Sunday, October 25, 2015

Springtime in North Carolina and a Return to The Masters

If you recall, last year I was lucky enough to win practice round tickets for the 2014 Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. I never had the privilege of attending the event in the past so I planned a four day trip, flying into Charleston, South Carolina with my friend Terry and we would play a few rounds of golf in the area in addition to our Monday practice round.

However, a significant storm on Masters Monday meant we only spent about 40 minutes walking Augusta National before the weather sirens went off, forcing all patrons off the course until the storm passed.

As documented in this blog post from last year, that storm unfortunately wouldn't pass and the powers that be at the Masters officially cancelled the Monday practice round, devastating two Canadians in the process, among many others I'm sure.

There was a silver lining though. Mere minutes after getting this awful news, emails started pouring in like the rain on the the top of our windshield, with Masters officials first stating that we would be reimbursed for the price of our 2014 tickets but what came next was the big news - all Monday practice round ticket holders would be guaranteed tickets for 2015!

We'd be getting a second chance!

While scouting out potential flights, I decided it would be cool to fly into a different airport this year and that would give us the opportunity to play some different courses. Ultimately, we decided to fly into Charlotte, North Carolina and I went about building a solid five day itinerary that would start and finish in that lovely city.

Terry and I flew into Charlotte on a Sunday morning and upon getting our rental car, we'd grab lunch in town then hit the road for ten short minutes before meeting up with two friends for a round at Carolina Golf Club.

Bank of America Stadium, home to the NFL's Carolina Panthers and located near downtown Charlotte

The tee shot on the 410 yard par four 6th hole at Carolina Golf Club (photo courtesy of Ed Oden)

The uphill approach shot into the par four 7th at Carolina GC (photo courtesy of Ed Oden)

Carolina GC is a private, Donald Ross design that didn't get much attention in golf-rich Charlotte until a much needed restoration/renovation project was completed in 2008 by architect Kris Spence. Bunkers and original green sizes and shapes were restored, trees were cut down and wide playing corridors were re-established and the results are striking.

We had a wonderful day at Carolina, playing in just over three hours in a fivesome, getting compliments along the way from other members who were impressed with our brisk pace of play. We ended the day with a lovely dinner in the clubhouse with our hosts before making the drive to our hotel in Columbia, South Carolina, our home for two nights.

On Monday morning, we were up bright and early for our trip to Augusta and the Masters practice round. It was a tad cloudy as we made our drive into Augusta, with our friend Cory joining us for the day after also playing in our group at Carolina GC the day before. Thankfully, the skies would eventually clear and we had an absolutely beautiful day to enjoy Augusta National after our bad luck from the previous year!

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

I had been looking forward to this day for a whole year and of course, despite intense preparations, I would forget something important as we made the drive to Augusta - my camera! While photos are strictly prohibited during tournament rounds, patrons are more than welcome to take photos during the three practice rounds but I absentmindedly left my camera in the hotel room. Since cellphones are not allowed on the property, I wouldn't get any photos of my wonderful experience in 2015, with the photos above being shots taken during our ill-fated 40 minutes in heaven in 2014.

We got to see the entire golf course from one to eighteen, following Rory McIlroy for a number of holes while also catching some play from Adam Scott and near the end of the day, Jordan Speith, who arrived mid-day on Monday after winning the PGA Tour event that finished the day before.

Tiger would show up right around the time we were leaving and we were able to catch a glimpse of him working on his pitching and chipping game at the amazing Tournament Practice Facility (yes, all caps!), with crowds lined up about ten deep at the range to catch the fading star in action.

While there, we somehow were able to meet up with a few friends in the middle of the course despite the sheer number of patrons on the property and it was great catching up with them. About the only thing that went wrong that day was when my credit card company put a hold on my card when I tried to put through close to $1000.00 in souvenir purchases! The lovely staff at the merchandising facility put my stuff aside while I called the credit card company to assure them that my card wasn't stolen and in fact, I DID want all of this stuff from a golf course in Augusta, Georgia. A tad embarrassing but I guess this happens very frequently according to the staff. It was a half hour wasted but in the end, I had my souvenirs and the smile never left my face.

Attending the Masters, whether it's a practice round or a tournament round, is a must for anyone who loves the game. The most incredibly run tournament in the world and the golf course lives up to all the hype - it's truly a magical place.

We'd head back to Columbia for the night and the next morning, we'd check out and make the two and a half hour drive to Pinehurst, North Carolina, where we would be playing one of the world's great tracks, the vaunted #2 Course at Pinehurst Resort.

The #2 Course at Pinehurst, with the famous statue of Payne Stewart right behind the 18th green

The wonderful par four finishing hole at Pinehurst #2

This Donald Ross classic design was recently restored by the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, with their mandate being to restore the course’s natural and historic character and the strategic options that were the centerpiece of Ross’s vision. Fairways were widened and all rough was eliminated, leaving two cuts of grass - greens and fairways. In the place of rough came naturalized areas, with sand, pine straw and other wiry grasses planted, allowing the removal of over 35 acres of irrigated turf.

