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.

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.

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.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Deepdale Golf Club

Deepdale Golf Club entry gate, Manhasset, New York

The original Deepdale Golf Club opened in 1924. It was a Charles Blair Macdonald design located in Lake Success on Long Island. The course was commissioned by William Kissam Vanderbilt II on a portion of his 200-acre estate. Vanderbilt's great grandfather was "Commodore" Vanderbilt and one of the wealthiest men in the world. William K. Vanderbilt II grew up in the Vanderbilt mansions, places like the Breakers and Biltmore, and he was a man of leisure; his pursuits were in the areas of "motor" racing and yachting, in addition to golf. The club takes its name from Vanderbilt's estate, which had the same name.

As befitting the Vanderbilt pedigree Deepdale had a small, exclusive membership and was built in Nassau County, relatively close to New York City. It's proximity to the city made it an ideal "alternative" course that allowed its elite members to play during the week without making the longer trek out to Suffolk County to play at Shinnecock Hills or The National Golf Links of America. The original course featured many of the usual prototype holes Macdonald-Raynor courses contain including prototype Biarritz, Cape, Alps, Short, and Punchbowl holes. Bobby Jones played an exhibition match at Deepdale in 1933 with Grantland Rice and shot a 70, which was even par. He is said to have played so well that he took the assembled crowd's "breath away."

  entry gate
The entry gates, 10th fairway visible

Typical of the club's well-connected membership in the early days, George Buckley, a New York banker was a member in the 1920s and 1930s. His other club affiliations were at The Links, Burning Tree, the National Golf Links of America and Duchess County Golf and Country Club. Deepdale also counted four early USGA presidents among its members: H.H. Ramsay, John G. Jackson, Mort Bogue, and George Walker, the benefactor of the Walker Cup.

When the Horace Harding Expressway (today's Long Island Expressway) was built in 1954 the original Deepdale course was sadly butchered and the club decided to move to a new piece of land in Manhasset. The 193-acre estate they acquired belonged to Joseph Peter Grace, Sr., son of the shipping and chemical magnate and the first Catholic mayor of New York City. The 40-room former Grace mansion serves as the clubhouse. The property is located thirteen miles from JFK airport and twenty miles from the Waldorf Astoria on the East Side of Manhattan. 

Dick Wilson was brought in as the course designer for the new layout. Wilson was a protege of Dick Toomey and William Flynn. He worked on the construction of Merion and assisted in the duo's redesign of Shinnecock Hills. Wilson designed scores of golf courses throughout the world including the NCR Country Club in Dayton, Ohio. Other works to his credit are the private Sunnylands course in the California desert, Bay Hill in Florida, Jekyll Island Golf Club in Georgia, Cog Hill in Illinois, and Laurel Valley in Pennsylvania.

The old Grace mansion which serves as the lovely clubhouse

Located on the Hempstead Plains, the terrain of the course is ideal for golf, with sandy soil and rolling hills. The golf course of today is in great condition; While tee to green the course is fair and imminently playable, I found the tilted greens to be especially tricky and challenging. This is the only course I have ever played where I was on a par three in regulation and walked off with a double-bogey (and a head of steam).

A par of seventy, the course only has two par fives: one on each nine. I found the length of the holes to be good, a nice mix of long and short par fours, although the two par threes on the front play roughly the same distance as do the two on the back (at least from the middle tees).

  6th green
A closeup of the par-3 6th green

If Deepdale ever wanted to look for a new name for the club, it could appropriately be called "The Dog-Leg Left Golf Club." Charles Blair Macdonald was a famous slicer of the ball and when he designed courses, he is said to have favored designs with dog-leg right holes, which didn't penalize the slicer as much. Deepdale is the opposite. I don't know if Dick Wilson was a hooker of the ball, but he certainly appears to have liked dog-leg left par-4 holes. The first hole is a dogleg left par four, as is the third. The most acute examples are the seventh and eighth holes. The seventh is a 365-yard dogleg left par four. The eighth is a 415-yard par four. To give a sense of the severity of the dog-legs. The eighth green returns the golfer back to the seventh tee; thus, you play in a complete 360-degree loop in the space of two holes.

The ninth hole is a dogleg left par four as well, finishing off a sequence of three back-to-back dog-leg left holes. Holes fourteen and fifteen are also back-to-back dogleg left par fours. Eighteen is a dogleg left, and, you guessed it, a par four.

