Thursday, August 08, 2013

Holy Moly! A finish that may be the stuff of legend

As I approached the tee of hole No. 9 at Champion Hills Club in Hendersonville, NC, little did I know I might be making history. It was my last hole in the USGA Senior Amateur qualifying round on Monday, August 5. My scoring that day was not going as desired though, looking back, my 18-hole total was not as bad as the final number of 91 shouts!

Having played only a practice round the day before at Champion Hills, currently the 11th ranked course in North Carolina by Golf Digest (requiring no fewer than 10 ballot appearances) and not on the North Carolina Golf Panel’s list of the top 100 courses in North Carolina (minimum of 40 ballot appearances required), I actually felt very familiar with the interesting layout that meanders beautifully, interestingly and confusingly through mountainous terrain and thought Monday’s venture would better the 83 of Sunday.

The course was playing to a USGA rating of 71.6 and a slope of 143. I really had no visions of qualifying for the finals to be played in September at Wade Hampton Golf Club in nearby Cashiers, NC. I just wanted to post a respectable score, hopefully under 80. Not close on either. The four who qualified shot 68, 68, 69 and 69.

It’s easy to explain your way out of bad scoring. The 91 came down to these 13 strokes: five lost balls (10 shots of penalty stroke and distance), an unplayable lie (one shot), and two balls in lateral hazards (two penalty strokes). My biggest blunders came on four holes, the par 5's, which are not as tough as I made them to be, especially if you play a basic down-the-middle game and not try to muscle shots, a mistake I made at each and every one. None are much more than slight doglegs with little or no hazards in play. However, in order of play:
  • No. 13, 517-yards (17th handicap hole), I lost a ball on my tee shot, three-putted, and made an eight;
  • No. 16, 509-yards (1st handicap hole), I had an unplayable lie and three-putted for a seven;
  • No. 3, 531-yards (6th handicap hole), I lost a ball on my third shot and made a 10 through simple disgust of what I was doing out there; and,
  • No. 5, 567-yards (10th handicap hole), two tee shots went into the woods right and lost but I rallied with a great down-the-middle third ball off the tee, followed by a huge 3-wood that rolled onto and off the green and then a chip and two putts for a nine.
So, on the par 5's, in order of play, I had scores of 8, 7, 10, and 9, which was 14-over par in a round of 20-over on the 35-36-par 71 course. That's an easy way to get to 91.

The par 4's at Champion Hills are a mix of short and long holes with five playing under 400 yards and four over 400 yards, but two of those longer holes were downhill and played much less than the yardage. The best two holes on the course are the 427-yard No. 6 (the 2nd handicap hole), an up-hill slightly left dogleg with a two-tier green, and the 403-yard No. 18 (the 3rd handicap hole), straight and up-hill into the wind. Both have huge false front greens and the pins were in the middle. A driver and an 8-iron gave me a six foot birdie try on No. 6, and a driver and 7-iron offered me the same on No. 18. Unfortunately, I was so excited about the approach shots that I failed to convert on each, walking away with pars.

I played the nine par 4's in six over par with one birdie, four pars, one bogey and three double bogeys, scores, in order of play of 6, 6, 3, 6, 4, 5, 4, 4, and 4.

To complete a Champion Hills Club round with even par on the five par 3's is worth noting. With lengths of 140-yards, 182-yards, 196-yards, 206-yards and 173-yards, just about anyone would be willing to write in 3 across the board on those holes and move to the next. The tee shots on each par 3, even the short one, are intimidating. There greens are a nice size, but the image in front of you gives pause. I hit only two of the five greens with my tee shot. On the three I did not hit, I was just off the green and could putt from the fringe on two (made one par and one bogey) and got up and down with a chip and putt for par on the other.

The first par 3 that day was my second hole, No. 11, 206 yards. This came after losing my tee shot on my first hole of the day, No. 10, and making double bogey six. As I made my way to the 11th tee, I was already becoming a bit rattled, but I hit a smooth 6-iron to the 206-yard hole and two putted fro 15 feet for a par. So, on the four par 3 holes, I had scores, in order of play, of 3, 3, 4, and 3.

