Thursday, September 11, 2014

Winged Foot Golf Club - East Course

There has been much written about many of the world's greatest golf courses: Herbert Warren Wind gushing about Dornoch and Ballybunion; several books have been written about Bethpage; the romance of Hogan's Alley at Riviera, etc. The course in the top 100 rankings which gets little written about it is Winged Foot's East Course (ranked #66 in the world) designed, like the West, by A.W. Tillinghast. How is it that a course that ranks higher than Valderrama, Cruden Bay and Yeamans Hall is highlighted so little? Could it be that the course if simply riding the coattails of its bigger brother Winged Foot West (ranked #18 in in the world)? Which holes make it a top 100 course exactly?

I am blessed to live close to so much good golf and was fortunate to play Winged Foot East and West back-to-back on the same day so I could have a fresh comparison of the two courses. I didn't do justice to the East course on my first trip, so this post will focus on it.

Winged Foot is the only club in the world that has two ranked courses on my list, although a strong case can be made for both Sunningdale and Royal Melbourne to have two, but that's another story. Both golf courses at Winged Foot opened for play on September 8, 1923.  

The defining characteristics of both courses are the greens, which almost all slope back-to-front and have narrow entry areas. In the 1920s the press dubbed them "bottle-necks." Being above the hole is not recommended. In their 1923 brochure announcing the opening of both courses, the golf committee warned the golfer about the first two holes on the East course. "A dollar bill couldn't lie level on either of the first two greens with their pitches and roll." The second hole is named "Man O'War" because of the necessity of keeping your shot left, or, as in horse racing, in the pole position, to keep out of trouble. At the time of the course's opening "Man O'War" was a popular race horse.

6 east
The par three sixth hole, Winged Foot East, "Trouble"

The par three sixth plays uphill and is about 200-yards long. The hole's name, "Trouble,"--aside from the pitch of the green and the bunkers--is derived from the fact that there is O.B. down the entire right side. It has classic Tillinghast bunkering.

One of the defining features of Pine Valley is how each of the holes are isolated from the others. Not so at Winged Foot, where you see other holes when playing your hole and essentially have vistas of the whole property while playing.

Although all the greens on the course slope back-to-front there is never a time you think they are unfair; the ninth green, for example, has a hump in the rear that serves as a backstop. Tillinghast's description of Winged Foot sums up how much effort he put into the greens, "The holes are like men, all rather similar from foot to neck, but with the greens showing the same varying characters of human faces." If I do have one small criticism of Winged Foot it is, as Tillinghast himself says, that there are many similar holes; I find this to be particularly true on the front nine of the West course where almost a half-dozen holes are of the same basic type tee-to-green. The East has more variety in the style and types of holes.

tenth green east

The 10th green Winged Foot East

The tenth hole on the East Course plays back toward the clubhouse and is relatively simple, at only 353 yards. Although, as members will tell you, when the pin is tucked back left in a narrow part of the green behind bunkers, the hole is anything but easy.

11th green east
The narrow 11th green, Winged Foot East

The eleventh hole is named "Broadway" because like the Great White Way, it bends slightly to the right. This hole is a great illustration of how narrow some of the approaches to the greens are; the difficulty of the greens is in direct proportion to the hole's modest 364 yards. Beware of short par fours. What Tillinghast takes away in length, he makes the golfer pay for around the green. The greens are made to accept shots coming in only on the line of play; being on either side of them you will find yourself playing army golf, marching back-and-forth across the green after failing to hold a delicate pitch shot on them.

  12th green
The 12th green on the East Course

The par five twelfth is a difficult hole from tee to green and the #2 stroke index hole; what makes it particularly difficult is the approach shot to the green. As the opening day booklet says about twelve, "One big trap almost closes the green in front so the third shot must be pitched." It is a brilliant design, and why the 536-yard hole still gives players fits today. Try to land a long iron or wood into that narrow and well protected target.

