Monday, April 21, 2014

Open for Business Again!

It's been awfully quiet here at Now on the Tee lately and for that, I apologize.

Simply put, this has been the longest winter I can ever remember and we once again got hit with a couple of inches of snow a week ago today. This was one day after we were basking in sunshine and 20+ degree Celsius temperatures.

Thankfully, that snow has melted and I'm *hoping* the snow is done for now. My home club, St. Catharines G&CC, put the pins in the greens on Wednesday last week for the first time this year, likely one of the latest openings we've ever had. I was able to get out twice during the Easter long weekend and despite my game being a bit frosty, coming out of hibernation, it was very exciting being back out on the course.

That said, it wasn't the first time I've played in 2014, as I was able to get in a few rounds down south a couple weeks ago. The reason?

I was lucky enough to win Masters practice round tickets in their lottery draw!

I decided to book some golf around the Masters practice round and flew down to lovely Charleston, South Carolina with my friend Terry on Sunday April 6th.

We got in our rental car and headed immediately to Augusta, Georgia and a date with Augusta Country Club, a gorgeous Donald Ross designed course that borders famous 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 had a wonderful dinner that night in Augusta as well to top everything off.

The next day was the biggie...Augusta National Golf Club and attending 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 next 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!

Singing in the rain 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 Kiawah Island's esteemed Ocean Course!

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!

I'll have writeups on all three courses in the near future. It was a wonderful trip and I'm looking forward to heading back down to the area next year! Hopefully, I'll get a full day at the Masters in 2015.



Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The PGA Tour Returns to Pebble Beach

As I look out the window while I write this post, snow is falling heavily once again in the Niagara Region, as our area continues to endure one of the most brutal winters in recent memory.

If the Masters Tournament is important for the fact it signifies that the golf season is upon us here in Canada, I'd say the PGA Tour's yearly retreat to the Monterey Peninsula and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is just as significant a step in the transition between winter and spring.

It's the tournament that gets my "golf juices" flowing and I can't help but watch the telecast and dream about the days that lie ahead on the course.

I'll be watching with renewed interest this year, as I was fortunate enough to play two of the three courses on the rotation when I visited California in 2013.

The picture postcard perfect par three 11th hole at the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club

Originally a Robert Baldock and Jack Neville design from 1961, Monterey Peninsula Country Club's Shore Course was completely rerouted and redesigned by architect Mike Strantz, opening to great acclaim in 2004. This would be Strantz's crowning achievement in design and he sadly passed away only one year after its opening due to a rare form of tongue cancer. The course sits in lofty territory among the top 100 courses in America and deservedly so. It is the most recent addition to the course rotation at the Pro Am, replacing Poppy Hills in 2010.

Here is a course profile I did recently on MPCC's Shore Course:

COURSE PROFILE: Monterey Peninsula Country Club (Shore Course)

I didn't play Spyglass Hill when I was in Monterey but I did find time to visit one of the most famous courses in the world, Pebble Beach Golf Links!

That's me teeing off the famous par three 7th at Pebble Beach...and no, that's not my cart!

One of the great spots in all of golf - the glorious 7th at Pebble Beach!

My friend Vito putting out on the beautiful 9th hole at Pebble Beach

There's not much I can add about Pebble Beach that hasn't already been said. It's a wonderful golf course and one of the great golf experiences of my life. The routing is ingenious, the ocean holes are all off-the-charts spectacular and while the holes away from the ocean suffer in comparison, the "flow" of the round is almost without peer. I played poorly but you couldn't wipe the smile off my face the entire day - it's a place that every avid golfer needs to experience once in their life.

I am planning to put together my Pebble Beach course profile over the next 24 hours or so and hope to have it up before the tournament starts later this week.

I look forward to watching the pros tear apart courses that humbled me on my first visit in May of 2013!



Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Year in Review

Could there be any bigger highlight than playing a round of golf with your child for the first time? And having that round take place at Pebble Beach's delightful nine-hole Peter Hay GC? I think not!

Prior to turning 40 on April 1st of this year, I fulfilled my goal of losing 25 pounds, getting down to a trim 170 with the hope that less aches and pain would equate to better golf. Unfortunately, it didn't work out as planned, as I struggled with my golf game all year. That said, there is no doubt that 2013 was among the best years I've had both on and off the course.

