A little over a month ago, I sat shirtless on a doctor’s examining room table wondering if the rest of my 2011 golf season was over, with perhaps 2012 on the brink as well. My body was crumbling faster than Tiger’s knees and personal life combined. Early in September, during a casual round with my buddy Wego at Prairie Landing, I felt something pop in my right shoulder as I pulled the club back on the par 3 12th. I took it easy for a few weeks, figured I’d be fine and eventually agreed to go to Ballyneal for a long weekend with my friend Matt and 10 others at the end of September. I thought even if I couldn’t rotate my shoulder anywhere close to parallel, I’d still be able to slap it around at Ballyneal on those firm and fast conditions. How bad could it be?
The answer: really bad. I struggled to break 100 in seven rounds over four days. Matt had organized a bunch of entertaining individual and team events each round, and my presence in a foursome was the kiss of death. I finished dead last in the running points game, and second to last in the money. I even set a dubious course record by hitting a grand total of 0-of-14 fairways (on fairways averaging 70 yards wide).
Right before that trip, two great things happened to me. First, I found out that the Walking Golfing Society had named me their 2011 Walking (Wounded) Golfer of the Year. Also, I got invited to a two-day, fourball event at Old Macdonald, the newest course at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. After I found out that Rob Rigg, the founder of the Walking Golfer Society (and president of True Linkswear shoes) had also been invited to the event at Bandon (and was to be my partner), we made plans to do our award ceremony/trophy hand-off at Bandon as well. It promised to be a dream golf weekend. Except for my mangled shoulder and what I thought could be a torn rotator cuff.
So the day after I got back from Ballyneal, for once I listened to wife’s advice, sucked it up and went to the orthopedian to get my shoulder checked out (I bet I’ve been to the doctor no more than three times in the last 15 years). He pushed, pulled, yanked and dragged my arms in various positions, some of which felt perfectly fine, others of which made my eyes water. His diagnosis was some inflammation of the rotator cuff ligament, with the potential of a slight tear. I stressed that I was a serious golfer and had one last big trip planned for the year. He gave me a cortisone shot and hoped that would be all I needed.
Days after the shot, I felt like a new man. I could do full arm circles without pain, practiced that deeply-flawed but too-late-to-teach-a-middle-aged-dog-new-tricks golf swing in the mirror and dreamed of winning the Bandon team event in a blaze of glory. Then I took my kids to the driving range one late Sunday afternoon and woke up the next morning painfully back at Square One. I spent most of the month of October in golf limbo, dragging along a bum shoulder that didn’t exactly hurt but just felt off, like it was attached to somebody else’s body. Still, even if it meant swinging the club with one arm followed by an extended trip on the disabled list, there was no way I was missing out on a trip to Bandon Dunes.
The first and only time I had been to Bandon was back in 2006. A lot had changed for me in those five years. I went from two kids to three. Seemingly overnight, I leaped from young buck to prematurely gray. At work, I had clawed my way from senior grunt to junior middle management. I went from public golfer to a private one (and maybe back to public again). And I migrated from a two-handicap with a 50/50 love-hate relationship with the game to near double-digits but loving nearly every minute of it (other than the 0-for-14 fairway bit...that did kinda suck.)
It would be hard to top 2006's motley crew of Jimbo, my father-in-law Ken and my buddy “80-grand motha*****” Charles, but this trip had promise with Rob, my good friend and bunkmate Ben (Air Force Captain by day/turfgrass student and golf course design wannabe by night), and Matt Payne and Dave Hensley (GM and Superintendent of Ballyneal, respectively) among the friendly faces in the event. Ben picked me up at the North Bend airport, and after an 11-hour door-to-door journey, we were on our way to the greatest golf resort on the planet.
PART ONE: SHEEP RANCH
Since my flight arrived around 2 PM on Saturday, we didn’t really have time to get in a full round that day. But thankfully Ben had better plans. Being a bonafide F.O.D. (Friend of Doak), Ben had obtained intelligence that Tommy Deez was likely going to be out at Sheep Ranch, the somewhat secret romper room of 13 greens and freeform turf that allows the holes to be played in every which way imaginable.
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Sheep Ranch was a fitting place to spend the afternoon with Ben. It was just three years ago that Ben had his “a-ha” moment in golf, sending him down a path to study architecture with a Red Bull-ish vigor and eventually leading to spending a week’s leave from the Air Force to rake dirt and spread hydroseed as part of the crew for Doak’s Dismal River project in Nebraska. Ben zoomed down some backroads bordering Old Macdonald, leading to a gravel off-ramp blocked by a black gate marked “No Trespassing”. Pulling up, we still weren’t 100% sure that Doak would be here.
