the 17th green shows off the course conditioning and the beauty of the hole

The 18th is a 500-yard par 5 playing along the tidal river. I thought the course's greens were fair: there are not too many undulations in them, the breaks are more subtle, but still challenging. I only missed one fairway all day, speaking to their width, because I usually hit less. My other observation, which the caddies confirmed, is that the course plays longer than the card. Approaches to the greens are almost always one club longer than you think. I'm no physics or solid waste expert, but the suspicion is that it has to do with playing atop a capped landfill. Either that or the greens are slightly elevated and I didn't hit my shots crisply.

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The dramatic 18th finishes at the base of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge

Like the two boroughs it connects, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge is under-rated with an alluring, streamlined Art Deco appearance. Its slender profile and trim steel lines gracefully span the East River Channel. The bridge was opened by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia the day before the 1939 World's Fair to much fanfare. The next day President Roosevelt arrived in the Bronx by train from Washington D.C. and had 2,000 policemen lining his route over the bridge and on the adjoining roads as he rode to the World's Fair.

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The course offers views of two beautiful suspension bridges, the Throgs Neck Bridge is further away from the course, seen here in the distance in the rain

For those looking for something not to like about the course and the club operation, you are going to be disappointed. I didn't find anything. The course is good and the food and service provided on property are also very good, as were the caddies. I liked Ferry Point better course than Trump's Fazio-designed course in Bedminster, which I found too difficult and the environment a bit too glitzy.

The course is good for local employment (almost everyone we interacted with lived in the Bronx) and the food is sourced from the nearby Hunts Point market. One of the knocks of Ferry Point is the price to play, and it is a fair point. The fee for a New York City resident is $146 to walk on a weekday, $175 on a weekend. For non-residents, it is $200 on a weekday and $227 for a weekend. There is something more than mildly paradoxical about a bunch of white guys from Westchester, Long Island, and New Jersey playing a city course in a borough where the majority of residents are non-white. The parking lot on the day I played was full of BMWs, Audis, and Jaguars with plates indicating that the cars were from the suburbs. There is no subway near the course, making it difficult for a non-driving city resident to play the course, although they could certainly take a taxi. On the other hand, New York already has many public lower fee courses, including several in the Bronx, and having a higher end crown-jewel course with commanding views in the city's portfolio isn't entirely beyond defense. As I said at the beginning, if you look past the Trump circus, having such a nice Jack Nicklaus public course should be a point of pride for the city. If you can afford it, the course is worth playing.


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Throughout the course are venting pipes which release the methane gasses trapped below. Only occasionally do you smell something a little off, which for someone from New Jersey, made me feel right at home!

Friday, September 01, 2017

Lincoln Park Golf Course - The San Francisco Treat

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The Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco

On a recent West Coast trip I decided to take a detour from all the world-ranked, private, and resort courses I typically play, to visit the city-owned Lincoln Park Golf Course in San Francisco. The course is within the city limits, located (appropriately) next to the Lands End section of Golden Gate National Park. This end-of-the-continent location commands rich views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands. Few parts of the world are blessed with a rocky and windswept shoreline sitting high above the water, creating vistas as dramatic as the ones here. I grew up playing golf on municipal courses and did not have the foresight to take lessons when I began. Mine is a homegrown swing honed on ill kept courses, so this round was a throwback to my early golfing days.

My apologies for the subdued nature of the pictures accompanying this post. The day was gray and overcast and I had my phone and not my camera with me. I arrived at the course on a Friday morning at 8:30 a.m., and to my surprise there was no one there and I went straight out as a single. A quick glance at the scorecard and my brain made a mental note that I was going low because the course is so short.

The conditioning at Lincoln Park is as you would expect at a busy city-owned course. The grass is interspersed with a liberal amount of clover and there are bare patches and swaths of mud. This is not a criticism of the course superintendent or maintenance crew: they work within the confines of what the city provides and golf is almost never a top priority within overall budget spending. The course was in good playable shape on the day of my visit, even if the turf was a little squishy and the greens a touch spongy.

Lincoln Park takes its name from our 16th president and the course has a minimal number of bunkers. Its defenses are the narrow corridors you play through, the steeply sloping terrain, and tiny greens. The other defense against low scoring are trees overhanging fairways and greens. I suspect the trees are long overdue of trimming, or, this is an intentional design feature to make the course more challenging. The typical clammy and damp air along the ocean also makes club selection tricky since the ball doesn't travel as far.

