Should You Pay $20 to Watch “The Match,” or Line Up to Punch a Stranger in the TV Department at Walmart?

I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that in 1995 I played eighteen holes at Shadow Creek, the Las Vegas golf course where Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods will slug it out on Black Friday. My host was Kenny Wynn, Steve’s younger brother. Two years earlier, Kenny had lost his gaming license, temporarily, after admitting that he had a drug problem. (Nine years after my round, local police confiscated his computers in some kind of child-pornography investigation.)

When I called Kenny to ask for driving directions, he told me to take the freeway to a certain exit north of town. “As you look toward the mountains, you’ll see a forest rising out of the desert,” he said, and we both laughed. But he was right. Las Vegas has sprawled past the golf course since then, but at the time Shadow Creek was an Oz-like quadrant of green surrounded by miles and miles and miles of sand. At the front gate, I spoke my name into a telephone and smiled at a closed-circuit television camera. Then, as I drove to the clubhouse, I shared the road with a ring-necked pheasant, a chukar, and a long-eared rabbit—a small sampling of the non-native species with which Steve Wynn had ornamented the grounds. When Shadow Creek opened, there were also wallabies and African cranes, but they turned out to be too large to coexist with mishit golf balls. I left my shoes in the (alleged) locker of Davis Love III. No photographs allowed.

The course was designed by Tom Fazio and completed in 1990. The cost has been estimated at $40 million, $50 million, $60 million—who knows? Shadow Creek can probably be considered our best look into Fazio’s artistic soul, since he was given not only a blank check but also a blank canvas: he built the course, basically, by digging a gigantic hole in the desert and filling it with money. Every hill, every pond, every bump, every dip, every bounce, every break is there because he put it there. The stones in the artificial creek that circulates through the property (and tumbles over an artificial waterfall on the seventeenth hole before returning to its artificial headwaters) were glued in place by Fazio himself, maybe. The pine trees that surround you on every hole only look as though they run all the way to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The rye grass on the fairways would die if the maintenance crew ever stopped flooding it with the ground-up life savings of slot-machine players. There’s a par 3 that you enter and leave through a tunnel. It’s a virtual golf course—except that it’s real.

The two other members of our foursome were a professional from a nearby country club and his wife, who arrived in a white Porsche Carrera and were wearing more gold and diamonds than I’m used to seeing on a golf course. “Ah, the life of a Las Vegas club pro,” the pro said, smiling. Kenny Wynn—an impatient, slashing 18- or 20-handicapper—quit after a few holes, and once he was gone we had a relaxed, pleasant round. No other group entered our field of vision, although later, in the clubhouse, I did see the well-known golf nut and occasional actor Joe Pesci. Our golf carts had built-in coolers, which were filled (and, at the turn, refilled) with ice and soft drinks. We were accompanied by an affable caddie/chauffeur, who paced yardages, filled divots, repaired ball marks, read putts, and urged us to drink something at any moment when we weren’t swinging a golf club. I chugged roughly a gallon of Gatorade per nine—it gets hot at the bottom of a hole—but didn’t pee until a day or two later. On with The Match!

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Playing Golf on a Day When Most Golfers Think It’s Too Cold to Play Golf

I took the photo above last Thursday at Keney Park, a muny on the east side of Hartford, Connecticut, a little over an hour from where I live. Barney, Paul, and I couldn’t scrounge up a fourth, mainly because the temperature when we left home was in the thirties. But the sign above says it all. Even if you live to be 100, you don’t get so much time on this side of the wall that you can afford to squander golf days.

Eight or ten years ago, the Sunday Morning Group played quite a few winter rounds at Keney, mainly because it was one of the few courses we knew about that stayed open. It was in terrible shape, but you could tell that at some point it had been terrific. Then it closed, and underwent a big renovation. This was the first time any of us had been back.

