The Course at Yale

11/07/2010 1 comments

The only time "Jim Colton" and "Ivy League" have been used in the same sentence.

A quick detour from My Summer of Golf posts for a late, late fall entry. I just had the privilege of playing Yale Golf Course this week in an extremely rare merger between the words "golf" and "November" for me. Yale is my first foray with the Eric B. and Rakim of classic golf architecture, C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, and their trademark, tried-and-true template holes.

[Note: Yale is perhaps one of the most underrated courses in the country. It's listed among Golfweek's 100 Best Classic courses, but is only ranked 6th in Connecticut according to Golf Digest.  That's a travesty.  However, Yale was very highly regarded back in the day. Noted golf nut, highly-acclaimed author and budding historian (not-to-mention fellow Ballyneal member) Bob Fagan recently uncovered an article from the National Golf Review in 1939 that listed Yale as the 29th best golf course in the world (I can't believe they were ranking courses even way back then). Unfortunately for Fagan -- a man who has played all 200 courses in the Golfweek rankings -- there are quite a few courses on that list than neither he nor the rest of us will ever get the chance to experience.  #10 Foulpointe in Madagascar, C.B.'s very own #41 Lido and #94 Ville de Delat just to name few. I've only played six to date but part of me thinks Fagan's list might make good Bucket List material. Although I couldn't find the original article, I've posted Fagan's article in full below so you can see the list for yourself. Kudos to Bob for this find.]

C.B. Mac has been getting a lot of renewed attention recently, both good and bad. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that there's now a fourth course at Bandon Dunes, the greatest golf resort in the world. Old Macdonald, an homage to C.B. by Tom Doak and Jim Urbina, opened in June under great fanfare. For most, Old Macdonald represents a refreshing break from the soulless, uninspiring courses built during the 90's golf course boom and harken back to the strategic principles of what made the game great. All while also exposing many golfers to the work of CB Macdonald, who is largely responsible for bringing the game over from Scotland.

For Ron Whitten, Golf Digest's architecture guru, Old Mac represents something else entirely. He sees over-reliance on the same old Redans, Capes and Biarritz's as the root cause of the downfall of the golf industry. In a Jerry Maguire-esque bad-pizza moment, Whitten wrote this incoherent rant skewering golf course architects for their lack of innovation. He can barely hide his disdain for templates in a follow-up review of the best new courses of 2010.

I could delve into Whitten's (lack of) argument, but thankfully Tom Dunne over at Out And Back already took care of it with a Joe Carter walk-off home run rebuttal. As Geoff Shackelford put it, Dunne "went all Benihana chef on it." Although I've yet to play Old Macdonald or CB's seminal work at National Golf Links of America (emphasis on the word "yet"), here's my amateurish take on templates: there's a reason they are THE templates...because over hundreds of years they've proven to provide strategic interest and fun over numerous plays. In contrast, the downfall of many courses built in the 90's was that they figured they could survive on one-and-done visitors at $120/pop forever. Give me a well-executed Redan any day of the week, even if I don't have a snowball's chance of doing well as a left-hander who couldn't hit a fade to save his life. Give me a course that's a good value AND one that I'd actually want to play more than once. That's how you survive in this economy.

My partner at Yale was none other than Mr. Benjamin E. Hana himself. Over the past year, this Tommy Deez (Dunne) has surpassed the other Tommy Deez (Doak) in my personal BFF rankings. Our relationship has sprung out a scary number of things in common: love of golf obviously, but also random things like old-school hip hop, The Wire, Settlers of Catan, Rock Band and a shared level of willies over the CEO of Cleveland Golf and his awful blue argyle sweater. If Tom liked Scrabble and hadn't given up on the NBA back in the late 80's, I'd be ready to swap him for Jefe and a Wyatt to be named later.

If this sweater gives you nightmares, you are not alone.

Our friendships hinges one on commonality above all the others: common left-handedness. We've thrived this year due a symbiotic relationship that might've never happened if he were a righty. We've managed to hook up golf days this summer on either end of a bunch of work trips I've taken to New York (more to come when Summer of Golf continues). Usually, I line up the golf. Tom provides the transportation and the sticks. It doesn't hurt that his back-up bag is stocked with the same irons (Mizuno MP-30) that I play at home. Now if I could only convince him to buy a TaylorMade R9 SuperTri, all would be perfect in my world.

We left early Friday morning from Tom's pad in Brooklyn Heights and, a couple hours later, we were in New Haven, CT and driving through the gates of the Course at Yale. It didn't take long to realize that we weren't in Illinois anymore -- the property is dramatic, with mature trees and large granite outcroppings throughout. Combined with Raynor's signature bold, angular features, I knew I was in for a treat. Enjoy the pics below.

[Note: It poured the previous day in New York and most of the way up to New Haven, and the forecast called for more rain and temps in the low 50's. Thankfully, I had a new weapon in my arsenal...brand new TRUE Linkswear golf shoes. I waited (im)patiently all summer for these new low-profile, spikeless shoes to come out, and Christmas came early at the Colton household when they finally showed up at my doorstep just days before this trip. With the wet conditions, fallen leaves, huge elevation changes and uneven lies, Yale was the perfect place to put these shoes through the ringer right away. And I can report that the TRUEs passed with flying colors. They are the most comfortable shoes I've ever worn. It's really like wearing a slipper on the golf course. And the traction is as good or better than anything this side of metal spikes. I honestly will never wear another golf shoe again. I've been wearing those Ecco Freddie Couples spikeless shoes that were all the rage this summer, and while comfortable on the feet, they were just murder on my ankles. After one round with the TRUEs, I can't even bear the thought of putting those Frecco's on my feet again. Immediately after I finish this post, I'm off to buy the all-black model, which will likely be the shoe I wear both on and off the course.

Earlier this summer, two caddies set a record at Ballyneal by playing 100 holes in a day.  They even got mentioned in a blurb in Colorado Avid Golfer magazine.  What the story failed to mention was their main motivation was simply to get under my skin.  My gut reaction was to respond quickly by going out in July and putting up 101, but my left foot would've fallen off if I had tried it in the Ecco's.  Armed with the TRUEs, I'm proud to announce that I will be playing 108 holes at Ballyneal in June 2011.  Take that, Gary and Nick!  And better yet, I will be doing it to raise money for the Holyoke High School golf teams.  Please contact me at if you're interested in sponsorship on a per hole or other basis.]



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The original plans called for 36 holes over a 700-acre property, but the second (the one in orange) was never built.

1st Hole

2nd Hole.  It's not hard to see the influence that Raynor's work had on Pete Dye

This kitschy sign on the 3rd hole indicates the day pin placement on the blind approach shot.

4th Hole - A demanding driving hole, similar characteristics to the Road Hole

5th Hole: Short

Mr. Hana staring down his drive on the fantastic 8th

The 8th has a cool feature in the fairway.  Hit to the right spot down the right side of the fairway (like me), and you get a clear view of the green through this little gap in the fairway undulations.  Some call it Raynor's notch.

Come up a bit short and left on your approach (like me), and you're likely to find this deep bunker (Raynor's crotch?)

The star attraction: 9th hole, Biarritz

The swale that runs through the green is about 7-feet deep

Tom putting from the swale:

12th Hole - Alps

13th Hole - Redan

15th Hole - Eden

17th Hole - Principal's Nose

17th Green - Double Plateau.  I played another Double Plateau earlier in the summer at Shoreacres and they are great fun.  What's remarkable is the surrounding area is relatively flat, but Raynor created what is probably my favorite green on the course.  It makes you wonder the aren't more greens in the world like this one.

Golf’s “Finest Courses – 1939” by Bob Fagan

No, Golf Digest Magazine or Golf Magazine did not invent golf course rankings.  They existed many years before either magazine ever was envisioned.  In research for my upcoming book on the classic golf courses in America, I came upon a most interesting World Ranking of “Finest Golf Courses” dated 1939.  It was published by The National Golf Review in their Annual Review, and featured the usual golf literary talents of the day, Darwin, Rice, Keeler, Martin, and Bobby Jones.

