Saturday, January 30, 2010

Trump National Golf Club

The Trump National Golf Club is located in Bedminster, New Jersey, close to both Somerset Hills and the headquarters of the U.S.G.A. The course is built on nice rolling terrain and it appeared briefly in the world rankings. In 2005 Golf Magazine ranked it at #87 in the world, but it has since dropped quickly out of sight. Trump National (Bedminster) is one of the five greatest golf courses in the world. The other four being Donald's courses in Palm Beach, California, Westchester and Colts Neck, New Jersey.

The land that Trump Bedminster was built on was formerly the estate of John Delorean, the colorful auto magnate who was famous for his "Delorean DMC-12" with its distinctive gull-wing doors. The land was destined for the Donald since it was bought from a bankruptcy sale.

Thus far in my travels I have only stayed overnight at four courses. Lytham & St. Annes Dormy House was the quintessential understated British experience. I have also had the privilege of staying overnight in the spartan upstairs bedrooms at the majestic National Golf Links of America. My third stay was in the magical Sand Hills cottages. My fourth (of hopefully fifth) stay was at the 'cottages' at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. For those keeping score at home, the fifth course I plan to stay overnight at is Augusta National.

Trump National has carved out a unique position among the world's better known golf courses. I played the Golf Club in Ohio this past summer and was struck by the founding philosophy of the club, which is golf only. The club history states that the Golf Club, "...was not founded as a family recreation or amusement center. It was founded as a men's club without the need for starting times and with the excitement and turmoil which too frequently results from the crowds attracted to a multipurpose sports or recreation club." After reading this quote the first time, I thought to myself, they're exaggerating: turmoil? crowds? at a golf course? Trump National had not yet been conceived or built when this was written, but they nailed it and I can now see why they went golf only.

The "cottages" and pool area at Trump National

Donald doesn't do anything small, and he certainly didn't at Trump National. The sprawling complex is over 500 acres and has a large clubhouse, which was formerly where Delorean lived. In addition to being a 36 hole golf facility, there are equestrian trails, tennis courts and a helipad. There are also the cottages and the pool area, which seats over 100, and several other out buildings on the expansive property.

Trump Bedminster was the fourth "old" course to reach the world rankings. The renowned "old" course at St. Andrews leads the pack, with Sunningdale and Walton Heath, whose "old" courses were built in 1901 and 1904 respectively, being the other two. Ever the clever marketer, the Donald opened the "old" course at Trump Bedminster in 2004 and the "new" course in 2008.

If you have an eye for detail you may have noticed the Trump crest affixed at the top of the main brick tower in the middle of the cottages. The man is a master of branding so get ready for Trump everything once you get through the Trump branded guard house at the entrance. Trump overload is about to begin. From now on it's all-Trump, all-the-time.

Almost everything you see and touch at Trump Bedminster is branded Trump. This includes Trump water (the greatest), Trump mattresses in the cottages (the greatest), Trump chocolate next to your night table in the bedroom (the greatest), a machine that sucks water from under the greens like at Augusta, which is amazingly branded Trump Air (the greatest) and there is Trump Vodka in the bar (the greatest). Bien sûr. Hanging in the clubhouse is a replica of the Donald Trump star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It's not possible to give a full rundown of all the Trump branding present througout the property, but you get the idea.

Among the more amazing things Trump did when he took over the property was to build a massive addition to the clubhouse which features an oversized ballroom and outdoor deck. The fountain at the back of the clubhouse right next to the sixteenth tee would be over the top anywhere else, but feels right at home here. Of course, the Trevi Fountain is a kiddie pool compared to this fountain, since it's the greatest in the world.

The Golf Course

Trump National was built to host a major golf championship. The course is 7,590 yards from the tips with a slope rating of 76.8/151. It is not a particularly good walking course given the hilly terrain and the long distances from some greens to the next tee box. If you like the feel of big golf complexes that host major championships such as Medinah, you will like Trump National. In addition to its length, the course also features very high and penal rough.

The course was routed by Tom Fazio, and his name is listed on the scorecard as the designer. He was assisted by his nephew Tom Fazio II, who supervised the construction, and the Donald essentially co-designed the course, with his strong mandates about almost everything.

