The Ballynizzle Cup (Part Two: Monday Singles)


[Note: Click here for Part One]

It's probably just my obsessive nature, but nothing at the Nizzle was done half-hearted. First-class trophy. First-class collector item bag tags for the competitors (likely coming to an eBay auction near you. I've already received an e-mail from a friend who spotted one this week up at Erin Hills). Highly competitive pairings, literally modeled via Monte Carlo simulation to ensure fairness and variety over the three days. Did I mention that I'm obsessive? If not, I'm sure one of my dearest, closest friends told you.

All that hard work paid off, because at the start of the third and final day of the Ballynizzle Cup, Team Jefe led by just a point and it was clear it would come down to the wire. All six matches looked extremely even on paper -- anything could happen. Jefe and I were anchoring the matches, and it was destined to be an epic battle. We'd both shoot 75 or we'd both shoot 95. There was no middle ground. It was going to be close.

When we last left off, I was busy dry-heaving at 4:30 am the morning of the matches. Despite two hours of sleep, I felt pretty good. The key to cure any stomach ailment...Ballyneal bacon! An interesting subplot to the Nizzle was an apparent switch from the legendary Ballyneal bacon of 2008 to some form of regular bacon this year. Was the economy forcing cost-cutting measures? Were the pigs just not as tasty this year? Who knows, but it was a bitter disappointment either way. Wyatt, who has told more people about the bacon than he has about the course since his initial visit last year, almost stayed home when he heard the news. Well, I casually asked the waitress at dinner what happened to the old bacon. She had no idea, but lo and behold, at breakfast the next day they had the old bacon! How's that for service? You should've seen the look on Wyatt's face. He order two heaping helpings, partly because everybody took a piece off his first plate. I told you the Nizzle was first class all the way.

Short of bringing in a ping-pong table, renting blonde trophy wives and telling my guys to 'take a dead aim', I tried to rally my troops as best I could. I customized my motivational methods to suit each player, whether it be scare tactics, shame tactics or...well, that was about it. For team unity, I had my whole team decked out in blue shirts. This would've been great if Jefe and over half of his team hadn't been wearing blue shirts as well. Well played, Jeferiano.

Undefeated Jose-Maria OlaJimbo teed-off against hobbled Beau in the lead match. I hoped Beau could knock that smug grin of Jimbo's face with some aggressive play, but Jimbo kept humming along and parred him to death. I should've taken his hybrid and snapped it in half. (Actually I'm disappointed that I didn't think of it until now.) Jimbo cruised to a 5 & 4 win to cap off a remarkable 5-1/2 point weekend. This is the same guy who shot 52 in his opening nine during the Friday practice round. I like that guy a lot better. In related news, there is one spot open for Ballynizzle 2011.

If there was one word to describe Team Coltrain that morning, it would definitely be nervous. Like 'I-don't-want-to-disappoint-my-task-master-of-a-captain' nervous. Stephen looked shell shocked as he topped two tee balls into the abyss off the first tee. Fortunately, he was able to turn it around against Barry, making a bomb on the first hole for a halve and then cruising from there. Stephen was 4 up at the turn and finished Barry off 5 & 4.

The big question of the day remained...would John Mayhugh win a point? I think he was scared to find out what would happen if he didn't, because he smoked Kyle H. 5 & 4 to win a crucial match. Either that or Kyle was scared for him and threw in the towel. See, my motivational tactics had worked wonders. I should write a book.

Unfortunately, a combination of Tony Robbins, Michael Jordan and the Ghost of Knute Rockne would've been fruitless for poor ol' Brad, who was still Dead Man Walking from being 'Tanged' the day before. One thing I learned about Brad is that he is as hypercompetitive as I am. We should start a support group. Brad was up most the night envisioning the approach shots he'd have to hit into each green on Monday. Then the wind shifted and all that planning was out the window. That's Ballyneal for you. There is no prevailing wind and it can switch mid-round on you.

Even Brad at his best would've been no match for a bacon-infused Wyatt. After Wyatt hit a low pull into the 7th green (which was set up to the very back shelf of the famous E-green just for the singles), his ball skirted disaster and ended up in tap-in range, Brad knew he was in trouble. He lost in yet another 5 & 4 match, and it was Brad who looked like the Ghost of Knute Rockne after being delivered the knockout blow of a Jimbo right hook, Wyatt left uppercut and a Jefe knee to the groin, forever to be known in Holyoke as the Triple Buzzsaw.

All Team Jefe needed was one point out of the remaining two matches to clinch the Cup. The Dad's, my father-in-law Ken and Wyatt's dad Tom, were neck and neck in the second match. Tom had a 1 up lead after 9 holes. In the featured match-up, it looked more like it would be 95's instead of 75's early on, but we both settled down a little bit. I hacked around the 2nd hole and gave Jefe a 1-up advantage, then Jefe returned the favor on the 3rd to bring it back to all-square. I looked all but out of it the 4th hole, but somehow managed to get up and down from the deep front bunker for bogey to salvage a halve. The 5th and 6th holes were halved with pars (okay, bogeys) and the match remained all-square.