Incredible!

The results are startling, without question but I must admit that I was ever so slightly underwhelmed overall about the course and the very expensive experience, perhaps caused by unrealistic expectations prior to the round. Pinehurst #2 is unquestionably a strategic masterpiece but not one of those out-of-body sensory extravaganzas like a Pebble Beach or Sand Hills. With much of the interest lying at the greens, there is much more subtlety at play here that likely requires repeat visits, much like St. Andrews may be from what I've heard. Hopefully I can get back there one day and see it again.

We finished that day off with a visit to the famous Pine Crest Inn right in the village for dinner and some beverages.

The historic Pine Crest Inn, located in the village of Pinehurst

Wednesday was to be a busy day on the course, with 36 holes of golf planned. First up was an early morning round at the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw designed Dormie Club, located in West End, NC, just outside of Pinehurst.

The long par four first hole at Dormie Club

The very cool green site at the short par four third hole at Dormie Club

The Dormie Club was originally conceived as a private club, opening in the spring of 2010. However, financial issues plagued the project from the start and the business model was doomed to fail, with a saturated real estate market and exorbitant initiation fees the primary issues.

A new investor group would soon take over and Dormie would re-establish itself as a semi-private facility on a temporary basis and it remains open to public play to this day.

I really enjoyed our round at Dormie - it's not overly long at less than 6900 yards from the back tees but the course sits on a wonderful piece of land, with over 100 feet of elevation change throughout the property and the trademark strategic brilliance of Coore and Crenshaw is prevalent from the outset. It's not an easily walkable routing but that is one of the very few negatives about the place. We're glad we visited.

From there, we headed back towards Southern Pines for our afternoon round, which took place at Mid Pines Golf Club.

A stunning downhill vista awaits on the 16th hole at Mid Pines

The stately Mid Pines Inn serves as the backdrop to a wonderful finishing hole

Like many of the courses in the area, Mid Pines was designed by Donald Ross, opening in 1921. Over the years, trees started encroaching on many of the holes, reducing the strategic interest greatly and playability became an increasingly significant concern. A trip to the recently restored Pinehurst #2 by Pine Needles and Mid Pines CEO Kelly Miller inspired him to do the same type of work at Mid Pines.

Miller sought out Kyle Franz, a young architect who did much of the shaping work at the recently restored #2 and had an impressive resume for such a young man, having worked with Tom Doak, Coore and Crenshaw and also Gil Hanse, all major players in the golf course architecture field at the present time.

Franz was tasked with restoring the fairway corridors through extensive tree clearing, adding waste areas off many of the fairways and greens and also replacing the natural Bermuda grass playing surface with a mini-verde grass that would be easier to maintain and allow the course to play firmer and faster throughout the year.

I must say that I was stunned by what I saw at Mid Pines. This was easily the biggest surprise of our trip and I thought the course was simply magnificent. The course isn't long at only 6700 yards from the back tees but strategic interest abounds and the restoration work undertaken by Franz is spectacular. Mid Pines is an aesthetic wonder, with the contrast between the fairways, greens and waste areas a visual highlight.

The Donald Ross routing remains intact and what a brilliant, walkable routing it is, made even more interesting due to the rollicking piece of land that the course is laid upon.

Terry and I were blown away by Mid Pines, perhaps our favourite course played during our trip, which I realize is high praise considering our itinerary. Fun golf in abundance and just a wonderful, historic venue. I hope to return one day soon.

We would fly home the next day but we smartly booked an evening flight out of Charlotte, giving us more than enough time to join a friend for a round at his course an hour north in Winston-Salem, the incredible Old Town Club.

The beautiful 167 yard par three second hole at Old Town Club


The par four 8th hole, with the recently restored double green shared by the wonderful par five 17th hole

The private Old Town Club is a Perry Maxwell design that originally opened for play in 1939. Like many of the courses we played on this trip, excessive and unnecessary tree plantings took away the once sweeping views on the property and the bunkers and green sites bore no resemblance to what was originally laid out by Maxwell back in the late '30s.

Old Town's golf chairman Dunlop White, a man we were fortunate to meet during our trip while having lunch after our round, passionately pushed the club towards a complete restoration project designed to reopen the lost corridors, restore the ragged bunkering throughout the property while also enlarging the greens to their original sizes, allowing for more pin placements and enhancing strategy.

Like Carolina GC, Pinehurst #2 and Mid Pines, the results of the work, in this case conducted by Coore and Crenshaw, is a revelation, with the grand scale of this immense property restored to full, glorious effect.

We played Old Town after a a pretty rough winter and the turf was still coming out of dormancy when we played. Therefore, the photographs above do the course absolutely no justice from a visual perspective but I can assure you that playability was superb and the greens rolled fast and true during our wonderful day at the club. We had a wonderful host, who walked us through all the course changes during our round and as indicated, we were joined by Mr. White while we had lunch before departing.

Old Town is a sensational place, one I would be honoured to visit again in the future and it is likely destined for a rightful place within the top 100 courses in America.

What a fitting end to one of the great golf trips in my lifetime.