LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Polished in the Rules of Golf, Rob Corcoran has an appendix that visitors to Poxabogue Golf Center must adhere to.
“As long as you’re wearing clothes, I’m fine,” he said.
Which means tank tops, swim suits, flip-flops . . . all of it is welcomed. “If they’re willing to learn, then we give them a great lesson.”
Ladies and gentlemen of the golf community, if you’re passionate about the game and concerned for its future, spread your arms and put a warm embrace around your hero for the week. A round of applause, please, for a player who may not be favored to win the 96th PGA Championship, but should darn well be a favorite.
Corcoran, you see, understands that before golf can rise to the stature where we will see it played out at Valhalla Golf Club this week – grand, rich, sparkling – roots must be planted at the starting line. While most of his opponents in the season’s final major championship dream of million-dollar checks and chances to move up in the world order, Corcoran basks in the challenge of bringing people into the game, committed to a simple premise.
Charles Howell III on Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
John Daly on Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Ian Poulter on Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Fans watch a long-driving contest Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Fans crowd Phil Mickelson on Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Fans reach out to Kenny Perry on Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Rory McIlroy speaks with juniors Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Rory McIlroy speaks with juniors Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Fans interact with Rory McIlroy on Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Fans interact with Lee Westwood on Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Lee Westwood practices Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Colin Montgomerie practices Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Justin Rose practices Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Angel Cabrera practices Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Pablo Larrazabal with his girlfriend during practice Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
The 20 club pros in the 2014 PGA Championship gather Tuesday at Valhalla.
Adam Scott during practice Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Pete Bevacqua of the PGA of America speaks Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
PGA Vice President Derek Sprague, PGA President Ted Bishop, and PGA CEO Pete Bevacqua share a light moment Tuesday at Valhalla before the 2014 PGA Championship.
Banners mark the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla.
“Once they hit that perfect shot, they’re coming back.”
One of 20 club professionals who qualified for the PGA, Corcoran is even unique among his group of peers. While most of them work at private country club of 18-hole facilities and some (Jim McGovern, Jerry Smith) have PGA Tour experience and others (Bob Sowards, Rod Perry) have done this PGA Championship routine before, the 38-year-old Corcoran is as grass-roots as it gets.
Poxabogue is located on Route 27 – a.k.a. Montauk Highway – on the southern tip of Long Island, smack in the shadows of Shinnecock Hills and The National Golf Links of America. Reciprocals, perhaps?
“Absolutely,” Corcoran said. “They send people to us and we send people to them.”
Pause. Smile. Good humor.
“No, not exactly.”
But here is exactly what Poxabogue is: Crucial to the future of golf.
Lost in the glitz and glamour of high-end country clubs and their fancy bag drops, greens that run 13 on the Stimp, and exorbitant monthly fees is this: Where do they think their future members are coming from? Corcoran, in his small piece of the golf world, is providing that answer, having landed at Poxabogue four years ago after a most circuitous route.
A passionate hockey player growing up in South Windsor, Conn., he always enjoyed the competitive side of golf and figured he’d play at Campbell University in North Carolina. He never did compete much for the Fighting Camels, but that didn’t mean he lost his competitive appetite. In his junior year he qualified for the U.S. Amateur, then he started hanging around aspiring professionals who adopted a 24/7 embrace of golf.
“(These guys) would eat breakfast, play golf all day, go home, have a couple pops, and I said, ‘That’s something I’d like to do. If I could just get this college thing out of the way. I think I could get the ball rolling with this.’ “
Out of college, Corcoran gave the pro game a try for five years, from South America to Canada to Mondays on the Web.com Tour to “every minitour possible,” but when he pulled the plug on that phase of his life he didn’t give up on golf.
“I never said this is exactly what I’m going to do,” Corcoran said, thinking he’d be a head pro or a general manager or a lifelong assistant. Anything in the game. “Then I fell in love with the teaching side.”
Smack in the middle of one of America’s wealthiest enclaves, Corcoran feels blessed to be at the area’s only public facility. Imagine, when he walks just a short way along Valhalla’s fourth hole, Corcoran will have covered more than 1,600 yards – or the entire of length of Poxabogue’s nine holes – six par 3s, three par 4s.
