Saturday, December 31, 2011

Who Will You Root For?

The latest Golf Channel spot hyping the upcoming 2012 PGA golf season uses the tagline: “Who will you root for?” accompanied by several quick little vignettes showing the lighter side of a number of the more engaging pro golfers you see playing PGA events. Seeing these spots over the last week or so has raised to the surface of my mind a question which has lain latent for some time – “Do I root for one player over another, or do I root for good golf?”

Cheering on “your” team is a time-honored tradition in sport, and it makes sense when there is some sort of connection—for instance, cheering on your high school or college football/baseball/basketball team, or even a local professional sports franchise. In the case of the sports teams from your high school or college, the athletes on the team may be your friends and classmates.


The connection becomes much more tenuous once the leap is made to professional sports; professional athletes in the Big 3 team sports (baseball, football, basketball) are guns-for-hire, and since the advent of free agency they are highly mobile, and generally have no ties to the community the team represents and no loyalty to to their franchise beyond the terms of their contract. Still, a fan can root for the local team, identifying with, and attaching their loyalty to, the franchise, no matter who is wearing the uniform.

Golf, however, is different. No teams, no franchises—the players are all “free agents” (actually, more like individual contractors…). So, when you watch golf on TV, or at a tournament, do you root for a specific player because he is from your home state, went to your college, or just seems like he is a nice guy? Or… do you just root for good golf?

I have examined this question in some depth recently, because for the last year I have been following professional golf more closely than I have in the past: writing about it, thinking about it, and reading more closely what the professional media people write about it. In the midst of the more focused attention I have been paying to the larger picture when it comes to professional golf, it has occurred to me that rooting for a particular player to win a tournament is, in effect, rooting for a millionaire to make another million bucks… and how much sense does that make?

It’s difficult to watch a golf tournament and not nurture at least a small, deeply-hidden kernel of desire for a particular player to come out on top if they are in contention, but whenever the “cheer ’em on” impulse sneaks up on me while watching a golf tournament, I do my best to suppress it and summon up a dispassionate demeanor.


Sportswriter Dan Jenkins addressed the issue, in his usual light-hearted way, in his 2008 novel, The Franchise Babe. His protagonist, sportswriter Jack Brannon, becomes friendly with a rising young LPGA star named Ginger Clayton while following her over the course of a few weeks for a magazine story and, in the usual lucky manner of his main characters, becomes more than just friendly with the young golfer’s attractive, divorced mother, Thurlene. In the final round of a fictionalized major tournament, Jack is overheard by another sportswriter, Cy Ronack (a thinly-veiled nod to Jenkins’ friend, real-life golf writer Ron Sirak), cheering on the young golfer while she makes a run for the win:
‘Ginger’s iron shot to the sixteenth grabbed a chair. The shot gave her an inviting eight-foot birdie putt. It prompted a loud “Oh, yeah!” out of Thurlene, and an audible “All right!” out of me. Which drew a glance from Cy Ronack, who said, “I’ve always heard that journalists are impartial.”

I said, “We are—I’m rooting for my story.” ’

I used to root for one player over another when I watched golf, based on the factors I mentioned above. I would generally root for Phil Mickelson in preference to other players because Phil seems like a nice guy, because he has had a number of personal obstacles to overcome lately, etc.; or if Phil was not in contention, I might root for another player because he’s from California (Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, Anthony Kim, Rickie Fowler, to name a few) or because he seemed like a nice guy (Matt Kuchar, Jonathan Byrd, Paul Goydos, Steve Stricker). If no player for whom I felt any sort of connection happened to be in contention in a tournament, I just sat back and waited to see who came out on top.
 

Of course it is unsportsmanlike to actively root against a particular golfer, and I never do. There are some players for whom I have no particular affinity, or whose on-course behavior I find lacking (sorry to say, but Tiger Woods falls into this category), but if one of these players is in contention I try to maintain a neutral attitude.

Lately, though I do not have the professional journalist’s obligation to remain impartial, I can’t bring myself to root for any particular golfer to win a tournament, because in most cases I would be—as I mentioned above—rooting for a millionaire to make another million dollars.