When we first played Keney, I assumed that it had begun as a private club. But it’s always been a muny. Devereux Emmet designed the first nine in 1927, and Robert Ross, a city engineer, added a second nine in 1930. The clubhouse was built in 1934, using bricks from an old orphanage and a demolished post office. The workers were employed by the Civil Works Administration, a federal relief agency during the early years of the Great Depression. The city of Hartford closed the course in 2013, spent $11 million restoring and renovating it, and reopened it in 2016. It’s awesome, and worth playing in any weather. And the green fee, for Barney and me, walking, was $19. (Paul isn’t sixty-two yet, so he had to pay full price: $30.)

 

Here’s Why Golfers Should Not Pay Attention to Weather Forecasts

The Friday forecast was for thunderstorms all day long: on wunderground.com, the little icon for every hour of the day was a dark cloud with a lightning bolt streaking out of it. But Barney, Mike B., Tim D., and I decided keep our morning tee time at the Links at Union Vale, about an hour west of where we live. And we were right to ignore the forecast. During our round, there wasn’t even a distant hint of thunder, and we had a total of maybe ten minutes of light rain. Mike B., above, was the only one of us to carry an umbrella, and he used it only briefly. We all took off our rain jackets after a few holes, and wished we’d worn shorts. And, because other golfers have more faith in meteorologists than we do, we had the place virtually to ourselves.

The course was built in the late nineties by New York City golfers. A group of Irish players from Van Cortlandt, Pelham Bay/Split Rock, and other munis in the metropolitan area got fed up with the summer crowds and decided to build a place of their own within weekend commuting distance. Roughly eighty of them bought shares, at ten thousand dollars apiece, then found two hundred acres of cattle-grazing farmland and hired Stephen Kay and Doug Smith to design a course for them. The investors knew of Kay because he had done some work on the bunkers at Van Cortlandt and because he had designed an Irish-style course, the Links of North Dakota, that they liked very much. He built the course for about two and a half million dollars—a pittance even then.

Many of Union Vale’s members belong to one or another of the many Irish golf associations in and around New York City. They allow themselves preferential tee times and charge themselves reduced fees, but their club is open to everyone. The course itself looks and plays more than a little like an Irish links course, and every tee box is sponsored by a different metropolitan-are Irish golf club, and the clubhouse is well stocked with Guinness. We paid the winter rate—thirty-five bucks for eighteen holes, walking—and we’re going back next Friday, forecast be damned.

Reader’s Trip Report: Whistling Straits

A couple of months ago, Adam Sachs, a reader in Kansas City and a peripatetic occasional contributor to this blog, visited Whistling Straits, a course that’s been on my golf to-do list for a long time. Excerpts from his report:

I won a couples package to play Whistling Straits in a charity raffle fifteen or so years ago, but could never figure out a time to schlep up to Wisconsin to cash in on my luck. I goaded a client into inviting me to the PGA Championship two summers ago, and was awestruck by the beauty and seeming impossibility of the golf course. This summer, after a business meeting in Milwaukee, I finally played it.

Sachs was not predisposed to love the course, which had struck him as excessively artificial, in the classic Pete Dye manner:

To me, Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore represent the be-all and end-all of modern golf course design. I love that they had the vision and confidence to move so little dirt when they built Sand Hills, one of the finest golf courses on the planet, and that they considered about a hundred and eighty different possible holes before landing on their favorites. 

Nevertheless, he loved Whistling Straits, and describes his visit there as “one of the most beautiful and pure golf-course experiences of my life.”

The last four holes are magic. The photo below is of the seventeenth, a par three called Pinched Nerve. The bunker with the wispy fescue patch above it in the photo below guards the right front of the green, leaving only a narrow window for running up the ball.

I guess maybe it’s time to start thinking about booking a flight to Milwaukee.

