Thursday, February 23, 2017

2016 Year in Review Part Two - The Courses

Pumping one down the 1st fairway at the sublime Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Nebraska
(Photo courtesy of Dan Moore)

Thanks to an amazing wife who has shown great tolerance for my sporting exploits, I've been accustomed to taking two golf-specific trips every year, with one usually a week long trip and the second a shorter "long-weekend" type of trip. 2016 was no exception, as I spent seven nights in Colorado and Nebraska in late June and then did a quick two day, one night trip to Chicago in mid-July.

I say it every year and I'll say it again: this is always my favourite post to write each year. Here's a look at the wonderful courses Now on the Tee was fortunate enough to visit in 2016.

The Courses

All of my early season golf was played at home and I didn't venture away from St. Catharines until the end of June, when I embarked on an epic seven night, eight day trip to Colorado and Nebraska. This was the fourth time I've visited Colorado and the third time I've visited Nebraska strictly for golf so you can definitely surmise that this region is a favourite of Now on the Tee !

First up on my agenda was a day at the spectacular, Tom Doak designed Ballyneal Golf & Hunt Club in Holyoke, Colorado.

An awe-inspiring view awaits as you climb to the elevated fourth tee at the superlative Ballyneal Golf & Hunt Club
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Outrageous ground contours abound on the par five 8th hole at Ballyneal
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

I've been fortunate enough to visit Ballyneal on four different occasions since 2010, totaling an incredible 17 rounds of golf in that time. I've written about the course often and you can read my comprehensive two-part course profile right here. I was invited out this time by my friend Stephen, a Ballyneal member and was part of a large group of close to 18 players that he was hosting on this day.

We played two rounds and had a wonderful dinner that evening in the restaurant, which is now located upstairs in the old Turtle Bar, before departing early the next morning.

Ballyneal was playing firmer and faster than ever and the greens especially were lightning fast, mostly due to the changes made in recent years to convert from fescue putting surfaces to a bent grass. When I played in late June, there was a lot of poa mixed in with the bent and fescue and I imagine it will take a bit more time for the bent to become the dominant strand on the greens.

Ballyneal continues to make additions to their infrastructure, with more lodging onsite (I stayed in the new Sagebrush complex) and they also continue adding amenities on the course as well. The Commons putting course was just growing in while I was there and now they're just putting the finishing touches on The Mulligan Course, a 12 hole par three course that was also designed by Tom Doak.

This is well within my personal top ten and it's getting better every year. I love every single visit to Ballyneal and I hope to return one day soon and see the finished results on The Commons and The Mulligan.

The next morning, I hopped in my rental car and made the three hour drive to the Dismal River Club just outside of Mullen, Nebraska!

The gorgeous par five 4th hole on the White Course at Dismal River Club
(Photo courtesy of Dismal River Club website)

Tyler K, Dan M and yours truly (L-R) admiring our tee shots on the par three 10th hole on the White Course at Dismal River
(Photo courtesy of Dan Kelly)

An amazing look at the par four 9th hole on the Red Course at Dismal River, taken at sunrise
(Photo courtesy of Dan Moore)

This was my second trip to Dismal to play in the 5th Major, a really cool two-man best ball event put on by my friend Eric S, with my first experience taking place back in 2012. That year, I'd finish in second place, ultimately losing on the final hole of the six hole "shootout" with Tyler K, a Winnipeg native I was paired up with for the tournament. Back in '12, we played the entire tournament on the Jack Nicklaus designed White Course while touring the Tom Doak designed Red Course with the man himself during its grow-in phase.

I had been greatly looking forward to returning, primarily to experience the Red Course for the first time but also to once again take in the wonderful hospitality shown by everyone involved at Dismal, led by owner Chris Johnston. There was also the added benefit that Tyler, my partner from 2012, was also returning and we would once again team up in hopes of improving on our runner-up position.

Alas, while we both played some inspired golf during the event, our opponents were always a notch better and we'd ultimately finish in third place in our flight (out of four) and not qualify for the playoff shootout.

