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Confessions of the World’s Worst 2-Handicap: My World Woods Adventure

2/15/2007
It’s February and as I write there is currently about 8 inches of snow in Chicago. So what better time to write about…golf! I’m in Naples, Florida this week for a work conference, and it’s only about 65 degrees warmer here than Chicago right now. I know you’re feeling really sorry for me.

Well, I never set foot in Florida without visiting my Nana, who lives about an hour north of Tampa. In related news, she lives about five minutes from one of the nicest public golf facilities in the country, World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville, FL. World Woods opened in 1993 and for awhile (before kids) it was my home course away from home. I tried to get down there at least once per year. World Woods is home to two Tom Fazio courses: Pine Barrens, a wasteland Pine Valley-esque course that is consistently ranked in everybody’s top 20 and Rolling Oaks, the closest many of us mere mortals will get to Augusta with white sand and azaleas in full bloom.

Oh yeah…World Woods has literally the best practice facilities in the country. Know any other courses with a 4-sided, 20+ acre driving range? How about a 2-acre putting green? I didn’t think so. They also have 3 practice holes and a nice 9-hole Par 29 short course that is perfect for a pre-round warm-up or post-round bet settler.

Back in the day, World Woods was in the middle of nowhere and you pretty much had your run of the place whenever you played there – it was this great place that seemingly no one knew about and you wanted to keep it that way. Of course, that’s not exactly the best business proposition, but word of mouth kept it chugging. Kind of like a predecessor to Bandon Dunes, World Woods was a must-play course despite its remote location, proving that if you build it (quality golf courses), they (hardcore golfers) will come.

Fortunately for World Woods, recently they built an expressway that connects from the Tampa airport and literally ends at the entrance of the golf course. You can get there in 50 minutes. I’m sure it’s done wonders for business. The only downside it seems like you have to pay a $1 toll every 5 minutes, and the expressway is a notorious speedtrap (World Woods even warns you on their website), so set your cruise control.

I left my house at 4:15 am on Saturday morning in the midst of sub-zero temperatures and arrived in relatively sunny Florida skies about five hours later. Sixty minutes and about six bucks in tolls later, I was entering the familiar white and orange gates of World Woods. It had actually been about five years since I’ve played here, but everything looks the same…definitely a good thing.

My plan for Saturday was to hit a couple bags of range balls and put in some work in on the Short Course. You may recall that in December I made my trek to Hotstix and tweaked the entire set-up of my Mizuno MP-30 irons – more upright lie angles, an extra ½ inch in added club length, larger grip size and extra-stiff True Temper shafts. Add to that a newly-purchased Titleist 905R driver from ebay, and I was ready and rearing to go. For some reason, I was fully confident that I was going to come out and set the world on fire…like Hotstix found the secret combination that was going to unleash my inner-Eldrick.

While this may happen at some point, one thing I found out quickly at the range was that the results were not going to be immediate. The first cuts with my new and improved 4-iron were solid, but I was fading (okay, slicing) almost everything, which is particularly strange because with my old clubs, I couldn’t hit a fade if my life depended on it. I play more by feel than by mechanics, which is a nice way to say I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with my swing – I just hit the ball and hope for the best. So it’s difficult for me to pinpoint what was going on…initially I’ll just chalk it up to timing and getting used to the new sticks.

Approximately 60 range balls and 2 blisters later, I headed over to the putting green and waited for the short course to clear up. Did I mention that the putting green is 2 acres? I only managed to cover about 10% of it before I turned around and made my way back to my golf bag and then on to the short course. The short course is great, the perfect way to start the golf season. I hit about 4 balls on each hole, hitting about 1.5 out of every 4 where I wanted to. The course has 2 short par 4’s, and I took the opportunity to test new driver vs. old driver (Titleist 905T) with about 6-8 balls each. Final verdict: the 905R is long…and strong! Actually, my best with the 905T wasn’t much longer than my old driver, but the misses were much better. If I could only figure out where this fade (if the ball curls about 40 yards, can we still classify it as a fade?) came from. About 50% of my drives with the ‘R’ were hammered and dead straight, so I think I’ll keep it in the bag and hope for the best…at least until I can get out to Hotstix again so they can tell me which shaft to put in it.

Saturday evening was spent waiting for a table at Outback and catching up with my Nana, Great Uncle Hunter and his wife Daisy. We didn’t end up eating until about 9:30 pm, but that didn’t stop Nana from waking me up at 6:30 am with the sweet smell of bacon, scrambled eggs and toast. Nothing has changed in 30 years. What can I say…I have the best grandmother in the world. She didn’t want me playing golf on an empty stomach (despite still being full from the night before).

