Tuesday, May 16, 2017

U.S. Open hopefuls tee up their dreams at The Preserve Golf Club

The best thing, in my mind, about the U.S. Open golf tournament can be summed up in one word – “open”. What that means is that anyone can enter (well, anyone who meets the handicap criteria) and take their shot at earning a spot in the field at one of the most prestigious golf competitions in the world – the U.S. Open.

The Open will be held this year at Erin Hills Golf Club in Wisconsin – a first both for the Erin Hills course and the Badger State.

At 113 local qualifying tournaments across the United States, and new for this year, one in Canada, aspiring golfers tee up their dreams of glory, trying to be one of the lucky, and talented, players who will earn the right to compete on one of the golf world’s biggest stages – 8,979 players competing for 525 spots in the next stage.

Players hopeful of earning a spot in the 2017 U.S Open at Erin Hills, WI, warming up on the range at The Preserve Golf Club in Carmel. (photo by author)

As of May 16th, 95 of the 114 local qualifiers have been conducted, including three in Northern California – at Fountaingrove Golf and Athletic Club in Santa Rosa; at Ruby Hill Golf Club in Pleasanton; and at The Preserve Golf Club in Carmel; a fourth NorCal qualifier will take place May 18th at the Granite Bay Golf Club in Granite Bay. Over 7,700 players signed up to play in those 95 local qualifying tournaments, and 449 have won their way through to the next step, the sectional qualifying tournaments which take place on June 5th in Ono City, Japan; Surrey England; and ten locations across the United States.

In the May 16th local qualifier at The Preserve Golf Club, which is located in the hills above Carmel Valley about 12 miles, as the crow flies, from Pebble Beach, 78 players were signed up to play for five spots that would advance to the next round. Spread over 26 groupings and two hours of tee times off two tees, the 78 players, minus a handful of WD’s, took on The Preserve’s 7,100-odd-yard-long par-72 Tom Fazio course in high hopes of earning their way to sectional qualifying.

The Preserve GC’s Tom Fazio-designed course provided a worthy test for the field of U.S. Open hopefuls. Lying gracefully on the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains landscape, the Preserve course features seven elevated tee shots, two blind tee shots, two notably uphill tee shots and two heroic carries off the tee box – one of them at the 18th hole. Contoured fairways, well-placed bunkering and some inventive green-to-fairway relationships make this a thinking-person’s golf course where shot placement is vital.

The key to scoring well on this course, however, is putting. The greens are complex and well-contoured – they are never penal, but they definitely require complete focus. The correct position on the green, with respect to the flag, is vital, and a good feel for the subtleties of the break is necessary to keep your putt totals in the low 30s or below. I watched one member of the threesome I followed for the day crush drives and land exquisite approach shots, even from poor positions around the greens – but repeated failure to follow up with really top-notch putting made the difference between guaranteed advancement to sectionals and a “better luck next year” finish.

Local talent dominated the event, with Carmel High alum and UC Davis standout Luke Vivolo taking medalist honors with a 4-under 68, three strokes better than second-place finisher John Crater, of Monterey, a golf pro at Corral de Tierra Country Club in Salinas. Vivolo took his lead on the field on the front nine, carding 4-under 32 on the strength of three birdies, an eagle on the par-5 eighth hole, and one bogey.

Seven players who stood at even-par 72 at the end of regulation play went out again to determine the remaining three advancing players and two alternates. Three holes of play were required to determine the second alternate spot, which went to Stanford freshman David Snyder, but two holes was all it took to separate the remaining group of four players into qualifiers and first alternate.

Clean shots to the green and two-putt pars at the 186-yard par-2 second hole advanced Fremont’s Mac McClung, J. R. Warthen of Pacific Grove, and Christopher Marin of Monterey. San Jose’s Erick Justensen watched his tee shot at #2 ride the right-to-left breeze into the left-hand bunker, from which he could manage no better than bogey, leaving him as first alternate.

The qualifiers from today’s event at The Preserve, as well as the other Northern and Southern California local qualifiers, are likely to be headed for the sectional qualifier to be held June 5th at Big Canyon CC and Newport Beach CC in Southern California.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Book review: James Dodson’s “The Range Bucket List” – a love song to a life in golf ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

James Dodson is a writer whose work is well known to the better-read kind of golfer – the golfer who doesn’t bury their head in how-to books and volumes of mental-game voodoo. Among his other golf-related books are the classic biography of the late Arnold Palmer, A Golfer’s Life; the touching and heartfelt Final Rounds, about his relationship with his father, and a final golf trip to Scotland toward the end of his father’s life; a very well-received biography of Ben Hogan entitled Ben Hogan, An American Life, the only such book authorized by the Hogan family; and several others.

