Sunday, July 29, 2007

Harbour Town Golf Links


Thus far on my quest, I have found Pete Dye designed golf courses have been a mixed bag. I don't like The TPC at Sawgrass, although I like Whistling Straits and The Ocean Course at Kiawah. Casa de Campo has nine really good holes and nine average holes.

This summer I traveled down to the South Carolina Low country for some R & R and golf. I scheduled an early morning tee time at Harbour Town Golf Links (ranked #67 in the world).

In general, I have found it a good rule to be suspicious any time words are spelled out in old English like, "Harbour" or "Olde". Normally this is a red-flag that screams 'tourist rip-off'. Generally, it means a place is set up well for the silver-haired set and can be a great place to go if you are looking to over-pay for cute little Christmas tree ornaments and lots of other useless drivel.

Did I go to Harbour Town with pre-conceived notions? Yep, but it's hard not to, having seen the course on TV so many times, and I have several friends that have played it and complained that it was so tightly packed with condos that it was difficult to appreciate the course. In addition, Harbour Town is like a golf factory with group after group going off at regular intervals and pushed along the course. Plus, you have to ride in a cart here, which I'm not a big fan of.



Low country live oak with Spanish moss



Harbour Town is located in the Sea Pines resort on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, which, for such a small state, is golf rich. South Carolina features three of the top ranked courses in the world: Harbour Town, Yeamans Hall in Charleston and The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island. Hilton Head is one of the most successful real estate development ventures in U.S. history. There are over 20 courses in Hilton Head and the density of the housing is in fact alarming and omnipresent throughout the golf course.

Harbour Town has many public roads running through it. The most common sighting on the golf course when I played were scores of families riding bikes around and amongst the condominiums. I found that Harbour Town had a certain kitschy quality and sense of real Americana to it, that, in the end, I found hard to dislike. Like watching a Jerry Lewis movie, it is so bad, it's good. No matter how much you try, you can't stop watching and you end up enjoying it. Such was my experience at Harbour Town. I came to appreciate the uniqueness and subtlety of the golf course despite the intensive housing development.

The Golf Course

To summarize Harbour Town: narrow fairways and small greens. The design, layout and routing are imaginative and good, even though the course is completely flat. You can't just get up and hit driver on every hole. It is designed to really make you think about the type and shape of the shot before hitting each one. The narrowness of the fairways and the over-hanging trees force you to have to hit a certain side of the fairway in order to have a decent shot at the small greens. In this regard, Harbour Town reminded me of Merion.

The picture below shows both the narrowness of the fairway and the omni-present housing lurking behind the trees.



2nd hole narrow fairway and houses


Although the fairways in reality are not that narrow, they give the appearance of being so. This is because so many of the holes have overhanging trees that encroach over the fairways, making it a visually difficult golf course to drive the ball. Harbour Town represents the type of short, shot-makers course that seems to be out of vogue. It's nice to have world-class courses like this that are not all about length and brute force.

The other thing I appreciate about Harbour Town as a student of golf history is that this is one of Pete Dye's earliest designs and one of the first he used railroad ties on. As essentially the first course of its genre built in the modern era, this makes it a historically important course. Jack Nicklaus was a co-designer, and it was the first course he was involved with from a design standpoint. Also, I like the Low country setting with all the live oak trees with their hanging Spanish moss. The course also has a very interesting combination of palmetto trees, pine trees, elm trees, pampas grasses and other native plants.



Railroad ties on par three 4th


My two favorite holes on the course were the 13th and the 16th, which showcase Dye's bunkering abilities. The 13th has a narrow landing area off the tee (seen below). It is critical to hit your drive to the right-hand side of the fairway to have a reasonable shot at this unique green. The green itself is 'Y' shaped, with an imposing railroad-tied bunker half-way around it.



13th hole from the tee



13th green



13th green


The 16th hole is a sharp dogleg-left and has a long bunker down the entire left side and is a good risk/reward hole. The bunker is a magnet for balls. Even those of us in my group that avoided the bunker off the tee, ended up in it eventually.

The mental image I had of Harbour Town, based on the pictures I have seen of it, is that it plays along the water, which it doesn't. It is an inland course. The iconic picture of the lighthouse is a bit misleading. You expect the course to be mostly along the water. In fact, you don't see the water until you reach the 16th green. I found the 18th to be an interesting hole but not really as good as all the hype surrounding it. It has O.B. all the way down the right side and the Calibogue Sound on the left the entire way. Comparisons to the 18th at Pebble Beach are not in order.