My first tee time was at 7:55 am for Pine Barrens, and I since I couldn’t (despite multiple efforts) convince Jefe or anybody else to join me, I was paired up with local pharmacist and World Woods regular Bob, and the father-son combination of Felix and Alex, who if you remember the White Sox World Series run, was a dead ringer for one of Ozzie Guillen’s sons. I’m still convinced that there’s some relation here. For the story, just assume I played with Ozzie Guillen’s brother and nephew.

Pine Barrens is a special place…definitely deserving of a running diary. So here’s the blow-by-blow of my interesting round at this spectacular course.

Hole #1: 371 yards, par 4
The first hole at Pine Barrens is straightforward and pretty benign. Only one large deep waste area to worry about 250 out on the left and another along the entire far right side of the hole. The waste areas are the signature of this course and the characteristic that most closely resembles Pine Valley. Every previous time I’ve been down here, at least one person – starter, ranger, or complete stranger – has said the following phrase to me verbatim: “Those are waste areas, you CAN ground your club in them.” What a revelation! As if being able to ground your club in the bunker is the secret to dropping 10 strokes from your game. Of course, you then feel compelled to ground your club simply because you can, whether it be taking practice swings, bringing your entire bag down there with you, or laying down in the sand and making snow angels.

Sadly, this was the first time I’ve ever set foot on the place and didn't receive the waste area reminder. How disappointing.

In any case, I started my round well, driving to the edge of the aforementioned left bunker, leaving only a gap wedge left to the green. I hit my approach shot a little long and right, but had about 25-feet left for a routine two putt and par.

(Spoiler Alert: This is the last par I will get for a very, very long time)

Hole #2: 428 yards, par 4
The 2nd is the hardest hole on the front nine, a long par 4 with a devilish green that is well-protected by trees. I hit a solid drive but pulled it left and it went through the fairway. I didn’t have a straight shot at the hole…I’d have to carve a big-hook 8-iron around the trees to have any shot. And wouldn’t you know it, I was able to execute the shot that I was trying to hit (I love it when this happens). The shot hooked just the right amount, cozying to about 6-feet short of, and more importantly below, the hole. I did everything I could to miss the putt, but the hole got in the way for my first birdie of 2007. I AM THE GREATEST GOLFER ALIVE!!!

Two holes into 2007 and I’m already in red numbers. Right now, I’m thinking that I’m going to set the world afire. I begin to have visions of not only being competitive in the US Amateur Pub Links, US Mid-Am and Illinois State Am qualifiers that I plan on entering this year, but maybe I can actually qualify and do some damage. Maybe Hotstix really has unleashed the beast.

(Spoiler Alert: This is the last birdie that I will get for a very long time. Back to planet Earth, Mr. Colton)

Hole #3: 146 yards, par 3
Those warm fuzzy feelings didn’t last long. The 3rd hole has always been my nemesis – one of only two holes where water comes into play. The green hugs the hazard and wildly slopes towards the water (Felix would later putt his ball into the hazard). Of course, we’ve got the Sunday pin placements (literally and figuratively), so the pin is tucked impossibly back left.

We’ve always called this hole ‘Gator Bait’ – either my buddy Wego or I coined it that way back in 1993 when we played it for the first time and it’s just stuck ever since. This is also the hole that Jefe and I were going to film our short public service announcement called ‘Know Before You Throw’, which would provide tips on what to do and what not to do when throwing your clubs. I’ve probably deposited more gator bait to this hole than anybody alive, and being the stickler that I am, I couldn’t veer from tradition. Actually, I was feeling extra generous this year since it’s been awhile, so I double dipped.

So I’m staring 7 or worse in the face right off the heels of my par-birdie start. But my first ball was tantalizingly close to the edge of the water and sitting up on the plant life. Too good to pass up, but it’s more than a wedge away from the bank. So I had to step one foot in the water just to reach the ball, open up the clubface, close my eyes, say a prayer and hit it like a bunker shot. Remarkably, the ball came out cleanly and ended up just short of the green. Sadly, my khakis were not so lucky. I was caked in mud from my pants up to the lower brim of my hat. But it was definitely worth it to save a stroke or two. I ended up missing a 6-footer for what would’ve been an all-world bogey, but double was not a bad score given the circumstances.

Hole #4: 480 yards, par 5
The 4th is one of the more memorable holes on the course, a classic risk-reward short par 5. You can cut-off some distance by carrying it about 220 over a giant waste area right, which sets up a mid-iron to an uphill approach shot over a giant gorge of a waste area, affectionately known as ‘the Devil’s A-Hole’ (another ode to Pine Valley). I bombed my drive, leaving about 190 yards to the middle and about 205 to the back pin placement. Perfect 5-iron for me, except I skulled it low and right, right into the one place you don’t want to be, right into the gorge (any bunker, or waste area, with 30+ feet of stairs in generally a place you want to avoid). What should’ve been a routine birdie opportunity turned into a three-putt bogey.

