Friday, January 23, 2015

2014 Year in Review Part Two - The Courses

Superb topography and strategic design, as seen here on the wonderful par four 5th, is prevalent at Crystal Downs Country Club in Frankfort, Michigan

After a prolific 2013 season which saw me play 19 different golf courses, with 14 of them being first-time visits, 2014 was subdued by comparison but still wonderful in its own right.

In all, I played 14 different golf courses in 2014, with 9 of them being first time visits.

The Courses

I went on two golf trips in 2014 and the first one was a biggie: I headed down to lovely Georgia with my pal Terry after being awarded two practice round tickets in the Masters ticket lottery!

We flew into Charleston, South Carolina early on a Sunday morning then drove three hours or so into Georgia to play Augusta Country Club, a gorgeous Donald Ross design and the next door neighbour of Augusta National!

The stately clubhouse at beautiful Augusta Country Club

The pretty downhill par three 6th hole at Augusta Country Club, with the bermuda grass coming out of dormancy

I had reasonably high expectations for this course that sits within the top 100 Best Classic golf courses by Golfweek magazine and those expectations were exceeded! Strategic bunkering, lovely aesthetics and incredible green complexes combined with the superb topography to give us an unforgettable experience.

We met up with friends Mark and Mac for the round and then met up with a bunch more GCA guys for a wonderful dinner to top everything off.

After spending the night in Columbia, SC, we'd head back to Augusta the next morning for the main event: Augusta National Golf Club and watching a practice round at The Masters!

I've waited all of my life for this day. I've always dreamed of walking those fairways and hearing the roars in person and we finally were there!

Newly svelte Darren Clarke hitting some bunker shots at the Tournament Practice Facility

Looking back down the wonderful par four 10th hole from back right

Amen Corner, with a look at the 11th (foreground) and 12th (background) greens

We built our entire trip around the Masters practice round and you can imagine how devastated we were when the storm sirens went off only 40 minutes after our arrival on-site. High winds, rain and lightning were in the area and we retreated off the course to the safety of our cars, hoping that the storm would soon pass.

It wouldn't.

As we contemplated our next move, including the option to buy scalpers tickets for Tuesday, I started getting texts from friends, saying that the Masters would be refunding all ticket holders while also guaranteeing tickets for the 2015 event. Now THAT's class!

It truly stinks to get to walk through the gates of "heaven", if only for a short time but I'm elated to get the opportunity to go back again in April this year.

So we decided to grab some Mexican food for lunch and on the way, made a quick stop at a certain PGA Tour pro's RV, parked at the neighborhood Hooters Restaurant!

Grabbing a photo with John Daly on Washington Street just down the street from Augusta National

Good ole J.D. was signing merchandise for his fans out in the pouring rain while his lovely wife was taking in the money. I bought a truckers hat for my son and Daly was kind enough to personalize a message for him while his wife took the photo above. Fun times! I can't imagine the money J.D. helps bring in for that Hooters - there was a two hour wait to get in from what I heard, certainly helped by the fact that the Masters was shut down for the day.

The next day, Terry and I were booked to play in Charleston, South Carolina at The Club at Briar's Creek, a private course designed by Rees Jones. However, the rains we dealt with in Augusta the day before followed us all the way to the east coast and we were once again rained out.

Not to be denied, we drove back to the west until we found clear skies and that took us to Aiken, South Carolina and the historic Palmetto Golf Club.

The very unique short par three 7th hole at Palmetto, with a green benched into a hillside

Palmetto is one of the oldest clubs in North America, founded in 1892. It's a private club but they allow some public play one week a year and thankfully, that happens to be Masters week! I made a quick phone call and the staff was very accommodating on short notice, giving us a tee time later that afternoon.

It's a very sporty test, not long but there is great rolling topography that makes the course play at least 300 yards longer than the scorecard indicates. And the club has a wonderful vibe to it - so much history there.

For our final day, we had a date with the esteemed Ocean Course at Kiawah Island!

