Sunday, October 13, 2013

Golf Channel needs a new approach in coverage of First Tee Open

Champions Tour golf is a hard sell at the best of times. Save for the presence of some of the more recognizable big names of the past—or recent past—from the PGA Tour, TV coverage of the 50+ tour is drawing only hardcore golf fans – and even then, probably only the 50+ fans, golfers who are of an age with the players, and remember their glory days.
When it comes to the Champion Tour’s Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach, the venue itself is a draw for viewers, especially with the schedule change to a late-September time slot. While mid-summer often sees the Monterey Peninsula blanketed in fog, early autumn is a time of sparkling blue skies and mild to surprisingly warm temperatures. Beauty shots of glassy waves breaking on Carmel Beach and sea otters frolicking in the kelp, interspersed between shots of towering drives down Pebble’s verdant fairways, lend a Nature Channel look to the coverage, reminiscent of the coverage of the AT&T in good-weather years.
Why then, does Golf Channel burden its coverage of the Nature Valley First Tee Open with an endless succession of interview spots consisting of on-course commentator Billy Ray Brown asking successive pairs of junior and pro players the same questions: (To the junior player) “What does the First Tee mean to you?” or “What is your favorite Core Value?” and (to the pro) “What impresses you most about this young person?”, or Dave Marr Jr. soliciting heart-felt personal life stories from the juniors.
Another cliché button that is being leaned on by the commentators, both in the trailer and out on the course, is “When I was 15, I sure wasn’t playing golf at Pebble Beach on national TV!” or words to that effect. Granted, many of these kids are very accomplished—there was more than one 4.0+ GPA among this year’s group of players, and many of them are talented in other fields beyond golf—and they don’t need to be artificially elevated by the Golf Channel announcers by the use of this device.
Golf fans tune in to the broadcast coverage of a golf tournament to see golf being played. In much the same way that dedicated runners will watch an elite marathon race on TV, because their own experiences give them an appreciation for what the world-class athletes are achieving, golfers watch the pros—even the 50+ pros—to see the best in the world playing the game at a high level. While the interview spots are a nice interval-filler, in measured doses, and appropriate given the unique nature of this event, they are over-played and interfere with the action that viewers tune in to see – golf shots.
Don’t get me wrong, the First Tee is a great program, and the format—teams of talented junior players partnered with experienced senior golfers—is a great hook for this tournament, but I think that Golf Channel is over-egging the pudding, and turning off their core viewers, by continually cutting to the interview spots instead of concentrating on the great golf being played by both the pros and the juniors. I imagine that legions of viewers (if the viewership numbers even rate the use of the term “legion”) are clicking off after about the third interview, which is a shame, because the tournament deserves viewers.
My suggestions: 1) Trim the interviews by half, 2) Vet the kids who are to be interviewed, beforehand. Most of these kids are articulate and well-spoken, but not all of them are, so find out which kids can carry an on-camera interview and which ones can’t – and, finally – find Dave Marr Jr something else to do. His over-earnest on-camera style is grating at the best of times, but he lapses into a sycophantic stupor at this event that is painful to watch. He’s not the on-camera personality his late father was, and he never will be.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Dramatic finish at 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship

With the 18th hole and the clubhouse of the Martis Camp Club in Truckee, CA, in the background,Scottie Scheffler, of Dallas, Texas, hoists the U.S. Junior Amateur Trophy after staging a dramatic comeback in the championship match to claim victory

Recreational golf is a leisurely activity – a little too leisurely, the way some people play it – but competitive golf has an inherent intensity which the calm exterior aspect of the game belies, and nowhere is that more aptly demonstrated than in the USGA’s national championship tournaments. Two national championships were contested this past week, July 22 to 27 – the U.S. Junior Amateur at Martis Camp Club, in Truckee, and the U.S. Girls Junior, at Sycamore Hills Golf Club, in Fort Wayne, Indiana – and the action in the championship match in the Junior Amateur provided an apt demonstration of the level of intensity that accompanies a national championship.

The players in the final match at a USGA national championship tournament will have played nine 18-hole rounds of competitive golf in six days by the time all is said and done, and seven of those rounds are intense, one-on-one match play. It is a measure of the caliber of the competition that the 36-hole championship matches play out so close, often coming down to the last few holes before a winner is decided.

Two accomplished junior golfers played their way through the selection process to face off in the championship match at the Junior Amateur: Scottie Scheffler, of Dallas, Texas, 3rd seed after stroke play, and Davis Riley, of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who was T-4 at the conclusion of stroke play.