The Game

I started 2013 with a 3.1 index and I never got on track at any point during the year, ending the season as a 3.9. In fact, for the first time I can recall, my average score for the season was over 80, a good indicator that things simply didn't go well from a scoring perspective.

I did have one notable round early in the season, shooting a one under par 71 at my home club in May but I never challenged par again for the remainder of the year.

I posted 59 scores in 2013 versus 58 in 2012 and had six other rounds where I couldn't post scores due to the format (scramble) or the fact the course didn't have a rating (Ballyneal GC).

Competitively, it was a year to forget, as I lost a bunch of money to buddies in weekly games and generally fared poorly in almost every event I entered.

I flamed out in the first round of the Langley Cup match play competition at my home club in St. Catharines, a full handicap event between 0-7 handicaps. I was only slightly better in the Scratch match play event, losing in the second round after choking away a four-up front nine lead.

I once again played in the three day member-guest tournament at my home club with my usual partner, my wife's uncle Henry. He played with a heavy heart this year, as his son (my wife's cousin) passed away well before his time only four weeks before the tournament. We didn't play well and finished in the middle of the pack but I think it was an important event for Henry to help with the healing process. We'll do it again in 2014, as St. Catharines G&CC always does a great job putting this tournament together.

After taking a year off in 2012 due to a family vacation, I was back in the Club Championships at St. Catharines, once again wimping out and playing in the "A" Flight as opposed to the "Open" Flight and true club championship flight. After opening with an unsightly 83, I had to shoot a 76 in the second round just to make the cut on the number. I followed that up with an 84 to finish last among all of the players in my flight who made the cut. Just not my year.

A notable addition to my competitive calendar was organizing the "Premier League" season-long golf league at my home club. The league ran for 20 weekends during the summer months and the top 10 rounds out of the potential 20, utilizing a modified stableford scoring format, counted for the overall standings. We had two flights, with 15 guys competing from the back tees and 11 competing from one deck forward. With a $2600.00 prize pool, the event was a huge success and the guys who took part seemingly enjoyed having something to play for every Sunday. I hope we can build on it in our second year coming up. I finished 5th out of 15 playing in the "Back Tee" competition but only the top three were paid out.

I did cash in my other organized event, the third annual "Turkey 2 Ball" at my home club. After two years with 24 players and 12 teams, this year we had a spectacular showing with 16 2-man teams. For the first time, I was put in the "B Pool" due to my higher handicap and that allowed me to get paired with Will G, one of the better young players at our club. We'd shoot a best ball score of 70 (-2) on Thanksgiving Monday, losing the overall title by one shot but our tie for second won us $300.00 each plus another $50.00 or so in successful wagers. Not a bad haul! The winners both took home more than a thousand bucks each from the $4000.00 overall prize pool!

That was my last round of the year and as always, it's a great way to finish things off!

I did have one other significant event that I took part in outside of my home club but I'll get to that in the next section.

The Courses

2013 was one of the most prolific years I've had with respect to seeing new courses, with an incredible (for me) 14 first-time visits. Overall, I played 19 different golf courses this year.

I took a 12-day family trip to Northern California in late May, perhaps the best vacation I've ever had in my life. From there, I had three other golf specific trips: a four-day trip in July to Colorado with my buddy Harris, a solo three-day road trip to Westchester County, NY and Connecticut in August and finally a one night, two round impromptu trip to Long Island, NY in early October.

I traveled to San Francisco with my wife and son in late May, spending five days in that world-class city.

San Francisco and their famous cable cars, with Alcatraz looming in the distance

I played one round of golf while there, visiting the beautifully restored California Golf Club of San Francisco south of the city.

The beautiful vista on the 11th hole, with the 18th green also in full view in behind

The Cal Club has the fingerprints of both A. Vernon Macan and Alister MacKenzie on it but it took a wonderfully crafted restoration by Kyle Phillips in 2008 to bring back the wide playing corridors and artistic flair those two men are known for. Phillips also built five new holes and there is no doubt that this course is now among the best that the golf-rich city of San Francisco has to offer.

From there, we drove down the coast and spent another four days in the unspeakably gorgeous Monterey Peninsula. My first round there was at the private Monterey Peninsula Country Club and the Mike Strantz designed Shore Course.