Back-Roads Scotland: Tain Golf Club

Tain is an Old Tom Morris layout on southern side of Dornoch Firth. It’s less than five miles in a straight line from Royal Dornoch, and less than ten miles by car. I played it in 1992, on my first golf trip to Scotland. Jerry Quinlan, of Celtic Golf, who planned my trip, had arranged for me to play with the club’s general manager and one of the members. I got lost in the town and didn’t arrive at the club until exactly eight, when we were supposed to tee off. Here’s where I got lost:

The manager, whose name was Norman, and the member, whose name was Ian, were already on the tee when I pulled up. Ian looked peeved and impatient. I jumped from my car, pulled on my shoes, breathlessly hit a drive without a practice swing or a waggle, and took off after them.

Norman and Ian, it turned out, where playing in a club competition. Even so, they played at a pace that would have staggered the average American golfer. I have friends at home who think I play ridiculously fast, but I had to concentrate to keep up. I watched them closely, to make sure I put down my bag on the side of the green that was nearest the next tee, and I always had to be aware of whose turn it was to do what. No plumb-bobbing!

If there was any doubt about the playing order, one of them would quickly establish it. “First David, then myself, then Ian,” Norman said on one hole as he pulled the pin. Each golfer was expected to line up his putt or select his next club while the others were putting or hitting. Even so, we played more slowly than the two players behind us, who occasionally had to wait.

Tain is surrounded by farms and separated from Dornoch Firth by fields full of sheep; at one point, I had to retrieve my ball from a pigpen, which was out of bounds. Still, my round was one of the happiest of my trip. After I had jogged along with Norman and Ian for a couple of holes, they apparently forgave me for being late, and from then on we chatted between shots. Norman told me where to aim on every tee—the bunker on the left, the last tree on the right—and I manged to hit my ball on the proper line surprisingly often. Later, it occurred to me that my unaccustomed accuracy was probably the result of my aiming at something. Before that day, I don’t think I had ever aimed a drive at anything smaller than the entire fairway—in effect, aiming at nothing.

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After our round, Norman and Ian bought me a beer in the clubhouse bar. The two players who had been behind us were also there. Ian good-naturedly complained to them that they had talked too loudly during their match, and that their voices had bothered him. “If you had been playing at the proper pace,” one of them said, “you would have been too far ahead to hear me.”

Atlantic City Country Club: Great Golf Course, Great Locker Room, Great Bar

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Every autumn, the Sunday Morning Group takes an end-of-season golf trip to Atlantic City, which, in addition to being a cesspool of sin, depravity, and despair, is a terrific low-cost, high-quality golf destination. During this year’s trip—our seventeenth—we added a new course to our rotation: Atlantic City Country Club. It’s now one of our all-time favorites, along with Twisted Dune, the Bay Course at Seaview, Renault Winery, and Scotland Run—courses that would stand out anywhere. Here are a few reasons to visit ACCC, which has been open to the public since 2007:

  • The club was founded in 1897, so next year will be its 120th anniversary.
  • In the olden days, a bell was rung to warn golfers that the last trolley back to Atlantic City was about to depart. Timing was an issue because high tide sometimes covered the tracks, making the schedule irregular. Also, everyone was drunk.

  • The term “birdie,” in its golf application, was coined there in 1903, when Abner Smith, a member from Philadelphia, hit his approach stiff on the what was then the twelfth hole. He exclaimed that he had hit “a bird of a shot,” and the term caught on, partly thorough his own encouragement. (That hole, with a different green, is now the second. The original second green has been preserved, for historical reasons, as a remote practice area.)
  • The men’s locker room is one of the greatest male sanctuaries on earth:

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  • The U.S. Amateur was held there in 1901.
  • The U. S. Women’s Open has been held there three times. In 1948, it was won by Babe Zaharias, who celebrated afterward by playing the piano in the club’s Taproom.
  • Arnold Palmer played there often in the 1950s, when he was in the Coast Guard and stationed nearby, and he has an honorary locker (which was shrouded in black, to mark his death, during our visit):