After playing 36 holes of stroke play and five rounds of match play, the two finalists were faced with 36 holes of match play, in a single day, to determine the 2013 national champion.
The young Mississippian, Riley, took the lead on the first hole with a par to Scheffler’s double-bogey, and appeared set to hold onto it until the finish. By the time the match got to the seventh hole Riley had built his lead to three holes with steady pars. Scheffler turned the tide briefly at Holes 7 and 8, making his own pars while Riley slipped back to 1-up with a pair of bogeys.

Riley led Scheffler for the remainder of the first round, moving back and forth between 1-up and 2-up a time or two, but never relinquishing the lead.

Starting the second eighteen after the lunch break, the two players came out of the blocks pretty evenly matched, each posting pars for the first four holes. Scheffler, 17, who is playing in his last Junior Amateur before he ages out of eligibilty, squared the match with a chip-in birdie on the fifth hole, a 486-yard par-4, but went 1-down again at the sixth, another par-4, with a bogey. Riley, who has verbally committed to Alabama for his college golf, held onto the lead for a further seven holes, then a small error on his part – which may have resulted from a subtle, but shrewd, tactical move by Scheffler, turned the momentum of the match in his opponent’s favor.

Both players carried their approaches at the 31st hole of the match hole high and just slightly off the back of the green, but in good position to get to the back-right hole location. Scheffler, who was away, chipped to tap-in range and was given the putt. Riley, who was closer to the flag but with a marginally less-favorable lie, chipped to a decent position below the flag, but about half-again the distance from the hole that Scheffler’s ball had been. The ball was marginally within concession range, but Scheffler made no move to concede the putt, and Riley, possibly taken aback slightly by this, pushed the putt, lipping out for a bogey-5, giving up the lead for only the second time in the match.

“Yeah it was [a momentum swing],” Riley said about the missed par putt on the 13th hole. “I felt like I still could have won [the match]. I was playing really well, my ball-striking was really good.”

At the 32nd hole, the 159-yard par-three 14th, Scheffler’s tee shot landed just right of and below the flag, bouncing forward and rolling to the collar of the green, pin high. It was a bold shot, attacking a flag which was was tucked well back and right, and a risk that could have backfired on him.

Teeing off next, Riley fired a shot which was also on the flag like a laser, but stopped several feet short, the victim of geometry. It hit the slight upslope below the hole, which killed its forward momentum and prevented it from releasing toward the hole.

Watching from the tee box as his ball tracked to the hole location like a heat-seeking missile, Riley twirled his club as he let it slide thorough his grasp, looking like a man who was watching a perfect shot perform just as he had expected it to. When the ball came up short, he was visibly upset, and slammed his clubhead into the turf as he walked to the hole.

Scheffler’s ball was in a good lie, despite its position up against the collar of rough around the green. The grass behind the ball was just thin enough to give him a good shot at the back of the ball, and he rolled in the 8-footer for a birdie to take his first, and very timely, lead of the match with little drama.

Both players got onto the green in two at the next hole, the par-five 15th, but Scheffler did it in a manner which gave notice that he was taking command of the match, late in the game but in the nick of time if he were to pull out a win in the championship.

With the hole located on a carport-sized upper tier on the sloping green, Scheffler knocked a low 250-yard shot with a hybrid club that hit short of the green before bouncing and rolling up onto the upper tier some eight feet below the hole. It was a shot of such masterful execution that the Golf Channel commentators – who included two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Kaye Cockerill – could hardly find words to express their admiration. Two-putting for the birdie after Riley three-putted for par from a position much further away and on the lower tier of the green, Scheffler was now two up with three to play.

The match ended on somewhat of a down note on the par-four 16th hole, as a result of Riley calling an infraction on himself as he prepared to putt from just off the green. His ball was in the first cut of rough, just outside of the fringe, and adjacent to a pair of sprinkler heads. Riley stepped up and addressed the ball, then stepped away and called for an official, saying that his ball moved slightly after he addressed it. With the official looking on, he replaced the ball – a matter of moving it a fraction of an inch, and proceeded to two-putt. The one-stroke penalty and resulting bogey on the hole gave the win to Scheffler, 3-and-2.

The victory may seem anticlimactic, given the manner in which the final hole was closed out, but the late rally which put Scheffler in position for the win showed his mental toughness, as he came back from nearly thirty straight holes of trailing his opponent.

“I played pretty well down the stretch,” Scheffler said afterwards. “In the morning round, I gave away a lot of shots and I struggled with the putting a little bit early, then I started to figure it out.”