Hole No. 1, Par 4, 446 yards: A relatively gentle opener, this steady dogleg left provides a chance for bold players to cut the corner over trees on the left with a high draw or a shot carrying 280 yards played into the prevailing light breeze. The wind here is not, however, a major factor, averaging 7 mph out of the northwest in mid-August and barely enough to offset even partially the traditionally steamy heat. The approach shot here, ideally played left to right, is characteristic of Valhalla in that you can’t work the ball onto the putting surface from a flight path that is outside of the fill pad. In other words, you can’t use the side slopes to get enough bounce to hold the surface. The approach has to be played on a tight line from within the outer edge of the green’s periphery. It’s a course designed strictly for aerial golf.
Hole No. 2, Par 4, 500 yards: For championship play, this members’ par 5 is set up as a gut-wrenching par 4. The drive plays to a Barbie-doll waist of a fairway pinched to 22 yards across, with sand right and a steep falloff to the creek on the left. It’s 280 yards to the bunker, 305 yards to clear, and with the watery slope looming left it won’t be unusual to see players lay up short off the tee here and leave themselves a second shot from 230 yards out. The green, well defended up front and canted diagonally, offers less depth in the target zone than most par 4s at Valhalla. It’s a hole that players, even of this caliber, will approach very defensively.
Hole No. 3, Par 3, 205 yards: It’s impressive how basic and solid Nicklaus can design holes when he’s not trying to trick folks up with gimmicky green “quadrants.” There’s an elegant flow to this hole, especially as viewed from the slightly elevated platform tee across the creek at the base of the wooded hill. A very deep bunker flanks the entire right side and tends to draw golfers away to the left – where the green tilts ever so slightly away from the line of play. The point here is that players have to commit to a middle iron that starts off closer to the right edge than their instincts would prefer.
Hole No. 4, 372 yards: Now we’re out on the vastly open, naturally level flood plain, where Nicklaus and Co. had to work really hard to create all of the contour. The fourth hole is strictly lay-up off the tee, as there’s no incentive or potential reward for a bold drive. The fairway is interrupted 310 yards out, where it spills out into rough, heavily broken ground. Even the far corner of the fairway landing area is heavily protected by bunkers. So it’s a long iron off the tee or some sort of fairway metal/rescue for the guys. The play is to a distinctly contoured green with a plateau right and quick punchbowl fall-off to the left. This is a definite birdie opportunity.
Hole No. 5, Par 4, 463 yards: Now it’s hold-on-for-dear-life-time again, thanks to a relentless dogleg right with very steep bunkers flanking both sides of a tight driving lane. From there, It’s a short- or middle-iron to a putting surface that slides right but kicks the ball back out left if it comes in just a little too far on that high side. If there’s any wind, it works against cutting the hole short off the tee. The one obvious no-no here is coming up short and right on the drive.
Hole No. 6: Par 4, 495 yards: This is the most awkward hole on the course – virtually a compendium of how not to design a par 4. Let’s see: reverse-camber dogleg right to a fairway tilting to the left; a forced layup off the tee since the fairway ends at 300 yards and tumbles off into a steep, watery ravine; trees on the right side that block out a view of the second fairway on the far side. The hole is a nightmare for average golfers – for whom the angle of the tee shot gets progressively worse as the hole gets shorter. Even for these guys in the PGA Championship it’s a knee-knocker of a hole because they’re all facing an approach in of 210-240 yards. Players who miss the fairway on the right off the tee will have no option but to pitch out short of the ravine, leaving themselves two bills in. There’s some relief and bailout short and right of the green, but hit it left and the ball will disappear down a steep embankment.
Hole No. 7: Par 5, 597 yards: The hardest thing in modern course design is to build a par 5 with a viable second fairway option. Here’s an example: a massive par 5, played from a deep launch pad, with two options staring you in the face. There’s a long emerald road down the right side – a seemingly rational path studded with sand on the left side of the tee-shot landing area and on the right side protecting the second-shot zone. And then there’s this little island of repose, virtually dead flat, rimmed only by rough, 1 acre in size and offering a considerably shorter helicopter pad of a fairway for someone who drives the ball 300 yards and straight. To say this island of a second fairway leaves you somewhat isolated is no exaggeration, especially if you miss it. But it is tempting, especially for a player who can then fly his second shot 250 yards over the odd combination of marsh and exposed rock that protects the flyway into this putting surface. The right side is certainly more mundane, but it does pinch down options such that a third shot in following a layup is very awkward because it poses threats both short (sand) and the length of the left side (water). Let’s just say this will be an exciting hole to watch, given the rather startling range of options and the likely gamut of scores, from 3 through 8.