You might say that rooting for your favorite pro team from one of the Big 3 sports is doing the same thing, but in those cases the athletes aren’t directly earning a big paycheck for winning a particular game. Sure, the top athletes in those sports make stupid money, but it’s as part of a contract, not for each game. This is another aspect of professional golf which differs from the Big 3 team sports—individual performance leads to individual gain. (In fact, if a golfer doesn’t play well enough and misses the cut—no paycheck. Pro golfers are the ultimate private contractors of professional sports.) This difference between the Big 3 team sports and golf reinforces the “no root” rule—cheer on an individual player, and you are not cheering for a team to make it to the playoffs, or win the big championship—you are cheering for one guy to get richer.

Of course not all pro golfers are millionaires, but you have to get pretty far down the 2011 money list (#90, as a matter of fact…) to find a guy who didn’t make at least $1 million in official on-course earnings this season. Fifty-four of those ninety guys made over a million dollars in the 2011 season without even winning a tournament. Scroll down the list to #143 and you find the first guy whose on-course income drops below half a million dollars; scroll even further down the list, to #183, and you find the first guy whose on-course earnings were below a quarter of a million dollars.

The upshot of all this is that I don’t—I can’t—root for any of these guys, but I do root for great golf. I watch professional golf, on TV and in person, because I love to see the skill these guys (and gals—the LPGA ladies rock…) display at a difficult, capricious, maddening game that commands so much of my attention and interest. I watched professional golf on TV, off and on, before I started playing, but I appreciate it much more now than I used to—and that’s because I now have a greater appreciation for how damned hard it is to do what they do.

When I’m watching a tournament, I’m rooting for the golfer who is standing over a 30-foot downhill left-to-right-breaking putt, on a green that rolls like a linoleum floor, to sink that putt—because it’s hard to do.


I am rooting for the golfer who has a second shot on a long par-4 to a triple-contoured green with bunkers left and long and water right to hit the shot and hold the green – because it’s hard to do.

I’m rooting for the golfer faced with a tee shot to a U.S. Open fairway that’s been narrowed and tweaked toward a cliff that drops to the Pacific Ocean, to hit that fairway, stay out of the rough, and have a chance at a good shot across the cliffs to the narrow, bunker-guarded green on the other side (you may recognize that I am talking about the 8th at Pebble Beach here…) – because it’s hard to do.

So, I don’t root for golfers – I root for good golf; and usually, week in, week out, whether it’s the PGA, the European Tour, the LPGA, the Champions Tour, or the Nationwide Tour, I get to see not only good golf, but great golf.


I try not to think about the private jets, posh mansions, Merry-Christmas-to-me sports cars (Paula Creamer that was—she posted a photo of her pretty white “Christmas-present-to-me” Porsche to her Twitter account a day or two ago; I’m surprised she didn’t get it in pink…) and all the other trappings of the quite ridiculous professional athlete lifestyle that accompany life in the upper echelons of the sport. I put all that other stuff aside, and I root for golf.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pacific Grove Golf Links – "The Poor Man’s Pebble Beach"

California’s Monterey Peninsula is home to some of the finest, most widely renowned – and expensive – golf courses in the world. Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, and Spyglass Hill (to name just three) make this area one of the most coveted golf destinations in the world, but enjoying the magnificent scenery and the challenging golf experiences on these courses will set you back a pretty penny. If $495 (Pebble) or $360 (Spyglass Hill) per round is not your idea of a golf bargain (forget Cypress, it’s a private – and very exclusive – club), you might want to consider the muni course just a short jaunt up the Peninsula (on the famed 17-Mile Drive) from these paragons – Pacific Grove Golf Links. With rates from $40 for weekday play (low season – 11/01 to 04/30) and even lower with the available annual discount card, and generous discounts for 9-hole and twilight play, Pacific Grove Golf Links provides first-rate Monterey Peninsula golf at an affordable price.

A little bit of history

Designed by noted amateur golf competitor & course architect H. Chandler Egan, Pacific Grove Golf Links opened in May 1932 as a 9-hole parkland course. The land on which the course was built was sold to the city of Pacific Grove by Del Monte Properties Company owner S.F.B. Morse (a nephew of the Samuel Morse of telegraph fame) for a $10 gold piece and a promise that the city would maintain and irrigate the property as a golf course for a minimum of 5 years. The city kept that bargain, and then some, but nearly 30 years would pass before the course expanded to 18 holes.