“You have to be mentally tough. I mean, you have to make putts. You need to perform.”

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Marin County’s Meadow Club hosts 2013 Trans-Mississippi Championship on historic Alister Mackenzie course

The 2013 Trans-Mississippi Championship, a prestigious amateur championship which is now 110 years old, was contested July 9-11 at the Meadow Club in Fairfax, a 1927 Alister Mackenzie-designed golf course in the Marin County uplands north of Mt Tamalpais. The tournament turned into a rematch of sorts for Cory McElyea of Santa Cruz and Bryson DeChambeau of Clovis, the pair that battled it out for the Cal State Amateur title last month on the Dunes Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, but the tables were turned this time around as Bryson DeChambeau came out on top.
McElyea and DeChambeau played in adjacent groupings over the last two rounds of the prestigious amateur championship. McElyea was grouped with two stalwarts from this past season’s strong Cal-Berkeley squad, the just-graduated Max Homa and long-hitting senior-to-be Brandon Hagy; the 36-hole leader DeChambeau was right behind them in a grouping with former University of Arkansas golfer Austin Cook, and UT’s Johnathan Schnitzer.
DeChambeau, a rising sophomore at SMU, was in a strong position at the start of third-round play Thursday morning after putting up back-to-back 65s in the opening rounds. A 5-stroke lead is no guarantee of a win when there are another 36 holes of golf to play, though, and it took solid, mostly error-free play to keep him ahead of his pursuers.
McElyea challenged with a hot start in the morning round, improving his overall score to 10-under by the 14th hole, mostly on the strength of an unfailing putter – he had seven one-putt greens in the first fourteen holes. DeChambeau, in the meantime, had traded birdies and bogeys and improved to -11 by the same point in his round. Though DeChambeau never rekindled the fire he had displayed on the first two days, one stroke back was as close as McElyea would get as his putter cooled off through the final holes.
Recent Cal grad Max Homa, playing one hole ahead of DeChambeau, started slowly in Round 3, and dropped as far as 10 strokes off of the Mustang sophomore’s pace at the start of the first round’s back nine. Homa ran off a string of birdies on the back side of the course and pulled back to within five strokes of DeChambeau, and he continued to gain ground as the players went back out onto the course, after a short lunch break, for the final round.
Three unanswered bogeys in the final nine reversed Homa’s momentum, however, and he finished the tournament six strokes off the lead, tied with McElyea and with Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Charlie Saxon for fourth place. Saxon had a strong final day, putting up a pair of 66’s for the lowest final-day total in the field, but the 10-stroke deficit he had carried into the closing rounds was more than he could overcome.
The two players who tied for second place, Jeremy Sanders, of Chatsworth, CA, and Austin Cook, each had a solid couple of rounds on the final day, but neither came any closer to DeChambeau than three strokes back.
The win over such a strong field is a confidence booster for DeChambeau, who hasn’t won a tournament since high school competition. He joins former SMU Mustang Golf star Kelly Kraft, who won this tournament in 2011 at Kansas City Country Club, on the roster of Trans-Mississippi champions.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s been a long time coming, but this one feels so sweet,” he said after closing out his final round, and the tournament, with a short par putt.
The standard of play displayed by the field of top amateur players in the 2013 Trans-Mississippi Championship was superb. The handsome Meadow Club course, a 1927 Alister Mackenzie design – his first in America – showcases the terrain of the shallow upland valley where it is set. Though shortish – just over 6700 yards – compared to many modern courses, or older tracks that have been lengthened to hold their own against modern equipment, the course maintains its relevance by virtue of Mackenzie’s classic design principles, and provided a worthy test of the shotmaking skills of the highly-skilled amateur players contesting this championship.
With contoured fairways, holes favoring both the draw and the fade, and well-bunkered greens which offer a selection of pin placements ranging from inviting to downright daunting, this is a typical Mackenziean thinking-man’s golf course. The length off the tee that is the hallmark of the modern game can still overpower even Dr Mackenzie’s strategically-placed fairway bunkers, but once within scoring distance the players still had to have their best short game on hand if they were to walk away from the hole with par or better.
McElyea’s cooldown just as he was putting the heat on DeChambeau is a good example. The USF senior-to-be took only 30 putts to get through the first 18 holes on Thursday; his total of 36 putts in the second round was the difference between possibly overtaking DeChambeau for the win and the eventual outcome – settling for T-4. It wasn’t just the putts that were confounding McElyea, though – he was seeing the same flag locations as he had in the morning round – a dropoff in his accuracy on approach, leading to longer, multiple-breaking putts on the complex greens, had much to do with it. McElyea appeared to be opting to play safe as the day wore on, often hitting one or two clubs shorter off the tee than his companions in the group, Max Homa and Brandon Hagy, but that strategy failed him in the end.
As for Homa and Hagy, between Homa’s hot hand late in the morning round, and Hagy’s spectacular length off the tee, the gallery for the group, which was heavy with Cal alumni, (despite being some miles away from the Berkeley campus, Cal plays the Meadow Club as their home course) were enjoying every minute. Hagy wowed onlookers with “bomb-and-gouge” golf which, when he was accurate off the tee, was extremely effective. Case in point – the way he played the 18th hole.
The final hole at the Meadow Club is a 363-yard, dogleg-right par four with a cluster of pines guarding the corner. Homa and McElyea each hit irons off the tee in both rounds on Thursday, opting for a good position in the fairway at the corner of the dogleg from which to hit a wedge to the slightly elevated green. Hagy, on the other hand, stepped up with driver in hand each time, firing a high draw that started right of the trees and curled back toward the green. A daring shot, and doubly so because it goes against both the shape of the hole and the angle of the green. The way Hagy played this hole was a gamble, but one that paid off – he was 2-under on the hole for the tournament, playing it par-birdie-birdie-par over the four rounds.
The long-hitting Cal Bear elicited admiring applause from the gallery on a couple of other holes, too. On the 400-yard par-4 fourth hole, in the final round, he drove his tee shot a good 335 yards from the elevated tee, outdriving his playing companions to the tune of 40+ yards to leave himself a flip wedge to the tucked-right flag. On the ninth hole, a straight-away 464-yard par-4 to another slightly-elevated green, Hagy punched a 365-yard drive to the right-hand side of the fairway no more than 95 yards below the flag, then flipped a high, soft-landing wedge to kick-in birdie distance. The Cal alumni in the gallery were thrilled by the displays of power this young man put on, and even the less-partisan onlookers were mightily impressed.
Not to be entirely outdone by his younger teammate, Max Homa pulled off a shot at the par-4 seventh hole in the final round that club members among the gallery – who have all played that hole hundreds of time – will be talking about for a long time. The seventh hole is hard dogleg left of 436 yards that turns the corner at about 288 yards out from the championship tees. A curious ditch, just a foot or two wide, a foot or so deep, and stepping up six to eight inches from front to back, interrupts the fairway at the inside of the dogleg. There is a generous landing area to the right, at the outside of the turn in the fairway, but the ditch is there waiting to snag a shot that fails in an attempt to cut the inside of the dogleg.