13 green east
The "Cameo", 13th hole at Winged Foot East viewed from the side

Tillinghast was a master of par three design, and the 13th hole on the East course is the best hole on the entire property in my view. Named "Cameo" it plays only 140-yards but is very narrow and requires a perfectly struck shot. As with all of the greens on Winged Foot's East course, if you are left or right, pitching a shot back onto the green requires precision because the greens are only designed to be approached from the front. The picture above is from the side, and you can get a good sense of how narrow the landing strip is from the tee.

14th hole east
Winged Foot East's 14th "Hell Bent", which doglegs to the right

The East course only has fifty-three traps, so this is golf of the strategic vs. the penal variety that you may find at a course like Oakmont. Although there are relatively few traps, they add to the scenic beauty of the course because your eye is drawn to them, and they are placed with maximum effectiveness to catch wayward shots.

  15 East
The 15th hole at Winged Foot East, "Shrine"

The approach to the elevated green on the sub 350-yard fifteenth hole is over a brook, and as see pictured, the green falls off sharply to the right and rear. The East course finishes with a bang. The seventeenth hole is called "Lightning," since a "bolt of Jove" would be required to move the ball from some of the 207-yard hole's traps. The eighteenth is called "Taps," on a course that opens with a first hole named "Reveille," and "sails happily to a rising green."

A strong case can be made that the best stretch of holes on the property are the East course's eleventh through fifteenth. I am a big fan of the East course and personally prefer playing it to the West; I think it has more shot variety and is a more interesting routing.

Both are fabulous courses where you have to hit and hold the greens or you will have a long day. Although my feet hurt after playing 36 holes and from being on them for close to ten hours, my spirits were soaring as we retired to the majestic clubhouse for a drink. The total golfing experience at Winged Foot is the epitome of private American club golf, with its historic grand clubhouse, experienced and learned caddies, and world-class courses. Those that only play the major championship-hosting West course are missing something special if they skip the East.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

East Lake Golf Club

The grand East Lake Tudor style club house

East Lake Golf Club (ranked #97 in the world) is located in the Atlanta neighborhood of East Lake, only six miles from the city center. The skyscrapers of downtown are visible from the top of the property when you are on the fifteenth green. Going back to East Lake conjured up good feelings, especially since the route to the course is along I-20 which is signposted Augusta. This is especially true since the author has played Augusta and birdied its twelfth hole! The good associations continue when the rushed golfer heads to the half-way house near the first tee to grab a quick sandwich and among the selections is a pimento-cheese. I was glad to play East Lake again with my camera and in summer conditions since my prior visit was during the winter when the greens were overseeded.

The original golf course was laid out by the designer of many undistinguished golf courses, Tom Bendelow, designer of Medinah. In 1913, Donald Ross redesigned the Bendelow course which originally featured two par four and half holes and oddly finished across the lake from the clubhouse. The remodeled course featured a routing plan that provided each nine holes to conclude at the clubhouse. 

The interior of the clubhouse, a Bobby Jones shrine, seen above is the Great Hall

In 1963, the Ryder Cup was held at East Lake, which was won by the U.S. and featured Arnold Palmer as the playing Captain. In preparation for the matches, the course went through a facelift for three years, during which most of the old course was rebuilt and many of the holes changed to provide the quality championship layout the tournament merited. The alterations were performed under the direction of golf course architect George Cobb. In 1994, Rees Jones restored Donald Ross’s original golf course layout making East Lake an eclectic Bendelow-Ross-Cobb-Jones design.

East Lake was the course Bobby Jones played growing up as a youngster and he played the course for a period of 41 years. The interior of the clubhouse is a shrine to Bobby Jones. It includes his Calamity Jane putter, the original scroll conferring the 1958 Freedom of the Burgh of St. Andrews on him, his hickory shafted clubs and his original lockers. It also includes full size replicas of all four of his Grand Slam trophies from 1930, which is fitting because it was only at East Lake that all four were together in one place.

East Lake, like Los Angeles Country Club, is a city course hemmed in in its entirety by a perimeter fence. The course is built on gently rolling hills and with the exception of holes 4, 6, 8 and 17, the holes are routed east-west to play directly into the wind or down wind. After a gentle starter into the wind, the par three second hole plays down wind. You can see below the gently sloping hills and the typical shaved fall-off areas surrounding the green.

