Diversity Day

It's no secret that I love Ballyneal. I love (and need) the wide, rolling fairways. I love the large, wild greens. I love the firm and fast fescue turf. I love (and need) the absence of a single hazard or out-of-bound stakes. I love walking up, down and around the dunes. I love everything about the place.

Now picture a course with 25-yard wide, tree-lined fairways. Imagine overhanging trees guarding grainy, relatively flat bermuda greens that are less than 30 yards in diameter. Imagine out-of-bound stakes on both sides of most holes. Imagine a cart-paths only journey through a dead-flat swamp. You know me well enough by now. Does this sound like something that I would enjoy at all?

You may have figured out that the course is Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, SC. Harbour Town is the site of the PGA Tour's MCI/Worldcom/Verizon Heritage Classic, which usually follows the Masters each year. The Heritage is the most polarizing event on the tour schedule. A lot of tour pros call it the favorite course they play all year. Other pros (*cough* Tiger) avoid it altogether. If you look at the list of Heritage champions, you'll notice two things. A lot of major champions have won here, starting with Arnold Palmer winning the inaugural event in 1969. Irwin, Miller, Nicklaus, Watson, Zoeller, Faldo, Langer, Love, Norman, Stewart, Price, Cink, Leonard. That's a pretty impressive list. The second thing that will immediately jump out is how many repeat winners there are in this event. Davis Love III has owned this event with 5 wins and 11 top tens. Hale Irwin won the event three times, including a remarkable 23 years between his first (1971) and last (1994) win. Stewart Cink and Boo Weekley are among the recent two-time winners. [Tom Kite is second to Davis Love with 10 career top 10's in the event, but never won. I'm not sure why, but this little tidbit cracked me up.]

Never has the term 'horses for courses' rung more true than at Harbour Town. The guys that like this course and tend to perform well are the shotmakers -- guys that can work the ball in either direction and possess great precision with their irons. Harbour Town is not your typical PGA Tour bomber's paradise. In other words, guys not like me. I don't think I'm a horse for any type of course these days, but Harbour Town is the one course most likely to turn me into glue. I can't even hit a pitching wedge straight anymore. How am I supposed to land a 170-yard shot on a green the size of your living room? That's probably the main reason (that and the exorbitant $220 greens fees) that I have played just about every course on the island in three previous trips to Hilton Head but have avoided Harbour Town like the plague. There was no chance that the course and I would get along.

But a funny thing happened in the Lowcountry. I enjoyed the course tremendously, even if it is the anti-Ballyneal. I remembered why I liked Pete Dye so much. Love him or hate him, you have to give him props for getting golf course architecture out of the doldrums of the Robert Trent Jones, Sr-driven 1940's and 50's, a.k.a. the Dark Ages. And if there's one thing Dye is good at, it's thinking about angles of attack. Nowhere is this more true than at Harbour Town. Simply being on the fairway is not good enough. Often you have to be on the correct spot (and when I say spot, I mean a 8-yard wide strip) of the fairway. And while the greens are by far the smallest on tour, often you can only hit to one quadrant of the green. Even on these small greens, a change in the pin placement has a dramatic shift on what you need to do off the tee.

In a year where my success is not measured by fairways hit, but in drives simply kept in play, I was doomed for sure. I stocked up on Pro V-1's in the pro shop. I practiced 3-irons on the driving range. I sent a letter to all area homeowners warning them to stay out of their backyards and apologizing in advance for any broken windows. With all those white stakes, triple digits was well within the realm of possibility. When our playing partner offered the opportunity to hit a mulligan after my first tee ball, I declined. It was a solid drive by my standards, even though the ball hit a tree and ended up in the pine straw only about 180 yards off the tee. Chances are my breakfast ball would've been much worse.

Most of the blame for my 18-month long slump can be placed on my driver. My short game is actually probably stronger now since it's the only chance I've got. My iron game is not quite as sharp as it was two years ago, but it hasn't been too bad. Recently though, my irons have gone south as well. At Harbour Town, I was hitting some awful iron shots. My first solid full iron shot was a six-iron on the 6th hole, but that still ended up in a greenside bunker. Meanwhile, one of my playing partners, Chuck, was putting on an shotmaking display with his irons unlike anything I've ever seen. Distance control is imperative at Harbour Town, and Chuck was almost always pin high, within 15 feet of the hole. Unfortunately, he rarely ever scared the hole on any of his multiple birdie efforts until rolling in a six-footer on the 14th (This was the same hole that my tee shot immediately headed for the water that borders the entire right side of the hole. Then we got up to the green and realized that the ball was actually in-play on the far side of the hazard. So bad, it's good.)