Still, an incredible time was had by all and I was once again awed by the commitment shown by Eric, Chris and all the staff at Dismal to ensuring that each of the participants had the best time imaginable.

I once again enjoyed my rounds on the White Course. It's certainly quirky in spots and the par three 10th hole, with an enormous bunker in the middle of the green is especially controversial. But it's always set up brilliantly for the 5th Major and I've come to like what Nicklaus did out there.

But let me tell you, Tom Doak's Red Course is *really* good. It's quite unique in that the routing doesn't finish where it starts and both the first tee and the 18th green are set well below the clubhouse, a good cart ride away. But that does not detract from the experience whatsoever and once you get to the first tee, you'll find a very walkable routing, great use of the terrain and quite a thrilling set of holes, with plenty of risk/reward opportunities and lots of chances for birdies and pars.

Simply put, it's incredibly fun to play and I'd say it's got a chance to one day fit within the top 100 courses in the States. It's that good.

I spent three days and three nights at Dismal and departed on Sunday morning after the tournament concluded.

My destination?

Only my favourite place in all of golf and a course I figured I may never see again. The spectacular Sand Hills Golf Club!

Me and friend Jeff S. at the back of the first green at Sand Hills GC
(Photo courtesy of Dan Moore)

A late day view looking back down the 18th fairway from behind the green at Sand Hills
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The par four 18th hole at Sand Hills, with the menacing blowout down the left side
(Photo courtesy of Dan Moore)

I was lucky enough to visit Sand Hills for the first time in 2010 with my friend Harris as an unaccompanied guest and I wrote extensively about that incredible experience in my two-part course profile right here.

We played six rounds in two days during that trip, figuring that it may be the only time we'd be lucky enough to visit, as the club has a policy restricting non-members to only one unaccompanied visit.

However, fate intervened five years later when my friend Tom from California had a dream realized that saw him invited to be a member at Sand Hills, which also happens to be HIS favourite course in the world, by club owner Dick Youngscap. Amazing!

Tom reached out to me around Christmas 2015, inviting me to take part in a small outing in June of '16 and I couldn't accept fast enough...I was going back to Sand Hills!!!

I was one of seven guests Tom invited out for two full days at the club and all I can say is that I was just as enchanted with Sand Hills on my second visit as I was on my first. The course was in phenomenal shape, as usual, the food was outstanding, the service excellent and the camaraderie was off-the-charts. We mixed and matched foursomes throughout the four full rounds we played and a particular highlight were the nine-hole matches we played at the end of the day just before dinner, a two-man alternate shot competition where both players would hit tee shots then you'd play alternate shot from there. We named those matches "Shelman's" after Jeff Shelman, the brains behind the format.

Getting the chance to experience Sand Hills for a second time was enough to inspire me to play some of my best golf of the year, including a particularly eventful 72 (+1) in my first round back.

It's still my favourite place in all of golf and the chance to return for a second time only reinforces that in my mind. My thanks again to Tom for the invite and I can only hope to get the chance to visit again at some point in the near future.

So after a day at Ballyneal, three days at Dismal River and two days at Sand Hills, I ventured north with Jeff towards Valentine, Nebraska and the final stop on my itinerary, The Prairie Club!

Jeff walks through the dunes toward the green on the long par four 8th hole at The Prairie Club's Dunes Course
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The serpentine par five 2nd hole on The Prairie Club's Pines Course
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The delightful Horse Course at The Prairie Club
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The Prairie Club is the brainchild of commercial banker and developer Paul Schock and it's different from the other destination clubs on this itinerary in that it's completely open to the public and operates as a resort, with two distinct 18 hole golf courses, a delightful short course, a putting course along with excellent accommodations and cuisine.

The club opened for play in 2010 and I'm guessing that they intended to eventually become fully private. However, as one of the modern era clubs that were conceived just prior to the financial crisis of 2008, they've likely had to adjust their business plan on the fly.

