Category Archives

71 Articles

Adventures in Organics

[Ed. This story appeared in the January 2018 issue of Golf Course Management magazine. In April 2019 it won the Gardner Award from TOCA, the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. I’ve won a bunch of these over the years but the Gardners are new — a sort of Best in Show among all the annual winners apparently, so I figured it was worth sharing here. There’s a link herein to another profile I wrote about the same time for GCM, on Dr. Frank Rossi. That one came out pretty well, too, especially if a) you’re a fan of kunekune pigs; or b) you want to know why Bethpage Black has agronomic relevance outside this week’s PGA Championship.]

When Kevin Banks was a turfgrass management student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it wasn’t uncommon for decorated or otherwise experienced golf course superintendents to drop in for guest lectures. When Jeff Carlson, CGCS, came by in 2005, Banks says he remembers thinking, “Wow, this guy is crazy!”

Frankly, that’s how most students in the midst of a traditional turf management education might have appraised Carlson’s work at the Vineyard Golf Club. When permits were being sought for building this golf course on environmentally sensitive Martha’s Vineyard in Edgartown, Mass., in 1998, developers were obliged to promise the local conservation commission that the prospective golf course would be managed in an entirely organic manner.

The Vineyard Golf Club opened for play in 2002, and Banks graduated in 2008. He would then apprentice at several traditional clubs before this story came full circle — Banks took over for Carlson as head golf course superintendent at the Vineyard Golf Club on April 1, 2015.

“I guess I’m the crazy one now,” the nine-year GCSAA member says.

Two-plus years into his tenure, Banks has more than warmed to the nonconforming aspects of his job, one of the few in golf course management that takes the organic approach from mere trend or direction to guiding principle.

“It’s definitely been a challenge, but I’ve also definitely become addicted to it,” Banks admits.

Just 31, Banks today finds himself at the crux of another nascent industry trend, a phenomenon where head superintendents hire and groom their replacements, having accepted another position at the same club. Carlson stepped aside in the spring of 2015, but he remains at the Vineyard Golf Club as property manager, where he oversees capital projects — a just-concluded Gil Hanse redesign, for example.

The idea of having the previous superintendent at the club — perhaps hovering, perhaps exerting undue or unwanted influence — may strike some as awkward. Not Banks, and here, the organic dictates governing turf management at the club intertwine with these issues of succession.

“Before I took this job, I knew who Jeff Carlson was. Almost everybody in New England and New York did too, and I’m sure that reputation extends even farther than that,” Banks says. “He has been the organic ambassador for my entire turfgrass career. Having him help manage the golf course with me my first season here was a really sensible transition. I knew it would be very different for me, at first, but Jeff knew exactly where to expect an outbreak. He knew where we would first see weed pressure, and all this input came with his very relaxed and calm presence.

“I will always thank him for being patient and mentoring me into a truly organic manager — something I take great pride in today,” Banks adds.

Can Banks imagine having taken on the organic learning curve without Carlson there, on-site?

“Not really,” he answers. “Jeff was very patient. My first year, the disease we encountered in certain areas maybe should not have happened. I believed moisture levels were adequate and acceptable enough to fight disease pressure. They weren’t. But Jeff sat back and let me learn from my mistakes, and watched me grow.

“From the beginning, I was talking to anyone and everyone to get my head around the issues. And I still do that.”

Banks says he frequently talks with colleagues, companies and researchers about the specific issues he faces. Frank Rossi, Ph.D., of Cornell University and recipient of GCSAA’s 2018 President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship, is “a great resource,” he adds.

“But the way I look at it, Jeff is my best researcher. As often as I do interact with all these organic contacts and their ideas, I still take most of them with a grain of salt. They can recommend what they think is right, but you must compare that to what I’m finding here on the ground and what I think is right — and to what Jeff thinks, because he’s done it.”

Martha's Vineyard golf course
The first new golf course to be built on Martha’s Vineyard in 30 years when it opened in 2002, the Vineyard Golf Club was designed, built and is maintained in an all-organic manner to satisfy the community’s strict environmental standards. Photo by Larry Lambrecht
Read More

Welcome to the Teahouse: Korean Road Warriors Curate, Stylize the Game at Home

[Ed. This story appeared in Golf Australia magazine in 2015, as a preview to October’s President’s Cup. I’m in the midst of a couple Korean projects right now; may be headed back there in September… Figured it was worth reprising here.]

By Hal Phillips
SEOUL, South Korea — Let’s get straight to the irony: Koreans are hands-down the most ardent and prolific golf travelers in the world. For a variety of reasons, however, their collective reputation in these golf destinations, particularly those in Asia (their most frequent ports of call), is less than sterling. For the first time, this October — on the occasion of the 11th Presidents Cup Matches — the golf world returns the favor, en masse, as thousands of internationals will descend on the Peninsula to observe four days of competition and make their own golf holidays.

