Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Year in Review

2012 "Major" highlight: A second place finish in the 5th Major at Dismal River in Mullen, Nebraska, with me in green shirt/black shorts and partner Tyler Kearns in baby blue

I knew it was going to be next to impossible to better what was a spectacular year of golf in 2011, when I took golf trips to Bandon, Oregon, Long Island, New York and Columbus, Ohio and ultimately played 12 top 100 courses over the course of the year.

2012 was much quieter but no less satisfying. Here's a look back at the year that was on the golf course for yours truly.

The Game

I went into 2012 with a handicap index of 1.8 and hoped to work it down toward scratch, a level I've reached briefly a couple times in recent years. Despite putting in more range time than perhaps any year I can recall, my game was pretty mediocre throughout the year and I ended the season at 3.1.

Rounds played were down significantly, with only 58 posted rounds versus 72 in 2011. That 14 round difference can mostly be attributed to the fact that I only got away on one golf trip this year versus the three last year.

I played a number of competitive rounds this year with mixed results. My buddy Ryan and I teed it up in the Ontario Better Ball qualifier in London, Ontario and fell short of making it though by a few strokes, mostly due to my lacklustre performance that day.

I also played poorly in the two St. Catharines G&CC match play events that I love competing in: the Scratch Cup (lost in the 2nd round) and the Langley Cup (0-7 handicap event - lost in the 1st round).

For the fifth consecutive year, I took part in our club's three-day member/guest event with my wife's uncle and after a 3rd flight win in 2011, we struggled in 2012, finishing 2nd in our flight but quite a way down the list overall. Still, as usual, it was a wonderful event and I don't see any reason why we won't give it another shot in 2013.

The tournament highlight in 2012, without question, was my participation in the 5th Major, an event put on by my friend Eric Smith that is played annually at the Dismal River GC in Mullen, Nebraska. I was partnered up with Manitoba native Tyler Kearns, a fellow member of Golf Club Atlas and I played some of my best golf of the year in this very interesting format of nine-hole best ball matches. In fact, on the first day, I made 8 birdies in 27 holes and Tyler made a whole bunch as well, as we'd end up winning the "A" flight over some pretty stiff competition and qualify for the four hole, five-team "Shootout" for the 5th Major crown.

That's me teeing off on the 7th hole at Dismal River, the second hole of the 5th Major-deciding shootout, with lots of interested onlookers

Tyler would birdie the 6th hole right of the gates to get us going and we'd make it right to the end, losing out to a birdie/net eagle from the team of Brent Carlson and Greg Krueger to finish 2nd overall in the 30-team event and win a pretty nice chunk of change!

It was one of the best-run events I've ever been part of and my thanks go out to Eric, Dismal River owner Chris Johnston and to all of his staff, who all were incredibly committed to ensuring the event went off without a hitch.

In other team play, I also participated in five Niagara Cup matches this year, representing St. Catharines G&CC in matches against Rockway Glen, Peninsula Lakes and then Lookout Point CC in the finals. I'd win four of my five matches but the one loss was a costly one, as it was at Lookout in the final round where our team would fall by a narrow margin. Nevertheless, after a long, self-imposed sabbatical, it was a hell of a lot of fun playing in the Niagara Cup again.

The final highlight from a tournament perspective was organizing the second annual "Turkey 2-Ball" at St. Catharines, a 24 man, 12 team best ball competition among the better players at the club. Once again, we had a team draft party a few nights before the event itself and the last players drafted ended up winning the whole thing so I must be onto something with the format! Even better was the fact that I got paired with Ian Kowalchuk and we tied for third, finishing in the money.

You may notice one major omission from my tournament schedule - the 2012 Club Championship at St. Catharines. Indeed, I didn't participate for the first time that I can remember. It's without question my favourite event of the year but due to scheduling issues at the office, the only week I could get away with my family this summer happened to conflict with the championship.

Family comes first. There will be other club championships in my future, I'm sure.