To state the blindingly obvious, San Francisco is a city of steep hills. Lincoln Park is thus a golf course of steep hills, uneven lies being the order of the day. I was surprised the handful of times during my round that I didn’t have a ball above or below my feet. The good news is that all the greens are essentially flat, which is appreciated, because after the challenges presented by the sidehill, downhill and uphill lies it is nice to have putting surfaces that aren’t an additional obstacle. In an unusual quirk, all the greens are the same shape: round. No kidney shaped greens, no square or rectangular putting surfaces, no figure eights or hunchbacks, swales or punch bowls. Just flat and round. The other thing they have in common is that they are all below average in size. Lincoln Park is the antithesis of a course that rewards length. Hitting driver doesn't really yield results here. The course rewards accuracy and the ability to shape shots: a genuine shot maker's delight.

The starting hole sets the tone for the day: a 316-yard par four that plays closer to 350 yards because of the steep gradient of the hill you must navigate. The hill is in some ways the easy part of the challenge to overcome. An overhanging tree down the fairway on the left side comes into play off the tee, and an overhanging tree on the right side comes into play on your approach to the small, round green. The entire hole plays along the side of an incline, which runs from the top of the property down to the Pacific. Welcome to Lincoln Park.
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The circular, small 2nd green at Lincoln Park

The second hole is a 257-yard par four dogleg right that sweeps along the same hill as the first. Anything left of center will inevitably spring down the hill, creating a troubling angle from which to approach the elevated (and you guessed it) round green, that is protected by an overhanging tree. It's somewhat cruel that a shank lie is presented to the golfer this early in the round, creating just enough doubt for the ensuing holes to put you off balance.

Lincoln Park was designed early in the twentieth century on a tight piece of land, clinging to only 100 acres, thus, it plays a scant 5,146 yards from the tips. I know, I can hear alarm bells starting to go off in your head. Hum . . . seems like somewhat of a gimmicky course. Kinda’ short isn’t it? Can something this short be taken seriously? Well, three of the dumbest assumptions you can make in life are: 1) judging a book by its cover; 2) judging a person by their looks; and 3) judging a golf course by its length. Although only 5,146 yards, the course is a par of 68. Terrain matters in golf, and when you have to hit so many shots into steep uphills, judging a course by yardage alone is a mistake. Also, there is only one par five and several of the par threes play over 230 yards, sometimes with greens well above the elevation of the teeing ground.

The first two holes are the appetizer and things go up tempo in a hurry after the openers; the experience elevates significantly from here. Walking off the green, the unsuspecting golfer navigates a steeply graded walking path. Through the trees, the observant golfer might spy a glimpse of the eastern tower of the Golden Gate Bridge rising majestically out of the water as the walk proceeds around the beautiful Beaux Arts-style Legion of Honor (an art museum) and then across the El Camino Del Mar. 
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The Marin Headlands covered in a typical enchanting shroud of fog as seen on the walk between the 2nd and 3rd holes at Lincoln Park

California is blessed with the prettiest walk between holes of any course in the world: namely, between the 15th and 16th at Cypress Point, located 130 miles south of Lincoln Park. Other great walks in the game are in Tasmania (Barnbougle Dunes 4th to 5th), Nova Scotia (Highlands Links 12th to 13th) and Georgia (the walk over Hogan’s Bridge at Augusta). The walk from the 2nd green to the 3rd tee here is worthy of inclusion among this list of the best. As you walk around the museum and across the road the scene fully unfolds. Each step forward reveals another part of the panorama until eventually you see the full 1.2 mile suspension bridge in all her majesty. This is unquestionably one of the most beautiful views in the world: the Golden Gate Bridge guarding the entrance to San Francisco Harbor with the Marin Headlands across the water.  It is a great place to take a deep breath, to slow down and savor the moment, and to enjoy the sea air and the spectacle.
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The Golden Gate Bridge as seen on the walk from the 2nd green to the third tee, one of the prettiest views in the world of golf

The Golden Gate Bridge is painted orange so that it is easy for mariners to see in the fog. Its towers soar 746 feet above the ocean floor, about the height of a 60-story building, and they are a sight to behold. I had the representative Bay Area summer conditions when I played: cool, clammy, overcast, and foggy. Four holes on the course (the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 17th) play on the western side of the El Camino Del Mar and they are the ones that offer the most dramatic views of one of the prettiest harbor entrances in the world.

The third hole is a relatively easy 156-yard par three that plays uphill. I say relatively because it isn’t that hard if you stay away from the tree that overhangs the left side of the green.

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The third green, set in a murky and dark location near the Pacific

I found it difficult to get a crisp picture of the third hole because there is a heavy canopy of trees drooping ominously above and to the right of the green. The area is constricted by a dense thicket of cypress trees all around. A mystical location, you half expect Shivas Irons and Seamus MacDuff to appear magically out of the fog on this isolated and mist-ridden part of the property.

