Tuesday, January 12, 2016

2015 Year in Review Part Two - The Courses

The awe-inspiring setting at the Devil's Cauldron at Banff Springs Golf Course

Over the last number of years, it's become customary for me to take two golf-specific trips each year with friends. This trend repeated itself in 2015 but I also was fortunate enough to play a couple of times on a family trip in July. So essentially, I was able to play golf on three different trips throughout the year.

In all, including my home club at St. Catharines G&CC, I was able to play 18 different golf courses in 2015, with a whopping 14 of them being first-time visits. As a point of reference, I played 14 different courses in 2014 with only 9 first-time visits.

This has always been my favourite post to write each year. Here's a look at the wonderful courses Now on the Tee visited in 2015.

The Courses

I had the pleasure of visiting "The Lone Star State" of Texas for the first time in late February, playing three different courses while on the trip.

First up was a round on the Cypress Creek Course at the highly esteemed Champions Golf Club with friends Jeff and Brandon.

The dramatic par three 4th hole at the Cypress Creek course at Champions Golf Club

Jeff (left) and I walking up towards the 10th green at Champions

Champions was founded in 1957 and was the brainchild of noted PGA professionals Jimmy Demaret and Jack Burke Jr. Ralph Plummer designed the Cypress Creek course, which opened in 1959 and it has gone on to host a number of the biggest events in golf, including the 1967 Ryder Cup, the 1969 US Open, the 1993 US Amateur, the 1998 US Women's Mid-Am and was also a four-time host of the PGA Tour's season ending Tour Championship.

You can imagine our surprise and delight that upon walking into the incredibly vibrant men's locker room at Champions, we were immediately taken to meet with the great man himself, Mr. Jack Burke Jr!! One of our member hosts, Drew, was actually filming a TV show with Mr. Burke and fellow member and major champion Steve Elkington. They had just completed nine holes and were doing a spot in the locker room. Mr. Burke was very polite to us, shook each of our hands and off we went to get started on our round.

The Cypress Creek course was really strong and in great shape. It's a true shotmaker's delight, with doglegs forcing the player to move the ball in both directions and expansive, undulating green complexes. After our round, we headed over to another friend's house, Kyle, for a fantastic barbeque. There were about eight of us over there, dining on steaks, drinking some beer and sharing great stories about the club, Mr. Burke and Elkington. What a great start to that trip!

The star attraction on the trip was meant to be a full, 36 hole day on Monday at Wolf Point Club near Port Lavaca, Texas. However, a sketchy Monday weather forecast that predicted temperatures in the low 40s prompted our host to offer an extra day to all invitees, meaning we'd have the chance to spend two days at this very exclusive place.

That's me in one of the massive fairway bunkers lining the tremendous par four 5th hole at Wolf Point Club, with the owner's house featured prominently in the background

Yes, that is a THIRTEENSOME heading out towards the 8th green at the superb Wolf Point Club!

Wolf Point is home to one member - the owner of the club! The course was built by architect Mike Nuzzo, with able assistance from noted greenskeeper and irrigation specialist Don Mahaffey and their only mandate was to design a course that could be enjoyed on a daily basis by their client.

We had a blast working our balls around this playground, with extremely firm and fast conditions along with the Texas winds requiring a deft touch and a great "ground" game. I could go on forever about everything that is Wolf Point, which easily qualifies as one of the great golf experiences in my life. However, this is a club that requests privacy and I will not compromise that whatsoever. If you want to read more about this incredible course, I urge you to check out architect Mike Nuzzo's blog, which goes into great detail about the entire process of building this modern masterpiece.

Jeff and I headed back to the Houston area to grab some dinner before getting ready for our last day in Texas and a round at Walden on Lake Conroe Golf Club!

