Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dismal River Continued...

18th Hole, Par 4
In my last post I used the phrase "latest and greatest remote destination.." to exemplify the kind of golf course which creates buzz and excitement around the world of golf.  This year that golf course is Tom Doak's latest design at the Dismal River Golf Club, in Mullen, Nebraska.  It is a golf course successful in its virtue of modern minimal design.  I can say this with accuracy and truth as I have participated in the construction first hand.  Even the few holes which required significant earth movement, were only disturbed in part to connect fairway landing areas and add playability.  The 2nd and 13th greens required NO earth movement whatsoever.  They were both tilled, cleaned, and planted as we found them.
2nd Hole, Par 4

I believe all those involved in the project all believed in and tried to emulate the principles of design which Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw pioneered at the Sand Hills Golf Club back in 1991.  Today both of these golf courses exist in remote and often harsh conditions.  Where Sand Hills has stood the test of time, Dismal River follows in its foot steps, adding to the wonderful golf experience that can be had in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.
 3rd Hole, Par 3

My contribution to the construction and design of the new course at Dismal River started by mowing out the prairie grass, but I was mostly on the business end of a rake.  No matter what the task it was a really special privilege to be a part of this vision in the Sand Hills and to help create a legacy for world class golf in this region.
 5th Hole, Par 3
6th Hole, Par 4

Mercer Oaks, West Windsor, NJ

The small NJ commuter town of West Windsor must enjoy some of the best municipal facilities in the Northeast. Members of the community play for just $24 mid week, have access to a lightly used grass driving range (half are mats for colder months), and two thought provoking 18's. Now you have just seen me write affordable, thought provoking, and NJ all in the same sentence! It is a first for me but this is what public golf is all about in West Windsor and could be seen as a great example of how best to grow the game one community at a time.
Try to carry the bunkers or tack around to the right
on this reachable par 5.
The latest greatest remote destination course builds excitement in the world of golf but it will
not create the type of ground swell needed to grow the game from the roots up. Mercer Oaks
is the type of golf facility which should be applauded for its accessability and overall quality of experience. Junior play is also supported here with green fees of just $15. Also to the point of accessibility and enjoyment are the 5 sets of tees ranging from 5400-7000+.

More options abound off the tee on this reachable par 4.
The range of options for all levels of golfers from children and seniors to top level
amateur play creates an  opportunity for everyone to have fun. The fairways are also wider than average to create some strategic options and
alternate routes to the hole.  I always enjoy coming to Mercer Oaks because you get the most for your money here. The staff clearly care about maintaining the best possible product and my last visit justifies this praise once again.

Weaker players still have a chance to bounce a shot up the left side,
while the more accurate players are still challenged by the green side bunkers

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Cruden Bay, Aberdeen, Scotland

Cruden has got to be the most stunning golf course I have walked but didn't see!  The day I toured through these massive dunes, just an hour north of Aberdeen, the fog was so thick that I could not see my Titleist fly more than 100 yards.  After contact the golf ball would seemingly disappear into the mist, I was lucky to find any of my shots on this day.  The real shame is not in the loss of my Titleists but that I was not able to take in the broad vistas of the Cruden Bay links.  Each hole was shrouded and isolated by a chilly fog while the ocean could be heard but not seen.  Under these circumstances my experience on the golf course was one of mystery and discovery, finding mounds, bunkers, and greens with each footstep.

The course begins while a challenging drive to a heaving fairway that tilts from left to right.  A rather long dune runs parallel to the line of play for the first few holes, setting up a similarly vexing tee shot on #2.
The landing area for the #2 fairway, not much room for error

Once you get past the first par 3 and step onto the 5th tee box, you start to get a sense for the size of the dunes you are about to navigate.  I should say mountains of sand, because these are some of the biggest sand dunes I have ever seen.  At the mid point in the round, golfers climb to the very highest point and play along a high seaside plateau.  I can only guess how beautiful the view is.

A narrow uphill approach to the 7th green saddled between two dunes
Originally laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1899, the course was lengthened and redesigned by Tom Simpson and Herbert Fowler in 1926.  Despite its age, the golf course stands up as a great modern links and is a real challenge.  Golfers will face a variety of approaches to each green with some heroic carries and plenty of opportunity to run a golf ball along the ground..  There are only two holes(9 and 10) where I was let down a bit, however these holes link you back to the best ground for golf, sending golfers through a unique class of holes on the back nine.
The jaw dropping and unforgettable "bathtub" green,
the ocean is only a short pitching wedge from the next tee
There are no bells and whistles here (well maybe one bell, on the blind, dogleg, par 3 15th) just great links golf.  Cruden Bay is a must play on your way to the highlands, but remember to bring your coat and a fresh dozen, one never knows what weather or golfing temptations lie ahead.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Crail Golf Club, Fife, Scotland

Of all the golf courses I visited in Scotland, Crail's Balcomie course was the most underwhelming.  Even considering the importance of the club as the 7th oldest in the world, the golf course where it sits today lacks the excitement and variety for 18 holes of great golf.

