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Wednesday, 19 September 2018 04:34

An Alternative to the Typical Scotland Golf Trip

        When I think of St. Andrews and all the wonderful courses in the area, I am reminded of the old Yogi Berra attributed quote about a particular restaurant: “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Anyone who has tried knows how difficult it is, for example, to get on the Old Course. Pick a day, throw your name in for the lottery, and pray. Kingsbarn, arguably the course in the area that gets the most positive reviews, now commands Pebble Beach type fees –- and gets them. If the economy and stock market remain robust, there is no telling how long it will be before true commoners have easy access again to the courses in the Kingdom of Fife.
        I have found in the past two days that there is an alternative not only for those who might want to play Scottish golf courses that don’t command back flips or second mortgages, but to have access to additional activities that include things other than golf and whiskey –- not that there is anything wrong with those. To wit, a stay in the cosmopolitan city of Edinburgh and, get this, an easy and cheap train ride to a number of world-renowned golf courses, and a few others that perhaps should be.

Training Day
       On Monday, I threw my clubs on my back, stuck my shoes in a bag and carried all to Waverley Station, Edinburgh’s main train station just a five-minute walk from my hotel on George Street in the New Town section of the city. (The easy, downhill walk from the train station in North Berwick to the golf course takes about five minutes.) Along the way, not a single person on the crowded streets near the train station gave me a sideways glance as I bumped a few of them with the bag. This is Scotland, laddie.
North Berwick Bunker and WallSod-faced bunkers and old stone walls are part of the challenge, and beauty, of North Berwick.
        My train trip to North Berwick took just a half hour, with stops that included Musselburgh, home to a golf course reputed to be the oldest in Scotland. North Berwick is a legendary links layout from which other great courses inherited such features as the “redan” green which runs, rather severely, from front right to rear left. I have played redan style greens in the States, but never one like #15 at North Berwick. The green runs a good 60 yards from front to back with a huge depression between the two halves of the green and bunkers along the left half of the green making it foolhardy, if not impossible, to play toward a back pin position. My playing partner from Australia left his approach on the front right edge of the green with the pin sitting near the back and actually two-putted from about 150 feet. I’ll bet he will be talking about that one back home.
        North Berwick features other “quirks, such as old stone walls that run alongside fairways and greens and definitely come into play. One man’s quirk is another man’s “cool.” I think walls on a golf course, especially those that might actually redirect a wayward shot (i.e. close behind a green), increases the chance for creativity on the golf course. That certainly adds to the fun quotient.
North Berwick Bass Rock and townThe town of North Berwick and Bass Rock form the background for one of golf's most famous courses.
        On Tuesday, I had my fill of creative shots at Dunbar Golf Club. I repeated the now familiar routine of walking with clubs to the Waverley train station, buying a round-trip ticket from an easy-to-use machine and heading for Dunbar, about 13 miles south of North Berwick along the same coastline. Even though a longer distance and slightly more expensive trip, the train made only one stop, in Musselburgh, and arrived at Dunbar a few minutes faster than the trip to North Berwick. The trip from Dunbar’s train station to its eponymous golf club required a taxi for the five-minute ride. The golf course may not get the attention of North Berwick, but it costs about half the price (80 UK pounds, or around $100) and is actually in better condition, the greens much slicker and smoother than those at North Berwick.