The gate looked like it was locked but Ben got out of the car to try it. Bingo! The gate was open. As we continued down the gravel road, I had visions of cutting through a backyard on the way home from middle school and having the cops called on us. It felt wrong enough to give yourself a little guilt trip about it, but not enough to stop yourself from still going. All I could think about was this magical playground of fescue, sand and gorse. Following the gravel up and around a sharp bend, you begin to see the course on the left, along with a couple of old fire trucks that they use for irrigation. Past the fire trucks, we saw a white Hyundai rental car. We weren’t alone. But was it Doak and Co.?
We climbed out of the car and got the clubs out of the trunk. It was spitting rain and a fog was rolling in, but we could see the silhouettes of golfers approaching a green in the distance. We headed out towards them as they were hitting to their next hole. As we got closer, one of the guys started heading towards us. From a distance, it looked an awful lot like Tom Doak, arguably the greatest living golf course architect.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to have some dialogue with Tommy Deez, mostly over e-mail but a couple times face-to-face. I don’t know if it’s nerves or what, but I’ve developed an uncanny ability of saying stupid things that lead to awkward silences every time I’m within 50 feet of him. For example, the first time I played golf with Tom, one of the first things I ever said to him was, “Tom, what’s your vertical leap? Because you have the biggest calves I’ve ever seen!” See what I mean?
Unfortunately, this time was no exception. As Doak approached and got within earshot, I cracked, “Can anybody tell us how to get Old Macdonald?”
Stone silence. 0-for-2.
Despite my idiotic comments, Tom agreed to let us join his group. They were playing some sort of 3-team alternate shot match, which then had to be altered due to our arrival. We split up into three 3-person teams and the format changed from hole-to-hole. After each hole, Tom would kind of point out the multiple options for the next hole and we’d pick one and go on from there. Using Tom’s local knowledge and short game prowess, his team (which I wasn’t on) won or halved the majority of the 6-7 holes we played. His team even claimed a halve on a hole that I later realized we had won outright!
As we neared the end of our "round", a official-looking green pickup truck came driving down the road and then turned onto the course heading right towards us. A man got out of the truck, ready to bust yet another set of trespassers to the fullest extent of the laws of Keiserland. I was paralyzed by the indecision of following my street instincts to make a run for it and wanting to try out that Old Macdonald crack on an independent third party. "Excuse me, this is private prop...," the man started to say, until he recognized the man walking towards him. "...oh, hello Mr. Doak, how are you?" His demeanor changed in an heartbeat. For Doak, it was the ultimate Jedi-Mind Trick. I knew he was a genius, but had no idea he was one with the Force as well. I guess we should've known.
|Into the abyss...|
|Potential par-3 at Sheep Ranch|
As I mentioned, Rob and I had planned to do The Walking Golfer of the Year presentation at Bandon. The original plan was to do it on some picturesque spot at Sheep Ranch overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But the crummy weather put the kibosh on that option. So we wandered around the lodge aimlessly trying to find some suitable place to do the photo op. Surprisingly, there weren’t many viable options. The best we could come up with was a well-lit conference room that had a map of the state of Oregon on the wall. It would have to do.
|"For a Passionate Commitment to Golf as a Walking Game"|
While I jokingly prepared two speeches, I didn’t actually have to give one. But the sentiment in my first version is still there. This honor is easily the greatest achievement of my golfing life. And hopefully we can use this award as a springboard to do bigger and better things down the road. (Note: you can see the press release here)
PART THREE: KIDDO CLUTCH
Sunday morning was the official start of the matches at Old Macdonald. The format was a 64-man, 32-team fourball bracket. Survive and advance. Lose and go home (well, go play another round at Old Mac or one of the other courses at the resort). Each match was nine holes. The winners played the winners in the group ahead/behind them starting on the 10th tee. The losers paired up with the other losers and played a match or just played in for fun. If you won your first two matches, then you had to stick around for a third nine.
Given the sorry state of my shoulder, I figured Rob and I were a sure one-and-done. I just hoped not to get 5&4'd right out of the gate.