The fourth hole plays 321 yards down a hill and it has the requisite cypress tree sitting over the circular green. It is a good thing that Lincoln Park does not have many sand traps, since they really aren’t needed given the steep terrain and narrowness of the holes.
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The 6th tee is situated immediately right of the Legion of Honor

Would you be surprised to learn that the 359-yard par four fifth hole also has a tree overhanging the green? What makes this hole challenging is a different hill that sweeps down to the Pacific from the top of the property. The Legion of Honor is built at the crest of the property and all the fall lines emanate from it. Five plays sideways across the slanting incline that runs down from right to left. Keeping its form consistent throughout the round, the fifth green is circular as well in case you were wondering.

For those Hitchcock fans among us, the Legion of Honor is one of the locations used in the film Vertigo, as Jimmy Stewart (Scottie) follows Kim Novak (Madeleine) around through the city while she is in a trance.

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The sixth green sits over the rise of a hill and is blind from the left side of the fairway

The sixth hole plays back across the road and behind the Legion of Honor. The original 150 acres that the course was built on shrank to 100 acres when the museum was built in 1924. The sixth is a relatively easy par four at 285 yards, if you play smart. The hole starts to dogleg sharply before it reaches 150 yards, so proper club selection and positioning are required so that your (blind) approach shot to the green is positioned in the correct place.

Golf features links courses, desert courses, parkland courses, and courses built on heathlands. I class Lincoln Park differently: this is golf of the urban variety. Nowhere is this more pronounced than on the seventh hole. After walking through a stand of trees that block the sixth hole from the seventh you emerge into the city grid. The tee box is separated from the street by a chain link fence, and tumbling down the adjacent hillside is a row of colorful Victorian houses. 

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The view of the nearby Outer Richmond neighborhood from the 7th tee

Once you get situated on the tee you begin to absorb the narrowness of the hole, its 334 yards are the slenderest on the front nine. The tops of a few skyscrapers are visible far in the distance. Your line of play on the blind tee shot is the Bank of America building in the distance because you want to favor the left side, with most shots kicking right on the side hill. The second shot will likely be blind unless you crack a drive over the top of the hill.

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The tee shot on the 7th, with the 52-story Bank of America building (left) in the distance as your target
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The small, circular 7th green

Sound is an underrated aspect of the golfing experience: be it the sound of the ocean crashing close by with gulls flying overhead on a links course, or the wind rustling the leaves and flags on a parkland course in the fall, the sounds on a golf course are an integral part of the experience and of being outdoors. One benefit of playing in foggy conditions was that I got to hear the deep pitched fog horn on the Golden Gate tooting the morning I played; its low sound reverberated across the fairways intermittently, adding charm to the experience and continually reminding me that I was not in Joisey anymore. 

The eleven is a 265-yard downhill par four which features one of the easiest tee shots of the day. Your approach shot to the green is blind, alas, there are no worries, since the red and white striped radio tower in the distance (the iconic Sutro Tower) rising between Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro is an ideal aiming line to hit the small, circular green!

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The approach to the 11th green with Sutro Tower in the distance

Twelve is a 203-yard par three that plays uphill, making it an effective shot of 230-240. This is no joke of a hole and demands precision to hit the small, round green.

The thirteenth has the narrowest chute to hit through that I have played with the exception of the third hole at New South Wales in Sydney. The only par five on the course, it plays a respectable 500 yards with a blind second shot thrown in for good measure. The Sutro Tower is again an excellent line. The weather in San Francisco is a continual fight between sun and clouds, and as you can see on the day I played the clouds were victorious, with a damp fog rolling in and out all morning.

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The narrow chute of trees frames the tee shot on the 13th. Yikes.

The fourteenth hole (a 259-yard par four) has the requisite overhanging trees, and fifteen plays significantly longer than the 282 yards the scorecard indicates because of the change in elevation. 282 yards sounds simple, but the left-to-right sloping hill repels balls from its apex, with gravity doing the rest, pulling them down into an uncomfortable hanging position. Your second shot will likely have a ball significantly below your feet with a (dare I say it again?) shank-inducing lie to a green that is semi-blind. Simple is not the word that will come to mind as you mumble to yourself walking off the green in a state of agitation after using all your will to avoid a hosel rocket on the hole.

Sixteen and seventeen are meaty back-to-back par threes. Sixteen plays 239 yards, albeit downhill, but through another narrow alley of trees. Seventeen is the highlight of the round. Not only is it a robust 240 yards from tee to green, but this hole plays the closest of any on the course to the Pacific. It features the best views of the iconic bridge and the craggy headlands across the bay. Take the time to enjoy the view and the environment; it’s good to be alive. What a brilliant idea to locate a golf course here. With a greens fee of only $46 for non-residents ($27 for residents and only $16 to play the back ten holes before 7:30 a.m.), this is tough to beat in the world of golf. Lincoln Park, although shorter than the nearby U.S. Open venue, demands the same skill level and focus; I think of Lincoln Park as a poor man's Olympic Club (although shorter, it has better views).
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The view from the 17th green in a pre-1933 postcard, before the bridge was built 