Hole No. 8, 174 yards: Thank goodness for this prosaic interlude, a straightforward little hole played from platform to platform, with lots of shape and contour to the putting surface. The well-sectioned green demands precision on a hole where the trajectory of the short iron will be influenced (somewhat) by the prevailing downbreeze from the left.
Hole No. 10, Par 5, 590 yards: If you ever want to find out how good these guys are, just set up shop to the left of the 10th green and watch them stop shots on a fall-away putting surface. The hole plays shorter than its scorecard yardage, thanks to firm ground and a light breeze helping over the left shoulder. Players who avoid a huge bunker on the right side off the tee (307 yards to reach, 337 yards to pass) can challenge the twisting, double-dogleg ground (right to-left; then left to right) of this second shot. The trick is a green set down below, protected up front by a very steep bunker, shallow in the approach line and tilting back and to the right. There’s a small lane left for a run-up shot. The odds are tougher for a bold second shot flying to the green and holding it. Somehow, a few will manage.
Hole No. 11, Par 3, 210 yards: This hole looks like it was scooped out and settled here – not entirely naturally, so that its modern look feels a bit manufactured. Whatever. These guys won’t care and TV won’t notice. A middle-iron shot heads to a green set diagonally from front right to back left, suspended over a very deep bunker left. The more demanding recovery is actually from behind, where a small bunker leaves a very tough downhill shot from up top.
Hole No. 12, Par 4, 467 yards: I’m all for hole names, but not when they’re lifted from Charlton Heston films. You figure at a club called Valhalla there’d be a hole named “Odin’s Revenge.” Enough said. It’s actually a beautiful par 4, very tough all the way thanks to a narrow driving zone carved left-to-right through a tree-lined chute and leaving a long second shot uphill over a cleaned-out ravine. There’s great spectator viewing from behind this hole. Most players will lay up off the tee rather than risk running through the fairway (310 yards to the edge, downhill) or missing it altogether.
Hole No. 13, Par 4, 350 yards: Here’s more proof, as if it were needed, of my axiom that at any course, the much-vaunted “signature hole” is the least characteristic on the grounds. This memorable short hole is an inventive twist on the now-cliched island green. The bunkerless putting surface here is actually a rock-walled island in a moat, approachable only via an aerial shot after a lay-up tee shot. The hole unfolds from the foot of the clubhouse – dramatic enough – but commits the unpardonable sin of blocking a view of the green from the tee because someone left a dopey stand of trees on the inside left of the dogleg. Why not just clear things out and let golfers gawk – as they do anyway – of the seemingly elusive target? At least one day of the PGA they’ll move the tees up and see if someone is reckless enough to go for it on their drive (attention, John Daly and Bubba Watson). There’s just not enough support in the contour of this 4,000-square foot putting surface to hold a tee shot that’s not perfectly parachuted in – in which case, even from the moved-up tees the smart players will hit middle iron/wedge and play the hole to an average score of about 3.6.
Hole No. 14, Par 3, 217 yards: Good, solid, simple hole to a well-bunkered green canted diagonally. There are three distinct tiers here, each one progressively more difficult to access, with the back one (top right) protected not only by sand but by trees.
Hole No. 15, Par 4, 435 yards: Valhalla has a fine collection of par 4s, and this one starts a great three-hole stretch of them. The drive through a tree-lined chute is one of the tightest at the club and requires a careful right-to-left swing to avoid sand right (294 yards to reach, 313 to carry) and dense woods the entire left side. From there, the short-iron approach is to a green that’s been nudged down towards a rocky creek bed, with the right side of the putting surface hanging over the water. The tendency is to tug the approach shot left, but that brings into a play a bunker pitched back toward the green and a slope that carries the ball toward the water.