The elevated third green, #1 handicap hole, par four 435 yards

The course begins with a benign 537 yard par five, followed by a 355 yard par four. They are the #15 and #17 handicaps respectively, so it is an easy start and the only break you will get all day. The third hole is the hardest on the course and is 435 yards long and plays to an elevated green. The fairway gets progressively narrower as you approach the multi-tiered, tilted green, seen above.

The fourth hole is a 170 yard par three that plays over water. It is the first of three par threes that have a forced carry over water, as the seventh and sixteenth also play over water. The fifth hole is a big, uphill 425 yard dogleg left that sweeps around the slightly rising hillside. The sixth plays parallel to the fifth, playing down the hill.

The sixth hole from the tee with peninsula green, 381 yard par four

You can see the peninsula green down the hill to the right in this view from the sixth tee box.

The sixth green with the par three seventh green in view behind it to the left

The shot to the green is an intimidating one, yet the green is very large front to back, which you don't realize when hitting your approach shot. The seventh hole is a par three that plays over the same water that the sixth green is situated in.

8th hole approach shot to the green over a ravine

The eighth hole is a good 535 yard par five that plays over a ravine to an elevated, well bunkered green. The pictures above and below show the approach shot and the view looking back from the green.

8th hole looking back from the green

The 10th green, a 397 yard par four

I thought the back nine the harder of the two, even though it is shorter in total yardage. The tenth hole plays on elevated ground above the clubhouse with the large green seen here, above.

The 12th hole, a 392 yard par four that plays uphill

The twelfth hole was my favorite on the course, a 392 yard par four that plays sharply uphill. See the beautiful and well placed bunkers guarding the left side of the hole. The tee shot, like many at Trump Bedminster, is over a ravine with a forced carry.

The 13th green, 405 yard par four

The thirteenth is also a good hole. You tee off from the highest point on the property and have a forced carry over water. The hole is a sharp dogleg left and plays 405 yards up a slight hill to a long narrow green, seen above.

The course has a Florida-style finish. The last three holes all have water in play around the greens. It is very much like P.G.A. National, TPC at Sawgrass or Doral in this regard. Donald clearly thinks that water makes an exciting finish.

What was the design philosophy at Trump National? Aside from the obvious mandate to build a course to host a major, it looks like the key factors were:

1. Forced carry shots over water (to the greens) and over ravines (off the tee)
2. Generally large, elevated greens
3. A course from the penal, as opposed to strategic, school of design
4. Very high and demanding rough

The short par four seventeenth is one of only a few downhill shots to a green and one of the few risk-reward holes: it is 312 yards and offers many interesting ways to play the hole depending upon how aggressive you want to be both off the tee and with a watery approach.

Net-net, I think the course is unnecessarily hard. It's trying to prove that it is tough enough to host a major. The rough is just too hard for all but scratch level golfers. If the rough were cut and some of the water holes were filled in, it would be a better course. It would also be more consistent with the other great courses in New Jersey such as nearby Somerset Hills, Pine Valley and Baltusrol, all of which have normal rough and very little water hazards. It's just not in character for this part of the country. A singular focus on hosting a major championship has led to golf design reductio ad absurdum.

Who's to tell whether the course will ever host a major or not. Perhaps it will, since it's better than Baltusrol. Or perhaps Trump Westchester will, since it's better than Winged Foot. Or maybe Trump Los Angeles will, since it's better than Riviera. On further thought, perhaps Trump Palm Beach will, because it's better than Seminole. Or, the more I think about it, it will probably be the yet-to-be-built Trump Scotland that will host a British Open before all these other Trump courses, because it will no doubt be the greatest course ever built when it's done.

The Donald

There are some people that find Trump to be contrived, ostentatious, flashy, tasteless, tawdry, vulgar, garish, excessive and cheaply showy. My advice when going to Trump is to suspend belief and take it for what it is. With its engineered look, fake ponds, lush manicuring and over-the-top showmanship, it is a bit like Disneyland: it's an adult theme park with Donald as the theme. A traditional club or course this is not. It's a showcase. A made-for-TV spectacle. Like Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, Trump National is an outlier and will not be confused with any other club or course you've ever played.