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The same view from the 17th circa 1940 with modest tree growth
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The view from the 17th green today, with a glimpse of the Golden Gate through the trees. Cutting down trees is an underrated way to maintain a golf course. Removing them would improve the airflow to the green and do wonders for the view

Eighteen is a nice par four finisher but I don’t remember much about it because the excitement of playing the 17th was still fresh in my mind. Prior to a golf course occupying this spot the land was a potter's field (cemetery) where the plots were organized by ethnicity. The 18th fairway occupies what was the Italian section. The clubhouse is modest, small, and just a touch beyond the point of shabby chic, but fits the course like a glove.
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The 18th green and clubhouse, a block off the street grid of the city

The course has an interesting and respectable pedigree from a design standpoint: the original three holes of the first course (1902) were laid out by Jack Neville (co-designer of Pebble Beach) who was an early advocate for locating a course in the city. He subsequently expanded it to six holes. The course has been changed and redesigned many times over the years, but it seems to me, always by people who were thoughtful or experienced. Cornish & Whitten attribute the subsequent course to Tom Bendelow (designer of Medinah) with a redesign in 1921 by the Englishman Herbert Fowler (designer of Walton Heath and co-designer of Cruden Bay), and finally a subsequent revision was done by Jack Fleming.

The course (and in particular the practice putting green) is close enough to the city streets that neighboring street lights illuminate portions of it after sundown. None other than the 1969 winner of the Masters, George Archer, honed his putting skills on this very same green. Practicing at Lincoln Park puts Archer in good company, as both Johnny Miller and Ken Venturi used to play here when they were young men learning the game.

Lincoln Park is the type of course where you are embarrassed to admit your score because you think you should have shot a lower number, but somehow the course did not relent, and your score is worse than you imagined (at least mine was). The course also confirmed for me what I already knew in spades: I’m a better flat lie player. I suspect I am not alone. 

Lincoln Park was an affecting round of golf and it was good to go back to my origins and remember what playing from scrappy lies and with no frills is like. I would love to play Lincoln Park again on a sunny day.
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A California Street cable car passing through the Financial District

Post Script

I have always been a massive fan of San Francisco. It has the sophistication and depth of New York without its overwhelming qualities and grit. I have been blessed to visit the city scores of times and it never gets old. I am with Ernest Hemingway who selected my three favorite cities when he wrote: "America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland."

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Golf at Glens Falls

"The golf course of the Glens Falls Country Club ranks among the first hundred courses of America"  -- Donald Ross

Even though I have played a lot of Donald Ross designs over the years I feel like my golfing education is still under-represented in the Ross genre. While my exposure has been to some of his most widely praised courses, namely, Aronimink, Pinehurst #2, Inverness, East Lake, Oak Hill, Pine Needles, Plainfield, Gulph Mills, Seaview (Bay Course), Scioto, Oakland Hills, Blowing Rock, and Seminole, I never ranked him among my favorite architects. It’s difficult to tell why. Partly, it may be that some of his courses like Oak Hill and Scioto have been changed so that his original intentions might have been watered down over time? While all of them are good courses, aside from #2, none of them left me with a sense of gaga, unless you count the original design at Whippoorwill, although I believe the “wow” holes there were the product of Charles Banks.

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The cover of the club's 1923 history with a dapper old-school golfer and his hickory club. He's smiling because he shot a 99!

The private Glens Falls Country Club is located in the Adirondack mountains of New York, about 15 miles from the Vermont border. Glens Falls is located within the 9,300 square-mile Adirondack Park, an area thick with dense forest and lakes. The course is twenty miles from the cultural heart of the region and one of the nicest small towns in America: Saratoga Springs.

Prior to playing Glens Falls my warmup round was at the lush Sagamore Resort nearby, a 1928 Ross-designed mountain course featuring greens as small as the compact set at Inverness. The low-key resort course was the perfect appetizer for Glens Falls and got me prepared for mountain golf: uneven lies and twisting holes routed around knolls through the woodlands. The first hole at Sagamore is especially break-taking with a long view of Lake George in the distance, and it offers an ego-boosting tee shot where your ball drops into the valley below after being suspended in mid-air for longer than usual.

After the delightful round at the Sagamore it was time for the main event at Glens Falls, and what an event it turned out to be. The stock of Donald Ross is rising fast after my round at Glens Falls. 

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The tee shot on the 10th hole at Glens Falls, like the tee shot on the first and fourth holes, confronts the golfer with a sharply rising hill with no flag in sight!

The first hole sets the tone for the day. A sub 500-yard par five asks you to start your round with a tee set in the lake to a fairway up a sharply rising hill. It is the first of many blind shots to sweeping fairways with uneven lies. Blind drives on the first, fourth, sixth and tenth and accompanied by blind approaches at the sixth, seventh, eighth, eleventh, thirteenth, and fifteenth. This crafty design element alone is enough to make the course interesting. What puts it over the top is that most holes finish with multi-tiered, tilting greens set on hillsides! 

