Friday, July 30, 2010

Back from BC; Langley Cup; Club Championship on Deck

Well, I'm back from five wonderful days in beautiful British Columbia, where Steve, Ryan, Cal and myself got in nine rounds of golf, including two at Tobiano, six at Sagebrush and one at Predator Ridge (Ridge Course).

The weather was spectacular except on our first day at Tobiano but even then, the sun made an appearance about halfway through the day and lasted the rest of the trip.

I think I can speak for all of us in saying the golf out there was tremendous and we all had a wicked time. More on the trip in a future post.

We drove back into Niagara early Tuesday morning, arriving around 1:30am or so and there was no rest for yours truly, as I had to play my quarterfinal Langley Cup match against Brian B, a former winner of the event.

I had to give Brian two shots for the match, something that would be quite tough for me to overcome knowing how good a match player he is.

We both parred the first hole then he dropped a short putt on the 2nd hole for birdie to go one up quickly. His lead would expand when I inexplicably three-putted from about 20 feet on the 3rd hole.

We'd both make solid pars on the 4th and 5th holes but I'd find trouble on the par five 6th. I drove left and had to hit a low snap hook under the trees to get the ball into range for my approach. However, my shot ran long and right behind the huge tree that sits in the right center of the fairway about 120 yards out.

I tried to hit over the tree but the ball caught the last branch and ricocheted left into the junk. We looked for a couple minutes and couldn't find the ball so there was another hole lost. Thankfully, Brian made his birdie putt anyway to make it a no-doubter.

So I'm three-down but Brian makes his first mistake of the day, missing a short par putt on the 7th to give me my first hole of the match. However, he'd get a shot on the 8th hole and I'd concede it to him when my birdie chip rolled about five feet past the hole with him inside me. Again, he'd tap the birdie in anyway so it was yet another no-doubter.

We both hit horrific drives on the 9th hole but Brian hit a great second shot onto the green from the middle of the 10th fairway while I could do no better than get my shot to 15 yards short. I'd make bogey, Brian would par and I was four down through nine and gasping for air. Not much you can do when your opponent throws a two under 34 at you!

Things weren't looking good, as I'd have to give Brian his last shot on the short par five 10th but I finally put a good hole together, going driver/3-iron hybrid just off the right side of the green and would get up and down for the birdie, halving the hole with Brian when he made par.

Momentum looked like it might be on my side when I hit a nice wedge to about six feet on the 11th and made it for my second consecutive birdie and won the hole, moving to three down.

Pretty funny exchange after that as we were walking off the green. Brian, who occasionally reads this blog, says:

"So, what is the headline?"

I look at him for a second, not knowing what he was asking.

"What do you mean?", I asked.

"The headline for your blog", he replied. "Two birdies in a row - is this the 'cue the comeback' moment?"

We all started laughing, knowing that's exactly something that I would write and have written in the past.

But honestly, at that point, I'm still so far back I'm just thinking I need to fire at every bloody pin if I'm to have a chance.

Of course, my momentum would stall immediately after hitting a solid tee shot on the par three 12th, as I'd three-putt again to lose the hole and fall to 4 down again.

I'd win the 13th hole when Brian hit his second shot way long and picked up for double but I'd make another bogey from the bunker on the 14th hole to fall to dormie then got the door slammed in my face when Brian hit a great pitch to about two feet on the 15th. I'd concede the birdie putt to give him the convincing 5&3 victory, one of my worst losses in match play competition.

I'd end up shooting 76 on the day, not a bad result but Brian came in with a scintillating 71 and could have been even lower. He played great.

So I'm out of the Langley and will have to concentrate on the Scratch Cup and this weekend's Club Championship. I've got a favourable draw in the first round, playing with Will, Jamie and Jim, three really solid players.

I'm not sure what to expect - my game has been strong this year but my putting hasn't been great the last two weeks. I have a really late tee time in the mid-afternoon so I'll have plenty of time to get some practice in before I head out.

It's my favourite weekend of the golfing season and hopefully I can put together a personal best finish.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Scratching the Surface Again; British Columbia Beckons

My home club instituted a new match play competition this year called the "Scratch Cup", likely to be renamed at some point before the end of the year after one of our multi-time club champions.