This was my first trip to the Prairie Club and it makes a positive first impression, with a grand clubhouse, an excellent bar and very well-appointed accommodations in the lodge. We'd have a quick lunch and then head out to play an afternoon round on The Dunes Course, a Tom Lehman and Chris Brands design.

I had very high expectations for the Dunes. First of all, it's ranked inside the top 200 courses in North America by Golf Digest and I have two friends who say it's in their top five golf courses ever played, with both saying it's among the most fun and "elastic" courses they've ever seen.

High praise indeed.

The course starts off strong and I particularly liked the greensites at the second and the fifth holes, both interesting two shotters. I was taken aback by the approach shot on the 8th and based on one play, I can't really say definitively whether I like it or not. I've got a photo of it up above and it's a partially blind mid or long iron through two immense dunes to a huge, relatively flat green. I guess it's an Alps-like template but I thought it was excessively difficult for a resort course. I will say this though - it's an incredibly unique looking hole.

From there, I started getting irritated by the ridiculously slow pace of play - it was just Jeff and I playing a twosome and it took well over two and a half hours to play the front side by my recollection. Things didn't improve on the back and I started finding faults with everything, from the lack of a walkable routing to the fact that the slopes on the greens seemed to repel the ball away from play and didn't allow the player to feed shots in from different angles, unlike the slopes at places like Ballyneal, Dismal and Sand Hills. I'm also guessing that I was pretty burned out by this point, having played a LOT of golf at world-class clubs for six days straight before arriving at Prairie Club.

I just didn't have FUN playing the Dunes Course that day.

Things perked up immediately after the round. The sky was looking ominous and there was no question that a storm was going to hit but we grabbed a few clubs and headed out to The Horse Course, a ten hole par three course designed by Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford.

Now THIS was fun! With no real set teeing grounds, this course is intended to be played like playing a game of Horse at basketball - the winner of the previous hole picks the teeing ground and the next green and off you go. We raced around quickly, playing the course as conventionally as you can play it just to ensure we got to see every green and we had a blast doing it. The photo I took of the course up above is really over-exposed by necessity due to how dark it was just before the storm hit. That hole was a stunner and would have been a highlight even if it was on one of the two main courses at the resort.

We had a great dinner that night in the clubhouse, hit the sack and then the next morning, headed out to The Pines Course, a Graham Marsh design.

The Pines weaves through a couple of different environments, starting in the dunes before heading into the pines that frame the edge of the canyon rim. The land is not quite as wild as the Dunes Course and as such, it's likely easier to walk (we rode on this day) but it's still quite a difficult test and offers a different look and feel to that of its sister course. The Pines is not ranked as high as the Dunes but does sit near the bottom of most top 100 public course lists in the USA and I agree with that assessment. It's solid and I enjoyed my round there, although I'm still trying to figure out how to best play the 18th hole, an incredibly difficult finisher!

Reflecting upon my visit six months later and looking back over my photos, I wonder if I was a bit too harsh with my assessment of the Dunes Course. Again, this course has gotten universally solid reviews and I seem to be the outlier. I originally told Jeff that one trip to the Prairie Club was enough for me but I can honestly say that I'd like to return again to give it another chance - the resort is outstanding and I just think that it was inevitable that my experience would suffer somewhat after spending so much time at three world-class clubs beforehand.

Nevertheless, my eight day trip to Nebraska was certainly a 2016 highlight!

In mid-July, I flew to Chicago for a quick one night/two day golf trip, meeting up with Jeff S, Brandon U and an anonymous-by-request fourth at Midway Airport before heading out to historic Olympia Fields Country Club!

The par five opener on the North Course at Olympia Fields Country Club
(Photo courtesy of Olympia Fields Country Club Website)

The three shot closing hole on Olympia Fields Country Club's South Course, with the famous clubhouse in the background
(Photo courtesy of Olympia Fields Country Club Website)

Olympia Fields has two highly regarded golf courses on site and we started our day playing the Willie Park Jr. designed North Course, which opened for play in 1923 and is currently ranked 79th on Golf Digest's most recent rating of the top 100 courses in America. The North has hosted many major events over its history, including two U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships, five Western Opens, a U.S. Senior Open and also the 2015 U.S. Amateur Championship.

