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.


Monday, March 06, 2017

Hyannisport Club



I am finally catching up on old posts from rounds played this past summer and highlight a low-key club that remains a prized invitation in the world of golf.

The Hyannisport Club was established in 1897 in Hyannisport, Mass on Cape Cod. Hyannisport Club is not ranked in the top 100, but then again neither are many other fantastic golf clubs like Whippoorwill, Myopia Hunt Club and Piping Rock. The club is located within walking distance of the Kennedy compound in Hyannis and JFK used to play here when he was on the cape. The course has world class views of the water and the surrounding tidal marshes looking out into Nantucket Sound.

The course itself was designed by Alex Findlay in 1901. Findlay was born to Scottish parents while on board a ship coming in America in 1865. It was re-designed by Donald Ross in 1936 and plays from a yardage of 6,348 yard from the tips. The course has a set of small, very fast greens. Many of the greens are quite narrow as well with bunkers on long side of the greens. More than once I found myself in a bunker and if you don't hit the perfect high shot you will find yourself in a bunker on the other side of the green.

The course begins with a relatively straight 448 yard par four, a gentle opener. This is followed by a 265 yard par four that is also relatively easy. The third features a dogleg left that plays at an angle off the tee to a fairway set over a tidal marsh. The fourth is a 410 yard dogleg  that plays around the same body of water.

The par threes on the course all feature a landing pad in front of the greens that at first slopes away from your line of play and then slopes upward. This makes the approach shots to the green very tricky because if you land your shot just a bit short and it hits on the downslope then it will likely shoot across the green. Factor in the wind and it becomes even trickier. Particularly good par threes include the 195-yard eighth, which plays into a cross-wind coming off the Sound. The fifteenth, a 177-yarder and the seventeenth, a 141-yarder play directly into the prevailing wind. All three are good golf holes.

Another hole of note is the 476-yard par five sixteenth which plays through a dramatic left to right sloping hill. Your tee shot is blind as is your second over the hill. Although you will likely have a very short iron into the green, it is also highly likely that you will have a uneven lie as the terrain slopes on the entire hole from left to right.

The holes along the water and marsh reminded me quite a bit of Maidstone in East Hampton, and many of the approach shots play the same way they do on the holes that border the pond at Maidstone. Aside from a couple of holes on the front that play over marshes the course has no water hazards.

Kennedy golfing at Hyannisport

John Kennedy followed Eisenhower as president and the latter played over 1,000 rounds while he was President. Camelot was sensitive to this fact and positioned himself as a contrast of the old guard Republicans who played golf all the time. Thus, he would normally play with little fanfare and would sneak out without the media present. He would often play a short loop of holes at Hyannisport, the first and second followed by sixteen through eighteen, all of which are near the clubhouse.


The finishing hole looks easy on the scorecard at 310 yards but it plays straight up a big hill and features a narrow tee shot. A view from above the eighteenth green overlooking Nantucket Sound and the marshes is below. One of the things that is so unique and pleasurable about golf is to be able to play where your idols have played before you. What a thrill to walk and play where JFK used to.


Kennedy on the final green at Hyannisport (photo courtesy JFK Library, public domain)

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Golf's Iron Horse : The Astonishing, Record-Breaking Life of Ralph Kennedy



As I was conducting research on my first book,  How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs: A Journey through Pine Valley, Royal Melbourne, Augusta, Muirfield, and More, I stumbled across Ralph Kennedy's amazing life story and decided it was worth fully telling the story of a man who defied fatigue.

So many works of golfing history focus on the greats: the best players, the most prestigious championships, the hardest courses, and the like. Most avid golfers are average players, relishing in the joy of the sport itself. Golf’s Iron Horse, published by Skyhorse Publishing (February 2017) chronicles the previously untold story of Ralph Kennedy (1882 - 1961) an amateur golfer whose love of the game set him on par to play more courses than anyone before.

In a feat that caused the New York Sun to declare him “golf’s Lou Gehrig” Kennedy began playing golf in 1910 and continued seeking out unique golf courses he had not yet played for decades, finishing in 1953. He played golf on 3,165 different courses during his forty-three year love affair with the game. In addition to the 3,165 unique courses he played, the unrelenting Kennedy also played golf a total of 8,500 times over his lifetime, the equivalent of teeing it up every day for twenty-three straight years. By comparison, Lou Gehrig spent seventeen years in professional baseball.

A pencil salesman who traveled the country, Kennedy was a founding member of the Winged Foot Golf Club in New York. Perfect for golf aficionados, Golf’s Iron Horse will inspire every reader to tee off at a new course. The book includes details of the special conditions under which he was able to play the Augusta National Golf Club and the unique circumstances of his visits to Pebble Beach and the Old Course at St. Andrews.

As he was nearing the completion of his long journey Kennedy said about his quest,  “Damn thing began as a hobby forty years ago, now it’s a mania.” Traveling primarily by train and walking every round of golf, Ralph's journey is a look back through golf of an earlier era: one played with sand tees, hickory-shafted clubs named 'Mashie' and 'Spoon', cottonseed hull greens, half-par holes, company-owned courses and stymies.

