Tuesday, September 30, 2008

20 Years, Seven Months, 27 Days...

I was interviewed by the local paper recently and they asked me when I thought I would complete playing the top 100 courses. I said that I was pretty certain I would have 99 out of 100 within three years, but that playing Augusta was going to be difficult and far from certain. A few days later I was contacted by a fellow self-described 'compulsive person' who completed playing the world's top 100 a decade ago. It took him 20 years, seven months and 27 days to get on Augusta, but he managed it.

Bernie Hiller now takes a revered spot in my honor roll. Read on...

Reprinted with permission from The New York Post, January 25, 1999

"Finally, I got to play Augusta. I played with the dishwasher. It took me 20 years, seven months and 27 days from the time I first started trying to get on it." --BERNIE HILLER

The hardest to access course - Augusta National

You can't out-original Bernie Hiller when it comes to golf experiences.

You also cannot insult him. He's become used to (numb to?) being called crazy, nuts and out of his mind. His wife calls him these things daily.

To say that Hiller is a compulsive, moderately-eccentric man who's on a mission from God to get his way is to say that the greens at Augusta National are difficult to putt or that Pine Valley is an awesome golf course. (More on those two courses in a moment).

Hiller is a 71-year-old Long Island resident who had a vision back in 1974 - Oct. 1, 1974 to be exact. And, to put this as mildly as we can, Hiller would not allow himself to be denied fulfilling his dream.

"I got a book from Golf Digest about the 100 best courses in the U.S. and I said, 'God, I would like to do this someday,'" Hiller was saying this week.

By "doing this someday," Hiller meant playing the 100 of the best courses. All of them. Honest.

And so he did, officially completing his methodical, self-funded mission in November of 1997. That mission, by the way, was modified from the top 100 courses in the U.S. to the top 100 courses in the world.

Hiller, who's in the life insurance business, has traveled as far as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Japan - just to play these great golf courses. He's done it, for the most part, by writing letters to the courses and asking on.

His most difficult conquest was Augusta National.

"I'd finally almost finished the U.S. list, getting up to No. 99, but I could never get into Augusta," Hiller recalled. "I calculated that I talked to at least 5,000 people trying to get onto Augusta.

"Finally," Hiller went on, "I got to play Augusta. I played with the dishwasher. It took me 20 years, seven months and 27 days from the time I first started trying to get on it."

On May 27, 1995, after being connected with the Augusta National dishwasher by a mutual acquaintance, Hiller, a 16 handicap now, conquered his toughest quest - shooting 85 at the home of The Masters. It was made possible because in late May the club employees are allowed to play the course with one guest.

"It was one of the great rounds of my life," Hiller said. "I swear I heard the 25,000 people applauding when I got off 18. I still get chills talking about it."

Hiller's favorite course of all - what he calls "the most enjoyable course in the world" - is not even on any of those top 100 lists: The Gold Course of the Golden Horseshoe in Williamsburg, Va.

He calls Pine Valley "the greatest golf course in the world, no ifs ands or buts." He said he loves Pebble Beach and added, "There's no greater hole than the 16th at Cypress."

"I rate, right now, Bethpage Black in the top 10," Hiller said. "I think it's better than Shinnecock."

Hiller said he has his own rating system for courses.

"I look at a golf course as a piece of sculpture made out of the basic elements of sand and grass and trees and water," he said. "I go along with some of the Golf Digest criteria - identifiability, memorability, diversity of holes, quality of the course itself and degree of difficulty. Then I add my own: enjoyment."

Hiller estimated that he's spent somewhere around $100,000 in his quest. He said he buys a shirt from each course he played, estimating that he's spent about $12,000 on shirts alone.

His mission nearly never culminated as he nearly died trying to complete it. While attempting to play the 100th of the world courses, Hiller collapsed in South Africa with heart problems the day before he was to play Durban Country Club.

After a night in the hospital, though, "I got up the next morning, teed off at 1:30 at Durban, and walked the whole way," Hiller said. "It was finally No. 100. My hands were shaking. The next morning at the airport, the same [heart] thing hit me. When they called my cardiologist back home, he said, 'Let him die, because he's too stupid.'"


Durban's spectacular 17th hole

The morning Hiller arrived back to the States, he had open heart surgery.

