Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Muirfield Village Golf Club

Muirfield Village Golf Club (ranked #37 in the world) is a Jack Nicklaus design located near Columbus, Ohio, not far from where Jack grew up. The course is named after Muirfield in Scotland, where Jack won his first Open Championship in 1966. One key difference between Muirfield and Muirfield Village is that the one in Ohio, like almost all of Jack's courses, supports a large housing development, while the one is Scotland sits on open land between a farm and the water. Most golfers are familiar with Muirfield Village since Jack's Memorial Tournament is played there each year, more often than not when it is raining. Although the course was co-designed by Desmond Muirhead and Pete Dye, the club history states that the final product was 90% Jack and 10% Dye and Muirhead. The course opened in 1974. Muirfield Village is Jack's baby, and he has continued to tweak the course ever since it was built, often making the course more difficult if he felt the shots the pros hit were not hard enough at the Memorial.

Aside from Muirfield Village, Columbus has two other distinctions: It is the home of Ohio State University, and the horror film The Silence of the Lambs was filmed nearby. The film features Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer who is incarcerated. I can't prove that the movie's producers chose to shoot near Columbus because of Muirfield Village, but they certainly may have. I think the movie is an apt metaphor for the course since I was often in jail and at times the course seemed to eat me alive.

Muirfield Village was designed from the beginning as a course to host professional tournaments and, like many Nicklaus designs, was built to suit Jack's style of play, which requires the golfer to hit the ball long and shape his or her shots. The course was built so that every hole has an amphitheater viewing area. The use of the amphitheater preceded even the TPC Stadium course in Ponte Vedr,e and Jack says, in a manner that would make The Donald proud, "It's a unique golf course. I don't think there's ever been a golf course built in the United States like Muirfield, or anything even close to it." The course has water actively in play on nine holes, normally both alongside the fairway and fronting the greens.

The first thing that struck me when seeing Muirfield Village is that it looks like Augusta. I have seen the course on TV and, just like Augusta, which I have walked several times, the terrain is much more dramatic in person. Muirfield Village is a very hilly course. One of the key design principles of Muirfield Village is that most shots play downhill. Jack's design philosophy about the course: "I believe golf is a much better game played downhill than uphill." You drive from elevated tee boxes or into a valley on the vast majority of holes, and your second shot is uphill only a handful of times. You can see the downhill terrain in this photo below looking back from the fourteenth green.

The downhill fourteenth hole looking back from the green

There are several courses in the world that stand out for having a great collection of par three holes: Cypress Point, Augusta National, Pine Valley, Woodhall Spa. In my view, Muirfield Village stands out for its par fives. Muirfield Village has a greater collection of par fives than any other course in the world I have played. The par five 5th, 11th and 15th are all world-class. Each uses Deer Creek, which snakes through the course, very skillfully. The 527 yard fifth hole begins with a tee shot from an elevated tee box (of course) to a fairway that slopes from right to left. The optimum play is to the right, since all balls naturally feed down to the left. On your second shot you have a choice of fairways to lay up to. The fairway on the left is safer and offers one of the few flat lies on the course.

MV 5
The par five 5th looking toward the green with fairways left and right

The fairway on the right is effectively very small since it continues to slope severely right to left and feeds balls not struck well into the water. This fairway on the right will leave you a shorter shot to the green, but also an uneven lie.

MV 5 green
The fifth hole looking back from above

The fifth green is fronted by water. If you hit the ball long off the tee and fade it, you can try for the green in two, but there is a big penalty being in the water if your shot is not well struck.

MV 5 back

The fifth hole looking back from the green

The hole is both strikingly beautiful and offers fabulous risk-reward options. As with most holes at Muirfield Village, a shot hit over the green leaves you in jail with a downhill sand shot to a green that slopes back to the water.

The conditioning of Muirfield Village is lush. The club history goes to great pains to say it was not modelled after Augusta, but I'm not so sure. The routing, use of water, hilly terrain and greens are similar to Augusta. Also, the par three 12th hole looks a lot like the par three 12th at Augusta, requiring a tee shot to be hit over a pond to a similar green. It is also hard not to think that Deer Creek is the substitute for Augusta's Rae's Creek. The greens generally were in excellent shape and were fast, although they are not the defining characteristic of the course; the hilly terrain and snaking creek is. Many of the greens are set at an angle to the fairway and have water in front of them, requiring precise control on both distance and location.