Why is 1939 so interesting?  Well, for me that year defines the end of the Classic or Golden Era of Golf Course Architecture in America.  If you remember your world history, America was just coming out of the Great Depression and conflicts were starting to fester into what would soon become World War II during which no notable golf courses were built.  At the end of World War II, the modern style popularized by Robert Trent Jones would usher in a far different style of play.  When you added in television, irrigation systems, and the popularity of professional golf, the quirky challenging strategic ground game was taken over by narrow, “fair” courses in which the strategy was to keep the ball “down the middle” and the penalty fit the size of the error.  For better or for worse, the game certainly changed.  I maintain that The Old Town Club by Perry Maxwell in 1939 marked the end of a golf architectural era in America.

There are many interesting points in this 1939 list.  First is the panel’s deep affection for The Old Course – St. Andrews.  Three of my favorite courses, Cypress Point, National Golf Links, and Pine Valley were positioned among the very best, as was Pebble Beach.  The Country Club of Havana, long rumored to have once been a masterpiece, is included in the Top 25.  George Thomas’ Riviera and Bel Air Country Clubs were considered more than fifty spots better than his nearby Los Angeles Country Club, which today has risen in the ratings.  Relatively average layouts now like Ponte Vedra in Florida and Knoll in New Jersey were excellently positioned.  The magnificent long gone Lido Golf Club on Long Island, said by many to be America’s best course only ranked #41.  Many-time US Open host, Myopia Hunt Club did not make the list though California’s Lakeside was firmly entrenched at #58.  Two of my other favorites, Eastward Ho! and Fishers Island were only ranked in the 90s.  And Prairie Dunes in Kansas was only a 9-hole course at the time, but already had a following at #100.  Beyond that, there is an interesting inclusion of European, South African, and Japanese golf courses.  Several other list courses such as Timber Point, Laksers, etc. no longer exist, but fortunately the list does.  Here then is the 1939 “National Golf Review” article.

“The World’s Finest Tests”
“An Expert Panel Surveys the World’s Best Golf Courses”
“Not so long ago naming the world’s outstanding golf courses was a fairly easy task–one would simply look toward the historic links of Scotland and England. Thankfully the Scots are a generous lot and Scotland’s gift has been graciously accepted worldwide. Stretching from St. Andrews to Ceylon to San Francisco to South Africa, far and near you will not only find wielders of driver, brassie and humble niblick but also an astonishing number of links of the first class.

Perhaps it is human nature, the desire to identify the best. The game has seen various attempts to list golf’s ideal holes–Horace Hutchinson, Charles B. Macdonald, Bernard Darwin, Bobby Jones and many other noted men have attempted this assignment. Far fewer have tried to rate the very best courses. Joshua Crane’s scientific approach of some years ago comes to mind and unfortunately the results were quite disappointing–his folly, too much science not enough art. Today this assignment is even more difficult. To begin it is nearly impossible for a single man to reach every corner of our expanding golf world. And if he were able to overcome this daunting requirement, we are still be left with just one golfer’s opinion, tainted by his own singular tastes and prejudices.

Last spring our editors presented an informal look at America’s toughest courses. Although a brave attempt, and it did create considerable interest, the exercise was not totally satisfactory. The over emphasis on toughness was ill advised. Mindful of the past and present dilemmas THE NATIONAL GOLF REVIEW tackles this most difficult but exciting problem–identifying the world’s finest tests.
Our initial task was to set forth a proper method. The editors—namely Mr. Grantland Rice and Mr. William D. Richardson–began by assembling an eminent jury of experts. The first requirement for these prospective jurors: an understanding of the elements that contribute to excellent golf. The test of a golf course doesn’t concern its difficulty or its hardness. That is only part of the story. Some of the hardest courses are also some of the most dull. ‘We have one of the hardest courses in the country’, is often the proud boast of a club member. This may be true. But has he also one of the most interesting courses to play? The true test of a golf course is the amount of interest it can stir in the breast.

The second qualification was international experience. The game’s great tests are now found on far off shores. Each juror must have had occasion to play and study golf courses from around the world. Finding these globe-trotting golfers was a most difficult chore. Fortunately, we are pleased to report the illustrious group assembled has played over 7000 golf courses on every continent–excepting the South Pole and one or two of these gents may soon give that a try.

The jury consists of two women and fifteen men: Lady Heathcoat-Amory (nee Miss Joyce Wethered); Mrs. E. H. Vare (nee Miss Glenna Collett); Edward, Duke of Windsor; Robert T. Jones, Jr.; Walter Hagen; Arnaud Massy; Joe Kirkwood; Gene Sarazen; Percy Alliss; T. Simpson; C. H. Alison; Robert Trent Jones; D. Scott Chisholm; Hans Samek; Bernard Darwin; Mr. Rice and Mr. Richardson.
Every juror presented a list of golf courses with their corresponding numeric grade reflecting golfing merit. An easy task in theory but not so in practice. The predicament facing these judges would stymie the best of us. It involves a lot of mental sorting and reassorting, considerable memory work recalling what features made one course stand above another. Once the scores were submitted it fell upon Mr. Richardson, Mr. Rice and Mr. Darwin to tabulate and arrange the final poll.

It is fascinating to review the individual ballots, you will find both a diversity of opinion but also a fair number of like-minds. To illustrate we have listed the panelists’ top courses. Lady Amory, considered by Bobby Jones as the greatest golfer–gentleman or lady–chose St. Andrews, Pebble Beach and Augusta National. Arguably the greatest American lady golfer, Mrs.Vare listed Cypress Point, Newcastle County Down and Merion. The well-traveled Duke of Windsor also likes St. Andrews as well as Banff Springs and Walton Heath. Bobby Jones again has the Old Course followed by Cypress Point and Augusta National.

The flamboyant and colorful Mr. Hagen named Sandwich, Foulpointe and Hirono; his world-touring pal and showman, Joe Kirkwood chose St. Andrews, Royal Melbourne and Royal York. French champion and private pro to the Pasha of Marrakech, Arnaud Massy favors North Berwick, Hoylake and St. Andrews. Another links wayfarer Gene Sarazen is fond of Oakmont and Sandwich. British professional Percy Alliss, formerly attached to the Wansee Club in Berlin, has Porthcawl and Knocke on top. The majordomo of the Pacific golf scene ‘Scotty’ Chisholm lists Cypress Point and Gleneagles.

British golf course architects Simpson and Alison both like St. Andrews followed by Pine Valley, after that Simpson goes with Portmarnock and Alison with Burnham. Talented American architect Robert Trent Jones lists Augusta National, Jasper Park and Banff Springs. Noted golf czar of the German Republic Hans Samek places Le Touquet, Havana and Bel-Air at the head of his list. And our final threesome, Mr. Darwin: St. Andrews and National Links of America; Mr. Rice: Cypress Point; Mr. Richardson: Pine Valley and Timber Point.

