Traveling around as much as I do – 150 days a year on the road – and seeing so many golf courses, I’m constantly exposed to a wide range of how the game is actually played. Too much conversation about the game focuses on the elite level of tournament play – most of that derived from the PGA Tour and from the four major championships.
• • •
Sure, those events are exciting and memorable. Nothing in recent history came close to the drama of Phil Mickelson’s victory at the Open Championship at Muirfield. Great theater, which I watched from the comfort of a sofa at home, seemingly glued to the action for 5-6 hours. All the more powerful when you know how hard that course is. Back in April, during a media day there, my 12-index game had all it could handle and more from tees that, at 6,300 yards, were about 800 yards shorter than the ones they played in July.
Every year I’m reminded of the gap between those players and the rest of us. It’s something I relive four times a year when walking those courses prepping for my tournament previews or about to write something the week of an event from the site. Each year, my favorite day is Tuesday of practice week at the Masters. That’s when I get to give a guided tour of Augusta National to a group of Golfweek course raters, most of who are gawking at the place for the first time. This year, as usual, we just tried to get through the back nine, and you’d be surprised how easy it is to take up three hours over nine holes, strolling along those massive landforms, explaining the features, recalling famous shots or simply standing there in awe of the elevation changes and the vast sweep of the contours.
I suppose it’s fair criticism to say that I generally find the golf courses more interesting to watch than the golf that’s played on them. OK, guilty as charged. Of course it helped that all the time I spent in the run-up to the 2013 U.S. Open that it never rained during my early visits to Merion Golf Club like it did the week of the championship. But I will always cherish the hours of conversation I had with the club’s mad scientist of a superintendent, Matt Shaffer, as we walked around the grounds or as I sat and listened to him in his office or when he addressed his assembled team, like a football coach on the eve of a big-game kickoff. He’s the kind of guy who thinks “you have to lose turfgrass in order to find out how far you can push it.” And instead of worrying about having different patches of turf types, he believes such diversity to be a healthy virtue.
For all the fine golf that winner Justin Rose played that week, it has to be said it was done on a golf course that was deliberately set up by the club with some of the fairways running the wrong way – on lower ground than they were intended, or too close to out-of-bounds. But Shaffer’s not the culprit there. And he held up so well and with tireless dignity throughout the torrential downpours all week. The highlight of my whole year was sitting in his office for hours on those wet mornings while friends and colleagues came by to offer their condolences at the miserable conditions. Shaffer never lost his optimism or sense of humor.
• • •
Having always been intrigued by the design work of William Langford and Theodore J. Moreau, I finally got to see two of their outstanding layouts this year, Lawsonia–Links Course in Green Lake, Wis., and Wakonda Club in Des Moines, Iowa. No other designers from the 1920s have been treated with more neglect than these two Midwesterners. Very little remains in the country of their bold bunkering and exaggerated scale of things. Think of them as doing a curved version of Seth Raynor’s vertical extremes. Lawsonia–Links is the purest version of their work, and Wakonda still conveys it, even if at times it’s obscured. But it’s all there in the ground, a bracing reminder of how imaginative golf design can light up the land.
Unlike a lot of journalists, I am less concerned with what today’s players say and do and more interested in what I can learn from history and the land. So on a somewhat eerie and lengthy golf trip along the Tex-Mex border that took me from El Paso through Lajitas and on down to Laredo this April, I managed to ride over the exact spot on a lone highway between the towns of Van Horn and Marfa where Ben and Valerie Hogan suffered their horrible car crash in February 1949. I’m not much for “aura” and “spirit,” but it was hard not to stop there and wonder about and relive for a moment a sad piece of golf history.
• • •
Any year of golf involves the sublime and the ridiculous. And nothing compares to my experience in the company of the one-and-only Donald Trump during his whirlwind visit to the Doral Resort and Spa in mid-February. I’ve seen Trump before close hand and always marvel at his ability to work a crowd – in this case a mob of adoring members and guests who were thrilled that he’s saving their long-neglected resort. It helps that he has money to invest and the good sense to hire highly qualified people – including architect Gil Hanse for a total reconstruction of the Blue Monster – to do it.
The plans were ambitious, but also quite doable, so long as you have enough money and nerve. Trump has plenty of both. And he also has the “chutzpah” to declare it along the way as certain to result in “the best, the greatest, No. 1 resort course in America.” I learned long ago from watching George Costanza in “Seinfeld” that technically, it’s not lying if you believe it. Trump believes every word he says.
• • •
One of the thrills of any year is final getting to courses I have never seen. Among the ones I saw for the first time that struck me was Sankaty Head on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. It’s old-fashioned, from 1922, windswept, and stunning in its simplicity. Think of it as a stripped-down version of Shinnecock Hills.
I had been to Prairie Club in remote Valentine, Neb., before, but this time it was in late October, a day or too after the resort had technically shut down, and so the flags were pulled and there was hardly anyone around to join me on a brisk day, with temperatures in the 40s and the wind blowing steadily at 20 mph. And so I simply manufactured a game for The Pines Course of picking out in advance where I thought the hole would be cut and playing to that part of the green and putting to old cup circles. I felt like a kid again. Borrowed clubs, carried my own, eyeballed most of my yardages, and played as well as I had all year. If only the game could be that much fun every day.
I also spent a week in China, bad air and all – though at least I didn’t have to wear a mask to play, as the LPGA players did when they were in Beijing in November. I saw a lot of mediocre, overpriced courses but also some dramatic locations. And nothing prepared me for the sweep and beauty of Shanqin Bay, the newly opened course designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw on Hainan Island. Who knew that an old, abandoned coastal military base could make for such amazing golf ground? Let’s hope that every other course developer in the country makes the trek there to see what naturalistic design can look like.
• • •
Back to Earth
Down at the club level, with everyday courses that cost $30 to play and where people have to deal with skanky course conditions and they’re thrilled to be out playing at all and happy if they break 90, the game has a depth and breadth to it that makes it unique among all sports. It’s also struggling badly, with lots of course owners losing money, clubs having to borrow or slash budgets and members scrambling to pay their bills. I have a mantra about golf, that it’s a great game but a lousy business. As far as I can tell, 2013 proved it right (again).
This was the year that real golfers – I mean the ones who pay the daily green fees and their monthly dues – started moving up en masse. Maybe I just was more sensitive to it in 2013, because next year I turn 60 and I don’t hit it quite as far as I used to. And as my wife likes to say, we can’t think of any of our friends who are getting younger. But everywhere I went (outside of Tour events), it seemed that folks were moving up and enjoying the game from 6,200 or 6,300 yards. And clubs were installing tees that measured 4,800 yards for forward-tee players and 5,600 yards for the gray-haired players.
• • •
On a Personal Note
I make it a practice not to write about my own game. After all, there’s nothing worse than being subjected to accounts of how others play, and that’s the last thing I want to afflict on Golfweek readers. I’ll limit my comments to the fact that for the first time in my 45 years of trying to play golf, I have devoted myself to a systematic assessment and re-evaluation of my golf game. That’s meant a series of (paid) lessons with a certified PGA professional who has me on swing monitors, hooked up in the Z-Vest and engaged in physical (re)training and a totally different approach to my stance, grip, takeaway and finish. We’ll see if it works. But so far it’s been exciting, challenging and scary. Also productive. Sometimes.
• • •
Bradley S. Klein is the architecture editor of “Golfweek.” In 2013 he published his sixth golf book, “Wide Open Fairways” (University of Nebraska Press).