The 412 yard par four ninth is typical of the par fours at Muirfield Village. It plays from an elevated tee box, downhill (sound familiar). The fairway slopes hard from the right to the left and there are many uneven lies. Your approach shot has to be hit crisply from an uneven lie. If you are over the green, you will be faced with a penal downhill sand shot to a green sloping back to front and toward the water. This is a common design element at Muirfield Village.

Hole 9
The approach to the green at the par four 9th hole

The 567 yard par five eleventh hole is somewhat similar to the par five fifth and is also a world-class hole. You again hit from an elevated tee box (I warned you) down into a valley with a fairway that again slopes right to left.

11th from fwy
The world-class par five 11th from the fairway

Your second shot is over Deer Creek to another fairway, and then finally another shot over water to the green. Once again, long hitters can certainly try to reach the green in two, but the shot has to be precise, or the ball will be repelled back into the stream that fronts the green. The split fairways reminded me a bit of the 17th and 18th holes at Carnoustie, both of which have patches of fairway intermingled with a snaking burn. The creek snakes through the 11th at Muirfield Village so much that the hole has seven bridges that you can use to cross in different places.

Hole Fourteen
Par five 11th hole toward the green

The use of multiple islands of fairways on this hole is also reminiscent of the par five 15th hole at Hirono Golf Club in Japan, which uses a similar design.

11 back
Deer Creek snaking through the 11th hole with its split fairways

I liked the fourteenth hole quite a bit. It is a 363 yard par four where you have to hit a tee shot through trees into a valley with an amphitheater. The green is large, but long and narrow and set at an angle to the fairway. I was worried about my approach shot to the 14th green and was about to yell "bite", but I had sudden visions of Anthony Hopkins simmering his fava beans, so I yelled "sit" instead. The ball landed in the middle of the green.

What Hole #
The 14th hole from the tee

Muirfield Village is a course suited to professional golfers. The co-designer of Loch Lomond, Jay Morrish, probably had me in mind when he said about Jack, "I've always felt Nicklaus really doesn't understand how bad people are. To him, a bad player is a two-handicap. If you're a 15-handicap, you're hopeless. There's no sense of you even being out there." Bingo.

Although his courses in general, and Muirfield Village specifically, are hard, I am not in the Nicklaus-design hating camp. I do find many of his resort courses unappealing and too difficult. However, I am a fan of his Mayacama course in Sonoma, California and of Cabo del Sol in Mexico as well as his co-design with Tom Doak of Sebonack on Long Island. I would make a distinction between Muirfield Village being very difficult, and thus hard for a mid-to-high handicapper to play, and the course not being good. It is a good course, has an interesting routing, is in superb condition and has excellent greens. I just wish I wasn't in the slammer my entire time there. Aside from all the other difficulties, there is a big penalty for being off the fairway, as the rough is tough and the ball nestles down into it.

Par five 15th hole playing through a narrow valley

On the negative side I thought there were a half-dozen average holes on the course including the par three fourth hole and the sixth and eighth holes. The course is very hilly, and it is as difficult a walk as any course I have played; it is the toughest walk I can remember since playing the Addington in England about five years ago. I played my favorite way, walking with a caddie, which saved me from a complete flop sweat. Carrying your bag at Muirfield Village would be a real burden. Jack's design philosophy of almost exclusively downhill golf shots means that the walk from the green to the next tee is sharply uphill all day long. Although a very private club, the course gets a lot of play and there are groups going off all day on most days.

In my view, Muirfield Village deserves to be ranked in the top 100 because it has the best collection of par five holes I have ever seen. It will be Nicklaus's legacy and as such should be treated with respect. He's probably not the first of golf's historical figures I would want to have a beer with, but you have to respect everything he has done for the game. If I may digress, those I would love to have a beer with, in order, are Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer and Ernie Els. The ultimate prize, however, would be to have a couple of scotches with Colin Montgomerie because, in keeping with today's theme, he is a psycho. You'd probably have to block out a day and a half to just sit and listen if you just ask him, "Colin, tell me a couple of stories where you argued with people for putting you off your game." I can't wait for next year's Ryder Cup with Monty as captain.