In 1960, noted golf course architect Jack Neville – co-creator, with Douglas Grant, of the Pebble Beach Golf Links – approached the Pacific Grove Rotary Club with a proposal to add a seaward nine to the existing course. The additional holes were laid out on a parcel of dune-covered, true “linksland” at the extreme tip of the Monterey Peninsula – Point Piños – just across Asilomar Boulevard from the original nine holes. Leased from the U. S. Coast Guard by the city of Pacific Grove at the time, the parcel is home to the historic Point Piños lighthouse. The land and the lighthouse were deeded to the city by the Coast Guard in 2006.

Pacific Grove Golf Links’ claim to fame

Aside from the location amid some of the most beautiful seaside scenery in the world, Pacific Grove Golf Links has the distinction of offering players two distinct golf experiences in one round. The original nine holes open your round in a rolling, tree-lined parkland environment, while the second nine play across open linksland that would look familiar to Old Tom Morris.

The front nine at Pacific Grove: Parkland par excellence

Chandler Egan’s opening nine at Pacific Grove Golf Links is a typical American-style parkland course. Tree-lined and somewhat narrow, the opening holes trend slightly uphill, but the thing you’ll notice about PG’s front nine is the unusual 3-3-4-4-5-5 opening sequence. The course was not originally laid out that way – the format of the nine holes from 1932 to 1960 featured opening and closing par-5’s (the current Holes 5 & 6, respectively) in an out-and-back figure-eight layout. With the addition of the seaward nine in 1960, the location of the club house was changed to its current Asilomar Boulevard location in order to lie between the two halves of the course. By the way, the street you cross going from the 4th green to the 5th tee, and the 6th green to the 7th tee, is the north end of the famed 17-Mile Drive.

The opening par-3 is a nice warmup: 146 from the white tees, slightly uphill, with a bunker back left and a mound to the right. You will want an accurate shot to the left side of the green and below the flag for a good chance at birdie or par on the back-to-front sloping green. The 2nd hole is a more severe test – it is longer (nearly 200 from the blues), more severely uphill, and with a bunker short left and mounding short right accuracy is again the key.

The first of the consecutive par-4s is a mid-length (305 from the white tees) dogleg left which wants a 190- to 200-yard tee shot to the right side of the fairway, avoiding the tree that intrudes from the left about 95 yards from the center of the green. The slightly oval green slopes away on the diagonal, with bunkers left front and long. The second par-4 is an easier-appearing hole – straighter and shorter than the preceding hole, but out-of-bounds right and trees left call for a good straight tee shot with a long iron or a hybrid, while the shallow green – just 18 paces front to back – can be a challenge to hold with your approach. Bunkers right front and back center await an errant second shot.

Stepping up in distance again for the 3rd pair of holes in the opening sequence, you find yourself crossing the figure-eight (and the tail end of the famed 17-Mile Drive) to the tee box of the 5th hole, a 510-yard slight dogleg left that was the closing hole of the original nine-hole layout. Shave the inside of the curve with your drive for a good position for your second shot. A strong second shot, well-played, could well see you on the front fringe, or even rolling onto the green if conditions are dry and firm, but be wary of the seemingly-unprotected green – deeper than wide and angling slightly right, it has no bunkers, defending the hole with subtle contours that will challenge your green-reading skills.

The last of the unique opening stanza of the front nine is Long Tom: 527 yards long, uphill, into the prevailing breeze – and this used to be the opening hole. Golfers were made of stern stuff back in 1932, I suppose; imagine playing this hole with persimmon and balata… Keep your drive to the left to open up the angle for your second shot, and leave yourself a good wedge distance for your third – bunkers left and right guard the front quadrants, but only slight mounds at the back will keep a thinned approach shot from skittling over the green and across the 17-Mile Drive.

After crossing the figure-of-eight – and 17-Mile Drive – again, the final third of the front nine begins with the 304-yard 7th hole. It has a straight-forward look from the tee box, but the slight rise to the fairway – which crests about 150 yards out – conceals a bend to the left which is created more by the placement of two bunkers pinching in from right and left than by the actual running shape of the fairway. The narrow front opening of the green is skewed to the left by the bunkers, so a tee shot favoring the left side of the fairway as it disappears from your view over the crest will leave you with a better shot at the green.

