Mike B., Tim D., Rick, and I played at Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course today. The weather was actually pretty balmy, but the ground was frozen and we hit some monster drives. We also had trouble with the bunkers, even though they’d left the rakes.
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!
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.)
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.
Ordinarily, I’d be playing golf right now. For many years, the Sunday Morning Group has managed to find snow-free fairways and greens somewhere within driving distance of home. Last year, we played at Pelham Bay, in the Bronx (photo below); the year before that, we played at Fairchild Wheeler, in southern Connecticut (photo above, featuring Mike B.).
We played at Fairchild Wheeler in 2015, too, and Chic brought New Year’s glasses for the entire group:
We give two extra handicap strokes to anyone who wears shorts after December 1; as you can see in the photo, only Fritz got the bonus that day. He says his legs never bother him, but that day was so cold that we had more than the usual amount of trouble getting tees into the ground:
The year before that, we played in Brooklyn, at Dyker Beach, which not only is a very good course but also has swell views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge:
In 2012, for the first time ever, we played on our own course, which Gary, our awesome superintendent, didn’t close for the season until we were finished. (I wore shorts that year, as did Fritz and Mike A.)
One of the best was 2009, when we thought we might have to drive north, to Buffalo, to find grass, but then learned that the Bay Course at Seaview, just outside Atlantic City, was open. Gene, Hacker, and I drove down (four hours) and spent the night in the hotel, which is a lot nicer than the places we usually stay when we travel. Two days of unlimited golf plus a room cost just a hundred and seventy dollars — and we had the place to ourselves, because it was crazy cold and everything was frozen solid. Here’s Hacker (real name) and me on the Bay Course, dressed for the weather:
But this morning there’s still snow on the ground all over the Northeast, and the temperature at my house when I got up was -2. There was some talk about simply showing up at Ray’s place, in Florida, and throwing ourselves on the mercy of him and his wife, but in the end we decided to stay home, for once, and dream about spring.
I have a story in the current New Yorker about building a putting green in the back yard of an executive editor at the book publisher Simon & Schuster. The photo above is of the owner chipping to the finished green from a “teeing area” below his deck; the photo below is of the construction site when the project was nearing completion.
The green was built by Michael Lehrer, whose company, Home Green Advantage, has built hundreds of greens, golf holes, and other artificial-turf surfaces in the metropolitan area—including this one, on a terrace on a high floor of a tall building in Manhattan:
Lehrer also built the awesome floating green at GlenArbor Golf Club, in Bedford Hills, New York—which I wrote about here. (That’s Bob G., an honorary Sunday Morning Group member, in the photo below.)
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.
The photograph above is of the clubhouse at Indian Hills Country Club, in Kansas City, in about 1950. The course was designed by A. W. Tillinghast in 1927, and the photograph was taken by my father’s father, who was a member. I came across a big box of his slides recently, and for several days I’ve been obsessed with scanning them. Here’s my grandfather himself, at about the same time, during a trip to California with my grandmother:
As the father of a friend once said of Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca (the greatest golf movie ever made), “Those pants are a little tight under the arms.” Here’s a picture my grandfather took of my grandmother (feeding something to a chipmunk) during a car trip to Colorado in 1945:My grandparents traveled to Florida almost every winter, until my grandfather couldn’t drive anymore (my grandmother never learned). The picture below, which my grandfather took in the early fifties, goes a long way toward explaining why people who live in Florida have trouble with seawater even when the wind isn’t blowing a hundred and fifty miles an hour:
That brings me to Mike Riley, who is an occasional correspondent and a member of the Big Dogs, a regular men’s group at the World’s Second-Best Golf Club, in northwestern Florida. The Big Dogs are usually more weather-averse than the Sunday Morning Group is—fifty degrees and sunny is too wintry for most of them—but, to their credit, they’ve developed some useful weather-related clothing technology:
Even more to their credit, they didn’t evacuate their golf club this past weekend. On Sunday morning, Riley wrote to me, “It’s official. Big Dogs are going to play under hurricane warning. Not unprecedented, but first time since Opal.” (Opal was a Category Four hurricane that hammered the Gulf Coast in 1995.) Riley’s post-round report:
Our foursome finished in 2:29 no time for pictures. Gonna be hard to figure bets, clubhouse lost power while we were on the front nine. Gusts to 60. Pictures really wouldn’t have done much justice. Two pins snapped in the wind and oak tree fell as we were playing number 8. 18 players in the game today with 18 carts. We played during Hermine in 2016 but were on the west side of that storm which is the side to be on. It was only a cat 1 but it did a number on Tallahassee.
