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  • A Final (Beautiful) Look at Scotland Part III (of 3)

    Murcar Links Golf Club:
    Even golf trips eventually take on their own singular identity. By the third day of 36 holes (two rounds each day), our tired limbs were telling us that our walking 12 miles a day, up and down dunes (that seemed like mountains), in search for our wayward orbs, was starting to approximate something of a forced (golfing) march. Like so many things in life, I suspected that I would not fully appreciate the experience until it was over. If our spirits, and bodies, needed any consolation and inspiration, then certainly we found it at Murcar Links Golf Course and Royal Aberdeen.
     
    We were hosted at Murcar by Derek Mortimer, a former detective, who as a long time member of Murcar has taken on the task to market the golf course to international golf tourist (he also holds the distinction of being a board member of Golf Scotland). Derek and I played as a twosome while the club’s pro, Gary Forbes, hosted the others in a group behind us.
     
    Derek was qualifying for a club competition, so he informed me that I would be keeping his scorecard. Given his former occupation, I was careful to pay attention to the details as I was confident he would be doing the same.
     
    Only minutes from the Aberdeen Airport, I got the clear impression that Murcar Links feels that they live in the shadow of Royal Aberdeen, their next door neighbor, and to some extent, Cruden Bay, a short way down the road. The reality is that Murcar Links stands alone as an exceptional golfing experience and the merits of its offerings stand up in comparison to any other. It is a players’ golf course and with its meandering fairways and ever present winds, it will demand you execute every shot in your bag. Murcar is fair, challenging and most of all, a lot of fun to play.
     
    Derek shot an 83, which gave him a net 77 (which is a further testament to the challenge of the course, for Derek is a very good golfer). After the round, as he studied the scorecard I kept for him, I felt like it was I who was beneath the inquisitor’s eye. Good thing he did, for even knowing I had to get it right, I still wrote down the wrong score on one hole (I’ll be sure not to judge Boo Weekly too harshly in the future).
     
    We enjoyed lunch in the clubhouse courtesy of Derek and Gary. In classic Scottish prudence, our hosts ordered sandwiches for the table before we sat down. Soon, three plates were placed on the table (for the five of us). We sat politely waiting for two more to be delivered when our hosts dug in and asked us ‘what we were waiting for?’ We soon realized that what was coming was what had already come, so we all shared off the common plates and we were all happily satisfied, without leaving copious amounts of uneaten food, or worse, gorging ourselves like pigs (it will come as little shock that I saw very few overweight Scots).
     
    Royal Aberdeen:
    The afternoon round was at Royal Aberdeen. Distinguished as “Royal,” the club had an air of stoicism (that perhaps I applied merely through perception). Founded in 1780, it is one of the six oldest golf clubs in the world.
     
    There is something special to standing on the first tee at a golf club of this stature. No doubt my shoulders were a bit tighter, as was my grip on the club, and the butterflies in my stomach were such that I could as easily be about to walk onto a stage as a fairway.
     
    The golf course itself is a study in sharp contrast. As, in general, Scotland’s sea-side dunes do not penetrate as deep into the coast as say, Ireland’s, it is common that only a selection of holes will meander through the dunes and the other holes will be laid out over former farm land. Such is the case at Royal Aberdeen. As the ocean stretches out to its right, the course, laid out in a classic “nine out, nine in,” style has a front nine that is as good a nine-hole stretch of links holes as any I have seen in all the world: Tight, creative and unyielding. The closest to it I have ever found would be Royal County Downs.
     
    In contrast, while the back nine was beautiful in its own right, it was so different from the front nine that it felt like a different course entirely. While the holes were plenty difficult and creative, I do not think I’ve ever played a course that changed so much from one side to the next.
     
    We tapped in our final putts in near darkness and sped off toward the town of Stonehaven, where we were staying at a B & B called the Pitgaveny. The Pitgaveny belongs to a women who raised her family in this very house. After they had grown and moved away and she divorced, she told me that she “needed to find a way to make a living,” so she converted the large house into a lovely B & B. She noted that when she looks out her front window at the large trees in the yard she still sees the memory of her young boys scurrying up and down them like squirrels.
     
    As B & B’s are a house and not a hotel, she had an impact on our racing from Royal Aberdeen down to Stonehaven (45 minutes away). When I called her for directions, I mentioned that we would like to stop for supper along the way and estimated it would get us to the house around 10:00 PM (22.00). “Oh, no,” she said through her soft Scottish brogue, “that’s too late and I’ll be in bed. Come straight away and I’ll phone ahead to the Marine Pub for fish and chips. They’ll be waiting for you after you pick up your key.” And so it was. Along the way, as we sped through the vibrant city of Aberdeen, we pasted an ancient gothic cathedral with a huge stain-glass window in front, that had been converted into some kind of club-disco. It looked awesome and I longed to investigate this place of otherworldly worship that had been converted into a place of worship of more earthly matters. But alas, our tight schedule did not allow such indulgence and I was forced to only wonder.

    Cruden Bay Golf Club:
    Facing a full agenda on this transitional day, we were out the next morning before the sun was up. The day would start with us being the first group off the tee at Cruden Bay, then end with me taking a long train ride from Aberdeen to Glasgow.
     
    Cruden Bay occupies one of the most stunning locations of any links course in Scotland. Married to the shores of the North Sea, one can see that the union is sometimes a shaky one, as the ocean winds batter her mate with fury, providing for a memorable and highly traditional links golfing experience. At this point in the trip, if one hasn’t mastered the practical subtly of a low draw, then a long day likely waits.
     
    Cruden Bay is similar to Carnoustie in that it requires more than just brawn, it is also a thinking man’s course as burns and dunes make for strategic thinking. As one can imagine, the panoramic views were stunning.

    The land that these links sit upon is also highly distinctive in Scottish history. In the year 1012, the Scots fought the Danes on this very sight in what is known as the “Battle of Cruden Bay.” According to historical accounts, the heart of the battle was fought on the seaside plains that later became Cruden Bay Golf Club. Fronting the short, par 5, 6th Hole is what is known as the “Bluidy Burn” or Bloody Burn, so named because it’s waters ran red for days with the blood of the slain. The Bloody Burn is still there and is an intricate component to the hole’s strategic play; go for the green in two and you must carry the Burn, or attempt to position your approach too close to a front cut pin and your ball will tumble back into the Burn (that is what happened to me).
     
    The Scots carried the day in the Battle of Cruden Bay, but both sides lost so many soldiers that it is believed that most are buried in mass graves on the grounds. The par-4, 17th Hole features a large mound in the middle of the fairway that one’s tee shot needs to either clear (near impossible) or you need to place your ball strategically to its right or left (my tee shot landed dead behind it, necessitating a wedge over it and resulting in a bogey). It is said that the mound is a massive burial mound from the Battle. One final note as to the significance of the Battle to this region is the name itself, which draws its origins from “Croju Dane,” or “the death or slaughter of the Danes.”
     
    Glasgow and Loch Lomond:
    After the round at Cruden Bay, I boarded a train in Aberdeen to take me on a 3 ½-hour ride through Scotland, down to Glasgow. The experience was one of the highlights of the trip. Scotland is beautiful and aside from walking it, I don't know if there is a better way to see a country then from the window of a train. 
     
    In order to stay close to my baggage, I sat in a "four seater," two chairs facing two chairs with a table in-between. Exhausted from the week's festivities, I tried to dose off for a few minutes in-between passing glimpses of castle ruins and dotted villages swishing past. When I awoke, I was surrounded by a young mother and her two and a half year-old son, and his grandmother, who was already happily helping herself to my copy of The Sun newspaper and spending a inordinate amount of time on both the Page 3 and Dear Deirdre columns. "Do you mind if I read this?" she purred in a voice that was equal parts single malt and Marlboro (unfiltered). As it was too late to feel otherwise, I nodded and mumbled something incoherent about my only possessing such a pillar of journalistic integrity due to its probing coverage of the English Premiership (I am a diehard Liverpool fan).
     
    As children are wonderfully devoid of any knowledge or concern for social conformity he broke the ice by shoving a "Thomas the Tank Engine" toy at me with the simple command, "play," in his own toddler-native brogue (I mentioned to the child that the train we were on actually was Thomas the Tank Engine and he greeted this news with great excitement). Thus, I spent the rest of the ride chatting away with this friendly Scottish family, learning who they were and where they were from, and them the same of me, while choo-chooing around the card table with the toy trains. It was a delightful way to pass the time, save that it really made me miss my family.
     
    Upon exiting the train in Glasgow I set out to find my transfer to Loch Lomond. Along the way a women, about the age of my mother and carrying a clipboard, stopped my forward progression. "I'd like to speak to you about a special credit card offer for residents of the U.K.," she stated with a schoolmaster's authority. "I'm sorry, I don't live in the U.K.," I apologized without really knowing why I felt compelled to do so. At that she studied me briefly when a look of revelation settled into her eyes, "Oh," she said with conviction and, I sensed, the slightest bit of sympathy, "you're from Ireland. This offer is only available to U.K. Residents." Before I could reply she politely, yet in a clearly dismissive cue said, "How else can I help you?" At that I simply thanked her kindly for her time and shuffled along as I heard her snag another passing soul behind me.
     
    Moments later I met the shuttle driver and off we went. I should note that along the way we passed another ancient gothic church that had been converted into a high-end entertainment establishment and restaurant. Excited to find out more, I asked Alan, the driver, if he knew anything about it. Alan was very easy to understand up until that point, but when he started to speak in response to this query his answer was not only inaudible, but indiscernible at that. Thus, I was forced to only wonder as Loch Lomond was too far away for any hope of sneaking back to the Glasgow City Center.
     
    At Loch Lomond, I was met by my friends Paul and John from Newport National (RI) and Frank, our host and our mutual friend from Holland. Frank is a member of Loch Lomond and he set up the visit and tour. After freshening up and putting on a jacket and tie, we set off for the massive and beautiful mansion that is the cornerstone of Loch Lomond for what Frank referred to as a "proper diner".
     
    Loch Lomond is an international country club set on almost 700 acres of the clan estate of the Calhouns (Americanized spelling). Everything is immaculate. Perfectly done without being overdone. The golf course, which we played the following morning, is a parkland style that would easily be at home in the United States except that it wraps around the beautiful Loch and is framed by the foothills and mountains of the Scottish highlands that are so beautiful as to be distracting.
     
    The golf course is fabulous and well worthy of its being home to the Scottish Open each year. While nearly every hole that preceded it deserves equal mention, the 18th Hole, a monster par 4 that requires a tee shot over the corner of the Loch deserves note. Directly behind the green are the ruins of the property's original Rossdhu Castle, dating back to the early 1400's. It was in this castle that Mary Queen of Scots used to pen her love letters to the Earl of Bothwell (a love affair that didn't end well for either one of them).

    Today, there is only a fraction of the castle left as it was explained to me that many of the castle's stones were used as the mansion's foundation in 1773. What was there was fascinating and that coupled with the small St. Mary's Cathedral sitting right beside it (and containing the remains of the Clan Calhoun Chieftains dating back 1,000 years ago to today), the entire scene was almost too much for someone of my sensibilities. I literally became misty eyed gazing upon something of such stature. A place where people had lived and died and here we were, swords not melted down into plowshares, but golf clubs, slicing away on grounds that were likely the original receiving grounds of the castle. After the round, Frank arraigned for lunch and a tour of the grounds (which was fascinating), before we set off for two nights in Turnberry and a round on the Ailsa Course.
     
