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.

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