Hole #5: 362 yards, par 4
The 5th is a very nice short par 4 – the fairway is extremely wide (still missed it), but all of the trouble is around the green. The green has three tiers and a false front, which I didn’t really know about until I saw my ball roll back down the fairway. Another missed opportunity here – I was sitting pretty only 99 yards to the stick, normally my strong suit. I just haven’t gotten the wedges dialed in yet (just wait, it’s a recurring theme).

Speaking of the greens, the one knock on World Woods in the past has been the greens. They’ve had their problems maintaining the greens through the years, so it’s always been hit or miss. A few years ago, they had some sort of mold problem on Pine Barrens and had to completely re-do them. They are very good now. I think the slopes and breaks are much more severe now. At least I don’t remember them being this tough. Lots of humps, run-off areas and false fronts gives the green complexes a Pinehurst-type feel. And that’s a good thing, just not for your score.

Hole #6: 518 yards, par 5
Hole #7: 185 yards, par 3
Hole #8: 361 yards, par 4
Hole #9: 395 yards, par 4
Holes 6-9 were a blur, but I can say is that I really made a mess of them. I had a little bit of everything. Sand, trees, rough, more sand, more trees. I felt like that USGA commercial where the hackers call out all those different golf terms: “Lumber yard! Kitty litter!” Although the route varied per hole, the results were the same: Double-Double-Double-Double. Out in 47! And this is after a par-birdie start. If it hasn’t already, this game will drive you crazy. I hadn’t doubled four holes in a row in over six years, and that was at the Old Course at St Andrews, when I doubled the first five holes after having to stand outside for five hours in 40-degree temperatures just for the chance to play.

Hole #10: 158 yards, par 3
Finally got off the double-bogey train. Hit a solid shot right over the flag but it was too much club and airmailed the green. Couldn’t get up and down, but at least I didn’t make a double! It’s a bad sign if I’m celebrating bogeys.

Hole #11: 379 yards, par 4
Just when things were finally heading in the right direction. I hit a decent drive, but it ran through the fairway left. I only had wedge into the green, but it clipped some branches and ended up dying into the large waste areas in front of the green. One bunker shot and three putts later, and I’m back in double bogeyville. Where they always know your name…

Hole #12: 457 yards, par 4
The 12th is the toughest and longest par 4 on the course, and it has two distinct greens. The left green is much smaller and plays a little longer, but has no bunkers protecting it. The right green is perched high above a giant waste area. Most of the time, it’s on the right and it’s right today. Once Jefe and I both birdied this hole in the same round. Astrologists are still studying the alignment of the stars and moons from that day.

Well, I picked the wrong time to hit my first draw of the season, and ended up in the trees right. I managed to advance the ball towards the green, but still short and right. I planned to play my next chip off the cart path to get it close to the green. Almost executed perfectly, except it hit the SIDE of the cart path and caromed back into the deep stuff. My next chip carried a little bit past the hole, then rolled down this slope another 30 feet. Did I mention how tough the greens and pin placements were? I had to roll-in a curling 8-footer just to save double-bogey, topping it off with an emphatic mock fist pump. Now I’m celebrating double bogeys. Is the world coming to an end?

Hole #13: 421 yards, par 4
With steam coming out of both ears, I let loose on my drive on 13 and hammered it right down the middle, leaving only 90 yards to the hole. Total green light situation for me. Typically, I’m thinking birdie from here at least 20 percent of the time. But that’s tough to do when you leave your approach shot 20 yards short. ‘Chunked it!’ The USGA could’ve saved a lot of money filming that commercial…why pay all those actors when I could’ve done the whole thing myself in one round?

Hole #14: 527 yards, par 5
The 14th will forever be known as ‘The Hole that Jefe Got Double Digits On’, a tidbit that I never fail to a) remind him of and b) tell all of my playing partners about whenever I play here. Bear in mind, he did this 13 years ago. He hit his drive straight right into the woods, took a couple to get it out into the waste area, then proceeded to hit it back into the aforementioned woods. (Speaking of Jefe and double-digit holes, the only other time I can remember him hitting double digits was in the same round that I got my hole-in-one. This is great, because the scorecard with his big ‘10’ is immortalized in a framed shadowbox hanging on my wall. It really makes you wonder the real motivation for having it framed.)

I hit my drive well right, ending up in the waste area again. I didn’t have much of a shot, I had to get it above the lip but below this tree, with probably less than six feet to work with. With nothing to lose, I was able to pull it off, hitting a hooking 5-iron that curled just under the tree and ended up in the perfect lay-up position. Green light again only 120 yards away, except that I failed to execute again, pulling my gap wedge into the bunker, running my bunker shot through the green and lipping out a putt for yet another double bogey. I think I’ve met my quota for the year.