1. St.Andrews, Scotland 26. Seminole, Florida 51. Kawana, Japan 76. Carnoustie, Scotland
2. Cypress Point, California 27. Rye, England 52. Engineers, N.Y 77. Burnham, England
3. Pine Valley, N.J. 28. Knocke, Belgium 53. Swinley Forest, England 78. Scioto, Ohio
4. Pebble Beach, California29. Yale, Conn54. Brookline, Mass.79. Capilano, Canada
5. Sandwich, England30. Gleneagles, Scotland55. Saunton, England80. Hot Springs, Virginia
6. National Links, N.Y.31. Le Touquet, France56. Bethpage, N.Y.81. Nuwara Eliya, Ceylon
7. Hirono, Japan32. Winged Foot, N.Y.57. Addington, England82. Ballybunion, Ireland
8. Banff Springs, Canada33. Pasatiempo, California58. Lakeside, California83. Porthcawl, Wales
9. Royal Melbourne, Australia34. Muirfield, Scotland59. Hollywood, N.J.84. Liphook, England
10. Foulpointe, Madagascar35. Walton Heath, England60. Woking, England85. Knoll, N.J.
11. Augusta Naional, Georgia36. Jasper Park, Canada61. Wildhoeve, Holland86. Tokyo-Asaka, Japan
12. Timber Point, N.Y.37. Portmarnock, Ireland62. Royal York, Canada87. Maccauvlei, S.Africa
13. Oakmont, Penn.38. Pinehurst No.2, N.C.63. Oakland Hills, Michigan88. Kingston Heath, Australia
14. Hoylake, England39. Prestwick, Scotland64. Morfontaine, France89. Chicago, Illinois
15. Newcastle Co. Down, Ire.40. Birkdale, England65. Brancaster, England90. Sea Island, Georgia
16. Westward Ho!, England41. Lido, N.Y. 66. Pulborough, England91. Alwoodley, England
17. Merion, Penn42. Ganton, England67. Manoir Richelieu, Canada92. Eastward Ho, Mass.
18. Riviera, California43. Durban, S.Africa68. Royal Adelaide, Australia93. Mid Ocean, Bermuda
19. Sunningdale, England44. Oyster Harbors, Mass.69. Hamburg-Falkenstein, Germany94. Ville de Delat, Indo China
20. Bel-Air, California45. Ponte Vedra, Florida70. Olympia Fields #4, Illinois95. Zandvoort, Holland
21. Shinnecock Hills, N.Y46. North Berwick, Scotland71. Chiberta, France96. Five Farms, Maryland
22. Portrush, Ireland47. San Francisco, California 72. Lawsonia, Wisconsin97. Turnberry, Scotland
23. Laksers, Illinois48. St.Georges Hill, England 73. Los Angeles, California98. Spa, Belgium
24. CC of Havana, Cuba49. Garden City, N.Y.74. Maidstone, N.Y.99. Fishers Island, N.Y.
25. Humewood, S.Africa50. Deal, England 75. East London, S.Africa100a.Royal Worlington, England
b. Prairie Dunes, Kansas

The final product of this distinguished group is most impressive. They have selected one hundred first-rate golf courses from eighteen nations. Actually one hundred and one–in the final position two nines have been combined to form a full sized course, Royal Worlington considered by many the world’s premier nine-holer and Prairie Dunes a fine new links featured on these pages last year.

With the splendid progress of modern golf architecture is it a little surprising which course stands above the rest? We can still say, as Mr. Hutchinson said nearly fifty years ago in the Badminton, that ‘there is one point which is happily and incontestably settled for us–namely, with which we should commence,’ St. Andrews still comes first. As Mr. Darwin explains, the Old Course is still ‘the most enchanting, exciting, interesting place in which to play golf.’

The runner-up to St. Andrews is the ethereal Cypress Point at Del Monte. Situated in a region of sand and pines, number three Pine Valley is regarded as the toughest course in the world. Playground to the Gods, Pebble Beach falls next and then the dramatic sand-hills of Sandwich. Charles B. Macdonald’s exemplar, the National Links of America, is number six. Seven is Japan’s tranquil Hirono. The majestic Banff Springs cradled in the Canadian Rockies and Royal Melbourne in the native heath and bush are eight and nine. The rugged seaside links at Foulpointe is ten followed by Bobby Jones and Dr. MacKenzie’s handiwork Augusta National–the very finest in modern golf architecture. And rounding out the gilded dozen is Long Island’s brutal and beautiful Timber Point.

We suspect this exercise lays the ground for a heated argument. Agree or disagree, we’d like to hear from our readers.”

My Summer of Golf

10/12/2010 6 comments
You might think from the lack of blog posts this summer that there hasn't been much golf on my docket. That couldn't be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, 2010 has been one of my best ever in terms of rounds played and quality courses played. Heck, I even got a semblance of my old golf game back. Here's a recap of a great summer of golf, in a series of installments (keep coming back here as I'll simply add to this post).

Part One: Ballyneal or Bust

During the harsh winters of Chicago, months away from the game will start doing funny things to your brain. Really the only thing that gets Jefe, Jimbo and I through to the other side is e-mail banter about golf, and most importantly, planning the next year's golf trip. By the time January rolls around, however, all sound decision making is officially out the window. Usually this leads to crazy statements like, "I really want to play JIm Engh's True North. It looks great!" or "I've officially peaked as a lefty...I think I'm going to switch around and start playing righty next year."

With that as a backdrop, last winter saw one of our craziest decisions yet.  We decided to road trip it out to Nebraska and Colorado in June to play Ballyneal and the 36 holes out to Prairie Club. Given that Prairie Club is 6+ hours from the Denver airport and is sort of on the way back to Chicago from Holyoke (a Valentine, NE is not on the way back to anywhere), driving started to make logical sense. You could at least make a case for it. I romanticized the hours of quality windshield time spent with my two closest golfing brethren talking about golf, fond memories (redundant) and the meaning of life (ditto). I set up a mix on ITunes months in advance, targeting songs fit for a long road trip ("Thunder Road", "One Headlight", etc.) It was going to be a trip of a lifetime.

The original plan was to leave around 3:30 A.M. on Friday morning for a late-afternoon arrival at Ballyneal and time for a quick 18. But as the dark, dreary days of winter wore on, my need for a golf trumped any thoughts of camaraderie. I needed to max out on the golf. When it comes to golf and golf trips, I'm a "Cost per round" guy. I can't help it. Our numerator was essentially fixed. But the CPR could be lowered by raising the denominator (I think I just lost Jefe. Bear with me, big guy). And the solution to our (my) problem was to just leave the Thursday evening and drive through the night. An early morning arrival at Ballyneal meant squeezing an extra 18 or even 27 holes out of the trip.

After picking up Jimbo, I rolled up to Jefe's house in the far, far west suburbs to officially launch our trip. He was waiting at the end of his driveway with his packed bags at his feet. He was holding up a piece of paper with 'Ballyneal or Bust' scribbled on it. Great minds think alike, as I had already taped a makeshift 'Ballynizzle of Bust' sign on the back windshield of my Jeep. A couple of farewell hugs and kisses and we were on our way.

Remember all that talk about bonding and brotherhood? Throw that out the window. It was all about survival. There was a 9.8% chance that we wouldn't make it back to Illinois in one piece (yes, we said a modified version of the official golf-trip prayer: "Lord, if our time is up, please let it happen on the way back. Amen.") All that great conversation that I dreamed about eventually turned into incoherent mumbling. Those deep, meaning-of-life questions plateaued at "Are you awake?" and "Do you think that Dairy Queen is open 24 hours?" "Thunder Road" was officially replaced by "I Drove All Night" by Celine Dion, an oddly-fitting song which I took the liberty of belting out as if I was singing to the soul of Ballyneal herself:

"What in this world keeps us from falling apart
No matter where I go I hear the beating of our one heart
I think about you when the night is cold and dark, uh huh-yeah
No one can move me the way that you do
Nothing erases the feeling between me and you…ohh!
Is that alright?"

I had a driving rotation planned out to help us get through the night alive. Each man would spend four hours driving, four hours playing wing man and four hours sprawled out in the back seat sleeping. But that plann backfired as apparently Jimbo didn't get the memo. He slept like a baby in the navigator's seat as Jefe drove, forcing me to stay awake in the back to keep Jefe awake. Not that Jefe needed me, as he was flying high from a near-lethal combination of Mountain Dew, 5-Hour Energy, No-Doze and energy bars. One can of Jolt would've certainly sent him into cardiac arrest. After his turn behind the wheel, he admitted, "I can't sleep right now. I'm on six different kinds of stimulants."

I took the anchor stretch and we rolled into Holyoke just as the sun was rising over the Chop Hills. After 12 1/2 hours and 850 miles of relatively smooth sailing, I almost flipped the car on the dirt road about 5 minutes from the gate trying to locate my sunglasses. But we made it to the glorious gates of Ballyneal around 6:00 in the morning, just as the maintenance crew and staff were rolling in. We were thrilled to be there, but more relieved than anything. I think we slept a total of about 3 1/2 hours total between the three of us, 3 hours and 20 minutes of that from Jimbo.

