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.