The Ballynizzle Cup (Part One)


Somewhere, Samuel Ryder is rolling over in his grave.

Earlier this month, the inaugural Ballynizzle Cup was held at Ballyneal Golf and Hunt Club, pitting Team Coltrain (me) versus Team Jefenator (Jefe) in a 3-day, 16-man golf battle royale. Jefe, nicknamed Jeferiano after Seve Ballesteros because of his uncanny ability to make par from anywhere, was a natural fit to captain the Euro's. I would be playing the role of Paul Azinger, tall and lanky with plenty of history and bad blood with Seve over the years. It promised to be a duel for the ages. After months of planning, preparation and potential pairings, the "Nizzle" was finally set to go.

The only question was whether my golf game would also make the trip. Just for kicks, I added up my last 20 rounds and calculated my was 8.6! Not quite the 10 that I thought it would be, but definitely a long way from the 2.2 from two summers ago. What happened to me? Will I ever break 80 again? How in the world would I beat the always steely Jefe in the anchor match of singles on the final day? I fully expected to go 0-6 for the weekend, not exactly a formula for success when 12 1/2 points would clinch it. The mere thought of the sweet ceramic Ballynizzle Cup sitting on Jefe's mantle and not mine for the next two years was simply too much to bear.

The format of the event would be three days of match play, Saturday and Sunday morning and afternoon fourballs (best ball) and capped by Monday morning singles matches. Saturday late afternoon also included three 9-hole alternate shot match-ups, each worth 1/2 point. Ballyneal is the perfect course for match play. You (and especially me) can make a lot of large numbers if you miss the wide (but apparently not wide enough) fairways. But in match play, that'll only cost you one hole. In an average round, I'm good for 5 low duck hooks, 5 blocks that go 70 yards left of the target, and 4 actual good drives that are blasted about 290-310. So I'd either have to ride piggyback on my teammates (and the answer is yes, I would be stacking the rosters in my favor) or find a way to keep it together. Of course, the simple answer would be to hit more fairways, but I guess that's not a viable option for me anymore.

Saturday morning saw me paired up with Stephen, a Scotsman who lives in Milwaukee. Not only did Stephen win the Miss Congeniality award for the weekend, he could play a little golf too. Unfortunately, he was a) paired with me and b) playing Ballyneal for the first time. Stephen has a sweet swing, really pounds the ball straight, but a first-time visit to Ballyneal's greens is worth 4-5 three putts and Stephen was no exception to the rule. He did all he could to carry me, but we were no match against Jimbo (his first win of many) and Kyle H. from California and lost 4 & 2.

[Speaking of Kyle, I had the pleasure of experiencing a golf first with him the day before in one of the Nizzle practice rounds. We were playing a late afternoon nine with my father-in-law Ken when the weather starting looking ominous. While on the 7th green, the clouds swirled up in the sky as fronts collided just north of where we were standing. The sky sounded like a jet turbine engine. I was hoping to finish at least the front nine, as I was only 1 over par after 7 holes and hit a good drive in 'go range' for the par 5 8th. That's when one of the intern assistants, Brian, came in from a cart (yes, they have a couple of them) to 'strongly advise' us to get off the golf course immediately due to a tornado warning. Ken, in his infinite wisdom, immediately hopped in the cart and was out of there. All I could think about, however, was a potential eagle on the 8th hole. I told Brian that I would just walk in, but wanted to hit my next shot. Kyle went along with me, but not before picking up a piece of hail and saying, 'Hey, look at this piece of hail.' Most normal people would take that as a sign to get the heck out of there, but I'm not most people nor am I normal. Seconds after Brian left with Ken, the one piece of Hail was quickly followed by thousands of others, and Kyle and I were getting pelted by lima bean-sized hail.

The one thing you need to know about Kyle is that he's got a couple of similarities with Jefe. Essentially they are the same guy: homemade golf swings, bald head, wears two gloves, only if you took about 15 pounds of Jefe's lard and turned it into 30 pounds of Kyle's muscle. He's a personal trainer and is in phenomenal shape. When the hail started coming down harder, I tried running up the 9th fairway to the clubhouse, made it about 150 yards with my bag on my back and thought I was going to have a heart attack. Kyle casually jogged up the 9th ahead of me without breaking a sweat, although I'm sticking with the fact that he had a pull-cart.]

The morning match-ups ended up tied 2-2, with Jefe winning a singles match 4 & 3 against John Mayhugh from Kentucky, a legend. John has been riding a wave of killer golf courses this year. I'm not even sure he has a job. The Monday before the Nizzle he e-mailed me and said he was walking Cypress Point. And just two weeks prior, he made a hole-in-one up at Greywalls in the U.P. of Michigan. Ballyneal was just another pit stop for him. Stephen's buddy, Brad from Madison, teamed up with my father-in-law Ken to shellac my buddy Wego and his good friend Big Barry from Dallas 6 & 5. I was really glad to have Brad, a solid 2-3 handicap, on my side. Along with Pete from Chicago, who sports a scratch handicap and qualified for the Mid-Am at Bandon (in the same Rich Harvest qualifier that I lasted 4 holes in), the top of my roster was looking very solid. Pete disposed of his buddy Sean, who beat Pete handily in the practice round with a career-best 73, coming back from 3 down early to win 2 & 1.