    Turnberry Ailsa Course:
    Golf can be a meditation, a prayer, if you will. To many, their devotion to the game approaches religion, and if that be the case, then the Turnberry Ailsa Course is one of the game’s great cathedrals.
     
    One of only nine courses in the Open Championship rota, Turnberry is a place that engulfs you as soon as you arrive. For those who love the game’s history, Turnberry is a stage that hosted what could well be the greatest final round in major tournament history, the famous “Duel in the Sun,” at the 1977 Open Championship between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. After distancing themselves from the field with identical third round scores of 65, Nicklaus and Watson dueled shot for shot on the baked links course until the final holes defined Watson as the eventual champion, posting a score of 65 to Nicklaus’ 66. The events that unfolded that day weighted heavily upon my mind as we made our way around the course and in particular on the final four holes. Turnberry was also the site of Greg Norman’s 1986 Open Championship and Nick Price’s 1994 Open victory (the last time the Open was played at Turnberry. It will be played there again in 2009).
     
    After our round at Loch Lomond, we arrived at the Turnberry Hotel just as the sun was setting. The hotel is nearly as famous as the course itself, towering on a high hill above the course, it provides unparallel views over the links and the North Channel, Irish Sea and Arran Isle beyond it. My room looked out on the eighteenth green, ocean, the Ailsa Craig, the lighthouse and the castle ruins that surround it (the castle that once stood there is of particular importance to the Scots for it was where Robert the Bruce, the great Scottish hero, was born and it was from this area that he built his base of power). In short, the views from the hotel, particularly the sun setting over the course and ocean, the nightly bag pipe player on the front steps and the hotel’s classic elegance are nearly as an important part of the experience as would be the Lodge at Pebble Beach, for example.
     
    The Turnberry Ailsa Course was twice almost lost for the sake of the greater good. During both World Wars the hotel and the course were commandeered for use in the war effort and served as an important airbase. At one point, the course was paved over (except the highest dune portions nearest the water), and to this day, large areas of black top can still be seen between holes. To underscore the important role the course played during the War, while digging a new bunker on the second hole only a few years ago, a large unexploded German shell was found buried there.
     
    I had played the course some years before and found that the course was easier this time around for two primary reasons: last time we played, it was raining sideways, and because the high heather and gorse rough, which was past knee high and less than 20 yards off the fairway, has been trimmed back so that a ball slightly off the desired mark can still be found and at least moved forward. Playing in the rain in Scotland and Ireland can make for a romantic links golfing experience, but I was glad to be without it for this one and the modified rough (you could still find the impossible deep stuff farther off line and I suspect as the ’09 Open approaches the thick stuff will come back in force along the former lines) made the course much more fun. I suspect purist will decry this revelation, but I enjoyed it none-the-less.
     
    As we played the 15th hole, I thought about Watson's bomb of a birdie from off the green, and on the dog-leg right 16th hole, I paused near the hill above Wilson’s Burn that surrounds the green and thought about Watson’s ball hanging precariously in a way that witnesses' claim defied gravity. My friend Paul hit the par-5, 17th in two (his second shot was a brilliant 3-wood from 258 yards that finish at the very back of the green, some 40 feet above the front-cut pin). Like Watson in ’77, he missed his eagle putt, but secured the birdie. Of course this was the green where Nicklaus missed his short birdie putt to give Watson the one stroke edge that would decide the Open Championship (not before some great drama on the 18th hole). This was also the hole that Nick Price eagled (jumping wildly into the air) in his march to victory in ’94.
     
    On the par-4, 18th, I was consumed by the thought of the significant events that played out on that stage. Here, in ’77, Watson hit a 1-iron off the tee that split the fairway. Needing to gain back Watson’s stroke advantage, Nicklaus lashed into his drive sending it soaring, yet slightly off line to the right, setting in the heather and beneath the side of a gorse bush (Note: for anyone who has not had the pleasure to tangle with a gorse bush, I believe gorse is best described as ‘the hedge that lines the gates of hell’). Reaching his ball first, Watson hit what he described as his finest 7-iron ever, his ball finishing only 3 feet from the cup. Under immense pressure, Nicklaus did what Nicklaus always seemed to do. Lashing at the ball from an impossible lie with his 8-iron, the ball fired from its tomb and incredibly finished on the green, some 40 feet for birdie. The putt was a multiple breaking putt that would be very difficult to make at any time, but under the circumstances, near impossible for any golfer. Only Jack Nicklaus is not just any golfer. Of course, he made the putt, instantly making Watson’s near tap-in seem much longer. When Watson converted, Nicklaus putt his arm around the 10-years younger Watson and congratulated him on his victory, a gesture and a picture that would leave an indelible mark. From the forward tees (the championship tees are not open for play) I had an 8-iron into the green and was delighted to finish with par after two putting from over the back of the green. My friend Frank had his own heroic finish making a 20-foot birdie putt to allow him to shoot a score of 79 on the grand old course.
     
    Throughout this entire trip on these wonderful links courses, I felt a sense of reverence and awe. At one point, I was so wrapped up in my thoughts and emotions that Paul said I looked like I was “in church.” I guess, in a sense, I was.

     




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  • Scottish Golf: My View, Part II

    Nairn Golf Club:
    The first course on the day’s agenda was the Nairn Golf Course (www.NairnGolfClub.co.uk). While currently enjoying considerable notoriety and acclaim, it was only a few short years ago that Nairn sat in relative obscurity. Then, as host of the 1999 Walker Cup, the eyes of the world of golf were opened to its unique offerings. Our eyes were opened on the first tee as we looked out on the beautiful, expansive championship links course sitting on the shores of the Moray Firth.
     
    Nairn is another of the classic “nine out, nine in,” designed links and in my estimation, the finest overall links course we have encountered so far on our golfing journey. It had all the classic elements: few trees, direct influence by the winds off the adjacent water, hard rolling land with narrow, fescue and gorse lined fairways and undulating greens of infinite imagination. It was tough, but it was fun.
     
    Old Moray Golf Course:
    I find that the high notes of any journey of discovery usually reveal themselves at moments of minimal expectation. While not conscious of such a mindset, in retrospect, I think it an apt description as we rolled from our diesel carriage onto the Old Moray Golf Course, still riding a high from the great links golfing experience we had had earlier in the day at Nairn.
     
    Designed by Old Tom Morris, the rugged and craggy landscape seemed to embody its designer’s image.
     
    The ancient looking, yet welcoming, clubhouse sat on a pinnacle high above the first tee and Eighteenth Hole. Rather than being restrictive, the clubhouse gave you a feeling of an old slipper; well used, comfortable and indispensable. Such an instinct was well founded.
     
    Immediately upon entering, we were welcomed by two old-time members that wrapped around us like spiders around a fly in a web. Predictably, yet charmingly, they assured us with a wagging finger, that we would find their course to be the ultimate links golfing experience and that it would easily surpass all others, either in courses we have seen or will ever see. As we were a threesome, we individually invited both to join us in our round, a notion that was quickly dispelled by the members, due to their claim that they “were in no condition to be playing a proper round of golf.” We had little reason to doubt their claims.
     
    The golf course was indeed a fitting test of golf as promised with seven par fours in excess of 400 yards. Deserving particular note was the slight dog-leg right, 18th Hole. Measuring just over 400 yards from the men’s tees, it is to my mind, one of the great finishing holes in golf. The tee shot must be carved around an ancient wall that sits at the base of a massive hill running up the right side of the hole. Atop the hill are a series of towering hotels that all appeared to have been built in the mid 1800’s during a period of particular prosperity. Facing you on the tee box is a massive granite outcropping that forces the illusion that it protrudes three-quarters of the way into the fairway.

    One of the members warned us that the rocks and the wall had a way of enticing an over-compensating cut that is only accentuated by the predominate wind off the ocean that also wants to drive your ball to the right. True to form, none of us hit a particularly heroic tee shot, although, blessedly, the balls all finished in-bounds and in manageable positions to hit our approach shots. The approach shot must be played up a long, sharp hill that brings the ledge-perched green almost back up to the height of the clubhouse (and the row of hotels). A great hole all-around and I can only imagine how exciting it must be to watch the conclusion of an important match or tournament from what has to be one of golf’s original amphitheaters.
     
    As we walked down the fairway, we noticed our hotel for the night, the Skerry Brea Hotel (www.SkerryBrae.co.uk), piercing down on us and I made particular note of the guests rooms located above the pub and dining rooms (all of which looked out on the course and ocean). It was nearly impossible to not notice that at the very peak of the building sat a majestic three-bay window suite that I was certain must have one of the greatest views in golf.
     
    It was nearly dark by the time we putted out and made our way down the road a wedge shot away to the Skerry Brea. The attendant, Andrew, saw us to our rooms and as he led me up the squeaking, moaning, narrow steps, he sheepishly turned to me and noted that my room was “a little bigger than the others.”
     
    After turning the skeleton key, I realized that our ascent up the winding staircase had, in fact, led me to the very pinnacle room I had noticed from on the course. Both spacious and highlighted by huge picture-windows, the view over the links and ocean was stunning, even better than I had imagined.
     
    Mesmerized, I sat for a long while catching my breath from the long trek to get up to the room and watching arching approach shots into the 18th green far below me (most were missing the putting surface). Recognizing that either through luck or accommodation I had been given something the others in my party likely were not, I decided that it was best not to mention the matter of my special room to my traveling companions.
     
    At dinner in the Skerry Brea we engaged in the obligatory dialog of “how is your room?” and I simply nodded when the others said their rooms were “fine,” (in fact, not until they read this recap will they be aware that my room was any different then their own). After a couple of Belhavens (“The Cream of Scottish Ale”) and one or two single malts, we each retired to our respective rooms.
     
    As I had a wee bit of beverage left in my glass, I carried it with me as I started my ascent back up stairs. Once in the room, I sat in the dark in the same chair I had earlier and gazed down on the sleeping links. The course was lit in eerie strips of light projecting from the pubs lining the backs of the old hotels. Somewhere amongst the dunes the light would die away, leaving a tapestry of half-lit mounds that looked as though they belonged to Nessie herself, between valleys of darkness, broken only by distant blinking lights somewhere on the ocean beyond. I awoke in the chair some hours later.




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  • Scottish Golf: Hidden Gems Part I

    St Andrews, the city, and the Old Course are so much more than merely a golfing destination. For a golfer, St Andrews is quite simply a mecca. It is a pilgrimage that anyone who truly purports to love the game must make at least once in a lifetime. The aura of what has gone before you embraces you as soon as you enter the ancient city. From the massive cathedral ruins to the rubble of the St Andrews castle, each element of the city seems to be a building block of anticipation to your first steps on to the historic course. It is almost overwhelming and well worth it for a first-time pilgrim to walk the course the evening before a round, if only to confirm that your feet really do touch the earth.
     
    However, with a reputation as strong (and well deserved) as that of St Andrews, it is easy to overlook the stunning array of great golf options available in the rest of the country. The following journal chronicles my recent travels on one such route that concentrated on the Scottish Highlands, concluding south of Glasgow.

    Royal Dornoch Golf Club

    Our first day featured a round of golf at the famed Royal Dornoch Golf Club. Royal Dornoch’s significance in to the history of golf course design and architecture places it in rare company on the world golf stage.
     
    Royal Dornoch is the golf course where Donald Ross grew up, learned and fell in love with the game. It is amazing to see so many design elements at Royal Dornoch that are trademarks of Ross-designed courses today. Notably, green complexes that are built up with steep runoffs and green “cupping,” reminiscent of Ross’ Pinehurst # 2, in particular.
     