The Scratch Cup is the overall match play championship at St. Catharines, is played from the back tees and no strokes are given, as opposed to the Langley Cup, a competiton I've talked about quite frequently over the years.

Cal G, friend of NOTT, is the man who delivered the idea to the powers that be at our club and they decided to implement the idea right away so kudos to the Cal man!

I had a first round bye in the competition and faced young Brandon M in the second round. Brandon is a member of the Niagara Men's Tour so he can definitely play but I hoped my solid mid-season play would help me prevail.

Well, it proved to be a bit tougher than anticipated. We both made solid pars on the first two holes before I was able to hit my approach to about three feet on the 3rd, taking the hole with a birdie three to go one up.

I'd give it back right away on the par 3 fourth, making bogey from in front of the green while Brandon made his routine par. We'd both par the tough fifth so we were all even more than half way through the front.

The first turning point in the match came on the par five 6th. I actually hit a poor drive left of the fairway but did well to hit out and eventually hit on, stopping about 18 feet away for birdie. Meanwhile, Brandon drove perfectly and would end up hitting a great wedge to about five feet.

Figuring I'd need to make, I'd be disappointed when my ball stopped right on the front lip of the cup, settling instead for par. I then watched in disbelief as Brandon missed his putt and it went sailing six or seven feet by the hole. I couldn't give him that one, obviously, and he would miss the comebacker as well, giving me the shocking one up lead.

Brandon would miss another shortish putt on the 7th to give me another hole and then I'd hit the shot of the day, a 3-hybrid from about 225 yards that flew the creek, landed just short and rolled up to about six feet.

Sweetness!

Brandon also hit a great shot, a long iron to about 30 feet. He'd lag it to gimmie distance for the birdie but it wasn't an issue, as I'd roll in my putt for the eagle three, my first eagle in 2010.

I really knew things were going my way on the long par four 9th. I hit a poor drive, this time to the right but it looked like it would be okay, as it didn't go over the maintenance road.

However, I'd walk up to find my ball right beside a tree, with almost no shot righthanded and only a clear look from the left side.

Brandon really should have checked to see how my ball was sitting but instead just walked up and hit his shot left into the greenside bunker.

Knowing I had some wiggle room, I decided to try to hit the ball normally. With the tree hugging my right thigh and the ball way back behind it, I tried to chop the ball back into the fairway.

WHIFF!

I completely missed the ball, hitting about eight or nine inches in front of the ball.

"I missed it completely", I informed the group.

"That's a whiff", I said again, just so they knew I intended to hit the ball and that it wasn't a practice swing.

I regrouped without any anger whatsoever and decided to gamble now, taking a 5-iron out of the bag and turning it over to hit lefthanded.

I play hockey left-handed so I can swing it pretty decently from that side and I was able to make solid contact with the ball on my third shot, hitting it to the 100 marker.

I still looked dead but hit a decent wedge shot to 18 feet. Brandon hit a poor bunker shot then putted to about three feet, giving me a slight opening to at least tie the hole.

I stepped up and knocked that sucker in for the unbelievable bogey! Awesome!

Brandon would make as well but that has to go down as one of the most satisfying halves of my life!

I would end up winning the match 4&3 on the 15th hole when we both made pars to move on in the competition and finished the round with an even par score of 72, which dropped my handicap to 0.2, bringing me back to a scratch handicap after starting the year at 4.1.

I briefly hit scratch in 2008 but the 0.2 represents the lowest index I've ever had in my life, something that is very, very satisfying! Hopefully I can keep the scores down over the next couple weeks, as club championships are right around the corner!

Also, as you're reading this, I'm in beautiful British Columbia on my second golf vacation of the year. While in BC, I'll be playing two rounds at
Tobiano Golf Club and one round at the brand new Ridge Course at Predator Ridge.

We'll also be spending three full days at
Sagebrush Golf and Sporting Club, Richard Zokol's private getaway near Merritt on Nicola Lake.