In the afternoon, I paired up with Ken and went up against Wego and Barry. We called Ken 'the Transporter', for his Jason Statham-like Britishness and because he transported the trophy to Colorado via automobile. Like Statham, the car and the trophy made it to Holyoke in one piece, only without the homoerotic undertones. Unfortunately, we never really had a chance of winning the match, as Wego/Barry cruised to a 4 & 3 victory. Their best ball score was 72, a number that Ken & I had no chance of matching. I knew we were doomed when Wego, one of my closest friends and the most trash talkingest 15-capper in the world, smoked a hybrid right over the flag from 215 out on the long, par 4 2nd hole. I've played with Barry on two separate occasions in the past, and handled him easily both times. But that was the old Jim. The new Jim couldn't hang with Big Barr, who had a very solid 76 that could've been even lower. My weekend 0-fer was looking like a distinct possibility.

Thankfully, my team was there for me again. My dynamic duo of Brad and Pete went on a birdie barrage and hammered Wyatt Halliday from San Antonio (more on him later) and Kyle H. The other Kyle, fellow Illini-alum Kyle K. paired up with Beau to beat Sean and Jefe 1-up in a see-saw battle. Kyle had the shot of the day by nearly holing-out from the fairway on 18 with the match on the line. Wyatt's dad Tom was also on Team Jefe, and he partnered with Jimbo to beat John and Stephen 2 & 1. After the afternoon matches, the Cup was tied up 4-4.

Originally I hoped to get in 54 holes on Saturday and Sunday with some late afternoon alternate shot matches. I think Jimbo would've led a mutiny if I forced him to play a third round, but I coaxed a 9-hole, 4-club alternate shot format and nearly everybody was on board. Jimbo and I have been on uneasy terms since his Ireland trip, ever since he initially ranked Ballybunion ahead of my beloved Ballyneal and then had the audacity to buy me a Ballybunion green repair tool as a constant reminder. It's like he was trying to end the relationship right then and there. Asked for one word to describe my current relationship with Jimbo, the answers were 'strained', 'irreparable' and 'we are on a break' (that was Jimbo's). It also didn't help that Jimbo had morphed into Jose-Maria Olazabal, if Jose-Maria had a freakishly large head.

In the alternate shot match, I was paired up with superstar Brad and we took on the vaunted Tang brothers. Alternate shot is extremely tough, because the last thing you want to do is mess up and screw over your teammate on the next shot. But that didn't stop me. I can honestly say I did not contribute one positive shot to the team, but the match still came down to the 9th hole with us only 1-down. I have history with the ninth hole ever since the first time I played it, when I mistakenly thought the green was 60 yards left of where it really was. For some reason, I still keep hitting it over there. And this match was no exception. Brad hit a valiant recovery shot to short of the green, and we looked to be in good shape when Team Tang skulled their third shot into the back bunker. By now, you know that Jefe is a gritty match-play player. But I bet you didn't know that he's the only guy I know that can't hit a sand wedge out of the sand. Because of the 4-club rule, he was forced to try it on the 5th hole and skulled it way over the green. So on the 9th, he decided that putting the ball from the bunker was his best option. I was already getting ready for the sudden-death playoff (although I'm pretty sure Jimbo was going to concede the 1/2 point if it went to extra innings), but Jefe successfully putted out of the bunker to 6 feet and Jimbo calmly sank the putt for the match. The odds of my 0-fer were taken off-the-board in Vegas. Jefe's team won one other match and the other tied through nine, so Team Jefe went into Sunday with a 5-1/2 to 4-1/2 lead.

Sunday I was determined to get a point by any means necessary, so I paired myself up with ringer Pete and we took on Big Barry and Jefe. Barry hit some fantastic shots, including a hole-out from the bunker on 2nd hole for par to halve the hole, but Pete was in the zone on the front nine. I was basically along for the ride. He stumbled a little on the back nine, and like any good partner, I was usually B.I.P. (ball in pocket) by the time he got there. I did make one clutch 5-foot putt to halve a hole. We let Barry and Jefe stay in the match and it came down to the last hole with our team 1-up. Both Pete and I blasted our drives down the left side, and my long putt for par clinched the match (which Pete then topped with a birdie). It was a total team effort. Put it on the board...yes!

Jefe kept his one-point lead with another 2-2 set of matches. Brad and Ken looked like my dynamic duo with yet another 6 & 5 victory. I tried to come up with an equivalent real-life U.S. Ryder Cup combo (a la Seve and Jose Maria for the Euro's), but came up blank. Freddie and DL3? Has the U.S. ever had a formidable duo in Ryder Cup play? I can't think of one. One thing I do know is my play and captaincy was much closer to Curtis Strange than Paul Azinger.