The 8th hole, the final par-4 on the front nine, describes a sweeping left-to-right arc that will challenge you to move the ball in that direction in order to place yourself in a good position for your approach. Knock a 240-odd yard fade out there, with the help of a little roll out on the end, and you will have about 165 yards to the diagonally-set, slightly kidney-shaped green. The bunker at the left front is almost purely cosmetic, but the shallow green – no more than 19 paces front to back, can be a challenge to hold; if conditions allow, play a little short of the green and plan on rolling on.

The closing act of the parkland half of the Pacific Grove Golf Links is a long but innocuous-looking par-3. Nearly dead straight, with no bunkers, the 213-yard hole is slightly downhill, but plays into the prevailing breeze. At first glance the 9th hole appears to have only its length and a slightly narrow entrance to the green working in its defense, but on closer examination a slight right-to-left bias is discernible. Like a few of the other greens on the front nine, the green at 9 is set on a diagonal to the fairway, but the opposite set of the green adds drama. A back-right flag begs for a left-to-right ball flight, but with the trees between the 9th and 1st fairways intruding on your favored line (visually, at least) from the left, that can be an intimidating prospect. A left front flag sets up for a gentle draw, following the bias of the fairway, but at 22 paces front to back, that end of the green presents a small target.

Pacific Grove Golf Link’s front nine presents the experienced golfer with a number of challenging tactical problems without punishing the high-handicap player – a basic tenet of golf course design espoused by distinguished architect Dr Alister Mackenzie, of Cypress Point and Augusta National fame. Handsome grounds set about with cypress trees are a visual treat, and holes 4, 5, and 6 offer pleasant vistas north and north-east across Monterey Bay. The opening nine sets the back nine an unenviable task; following this set of holes and maintaining the high standard that has been established is a tall order, but it will be seen that the seaward side is well up to the job.

Pacific Grove’s back nine: A taste of classic links-style golf

The back nine at Pacific Grove Golf Links lies across Asilomar Boulevard from the clubhouse and the opening and closing holes of the front nine, but with all its differences, it could be a world away. Set on a parcel of linksland surrounding the Point Piños lighthouse, the second half of the course constitutes such a profoundly different style of course architecture that the two nines could be different courses entirely.


The back nine at Pacific Grove Golf Links is golf in a beautiful coastal setting.
Copyright © 2002-2011 Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project, www.Californiacoastline.org


The opening hole of the seaward nine is a short par-3 (109 yards from the blues) that tees off a few yards away from the Point Piños lighthouse. Number 10 eases you into the transition between the parkland front nine and the links golf character of the back nine – the line of cypress trees lining the fairway on the right (seaward side) gives the illusion of shelter from the sea breezes that swirl around Point Piños, but a high-lofted approach shot will be subject to the whims of the winds. The deceptively simple-appearing green has some subtle and confounding breaks – you can be proud of your par when you walk away from #10!

From the 11th hole onward the golfer at Pacific Grove will be getting a taste of the Scottish origins of the game, played on close-cropped turf over rolling linksland – the type of near-waste area between the dunes and the more sheltered inland pastures traditionally used for grazing sheep in Scotland. The next six holes – 11 through 16 – feature open, undulating fairways bordered by low dunes and sandy waste areas. These fairways may look inviting, but they require proper placement to set up a profitable approach to the green. The wind, as always on ocean-side courses, will be a factor; in true links fashion, most of these holes allow a low, running approach to the green in case the wind is too strong or gusty.

The 11th hole features an inviting tee shot to the wide, open fairway, but accurate iron play is required for a good approach to the oval green, set back into dunes with a deep bunker on the left. A brisk wind will increase the difficulty of this simple-appearing hole – welcome to links golf!

A short walk through the dunes from 11 green brings you to the 12th tee, where the view down the opening stretch of this 500-odd yard sharp dogleg-right par-5 is a stunning vista over an undulating fairway to Monterey Bay. Dramatically shaped to follow the contour of the coastline, 12 offers low dunes to the right of the fairway, with out-of-bounds (Sunset Drive) on the left. At about 245 yards to the corner from the white tees, a good position for your tee shot is to the outside of the corner, with anything from a long iron to a 3-wood for your second – cutting the corner is an exercise best left to the highly-skilled player. The fairway turns a bit to the right in chip-shot range of the round green, so a left-favoring position will give you the best angle for your 3rd – and unless a rare south wind and two good shots conspire to get you up in two, there will be a third shot to the green.