What will they find? One of the game’s singular golf cultures, highly stylized (sometimes to the point of curation) and complemented by a collection of first-rate parkland courses, immaculately kept. The Presidents Cup is a showcase event for the Korean golf community, the biggest international golf event ever staged here, and while public courses remain somewhat rare (and definitely dear), many private clubs are throwing open their doors to welcome the international golfing public — and make a few won (855 to the Australian dollar) in the bargain.

But Aussies who do venture north this spring — especially those who may have cooled their heels behind a glacial Korean foursome in Pattaya, or perhaps witnessed a Gold Coast waitress endure another East Asian browbeating — will be pleased to find a kinder, gentler, quicker brand of Korean golfer on home soil. One might well ask about the phones, to which Korea golfers seem permanently affixed. Well, don’t expect miracles. This remains the most wired, technologically obsessed population on earth, and that extends to their golfing habits, home and away, for better and worse.

To be fair, there are sanguine byproducts of this high-tech mentality. In June, while striding down the 2nd fairway at Whistling Rock Country Club — a private club northeast of the capital and home to one of the nation’s top 5 tracks — the visiting golfer is immediately struck by two things: First, my playing partners and everyone else on the course that day are dressed to the absolute nines. Second, as my caddie walks beside me, our golf cart drives itself down the path — thanks to an electric-eye mechanism embedded in the concrete and caddie-operated by remote control. It goes without saying these drone carts also come complete with sockets, for phone charging.  

“I love Korea, totally wired and everyone looks sharp, man or woman, 25 or 65,” says David Dale, a partner with California-based course architects at Golfplan, who have designed 22 courses in Korea. “Golfers arrive at the course in sport coats and slacks, carrying small grooming bags with golf shoes and change of clothes. They go to their lockers with their 4-digit security codes and change into these highly fashionable pants, shirts and caps (with ball markers on the brims). Most of the time, they’re putting on sleeves to keep the sun off them, even the men.”

Dale and Golfplan have designed courses in 75 different countries, “But I’ve never been to any other country that had a stronger sense of fashion,” he says. “They have these awesome golf slacks that are fleece-lined with waterproofing and pin stripes. I’ve got a pair. They’re thermal. I use them for construction visits in cold climates — but they’re stylish enough to wear with a sport coat!”

The clubhouse at Whistling Rock is typical of the genre here: palatial, modernist and staffed to the gills. Upstairs, a long, narrow Zen garden splits the hallway leading to a massive but still-elegant dining space, where picture windows look out onto the golf course. Downstairs, some 40 members of a course-rating panel (representing GOLF Magazine Korea) populate a sumptuous meeting space of burled wood and overstuffed chairs. Back upstairs, I pass a golf shop that is, well… remarkably modest: mostly golf balls and a few shirts.

According to Whistling Rock Vice President David Fisher, this is typical of Korean clubs, which stock very little logoed merchandise because the lion’s share of golf apparel is purchased not from clubs but direct from top designers. The golf apparel industry in Korea has been estimated at USD$3.5 billion — this for a country of just 1.5 million golfing souls.

“In Korea, the fashion changes. We have four distinct seasons and the manufacturers come up with new designs for each season,” explained Michael, a Korean-American living in Korea and working for a golf industry company (he asked that his real name not be used). “People tend to keep up with the season and they don’t have loyalties to the club they belong to. Elsewhere it’s common that members will wear shirts with the club logo, but in Korea that’s not the case. People tend to lean toward designers shirts, which can be very expensive, 200-300 dollars. Even if they don’t have a good game in terms of golf skill, they try to look good. In Korea, if you don’t dress up, you’re pretty much looked down upon.”

For men, shorts on the golf course are considered particularly frumpy. “Most of the membership golf courses,” Michael says, “do not permit shorts — and golfers must wear hats outside the clubhouse. Without hats, you cannot go out on the course.”

Um, why is that?

“I don’t know.”

The shorts thing is good to know, though daytime temperatures for October typically range from 7-18 degrees (and these days hats make good skin-care sense most anywhere, anytime). Still, Dale suggests that exacting standards and high fashion are just what we should expect from a population with “the highest level of elective cosmetic surgery in the world and the no. 1 destination for these procedures in Asia. I’m even thinking about getting something done, around my eyes… I’m serious.”

Read More

Sable Oaks is No More; Amid Cheers, I Will Defend Her…

Golf course closures are typically met with howls of indignation and despair, as locals countenance their stark, new, diminished reality. But it’s fair to wonder exactly how the public golfing population here in Southern Maine processed the news, received in late January, that Sable Oaks Golf Club would not reopen this spring (the land will instead be marketed to housing developers).

Because while I loved Sable Oaks, mine has always been the minority view.

Most of the Maine golfers I know never cared much for Sable Oaks. Too penal, they said. Driver was too often taken out of their hands (on account of wetlands too often cutting across fairways in constricting fashion). For walkers, hilly Sable Oaks was death march.

These sentiments, accompanied by knowing nods and perhaps champagne toasts, are surely being bandied about even now. But I must protest. It’s bad manners to speak ill of the dead, after all. And so I’m here today not merely to praise Sable Oaks but to defend her — for perhaps the last time.