The Courses

While 2011 provided an embarrassment of riches for me, 2012 proved to be much more modest regarding new courses seen. In all, I played 14 different courses in 2012, with only 6 of them being first-time visits.

One of the new courses seen was Highland Country Club in London, Ontario, which hosted the Ontario Better Ball qualifier. I actually played a practice round the day before the qualifier and played poorly both days. It's a sporty course, with small, undulating greens and my inept iron game definitely held me back in the qualifier.

I only took one trip in 2012 but it was a great one, as I headed back to Colorado and Nebraska for the second time in three years.

We decided to fly out of Detroit in order to get a cheaper flight so that offered Steve, Ryan and I the opportunity to play St. Thomas G&CC just outside of London on the way to Detroit. For the first time in three visits, I was able to complete all 18 holes without a monsoon and interestingly enough, I thought the course was a bit overrated. I can see the architecture is quite strong on this Stanley Thompson design but the tree overgrowth was borderline absurd, something I understand that the club is working on. I hope to return one day to see the positive changes.

From there, we were off to Colorado! Our first stop was at Castle Pines Golf Club, the home of the former PGA Tour event "The International" which was notable for its use of the Stableford scoring system.

The lovely par five 15th at Castle Pines GC

Castle Pines is a 1981 Jack Nicklaus design that is ranked 29th in America by the folks at Golf Digest. I was able to meet up with friend of Now on the Tee, noted architect, tournament director and greens superintendent Armen Suny at Castle Pines and Armen checked in with us at various points during the round to see how we were enjoying the experience. I was very impressed, perhaps surprisingly so, at the architecture at Castle Pines and I think that this is one of Nicklaus' best designs, rivalling his work at Muirfield Village, which I had the pleasure of seeing in 2011.

The next day we were off to see the relatively new Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw design at Colorado Golf Club.

The tough little par three 2nd hole at Colorado Golf Club

This 2007 design will be hosting the 2013 Solheim Cup and it's a delightful golf course to play, with plenty of the trademark width that Coore & Crenshaw are noted for and options galore around the greens.

Later that day, we played another 18 holes, this time at the Tom Doak designed CommonGround Golf Club in Aurora.

The par four 4th at CommonGround, with it's very interesting green contours

CommonGround is a public facility that opened in 2009 and co-hosted the stroke play portion of the 2012 US Amateur with nearby Cherry Hills GC. CG is essentially a municipal course but being a Doak course means it's filled with plenty of great moments, with the ground game especially being embraced throughout the design.

From there, we were off to Ballyneal Golf Club, easily the architectural highlight of the trip for all three of us.

The wonderful par five 8th hole at Ballyneal

This was my second trip in three years to Ballyneal and once again I was fortunate enough to get four rounds of golf in during our two day stay. Steve and Ryan absolutely loved the experience and the stop in Holyoke reaffirmed my love for the course and the people at Ballyneal, who bend over backwards to make sure your stay is a positive one. I got to meet another GCA'er for the first time at BN, as Wyatt Halliday was nice enough to come out to the 7th hole to greet us despite barely being able to walk after taking part in the inaugural Hundred Hole Hike two days earlier.

We concluded our trip with a three days at Dismal River Golf Club in Mullen, Nebraska to take part in the 5th Major. The Jack Nicklaus designed course at DR has been softened considerably in recent years and a clever course setup for the event ensured maximum fun for all participants, regardless of handicap. The golf course played quite short during the event so I'd like to see it from a bit further back the next time I return but I certainly enjoyed making a boatload of birdies out there!

The 5th Major wasn't the only highlight at Dismal River - interested participants were able to get a personal tour of the soon to be opened second course at Dismal by the architect himself, Tom Doak.

Architect Tom Doak explaining his thoughts about his new design at Dismal River

Walking on Tatooine? Nope, just Tom Doak leading his flock on a tour of his new course at Dismal

Doak is unquestionably one of the hottest architects in golf right now and his course at Dismal will not disappoint his legion of fans. The land for his course, in my opinion, is better than the land Nicklaus was given for the first course at DR, with much more drama available in the holes down in the canyon along the actual Dismal River.