  7th from tee
7th fairway, dogleg left

Not that there is anything wrong with a par-4 dogleg left hole, it just seems that the course has an over-abundance of them. I'm not criticizing, just observing. When I think about Merion, Pine Valley, and the National Golf Links just to name a few of my favorite courses, each has two or three dogleg left holes, so, for me it was clearly noticeable how many lefties there were at Deepdale. Maybe Wilson was a democrat and leaned left? Or he had a sailing background and preferred the port side to the starboard? Or perhaps there is a simpler explanation like the land he used to design the course on was well suited to dogleg lefts. The other thing to explain in more detail is that the doglegs are not subtle, little benders to the left, they are almost all pretty sharp left turns.

  8th looking back
8th fairway, dogleg left

In my view the better part of the course is that which is away from the Long Island Expressway, on elevated terrain, namely holes six through nine.

  10th green 
The 10th green

An agreeable hole, the opening hole of the back nine is one of the few that is not a dog-leg; the 415-yard tenth plays much shorter than its yardage because it is downhill. You can see the well-trapped green above. The large bunker front left is a particular magnet for shots soaring down the hill.

While the golf course itself is very nice, the environment it sits in is not and one would have to subtract style points for that. The course is immediately adjacent to the Long Island Expressway and directly in the flight path for JFK airport. It's a fabulous place for plane spotters to hang out because you can almost read the tail numbers on the jumbo jets on final approach to the big airport. Often, while playing at Deepdale you will look up to pick a spot to hit your tee shot or drive and see an Alitalia 747 or a Lufthansa A310 soaring above the treetops in the intermediate distance. The constant din of the L.I.E. is also a continual presence while playing the many holes on the lower part of the course.

Exclusive: yes; in an unspoiled, quiet environment, no.

Well-healed and well kept: yes; beautiful vistas and undisturbed nature everywhere, no.

It should be noted that the caddie corps at Deepdale is among the most experienced and proficient in the country.

  view from 3 across 11
The view from the 3rd fairway of the environment, shows the encroaching urban environment

In olden times, like at the original course at Deepdale holes were given names. The current course's are not, but I would dare say that if they were the 11th would be titled "J.F.K." and the 12th "L.I.E." The external environment unfortunately dominates the milieu of these holes with the sounds and sights of cars and planes.

Deepdale's two more defining characteristics are its proximity to Manhattan and the exclusiveness of its members. Today the club remains dominated by New York's movers and shakers. It is reputed to have more billionaire members than any other golf course in the United States. Looking at the handicap list hanging in the locker room, it was indeed a list of tycoons, media personalities, and financiers; the creme-de-la-creme of New York's media, fashion, and finance industries. No need to Google the names on the membership list, many are recognizable at first blush. The club also has its own helipad to make it more convenient for members who so desire to take a chopper out to chase around the little white ball. Considering the traffic and roadways in Nassau County and Queens, it is no wonder they would want to do so. The historic, rambling clubhouse itself is spectacular, as is the bar area, locker room, and outdoor patio.

I don't know this for a certainty, but based on what I do know about Deepdale is that its members still look a lot like George Buckley did in the '20s and '30s: they are members of multiple clubs. Multiple in this instance meaning more than two, sometimes a half a dozen. Because of its proximity to the city it remains a good place to play without having to travel great distances. It provides a nice suburban respite for members who also play at the National Golf Links or other clubs on the East End of Long Island, and at clubs they belong to around the country and the world.

The club seems perfectly happy with its place in the world, Deepdale remains below the radar because they discourage course raters. No publicity and no notoriety is fine with the members here. It provides its unique membership an enjoyable place to hobnob and play golf with like-minded members of the aristocracy.

Friday, August 19, 2016

How to Play the World's Most Exclusive Golf Clubs - The Book

Good news for those in the U.K., the book is now available through Amazon.

How do you play at the upper-echelon of clubs in the world? In the end, it is simple. All you need is the time, the resources and the connections; although there are exceptions, since I played several top courses for free and without connections. The golf world is made up of generous people who are benevolent in many ways; now, it is my turn to give back to a game that has given me so much, by passing along the methods and techniques I used to play the world’s great golf courses.