I played a good paced round at Harbour Town, with a cart and a fore-caddy to move us along. We played in 4 1/4 hours and as much as I don't like riding in a golf cart, in scorching heat and high humidity, it makes sense that they use them. Overall, I enjoyed Harbour Town.

The Carolina Low Country

As I've said, I am a fan of the Carolina Low country. It is hot, humid and sultry and has a lot of charm. I enjoy having grits with breakfast and the other distinctive regional cuisine: She crab soup, crawfish, cornbread and the local seafood. I like the distinctive Southern drawl they speak with and the slow pace of life here is a nice change. Plus, how can you not like a place that sells "worms and shrimps" in gas stations and convenience stores.

After I finished playing Harbour Town I drove up to Charleston to play Yeamans Hall. Those of you that have been to Hilton Head will appreciate that I made the classic driving mistake on my way out. I turned into the wrong housing development, which actually isn't hard to do, because many look alike and with the low hanging trees it is always somewhat dark. I got lost and drove in circles for 30 minutes around the various neighborhoods that you need a satellite navigation system to get out of.

As you will see in my coming post on Yeamans Hall, the two places are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Harbour Town was the easiest course for me to play thus far. I went on-line prior to my trip and had the round completely booked within five minutes. The very private Yeamans Hall has almost no houses around it, gets little play, is the picture of proper Southern gentility and was very difficult for me to get on to play. Rather than just driving up to the bag drop like you do at Harbour Town, at Yeamans you have to get through the guarded entrance, seen below.





The entrance gate to Yeamans Hall


On my drive up to Charleston I took the back roads to soak up the atmosphere. It is an eclectic mix of tidal salt marshes, rivers, swamps, plantations, antique shops and fireworks stores. There is good reason they call this the Low country. Hopefully, the pictures below can give you a good feel for what it is like. It has a Fellini-like mix of high and low.


Plantation entrance with a beautiful allée of trees

Low country antiquing


Low country entertainment


Oh yea, I almost forgot, I have to put in the obligatory picture of the signature lighthouse hole.


P.S. I did manage to get excellent prices on a couple of new Christmas ornaments while at Hilton Head and spent well less than the $270 that the greens fees cost me.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Oakmont



Oakmont and the Pittsburgh area have come a long way since playing host to their first major championship in 1919, the U.S. Amateur. American Golfer magazine, which covered the championship extensively wrote at the time about, "The Smoky City" and said, "Golf balls last a far less time in Pittsburgh than elsewhere, for the grass is covered with soot and the ball, as it rolls along the ground eats it up. Then when the clubhead smashes against the ball, the soot is driven into the cover and the ball soon becomes black."

Sometimes I come back from a course immediately inspired to write about it. I got no such inspiration after playing Oakmont (ranked #15 in the world) because I was so worn down. I played Oakmont about three years ago, before I owned my digital camera, so I have no brilliant shots to show. The recent US Open provided my needed inspiration to write up my Oakmont post.

I also find it difficult to write about courses that people know so much about and that get so much TV exposure. The thing I took away from Oakmont is that it is a very difficult golf course. As you saw during the US Open, it is extremely difficult. The thing is, the course is pretty much always like you saw it on TV. Some courses need a lot of preparation to host a major championship. Oakmont could really host a major at a moment's notice. A lot of top courses boast that they could host a major at any time without a lot of preparation. At Oakmont, it is not a boast, but a legitimate claim. I have found it to be the most difficult of all the courses I have played - harder than other arduous courses such as Bethpage Black, Pine Valley, Winged Foot, Olympic Club or Carnoustie. It no doubt has the fastest greens of the top 100. It's debilitating.

Pittsburgh

I had never been to Pittsburgh before going to play at Oakmont. Pittsburgh is one of those cities that has a rust-belt image and has a reputation as being rough and gritty. The reality of visiting Pittsburgh was quite different. It is a very nice city situated around three rivers. There are a series of narrow valleys all around the city going in all directions with rivers at the bottom of each. It is hard to get a clear vista in any direction because of all the hills and valleys, but it has a certain uniqueness to its topography that makes it an attractive city in its own way. There are about a dozen vintage (not surprisingly, mostly steel) bridges that cross the rivers at various points around the city. Collectively, I found they are architecturally very interesting. Not only is Pittsburgh also a big college town, it sort of has a retro-feel to it that I like. Pittsburgh is an under-appreciated city.