"But I did it," he said. "I know that had I died that time, all my friends would have said, 'He died happy playing that golf course.' It's a craziness, I know. But I'm a very compulsive person."

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Honors Course

The quest to play the best golf courses in the world mandates a stop in Tennessee. My friends from overseas are scratching their heads about now. Tennessee? Yes, friends, Tennessee. You know, the home of Graceland, Opryland and Jack Daniels.

The Honors Course (ranked # 96 in the world) opened in 1983 and is located in the town of Ooltewah, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ooltewah is a Cherokee name that means "resting place".

The Honors Course ranks right up there in the 'most difficult to find' category of courses. At least Chicago Golf Club has a small sign out front. To find Muirfield, you can look for the Greywalls Hotel next door. Morfontaine, near Paris, is genuinely difficult to find, as is The Honors Course. The course is located at 9603 Lee Highway. You can type the address into Mapquest and it will map out a route for you. Even armed with this useful information, we drove right past it. Then, retracing our route and paying close attention, we ran right by it again without the slightest inkling that it was there. Doubling back, the third time, we missed it as well. After we called the pro-shop the nice lady told us to make a left at the white propane tank, and sure enough, across from Chattanooga Propane Company there is a very small un-marked road, hidden deep in the trees.


The discrete entrance to The Honors Course

The Honors Course is one of a small genre of destination courses that attracts members from well beyond its local geographical area. Much more than a golf course, the Honors Course is a little enclave and has a series of lodges that allow for visiting players to stay for a day or two on-site. Pine Valley and Augusta are the most established destination courses. Sand Hills is the best known of the modern destination courses. The Honors Course was the idea of "Jack" Lupton, who was a friend of Bobby Jones. Lupton is a member of both Seminole and Augusta, and the latter course was his inspiration for this course. His idea was to honor amateur golf and Tennessee golfers, thus the name of the course. The Honors Course is a private affair with a membership of 325, most of who were personally selected by Lupton. Like at Pine Valley and Oakmont, Lupton follows the benevolent dictator model, and it has worked very well.

Just like at Yeamans Hall, you know that you have arrived somewhere special the moment you manage to find the turn off the highway. Once beyond the gate, there is a long winding driveway that takes you up to the discreet, small clubhouse and pro shop. It's always the little things that make a big difference, and at The Honors, they get them all right. They not only take your bags out the car, but valet park it for you. They anticipate when you are going to leave and have your car pulled up and ready to go when you are. The caddy program is outstanding, the food is great (I recommend the Shrimp Po'Boy Sandwich), the grill area is cozy and the service is super. Around various tee boxes on the course are three tasteful and unobtrusive wooden barrels - one filled with chilled water bottles, one filled with chilled soda bottles and one filled with chilled beer. Elvis has left the building, ladies and gentleman!

Although the course is relatively young, it has hosted the 1991 U.S. Amateur, won by Mitch Voges and the 1996 NCAA championship won by a young Eldrick Woods.

The Golf Course

The course was designed by Pete Dye. In the past, I've had a hard time getting excited about Pete Dye courses. I like Harbour Town and The Ocean Course at Kiawah and Casa de Campo has nine great holes. I despise the TPC at Sawgrass and couldn't find inspiration to write about Whistling Straits. The Honors Course, though, made a big impression on me. I was especially impressed with how Dye was able to vary the routing here to create an exceptional balance between easy and difficult holes, long par fours and short par fours, and a difficult course that is also playable for a mortal. Although the slope rating is 145, the course doesn't wear you out like an Oakmont or Bethpage Black.

I was especially impressed with two short par fours, which are great risk-reward holes. The par four 9th hole is only 355 yards long. You probably won't see your tee shot land, as the landing area is semi-blind. The second shot is a wedge to a green protected in front and on the left by water. Dye has said about the 9th at The Honors, "every course needs a #9 - one of my rare forced carries to a par four green". His execution of the hole here is very well done; the design is subtle and really penalizes a mis-hit shot.

Approach to the 9th green

The other great risk-reward hole is #12, a 355 yard par four with a small fairway and a huge tree blocking the green on the right side. Being able to place the ball on the left side of the fairway is of paramount importance off the tee. Doing so, however, does not assure a birdie or par. Again, like #9, even though you are hitting in a very short iron, the green is narrow and well protected. As Dye correctly says about his pot bunker in front of the green, "This bunker can spell disaster for even the most accomplished player."