The 13th hole doubles back on the direction of the 12th, and the view from the elevated tee of this 300+ yard par-4 is inviting. The fairway narrows somewhat at the bend of the slight dogleg left, and if the usual crosswind off the ocean is up, proceed with caution – a hybrid or 3-wood tee shot, leaving a 9-iron or wedge to the green is the order of the day. In calm conditions, and if your driver is behaving, take it deep for a chip to the green, but remain mindful of the sandy waste area to the left between the 12th and 13th fairways.

Seaview, the 14th hole, also plays from an elevated tee, and offers another sweeping view to the north across Monterey Bay. Sandy waste borders the fairway right and left, but it opens up to a generous width in the 220- to 250-yard range (from the whites), narrowing again from there to the green. Caution is called for on your second shot, as it will be somewhat blind, and lateral hazard borders the final approach and much of the green. The green is not tiered, but attention to the two distinct areas defined by the right to left slope is required.

Doubling back to the south once again, the 15th hole offers a view of the famous Point Piños lighthouse and the wide-open fairway of the second longest par-4 on the course. Downhill, but playing slightly into a prevailing crosswind, a well-played tee shot will leave you with a mid-iron second and the choice of an aerial or running approach, depending upon the wind. Mind the low mound guarding the left side of the smallish, round green.

The 16th, or Lighthouse, hole once again maximizes the drama and beauty of the setting, with an opening shot from an elevated tee affording views across Point Piños to the crashing surf a mere 100 yards or so beyond the green. The wide-open-appearing fairway is deceptive, as it narrows and falls away to the left at just the distance where the mid-to-low handicapper will want to place their drive. Out of bounds guards the right side (a wicked slice from the tee box will constitute a donation to the ball collection at the small driving range which lies between 16 and 18 fairways – don’t ask me how I know this…). Skirting the left side of the fairway offers the best angle into the kidney-shaped green. Bunkers pinch the green from the right and left, and given the drop off behind the green, a classic links-golf-style run up is a good bet to get on with a chance at par.

The final two holes return to a more parkland-like look, though 17, the final par 3 on the course, lies right alongside Coast View Drive, a few yards from crashing surf. The straight-forward 138-yard hole features a water carry of 60 yards or so, but the generous apron below the green leaves plenty of bailout room short. A bunker left and a noticeable back-to-front slope to the green are the hole’s best defenses; leave your tee shot below the hole and you will have a good chance at par or better.

Drawing down the curtain on your round at Pacific Grove Golf Links, the 294-yard par-4 18th hole – Last Chance – offers OB right (the driving range again…), a fairway bunker left, and an elevated green with a false front that absolutely must be carried with a nice high approach. A 3-wood from the tee followed by a crisply-struck short iron is a good combination for success at 18. Avoid the bunker right of the green, leave yourself a make-able birdie putt with your second shot, and you may end your round on a high note.

The best of both worlds in Monterey Peninsula golf – Pebble Beach variety at workingman’s rates

With its unique pairing of parkland front nine and links-style back nine, each side consisting of an enjoyable and challenging series of holes, Pacific Grove Golf Links is an affordable taste of Monterey Peninsula-style golf that will tempt you back to Point Piños again and again. A small, but perfectly adequate, driving range back-dropped by the historic Point Piños Lighthouse, and a generous and representative practice putting green allow the golfer to prepare for the round to come. The generally excellent Central California weather means that year-round play is the norm at Pacific Grove; coastal fogs and the odd winter-time rain storm constitute the only serious obstacles to play.

In addition to the excellence of the golf, the links side of the course is a tribute to the high environmental standards which are being applied more and more to golf courses around the country. The Point Piños terrain through which the holes of the back nine wends is a dunes restoration area. Ongoing since 2005, the Biological Habitat and Dunes Restoration Plan at Pacific Grove Golf Links is restoring native plants to the area, eliminating the ubiquitous iceplant, a native of South Africa, which has become so common in California’s coastal areas.

Whether you live in the area and, inexplicably, have never played a round of golf at Pacific Grove Golf Links, or are visiting the Monterey Peninsula, you owe it to yourself to experience its unique combination of tree-lined parkland terrain and seaside links golf.