Jefe, happy to be alive

That first round was a blur. Playing golf on 10 minutes of sleep was quite an adventure. I have no idea what I shot but I know it wasn't good. But hey, that Cost Per Round was moved down a notch, so (I guess) it was worth it. After the round, we met up with some of the others in the group that had just arrived. After a quick lunch, we got up from the table as I said, "Excuse us, gentleman. We're going to go take a nap."

So with that, we retired to our room in the Ringneck Lodge, drew the shades and hit the beds like a sack of potatoes. I took solace that my 2-year old son was probably doing that exact same thing at that moment, except he wasn't sharing his bed with his best friend ("either these beds are getting narrower or we are getting wider," I commented to Jefe). As I drifted off, I remembered that I needed to text my buddy Matt (a.k.a. The Package, at least until I can come up with a better nickname so I don't have to keep typing The Package over and over again) to see what time he was rolling in, since we had planned to tee it up together that afternoon. I was expecting him to arrive around 3:00 p.m., which would give us a good two hours of 'quiet time'.

Jim: What's your ETA?
Matt: I'm near the pro shop. Where are u?
Jim: Ringneck 1

A few moments later, I heard a knock at the door. Matt entered the room to find three grown men in a room with two beds taking a mid-afternoon siesta. Best yet, it was the first time he was meeting Jefe. I'm sure it left a great first impression. We set-up a time to meet on the first tee in an hour, giving us 59 precious minutes of glorious, much needed rest. Out of all of crazy trips together, this was a definite first. Although I can guarantee you that if we had all shot in the 70's that afternoon, a mid-afternoon catnap would've made it way into the normal golf-trip M.O.

Part Two: The Climb

Friday afternoon's round saw a remarkably novel concept…Jefe and I as teammates!  After years upon years spent trying to beat each others brains in, we paired up in what turned out to be an epic fourball match against The Package and Jimbo.

Actually, the concept isn't quite as foreign as it sounds.  We did pair up once before, but it was 13 years ago.  And we had success while on the same side, blitzing the field in the (not so) vaunted 1997 Sycamore Cup, a Ryder-Cup style two-day event at (not-at-all) historic Sycamore Country Club about 50 miles west of Chicago.  Perhaps all this time the world has missed out on another Ballesteros/Olazabal simply because all Jose Maria wanted to do was beat Seve to a bloody pulp.

[Oddly, one of my other crowning athletic achievements was also at Sycamore Country Club.  I placed 6th in the Little Seven Conference golf tournament my senior year in high school, earning all-conference honors and eventually team MVP.  Over the summer, Jimbo asked us to list all of our life's crowning athletic achievements.  The answers are equal parts interesting and depressing.

- I've got some bling, including  a fake gold medal from an 8th grade boys basketball tournament that my squad won.  We went 15-5 that year and I led the team in scoring, all while wearing socks up to my knees and the tightest hot pants this side of Wonder Woman.
- I also have a trophy for the highest average during my 6th grade intramural bowling league.

- Various track and field ribbons from 1st - 5th grade track and field days, including a blue ribbon in the 400 yard race.
- My tee ball, minor league, and major league little league baseball teams all won the championship.  I received a trophy for the major league title.
- I won a plaque for a basketball shooting contest in fifth grade.
- Believe it or not I won the long jump in the 16 team Wolhutter Invitational in 8th grade with a jump of 17' 6.5" and I have a trophy for that.  This is the peak of my athletic accomplishments.
- I received a ribbon for finishing in fourth place as a freshman in the JV Upstate Eight Golf Conference Tournament (39-44 83).
- Coltrain and I won the coveted Sycamore Cup, a two man team event, and we each still have the cup.
- I won the C Flight in the St. Charles Park District match play tourney and have a trophy for that.
- And, of course, I am the proud captain of the winning side of the inaugural Ballyizzle Cup, and I take it with me in a little felt case everywhere I go.

- 1997 Sycamore Cup, with Jefe
- Multiple regular season Wegobomber Rec league trophies, no playoff trophies
- All Little 7 Conference Golf, 1991-92
- Golf Team MVP, 1991-92
- Ballynizzle Cup, runner-up

I always considered myself to be a decent athlete.  Until I saw that complete list in print.  The point was nailed home when I played with Shane, one of the guys in the crew, the next day.  As a starting pitcher, he led Texas Tech to the College World Series with a 15-1 record and was later drafted by my (gulp) beloved Pittsburgh Pirates in the 8th round.  Not surprisingly, the Pirates farm system screwed up and tried to make him a middle reliever.  Not surprisingly, Shane was a heck of a stick on the golf course as well.  "'re basically one of those guys who's good at everything?" I asked him as we walked down the first fairway.]

Back to the match...Colton/Jefe versus Jimbo/Matt turned out to be the perfect match-up.  Schulte carried the lowest index, but he can be so night-and-day that his golf buddies call him Othello.  Jefe maybe has Jimbo's number by a stroke or two.  I was the X-factor.  Any one of us could birdie one hole and triple bogey the next. And that's exactly how Saturday afternoon's match played out.  Very few holes were halved and it bounced back and forth, neither team getting more than one-or two-up on either side. You couldn't have drawn up a more even pairing on paper, unless the match was scored on chest bumps, trash talk and posturing, in which case Jefe and I would've 10&8'd like Tom Doak on any TPC.  The pinnacle (or nadir) came on the 16th tee. Coming off a Jefe birdie on the 15th that squared the match, I bombed a drive down the left side of the reachable par 5. As soon as the ball was in the air, I untucked my shirt and stomped around like one of those guys in a Re-Max long-drive contest, much to the dismay of Jimbo. A birdie there put us one-up, a lead we carried to the last hole. Jimbo got the last laugh, however, as I was unable to get up-and-down from the front of the 18th green and the match ended all-square.  Although I was probably the last person Jimbo ever wanted to play golf with again, it was decided the match would have to go USGA...only another 18 holes the next day could crown the rightful winner.

To give everyone some much needed breathing room, I played with Shane and his buddies the following morning.  It was a great time, but honestly I wish I was never part of their group. You see, Shane and his three college buddies, Steve, Tyler and Mark traveled and golfed together all over the globe much like Jefe, Jimbo and I and so many other tight-knit golf crews out there. They even had a cool name for themselves: The Four Gorsemen. I kicked myself for not thinking of it first, but it would've been moot since we can't seem to keep a fourth for more than a couple rounds.

Shane and the other Gorsemen had the opposite problem. Their rock-solid four was tragically cut down to three, as Gorsemen Mark, like Shane a former professional ballplayer, stud golfer and from what I can gather an all-around great guy, collapsed and died at the age of 32 right after completing a half-marathon back in March. This was the first golf trip other three had been on together since his death. Obviously it was extremely emotional for them. On Friday morning, they left a ball on the first tee for their fallen brother.

As somebody who has tried to capture the bond between guys and their lifelong golf comrades, I felt their pain. I couldn't help but imagine what it'd be like to lose a Jefe or Jimbo and to never be able to experience the thrill of teeing it up on some far-flung, all-world golf course together. I don't know what I'd do with myself.

The tears were shed by the now-Three Gorsemen on Friday morning. The scars were still there on Saturday, but it was back to doing what they did best - busting each others chops and making the most of their precious time together. I felt honored to be along for the ride. "It feels good to have a lefty in the group again," Tyler said in a nod to Mark as we walked off the first tee, exactly the first time anyone has ever said that to me.  By the third hole, I felt like an honorary Gorsemen. As the round wore on, it was easy to see the parallels to their group and ours. Gorsemen Steve played the Jimbo role as the token punching bag, making himself an easy target by wearing a NorthFace jacket so impossibly small that the only logical explanation I could come up with was that it had been borrowed from his 11-year old nephew. Like any good golf partners, Shane and Tyler ribbed him about it incessantly. I'm sure Mark would've been proud.

On Saturday afternoon, it was time to continue the fourball match. Jimbo, perhaps motivated by the gamesmanship from the previous afternoon, came out of the gates scorching and staked an early lead for him and Matt. He looked like a shorter-hitting version of Zach Johnson, splitting fairways and getting up and down anytime he had wedge in his hands. When Jimbo's doing that, he's tough to beat. We originally expected another back-and-forth event, but Jimbo and Matt took control of the match and Jefe and I found ourselves an unprecedented 3-down with 5 holes to play. It was now or never for us.

