Monday, October 15, 2012

The Last Hurrah - 2012 Version

Seasonably mild weather has hit Southern Ontario and despite my usual routine of putting away the golf clubs after Canadian Thanksgiving, which was just celebrated this past weekend, I'll be playing two more rounds before going into hibernation.

I'm scheduled to play on Wednesday afternoon with Drew, our head professional at St. Catharines G&CC and the club's consulting architect, friend of Now on the Tee Ian Andrew, who also writes a fantastic blog that should be bookmarked by anyone who is interested in course design.

Ian will be visiting the club to give the final approval for a new bunker that will be built on the par four 2nd hole, essentially replacing a tree that blew down in a wind storm last year. Weather permitting, we'll tee it up around noon after his work is completed. I'm looking forward to seeing Ian again and hope to chat with him about a couple of things, most specifically, golf in Scotland.

Yes, I'm thinking of finally biting the proverbial bullet and making my first-ever trip overseas to the Home of Golf!

Then, on Friday, I'm scheduled to take part in the final of the Niagara Cup, a Ryder Cup style event between many of the clubs in the region. We defeated Rockway Glen and Peninsula Lakes to get to this point and are currently tied 9-9 versus our rivals at the gorgeous Lookout Point CC as we head to their course for the last leg of the event.

I've been fortunate to win all of my matches to this point of the competition, winning a singles match at Rockway Glen against a two-time Canadian Open participant, winning another singles match at Peninsula Lakes and also won two best ball matches, one against Pen Lakes and another against Lookout, with both of those matches taking place at St. Catharines.

I've had to take a few half-days off work to play in the matches but it's very much worth the hassle - the Niagara Cup is one of my favourite events but due to family commitments, a competition I've been unable to participate in for the past few years. Needless to say, I'm thrilled to have been asked to take part this year and hope to put a good performance together on Friday afternoon in my final game of 2012.

My game has been okay lately. Certainly not spectacular but efficient, with a bunch of rounds in the mid-to-upper 70s. That steady game was in effect on Monday last week when I hosted the 2nd Annual Turkey 2 Ball Invitational at St. Catharines G&CC.

This event was devised as a "year-end blowoff" of sorts for the large group of lower handicaps at the club, including our professional and greenskeeping staff and the inaugural event in 2011 was met with great enthusiasm. Once again, I was able to get 24 players to take part in the competition, with a $600.00 skins game and a $2400.00 prize pool to be split up among the top three teams.

We had a draw party on the preceding Friday night, with the higher half of the field getting randomly drawn then getting the chance to "draft" their lower handicap partner. We had a nice pizza and wing buffet prepared by the club for all participants and a lot of laughs (and drinks) were had by all. The only players exempt from the draft were the 2011 champions, who would get the chance to defend their title in 2012.

In the end, the team of Brad Butler and Bill Winn took home the coveted Turkey 2 Ball title with a fine best ball score of 71 (-1) on a very cold Thanksgiving Monday to split the substantial 1st place prize money. I'm happy to report that I actually cashed in my own event this year, finishing in a tie for 3rd place with my partner for the day, Ian. It wasn't a big payday due to the tie but we also won a team skin for our dual birdies on the 18th hole so we came out a little ahead on the day considering the large entry fee.

It was another great tournament and I'm not only excited about next year's Turkey 2 Ball but also another similar event that we plan to run in the spring of 2013.

Anyway, that's all for now. Perhaps I'll report back on my Niagara Cup finals match but if not, I'll definitely reserve some space for it in my 2012 season review in December or early January. In the meantime, be on the lookout for my next course profile - the super-exclusive Jack Nicklaus and Tom Doak collaboration in the Hamptons, Sebonack Golf Club.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

National Golf Links of America

National Golf Links of America
Southampton, New York, USA

6935 YARDS (PAR 72)
COURSE ARCHITECT: C.B. Macdonald (1911)
LAST PLAYED: May 23, 2011.
LOW SCORE: 78 (+6)

- Golf Digest World's 100 Greatest Golf Courses 2016: #13
- Golf Digest Top 100 in America 2015: #8
- Golf Magazine Top 100 Golf Courses in the World 2015: #10
- Golf Magazine Top 100 Golf Courses in the U.S. 2015: #7
- Golfweek Best Classic Courses 2016: #4