My golf ball in ruins
        Walls again play a great part in a round at Dunbar, with a particular stretch of par 4 holes late on the front nine presenting the most-narrow fairways on the course, the wall encroaching on the right. (Of course I chose one of those holes to hit my only slice of the day out of play.) But it was another feature, on the par 3 10th hole that I will not soon forget. The long par 3 at 202 yards required a three wood shot that I pull-hooked short and left of the green –- into the ancient ruins of what must have once been someone’s home overlooking the North Sea. Miraculously, my ball bounced off the old stones onto a perfect patch of grass far enough away from the house’s southern wall that I was able to lob a 20-yard shot onto the green. (If I had made the putt for par, I certainly would have been regaling friends back in the States.)
Dunbar ruins and my ballIf you look closely, you will see a ball at rest inside the ruins of an old home on the Dunbar golf course. It's mine. I was able to loft it over the wall and onto the green, but missed the putt. Nevertheless, it may be the most unusual shot of my 60-year golfing experience.
        It is the North Sea, as it is at North Berwick, which provides most of scenic drama on the layout, although only bits and pieces of it come into play. Oddly, the fierce gale winds that kicked up on the back nine blew toward the ocean, not from it, and they were the strongest I have ever played, a good and steady 35 mph or so straight at us on virtually every hole on the incoming nine. (Typical “links” courses are laid out with nine holes heading directly away from the clubhouse and the second nine pretty much straight back in.) On the par 3 16th, called “Narrows,” I hit my 170-yard club toward the green 145 yards away, probably my best strike of the day. I had figured on about a three-club wind, and my playing partner, from England, was sure it was going to find the middle of the green. But we watched as it floated back in our direction and landed 15 yards short.
Dunbar bunkers and dark sky 1North Berwick and Dunbar share something of a "micro-climate" along the North Sea. Skies may look threatening, but quite often any rain in the area is carried across the Firth of Forth.
        For my three-day stay in Edinburgh, these two courses were a perfect choice. But you could easily spend a week using the city as your hub and playing excellent layouts of all stripes. Although North Berwick is not in the Open Championship rotation, it does host the qualifier whenever the event is held at nearby Muirfield. Muirfield, though expensive, could certainly anchor the high-end of any golfing week in the area. Yet there are plenty of fine alternatives, including the historic Old Musselburgh Links, allegedly the oldest course in the world (but only nine holes); Royal Musselburgh Golf Club, which has its own storied history; Gullane, with its three courses by the sea (including Gullane No. 1, host to the Scottish Open); the Archerfield Fidra Course, positioned between Muirfield and North Berwick, which gets its name for a large rock island (Fidra) within site off the coastline; Bruntsfield Links, which was redone in 2017 and is parkland in style; and at least a dozen other viable options within a reasonable distance of the center of Edinburgh.

        I did a quick check of golf packages in the area, and they tend to run from 100 British pounds per night on up for lodging and golf and, in many cases, extras such as breakfast. One package that starts at 150 pounds, called the Scottish Links Experience, includes Kilspindie, Gullane, North Berwick, Glen Links and Longniddry Links, all an easy train ride from Edinburgh. Just Google “Edinburgh Golf Packages” for a range of options.

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Wednesday, 12 September 2018 08:21

Last Round, Last Laughs

        A couple of friends decided to meet for a round of golf and a meal two weeks ago. We live about four hours apart -– Glenn in New Jersey and me in Connecticut – and Patriot Hills Golf Club in Stony Point, NY, was about two hours from each of us. We love the game and enjoy each other’s company and, as extra incentive, I promised Glenn I would buy us both a superb pastrami sandwich after the round (at the New City Kosher Deli, one of the best outside of New York City). 
        The radical changes in elevation on the Patriot Hills course, the distractingly beautiful mountain vistas behind virtually every green, cart-path-only restrictions because of soggy conditions, the six-story-high tee boxes, blind shots to fairways and greens, my current golfing slump and Glenn’s hip replacement operation earlier this year provided us with plenty of excuses for our poor play. 
        But the golf played second fiddle to the bonhomie of the day. We were matched with a twosome from New York City, both hale fellows well met, who had made their own 1½ hour drive to the course. Glenn, who is not fond of gaps of silence and has a quip always at the ready, would have made a great radio announcer.  As our New York companions made comments about the golf course or a particularly bad shot, Glenn would weigh in with a relevant pun or original witticism. Okay, some were not knee slappers, but these guys apparently weren’t used to being matched up with golfers of good cheer, and they seemed to have a great time. We had a lot of laughs during a round of otherwise forgettable golf.
        Glenn bought me a beer in the clubhouse after, and the lady bartender laughed at a few more of his off-the-cuff remarks. We learned from her that the dozen or so beautiful and large stone buildings adjacent to the golf course were formerly part of a home for the mentally challenged, called Letchworth, which opened in 1903 and closed in the 1990s. In its day, it was legendary for its high quality of care and research on mental disease. (I learned later that one Letchworth researcher had discovered that a simple change of diet was the cure for a specific form of mental disease.)
        In less sensitive times, such a place was referred to as an “insane asylum.” That realization caused Glenn and me to consider the intersections of such an institution and the mental challenges of golf. In the wake of the terrible quality of our golf at Patriot Hills, Glenn rued the fact Letchworth was no longer open for business.
        “We could have driven right over from the 18th green and checked ourselves in,” he said.
        A mere three days after our round, Glenn suffered a massive heart attack while he and his wife Carol were staying at their favorite golf resort in New Jersey. After heroic efforts by the medical staff at the local hospital, he passed away there yesterday. He was 68.
        Just before we said goodbye after our pastrami sandwiches, we talked about my upcoming trip to Scotland. “Please take me with you,” he said, half-kiddingly.  In a way, I will be doing just that.

