Monday, July 14, 2014

Spectacular Northern Michigan!

So, no new posts since late April? What's happening, you ask?

Well, I'm playing golf, if that's what you call it but I simply haven't been very motivated to write about the game lately. I'm in a horrendous slump, trying to break in new clubs while also attempting to figure out my swing issues and it's resulted in a pretty sour writer here at Now on the Tee.

Thankfully, a recent little golf vacation has woken me from my slumber and while I still seek the answer to my scoring problems, my motivation to talk about golf and architecture has returned.

Just last week, I spent five days travelling through Michigan with my pal Harris and our itinerary for the trip would probably make even the President blush.

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 is currently ranked as the 23rd best public course in the United States by Golf Digest.

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 2013 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 this 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

Superb topography and strategic design are prevalent, as seen here on the wonderful par four 5th

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

Good luck finding a flat lie on the drivable (for suckers anyway) par four 17th hole!

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 (if you don't know what I mean by that, you don't qualify for that designation!), 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 2013 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, not even making any of the Golf Digest lists 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 is rated 20th 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.

Expect detailed reviews of all five Michigan courses sometime in the future and there is no doubt in my mind that I will be returning to this golf rich destination sooner, rather than later!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Disastrous Winter for Courses in the Northeast

The winter of 2013/14 will likely go down as one of the most devastating in recent memory for golf course owners and superintendents.

Here in Southern Ontario, many courses continue to be closed due to widespread turf damage and for some clubs, the wait will continue for weeks, if not months.

Within a half hour of where I live, two of the top courses in the country were affected to the point where ALL of their greens will need to be stripped and re-sodded and it will be June before their members will finally get the chance to pull out their putters again.

My friend Robert Thompson wrote a wonderful, detailed article on the issue and I urge you to read it in order to better understand the dilemma facing so many great clubs in the Northeast.

Ontario Courses with Poa Greens Struggle to Deal with Cold Weather Carnage - By Robert Thompson

My home course, St. Catharines G&CC, located just outside of Niagara Falls, Ontario, was very fortunate to escape relatively unscathed by the harsh winter conditions.

St. Catharines Golf & Country Club, in a photo taken just prior to opening day this year (April 16, 2014)

Our grounds crew has been aggressively overseeding with bent grass for almost nine years now, both on fairways and greens and while Poa always flexes its muscles in the hot and humid summer conditions, this continuous program put in place by our superintendent ensured that winter damage this year was minimal. We have winter kill in spots around the greens and a few fairways but playability has been fine and all areas will recover with the appropriate care and continued application of bent overseeding throughout the year.

That said, we didn't escape completely unscathed, as the December ice storm brought our driving range posts and netting down for the second time in less than five years, leaving us without appropriate protection for adjacent fairways and the need to go to an "irons only" range set up for the near future.

Still, I know that we are one of the lucky ones and I just hope that better days are ahead for those still suffering from the effects of this horrific winter.

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.