All the things people hated most about Sable Oaks recommended the course, to me, when I moved to Portland in 1992. I was 28 years old and a pretty good player back then — breaking 80 at Sable (something I managed only three times in 30 years) really meant something. I didn’t even carry a driver for much of the ‘90s, relying instead on a 1-iron (and a weirdly shaped, seldom deployed, persimmon Ping 2-wood). Walking 18 holes at Sable with a bag on my back was certainly a workout and a half; the hike from 17 green to 18 tee in particular was a heart-stopper — but I was young! A round there meant I didn’t need to go to the gym.

And what a taxing-but-comely walk it was. Designed by architect Brian Silva (who laid out the once-private, now semi-private Falmouth Country Club at exactly the same time), Sable Oaks made for golf in an undeniably gorgeous, secluded setting across lush, dramatic terrain, with gargantuan specimen trees framing the greens and colorful wetlands everywhere one turned.

Okay, those wetlands required forced carries on four of the first five holes — but they were even more colorful in the fall!

Yes, Sable Oaks was located directly in the Portland Jetport flight path — but you never heard the highway (!).

I arrived in Portland that March of 1992 to take a new job: editor-in-chief at Golf Course News, a national business journal published by Yarmouth-based United Publications. When I stumbled upon Sable Oaks that spring, I was honestly blown away. The greens were inventive and fun — always in superb shape, too (something Sable could boast to its dying day). Indeed, the place seemed pretty brand new. The overall conditioning, the contour/detail around those greens, the bunkering throughout seemed way too nice for a public course — especially one that charged just $20.

Sable seemed fancy and new because it had been conceived and built as a private golf/residential community just a few years before I showed up in Portland. A late-80s recession obliged it to open and operate as a public course. Ownership would change several times through the years. Housing and other commercial elements never got built. An oversupply of competing courses meant Sable would never do more than survive. National trends didn’t help matters: The U.S. course stock has suffered an annual net loss of some 150 properties each year since 2008. Ironically, Greater Portland’s red-hot housing market today — and Sable’s prime location on a wooded hillock right across I-95 from the Maine Mall — made the closure decision (from current owners, Delray, Fla.-based Ocean Properties Hotels Resorts & Affiliates) something of a no-brainer.

•••

But none of this accounts for Sable Oaks’ poor reputation among Greater Portland golfers. Did it get a bad rap? Or was it simply too hard to enjoy? Are Southern Maine golfers a bunch of pussies? Is course difficulty something they want to observe on television but avoid for ourselves?

The answers here are complicated. I can tell you this much, having spent 30 years in the golf business (rating courses and writing about course-design issues): Difficult tracks are, more often than not, successfully marketed on account of their resistance to scoring, not in spite of it. Portland-area golfers were eager throughout the 1990s, for example, to drive two-plus hours for the pleasure of losing 10 golf balls and shooting 117 at Sugarloaf (where river crossings were celebrated). The Woodlands in Falmouth (another track that debuted about the same time as Sable and Falmouth CC) is a much harder golf course than Sable Oaks, in my view, and yet it has succeeded in attracting private club members in this market.

What’s more, Sable Oaks was not a long course; it played only 6,300 yards from the tips. Indeed, the choosing of one’s tees at Sable was key to maximizing the fun and strategy Silva created there. Too often, in my view, Sable-haters didn’t manage this aspect particularly well for themselves.

Read More

It’s the Charisma, Stupid: Tiger Crosses Back Over

So my wife and I have a 12-year-old girl staying with us for a while and last Thursday evening she settled down beside me (armed with a big bag of magic markers and a sketch pad) as I watched a recording of The Masters first round. She wasn’t paying much attention. In that way she was a credible stand-in for the broader American public, which, let’s face it, doesn’t pay much attention to golf, even its majors. Indeed, when she did take notice, she playfully mocked the idea of watching golf altogether — that is, until she noticed Tiger Woods walking off a tee.

“Who’s that?” she asked.

That’s Tiger Woods, I told her. I swear to god, I did not prep her in any way; she picked him out of the crowd of players all on her own. The next afternoon, during the live broadcast of Round 2, she wandered back into the living room. Unbidden she asked, “How’s Tiger doing?”

He’s doing quite well, actually. You like him?

“Yeah.”

Why?

“He’s handsome.”

What else do you like about him?

“He’s cool. Look at the way he’s walking around. He’s very confident.”

What about that mock turtleneck? Is that cool?

“Oh yeah. Those are in.”

Watching golf with a 12-year-old, distaff, golfing neophyte is a fascinating exercise in its own right. This one in particular had strong opinions: She thought Jon Rahm looked like a fat punk; she didn’t like him at all and rode him without mercy throughout (“He should just go home”). She quickly remarked on the unusually lanky stature of both Tony Finau and Matt Kucher. Brooks Koepka was notably swaggy — but nothing like Tiger, in her opinion. Surprisingly, Ricky Fowler’s youthful mien did nothing for her — something about his eyebrows being too dark (“And I don’t like his shirt”). Norwegian amateur Victor Hovland was pilloried for his prominent schnozz, which, in fairness, was fair comment.