  • Al Capone, Bob Hope, Willie Mays, and Joe Namath also played there and also have honorary lockers.
  • Oh, yeah, and the course—which was designed partly by Willie Park, Jr., among others, and was reworked in 1999 by Tom Doak—is swell, too:

Troon is a Time-travel Wormhole to Machrihanish

Machrihanish is a legendary links course on the Kintyre Peninsula, in western Scotland. Part of the routing was created by Old Tom Morris in 1879, when what was then called the Kintyre Golf Club acquired additional acreage and expanded from 12 holes to 18. Machrihanish has one of the awesomest opening tee shots in golf. Here’s the first tee:

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The rest of the course is terrific, too. The only difficulty with Machrihanish is that it’s tricky to get to. The drive from Glasgow Airport can take more than three hours, with little or no hope of golf along the way. But there’s a shortcut, if you do what 11 friends and I did in 2014: charter a boat from an outfit called Kintyre Express. The trip from Troon Harbor (which is just up the road from Royal Troon) to Campbeltown Harbor (which is just down the road from Machrihanish) takes 75 minutes. That means that the round trip saves you more than enough time to squeeze in one entire bonus round at either Machrihanish or Machrihanish Dunes. Here we are getting ready to set out from Troon:

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And here’s some of what we saw along the way:

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And here’s what Tony looked like when the skipper gunned his engine:

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And here’s what we saw as we approached Campbeltown:

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And here’s where we stayed, just up a long ramp from the dock:

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Three days later, we took the same boat to Northern Ireland—which is even closer to Campbeltown than Troon is. All our golf bags and suitcases went into the hold:

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Kintyre Express has lots of other routes, too. The Troon-to-Campbeltown trip starts at £500 for up to 12 passengers. Thanks to Brexit, that currently works out to only about $55 a head. Kintyre also operates regular ferry service to a number of destinations in the same region. Ask for Mairi!

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Every Course Should Copy These Awesome Features

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On Saturday, Addison, Todd, Hacker (real name), and I took a field trip to Wintonbury Hills, a muny that’s roughly an hour and fifteen minutes from where we live. The course, which opened in 2005, was designed by Pete Dye and Tim Liddy. There are four sets of tees, at 6,700, 6,300, 5,700, and 5,000 yards. As is seldom the case at golf courses of any kind, though, the scorecard at Wintonbury lists ratings and slopes for both men and women from all four sets:

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Furthermore, neither the scorecard nor any of the course signage mentions “women’s tees,” or “senior tees,” or “regular men’s tees,” or “championship tees,” or anything else. There are just four different sets, at four different yardages, and the scorecard contains enough information to enable players of both sexes, at all levels, to calculate handicaps for matches of all kinds, in all conceivable combinations.

Every course should do this.

Addison and Todd played from the black tees, I played from the greens, and Hacker played from the whites, and we were able to adjust our handicaps accordingly. (The USGA actually makes doing this much, much harder than it needs to be—but that’s a semi-complicated issue, which I’ll explore in a couple of future posts.) We played three matches, switching partners every six holes, and everything came out virtually even. (Todd and I each lost a dollar.) And if Michelle Wie and my mother had joined us we would have been able to work them into the game, too.

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Another awesome Wintonbury feature—and one that should be copied by public courses everywhere—is generous fairways accompanied by challenging green complexes. This is a feature that Wintonbury shares with Muirfield Village and Augusta National, to name two member-friendly golf courses that great players don’t dismiss as too easy. Wide fairways keep play moving. None of the four of us lost a ball.

Addison, Hacker, Todd.

Addison, Hacker, Todd.

Another awesome thing about Wintonbury: the Bag of Beer, available in the grillroom (which is called the Tap Inn):

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That’s what the guy in the photo below was picking up. Weirdly, though, he had ordered just two beers—both Budweisers. What was he planning to drink when he got to the third hole?

