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Black Sheep Monday

7/22/2008

I just had the absolute worst caddie experience in the history of loopers. First, picture pulling up to the parking lot and the caddie tells you to get your own clubs out of the trunk. Next, imagine having to rake your own sand, clean your own ball, tend your own flag, etc. How about then being told to lug your bag for the whole 18 holes as well?

Obviously, this wasn't the level of service Jefe and I were expecting when we pulled into Black Sheep Golf Club (ranked #56 in Golfweek's Top 100 Modern Courses in the U.S.), an exclusive, all-male golf club about 45 miles west of Chicago in rural Sugar Grove. And it's safe to say our tip for the caddie was commensurate with the level of service. Jefe bolted right after the round and stiffed the guy completely. I felt bad for the guy and bought him lunch.

This is in no way a black mark on the overall caddie program at Black Sheep. All in all, it's a first rate organization and I gotta believe this was just an isolated incident. But how many people can say their caddie showed up to the first tee with their own clubs and fully expect to play alongside you?

I guess this is what happens when your caddie is also your brother, or on my case, brother from another mother. As you may recall, while Jefe and I were frolicking gaily (golfing, mind you) in the dunes at Ballyneal, Jefe's brother Jimbo was busy double looping at Black Sheep, where he caddies during his summers off from teaching. I guess this says a lot about Jimbo's character...Jefe and I play one of the top 20 golf courses in the world WITHOUT HIM, and two weeks later, he's hooking us up at the private course he loops at? If it were me, I'd hold a grudge that would take years to get over, if ever. I'm still sore about the plastic green repair tool (can somebody come up with a better name for these?) he gave me after playing in the 2003 Naperville City Amateur (he got it for free), while Jefe got a dozen Titleists. Or how about in 2006 when after playing Blackwolf Run, Jefe and Jimbo dissed my invite to hit up Chili's after the round (we were in separate cars), then ended up stopping at Chili's a half-hour later while I drove straight home? And don't get me started on Jimbo's countless M.O.B. (mouth-on-ball) violations, adding further insult to injury on shots that look good initially but end up in a hazard. But who's counting?

[By the way, for comedic purposes, you can get A LOT of mileage out of the my playing partner is my caddy bit. It never gets old. Blast one out of the bunker? Stare at your 'caddie' and point at the rake? Get a yardage that 3-4 paces off, tell him it's coming out of the tip. See where I'm going with this? It's gold, Jerry! Gold! Of course, Jimbo was sick of this routine by the time we reached the first fairway, making the comment, 'I really thought you guys would be a little more appreciative.' We are Jimbo. We just have a strange way of showing it.]

I think it also says a lot about Jimbo when as a meager caddie he's able to bring guests out to the course. How in the heck does this happen? What kind of super caddie do you have to be to be able to bring guests? Especially riff-raff like Jefe and me? Some of the clubs in our area discourage the MEMBERS from bringing in outside play, yet somehow Jimbo is getting us on. I take back everything bad I ever said about the guy.

I imagine it says a lot about Black Sheep as well. It's kind of like the anti-country club. It's all about the golf there. Very laid back. No luxurious amenities. No tennis courts or swimming pools. Just a simple barn for a clubhouse, some sheds for the maintenance equipment, and 27 holes of wonderful prairie-style golf. The only thing that matches the number of trees on the property (zero) is the number of women that have ever set foot on the property. No chicks allowed. Even the young caddies that get dropped off by their moms in the morning have to get dumped off at the front gate and make the 'walk of shame' up the 400+ yards to the clubhouse.

Now this is a serious point of contention with the avid golfer that I happened to be married to. Trust me, I know that I'm extremely fortunate in the understanding spouse category when it comes to my golf sickness. But if my loving wife were to ever draw a line in the sand, joining an all-male golf club would definitely be crossing that line. She wasn't even thrilled with the fact that I'd be playing the course, and she's less with thrilled with Jimbo for even working there. Now Susie C. is sweet as sugar 99.9% of the time, but she can get worked up in a tizzy when the subject is about the proverbial little guy (or in this case, gal) being wronged. The mere mention of Black Sheep triggered a 10-minute diatribe about every starter that slighted her, every guy that rolled his eyes after getting paired up with her, etc. When she paused for air, I made the mistake of asking, 'Is that all?', which would've launched another 10 minute diatribe if I hadn't interrupted her and said it was merely a rhetorical question.

I think it's safe to say that Black Sheep won't be getting a membership application from me, but I can definitely see the appeal to the place for those that can pull it off. Personally, I think it would be the perfect fit for Jefe, if only he had an extra zero tacked on to his net worth. The course is literally only five minutes west of his house. He would live on the range and shoot off for 3-hour round whenever he wanted. And when his wife boots him out of the house for blowing his daughters' college tuitions on golf, he could stay at one of the small cottages they have on-site. What more could you ask for, Jefenator?