  2nd hole

The par three 2nd hole

  4th approach

The par four 4th hole rises up the gentle hill to a green that is approachable with a bump and run shot

The fourth hole and the eighth hole, which runs parallel to it, have depressions that run along them. These depressions were dug out during the Civil War to protect encamped soldiers (presumably Confederates) from attack along Fayetteville Road. As you can see, there are areas to run the ball up to the green at East Lake, but Rees Jones made most of them rise with one-to-two foot elevation changes just before the green to make that more difficult.

  5th from tee
The par five fifth hole from the tee; the hole plays downhill, down-wind

One afternoon Bobby Jones was playing the fifth hole, a good 544-yard downhill par five that bends down the hill. He had to stand and wait for a long time for a group ahead of him to hit and he became so frustrated that he picked up his ball and walked off the course to go build his own course. The course he ended up building was nearby Peachtree (ranked #87 in the world).

9th green 
The par five, downhill 9th hole with its approach shot over the lake

The 551-yard par five ninth hole was my favorite on the course. It sweeps down the hill from a tee box at the top and you have to play your third shot over the lake to a very well protected green. The majestic clubhouse in the background adds to the grandeur of the hole.

9th closeup 
The green complex on the 9th hole

The front nine plays on the west side of the clubhouse and the back nine plays on the east side; and on the back, with the exception of the seventeenth, the holes run parallel to each other as you play up and down the hill. The back nine is the more interesting of the two.

12th green
The elevated twelfth green, with a typical long high-lipped bunker

You can see the style of the bunkering at East Lake from these two pictures of the twelfth and fifteenth greens, which are the product of Rees Jones. They are long and have high lips, making pins tucked right behind them very difficult to access; particularly because these two holes play down wind, the golfer faces an uphill-downwind shot with little margin for error, and the reason they come into play so much, even though in total the course doesn't have that much sand.


The difficult uphill par five fifteenth

The "signature" hole at East Lake is the eighteenth, which is a par three finishing hole which plays 207 yards uphill into the prevailing wind. I was on the green in regulation, but the green is so large I might as well have been off. With its bent grass greens, the direction of the grain is a big factor when putting at East Lake, much more so than other courses I have played. Knowing whether you are into or against the grain is a big deal. I had a couple of putts where it was both, the putt began into the grain and then shifted to down grain due to the contours of the green.

Today the course is owned and run by the East Lake Foundation, a local non-profit whose mission is to give back to the East Lake neighborhood, which it has been instrumental in reviving. Atlantan Tom Cousins was the driving force behind this unique structure. He purchased the course in 1993, brought in Rees Jones, invested $25 million and donated it to the foundation. Their mission, "Golf With A Purpose" is supported by corporations from around the country who are the primary members of East Lake. I am glad I was able to return and do a proper review after all these years. It was a really nice relaxed round on the rolling hills. We had world-class caddies at East Lake, one of whom was receiving a college scholarship from the club. 

The locker room features East Lake's signature Ginger Snaps

The cozy club house is filled with leather chairs and makes a great place to repair to after the round to soak up all the Jones memorabilia. The course is very welcoming and professionally run with a Southern hospitality that I love. Ginger Snaps were Jones' favorite and the recipe used to make them was apparently his mother's.

East Lake has dropped off the world top 100 rankings of late which is too bad. As much as I love the new minimalist designs of Coore-Crenshaw and others, to some degree all the new modern courses are crowding out important courses like East Lake and Ganton and Colonial. It is better to have a balanced set of courses making up the top 100 since these are important courses that the serious golf fan should come to know so that they can better honor the legacy of this great game.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Streamsong Golf Resort

I know I said Augusta would be my last post, but I wasn't anticipating golf at Streamsong.