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The only thing I didn’t like about Wintonbury: they charge you extra if you walk. (They don’t think of it as a walking penalty—in their view, they give away carts, since carts are included in the greens fees—but a walking penalty is what it is, since you don’t pay less if you don’t take a cart.) As far as I could see, though, we were the only walkers, so they probably don’t get a lot of complaints.

Still, it’s a terrific course. We’re definitely going back.

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Golf in New Zealand: Cape Kidnappers

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I visited New Zealand on a reporting assignment in 2007. I was the guest of the hedge-fund billionaire Julian Robertson and his wife, Josie, who has since died. We spent most of our time at Kauri Cliffs, a huge property Robertson owns at the northern end of the North Island. (You can read about that part of my trip here and here.) On Sunday, the Robertsons attended the early service at the tiny Anglican church in Kerikeri. “If you believe in a deity, you owe that deity an hour a week,” Robertson told me.

This is the church. They spell some things differently in New Zealand, apparently.

This is the church. They spell some things differently in New Zealand, apparently.

Then we headed south, to Cape Kidnappers, Robertson’s other big real-estate holding on the North Island. (He also owns 11,000 acres on the South Island.) The trip takes about ten hours if you go by car, but it’s quicker if you travel as we did: by helicopter to Auckland and then by Gulfstream to Hawkes Bay.

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The Gulfstream part of our journey was so short that the plane never really flew level: we went up, then we went down. In fact, the most grueling leg was probably the final one, the drive from the front gate at Cape Kidnappers to the clubhouse, a five-mile trip that, if you observe the posted speed limit and brake for wandering cattle, can take a half an hour.

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We made that drive in a rental car, which we had picked up at the little airport in Hawkes Bay. I went into the terminal with Diana McCarty, Robertson’s director of New Zealand operations, to make the arrangements. As we crossed the tarmac, she commented that people inside the terminal would probably be wondering who I was, since I had just emerged from a $40-million aircraft accompanied by a blond who was young enough to be my third wife. A useful rule of thumb, when evaluating any remark made to you by an attractive woman much younger than yourself, is that if you aren’t sure whether the remark was an insult, it was an insult. Nevertheless, I sucked in my gut and walked a little taller.

That little building in the distance is the clubhouse.

That little building in the distance is the Cape Kidnappers clubhouse.

The golf course at Cape Kidnappers was designed by Tom Doak, but it wouldn’t have been if Robertson, back in 2001, hadn’t received what he initially believed to be shabby treatment at Bandon Dunes, which had opened two years before. He was visiting with his sons and had expected to play the already legendary Bandon Dunes course twice. Sorry, he was told; you’ll have to play our new course, Pacific Dunes, first. Robertson was furious—he has a temper, which he has worked for years to control—but his anger vanished after a few holes, and he hired Doak to design a course for him, too.

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Doak creates magical golf holes by seemingly doing little more than identifying them in the existing terrain, rather than by dynamiting them out of bedrock. He views a bulldozer as a construction tool of last resort, and he likes brown grass and doesn’t like chemicals. “Cape Kidnappers cost half as much to build as Kauri Cliffs,” Robertson told me, “and it costs half as much to maintain.”

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Both courses are laid out on sheep-and-cattle farms on high cliffs above the Pacific, but the climate, topography, and general feel are very different. The most visually impressive holes at Kidnappers, if you view the course from the air, are the ones that run out and back over several finger-like promontories, which reach out toward the water, high above the waves — although the best holes, I think, are inland. (From the ground, the promontory holes don’t really feel as though they’re perched on promontories. You need a helicopter to get the full effect.)

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The lodge at Cape Kidnappers is called the Farm, and it’s just as nice as the one at Kauri Cliffs. If you’re pretty rich, you should spend a couple of weeks there with your wife:

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It was still under construction, so we stayed in Te Awanga, at a bed-and-breakfast place called Merriwee, which Doak discovered. The Robertsons had stayed there often, and had become good friends with the owner, a divorced woman with grown children who filled in occasionally as a substitute kindergarten teacher, and several of her neighbors. Her house is more than a century old.