The first hole at Old Macdonald is a great opener, one that Doak calls the best opener they've ever built. It's sufficiently wide but you need to pick a line carefully depending on the pin position to the double plateau green. Let me get on my soap box again and plead for more double plateau greens. I've enjoyed each and every one that I've played, and it certainly seems like you could build them just about anywhere. On Monday, they pinned it to the back shelf, which normally isn't used in the Bandon rotation (they need to add it, it's a blast).
I hit a (surprise) hard hook to start the match, but it ended up just off the right fairway with a clear shot to the middle pin. Rob pulled his drive hard but hit a good approach shot in to the green. We both made pars and suddenly were 1-up. Five minutes later, we were 2-up after Rob jarred a 25-footer on Eden. I was still thinking 5&4, but now it was the other way around.
A funny thing happened that Monday morning. I started hitting the ball again. I'm not sure how or why, but I didn't stop to analyze it. I just kept swinging. I hadn't felt this way since the day of the 155-hole marathon in June, when I was striping it for most of the 16-hour adventure. I was on top of the flag at the 2nd, won the hole for our team on the 4th hole (Hogsback), then stuffed it tight on the 5th (Short), but missed a tricky, downhill birdie putt. We were still only 2-up, although it felt like it should've been more.
Anybody who plays match play knows the momentum can turn on a dime. Often it just takes one great shot or one mistake by the other team, especially in a 9-hole match like this one. We were in the driver seat, right up until the moment I decided to run my 30-foot birdie putt 10 feet past the hole on the 6th (Long, with an awesome Hell bunker). A bad bogey there and we were back to 1-up. Then Rob and I both made a mess of the 7th (aptly named Ocean), and suddenly the match was all-square.
The interesting twist to the 9-hole matches was that since there needed to be a winner before the 10th tee, in an all-square match the team that last won a hole is the one who advances. In this case, our opponents Jonathan and Harry were now in the driver's seat. We had to win one of the last two holes to advance.
Both Jon and Harry hit the green on #8 (Biarritz, and a wild version of one at that). I hit a poor tee shot to the front of the green with the pin on the other side of the large swale. I made a nifty lag putt to get within 3 feet, but it was rendered moot when Harry made his par. We had to win the last hole or we were done.
The 9th hole is Cape, which is known for the angular, "bite-off-as-much-you-dare" tee shot with all sorts of hazards and gorse waiting for those who get too aggressive and/or can't execute. Both Jon and Harry wisely played safe out to the fairway left, putting the pressure squarely on us. Rob stepped up to the tee first with a 2-iron, then proceeded to top one into a bunker about 30 yards in front of the tee box. This wasn't good.
There I was, faced with the unenviable position of having to pull off a solid drive in the clutch. My track record in these situations is well below the Mendoza line. It was more like Adam Dunn's performance with the 2011 White Sox. But with very few swing thoughts other than "don't duck hook it, you idiot", I pulled the club back, swung through and hit my best drive of the day - climbing over the hazards with a nice 5-yard draw. Where was this guy in September?
Rob took a couple more whacks, but was B.I.P. by the time he reached my drive. Harry hit his approach shot just short of the green. Jonathan went into the front right bunker. It was a small window of opportunity but you had to expect at least one could get up and down. I had to make a birdie here. I had to hit it close.
I had 125 yards in, into a slight breeze. It had just started to rain, and after teeing off I put on my shiny new Sunice pullover ordered specifically for this trip. I thought to myself, this is probably not a great moment to be swinging with this jacket on for the first time ever. In general, I hate the feeling of a restricted golf swing, even though I should probably embrace it.
So with the match on the line, I stepped up to the ball with my pitching wedge and tried to will the ball close to the hole. The shot was well struck and on line, starting just left of the flag and drawing in. It landed on the front third of the green and started bouncing towards the hole, eventually settling just below the cup. It was literally the best golf shot I ever hit under pressure. It was my Shaun Micheel moment, minus the low testosterone.
Harry proceeded to chip up to about 12 feet. Jonathan hit a great bunker shot to six feet above the hole. I would've been perfectly fine with both of them missing their par putts, followed by the sight of me lagging a 30-inch putt to tap-in range, but Harry jarred his par putt. I had to make my 2 1/2-footer for birdie to win the match. And trust me, I've missed shorter.
As I stood over the ball and started to take the putter back, I literally said to myself, "Man, how bad would it suck if you missed this putt and lost the match?" Not exactly the breakfast of champions, is it? But thankfully the hole got in the way of the ball, and it dropped center cut. Birdie and a 1-up victory.
