Land of the Lost (and Forgotten)


It's not often one gets the chance to play a course that has hosted a major championship. Normally, this would be a memorable, once-in-a- lifetime event. Unless the course is Kemper Lakes, site of the 1989 PGA Championship. Today, it's just a typical private club and site of the 2009 CDGA Sunshine through Golf foundation charity outing (Quick plug: do you want to play some nice private clubs in the Chicagoland area for cheap AND help out mentally and physically handicapped kids in the process? Check out these CDGA charity outings. They have a series of Monday afternoon events at different clubs in the area and they're only 75 dollars per person, including lunch and a commerative golf towel. Personally, it's all about the kids, but the golf is an added bonus.)

I've always had warm, fuzzy feelings about Kemper. In 1989, I was a high-school sophomore and my golf team was invited to work the PGA as sign-boys, forecaddies, etc. (although I hadn't met him yet, Jefe was working the tournament as well). For my buddy Wego and I, working met raiding the hospitality tent for free burgers and ice cream, getting free admission to watch the tournament and molesting Arnold Palmer for autographs behind the 18th green on Sunday. Good times. Compared to the goat tracks we played in high school, Kemper might have well been Augusta National.

Fast forward ten years and we were teeing it up on Kemper Lakes the day before my wedding day. A great time at a quality course, capped off by a birdie on the infamous 18th, my last hole as a bachelor (a tidbit I shared with the Tang brothers dozens of times duribg yesterday's outing.)

Fast forward another ten years and while I'm happy to report that my marriage is still going strong, Kemper Lakes just doesn't have the same mystique. It was a built in an era when water hazards and tree-lined fairways were in vogue. 7,200 yards was deemed uber-long in the days before titanium drivers and pro v-1's. It's still a nice course and a quality club, but it's hard to believe it actually hosted a major just 20 years ago. Today, Kemper is the poster child for why the PGA Championship plays fourth fiddle in golf's grand slam, a stigma it has always battled but has improved upon with stronger courses with fair course set-ups in recent years.

The event was a shotgun start and we started on the short par 3, 3rd hole. It's a 170-yard shot over water to a smallish green, or in other words, a hole that you've probably seen before at 50 other parkland courses. I'm sure it struck fear into golfers back in the day. With no room to lengthen, the pros would chew it up today with 8-irons. Heck, both Tang brothers birdied it, which has to be the first indication that a golf hole is too easy.

The rest of the front nine is pretty ho-hum and would be a birdiefest for your average tour pro. The only defense is some man-made lakes defending two very reachable par 5's and some pin positions that they can tuck into a corner between bunkers. The back nine gets a little more interesting with some wooded holes and a wet n wild 16-17-18 finish.

Reflecting on Kemper two days later, I couldn't help but see the parallels between the course and my own golf game. Two former Chicago golf legends (work with me here) well past their prime. The only difference is it took Kemper twenty years to slowly deteriorate into oblivion. My demise has occurred seemingly overnight. I've fully morphed into a 14-handicapper in less than 18 months. I've hit rock bottom. At least I hope so. Jefe and Jimbo don't even know what to say to me. They just look at me like my dog died and avoid all contact like I have the swine flu.

In the morning, we had a warm-up round at Foxford Hills, a decent public track in Cary. I've been out there before and have owned that course, shooting 73, 74 and 76. This week? 90 with a mulligan. Somehow I did manage to birdie the 11th in one of the few signs of life. Jefe and Jimbo treated my birdie like I had just won the U.S. Open. You know you're bad when pars feel like birdies and birdies feel like you've won a major. I am the David Ortiz of recreational golf (minus the steroids).

I did have a built in excuse: I was forced to use my old clubs. My trusty Taylor Made Burner mid-size irons, clubs and grips circa 1991. A carbite center-shafted putter that I forgot I had even owned until I pulled my old bag out of the basement. 'You didn't use that one long,' jefe recalled upon seeing it. With good reason. That putter was awful at the time (staying in the bag slightly longer than Jefe's broomstick putter three years ago), and even worse today. The golf ball looked like a knuckleball rolling off the clubface.

Old clubs or new, I have entered this golf abyss where standing over the ball I have a 50/50 chance of either hitting a clunker or hitting it absolutely pure. How do you plan for that? On #17 at Foxford Hills, I pured a 7-iron and immediately after the ball left the clubface, I declared, 'That's wet.' Sure enough, I had air-mailed the green by at least 15 yards and into the pond behind the green. My day effectively ended on our third hole at Kemper, when I duck-hooked my drive about 120 yards off the tee, then nailed a 6-iron recovery shot that not only went through the fairway, but also through the rough and OVER the large maintenance barn on the outside of the dogleg. Does anybody have Hank Haney's e-mail? I'd be a great candidate to replace Charles Barkeley as next season's 'Project'.

Even with my game in a state of disrepair, Jefe was still the same ol' schizophrenic Jefe. His round at Kemper could only be described as 'extreme' even by his standards. In addition to his routine birdie on the opening par 3, he had two other birdies, including one on the brutal par 3 17th with a 25 mile per hour crosswind. He owned the par 3's, but the par 5's owned him. On the 7th hole, he chipped the ball from just off the back fringe, through the green and into the water, en route to a 10. On the 11th hole, he hit two out of bounds and made an 11. Two deuces and two double-digit holes in the same round. That's hard to do.

Then for the icing on the cake, Jefe holed out a wedge shot from about 125 yards on the par 5 15th. I thought it was for eagle, but it turns out Jefe had already taken an 'X' on the hole after he realized his drive was out of bounds. His reaction was priceless, knowing he had wasted one of his life's pre-ordained hole-outs on a shot that didn't matter. Two deuces, two double-digits and a hole out for an 'X'. Don't try this at home.

But given the choice between Jefe's feast-or-famine style or my new 'hard bogey, easy double' game, I'd choose Jefe's in a heartbeat. I never thought I'd reach the point where I'd be envious of Jefe's golf game. Wow...I really have hit rock bottom. Consider this my cry for help. Mr. Haney? Anybody?


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