Saturday, January 07, 2006

Another Golfer Joins the Elite Fraternity

This month, Travel and Leisure Golf Magazine features the story of Selwyn Herson, who becomes one of a very select group of golfers that have completed the duffer's equivalent of the grand slam: Playing the Top 100 ranked golf courses in the world. More people have walked on the moon than have completed this feat.

The article confirms what we've always known; that you have to be a bit compulsive/obsessive to do this. Or as Herson puts it: "I am a goal oriented person." That sounds better to us. We're now goal-oriented also.

He clearly has good taste since the list of top courses that he really liked we fully agree with (the ones we have been lucky enough to play). Especially his selection of Cruden Bay, Merion and the National Golf Links of America which we whole-heartedly endorse. We also found it amusing that he played Lahinch in a 40 mph wind. We have played Lahinch several times and this always seems to be the weather at this gem in County Clare, Ireland.

What lessons can we take from Selwyn's journey? First, like in life, a little luck doesn't hurt. Like Selwyn, we've gotten the call many times to see if we're free to play Augusta because someone has just dropped out of a foursome. The trouble is, each time the dream ends and we wake up. It is a pleasant dream, though. This guy really had it happen! Second, you have to network. A lot. And last, it doesn't hurt to be a member of top 100 course (he is a Riviera member) if you're trying to do this (we're not).

The full article from Travel and Leisure Golf Magazine's January 2006 Issue:

by David T. Friendly

The eighteenth hole at New Zealand's magnificent Kauri Cliffs is a steep dogleg-left par five that plays 539 yards from the tips. On Thanksgiving Day 2004, while the rest of us were downing our turkey and stuffing, Selwyn Herson, a scratch player at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California, was nervously contemplating a five-foot birdie putt for an even-par round of seventy-two. But it was not the putt that was making his hands sweat. Rather, it was the realization that Herson pushed the birdie putt right and then calmly tapped in for a solid seventy-three, beating the two pros from Kauri Cliffs who played with him.

Thus concluded an extraordinary golf journey: Herson, who looks like a cross between Sean Connery twenty years ago and Dr. Phil today, had finally played every hole at each of the top 100 golf courses in the world (as ranked biannually by Golf Magazine). It was a journey that cost him a small fortune and countless frequent-flyer miles and regularly challenged the patience of his wife of now twenty-seven years. It also required brilliant time-management skills, since Herson accomplished his feat while working fifty to sixty hours a week on various entrepreneurial ventures. Along the way, he collected scorecards from some of the finest and hardest-to-get-on courses in the world, joining an elite club of only perhaps a half dozen other Americans who can claim to have played the entire list of the world's top 100 courses.

But as he plucked his ball from that final cup, Herson was overcome with an odd and unexpected sense of melancholia. "It was almost as if I did not want to make that last putt because it signaled the end," he reflected recently on a terrace overlooking the first fairway at Riviera. "You start thinking, 'Well, what am I going to do next?'"

I first met Herson on the driving range at Riviera (#36 on the 2003 list, to which all top-100 references in this story refer unless otherwise noted), where we are both members. You can find him there frequently on Saturday mornings for hour-and-a-half practice sessions grooving one of those swings that makes you wonder if you ever really want to look at your own swing on video again. As he blasted 300-yard drives to the back fence, we started chatting. Herson wanted to play the following week, but I was about to leave for Dublin, Ireland, to produce a movie. It was then that Herson first told me of his quest to play the top 100 and that one of the final courses he would be playing was near Dublin (the European Club; #98, Brittas Bay, Ireland). We talked about having dinner there, but in truth it was one of those polite conversations you barely absorb and never expect to materialize into anything.

On my ten-hour flight to Dublin, however, I began to think about Herson and his magnificent obsession. Was this a genuine golf accomplishment—the small-ball equivalent of climbing the Seven Summits? Or was this simply the mad meanderings of yet another golf fanatic? As I nibbled on my Aer Lingus canapés, I wondered what this all revealed about the complex game of golf. More important, why Herson—and why not me?

Several weeks into production I got a message on my cell phone from Herson announcing that he was staying at the same hotel as me and that he wanted me to join him at the European Club, a tight oceanside links, the next day. Since we had just started filming the movie, I did not feel comfortable giving up a day of shooting. So as a substitute I offered up my driver, Tommy Hamill, a former footballer for the Dublin Bohemians and a respectable eleven-handicapper with his own passion for the game. Herson, who had let the management at the European Club know he was coming and why, wound up playing with Tommy and a friend of the course's architect, Pat Ruddy. When told that Herson liked to play from the back tees, their host took them deep to drive from original tee areas that were now just fescue. Hamill, a bear of a man, could not reach the fairway on a number of holes, a source of great humiliation heaped upon his considerable Irish pride. How tough was the course? Herson shot eighty-one, lost three balls in the process and told me he played pretty well.