Jonathan and Harry acted like Ron Burgundy when Baxter ate the wheel of cheese -- too impressed to really be upset about losing. Their only exposure to me had been this two-hour window, so to them I looked like Mr. Clutch. And trust me, I milked it for all it was worth. Who cares if I reverted to the mean in the second round and we lost 1-down. I freakin' willed a birdie with the match on the line! It might honestly be the first time I've ever done that.
Later that night at the event dinner, I was reliving my feat to anybody who would listen. Eventually, Matt was the only guy who could stand to be around me, so we leaned against the bar and talked shop. Jonathan got up to leave, coming up to us to shake hands and say good night. After exchanging pleasantries with Matt, he leaned towards me, wapped me a couple times on the side of the ribs and said, "Play well tomorrow, kiddo!"
I could feel the look from Matt even before Jonathan left. Once he was gone, Matt nodded and said, "kiddo?" with a tinge of mock envy. "And he even gave you ribbage!" I was mocked for it incessantly for the rest of the weekend (and probably for the next 25 years), but it was totally worth it. For one shining moment, this kiddo was clutch.
PART FOUR: TRUMP COLORADO
Sunday afternoon at Bandon may go down as one of my most memorable moments on a golf course. Not because I was playing Pacific Dunes, one of the best and most scenic courses on the planet. Heck, the visibility was no more than 150 yards for most of the round, so any ocean vistas were rendered moot. It wasn't because my I had a career round or found some sort of Golf in the Kingdom-like enlightenment.
No, my round at Pacific Dunes that afternoon will go down in history because that's where I was when I found out that my home course Ballyneal was going into foreclosure. An email with the unfortunate news came across my phone as I was standing on 8th tee, drenched from head to toe from cold, spitting rain that seemed to penetrate every orifice of my rain gear.
I'd be lying if I didn't immediately wonder what the heck was going to happen to my beloved club. Would I get to play there next year? Could I still plan my golf marathon? Might somebody buy it and change it? Everything ranging from raising dues or opening it to the public all the way to the unbearable thought of putting in cart paths raced through my head in those first few seconds.
Of course, I should've been thinking about my playing partners, Matt and Dave, who as GM and Super, were worried about things like whether they were still going to have a job and whether somebody was going to fund payroll in a couple weeks. They had lived and worked under this dark cloud of financial uncertainty for more than a year, and as you can imagine, it made their day-to-day jobs of running the club, helping members and their guests and keeping the course in great shape extremely difficult. It's amazing that they were still able to the great job that they did.
Eventually, we hit our drives on 8 into the foggy abyss. And then spent the next two holes slapping the ball around in between complaining, questioning, bickering, wondering, bitching, moaning and generally wallowing in self-pity, and that was before I let anybody else get a word in edgewise. I can't even tell you how I did on those two holes; the golf was so secondary to everything else at that moment.
Finally on the 10th tee, Dave chimed in. "This is ridiculous. C'mon, we have to play for something." So after much debate about elaborate formats and stakes, we settled on simple dollar skins (double for birdies).
Dave was right. We needed something to shift our focus away from the foreclosure. Fittingly, golf was the escape. On the back nine, it wasn't three guys closely tied to what is sure to be one of the highest profile failures in an industry full of them. It was just three guys needling each other and trying to whip each other's white asses in to earn a couple extra bucks (Matt won, but I dont think anybody even collected). For Matt and Dave, it was a golf trip that they wished would never end.
Anytime the foreclosure came up after that, it was usually part of some wise crack. Along the way, we decided that for the time being, Ballyneal would now be referred to under a new name: Trump Colorado. I can only imagine the size of the new clubhouse.
PART FIVE: TRICK OR TREAT
It is a good thing I won the Walking Golfer of the Year award, because my Father of the Year nomination isn't coming any time soon. While you were probably spending quality time with your kids on Halloween bouncing from house to house, I was hopping from course to course at a nearly empty Bandon Dunes resort.
When I first got the invite to this event, I figured there was no way I could pull it off, as much as I wanted to. Of course, I did what I KNOW many of you do when you get a golf trip invite: you casually float the idea to your spouse. You're not seeking permission as much as just gauging the initial reaction to see if it's worth exploring further. Ten times out of ten, these conversations start with something non-threatening like this: "You'll never guess who I just got an e-mail from..." Here is the exact transcript of the conversation in the Colton house on September 15, 2011 at 10:30 PM.