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The approach to the 4th green, with a devilish swale in front

The par-five fourth hole is a good hole until you get to the green, where it transforms into a great hole. Look at the picture above and note the large swale running in front of the green. It is such an imaginative and tricky hazard, it is no wonder you don't see more of them used by golf architects. The obstacle is as demanding to get up and down from as a sand trap or thick rough (actually more demanding). 

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A close up of the rude dip on the approach to the fourth green; it is a robust hazard

The sixth hole begins a stretch of four first-rate holes in a row. At just under 400 yards the hole requires both brawn and brains. One of the defining characteristics of Glens Falls is that, aside from the par threes, it is rare to see the hole's flag off the tee (or sometimes even on the approach to the green).

6 back-001
The 6th green looking back up the roly-poly fairway

Glens Falls seems more like a design of Seth Raynor than one of Donald Ross, with sweeping land forms and as many greens in hollows or swales as there are inverted saucer greens like those that Ross perfected at Pinehurst. The 399-yard 6th hole is a case in point, another hole where the pin is nowhere to be seen for the baffled golfer standing on the tee. It is only when you crest the hill that you see the magic of the hole. The land drops precipitously below you culminating in a funky oblong two-tiered green that raises both your spirit and your score. 

6th
The 399-yard 6th hole as seen from the mid-way point of the hole at the crest of the hill 

One of my theories about golf is that you are attracted to courses that mirror your personality. Glens Falls, like Cruden Bay, Whippoorwill and Myopia Hunt Club, suits me because it is eccentric and unpredictable. The capricious nature of a hole like the sixth makes this a delightful place to play the game: Should you try to fly the ball to the hole? Bounce it along the ground? Play a pitch all the way to the left and watch it bound pin-ball style to the right on the two-tiered putting surface? It is so much more fun than a straightaway typical par four where you hit driver followed by an iron through the air to a green with the standard defense of a bunker left and a bunker right.


7-001 
The 292-yard par four 7th hole, the author's favorite


The exhilarating sixth is followed by the perfectly presented 292-yard par four 7th, a hole that doesn't look like it was designed as much as it looks like it was sculpted. It is a perfectly plotted hole whose aesthetic beauty is difficult to beat: it has a symmetry and sense of proportion to it that Leonardo da Vinci would approve of. Unless you are downwind and have a beefy swing that permits you to drive the green, chances are you will have a blind shot into the treacherous putting surface (pictures flatten out the steepness of hills; this is steeper than it looks). Although it only requires a wedge shot, the short distance the ball must still travel commands your full attention. The club describes the green as a three-sided pedestal, and who am I to argue with their description? The warning from their website: "Other than the greenside bunkers, anything left, right and long is disaster coming back on the green. Forewarned is forearmed. Best of luck." It's one of those holes that makes you think how fortune is shining down on you to be blessed to play this great game. Oh Fortuna!

8 green-1
The eighth green is as difficult as the 18th green at Augusta National. Be below the hole or suffer.

The par four eighth hole doesn't look like much on the scorecard, but then again neither does the eleventh hole at Merion, which plays to a similar length and requires the same steely nerves to hit the correct shot. This is a 362-yard hole where you hit your tee shot into a rising hill. The second shot requires a brawny iron, also played uphill, to a green that slopes down the same hill. Woe betide the golfer who is above the hole. In shades of the 18th hole at Augusta National or the borderline unfair 8th hole at Crystal Downs, this is a sinister green, requiring a deft touch to not roll the ball back down the hill, even when it is lightly tapped. While the members don't have a lot of enthusiasm for the green, your high handicap author chipped his third to within six inches of the flag so I didn't have to suffer from the vagaries of the hole, and therefore I love it!

The front finishes off with a 150-yard par three that sits atop a precarious push-up green. Par is a good score. 

Bell-001
There are as many bells at Glens Falls as Santa's reindeer wear, necessitated by the abundance of blind shots

Before the era of big-money corporate-sponsored PGA Tour golf, professionals would drive from city to city and play for modest purses. Glens Falls hosted a tour event for a decade beginning in 1929. The 1938 event was won by Tony Manero (winner of the U.S. Open at Baltusrol two years before), who beat Gene Sarazen by two strokes, Sam Snead and 1941 Masters Champion Craig Wood by three, and Ben Hogan by a dozen. Snead shot at 66 in the second round before throwing up a couple of big numbers on a course that regularly kept the best in the world in check.