The view to the seventh green standing over Max Homa’s shot
from the curious hazard in the middle of the seventh fairway
Homa’s tee ball ended up in this ditch, and to a recreational player this would have been a sure “unplayable lie” situation. With about 145 yards to the flag, which was tucked hard left behind a formidable Mackenziean bunker, Homa stood over a ball that was in a narrow ditch, eight to 10 inches below his feet – and positively rifled a shot right at the flag.
The evidence of the quality of the shot could be seen in the grass at the bottom of the ditch – a shallow, perfectly-shaped rectangular divot that pointed straight at the flag. Getting out of that lie at all cleanly was a 1,000-to-1 shot, but the result, a perfectly-placed birdie opportunity no more than eight feet past a tucked-left flag behind a yawning bunker, was a million-to-one. If Max Homa takes nothing else away from the 2013 Trans-Mississippi Championship, the memory of that shot will be enough to make this tournament live on in his memory.
The textbook divot – in a ditch – left by Max Homa’s approach shot to the seventh green in the final round. He stiffed this shot to less than eight feet, and made the birdie putt.
The day I spent walking this handsome course, watching a talented field of amateur players play their hearts out for a crystal goblet and bragging rights, was a singular pleasure. The setting is superb – a shallow upland valley called Bon Tempe Meadow that is overlooked, but not overshadowed, by rugged hills. The course lies lightly on the contours of the land, as if embroidered on fine fabric and draped over the landscape. Fine views abound, but for my money the 6th hole, the second-longest of the par-4s on the course, offers the finest vista on the course.
The fairway falls away from the teeing grounds, just slightly, before rising gently to an elevated green back-dropped by a huge outcropping of native rock that is a central visual feature of the course. A small, reedy creek crosses in front of the beginning of the fairway and runs along the right side, separating the sixth from the sixteenth fairway. Trees frame the fairway – willows on the right, in the waterway, and pines on the left – and with the boulder-topped hillock rising behind the green, the sixth hole is like a little valley in its own right, a pastoral setting right out of a William Constable landscape.
The pastoral sweep of the sixth hole at the Alister Mackenzie-designed Meadow Club
in the Marin County uplands north of Mt Tamalpais calms the eye, but the green is deceptively challenging.
The bowl-like setting of the green, with a grassy slope behind the putting surface rising up to meet the natural landscape below the rocky outcrop, is tempting, and deceptive. While the backdrop appears to offer security for a shot that is hit long, the green slopes distinctly back to front, making a chip back to the flag from above the green a difficult proposition. A pair of bunkers sit behind the green, to the left and the right – and only a masterful stroke will keep a recovery shot out of the sand from rolling to the bottom of the putting surface. Another pair of bunkers frame the front of the green, narrowing the entrance and challenging the golfer’s accuracy on the approach.
From the handsome shake-sided clubhouse to the water-fronted 13th green at the farthest reach of the course, the Meadow Golf Club provided an ideal setting for the tournament, and it was most generous of the members and staff of the club to share this beautiful property with the competitors and spectators at the 110th Trans-Mississippi Championship.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book Review – “Walking With Jack: A Father’s Journey To Become His Son’s Caddie” ☺☺☺