For Columbus, Ohio especially, Muirfield Village is quite formal. There is a guard gate at the entrance like at Pine Valley, and if your name is on the clipboard you are buzzed through the gate. After you drive up to the clubhouse an entourage comes out and greets you by name, and they valet park your car, which is very nice. The people and service at Muirfield Village are first class all the way, and they manage to make you feel at home. They change the spikes in your golf shoes to new spikes to protect their greens, and there is an attention to detail that's 'kinda hokey in a midwestern 'sorta way, but makes a difference. Their wine list is excellent and they have a large selection of Chiantis.

Nicklaus on Muirfield Village, "Certainly it's a tough, tough golf course. But it's a fair test." To keep this comment in context, it is a fair test of golf the same way that swimming from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco is a fair test for a swimmer.

From the back tees, the course plays 7,366 yards and has a slope rating of 149. Be prepared for a stern test of golf if you ever play Muirfield Village and make sure you don't play it by yourself. Go with somebody to lessen your chances of being eaten alive. There's safety in numbers.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Whippoorwill Club

I am lucky enough to live within driving distance of thirteen clubs ranked in the world's top 100. I try not to take this for granted, rather, I try to take advantage of it every chance I get, particularly if I can play on weekdays instead of working. It was in this vein that I recently played the Whippoorwill Club in Westchester County, New York.

Westchester County is chocked full of good golf courses. There are the well known ones ranked in the top 100 such as Quaker Ridge and both the east and west courses at Winged Foot. There is the 36 hole Westchester Country Club which hosts PGA tournaments. There are also a whole host of below the radar private clubs built long ago by famous architects during the golden age of course design. A small sample: The Apawamis Club (Willie Dunn, 1899), Blind Brook (Macdonald/Raynor 1916), Century Country Club (Colt & Alison, 1926), Fenway (A.W. Tillinghast, 1924), Old Oaks Country Club (Tillinghast & Alison, 1925), Siwanoy (Donald Ross, 1901, site of the first P.G.A. championship), Sleepy Hollow (C.B. Macdonald and A.W. Tillinghast, 1911), Knollwood Country Club (Tillinghast and Banks, 1921) and the Whippoorwill Club, founded in 1928 and originally designed by Donald Ross with revisions done by Charles "Steamshovel" Banks.

Whip Clubhouse
The elegant shingle style clubhouse at Whippoorwill

The heritage and tradition of the Whippoorwill Club dates back to the mid 1920’s when Donald Ross designed the course which lay entirely on the east side of Whippoorwill Road. At that time Ross was at the pinnacle of his career and was the most recognized architect of the day. Everything changed in 1928, when Fred Ruth, developer of the Mid Ocean Club hired Charles Banks, with whom he had worked at Mid Ocean, to redesign the Ross course. Banks is credited with the design and remodeling of more than thirty golf courses from 1921 until his death in 1931. It is said that he believed Whippoorwill to be his masterpiece.

Whippoorwill took on its most unique characteristics when Banks was brought in and when holes four through nine were built on the west side of Whippoorwill Road. Steep terrain, tree-lined fairways and no parallel holes characterize this section of the course. These holes play in roughly a semi-circle on dramatic, hilly terrain squeezed in between large rocky outcroppings left from the last ice age.

The first three holes play near the clubhouse on open terrain and are very good. All three are dog-leg holes with challenging greens. However, when you cross Whippoorwill Road to the par three fourth hole the course becomes exceptional. They should put a warning sign up near the road crossing as you walk from the third green to the fourth tee that you are entering a unique set of golf holes.

The next six holes have an originality and distinct appeal that you find only rarely on a golf course. Banks put extra polish on the holes across the road. Thus far in my worldwide travels I have been dazzled by a unique stretch of holes only rarely: Cypress Point holes 14-17, Crystal Downs holes 11-15, Morfontaine Valliere holes 3-8, Pine Valley holes 2-6.

The stretch of holes begins with the fourth, a prototype "Eden" hole and plays 157 yards downhill with dramatic, deep bunkering surrounding it. A shot hit over the green results in serious trouble.

Whip 4
Par three "Eden" fourth hole

4th green
The newly rebunkered fourth hole at Whippoorwill

The fifth hole, a par four of 455 yard is the #1 handicap hole. You drive the ball through a chute of trees into rugged terrain. If you hit long and left, the ball will run down the hill leaving you a shorter shot to the elevated green.

View from the tee on the par four fifth hole

Whip 5-1

Approach to the fifth green

The approach to the green plays uphill with a large, deep bunker protecting the left hand side in the front.