Now that the journey is complete, the most frequent question I am asked is, “How did you get on all these courses?” The other common query I get is, “How did you get on Augusta?”  Through my journey I have come to know ten people who have completed the same challenge and they all say the same thing, everyone wants to know how they were able to play Augusta.

The focus of the book is insights into how I gained access to the clubs, and techniques you can use if you have a desire to play some of these world-class courses. It will include some wisdom I gained from the journey, and interesting stories about others who have pursued similar journeys. A condensed and expanded version of the blog at the same time, the best stories and pictures are shared to delight the itinerant golfer.

The book is available from and Click on the image of the book below to order on Amazon:

I hope you will find it enjoyable and entertaining.

Because the game as given so much to me, as a small way of giving back I am donating my share of the profits from the book to charities supporting children.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Piping Rock Club and The Creek - Golf in Locust Valley

first tee back

Summer rules indeed! The golfing standard flying above the Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley on a brilliant summer day. 

How many small towns in the world boast multiple world-class golf courses? Not many. Southampton, New York, home to Shinnecock Hills and the National Golf Links of America springs to mind, as does Pebble Beach, California. Locust Valley, New York, also packs two exceptional golf courses into a town that measures less than a square mile.

Locust Valley

Locust Valley, New York, located on the North Shore of Long Island, thirty minutes from Times Square, is a place of privilege: its rolling hills are dotted with country houses and baronial mansions redolent of an earlier era; one dominated by Robber barons and names like Morgan and Vanderbilt; a place visited by F.D.R. and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; a leafy enclave that conjures up memories of a bygone grandeur; an outpost of old money. Locust Valley also sports two Charles Blair Macdonald designed golf courses: the Piping Rock Club, built in 1911, and The Creek, built during the Roaring Twenties.

Between the last decade of the nineteenth century and 1930 over 1,200 mansions were built on the North Shore of Long Island, which became known as the "Gold Coast." They were the types of "cottages" that were tended to by gardeners, maids, and cooks, where the owners lost track of how many rooms there were. Proper etiquette here was (and still is) to hide your wealth, so many of the homes are set back and cannot be seen from the street. Although unseen, the architecture and grounds of the stately homes were often times staggering. Where I grew up in Jersey the houses didn't have reception halls, rose gardens, rotunda, and porte cochère. On the Gold Coast they were de rigueur.

The lifestyles of the rich and famous of this era prominently featured Locust Valley. Imagine yourself a captain of industry, a titan of Wall Street, or a super lawyer. You dominate the world during the day, hang at your exclusive private city clubs (the Brook, Links, Knickerbocker, Union) at night and visit your country houses and mansions in Locust Valley and Southampton on the weekends. It was the type of place where young ladies made their debut as a debutante; where the "horse set" could pursue their passions; where women hosted luncheons and garden parties during the day; a place dominated by men with roman numerals after their names. Although not as widely thought of today as Newport, Bar Harbor, or Martha's Vineyard, the little village was a prominent stomping ground for the elite as America rose to prominence in the world. Locust Valley is a place Jay Gatsby would be familiar with.

The Piping Rock Club

Piping Rock's original membership rolls were a who's who of the pre-war establishment including J. P. Morgan, Jr., Louis C. Tiffany, Conde Nast, Averell Harriman, Percy Chubb, John S. Phipps, William Vincent Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Frank N. Doubleday. President Theodore Roosevelt was an honorary member. In addition to being the course designer, Charles Blair Macdonald was also a member and chairman of the golf committee.

Piping Rock was established in the model of a classic club of its era, organized to allow its members to enjoy country pursuits. The club was named based on a legend that Native Indians used a large rock on the property as a location to smoke the "pipe of peace," thus, the piping rock. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, writing in 1909, described the fact that the property the club secured was done so, "because of its absolute perfection of country sports," and noted that it was set in "the land of princely estates," and was ideal for, "providing on a large and elaborate scale for out-of-door sports with polo, pony racing, tennis, and possibly golf, and in any event cross country riding well to the fore. " As noted, the club's focus was not golf; they also established a steeplechase course which included a grandstand for spectators.