Getting to Oakmont

When you drive east out of the city to get to Oakmont you drive along various narrow river-valleys with vestiges of old Pittsburgh visible. One of the defining features of the area as you get out of the city proper are the narrow valleys with railroad tracks running parallel to the river, and old steel factories squeezed between the roadway and the mountains. When you get to the Oakmont exit you then cross back over the Allegheny River and drive through a not-so-great neighborhood and up a long hill. At the top of the hill turn left, and you are at one of golf's historic masterpieces. You know the place is special as soon as you turn in, with the old tudor style original clubhouse. The locker room is original and very impressive, so steeped in history with pictures of past champions all around. I just liked the ambiance and feel of the place. There is a sign as you walk past the clubhouse that states that you have to walk the course unless you have a note from a doctor. It is one of those places like Winged Foot or Merion where you really can feel the history as you walk around the course.

The Golf Course

It you can define a course by the quality of the champions that have won there, then Oakmont is unquestionably great: Tommy Armour, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazan, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Ernie Els.

Both Johnny Miller and Ernie Els call the first hole the hardest opening hole in championship golf and it's hard to disagree. Along the right-hand side is O.B. the entire length of the hole. If you don't hit the ball far enough on your tee shot, you have a blind downhill shot to the green. The green slopes right to left and back to front and is lightning quick. Many golf course architects believe in a moderately easy hole to open with and then the course gets progressively more difficult. The father and son designers of the course, the Fownes', did not share this philosophy. Their design philosophy of, "A shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost", was executed with precision when they designed Oakmont.

After playing the first hole you cross over the Pennsylvania Turnpike on a foot bridge and get to the second tee. Holes 2-8 are cut off from the rest of the course by the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The third hole is the one with the famous "Church Pew" bunkers on the left side. They are, by far, not the most difficult part of the hole. I found the green to be very tough. It is an elevated green, ala Pinehurst #2, is inverted, and quite difficult to hold, and like all the greens is lightning quick. After finishing the par three 8th hole, you walk back over the busy Turnpike and play the 9th hole, which has a beautiful vista of the clubhouse in front of you as you walk up the hill.


I am making a big leap of faith here that most of my readers don't suffer from a certain dementia characterized by a joy of repetitiveness and thus I will spare you an analysis of the remaining holes because they are all hard and the greens are all lightning fast.






History

As hard as Oakmont is today, it used to be even harder. They used to use deep-toothed rakes in the bunkers to create furrows, making it quite difficult to get out of. Golf Illustrated in 1919 wrote about Oakmont, "...one of the most difficult courses in America. It is one of the most closely and scientifically trapped courses in the world and woe betide the erratic player".

Bobby Jones was worn down by the Amateur held at Oakmont in 1919. Over six days he played 36 holes a day and lost eighteen pounds. Jones rarely criticized things, but in a 1926 article he criticized the furrowing of bunkers as being unfair. He wrote, "I was afraid, after Oakmont, that any criticism I might make of the sand hazards there would be interpreted as an ill-natured grumbling against the course, because I had made such a miserable showing in the tournament." Below is a picture of Bobby hitting out a furrowed bunker at Oakmont. Thankfully, they no longer furrow the bunkers.




Trying to play the top 100 courses in the world, it is inevitable to run into weather troubles along the way. The first time I went to Oakmont, I was only able to play nine holes due to a severe thunderstorm that came through in the afternoon. We had to retire to the men's grill and had a grand time amicably talking golf until dinner-time. If you have to be stuck in a clubhouse, there are worse places in the world to get rained out. My host was gracious enough to invite me back to play a full eighteen holes two months later.

I have no real criticism of the golf course itself. The routing is world-class, varied and there is enough elevation change to make it interesting. There is good reason why Oakmont is on the National Register of Historic Places. The issue I have with Oakmont is that for the average player it's too long, the rough is too high and the greens are too fast. As Johnny Miller says, "Oakmont's mean". I am glad I made the pilgrimage to see this shrine of golf, but I am in no hurry to go back.