That night I joined Herson at Shanahan's, where JFK's rocking chair is housed in bulletproof glass behind the bar downstairs. There, over steaks, Herson poured out his saga like a smooth glass of Jameson. Psychiatrists talk about the perfect-storm marriage of a drug and its abuser; in this case, it was a marriage between Herson and a brazen idea.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, the product of a middle-class upbringing, Herson took up the game of golf at ten and was scratch as a teenager. He was good enough to play for the national team and was even pursued by a number of American universities offering golf scholarships while completing his own studies at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand, where he earned a masters in finance in 1976. (Herson turned down the scholarships when he realized it meant he would have to start college all over again.) A few years later, while traveling in America, he had the good fortune to shoot sixty-six at Squires Golf Club outside Philadelphia while playing with George Fazio, runner-up to Ben Hogan at the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion's East course (#14; Ardmore, Pennsylvania) and the uncle of famed course designer Tom Fazio. George Fazio and some friends decided to give Herson an opportunity to see if he might want to pursue a career as a professional golfer. They put him up at a condo near Jupiter Hills Golf Club in Tequesta, Florida, and let him have at it. "I got to spend ten hours a day finding out just how good I really was," Herson says. In the end, however, it was his desire that gave out. He was twenty-two, away from his home country and with no support system. "I was emotionally immature at the time," recalls Herson, an open book on this subject. "After about seven months I just went brain-dead."

That may have been true regarding golf, but in his business pursuits Herson has shown nothing but resolve. In order to complete a quest like this, one has to be enormously driven, and Herson is. A self-described "serial entrepreneur" who specializes in business restructuring, he has headed a number of successful companies over the years and is founder and chief executive of the Windsor Park Group, a restructuring and investment firm. His work, plus successful investments, gave him the resources necessary to pursue his golf dream. He began playing the top 100 courses on Golf's 1995 list, but subsequent additions and subtractions to the list meant that by the time he putted out at Kauri Cliffs, he had played 118 courses altogether.

Just what motivated Herson to take on this goal? Obviously a golf fanatic (he's one of those guys who always practices with clubs laid at his feet for proper alignment), there was much more to it than a mere love of the game. In 1985 in Los Angeles he was the victim of a brutal car­jacking. The culprits trailed his red Porsche Carrera Cabrio­let to his home. "They got me in the garage, pulled me out of the car and beat me senseless. I was sure they were going to kill me," he says. Herson came out of that horrific experience a changed man. It made him more determined than ever to work hard and play hard to follow his dreams.

Ironically this dream began in 1995 with an inexpensive promotional gift from a client: a plaque listing the world's top 100 courses. When Herson started placing plastic pins in the plaque to denote where he'd been, he realized he had already played about thirty of the top 100. "I am a goal-oriented person," he says. "I would have enjoyed playing the courses without a list, but then it all came together with a purpose. It became a quantifiable objective."

One of the common characteristics of such successful people is that they make what they do well seem effortless. To hear Herson describe his quest, it sounds pretty simple. But dig a little deeper and the reality of the challenge takes hold. It's no easy task to get on courses such as Shinnecock Hills (#4; Southampton, New York), Seminole (#22; North Palm Beach, Florida) or Muirfield (#3; Gullane, Scotland).

But let's be honest: What we re­ally want to know is how this guy man­aged to get on Augusta (#5; Augusta, Georgia). Tell people about Herson's quest and while some might be in awe and others will roll their eyes, everyone—and I mean everyone—wants to know how he got on Augusta. Here's the lowdown: Herson's tour of the track Bobby Jones made famous fell from the sky. While doing some advisory work for a large communications company in New York, Herson was summoned to the office of one of the top executives. He thought he was in trouble, but the guy asked Herson to do him a favor—take his place in a group that was scheduled to play Augusta.

If only they could have all been that easy. Sometimes arranging rounds at top courses was not that difficult for Herson and the rounds were thoroughly enjoyable. Actor Dennis Hopper (another Riviera member) got him on Cypress Point (#2; Pebble Beach, California) through his pal Clint Eastwood, and Herson promptly broke par. Thanks to Ric Kayne, a friend (and fellow Riviera member) with a private plane, Herson achieved the extraordinary feat of playing two top-100 courses in one day: the Honors course (#96; Ooltewah, Tennessee) in the morning and Prairie Dunes (#23; Hutchinson, Kansas) in the afternoon.

At other times the rounds them­selves were difficult. At Lahinch (#73; County Clare, Ireland), Herson was forced to play in 40 m.p.h. winds and the temperature never exceeded thirty-eight degrees. At Naruo Golf Club (#75; Osaka, Japan), the members he played with did not speak English. Using frequent-flyer miles, he squeezed in his round at the European Club by making the exhausting flights from North America to Ireland and back over one Labor Day weekend. But the commitment he made to himself was simple: Play every hole of every course from the back tees and never stop once a round has commenced.