    Perhaps equally as enjoyable as was this text book tour of the educational development of golf’s early design genius was stumbling upon the humble little home in the village of Dornoch where Ross was born and raised. The house features a small, ivy shrouded plate engraved simply, “Birthplace of Donald Ross 1872-1948 Golf Architect .” I was surprised that a place of such significance to a person of my sentimentality was treated with such humility and simplicity (I had not yet been in Scotland long enough to realize that the Scots approach everything with prudence and humility).
     
    We stayed at a small hotel called The Eagle, and as it was, I laid my head down on a pillow that was less than one-hundred yards from Donald Ross’ house. For some reason, I thought that this was really cool. The hotel was an old-world classic in which, I am certain, provided me with an experience that was nearly identical to that of a traveler in the time of Donald Ross. Aside from the television set, everything else was elegantly simple; just enough. It was classic Dornoch. Simple and subtle with its nuances quietly waiting for discovery, rather than proclaiming their existence.
     
    Sometime, to really know a person, you have to know from where they came. In my view, to know Dornoch, is to know Donald Ross.

    Brora Golf Club

    Our next day began at Brora Golf Club. I have heard golf courses described at “pastures,” but in the case of Brora, such an otherwise disparaging moniker is precisely accurate.
     
    Brora is quite literally a step back in time, a delightful strole through the game as it was. To walk the fairways of Brora is an exercise in constant observation as the golf course has stubbornly refused to resign from its former primary use as a farm pasture. To this day, bovine of various sorts meander from heather to heather and sheep scurry across your path as they munch and trim the fairways as they have done since the earliest herdsman knocked a rock from rabbit hole to rabbit hole.
     
    While not (intended) to be a part of the normal route of play, one can also observe the very origin of the bunker as the animals still burrow large sandy holes in the dunes on the far side of the predominant wind to provide some shelter from the storm. All the while, the various natives leave their calling cards to remind you that this land belonged to them well before we attempted to perform a sport that at times our efforts could best be described as approximating the slip that we were careful to sidestep.
     
    The James Braid designed course was a thoroughly enjoyable test with the par 3’s (one in each direction on the compass), and the electric-fence surrounded greens standing out for distinction.
     
    The blind approach shot on No. 11 at Tain Golf Course.

    Our afternoon round was played at Tain Golf Course. This Old Tom Morris designed course has been carefully protected by its management and members, acting as curators for this classic. Much of the course (aside from modern concessions of adding length, by moving tees back), is defined by wildly rolling mounds, subtly difficult greens and distinctive character hole by hole.
     
    Standing out was the ingenious par 4, 11th Hole, which features a green completely protected by two mountainous mounds that causes the green to be hidden behind them. One was forced to trust the red and white guide-post as your only indication that a golf course existed behind them. Impressed as I am with Old Tom Morris’ designs, this uniquely devious hole made me wonder if Old Tom was sometimes grumpy as he went about his work.
     
    At times, Tain made me feel that I was golfing on Cape Cod (MA), as the unique seaside scrubs and pines seemed to lift us out of northern Scotland, if briefly.
     
    Overall, I found Tain to be a delightful golfing experience that possessed a character all its own.
     
    We stayed at the Heathmount Hotel in Inverness, a charming hotel that easily combined ultra-modern amenities with old-world charm. After dinner, we watched the live, final round coverage of the PGA TOUR’s Deutsche Bank Championship from Boston. I will admit that due to the day’s busy agenda and a prudent sampling of single malt, I could not stay awake to see the final putts holed. Perhaps I will tomorrow, as we play Nairn and Old Moray.




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  • A Day in the Sun: The Greatest Open Championship

    No one ever doubted the natural talents of Tom Watson. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he was long off the tee, laser accurate with his irons, had the ability to get up and down from anywhere and had a bold and confident putting stroke. Such defined his physical strengths. The initial doubt, however, was his mental fortitude. A perspective that was probably unfair, as his sometimes brilliant play revealed his innate abilities that had not yet been matched by experience of tournament hardened nerve. Probably due to the early success of a young Jack Nicklaus, critics were quick to judge a young golfer with talent if he failed to win majors while still wet behind the ears.
     
    Twenty-four years old, Watson held a one-stroke lead heading into the final round of the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Facing brutal conditions and determined competition, the young golfer would falter, posting a final-round score of 79. He would finish fifth, five strokes behind the winner, Hale Irwin.
     

    Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus
    Tom Watson is congratulated by Jack Nicklaus after his 1977 Open victory (Getty Images).
    Afterwards, Watson sat alone in the locker room gathering his thoughts when he heard a voice. “I know how you feel, son. I’ve thrown away tournaments, too. If you ever want to talk about your game, call me.” Watson looked up to see the legendary Byron Nelson at his side. It was an offer that Watson would take advantage of, winning his first tournament, the Western Open, soon after commencing. Just over a year later, Watson would win his first Open Championship at Carnoustie, joining the ranks of major champion (he would go on to win five Open Championships); however, his media-placed reputation for choking when in contention dogged him. Perceived poor play while in contention at the 1975 Masters and U.S. Open did not help to eradicate the moniker.
     
    At the 1977 Masters, that perception would change. It was a classic final round that would feature a man-to-man slug-fest between Watson and the most feared man in the game at that time, Jack Nicklaus. Playing just behind Nicklaus, Watson would match the great man birdie for birdie. After making birdie on the 13th hole, Nicklaus would gesture with his arm to the patrons, acknowledging their wild cheering and support. Viewing this from the fairway, Watson misinterpreted the gesture as being intended for him, a pantomimed “So There!”
     
    Watson would proceed to chase down Nicklaus, eventually taking the lead with a birdie on the 17th hole. When the 20-foot putt dropped, the roar was so loud, that Nicklaus backed away from his approach shot in the 18th fairway. He would later admit that Watson’s birdie rattled him, and caused him to change his plan of attack on the hole. Instead of firing for the center of the green, he chose to attack the pin, resulting in a shot he caught slightly heavy, that ended up in the front bunker. The ensuing bogey by Nicklaus, and par on the same hole by Watson, would give Watson his first green jacket and a two-stroke victory (he would win again in 1981 and he would finish tied for second in 1978 and 1979, and a solo second in 1984). Nicklaus shot a final-round 66 to Watson’s 67. It would not be the last time that Watson would stand toe-to-toe with Nicklaus, take his best, and persevere.
     
    A footnote to this Masters was the lingering effect of the affair at the 13th hole. Watson caught up to Nicklaus outside the scoring tent and confronted him about the gesture at 13. Nicklaus assured Watson that the gesture was not meant for him and he meant him no ill will. Whether the incident had any lasting impact on their relationship is doubtful; however, it did serve to illustrate the fighting spirit of Tom Watson and his steely resolve to stand up to any challenge, perceived or otherwise, regardless of the source.
     
    “I proved I could win against the big boys,” Watson would say following the impressive finish.
     
    That year’s next major stop would belong to neither Nicklaus nor Watson. The 1977 U.S. Open at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., belonged to Hubert Green, who held or shared the lead in all four rounds, finishing at 2 under par and one stroke in front of Lou Graham.
     
    So, the stage was set for a renewal of the burgeoning Nicklaus/Watson rivalry at the Turnberry Ailsa Course at the 1977 Open Championship, the first time the course would host the Championship. This was a tournament that would feature what has been called the greatest final round in major tournament history.
     
    The Ailsa Course at Turnberry is one of the finest layouts in the entire world. As is often the case with classic golf courses, it has a fascinating history. Used as an airfield during the Second World War, as recently as a few years ago while digging out a bunker on the second hole, an unexploded bomb was discovered buried deep under ground.
     
    In 1977, like many of the great links courses of the British Isles, it did not have an irrigation system, so if the weather was hot and dry, the course would run like a ball on a runway. At its best, links courses, the quintessential test of golf, are unpredictable. When they get hard and dry, ball control can become very, very challenging, to say the least. Such was the case in July, 1977. Conditions were uncharacteristically oppressive.
     
    Prior to the start of the tournament, some thought the lack of wind and rain would actually make the course easier to play. Playing in his first Open Championship, Greg Norman speculated, during the practice rounds, that someone might shoot a 60 that week (Norman would miss the cut but would get revenge by winning the 1986 Open Championship at Turnberry). By the end of the week, the scoring average for the field over 72 holes would be near 10 over par.
     
    Through the first two rounds, Watson and Nicklaus would post identical scores of 68 and 70, to sit one stroke off the lead, held by Roger Maltbie, after 36 holes. Maltbie had fired a second-round 66, after a first-round 71, to vault him into the lead. Also tied for second place were Green and Lee Trevino. Surely, it must be hard to get a good night’s sleep when nursing a slim lead in front of that foursome?

    The third round would belong to Watson and Nicklaus. Paired together, both played brilliant golf, matching each other birdie for birdie, posting matching 65s, and pulling away from the field by three strokes clear of second place, held by Ben Crenshaw, who shot a 66 in Round 3. Everyone anticipated that the pair would pick up right where they left off in April, and did they ever deliver!
     
    However, the round did not start as anticipated and beguiled the drama that was to follow. Nicklaus birdied the second hole while Watson posted a bogey. He would then birdie the fourth hole. So, by the end of the fourth hole, Nicklaus had pulled ahead by three shots, an often insurmountable lead in the final round of a major by any of his pursuers. Remember, Nicklaus is remembered not only for his supreme skills, but also as one of the most intimidating golfers of all time. Seldom was Nicklaus the first to blink. Not only was he capable of heroics, but he possessed a supreme intellect, the ability to wait until his opponent erred, then exploiting the mistake. What’s more, many doubters began to give each other wayward glances, as if to affirm that here was Watson being the Watson of their accusations; another major opportunity spurned. But, major championships are not won by what other people think of you; they are won by what you have inside, and Watson was ready to prove, again, just how determined and convinced he was of his own mettle.
     
    Watson would secure birdies at the fifth and seventh holes to cut Nicklaus’ margin to one stroke. He would tie him with another birdie at the eighth hole and then Watson would bogey the ninth to once again fall one behind. On the 10th hole, Watson would leave his approach shot short of the putting surface and his drive on the 11th hole would find a bunker. On both occasions, however, he would save par. Like a snake waiting to strike, Nicklaus would tighten the noose with a 25-foot birdie on the 12th hole to go back up by two strokes. Watson would bounce off the ropes with a birdie at the 13th hole to slice the margin to one, and the two would post identical pars on the 14th, after Watson missed a 6-foot putt for birdie. On the 15th hole, Watson would make a birdie, putting from 60 feet off the green and slamming his ball into the flagstick, bringing the ‘metal-match play’ to all square.
     
    The 16th hole also had its share of the dramatic. Watson’s drive cleared a stream that cuts across the fairway, but settled on the hill above it, in front of the green. For a few agonizing seconds the fate of this Championship lay in the roll of the ball from this precarious perch. If the ball were to roll even a dimple’s worth back down the slope, his ball would have tumbled to the bottom of the stream bed. It held and both men would post par. The 17th hole is a relatively short par-5, just under 490 yards, played from an elevated tee to an elevated green. Both men hit perfect drives that split the fairway. However, Nicklaus caught his ball heavy and left his second shot well short of the green. Watson placed his second shot on the green in two, some 15 feet away for eagle. Nicklaus’ would negotiate his chip 4 feet from the hole. However, his birdie putt slid tortuously past the left side and he would settle for par when he knew he needed more. Watson would take the lead for the first time with a two-putt birdie.
     