My wife and son enjoying a gorgeous sunset in Monterey on famed 17 Mile Drive - Cypress Point Club, still elusive to the author, is off in the distance

The picture postcard perfect par three 11th hole at the Shore Course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club

Originally a Robert Baldock and Jack Neville design from 1961, the Shore Course was completely rerouted and redesigned by Strantz, opening to great acclaim in 2004 and eventually becoming part of the PGA Tour's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am rotation. This would be Strantz's crowning achievement in design and he sadly passed away only one year after its opening due to a rare form of tongue cancer. The course sits in lofty territory among the top 100 courses in America and deservedly so.

The next day, I drove back up the coast to Santa Cruz to tackle the challenging Pasatiempo Golf Club.

One of Alister MacKenzie's favourite holes: the 16th at Pasatiempo

Pasatiempo was built in 1929 and the design was strong enough to convince the great Bobby Jones to collaborate with MacKenzie for his own dream course, Augusta National Golf Club. Pasatiempo collectively has perhaps the greatest set of greens that I've ever played and a lot of credit for the "little touches" must go to Tom Doak and his team at Renaissance Golf Design, who completed a long restoration project there in 2007. Pasatiempo is criminally underrated in my opinion and should be on every top 100 list as far as American golf courses are concerned.

The next day would see me tee it up at one of the most iconic golf clubs in the world, Pebble Beach Golf Links!

That's me teeing off the famous par three 7th at Pebble Beach...and no, that's not my cart!

One of the great spots in all of golf - the glorious 7th at Pebble Beach!

My friend Vito putting out on the beautiful 9th hole at Pebble Beach

I had incredibly high expectations for perhaps the most notable public golf course on the planet and I must say that every expectation was EXCEEDED! We had an absolutely perfect day: 65 degrees and glorious sunshine, the course was in superb condition and even the pace of play was decent at a little over five hours. The routing is ingenious, the ocean holes are all off-the-charts spectacular and while the holes away from the ocean suffer in comparison, the "flow" of the round is almost without peer. I played poorly but you couldn't wipe the smile off my face the entire day - it's a place that every avid golfer needs to experience once in their life. I'll have much more on Pebble Beach in my forthcoming profile, coming sometime in January.

I figured playing Pebble would be the highlight of the year but from an emotional standpoint, I likely eclipsed it the next day. I had no prior knowledge of the 9 hole Peter Hay Golf Course that sits near the parking lot at Pebble Beach but I was alerted to its existence when I visited the club the night before playing the big course.

I wanted to move my Pebble Beach tee time up a half hour, just to guarantee that I'd play the famous 18th hole in daylight and once that was accomplished, the wonderful lady in the pro shop looked at my four year old son and asked if he plays golf. When I told her he just started hitting balls this year, she asked if I was going to be taking him to play the Peter Hay Course.

She then gave me the low-down: no charge for Evan to play, kids rental clubs were available, dad has to pay for himself...lets just say she had me at "kids rental clubs"!

The next day, Evan and I, along with family friend Vito and his two boys, Jacob and Andrew, teed off as a fivesome at the Peter Hay Golf Course.

A spectacular setting for Evan's first ever round of golf

Smiles galore for Evan and daddy too at the Peter Hay Golf Course

There is absolutely nothing better than getting the chance to play a game of golf with your child for the first time and for the rest of his life, Evan will be able to proudly say that his first ever round of golf was played at Pebble Beach! What a beautiful experience, one I'll never forget.

In late July, I flew down to Colorado for four days with frequent traveling partner Harris. Our first stop was at the Broadmoor, a five diamond resort in Colorado Springs. The East Course was closed that day due to an event so we played the less-heralded West Course. Ron Forse was brought in to restore some bunker shapes and also to modernize the design. We had a really nice day there but the course isn't that memorable. Hopefully one day I can visit again and see the East.

The next morning we headed back up towards Denver to the town of Parker and Colorado Golf Club.

The cool par three 2nd at Colorado Golf Club

This was my second visit to CGC and the course was in wonderful shape as they prepared to host the Solheim Cup only days after our round. We met up with a bunch of friends for the day at Colorado, which was a precursor to a big event taking part that weekend at Ballyneal, one of my favourite golf courses on the planet. I hope to finally get my course profile of Colorado GC online sometime in the new year.

The wonderful par five 8th hole at Ballyneal, as seen from behind the green

This was my third trip to Ballyneal in four years and it was to take part in a scratch 2-man better ball event called the Rota. There were 12 two-man teams that took part in the inaugural event and while Harris and I acquitted ourselves well, we'd be on the losing end of two very close matches, falling into the consolation bracket.