The beautiful par five 2nd hole at the Ocean Course

The par four finishing hole at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, with the clubhouse in the background

We were smart enough not to go all the way to the back tees and even at a more modest length of 6800 yards, the course is a brute! How Rory McIlroy put together scores like he did during the 2012 PGA Championship is beyond me! There is plenty of width off the tee, much more than you think but the designer, Pete Dye, puts a premium on the accuracy of your approach shots, with smallish, elevated greens and plenty of short grass run-offs allowing for creative short game play.

The Paspalum grass is also relatively unique to me and the playing characteristics of the turf took some getting used to. I've played on that surface only one other time and that was in Florida at the Hammock Beach Resort's Conservatory Course.

What a great experience it was to play on the Ocean Course and I hope to return someday. And the lunch was superb too!

Back home, an incredibly harsh winter took its toll on courses throughout the Niagara region and the province of Ontario. A major ice storm in December of 2013 snapped numerous posts holding up the netting for our driving range, the second time this happened within the last ten years. While insurance would cover the damage once again, they would NOT cover any future issues so the club was forced to go without netting all year and made the decision to change to an irons-only practice facility, a big loss.

Brutal cold and ice buildup throughout the winter meant that turf damage was widespread. That said, my home club, St. Catharines G&CC, was pretty fortunate to escape with only minor damage to its greens, with #2 and #4 greens getting shut down for a two-week period. Our head superintendent has been very aggressively overseeding with bent grass for a number of years to combat the poa which naturally inhabits our course but many other clubs weren't as fortunate.

In early May, I visited the Titleist National Fitting Centre and played the Doug Carrick designed Eagles Nest GC with our assistant pro Cam.

The par three 8th hole at Eagles Nest Golf Club near Toronto

Eagles Nest is just north of Toronto and it was suffering from winter damage but thankfully, the bent grass greens were in good shape and playability was more than fine. It was my second time playing there and it's a pretty solid test of golf.

My second and final golf vacation of the year was a road trip with my buddy Harris, as we tackled the best golf Michigan has to offer.

First, we decided to break up what would have been a seven hour drive by taking in a Saturday afternoon matinee between the Detroit Tigers and the Tampa Bay Rays at gorgeous Comerica Park!




In all seriousness, I haven't been to a live baseball game in over ten years and that was a doubleheader at Wrigley Field back when Sammy Sosa was patrolling right field for the Cubs! That experience ruined me in the best way possible - there is no way I can go to another game at the abomination known as Rogers Centre in Toronto, that "park" with zero ambience, atmosphere or character. So I came out of hibernation when Harris made the great suggestion to visit Comerica and I'm glad we did - it's a beautiful park, with great sounds, smells and excellent sight lines. We sat just behind the Tigers dugout and made it through six innings of a game that saw Detroit get humbled by the visitors before departing on our three and a half hour drive north.

We had a golf game the next morning at Forest Dunes GC in Roscommon!

The dogleg right first hole at Forest Dunes gives a good indication of what you're going to experience at the club, with plenty of sandy waste areas

But as the 12th hole proves, Forest Dunes isn't a one trick pony, as towering trees are prevalent as well, with a look eerily similar to what you'd see at a place like Augusta National

The 233 yard par three 16th, appropriately named "Hell's Acre", perhaps a nod to Pine Valley?

We arrived just before 10pm at Forest Dunes and stayed in their lovely on-site lodging, grabbing a beer and a bit of food that night before heading to bed to prepare for our early morning tee time.

We were paired with a couple of Forest Dunes assistants and we had a blast playing this very interesting Tom Weiskopf design that is equal parts parkland and wasteland. This is my first time playing a Weiskopf design and I must say it's very well thought out, with plenty of movement on relatively flat ground, some "tough as nails" par threes and great variation in the distances of the two-shotters. Forest Dunes was just ranked as the 23rd best public course in the United States by Golf Digest on their 2015 survey and Tom Doak is scheduled to design a second course at Forest Dunes, one with a reversible routing, meaning it can be played in both directions! Talk about an intriguing concept - needless to say, I'll plan on returning after Doak's course is completed.

We had a quick drink after the round then headed back out for another two and a half hour drive to our next destination, Arcadia Bluffs GC, another public track that is rated even higher than Forest Dunes, coming in 13th in Golf Digest's 2015 ranking.