Hole #15: 313 yards, par 4
The 15th offers a chance of redemption, a drivable risk-reward par 4 that has two fairways: play it safe to the left with little or no trouble but a blind second shot, or go for broke down the right, carrying it over water and a giant waste area for a chance for eagle or better (on the WW website, they have a story about a foursome that made an ace, eagle, birdie and par on this hole a few years back).

I aimed down the right side but my drive ended up down the left side, just to give you an idea how far it sliced. It’s a scary feeling standing over the ball and not having an idea which direction the ball is going to go. This is how my buddy Charles must feel everyday of his life. From now on, this will be referred to as ‘the Charles feeling’. Pass it on.

Just for kicks and extra aggravation, I hit another one and of course nailed it right at the flagstick. It ended up on the green about 30 feet right of the hole and pin high. Don’t you love this game? Back to my real ball, sitting safely in the left fairway and looking like I laid-up, I still had a shot with only about 75 yards to the stick. My approach hit the downward sloping green and ran through and I lipped out my par attempt to bogey the easiest hole on the course. All of this with my second drive still sitting on the green just taunting me. Cart partner Bob recognizes my par-less streak is now at 14 holes and counting. Thanks Bob.

Hole #16: 205 yards, par 3
According to the yardage book, the 16th is Pine Barren’s Signature Hole. I’m not keen on the whole signature hole thing, but it is a cool hole. A ridge protects the left side of the length of the hole and waste areas run down the right side. The green slopes severely from left to right. All in all, a very stern par 3. I went with 7-iron and hit my best shot of the day, drawing one in right at the stick, rolling up to less than a foot from the hole for a tap-in birdie! “Sixty percent of the time, it works everytime.”

[By the way, Anchorman has to be one of the most underrated movies in recent memory. It’s one of those movies that gets better every time you see it. Trust me. Watch it again and I guarantee you’ll like it more than the last time.]

Hole #17: 376 yards, par 4
The birdie keeps the no-par streak at 15 holes and counting. The yardage book says 17 is ‘a straightaway par 4 that has a generously wide fairway’. I still manage to miss it left, which is the only place you don’t want to miss it. There’s a giant tree guarding the left side, the only hope I have is to hit it towards the bunker right of the green. This strategy seems to work in the US Open, why not here, right? And just yesterday on the short course, I was in the bunker three times and got up and down routinely all three times (sand play was by far the most improved aspect of my game in 2006). Unfortunately, none of that seems to matter here, because I chunked my first bunker shot, rolling it back in. This led to another double and we’re at 16 holes and counting without a par.

Hole #18: 376 yards, par 4
The 18th is a tough driving hole with a narrow fairway dogleg-left fairway. You can either hang back off the tee and have a long way off the tee or try to cut the corner with a precise fade over waste area and trees. I managed to hit the fade as planned, but my drive still ran through the fairway. No big deal, I’m only 90 yards to the stick. I hit a lob wedge that looked like it was going to be very good, except it spun back off the front of the green. My lag putt from off the green left a lot to be desired, running about 7-8 feet past the hole, but I managed to roll it in coming back. Bookend pars! 47-45 92. How embarrassing. Why am I sharing this with anybody? This is one of those rounds where you rip up the scorecard and forget about it. Check out these killer stats:

Birdies: 2
Pars: 2
Bogeys: 5
Doubles: 9
Fairways hit: 3/14
Greens in Regulation: 4/18
Putts: 35

The truth is this is not a whole lot different than most first-rounds of the year for me. My game is just lacking precision in every facet of the game, and on a demanding course like this, it’s going to expose you. However, I don’t recall a round where I turned so many birdie opportunities into bogeys or even doubles. At least I have nowhere to go but up.

Fortunately, things did get better in the afternoon. I got paired up with this spunky grandmother Lynn who was out there by herself. We teed off on the back nine first and pretty much had to course to ourselves on the back. It was pretty much the same up-and-down round for me…I just couldn’t hit two good shots in a row. But I did manage to get it going later, after the 16th, the ranger told us to play 15 & 16 again so the first tee would be clear by the time we got there. From there I parred 11 of the last 13 holes, and not including the 2 replayed holes ended up with 45-38 83. A small glimmer of hope.

I did play in Naples this week in a work-outing scramble, and our team won the thing by three strokes. We shot 7-under par, and I had four of those birdies by myself. The precision with my wedge game was the only thing that was lacking. Everything else was very good. I even hit driver off the deck successfully for the first time in my life to reach one of the par 5’s in two, then did the same thing three holes later. I batted clean-up in our group, allowing me to grip-and-rip if one of the other guys was safely in the fairway or hit the clutch shot or putt when we needed it. I made two clutch putts of 35 and 45 feet to put us out of reach.

So things are looking up for this year. Where do we go from here? Well, now the clubs will go back in the trunk where they’ll probably sit for two months until the snow melts, most likely meaning I’ll be back at square one. I need to move to Florida.

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