The winning formula for a new golf resort over the last fifteen years has consisted of a visionary developer acquiring some inexpensive land in a remote location, almost always near the ocean; hiring a new golden-age minimalist golf designer or two, and building some great golf courses. The visionaries have included an eccentric Chicago millionaire, Mike Keiser, who began the trend with Bandon Dunes. This was followed by a Tasmanian spud farmer, Richard Sattler, with the Barnbougle resort in Australia, and a golf obsessed Canadian, Ben Cowan-Dewar who moved his family to a remote Canadian village to pursue his dream. The golf architects of choice in our modern times are Tom Doak and the team of Coore & Crenshaw. So, will the formula work if the visionary developer is a NYSE listed commodity company and the inexpensive land is not near the water?

While it might not be as romantic a story as the first three, the answer is a resounding yes.

The modern style clubhouse at Streamsong paradoxically fits in and looks appropriate

I would like to add my voice to the chorus of praise being heaped on the Streamsong golf courses in Florida. My mental image of Florida golf is flat terrain, palm trees, thick Bermuda grass and lots of water. Streamsong is the opposite of “typical” Florida golf, located east of Tampa and South of Orlando in the geographic middle of the state. I know this offers a simplistic view of Florida golf; the reality is, the state has some pretty diverse courses such as Calusa Pines and World Woods. But, you get my drift, which is that this is not like Doral, PGA National, TPC Sawgrass, Bay Hill, Seminole or the myriad of flat courses with an abundance of water hazards.

This part of Florida is less traveled and semi-rural; the town that Streamsong is located in has less population than some blocks in Manhattan. The large amount of jobs created by Streamsong is a mini boom to the area, which is dotted with farms and ranches. Florida is the third largest state in terms of cattle production and this is visible as you drive to Streamsong. The other big industry in this part of Florida is phosphate mining, which brings us to why the courses were built. The Mosaic Company has been extracting phosphate, a key component of fertilizer, in the area, for years. In fact they still are, as you drive to and play the course you can still see their facilities all around you. Some very wise executives at Mosaic, who are clearly among us golf obsessed, had the vision to take the land that was mined and re-purpose it into a golf resort. 

One of the benefits of the way phosphate is mined (apologies to my tree-hugging readers) is that it is extracted from beneath the ground, thus large amounts of earth are removed and piled up. 12 million yards of earth were moved between the two courses, Tom Doak has estimated. This process took an otherwise flat terrain and created sand dunes and lots of elevation changes. The other natural benefit of Streamsong is that Florida was at one time under water, thus the soil is very sandy, having been a sea bed in earlier millenia. In fact, our caddie told us they frequently find sharks teeth among the sand.

Having played Bandon, Cabot Links and the Barnbougle resorts I can state definitively that Streamsong can proudly join the ranks of golf destinations worth going out of your way for. At several times throughout the day I was reminded very much of playing at Barnbougle in Tasmania in particular. The picture below gives you a good sense of why. Florida does not come to mind when looking at this picture, taken from the third tee of the Coore & Crenshaw course.

A vista from the Coore/Crenshaw course, 3rd tee looks nothing like Florida

My memory is not particularly good and I personally find the names of the courses, Red and Blue to be confusing. When thinking back I often got confused trying to recall which was Red and which was Blue. A little multiple-choice trivia question to begin. The courses were named Red and Blue because:

(a) Tom Doak happens to live in a blue state and Coore/Crenshaw in red states and the owners were making a political statement.
(b) The third course is going to be called White and the owners are going with a patriotic theme.
(c) The course names represent the color of the ink the course architects used when routing the courses on a map simultaneously when looking for potential designs.

The correct answer is the more mundane C. It would be simpler if they named them simply the Doak course and the Coore & Crenshaw course. 

Although there are trees at the perimeter of both courses, they do not come into play, both are wide open and bumping and running the ball are a delightfully consistent part of the golf here. The tee areas at Streamsong blend into the fairways and are not really distinctive tee boxes. This no doubt makes mowing and maintenance easy, and creates a lot of options on tee placement.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than the fifth hole on the Blue (Doak) course. The hole is a downhill par three of between 102 and 150 yards depending on the tees you play and where the pin is. When we got to the tee someone in my group pointed out that you could actually putt the ball to the green given that the flag was front left and there was fairway all the way from tee to green. As I am always up for a stupid challenge I decided to tee off with a putter and ended up about a foot short of the green! 