The last par 3 was No. 9, my last hole of the round. A par 4 at No. 8 put me first on the tee in the threesome. If there is a hole at Champion Hills that will test your will, it’s No. 9. The scorecard and the stone marker tell you the hole is 196-yards from the back tee to the green, but, according to the professional staff, there’s a down-hill elevation change of 40 yards. On the Champion Hills website, there’s a quote from the course designer: The par-three 9th is one of the most exciting features of the Champion Hills course. Besides being spectacularly beautiful, the drop is set at the height of a 12-story building. I always look forward to playing this hole. It's just a lot of fun." —Tom Fazio 

In Sunday’s practice round, after my fellow competitors hit 5-iron and 6-iron over the green and into trees and bushes, I sent a 7-iron to the same location. So, Monday, even with a little face wind, I pulled my 8-iron, knowing it would take a good effort, and it was. The contact I made was near perfect. If it had been perfect, I would have made a hole-in-one. The ball sailed high over the green and landed about 12 feet beyond the front pin placement for a slightly downhill birdie attempt which I hit dead solid perfect as it rolled squarely into the cup for a birdie 2.

While I was happy with the deuce, laughing at myself for such a spectacular finish, I was a little embarrassed with the final score of 91. I checked the numbers on the card and turned it in to the official scorer. As it turns out, my score was the highest score recorded for the qualifying round. I could have done what two others did that day and NC (no-card) or what eight others did and WD (withdraw which seven did while on the course and one did prior to teeing off). But, even with the lost balls and other penalty shots, I stuck in there and completed the round. Quitting, giving up, is not an option as far as I’m concerned when it comes to golf.

After informing via email a couple of friends of my adventure that day, one in particular took a look at myscorecard on-line. He was quick to write back: You actually had a very interesting round. You lacked only Ace for the cycle…you had a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 … a straight flush! Then the second friend chimed in: Holy Moly! To make 2 on last hole to complete the straight is all-world, truly Guinness-worthy … the record book, the beer … take your pick.

Hah! Hah! I laughed at their comments and at myself, having never looked at it that way. I have no desire to contact the USGA to see if this “feat” has been accomplished ever or just in an official USGA tournament round. For a moment, I thought about submitting it to Sports Illustrated for its “Faces in the Crowd” or “By the Numbers” sections, but stopped at that. 

A couple of days later, I heard again from the second friend via email: Sorry to beat a dead horse but I still can’t get over it: 234, 567, 8 9 10. I honestly doubt anyone has ever achieved golf’s Triple Straight. Achieving it by finishing with a 2 is the stuff of legend. You really should blog about this.

I just did!
Being 11th on the Golf Digest list is too high, as far as I’m concerned. The next eight in Golf Digest are better courses. And, if 40 members of the NC Golf Panel get to play Champion Hills, the course at the very least will show up in the 40 to 50 range, maybe higher except for its awful practice facilities and suspect hospitality to outside groups. The USGA Senior amateur participants were told that the member-owned course has a policy against outside groups taking carts on the fairways. We were allowed to do so on Sunday as we practiced, but Monday on our first tee we were informed of the "cart paths only" policy on the hilly layout. When scheduling Senior events, the USGA should consider such policies and inform the players prior to registration. I probably would have played there anyway, just for the experience and the chance to play Champion Hills Club.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The 2013 Masters was really like no other!