More often than not, by far the hardest part of each golf experience was getting on the course. Doing so often required resourcefulness, luck and a willingness to take advantage of opportunities as they came up. "Most people in L.A., if they get invited to play in Santa Barbara, will come up with a hundred reasons to say no," Herson says while breakfasting at Riviera on his usual: oatmeal with honey, and hot chocolate. "But I have a 'no whining' rule. Get on with it. Be positive, commit to the experience, have fun."

Eighty percent of the courses on the list are private, which forced Herson to spend countless hours organizing his schedule and networking. Early on he determined that he would always use an intermediary, whether it was a member of the target course or a friend of a member. Herson worked hard at developing the relationships to make it happen. In a few cases he asked Riviera head pro Todd Yoshitake to make an introduction on his behalf. "You cannot do it by yourself," says Herson. "Some of the clubs just won't deal with you." For those that did, the fact that he himself belonged to a top-100 club probably didn't hurt.

Herson discovered that there are clubs and then there are golf's hal­lowed grounds, some of which were established in the nineteenth century, when the locker room may not have had running water. Consider the Chicago Golf Club (#31; Wheaton, Illinois), founded in 1895 and said to be the first eighteen-hole course in America. The active members (fewer than 150) at this links gem didn't par­ticularly care about Herson's agenda. But Herson had done some business with one of them, Jerry Maatman, who finally agreed to take him out. He got on the two private Japanese courses after winning a whimsical bet (don't ask) with a South African CEO who had lots of business connections in Japan.

Herson found there was a certain amount of kismet that made things happen for him, but sometimes with unexpected consequences. While vaca­tioning on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, Herson was in a Jacuzzi with some new golf buddies with whom he had hooked up for four days in a row. Upon hearing of his quest, one of the guys, a stockbroker, boasted that he could get him on Shadow Creek (#89; North Las Vegas, Nevada), which at the time was a tough track to crack since owner Steve Wynn allowed only a handful of foursomes a day. "When I meet the guy in Vegas, he has this enormous limousine waiting to take me to the Mirage, where he is gambling with more money than I have ever seen in one place before or since," Herson says. "He was playing with chips I didn't recognize." On the course the next day, the stockbroker heavily touted a high-flying stock. Herson made a small investment and unfortunately learned a valuable lesson when the stock went belly-up soon after. "I figure the round at Shadow Creek cost me significantly more than the greens fee."

As for the quest's personal cost, Herson claims to have had the unwavering backing of his wife, Orin. "I did this in partnership with my wife," he says. "I asked her, 'If I'm going to do this, will I have your support?'" Based on my own fourteen years of experience with marriage, I found that difficult to buy, so I interviewed Orin separately before dinner one night. Turns out she was indoctrinated into Selwyn's passion early on. "Before we were ever married, I was listening to the radio and I heard that he had won a national golf tournament in South Africa," she said. "At that point I knew golf was going to be a very big part of our lives." With a twinkle in her eye she added, "But Selwyn is very smart. He knew exactly how to play this. He always made me part of the planning." For example, when Herson wanted to play Sawgrass (#57; Ponte Vedra, Florida), he induced his wife to come along by arranging for them to spend the following night—Valentine's Day—in South Beach, and to fly from there to the Dominican Republic so that he could tackle Casa de Campo (#34; La Romana). While she often skipped destinations that did not interest her, when she did come along she sampled the best hotels and spas in the world. "I could participate without ever being jealous of the process," she said.

He also had the support of his son, Jonathan, now twenty-three, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado. Over the past eight years, Herson has included Jonathan on many of the golf trips he has taken, including that stormy round at Lahinch. "The wind was blowing 30 or 40 m.p.h. and it was freezing," recalls Herson, sounding very much the proud father. "My son loved it. He never would have played on in those conditions unless I had to. And to this day we still talk about it."

Herson had a number of golf-related epiphanies along the way. On his flight to play The Country Club (#33) in Brookline, Massachusetts, he prepared by reading his friend Mark Frost's fabulous tome on the 1913 U.S. Open, The Greatest Game Ever Played (now a movie). "When I got to the course, the member who invited me had brought along another member who was a historian," Her son remembers. "And this guy was showing me spots on the course and saying things like, 'This is where Harry Vardon took a divot.'" On one hole, the historian pointed out that Vardon had hit a driver followed by a three-wood. The same hole today can be reached with a driver and a wedge, Herson says. "One of the sad things for me was to see how technology is wreaking havoc on some of these historic gems," he says.