I'll be certain to take lots of pictures and post about my experiences at all three courses upon my return. You can also look forward to my upcoming two-part review of the highly esteemed Sand Hills Golf Club, coming within the next week or so.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ballyneal Golf & Hunt Club - Part Two

BALLYNEAL GOLF & HUNT CLUB - Read Part One Here

"Ballyneal is a private and unique haven for the golfer who prefers to walk the course, who relishes the challenge of no hole ever playing the same twice, and who is intrigued by a design that forces thought. Most of all it is for those who deeply appreciate the company of others with a like mind and heart."
- Ballyneal Official Website

"Imagine the exuberance of Ballybunion, the landscape of Sand Hills and the spirit of St. Andrews and you begin to get the idea of Ballyneal."
- Travel & Leisure Golf

Despite rain and cold conditions throughout our stay at Ballyneal, Harris and I were able to walk five full rounds of golf in a two-day period. The fescue fairways and greens are customarily kept very firm and fast but were a touch slower than normal due to the excessive rains experienced in the Holyoke area both during and prior to our stay.

Even with less than ideal conditions, it was plainly evident that this golf course is one of the finest in the world.

One other interesting note about the course is that it has no course or slope rating, just like Sagebrush Golf & Sporting Club in British Columbia and Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska. The lack of rating is attributed to the ever-changing wind and weather conditions at these three clubs.

Hole descriptions in parentheses and italics are courtesy of course architect Tom Doak.

1st Hole - 382 Yards Par 4

"Approach is much easier from the left, where you can see the green better and you are hitting away from trouble...but the left is a hard place to get to, especially from the back tee."

The opener at Ballyneal from the tips features a diagonal right to left carry across the native area, known locally as the Yucca. Those playing from the regular tees will have a much less challenging shot, as the hole plays straight away from there just to the left of the Terrapin Lodge. All of the fairways at the club feature tremendous slope and undulations and this one is no different, with balls generally bouncing to the left on this hole. It is best to be left to open up your approach but too far left and you may find a little lower area that brings a blind second into play. Most of the greens at Ballyneal are huge and that is certainly the case here at the first. There is plenty of room to miss right but getting up and down from the short grass there is no easy feat with the green pitching away from the player. Left isn't much better, with a couple gnarly and deep bunkers protecting that side of the putting surface. Par is a good score here.









2nd Hole - 490 Yards Par 4

"This hole will play 100 yards shorter downwind than into the wind, when it’s a three-shotter for many players. Try to drive to the left-center. For the approach, the right distance is paramount, as the green is very deep."

This hole is an absolute animal from the back tees and it takes two tremendous pokes just to reach the green in regulation when the wind is in your face, like it was the two days we played. The hole plays straight away to a very wide and inviting fairway that lays between some dunes, meaning shots pulled or pushed usually will take the slope and come back toward the middle of the fairway somewhat. This is truly a second shot hole and the strategy on your approach must take into account both your distance from the green and the prominent little bunker short and slightly left of the center of the green. The ideal approach is a running shot up the right side where you can roll the ball into the open portion of the very large putting surface. You do have to be mindful of the bunker near the back left of the green, as many errant shots will find their way into that sandy abyss. A tremendous half-par hole where making a four is very satisfying.









3rd Hole - 145 Yards

"A very short three with the green in a natural bowl. Green tilts away to the back right, so hedge to the left of the hole, and stay out of that back bunker at all costs."

The first one-shotter at Ballyneal is truly gorgeous in appearance but don't let it fool you - this hole is no bargain despite its short length. From the back of the free-flowing tee you can't really see the front of the green that sits behind some severe undulations. A look from the middle tees shows that there is more room in front than you think and landing a touch short may be the only way to stop your ball on this green that slopes sharply from front to back and left to right. You also must be mindful of the nasty and deep bunker complex about 30 yards short of the green, ready to gobble up any shots not executed perfectly. There is also a nasty little bunker behind the green that will surely deliver a bogey or worse to any players who get a little frisky with their tee ball. The green is one of the finest on the course, with severe undulations and one of the first instances on the course where you can actually play shots away from the hole and watch them come back off the slopes. Super fun par three.






4th Hole - 573 Yards Par 5

"Reachable in two for some players, but it will take two perfect shots. Lesser mortals should lay back to the left side of the fairway with their second shots, unless they can chase one up to the foot of the green."