Thankfully, the short game was there to bail me out. I knew things were looking up when I made a 10-footer to save bogey on the first hole. Chipping or putting bailed me out from disaster multiple times. On the short par-4 ninth hole, I duck hooked a drive into jail far right, hit gap wedge through a four-foot wide gap in the trees to 30 yards short of the green, then hit a nifty flop shot to four feet past the hole and made the putt for an all-world par save.

On the back nine, I thought my luck had run out on the 15th hole. After a decent drive and a hooked second shot that hit a tree and bounced back into play, I chunked a routine 7-iron dead left and into the water. The par 5's are definitely scoreable at Harbour Town and I had just capped off playing the three of them 5-over par. With the famous closing holes coming up, breaking 90 was now in doubt.

The 16th hole is a 95-degree dogleg-left par 4 that wraps around a giant bunker (you may remember Stewart Cink taking an agonizingly long time removing every surrounding grain of sand on this hole when he won the Heritage in a playoff. It was a waste area back then. They've since changed it to a hazard thanks to Cink's antics.) I stepped up to the tee with the ill-advised idea to hit a fade around the corner, but ended up bombing it dead straight to the far end of the fairway. In my only other good drive of the day, I was trying to hit a big fade and hit it dead soild and straight. Maybe I'm on to something.

So there I stood in the middle of the fairway with lob wedge in my hand in a rare, green-light opportunity. This used to be my wheelhouse. Instead, I flubbed my approach shot short of the green. So much for birdie. But then I putted from off the green, up the slope to the back-right pin (on these greens, back right means no more than 8 paces beyond center), and the ball curled sharply right-to-left as it approached the hole. Could it be? Yes! The ball struck the flagstick sharply and dropped in. Sweet manna from heaven…a birdie! I am a short-game wizard.

After a relatively routine up-and-down par on 17, I stepped up to the tee of the famous Lighthouse hole just hoping to find dry land. The dichotomy of the 18th is that it is by far the most recognizable hole on the course, but it is dramatically different from the rest of the course. After trying to negotiate 25-yard fairways that actually play narrower, you close things with the widest fairway on tour. Although it's still no bargain. The wide part of the fairway juts into the Calibogue Sound and if you manage to avoid the water left and the condos right, you'll be left with a long-iron approach to an amazingly small green (seriously, you won't believe how tiny this green is.)

In the distance, I could see a guy on the observation deck of the lighthouse watching the golf action with binoculars. I had Chuck videotape my drive with my iPhone. I couldn't disappoint my loyal fan base (not counting my three kids, the number now stands at four: Jefe, Wego, still-in-the-honeymoon-stage Wyatt and this dude on the lighthouse.) I stepped up and ripped one -- the patented, low draw made a return visit! Good to see you again. Where have you been?

I still had 190 yards into the green, chose six-iron and said my prayers. I hit a solid shot (two in a row!), but did what many golfers do on this hole by bailing out right of the green. I was pin-high about 15 yards right of the flag, had a little mound that I had to negotiate with my chip shot. I struck the ball as intended, the ball landed on the downslope of the mound and scooted right at the hole. The ball clanged the flagstick and dropped in. Birdie! I felt like DL3, who chipped in here in 2003 to force a playoff en route to yet another win. Where is my ugly red tartan sportscoat? I gave my new lighthouse buddy a big thumbs-up but he doesn't respond. I guess he was just dolphin watching the whole time (fanbase back down to three), but it doesn't matter. You can't wipe the gleam off my face, knowing full-well that I had just gained a stroke and a half on the field (and four strokes on my father-in-law Ken, who made a mess of the hole.)

I whipped out my phone and had the following text message exchange with Jefe:

Jim: birdie-par-birdie finish at HT!
Jefe: Nice. What about the other 15?
Jim: birdie-par-birdie finish at HT!