Dodson is one of those writers whose name I look forward to seeing attached to news of a new book – one whose works occupy the upper shelves of my bookcase, where I can get to them easily to re-read, or browse for a cherished anecdote or a well-turned sentence. It was with great pleasure, therefore, that I recently learned of a new book from Mr. Dodson: The Range Bucket List: The Golf Adventure of a Lifetime (the title is a clever play on the term “bucket list” – those lists of things to do before you die that became vogue after the 2007 movie of the same name.)
James Dodson, two-time winner of the prestigious Herbert Warren Wind Award for golf books which is awarded by the USGA, brings his master’s touch, once again, to the recounting of anecdotes from a life well-lived in golf.
After I finished reading this book it occurred to me that the sub-title might better have been A Lifetime of Golf Adventure, because James Dodson has ranged the depth and breadth of the game of golf, far and wide across the United States, the British Isles, and just about everywhere in the world that the game is played. He has known hundreds of people in the game, ranging from the biggest stars – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and many others; to many of the great writers who have covered the game, including the immortal Herbert Warren Wind; as well as regular weekend (or quick-round-after-work) duffers like the rest of us.

The premise of The Range Bucket List is Dodson following up on a list that he made as an adolescent golfer (which he found a few years back while going through an old trunk in his attic) – a list of things that he wanted to accomplish in golf. The items on the list ranged from “1. Meet Arnold Palmer and Mr. Bobby Jones” to more prosaic goals like “5. Get new clubs” and “6. Break 80”, and while the title suggests that he embarked on a journey specifically to complete the list, in reality what he has done is to compile a series of anecdotes which illustrate how he did (or did not, in the case of #3 – “Make a hole in one”) achieve those goals, or something like them.

What comes out of the exercise is a slightly rambling, but interesting, heart-warming, and often moving book full of reflections on Dodson’s life in and around golf. He flirts with self-indulgence, at times, and is disarmingly frank about what has and has not gone right in his life, including the breakup of his first marriage, but one never senses self-pity or melancholy – only a sense of gratitude at the lessons he has learned from the bad breaks, and a sense of contentment at the friendships and experiences that he has been privileged to have formed through golf.

Some passages of this book may be familiar to readers of his earlier work, especially the chapter entitled Unfinished Business, which is about his trip to Scotland with his father near the end of the older Dodson’s life – the subject of his 1996 book Final Rounds. Rather than seeming repetitive, however, this chapter revisits, with a fresh eye, some of the core material from the earlier book. Some anecdotes about Harry Vardon from the Road Trip chapter appear in Dodson’s American Triumvirate, his book about Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan; and his story about meeting Glenna Collett Vare was familiar, though I couldn’t put my finger on where I had read it.

The sections in which Dodson tells of his friendship with Arnold Palmer – especially the story of how he came to write Arnie’s biography, A Golfer’s Life – are some of the high points of the book, and the passages which are most likely to bring a slight mistiness to the eyes of anyone who still feels the loss of Arnold Palmer as a small emptiness in their heart. I never met Mr. Palmer, or even saw him in person, but I have formed a deep appreciation for what he meant to the game of golf, and to the legion of fans whose lives he touched – and Dodson taps into those feelings with a light and reverent touch, helping us feel again the charm and humanness of “The King”.

Though not without some flaws – tiny ones, that maybe only those who read with an editor’s eye would recognize – The Range Bucket List stands up quite well alongside Dodson’s earlier works, and mind you, two of his books, Ben Hogan, An American Life, and American Triumvirate, won the Herbert Warren Wind Book Award from the United States Golf Association, the highest honor afforded a book on the subject of golf.

The Range Bucket List is a heartfelt love song to a life well-lived through golf, and I think that any golfer whose feel for the game extends beyond “how-to-play” books and the quest for 10 more yards off the tee will enjoy accompanying Mr Dodson on this adventure.

Monday, May 8, 2017

SwingOIL – high-tech liquid refreshment to help your golf game

I think I first heard the term “swing oil” back when I first took up golf, playing with a more experienced golfer-friend who was referring to a mid-round brewski. He claimed that it not only quenched his thirst, but it relaxed him and allowed him to swing freer, and play better. I never noticed any improvement in his back nine after a cold quaff of the brew that made Milwaukee famous, or whatever, but he swore by it.