Nothing can prepare you for the stunning panorama of the Chop Hills once you climb the hill up to the fourth tee. The wind is usually whipping at this point of your round off one of the higher parts of the property and this is likely one of the funnest tee shots to hit on the entire golf course, as the tee sits high above fairway grade and there is almost 100 yards of width in the landing area, meaning it's "grip it and rip it" time! The hole is one of few at Ballyneal that dogleg to the right and the second shot is either a layup into the wind or usually a long iron or fairway metal into the green when downwind. The putting surface sits well above fairway grade and only the best shots will find the green here, with a nasty and very deep bunker short right and a chipping area in the back left. For such a reachable hole, I'm willing to bet the better player walks off this green wondering why they can't better par as often as they think they should here. A truly wonderful par five.







5th Hole - 165 Yards Par 3

"The bank at the left front of the green is the most severe hazard here. Just make sure you carry the pot bunker in front, and take your chances from the back of the green."

Another brilliant par three where all of your attention will likely be focused on the tiny little bunker that sits right in the front middle of the green. Your chances of making par or better here are almost nil if you don't hit the green in regulation. There is a huge slope on the left side of the green that feeds balls into a chipping area or worse, into a huge bunker complex just left of that. In my limited experience, I think it's very important to take enough club and get to the middle or back of the green and take your chances with a longer putt, rather than mess with the front bunker.




6th Hole - 480 Yards Par 4

"The longest and toughest par 4 on the course; into the wind, you should be content to get up short of the green in two and try to save par with a chip and a putt. Very tricky green...if the hole is on the left you can use the slopes to your advantage, but when it’s top right you just have to play a precise shot onto the plateau."

Another brute from the back tees and made even more difficult by the fact that the tee shot is played blind over a dune and blowout to a hidden fairway. There is quite a bit of room on the right side here, with no real hazards over there except for the ever-present Yucca. The approach is hit slightly uphill to an open-fronted green with tremendous slopes and undulations. You must, at all costs, avoid the immense bunker short and left of the green. This may be one of the tougher pars on the golf course.







7th Hole - 352 Yards Par 4

"Lots of players are tempted to drive it up in front of this green, but it’s easy to leave yourself with an awkward distance and a bad angle. A safe tee shot to the right lets you use the bank at the left side of the green to contain your second shot and bank it back close to the hole. The bank can also come in handy on recovery shots from anywhere to the right of the green."

If there's one hole that guests to Ballyneal are likely to remember over any other, it's likely going to be this one. You don't often think of 350 yard holes as 'driveable' par fours but this one qualifies under the the right circumstances. There are options galore off the tee: do you layup short of the carry bunker down the left side and leave a longer approach or challenge the bunker with a fairway metal or hybrid to leave a shorter pitch into the green? If the wind is helping, taking driver and challenging the dunes on the left in order to reach the green becomes a viable option. The greensite at the 7th may be one of the most remarkable in all of golf. The "E-shaped" putting surface is cut in between two dunes and features a tremendous slope from left to right, allowing the player many different shot options to get to certain hole locations. There is also a treacherous bunker in the lower area right of the green, ready to swallow up wayward approaches into the narrow but long green. This hole is absolutely brilliant and in my opinion, the greatest short par four in the game along with the historic 10th hole at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California.








8th Hole - 515 Yards Par 5

"This fairway narrows to hourglass dimensions at just over 300 yards from the tee, so even when it’s reachable in two, pulling driver takes on some risk. The safe play to the green is to stay left of the flag, since most of the green is terraced up from left to right."

The rugged and exhilarating 8th hole at Ballyneal is an eminently reachable par five but much trouble lurks off the tee, especially when the wind is helping the player. The fairway narrows considerably around 300 yards from the back tees and with the firm conditions, a 3-wood may be the smart play off the tee to stay short of the immense cross bunkers right in the middle of the approach area. The second shot must be played uphill toward a green that has more bumps and knolls then a ski mogul hill at the Olympics, with three distinct levels on a green that runs from back right to front left. It's another brilliant green where you must be conscious of the angle of approach in order to hit your approach to the proper level, which will give you pretty much the only chance of an easy two-putt.








9th Hole - 362 Yards Par 4

"Another hourglass fairway...the main thing is just to get the ball in play off the tee with whatever club makes you happy. The green is generally receptive although there are two very tough hole locations, at the very front and on the back right shelf."

