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Yesterday, we reported on our round at the quirky Sewanee Golf Club, a nine holer in the town of the same name in Tennessee. The par 3 4th hole might have the slimmest green in America. We were fortunate the pin was up front. University of the South at Sewanee golf coach Carter Cardwell told us that when the pin is back and you miss the green, "Count on a four at the best." We can't argue.
Until recently, I had never heard of the University of the South at Sewanee in Tennessee, let alone that it had a well-regarded nine hole golf course. But the prodigal son was granted admission to the school after the recommendation to apply by his college counselor, and so we thought we should take a look, He insisted on bringing his clubs, albeit for one day. He had read that the university owned Sewanee Golf Club was a quirky classic.
The course is about 50 years old, a nine hole track featured in the new book "To the Nines" by Anthony Prioppi that features the best half courses in the land. Sewanee Golf Club is proof positive that a course does not need an abundance of hazards -- water or sand -- to make it challenging and fun. We counted a half dozen or so traps and a lake that was more window dressing than hazard. The land is the thing at Sewanee, whose terrain swoops and swerves; and although the uncut greens were reading somewhere around 20 on the stimpmeter, we still needed to be careful when we were above the hole, such was the severe sloping. Short yardage holes were more than compensated by quirky green complexes. Our favorite, in a perverse way, was the 159 yard par 3 4th (which also played to 164 as the 13th; Sewanee moves the tees around on the second nine); it had easily the smallest width to length ratio of any green we have played. At its widest, the green measured about 25 feet, with a sand bunker guarding the first half of the left side. The green ran front to back at least 100 feet, and behind it was a neat view of the Cumberland Valley below. (I'll post a photo of the green when I return home).
Sewanee Golf Club is minimalist in more than its number of holes. The pro shop is spare and multi-purpose; the same person who sells you a hat or sleeve of golf balls will also fetch you a hot dog. I had decided to leave my clubs at home in a not-so-coy attempt to duck a round of golf in 40-degree weather. I asked benignly about rental clubs, and the young lady behind the counter told me,"Sir, we don't rent clubs, we loan them" at no charge. She sent me around the corner to take my pick of the dozen available sets, a collection so motley that it made my few hairs hurt. I chose a bag quickly -- too quickly -- and learned later that I had two pitching wedges, two nine irons -- one left handed -- and a five wood with a head smaller than the hybrid I left at home. I had no sand wedge, no six or eight irons. This was also the first time I hit a wooden club, the driver, in more than 20 years. I guess this is known as golf the way it is meant to be played, old clubs on an old style course. I was pleased I broke 90, with an 88. Tim mixed a few double bogies with a few birdies and scored a nice 75. His length off the tee helped a lot on the 6,100 layout. A modern, matched set of clubs didn't hurt either.
You won't find any houses on Sewanee Golf Club, but prices in the area bespeak the town's distance from any city of consequence (90 minutes from Nashville, 60 from Chattanooga). We smiled to see an almost 1,000 square foot house near the college listed at under $100,000. We didn't think any of those were left anywhere in the land. The town is all university; that is, the university owns all 10,000 acres in the town, the second largest "campus" in the nation. Professors attend classes in robes (the academic kind, not terry cloth) and most students still adhere to the tradition of natty attire in class (coat and tie for men, dresses for the young ladies). Some might say college the way it was meant to be played.
Most friendly golf matches among strangers are won and lost on the first tee, before a shot is struck. It is all in the negotiation of terms and handicaps. Rule #1 in the negotiation process: Don’t ever give an opponent a stroke on any par 3s, let alone all of them, no matter his age or physical condition.