Walking With Jack: A Father’s Journey To Become His Son’s Caddie, a diary of author Don J. Snyder’s inner and outer journeys while fulfilling a promise to become a caddie for his son, is a book that had me waffling back & forth in my reactions as I read it. Though it is, in many ways, a grossly self-indulgent book, it is not totally lacking in thought-provoking moments.

Like so many golf-related books (too many, in my opinion...), Walking With Jack leans heavily on the theme of the father-son relationship as seen through the prism of the game of golf. In addition to exploring the various aspects and many nuances of the author’s relationship with his son, the book is also used by Snyder as an opportunity to delve into his somewhat tragic history with his father. A reader would have to be quite callous to not feel some sympathy for Snyder after hearing his family history (which I won’t detail here, in order to avoid spoilers...), but he leans on it rather heavily, and rather too often.

After sending his son, a successful but relatively undistinguished high-school golfer, to a lower-division college in Ohio where the boy plays his way onto the golf team, Snyder goes to Scotland to learn the ropes as a caddy, in anticipation of eventually being on the bag when his son begins a pro golf career. His journeys to Scotland, living an ascetic life while caddying on a variety of great golf courses – including the granddaddy of them all, the Old Course at St Andrews – come across as self-indulgent and self-absorbed.

In this book Snyder reveals himself to be an idealistic and impractical person at heart – someone who apparently has no problem hying off to the far corners of the world to pursue his idealistic visions while leaving his long-suffering wife behind to keep things together at home. He comes across as a stereotypically impractical, head-in-the-clouds Fine Arts major, living from windfall to windfall, feast-or-famine style, dreaming of writing the Great American Novel while turning down several opportunities for comfortable, secure, university teaching posts.

Snyder began his career in language with a teaching job at Colgate University, but an unfortunate run-in with his department head, which Snyder’s ego and poor judgement turned from bad to worse, ended his chances for a tenured post and job security.  He has had a couple of fairly successful novels, as well as one book which was turned into one of those saccharine Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies – but he has also had to turn to carpentry, working out of doors in a harsh Maine winter, to pay the bills. It is extremely ironic that Snyder’s son – who was the one who was supposed to be pursuing a one-in-a-thousand dream of becoming a professional golfer – turns out to be a much more practical person, in the end, than his father.

The biggest problem with this book is the fact that author Snyder can’t resist telling the reader all about his trials, turmoil, and inner doubts – focusing on himself though he is supposed to be doing something to help his son succeed in a professional golf career. More caddie stories from his months on the Scottish links (though there are several quite good ones) and fewer passages of indulgent soul-searching would make this a better book. Though the trials and hardships he endures while caddying in Scotland are ostensibly altruistic in nature, with the goal of becoming a supportive, professional-quality caddie for his son, it becomes apparent that the experience is really all about Snyder confronting his own inner demons regarding his relationship with his father, while satisfying his need to demonstrate the emotional depths he associates with his pursuit of “Great American Novelist” status.

There is much to like, and many touching moments, in this book, but wading through the dross in order to find the jewels becomes tiring after a while – an editor with a firm hand, who refused to give in to the author’s indulgences, could have trimmed this book a good 20%-30% and made it a much better read. Walking With Jack, while ultimately a less-than-satisfying read, has enough of quality within it that it is deserving of a spot on the shelf among the other golf books – maybe not up on the top shelf, but perhaps down low and tucked sideways atop a few other volumes, wherever one can find room.