It was wonderful Sunday afternoon—after spending four hours in the yard where my wife and I trimmed an overgrown forsythia (taking the clippings to the landfill), cut a few low hanging tree limbs to allow a little more sunlight into the garden, ridded a holly tree/bush of many in-the-way prickly extensions, mowed our overgrown grass combination of fescue and poa annua, and sprayed round-up here and there in the flower borders to halt the growth of weeds and rouge grasses—when, after an extensive shower, I settled into my oversize leather chair with A Big Boss Brewing Bad Penny to watch the back nine of The Masters from the Augusta National Golf Club where Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore were on site (I assume) enjoying their initial tournament as the first and only female members of one of the most famous used-to-be-all-male clubs in the world.
On Masters Sunday, while the previous three rounds and the first nine holes of the final day offer interesting story lines, it is always the back nine, the inward nine, of the final round that draws the most interest. This year—with the two additional holes for the twosome of Adam Scott, the eventual sudden-death (I hate the phrase) winner who defies the USGA rules-makers with his anchored putter, and Angel Cabrera, a man after my own heart with his pick-up-the-pace style of play—it was lots of fun to watch story lines race back and forth as the final few pairings made their way to complete the world's most famous, most important and most beautiful golf tournament.
There's really no reason to get into all the back and forth details because if you're reading this edition of NC Golfer, then you probably already know how it all worked out. While it made no difference to me who of the final two won the Green Jacket and the $1.4 million that's discovered in the right inside jacket pocket as a perk of sorts, I felt a little sorry for the way Jason Day gave back to the course on Saturday (bogies at the 17th and 18th holes) and Sunday (bogies at the 16th and 17th holes) to slip out of the playoff.  Oh well, he’ll have another day as will others who fell asleep at the wrong time Sunday.
As many of those who play golf and follow the sport wondered on Sunday, what would have happened if Tigers Woods had not hit the 15th hole pin with his third shot on Saturday and then made a short putt for birdie? Or, after the ball that hit the pin caromed into Rae's Creek, what if Tiger had not dropped outside the immediate area of that third shot and been hit with a two-shot penalty a day later after he said he had made the drop two-yards back form the original spot? In a way, that was a three-shot swing for Tiger who finished 5-under par, four shots back of Scott and Cabrera. Those three shots, or just the two shot penalty, might have changed the entire day for those at the top of the leader board. Woods has an intimidating presence on the course, especially when he's near the top. I doubt Scott, Cabrera or Day had Woods in their minds as the played the final nine. I believe they are better than that and simply had their own game in their vision. (Actually I was hoping Tiger would finish two shots back of the top! That would have been sweet!)
Of course, there was a chance Woods would not (maybe should not) have been there Sunday, except for a new rule as of 2012 in the USGA Rules of Golf, leaving it up to The Committee to determine if malice was involved with the Woods-Dropping-The-Ball incident. So, with the 2013 Masters in the book, there will be continued discussion of the rules used and interpreted to allow Tiger to play Sunday instead of disqualifying him for signing an incorrect scorecard Saturday. Tiger claims to have not known the rules violation, but for someone as accomplished as Tiger, he should have. His caddie should have. Maybe his playing partner that day should have said something. Ignorance of the law is not excuse for breaking the law, but then Tiger has other issues he's skirted and gotten away with it.
Next time you're playing a golf tournament and The Committee wants to DQ you for signing an incorrect scorecard or for any other reason, just say, "I didn't know the rule, just like Tiger didn't." Hopefully the committee will not treat you any less than was the many-times-proclaimed-best-golfer-ever-in-the-world.
Now, a little language from the USGA:
USGA Rule 6-6: Scoring in Stroke Play
a. Recording Scores
After each hole the marker should check the score with the competitor and record it. On completion of the round the marker must sign the score card and hand it to the competitor. If more than one marker records the scores, each must sign for the part for which he is responsible.
b. Signing and Returning Score Card
After completion of the round, the competitor should check his score for each hole and settle any doubtful points with the Committee. He must ensure that the marker or markers have signed the score card, sign the score card himself and return it to the Committee as soon as possible. PENALTY FOR BREACH OF RULE 6-6b: Disqualification.
c. Alteration of Score Card
No alteration may be made on a score card after the competitor has returned it to the Committee.
d. Wrong Score for Hole
The competitor is responsible for the correctness of the score recorded for each hole on his score card. If he returns a score for any hole lower than actually taken, he is disqualified. If he returns a score for any hole higher than actually taken, the score as returned stands.
USGA Rule 33-7: Disqualification Penalty; Committee Discretion
A penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the Committee considers such action warranted. Any penalty less than disqualification must not be waived or modified. If a Committee considers that a player is guilty of a serious breach of etiquette, it may impose a penalty of disqualification under this Rule.
USGA Rules Decision 33-7/4.5: Competitor Unaware of Penalty Returns Wrong Score; Whether Waiving or Modifying Disqualification Penalty Justified
QUESTION: A competitor returns his score card. It later transpires that the score for one hole is lower than actually taken due to his failure to include a penalty stroke(s) which he did not know he had incurred. The error is discovered before the competition has closed. Would the Committee be justified, under Rule 33-7, in waiving or modifying the penalty of disqualification prescribed in Rule 6-6d?
ANSWER: Generally, the disqualification prescribed by Rule 6-6d must not be waived or modified. However, if the Committee is satisfied that the competitor could not reasonably have known or discovered the facts resulting in his breach of the Rules, it would be justified under Rule 33-7 in waiving the disqualification penalty prescribed by Rule 6-6d. The penalty stroke(s) associated with the breach would, however, be applied to the hole where the breach occurred.
So, what do you think? Should Tiger have been given the two stroke penalty or not; should he have been disqualified or not?