I know there is a large contingent of Donald haters out there. In fact, I consider myself a reformed Trump basher. Certainly it's easy to make fun of the Donald since he's his own caricature. Trump is a simulacrum of himself.

Take a deep breath and think for a moment. You do have to give the guy credit. He has balls. His sense of confidence and bravado are unmatched. He's a hell of a marketer, salesman and promoter. How can you criticize the only man on the planet who believes his eye can single-handedly pick the most beautiful women in the world out of a lineup? Donald once told Vanity Fair that there is no such thing as bad publicity, that all publicity is good. I'm not sure Tiger Woods would agree with Donald's sentiments after breaking the New York Post record of being on the cover twenty straight days.

Mastering P.R. is one of the secrets to the Trump empire. His looks, his hair and his over-the-top statements are designed to be controversial so Donald can remain in the limelight. His objective is to maximize his cash flow and net worth; not to be taken seriously. On this level, he is a smashing success.

Why do I exclude myself from the Donald haters? Wouldn't it be a bit hypocritical of me to criticize a pompus, brash New Yorker who takes strong positions, is full of himself and is never wrong?
Click on the image of the book below to view my book 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.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Golf's 100 Toughest Holes

I am always interested in comparing my view of the world's best golf courses to others. Two standard bearers I use for this purpose are Tom Doak's The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses (both the original limited edition and the later edition) and George Peper's The World's 500 Greatest Golf Holes. I have just added a new book to the collection, Chris Millard's Golf's 100 Toughest Holes.

Unlike yours truly, Millard writes from an informed position. He is the former editor of Golf World magazine and when producing the book he spoke with eight living architects and many experienced golf writers. He also used Tour statistics which rank hole difficulty. I have played 56 of the holes listed in the book and 15 of 20 of the holes featured on the front cover of the book.

I agree wholeheartedly with much of the work, including the obvious candidates:

- The 17th at St. Andrews (Road Hole)
- The 18th at TPC Sawgrass
- The 16th at Cypress Point
- The Postage Stamp 8th at Royal Troon
- The 17th at Olympic Club (or any hole on the course in my view)
- The 3rd hole at Durban
- The 18th at Oakland Hills
- The 16th at Spyglass
- The 1st at Oakmont
- The 5th at Pinehurst #2
- The 14th at Royal Portrush (Calamity)
- The 14th at Royal St. George's (Suez Canal)
- The 15th at Bethpage Black

Others in the book, I'm not so sure about:

- Loch Lomond 18th, I didn't find particularly difficult

- Carnoustie's 6th (Hogan's Alley) is not that hard a par five in my view

- Augusta's 12th is listed, but at 155 yards, again, I'm not so sure. The book quotes Jack Nicklaus as saying it is "the most demanding par three in the world." I think Cypress Point's 16th wins that category hands down. Tom Weiskopf probably wouldn't agree with me, as he took the ever rare and embarrasing "deca-bogey" 13 on the 12th hole during the 1980 Masters.

Cypress Point's par three 16th hole

There are some great quotes in the book. What makes the 16th at Cypress so difficult? "233 yards of all carry, often against wind, fog, squalls and whatever else the Pacific can serve up." The Old Course Road Hole is "a combination of temptation and intimidation that are the perfect blend."

If it were my book, I would add in the following holes:

1. Crystal Down's 8th hole, due to the shot required to hit the green and its borderline unfair back to front slope.

2. The 258 yard par three 17th hole at Ganton, that plays across the road at an angle.

3. Mid Ocean's 5th "Cape" Hole, where it is extremely difficult to hit the fairway if the wind is blowing.

4. Carnoustie 16 and 17 are extremely difficult holes. Depending upon the wind, I think that the 17th at Carnoustie is actually harder than the 18th because the Barry Burn snakes through the hole so many times.