PatriotHillswithbuildingA dozen or so stone buildings are still standing on the property adjacent to Patriot Hills golf course. A few are used by the town of Stony Point, but most lie abandoned. They formerly housed Letchworth, an institution that cared for those with severe mental diseases.

        Bill and Karen Reutemann’s search for their post-retirement home in a high-quality golf community started in a suburb of Los Angeles, where they had lived for almost 20 years, and ended up in Chapel Hill, NC’s premier golf community, Governors Club. In between, they researched and visited dozens of golf communities; by the time they found Governors Club, they had more than enough information to make a solid and confident decision. 
        “This was our last chance to build our dream home,” Bill says, “and we found the perfect lot, and were able to rent a home inside the gates and keep an eye on construction progress on our new house.”
BillKaren ReutemannBill & Karen Reutemann searched for the perfect golf home for a few years before finding it at Governors Club in Chapel Hill, NC. The house looks out on the Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course.
        From start to finish, the job took about 15 months, even though the Reutemanns had purchased a flat piece of land that did not require special removal of rocks and boulders. (The large collection of rock outcroppings at Governors Club, which give the community and its 27 holes of Jack Nicklaus golf their distinctive look, can make home site preparation daunting in the community.)
        Chapel Hill, with its college-town atmosphere, access to the highest quality medical services and entertainment, and fairly temperate climate, was the main attraction. But a couple of visits to the community and the three months living inside the gates of Governors Club, playing the manicured 27 holes of Jack Nicklaus Signature golf and meeting their neighbors before they hired an architect, solidified their choice.
        You know a couple has found its perfectly matched community when, unprompted, they tout the benefits of life there. The Reutemanns are squarely in that camp; in fact their unsolicited note to me, and contribution of photos, prompted this update on Governors Club.
        “Membership [in the golf club] is up,” Bill wrote me, “and there is an influx of younger members…or maybe it just looks that way because we are getting older. “
GovClubrockssandThe community of Governors Club is characterized by large rock outcroppings that help give it a distinctive nature. Some of those rocks come into play on the 27-holes of Jack Nicklaus golf.
        Governors Club is doing all it can to continue to attract retired couples who want to live in an active golf community, as well as local professional couples who would like their family to have the access to the perquisites and amenities of an adjacent country club.
        “This year,” Bill added, “the club finished an upgrade which included a complete overhaul of the kitchen and dining rooms. That spurred a significant increase in spending by club members. The fitness center has been upgraded also, and the golf course cart paths have received a major overhaul.”
        Despite having completed what will likely be their last search for a golf community home, Karen and Bill still are avid readers of our newsletter, Home On The Course. In a recent issue about travel distances from golf communities in the Southeast to popular international destinations, we indicated that the trip to Paris from Governors Club -– via Raleigh/Durham International Airport -– was among the shortest in the region.
        “It is a great airport,” said Karen, “with wonderful domestic and international connections. The long- and short-term parking is relatively inexpensive, and the airport is only 35 minutes from the Governors Club gate.” Karen added that she and Bill have been traveling quite a bit the last two years.
        On the real estate front, Governors Club has seen sales activity similar to other high-quality golf communities across the Southeast. Homes generally range in price from $500,000 to $900,000, but Bill says there has been an uptick in construction of seven-figure homes recently. That, of course, typically stabilizes and improves home values below the million-dollar mark
        A few choice lots remain for those who, like the Reutemanns, are looking for that last shot at building a home precisely to their specifications. If you fit that description, or would prefer a re-sale home in one of North Carolina’s premier college-town communities (the University of North Carolina and Duke University are just a few miles away), let me know and we can arrange for more information and a visit to Governors Club.
GovClubputterongreenIt was important for Karen & Bill Reutemann to find a community with an excellent golf course and where they could make plenty of friends quickly.  Mission accomplished in both cases at Governors Club. 

        My daughter’s lifelong friend moved to Jackson Hole, WY, and fell in love. I think it was the skiing and, most definitely, the boy. The couple decided on a huge engagement party for family and friends in the shadow of the Grand Tetons and a smaller family wedding at a later date. My daughter, wife and I were invited to the engagement party, quite the trip from Connecticut; but we love Nicola and her family and, not inconsequentially, I had heard that the golf in the Jackson Hole area was pretty special. I was not disappointed.
        Actually, the two golf courses I played were technically in Wilson, the town where we stayed for the weekend, a few miles outside the more famous Jackson and its Hole (another name for a “deep valley”). Shooting Star Country Club and Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club are about two miles apart as the crow flies but, unfortunately, crows can’t fly you to the Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club from the other side of the Snake River. Roads in the area are at the mercy of the surrounding mountains, and my trip from our lodgings just south of Shooting Star to the Jackson Hole golf course took about 30 minutes – nine miles south, a sharp left turn and then nine miles north.