    The match moved to the final tee. Watson would later admit that prior to the hole playing out he informed his caddy that he would not be playing it safe, as he expected Nicklaus to make a birdie on the hole (it was logical for him to feel that way as Nicklaus seemed to have a habit of making birdie on the final hole, particularly when it mattered. As if being a preview of things to come, Nicklaus birdied the 18th hole in the first round after sinking a long, 25-foot winder).
     
    Watson’s 1-iron was played safely down the fairway, leaving a 7-iron to the green from there. Crushing into his drive with his trademark power and fade flight path, Nicklaus’ ball settled into the heather aside the fairway. Upon reaching his ball, he discovered that it had actually rolled under some gorse as well. Up first, Watson would hit one of the finest irons of his entire career, a perfectly struck 7-iron that would see the ball finish only 3 feet from the cup.
     
    “I hit it dead flush. It was one of the best shots I ever hit. It’s something I will never forget,” he would later recount.
     
    Down one stroke, under gorse and heather and facing incredible pressure, in typical Nicklaus-esqe fashion, Nicklaus somehow found a way, tearing at the ball with his 8-iron and hitting a fabulous golf shot that finished some 40 feet from the cup.
     
    In a vision near trademark at the Open, the gallery closed in around the competitors, consumed with frenzy, clearly grasping that they were witnessing history in their midst. Perhaps the greatest pressure putter the game has ever known, Nicklaus proceeded to snake his 40-foot birdie putt over knolls and swales, breaks and valleys, and remarkably, into the hole for birdie. The pressure now shifted squarely on the shoulders of Watson as his 3-foot putt must have seemed much longer at this juncture. If his tenacity at the Masters and through 71 holes of this Open were not enough, finally he had the chance to assert his status as a member of the club which included the greatest golfers the game has ever known. Watson’s putt split the hole, securing his birdie, his triumph, and a bold new reputation.
     
    Watson would finish with a final round 65, to Nicklaus’ 66. The pair finished eleven strokes ahead of third-place finisher, Hubert Green. Watson now owed his second Open title, his third major, and with an aggregate score of 268, he beat the previous Open record, set by Arnold Palmer in 1962 at Royal Troon, by eight strokes.
     
    Perhaps as lasting an image from the Open as the spectacular play was when the gracious Nicklaus put his arm around the 10-years-younger Watson as they walked off the green. “You’ve seen my best and you have beaten it,” Nicklaus would summarize.
     
    And one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the game was in full bloom.

     




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  • In Celebration of the Bold

    You heard the outcry didn’t you? Heard the electronic snickering, the printed ridicule and the world-wide golf-media mocking?
     
    The March edition of Golf World U.K. (not affiliated with the U.S. version of the magazine by the same name) featured a long article about eccentric British professional Ian Poulter.
     
    Poulter is best know for his hairstyle that approximates the look of the Sunday rough at the U.S. Open, and a wardrobe defined by a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors not otherwise known in the physical world (interesting then, that Poulter posed sans cloths in the publication, thankfully sparing the populace any more intimate knowledge through the strategic placement of his golf bag). The interview was, to say the least, revealing.
     
    In the interview, Poulter is quoted as saying, “The trouble is I don’t rate anyone else…I really respect every professional golfer, but I know I haven’t played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger.” He continued, “It would be a dream to see Tiger Woods and then me in the world rankings as you look down. What’s wrong with that? Is it being rude? Is it being disrespectful to everybody else? I don’t think so.”
     
    With the predictable precision of Big Ben, the world golf media pounced on Poulter’s comments like a lion on a gazelle. Who does he think he is? Was the most common response (paraphrasing) from the global scribes. How dare he challenge Tiger Woods and discount all others in the process? Why, the 32-year-old Poulter has won as many majors as Tiger Woods has won Dancing with the Stars crowns. Exactly none.
     
    So it came as a shocking bit of hubris to the sentries of all things golf-proper that this veteran golf professional that seems to have mastered nothing more than a distinctive look and a golfing resume packed with solid mediocrity that he should challenge Woods. So intense, in fact, was the media lambasting that Poulter released a statement noting, “The whole answer to the question has been taken out of context,” and therefore, warped its true meaning (few of the news agencies that picked up the story related that Poulter stressed, “Tiger is one in a million. Actually, Tiger is one in 10 million. He is extraordinary. If you look at the rankings he is almost two and a half times better than the guy in second place [Phil Mickelson]).”
     
    The entire affair was not lost on the World No. 1, mind you, when trudging through his post-round interviews after yet another start, and win, this time at the Dubai Desert Classic (with Poulter in the field), Woods was asked a question about the significance of the space between he and the No. 2 golfer in the world. Woods answered incredulously, asking the reporter, “I thought Ian Poulter was No. 2?”
     
    The assembled media and the broadcast’s hosts all yucked it up as Woods bore his way through the masses, basking in the glow of another stunning victory and leaving yet another upstart seemingly foolish enough to openly voice his aspirations, reduced to dust, both figuratively and in reality.
     
    Trying to place all this into perspective, I initiated an internet search for reactions to those that have been bold enough to verbally challenge Woods’ position as the best golfer on the planet. The initial quote results were eye opening, to say the least. Here is sampling of some of the responses:
     
    “You’ll learn.”
     
    “…[he] is not bigger than the game.”
     
    “…well, he’s a rookie. He’ll learn. You’ve got to play by the rules [of what is expected of you].”
     
    “This tournament was one of seven to help him out at the beginning with sponsor exemptions when he needed help, and how quickly he forgot [after withdrawing the day before the first round].”
     
    “How he goes about scoring from where he hits it -- that’s the amazing thing.”
     
    What’s really amazing was that these comments were not about upstarts and wannabe’s; rather, my search criteria must have had a mind of its own, for these comments were about Tiger Woods himself.
     
    What? Who would be foolish enough to pull on Superman’s cape, you say?
     
    Well, by order of comment, the first was said by Curtis Strange in response to a cub Tiger pronouncing that his goal was to “win every time out.” The next pearl came from Hal Sutton in 2001, explaining his mental posture prior to winning the PLAYERS Championship (the full quote is even more impressive, Sutton having said, “Tiger Woods is not bigger than the game. The other night I was lying in bed and I said, ‘You know what? I’m not praying to him. He’s human just like I am’”).
     
    None other than Davis Love III uttered the next statement when asked to react to Woods’ last-minute decision to pull out of the Buick Challenge in his rookie year. In fact, the statement about “…how quickly he forgot” was also by Curtis Strange reacting to the same withdrawal as Love. The last statement was by Stephen Ames on the eve of his 2006 Accenture Match Play Championship match against Woods (which an inspired Woods went on to win by a crushing score of 9 and 8).

    Woods, of course, is famous for his ability to channel such comments into laser-like intent; feeding off what he perceives as a slight into crystal clear focus on the field of battle.
     
    “It’s different. It’s not physical, where you can go up there and put a shoulder in somebody and take them out. It’s not like that. It’s about the ability to bear down and pull out quality golf shots on your own, and you go put an inordinate amount of pressure on your opponent,” explained Woods.
     
    Aside from the risks inherent in challenging Woods in a verbal arena, there is another observation that the passage of time allows us. While most of us can feel quite smug about ridiculing anyone that states their intention to challenge Woods, I wonder how many people remember when it was Woods himself that was mocked and ridiculed for his “win every time out,” or his “Hello World,” press conference as a wet-behind-the-ears TOUR newbie? Well, 62 TOUR wins and 13 majors later, who’s laughing now?
     
    Remember Colin Montgomerie’s press conference after the second round of the 1997 Masters when he suggested that with his experience (and Woods lack of it) in Majors, that he would be better able to handle the pressure? The next day, Woods shot a 65 to Monty’s 74, leaving the veteran to comment after the round, “Let me tell you this. Tiger Woods is going to win this event…there is no chance…we’re all human beings here, no chance humanly possible that Tiger Woods is going to lose this tournament.” Woods, of course, went on to win by 12 shots.
     
    Reflecting on Montgomerie’s comments after the tournament gave some insight into Woods mentality. “He basically said I didn’t have much of a chance because of my experience level. But I was playing well. I said to Fluff (Woods’ caddy at that time), ‘He may have said all those things, but he hadn’t won a major, either.”
     
    Remember when Rory Sabbatini, the oft-maligned, if misunderstood TOUR player, that is quickly becoming the golfer that everyone loves to hate (in a Sports Illustrated poll, he was voted as the least favorite player to be paired with by fellow TOUR golfers - perhaps because he likes to play at a pace that is faster than that of grass growing), when he boldly stated, “I want Tiger…everyone wants Tiger.”
     
    As history has proven, such a brazen pronouncement did not turn out all that well, as Woods overtook Sabbatini in the third round of last year’s Wachovia to earn yet another victory. However, Sabbatini’s post-tournament observations had anything but a conciliatory tone, “The funny thing is, after watching him play last Sunday, I think he’s more beatable than ever. I think there’s a few fortuitous occasions out there (translate: luck) that really changed the round for him at Wachovia. And realizing that gives me even more confidence to go in and play with him on Sunday again.”
     
    More recently, a young Australian named Jason Day (who actually credits Woods with being his hero and the person responsible for setting his life on the straight and narrow) announced that when Woods looks into his rear view mirror, it may be him that he sees closing in. “He has so much time. He played 16 events, what does he do with his time? He’d be aware of me. He’d be saying, ‘Here’s another kid coming up,’” said Day when asked if he thought Woods knew who he was.
     
    Smelling the sensational scent of a brewing story line, the media sought out Day at Pebble Beach prior to the start of the tournament (Day would finish the event in sixth place) and asked the 20-year-old for more on his objective to overtake Woods.
     
    “Obviously, Tiger Woods is the No. 1 right now; he’s the benchmark. Whether it takes me five years or 20 years, I would like to hopefully one day achieve that spot. I’m still going to work hard. Tiger is Tiger and you can’t deny that. He is the greatest golfer. I respect Tiger so much. He’s changed my life in more ways than anyone could have foreseen (this latter comment was in reference to Tiger Woods being Day’s inspiration to turn his life around after some wayward years following the death of Day’s father, from cancer, when Day was only 12 years old).”
     
    Recently, Phil Mickelson, who cannot escape comparisons to Woods, even if he wanted to, was asked to size up his ability to come out on the winning end of this year’s majors with Woods standing in his way. Mickelson, clearly sensing the danger of wading into such treacherous waters answered with the deft touch of a political aspirant when he explained that if anyone beats Woods, “I hope it is me.”
     
    Now, having established that it is clearly detrimental to publicly state one’s intention to challenge Tiger Woods’ perch atop the game, let me make it perfectly clear that I love the fact that some professional golfers have the intestinal fortitude to do it (for haven’t we all found ourselves complaining that golfers play it too safe, never really saying what is on their mind, always striving to avoid controversy and say the right things). However ill-advised, isn’t it refreshing to hear an unvarnished opinion? Shouldn’t we strive to celebrate such honesty instead of treating it with scorn?
     
    Tiger Woods’ march into the record books has given us a chance to watch the making of history right before our eyes, however, I don’t think we need to buy into a collective thinking that none other can ever challenge the man that is currently the World’s best. What’s more, do we want a core of golfers behind Woods who simply collapse and are intimidated before they reach the first tee (which is, for the most part, what we have seen during Tiger’s run).
     
    However delusional we may feel their visions of grandeur are, I think big thinking should be celebrated. The golf media owe it to the game and to the fans to not simply become part of a larger marketing machine. Wouldn’t the fact that it was once widely proclaimed that no one could ever challenge the record of Jack Nicklaus be evidence enough that nothing lasts forever?
     