Jim: "You'll never guess who I just got an e-mail from today."
Sue: "Okay, which golf course is it?"
Jim: "Old Mac. [Host] is having his annual event there. The only problem is it is over Halloween." [Braces for impact...]
Sue: "Hmm...That's okay. We're going over to my parents that night anyways. It shouldn't be a big deal."
Jim: "Cool. I'll tell him I'm in."
Sue: "When am I going to get my kitchen?"
I barely heard that last part, because I was too busy scrambling to send in my RSVP, followed by texts to 8-10 of my closest golf buds informing them of my plans/rubbing it in. Father of the Year may be out of the picture, but Susie C cemented Understanding Wife of the Year for the fourth year running.
Honestly, I still felt bad about missing out on the trick or treating. I felt like an even bigger ass at Sunday night's dinner, when the host Tom said, "We invited a lot of folks to join us, but we knew many wouldn't be able to make it because they had to spend time with their kids." I felt a little better about my absence the next day when I called home from the 5th fairway at Bandon Trails, right as my kids were getting home from school. My usual yapperhead children had cut their conversation down to no more than 12 words each, as I was the only thing standing between them and an unlimited smorgasbord of sweets that they never end up eating. My brutally honest daughter dealt the final blow: "Dad, can I say goodbye? I really don't want to talk to you right now."
Monday morning was the second day of the team event, but since Rob and I had already been eliminated, it was more like open golf. Our host went around the room at the end of the aforementioned dinner and set up pairings amongst those that were in the same boat. Knowing my level of golf insanity, he thoughtfully put us out as the first group off at 8:00 AM.
I don't have to tell you, but there are few joys in golf more treasured than the first tee time. So you can imagine our dismay when we rolled up and there were already two groups on the tee. One was a threesome of locals who just showed up and got themselves inserted at 7:50. The other was a twosome from the event that ignored the host's plans and just decided to their own thing.
However, that was just a minor inconvenience on what was otherwise a glorious day of golf, as good as any I've ever had on the links. As crummy as the weather was on Sunday, Mother Nature more than made up for it on Monday. Clear blue skies and the rising sun had me taking more pictures than my buddy Matt's Japanese friends, Yuji and Toshi.
|Old Macdonald #1 - Double Plateau to a back pin|
The second round at Old Macdonald was a key. Not only because of the improved weather that actually allowed us to see the holes for the first time, but because Old Mac, arguably more than any course on the resort, is geared for multiple plays. Similar to NGLA and many other Macdonald/Raymor designs, it's all about the strategic options. With the unprecedented width of the fairways and size of the greens, there's no way you'll fully get Old Macdonald in just one play. I still don't feel worthy to evaluate it after two rounds.
|Old Macdonald #3 tee - Sahara|
|Old Macdonald #7 (Ocean) - birdied it!|
|My favorite template name: Westward Ho! - Old Macdonald 15th|
After a quick break, I headed back to a wide open first tee. I played 1 & 2, and with the 3rd tee practically part of the 17th fairway, I could see Matt, Dave, Ben and my friend "Moves Like" Jaeger coming from that tee box. So I joined up with them and played in. I first tried to reach the 17th green again from my original spot (still failed), then missed a 5-footer for bird on the closing hole. Still, it was 18 1/2 holes down, many more to come.
The five of us split off into three different groups. Ben and I had a 1:20 tee time at Bandon Trails, but we knew we could get out before that. We dropped Jaeger off at Pac Dunes, who was hoping to get one last round in before heading back to snow-covered New York. Matt and Dave had a 1:15 tee time at Bandon Dunes, which they later professed was "by far the best course at the resort." (The 10th tee at Pac Dunes was the closest either Ben or I would get to the original course all weekend.)
Bandon Trails seems to be the red-headed step-child of the Bandon family. I'd venture a guess that it gets at least 30% less play then the other three courses at the resort. However, I was beginning to sense a groundswell of support for the course from a number of my closest golf friends, many of whom believe that Trails is as good as or better than anything else there. My friend John called Trails "the most underrated course in America." My buddy Wags kept telling me, "Trails is so good, dude. It is so good." Like many others, I originally had Bandon Trails high on my list but still 4th out of the four courses there. But I was anxious to play it again since it had been five years since my initial visit.
|Bandon Trails - 5th Hole|
|Bandon Trails - 15th Hole|
|Bandon Trails - 17th Hole|
From there, we jetted over to the Pacific Dunes pro shop to get our freebie round in. It was about 4:05 and we had less than 2 1/2 hours of daylight left to get in as many holes as possible. The guy behind the counter was less than optimistic: "You should be able to get in the 7-hole loop." We both looked at him like he had two heads. "Uh...we're going for the full 18," Ben replied. The pro shop guy then claimed that it got dark before 6:00, which was a boldface lie since I just played until 6:30 easily the previous night under overcast skies.