Shooting Star Country Club
        First up, though, was Shooting Star Country Club, sited at the base of the hulking Tetons and immediately below the Jackson Hole ski resort in Teton Village, often rated the best ski resort in the land by those who rate such things. I am not a skier, but the ski runs looked imposing from below, like a bunch of narrow fairways between the trees, laid out almost parallel to each other. The drops from the 10,450-foot high peak looked intimidating. A gondola moved up and down the mountain as I played my round, adding to the visual drama of golf at the base of the Tetons. (In the late afternoon, my Shooting Star caddie informed me, you can ride the tram for free to the top and have a cocktail and appetizer, with views you are not likely to forget.)
Shooting Star practice greenOne of America's most highly rated ski areas hovers above the large practice area at Shooting Star.        Shooting Star, which was opened in 2009, is private and, it is fair to say, exclusive, many of its members coming from the surrounding community of impressively large homes designed to fit the surroundings and priced well into the millions. The golf course is one of Tom Fazio’s most dramatic, and takes the fullest advantage of its setting against the backdrop of the Grand Tetons. At Shooting Star, the artist in Fazio started with the frame -– those dramatic and snow-capped mountains –- and built his artwork inside it. The architect commanded that tons of dirt along the flat valley inside the frame of mountains be pushed around to create gentle elevations that seem almost a small-scale model of the mountains hovering above. It all works to the benefit of the golfer’s eye.
Shooting Star behind green with glacierSnow in August? No, that is a glacier on top of one of the Teton Mountains above Shooting Star Country Club.        The effort was substantial. For example, the small hill that before construction was the highest point on the property is today a field of sage that runs along a few of the holes on the back nine. A 50-foot deep lake at the south end of the course was created from all the dirt scooped out and deposited strategically throughout the rest of the course. The flat nature of the valley was disturbed, yes, but that undeniably improved the land visually. (Keep in mind this is a golfer talking, not a rancher.)
ShootingStar short par 4Because he is a master of bunkering, Tom Fazio's short par 4s tend to be loaded with them. At Shooting Star, restraint is a good idea on one of those short par 4s.        As for conditions on the course, they were pretty much impeccable with few blemishes on the fairways; greens were smooth and as fast as I’ve played in 10 years; I’d estimate they were running around 12 on the stimpmeter. By the 18th hole, I still hadn’t figured out the speed, despite consistently perfect guidance on breaks and contours by my forecaddie, Goose, who shares his golfing wisdom in winter with golfers he caddies for at a club in the Scottsdale, AZ, area and at Shooting Star in summer. I counted four three-putts for my round, the results of going well past the hole on my initial putts; I racked up 41 putts in all, a good seven or eight above my average. Getting to the greens at Shooting Star is only half the fun.
        I played the hybrid “Silver/Gold” tees at 6,060 yards; they carry a rating of 69.5 and slope of 122. The championship tees at 7,633 yards carry a course rating and slope of 76.9 and 148, respectively. I started my round the way I sometimes finish my rounds, a bit winded and feeling slightly lethargic. It took me a hole or two to realize, with Goose’s help, that it was the altitude. I did get used to it and I wound up, poor putting notwithstanding, playing one of my better rounds of the year.  The thin air was a two-edged sword; tough on the lungs, at least for a while, but helpful in terms of distance.
ShootingStarbehind green with waterMost of the lakes at Shooting Star are man made, but they blend with the sky and provide a nice contrast to the mountains above.       I wish my aging eyes could have followed my ball flight better because the few sights I did catch of my tee shots rising against the backdrop of those mountains was one of the payoffs for a long trip to Wyoming.

Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club
        Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club may be only a couple of miles away from Shooting Star, but the perspective of the mountains is totally different. Whereas at Shooting Star you look almost straight up to see the tops of the mountains -– some of them snowcapped in August –- at the Jackson Hole course you catch the entire vista, top to bottom, on most of the holes.  A well-launched drive rises against the background of the mountains, reaches into the blue sky, and then floats back down those same mountains.
JHGTgreen between treesJackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club is just a few miles, as the crow flies, from Shooting Star Country Club, but the view of the Tetons is significantly different.         Unlike Shooting Star, Jackson Hole is accessible to the public. Based on my Saturday morning round, the course is clearly popular, and because it is close to the well-trafficked resort areas of Wilson and Jackson Hole, it attracts a fair number of golfers who, to put it kindly, don’t play regularly. I played as a single behind a slow foursome, something that might have bothered me on my favorite muni in Connecticut, but with a camera in tow on a beautiful day and all those amazing mountains, I was in no rush. (For those thinking it was my own damn fault for playing by myself, a foursome would have waited on every fairway for the group in front.)
JHGTwell bunkered greenBy layering the greenside bunkers at Jackson Hole, Robert Trent Jones Jr. adds a bit of intimidation to a relatively short approach shot.        The golf community adjacent to the course is surrounded by three mountain ranges –- the aforementioned Tetons, the Snake and Gros Ventre ranges. Whereas I normally have to work hard on a golf course to find a unique or interesting camera shot, no such effort was necessary at Jackson Hole (or Shooting Star, for that matter). Any bad shot with the camera was the result of operator error, not the subject matter.
        Airplane noise took a little getting used to during my round. On virtually every hole, it seemed, a plane was either taking off from nearby Jackson Hole airport or landing there. (The ones taking off make more noise.) But once you understand that air traffic is part of the scene, you stop hearing it, or at least it doesn’t affect your play. And some of those jets looked great against the mountains.  Needless to say, Jackson Hole is a popular destination in summer as well as winter.
JHGT MarmotI am not used to the wildlife of Wyoming, and I naively thought this was a beaver or gopher munching the turf alongside the fairway at Jackson Hole. Turns out it is a Marmot, the first I had ever seen.        Jackson Hole Golf Club opened initially in the mid-1960s. A few years later, Laurance Rockefeller purchased the surrounding resort and commissioned Robert Trent Jones, Jr. to totally redesign it in 1974. The layout is a wonderful mix of typical Jones bunkering, especially guarding the amply sized greens, and enough water, mostly in the form of small lakes, to keep your attention. I played the RTJ1 tees at a total of 6,142 yards; the layout from there sports a fair 68.6 rating and 122 slope. (If you include the hybrid sets of tees, which pretty much alternate the distances between two sets of regular tees, the total number of “courses” you can play at Jackson Hole is a whopping nine. That is helpful, given that the next regular tees back from the ones I played are about 600 yards farther.) At the tips, the numbers are 7,390, 74.2 and 135, respectively. At an elevation higher than 6,000 feet, those of us who don’t hit the ball too far get about a 10% boost in distance.
        Nevertheless, the layout I played at just over 6,100 yards was a lot of fun, which a resort course should be. Fairways were generous if you didn’t stray too far into one of those ubiquitous Jones bunkers, greens were on the medium fast side, the turf was in fine condition throughout, and you could not ask for a nicer greeting from staff -- from the pro shop to the starter to the director of membership who had arranged for my round.
        I ran into him as I was leaving the course; he was showing an engaged couple around the club for a possible wedding venue. Given the facilities, the friendly staff and especially the mountains, if the couple chooses Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis, their marriage will literally be off to a beautiful start.

Monday, 13 August 2018 20:31

When Tiger Wins

        I grew up in the 1950s and learned to play golf in the 1960s. The first article I ever read about golf was in Sports Illustrated, circa mid ‘60s, in which Arnold Palmer was quoted saying, “Golf is 80 percent mental.” (I know, Jack Nicklaus said it too. My favorite is golf coach Jim Flick’s “Golf is 90 percent mental, and the other 10 percent is mental too.”) Since then, I considered that every bad shot I made on the golf course was the result of a blip in concentration, a misjudgment of conditions, laziness or over-aggressiveness; in other words, nothing physical, just momentary mental lapses that creep into your mind at the top of your backswing or as you are stroking a putt.

The Wee Ice Man Cometh Back
        I also recall reading as a youngster the inspiring story of Ben Hogan and how he won the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion just 18 months after his car collided with a Greyhound bus, breaking virtually all the bones in his body that were necessary to strike a golf ball properly. No one ever questioned Hogan’s mental toughness, which translated, often enough, as a taciturn and unfriendly nature. The discipline to come back from those physical injuries was beyond impressive. (The Brits called him “The Wee Ice Man.”)
        If I were older than 2 in 1950, I might have been rooting for Hogan, although I am an admittedly contrary fan; I don’t like to root for the guy (or team) that most everyone else is gaga about. When I was young, my favorite baseball team was the Brooklyn Dodgers -– “The Bums” -- and my least favorite, the one I rooted against, was the ever-successful New York Yankees. I was gleeful when the Yankees hit that multi-year bad patch as the ‘80s turned into the ‘90s, yet I almost started feeling sorry for them after a few years, when they became the second most popular team in New York City. Almost.