 The par three fifth hole on the Doak course at Streamsong gives many options including putting off the tee

The green is quite large lengthwise, at first I thought it might be part of a double green complex, but it is not. I walked it off at 245 feet from side-to-side, so most of the time putting may not be a good option, but it did create a lot of debate about whether this was a good design feature or not; personally I liked it. Streamsong lists holes-in-one on their website, including the club used for those that have already gotten them, and they range from a 54 degree wedge up to a 7-iron. One of my new goals is to get listed on the site with the club listed as “putter”. 

My favorite hole on the Doak (Blue) course is the par three seventh which is “the” picture hole everyone captures when playing Streamsong, and for good reason. It is such a picturesque hole of between 178 and 203 yards, and a delight to play over water into such a secluded area between the sand dunes.

"The" picture hole at Streamsong, the par three seventh on the Doak (Blue) course

Another hole I really liked is the sixth hole, which, coincidentally, has the same hole number and reminded me of the sixth hole at St. Enodoc in England, one of Tom Doak’s favorite courses. The dominant feature on the hole is the huge "Himalaya" sand dune on the left side of the hole near the green. 

Streamsong Doak (Blue) sixth hole with a Himalaya sand dune

 I left my ball in the “cleavage” between the two humps on the green!

The enticing green, Streamsong Blue, sixth hole

The other hole I really liked is number thirteen (not pictured) similar to a hole at Pacific Dunes, a par four of between 279 and 312 yards that gets progressively more narrow as you get to the green, which is set up on a hill and is well bunkered.

Some of the greens on the Blue course are border line tricked up, like the twelfth, a par four, with its massive humps and slope.

The very tricky twelfth green, Streamsong Blue

Putting is one of the strong suits of my overall deteriorating and currently mediocre game, and I found the greens on the Blue course to be very difficult to read and putt on, as did the other three golfers in my group. It takes quite a bit of time to adjust to the putting on both courses given that almost all the greens have pretty good contours.

I know I am comparing the holes at Streamsong to a lot of other courses, but I do think they are apt. The tenth (Blue) reminds me of Kingston Heath near Melbourne with its flat terrain and abundance of bunkers. In some respects this shouldn't be too much of a surprise since the terrain and sandy soil are very similar here to the Sandbelt region of Melbourne.

Streamsong Blue, par three tenth hole, shades of Kingston Heath 

The Blue course has a gentle start to ease you into the round, the first half dozen holes being relatively easy. The first tee shot plays from atop a large sand hill downwind to a wide open fairway. It is good for the ego to begin your round this way. The tee box is one of the highest points on the property which has a total elevation change of 75 feet. The easy start is more than made up for with the difficulty of the finish. Sixteen is a par three of over 200 yards playing into a cross-wind and sloping left to right all the way. I think the hole is too penal given the cross-wind, the severity of the slopes and the bunkers. I get it, golf doesn't always have to be fair, rub of the green and all that, but sometimes the balance is tipped too far like it is here.

The seventeenth is a LONG par five, approaching 600 yards from the back tees. I’m not sure if the prevailing wind is the same as the day I played, but it was into us. In addition to the length, the hole gently rises from tee to green. The second shot is a crucial one where you have to decide whether you can carry the large bunkers set at an angle to the fairway up a sloping hill. It’s a big hole, reminiscent in some respects of the fourth hole at Bethpage Black.

Bethpage Black meets Sand Hills on the 17th at the Doak Course, Streamsong

I played the Blue course in the morning and then immediately played the Coore & Crenshaw course, which has a difficult start. For those looking for a maximum challenge, play the Blue first followed by the Red and you have the most difficult half dozen holes on the property in a row.

The par three sixth on the Coore & Crenshaw (Red) course, Streamsong

The Coore & Crenshaw course and the Doak courses have many similarities as the two designers don't have very different styles in their minimalist design approaches. Tom Doak calls the courses "cousins" rather than "twins" and I think that is right. I found the Coore & Crenshaw design has more of the course out in front of you and less blind shots. On the front nine of the Doak course alone the second shots on the first and fourth holes are blind as is the tee shot at nine. The Doak course has wider fairways and wilder greens. The Coore & Crenshaw course has slightly narrower fairways and slightly less sloped greens.