In the pre-refrigeration, pre-air conditioning era, Glens Falls was a desirable summer destination, as was Lake Placid, New York. Upstate New York was a happening place and in the Roaring Twenties Buffalo was three times the size of Houston.  Niagara Falls was a popular honeymoon destination. The Sun Belt had yet to rise in prominence and Atlanta and Dallas were not even ranked within the 25 largest cities in the country. A short drive from several large East Coast population centers made the Adirondacks a cool destination as temperatures rose in the cities.

17 elevated green
The long, narrow 17th finishes with a green perched on top of a knob

The par four 17th plays only 361 yards, but care must be taken to hit the green perched on top of a knob over a small valley. If you hit your drive in the correct spot you have a chance of obtaining one of the few flat lies of your round, enhancing your ability to hit the green. Although the green is effectively on the same level as the fairway, the only small problem is the big chasm you must navigate to avoid a late-round card wrecking score!

The par three 12th hole (not pictured) was another impressive one. A sturdy 223-yard hole, it plays uphill to a green built into a ledge on the hillside, through a narrow chute of trees. Ross designed it with a backstop so that shots long and left ricochet onto the green in a very satisfying fashion. A loose shot landing short and right is an unmitigated disaster down the hill.

17-001
The challenging 17th hole from the tee

The shorthand for Donald Ross is his defining work at Pinehurst #2, with  inverted saucer greens, a design element he also used extensively at Seminole. Glens Falls shattered my narrow view of Ross's work. As you would expect from a man who designed 400 courses, his work is quite diverse and impossible to explain so simply. I look forward to playing more of his courses, especially Essex County, Worcester, and Salem in Massachusetts and Fenway in New York, so I can learn more about his varied talents as a master of his profession.

I have an overactive imagination and will often speculate on what I would do if I won the lottery. I have worked in New York City for twenty-five years and while I love the excitement and merriment of the city, it is beginning to wear me down. The day after my ideal visit to Glens Falls was a swampy one, one of those mid-summer stinkers where Manhattan does a fair impression of a Louisiana Bayou. There is a reason Dog Day Afternoon was set in New York City. I couldn’t put on enough talc to prevent chafing on the walk from the train station to my office. You know the feeling: one of those days where you get to your desk and your wife-beater is soaking wet from the humidity. Anyway, it got me thinking of another fantasy to add to my growing collection. The first involves spending the months of January and February golfing in Queenstown, New Zealand, in addition to buying that house in East Hampton and playing Shinnecock, National, and Maidstone whenever I desire. The ever-expanding fantasy includes setting myself up for the month of August in the Adirondacks.

After I dried out, I spent the entire morning stewing about my station in life and thought how lucky my handicap-lying-Glens Falls-member-friend is to spend the month of August Upstate. It would be nice to live life in the slow lane for a while and not get into skirmishes with cabbies who run red lights. My dream goes like this: after sleeping in late at my large Victorian mansion in Saratoga I would stroll down Main Street for a leisurely coffee, followed by some browsing at vintage book stores. I would then drop into PJs Bar-B-QSA for my first meal of the day. This would in turn be followed by a visit to the races at Saratoga Springs, an experience in the world of spectator sports equaled only by attending the Masters. The old-school track has been running races since the Civil War, making it the oldest continuously operating sporting venue in the country, and it feels magical. Sitting in the old wooden grandstand is a delightful way to pass a lazy summer afternoon with the warm sunlight splashing down on you as the unchanged racing scene unfolds at your feet as it has for decades.

DSCF0111
The intimacy and non-commercial nature of the Saratoga races on a beautiful summer day is hard to beat

After collecting my race track winnings I'd head up for a leisurely twilight round at Glens Falls. Since that sandwich of burned brisket ends wasn't enough protein for the day, a carnivorous dinner of smoked meats from Oscar’s Smoke House out on the barbecue with a scotch and a large cigar would put me away. August in the Adirondacks is the perfect ecosystem for a life of leisure, and is one of the few places you can still live large away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Although parts of it are a bit kitschy, the fact that the region was bypassed for decades after the advent of air travel means that it is still unspoiled, with a dearth of strip malls and chain stores, and instead is blessed with an abundance of locally run businesses with real character.

Such an existence would put a smile on my face as wide as the portly 1920s golfer on the cover of the Glens Falls club history!

gfcc
The timeless scene at the first tee at Glens Falls (across the wooden bridge in the lake) looks the same today as it does in this vintage postcard.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass

When I was young and brash and just starting out on my journey I didn't have the manners I have today. For more than a decade, my post about the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass said only: "One photogenic hole does not a golf course make. Tricked up. Too hard, front nine is boring. Bermuda grass is impossible to hit out of. If you must, pay the pricey greens fee and take a shot of 17 just to say you did."