The downhill par five 5th hole showcases Lake Michigan in the distance to beautiful effect

Harris ponders life on the 9th green, perhaps looking to crawl and hide in those distant dunes as I go five up through nine holes on him in a match for dinner that night! And check out the cool flagsticks, which are very short by design on the extremely windy site

Is this Northern Ireland or Northern Michigan? Massive dunes and a blind tee shot await at the butt-clenching 10th tee

More massive dunes, tumbling topography and Lake Michigan frame the diabolical 633 yard par five 11th hole

With a late sunset on Lake Michigan due to the fact it's so far west in the Eastern time zone, we were able to tee off at 4:30pm and still have the chance to complete our round. We met up with our friend Rob, who joined us for the round and we also got paired with another chap who patiently waited for us on the first green, as Harris and I were a few minutes late for the tee time.

Arcadia gets a lot of flak from architecture aficionados, as this is anything but a natural design, with an incredible amount of dirt and sand moved to build the fairways and greens on a very challenging site. Still, this Warren Henderson/Rick Smith collaboration is breathtaking in spots and I really enjoyed the experience. I actually had my best round of the trip here, birdieing the 8th and 9th holes in succession to finish off a tidy one under par 35 on the front, my first sub-par nine on the year. I'd stumble a bit on the back as darkness fell but still ended up with a fine 76 (+4) and a great 7&5 win over Harris, which earned me a delicious seafood pasta dinner in the beautiful Arcadia clubhouse!

From there, we headed into Frankfort to our lodging for the evening and we'd need some rest to prepare for our morning tee time at the very exclusive and highly ranked Crystal Downs CC!

A simply spectacular vista awaits on the first tee at Crystal Downs

The uphill par three 9th, while only 175 yards from the tips, plays much longer and tougher than the scorecard indicates

The superb 17th hole begs you to go for it from the tee, a sucker's play if there ever was one!

Crystal Downs is credited to both Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell, who worked on behalf of MacKenzie in the midwest. While universally beloved by GCA types, it's generally unknown by the "retail golfer", as it's very private and hasn't hosted any major events. Still, this was the highest ranked golf course that we played on our trip, sitting 13th on Golf Digest's 2015 ranking of all golf courses in the US, private and public combined. A high honour indeed and very deserving of its lofty stature, with incredible tumbling land and perhaps the most devilish greens I've ever seen, so devilish that today's green speeds are likely a tad too quick for normal play here. I saw MANY putts fall back at our feet throughout the day and some that went past our feet and kept rolling back down the slopes to the fairways set below.

It was great fun and Harris, Rob and I had a blast trying to navigate around this wonderfully routed design.

We chilled out for awhile, grabbing lunch and having a beer on the beach before departing for the Kingsley Club, a very cool Mike DeVries design about an hour east of Frankfort.

Options, options, options! The wonderful par five opener sets the tone for what you're about to experience at the Kingsley Club

The fairway on the par four 6th hole looks almost unhittable on first glance but repeat plays prove there is much more room than it initially appears

Another teeth clenching drive awaits on the superb par five 7th hole

The redan-like par three 16th, with the 15th green in the foreground

Kingsley, built in 2001, is a "destination" club in that it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere, about a half hour from Traverse City, private and has beautiful lodging on-site for their members and guests. The course features wide playing corridors, big kicker slopes in fairways and around greens, embraces the ground game like no other course in the midwest and plays very firm and fast. There are many similarities to Ballyneal, one of my favourite courses in the world, located in Holyoke, Colorado but of course, Kingsley came first!

The course is wonderful and fun personified, the staff are great and the lodging is very comfortable and fits well in the surroundings. I have to imagine it would be a true pleasure to be a member here and I feel the course is criminally underrated, sitting at #133 on Golf Digest's 2015 list but it does register quite well with the Golfweek raters. I'm guessing that once more people get out here, it will start to rise a bit in the rankings.

We played 54 holes over two days at Kingsley then headed back towards Detroit and the lovely town of Birmingham, grabbing a great dinner before preparing for our final round of the trip, which was to take place at the famed South Course at Oakland Hills CC.