After seeing Oakmont, I would have to agree that Johnny Miller's 63 in the final round of the 1973 US Open to win, has to be the best single round of golf ever played.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Scioto Country Club





Scioto (pronounced like Toyota, "sigh-OH-tuh"), Country Club is ranked in the top 100 in the world for several reasons: It is a Donald Ross design built in 1916; It has hosted five U.S.G.A. championships; It is the course that Jack Nicklaus played golf on as a young man and Bobby Jones won his first U.S. Open at Scioto. Scioto (ranked #71 in the world) was founded in 1916. One of the co-founders was Samuel P. Bush, great-grandfather of our current "decider", although I will try not to let this fact negatively influence my impression of the course.

Jones won the U.S. Open in 1926 at Scioto only fifteen days after he won the British Open at Lytham & St. Annes. Remember that this is before the era of jet airplanes, when golfers crossed the Atlantic by boat. At both Lytham and Scioto, Jones came from behind to win. At Scioto he gained the lead on the 17th hole in a final day of 36 hole play.

The Buckeye State has an abundant amount of good golf courses. Columbus alone has three world ranked courses - Muirfield Village, The Golf Club and Scioto. The state has two other courses in the world's top 100 - Inverness in Toledo and Camargo in Cincinnati. It also has three other highly-regarded courses - Firestone, Canterbury and Double Eagle.


Second green at Scioto

Like its Donald Ross designed neighbor, Inverness, Scioto has small greens. During my round I putted or chipped a lot off the collar of the greens, as did everyone in my foursome. Even if you hit the green, often times the ball bounces off or ends up on the fringe or in the rough. This is in part because they are small greens and in part because the edges are slightly crowned - not like an overturned bowl or a traditional Pinehurst #2 green, a lot more subtle. The net effect of the green designs is that the ball rolls off a lot. The approach shot to most greens is a narrow fairway area, taking away any possibility of a bump and run shot. The elevated greens are so well bunkered that the correct shot to hit into each green is a high shot that spins or lands softly. The picture above of the second green is typical of most greens on the course.


Bunker on the 2nd fairway


Scioto has been modified from its original 1916 design. All that really remains of the original Donald Ross design is his routing. The greens were redone by Dick Wilson in 1963. Although they are not Ross's originals, I found them to be challenging and interesting. As a classic Ross routing, Scioto represents the archetypal tree-lined, American-style target golf course. It is one of the most perfectly manicured and conditioned courses I have ever played.






3rd green

My favorite hole on the course was the par five eighth. Like Peachtree in Atlanta, Scioto has a creek that meanders through the rolling hills and provides an effective hazard on many holes, including the eighth. The eighth is a dog-leg through the rolling terrain that plays over water to a slightly elevated, well-bunkered green.

Approach to the 8th green


Although the course doesn't really have any similarities to a links course, the stone walls that ring a couple of holes on the back nine brought back memories of the stone walls at Muirfield and North Berwick. Below is the stone wall along the 12th fairway.

Stone wall on 12th hole

The majority of the golf courses in the world's top 100 are all about golf. Take, for example Shinnecock, Pine Valley, The National Golf Links, Chicago Golf, San Francisco Golf, Muirfield, Cruden Bay, Dornoch, Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, etc. They are not country clubs, but are focused on golf only. Scioto is the quintessential Country Club, offering a full array of activities. It has a swimming pool for families, tennis courts, an exercise room and is setup to accommodate both men and ladies. It has a series of patios, a grill room, restaurants, and even a barber shop that is still in use. You can see that Scioto is located in a nice neighborhood of Columbus by the stone houses, seen in the pictures, surrounding many of the holes, although the course doesn't have a feel of being hemmed in by houses. Jack grew up in the neighborhood behind the course.


16th green

We took caddies at Scioto, as I always do if caddies are available. I was surprised to see most members riding in carts, especially well-fed ones. One gentleman riding up and down the fairways had an unseemly resemblance to Rush Limbaugh. My advice to you porkers is lose the carts; you might actually avoid that future operation to have your stomach stapled if you get some exercise. Hello people, golf is a walking game!

Part of the Scioto clubhouse is dedicated to the history of the championships played there and to its famous prodigy, Jack Nicklaus, and his teacher, Jack Grout. Visiting Scioto is a required part of a golfer's education to see the course where a pudgy kid from Columbus developed into one of the greatest golfers of all time. It is a rewarding experience to stand on the expansive driving range and imagine all the balls Jack used to hit.

I look forward to returning to Ohio in the not-to-distant future to complete my golfing education.


Scioto's Web Site