The lovely vista that is the par five 11th hole at Walden on Lake Conroe Golf Club (photo courtesy of Walden Golf Club)

Walden is a Robert von Hagge and Bruce Devlin collaboration that opened in 1976 in Montgomery, Texas. It's built through a housing community and as such, is a relatively tight course with some of the smallest greens I've ever played. There are a number of gorgeous holes, with the superb par four 8th being a particular highlight. The par five 11th and the short par three 12th both sit out on a peninsula on Lake Conroe and are very beautiful and challenging holes in their own right. I really enjoyed the layout and the challenge the course presented.

My first Texas golf experience was incredibly positive and the hospitality from our hosts at all three clubs was off-the-charts. I look forward to seeing them all again soon.

My second and final golf vacation of the year was centered around a return trip to Augusta, Georgia to take in a Masters Tournament practice round.

If you recall, in 2014, the Monday practice round that we attended was a complete washout and the fine folks at the Masters were kind enough to not only reimburse us for the tickets but also guarantee practice round tickets for the following year.

After using the Charleston, South Carolina area as a home base in 2014, we changed things up in 2015, flying into Charlotte, North Carolina and playing a number of great courses in that area, along with the Sandhills region of the state.

My good friend Terry accompanied me once again on this trip and we would meet up with two other friends of mine 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.

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 super cool par three 9th hole on the #2 Course

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.

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.

So my two "golf-specific" trips in 2015 were completed by early April but thankfully there were a few day trips sprinkled in throughout the rest of the season that allowed me to see some other courses for the first time.

In mid-May, I was able to visit the historic Mississaugua Golf & Country Club for the first time.

Superb topography is prevalent at Mississaugua, as seen here looking back from the 2nd green

Another visual stunner awaits on the par four 15th at Mississaugua G&CC

Mississaugua was originally laid out by George Cumming in 1909 and would see tweaks carried out by Donald Ross around 1919 and then Stanley Thompson was brought in to lengthen and toughen up the course in 1927. It has since hosted six Canadian Opens and sits comfortably within the top 100 courses in Canada.

It's a wonderful parkland design on rollicking terrain and simply a treat to play.

In mid-July, I had the incredible privilege to finally tee it up at a long-time bucket list course, the vaunted East Course at Oak Hill Country Club.

The superb par four 7th hole on the East Course at Oak Hill CC

Proudly standing on the tee of the notorious par five 13th hole at Oak Hill East

Oak Hill has always been near the top of my "must-see" list, simply due to the fact that it is arguably the most famous course within easy driving distance from my home in the Niagara Region.

I made the short two hour drive to Oak Hill in mid-July with my friend Jonathan to play the highly decorated East Course, which has hosted three US Opens, three PGA Championships, two US Amateurs, a US Senior Open, a Senior PGA Championship and also a Ryder Cup. Needless to say, plenty of history has been made on these immaculate fairways.

While there are a great number of towering oaks lining the fairways, there is still plenty of width to maneuver the ball around, making the course challenging yet eminently playable. The holes are much more unique than I originally expected and the memorability factor is high, another surprise. Conditioning was perfect, we had good caddies and the whole experience was very special. We finished the morning off with a quick tour of the incredible clubhouse and a nice lunch on the patio.

I had hoped to get the chance to play the West Course in the afternoon, evidently a favourite of the members at Oak Hill. However, the course was packed solid so that will have to wait until another day. We decided to head to one of our reciprocal courses on the way home, Wanakah Country Club, located in the town of Hamburg, NY.

Wanakah, a Willie Watson design, is another course that surprises me upon repeat viewings, sitting high above the Lake Erie shoreline and featuring solid land and clever strategic options throughout.

A week or so later, near the end of July, I flew to Alberta, Canada with my wife and son for a short business trip that we extended into a full-fledged family vacation, with lengthy stops in the spectacular towns of Banff and Jasper.

We were out west for about nine days and I was able to get in a round of golf at two of the greatest courses in the country, with the first round taking place at the historic Banff Springs Golf Course, one of Stanley Thompson's best.