I enjoyed the Coore & Crenshaw course, as I always do, since their design aesthetic suits my eye. I particularly enjoyed holes fifteen through seventeen, probably the best three hole stretch on the property. Number sixteen is a Biarritz style hole of between 160 and 208 yards that plays over the same lake as the seventh hole on the Blue course.

 The sixteenth "Biarritz" hole on the Coore/Crenshaw Course

Closeup of the Biarritz green, the 16th hole on the Red course

The predominant impression coming away from Streamsong is the sand dunes, however, both architects also took advantage of the savanna the course is on. One of the things that makes Cypress Point so special is that the course has six holes routed through the dunes, six holes routed through the trees and six holes routed along the water. Streamsong doesn't have any holes routed across the water obviously, but there is more variety that meets the eye, particularly the holes routed through the grassy plains part of the property that abuts the trees. These include the ninth and tenth of the Blue course and the twelfth and seventeenth (below) on the Red course.

The seventeenth hole Streamsong Red at dusk shows off the variety of challenge

There is much debate about which course is better and which people prefer playing. I am not going to join that particular debate as I like both courses a lot. They are both similar in the sense that they are courses that encourage you to use the ground to bump and run shots and both place a premium on putting. I can't tell you the last time I walked and played 36 holes in a day, but I did happily at Streamsong. Like at Sand Hills, Cabot Links, Barnbougle and Bandon, Streamsong is one of those places when you finish your round you want to head right back to the first tee and play again. For those who can't access Sand Hills in Nebraska, Streamsong is a credible public alternative to see the genius of Coore & Crenshaw. The courses are built on 2,300 acres of the 16,500 that Mosaic owns in this area and nature is in abundance. While playing we saw a large turtle crossing one fairway and we saw an ominous looking long black snake in the rough. Some bunkers had unsettling sized paw prints in them from Bobcats which inhabit the area. Other wildlife present include deer, wild hogs, wild turkey and the more typical for Florida: alligators lurking in the water.

A shot from the seventh hole, Coore & Crenshaw course, similar to Sand Hills in Nebraska

So where do the courses rank among Florida golf? Where do they rank in the world? How is it compared to Bandon? I would say they rank pretty high among Florida golf, along with Seminole among the top three. It is less windy than Bandon, making it a big plus in my book. Plus, you can leave New York in the morning, fly down and play a round before sundown which makes it very convenient. Arguably it is easier to get to Streamsong than it is to Kiawah or Pinehurst. Hard to say where these courses would land in the world rankings, but I think it is safe to say they belong there as they rank ahead of a dozen or two of the courses currently on the list. Maybe I am suffering from rating and ranking fatigue (pretty ironic coming from me) given all the new courses coming on line and all of them hyped as top 100. Putting aside the rankings, they are special courses to play and worth a journey.

Both courses are designed for walking and it is strongly encouraged. I have a lumbago and am getting old, but with some help from my Advil I found the courses easy to walk. After 9:30 am you can take a cart and a fore-caddie, although the carts can only go around the perimeter of the course, so you probably walk as much as if you didn't have a cart. Streamsong also offers an interesting option for playing. A six hole or twelve hole round is available after 2:00 pm, which I think is a great idea.

The new hotel doesn't quite fit in, it looks more like a corporate headquarters or hospital building, but that is pretty much the only thing on the whole property that doesn't perfectly fit in

Service was outstanding throughout the day, everyone was chipper and attentive and my caddie, Noah Zelnik, a former tour caddie and PGA player was as good as I've ever had. Kudos to the nameless visionary executives at Mosaic who had the fore-sight to develop this into something so appealing and classy. The property is isolated enough that you see no cars nor do you hear background din from a highway, and the hotel has a place on its roof where you sit out and take advantage of star gazing since there is no "light pollution" in the area.  It was bold to setup the courses to strongly encourage walking so that you could truly take nature in and enjoy the ambiance of the quiet and beautiful surroundings.

I can't wait to go back.