The long, uphill par three 9th hole at Oakland Hills famed South Course

One of the great par fours in the world, the wonderful 11th at Oakland Hills South

Our group approaching the par five 18th hole

Harris, Matt, myself and Mike are all smiles after a great day of golf at Oakland Hills

There's not much I can say about Oakland Hills and the supreme test that awaits on its vaunted South Course, which vaulted up to 17th among all courses in the United States, both public and private. It's hosted 10 USGA events, including six US Opens, three PGA Championships and also the 2004 Ryder Cup, famous for Hal Sutton's tragic misstep in pairing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson on their way to getting smoked by the European contingent and captain Bernhard Langer. The list of winners at Oakland Hills is a who's who of golf royalty: Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Padraig Harrington, Andy North...okay, I should have stopped at Harrington!

I expected monotonous, tree-lined fairways and a constant stream of 475 yard par fours but I couldn't be more wrong about this incredibly difficult but eminently fair Donald Ross design. The playing corridors are wide and this course is playable for all manner of players but the greens...oh my the greens! Superb inner contours with distinctive bunkering on a very grand scale, reminiscent of many of the great private clubs like Riviera and Augusta National, with dramatic capes and slopes throughout.

I understand that the greens are slowed somewhat during the week but run at close to US Open speed on weekends when the big games are played among the low handicap membership. The rough was nasty, even on the day I played and I can definitely see how they can tune this place up quickly for high-level championship play. The US Amateur is returning to the club in 2016 and there is a good chance a future US Open will be awarded on the heels of that event. I loved my day at Oakland Hills, one of the great clubs in the country.

Michigan is loaded with incredible golf and we barely scratched the surface of all its pleasures. But what a trip this was, one of the great golf vacations in my life, without question.

Back home, I was able to play the excellent Walter Travis designed Lookout Point CC two times over the course of the year.

A look back at the 18th hole from the top of the Niagara escarpment at Lookout Point CC

Lookout is arguably the best golf course in the Niagara region and one of three, along with Cherry Hill and Grand Niagara, to sit on the most recent ScoreGolf Top 100 in Canada list. I have a few friends who are members at Lookout and I always look forward to my one or two games a year on this great track.

Far from any top 100 list is Oak Hall Golf Course, a little 9-hole par three course located on the historic property once owned by mining millionaire Sir Harry Oakes.

Oak Hall was an important part of my childhood, as I learned the game on this little course, one that seemed huge when I was a little kid. This was my first game here in at least 25 years and it was among the most special games of 2014, as I enjoyed the round with my five year old son Evan, who is just learning the game himself!

My pride and joy about to tackle the 2nd hole at Oak Hall Golf Course in Niagara Falls, Ontario

There is pretty much nothing relevant from an architectural standpoint at Oak Hall unless you're talking about the estate itself! The course has been owned by the Niagara Parks Commission since it opened in 1966 and I hope to take Evan back again this coming year.

I also had the opportunity to play a couple of cottage country courses in the Muskoka region of Ontario. First, in July, I had the good fortune to get an invitation to visit the lovely Oviinbyrd Golf Club for a second time.

Stunning scenery abounds at Oviinbyrd, in Foots Bay, Ontario

Oviinbyrd is one of the most private and exclusive clubs in the whole country. It debuted at #18 on the 2015 Golf Digest Top 30 in Canada list I feel quite lucky to have been invited by my good friend Phil, a former teaching pro. This is easily the best Tom McBroom design I've ever played and I greatly enjoyed the course and the hospitality during my late July visit.

Finally, in early October, I was able to visit Bigwin Island Golf Club with family on my wife's side during a weekend cottage getaway.

The famous par five 18th hole at Bigwin Island, perhaps the most expensive hole ever built in Canada

Bigwin is one of the great experiences in Canadian golf, as the course literally is laid out on an island and requires a short ferry ride to get to the club. This was my third visit to Bigwin since it opened 15 years ago and is certainly among the best courses built by Doug Carrick. What a treat this was to play late in the year, with fall colours in abundance!

Hell of a year. Luckiest guy in the world, without question.

COMING SOON:

2014 Year in Review Part Three - Looking Ahead