Opening tee shot down to the left of the shed.

The routing opens up strongly from a high plateau down to the small first green, tucked between an old farm shed and a burn to the ocean.  The course continues along rolling dunes, tracking uphill along the sea.  

Climbing the dunes toward the 2nd green.
Next a semi-blind par 3 followed by back to back cape holes arching to the right along the bay.  

Crail really has an interesting start to any golf course, however from here the golf moves back to the center of the property, in a featureless field, where the final half of the front nine finish back up the plateau.  

From a presentation stand point I believe Crail would benefit from more defined areas of tall fescue rough between the parallel fairways that finish the front nine.  

To understand the other side of the coin from a maintenance perspective, gang mowing these holes is most cost effective and productive considering the limited number of staff used to maintain the course.  
The back nine climaxes on the downhill par 3 14th, overlooking the ocean, Crails best hole. 
There is another modern course here, designed by American architect Gil Hanse, which might lend a good contrast to Balcomie and a complete golf experience.  However, when you visit Crail try to put yourself back in time when considering the strategies of the golf holes.  The course might even be better enjoyed with a set of hickories or a half-set  instead of the modern weaponry we have today.  The location is clearly special but Crail falls victim to technology and as a result loses a little excitement.  

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Mercer Oaks East, West Windsor, NJ

The small NJ commuter town of West Windsor,  NJ must enjoy some of the best municipal facilities in the Northeast.  Members of the community play for just $24 mid week, have access to a lightly used grass driving range (half are mats for colder months), and two thought provoking 18's.
Attempt a drive over the bunkers, for a chance to reach
this par 5, or tack your way to the right off the tee.
Now you have just seen me write affordable, thought provoking, and NJ all in the same sentence!  It is a first for me but this is what public golf is all about in West Windsor and could be seen as a great example of how best to grow the game one community at a time.  The latest and greatest remote destination course builds excitement in the world of golf but it will not create the type of ground swell needed to grow the game from the roots up.  Mercer Oaks is the type of golf facility which should be applauded for its accessability and overall quality of experience.  Junior play is also supported here with green fees of just $15.  
More options abound off the tee...
Also to the point of accessibility and enjoyment are the 5 sets of tees ranging from 5400-7000+.  That is a tremendous range of options for all levels of golfers from children and seniors to top level amateur play.  The fairways are also wider than average to create some strategic options and alternate routes to the hole.   I always enjoy coming to Mercer Oaks because you get the most for your money here.  The staff clearly care about maintaining the best product possible and my last visit justifies this praise once again.

A precise approach is required to find the putting surface here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Old Course, St. Andrews, Scotland

1st Tee and 18th green behind
When I stepped on to the first tee at the Old Course I was legitimately shaking.  I’d like to say it was the ghost of Old Tom Morris or even the decade of anticipation I was feeling at the moment, but the truth is that I had been waiting in line with my brother since 4am to get a tee time, and yes, I was a wee bit hungry.  In addition to my delirious, yet alert, state of exhaustion I was also experiencing first tee jitters in my hands and butterflies in my stomach.  It wouldn't have been hard to guess, but I nearly missed the 100 yard wide fairway to the slicers right, bounced my second shot in the burn short of the green and scampered off with a cool double bogey.  Just as I had imagined...I actually played quite well, but score is the last thing to focus on when visiting such a special course. 

Mysterious, incredible, unique, unpredictable, natural, beautiful, astounding.  These are some superlatives which streamed through my mind as I walked in the kingdom of golf.  There have been many attempts by the best architects in the world to reproduce the elements of the Old Course and I have seen some.  But as I walked the course, happily chasing my golf ball, I kept saying, “wow, I have never seen that before.”  
11th and 7th green

The Old Course has 11 massive double greens, with some holes crossing each other to navigate the "out and in" routing pioneered in St. Andrews by Old Tom Morris.  Have you ever seen that on a "modern" golf course?  The variety of mounds, swales and hollows will also make you scratch your head when negotiating the many tricky approaches to the greens.   Make sure you take a caddy to fully appreciate the nuances of the Old, especially if you only have one round to play, you may hit towards the wrong flag stick once or twice.