The club has one of the largest caddy programs in North America and we all had loopers for our first round on the North. I was quite impressed with the course and especially the land the course sits on, with great rolling terrain throughout. Park Jr. also was creative in his use of Butterfield Creek, which comes into play on six or seven holes by my recollection.

I really loved the third hole, a par four that features a blind tee shot over a ridge and then an approach that must head back uphill to a perched green fronted by deep bunkers. It reminds me a little bit of the 3rd hole at Hamilton G&CC in Ancaster, Ontario. The mid-length par four 14th hole was another highlight, featuring a downhill tee shot to a narrow fairway then a mid-to-long iron approach back up the hill over the creek.

The North Course is a great test, routed over interesting and varied terrain and it's also a lot of fun to play.

We grabbed a quick lunch before heading back out in the afternoon, this time to play the Tom Bendelow designed South Course.

The South Course opened in 1916 and underwent a significant renovation project in 2007 that was led by architect Steve Smyers. Now, the South Course is pretty well-rated in its own right, sitting at #188 on Golf Digest's most recent ranking of the top 200 in America but most of my "pre-studying" of the club was spent pouring over the North Course.

Well, lets just say that the South is full of surprises!

The par three third is a brand new hole that came out of the recent renovation and it's a mid-length one shotter straight up the hill to a pretty diabolical putting surface. That was interesting enough but by the sixth hole, I was completely blown away!

The sixth features one of the most unique greensites I've ever seen and plays as a "Knoll" template, with a volcano type green that falls off severely to the left, right and the rear. It's a menacing approach and simply a brilliant hole, one of the most memorable I've ever played.

The 11th is another stunner, a short par four with a large tree right in the "line of charm" dictating play from the tee. I would clobber that tree on the fly off the tee then hit a memorable, monster cut second around that tree and onto the green about ten feet away, getting some praise from my playing partners as a result. The short par three 14th is another beauty, a wedge to a very tiny, undulating green over menacingly deep bunkers and I also loved the thrilling finisher, a mid-length par five with the historic clubhouse offering a gorgeous backdrop.

The South is a hell of a lot of fun, features many of the best holes on the property and is really underrated in my eyes. I enjoyed my round immensely!

We finished the day by grabbing some famous Chicago deep dish pizza (YUM) and hit the sack shortly thereafter in order to prepare for day two of the trip.

On day two, we'd play another morning round on Olympia Fields' North Course before heading to the southside of Chicago, where we would be playing at The Beverly Country Club!

The downhill par five 2nd hole at Beverly Country Club, with the tee shot being played from the highest point in Chicago!
(Photo courtesy of The Beverly Country Club Website)

Our anonymous playing partner had to fly home that morning so we joined our friend Andrew, who graciously offered to host us at Beverly, which originally was designed by their first professional George O'Neil but was completely renovated by legendary architect Donald Ross some years later. Like Olympia Fields, there is a lot of history at this club and they have also hosted many major events, including Western Opens, U.S. Amateurs and U.S. Senior Ams.

In recent years, the club has undertaken a major restoration project to bring the course back to the Donald Ross vision, enlisting Ron Prichard to lead the changes, which included major modifications to the bunkers and significant tree removal, which opened up vistas and improved air-flow and turf conditions.

What a unique place Beverly is - first of all, it is right in the middle of the city, with tons of traffic bordering the club, a train line that runs all the way down one side of the property and then you also have airplanes screaming overhead every few minutes, as the course is right on the approach path to Midway airport!

But none of that detracts from the experience of playing this wonderful design which features some of the most devilish putting surfaces I've ever seen, with many canted severely from back to front, making it imperative that you attack the hole from in front at all times. Another great thing about Beverly, like Olympia Fields, is their incredibly strong caddy program. In fact, Beverly has produced the largest amount of Evans Scholars (over 300 out of 10,000) out of any single club in North America, a wonderful achievement.