Walking With Jack will be released May 14, 2013, and will be available in hardcover and e-book editions.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Tuesday at the AT&T Pro-Am – computer tech and antique golf

Tuesdays at a PGA Tour event are pretty quiet – practice rounds and range sessions are the norm, and everything is pretty low-key. Any kind of special event is going to be a change from the ordinary, and today at Pebble Beach they had one that really stood out.

The event was a demo of the new EA Sports Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14 game for the Xbox and PS3. The new game incorporates a feature called Legends of Golf, in which they have included course simulations of the four majors going back to the first Masters at Augusta National in 1934, and player avatars of “legends” players like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Seve Ballesteros. The game includes true-to-the-era clothing on the player avatars, vintage equipment characteristics, and the 1934 Augusta National course layout – complete with reversed nines.

With the cooperation of, and in partnership with, Augusta National Golf Club, the artists and programmers at EA Sports used vintage photos and other material from the club’s archives to digitally recreate the shape and position of the bunkers, and the contours of the greens – which were much more severely contoured originally than they are nowadays – from the original course layout. The characteristics of the vintage equipment which the game simulates were approximated based on some testing of vintage reproduction equipment, and research which included interviewing golfers who had played with Golden Age equipment.

After the game demo, the event moved to the range where the assembled media watched PGA Tour pro and Ping staffer Hunter Mahan hit reproduction old-style golf balls using hickory-shafted clubs – mashies, niblicks, brassies, and drivers with a wooden head that’s smaller than a modern 5-wood, or maybe even a 4-hybrid. Callaway’s Bobby Gates was also part of the demonstration, and while he and Hunter were hitting, 2012 U.S. Open Champion Webb Simpson ambled up and asked, “What’re you’all doing?” before picking up a niblick (I think it was…) and getting into the act.

All three of the pros marveled at the whippy flexibility of the shafts of the reproduction clubs they were using, especially the drivers, and the wildly-variable patterns to be found on the striking faces of the irons – these clubs pre-date USGA regulations on groove dimensions by decades. Each found that with a little adjustment to the tempo of their swing they were launching the softer, square-dimpled repro golf balls straight and true (try doing that, weekend duffers – on the fly, with unfamiliar antique equipment…) They weren’t hitting the square-dimpled balls nearly as far as they are used to doing, by any means, but they were getting good height, which is tough to do with hickory clubs, and lovely arcing flight.

The pros didn’t have much trouble launching shots straight & true with the vintage-style equipment, but the same could not be said of some of the media types in attendance when we were given a shot at it. I hit a couple of shots with a niblick – a high-lofted iron like a wedge – and then with a driving iron, a club with the loft of a 2-iron and a blade that looked like a butter knife. I thought that my circa-2007 Hogan Apex Plus irons gave feedback! A mis-hit with these antique reproductions tingled your hands through the leather grips in no uncertain fashion, even with the slight vibration-absorbing quality of the wooden shafts. Even true hits (I had a couple…) stung a little. (My Hogans, on the other hand, feel like butter when you strike the ball on the quarter-sized sweet spot… thank you, modern metallurgy!)

Yes, Tuesdays at a PGA Tour event – even the AT&T Pro-Am – can be pretty quiet, but as broadcaster Ted Mills, one of the ESPN Radio “Golf Guys”, remarked during the vintage demo, “This is the most fun I’ve ever seen anyone have on a Tuesday at a Tour event.”

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay – true links golf on The Ocean Course

Photo courtesy The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay

The Ocean Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links is the newer, companion course to the resort’s Arnold Palmer/Francis Duane-designed Old Course. The Old Course, as described in Part II of this series, is a traditional American Parkland-style layout, while the Arthur Hill-designed Ocean Course, its companion to the south, is a classic links layout. It is rare to find two courses as different from each other as these two are in the same resort; the variety they represent, combined in one location, is a real treat.

The Ocean Course is situated on a parcel of typical Central California coastal shelf land – a narrow, intermittent strip of rolling, flattish coastal plain lying between the Pacific Ocean and the rugged Coast Range hills – terrain which, in places, does a fair imitation of Scottish links land. If you have never played true links golf before, a round on the Ocean Course is the next best thing to boarding a flight to Scotland.

The view from the first tee gives you a hint of what you are in for, as the first fairway rolls away from the tee in subtle undulations of close-cropped grass, but as you ride out to your well-struck drive from the first tee (or walk – unlike The Old Course, carts are not required on the Ocean Course) the view opens up before you, and a good three-quarters of the course spreads out before your eyes.