    While odds are that it will be a long time before Tiger’s reign is done, the next time a professional golfer is honest enough to state for the record that they intend to dethrone the current king, maybe we should use the lessons of history itself to realize that someday, someone is going to back up the bravado with performance.
     
    It is quite clear that we live in a world of resignation, and that persons with high aspirations are greeted with the unsolicited coaching of ‘you’ll learn to lower your expectations’. However, isn’t the first step to becoming a champion about having the conviction that you are capable of doing it, even when the world thinks you are crazy? Just ask Tiger.

     




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  • Tiger's Wayward Drive

    The recent Tiger Woods mess has brought a number of intriguing topics to the surface, albeit, hardly into focus.

    The so called facts depend upon who is delivering the message and their agenda.  No shock there, of course, that pretty much sums up the “Red State/Blue State” world of information dissemination we currently exist in.  If it can’t be sensationalized, then mix in a little innuendo, speculation and titillation just to sweeten up the pot and add a little spice.

    If we were to remove the name Tiger Woods from the sordid affair, here is how it changes:

    In the early morning hours of the 27th of November, a man drove his SUV into a fire hydrant at the end of his driveway as well as an oak tree, just off his driveway, on his neighbor’s property.  The man’s wife said she heard the impact of the crash, and when she found her husband at least partially unresponsive, she broke out one or more of the vehicles windows in order to aid his exit from the vehicle.  Someone living in the neighborhood heard the accident as well and when they went out to investigate, they found a man lying in the road, coming in and out of consciousness, with injuries to his mouth area.  The neighbor called 911.  Medical personnel arrived, administered the necessary first aid on the scene and the injured man was sent to an area hospital where he was attended to and released.

    Think about it, if this story was about average-Joe, John Q. Public, we couldn’t care less.  But this wasn’t about just anybody, rather it was about someone extremely distinctive, a person that the mainstream media covering the event has called the “best known athlete in the world,” one Tiger Woods. 

    Now this is where the whole mess really starts to get salacious.  Mix in tabloid rag accounts of an illicit affair – I should note that the last tabloid rag I passed in the grocery market had a headline that extraterrestrial aliens held more than 50 seats in Congress – wait a minute, that story is actually believable.  Anyway, somehow this story is supposed to have something to do with our right to know what really happen, beyond the facts as stated above.  I heard numerous reporters attesting that the central questions are Why was Tiger Woods leaving his house at 2-something in the morning?  And, where was he going?

    This self-righteous public’s-right-to-know mentality comes from a belief that if one is going to live by the sword, then they will die by the sword.  In other words, if you are going to get paid hundreds of millions of dollars playing a sport, endorsing products and living with all of the trappings of luxuries and privilege, then don’t be surprised, offended or indignant when the same public that’s been lining your pockets wants to know why you slammed your Cadillac SUV into a hydrant and tree, at the end of your drive way, in the middle of the night?

    The real answer, of course, is far more complicated than whatever events predicated the accident.  Part, I believe is societal, we seem to love to drag down our heroes as much, or more, than we love to worship celebrity.  As we tend to live in a society of resignation, so to see the fall of the mighty, makes us all feel a little better about ourselves because the divide between a celebrity’s deity-like status and our commoners status has somehow, even briefly been brought closer together.  In Tiger’s case, its as if the wall of privacy built around his world has been cracked open just a little bit and we feel entitled to pick away at the sliver until we’ve revealed a gapping hole that will satisfy our curiosity to see all the dirty laundry blowing in the wind.

    Part of this is pure economics and don’t for a minute think its not about money.  A juicy story about a celebrity sells papers, and commercials.  And don’t think this whole thing is just about the tabloids – no, my friend, we’ve all gone along for the ride.

    There is another element to this whole mess.  That is, this is the first time that Tiger Woods and his well-oiled management machine has been in the merciless grasp of the media hounds that well extend beyond the comfy confines of the world of golf media.  In the world of professional golf, there is an element of being one big happy family.  We all move from event to event like a traveling circus with lines of respect, friendship, congeniality and professionalism forming a well rehearsed dance.  In fact, back in the day, golfers and media alike routinely turned a blind eye to each others indiscretions.  The story of a golfer driving his car into a hydrant and tree at the end of his driveway would provide little more than a good laugh around the lunch table. 

    Tiger’s typical approach of simply refusing to allow any glimpses into his private world may work in the parochial world of golf because let’s face it, he’s too important to the game for anyone to force him to act otherwise.  But in the much broader world of tabloid celebrity media, Tiger is just one column aside of accounts of Brittany’s lip-syncing and speculation of about Tom and Katie.

    Where was Tiger going at the wee hours of the morning and why?  You know what, I really don’t care.  Is there more to this story than we are being told?  I have no doubt there is.  However, I hope that Tiger and his family work it out in the privacy of their home, just like any other average Joe. 

    As Tiger has already admitted and expressed regret and apologized for his “transgressions,” he also said “I am dealing with my behavior and personal failings behind closed doors with my family.” There will be much more to come from this story, no doubt, but not because it is news worthy in my humble opinion, but because it has become a media feeding frenzy where a man’s transgressions have become a mass fascination.  One does not have to condone nor condemn the behavior of another without realizing the hypocrisy of judging another human being.  Tiger Woods and his family deserve privacy, not because he is a powerful celebrity, thus making him different than you and I, rather, he deserves privacy for the same reasons we would.




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  • A Year that Cannot be Forgotten (even if you wanted to)

    One of the great things about sports is that they write their own story.  Unyielding to sentiment, sensationalism or the unrelenting pounding of our heart strings.  Simply put, 2009 was a year that we’ll never forget, in large part, not because of what did happen, but because of what almost happened.

    With all due respect to start of the 2009 season in Hawaii and the west coast, the real shot across the bow came in early march when Phil Mickelson locked up his second win of the season (he won the Northern Trust Open earlier in the season) on Doral’s Blue Monster at the World Golf Championships - CA Championship.  What made this story compelling was the fact that Mickelson had spent a few off hours, not enjoying Miami’s famous night-life, rather, he was at the hospital getting liquids pumped into his body due to dehydration.  As the cliché goes, “beware of the injured athlete.”  Two weeks later, Tiger Woods slammed the door on all of the speculation that he would be somehow less of a champion golfer after his long layoff due to knee surgery, then he was before it (which when you think about it, doesn’t make much sense, because before the major knee surgery, he was essentially playing – and winning – on only one leg).  A come from behind at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Master Card at Bay Hill seemed to signal that all was right in the world of golf and that the balance of power had been reset only two weeks before the season’s first Major, the Masters.

    However, fate step in.  The Masters began in a storyboard fashion with 48 year-old Kenny Perry in position to win his first Major.  Here was Perry, still fresh off a heroic performance at the Ryder Cup at Valhalla and already a winner earlier in the season at the FBR Open, golf’s ultimate good guy.  The final round began with both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson injecting some early in the day excitement by taking runs up the leaderboard.  Mickelson birdied six holes on the front nine to open with a 30, tying a tournament record.  He would finish the day with a 67 and a total score of 9 under par, good for 5th place.  Woods would also secure a piece of a top six finish, posting a final round score of 68, totaling 8 under par and a share of 6th place.

    It was Perry then that appeared perched to provide a victory for the people and the ultimate feel-good story.  Leading by two strokes with two holes to go, few could doubt the likelihood of his victory; however bogies at the final two holes would spin Perry into a sudden death playoff against Chad Campbell and Angel Cabrera.  Campbell was eliminated after the first hole and when Perry failed to get up and down from the left of the green on the second playoff hole, Cabrera was left with the task to two putt from 15 feet to secure his first Masters title and second Major victory. 

    The PLAYERS Championship seemed to continue the trend.  While his performance was consummate and dominating, few would have guessed that Henrik Stenson would blast the field, winning by four strokes over Ian Poulter, John Mallinger and Kevin Na, all at 2 under par.

    At the Memorial Tournament, Woods would post his second win of the year after hitting what could be the finest 18th hole approach shot for the year, when he staked it to within inches of the hole.  Once again, only two weeks before the season’s next Major, the U.S. Open, Woods seemed to be on top of his game.

    Sadly, Mother Nature was not as excited about the U.S. Open returning to Bethpage’s Black Course as the world of golf was.  While most of Long Island has a heavy sand base, the deluge of water was just too much and the tournament became as much about survival as demonstrating skill.  Despite the challenges and constant stop and start weather delays, the tournament would unfold as if scripted by Hollywood screen writers.  Here we had Phil Mickelson, fresh from caring for his wife, Amy, who was being treated for breast cancer, as the adopted son of the New York faithful, making a run at the championship.  Alas, two missed par putts over the last four holes would end the magic.  Coming in ranked 882nd in the world, in the final round David Duval would thrill the gallery with three straight birdies on the back nine to tie for the lead.  When a five-foot par putt on the 71st hole would spin 180 degrees around the cup and end up perched on the edge, it took with it Duval’s chance at the ultimate comeback.

    Ultimately, victory would belong to Lucas Glover, only the second player in the last 25 years to win a Major in which he had never previously made the cut (Lee Janzen was the last, in 1993) and he was the first qualifier to win the U.S. Open since Michael Campbell in 2005.  Glover’s victory was well deserved and executed, if unexpected.

    Tiger Woods would once again post a victory (his third of the year), this time over the July 4th weekend, at the AT&T National.  This win coming three weeks before the Open Championship would cause many to wonder if Woods’ between-Majors dominance in 2009 would carry over to finding his form in the season’s third Major.

    Turnberry’s Ailsa Course on Scotland’s west coast seemed to usher itself onto the world golf stage with a presence and dignity that embodied the world’s oldest Major, The Open Championship.  Once more, that which everyone expected to happen is not what took place (for example, Woods missed the cut), but what did unfold was one of the greatest stories in the history of the game (and ultimately, one putt short of being the most significant event in the entire history of the sport).  Tom Watson, at 59 years-old, would carry us all on a sentimental journey that seemed to evolve from the impossible, to the improbable, to the possible, to the likely, and ultimately, to what could have been.  Stewart Cink, of course, won the Open Championship in a playoff over Watson, after the latter failed to get up and down for par on the final hole during regulation.  It should be noted that Cink birdied the 18th Hole in regulation and his play during the playoff was steady despite the huge pressure.  Regardless of what we may have all wanted in our hearts, Stewart Cink deserved this victory because victories are not won through 71 holes, they are won when the final putt drops. 

    Sandwiched between the drama of the season’s Majors, Tiger Woods would post victory number four of the season, at the Buick Open and then two weeks later, he would out last Padraig Harrington in a duel at the World Golf Championships – Bridgestone Invitational to post his 5th victory of the season.

    So once more, the stage was set.  Woods having won two of the three tournaments heading into the PGA Championship, it seemed only reasonable to assume that Woods was in full control of his game.  Through three rounds, Woods was right where everyone expected him to be, leading the tournament.  In the final round, he would be paired with Y.E. Yang, a relatively unknown golfer despite having won the Honda Classic earlier in the year.  Pre-round fodder was quickly dismissive of Yang, noting that Woods had never lost a Major that he was leading into the final round and that Yang was hardly the man to dispose him of the inevitable.  However, a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation when David would slay Goliath and it would be Yang that would emerge triumphant.