We spent about four hours over two days walking the entire course with Mr. Doak and it was a truly enlightening, one-of-a-kind experience for this architecture aficionado. The new course is scheduled to open in the summer if grown-in goes as planned and I hope to get the chance to see the finished product sometime in the near future.

In August, I rented a cottage up in the Muskoka area a couple hours north of Toronto for my family, including my wife, son, sister-in-law, our two nephews, my mother-in-law and her friend. It was a relaxing week off from work and the cottage was pretty awesome, right on a large, secluded lake. I'd miss out on the club championships, as mentioned earlier but I did get a round of golf in that week at the Bob Cupp/Tom McBroom designed Deerhurst Highlands in Huntsville. It was better than I remembered, with plenty of great golf holes on a beautiful piece of property.

I returned to play a few local clubs during the course of the summer, most notably a round at the Walter Travis designed Cherry Hill Club just outside Fort Erie. It was the first time I'd returned since Canadian architect Ian Andrew did his wonderful bunker restoration and I was duly impressed with the work and can only hope the powers that be at my club do the same thing at some point down the road. I had an enjoyable day at Cherry Hill, playing one half of a "Canada Cup" match with fellow Canadian GCA'er Mark Saltzman versus Buffalo Golfer's Ron Montesano and Kevin Lynch. Mark carried my sorry butt to victory that day and Ian Andrew would take my place in the second half of the matches at Lookout as Team Canada would prevail once again. I'm hoping for a rematch in 2013, presumably on the US side of the border this time!

Speaking of which, after playing matches at a couple of average local tracks like Rockway Glen and Peninsula Lakes, it was a heck of a treat getting to play in the Niagara Cup finals at Lookout Point.

Incredible land leads to visual deception on the par five 7th hole at Lookout Point CC

Lookout is easily my favourite golf course in the Niagara Peninsula, perhaps a sacrilegious statement from a member at a neighbouring club but I stand behind the comment and always look forward to testing my game on this interesting design.

The final new course I saw in 2012 was one of the great courses in all of Canada - St. George's Golf & Country Club just outside of Toronto.

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

I actually played St. George's back when I was 17 years old but I had no appreciation for architecture back then so I consider this to be the first time I've played it "with eyes opened". 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. I certainly hope it doesn't take 22 years for a return visit!

I've still got plenty of catching up to do from courses I visited in 2011 and earlier but you can be assured of eventually seeing profiles on Castle Pines GC, Colorado GC, Dismal River, St. Thomas, Lookout Point and St. George's, all of which are rated as top 100 courses by publications such as Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, GolfWeek, Links Magazine or ScoreGolf. I also took a number of photos out at CommonGround so that's another course that might get the full profile treatment down the road.

Looking Ahead

I predicted a quiet 2012 after a busy 2011 and was on the money. What's in store for 2013, you ask?

Well, similar to last year at this time, I have absolutely no concrete travel plans for the coming year.

2013 is actually a big year for yours truly, as I will hit the big 4-0 (four uh-oh?) in April. My grand plan was to finally take my first trip overseas, thinking it was a perfect time to take a big trip and see the great links courses in Scotland.

I've spoken with some friends about it and there's even a crazy itinerary that I love that would include seeing courses not only in Scotland, but Ireland, England and the Netherlands as well!

None of that is off the table as I write this but I have some new responsibilities that may force me to postpone any thoughts of making a trip overseas until another year.

I do think there will be some room for me to take one large scale golf trip and one smaller "long weekend" getaway type of trip but we'll see how things shake out as we get into January and my schedule becomes a bit clearer.

I'll likely know more in the next month and will certainly share any travel plans I eventually make with my faithful readers.