5. Merion's 18th, due to its blind tee shot, length, sloped fairway and difficult to hit, well-bunkered green

6. Naruo's 10th hole, a 470 yard par four, where your second shot has to clear an impossibly large chasm.

Naruo's par four 10th hole looking back from the green

The book has nine courses that have two holes included in the most difficult:

1. Carnostie 6 and 18
2. St. Andrews 11 and 17
3. TPC Sawgrass 17 and 18
4. Winged Foot 17 and 18
5. Shinnecock 6 and 18
6. Troon 8 and 11
7. Pine Valley 5 and 15
8. Pebble Beach 8 and 9
9. Augusta 10 and 12

Which architect designed the most difficult holes? Pete Dye, who designed nine of the 100 toughest. Tillinghast and Ross are runners up, having designed five each.

The book uses a variety of adjectives to makes its point. It says that the 10th hole at Yale is "medieval in its toughness." Royal Melbourne's 6th hole is "lethal." Holes are menacing, severe, mind-bending, devilish, fierce, bedeviling, draconian, diabolical, torturous, formidable, impenetrable, primal and brutal. As I wrote that last sentence I also thought to myself that it's a pretty useful description of driving on Long Island at rush hour.

The book also shines a light on some lesser known courses and holes including The Giant's Ridge (Quarry) in Biwabik, Minnesota whose 8th hole makes the cut, as does a hole in the DMZ in Korea known as Camp Bonifas.

As for the hardest hole in the world, my own personal votes go to Bethpage Black's fifteenth and the Old Course's Road Hole. I think the hardest single hole is Oakmont's first. The book describes eloquently why this is the case. There is a ditch dug into the deep left rough and O.B. down the length of the hole on the right. The hole plays 444 yards from the middle tees and the landing area off the tee leaves you with a downhill lie. The green is severe and canted aggressively toward the fairway while the back half coaxes well hit balls to run through. The entire green slopes precipitously from right to left with a stimpmeter of 12.

Are you having fun yet?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Golf Smarter Podcast

Amazingly enough I am now on my fourth year of GOLF SMARTER Podcast interviews with Fred Greene. This annual ritual occurs at the beginning of each year. For all those that find me irritating enough, you now have a new way to annoy yourselves. Click on the icon above and you can listen to the Podcast, which is the #1 ranked Podcast related to golf.

Friday, January 01, 2010

2009 Year in Review & Reader Comments

The 2009 golf picture of the year goes to Henrik Stenson, the professional Swedish golfer. For those not familiar with Henrik, he's no hack. In fact, when he hit this shot he was the #6 ranked player in the world and he stripped down to his underwear to play a shot out of the mud at Doral. My kind of guy.

It's hard to believe this is the four year anniversary of my first post, which was on January 1, 2006. I was again lucky in 2009 and was able to play eight new courses ranked in the top 100. I've completed 88 with only 12 to go! After only two weeks of 2009 I could have stopped golfing and still had one of my best golfing years ever. Playing world ranked #2 Cypress Point qualifies as one of the greatest golfing achievements of my lifetime. The weather I had at Cypress was as ridiculously good as the course.

The 15th at Cypress Point - The sexiest hole in golf

Reader Comments

One of the things that makes my year end review post my favorite of the year is that I get to summarize and highlight reader comments from my adoring fans. Thank you to all those who have sent me email or comments, I appreciate the feedback. 2009 was once again a good year for readers to comment, beginning with one who disagreed with my assessment of both Royal Birkdale, which I despise, and Royal Liverpool, which I love. His advice to me, "If you want to see the sea, go to the beach, if you want to play golf then Birkdale is it in the purist form. Royal Liverpool does not even come close to this beauty."

For those readers who have been trashing Carnoustie as a "dog track and waste of money," I say simply: humbug, you imbeciles!

I receive an equal amount of encouraging and vituperative feedback and am always happy to receive emails such as, "This is so addictive. We hackers and dreamers can all live our Walter Mitty lives through you."

I am also looking forward to my spring trip to Australia since all comments I receive from those down under are friendly, optimistic and full of good cheer.

It wouldn't be a year-end review post without fresh comments attacking me on my accurate and well thought-out Fishers Island write-up. The Fishers Island comments are always caustic. The latest, "I had to stop reading when you started describing the course, so I'm not sure if you mentioned your handicap, or when you started playing. I am 47 years old and have been playing for 40 of them, I am also a 3 handicap, and have played many of the great courses in the USA, Cypress, Pebble,Spy, Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Somerset,National, etc etc. I am going to bet you took up the game a little later in life, and you probably try to match your shoes with your shirt. Wake up, Fishers is on a par with Cypress, end of conversation!"