These days, when the golf magazines and most health and fitness gurus are emphasizing healthy eating (no more hotdogs at the turn…) and drinking on the course, there are much better options available in the drinks category. One of them is swingOIL.

SwingOIL is a sports drink that is formulated especially with golfers in mind. It comes in three flavors – Orange, Lemon-Lime, and Strawberry-Banana.

The sports drink trend started back in the mid-1960s with Gatorade, a simple hydration and carbohydrate and electrolyte replacement drink. The drinks that are available nowadays have evolved from that early beginning, and incorporate ingredients that are advertised to help your golf game in a number of ways. SwingOIL includes a generous list of these New Age ingredients: glucosamine, chondroitin, and turmeric for your joints, ginseng to help your focus, rhodiola rosea extract to help you manage stress, taurine to keep you energized during your round, and citrulline maleate to help you recover afterwards.

Absolutely confirming the claims of the manufacturer would require a large group of test subjects, blind testing with placebos, and a legion of lab-coated boffins to run the tests and gather data. Lacking those resources, what I did was take a few packets of swingOIL (in the yummy orange flavor) along with me on a three-day golf outing to give it a try. The orange-flavored variety of the drink has a nice citrus flavor that I really enjoy, sweeter than actual orange juice, but not sickly sweet like an orange soda.

As much as I look forward to the opportunity to take time off from my desk job to go to a resort and play golf three days in a row, I know that doing so will take its toll on me – precisely because I spend much more time sitting at a desk at the aforementioned desk job than I do playing golf. My informal experiment may not carry much weight in the world of science, but I came away from the experience with a good impression of swingOIL and its benefits.

I held off using swingOIL until the third day. I was playing a pretty tough private course during this outing, and though carts were in use all three days, the difficulty of the course and the amount of time it had been since I last played meant that I was in for some aches and pains after the end of the visit. I downed a packet of the juice just before I went to the course, and I took another along for a mid-round quaff.

I wasn’t consciously evaluating how well I played during the round with swingOil, compared to the first two days, but on later reflection I had to conclude that I felt better than I might have expected to, given that three straight days of golf is not usual for me. I knocked a few shots off my score on the third day (including playing four pretty tough par-3s in even par) – a result which might be attributed to an increasing familiarity with the course, but I can honestly say that I felt more focused on my game, which is one of the claims the makers of swingOIL advertise.

I also noticed that I didn’t feel sore, or not very much, the next day, after my three-day outing, and I can’t help but think that the swingOIL made a contribution to that result. Over the next couple of weeks I used swingOIL a few more times, on trips to the range, and always felt that it had helped keep my swing smooth, and my next-day aches and pains at bay.

As the ads always say, “Your Results May Vary”, and I don’t expect anyone to take my word for gospel on what swingOIL will do for you – but I will say that it sure can’t hurt to try it. The drink goes down smoothly, especially chilled, at the end of a hot day on the course, and it is chock-full of good stuff – and no bad stuff – that has got to be better for you and your golf game than a cold brewski at the turn.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

“Tommy’s Honour” – indie film brings golf legends to life ★★★★☆

Great sports films tend to be less about the sport being portrayed than about the lives of the people involved as shaped by the sport they play—about the pursuit of excellence and the inevitable sacrifices that are made in the name of that pursuit. With its emphasis on the lives of an iconic father-son duo from the early days of golf, the new film Tommy’s Honour, released April 14th, may not achieve the status of great sports film, but is certainly to be considered among the best golf films to ever hit the big screen.

Jack Lowden, as Young Tom Morris, and Peter Mullan as his father, Old Tom (background) bring the story of two of the game’s early greats to vivid life in the new film Tommy’s Honour.

Making a successful sports film, let alone one about golf, is hard. If the story is too much about the sport itself, the filmmakers run the risk of viewers staying away unless they are fans; and if too little attention is paid to the game or sport in the film, fans will nitpick technical issues.

When the film is about golf, those problems multiply. Golf is a niche sport, considered by non-golfers to be arcane, snobbish, and too difficult to play. Most viewers can identify better with movies about football, or baseball, or even basketball.

A film about golf has to have a strong hook to bring non-golfers into the theater, while at the same time staying true to the game in order to please golf fans. When the film is a period piece, and you add to the mix the complications of an historic setting, heavy Scots accents, tweedy vintage costuming, and 19th-century class conflict, the burden is multiplied. Luckily for all golf/movie fans, the folks that brought us Tommy’s Honour were up to the task.

