The Bucket List

8/02/2009 0 comments

If you've read through my blog entries in 2009, you might get the idea that Jim Colton is some sort of dark, deeply disturbed individual. In reality, I'm just a simple guy with simple needs. I want to be able to park my car in my garage when I get home. I want to get recognized for a job well done. I want to beat Jefe and Jimbo's brains in on the golf course every time out. You know, simple things.  It's just lately that I've been batting below the Mendoza line on all three.

You can add one more simple request to the list: I want to play four golf courses before I die.

Pine Valley. Cypress Point. Augusta National. Sand Hills.

That's the bucket list. Sure, you could throw Shinnecock Hills, Merion, NGLA, Oakmont and Royal County Down on there, but that's just being greedy. The four are the big four. The rest are a half-notch below.

The question is how does a simple guy with simple means even scratch the surface of golf's pearly gates?  I grew up sneaking on to Fox Valley Golf Club in Batavia, the absolute opposite end of the spectrum. I have been to Augusta twice, but that was just to watch the Masters practice rounds.

Well, I'm happy to report that as of July 21st, 2009, it's one down, three to go!  That was the day we played Sand Hills for the first (and probably only) time.

Sand Hills was built in 1995 by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. When I say built, they basically just discovered the holes and planted the grass seed. In case you didn't figure it out, Sand Hills is in the middle of the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, in the tiny town of Mullen (population: 500).  Sand Hills is generally considered the best golf course built in the last 50 years, sitting atop Golfweek's list of Top 100 modern courses (built since 1960).  

The last hour or so of the 3-hour drive from Holyoke to Mullen is an exhilirating one, winding up, down and around these giant sand dunes. I couldn't help but think of all the golfers who made the same drive and pictured potential golf holes dotting the roadside landscape. It's too bad this isn't a populous area, we might have a dozen world-class golf courses in a 60-mile radius.

The best part about the landscape is the presence of these giant 'blowouts'; essentially big, God-crafted bunkers.  Dick Youngscap and the primary investors of Sand Hills gave Coore and Crenshaw 8,000 acres to work with and let the dynamic duo have at it. The toughest part of the job was making sure they had the absolute best 18 holes the land had to offer. There's a framed sketch in the clubhouse with a rough outline of over 130 holes that they 'found' on the site.  Just think of all the great golf holes just left undeveloped. Mr. Youngscap, I'm putting my name in the hat if you ever want to build a second course, or even just a par 3 course. I know you've seen my quality work at Ballysnoop.

Getting on to Sand Hills was an adventure in of itself. I'll spare you the gory details, but there's a chance Jimbo will name his firstborn son Mark. It was a total team effort.  Well, a collaborative effort between Jimbo and me. The next time Jefe scores us access to a sweet private club will be the first. Jefe actually tried writing Mr. Youngscap a letter a couple years ago and was promptly bonged with a rejection letter. Jimbo and I were a little worried about fisticuffs when we saw Mr. Youngscap in the restaurant the first night, especially after we learned that Kyle H. from the Nizzle got on last year trying the exact same method.  Somewhat surprisingly, Jefe was on his best behavior the entire trip.

The Sand Hills trip marked another momentous occasion for the triumvirate: we were test-driving a potential fourth.  Ladies and gentleman, meet Mr. Wyatt Halliday!  Wyatt owns the distinction of having the coolest name of anybody I've ever met. For 34 years, I liked my name just fine...until I met Wyatt Halliday. There's no limit to how far you'd go with that name.  Chances are it was the Marlboro Man's real name. [Here's a game for you to play...the Wyatt Halliday name game. Call up your closest golf buddy, say to him 'You want to hear a great about Wyatt Halliday?' I guarantee they will say, 'Wyatt Halliday. That is a great name! That sounds like a {blank}' Post your buddy's response in the comment section. I asked my wife and she said, 'That sounds like a country music star.']

And to top it off, Wyatt's a great guy.  He loves Star Wars.  He's a golf-obsessed dork.  And he's a lefty.  Basically I just described myself, only if you subtract the emotional baggage and add a Texas-gentleman accent (when we were saying our goodbyes, he said, 'Jimbo, I sure enjoyed visitin' with you on the way in.'  It just rolled off his tongue like maple syrup.  I could never get away with saying that.) Our motto for Wyatt: "Wyatt Halliday.  Great name.  Even better guy."