Up for the challenge, we raced off to the first tee. We blitzed through the first three holes, pausing only momentarily to gaze at the beautiful, afternoon-sunlit course. Pacific Dunes is another course that I probably underestimated in my mind from my previous visit, even considering the fact that it was the #1 ranked course on my list at one point. It's just hard to beat the combination of rugged beauty, challenge and fun that Pac Dunes provides.
On the third hole, Ben (who is generally doing three things at once at any given time) called his friend Don who was somewhere out on the course at the same time. Ben must've grown tired of hanging out with me, because he skipped over to the 13th hole in order to catch up with those guys on #14. I didn't really mind, because it pretty much assured me that I would have no problem getting in the full 18 holes. After putting out on the 3rd, he went right and I went left, and Ben said, "call me when you're done and I'll pick you up."
There's something almost spiritual about being out on the golf course right on the ocean by yourself in the late afternoon. I had one of those "man it's a good time to be alive" type moments when I was on the 4th fairway. Since I had no longer had to rush the get done, I could soak it in and enjoy it as much as possible. I even putted from the 155 yards out on the 4th fairway, not because I was goofing around, but it just seemed like the right play at the time (I came up just short of the green.)
Not surprisingly, those all-around good vibes usually lead to a higher level of play. Aside from making a complete mess of the 8th hole (a certain quadruple bogey or worse had I actually finished it), I was continuing to hit the ball really well and surprisingly straight. I rode the par train from the 9th to 13th holes (first time I ever parred that sucker); suddenly I felt like a golfer again. I hit a poor shot on the short par 3 14th and made bogey (why is this hole so hard?), but was in great shape on the 15th, bombing my drive on the downwind hole to just short of the cross bunkers, so I was only hitting 8-iron into the green. I blew a good chance for birdie there, then made a killer par save on the tricky 16th. Add a bogey on the 17th and a 20-foot curling putt for birdie on the 18th (in front of Ben, who was waiting on the plexiglassed-in porch, huddled in front of the fireplace with the other guys he joined up with). 1-over 36 on the back...that just doesn't happen enough anymore.
|Pacific Dunes - 10th Hole (Upper Tee)|
|Pacific Dunes - 7th Hole|
|Pacific Dunes - 11th Hole|
|Pacific Dunes - 16th Hole|
PART SIX: NO LOOKING BACK
Tuesday morning was the last round of the trip. And more importantly, the last round of 2011. It's always good to go into the long Chicago offseason with some positive feelings, some sort of nugget that can sustain you for the winter and keep you optimistic that next year is going to be "your year." Finish the year on a down note and you're left thinking about that for the next 5-6 months. Combine that with the uncertainty about my shoulder, no NBA games to speak and a complete question mark hanging over my home club, and yeah, there was a lot riding on this one round.
One guy who was not optimistic about my prospects was my playing partner, Ben. At various points over the course of the weekend, I regaled him with magnificent golf feats from my golf past, like how I made five birdies at Pacific Dunes the first time I played it back in 2006. When I told him about a similar birdie barrage at Bandon Trails while we played there on Monday afternoon, he asked, "How come you never have any of these good rounds whenever I'm playing with you?" Truthfully, Ben had been on three previous trips with me over the last 2 1/2 years, seeing me play some of my absolute worst golf this side of Shinnecock Hills. I could hardly blame him for his red-lining BS meter. I didn't have a good answer for his question. Much like the my beloved Illini's Final Four appearance in 2005, each subsequent disappointing year since has made the Dee Brown/Deron Williams-era seem like eons ago. Yet we still hang on to it because that's pretty much all we have.
Pac Dunes was the obvious choice for the last round of the trip, and the 8:00 AM tee time was one of the first things we secured when booking the trip. Once again, a group got put out right in front of us. This time, it was a group that included some of Doak's design interns. They were good guys, and likely the future of golf course design (assuming there is one), so I didn't put up too much of a fuss. I only hit into them once.