Wow. So much to respond to in that little screed. Let me take your arguments point by point. Maybe the writer is speaking of the golf course at Cypress High School, because Fishers certainly isn't on a par with Cypress Point Golf Club; they are as different as chalk and cheese. And let me make sure I understand this, because you took up the game at a young age and have a low handicap, you're a genius. Congratulations on being born with a silver spoon in your mouth. I'm sure you're the same variety of well-heeled character that went to Yale because grand-daddy did and that having a lot of money makes you better than those that don't. For the record, Alister Mackenzie took up golf when he was 28 and was never more than a mid-level handicapper. Let's see, he designed Cypress, Augusta, Royal Melbourne and more top 100 courses than anyone who has ever lived. Need I say more? Golf handicap and the ability to make an intelligent judgment about a course have no correlation. Good luck playing with your aristocratic, patrician friends in your little bubble. Be careful not to scratch your Patek Philippe watches.

And no, I don't wear Sergio Garcia style matching shoes, but I do wear pink shorts from time to time, because they really show off my legs to great affect. It's time for the charade about Fishers Island to end once and for all - it is over-rated as the #29th ranked course in the world.

I much prefer a shorter, to the point attack, such as this one from a former assistant pro at Fishers Island, "It is a legacy club meaning you have to be born into the club there are no 12 letters to get you in. I would appreciate that if you dont have the facts you don;t speak. By the way how in the hell did they let you play anyway." I wonder that myself, how the hell did they let me play without checking that my ancestors came across on the Mayflower?

Royal Troon remains one of the most commented on of my course write-ups (and has my favorite lead-off picture). There is a real art to politely telling someone to bugger off and I genuinely give credit to the Scots for elevating it to a high art, as in this comment, from a Troon caddy, speaking about the previous caddie master "...he detested New Yorkers, but at other times could be a fantastic character. As a caddy I will say that I've only ever fallen out with two players in over 20 years. Both were New Yorkers. Most New Yorkers are fine, but the North-East, ie New York and Boston, does seem to have a life-style that seems at odds with the Scottish outlook on life. Maybe it's a certain arrogance?" I honestly love the Scots.

Thank you as well to the Troon reader who compared me to Richard Nixon, something I've long aspired to.

'Charlie', remarking on Muirfield, criticized my comment that none of the holes are that memorable: "That made me LOL. Seriously? This course has incredible, world-class holes. I commend you for this blog and your efforts to play these courses, but I question whether you are a golfer or dilettante." I must admit I had to break out the dictionary for that one, a dilettante is "an amateur who engages in an activity without serious intentions and who pretends to have knowledge." I commend Charlie on his word choice but ask my readers to name one memorable hole at Muirfield off the top of their head. Pick almost any other course ranked in the top 50 and I can rattle off three or four holes at least, from memory. I can't, and I would argue most people can't, as it pertains to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

I rest my case, which is based on Muirfield being over-rated as the #3 ranked course in the world. Having said that, any golf club founded before Mozart was born holds a revered position in the game. The Honourable Company occupies an unassailable position in the golf world for upholding tradition. That's a whole lot different than the course being memorable. So if Muirfield's world ranking is based on tradition and not the course, I can begin to understand it. Unlike Birkdale or Medinah, I actually look forward to returning to Muirfield one day, playing alternate shot and enjoying the atmosphere and clubhouse.

I would sleep better at night if Birkdale and Medinah were removed from the world rankings, and Muirfield and Fishers Island took on lower rankings, say #28 or #52, which would now be available in my bawdry little golf universe.

The Cabo del Sol (Ocean) course in Mexico doesn't get much notoriety. A commenter left the following, "If this course is number 68 in the world I'll eat my hat. Very average at best. I certainly wouldn't pay to play it again. If you must, just go straight to the champ tee at 17, hit your 6 iron, putt out and leave. You've seen the best this course has to offer. I'd rather have a long brunch with my mother-in-law. This place is strictly for hungover hacks on vacation." Although I like the course better than he does, I believe I have found a kindred spirit on the mother-in-law front.