One thing I can almost guarantee that I'll play more golf next year, likely somewhere in between the amount of rounds I played in 2012 (58) and the number I played the year before (72). I'd like to continue working on my game, a laughable thought for many years but after spending some Q.T. at the range this autumn, I can definitely envision spending a bit more time practicing in 2013 as I try to improve on my currently inflated handicap index.

That brings me to the thing I'm most excited about in 2013 - playing golf with my son Evan!

I've shown remarkable restraint over the past four years, according to my wife anyway, of making sure not to force Evan into golf. I've taken him to the club a number of times, just to let him run around, play in the practice bunkers and even hit a couple of putts but I haven't had him hit a full shot yet.

Why is that? Well, he hasn't asked.

While Earl Woods may have been great for Tiger, I don't want to force my son into golf too early and have him eventually resent me and this great game that I love so much. So I told my wife I wouldn't put a club into his hands until he was ready.

Well, I'm happy to say that Evan recently told me that he wants to try golf next year!

We have a wonderful, Ian Andrew designed short game facility at our club and a tyke program for kids four and up so I can't wait to get him out there in the spring and perhaps even get a little set made up for him. I will certainly cherish every moment I get to spend with him out there and I can't wait to build some new memories with him in 2013 and beyond.

Happy new year to all my patient and loyal readers. It was another lacklustre year of posts and I'm woefully behind on my course profiles but I hope to put a major dent in them over the course of the next three months. This is sadly just my 20th post of 2012, a pretty pathetic output for a guy who loves to write but admittedly has many responsibilities both at home and at the office. I won't promise anything, as that hasn't worked in the past but I have to imagine you'll see more content from me in 2013 than you did this year!

Best wishes to you all - let me know if you have any exciting plans of your own on the course in 2013!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Sebonack Golf Club

*** Now on the Tee has MOVED to our own domain!!! ***


Sebonack Golf Club
Southampton, New York, USA

7534 YARDS (PAR 72)
COURSE ARCHITECT: Jack Nicklaus & Tom Doak (2006)
LAST PLAYED: May 24, 2011.
LOW SCORE: 81 (+9)

- Golf Digest Best New Private Course 2007
- Golf Digest World's 100 Greatest Golf Courses 2016: #94
- Golf Digest Top 100 in America 2015: #38
- Golf Magazine Top 100 Golf Courses in the U.S. 2015: #59
- Golfweek Best Modern Courses 2016: #7

"Two heads are sometimes better than one. And then again, sometimes they're not."
- Jack Nicklaus, Co-Designer, speaking at June 2004 press conference for the groundbreaking of Sebonack Golf Club (Quote taken from the book "Sebonack", written by Brad Klein & Carol Haralson)

Long Island native Michael Pascucci is the visionary behind the ultra-exclusive Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, New York. Pascucci started out in the mortgage finance business and built his fortune after launching WLNY-TV, the first and only television broadcaster on Long Island.

Pascucci was an avid golfer who vacationed often in Florida. After buying a vacation home in the sunshine state, he became neighbours with the great Jack Nicklaus, eventually signing up as a founding member at the Bear's Club. It was around this time that Pascucci started to dream of opening his own high-end club back home and after a multi-year search for ideal land, he came across a 298 acre parcel on Peconic Bay that used to be part of the Bayberry Estate, owned by Charles and Pauline Sabin, one of the more wealthy and socially prominent couples in New York back in the early 20th century.

The fact that this land was adjacent to both Shinnecock Hills GC and the National Golf Links of America furthered the notion that the site was ideal for golf and Pascucci, after consulting with his family, would cut a cheque for the healthy sum of $46 million to acquire the land.

Nicklaus had done several preliminary routings to help Pascucci in the permitting process and certainly couldn't be faulted for thinking that the Sebonack design job would be his. However, Sebonack project manager Mark Hissey lobbied hard to get Tom Doak involved and Pascucci was sold after making subsequent visits to the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw masterpiece, Sand Hills GC and to Doak's Pacific Dunes on the Oregon coast.