The Ballyneal boys, Matt and Dave, rounded out the foursome and we're our opponents in the friendly fourball match. It was a crisp but sunny morning, the temperature dipping down into the 30's but fortunately not low enough to warrant a frost delay (I had a 1:56 PM flight back to Chicago, so we didn't really have too much extra time to play with). The first hole at Pacific is an awkward driving hole, but I started things off by splitting the fairway with a laced 3-wood. Good vibes. I should've known something was up after the second hole, when I hit my drive way right and was completely blocked out from the green by trees, yet hit one of those big towering draws around trouble that Tiger always seemed to pull off when he was in his prime. I wasn't even sure where the putting surface was when I hit, but I got up to the green and was thrilled to see my ball on the back edge. Matt and Dave both got plugged lies in a front bunker that had the consistency of cold oatmeal. Just like that, Ben and I were two-up through two.
|Pacific Dunes - 3rd Hole|
The interns were on the green, but I was about 265 out and had no thoughts of reaching the green in two, so I went ahead and hit. I pulled out my 3-wood and hit a low running shot up the left side. It wasn't very well struck, but it turned out to be a great shot for the firm and fast conditions, as the ball just kept on rolling and rolling closer to the green. It eventually rested just left and short of the green, and about 3 feet from one of the golf bags of the guys in front of us. Oops! They were putting out about 40 yards away when I hit, so there wasn't really any threat of injury, but it did garner a look back as they walked off the green and headed to the 4th tee.
For my next shot, I did what should always do at Bandon when you're anywhere close to the green -- I putted. I wapped the ball with my flatstick and sent it hurtling across the greens. Within the first two seconds, I knew it was good. About 30 feet out, I knew it really good. About 15 feet out, I knew it was going in. The ball just never left the center of the hole the entire way. Right on cue, it hit the flagstick and dropped straight down for E-E-EAGLE!!!
Now this wasn't just any old eagle. This one was particularly special. In order to understand, we need some history. Cue the flashback music…
Last September, I made two hole-out eagles within a 10-day period of each other. Both were with my good friend Tom Dunne, who for some reason is like a hole-out and/or hole-in-one magnet when you are playing with him (good guy to know). The first was at Friar's Head on the 11th hole, when I jarred on with a sand wedge from about 115 yards out. The second one was at the 7th hole at Ballyneal (probably my favorite hole in the world), when I rolled one in with a three-quarters lob wedge from about 85 yards out. They were my first eagles since June 2008. I barely even sniffed an eagle for most of the 2+ years in between, and usually choked like a dog whenever I had a decent chance.
As you may know, my buddy Jefe and I are extremely competitive. One of things we've kept track of is lifetime eagles. Although I probably get three times as many chances, he's always had the upper hand on number of eagles. It's something that has slowly eaten away at me for years. Jefe had eight eagles before I got my first, and I've been slowly (excruciatingly so) been reeling him in ever since. As I've gotten closer, the obligatory "EEEEEEAAAAAAGGGGGGLLLLLEEEE" calls to the other party have gotten longer, louder and exponentially more annoying with each passing one.
You might be surprised to hear this, but because my game had gone to pot and the eagle opportunities had all but dried up, I had pretty much forgotten where I stood in relationship to Jefe prior to these two hole-outs. I went back and tallied up my eagle count and discovered it was at 21. Here is the text exchange I had with Jefe:
Jim: I think my eagle count is 21. I'm prob still behind you.
Jefe: I'm at 21.
Jim: It's on like Donkey Kong!!!
Jefe: I need a full list of your eagles for audit purposes.
Within 60 minutes, I was able to produce an e-mail with all of my lifetime eagles dating back to 1994, with course, hole number, shot type and playing partners. Not that you care, but it's my blog and I can post what I want to:
1. 1994 - Burr Hill, 10th Hole. Par 5. Putt. Playing solo
2. 1997 - Oak Club of Genoa, 3rd Hole, Par 5. Putt. Playing solo
3. 1997 - Links at Carillon, 5th Hole, Par 5. Chip-in. Playing w/ Sue
4. 1997 - Cog Hill #1, 15th Hole, Par 5. Tap-in putt. Playing solo
5. 1998 - Prestbury, 17th Hole. Par 4. 9-Iron Hole out. Playing w/ Jefe
6. 1999 - TPC at Sawgrass (Valley), 17th Hole. Par 5. Chip in. Playing w/ Sue on our honeymoon
7. 2000 - TPC at Deere Run, 17th Hole. Par 5. Putt from fringe. Playing w/ Charles
8. 2001 - Purdue University (Kampen), 14th Hole. Par 4. PW Hole out. Playing w/ Charles
9. 2003 - Arrowhead, 8th Hole (South Nine). Par 5. Putt. Playing w/ Marc F.