    Tiger Woods would go on to win the BMW Championship at Cog Hill for victory number 6 on the year, which would be good enough to secure the Fed Ex Cup for the second time in three years (after a second place finish at the TOUR Championship).  Phil Mickelson would end the year on a high note, winning both the Tour Championship presented by Coca-Cola and the World Gold Championships-HSBC Championship in China.

    The victory by the American Team in the Presidents Cup was also impressive, if lacking in drama. 

    Tiger Woods continued his triumphant 2009 season with a seventh win (and first) in Australia at the JBWere Masters.  On the European Tour, the “Race to Dubai,” certainly delivered on its promise as 20 year-old Rory McIlroy put up a spirited fight along with names like Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia.  Ultimately, it was Lee Westwood that would claim the crown with a dominating performance that saw him finish the week moving up to forth in the world rankings.

    What does all of this mean?  Well, 2009 was a great season of golf, of that there can be no doubt.  But golf has proven time and again that it is a game of cold numbers where victory is assured not by our longing and desire, but rather, but performance and execution. 

    Here’s to hoping that the timeless nature of the game never changes.




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  • A Recipe for Success

    The end of the year brings with it the conclusion of another year of my radio show, called Fairways of Life, which airs each week on the PGA Tour Network (heard on Sirius and XM Satellite Radio in North America and around the globe on PGATOUR.com).

    This year has been a great one.  Among the more prominent guests this year have been Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Ray Floyd, Hale Irwin, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange, Stewart Cink, Davis Love III, Sam Torrance and many, many more.  It was more than a pleasure to speak to all of these legends, it was indeed an honor.

    It is always fascinating to pick the brain of immensely successful people.  The funny thing is that there is great conformity in their essential approach to winning.  A kind of recipe for success, if you will.

    It is also simply amazing the wisdom inherent in the words of great champions.  If there are compelling themes that seems to run through the currents of the lives of champions, I believe they are:

    1.  Outwork your competition.  There will always be someone bigger, stronger, faster, smarter and better connected, but nothing can beat the merits of hard work.

    2.  Know who you are.  Recognize your strengths, but also know your weaknesses so that you can work to overcome them.  Contrary to most amateur golfers, champions spend the most time practicing the parts of their games in which they are the weakest.

    3.  Never Give Up, even when the world has given up on you, as victory is often just past the line where everyone else has dropped out of the race.

    4.  Have a plan.  Champions use road maps.  They have a specified approach for each element of their game, from their season, career, practice routine, each round of golf and each individual shot.

    5.  Believe you are the best in the world.  ALL champion golfers believe they are the best.  ALL of them.  If you believe for one second that you cannot beat another golfer, then you won’t.  Champions have a belief in themselves they use as their armor in the battle. 

    6.  Practice positive.  Champions do not dwell on negativity.  Think about how many amateur golfers you know that constantly denigrate their game (“I’m the worst putter in the world,” “I stink at this game,” etc.)?  Can you imagine sitting down with a surgeon and asking him about his experience and he or she said, “Actually, I’m the worst surgeon in the world!”  Reference Rule # 5, above.  If you want to be the best, you have to believe yourself capable of it (then seek out help to get there and work like crazy).

    In conclusion, it is no coincidence that I believe that golf is a metaphor for life.  Wouldn't’t our chances for success off the golf course also benefit from the wisdom of champions?

     




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  • Tony Jacklin's Words of Wisdom

    The career of Tony Jacklin has been compared to that of a streaking commet; brief, yet brilliant.  Jacklin was born into a working class family in England and at one time was an apprentice steelworker.  His father introduced him to golf at an early age and by the time he was in his early teens he was winning tournaments.  At 17 he turned professional.  Scratching and clawing his way through the ranks, in 1969 he won the Open Championship, the first Englishman to win since 1951, and in 1970 he posted a seven-shot victory at the U.S. Open, the first Brit to win the event since 1920. 

    Jacklin’s triumph’s revitalized the game in his native land.  Jacklin was a seven-time team member of the Ryder Cup (his was the putt famously conceded by Jack Nicklaus in 1969 to end the matches in a halve) and he is unquestionably one of the cornerstones of the success of the European Ryder Cup team, having captained the team in 1983, 1985 (the Brit/Euros first victory since 1957), 1987 (first Euro win on American soil) and in 1989. 

    Nicklaus concedes the final putt to Jacklin resulting in a halve, 1969 Ryder Cup

    His distinctive career earned him the honors of the Order of the British Empire and the Commander of the British Empire.

    Recently, Jacklin recounted to me a source of inspiration that he carried throughout his career.  It was a simple poem, given to him by a friend who used to caddy for him.  Jacklin’s friend has long since passed, but his words, and inspiration, live on.  Here is the text of that poem:

    "If you think you are beaten, you are.

    If you think you dare not, you don't.

    If you would like to win but think you can't, it's almost certain you won't.

    If you think you'll lose, you've lost.

    For out in the world, you'll find, success begins in the fellow's will. It's all in a state of mind.

    Think big and your deeds will grow.

    Think small and you'll fall behind.

    Think that you can and you will.

    It's all in a state of mind.

    Life's battles won't always go to the strong or fast at hand, but sooner or later, the man who wins is the man who thinks he can."

     




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  • My Heart Will Rest at Ballybunion Old

    Ballybunion Old, an apt moniker, indeed
    For this masterpiece was not built, not shaped, never put to seed

    It is as God left it, a natural beauty, something to amaze,
    Deep valleys, plummeting cliffs and heather shrouded dunes, bathed in ethereal haze

    Upon the First Tee, heart racing and senses acute and ablaze,
    Remiss the ball sliced too soon, for awaits an eternal entombed gaze

    To each, these links whisper an individual refrain
    Of humor, perspective and joy, in sunshine or in rain

    For here, one’s soul is set free to soar,
    Like a spinning orb of light chasing an elusive score

    Starting down wind, to each a snickering grin,
    But upon the Seventh Tee, reality sets in

    Hard by the Atlantic, a ferocious tempus gale,
    A low drive, squarely struck, is rapture to prevail

    Imagination is perhaps the most important club of all,
    For links golf is quirky and sincere, a maiden siren’s call

    The Eleventh Hole, the “best in the world,” so Tom did decide,
    While the Fifteenth awaits another to abide

    The Sixteenth is soaring and majestic, surely not the least,
    The Seventeenth awaits, an ancient Celtic feast

    Embraced by dunes, the Eighteenth offers the putt one will sink,
    Moments aloft from the Guinness one will drink

    Thank you, Ballybunion Old for memories never forgotten,
    For here my heart will rest, a links-love begotten

     




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  • Everything New is Old Again

    It is an annual rite of the New Year when optimism, hope and spirit of renewal prevail. Everything is fresh and new, a blank canvas. A chance to start anew.

    For reasons both commercial and emotional, the world of golf has more than its fair share of space on this happy caravan. It has been well chronicled that the PGA TOUR has re-invented themselves with the introduction of the FedExCup and its season-long chase for a $10 million payday. As well, the Golf Channel appears to have fulfilled its destiny as the “Home of [televised] Golf,” a claim duly suited, as no other broadcast entity in the world can lay claim to even a fraction as much live golf coverage.

    As such, I have grown accustomed to another annual January ritual whereby nearly every day I come home to find a long, brown, rectangular box on my doorstep. Within, neatly packed and protected, sits one of the bold new products sent from any of a myriad of golf equipment companies who hope it will be the product to take them (or keep them) to the top of the heap. They send them to me in the hope that I will weave the merits of their flagship into my journalistic endeavors. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining, nor am I inconvenienced by this blatant attempt to influence the media. It’s just part of the (public relations) game and for the most part the exercise does help me get prepared for our annual coverage of the PGA Merchandise Show, at the end of the month. In addition, there are a number of charity tournaments in my area that love all of the free stuff they reap as a result.

    I am admittedly a golf equipment freak. Having started my career on the golf equipment side of the business, back at a time when stainless steel metalwoods were putting the final nails in the coffin of persimmon drivers, I was, and remain, amazed at the annual ingenuity and technology in new clubs. It should be noted, I am not talking about marketing here, I am talking about real innovation, real technology and real performance. Thankfully, there is plenty of the aforementioned in the annual crop of new clubs, but unfortunately, there is also a lot of marketing hype as well. The key is to wade through the fog and arrive at what’s really there. Why, if I gained twenty yards from every new driver I have tried, I figure that by now, I’d be hitting my drives nearly 800 yards (with a draw), extracting myself from every impossible lie, striking laser-like, accurate irons that are long, high and straight (and I would never hit a shank), hitting par 5’s with my hybrids in two, fearlessly blasting from every bunker to within inches of the hole and of course, one-putting every green. Alas, as they say, ‘it’s not the arrow…’ and in many cases I have apparently failed to exploit the opportunity at hand.

    Recently, I do not recall the exact day, when the rest of the world was otherwise engaged in watching a ball drop or some other fruitless activity, I was feeding my affliction. I stumbled upon the website belonging to Jeff Ellis, author of The Clubmaker’s Art, Second Edition, and his amazing collection of antique golf clubs. After gorging on niblicks and mashies I found myself struck with a moment of clarity. It would seem that when it comes to golf equipment technology, everything new is old again. Reflecting on the growing pile of the ‘latest and greatest’ clubs in my garage and then perusing through the annuls of the game’s equipment history, it was clear to see that virtually every technological concept that comprises the cornerstone of modern club technology had been done, and done, and done, over and over again, in various incarnations during the game’s history. As evidence, I submit the following for your consideration (photos used with permission of http://www.antiqueclubs.com/):

    The Simplex Club:
    Patented in 1897, this club incorporated a couple of modern day technological gems in the form of both a center shaft feature (for “MOI stability”) and a chunk of brass extending from below the hitting area all the way to the far back of the sole (lowering the center of gravity).

    Walter Hagen Sand Wedge:
    Patented in 1928, this sand wedge features a wide sole (for ease in getting the ball airborne) and a concave face! Bobby Jones used one of these when he won the 1930 Open Championship at Liverpool. Mark my words – I give it less than a year before you see an infomercial touting the merits of a concave-face sand wedge – you heard it here first!

    Cochrane & Co. Super Giant Niblick:
    Sure, we’ve all come to believe that the bigger the club, the better, right? Well, don’t think the concept belongs to just our modern age, my friend...

    Lockwood & Brown Mashie:
    No, this wasn’t bent around some proper gent’s head, it is actually a shank-proof hosel!

    A.G. Spalding Spring Face Iron:
    Spring-like effect? I’m afraid it is old news, my good man. A “spring steel face” is riveted on the front of the iron.




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  • Into the Mystic, Ireland's North and West

    It is understandable to be full of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of a golfing trip to Ireland with your buddies.  Our objective was simple enough, four friends meandering our way through the north and west of Ireland, hoping to discover the pure essence of links golf while enjoying the warmth and hospitality that makes Ireland so unique.

    Our first stop was Portstewart (6,895 yards, par 72, www.PortstewartGC.co.uk), near Bushmills in Northern Ireland.  Due to its close proximity to Royal Portrush, Portstewart does not get the attention it deserves.  Rugged and beautiful, Portstewart was a tough, yet fair test of links golf that was a fully enjoyable start to our trip.


    Portstewart Golf Club

    We stayed at the Bushmills Inn (www.BushmillsInn.com), a warm and comfortable hotel housed in a building that dated back to the 1600's.  The glowing peat and coal fire that greets guests in the lobby helps to establish a tone of relaxation and rejuvenation.  A single malt whiskey in their period authentic "gas pub" (it is actually still lit by gas lamps), is a must stop. 