The front nine ends with a mid-length par four played well uphill off the tee to another fairway that tapers considerably in the landing area. The smart play is likely to lay back with a long-iron or fairway metal in order to avoid the Yucca on the left and the deep bunker on the right, leaving a 150 yard approach into a very large and undulating green. Aggressive players may elect to hit driver, especially when the wind is helping in order to really shorten the approach to pitch distance. The green is very wild and very receptive to the ground game but the slope runs from front to back and from right to left, making distance control very difficult.










10th Hole - 509 Yards Par 4

"There is a hidden bit of fairway on the upper right for aggressive drivers, but be sure you’re on the right tee to make that carry! Many players will have a blind or semi-blind second shot from the hollow on the left; keep the shot on line and you’ll be fine."

The tee shot on the 10th rivals that of the 4th for fun factor, with a downhill strike to a very wide and accommodating bowl-shaped fairway, with most balls coming to rest in the lower left portion away from the right hand bunker. As indicated in the quote above, the most ideal place to be is on the hidden upper right plateau past the nasty bunker, which is about a 280 yard or so carry off the back tees. A successful shot will provide the player with a clean look at the open-fronted green that slopes sharply from front left to back right. There is plenty of room to miss here, with short grass galore around the green but up and downs are few and far between on this immense putting surface. Pars are well-earned on this hole.











11th Hole - 200 Yards Par 3

"A strong one-shotter to a high plateau green. NEVER miss left of the green, as there is a 20-foot drop on that side. This is the only green where I ran the bulldozer myself, so you can blame me if you misread the putt."

The par three 11th features many different teeing options, including a real cool tee box hidden off to the left almost behind a large dune. From the back tees, the shot is basically at green level, with a long carry over the lower portion of the hole to a plateau green protected by bunkers left and in front. The big hazard here is the big 20+ foot drop off left of the green which almost guarantees a bogey or even worse. The green is much longer than you'd think, especially if you're playing one of the lower, shorter tee decks and again, par is a great score here every time.




12th Hole - 375 Yards Par 4

"One of my favorite holes on the property. A good tee shot (not necessarily a driver) will hug the left side of the fairway for a better angle and a better view...if you leak to the right you’ll be playing the second from a deep hollow. This is a WILD green and it’s important to know where the flag is...the left-hand hole locations are in a hollow and it should be easy to miss to that side, but keeping the ball on the right-hand plateau takes a very good shot."

What a great golf hole this is! Downwind, the hole actually functions as a short two-shotter, where drives up the left side can actually run right up near the green and give the player a very good look for their pitch approach. However, shots that stray to the right will be left with a very daunting blind wedge shot, over a deep pot bunker to a green that is raised in the front right but falls off severely to the back left. This may be one of the most unique and brilliant green complexes on a course filled with them and in my opinion, the 12th is among the best holes at Ballyneal. Tremendous fun!








13th Hole - 510 Yards Par 4

"There are acres of fairway here, but you’d like to drive it down the left if possible, because half the green is hidden behind a front right-hand bunker and it’s very difficult to get to that side from the right of the fairway...in fact you probably should just play to the left of the green from over there."

This is the longest par four on the golf course when played from the back tees over the 12th green. It features a very wide fairway made to seem tighter due to a couple of centerline bunkers - there is plenty of room right but it leaves a very unappealing approach shot over a greenside bunker and will be tough to hold for almost any player, regardless of skill. The ideal tee shot flirts with the left side to open up the approach, which can be run in quite easily. The front portion of the green sits in a little bowl, with shots filtering toward the middle of the putting surface. This green is absolutely immense and features severe undulations and mounding, no doubt causing many three-putts.





14th Hole - 362 Yards Par 4

"This is the simplest looking hole on the course, but it’s an awkward length and a very small green, and you can find a lot of trouble if you get aggressive with it. I’ve seen several players drive it within 50 yards of the flag but leave their second shots in the hollow to the right and make 5, or worse."

This tee shot is eerily similar to the previous hole, as both holes dogleg slightly to the left from the back tees and feature centerline bunkers. However, all similarities really end there - this is a much shorter par four and features a much more interesting greensite that is benched into a dune with a dramatic falloff short and right of the putting surface. This is likely also one of the smaller greens on the golf course and agressive tee shots that end up short right will be left with a very difficult pitch at a poor angle to this green and it is very possible to see shots hit the surface and spin back right down the hill to the player's feet. One of my favourite greens on the golf course and a really neat hole overall.