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Here’s Robertson, sneaking something from the breakfast table:

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The Robertsons left the next day, because they had business elsewhere. I rented a car of my own and drove back to Kidnappers for a final round. A huge rainstorm had been predicted for the afternoon, but it disappeared somewhere over the Pacific, leaving only tremendous banks of fast-moving clouds, which the setting sun lit up. I had the course virtually to myself, and got around on foot in just a couple of hours. I had a new driver—one of those big square ones that sounded like fungo bats—and it echoed all over the course. I tried to swing it quietly so that the pro wouldn’t know how many balls I was playing. The only tiny seed of disappointment, lurking in the back of my mind, was my knowledge that, the following evening, I would be on my way home.

Josie and Julian Robertson, Cape Kidnappers, March 11, 2007.

Josie and Julian Robertson, Cape Kidnappers, March 11, 2007.

Golf in New Zealand: Kauri Cliffs

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One of the most remarkable things my wife has ever said to me is that, if I ever told her I thought we ought to live in New Zealand, she’d be ready to move that minute. This was highly surprising, both because she doesn’t really even like to travel and because Donald Trump wasn’t running for President yet. I think her interest was based partly on the scenery in The Lord of the Rings movies and partly on the fact that New Zealand is so far from everywhere else that if you holed up there you would no longer have to think quite so much about the world’s most serious problems. I myself might be tempted to move, if I could persuade all my regular golf buddies to go, too.

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I visited New Zealand in 2007, in the company of the hedge-fund billionaire Julian Robertson and his wife, Josie—who has since died.

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We spent the first few days at Kauri Cliffs, a resort the they had created on a 6,000-acre farm in the Bay of Islands region, near the northern end of the North Island. “I had no idea what I’d bought,” he told me. “It turned out to be one of the most magical pieces of land you will ever see, but when I bought it I didn’t even know that it had waterfalls. I saw it at the worst time of the year, August, and it was nothing but a filthy wet sheep farm, and I really bought it mainly because it was cheaper than a modest New York City apartment.”

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In 1997, he hired David Harman, a golf architect he admired, to design a course for the eastern edge of the property, along cliffs that rise high above the Pacific. That course is now No. 49 on Golf Digest’s list of the World’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses. It’s just ahead of North Berwick Golf Club, in Scotland—one of my favorite golf courses of all time. Kauri Cliffs is a terrific course, too, and the views from the ocean holes are spectacular.

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Josie didn’t see the place until the course was almost finished, and when she did she said they would have to build a lodge, too, in order to attract enough golfers to keep the course in operation. “I said, That’s ridiculous, this is a great golf course and they will come,” Julian told me. “Well, Josie was right; they wouldn’t have come. Kauri Cliffs is about as far away from everywhere else as you can get, so it was a real stroke of genius of hers that we did it. And, as it turns out, the lodge business down here has been very, very good.”

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The accommodations at Kauri Cliffs consist of eleven two-bedroom cottages arranged along a secluded walking path, plus the Owner’s Cottage, which is larger, has its own garden and infinity-edge swimming pool, and can be rented (for more than $6,000 a night in the high season) when the Robertsons aren’t in residence. Each suite-size half-cottage has a porch, fireplace, dressing room, and spa-like bathroom, and it looks out over the golf course to the sea. This was the view from my room:

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When the resort was being designed, Josie had a big fight with the architect over air-conditioning: the architect argued that no self-respecting five-star hotel could possibly do without it, and Josie argued that it most definitely could. The winner, naturally, was Josie—and she was right. The outdoor daytime temperature at Kauri Cliffs hovers around room temperature virtually all year long, and one of the great pleasures of staying there is waking up to birds and ocean breezes rather than the cold hum of an HVAC system.

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To be continued.