Monday, April 01, 2013

Par 72! A truly memorable round at Pinehurst No. 2!

Imagine a score of even par 72 at Pinehurst No. 2! Last week I had the opportunity to play the famed course in the Sandhills of North Carolina, and, well, let me just say that it was a treat both to play the recently re-made course and to score so well that … well … if you have a few moments, read my account of that wonderful day and see for yourself.

Golf, it has been said, is a good walk spoiled, but on a 54-degree blustery day walking a special course with friends while caddies tote the clubs and offer advice on club selection and putting breaks, it’s definitely not a good walk spoiled no matter how you play and score. But when you play well, when you hit the ball solid, make putts, stroll along the fairways and enjoy the course, it’s an experience that will not be forgotten and must be chronicled.

Last week’s round wasn’t my first at Pinehurst No. 2. I played it in the 1960s as a junior golfer in leisurely and tournament settings. That’s when “love” grass was aplenty along the fairway edges. I played No. 2 many times as a full resort course after the sandy rough was replaced with thick Bermuda grass. Recently, Pinehurst No. 2, designed by Donald Ross, was restored to his original idea and design, and this was my first round on the renovated layout.

As part of a larger group playing the course that will host the 2014 U.S. Open and the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, our foursome was asked to shotgun start on Mr. Ross’s favorite par four among all par four holes he designed. As we rode in carts to the fifth hole on No. 2, I knew we were at a special place.  I relived rounds of yesteryear, viewing the remade course, appreciating what the team of Coore & Crenshaw had done to transform the layout from the resort appeal of grass from tree-line to tree-line to the sandy spaces between fairways and trees. I was ready to appreciate the course no matter how it received my game.

I was just three shots into my round when I realized not only was the course special but my game would fit the same description. The fifth hole is 436 yards long from the Blue tees, a 6,930 yard layout. (NOTE: No. 2 will be lengthened to 7,495 yards for the U.S. Open. The fifth hole will be a 476 yard par four and will probably be played into the wind, as usual.)  My tee shot was a little high leaving more than 200 yards to the green. A shot hit with a 20-degree hybrid stopped 15 yards short of the elevated green, and I called to my caddie, Wheeler, for my putter. He paused but followed my instructions, told me to stroke it toward the middle of the green. He stepped back and watched my effort, a good stroke. It made the green, starting down the middle, as instructed, and then veered left toward the hole. I was below the level of the green and did not see the up-hill effort roll into the cup but my partners did, offering excited reactions to the unthinkable birdie!

And so it went. A solid par 3 at the sixth hole was followed by a lipped birdie at the par four seventh, and then came the par five eighth, the hole where John Daly, in the 1999 U.S. Open, was hit with a two-stroke penalty for stroking a moving ball. I pushed a drive to the right, stopping atop pine straw about 200 yards out. It’s unusual for me to cut a shot, but I did with a four iron, off the pine straw with such effort the ball skidded across the green, coming to rest close to where Daly was that day 14 years ago when I watched him try to putt up a hill onto the green only to have the ball never make it and roll back to his feet. After it stopped, he tried again and told his caddy he would hit it on the move if the ball rolled back again. It did, and he did. For Daly, the pin was on the back of the green; this time, the pin was on the front of the green, my effort was a little easier but still delicate so as not to roll it off the front.

My shot, a putt up a sizable hill, came to stop four feet below the hole, and I soon recorded a second birdie in four holes. After failing to get up and down from a bunker and scoring a bogey on the 174 yard par three ninth hole and a routine par at the 580 yard par five tenth hole, I played the par four eleventh, 453 yards, like a pro, hitting driver, hybrid and holing a 15 foot down hill left to right slider, read perfectly by Wheeler.