The 1st and 18th holes of the Ocean Course are separated from the remainder of the layout by a tree-lined creek bed which forms the northern border of the area containing everything from the 2nd green through the 18th tee. As seen from the 1st hole, generously-sized fairways blend smoothly into the greens, in true links fashion, with between-hole waste areas covered in native grasses defining the playing areas. It’s a splendid sight.

With the exception of the four par-3 holes, a low, running approach to the green is nearly always a viable option on this course; and even at that, the 9th hole, a 182-yard par-3 which plays directly into the prevailing wind, has a runup area which will come in handy if a sudden gust knocks your tee shot down short of the green. I played Ocean on a calm morning, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how the exposed layout would be affected by the wind – if the breeze off the ocean kicks up during your round, you will want to have that low shot in your bag.

The open, inviting fairways ensure that only truly errant tee shots will miss the short grass, and when the wind is down, a wide-open layout like the Ocean Course may appear to be defenseless against the onslaught of titanium drivers and modern, multi-layer golf balls (
as the old Scots saying goes – “Nae wind, nae gowf.”). But the Ocean Course, like all classic links courses, has a second line of defense – the greens.

Well-contoured, and guarded by bunkers and mounding, the greens at the Ocean Course are true tests of not only your putting, but your approach shots. A well-laid approach shot – one that lands on the same tier or on the same side of a ridge as the hole – will leave you with a make-able putt. Land your approach on a different tier or on the opposite side of a ridge from the hole, however, and the resulting uphill or downhill putt, or roller-coaster ride over the ridge, will place your possible birdie, or “sure-fire” par in doubt.

The delights of the playing qualities of The Ocean Course are matched by the visual delights of the scenery that greets you as you move through your round.

Ocean vistas await you at #2 green, #15 green and all along the dramatic cliffside routing of holes 16, 17 and 18. The inner part of the course – the parallel-running hole pairs of 4 and 5, 6 and 13, where the fairways blend together and the paired holes share clusters of fairway bunkers, as well as holes 10, 14 and 15 – is the most classically links-style landscape on the course, immersing you in rolling grassland vistas from which the ocean is sensed, but not always seen.

The farthest reaches of the course – holes 7 through 9, and 11 and 12 – bring you close to the uplands that rise up to meet the Coast Range hills just across Highway 1; the stands of eucalyptus trees and waving native grasses lining the fairways are reminiscent of a classic plein-air landscape; a painter standing before an easel, brush and palette in hand, would not look out of place on this part of the course.

Some of the most compelling views on the Ocean Course, however, are glimpsed when viewing conditions are not necessarily the best. A few of the holes that run back toward the north – most notably #5, #13 and #16 – offer glimpses of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel complex in the distance, and when a grey Pacific overcast flattens the light and the ocean mist softens long views, the classic shingle-side styling of the hotel, with its multiple eaves and earth-toned colors, blurs into a vision of a distant Scottish castle. Add the faint skirling tones of the sunset piper who plays each evening on the outside terrace at the hotel, and a golfer on the Ocean Course might feel as if they have been transported 5,000 miles across land and sea to the ancient links where the game was first played.

Inviting to the beginner and mid-handicapper, yet capable of presenting a formidable test to the top amateur and professional golfers who have contested LPGA championships and U.S Open qualifiers over its classic Old World landscape, The Ocean Course is one of the Central California coast’s must-play golf experience for both residents and visitors alike. Combine rounds on The Ocean Course and The Old Course over a weekend, or longer, stay, and you will experience the best of two classic styles of golf in one convenient location.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay – classic parkland golf on The Old Course

The dramatic closing hole of The Old Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links provides a picture-postcard finish to your round of golf on the Arnold Palmer-designed course.

Photo Credit: 
The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay

The Old Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links is a classic example of an American Parkland course set within an accompanying real estate development. It was designed and built in the early 1970s, a period in which golf course housing developments were very much the going thing, but you will find few courses of this type, from that period, which are so skillfully integrated into the landscape.

Winding between neighborhoods of handsome custom homes that back onto the fairways, the 6,610-yard (from the blues) par-72 Old Course gives an initial impression of being somewhat narrow, but the fairways are actually quite generous in size. Trees line the fairways in typical parkland-course style, sheltering golf shots from the ocean breezes and protecting the adjacent homes from errant golf shots.