Fortunately, Jefe and I channeled some of that 1997 magic. I finally contributed to the team with a birdie on #14 to get it to 2-down. Jefe stuffed it in tight on the 15th and birdied it again and suddenly we were down only one. After I made par to halve on the 16th (Jefe spent time in the yucca and made 10. Not really important, or even relevant to the story, but I'm going to leave it in here anyways), Jefe bounced back with a remarkable birdie and a half on the brutally-tough 17th (not only have I not even sniffed a birdie there, I've only hit the green in regulation twice in over 75 tries). After 35 holes, we were right back where we started.

Walking up to the 18th tee, Matt was shrewd enough to point out my less-than-stellar match play history on the final hole, not just my mini-choke from the day before but my epic collapse last year with the entire Ballynizzle Cup on the line. But it's a completely different feeling having Jefe actually sending positive voodoo in my direction, and I blasted one down the right side of the fairway. Matt hit his patented high-draw, solid and down the left, really shortening the hole. Jefe and Jimbo found the rough and were effectively out of it. The match now boiled down to Matt and I from less than 170 yards in.

I went first and pured a 7-iron, taking it up the open right side of the green and bringing in towards the back-center of the green (dare I say, a fade?). Matt went next and promptly laid the sod over the ball, advancing it about 75 yards total. Two putts later and the improbable comeback was complete. Easy going Matt took his Calcavecchian-choke job in stride, but I know everytime he was forced to refer to us as "Champs" that weekend, a little piece of him died on the inside.

Winning wasn't even the best thing about the two-day match, although I have to admit, it was pretty darn sweet. The best part was about half-way through the first match, you could almost see the lightbulb go off in our collective heads. We knew we had stumbled onto something special. "Something tells me we're going to playing this same fourball match twenty years from now," I said to the group as we putted out on the 11th green.

And God willing, if we are, I also know what we'll be playing for. Usually pride is more than enough, but a special match such as this one required just a little extra skin in the game. As you probably know, Ballyneal is a walking only course. And Tom Doak did a masterful job with the routing, building an intimate, walking-friendly golf course. The toughest walk on the entire course is the one after the 18th, when you walk about 75-80 yards uphill to get back to the pro shop. It's not a bad walk at all, but it seems about twice as long after your 36th or 54th hole of the day. So in a rare moment of inspiration, I came up with the perfect prize for our match: Losers carry the winners' bags up the hill. So simple. So brilliant. So perfect. Add "Inventor of the Climb at Ballyneal Golf and Hunt Club" to my list of lifetime achievements.

Of course, an epic moment such as this just had to be captured for historical purposes. I hope that "The Climb" catches on at Ballyneal to the point that 95 years from now somebody will wonder how that tradition got started. Then maybe this picture will make its way into a special leather-bound, centennial collectors edition, called "Ballyneal: The First 100 Years".

Just check out the look of pure disdain on Jimbo's face. Priceless.

Part Three: The Prairie Club

If there's one thing my ten devoted blog readers can count on, it's the straight dope on the latest and greatest golf courses around the globe. Sure, you might have to chug through some self-loathing and a lot of Jefe-bashing to get to the dope, but it's there. Trust me.

Understandably, I was thrilled to head out to the Prairie Club in June. Not just to play the two regulation courses and 10-hole "Horse" course over a couple of days, but also to provide my loyal following an exclusive review of this de novo golf excursion just two weeks after its grand opening.

So with that as backdrop, I offer this hard-hitting, soon-to-be award winning synapse of my Prairie Club experience:

I went to Valentine, Nebraska and all I got was this lousy half-zip pullover.

Ok, that's not exactly true. I actually really like the half-zip pullover (I'm a sucker for them). But that is about all I have to show from our time at the Prairie Club. Sorry Jeff, Jim, Keith, Wyatt, Tim, Matt, Tom, Shane, Rich and Vic (what other blog offers such personalized attention?), that's all I got for you.

Sunday morning was a bit of a wash-out at Ballyneal. About half the crew decided to go out, half never set foot out on the golf course. I don't need to tell you which camp I was in. Jefe, Jimbo and I played in a cold, driving rain. Isn't this June in the high desert? After nine holes, even Jimbo had had enough. "I'm just not having fun out here right now," he admitted, definitely the first time those words were ever uttered out in the Chop Hills.

Jefe and I soldiered on to the back nine, trying to make the most of it. It turned out to be a fun round together, and the weather improved as the day wore on. It actually worked out for the best, as Jimbo was stuck getting the car ready for our departure while Jefe and I chased the nugget around. After getting cleaned up, we were on our way.

The Holyoke-to-Valentine leg of the road trip got off to an ominous start. By the time we reached the gas station in Holyoke to fuel up and Coke up (one of my only complaints about Ballyneal…Colorado is Pepsi country), it was pouring. In fact, most of the four-hour trip was like that. The trip to Prairie Club is essentially the same as the drive to Sand Hills, just an hour or so further north. You take the same route to North Platte, Nebraska and head north through the Sand Hills region. You may recall from my Sand Hills report last year that the last leg of the trip is like every golf architecture afficiniado's dream…you drive through these giant sand dunes that are littered with huge, natural blowouts, i.e. potential golf holes just sitting there waiting to be built. Driving down Highway 97 for now the third time, the novelty had worn off but the awe was still there. This is really an incredibly beautiful part of the country, at least as far as we could tell in between wiper blades zipping back and forth.

The area near the Prairie Club is even more impressive. The Snake River weaves it way through the Sand Hills and borders the club's property, the rush of water carving a huge canyon through the sand dunes. I never got a close look, but I'd have to guess the canyon is at least 100-150 feet deep, lined by pine trees on either side. Like I said, impressive. And the courses are located adjacent to the canyon, with the Graham Marsh-designed Pines course weaving around and near the canyon's edge and the Tom Lehman-designed Dunes course going out and back into the open prairie. At least that's what the yardage book says.

We arrived at Prairie Club's luxurious lodge just in time for a late dinner (good thing too…as Jefe's four-day old bag of trail mix was the only Plan B). We also got the chance to talk to one of the guys in the golf staff, who informed us that the course had been closed that day and was more than likely to be closed the next day as well. Of course, this bit of information would have been helpful, say, four-and-a-half hours earlier, especially considering we called the course to change some rooms around* as we were leaving Holyoke. But I guess they wanted their lodging revenue.

[*Note: we were originally supposed to have a fourth for the Prairie Club leg of our trip. Jefe's work colleague and personal caddie, unaffectionately only known to us as Caddie Boy, was all set to drive out by himself from Chicago to meet us in Valentine. The bizarre twist is that Jimbo reached out to Caddie Boy personally to invite him, which garnered a universal, "Caddie Boy? Really?" reaction from both Jefe and I. Nothing against the guy, but it takes a special breed to go on a golf trip with us, and Caddie Boy was like a backup AA-infielder being called up by the Pirates in September…you just knew the results would be disastrous. Fortunately, Caddie Boy got a bad case of the '120's' and ended up bailing on the trip at the last minute. At least he didn't drive all the way from Chicago to find out the course was closed. So I guess it worked out for the best. Especially considering the only way Caddie Boy could play the course (due to a bum leg) was with the use of the cart, and they hadn't let carts on the course at any point since they opened (another little fact they failed to mention to us).]

Sure enough, we woke up the next morning and the weather was more of the same. Granted, it had rained a bunch, but not once did we consider the possibility that a course built out in the Sand Hills region could have drainage issues that would prevent it from being playable. In contrast, a couple of the guys from our weekend group played 54 holes at Sand Hills that same day, and a call down to Dismal River confirmed they were open for play as well. I guess that's the downside risk of trying to play a course right after it opens. Live and learn.