    Bushmills Inn

    While in the area, we visited the Bushmills Distillery.  They were granted a "License to Distill" in 1608 and from the samples they provided, they have apparently invested their time wisely.  From there, we visited the Giant's Causeway, a natural anomaly of countless six-sided rocks piled atop one another.  Geologists inform us that the rocks were formed by volcanic activity some sixty-million years ago, and Irish myth will claim their origins to the giant Finn McCool.  One thing that is certain is that the Giant's Causeway proves that there are forces in this world that are well beyond us.  Finally, we visited the Dunluce Castle ruins.  The castle dates back as far as the Norman era and its remains and the story of it's history were fascinating.


    Giant's Causeway

    That afternoon we played the Royal Portrush Dunluce Links (6,845 yards, par 72, www.RoyalPortrushGolfClub.com).  Royal Portrush's lineage is very impressive.  Founded in 1888 and consistently ranked among the Top 10 courses in the world, it is the only Irish course to have hosted the Open Championship (1951, won by Max Faulkner) and it is hosting of the Senior British Championship again in 2011, speaking to its lasting staying power on the world golf stage.  The 14th Hole speaks to its brilliance.  The hole is a 211 yard, par 3, known as Calamity's Corner.  One must carry their ball the entire way to the green as the right side of the hole is marked by a mountainous cavern and there is a devious pot bunker protecting the left side of the green.


    Royal Portrush Dunluce Links

    Later, we checked into Ballyliffen Lodge (www.BallyliffenLodge.com).  As endearing as our former hotel was for its charm, the Ballyliffen Lodge was distinguished for it beauty and class. WiFi, spa, gym, formal dining room and an active pub were all a part of the magic.

    The next morning, the full light of day greeted us with the beauty that surrounded us.  I was struck by the beauty of the Blue Stack mountains that embrace the region like outstretched arms.  As anyone who appreciates Celtic music already knows, in Ireland's land, you can hear the music, and in its music, you can see the land.  My mind danced to the harps, strings and pipes of one of the most beautifully rolling, cloud topped, mountain ranges that I had ever seen.  Their beauty was only enhanced by the violent manner in which they dropped off into the sea, marked by massive and dramatic cliffs.  Such a sight takes away any wonder as to why Celtic folklore is so woven with the mystic.

    We set off to play the Ballyliffin Glashedy Course (7,217 yards, par 72, www.BallyliffinGolfClub.com) designed by Pat Ruddy.  The course meanders through mountainous dunes and then plummets back down into deep canyons.  The variety was fascinating and while the deep rough was unforgiving for a well off-line shot, the fairways were wide and the greens were receptive when some forethought was employed as to how to attack the pin.  Each hole possessed a singular character and one left the course with an overall impression that the Ballyliffin Glashedy Course was a very fun round of links golf.


    Ballyliffin

    The Portsalon Golf Club (6,748 yards, par 72, www.PortsalonGolfClub.ie) was our next destination.  At first glance, Portsalon strikes you are typically Irish, humble and unassuming, yet all one has to play is the first hole and attempt to negotiate an approach shot close to the pin to realize that subtly sometimes packs a formidable punch.  Portsalon is a hidden gem and epitomized our experiences in that regard throughout our journey.  The fairways are distinguished by wild mounds, slopes and valleys.  Portsalon's natural links provided us for a joyous experience (we liked it so much, we played the course twice) that reiterated the value of intellect over brawn.


    Portsalon Golf Club

    Our next stop was the Rosapenna Hotel and Golf Course (7,005 yards, par 71, www.Rosapenna.ie).  More than a simple marriage between a hotel and a golf course, this was a true luxury resort.  We arrived early enough to play the first ten holes of their Old Tom Morris Course (Old Tom designed the first ten holes).  Perhaps Old Tom was a friendly man, but old photographs seem to make him look craggy and irascible.  I've played a number of courses he designed and each seemed to embody his image.  Irregular and unpredictable, the Old Tom Morris course was well worth the effort to play it as it provided for the exact experience you want on a links course.

    The Rosapenna Hotel was lovely.  The rooms were comfortable, the hotel bar was welcoming and the dining room was dignified and featured a massive series of picture windows overlooking the beach. 


    Rosapenna Golf Links

    Rosapenna Golf Links lived up to its advance reputation.  This Pat Ruddy designed course is a full-bore test of golf.  Thankfully, we were there on a day when the winds were calm, and even though, the course placed a premium upon precise shot making.  What's more, the green complexes were shaped such that a careless approach, chip or putt would be granted no quarter, rather, instantly consumed by a deep rough shrouded swale, or worse yet, an unforgiving pot bunker.  Rosapenna is a thinking-man's golf course.

    From there, we played the Narin & Portnoo Golf Club (6,856 yards, par 73, www.NarinPortnooGolfClub.ie).  Any golfing trip to Ireland is a journey of discovery, both of a personal kind and of some of the greatest links courses in the world.  Narin & Portnoo was to me like Burningbush was to Michael Murphy, in his book, Golf in the Kingdom.  Tucked away in Ireland's hidden coast, Narin & Portnoo was rustic, wild and yet so very authentic.  Narin & Portnoo called on every type of shot (and every club), always providing for multiple options of how to approach the task at hand.  Anyone that loves links golf will love this course, but to he who possesses a great imagination, this course could be their masterpiece.  Narin & Portnoo seemed as if it was from another golfing universe, worlds away from beverage carts and monolithic clubhouses.  If one is looking to discover the true essence of links golf, then they simply have to play Narin & Portnoo, if not only for all that it is, but for all that it is not.


    Narin & Portnoo Golf Club

    That night we stayed at the Radisson SAS Sligo Hotel (www.Sligo.RadissonSAS.com).  I was amazed at the level of comfort, including full spa and leisure facilities and business sophistication.  We enjoyed one of our most delicious meals in their modern, European style restaurant and  a Guinness night-cap (to aid in digestion, of course) in the hotel's busy pub.

    If it is possible to fall in love anew every day, then I was fully swooned by the County Sligo Golf Course (6,609 yards, par 71, www.CountySligoGolfClub.ie).  It is an amazing golf course.  The first thing one is struck by is the amazing views in every direction.  Even surrounded by this beauty, the golf course quickly grabs your attention.  While the course dates to 1894, it was redesigned in the late 1920's by Harry S. Colt, the same man who designed Sunnydale, Wenthworth and Pine Valley.  Colt crafted a links that embodied both artistry and pure pragmatism.  The course is laid out there before you in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of way.  Ingeniously utilizing the natural slope and contours of the land, Colt only took from this property what Mother Nature decided to give him, and she must have been in a generous mood.  The result is a sense of fairness, such that your fate is in your hands, augmented by fabulous variety.  Co. Sligo deserves to be placed in the company of Ireland's finest links courses.


    Co. Sligo Golf Club

    Wanting to stay near the airport, we spent our last night in the Dromoland Castle (www.Dromoland.ie).  As the name implies, this former manor home of the O'Brien's is most impressive, indeed.  Built on land the O'Brien clan had occupied for over 1,000 years, the Queen Anne period architecture was amazing and second only to the service and luxuries inherent in this full amenity hotel.  It was a perfect ending to a perfect trip and given how close it was to the Shannon airport, we arrived fully refreshed and ready to jump back in the "real world" of deadlines and responsibilities that awaited our return.


    Dromoland Castle

    Ireland's north and west are not always the first place people think of when it comes to an Irish golf holiday, but if one's decision is based upon the criteria of reasonable prices, world-class links courses, luxury accommodations and good, old-fashioned Irish hospitality, then Ireland's north and west cannot be matched.  If you would like help with your trip to Ireland's north and west, drop me an email at FairwaysofLife@cox.net.




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  • Thank Hagen for Wanamaker Rule

    Did you notice that in Tiger Woods pre-tournament press conference, that he was asked if he displayed the Wannamaker Trophy for winning the PGA Championship with the rest of his hardware?
     
    Tiger answered that he did not, as they don’t let you take that one with you. Interesting as that may be, Tiger and all others who have hoisted the trophy can likely thank none other than Walter Hagen for the take-it-with-you ban.
     
    During the mid-1920s, Hagen had a vise-like grip on the PGA Championship, winning four in a row. However, he failed to keep such a grip on the event’s trophy.
     
    After his first victory, Hagen was awarded the trophy to enjoy it for the next year as the reigning champion. Another victory meant another year in his possession, and it was sometime during this second stanza that Hagen and the trophy would part ways.
     
    Accounts have it that one night, Hagen paid a cab driver to return the trophy to his hotel, while he continued to enjoy a night on the town. It was the last that Hagen would see of it.
     
    Winning the next two PGA Championships, hardly anyone took notice that Hagen failed to present the trophy at the awards ceremony, assuming that Hagen’s actions were simply a reflection of his supreme confidence and that any concern for the trophy leaving his mantle were misplaced.
     
    Rather, it was the trophy itself that was misplaced, for after being eliminated in the 1928 PGA Championship during the semi-finals, Hagen finally had to admit that he did not have the trophy and had no idea where it was, having not seen it in years.
     
    Faced with the prospect of no visual award, the PGA purchased a new trophy. Years later, the original trophy was found in a dusty old wooden crate that had been stored in Hagen’s business in Florida and later shipped to Chicago.
     
    Apparently, either he forgot, or it had been shipped to him and stored without his knowledge. Once found, it was put back in circulation (and now the replacement has reportedly been lost!).

     




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  • The Playoff Payoff

    Well, the PGA Tour Playoffs for the FedEx Cup are upon us, the pursuit of which kicked off this week at Liberty National a course co-designed by none other than Tom Kite (with Bob Cupp).


    Liberty National

    As has been well noted, this course is built on land that was formally a land-fill.  The cost to build this course is said to have been almost 130 million dollars.  The course stretches to some 7,400 yards and it is built in a links-style, hole perimeters defined by amber flowing fescue.

    Beyond, the horizon is framed by the Manhattan skyline and breathtaking views of the Statue of Liberty.

    If defining something as “a classic,” is usually best left for the passage and judgment of time, certainly, Liberty National has been given a head start on such a distinction.

    As such, so to has there been considerable discussion and debate as to the place and significance of these playoffs in the vast landscape that is the world of golf.  For my part, I think we spend too much time trying to figure out where everything fits; defining, categorizing and ranking everything, such that each fits into its appropriate place.  A world well ordered.

    I, for one, do not know what the significance will be of the FedEx Cup in one, five, ten, or one hundred years from now.  Ultimately, I think the significance of the PGA Tour Playoffs for the FedEx Cup will be defined by how the participants view its merits.  Much like the same way that great courses tend to produce great champions, there can be little doubt that years from now, the value of this post-regular season chase will likely be judged, at least in part, by its list of champions.  Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh as it’s first two champions would suggest that it’s off to a great start.

    In Tiger Woods’ march to FedEx Cup glory in 2007, he blasted his way through the playoffs winning two tournaments and posting a second place finish in the other.  Significantly, one of Woods’ two victories was at THE TOUR Championship at East Lake, by eight strokes, finishing at 23 under par, a tournament record.  He won the BMW Championship the week before at 22 under par. 


    Tiger Woods, 2007 - PGATour.com

    In those 12 playoff rounds, Tiger was a total of 59 under par.  His scoring average was 65.75.  Tiger’s statistical performance illustrates how he ramped it up for the playoffs.  Tiger’s driving accuracy was 70.24%, a full 13 points higher than his average for the regular season (57%).  What makes this even more impressive is the fact that Tiger also ranked second in driving distance through the stretch, at 294.1 yards, significantly above the field average of 281.6 yards, through THE TOUR Championship, and a full five yards longer than his own average during the regular season.  Tiger was also first in the categories of Greens in Regulation (76.39%) and Proximity to the Hole (22 feet, a full six feet closer than the field average).