Given its location on the coastal shelf that rises gently inland from the coast before leaping up to become the Coast Range hills, holes running east-west on The Old Course are either uphill or downhill to various degrees. The prevailing wind is off the coast, so your slope/wind mantra becomes “uphill/downwind; downhill/upwind”.

The Old Course opens with a longish, but not difficult, par-5, the course’s #13-handicap hole. At 529 yards from the blues and slightly uphill, Hole #1 is a gentle lead-in to your round. A good drive and second shot around the mild left-to-right double-dogleg will leave you with an uphill wedge shot to the moderately back-to-front sloping green. Overshooting the green on your approach will find you in light rough on uphill lies – prime real estate for those who are handy with a chip shot, but still tricky because the green is now sloping away.

The second hole on the Old Course will quicken your pulse a bit. Ranked #3 in difficulty, the 402-yard par-4 was one of the beneficiaries of the Arthur Hill remodeling work that took place on the front nine in 2000 – a major component of which was reshaping and repositioning bunkers, and eliminating bunkers that served no strategic purpose.

Hill’s rework of #2 repositioned a pair of bunkers on the left side of the fairway to pinch in the landing area, and though the effect appears negligible at first, their position ups the ante on your tee shot considerably. Shy to the right off the tee, as the bunkers encourage you to do, and you will find yourself with a less-than-ideal angle for your approach to the left-to-right-angled green. Take on the bunkers, which requires an uphill drive of considerable length, and you will be rewarded with a more comfortable approach to the green, and no complications from the left-front greenside bunker. It is a classic risk/reward par-4 of subtle but effective design.

The third hole is the first of The Old Course’s four par-3’s, and one of two in which water comes into play – #13 is the other. The water is more a visual than an actual hazard at #3, as even from the blues and the tips there is little carry over water, but it lies there on the left awaiting a pulled tee shot, and if the hole is cut well left a ball that overshoots the putting surface will find the pond where it curls around behind the left-hand lobe of the green. The remaining par-3’s on the course – numbers 7 and 17 – are dry, but both face west, into the prevailing wind; a breezy day will toughen your tee shot on these “one-shotters”.

The variety of the holes on The Old Course make for an entertaining and challenging round of golf. A couple of sharp dogleg par-4s on the front side – numbers 4 and 6 – will test your distance control off the tee, as you will want to lay a well-placed tee ball at the corner in order to leave yourself the best approach to the green. The par-5s test your mettle with more than just raw length: #5 is a left-swooping downhill run with bunkers guarding the inside of the corner and water right of the green; #10 is an uphill dogleg-right with an inviting first shot, but a strategically-placed bunker that turns your second into a risk-reward proposition; #15, the final par-5, is another left-trending downhill hole – it also presents an inviting tee shot, but water lines the left side of the fairway and pinches in to guard the left side of the green.

With all the variety and interesting challenges that holes 1 through 17 on the Old Course present, the big payoff of your round is the justly-famed 18th hole. Several holes on the upper section of the course offer glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, and at 17, the last par-3, the ocean bursts fully into view as the backdrop for the green, but it is 18, running alongside the cliffs back toward the hotel, that summons the full drama of the oceanside setting.

The Old Course’s 18th hole is a beauty at any time of day, but for my money, the westering sun that shines in your eyes for the tee shot at #17 turns the 18th hole into a picture postcard – illuminated by the the golden glow of the late-afternoon sun, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel provides a dramatic backdrop as you tee off on #18.

Sloping away downhill from the string of tee boxes behind the 17th green, the 18th’s main fairway terminates at an unassuming barranca which marks the low point of the course – and perhaps the low point of your round should you challenge it in an effort to reach the approach area below the green with an heroic carry. Legend has it that when Arnold Palmer was laying out this hole, he backed further and further up the bluff, hitting balls as he went, until even he couldn’t carry the barranca – and that’s where the back tees were placed.

Keep your tee shot left, away from that big blue lateral hazard to your right – the Pacific Ocean – and allow for the downhill carry, and maybe some roll, when you pull a club for this shot. Sharp play around the green at the 18th may be awarded with applause, especially in the late afternoon, as the green is overlooked by the common-area patio and lawn in the crook of the building, and a number of ground-level rooms with firepit patios facing the sunset. Hotel guests gathering for afternoon refreshments and a view of the setting sun will be your gallery as you close out your round on The Old Course.

A round of golf on the Old Course at Half Moon Bay Golf Links is an experience that you will long remember (especially if you earn some applause at the 18th green…), and one that you will want to repeat. The quality and variety of the course, and the gracious and attentive treatment you receive from the staff, will tempt you back to the the Old Course again and again.