I mentioned that Ballyneal was a great match-play course. There are a lot of half-par holes that can make or break the match. The underrated aspect of Ballyneal is the lack of tee markers, which was nothing short of a brilliant decision on the O'Neal's part. In match play, having the honors and choosing the tee to play from can be a huge strategic advantage. With the tee, I tried to use my superior (albeit diminishing) length over Jefe to give me an edge, not by moving the tees back but by moving them up starting on the short par 4 7th hole. Jefe made a mess of the 7th to give me a 1-up advantage. Then on 8, I moved up two sets of tees to really bring into play the bunkers that pinch the fairway. I blasted a drive through the gap and reached the green in two with a pitching wedge. Jefe had to lay-up off the tee with a fairway wood but was still in the greenside bunker in two after a solid hybrid. My lag putt made it to conceded birdie range, and Jefe's birdie attempt to halve went way past the hole. I had a 2-up advantage.

On the 9th hole, I moved up a couple sets, originally so I could successfully hit a 4-iron to the fairway instead of blasting a driver 60-yards left again. But once my caddie told me it was only 313 to the pin from the tee, I pulled out driver and hit the fairway for the first time, ending up just short and right of the green. Jefe layed up with fairway wood again and hit a beautiful shot right down the middle. We both burned the edges with our birdie tries and the match remained 2-up at the turn.

Unfortunately for me, that is where the momentum ended. I hit it way left off the 10th tee and ended up giving the hole and the honors back to Jefe. We both halved the 11th with pars, then I conceded the 12th hole before Jefe got to hit his 2nd shot to bring the match back to all-square. No Jefe, you don't get to stat that as an eagle. On 13, I looked doomed again after hitting my drive way left (again), hacking it out of the vegetation successfully but into the deep, far right bunker. Miraculously, I was able to get out of the bunker to pin-high, just right of the green, then made a long putt for bogey to salvage a halve.

Feeling good, I absolutely toe-tagged a drive on the 14th tee that ended up just short and right of the green (this after telling the roving photographer -- yes, we had one -- to move away from the front of the next tee box, not because he was a distraction but for his own personal safety. I'm fairly certain that a 180-mph Jim Colton duck hook would kill a man.) Jefe found the middle of the fairway and missed the green long and right, his ball hanging up in the rough near the green instead of rolling down to the collection area below. I chipped up past the hole and let the slopes feed the ball back down to about 6-7 feet for a good birdie opportunity. Advantage Colton.

One of the things that makes the Ryder Cup so compelling is that it always seems to boil down to one hole or one shot that can ultimately decide the fate of the match or even the Cup. A make by one guy and a miss by the other, snatching victory out of the claws of defeat, or vice versa. The same can be said for match play in general. One sequence can define the match, and that's exactly what happened here on the 14th hole.

Our roving course videographer -- yes, we had one of those too. Wego took sitting out as an opportunity to tape some of the action -- just happened to be at the green when it happened. As Jefe prepared for his delicate chip shot, I whispered to Wego, 'I fully expect him to make this.' Jefe's chip caught the slope perfectly, and about 8 feet out you can hear me say, 'Told ya'. About 3 feet out...'Told ya.' His chip found the right edge of the cup and dropped in for an incredible birdie! A shot that will go down in Ryder Cup, err...Ballynizzle Cup lore.

Of course, I still had a chance to halve with a birdie putt, but you can guess how that ended up. I put my best Tom Watson impression on it and missed it on the low side. Jefe had a 1-up advantage. A 1-up advantage that didn't last long because it was 2-up just a few minutes later after I yanked my approach shot into the tall stuff while Jefe found the green about 25 feet above the hole.

So, I was 2 down with 3 holes to play. Last we heard on the status of the Ken-Tom match, Tom was 1-up thru 14 holes. There was a chance that our match wouldn't matter if Tom was able to hold on. Their match was likely over by now but we didn't know of its status. All I knew is that I had to get back into this match. I blasted another tee shot on the par 5 16th, almost thru the fairway and down into the bowl. I had 158 to the pin and hit pitching wedge to about 20 feet. Jefe hit into the greenside bunker and we had almost a carbon copy of the 8th hole. My eagle putt ended up just inches from the hole and Jefe was unable to get up and down. I love conceded birdies! Back to one-down with two holes to play.

Meanwhile, Wego had been on the horn with the clubhouse to get the status on the Ken match. On the 17th tee, he had word.

Wego: 'Ken and Tom is final. Do you want me to tell you the outcome?'
Jim & Jefe: 'Yeah. What happened?'
Wego: 'Ken won 1-up. So that means your match is going to decide the Cup.'
Jim: 'Oh...wait, you shouldn't have told us that.'
Wego: 'Well, I just asked if you wanted to know and you said yes.'

So it all came down to this. This is exactly what we wanted to happen when we set up the matches. But it was exactly what we didn't want to happen, if that makes any sense. So we did what any normal golfers would do in that situation:

We halved the 17th hole with triple bogeys.