Truth be told, the stellar finish gave me a 83, which sadly is my second best round of the year. Remember when I used to write about shooting 72's? It seems like eons ago. But none of the matters now because…birdie-par-birdie finish at HT! It was the perfect way to end an enjoyable round on a course that I never thought I would like.

So maybe that's the moral of the story. One thing I learned from recently compiling and launching the (gratuitous plug alert) Golf Blog 100 is that there are lots of different ways to define greatness when it comes to golf courses. And different golfers can have completely different criteria and both be right. Let's celebrate diversity. My goal with the Golf Blog 100 was to collect a wide-range of opinions from a diverse panel of well-traveled, passionate golfers and combine the results into an overall ranking that best represents this collective view. Harbour Town ranks 58th in the U.S., and after playing it, I can't really disagree with that combined assessment. One problem I have with Golf Digest's Top 100 is they dictate the exact criteria and weights that make a golf course great. They explicitly don't ask their panelists for an overall rating, pompously assuming they know the exact formula. Seems strange that they trust 900 panelists enough to assign a value to a nebulous concept such as 'Shot Values' but don't trust them enough to know whether overall a golf course is good or not.

My round at Harbour Town cemented the fact that there is no one formula. What makes Harbour Town great is a completely different set of values than what makes Ballyneal one of the best golf courses in the world. Ballyneal gives you the freedom to choose any number of ways to get the ball close to the hole and then challenges you on each and every putt on the green. Harbour Town dares you to hit certain types of approach shots to get close to the hole. If you can pull it off, you are rewarded with a relatively straightforward putt. In both cases, you'll eventually be asked to pull off a shot or two that you're less than comfortable with. Other than the birdies, my most memorable shots at Harbour Town were a low pitching wedge with 40-yards of hook on it on the 12th hole, a 9-iron approach on the front that was the perfect trajectory under one large branch and over another and that gap wedge on the 9th out of jail. I can guarantee you none of those situations would occur at Ballyneal.

So, does this mean that I'm going to go home from vacation and immediately join Medinah? Probably not. But that doesn't mean that I would automatically hate the course or couldn't see the merit in somebody liking it.

To prove that I haven't completely switched allegiances (and to prove that Tom Doak may need to file a restraining order against me in the near future), the next day on the beach I decided to build a sand-replica of the 7th Hole at Ballyneal. Now I know why architects like building courses in sand. Check it out below (Note: I'm about to head out again, armed with multiple pics and topographical maps to see if I can improve on it. The sad thing is you don't know for sure whether I'm serious or not.)

I probably know what you're thinking, because it's likely the exact sentiment that Jimbo sent back after I e-mailed him and others the picture that afternoon.

"Frankly, I am worried.

I realize you have a deep love for Ballyneal and Tommy to the D.  When you first joined Ballyneal, I thought, good for you, you are following your passion.  The excessive purchasing of Ballyneal paraphernalia; mostly normal.  Shortly after joining, when you talked about Sue possibly painting a Ballyneal mural on your office wall at home; I just chalked that up to your quirky (obsessive) personality, and thought nothing more of it.

Ah, but what a slippery slope you find yourself on.  Referring to Tommy to the D as your new "BFF"......the impromptu trip out to Ballyneal at the end of September.....the endless stream of posts on GCA, the blogs, the midnight phone conversations with Wyatt all about Ballyneal.....All red flags.

And now we have beach sand reconstructions of the 7th at Ballyneal, done in disturbingly accurate detail.

I ask, where does this madness stop?  At what point is it enough?  If things continue down this darkened path (and I see no evidence to lead me to believe otherwise) I fear one day you'll find yourself sitting with your family at dinner, Sue attempting to tell you about her day, your kids eager to share their adventures, and YOU will be hunched over, grossly absorbed in reconstructing the 4th hole at Ballyneal from your mashed potatoes.  ".....Just how big is that blowout on the right side of the fairway?  And the elevation of the green.  How severe is it?  Sue, can you pass the mashed potatoes?"

A grim and bleak future indeed.  Jimmy C, I say this, because I love you; you need help.  Granted, none of the recipients of this e-mail are qualified to provide that help.  We all have our issues.  But that doesn't mean you cannot be saved.  There is still time for you.

Your Friend,



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