The sixth hole was my favorite on the course, a par five of 538 yards where you also have to hit through a chute of trees into a valley with large rocks on both sides. Your third shot plays downhill to an elongated green that slopes back to front and has a dramatic horseshoe shape in it similar to the green on the third hole at Yeamans Hall.

Whip 6

Tee shot landing area on the par five sixth hole

When the pin is in the back of the green, as it was on the day I played, the effective landing area you have to hit to is a flat surface of about ten feet by twenty feet. If you don't make it up on that plateau, the ball rolls back to the front of the green.

Whip 6-1

Approach to the green on the par five sixth hole

6th hole back from green
The sixth hole from behind the green, showing the amazing terrain down the hill

The seventh hole is a 425 yard par four that is a sharp dogleg left. The tee shot plays over a pond. Allegedly a steam shovel rolled into the pond during construction and is still there. The second shot plays up a narrow valley between big rocks to a well protected green set down in a hollow. Notice how narrow the fairway area is and also note the large boulders, which hems in the hole on both sides.

Whip 7

The second shot on the par four 7th hole

The 8th is a "Biarritz" hole with a big swale in the middle of the very long and tough to hit green.

Whip 8
The eighth green as seen looking back from the 9th tee box

The ninth hole is 379 yards but plays close to 450 since it essentially plays straight uphill. The ninth is known as "Cardiac Hill". The hole is to steep that when you get to the green, you are at the highest point in Westchester County at 740 feet. It is a challenging small, elevated green. The ninth caps off one of the most exciting stretches of holes a golfer can play and really define the experience at Whippoorwill. I found them exhilarating. A very interesting characteristic of the front nine is the sequence of shots that you have to hit into the greens. The front nine alternates between uphill shots and downhill shots. The 1st hole plays to an uphill green, the 2nd to a downhill, the 3rd to an uphill, all the way through the 10th hole. I don't know if this "roller coaster" effect was by design or by accident, but it creates a nice varied routing.

The back nine has more of the Ross influence and feel to it, although Banks re-did the greens. The back has more open vistas and rolling hills rather than dramatic hills and does not have many of the large rock outcroppings. The course has a nice selection of short par fours that require precision iron shots and good putting such as the 347 yard second hole and the 320 yard thirteenth. While the rest of the course isn't as exciting as holes four through nine, the fourteenth hole stands out as a cracker hole on the back nine. It is a 440 yard par four that plays uphill to the green and has a split fairway, leaving the golfer with a nice strategic choice depending upon how far you hit the ball and the wind. The wild, winding hilly terrain and length make that a par four and half hole on a good day!

Whip 14 approach
Approaching the 14th green at Whippoorwill

Whippoorwill is a fantastic course that, along with Piping Rock, Myopia Hunt Club and the Seaside Course at Sea Island are under-rated courses in the United States. In my view, they are better than several courses ranked in the top 100 such as East Lake, Scioto, Ocean Forest or Medinah. I played Whippoorwill with a learned friend who has also played a lot of good golf courses. We both independently felt that Whippoorwill at times reminds us of Merion. Partly, this has to do with similar terrain in some places and with the general overall short nature of the course. Like at Merion, the course is split in two by a road and you have to be able to hit the ball to the correct side of the fairway or the correct side of the green in order to shoot a good score. A strategy of playing to the middle of the green won't work here due to the green shapes, slopes and severity. You must be on the right quadrant of the green depending upon where the pin is to shoot a good score.

Why is Whippoorwill overlooked and under-rated? Perhaps because the course is only 6,636 yard from the back tees. Perhaps, because it doesn't get much press or outside play given that it is a very private course in a very affluent area. Whatever the reason, I believe the front nine is worthy of cult status. Golfweek Magazine comes closest to recognizing the genius of Banks' work here, ranking the course as #73 in its list of the top 100 classic courses in their 2009 rankings. I have enjoyed all the Banks courses I have played, especially his course in central New Jersey at Forsgate, which has similar green complexes to Whippoorwill and a truly spectacular par five hole (the 8th) that also uses very hilly terrain as artfully as he does at Whippoorwill.

Aside from the great golf course Whippoorwill has a great clubhouse, a nice relaxed feel to it and great caddies. Play it if you ever get invited.

Many thanks to Robert Mercer Deruntz for allowing me to use his pictures of Whippoorwill.