But these were all bit players in the drama so far as she was concerned. Tiger was the anointed one.

A lot has already been written about how Tiger’s victory on Sunday has introduced his phenomenon to an entirely new generation of golfers. I don’t anticipate this girl will suddenly want to play the game, or start wearing mock T’s. But it has been 11 years since Tiger won a major. This weekend’s performance reminded us all of what we’ve been missing.

Forget the 15 majors, the renewed Nicklaus chase. We’ve missed this man’s naked charisma most of all. No golfer in history has half the presence Tiger exhibits just walking down a fairway. Charisma is a hard thing to quantify, but it’s also one of the few things that readily spills over from a niche sport like golf into the larger culture. And that’s another thing golf has been missing these past 11 years.

I watched Sunday morning’s finale at Tomaso’s, a fashionably down-market, diner-sized canteen in Portland, Maine. At 10:30 a.m., when I showed up, there weren’t but 3 or 4 us there. An hour later, the brunch crowd had attracted a full house of young, bearded, IPA-swilling hipsters This was no sports bar, much less a golf bar (does such a thing even exist north of Pinehurst?). Even so, when Tiger birdied 15, the place went crazy. The barman quickly turned off the music (a pleasant alt-country playlist featuring the likes of Ryan Adams, Old Crow Medicine Show and Jason Isbell) and turned up the CBS television feed. Tiger had this place in the palm of his hand. When his tee shot on 16 came to rest 2 feet from the hole, the patrons inside Tomaso’s erupted.

About this time, I noticed a text had arrived. A friend of mine was down in Boston at the TD Garden watching the Celtics-Pacers playoff game, an inelegant affair he referred to as a “game/rock fight.” He reported there were “tons of people clustering around TVs on the concourse watching golf. It’s amazing how much love there is for Tiger.”

There’s really is something about this guy — something non-golfers can appreciate. Yes, he has battled back from considerable personal/physical adversity, but this obscures the larger point: He was stupidly charismatic when he appeared on the Mike Douglas Show at the age of 2, when he won three straight U.S. Amateurs, when he debuted as Nike’s cross-over pitch man, when he claimed those 14 majors… Apparently, after a decade away, he remains stupidly charismatic, not just to core golfers but to casual fans and mere onlookers around the world.

Sunday night, my daughter sent me a text: “Is Tiger Woods good again?”

She’s 20 years old, a junior in college, and couldn’t care less about golf. But somehow the news had reached her via the broader cultural news drip. I asked exactly how she learned of his Masters victory.

“I saw him on the TV at this bar! Some people were watching.”

Do you find him charismatic?

“Not really. He’s cheated on a lot of women.”

My daughter is clearly not so forgiving of Tiger, in part because she’s a woke young woman, but also because she’s yet to make the mistakes that Tiger and the rest of us 40, 50 and 60somethings have made. But her admonition is well taken: Recognizing and appreciating anew Tiger’s ungodly magnetism doesn’t mean we should get all crazy (again) about what his charisma really means.

It doesn’t mean, for example, that we should start believing Tiger’s mere presence will bring millions of kids (or Millennials, or Baby Boomers) into the game. That never held in 2003; it doesn’t hold now. Nor does it mean we should start building new golf courses willy nilly to accommodate this chimerical wave of converts. It doesn’t mean Tiger has, on account of his victory, instantly become a particularly good man or father. It made no sense to ascribe him these qualities in 2007 frankly; knowing what we know, it makes even less sense now. Why we blithely attach these sterling personal traits to men (or women) who exhibit extraordinary sporting skill is beyond me. One hopes we’ve learned our lesson here.

But it does seem clear that Tiger and the professional game in which he competes have changed more than a little in the 11 years since he limped to his last major win. Today’s Tiger is 43 years old, his hairline in full retreat. He’s been through a world of shit, both physical and personal. The process of dealing and coming back from all that would change anyone. His swing and his outlook on life are forever altered.

And here we confront what might be the most interesting manifestation of all this change: Sunday’s victory was the first time Tiger has ever come from behind in the final round to win a major tournament. The greatest front-runner in history has learned how to come back.

Tiger won from the front so frequently because, from 1997 through 2008, his outsized aura truly cowed most all of his would-be competitors. Remember how they’d wilt when paired with him? Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau did not play well beside Tiger on Sunday but here, too, the game has changed a great deal in 11 years. Today’s PGA Tour is stocked to the gills with young, dynamic, swaggering talent. It will be fascinating to watch this generation of professionals compete with the man many of them grew up idolizing.

Because one thing has not changed: You can’t take your eyes off this Tiger Woods fellow. This was true over the weekend; it was true through 2008. If we’re honest with ourselves, it was true afterward, through his many struggles. We rather shamelessly rubbernecked the wounded, struggling Tiger like we ogle an accident on the side of the road. More than a decade has passed and we still can’t take our eyes off him. Why? Because he still has more charisma than anyone who has ever played this game, more perhaps than all the major winners in history, combined. Even a 12-year-old, non-golfing girl can see that.