After some hemming and hawing, we determined that our best course of action was to make the long drive back to Holyoke. But when your Plan B is two more days at one of the best golf courses built in the last 70 years, I guess you can't really complain too much. By the time we may it back to Ballyneal, the sun was out and the course was already blazing firm and fast. We'll never get that eight hours we spent in the car back, but at least I have this Under Armour pullover as proof that I was there. And these pics…enjoy!

Prairie Club's impressive 31-room lodge

18th Green of the Pines course, just steps from the clubhouse

One of the holes on the 10-hole Horse course

The mud pit formerly known as a Horse Course bunker

Bernie sleeping off a hangover after yet another bender w/ Jimbo

Next Up: The Yucca

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YouTube Monday

8/30/2010 0 comments
A couple of YouTube videos for y'all.

First, my homeboy Mitch Ehly over at Ballyneal posted this video flying over the course. Pretty sweet! While I'm sure you'll be drawn to Tom Doak's masterpiece from a few thousand feet above, I can't help but look at all that unchartered rumpled land surrounding the course just asking for another course or three.

The second video is even closer to home. It's my golf swing in slo-motion courtesy of my swing guru Dr. Jefe and his latest techology purchase, a Casio EX-FS10 Digital Camera that can record video at up to 1,000 frames per second. This is the Konica-Minolta Biz-Hub 210 fps version. The golf swing still leaves a little to be desired, but the angles look a lot better than this one from March. "I honestly don't know what I'd tell you to change," Jefe said as we reviewed the video on the range. I don't know if that means my swing is sound or that Jefe really has no idea what he's talking about. For now, I'll go with the latter.

Speaking of Tang brothers who have no clue, fellow blogger Jimbo Tang re-launched his GolfPicoftheWeek (GPW if you're cool) blog this morning. Prepare for another season of barely-intelligent/biting commentary. If it wasn't the closest thing I can get to actually being on a course between October and March, I would've unsubscribed a long time ago. But you might like it. The 2nd Hole at Lost Dunes is the first installment. And while the name suggests just one golf picture per week, Jimbo posts updates every Monday and Friday, but only for half the year. My head hurts.

One last bonus is my son Jordan free-wheeling with his driver on the range. I've watched this video at least 1,500 times and every time it's brings a tear to my eye. Grip and rip, lil man!

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Ballyneal at Sunrise

5/24/2010 2 comments
I probably have a thousand Ballyneal pictures in my library, but most of the good ones are from the late afternoon.  I don't have any from the early sunrise hours, simply because it's gets light out so ridiculously early out there in the summer.  I'll never forget my maiden voyage to Ballyneal with Jefe, when we woke up (in separate beds...that time) at 6:00 a.m. to full blazing sun shining through the windows.  Our first thought, of course, was "why in the heck aren't we on the 6th hole already?"  The wait until first tee times at 7:30 was (and still is) an excruciating one.

This past week I had reeled off a series of 4:00 a.m. wake up calls to catch 6:00 a.m. flights.  Combine that with the Christmas-morning anticipation of the first rounds at Ballyneal in 2010, I was wide awake at 5:15 a.m. and ready to go.  Instead of laying in bed until the alarm went off an hour later, I found my shoes in the dark, stumbled down the stairs and walked the course in basketball shorts and cut-off t-shirt.  The first five pictures were from that morning.  The last three were from the next day when I did the exact same thing.  Enjoy!

p.s. Ballyneezie is off da heezie!

10th Hole

Another view of #10, quickly becoming my favorite hole on the back nine

12th Hole

12th Hole looking back

13th Hole

3rd Green

2nd Hole Looking Back

2nd Hole

Another view of the 2nd Hole

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Behold Ballyneo

5/17/2010 1 comments
Yours truly has dipped his toe back into the shark-infested waters of (fake) golf-course architecture with an entry in the 2nd Annual Armchair Architect Contest on GolfClubAtlas. Similar to last year (see Ballysnoop here), I had a strong showing but fell a bit short. Unfortunately, one of the three judges inexplicably had me 9th on his ballot, which sunk my overall average. I was thrilled to get a first place vote from designer Mike Nuzzo, one of the most respected designers on the site.

The contestants had a square-mile topographical map to work with, and had free reign to do whatever they wanted within that space, whether it be 45 holes of tree-lined terror or 18 holes of sprawling prairie golf. I envisioned a wide-open treeless sight with varied wind conditions and tried to build a fun, wide links course with lots of strategic interest. Any idea where I got my inspiration?

Check out the design and some 3-D pictures from Google SketchUp below. Always interested in hearing feedback on my amateur design effort.

12th Hole Approach:

Overlooking 9th & 18th

3rd Green

11th Hole

14th Hole

7th Hole

9th Hole

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Three Days in California

4/06/2010 5 comments

"You're up, Jim"

Just like that, it was my turn. I stepped up to the tee markers and put my peg in the ground, just like I had done thousands of times before. The only difference was that I wasn't ready. I wasn't even close to being ready. The last 15 holes had been a blur. At that moment, I wasn't even sure what I was doing in California or how I got there. Only that I was here and it was my turn. There was no turning back now.

So with nowhere to hide, I stared at the target in the distance, took a deep breath and went through my normal pre-shot routine. Ridiculously strong grip…check. Feet completely misaligned…yup. Shoulders 10 degrees closed…on. A mini-waggle and a shift back-and-forth between my feet and suddenly it's just me, my Titleist and my thoughts. A dangerous combination.

When it comes to last-second swing thoughts, I've spent the last two years grasping for something…anything that works. Keep your head down. Swing through. Attack from the inside. It's like there was a little man inside my head spinning a The-Price-Is-Right wheel with every tip I ever read in Golf Digest on one of the panels. Something might stick for a swing or two. Invariably, all paths eventually led back to another spin in the Showcase Showdown.

Standing on the 16th tee, staring down at my ball and, ready or not, about to pull the trigger, one last thought flashed through my brain. It was a new one.

How in the heck do I only hit this driver 230 yards?

Before we get to the results of that swing, we need to take a big step back. Because this golf adventure actually started in my basement five months prior. It was October 20, 2009. Or in other words, my 36th birthday. Or Snoop Dogg's 37th birthday. Take your pick. While Snoop was probably celebrating by smoking some Chronic and sipping on some gin and juice (with his mind on his money and his money on his mind), this D-O-double was coping with the term 'middle-aged' with a steady diet of hopelessness and self-loathing. The last year had seen my once-respected banking profession turned into a punchline and general root of all evil. The declines in my 401k and home value had been offset by all-time high stress levels, an unhealthy Coke habit (cola, that is) and exponential growth in two key indices: Body Mass and USGA Handicap, only one resembling Phil Mickelson.

I imagine some would deal with this early-onset mid-life crisis by getting a tattoo, a convertible, a mistress or some combination thereof. I dealt with it the only way I knew how: by becoming the starting point guard for the 2009-10 Chicago Bulls. So there I was, in my basement late the night of my birthday, playing NBA2K10 on XBox with an ageless 6'7" Jim Colton tearing through the league as the greatest triple double threat since Oscar Robertson.

So what does this have to do with golf? Not much. But right in the middle of this pity party, somewhere between my third or fourth simulated NBA season and my fifth or sixth actual Coke, my phone lit up with a text message from Kyle H., the buff golf course architecture buff from Northern California. You may recall Kyle and I battling a hail storm (and losing) on the 8th and 9th fairways at Ballyneal last summer, a strong bond forged out of the ashes of this near-death experience. Before July, Kyle didn't know me from Adam. Less than four months later, his out-of-the-blue text snapped me right out of my mid-life doldrums.

"Sir, I am delighted to extend an invitation to Cypress Point. When are you available?"

"How's tomorrow?"

"My host needs a couple of months advanced notice."

"Literally any day works for me. That's the best b-day present ever."

And just like that, the wheels were set in motion to play Cypress Point, Alister Mackenzie's masterpiece on the Monterey Peninsula. Cypress Point is unanimously considered one the top five golf courses in the world and THE number one course on my bucket list. Cypress Point! Eighteen months ago, courses like Sand Hills and Cypress Point were an absolute pipe dream. I never actually thought I'd get the chance to play them in this or any lifetime. Certainly not two of them in one year.