I also said for years when asked that I was not a fan of Florida golf.  In retrospect, the translation of why I didn't fully appreciate this quintessential Florida course: I suck at golf. My fellow sprayers of the ball will feel my pain when I say that Florida golf is not ideally suited to our games. A loose swing = a lost ball in the water and a long day. Having played the majority of my golf in the Northeast I also have never been able to make the adjustment needed to play on Bermuda grass.

Now that I am older and wiser, I also have a more nuanced view of Florida golf. Saying you don't like Florida golf is like saying you don't like brunettes. Then you meet Scarlett Johansson and reconsider your position.  In reality, I've met some beauties over the years in Florida: Calusa Pines, World Woods, Seminole, Streamsong (all courses) and Tiburon. The common elements these courses have are less water, and either manageable Bermuda grass cut short, or non-Bermuda grasses.

I visited the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass after a fifteen year absence for the Players Championship and I have to say that I have softened my opinion. While I don't necessarily love the course and wouldn't rush out to play it, I can see its charms. In addition to my being slightly more mature, the course has evolved as well. Some of the nastier features have been softened over time and the collective changes all seem to have been for the better.

clubhouse
The first change you see at TPC Sawgrass is that the old '70s style clubhouse is gone, replaced by this sprawling Mediterranean-style beauty

Pete and Alice Dye designed the Stadium Course and it opened for play in 1982. From the get-go it was designed as a venue for viewing golf and for testing the best players in the world. PGA Commissioner Dean Beman told the Dyes that he wanted a course that would not favor any particular player or style of play. Variety was the order of the day with long, short, and medium length holes called for. The routing was also mandated to be one where no two consecutive holes played in the same direction so that players would constantly have to factor in a different wind.

The site the designers were given was flat, heavily wooded wetlands. Pete Dye said that as soon as they began digging they hit water when they got down to a depth of only a foot and a half. This is not surprising given how close they are to the ocean and the high water table in Northern Florida. Alas, the preponderance of lakes and water throughout the course. Dye notes that he doesn't believe courses like this could be built today because environmental regulations would prohibit the draining of swamps and marshes.  The dirt they used to dig out for the lakes was mounded up around various holes, thus creating the "stadium effect." The course is historic in that it was the first such "stadium" course. The term is analogous to a baseball or football stadium, where the concept was to allow spectators unobstructed views of tournament play.

On the top 100 list that I played (Golf Magazine's 2003 list) TPC Sawgrass ranked as #57, a relatively high ranking, putting it above courses such as Maidstone, Somerset Hills, Los Angeles Country Club's North Course, and Yeamans Hall. In my view a course ranked above these beauties should have a lot of outstanding holes, and I didn't find them when I played the course a decade and a half ago.


2nd fairway looking back from green

The second fairway on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass

One of the reasons I didn't particularly like the course the first time I played was that I found the front nine and a couple of holes on the back to be a bit bland and uninteresting. If a course is going to rank above some of the peers I mentioned it shouldn't have a preponderance of weak holes. Exhibit A is the second hole, a par-five, pictured above and below. Could be any club in Florida, right? Or, for that matter, a hole on any course in any state? It is not a particularly distinctive hole, sitting on flat ground.


2nd green

The 2nd green

The par three third hole, pictured below, isn't bad, but it isn't hugely distinctive either. 



3rd green
The par three third hole

Below is another hole that isn't distinctive, the par-four fourth that has a green next to the requisite lake. You can see that Pete Dye's signature railroad ties were used at TPC Sawgrass. The other design feature used in abundance are not only mounds that spectators can sit on but also mounds that serve as hazards near the greens. 




4th green
The 4th green sits behind a lake

I won't belabor the point by going through every hole, but as you can surmise, the first fourteen are good, but not really standout golf holes, thus my lack of being gobsmacked by the monster in Ponte Vedra. Anyhow, I'll move on to something more interesting.

The course has changed quite a bit from its early days when it was overly penal, even for tour professionals. Playing in the inaugural event Tom Watson said, "It's a joke, a real joke. They are going to have to flatten out some of the greens." The consensus coming out of the tournament from players was that the course was "unfair and gimmicky." Dave Anderson, the New York Times sports reporter at the time wrote that the 17th was: "A hole only the Marquis de Sade could love." Pete Dye takes pride in designing difficult golf courses. The subtitle of his autobiography Bury Me In A Pot Bunker is: Golf's Most Difficult Designer. He notes with pride that tour players bitched loudly about the course, including Ben Crenshaw, who he quotes in the book as saying, "This is Star Wars golf. This place was designed by Darth Vader." Since it opened the greens have been softened, some of the harsher angles required to hit fairways have been modified, and some of the landing areas have been enlarged to make it less penal. 

10th green
The green on the 10th hole is typical of the Stadium Course. Good, not great golf holes.

The real action at the Stadium Course is squeezed into the closing holes, and it is these holes that cause the course to be noteworthy and the primary reason why it retains such a high spot in the world rankings. You will have to answer for yourself whether this is justified in total.