‘You have no idea all the shit that I’ve built’

Roger Goettsch and his pride and joy, a ’49 Chevy pickup he restored.

[Ed. I once learned at an AP seminar that anyone, in the right hands, could be the subject of a prize-winning profile. This one may or may not qualify, but it’s pretty darned good and has been widely shared in golf circles these past few months. See here the published version in Golf Course Management magazine. See the slightly longer and more casually profane original draft below.]

By HAL PHILLIPS
I received the following email from Roger Goettsch, CGCS, in the spring of 2018: I recently designed and built two different wetting forks for applying wetting agents to the soil in our LDS (localized dry-spot areas). We have had issues getting wetting agents into the soil due to the thatch layer and this seems to have helped… He attached pictures of the wetting forks in action, along with shots of the “Plug Pushers” he also designed and built, to remove cores following aeration.

Goettsch is the head superintendent at Shanqin Bay Golf Club in the small town of Longgun, on the island of Hainan, in the People’s Republic of China. Like many American-trained supers working overseas, Goettsch can’t get his hands on every last piece of equipment his little heart desires. So he just builds what he can, himself, putting to work his AutoCAD skills, his welding and fabrication expertise, and a mechanical imagination born deep in the American heartland. Goettsch has worked all over North America, and now Asia, leaving behind him a trail of custom-designed and custom-built equipment — like breadcrumbs in the woods.

“You have no idea all the shit that I’ve built,” he says, upon compiling for GCM a list of Top 10 Greatest Hits. “Literally, what you’re seeing there are just the big items from the last decade or so. There’s at least another 20 big-ticket items I’ve leaving out and several hundred more I’ve just sort of forgotten.”

Like those sprig planters you built for all those contractors? Or the fairway aerifier you whipped up that one night?

“Well, not one night. We were growing in a Palmer course in Ft. Worth, Texas, working with Arnold’s project architect, Bob Walker. He’ll confirm this story. The soil was horrible there, dark heavy clay. We just had to aerify it. So I decided to build an aerifying machine with my head mechanic, Bill Hess. We had to get this done because I promised Bob Walker I’d have it ready for his next site visit. So me and Bill had been working on it several days, but we worked till 4 a.m. that last night and Bill — I had trained him how to weld — all of a sudden hollers over at me: Roger we gotta quit… I fell asleep welding.”

When pressed for why exactly he’s compelled to build so many things — while simultaneously working full time, taking care of first-class courses from the Gulf to the South China Sea — Goettsch chalks it up to self-reliance, a quality his dad embodied and passed along to young Roger in the farmlands of western Iowa.

“That’s the through line for all this stuff, based on my upbringing — being self-sufficient. You know what they say: The DNA precedes you.”

•••

Read More

Now It Can Be Told: When Media FAMs Go Wrong…

The history of media seeking to leverage their publishing capabilities to secure various fringe benefits is long indeed. Traditionally, as befits transactions undertaken by relative paupers, these perks rarely rise above the level of heavy hors d’oeuvres. I worked at a daily newspaper back in the early ‘90s where the nightly assignment schedule invariably included this reception or that event — places often devoid of news value but where free food could be had. Open bar? Well, the entire editorial staff might show up for something like that.

Lookit, reporters and editors don’t traditionally make a lot of money; they’re frequently quite young. This is to say, freeloading of this kind shouldn’t be viewed as particularly untoward or shameful. It’s something of a necessity frankly. One of our many mascots in that newsroom was a giant cartoon headshot of a Dick Tracy-like character, complete with ‘40s era fedora. Tucked in his hatband was an index card that might simply have read “PRESS”; instead it read, “I’m with the PRESS. Where’s the FOOD?”

Several links up the food chain in this realm is the media FAM trip — FAM being short for “familiarization”. There’s no way to spin such an event in light of journalistic standards and ethics: These are flat-out junkets whereby some publicity-seeking entity lures reporters and freelancer types on some trip with the understanding that, once they’ve been wined/dined and return home, media will write nice stories about the resort property, the golf course or cuisine to be had there, or maybe the broader “destination” itself. In the golf and travel realm, where I’ve toiled for more than two decades now, FAM trips are the ultimate perk because, well, let’s not be coy: In addition to all sorts of free food & drink, participating media also get complementary air fare, lodging and assorted swag.

The quid pro quo nature of the FAM exercise is little discussed but well understood. One doesn’t visit a golf course or hotel, on a FAM, only to savage the place in print. That would be untoward. As our moms all told us, if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all (or concentrate on something else that doesn’t suck).

Here’s another FAM trip bylaw: Answer the bell. No matter how much free boozing and carousing was had the night before, media guests have an obligation to show up, on time, first thing the next morning (according to the itinerary) without fail.

There’s one more, less formal understanding re. media FAMs to establish: Something is sure to go wrong. I’ve been on dozens of these junkets as a working journalist. I’ve organized dozens more on behalf of various clients. When one is devising a week-long itinerary in a foreign country — for one’s self — something is sure to be overlooked. When organizing for a dozen people, most of whom will be drunk 35 percent of the week? The odds only increase. The mere presence of a dozen journalistic chancers eating, drinking and indulging on someone else’s dime makes the possibility of mishap a mortal lock.