Piping Rock today retains the air of its founding days. Driving up to the Dutch Colonial clubhouse flanked by a stone wall gives the visitor a sense of being a country gentleman or lady. The entire scene is one of a leisurely enclave. Nearby the clubhouse are beautifully maintained grass tennis courts. Like the C.B. Macdonald-designed St. Louis Country Club, the visitor at Piping Rock is also drawn immediately to the prominence of the old polo field behind the clubhouse.

clubhouse from 17th green looking up 18
The closing par five "Home" hole at Piping Rock 

Surrounding the tennis courts, clubhouse, and polo fields is the rolling terrain of the golf course. As courses designed by C. B. Macdonald and built by Seth Raynor do, both Piping Rock and The Creek follow their usual "prototype" hole patterns. Piping Rock includes renditions of a Long, Road, Biarritz, Redan, Eden, Knoll, Short, and Home holes.

Piping Rock is a fun course to play and has an interesting and varied routing. It is beautifully conditioned and offers challenging greens. Piping Rock is the longer of the two layouts, at 6,800 yards from the tips. The Creek maxes out at 6,450, although, given the steeper terrain at The Creek, yardages can be deceiving.

  9th green 
The classic "Biarritz" style green on the par three 9th hole at Piping Rock

The front nine at Piping Rock plays on the property's more open terrain, the back through a more wooded area. Darius Oliver mentions in Planet Golf USA that Piping Rock represents a significant course in architectural history because it was the first inland course Macdonald and Raynor built, immediately after the completion of the National Golf Links. Although he routed the course, Macdonald became irritated with the land he was given by the club and left most of the course's design and construction to Raynor.
  9th biarritz
A full view of the Biarritz green, a fabulous rendition of this challenging hole

Tom Doak was a consulting architect at Piping Rock, describing the property as "open parkland on terrain reminiscent of Chicago Golf Club." His course revisions we're all accepted, and he takes a shot at the club in his book, describing those who voted to remove a hazard he put in on the tenth hole as "dunces." Although he gives Piping Rock a '6' rating on his scale of 0-10, he gives The Creek a '7' but a lot more love.

clubhouse from 6th tee
A view from the sixth hole looking back across the old polo field (now the driving range) to the clubhouse at Piping Rock

When the club commissioned Guy Lowell to design the clubhouse their mandate was to build, "the sort of thing that George Washington would have built if he had the money." He didn't disappoint.

The Creek

The Creek's founding members (limited to 100 men) included Vincent Astor, Marshall Field, J. P. Morgan, Frank Crocker, H. L. Pratt (the president of Standard Oil), Charles B. Mackay (whose father discovered the Comstock Lode mine) and Harry Payne Whitney. When it opened, the New York Times called it the "Millionaire Golf Club." 

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described The Creek in 1923, shortly after its opening: "Recognized as one of the most exclusive country clubs in America, it commands one of the most magnificent views of Long Island Sound, the golf course sweeping away to the Sound shore, where even one of the holes is located on an island." The antithesis of another great course located on Long Island, Bethpage Black, there was no waiting in line and no crowds for the members at The Creek. The club and its privileged members took advantage of the location. As noted by the Eagle, "The property includes a shore casino and private yacht landing, where the big steam yachts dock in the summer, discharging their owners, who can tee off from the island hole and proceed around the course without ever touching a highway."

The entry sign at The Creek, Locust Valley, New York

Occupying one the highest pieces of land on Long Island, The Creek occupies a special 130 acres that were formerly the estate of Paul D. Cravath, a partner at the white-shoe law firm (at the time, the largest law firm in the world) that today exists as Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Similar to arriving at the National Golf Links and at Sebonack, both further east on Long Island, the arrival at The Creek is grand. You drive through a set of old brick gates guarding the entrance and through an impressive allée of linden trees. At the far end of the road you turn into a circular entry drive. The first building in the circle is the old Cravath estate horse stable, which has been converted into the locker room and pro shop. At the far end of the circle is the handsome classic clubhouse, built of Indiana limestone in the Georgian Greek Renaissance style.

The impressive entry gate to The Creek with its long allée of trees

The expansive view of The Creek property from the clubhouse veranda, 18th green in foreground, the par 3 seventeenth in the middle distance surrounded by sand

The golf course itself is a tale of three cities. Holes one through five occupy the flat, higher elevation part of the property and are the least interesting. Holes seven through fourteen occupy the flat beach/links part of the property, while holes six through eight and fifteen through eighteen are on a broad hill. Each of the three parts has a distinctive feel.