It was the worst display of shotmaking on the 17th hole of match play since Calc at Kiawah Island in '91. I topped my ball off the tee, advanced the ball only 10 yards or so on the next shot, then hit the next one into the right rough. Jefe hit a decent drive but found a tough lie in the right rough. He hit his next shot into the bunker directly in front of him, and then into another tough lie in the left rough. Suddenly, it looked like I had the advantage. But I missed the green left with a gap wedge from 130, a shot that will haunt me until I'm on my death bed. Jefe left his next shot short, and we both layed 5 with near-impossible up-and-downs to a green sloping away from us. My lag putt ran 20 feet past and I missed it on the high-side coming back. Jefe lagged it about 15 feet past and his putt to clinch the Cup never had a chance.

So Jefe had a 1-up advantage heading into the last hole. Somehow, someway I had to win this hole. Thankfully, I had the full support of my team on the 18th to root me on (wait, I must've imagined that part). Jefe had Wego and Jimbo to rally him on. I still had the tee and chose the very back of the very back tee box on 18, a 470+ yard brute. With the Cup on the line, how could you play it any differently? I 'm happy to report that I didn't top it and I didn't duck hook it. I am making progress. But I did hit it into the junk on the left. After I forced him to move his tee back a couple feet, Jefe found the right side of the fairway.

I consider myself to be the preeminent expert on the playing characteristics of the vegetation at Ballyneal. I've been yucca'd more times than I care to remember, but have become amazingly adept at getting out of it. One of the great aspects of the vegetation is the random nature of it. Although the fairways are sufficiently wide that most people (i.e. everybody other than me) don't get into the junk more than a couple times a round, when you do miss a fairway anything can happen. In Illinois, you miss a fairway into the trees or a hazard, you take a drop or punch out and you probably still make bogey. At Ballyneal, you might make birdie, you might make quadruple bogey. More often than not, it's the latter.

My caddie Duncan found my ball, and I had a clean lie in the junk, 211 yards from the hole. Just like the match, this was exactly what I wanted and exactly what I didn't want at the same time. With a clean lie, I convinced myself that I could hit a 5-iron right at the flag. But that would require catching it perfectly and carrying it over about 170 yards of vegetation. Normally, I'd take a gap wedge and advance the ball 100 yards down the fairway. But 1-down with Jefe in the fairway, I didn't have much choice.

My five iron caught the sand a little fat, the ball advanced about 50 yards but still in the junk. This time, there was a plant about a foot behind my ball. My only shot was to try to take a huge hook swing (even bigger than normal) around the plant. Tiger may be able to manufacturer big sweeping shots under pressure, but obviously I'm no Eldrick. My next shot ended up in a yucca plant, and it took me two more shots to get to the front edge of the green. The wind was officially out of the sails.

Jefe was about 20 yards short of the green in two, in front of the deep bunkers guarding the green. I conceded the match and Cup right then and there, but only after Jimbo and Wego tried to talk me out of it. There was a still a 20% chance that Jefe would dump his next shot into the bunker, end up making 8, but in a rare display of sportsmanship, I didn't wait to find out. We exchanged awkward man hugs and the inaugural Ballynizzle Cup belonged to Team Jefenator. Back in the Turtle Bar thirty minutes later, he was the first to kiss the Cup, and he took the opportunity to practically molest it.

Two days later, we pulled into my driveway at 1:30 a.m. after our flight home. I dropped my bags into our mudroom, and there was the white box with the Cup in it, already hand-delivered back to Chicago by the Transporter (what can I say, the guy is a professional). Initially, I thought I'd get a couple months alone time with it before having to give it up. Jefe and I literally never see each other during non-golf season (he's my Summer Jerry), so if I could just make it to October I could likely keep it all winter. If he tried to pop-in and pick it up, I'd have no problem hiding out in the basement with the shades drawn and the doors locked. But in a second rare sign of sportsmanship, I picked up the box, brought it outside and gave it to him. I'd like to say that the thought of punting the box into the neighbor's front lawn never occured to me, but I'd be lying if I said that. Handing that trophy over to Jefe was easily the lowest point of my life. That is, until the next morning when I had to explain to my 5-year old daughter that I had lost the Cup. Every daughter turns 12 and thinks their dad is complete loser anyways. My daughter simply reached that conclusion 7 years early.

Dad: 'I have sad news for you. Daddy didn't win that trophy.'
Maddy: 'Why?'
Dad: 'Well, Uncle Jefe won it. It was close but he beat me.'
Maddy: 'Why?'
Dad (deflecting blame): 'Because his team beat my team. They had more points'
Maddy: 'Did you come in last place?'
Dad: 'Yeah, Daddy's team came in second place. It came down to the wire, but we were on the 14th hole Jefe pulled this chip out of his...'
Maddy: 'Why?'
Dad: 'I don't know why, sweetie. But I can get it back in two years.'
Maddy: 'Good. You win that trophy back.'
Dad: 'I will, sweetie. I will.'


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