Setting the date for our round at Cypress Point proved to be more elusive than a straight answer from Tiger on how he spent his Thanksgiving. First, Kyle was looking at mid-November. Then December 17th was the date. Then April 22nd. Then April 29th. Along the way, I questioned whether it was really going to happen. I treaded carefully on GolfClubAtlas, making sure not to post anything stupid (hard for me) that would lead to getting SoupNazi'd. Then on December 31st, the date was finally set in stone. On Thursday March 11th at around 7:30 a.m., I would be teeing off at Cypress Point.

The next two months were spent daydreaming about Cypress and building a golf trip around the 11th. There were more potential itineraries tossed around than Tiger mistresses (last lame Tiger analogy, I promise.) Multiple sources told me I simply "had to" play Pebble Beach next door, seemingly blind to the fact that it was $495/round to play there. I toyed with some potential scenarios involving my father-in-law Ken, good buddy Jimbo and favorite New York city cop Brad F. that might make sticking around the weekend and taking the P.B. plunge worth the per capita income of Sierra Leone. Jimbo and I even considered heading up to Bandon Dunes for a few days after San Francisco, going as far as booking rooms, making tee times and trying to get a sneak preview round at Old Macdonald a few months before its official grand opening. Unfortunately, Jimbo backed out faster than Tiger's sponsors (sorry, I couldn't help myself), and ultimately the trip was whittled down to its bare bones: fly out Wednesday morning, golf Wednesday afternoon, 36 holes Thursday, 18 on Friday then back to Chicago on the redeye Friday night. Pebble Beach would have to wait. Still, it was going to be a trip of a lifetime.

[Not even my wife breaking out in a mean case of hives days before my scheduled departure was going to stop me from crossing this one off the list. In true Husband of the Year fashion, below is a transcript of my 4:00 a.m. sendoff.

"Best of luck with that, honey. Give me a call if things take a turn for the worse. You should know, however, that Monterey is notoriously bad for cell-phone reception. I dunno, something about the thick ocean air. Well my taxi's here, I gotta go. See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya."

Alright, you got me. I made that last sentence up. Thankfully, she was only barely awake at the time.]

I arrived at San Francisco International without incident, although it took 35 anxious minutes for my golf clubs to finally surface in the baggage claim ($22 baggage fee well spent). I was being picked up by Jon, one of the other guys lucky enough to be on Kyle's good side when he got the CPC invite (Kyle's dad, Scott, was the fourth). Jon and I met during my first trip to Ballyneal back in 2008. Jefe and I had coined him "The Lama" for his prodigious length off the tee. I had never seen anybody hit a golf ball that far. Until I got to San Francisco.

Jon hooked us up at the Cal Club, a private club just minutes from the airport. The Cal Club recently went through a complete renovation by designer Kyle Phillips, and by all accounts, the course today is better than it's ever been. Phillips addressed drainage issues that were a big problem (common among Northern California clubs, on Google Maps you can see the course when it was in all torn up), brought back the classic Mackenzie bunkering and deftly designed four or five completely new holes that blended seamlessly with the rest of the golf course (not an easy task at all). Today, Cal Club is in the conversation of best golf courses in San Francisco.

View Larger Map

The afternoon at the Cal Club was spent playing "One of These Things is Not Like the Others". In one corner, you had three guys who all played golf at Santa Clara. Jon, his college buddy Andy, who is a golf pro in the area, and Kellen, Andy's assistant, recent college grad and budding mini-tour player. In the other corner, you had the basket case from the midwest who hadn't played a round of golf since last September. To add insult to injury, the terms of the match were negotiated after the first hole (a par 5 that Jon and Kellen easily birdied) and it was determined that Kellen would have to give me TWENTY strokes to keep things interesting. Yet another blow to my already fragile ego.

Twenty strokes turned out to be just right. While Kellen put on an impressive display of shotmaking (case in point, first hole: 320-yard blast with about 10 yards of fade. Second hole: 310-yards with about 5 yards of draw.) and was right there or past The Lama all day, I was hitting low screaming duck hooks en route to a season-opening 96. However, my lackluster play didn't prevent me from enjoying the course. The Cal Club is rock solid from beginning to end. Phillips did a fantastic job of bringing back the character of the classic design, and added to it with the new holes. The 8th hole, for example is a long par 3 where the run-up area bleeds into the start of an adjacent fairway. It looks like one of the originals but is actually a new one. The coolest part of the routing is the 11th, 12th and 18th holes, which all just blend together with the stately clubhouse as a backdrop. Previously, there was a manmade pond guarding the 18th green. Using old photographs as a guide, Phillips brought the 18th back almost exactly as Mackenzie had envisioned it back in the 1930's.

Cal Club's new 7th Hole

9th Hole

11th Green with 18th in the background

Par 3 12th Hole

14th Green

After Cal Club, we made the drive down to Monterey to meet up with the rest of the group. Most of the two-hour trip was spent talking about either Cypress Point, vasectomies or prostate exams, Jon being the resident expert in each. He was still reeling from getting clipped just a couple months earlier, and had learned to cope with the emasculation by telling everyone he knew about the experience. I started to feel sorry for the guy, but then remembered he hits the ball 350 yards, has a +1.6 index and that we are the same age. Is this what I had to look forward to? This middle-aged thing is for the birds!

Thursday morning couldn't get here fast enough. Jon and I were up at the crack of dawn for what was originally billed as a range session at Pebble Beach (guests can't use the practice area at CPC), but later turned into a hard-target search every coffeehouse, drug store, grocery, outhouse, henhouse and doghouse in a six-mile radius (always wanted to say that) looking for the proper medication and lubrication to get the Lama machine up and running. Eventually, we made it to the famous 17-Mile Drive, checked out a couple holes at Pebble Beach and hit balls for five minutes before heading over to Cypress Point to meet Kyle and Scott.

Par 5 6th Hole at Pebble Beach

It's not hard to see why the Peninsula is one of the top golf destinations on the planet. Rugged terrain, beautiful jagged coastline, tons of ancient cypress trees, mild temperatures and great golf courses right on top of each other. What more could you ask for? Look out one side of the car and you see giant waves crashing against the rocks. Look out the other side and you might see Pebble Beach, Cypress Point, Spyglass Hill, Spanish Bay or Monterey Peninsula Country Club.

Pebble Beach gets the publicity from the Pro-Am and the U.S. Open, but Cypress Point is the crown jewel of the Peninsula, if not the golfing world. It is no hyperbole to call Cypress Point the most beautiful golf course on the planet. Samuel Morse, the visionary behind the Peninsula, once said, "No one but a poet should be allowed to write of the beauties of the Cypress Point Club," so I won't even try. [Note: Geoff Shackelford's book, "Alister MacKenzie's Cypress Point Club," is an absolute must if you get the chance to play CPC or want to learn more about it. Highly recommended.] But I will say that the beauty is more than skin deep -- the course provides significant strategic interest, challenge and excitement as well. The routing is simply sublime, with ebb and flow and seamless transition through woods, dunes and ocean throughout the round. The crescendo at the famous par 3 16th is well known, but the front nine, particularly the stretch from the 5th to 9th holes, is very strong.

Scott and Kyle were already at the club when we got there, Kyle single-handedly trying to stimulate the economy with his pro shop purchases. There are no set tee times, so it was unclear when we would be heading off. There was an unusually large group of golfers assembled around the putting green and first tee when we got there. It turns out the Penn golf team was there to play the course, no doubt sponsored by a proud alum. Thankfully, we were the second group off the tee, ahead of the large group of Ivy Leaguers. Unfortunately, that meant having to tee off in front of a bunch of college golfers. The first hole at Cypress is a little bizarre -- you have to hit over a large hedge about 40 yards off the tee. Considering I didn't hit a single drive more than six feet off-the-ground at the Cal Club, this hedge was going to present a serious challenge. Especially with an audience. Jon later confessed that he was worried that we might be there all day. Thankfully, I put my best swing on it and blasted one over the hedge and down the left side of the fairway. Seconds later, we were off the tee box and walking Cypress Point on an unusually clear and sunny day.