Golfers with a sense of history and some knowledge of the early days of the game will already be familiar with the story of Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom (as he was known.) Old Tom was a club maker, caddie, course designer, and the greenskeeper at St Andrews Golf Links for over two decades. He founded the Open Championship in 1860, and won it four times – in 1861, 1862, 1864, and 1867.

Young Tom was the oldest of four children in the Morris family and a champion golfer in his own right who surpassed even his father in a tragically short career. Born in 1851, Young Tom won the first of four Open Championship titles in 1868, at the age of 17. He is still the youngest man to have ever won the Open Championship, and the only man to have won it three times in a row, from 1868 to 1870, with a fourth victory in 1872. The 1872 win was his last, as he died at age 24—some say of a broken heart after the death in childbirth of his beloved wife, Meg, and their infant child.

But Tommy’s Honour isn’t just about golf. The heart of the story is about family, with all the complications that arise out of family relationships, and class struggle. Scottish society was very stratified at the time, and men like the Morrises, though skilled craftsmen and sportsmen, were looked down upon by the “gentlemen” who were members of the golf clubs where they worked. They were just menial workers who were expected to know, and keep to, their “proper place”–which was low on the social ladder (with no prospect of climbing higher.)

Champion golfers like the Morrises played matches against other club champions, matches that were arranged by the toffs who belonged to the golf clubs. The gents bet heavily on the outcomes of these matches while the players earned a relative pittance for their efforts. A comparison to horse racing comes to mind, with the club members in the role of the owners and bettors, and the players in the role of the horses—with nearly as little control over their fates.

Old Tom accepted his station, while Young Tom, as portrayed in the film, was champing at the bit to rise higher and do better than his father—a desire which was a point of conflict between the two. Young Tom pressed for a larger share of the winnings and more control over the matches, earning his father’s ire, and disdain (followed eventually by a grudging respect) from the upper-class golf club members.

The story in Tommy’s Honour is about love, and respect, and pride, and conflict, all set against the backdrop of the time and place when the game of golf was starting to grow beyond its Scottish roots, when the early champions were starting to chip away, bit by bit, at the hierarchical structure of the game.

There was a long road ahead of them yet, but this was the period when the men who played the game better than their masters started to earn the respect that was their due, and Young Tom Morris was a seminal figure in that first groundswell of change.

From a purely film-making point of view, Tommy’s Honour is a handsome film, beautifully shot in the Scottish countryside and in “the auld grey toon”, as St Andrews is affectionately known. The costuming, cinematography and other production qualities are equal to the best that film or television can offer (comparisons to Downton Abbey have been made), and the acting, especially the portrayals of Old Tom by veteran Scottish actor Peter Mullan, and relative newcomer Jack Lowden as Young Tom, are vivid and heartfelt. Ophelia Lovibond, who played Young Tom’s wife, Meg, is known to American television audiences from appearances in the TV show Elementary.

As far as the authenticity of the golf scenes go, with no moving pictures of golf from that period in existence there is no basis of comparison for the truthfulness of the actors’ portrayal of the players’ swings. The hickory-shafted clubs and primitive balls (not to mention ties and heavy tweed jackets the players wore) dictated a swing that differed greatly from what we are used to seeing today. More qualified viewers than myself have cast a critical eye on the golf scenes, but I found them to be quite satisfactory—with one rather glaring exception.

There is a scene early in the film in which Young Tom is showing his friends Davie Strath and James Hunter a new shot that he has invented. Using a rut iron—sort of a 19th century sand wedge, but without the angled sole that produces bounce—Young Tom pops a hard-spinning chip shot onto the putting surface, past the flag, whereupon the ball spins back just like a modern golf ball, coming to a stop below the hole.

Other reviewers have pooh-poohed this scene based on the fact that the combination of 19th century club and ball could not possibly have produced that kind of spin. I tend to agree, but I also feel that another, and maybe more important, limiting factor comes into play—the surface of the putting green.

Most modern courses have fairways that are smoother than the putting greens were in those days. Given the furry texture of the greens at the time, even with appreciable amounts of backspin the feathery or guttie balls of the time would not have found the purchase necessary to gain traction and back up as Young Tom’s trick shot was shown to do. It was a somewhat jarring anachronism, but as it came early in the film it didn’t have a significant impact.

Tommy’s Honour is destined to be considered one of the best golf films ever made. As of this writing it has already ended its short run in the local indie film/art house theater in San Jose where I saw it, but still had a couple of days left to run in another art house in Monterey. Though it is doubtful that it will see much screen time in theaters, movie fans with an interest in period pieces, British cinema, and/or golf should look for it before long on streaming services and hopefully on DVD.