The field for the inaugural running of the ROTA, with eventual champions John & Dusty conspicuous by their absence

Yours truly ripping it down the first fairway during the first round

Great camaraderie outside the Turtle Bar as Ballyneal glows near sunset. What a place!

Despite falling short, we had a wonderful three days at Ballyneal and I truly hope that the ROTA becomes an annual, must-play event on my calendar. Jim, our great host, has big plans for this coming year and I certainly hope to be a part of it if it all comes together.

Back home, I played four courses other than my own in Ontario. Just after returning from Colorado, I finally got the chance to visit the Devil's Paintbrush in Caledon, generally considered one of the finest modern golf courses in Canada.

The huge double green on the 9th hole at Devil's Paintbrush

We played on a horrific weather day, with lots of rain and wind - I was more than a bit disappointed with the course setup when we played. This course is absolutely revered by many people whose opinions I value and I was shocked by the lack of playability at the Brush. There is no intermediate cut - you go right from fairway to lush, thick, knee-high fescue and if you miss the fairway, you'll be lucky to advance the ball 30 yards...and that's if you're fortunate enough to find the ball! The fine architecture is quite apparent but needless to say, I would like another look at this course just to be sure my eyes didn't deceive me the first time.

I played in a business scramble at Monterra Golf Club at the Blue Mountain Resort in Collingwood, Ontario. The course sits at the base of the mountain and like another mountain course I played earlier in the year, the West Course at Broadmoor, Monterra lacks memorability and is just an average design.

Going from average to perhaps the best Canada has to offer, I was fortunate to be invited back to St. George's G&CC in Toronto for a second consecutive year.

Gorgeous St. George's G&CC (Photo courtesy of Clive Barber)

Prior to last year, I had only played St. George's once in my life and that was as a 17-year old in a junior event. As indicated last year, it's truly a world-class design, one that can measure up to the best in all of golf, with as good a finishing stretch as I've ever seen. In my eyes, it's a much better design than The National and is my choice as the best course in Canada.

In late September, I spent a weekend up in Ontario cottage country with my wife and some of her family and while there, I made a return visit to see Ron Garl's Taboo Resort for the third time.

Rock outcroppings galore at picturesque Taboo

Taboo is one of those courses that stuns you with its beauty on your first visit but repeat plays show the hidden warts, so to speak. It's still a good golf course, perhaps around the middle of the pack on a Canadian top 100 list and I enjoyed my day there with the fall colours in abundance.

In mid-August, I hopped in my car and drove almost 700 kilometers to Danbury, Connecticut for two days of incredible golf.

My first day was spent at historic Winged Foot Golf Club just outside of Westchester, NY, where I played all 18 holes on the famed West Course and followed it up with eight holes on the East.

The 9th hole at Winged Foot's famed West Course, with the spectacular clubhouse in the background

The East Course at Winged Foot is no slouch and very worthy of its placement in America's top 100

The West Course has hosted multiple US Opens, most recently the 2006 event won by Geoff Ogilvy after shocking final hole collapses from both Phil Mickleson and Colin Montgomerie. The West has also hosted the PGA Championship in 1997 (won by Davis Love III) and a Walker Cup, among many other notable championships. It's a notoriously difficult course and many of the Opens held there have been notable for the high scoring, with the 1974 "Massacre at Winged Foot" won by Hale Irwin perhaps being the most famous of them all. My round on the West Course was one of those magical days where I stepped up my game to match the occasion, shooting a 78 from the tips with three birdies. We'd later head back out to play eight holes on the soon-to-be-restored East Course (Gil Hanse is doing the work) and finished the night off in style, with gourmet hot dogs on the patio, a few drinks and great conversation. It was one of the great days of my golfing life and I hope to return someday soon!

The next day, I was able to get in 36 holes, playing in two states. First up was The Course at Yale, unquestionably the best university course in America.

The Biarritz hole at Yale - that's me STANDING in the 5 foot deep swale!