Things were not looking good for Team Coltrain in the afternoon, as Pete and Sean had to head back to the airport and would be missing the afternoon matches and the Monday singles. (Poor Sean played out-of-his-mind the entire weekend yet only had halve a point to show for it.) My star player was gone. Kyle K. pulled up lame with a back injury early on in his match and had to back out, and Beau hurt his knee in the morning match and spent most of lunch icing it. Plus, Ken and I were going up against the Halliday's in a father/son showdown, and chances were slim that we'd pull that one out. Ken channeled the positive energy from Tom Watson's run at the British to post an unbelievable 41 on the front, but we were still down 2 at the turn. I checked the status of the other matches from my assistant captains Bruce Lietzke and Brad Faxon (okay, we just used twitter), and I knew that our match would be a crucial one for the Cup. We simply could not afford to lose. Somehow, someway I had to step up my game. I decided to get back to my roots and be aggressive, going into attack mode. I wasn't going to go down without a fight. I had good birdie chances at 10 (I graciously ignored the fact that Wyatt hit my ball) and 12, but Tom made birdie there while my putt just burned the edge. Ken halved the 13th but we were still down 2 with 5 holes to play. I had very good birdie chances at 15, 16 and 17 -- didn't make any of them, but it was good enough to get the lead back as the Halliday's stumbled. Ken made par on the 18th to close out the match with a 2-up victory. It was the highlight of my golf weekend, and I'm still not exactly sure how it happened.

It did turn out that our match was a crucial one. Brad & Stephen looked like a sure win on paper against the Tang Brothers, but everybody underestimated the power of brotherly love. With the Tang Brothers, the whole is exponentially better than the sum of the parts. They hammed-and-egged Brad and Stephen to a bloody pulp, and by the end of the 4 & 3 beat down, Brad had a glossed over look in his eyes, wondering how he just lost to these two clowns. Not only did the Tang's beat Brad in the match, it looked like they broke his spirit as well. He had been humming along with three blowout victories. Now he wanted to curl up in the fetal position. Definitely not a good sign heading into the singles.

The motivation to get in another 9-hole, alternate shot match was no longer there (I blame Jimbo), so I scrapped that. I was going to go out for a few more holes (I can't help myself), but severe weather rolled in and put the kibosh on that. Instead, a group of us tried the Happy Gilmore swing, hitting shots with the opposite hand, and trying the Mickelson backwards shot into a strong wind. I am proud to report that I was the only one who pulled off the backwards shot. As a lefty, it's just in our DNA. Mayhugh made up for not contributing a single point by providing comedic value from whiffing on the Happy Gilmore swing six times in a row, missing the ball by at least a foot and a half each time. My right-handed shot was good enough that I think Righty Jim could give Lefty Jim a decent match. If things get any worse for me, I might have to make the switch.

During Sunday night's dinner, I surveyed the group on a number of different topics, mostly about Ballyneal:

Favorite Hole: 7th Hole
Favorite Hole, Back Nine: 18th Hole (every hole on the back nine got at least one vote)
Favorite, Front or Back Nine: Front
Hardest Hole: 6th Hole
Easiest Hole: 7th Hole
Best Green: 7th Hole & 12th Hole tie; 8th Hole right behind
One Word to describe Ballyneal: fun (x2), fast, unique, amazing, special, serene, masterpiece

I also asked the group for one word to describe Jim Colton, which looking back was a huge mistake. Five days later, I'm still tormented by the answers. My advice to you is don't ask an open-ended question if you're not prepared for the answer.

One word to describe Jim Colton: obsessive (2); generous (2), 54, scary, ego, enthusiast, gritty, wonderful, maniac, long, pretty

My two closest golf buddies, Jimbo and Jefe, both went with obsessive. My father-in-law went with ego. They all claimed they meant it in a good way. The answers I was going for -- passionate, creative and brilliant -- sadly did not show up on the list.

With Team Jefe up 1 point, it was clear that the matches would come down to the Monday morning singles. Kyle K. unfortunately had to sit out with his back injury, so we did the whole 'name in the envelope' thing that they do at the Ryder Cup. Big Wego lived up to his nickname and graciously volunteered to sit out of the singles matches. The pairings of the remaining six matches were set, and each one looked like it could go either way. The anchor match was the two captains, squaring off in what could decide who'd be the first to kiss the Ballynizzle Cup.

Unfortunately, the combination of too much dinner, far too many Pepsi's, having my character flaws exposed, and the nervousness and tension of my upcoming showdown with Jefe led to me waking up at 2:30 a.m. and unable to get back to sleep. My mind was racing with all of the events and shots that led to up to that moment and all of the ones that were yet to come. My feet were aching after walking 35-40 miles over three days. My stomach was churning with the lethal combination of fajitas, tortellini and ice cream. I just layed there and waited for 6 a.m. to roll around. Not exactly a formula for success for taking down Jefe, who snored away comfortably in the other bed in our room. Short of pulling a Tonya Harding on him while he slept (the question is, would he have woken up and instantly screamed “Why me? Why anyone?”), I had to figure out some way to beat him. Either way, it shaped up to be a fantastic day of golf.


[Click HERE for Part Two]


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