The twelfth through fifteenth holes were up and down, literally, making par four from a greenside bunker on twelve, a bogey five after bunkering my second shot on thirteen, a two putt par four on the fourteenth and a bizarre bogey on the par three, 183 yard fifteenth, playing into the wind. My hard hit four iron reached the green, just past the cup located on the right side of the green, but I didn’t follow my caddy’s advice and played too much break, and watched the ball slide past the hole, take the green’s severe false front and roll into the deep front right sand bunker. Somehow my blast from the sand came to rest two feet below the hole and my second putt went in for a four. I was even par for the round after playing eleven holes.

After a par five at the sixteenth hole, I asked Wheeler to club me on the 186 yard par three seventeenth. The wind was strong right to left. The pin was on the front, reducing the distance to about 170 yards. Wheeler though seven iron; I asked for the eight, took a hard swing, hit the ball high above the tree line and watched it draw toward the green. It landed just over the front right sand bunker, caught the green’s downhill left slope and rolled to within six inches of the cup. Birdie!

Pinehurst No. 2’s eighteen hole, where Payne Stewart made a 15-foot putt to win the 1999 U.S. Open, is a wonderful finishing hole. The 415 yard par four plays uphill and into the wind, most of the time. Today was no exception. After a strong drive, I was 185 yards from the green and asked for my hybrid, much like a three iron. Wheeler pleaded with me to hit the ball above the clubhouse roof line to allow for the wind to knock it down onto the green. A low approach would end up in the clubhouse. I hit the ball as Wheeler suggested and the ball came to rest in the middle of the green. I two-putted for another par, a 36 on the back nine and one under for the day with four to play.

The first three holes at Pinehurst No. 2 are the type that will make or break the professionals when they play in June 2014. It’s not the layout or the rough that’ll be an issue. It’s the greens with their interesting contours and less than obvious breaks. I was short of the first green in two and, using a putter from off the green, failed to get up and down in two for a bogey five.

The second hole will play 503 yards as a par four for the Open; we played it at 438 yards. I needed a well-played bunker shot for my third to set up a four foot par putt which rolled all the way around the lip before dropping. The third hole is one of the shortest par fours on No. 2, but the 350 yard hole is difficult. My second shot hit on the green but rolled back into the front left bunker and I failed to make par. The five put me at one over for the day with just the 507 yard (569 for the Open) par five fourth hole to play. Fortunately, it was down wind.

This was my best tee shot of the day as the ball came to rest about 300 yards from the tee and in prime position along the left side of the fairway. I hit the hybrid again for my second shot, landing on the green in two. I grabbed my putter and strolled up the hill to our final green, waving to the imagined gallery. One putt would put me one-under par for the day; two putts for birdie and even par would be recorded, which in the summer of 2014 would be good for an early lead in the U.S. Open. I was 18 feet right of the pin and with sweeping right to left downhill break, thank you Wheeler. My stroke was solid and the line was perfect; my playing partners watched in a hush as the ball grew closer to eagle. As the Titleist ProV1 reached the hole, it slowed just enough to break more than anticipated and stopped inches left of the cup. I made birdie and recorded an even par 72 for the round. What a great day!

Anyone who has played golf understands the joy of playing a career round, and while 72 is not the best I’ve ever had, shooting 72 this day for this golfer with a 5.3 handicap, would be remarkable, especially on one of the toughest courses anyone will play no matter which tees are used. Golfers only dream of rounds such as this one.

Ah, yes, to dream of a great round of golf, an even-par score is what many golfers sleep on. We only wish our dreams would come true, at least once if not more often. And, considering today’s date, I trust that you will consider my round last week at Pinehurst No. 2 as more of a figment of my imagination than reality. Last week, my game wasn’t quite as described above, the details of which you do not want to know. I posted an Equitable Stroke Control 89 after playing a tough Pinehurst No. 2. And, today, I led you through a miracle round which I hope you enjoyed. Since today is April 1, please excuse me for this little bit of fun. Even if you didn't, I had a good time. April Fools’!