As I mentioned, Mackenzie's routing is sheer genius and he brings you in and out of different environments. The downhill par-4 opener brings you out towards the ocean right from the start. Then the 2nd crosses the dunes and heads towards the woods, where you stay for the 4th and 5th. There's a large dune that bisects the property. The 6th hole is a par 5 that plays to the base of the dune. The 7th is a par 3 that tees off on top of the dune. The 8th plays sharply around the dune. The 9th is a short par 4 playing into the dune again. The 10th goes back into the woods with 11th heading right back to the base of the dune. The 12th brings you out in the open on the ocean side of the dune, building up to the world famous 15th, 16th and 17th holes along the rocks before heading back inland for the 18th.

The Par 5 5th Hole

Somewhat surprisingly, I started off playing relatively well on the front nine, only running into trouble on a couple loose swings or when I found the wrong side of the hole. The 7th hole ended up being my undoing, as I pushed a tee shot well left into the dune above the hole, played a nifty little flop shot that landed in the one spot that it had to land, but watched as the ball started and stopped four or five times as it rolled down the slope, past the hole and a good 10 yards off the green. A triple-bogey 6 there was a huge black mark on an otherwise okay 7-over 44 on the front.

My downfall, the par 3 7th Hole

The back nine was not so kind. I made a huge unforced error on the 10th after a solid drive, pushing my second shot left for no apparent reason then shtoinking a tree on my third shot. Apparently simply looking at Mackenzie's beautiful bunkering wasn't good enough; I felt the need to experience them first hand as well. I was Hasselhoffed on the 10th, 14th, 15th and 17th, and any chance to score well went out the window.

One of the few bunkers I wasn't in, this one on the spectacular par 4 13th Hole

Obviously, you rather play well than not play well, but score is largely irrelevant at Cypress Point. The key factors are the experience of playing the course and how well you do on the famous 16th hole, the best par 3 1/2 in the world. I had been thinking about the 16th hole ever since Kyle texted me back in October. 233 yards of sheer terror on some of the most dramatic terrain ever used for golf. The 16th hole is constantly in the back of your mind throughout the round, and is fully in your dome by the time you reach the 12th tee and start making the march towards the ocean. I found it difficult to concentrate on holes 12, 13 and 14 (all world-class par 4's in their own right) knowing that the 16th was just around the corner.

Par 4 14th Hole

After playing the 14th, you make a two-minute walk on a paved path right along the Pacific. Then you turn around a bend and BAM! You're standing on the 15th tee box with a broad view of the back-to-back par 3's -- the short 15th immediately in front of you and the 16th way off in the distance. The rock formations almost look too good to be real, they look like something out of an amusement park.

First of the best back-to-back Par 3's in golf

After playing the 15th, you make another similar walk to the next tee. This time, you are shaded by cypress trees on either side of the path, so you can only catch glimpses of the 16th green here and there as you move forward. You can't help but be startled by just how far away the green is. Is this really a par 3? Then you come through the cypress chute and get the full monty. The 16th in its full glory. We had arrived. The closest thing to Golf Heaven on Earth.

The all-or-nothing 16th Hole

I had been dreaming about this golf shot ever since I was a kid and, as I mentioned, had been thinking seriously about this tee shot for months. The Saturday prior to leaving was the first nice day of the year in Chicago (read: 45 degrees and sunny) and that means people surface for the first time in months -- either to wash the grime off the car or the rust off the golf game. I met Jefe and Jimbo at a packed driving range, taking the opportunity to a) remind them I was playing Cypress Point and they weren't and b) audition clubs for the honor of being THE club I'd hit on the 16th tee. I dusted off and tried every old 3-wood, 2-wood, long iron and hybrid that I could find in my basement. Nothing stood out as the clear answer, but ultimately I decided that 3-iron was the club of choice.

Bad decision.

Only upon reaching the 16th tee did I realize just how wrong I was. I knew it was 230 yards to the hole with room to bail out left, but I had no idea just how all-or-nothing the tee shot was until I stood there in person. For some reason, I thought I could bring the shot in from the left and a carry of 200 yards or so would be sufficient. That's how I came up with 3-iron. But 200 yards of carry isn't going to get you anything but wet. There is room to lay-up left, but you have to do it well left and way back, like hit a 7-iron and play it as a par 4. Well, given the fact it's a once in a lifetime kind of shot, you're not going to pull out the skirt and play for a 4. You have to go for it. And since I didn't bother bringing my 3-wood, that's how I ended up standing on one of the most famous golf holes in the world trying to manufacture a bunt driver on the fly.

I could let you imagine how that swing turned out. Or I could show you documented footage on what actually happened. I'm willing to bet that you weren't that far off. I put a hurried 80% swing on the ball, never fully transitioned at the top, and hit a low screamer that just missed reaching the green by, oh, about 80 or 90 yards. Oh the humanity! You can even hear the painful thud of the ball hitting the rocks on the video. I die a little on the inside each time I hear that cruel sound. There are no hazard markers on the hole, so unless I wanted to climb down the cliff and battle the sea otters, my only option was to reload and hit three.

Shottracker technology

The second swing wasn't much better than the first, but the ball got airborne and went through the fairway left of the green. One benevolent foot wedge from the caddie out of the ice plant later and I was hitting a half-wedge shot to the green for my fourth as the sea lions openly mocked my every move. In my so-called golf career, I had managed to hit the shots that counted on the most memorable holes. 17th at TPC at Sawgrass: two-for-two on finding the island green. The Road Hole at St. Andrews: cleared the shed off the tee (barely). My luck ran out on the 16th at Cypress, and I went through the motions on the final two holes. Not even a par off the trees on the ridiculously tight closing hole could sooth the bitter taste of disappointment from failing so miserably on the one shot that mattered.

Nice shot, pansie!

Dejection or not, the experience of playing Cypress Point was one I'll never forget. I just hope I get another chance to redeem myself someday. After thinking about it for a couple weeks, I penciled Cypress Point in the top spot in my ever growing course list (which hit 300 the next day at the Shore course at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, played in a driving rain and 30 mph winds). I could wake up tomorrow and flip-flop it with Ballyneal, that's how close #1 and #2 are in my mind. There seems to be a top tier of golf courses that are head and shoulders above the rest, and it's almost fruitless trying to differentiate between them. Maybe that's why Tom Doak doesn't distinguish among the '10's' in his Confidential Guide. But for now, Cypress Point holds the top spot.

Maybe I just have a soft spot for the scenic beauty of the Monterey Peninsula. Maybe it's simply in my blood. You see, one of the founding fathers of Monterey and California is Walter Colton, a distant ancestor. Colton was alcalde of Monterey, serving as judge, sheriff and governor over much of Northern California right before the gold rush. He constructed Colton Hall in downtown Monterey, which is where the California Constitution was signed in 1849. I made Kyle and Scott drive me over to Colton Hall (now a museum) Friday morning so I could celebrate my family heritage (and make my parents happy).

Colton Hall

The more I learned about Uncle Wally, the more I could see the similarities between him and me. We both look dashing in a suit. Walter published a journal about his three years in California (aptly titled "Three Years in California"). I published a book about four years golfing around the country. I can't help but think the natural beauty of the surroundings is what first attracted him to the area. In his book, he wrote "The scenery around Monterey and the locale of the town arrest the first glance of the stranger. The wild waving background of forest feathered cliffs, the green slopes and the glimmering walls of the white dwellings and the dash of the billows on the sparkling sands of the bay fix and charm the eye."

Green slopes? Sparkling sands? If that doesn't scream closet golf addict, I don't know what does. Do you think that qualifies me for some kind of legacy membership at C-Prizzle? Hey, I had to ask.

More pictures:

The beautiful par 5 6th Hole

Par 4 8th Hole

A familiar site, Kyle taking a picture

It doesn't get much better

Tight, uphill climb on the home hole (yes, there is a fairway there somewhere)

I posted this last year, but it's worth revisiting. This is buddy Tim Bert's wonderful slideshow of the course:

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