Tiger Burning Bright
        Which brings me around to Tiger Woods and his play over this last weekend at the PGA Championship and, indeed, his play over the last two months at the major tournaments. I think there is a case to be made that his comeback, which will almost certainly result in a win in one of the majors next year, might rank as nearly the most impressive of all time. In that prediction I am ignoring his terrible back problems, which are bad enough and worthy of a comeback award alone; more impressive, because golf is a mental game, is his comeback from the public fall from grace of that Thanksgiving eve crash into the tree, the smashing of the back window by his club-wielding wife, the agony of being separated from his kids, at least for a while, and the overall public humiliation and reckoning with his reputation.
        Golf is indeed a mental game, and it takes an enormous discipline to retrain the mind to shut out the residue of public and private humiliations for 72 holes of high-pressure golf. It is a different type of discipline than coming back from the debilitating injuries of a head-on car crash. Yet on a golf course, the mental comeback may be tougher. 
        Although I am not a Tiger Woods fan, I will be pulling for him to win a major next year and complete what will be one of the greatest comebacks ever in golf or any sport. Once that happens, I will go back to rooting for the underdogs, or at least for those who will be getting much less attention than Tiger.

Sunday, 29 July 2018 20:28

Caledonia Beats Mother Nature...and Me

        The turf on Pawleys Island, SC, golf courses took a beating this winter. Bermuda grass and its variants do not like to sit for more than a few hours under a sheet of ice, but that is precisely what happened during one of the harshest winter seasons in memory. As of the beginning of July, most of the area’s courses were not yet back to normal and, indeed, a few greens looked more suitable for a lunar landing than for putting, with patches of new sod that, unfortunately, had not survived a recent drought. Although the grass on the greens at my own course, Pawleys Plantation, had grown back in, the course superintendent was clearly nervous about the dry days and hot nights. They were as slow in July as at any time in the last 10 years.
        As usual, the management at the Mike Strantz-designed Caledonia Golf & Fish Club and, to a similar degree its companion course across the road, True Blue, recovered more quickly thanks to the loving care of its turf managers and a general management willing to spend what it has to in order to justify its green fees which skew toward the higher end of the nearly 100 courses on the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach.  (You get what you pay for...)
Caledonia approach 3Caledonia Golf & Fish Club justifies its green fees with great attention to condition, no matter how rough the weather.
        I played Caledonia twice on my July visit, 10 days apart, and was impressed as always at the things that should matter most to golfers –- the ability to stroke a putt that holds its line without bumps and wiggles; and the pleasure of not having to roll your ball over on the course’s well mown fairways. It took some getting used to the greens on my first round after playing the much slower local courses, but I was prepared for the second round at Caledonia, where I played and scored my best in the last two years. But golf, as we know, can be cruel when you stop thinking it is, and I made a common amateur mistake; I believed I was playing so well that I couldn’t make a bad stroke. Indeed, I stood on the 15th tee –- the 6th hole, a par three since we played the nines in reverse order –- thinking that if I birdied that hole and the rest, I would shoot my age of 70 for the first time. I made a good stroke with a seven-iron and wound up 15 feet above the hole. And then the inevitable: I tried to make the downhill putt, knocked it five feet past, got too aggressive coming back uphill and knocked it three feet past, and then missed the comebacker.
        I finished with a 75, my only sub-80 round of the year, along with my only four-putt in the last five years. Golf giveth, and golf taketh away, even –- or more accurately, especially -– on the best courses.