Ralph saved every one of his scorecards from his long journey, providing an unparalleled record of his quest and an interesting historical record. About one-third of the courses he played are no longer in existence. The variety of courses Ralph played ranged from the worst public and municipal courses up to the apex of the golf world, including Cypress Point, Muirfield, and Pine Valley. He played a substantial number of nine-hole courses and a full spectrum of urban, rural, desert, mountain, parkland, moorland, links, and heathland courses. No course was too insignificant or far away for Ralph to pursue.

A scorecard from 1927 from Ralph Kennedy's historic collection (photo courtesy U.S.G.A.)

Ralph was an extensively followed and well-known amateur golfer in his day. He was featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post twice and in Ripley's Believe it or Not three times. His full-length article about golf is the only one ever to appear on the subject in National Geographic magazine. Even the learned magazine the New Yorker followed Ralph's progress. Hundreds of newspapers on five continents followed Ralph's journey including the Augusta Chronicle, the Sydney Mail, the Adelaide Advertiser, the Times-Picayune, the Washington Post, the Chicago Daily News, the Boston Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Tribune, the Savannah Evening Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Globe and Mail, the Irish Independent, the Havana Evening Telegraph and the South China Morning Post. 

Typical of Ralph's dedication and fanaticism, when he made a short trip to Bermuda he played five courses in the space of fourteen hours. The local paper, the Gazette and Colonist, was impressed with Ralph’s stamina and noted how wind and rain didn’t seem to slow him down. His quixotic journey saw him visit all 48 states and all nine Canadian provinces as well as a dozen other countries.

Ralph donated all his historic scorecards along with five scrapbooks detailing his journey to the U.S. Golf Association, and newly uncovered research allows me to tell his story, including a surprise twist at the end of his journey. Follow Ralph's journey from the Edwardian Era through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, Prohibition, the New Deal and many more historic eras and find out what Ralph Kennedy has in common with Bobby Jones, Colonel Sanders, and Clark Gable.

Banff Springs in Alberta Canada was among Kennedy's favorites. His scorecard from his 1932 visit there, one of over 300 courses in Canada that he played (photo courtesy U.S.G.A.)

An unparalleled run of New York City golf

Ralph lived most of his adult life in Upper Manhattan and as such played a great deal of his golf in New York City, including an astonishing number within the five boroughs. Of the fifty-eight courses that have ever existed within the city limits, Ralph played an impressive thirty-nine of them. Great golf and New York City are not mutually exclusive. The coastal metropolis has the climate, terrain, and—during Ralph’s lifetime—open space for such golf. It is not a stretch to call some of the courses he visited pastoral and peaceful. The fairways and greens he tramped were varied, making for some interesting juxtapositions among the courses in his home city. While some were intensely urban or seriously flawed, an equal number were scenic, isolated, and among the best built at the time. Of particular note are the lost golf courses of Queens, which were designed by architects of the Golden Age working at the peak of their prowess, including those of Seth Raynor, A. W. Tillinghast, Devereux Emmet, and Alister Mackenzie. A full chapter of the book is dedicated to telling the story of golf in New York City and details many of the lost courses.

A lost golf course of Queens, the Bayside Links, designed by Alister Mackenzie


Acclaim for Kennedy's journey

Newspapers and periodicals around the globe cover Ralph's record-breaking feat and many in the world of golf were impressed by his achievement:

"[Kennedy] is worth a number of stories. Few persons achieve their ambitions in this world, and rare one as -- well, you might call it bizarre, as Mr. Kennedy's. Like Alexander the Great Mr. Ralph Kennedy of Winged Foot is looking for new worlds to conquer,”

       - O.B. Keeler, writer for the Atlanta Journal and friend of Bobby Jones


The Times of London wrote about Kennedy in 1951: “Metaphorical trumpets should sound and drums be beaten for such a conquering hero.”

The New York Herald Tribune called Ralph’s accomplishment “the most hopelessly unassailable record in sport.”

The New Yorker said about Ralph “The coziest athletic record we’ve heard of in some time.”

“This is one of the most remarkable performances I have heard of.”

      - U.S. Open Champion and one-time Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club Francis Ouimet

The Dallas Morning News's headline about Ralph Kennedy, “World’s Most Widely Traveled Golfer has made Freak Record.”


The dapper Ralph Kennedy about to board his long flight for his only trip to the British Isles (photo courtesy U.S.G.A.)


Praise for Golf's Iron Horse and How to Play the World's Most Exclusive Golf Clubs

“John Sabino is the ultimate historian, golf or otherwise. In Golf’s Iron Horse, John has uncovered more factoids and behind the scenes lifestyle moments on hidden golf legend Ralph Kennedy than I could ever dream of finding on Google in a thousand lifetimes. It’s a deep read, this book, but it’s beautifully well-told. I say roll up your sleeves, pop the top on your favorite beverage, kick back to go back in time and prepare to be amazed. There’s a lot going on for sure, but here is the surprise: The way John tells this magical story, you get to go right along with it!”

 –Tripp Bowden, author of the critically acclaimed Freddie and Me: Life Lessons From Freddie Bennett, Augusta National’s Legendary Caddie Master.

“Anyone who loves golf, its traditions, and the experience of travel will have trouble putting John Sabino's book down.”

– Golf Odyssey Newsletter

Click on the book image below to view the book on Amazon (the book is hardcover, 294 pages and contains 78 illustrations and photographs):



Curious to learn if Ralph Kennedy played at your club among his 3,165 course odyssey? Click here for a list of his courses by state, province and country.