An incredible fact to consider is that the Old Course has hosted the British Open 28 times in the 144 year history of the tournament.  This is a testament to the quality and integrity of the course as it sits today, challenging professionals and amateurs alike.  Scotland's wet and windy conditions also play a role in keeping the game interesting, on a golf course which demands an inventive short game.

I can think of no other place in the world where golf feels so much at home as it does in St. Andrews.  The geography of the town literally embraces it, coming right up to the 18th green warmly awaiting intrepid golfers returning from their adventure on the links.
The home hole, 18
If you have a passion for golf, go to St. Andrews, I believe it will fulfill your golfing soul as it has for 
Proudly standing in the Strath Bunker!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Earlsferry Golf Links, Elie, Scotland

Before embarking on this trip to Scotland I would often read about the general quirk and variety of its golf courses.  I would not be disappointed at Elie. I walked up to the starter’s hut to the right of the first tee, just like many other golf courses. As I walked in, I noticed a chimney stack sticking out of the roof of the small hut. Much to my surprise that “chimney” was actually a periscope! The scope allows the starter to see over the swollen hillside just 50 yards in front of the 1st tee box (I of course stuck my head right in there to inspect if it actually worked). If not quirky, its certainly a unique and interesting way to begin a round of golf.

The second hole returns parallel to the 1st on a high plateau affording a view of the town and the golf course awaiting.

In an ocean side amphitheater most of the golf course is situated between the sea and a large mountain backdrop. Combined with some very good golf holes this setting proved to be exciting and dramatic.

Elie has also has several blind drives that require some local knowledge and more than a little bravery to negotiate, especially if the wind is up.
If you are staying in St. Andrews the drive to Elie is a short and scenic 20 minutes (1 hour from the airport in Edinburgh). The small town center is adjacent to the golf club, tennis courts, and soccer pitches. The course is not hard to find as it seemed to be the center of activity in town.  Overall Elie is forgiving and fun, making for a wonderful introduction to Scottish links golf.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Scotland 2012: My Travels in the Home of Golf

I am very fortunate this year to make my journey to the mecca of golf, Scotland.  My brother and I will be road tripping up and down the eastern links of Scotland, travelling from Edinburgh to St. Andrews, up to Aberdeen and Inverness and back to Edinburgh for the weekend.  I am particularly looking forward to our stay in the Kingdom of Fife, in the town of St. Andrews, where the game of golf came to life.

I'll be updating the blog with some photos and thoughts of the golf courses on my tour this week.  I hope my excitement and enthusiasm for these great links will be passed along to my readers.

Jeff Stein
Stein Golf Construction

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Dr. Mackenzie in South America: Jockey Club, Buenos Aires

The last stop on my Argentinian golf tour was the Jockey Club, just outside Buenos Aires in the city of San Isidro.  I was able to snap a few photos and take a short tour of the property but I did not see as much of the Red course (cancha colorado) as I would have liked.  Both courses return to the large tudor club house which seems to make a congenial atmosphere for golf.  The 9th and 18th greens for the blue course are adjoined by a huge "buried elephant" just yards from the clubhouse, its a spectacular sight.

After seeing Punta Carretas, El Campo de la Ciudad, and Jockey Club I have gained additional perspective, seeing another side of Dr. Mackenzie's work.  Mackenzie's South American projects differ in their natural aesthetic and the way the golf course features relate to the land.  Unlike golf courses like Crystal Downs, Cypress Point, and Royal Melbourne, the Jockey Club in particular, bulges from the flat ground from which it sits.  Drainage ditches are used creatively to create interest in the otherwise featureless site.  The three former courses mentioned above all benefit from exceptionally good golfing ground and seem to blend much better into the surrounding landscape.  The Jockey Club makes an intentional effort to be bold in the man made contours of the greens and bunkers, in turn creating interesting golf.

This trip turned out to be an informative and thought provoking study in the relationship between form and function.  Mackenzie's South American courses reinforce my theory of how much the consideration of function (draining  surface water) drives the form or design aesthetic.I often find this tenant of golf course design to be particularly obvious in the courses of the golden age (approximately 1910-1935).  All three courses, in Uruguay and Argentina, were built on heavy clay soils on relatively flat ground (Punta Carretas is the exception, a course which has interesting terrain).  There is no doubt that the push-up greens, shallow bunkering with convex edges, and ditches around greens and fairways are directly related to the need to surface drain water, ensuring healthy turf.