        Bankrate.com is one of those online services that ranks states by their suitability for retiree living. Within the last week, the organization has published its list of the best and worst states for retirement, including all 50 states, and the results are a bit mystifying, to say the least. Although “weather” is one of the categories Bankrate assesses, few of the states we think of being most retiree friendly for climate do well in the overall rankings.
        Bankrate assesses the states based on seven categories, including cost of living, crime, culture, health care quality, taxes, weather and well being. Florida ranks 2nd in terms of its climate but 5th overall. On the other end of the spectrum, New Hampshire ranks a paltry 43rd for weather but comes in at #4 overall based on outstanding marks for crime (the least of any state), health care quality, taxes (no state income tax) and well being. It even ranks highly (#9) in the culture category, which is a bit mystifying. North Carolina gets dinged on culture (40th) and may not get its due in terms of weather (#12). South Carolina (#41) and Georgia (#37) are savaged in the overall rankings, Georgia ranking 49th in the culture category and South Carolina 46th in crime.
        South Dakota overcomes its 38th place finish in the weather category with #1 and #2 rankings in well being and taxes, respectively. The well being mark argues that whatever research Bankrate conducted in South Dakota was not done in January. You can see the full results of the Bankrate rankings here.
        Almost simultaneous with the publication of the Bankrate rankings, TopRetirements.com published its own list of most popular states for retirement, informed by 750 of its readers. Not surprisingly, those readers listed climate as their top reason for relocation, and chose, in order, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Virginia and Texas as the top 14 retirement destinations. South Dakota, Utah and Idaho did not make the list.
        Rankings like Bankrate's should be taken with a huge grain of salt.  First of all, when it comes to such categories as crime, culture, health care quality and even cost of living, results will vary significantly across a single state.  Savannah, GA, for example, is home to Savannah College of Art & Design, or SCAD, which has helped establish the citiy's art museums and street by street architecture as among the most impressive in the nation.  Charleston, SC's crime rate, according to an FBI report, was 35 percentage points below the national average in 2016.  To take the full measure of a place you are targeting for retirement or a vacation home, ignore the rankings and do your own research.  Or ask me.

        I love watching the World Cup. I don’t even care that scoring can be separated by an hour or more. (We Americans, I am told, love scoring too much.) If you like strategy, team effort, and the pure geometry of a sporting contest, there is nothing like a high-level football match. 
        But for pure, unadulterated and un-interfered-with action, and the triumph and heartbreak of individual effort, there is nothing like watching golf, seriously, with baseball a close second. (The major difference with baseball is that an umpire can still make a difference in the outcome of the contest, but video replay is starting to eliminate much of the guesswork in the national pastime. I’ve been watching baseball seriously for more than 60 years, and I won’t have a major issue when balls and strikes are called by a robot.)
        It is the pushing and shoving and grabbing of jerseys in these World Cup matches, and dubious writhing on the ground after a bump from an opponent, that besmirches the beauty of soccer. Compare the obvious attempts by soccer players to generate a penalty call and a potential yellow card for their opponent –- some of those attempts so audacious as to attract a yellow card from the referee –- with the penalties golfers call on themselves. Or compare the tugging on a jersey or an elbow to the head in soccer with the “nice putt” and “great shot there” one golfing competitor shares with another.  Referees in soccer make a call every few seconds, it seems, yet officials are only called to a golf match on the rare occasion that golfers in a group cannot agree on a ruling or if they don’t understand the rule.  Golf may seem slower, but the interruptions to a soccer match, a football game or a professional basketball game make those sports far less than elegant.
        Those who don’t play golf consider watching it boring and pointless –- in the way a Philistine considers a visit to a museum a waste of time.  Yet talent in sport is best revealed absent the collision of bodies, constantly faked injuries, life-debilitating concussions or the judgment of fallible human beings known as referees or umpires. In that regard, golf on TV could not be more exciting. 
        Now if Fox can only get the camerawork right.

Monday, 25 June 2018 11:43

Golf is Dead? Not in Connecticut

        Check out the first photo below. It was taken just after my son and I finished 18 holes of golf last week at Gillette Ridge Golf Club in Bloomfield, CT. The practice putting green was also buzzing. Nothing remarkable about a full practice area before a round of golf, but this was at 6:15 pm…on a Tuesday...on a layout that was jammed with players right through the afternoon. (As we headed for the parking lot after the round, I overheard one employee say to another that the last booked tee time was 6:45!)
Gillette Ridge practice range 1Practice range at 6:15 pm on a weekday at Gillette Ridge Golf Club in Bloomfield, CT.