However, after spending a couple of days with Wyatt, I started to get a little insecure.  He was a little too perfect.  Jefe and Jimbo could hardly contain their excitement over the guy.  I couldn't help but think that I was slowly being replaced.  Nobody wants more than one lefty in their golf group.  That's just weird.  This concern was all-but confirmed when Jimbo and Jefe wondered aloud, 'Imagine a golf trip where you weren't walking on eggshells the entire time.  Imagine the freedom!'  There was a good chance they were going to throw me into the Dismal River and leave me for dead.

I did survive the ordeal, but just this week I started not receiving some of our daily group e-mail banter.  Coincidence?  Am I just being paranoid?  Or will I open a thread on golfclubatlas a year from now titled 'Monterey Peninsula Golf Trip (w/Pics)' and see a picture of Jefe, Jimbo and Wyatt driving down 17-mile drive in a convertible, about to enter the gates of Cypress Point and high-fiving each other like some sort-of FloMax ad gone horribly wrong?  I'm on to you, Mr. Halliday.  That syrupy Texas drawl won't fool me!

Honestly, Wyatt's a great fit for the group.  He's still only 7 stages through the 45-step gauntlet application process to join our group, but things are looking up.  He did make us t-shirts to commemorate our Chop Hills/Sand Hills adventure (I told you he was a golf-obsessed dork; the text was in Star Wars font to boot), paid for dinner the first night and never took himself too seriously.  Next all we need is that non-refundable $50,000 deposit and he can move on to stage 8.

Tuesday morning finally arrived, we had breakfast (in case you were wondering, Sand Hills bacon rivaled Ballyneal bacon. 'A solid Doak 9,' remarked Wyatt, the subject-matter expert), took a 5-6 minute cart ride to the driving range, hit some warm-up balls, took another 3-4 minute cart ride to the meet the starter, an intimidating dude with a moustache that hadn't been touched by human hands for decades [Jimbo struck up a conversation with him about the weather. When the starter remarked, 'There's nothin' typical about the weather we're having this year,' Jimbo had the stones to follow-up with, 'There's nothing typical about that moustache!'].  Unoffended, Mr. Starter gave us the lay of the land, and at 7:30 a.m. we were the first group teeing off on Sand Hills. It just doesn't get much better than this.

The first hole is one of the best opening par 5's I've played, a perfect introduction to what the place is all about. An expansive rolling landscape, ribbons of lush green fairways that wind in and around, up and over giant blowout bunkers. Lots of tough uphill greens perched between the dunes and bunkers.  The landscape looked similar to what we just experienced at Ballyneal, only Ballyneal is more rugged and the dunes are more jagged and abrupt.  Sand Hills is more open and rolling. From the famous Ben's porch that serves as the halfway house and general hangout (the burgers are legendary), you can see bits and pieces of almost the entire course, and for miles beyond. The course sort of melts into the landscape.  On some holes at Ballyneal, it seems like you are the only guy on the planet.

The comparison between Ballyneal and Sand Hills is natural, simply because a lot of guys are playing them back-to-back on the same trip. Even though the terrain may look similar, they are dramatically different golf courses. Ballyneal is wider and more playable, plays firmer and faster and promotes more creativity in shotmaking.  Sand Hills is a tougher, more exacting test of golf. Sand Hills has literally the fastest, smoothest greens I've ever putted on. Ballyneal's fescue greens have more interesting internal contours and are kept slower on purpose. I'm no Stimp expert, but I'm guessing Sand Hills ran about 12-13 (after a steady downpour the previous day). Ballyneal probably runs about 9 1/2.  Both speeds are appropriate for the degree of slope of the greens. Both golf courses are masterpieces. Some may prefer Sand Hills. Some may prefer Ballyneal. It's like asking whether you prefer Monet over Picasso. After playing them both, I happen to be in the Ballyneal camp, mainly because I prefer the green contours, the fun factor and the creativity that comes into play with a more accessible ground game. But I can't fault anybody with a preference for Sand Hills.

The strength at Sand Hills are the three par fives and the back nine. I don't know if there's a better set of three shotters in the world. The 14th might be the best chance at birdie, a reachable par 5 but with a very small green tilted from back to front. The 16th is a big, rolling downhill 610-yarder. Bite off as much of the left bunkers as you can, hit a huge drive and you'll get a big turbo kick and the possibilty of reaching the green in two.

The 15th is a long, hard uphill par 4. The hole demands a left-to-right shot off the tee and a right-to-left approach shot to a green tucked behind a dune.  17 is a beautiful short par 3 well protected by bunkers. 18 is a grand, brutally tough and tremendously uphill par 4. Miss the fairway short and left and you're likely hitting out of a huge bunker about 25 feet below the fairway.