The first fairway at Banff Springs GC

The stately Banff Springs Hotel looms in the distance on the wonderful 14th hole

The glorious tee shot at the par four 15th at Banff Springs, with Mount Rundle framing the background; this was the 1st hole in the course's original routing

Banff Springs mostly plays on flat ground at the base of the mountains, with a few elevated tee shots like the glorious drop shot par three 4th hole, the famous "Devil's Cauldron" (photo at top of post) and the par four 15th hole shown just above. The Bow River is well-utilized throughout the design and the result is one of the more exhilarating experiences in all of Canadian golf.

A few days later, my family ventured up north a few hours to spend some time in the town of Jasper, allowing me the chance to play at Stanley Thompson's Jasper Park Lodge Golf Club.

The famous par three 9th hole at Jasper Park, aptly named "Cleopatra" for two sizable mounds that once fronted the green where the bunker currently resides

One of the most stunning vistas in Canadian golf, the gorgeous par four 14th hole that plays over and alongside Lac Beauvert

The beautiful home hole at Jasper Park Lodge GC

Jasper Park may just be Thompson's masterpiece, as he needed 50 teams of horses and over 200 men to help clear trees, boulders and debris throughout Jasper National Park's abundant forest to build the corridors for a golf course. This is much more varied land than what's available at Banff but it's balanced by the fact that the mountains are set much further in the distance at Jasper, giving both courses a unique look and feel upon comparison.

Both Banff Springs and Jasper Park sit within the top 10 in Canada and both courses are absolutely phenomenal but if pressed, I'd likely side with those that feel that Jasper Park is the stronger of the two, by the slightest of margins. I hope to return to both one day soon.

In mid-August, I played in a charity golf tournament for my son's travel ice hockey team at Beechwood Golf & Country Club in Niagara Falls, an unremarkable R.F. Moote and Brian Antonsen design from 1960. I got to play with my parents and my sister in this event designed to raise money for the considerable travel costs that come with being on a team of this nature and a great time was had by all.

In late August, I was able to visit Coppinwood Golf Club as a guest of a business associate.

The stellar par four 12th hole at Coppinwood

The par five 13th hole at Coppinwood in Uxbridge, Ontario

Coppinwood is ranked 24th in Canada by ScoreGolf and a lofty 9th by Canadian Golf Magazine, one of the highest rated modern courses in the country. The Tom Fazio design opened in 2006 and sits on 357 acres of rolling terrain just north of Toronto in the town of Uxbridge, with stunning elevation changes throughout the property. Conditioning was superb, as expected at a private club of this nature and the design characteristics were very similar to Fazio's most well-regarded Canadian design, the National GC of Canada. It's a strong, challenging course and the club itself has a very cool vibe.

I was once again invited to play one of my favourite local courses, the excellent Walter Travis designed Lookout Point CC.

A look back at the 18th hole from the top of the Niagara escarpment at Lookout Point CC

Lookout is arguably the best golf course in the Niagara region and one of three, along with Cherry Hill and Grand Niagara, to sit on the most recent ScoreGolf Top 100 in Canada list. I have a few friends who are members at Lookout and I always look forward to my one or two games a year on this great track.

Finally, for my last round of the year in mid-October, I was finally able to visit the Robert Trent Jones Jr. design at Seneca Hickory Stick Golf Course.

The double green shared by the 9th and 18th holes at Seneca Hickory Stick Golf Course in Lewiston, NY

Seneca Hickory Stick, located in the town of Lewiston, New York, just outside of Niagara Falls, was opened in 2010 and is a public facility with ties to the local casino, with both sitting on land owned by the Seneca Nation of Indians. I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of this design, with multiple centre-line hazards, including bunkers and creeks, sprinkled throughout the course. The land was also much more interesting than I would have guessed and the very modest green fee ensures that I will be returning at some point in the very near future.

Another incredible year for the luckiest guy in the world.

COMING SOON:

2015 Year in Review Part Three - Looking Ahead