My favourite holes at Beverly include the par five 2nd (shown above), which features a dramatic downhill tee shot and an interesting, angled green where we faced a very challenging pin position in the back right, directly over a large bunker. The mid-length par three 6th hole is another beauty, again playing well downhill and requiring a precise ball flight. The par four eighth features one of the most interesting greens on the property and certainly the longest at approximately 65 yards from front to back!!

The back nine is universally strong, with some great land (11th and 15th holes especially) and some very interesting greensites (#16 sits on a shelf, so to speak).

We had a wonderful day at Beverly and finished things off with a few drinks in the member's bar before heading back to the airport to catch our flights home. Many thanks to Jeff and Andrew for hosting me during this whirlwind trip!

I had taken the following day off work as well to make a long weekend out of it and upon flying home, I ventured up past Toronto with my friend Steve to play Beacon Hall Golf Club!

The downhill par four opener at the excellent Beacon Hall Golf Club in Aurora, Ontario
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

Beacon Hall was designed by Bob Cupp with help from Thomas McBroom and opened in 1988. It's one of the best modern courses ever built in Canada in my opinion and is currently ranked 11th in the country by ScoreGolf Magazine.

The head pro at Beacon Hall is a good friend of mine, as Drew was formerly the director of golf at my home club in St. Catharines for many years prior to accepting the Beacon Hall job prior to the 2016 season. This was my second time playing the course and I came away just as impressed the second time as I was the first. I'm still partial to the opening nine holes, which play in more of a parkland setting versus the final nine holes which take place over open land and feature more of a heathland setting.

It was great getting back out to Beacon Hall and I look forward to seeing it again soon!

A couple of days later, I'd play in a fundraising tournament at Peninsula Lakes Golf Club in Fenwick, Ontario, an event that would benefit the minor hockey team of a good friend's son. Pen Lakes is a Rene Muylaert design from 1980 that's pretty popular here in the Niagara area and features 27 holes on the same type of topography as neighbouring club Lookout Point CC, a personal favourite of mine that unfortunately I did NOT get to play again in '16. We played two times on the Orchard Course at Pen Lakes and the team did exceptionally well with the fundraiser.

In mid-August, I had a business and social convention that took me and my family to the Detroit area. While there, I took my wife and son to Oakland Hills Country Club in order to watch part of the stroke play competition in the 2016 U.S. Amateur!!

My son and I just outside the gates at the 2016 U.S. Amateur Championship, held at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

I was lucky enough to get the chance to play the famous South Course at Oakland Hills back in 2014 as a guest of my friend Matt S and it was great returning to see such a noteworthy event on the historic course. I had planned to meet up with Matt at some point during the day, as he was volunteering that week for the USGA but unfortunately he wasn't at the club during the few hours we were onsite. I hope to meet up with him again sometime in the near future.

My final excursion away from St. Catharines G&CC took place on October 1st, as I'd be invited to the Coppinwood Golf Club for a second consecutive year as a guest of a business associate.

The excellent par five first hole at Coppinwood Gold Club near Uxbridge, Ontario
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The stellar par four 12th hole at Coppinwood
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

The par five 13th hole at Coppinwood
(Photo by Now on the Tee)

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. It was really wet and cold the day we played and the course played incredibly long. Greens were also recently aerated but still were incredibly quick. It's a strong, challenging course and the club itself has a very cool vibe.

In all, including my home club at St. Catharines G&CC, I was able to play 14 different golf courses in 2016, with seven of them being first time visits. These numbers are down substantially from 2015, when I visited 18 different courses and had a whopping 14 first-time visits.

So yes, I didn't see as many places as usual but there is no question that the quality of the venues I visited more than made up for that lack of volume.

It was a great year.

COMING SOON:

2016 Year in Review Part Three - Looking Ahead




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