They require you to take a forecaddie on your first visit to the course, and we were assigned Seth, an all-american Nebraskan and generally nice guy. We called Seth the Jackazelle, half-Jack rabbit, half-Jackalope, and half-gazelle for the way he sprinted from the tee box immediately after the last ball was hit. It was really quite an amazing sight.

Jefe had some other colorful names for Seth, but somethings are better left unsaid. Let the record show that I had zero problem with Seth and he found every one of my errant drives.  I put his eagle eye to the test multiple times, and he passed with flying colors.  Jefe, on the other hand, wasn't so lucky. I think he was 1-for-10 with Jefe on lost balls, usually he would run down to the spot, look around unsuccessfully and Jefe would ultimately find it on his own minutes later.

It all came to a head on the 12th hole, when Jefe had to find his errant tee ball again, then missed the green left, pretty much right where Seth was standing.

'He's going to find this one, and you're going to have to apologize to him," I predicted.

We got up there and Seth had found Jefe's ball, or so he thought. "You must've switched balls, because your Top Flight is right here."

He might as well as said 'yo mama', because accusing somebody of playing Top Flight's is fighting words where I come from. After Jefe found his Titleist about 10 feet away, I had to step in and diffuse the situation. Mainly because there's no way the four of us combined could handle the Jackazelle.

In Seth's defense, the area has been blasted by rain this summer - they received more rain in the month of June than the usually get in a year. Therefore the vegetation is tall and thick, making it difficult to find a ball and even harder to play out of. Usually the fescue is thin and wispy and not so penal.

Of course, it's only penal if you hit it in there. It was no problem for Wyatt, who carved up Sand Hills with a shotmaking display never before seen by this group. In round one, Wyatt hit an approach shot into the short par 4 8th (the coolest little green complex on the course), and his ball danced at edge of the cup for about two beats before spinning back about 10 feet (I took the moment as an opportunity to test Wyatt and his post-shot celebration. He went with the running, hand-two-inches-off-the-ground low five. Clearly, the shot required a chest bump. Two demerits.) In round two, he faced the exact same shot, took some spin off the ball and two-hopped the ball to kick-in range. That jumpstarted a birdiefest that led to an impressive 2-over 73.  Sorry Wyatt, your application has been denied. You're simply too good to be playing with us.

After booting Wyatt after 36 holes (or he had to get back to Denver, I'm not sure which), the rest of us played the front nine one last time, then sat back and enjoyed the sunset from Ben's porch. The pic below shows Jimbo in deep thought, either contemplating the meaning of life or trying to sort out the top of his course list after playing so many sweet courses in Ireland and the U.S. over the past two weeks. The first hole looked awesome when we first teed-off at 7:30 a.m. It look even better 12 1/2 hours later.

After the sun went down, we headed back to the restaurant for another fine dining experience. The highlight was definitely the mountainous nacho plate that we shared, the only time I've ever had a nacho plate with huge chunks of steak in it. Highly recommended.

We teed it up again on Wednesday morning for an additional 18 holes before heading back to Denver. With my golf game falling apart and my relationship with my golf buddies slowly deteriorating, I had to bring out the big guns...Yoda. I had bought this awesome Yoda headcover right before the trip. Obviously, Yoda has the potential to be a comedic goldmine for any foursome, but you have to tread carefully with it. It could backfire horribly. After showing the headcover to my wife and doing some impersonations, she was ready to strangle me with it within minutes. Fortunately, it worked wonders on Jimbo ("I sense much anger in you"), who later said playing Sand Hills with me was like seeing Empire Strikes Back in the movie theatre. Of course, he's an easy mark since he sleeps with his headcover Bernie (I'm not sure if that information was for public consumption, but it is now. It will be an awkward conversation the next time Jimbo brings a girl home.)

Making the five-hour drive back to the Denver airport for our flight home (which door-to-door, probably took longer than if we had just driven straight home to Chicago), we contemplated the chain of events over the last 18 months that had led to last 48 hours. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience (you literally can only play unaccompanied by a member once in your life.) Eventually, our focus shifted to the future and figuring out how to knock Cypress Point or one of the other two off the bucket list. It seems impossible now, but I would've said the same thing about Sand Hills two years ago. My simple request is that when it does happen, they'll actually make room for me in the convertible.

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