Someone, someday, will write a comprehensive book about all the great FAM trips gone awry: who got thrown in jail, what foreign dignitary got naked, and why shellfish is always a risky choice. In the meantime, writers will merely trade these yarns back and forth like war stories. In that tradition I offer up the itinerary from a single morning gone wrong, in Jakarta, during Ramadan, back in 2012. This was a trip I helped to organize and host. I promised the client I wouldn’t breathe a word until a reasonable period of discretion had passed. Still, I have changed the names to protect, not the innocent necessarily, but rather those professional reputations still in play.

•••

In most respects, this particular FAM was a roaring success. It produced dozens of glowing, published pieces re. the awesome golf product on offer in and around Indonesia’s sprawling capital. To produce this content I had wrangled a genial and cosmopolitan group of 12 media and tour operators hailing from the UK, China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and the U.S. From the Fond Memory Dept., I could just as easily cite the epic karaoke session, the compelling version of “Take It To The Limit” I performed with the band at our closing soiree, the five superb rounds of golf we played, or the incredible dinner we organized for 20 at the Four Seasons. But none of those vignettes would include the burning of tires or police in combat gear.

See below a timeline of events, the morning after said banquet. I can vouch for its accuracy because, like James Comey, I was moved to take contemporaneous notes, on my phone — such was the utterly random nature of the proceedings.

Read More

SI Memories, Developmental & Professional, Come Thick & Fast

The late-2017 sale of Sports Illustrated, TIME Magazine and other titles to Meredith Publishing, a deal made possible by an infusion of $650 million from Koch Industries’ private-equity arm, has elicited both howls of indignation (from those who fear the further right-wing weaponization of information) and an ongoing hail of gauzy nostalgia — from those who grew up loving SI and fear the sale will only further its fall from a decades-long perch atop the sports media food chain.

Here I will indulge in the latter, because I’d been meaning to post the above story in some way, shape or form ever since my friend Jammin’ ran across it last September. SI was not merely a staple of my young reading life (along with The Boston Globe’s superb sports section) — it was where I started my freelance-writing career. Indeed, this was my very first freelance piece, full stop. It warms the cockles of my heart to see it lovingly preserved online in flipbook fashion deep in something called the SI Vault.

[I had some trouble linking this page in the embedded sense. Copy and paste this, should you have the same trouble: https://www.si.com/vault/1997/10/27/233677/small-wonder-the-dunes-club-our-pick-as-the-best-nine-hole-course-in-the-country-is-twice-the-challenge-of-most-18-hole-layouts#]

By 1997, when this piece was published (Oct. 27 issue), I had spent some 10 years as a working journalist, first for a collection of weekly and daily newspapers in Massachusetts, then as editor of Golf Course News, a national business journal published here in Maine (indeed, taking that job brought me to Maine). Nineteen ninety-seven was also year I left GCN to start Mandarin Media, Inc., with the secondary intention freelancing more in earnest. The ensuing years would see my work appear in pretty much every major North American golf and travel magazine (several of which still exist!). That effort started here, with this Sports Illustrated feature.

I had pitched the magazine a piece ranking the best 9-hole golf courses in America, but, as often happens in the freelance milieu, the story ended up being something quite different: a feature on Mike Keiser and his 9-hole masterpiece, The Dunes Club, with a sidebar detailing the country’s other top 9s. The story itself frankly could have been better. I ended up submitting a finished draft, only to have the editor suggest a major rewrite. This I did, and then the bastard ended up running something that quite closely resembled the original version. Some old stories you read with great pride — this, alas, is not one of those. It feels cautious and dry.

[The sidebar produced a funny moment: When we agreed on this feature and brief ranking alongside, I launched into some lengthy disquisition on how we’d research and tabulate a proper Top 9 Nines list. The editor interrupted me at some point and simply said, “This is SI. We’ll just tell people what we think the Top 9 is.” Such was the power (some would say hubris) of the magazine in those days.]

Despite my failure to reprint this on the 20th anniversary of its publication, the experience was not without its serendipities. For a Boston-bred lad, it was fabulous to be included in any issue with Larry Bird on the cover. What’s more, while I wouldn’t say I discovered Mike Keiser, one would be hard pressed to find earlier coverage of the man, who eventually revolutionized the golf resort business. When I first met him in the spring of 1997, the private, 9-hole Dunes Club was Keiser’s only connection to golf development. Today, having created five award-winning, top-ranked courses in Oregon at Bandon Dunes, he’s had a major hand in developing additional, no-less-heralded, multi-course projects in Nova Scotia (Cabot Links, Cabot Cliffs) and Wisconsin (the new Sand Valley), with another now planned for Scotland. All are links courses fashioned from sandy sites hundreds of miles from the beaten path. Keiser didn’t just build awesome tracks; he proved that American golfers would pay top dollar — and travel to the middle of freakin’ nowhere — to play this type of golf.