Returning to Long Island, a reader left the following comment and course rankings regarding my Friar's Head write-up, "You can't do a review of Friar's Head without commenting on the playground they have for a practice area. 2nd to none. NGLA > Shinny > Sebonack > BP Black > Garden City > Friar's Head > Fishers Island > Maidstone, Deepdale, Piping, Meadow Brook, The Creek, Gardiner's Bay." His ranking there with the brackets of Long Island courses isn't too dissimilar to mine, although I do rank Maidstone higher. Clearly he hasn't seen the practice area at Trump Bedminster, which is the best in the world ;)

Another Long Island reader left an extremely insightful comment, "Rather than say something disparaging about a course that can be beloved by many, many people, as Walter Hagen once said, "Its the best course of its kind I've ever played." He's right. I take back my rude comments about Medinah. Medinah is the best course of its kind I've ever played. Hopefully this will stop the hate mail from Chicago.

The most frequent question I get is: How do you get on all these courses? The simple answer is by networking and asking.

To the reader who stated, "you also fail to mention how the Winged Foot west course green complexes are the best in the world." Fuhgeddaboudit. I failed to mention it because the green "complexes" at Augusta, Pine Valley, Crystal Downs, Pinehurst #2, Cypress Point, Pacific Dunes, Sand Hills and the Old Course are all better. Winged Foot West has difficult greens; but they lack variety, they all basically slope back to front and are very fast. Hard and 'the best' are not the same thing.

The remainder of my golfing year

Playing any course after Cypress is going to be a letdown and playing the Rees Jones designed Ocean Forest in Sea Island Georgia didn't generate the excitement I expect from top ranked courses.

My globe trotting continued in the spring and found me back in Beverly Hills. I lusted to play Los Angeles Country Club but alas had no time. My visit to South Beach left no time for a trip up to Seminole and I lamented the fact that on my short trip to Tokyo I never left Roppongi Hills and was wistful to play Naruo and Hirono. My return trip to Spain did feature golf and Valderrama was a real treat. Playing among the cork trees proved a unique experience on the quest. My spontaneous second round there, playing a top ranked course with no one else in sight as the sun was setting, is hard to top. 2009 was also a year of new discoveries, especially the delightful below-the-radar Whippoorwill Club in Westchester County, NY.

The first fairway at Valderrama

I fell in love with Scotland once again after visiting Loch Lomond, one of the prettiest places on the planet.

Loch Lomond's clubhouse - Rossdhu House

My summer visit to Cherry Hills in Denver was ideal and I was very surprised at how much feedback I got about my comments on Eisenhower. Let the record reflect the fact that Ike was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame shortly after I mentioned his case. My summer visit to golf rich Columbus, Ohio featured more good weather with the double header of two top-fifty courses: the Pete Dye designed Golf Club and Jack Nicklaus's Muirfield Village. A recent commenter disagreed with my assessment of the course; he wrote: "Most over-rated notable course in America. Without Jack, TV and the Memorial, it would be just another housing track."

Considering that it rained almost every day in the New York area in 2009 I was lucky to have a return visit to the Tillinghast treasure Somerset Hills and I was reminded why it is unquestionably one of the best golf courses in the world. Tillinghast so effectively camoflauged the bunkers, you can't see many of them until you walk right up in front of them, and, it has one of the best routings in the world. I was stunned at the comment I received in 2009 about Somerset from a golfing heretic, "Played it twice and was disappointed both times. Sadly, it's nowhere near its Top 100 peers. The locker room is small, old, and underfurnished. The driving range is a mown tee box on a hillside overlooking some front 9 holes. The front 9 is wide open, short, and otherwise bland. Truth is "Redans" are more controversial than enjoyable when the green is running at 12. SHGC is a $40 muni, only in a quiet old money town with PJ Boatwright's name on the wall." A few more comments like that and I shall have to shut the site down!

I finished off the year at Camargo, completing my required five courses in Ohio. Unfortunately, my witty and discerning write-up of the course will have to wait for early next year.

All in all, it was another spectacular year. I look forward to continuing my pursuits next year and crashing the world's top courses with my cultivated air of modesty.

Happy New Year.

Looking forward to a healthy and prosperous 2010 and keep your comments coming!