#12 greenside tree
Tree blocking the approach to the 12th green

The course is built on a huge expanse of land on 400 acres and meanders around the property in an artful fashion. Usual Dye features are present at The Honors Course such as the mounding and grass bunkers seen here on the second hole, below:

#2 fairway
Grass mounds on the 2nd fairway

Dye also has a nasty habit of leaving trees in the line of play to create a preferred side to approach from, as seen here on the fourth hole. Also notice that this green has no greenside bunkers. None are necessary as there are closely shaved areas on three sides of this elevated green.

#4 approach to green
Tree guarding the 4th green

Hole number six, a par five with an elevated green also has no greenside bunkers and another pesky tree lurking near the green.

#6 to green

The well protected 6th green

The #1 and #2 handicap holes surround a man-made pond and both require heroic shots over water to secure a good score. Holes #7 and #15 are mirror images of each other on opposite sides of the pond. Remember, I said Dye mixed in long and short par fours. This is the part of the program that features the long fours. These two gems are 410 and 420 yards and require both your first and second shots to be both long and accurate.

seventh green
seventh green

The par three 14th, below, shows off the diversity of holes Dye designed at The Honors Course. You won't see a lot of railroad ties here. You will see a variety of hole styles, doglegs and elevation changes. In hindsight, I'm not a raving fan of Pete Dye because his courses often have a manufactured look to them. I like The Honors Course best of all his work because it has a natural look and a sense of polish to it, without being forced, unlike many of his other courses.

#14 par 3 green

The 14th, a par three

The eleventh hole is a 545 yard par five that features a generous driving area off an elevated tee. The elevated green seen below has mammoth bunkers in front, guarding the green. The mounds on this hole were created by piling up the tree stumps and logs from the construction of the course.

#11 green
The beautiful approach to the 11th, a par five


Playing The Honors course was a bit of a homecoming for me. My first round of golf ever was played in Tennessee nineteen years ago. It felt good to be back in Tennessee!

My last name ends in a vowel, and it's clear to anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line that I'm not from around here. As my readers know, however, I'm a big fan of the Southern way of life and Tennessee is no exception. I appreciate a distinctive accent and I particularly like their brand down here. They don't drive cars here, they drive vee-hickles. Appropriately, they ask if you need dye-rections to get back to the airport. Many locals are genuinely fascinated to finally meet an eye-talian in person since they didn't realize there were so many different types of Yankees and there are not too many paesanos down here. I also like the distinctive feel of little Southern towns, the local barbecue and the generally slower way of life.

Local 'Bar-B-Que' joint in Ooltewah

Among the notable animals I have played alongside in my travels are pheasant at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas and monkeys at Durban in South Africa. The Honors Course has wild turkeys running through it, which adds to the distinctive feel of the place.

Wild Turkeys roam around the Honors

I understand that the club founder and President Mr. Lupton is in ill health and only rarely gets out to the course nowadays. My best wishes to him. He did good here. He created a modern day Yeamans Hall in Tennessee, which is intended as high praise for a Southerner. The club manages a feeling of gentility that so few others ever do. With so many fools like Donald Trump trying to create magic by putting in asinine features like waterfalls and other trickery, Dye and Lupton have managed to pull off an extremely difficult feat at The Honors - being true to the spirit of the game, building a world-class golf course and having the understated nature of the club shine through.

I strongly disagree with Tom Doak's assessment of The Honors in his Confidential Guide where he states, "there aren't many notable holes: only the par-4 7th, a neat solution to putting a hole along the dike of an irrigation pond, but otherwise one of the most gimmicky-looking hole Pete Dye ever built". Doak continues, "I must admit, though, that much of my disdain for the course is due to the attitude the club presents. It's one thing to aspire to Augusta, but you can't create tradition overnight, and you certainly shouldn't be complaining about rival new courses being less traditional than your own. I don't think you ought to be able to have it both ways, seeking high rankings and national tournaments while trying to remain extremely exclusive at the same time."

Tom got it completely wrong. The opposite is true.