I remember sitting in the modest clubhouse at The Dunes Club with Keiser in the summer of 1997, eating hot dogs and conducting our interview when, at some point, he mentioned that he’d just purchased 2,000 acres of coastal property in Oregon, 2 hours west of Eugene and 4-5 south of Portland, where he planned to develop not just one course but a whole complex of them. I thought to myself at the time, “I like this guy but he’s clearly delusional.”

It would not be the last time I mistook vision for delusion.

Like carrying ‘a Rolls Royce with buckskin seats,’ only lighter…

Late January in the golf realm is traditionally dominated by the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. Even if one doesn’t attend (as I did not), industry types and golfers alike are invariably bombarded this time of year by attendent product news, hailing the latest and greatest from all corners of golfdom. I received this morning a press release re. the vaunted Mackenzie Walker. I no longer “carry”, as they say; the ol’ L4/L5 and S1/S2 discs won’t allow it. But I did report on this specific subject once upon a time, for the dearly departed Golf Connoisseur. Glad to see the company (if not the magazine) is still in business.

Considering all our outward reverie for tradition and history, today’s golfers would appear to have very few practical retro options. Yes, we can walk, take a caddie, wear a Hogan cap or perhaps re-attach to our shoes those god-awful kilties. But we don’t see modern players making any truly meaningful throwback gestures, such as forsaking his Pro V1 for a Haskell — or even an Acushnet Club Special. We don’t see them trading micro-fiber for tweed. Yes, Old Tom Morris reportedly made one helluva niblick but the market for one, today, is limited to collectors and hickory-wielding re-enactors.

This is precisely the beauty of the Mackenzie Walker, the all-leather carry bag that was first introduced in the 1980s, fell into obscurity amid a hail of ownership failures but has re-emerged under the aegis of Oregon-based professional Todd Rohrer. It’s a niche market, to be sure, but the sumptuous, hand-sewn Mackenzie bag (which, when slung across your shoulder, feels like a comfortably worn club chair, only not nearly so cumbersome) is beginning to gain traction at some of America’s finest clubs — perhaps as a statement of principal in an ever more titanium-reinforced world.

“Technology makes the game a little more enjoyable, but so does this,” Rohrer says, while gently stroking two new shipments of buttery leather, one in black, the other champagne. “The first bag I make out of this stuff is going to look like a Rolls Royce with buckskin seats.”

The first Mackenzie bag Rohrer ever saw was black. He was managing The Reserve Vineyards & Golf Club in Portland, Oregon; it was the late 1990s, during the Fred Meyer Challenge, “and Peter Jacobsen came walking across the practice green with the coolest black leather Sunday bag I’d ever seen. I was like, ‘Whoa…’ These bags evoke strong emotions. They just make people feel good.”

Jacobsen was an early backer of the Mackenzie phenomenon; indeed, he and his brother, Dave, named the product. Not for Alister, the architect, but for Rick MacKenzie, their caddie during a 1985 trip to Scotland (and now the caddie master at St. Andrews). That was one spelling corruption and several ownership groups ago. Rohrer is the new keeper of the flame (www.mackenziegolfbags.com) and he’s determined to “refine” the bag without messing with it.

“For example, the round ring here at the top of the bag. It used to be a piece of steel we got from Mexico, but through my sewing machine mechanic I found an experienced welder who just happens to sculpt in metal. Now the ring is hand-formed stainless steel and the weld on it is just about a work of art — and you’ll never even see it because we sew it into your bag!”

Ditto for the lighter, 50-gram composite fiber batten (replacing a 675-gram metal frame) that provides the Mackenzie Walker just enough structure, while maintaining its requisite Sunday-bag slouch.

Otherwise the Mackenzie bag remains gloriously low-tech, unchanged and unadorned. No double-helixed nylon straps. No insulated water-bottle receptacle. No special compartments for, well, anything really. They’ll hand-sew you some lovely barrel-style head covers but, outwardly, there will never be more to a Mackenzie Walker than a single strap, a couple pockets and impossibly soft leather.

Okay, a bag stand would be nice. Some day. Maybe.

“We’ve had that conversation,” Rohrer admits, a bit warily. “But if we ever do one, it will be the most damnably elegant bag stand you’ve ever seen.”

Our Gallic friends don’t give a fig about the ’18 Ryder Cup… On s’en fout?!

At Morfontaine GC in 2015. That’s the elegant, Mansard-roofed clubhouse in the distance, across the 18th green.

This piece appeared in Cache magazine as part of a 2015 series that examined the best public and private courses to play in prominent metropolitan areas worldwide. This first bit spotlights Paris. It’s coupled with a follow-on bit re. Melbourne that appeared 3 months later. 

The French do not follow, a fact that applies most stringently to their cousins across the Channel. This begins to explain the marked lack of great golf courses (and great players) in a country so big, so populous, so temperate and so blessed with golf-worthy coastline. All that said, France is so hosting the Ryder Cup in 2018, whether we golfers (and the French themselves) like it or not. And while the French may never take to the game en masse, they have provided surprisingly well for golfers visiting the capital any time before or after September’s event.