15th Hole - 237 Yards Par 3

"A big par-3 in a big setting. The saddle of fairway between the bunkers is deceptively about forty yards short of the green...if you carry just past that, the ball will usually scoot down to the front part of the green, effectively reducing the length of the hole. Or, you can just try to hit a hybrid club into the back of the green, where most shots will feed to the left unless you hold up on the right-hand plateau."

In my opinion, this is the toughest one-shotter on the golf course. From the back tees, this is all the hole you can handle, especially if it's playing into the wind like it did for us. Fairway metals, hybrids or even drivers might be played but there are plenty of options even on this hole off the tee, as a saddle of fairway about 40 yards short of the green can kick balls toward the putting surface. There is also the hillside on the left that can kick balls back toward the green but go too far left and you'll have a very difficult flop shot from up on the hillside to a green running away from you or, if you are truly unlucky, you'll be playing from the yucca long and left of the putting surface.




16th Hole - 546 Yards Par 5

"A hole with two different strategies depending on the wind and the tee you’re playing. From the back it’s usually a three-shotter, and the key is picking the right line for your second shot over the big ridge on the inside left of the dogleg. If you’re playing up a tee, the hole can be very reachable in two, but a bold drive down the left side makes all the difference."

A very interesting three shot hole where you can not see the green from the tee. The fairway is very large and pitched from right to left but any chance to reach the green in two depends on how much you hug the left side of the fairway, effectively shortening your approach shot. Shots to the right likely will need to be layed up while those on the left can give the green a go. The second shot is hit right in between two immense dunes so placement off the tee is of paramount importance if you are looking for a visual for your approach. There is a nasty little bunker in the front right of the green that seems to just gobble up golf balls and up and downs from there are truly difficult. There is some room to miss back left as well, with plenty of short grass there allowing you options around the green. This is likely your last real good chance at birdie, as the course finishes with two very difficult par fours.









17th Hole - 481 Yards Par 4

"My other favorite hole on the course, this is just a glorious long two-shotter. The fairway has an upper deck on the left and a valley on the right side...the ideal tee shot will split the difference and get around the corner. The approach shot should be played to the left front, so it can take the slope at the front of the green just as it expires."

A tremendous long par four, the 17th gives you all that you can handle and more, especially into the wind. The fairway is wide but there is strategy here: you ideally need to catch the slope that splits the fairway from the upper left portion to the lower right portion. This will propel your tee shot right around the corner of the bunker and drastically shorten your approach. The green sits open on the left side and running shots will filter down and to the right. It is a must to avoid the very deep bunker fronting the right side of the green. There is plenty of room long here but shots hit through the green will tumble downhill a bit and leave an awkward pitch shot back up the hill. Making a four here is like stealing and making a birdie three, like Harry did in one round, is almost a miracle.






18th Hole - 463 Yards Par 4

"It may look obvious now, but we moved the tee and green a couple of times before we figured this hole out. The drive is open, but it will swerve away to the right if you stray right of center, leaving a longer approach. The green is quite steep from back to front, more so than any on the course, so beware the pace of your putt...nobody likes to three-putt the last green."

This is a glorious finisher, with plenty of width to freewheel off the tee but again, placement is important if you want to maximize your chances of a closing par. Shots hit down the left side will shorten the approach but leave arguably a tougher angle into this green that runs from back left to front right and features a bunker in the front right and a depression area front left. Tee shots hit right will leave a much longer approach but you will gain access to the front portion of the green, allowing you to sling a baby draw into this green. The putting surface is pitched sharply from back to front and uphill putts are really slow on this hole. A worthy closer on a world-class golf course.





Ballyneal still has some skeptics, especially those who aren't fans of the fescue greens and playing surfaces but in my opinion, that makes this golf course even more unique and interesting. The important thing is that the course embraces the ground game like perhaps no other in the United States and the playing characteristics at Ballyneal likely resemble those links courses found in Scotland and Ireland.

The atmosphere and service at the club is tremendous, as previously discussed but the true star of the show at Ballyneal is the golf course, which is truly world-class and deserving of its lofty standing near the top of most rankings of modern golf courses. I hope to get the chance to return someday and see how the golf course plays under ideal weather conditions.

An invitation to Ballyneal is one that simply can't be turned down and the three days I spent at the club provided memories that I'll cherish for the rest of my life.