"The National Golf Links of America was the first course with no weak links. Aside from the par-3s there is no real defined route to the green and the golfer is required to make a decision on the tee relative to his game, wind conditions and his own psyche that day. There were other courses with individual strategic holes, but consider 1907, here was the course full of them, a course that made the golf world sit up and take notice. Macdonald’s object was to build an Ideal Golf Course and set an example for others to follow. It was a major move away from penal architecture, with a wonderful mix of strategic and heroic golf. It remains today a living textbook for architects to study."
- George Bahto, Author, "The Evangelist of Golf: The Story of Charles Blair Macdonald"

Charles Blair Macdonald is widely considered to be the father of American golf architecture, having built the first 18-hole course in the United States (Chicago GC) and most importantly, bringing strategic elements only seen in Great Britain into American course design after many overseas trips in the late 1800's and the early part of the 20th century.

Macdonald was actually born in my childhood hometown, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada but his formative years were spent in Chicago. He'd eventually be sent to St. Andrews University in Scotland to continue his education and it was there that he became smitten with the great game, befriending many of the top players of the day, including Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom.

C.B. returned to Chicago and spent many years as a stockbroker but late in the century, he got back into golf in a big way, designing Chicago GC, becoming a prominent figure in the founding of the United States Golf Association and he would even parlay his considerable playing skills into winning the first ever U.S. Amateur Championship.

His business would eventually take him to New York and it was there that he started searching for the ideal site to build what he hoped would become the greatest golf course in the United States.

He'd utilize the services of Seth Raynor to help build his masterpiece, quite a fortuitous choice, as Raynor would eventually become his right hand man on many great designs and ultimately a world-renowned architect in his own right.

The National, as it's known among architecture aficionados, was inspired by many of the great courses in the British Isles and many of the more famous holes in the U.K. were replicated on this beautiful, seaside site in Southampton.

The first hole, "Valley", seems like a gentle opener at only 330 yards but a conservative drive down the right side will result in a blind, uphill approach to one of the wildest first greens you can imagine. Three and four putts are commonplace here.

"Sahara", the par four second hole, was inspired by its namesake at Royal St. George's. The tee shot needs to climb over a massive bunker complex cut into a ridge that falls off dramatically the further right you go, leaving a very awkward approach.

The third hole is simply one of the finest holes in the game. A par four measuring 426 yards but playing much longer, "Alps" is patterned after its namesake at Prestwick. There is a cross bunker that runs diagonally from left to right that must be navigated - the ideal shot will need to take on the longest part of the hazard on the right in order to get even a slight glimpse at the green, which is set well up on the hillside with some more unseen bunkers lining the front of the putting surface.

This wonderful stretch of great design continues at the fourth. Perhaps the most copied hole in all of golf, "Redan" is a long par three patterned after the original at North Berwick. The defining characteristics of a redan see an elevated green sloped from right to left and front to back, with a long and deep bunker cut into the front. There are many who consider Macdonald's version of the Redan to be even greater than the original.

The fifth hole, "Hog's Back", used to be a par five breather that's now turned into a beast of a par four but that flows perfectly into the sixth hole, the glorious Macdonald original, "Short". At only 141 yards and with a massive putting surface, there's little to be scared about on the tee. However, the brilliantly designed green, with a massive ridge in the middle, is more than enough challenge for the best of putters.

The par five seventh, "St. Andrews", is Macdonald's version of the Road Hole at the Old Course. The drive needs to carry a long cross bunker down the right side while the approach needs to avoid the devilish "Road Hole Bunker" in front and the equally challenging bunker back right that takes the place of the road you'll find in Scotland.

The 8th is the aesthetically pleasing "Bottle", a 400 yard par four that features a split fairway. Perhaps the most desirable position would be on the left side but to get there you need to clear a series of cross bunkers. The safer right hand side leaves a partially blind uphill approach from a less than ideal angle.

You reach the far end of the property on the par five ninth, "Long" before hitting the halfway house at the 10th tee to take in some delicious ginger snaps with peanut butter, allowing you to sit down and reflect upon your day to that point.

"Shinnecock" runs right alongside a couple holes from that celebrated club and it's a beast of a par four at 450 yards, albeit downhill from the tee. The 432 yard 11th, "Plateau" features a double plateau green, with upper levels in the back right and front left and a sunken portion in the middle.

"Sebonac" is a straight-away par four that ends a particularly difficult stretch before coming to the lovely par three 13th, "Eden", patterned after the namesake 11th hole at St. Andrews.