Let’s first fixate on the Ryder Cup theme (even if the French may not). The host venue, Le Golf National, is nominally private but anyone willing to shell out 120 Euros can get a game there, and what a game. There are 45 holes here but L’ Albatros (that’s “The Albatross” for you non-Francophones) is the preferred 18, a track befitting golf’s biggest team event (it’s also hosted every French Open but two since opening in the early 1990s). Architects Hubert Chesneau and Robert Von Hagge fashioned a flamboyant, 7300-yard beast from what had been a pretty humdrum piece of terrain. For anyone but the old world design purist, there’s plenty to enjoy here: wide landing areas, artificial mounding that renders each hole a golfing pod unto itself, forced carries, and peninsular greens (bounded by wooden retaining walls) jutting out into water hazards. It’s a feast for the modern golfing eye.

The other factors recommending Le Golf National, the next time business takes you to Paris, are convenience and variety. The property is located in suburban Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, just west of Versaille. What’s more, the secondary 18, L’Aigle (The Eagle), is more of the same good fun, if not quite so stern a test. There’s even a sprightly, 9-hole short course, L’Oiselet (The Birdie), for those with a little extra time, or not quite enough.

Golf de Morfontaine is everything Le Golf National is not. Set aside an entire day for this place, where nothing is rushed and time would appear to have stood still since architect Tom Simpson fashioned this design in the late 1920s, the heart of course architecture’s “Golden Age”. Indeed, it was Simpson (designer of Cruden Bay in Scotland and The Berkshire outside London) who coined this now-hackneyed phrase. In any case, Simpson’s patron at Morfontaine, the 12th duc de Gramont, chose his ground well. This is arguably the best course in continental Europe. It’s also among the most private, meaning it’s THE place to leverage all your best Parisian connections in order to wangle a visit.

What you’ll find, if those connections prove distinguished enough, is a deft cross between the best of London’s heathland tracks (think Sunningdale, where Simpson once renovated the New Course), and Northern California (think Olympic, with its ubiquity of trees and paucity of fairway bunkers). Indeed, the fairway corridors at Morfontaine, while firm and fast (thanks to perfectly sandy soil conditions), are a bit too crowded by massive Scotch pines to truly embody the “heathland” milieu. However, its stupendous putting surfaces, strategic greenside bunkering and elegant routing thoroughly overcome this stylistic impurity.

Read More

Dugmar GC: The Curious Story of a Golf Course Submerged

Dugmar GC: The Curious Story of a Golf Course Submerged

Dugmar Golf Club, from above, circa 1931.

The Swift River started rising in the rural Massachusetts town of Greenwich on Aug. 14, 1939, and soon enough the fairways at Dugmar Golf Club had become unseasonably soggy. After a time the layout’s bunkers and teeing grounds were completely submerged, and had the pins not been removed years before, their flags would have been some of the last things visible before this 9-hole track and the rest of Greenwich were lost for good.

It’s been 68 years since Greenwich and three neighboring bergs were systematically condemned and flooded, all in the name of Metropolitan Boston’s chronic thirst. This massive, Depression-Era public works project created the Quabbin Reservoir, then the largest man-made, fresh-water reserve on earth.

The Lost Towns, as they’re known today, were literally erased by the Quabbin’s introduction; every tree, every man-made structure in the Swift River Valley was burned or bulldozed to make way for it. The river itself having been dammed, the water rose behind it for seven long years, until 1946, when it first lapped over the reservoir’s massive spillways.

By then Dugmar GC had been largely forgotten. Except that you can’t erase memories.

Other layouts have been lost to history, of course. Some have simply been abandoned; others were sold off to make way for post-war suburbia. But so far as we know, Dugmar GC — opened for play in 1928 — was the only golf course to meet its end in a purposeful deluge, sacrificed (along with four 200-year-old communities) to supply tens of millions of faucets in larger communities some 60 miles away.

Hundreds of golf clubs were built, as Dugmar had been, during the heroic age of Jones and Ruth as the moneyed classes sought to bring the same sort of bravado to their own lives (not to mention a place to imbibe in a country gone dry). More than a few of these establishments went under during The Depression, but none quite like (nor quite so literally as) Dugmar Golf Club, for unlike their unwitting, high-living contemporaries, Dugmar’s developers KNEW the club’s fate before the course was ever built — before the bentgrass was imported from southern Germany, before the elegant stone patio was laid beside the farmhouse-turned-clubhouse, before the first crate of Canadian Club was hidden from view.

It was a set up. A land deal with golf at its core. A trifle built to amuse its backers, for a time, then enrich them at the public’s expense. “Those guys knew what they were doing; they made out,” realls a chuckling, 85-year-old Stanley Mega, who caddied at Dugmar GC and still lives close by Quabbin’s shores, in Bondsville. “They knew the reservoir was going in and they made a killing.”

In essence, Dugmar GC was conceived and ultimately proved to be the world’s first and only disposable golf course.

•••

Read More