Hole No. 16, Par 4, 508 yards: This starts the run of playoff holes from the 2000 PGA when Tiger Woods and Bob May staged their epic showdown. It was here at the 16th green that Tiger did his finger-pointing moon walk of a 20-foot birdie putt – an image that will be oft-repeated this week, and rightly so. This shapely dogleg right plays very narrow thanks to trees looming right and a left-to-right sloping fairway. The green, rebuilt since Woods’ famous birdie putt, is perched and runs off in all directions a la Pinehurst.
Hole No. 17, Par 4, 472 yards: Few holes at Valhalla offer a starker example of the advantages enjoyed by sheer power off the tee. The hole runs steadily uphill and calls for a clear option off the tee: a modest drive to the right, leaving a semi-blind approach of 185 yards, or a dramatic carry of the upswept bunker on the left, 320 yards away, leaving a straightforward, readily visible short-iron shot.
Hole No. 18, Par 5, 542 yards: A great closing hole for a championship (and for member play, for that matter). The green here forms center stage on a vast amphitheater that’s ideal for spectators and players because they can see every inch of the way from tee to green, including the split fairway options on the second shot. A horseshoe green wraps around a deep central bunker and creates two distinct putting areas bridged at the top. The drive is relatively generous yet the fairway is heavily defended wide left (grass, sand and gnarly trouble) and wide right (rocky lagoons the length of the hole). This is one of those ingenious, multi-option holes that makes lots of sense in the field and provides the drama and emotional rush that majors are all about.
“Everything is miniature,” he said. “You just take a big golf course and cut it in half, then shrink it down. We have small greens, we have small tee boxes, small bunkers, all fit into 20 acres.”
Never has small been so beautiful.
“It’s fabulous. Really a great spot. There are no electrical carts. All walking. It’s easy to get around. You hit every club in the bag and it’s in immaculate shape.”
You have heard of these initiatives to improve the pace of play and make golf affordable? Come to Poxabogue and play nine in 1 hour and 10 minutes for a cost of $28. Want to keep going? Replays are $11. Ah, bless the simplicity of it all.
“It’s the perfect place to learn the game,” Corcoran said.
With a bustling – and well-heeled – citizenry during summers in Southampton, one never knows who could walk through the door for a lesson. Bill Hemmer, the Fox news anchor? Corcoran recognized him. But three sessions into his time with the 11-year-old kid with the great smile, Corcoran was still not tuned in.
His colleagues in the shop asked him if he knew who the kid was.
“I said, ‘Yeah, Jake. He’s a good kid. He wants to become a caddie.’ They said, ‘Yeah, but that’s Bon Jovi’s son.’ “
A day or two later, Jon Bon Jovi walked in, watched Jake hit balls, and the proverbial light bulb went off.
“Of course, all making sense,” Corcoran said.
Corcoran has given lessons to Jon Bon Jovi and he embraces the time he spends with young Luke, whose goal is to get acclimated enough to golf so that he can get a job as a caddie at nearby Maidstone, like his best friend.
“Jake will warm up for 20 minutes, then we go play and his dad caddies for him, which is the coolest thing. I just kind of explain (to Luke) what the lure of golf is, why are so many people crazy about golf.”
People are into the game, but here is the crazy thing: They need a place to start. Enter Poxabogue, “the perfect place to learn the game,” Corcoran said.
Not that there aren’t some drawbacks.
“The range-picker kicking up dust in our face most of the day. No irrigation on the range, so we get a lot of dust,” Corcoran said with a laugh. “We like to say we get all of our minerals that way.”
While the passion to teach has consumed him, Corcoran hasn’t ever totally let go of the competitive urges. He gave the PGA Professional National Championship a second try this year and wasn’t discouraged when he opened with 73 at the qualifier. “I don’t know why, but I feel like I have a really, really low one tomorrow,” he said to his father that night.
Next day he shot 61, then at the national event he finished T-12. Corcoran was Valhalla-bound – and guess what? So were his parents, Bob and Mary.
“I’m on cloud nine, but I wanted to be able to share this with them.”
Competition will begin Thursday and the odds are stacked against Corcoran that he’ll survive beyond Round 2. He realizes that, but he focuses on the bigger picture.
“I’m living out a lifelong dream,” he said. “I’ve worked since i was 13 years old, trying to hit a golf ball straight in hopes that I could compete one day at the highest level. Fast-forward 25 years, a few missed putts and a few missed putts and here we are.”