In his original limited edition Confidential Guide Tom Doak selected The Creek as one of his Gourmet's Choice, one of only thirty-one courses in the world to make the cut. He selected it over other Raynor-Macdonald courses because it possesses "a couple of terrific holes the others don't." These include some creatively named non-typical, non-prototype holes named "Inferno," "Squirrel Run," and "Hunch Back." Doak is a big fan of the number one handicap hole (as am I), the downhill 450-yard par-4 sixth, named Sound View. The hole plays down into the valley, the second shot is an uphill one to a "Punchbowl" green. The hole was patterned after a Punchbowl hole at Raynor's Mountain Lake course in Florida.

During The Creek's construction Seth Raynor was assisted by "Carnoustie man" Alex Balfour.

6th green (2)
The punchbowl green on the 6th, my favorite hole

The course takes its name from a tidal creek that flows through the lower part of the property, a broad view of which is seen in the picture below.

Lower part of the course
The lower linksy part of The Creek showing the sandy terrain

This lower portion of the course is closer to Long Island Sound and is thus more impacted by the winds.

10th fairway
The par four tenth hole, a "Cape" that plays near Long Island Sound

A nice rendition of a Cape hole, the par four tenth asks the golfer how much risk they are willing to take on with a chance to be closer to the green if successful. Although the hole's name is "Cape," a article in the New York Times during the course's construction in 1922 notes that the hole was patterned as a "Leven" hole, specifically after the 17th hole at the National Golf Links, which seems a bit odd given that on the surface it doesn't share many characteristics.

  11th green
The "Island" 11th green at The Creek

The par three eleventh hole is a stern test of golf, particularly if the wind is blowing. Its 200-yards demand a precise tee shot to hit the island green that the golfer reaches and departs from via wooden bridges. Making it even more of a challenge, the memorable hole features an 80-yard long Biarritz-style green with a large swale running through it.

beach house
 The beach clubhouse at The Creek, located behind the 10th tee is an integral part of the experience

I like both Piping Rock and The Creek and don't have a strong preference for one over the other. I don't know if there are people that don't like C. B. Macdonald-designed courses, but I'm not one of them. Both are fine places to play.

Playing at these clubs is much more than simply a round of golf, it is a brief and educational immersion experience into the mores, traditions, and rituals of how the most fortunate among us lives. In the Northeastern U.S. we might not have the year round perfect weather that California does, nor the ability to play during the winter like those in the South do, but it is tough to beat a round near the shoreline in New York during July and August at an old-school bastion of golf. Along with Maidstone and Fishers Island, teeing it up on a fine summer day at either The Creek or Piping Rock is one of the game's great pleasures and gives you a sense of how the other half lives.

An image of Paul Cravath's original "Country House" estate in Locust Valley gives a good sense of the opulence of the era and the area

Although members might not drive their "power yachts" up to the beach club as frequently as they did back in the Jazz Age, the town of Locust Valley remains a bastion of privileged affluence.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Top 10 Best Experiences at Bandon Dunes

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

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

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

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

Top recommendations while at Bandon Dunes

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

Top things to avoid while at Bandon Dunes

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

The Bandon Experience

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

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

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

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

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

Bandon Dunes

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

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

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

Bandon Dunes 5th hole

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

  BD 6 green
Bandon Dunes par three 6th hole

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

  bd12 (2)
Bandon Dunes 12th hole

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

Bandon Dunes 14th hole

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

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

Pacific Dunes

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

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

  pd4 green
Pacific Dunes 4th hole

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

  pd 11 green
Pacific Dunes 11th green

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

Bandon Trails

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

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

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

  BT 2-1
Bandon Trails 2nd hole par three

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

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

Old Macdonald

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

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

  OM11 Road Hole
Old Macdonald 11th Road Hole

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

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

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

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

The Punchbowl

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

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

The Punchbowl putting green

Bandon Preserve

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

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

Bandon Preserve 6th hole

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

Bandon Preserve 6th hole, my final resting place

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

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

Bandon Preserve 9th hole


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

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

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

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

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

What course is best?

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

Which resort is best?

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

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

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

* Music on Golf Courses

Apologies upfront for my little polemic.

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

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

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

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