The 14th is a much-copied Macdonald original - "Cape" features bunkers down the entire right hand side and a slightly elevated but heavily bunkered green. It was here that I saw one of the more incredible shots of my life, as my playing partner used a putter from about 130 yards, barely avoided a deep pot bunker in front of the green and had his ball come to rest less than five feet away. This after using the same putter off the tee on the Eden hole...yes, he hit putter over the water hazard there! The 14th is also notable as it is the start of your journey back towards the clubhouse and the famous windmill comes into view once again.

"Narrows" is an uphill par four measuring just less than 400 yards and entices the player to give it a rip. However, befitting its name, the fairway gets tighter the closer you get to the green so perhaps laying back is the smarter option.

The 16th hole is another uphill par four that features a blind approach to a sunken "Punchbowl" green.

The 17th is another stunner. "Peconic" is a downhill, short par four with a glorious view of the bay as the backdrop. Again, many options are available here - you can attack the left side with a driver to set up the ideal angle into the green or play safe with an iron to the right that will then leave a blind, awkward approach from a very poor angle. Superb golf hole.

The "Home" hole doesn't disappoint - it's an uphill par five that is reachable for long hitters and features a welcoming fairway but beware the approach, as any misses right will fall well down the cliffs into Peconic Bay. A heroic finishing hole, with the stately clubhouse on the left and the spectacular view of the bay on the right.

There's not a lot I can add to the myriad superlatives bestowed upon Macdonald and his work at the National.

Macdonald took the concepts learned from Old Tom and his many trips to the classic links abroad and built an absolute masterpiece of strategic design, a course to be studied and revered for centuries to come.

The course is among the most influential ever built and many of the templates he mastered are still being copied on new designs over a hundred years later. There are options galore on every hole and you can feel free to play an aerial game one day then opt to use the ground approach on your next visit. Your imagination is on overdrive at the National and creative shotmaking is there in abundance.

The conditioning is superb. The out and back routing is inspired and easily walkable. The gorgeous vistas are magnificent.

If there is a weakness at the National Golf Links of America, I certainly didn't see it on my visit.

Magical. Spellbinding. Exhilarating.

This is one of the greatest golf courses in the world.

I didn't bring my camera out to NGLA just to be safe, as I didn't know what their policy was with respect to pictures. One of my playing partners took a couple shots of me during the round on his phone but the majority of photographs on display here have been generously shared by Scott Warren, a fellow GCA'er and the man behind The Global Golfer. You can read his thoughts on the National right here. Thank you very much Scott!

I'd also like to thank Brian Sheehy, another GCA member that I finally had the pleasure of meeting at Dismal River earlier this year. Brian also was gracious enough to allow me the use of some of his NGLA photos.

Finally, thanks to Neil Regan, one of my other playing partners at the National. He produced that beautiful panoramic of the 16th hole that looks like an oil painting and put on a brilliant back nine display during our round, showing me that a putter can be used in every circumstance!

The gated entrance at National Golf Links of America

The gorgeous and stately clubhouse, as seen from the 18th fairway

1st Hole - "Valley"

Approach shot on the 1st Hole

2nd Hole - "Sahara"

The second shot on the 2nd

3rd Hole - "Alps"

The blind approach into the 3rd green

Short approaches to the 3rd end up here and the devilish front bunkers still need to be navigated

Greenside at the glorious Alps hole

4th Hole - "Redan"

Greenside at the Redan

5th Hole - "Hog's Back"

6th Hole - "Short"

Yours truly...giddy on the 6th tee!

7th Hole - "St. Andrews"

Just in front of the road hole green

8th Hole - "Bottle"

The uphill approach into the 8th

9th Hole - "Long"

Landing area on the 9th fairway

10th Hole - "Shinnecock"

Second shot into the 10th

Approach into the 11th - "Plateau"

Second shot into #12 - "Sebonac"

13th Hole - "Eden"

14th Hole - "Cape"

Approach from the right over water coming in from Peconic Bay

The approach from the left side of the 14th fairway

15th Hole - "Narrows"

The short approach on the 15th hole

16th Hole - "Punchbowl"

The right rough on the 16th

Looking at the 16th green from the right

Glorious late-day shot of the 16th green and the famed windmill

Smiles galore at National Golf Links of America!

The "Punchbowl" hole in all its glory - Courtesy of Neil Regan

17th Hole - "Peconic"

The approach into the clever 17th

Looking back down the 17th from behind the green

18th Hole - "Home"

The approach from the left side of the fairway

The home hole basks in the late-day sun