If anything I was surprised and delighted at the variety of Mackenzie's resume as it is clear that he was not always blessed with great sites.  The stature of the Jockey Club and his other courses only speaks to Mackenzie's versatility as a golf course architect but to the standard of excellence which other architects strive to achieve.

Dr. Mackenzie in South America: Buenos Aires, Argentina

After hopping on the ferry from Montevideo, Uruguay I landed in Puerto Madero 3 hours later ready to explore Buenos Aires.  Beyond the typical sight seeing I had a specific goal in mind (as always), to see the golf on offer in the area.  My first full day visiting Buenos Aires I made my way to the city's public course El Campo de Golf de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires  Its a mouth-full...I paid 30 Argentinia Pesos for my round of golf, that is all of $6.84 USD.  The course is within the city limits and was a short cab ride from the city center.  I was drawn to the course in particular because Dr. Alister Mackenzie also paid a visit back in 1934 to renovate and redesign the routing.

The property is completely flat, well used and a bit raggedy.  I found it to be on par with the conditions of the NYC courses I grew up playing in Staten Island (but with bermuda grass).  

There are back to back double greens on the front nine 2/9 and 3/16!  This surprised me, as well as a double tee in the middle of the back nine.  I'll also never forget the shocker of a par-3 with 50 foot trees directly in front of the tee.  I barely got my 8-iron over and onto the green.  Anything less than perfect is in jail!  Other than the two double greens and the par 3 10th, the greens were not particularly special.  The real challenge lies in narrow openings to approach the greens which are guarded by shallow bunkers.

Kinda' funky for a public track, which seems to serve the city very well.

For more pictures, check out the slideshow, with captions!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dr. Mackenzie in South America, Punta Carretas, Montevideo

I’ve spent the last two months living and working in Punta del Este, Uruguay and took some time to visit 3 courses where Dr. Mackenzie worked way back when.  Club de Golf del Uruguay, Campo de Golf de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, and Jockey Club.  I’ve been lucky and dogged enough in the last few years to visit his courses in Michigan, California, Australia/New Zealand, and now Uruguay and Argentina.

First Stop:  
Club de Golf del Uruguay (renovated/re-routed by Mackenzie, 1930)
Punta Carretas, Montevideo, Uruguay

Hoyo 4--Par 4
A sporty track with several short par 4's (from the tips…322y, 349, 325, 304, 338), average length par 3’s  and 5’s.  All the greens are boldly elevated, back to front and well guarded by interesting/arty bunker horizons.  Some of the par 5’s are reachable but not all have a way to run a ball up the front.     The course sits on a promontory above the harbor and gently slopes towards the water.  The routing takes the golfer in all directions up,down, and side to side exploiting ocean views all around.

I found the drainage ditches in front of several of the lower lying greens to be one of the interesting elements found in the context of golden age design and construction.  These drainage swales created some strategic choices on the reachable par 5’s and 4's, risking a tricky chip opposed to laying back with a full wedge….The bunkers were all fairly shallow with convex outside edges (to shed water above the heavy clay soils, no doubt)
Hoyo 8--Par 4
Drainage path in front of green site

An interesting fact about the club is that the local government requires the grounds to be open to the public at 2pm on Sundays.  No golf but I did see some children romping in the sand traps, runners and picknickers.  Probably a horror at most private clubs in the US, everything seems a little more relaxed down here.  On Monday morning the golf course is open for play to the public all day for no charge!  I walked the whole course Sunday afternoon, but played holes 9-18 (x2) on Monday as the front nine was closed for maintanence.  

For more pictures check out the slideshow!

Punta Carretas

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Eureka! We Have Sand!

9th Hole found in the sand.

With just my luck we actually have a huge ridge of sand that encompasses the entire length of the 9th hole.  600 yards long by 100 yards wide nothing but sand, from tee to green.  From this treasure trove we will top dress the fairways and greens and also use for the bunkers.  This parcel also presented the opportunity to create an alternate par-3 8th hole out of pure sand.  Cool!  Here is a picture of the work in progress.

Alternate 8th hole green site
After stripping the native sod, I excavated the bunkers that surround the left and right sides to build up the green pad. Currently, the green is 125 yards from the back tee and slopes 1% from back to front with no movement from side to side.  I've let this sit for a couple of days as I am moving on to more pressing bunker work and contemplating my options to blend the green into the surrounding landscape.

Check out a related blog post back in November when I visited St. George's Golf Course in Long Island