We had the first tee time at 8:00 a.m., on a day where there were only about 4-5 other groups on the docket. The next group wasn't until an hour after us, and including former NBA player and current ESPN broadcaster Jon Barry. We didn't see another soul on the golf course until we climbed back to the 9th tee, and they were on the nine that we weren't playing. With three nines and a limited membership, you can pretty much guarantee that you can get right out on the course and play a round in 3 1/2 hours or less. No more slogging around at the muni for a 5-hour round. Yeah, I can definitely see the appeal to this place.

For awhile, it looked like our day at Black Sheep was going to be a complete wash out. We arrived amidst thunderstorms with no end in sight. For at least 30 minutes, we stood outside in the rain just staring at the course, wondering if we were going to get a chance to play it or not. And who knows if this Monday morning opportunity would present itself again. The course certainly looked nice from the clubhouse.

Thankfully, the skies cleared up and we were able to do more than just look at the course. We ran to the first tee as the 'all-clear' buzzer rang, about 90 minutes after our expected start time. Although due to the sogginess of the course and relatively little wind, we weren't able to experience Black Sheep in its full firm-and-fast splendor, but the course delivers. Similar to Ballyneal, it's simply a fun course that you can play over and over again and never get bored. It's not over-the-top challenging...the fairways are the widest I've ever played, so you can grip it and rip it, but where you are in the fairway will dictate significantly what kind of approach you'll have into the green. The greens are very straightforward and natural with subtle breaks, a strong mix of small and large, and some of the smoothest surfaces I've ever putted on. Architect David Esler did a great job of getting the most out of an otherwise non-descript plot of land. The course is bordered on all sides by cornfields, and you can't help put get the sense that the same course could've been built on any one of the fields next door. Surprisingly, there is some decent elevation change on the site, as the property slopes away from the clubhouse. The par 3 3rd-hole has at least a 40-foot drop from tee to green.

Black Sheep is so solid from 1-to-18 (and I'm assuming 19-to-27 as well) that it's hard for me to pick out my favorite or least favorite holes. It's not Pacific Dunes or Ballyneal, but it is a quality golf course from beginning to end. I think the course if far superior to Rich Harvest Links, the ultra-private playground of Jerry Rich, that is hosting the Solheim Cup later this year. Rich Harvest is the type of course that you're glad to have had the experience of playing. Black Sheep is the type of course that you want to keep playing over and over again. And pretty much everybody that I know who has played both courses would agree.

To give you an indication of how well I played, I'll throw a couple of stats out there for you:

Fairways Hit: 3/14
Greens in Regulation: 4/18

That has the makings for an 86-87 round, right? You did read above where it said these were the widest fairways that I've ever played right? 3 out of 14 fairways is probably mathematically more difficult to do than hitting 14 out of 14 on this course. The typical Black Sheep hole is 80-90 yards of fairway surrounded by about a 6 feet buffer of rough. The rest is prairie grass. Miss the fairway and you're likely in a lot of trouble. Miss 11 fairways and you're toast.

So, what did I end up shooting? Here's two more numbers for you?

Total Putts: 24
Score: 77

Did I mention that these were some of the smoothest greens I've ever putted on? An amazing thing happens when you putt a ball online at Black Sheep...the ball actually goes in the hole. At the courses I'm used to playing, you have to expect and play for the bounces and bumps, just get the rock rolling on-line and hope for the best. Somehow, someway I managed to Houdini my way to my best round of the year (very little competition for that honor, this is the sixth round of the year for me and only the second where I actually kept score), with a dazzling array of up-and-downs and long par and bogey saves. Somehow, someway my misses were pretty manageable. I was able to find and blast my way out of the tall stuff (I credit the pilates) and scramble my way for a score. On the front nine, one of the three drives I hit well was on the one hole I needed it the most, the drivable 305-yard par 4 5th hole. There are really two options on this hole, hit a 160-yard lay-up shot or hit the ball 280+ yards and dead straight. Jimbo said that only 10% of golfers actually go for the green. It would be 33.3% out of this group. I fully expected to hit a low duck hook into the swampland, but somehow, someway managed to blast one straight at the hole, just short of the green for a routine birdie. Then on the 6th hole, a 618-yard par 5, I hit my putt from the fringe way too hard but it clanked the stick and dropped for another birdie. After 6 holes and despite hitting only 3-4 decent golf shots, I found myself at 1-under par.

I tried my darndest to double bogey just about every one of the remaining 12 holes, but my short game bailed me out every time. It was surreal. Except for a lip-out on the 14th, nearly every hole was capped by rolling in a must-make putt to keep the round going. I had no business breaking 80 on this day, but on the greens I could do no wrong. Contrast that with Jefe who hit 10/14 fairways and 8/18 greens and ended up shooting 82.

Our 'Heavy Hitters' tour starts up again on Saturday August 10th as we leave for our annual golf binge, this time in Wisconsin and Michigan. We're got 10+ rounds in 5-days at 7 different courses. 5 of the courses are legit heavy hitters. One of them is a yet another private course that we have no business being on. I keep looking over my shoulder expecting to get hauled away in handcuffs. This is too good to be true. Somebody pinch me.

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