16 green
The par five 16th hole with a green that hugs the water on the right

It is understood among tour professionals that the toughest finish on tour is the closing three holes at the Stadium Course, summed up in three words: water, water, everywhere. Walking up the sixteenth fairway is like entering the Strait of Messina, to borrow from Homer: the golfer is caught between Scylla and Charybdis. You either hit a shot with precision or lose a ball. A watery grave awaits any shot that is not on its intended line. The approach to the 16th green is guarded along the right side by water with a firm green that can kick balls into the water. Thus, begins the nightmare for any golfer with a hitch in his or her swing. David Feherty calls the stretch of 16-17-18 the 'schizophrenic ward' of the golf course, and he is right.

The beauty (maybe terror is a better word) of the finishing three holes is that it tests every aspect of your game under pressure. It features a green set on the left of the water, followed by one entirely surrounded by water, followed by one set to the right of the water. The finish asks the player if they can pass a stern test and answer the following questions: Can you hit the ball left to right? Right to left? Can you stop a ball on a small, firm green? Can you hit a short iron accurately? In this regard, it is different than most courses that tour professionals play which almost always rewards brute force and length more than accuracy and touch.


17 toward tee
The famous 17th hole at the Stadium Course

The 17th and its island green is synonymous with the Stadium Course. I try not to use the term "signature hole," which isn't applicable to most courses, however, if ever there was a "signature hole" on a course, this is it; it is the defining feature of the layout. Golfers have Alice (not Pete) Dye to thank for the famous island hole; it was her inspiration when they were on site and she envisioned it as the design was shaping up. As much of a pain as the hole is to play, it is clearly great spectacle for fans and riveting entertainment to watch tour players agonize as they try not to embarrass themselves on the short hole.

How hard can it be to hit and hold the 17th green, as it is only a 130 yard shot? Well, pretty hard. More than 120,000 balls end up in the lake each year. I wasn't a math major in college, however, since the course hosts 40,000 rounds of golf a year that would be 328 balls a day that sink to the bottom. Statistically speaking, each player hits three balls into the water! Thus, your answer on the hole's difficulty. It is a very difficult target to hit. If they didn't remove the balls from the water every year there would be so many accumulated after 35 years of play that all the water would have been displaced and there would simply be 4.2 million balls piled in a big hole where the lake used to be.

For the record, when I played the course my first ball hit the back of the green and then bounced into the water. It's rude to ask where my second and third balls went.

The 17th is undoubtedly one of the most famous and best par threes in the world. It was selected as one of the greatest eighteen holes in golf by George Peper and the editors of Golf Magazine in their book, and they accurately describe it as: "the scariest shot in golf." Personally, I think the scariest shot in golf is the one you take after shanking the ball, but I don't want to split hairs.


18
The visual of the golfer standing on the 18th tee is all water

The finishing hole is a par four of 426 yards (for non-tour players) with water bordering the hole from tee to green. If you were looking for a respite after the difficult 17th, you won't find it here. Arguably, it is a harder hole than 17 because of the lurking danger of water on every shot compounded by the severity of the mounding surrounding the small green.

The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass undeniable provides for great tournament golf. Tom Doak nailed it when he wrote in his Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, that the course is a "torture track which illustrates the difference between Tour pros and the rest of us." Golfers often want to test themselves to see how their game would stack up against a tour professional or a championship-ready golf course, and the Stadium Course is that ultimate test. This explains why people happily slap down $400-$500 to suffer for a few hours in the heat. My how times have changed. When the course opened the greens fee was $25. Jerry Pate won the first tournament played here and won $90,000 first prize. The winner in 2017 won twenty times the amount: $1,800,000. 

I still struggle with where the Stadium Course is rated relative to other great courses in the world, however, after my recent visit I give credit where credit is due, and I can understand how the spectacle of the course and the history of the tournament accord it more respect. Is it the type of course that when you walk off the 18th green you want to go immediately back to the first tee like you do at Sand Hills or Yeamans Hall or Bandon Dunes? No. But it takes all types of courses to make an interesting list of the top ranked courses in the world and the historic role the course has played, the tournament history, and the seventeenth hole combine to make it one that is continually in the conversation.

Purely as a matter of preference my tastes don't gravitate toward water-laden Florida golf. Perhaps I would feel different if I were a low single digit handicapper and I could get satisfaction watching eighteen approach shots fly over water and land safely on eighteen greens. For now, give me a cool Scottish breeze and a links course or a slight mist and the dew rising at Bandon Dunes and I'm a happy man.

On a side note, the PGA Tour runs the Players Championship very well. It is a good, spectator friendly event in a nice environment with the best field of the year. I stayed at the Marriott TPC Sawgrass hotel, which also has come a long way since I stayed there fifteen years ago. I would recommend both.