    In 2008, the story of Vijay Singh’s triumph was actually an unlikely one due to the fact that Singh was suffering from tendonitis in his left arm and from a bulky putter.  But as is well known, Vijay is an insatiable worker and he seemed to find something in the waning weeks of the regular season, winning the World Golf Championships – Bridgestone Invitational in August.  At the first playoff event, Singh proved he owned his putting stroke when he slammed home a 26 foot birdie putt to extend a playoff that he would eventually go on to win.  Singh continued his winning ways the very next week at the Deutsche Bank Championship and from there was in firm control.


    PGATour.com

    Remarkably, Vijay decided that he was the best putter in the world and the flat stick responded.  He started the playoffs averaging 1.801 putts per hole, ranked 125th on Tour.  By the end of The Barclays, he had worked himself up to 32nd with an average of 1.736 and at the Deutsche Bank he worked his way all the way up to 7th with an average of 1.627 putts, and along the way, he broke the tournament record by two strokes.

    Much has also been made of the tweaking to the points and the format since its onset, but I see no problem with that whatever.  Originally, the Open Championship was played over twelve holes, each competitor playing three rounds, for a total of 36 holes.  The U.S. Open used to end on a Saturday, with the playing of 36 holes that day.  The Masters was originally the Augusta National Invitational, before its more famous namesake was adopted and the PGA Championship use to have a floating date and be competed in a match-play format. 

    The bottom line is that sometimes it takes time for something to become a classic and I say we leave it to time to make such a judgment about the PGA Tour Playoffs for the FedEx Cup.

     




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  • Johnny's 63: A Most Shocking Record

    Coming into the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, the sense of daunting was palatable. Oakmont was well used to the its staring role on the nation’s most prominent national stage and it carried with it more than just the pedigree of having hosted four national championships. As the sight of Hogan’s last U.S. Open victory in 1953 and Nicklaus’ first, in 1962 (in a playoff over Arnold Palmer), the course also carried with it a reputation for sporting America’s fastest greens and fairways that were so narrow that even the U.S.G.A. had to ask the membership to widen two fairways in preparation for the National Championship.
     
    The course, while only modestly longer (27 yards) than it had been for its last Open in 1962, had bunkers that were legendary, if not only for their unique variety, but for this Open, their pure quantity, at 187, an increase of 33. What’s more, the 17th hole, a previously short par-4 (292 yards), which Hogan had driven in 1953 and Palmer in 1962, had been lengthened to 322 yards and the fairway contoured from right to left to bring bunkers into to play for an overly aggressive line.
     
    The story lines for this Open centered on the game’s reining icon, Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus would be attempting to win his fourth U.S. Open, tying him with his hero, Bobby Jones for U.S. Open titles, but surpassing him in total “majors” won at 14 (Jones’ majors included U.S. and British Amateurs, in keeping with the mentality from the era in which he competed). In addition, as any western Pennsylvania golf fan would easily recall, Nicklaus’ victory in 1962 came at the hands of their own, Palmer, and in 1973, at the age of 43, the great man still possessed enough of a game to claim revenge.
     
    While the weather for the opening round was perfect for playing the game of golf, the golf course had awaken that morning in a spiteful mood. Having dried out somewhat from rain earlier in the week, the course was drying out and starting to run. In order to score at Oakmont, the ball must be played to the proper spot on its large and undulating greens, all the harder to do when finite ball control is difficult to achieve. To the shock of nearly everyone, 1965 Champion Gary Player would finish the day having posted an impressive 67, some three shots clear of his closets pursuers, Jim Colbert, Ray Floyd and Lee Trevino. Player’s mark was the lowest single round for a U.S. Open at Oakmont up until that time. What made Player’s 4-under-par performance all the more remarkable was the fact that due to his February bladder surgery, Player had played in only three tournaments over the preceding five months!
     
    In every great story, some element of mystery always seems to find its place. Such was the case on the Thursday night after the first round. It has been stated that the intention of the tournament committee and the grounds crew had been to water the thirsty greens only for five minutes, just enough to give them a sip of satisfaction, but not enough to change their cruel disposition. For reasons that have remained unclear, the water was not turned off after five minutes and the greens, by Oakmont standards, became like sponges. Most likely caused by simple human error, the effect on the second round of the tournament was dramatic as the players attacked the defenseless lamb-greens like a pack of wolves.
     
    A club professional from East Norwich, Long Island, named Gene Borek, who got in as an alternate when Dave Hill withdrew, sent an early message about the changing fortunes of the course when he fired a new course record 65 in the morning. Whereas the day before, only four men broke par, more than four times that number would post red numbers on Day 2. It is interesting then, that Gary Player, who had excelled in the difficult conditions a day earlier, would muster only a 1-under-par performance in the second round. However, he would still hold the 36-hold lead at 5 under par, one stroke ahead of Colbert. Nicklaus was three shots off he lead and Palmer was five shots back. Palmer continued to electrify the crowd, identically matching pars for birdies with eight each through the first two rounds.
     
    If tournament officials had hoped that Mother Nature would help rescue them from their green miscue, they were sadly mistaken. Saturday morning brought with it a storm that dropped heavy rain on the course, but the skies cleared up enough by 10:20 AM for the first starting time to tee off on schedule. The rain would continue to come back, off and on, throughout the rest of the day continuing the trend from the day before and causing the greens to lose a strong element of their defense. The inevitable rust in Gary Player’s game was finally forced from the shadows on Day 3 and conditions that would lend one to believe it should have been the opposite; he shot a 6-over-par 77, four shots off the pace. By the end the day, Arnold Palmer would own a share of the lead with 1952 and 1963 U.S. Open Champion Julius Boros, who was 53-years-old (and already the oldest man to win a major championship when the won the 1968 PGA Championship at age 48), Jerry Heard and John Schlee. Tom Weiskopf, who would win the (British) Open Championship one month later, was one stroke behind.
     
    With Palmer tied for the lead, the level of excitement for the final round had reached a fevered pitch. Everyone expected Arnold Palmer to come out firing at every pin as the volatile mixture of this being the area where he was from, the sense of the event owing him something from ’62 and the reality that Palmer was not getting younger and this could be one of his last chances to contend, were all ingredients of the gumbo. What’s more, no one expected Jack Nicklaus to roll over, to the contrary, the golf world awoke that Sunday morning expecting nothing less that another epic battle. What the golf world got was perhaps the greatest final round of a major, of all time.

    Two time PGA TOUR winner Johnny Miller awoke on Sunday morning six shots from the leaders and separated by twelve hungry men. While he had posted eight top-10 finishes so far that season, he had not had a victory and his most recent U.S. Open performance hardly gave him reason to be confident. One year earlier, at the final round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (won by Nicklaus), Miller shot a disappointing 79 to finished seventh. He informed his wife to be packed and ready to go immediately following his final round because after a 5-over-par 76 the day before, a day when the rest of the leaders were moving the other direction, he was merely managing his expectations.
     
    On the practice tee, Miller claimed that an unrelenting voice within him was urging him to open his stance, even beyond that employed by Lee Trevino. It was a compulsion that he would acquiesce to.
     
    Miller would start the final round one hour ahead of the leaders. A 5-iron set up birdie on the first hole, a nearly jarred 9-iron on the second, and another 5-iron on the third hole (and 25-foot putt). Quickly, he was 3 under on the day. It didn’t stop there. He made birdie from the greenside bunker at the par-5, fourth hole and all of a sudden, standing now at 1 under par, the thought of winning this golf tournament did not seem so foreign to him.
     
    A sense of reality set in during the middle of his front nine with pars on the fifth, sixth, and seventh holes. He three-putted the eighth hole for bogey and dropped to 3 under for the day and even par for the Championship. A birdie on the short, par-5, ninth hole would get him back on track.
     
    He would par the 10th hole then wedge his approach to 15 feet at the 11th hole for another birdie to move to 5 under for the day, 2 under for the tournament and within striking distance of the lead.
     
    About this time, the leaders were finishing up their front nine in what was a hectic and frenzied final round. Veterans Palmer and Boros continued to fight the good fight and through nine, they held a share of the lead with Tom Weiskopf, with Lee Trevino among the players only a stroke back. As there seems to be a modern perception that players tend to fall off the pace on the final day of majors, the first nine holes of this U.S. Open was proving to be a slugfest.
     
    Some measure of adversity would strike Miller at the 603-yard, par-5, 12th hole. His drive would find the rough and the most club he could get on the ball was a 7-iron from this lie. He would now need to hit a 4-iron to reach the putting surface. Miller would stick it to within 15 feet and convert the putt. He now stood at 6 under for the day and 3 under for the tournament.
     
    Word of Miller’s historic pace began to filter through the course and in an attempt to catch history in the making, the gallery started to surge across the foot bridge that spanned the Pennsylvania Turnpike to catch a glimpse. So determined were the frenzied legions that some even crawled across the foot-wide railing as traffic zoomed past beneath them.
     
    Miller’s 4-iron proved to be an asset again on the 13th Hole when he used it to laser his approach to 5 feet and convert yet another birdie. Now, he stood at 7 under for the day, and 4 under for the tournament, tied for the lead with Palmer.
     
    He left his birdie putt on the 14th hole an inch from dropping, thus setting up the 15th hole for appropriate drama. This hole was a 453 yard, par-4, that is not only intimidating for its length in 1973, but for its 34-yard wide fairway and bunkers on each side. Playing as if fate had found its hero, Miller hit his drive some 275 yards and stuck his trusty 4-iron shot to within 10 feet of the pin. His birdie putt split the hole and with it, he owned sole possession of the lead at 5 under par for the Championship and 8 under for the day’s round.
     
    Behind him, Palmer’s fortunes began to unravel on the 11th Hole. Sitting only 4 feet from the hole to go to 5 under for the tournament, Palmer would miss the putt. After what looked like a perfect drive on the 12th hole, he would be shocked to find his ball had kicked into heavy rough and he would end up bogeying the hole, followed by bogies on holes 13 and 14.
     
    Miller would par the par-3, 16th hole with a 3-wood and two putts, he would also par the par-4, 17th hole utilizing a 1-iron, wedge and two putts, and then on the par-4, 18th hole, Miller unleashed a huge drive (and final exclamation point) leaving him only a 7-iron to get home and two puts later (his birdie putt would spin out of the hole), he would post a score of 63, the lowest ever in a U.S. Open (it would be matched by Nicklaus and Weiskopf in 1980 at Baltusrol).
     
    Now forced to wait out the players still on the course, Miller knew his fate was no longer in his hands. In a gritty performance, Schlee had crawled his way back to within one stroke of Miller and would need a birdie on the 18th hole to tie. Schlee’s approach shot rolled through the green into a patch of difficult rough some 40 feet from the pin. With Miller closely watching, Schlee was unable to coax the ball to the hole and he tapped in for par, finishing with an even par, 71. Now, only Tom Weiskopf (who missed a short putt on the 17th Hole) could catch Miller and he would have to jar his second shot at 18 to do it. When the unlikely failed to happen, Johnny Miller had won his first U.S. Open.
     
    Miller would finish the day with a 32 on the front, a 31 on the back side and having hit every green in regulation.
     
    When it was all done, Schlee finished in second place, Weiskopf in third and Palmer, Trevino and Nicklaus tied for fourth.




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