Nicklaus and Doak would need convincing but both ultimately decided that this unconventional pairing, while not ideal to either individual party, was more preferable than not being involved at all. After working out details on how the partnership would work, the first shovel went into the sandy soil in June 2004.

Sebonack was finally a reality.

Interestingly enough, Nicklaus would go along with using a Doak routing for Sebonack, with Nicklaus supposedly providing the majority of tee to green strategies while Doak concentrated on the greens and the overall aesthetic look of the course.

With two huge names involved, you knew that there would be some fireworks when egos collided but despite the strained relationship, Sebonack is a surprisingly cohesive design that should stand the test of time.

Highlights include the gentle par four opener with the greensite offset well to the right to take advantage of the spectacular background provided by Peconic Bay.

The long par four second hole qualifies as my favourite on the course. The tee shot on this 474 yard beauty is framed by large elm trees on both sides and features a wonderfully natural greensite set into a large dune. The green also has a significant false front and I have to imagine many first putts roll right off the green if you're unlucky enough to be above the hole. Interestingly enough, I made my only birdie of the day here at the 2nd, a rare feat according to my playing partners.

The third hole, a par four measuring 442 yards uphill gives the second a run for its money. The green is perched well uphill with the gorgeous clubhouse looming large in the background and a massive bunker is a dominant feature front left.

The 250 yard par three fourth ends a very difficult starting stretch and the 355 yard fifth offers a bit of a respite, with most players hoping to get a chance to make birdie. However, positioning off the tee is of utmost importance, as shots hit toward the meat of the fairway down the right side will be left with a most awkward wedge approach to the smallest green on the course and one that slopes sharply away from the player. Tee shots flirting with the bunkers on the left will be left with an ideal angle. A very clever and engaging golf hole.

The sixth, a 418 yard par four, features an uphill tee shot and one of my favourite greensites at Sebonack. The 490 yard par four seventh goes right back down the hill and the midlength par three eighth hole favours a draw and requires a carry over a reservoir pond.

The ninth is a gorgeous piece of business, a 549 yard par five that serves as an homage of sorts to Bethpage Black's wonderful, meandering 4th. There is incredible drama here all the way to the green, which accepts both aerial and running approaches.

The tenth, a 413 yard uphill par four, moves to the highest point on the property before sending you back down toward Peconic Bay on the spectacular 496 yard par four 11th. The 12th is the shortest hole on the course but with the gorgeous backdrop and the devilish bunkers in front and off to the left, there is enough visual stimulation to stir even the most focused player out of their rhythm.

The long par five 13th is a true risk/reward type hole, with many options available on the second shot while the 465 yard par four 14th has the most controversial green on the golf course, one that is being softened before the 2013 U.S. Women's Open at the club.

The lovely walk back toward the bay starts at the 661 yard monster at the 15th, another strong par five. The par four 16th has been changed quite a bit since the club opened and still isn't particularly memorable but the par three 17th brings you quickly back to life with its angled green fitting in beautifully with the large dune on the right.

The 18th, a 570 yard par five, is a visual stunner. With the towering flagpole at the neighbouring National Golf Links of America offering a natural aiming point, the elevated tee shot needs to avoid Peconic Bay, which runs hard down the entire left side of the hole. Nicklaus and Doak both lobbied for a long, tough par four finisher but Mr. Pascucci's wish for a dramatic par five closer would ultimately be granted and most agree that it's a fitting conclusion to a wonderful golf experience.

That said, Sebonack is relatively unique in having a true 19th hole, a 182 yard par three that can be used to settle bets or perhaps persuade you into playing a second round.

There is no question that Sebonack is a stern test of golf, especially when the wind is up, as it usually is on that area of Long Island. However, it's playable for golfers of any level, with plenty of width off the tee and greens that can equally reward aerial or bounced in approach shots.