Then there were the interpersonal challenges. Herson played a number of courses where language was such a barrier that he could not converse with his playing partners. At El Saler (#93; Valencia, Spain), he played the front nine with a woman who did not utter a word of English. On the back nine it was no better, when they were joined by a non-English-speaking couple. For a gregarious type like Herson, this is tantamount to golf torture. He also figures he played about ten of the courses by himself when he could not round up a member or the local pro.

Some of the members Herson did play with had their noses in the air, although he eventually won most of them over. At the ultra-exclusive Southern Hills (#41; Tulsa, Oklahoma), Herson and his member host played the first five holes in near-complete silence. "On the sixth hole the guy makes the first hole in one of his life, and after the round he would not let me leave the course," Herson recalls. "Then we went to dinner and he would not let me leave the restaurant. We were out until 2 a.m., and he said it was one of the best days of his life."

When you sit down with Herson and he starts talking about the quest, you do become convinced that there was a certain magic attached. Acquaintances introduced him to acquaintances who seemed eager to get involved. If you can't do it yourself, why not help a fellow golfer who has the resources, the drive and the time to get it done? "I've become very good friends with lots of people all over the world, and that just might be the single best fringe benefit of the whole thing," he says.

Not everyone buys into the deal, however. I talked with a mix of dif­ferent golfers and got a range of reactions to Herson's achievement. "I think I would rather play the top ten courses ten times each," scoffed John Carr, son of Joe Carr, Ireland's three-time amateur champion, and a member at two top-ten clubs.

When Golf updated its list of the world's top 100 last summer, Herson couldn't pass up the challenge to keep current. Of the eight new courses on the list, he had already played three. In early October he conquered two more (Hamilton Country Club, #84, Ancaster, Ontario; and Trump National, #87, Bedminster, New Jersey) and made a special trip to Asia later that month to play Tokyo Golf Club (#94) and Nine Bridges on Jeju Island, South Korea (#95). That left only Barnbougle in Bridport, Tasmania, Australia (#49), which he intended to visit before the year was out.

Once Herson plays Barnbougle, he will be in more or less the same place he was after holing that final putt at Kauri Cliffs: filled with mixed emotions and uncertain about what to take on next (at least until the 2007 list is released). "I think I may want to develop a golf course at some point," he says during our final conversation at Riviera. With his drive, this is not a remark to be taken lightly. "But I wouldn't develop one unless I thought it could make the top 100," he says, without a hint of irony. If he does build that course and it makes the list, the only downside for Herson will be that getting on will be no challenge at all.

Selwyn Herson's Best of the Best
When golfers hear about Selwyn Herson's accomplishment—playing the top 100 courses in the world—they almost always ask what his favorites were. He finds it impossible to answer. "There were twenty to twenty-five that I truly loved," he says, "but I can't rank or compare them. They were special to me in different ways." Here, with his commentary, is an alphabetical listing of some of his favorite experiences.

Augusta National (#5, Georgia). "It was a thrill to play the course where I've seen so many great contests on TV. I hit an eight-iron on number twelve but didn't know whether it was going to land on the green, in the water or in a bunker. (It caught the edge of the green.) On the greens it was like putting down your windshield."

Cape Kidnappers (#27 on the 2005 list, New Zealand). "Spectacular scenery. You play holes built out on the fingers of cliffs, looking down at the ocean. Tom Doak has created a monster. It's hard, hard, hard, but afterward you want to go back for more."

Casa de Campo (#34, Dominican Republic). "The ocean holes here are some of the best in the world."

Cruden Bay (#76, Scotland). "I didn't have high expectations, but the unusual holes and the scenery were magnificent."

Cypress Point (#2, California). "Walking in heaven. Six holes in the trees, six holes in the sand dunes, six holes by the sea."

Hirono (#35, Japan). "I liked the course, but for me it was the total Japanese experience that made Hirono so memorable. Everything is so different: the caddies, the two-hour break for lunch after nine holes, the huge staff weeding the grounds by hand."

Merion, East (#14, Pennsylvania). "It forces you all the time to hit the ball closer to trouble to have a better entry angle into the green. All day long you're dealing with temptation."

National Golf Links (#20, New York). "For the layout, the beauty and the lobster-tail lunch."

Pine Valley (#1, New Jersey). "The course seems like it's been there for a million years. Amazing how well the holes fit into the land."

Royal Melbourne, Composite (#8, Australia). "The layout is so subtle, so clever. It's a very challenging place to play."

Sand Hills (#11, Nebraska). "As if you were playing through sand dunes by the sea even though you are in the middle of the country. The course was designed around more than 100 naturally formed bunkers."

Shinnecock Hills (#4, New York). "Hard. Breaks your back. Wears you down."
St. Andrews, Old (#6, Scotland). "I was in awe. The layout, the history, the clubhouse, the town—you can't compare it to anything."

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