I violated Rule #1 at Porters Neck Country Club just outside Wilmington in January. My young host (35 years old; everything’s relative) had arranged to round out our group with two friendly retirees, Rick and Gary. No sooner had we shaken hands than Rick asked, “How about a game of Wolf?” Rick’s eagerness sent up all sorts of warning signals, but I was the guest, and it would have been impertinent to decline the invitation. I figured my host had his own radar working, but maybe his ability to drive a ball 300 yards and straight gave him a strong sense of confidence (his 18 handicap didn’t hurt either, compared with my 10). He accepted the challenge, and the game was on. Only after handicaps were exchanged did I realize I might be doomed; Rick was a 27 and Gary a 30, meaning Rick would get a stroke from me on every hole but one par 3, and Gary would actually double up on three holes. Worse, I learned just before we teed off that Rick was a financial planner in his working days and rarely finished out of the money in club tournaments. This was going to be tough.
For the uninitiated, the rules of Wolf offer an opportunity to the lowest handicap to make wise choices and overcome bad play. Indeed, Wolf is a game of choice and chance, and if you choose wisely, it almost doesn’t matter how you play. Almost.
Here’s how the game works. On the first tee, the group decides the tee-off order for the entire round. Player A drives first on holes 1, 5, 9, 13, and 17; player B on holes 2, 6, 10, 14 and 18…and so on for the others. The first one to drive, the Wolf, has a choice after he tees off: He may either decide to go it alone – that is, take on all three other players on the hole – or wait. If he goes it alone, he must win the hole from all; a tie is a loss. As each successive player tees off, the Wolf can decide on his partner for the hole. But he must choose his partner before the following player tees off, so there is much chin stroking on each tee box…
…and much opportunity for miscalculation. I guessed wrong virtually every time. Gary, a “strong” 30 handicap who would make a great member/guest partner, sent his tee ball down the fairway a good 200 yards a few times when I was the Wolf, once on a par 4 where he was receiving two strokes. “Gary, you’re my man,” I declared confidently, knowing he was in the middle of the fairway in minus one. My man then grounded three fairway iron shots, sent a chip shot over the green and missed a five footer coming back that would have halved the hole.
And then there was Rick the financial planner. He sank 20 foot putts to beat me and my partner a few times on the front nine. He didn’t miss anything inside 12 feet all day, except once when he was my partner, and his chipping was unerring. I chose him a few times on the back nine after he struck nice, middle of the fairway drives. But you know how the mutual fund companies warn you that past performance is no predictor of future performance; his prior performance was no predictor when I was riding him.
At day’s end, I forked over my $5 to Gary and Rick. As lessons go, it seemed a small price to pay.
Footnote: Porters Neck in Wilmington, NC, is a terrific Tom Fazio layout that was totally refurbished a year ago in preparation for the club going private. Every hole is a nice test, with typical Fazio bunkering in the fairways (which is to say they are large and in play for the longer hitters and just out of reach for those who play the shorter tees). Bunkers at greenside have been brought closer to the putting surfaces, as Fazio originally designed them a couple of decades ago. Condition of the course in January was excellent, indicating that in spring and summer it will be exquisite. By summer, Porters Neck should be able to fill out its membership rolls and eliminate daily fee play. They have raised the current rates for public play to north of $100 a round. Initiation fees are $30,000. For membership information, contact Leslie Hurley, membership director, at email@example.com, or (910) 686-8164.
Porters Neck could go private by this coming summer. The course is a fine example of Tom Fazio's work.
In one colorful and interesting sitting, you can see why so many golfers choose to spend their vacations and retirement years in the Carolinas. A small panel of experienced golf writers and players have posted their consensus choices of their favorite 18 holes at the CarolinaLiving web site. Although favorite anything can be a matter of great subjectivity, we think the panel generally got it right. We've played many of the courses whose holes they salute, and there isn't a clunker among them.
If anything, there may be a sin of omission or two. The panel selected no representative holes from Harbour Town, Governor's Club or Old Chatham (in the Chapel Hill area), Wade Hampton (Cashiers), Caledonia or Pawleys Plantation (Pawleys Island) or myriad other viable candidates. It was a tough task, and we don't envy the challenge. Wait a minute; we do envy the challenge; they must have played all those great golf courses they did select.
Take a look for yourself by clicking here or by visiting CarolinaLiving.com.