        Gillette Ridge is not even the best golf course in town; that distinction is held by the town’s own course, Wintonbury Hills, a Pete Dye routing about three miles away that is more fun and typically in better condition than Gillette Ridge, whose reputation was sullied in the mid 200s after it opened; it was way too firm and with mostly impossible approach shots that would give Bethpage Black a run for its money. No one went out of their way to play a layout that demanded full carries to the concrete greens, with the expected results of finding hazards and rough beyond. If there is anything we golfers, pros and amateurs alike, loathe it is a golf course that penalizes good shots. 
        Gillette Ridge paid the price for its difficulty as golfers shied away, especially when the recession hit. It closed a few years ago and reverted to its original owners, CIGNA, the giant financial services company whose offices abut some of the fairways and whose dining patio overlooks the practice areas and 10th tee. CIGNA reopened it last year, put Arnold Palmer Management in charge, and it is in much better shape, softened slightly but still as much of a challenge as you will find on any public layout. Rounds of 4 ½ hours are not uncommon.
Gillette Ridge sculptures 1Built inside an office park, where many workers take strolls during their lunch breaks, Gillette Ridge sports some unique accessories.
        There is enough in a round at Gillette Ridge to rope golfers back in, especially those who admire quirky golf design. The par 5 11th hole –- formerly #2 before the club switched the nines a month ago –- starts off as a relaxer, with as wide a downhill fairway as you will find on any two- or three-shot hole. Blast one down the middle or right side, making sure to avoid huge bunker well to the right, and you will catch a 40-yard slope that can put the low double-digit handicapper –- that would be me -– within striking distance of the green. Playing from the executive tees, I was just 175 yards from the center of the green, but all carry over a menacing large pond; the bailout area to the front and left of the green was actually smaller than the green. I chose my 3 wood, which I have been hitting about 185 on the fly lately. I felt that if I hit it solid I might get a little spin and wind up at the back of the green. I certainly wasn’t going to be short, and I wasn’t going to lay up with a half wedge. I hit the fairway metal a little fat; it just cleared the water and bounded to the left rear of the green, in the fringe, leaving me a rare eagle putt. For an aging boomer, any putt for eagle is cause for celebration. (I made birdie, by the way.)
        Another par 5 at Gillette is equally unusual yet offers no opportunity for an eagle putt, even for excellent ball strikers. That is #8, where you must avoid menacing fairway bunkers on the left side almost 200 yards away for a senior golfer like me, and then hit a routine layup to wedge distance. But the green is a thin strip running front left to back right, firm and pretty fast and with a steep falloff to a stream bed below right. A shot that finds the fringe is a major achievement given how hard it is to hit and stay. I hit my best drive of the day just over the bunkers, caught the downslope behind them and wound up with a five-iron layup. But the pin on this day was up front on the narrowest part of the narrow green, making even a lob wedge tough to hold. I skittered to the back fringe with my lob wedge and was happy with par.
        Gillette Ridge visitors will either love or hate #13, a drivable par 4 (242 yards from my senior white tees, 273 from the more burly blue tees) with a series of menacing bunkers surrounded by deep rough protecting more than half the green on the left, and trees guarding the right side of the green, ready to gobble up slightly pushed drives. Helpfully, the Palmer designers placed a big mogul short and to the right of the green. If your drive finds the left side of the mogul, it could very well kick onto the green. I wound up in the rough just short and right of the green from my tees but was able to make par from there.
        I find that the realistic possibility of putting for eagle on a par 5 and driving the green on a par 4 is fair compensation for Gillette Ridge’s idiosyncrasies. In a future post, I will state the case that Gillette Ridge and its local counterparts could make for an interesting golf trip in the Greater Hartford Connecticut area. Seriously, Hartford.

        If I had a choice of Florida towns in which to live, my first choice would be Sarasota. It has a lively downtown area, some of the finest beaches in America nearby, is not far from major league sports teams and provides a variety of excellent golf courses for year-round play. 
        A friend from Connecticut and his wife, both with excellent taste, have a beautiful home for sale inside the gates of University Park, which straddles the boundary between Sarasota and Manatee Counties, just a few miles from Sarasota. It is a former builder’s model and, therefore, has all the top design features necessary to attract discriminating couples. It was totally renovated a few years ago and, at 3 bedrooms and 3 baths, it is the perfect size for a couple looking for an easily maintained home with just enough space for family members and friends who will enjoy the occasional visit. (Careful, they may want to stay.)
        The house is fully ready to welcome its new owners, with a 50-inch built in television and sound system with ceiling speakers in the spacious yet comfortable Great Room; and a gas heated swimming pool and natural gas 3 burner Weber Grill are all set for workouts and cookouts. Noted architect Ron Garl designed the 27-hole University Park golf course. For those looking to supplement their golf play, University Park offers 11 lighted Har-Tru tennis courts and a fully equipped and modern fitness center. We understand the food in the clubhouse is pretty darn good too.
        There is much more to share, but rather than me prattle on, check out the photos below and then contact real estate professional Dennis Boyle, who knows the golf community scene in the Sarasota/Venice area better than anyone I have met. You can contact Dennis at (941) 400-5584‬ or by email at dennis_boyle@topproducer.com. His website, which does an excellent job of describing golf communities in the Sarasota area and publishing current listings of properties for sale, can be found at: http://www.suncoastgolfhomes.com/
        The house in University Park is listed at $610,000.
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