The routing is very strong and I have to imagine it's similar to Pebble Beach in how you loop back toward the water a couple of times during the round before reaching the crescendo at the 18th. Many of the tees are free flowing and almost directly adjacent to the previous green, similar to Doak's celebrated work at Ballyneal. The land tumbles and rolls beautifully but Sebonack offers a wonderful walk, one that I enjoyed immensely.

Initiation fees have been reported to be as much as one million dollars at Sebonack and the playing conditions reflect that, although the green speeds weren't anywhere near as intimidating as those at Oakmont, just for the sake of comparison. The aesthetics are a major highlight, with ragged-edged bunkering that Doak is famous for, offering visual stimulation on the inland holes that match the gorgeous vistas provided on the holes near the bay. Credit must also go to Nicklaus for deferring to Doak on the look, although you can definitely argue that Jack has embraced the more rustic look in some of his recent work, most notably at Dismal River in Mullen, Nebraska.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the truly spectacular clubhouse, easily one of the classiest I've seen in all my travels.

I really enjoyed my day at Sebonack - I only wish we didn't have a thick fog that marred the landscape for much of our round but there was no disguising the immense quality of the design, one that definitely deserves its lofty position in the top 100 of American courses. It's one of the most exclusive clubs in the world so my chances of returning might be slim but I truly hope I get the chance to drive through those gates again sometime in the future.

As indicated above, we played the first half of the round in a dense fog so I decided to leave my camera in the car while playing the course. I did eventually get the opportunity to take a number of photographs from the clubhouse roof after the completion of our round, with many of those shots displayed here.

That said, most of the hole photographs are courtesy of Brian Sheehy, a fellow GCA'er who was gracious enough to allow me to post some of them here. Thank you once again Brian for your generosity!

The elegant entrance features ironwork from the Bayberry mansion that was built in 1919 on the Sebonack site

The beautiful clubhouse at Sebonack

Tee shot on the par four 1st Hole

Landing area on the 1st as seen from the clubhouse, with the National Golf Links of America in the background

Approach shot into the 1st, as seen from near the clubhouse

Behind the 1st green looking back toward the fairway

The par four 2nd hole

A view of the stunning 2nd hole from the clubhouse roof

Approach shot from the left side of the 2nd hole

The 2nd green

Tee shot on the par four 3rd hole

The approach into the 3rd

Looking back down the fairway from behind the 3rd green

Free-flowing tees are a highlight at Sebonack, as seen here on the par three 4th

Zoomed in look at the tee shot on the par four 5th hole

The approach into the 5th

Looking back down the fairway from the 5th green

A blind tee shot awaits at the par four 6th

The approach into the beautiful greensite at the 6th

Looking back down the 6th from behind the green

The par four 7th tee

The second shot on the long par four 7th

The interesting contours of the 7th green

The water reservoir comes into play on the par three 8th

The first par five of the day at the 9th

Zoomed in look at the tee shot on the lovely 9th

Approach shot into the 9th

The uphill par four 10th

Another look at the 10th tee shot, taken from the clubhouse roof

The approach into the 10th

Greenside at the 10th

The beguiling par four 11th

The stunning approach into the 11th

Yours truly, standing in the 11th fairway

A closer look at the approach into the par four 11th

The picturesque short par three 12th

Greenside on the 12th

The tee shot on the excellent par five 13th

The approach from the right side of the 13th hole

A less intimidating approach but a more difficult angle awaits on the left side of the 13th

The tee shot on the par four 14th

From the landing area on the 14th fairway

The controversial contours of the 14th green

Another look at the bold contouring on the 14th green

The 15th tee

The approach shot into #15

Looking back down the fairway from behind the 15th green

The par four 16th hole

The second shot into the 16th

A shot from behind the 16th green

A great vista awaits as you approach the 17th tee

The par three 17th hole

Greenside on the 17th

The spectacular par five finishing hole at Sebonack

The second shot on the 18th hole

Just off to the right of the green on the 18th

A gorgeous late day shot looking back down the 18th from behind