I had the distinct pleasure of playing with 11-time Yale club champion and highly decorated amateur Reverend Bill Lee and his good friend Gerry. The scale at Yale is pretty much unlike any course I've seen in my life - MASSIVE doesn't even begin to tell the story. I understand the club is working hard on their conditioning issues and it's necessary, as the stately trees are keeping the much needed sunlight from hitting the turf, with many patchy areas throughout the course. There is so much potential here...I think this is a potential top 100 WORLD golf course if the proper work is conducted. Just sensational architecture and a real treat to play.

After my round, I hopped in the car and drove back into Westchester to play the understated Fenway GC, an A.W. Tillinghast design.

The par three 17th hole at Fenway GC

Gil Hanse has led a restoration effort at Fenway and despite being very much under the radar, it's a classy club and a treat to play. I whipped around as a single with a caddy in about two hours and it was a great experience and a lovely course.

My second trip to New York was an impromptu affair in early October, where I flew in to LaGuardia one morning, played famed Shinnecock Hills GC later that afternoon, the highly underrated Maidstone Club the next morning and flew home later that day. Talk about a whirlwind!

The incredible par five 16th hole at Shinnecock Hills, one of the great golf courses in the world

Shinnecock is a beautiful brute and very well may be the best and most difficult golf course I've ever had the pleasure of playing. Rated 5th in the world by Golf Magazine, this William Flynn masterpiece features incredible land, strategic play at every turn and a truly wonderful set of green complexes. Like Oakmont, another famously difficult golf course that has hosted major events, Shinnecock is eminently fair, with plenty of width but is completely exposed to the elements, with wind especially being a major factor. The day I played, we enjoyed a spectacular sunny autumn day, with temperatures around 24 degrees celsius and an incredibly FUN 3-club wind!

The day was topped off with dinner in Southampton with a number of fellow GCA'ers and architecture aficionados. Simply put, it was a perfect day.

The world-class par three 14th hole at Maidstone Club in East Hampton, NY

Most of my friends have no knowledge of Maidstone and despite the fact that it sits 67th on the most recent Golf Magazine world list, I'd say it's quite underappreciated by the public at large, likely due to its exclusivity. It's a course I could play every day for the rest of my life and never tire of its pleasures. It's an absolute joy to play and at less than 6500 yards from the tips, an enjoyable experience for any level of player.

I think I may be the luckiest guy in the world. What a year!

Looking Ahead

I haven't booked anything for 2014 as of this writing but I do know where I'll be in early April during the year's first major...

That's because I was one of the lucky winners in the practice round lottery for The Masters! I will have two tickets for the practice round on Monday so my tentative plans are to head down south perhaps on the Thursday before, play golf on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, head to Augusta on Monday, take a million pictures, eat some pimento cheese sandwiches and soak everything in before returning home the next day.

I'll need to find a travel partner for the trip, something I didn't think would be difficult but is proving to be more challenging than anticipated. Once that's settled, it will be time to book some golf courses! I can see playing anywhere from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia or even Alabama or Tennessee. Lots of options! Needless to say, I couldn't be more excited to see Augusta National Golf Club in all her glory for the first time in person.

Otherwise, my schedule is wide open for golf in 2014. I doubt I'll travel quite as much as I did this year but I can certainly see a couple of road trips in my future once again, in addition to one significant, week-long golf trip.

Either way, I'm sure I'll have something to write about again at this time next year!

As for the blog, I plan on making some cosmetic changes in early January, most notably increasing the size of the viewing panel. To accomplish this, I'll likely be eliminating the side navigation panel in favour of a navigation bar just below the header and that will allow me to have larger pictures showing throughout the site. By doing this, I will not be able to utilize Blogger's "widgets" and that could become an issue with my blog links and my archives pages but I'm working on a solution for both of those potential issues.

I'm more motivated to write than I've been in a number of years - I feel very fortunate to have met so many incredible people through this site and almost feel like I'm letting people down when I post as infrequently as I do. There's no reason why I can't get at least a couple posts per month up and continue to work on my course profiles, something I've fallen way behind on.

My next profile will be on the spectacular Pebble Beach - it was a "Chamber of Commerce" day when we played and I was fortunate to get many great pictures. I plan on having the blog's "new look" in place by the time I post that writeup in order to display those photos in the best way possible.

Thank you to all my readers for visiting in 2013 and I hope my writing keeps you interested enough to come back once in a while.

To everyone who hosted me last year...to those I was fortunate enough to play with in 2013...to everyone who visits this site...Happy New Year and here's to a healthy and prosperous 2014 both on the course and off!