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is kind of hard to understand, at least for me, and it isn’t a good fit with golf; Sandy, in 2012, was also just Category One, yet it wiped out several courses in my part of the world. Maybe we should measure hurricanes the way golfers have always measured wind, in terms of extra clubs required for normal shots. At Portstewart once, I hit Baby Driver on a hundred-and-thirty-yard downhill par 3 and was the only member of my foursome to reach the green, and on a couple of occasions in Scotland and Ireland I’ve played in what I would guess were seven- or eight-club winds. What’s the most a reasonably adventurous golfer could comfortably handle—a ten-club wind, gusting to twelve? Unless someone has a better idea, I’m going to call that the maximum.
The British Women’s Open is on this week, and it’s being held on one of my favorite courses: Kingsbarns, in St. Andrews. The Golf Channel’s coverage so far seems to be limited to putts, commercials, and talking heads, but occasionally the camera drifts past a few holes, on its way from the leaderboard back to the commentators’ booth. I’ve played Kingsbarns only once, and that was thirteen years ago, but I still often think about it, and I want to go back.
Kingsbarns looks like a links course but is actually an optical illusion. It was carved (by an American! in 2000!) from a featureless swath of seaside pastureland—but despite its lack of an ancient pedigree it’s a terrific course and it’s unusually fun to play. In addition, the clubhouse is the right scale (small), and it has a good bar with the most amazing panoramic windows, plus leather chairs you could sleep all night in.
During my single round, in 2004, we were held up on every shot by a painfully slow group ahead of us. On the suggestion of our bus driver, we complained in the bar and were given all our drinks for free (then left a tip that was big enough to cover pretty much the entire tab). That night, we ate at a restaurant recommended by the same driver, who had overruled the recommendation of our caddies. The suspicion on the trip was that the driver was receiving kickbacks from the restaurants he took us to, although I was inclined to trust him, having eaten in a few caddie-recommended pubs over the years. Here’s the Kingsbarns clubhouse:
In an earlier post, I mentioned that the resort at Cabot Links—on Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia—comes close to my conception of the ideal. I’ve written before that all you really need on a golf trip, in terms of accommodation, is a comfortable bed and a good shower, and that, in fact, the ideal arrangement might be a good shower with a comfortable bed in it. My room at Cabot wasn’t quite like that (although the shower was big enough to hold a bed), but it had many other desirable features (photos at the bottom of this post), among them:
- It was neither too large nor too small.
- Like every other room at Cabot, it looked across the golf course to the water and the setting sun.
- There was no rich-guy idiocy, as there is at Streamsong (where my room had a pair of enormous swiveling back-to-back flat-screen TVs).
- The bathroom floor was heated.
- There was a nice coffee maker, and instead of powdered non-dairy coffee “whitener” there were little containers of real milk and real half-and-half.
- The distance from the door of my room to the golf shop, bar, restaurant, reception area, bag drop, and first tee was less than the distance from the back door of my house to my mailbox.
- There was a nightlight in the bathroom, but it was positioned below and behind the hand-towel rack, so that people who don’t like a lot of nighttime illumination (me) could easily block it with a hand towel.
- There was a putting target on the floor, and good fast carpet to putt on.
- There was an ice cream stand across the street, within easy walking distance.
- WiFi was free and fast.
- All prices were in Canadian dollars, making everything seem to be on sale.
And pushcarts and lockers were free, the caddies were fun to be with, the restaurants were nice but not too nice, the staff was almost unbelievably cheerful and accommodating, there were chocolate-chip cookies on the first tee, and we saw bald eagles every day.