10. 2004 - Grand National (Lake), 14th Hole. Par 5. Long Pitch. Playing w/ Jefe and Jimbo
11. 2004 - Prairie Landing, 18th Hole. Par 5. Putt. Playing solo
12. 2005 - Prairie Landing, 18th Hole. Par 5. Putt. Putt w/ Wego, Cloon and some weird dude from North Carolina
13. 2005 - Prairie Landing, 17th Hole. Par 3. ACE! 4-iron. Playing w/ Jefe
14. 2006 - Prairie Landing, 4th Hole. Par 5. Putt. Playing solo.
15. 2006 - Prairie Landing, 18th Hole. Par 5. Putt. Playing solo
16. 2006 - Prairie Landing, 10th Hole. Par 5. Tap-in Putt. Playing Solo (document in One Divot at a Time)
17. 2007 - Prairie Landing, 13th Hole. Par 5. PW Hole-Out. Playing solo.
18. 2007 - Ozaukee Country Club, 15th Hole. Par 5. Putt. Playing w/ Dan M. and Eric T.
19. 2008 - Cantigny (Woodside), 2nd Hole. Par 5. Putt. Playing w/ my Dad
20. 2010 - Friar's Head, 11th Hole. SW Hole Out. Playing w/ Tom Dunne and Mike P.
21. 2010 - Ballyneal, 7th Hole. LW Hole Out. Playing w/ Tom Dunne and Matt Schulte
After Jefe replied with his equally detailed list, the race for Eagle #22 was on! The next time we played together was in mid-October, as part of a Golf Club Atlas event at the Highlands of Elgin (#8 and "Top Value" on my Definitive Guide to Chicago's Best Public Golf Courses). The GCA'ers were in love with the Highlands' firm and fast conditions, although in fairness they were due partly by maintenance intent and partly by sparse conditions on a relatively new course. On the 5th hole, I hit one of my best drives of the day, only to find my ball was sitting on a spot of rock hard, bare dirt. I badly shanked my approach shot into the tall, fescue grass left of the green.
On the par 5 14th hole, I hit another good drive and found myself in a similar situation -- on bare dirt. With the 5th hole debacle still fresh in my mind, I decided to move my ball about 2 inches onto something resembling green turf. Then I proceeded to hit what was the probably the best 3-wood of my life (no exaggeration, since I had just bought the 3-wood after not carrying one or being able to hit one for the 10 years prior). The shot barely cleared some fronting bunkers and had to be somewhere close on the uphill green.
When we got up to the surface, we could see that the ball was just 10 feet short of the hole. Jefe, Jimbo and our playing partner Matt were hooping and hollering about the potential tie-breaking putt. I quietly had the internal struggle between good vs. evil, desperately trying to find some rationalization for counting the eagle if I were to make the putt. Part of me just wanted to miss it in order to not have to face the ethical dilemma. But I pulled the putter back and rolled it in true. Jefe approached me, stuck out his arm for a man-hug and said, "Congrats man". But in that moment, the Rebel Alliance won out (somewhat surprisingly). "I can't count it. I moved the ball back in the fairway," I admitted. Jefe had a new lease of life.
[End flashback music]
After the eagle putt at Pac Dunes had dropped, I hopped around and screamed like an idiot for a good 15-20 seconds. It was a bit excessive, I admit. But this was an eagle that was 17+ years in the making. "Uh oh…here comes the phone call," Matt was quick to point out. I stood out on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific, got Jefe's voice mail then let out an eagle call that was more louder, more longer and exponentially more annoying than ever. The guys ahead of us on the 4th hole said they heard it. I'm sure the golfers at the 4th green on Bandon Dunes further up the coast probably heard it as well, if not the 7th green at Pebble Beach some 500 miles away. When I finally got the chance to talk to Jefe later that day, he said, "I was in the meeting when you called. When I saw the voice mail pop-up, I knew right away. It was about time you finally passed me."
Oh yeah, and I was -2 under through 3 holes and 3-up in the match…