Perhaps it was the impact of the solar eclipse blocking out the worse tendencies in my golf swing. Perhaps it’s that we are all doing fine in Oklahoma (remember my 39 on the back nine at Southern Hills). Or perhaps my bad shots were just not as bad as they have been. I have always said that golf is not about how good your good shots are, but about how bad your bad shots aren't. I lose a lot of strokes trying to recovery from a really bad shot.
On a hot morning at the Oak Tree National Golf Club in Edmond, Oklahoma as a solar eclipse moved across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina, for a shining moment all the parts of my golf game were in sync.
I flew into the Will Rogers World airport on Sunday night. For some reason United Airlines thought it best for my golf clubs to not accompany me on the flight. I am a United Global Service frequent flyer. This is the highest status in their frequent flyer program. It grants me certain privileges, like priority luggage. I rarely check luggage, but unfortunately golf clubs won't fit in the overhead compartment nor under the seat in front of you. When I do check luggage, my bags are usually the first to come out. On this night at the Will Rogers airport, sure enough my roller bag was the first item on the belt to make its way through that little opening in the wall. It was followed by a set of golf clubs. A set of golf clubs that were not mine. At that moment, I knew that no matter how many more bags came though that opening, none would be my golf travel bag.
I immediately called the Global Services number and explained my predicament. I also explained that I had purposely taken the next to last flight to Oklahoma City so that if my luggage didn’t make the flight, there would still be a way to get it to me before my 9:00 am tee time at Oak Tree National on Monday morning. I provided the agent with my bag tag number. She put me on hold, talked to baggage operations, and returned on the line to inform me that although I was in Oklahoma City, my golf clubs were in Houston.
It was now 9:15 pm, the last flight out of Houston was scheduled to depart at 9:30. I knew this because it was a part of my contingency plan. I informed the agent that we didn't have any time to waste. She needed to talk to baggage handling in Houston and ensure that those clubs got on that flight. She said, “I’m on it!” She returned to the line 10 minutes later to inform me that I need not worry, the flight was delayed and she had confirmation that my clubs would be on the plane.
The flight from Houston arrived around 11:30 pm. My golf travel bag was first through the little opening in the wall. Crisis averted. I would have my own clubs as I faced a golf course that was purposely designed to be one of the toughest in the country.
After a restful night at the Courtyard by Marriott, I made the drive to Oak Tree National. Like Kinloch and Sahalee, the club is tucked in a gated community. The drive from the entrance gate to the club takes you past beautiful homes with manicured lawns. This is a much different view from the small wooden frame houses that appear to populate much of OKC.
As I approach the club, I was astonished at the change in topography. While everything around the course was flat, the course itself was not. This was probably the result of Pete Dye doing what Pete Dye always does and that is move a lot of dirt.
Upon arrival, while the attendants at the bag drop sorted through whether I was at the right place, I went into the Pro Shop, where I received confirmation from Weston, that I was indeed scheduled to play at Oak Tree National today. Weston also mentioned that he was aware of my quest to play the top 100 golf courses on the Golf Digest 2017-18 list. While we were talking, we were join by Steve Kimmel, the head golf pro at Oak Tree. We talked about the excitement of the quest, the courses I’d played, and which were my favorite and least favorite. We also talked about the other Head PGA Professionals that I’d met during my quest and how helpful they had been.
I was scheduled to play at Oak Tree National by myself. There were no caddies and there were very few others scheduled to play that morning. There also were no yardage books. Weston was kind enough to lend me his personal yardage book. His book was one that had been developed for 2014 US Senior Open which was contested at Oak Tree National and won in a playoff by Colin Montgomery. After chatting with Steve and Weston, I headed to the practice range to warm up. It was again one of those warm up sessions on the range where I struck the ball well. The drives went long and straight. It all seems so easy, so effortless, and so improbable that I could carry it to the course.
After my warm up session I made my way to the putting area near the first tee. It was immediately clear that the greens were fast, but also clear that putts rolled true. It appears that the combination of speed and greens that rolled true, made the putting easier. I think this is because with fast greens, there is so little force required to get the ball to the hole, you are less likely to hit it off line.
The one foursome on the course that morning was about to head to the tee box as I finished practicing my putting. They allowed me to tee off ahead of them. As I stood on the first tee, I could not see the full fairway. I could see the opening where the fairway cut through the trees, but not the landing area in the fairway itself. With the foursome as my gallery, I did my best to summon up that golfer who had just warmed up on the range and hit drives long and straight. Magically he appeared as if I rubbed a magic lamp and the genie inside had granted my wish. The ball spring off the club face straight down the middle of the opening in the trees. I couldn’t see where it landed, but I knew it had to be long and good.
During my chat with Steve Kimmel, I'd asked him which tees he would recommend that I play. I provided my USGA handicap index and he recommended that I play the blue tees. The blue tees played at just over 6400 yards with a 73.1 rating and a 145 slope. The course plays to a par 71.
The first hole plays 420 yards. That opening in the trees that I referred to earlier was very small, reflecting a very narrow fairway with tall trees encroaching on each side. The fairway widens just a little as it approaches a pond that cuts into the fairway to separate all but a narrow strip on the right side from the green. The hole plays downhill from the tee box to a blind fairway. As I came over the crest of the fairway, I saw my ball on the left side of the fairway, short of the pond. I had apparently caught the speed slope as my drive measured 290 yards, leaving 145 yards to a back center pin position. The ball off the face of my 8’iron looked just as good as the ball leaving the face of my driver. It too went long and straight over the flag and just over the green into the rough on the slope behind the green. I chipped onto the green to one foot left of the hole and one putted for an opening hole par.
As I left the first green, I was elated to have parred the first hole, but befuddled as to where the next tee box was and which fairway was attached to it. Fortunately, the maintenance crew was there to provide some direction.
The second hole plays just 350 yards from the blue tees. It has water that cuts in front of the tee box and runs along the left side of the fairway, the left side of the green, and behind the green. There are fairway bunkers on the left and right side of the fairway. There are also a few trees along the right side of the fairway, but the right side of the fairway is clearly a much safer miss than the left side. This suited me just fine. I aimed down the right side of the fairway, the ball landed in the right rough, but with a great angle to the pin at 110 yards out. I hit my gap wedge thin causing the ball to sail over the back of the green. I couldn't tell whether it went into the water nor could I tell whether there were red stakes or yellow stakes. I hit a provisional just in case. My provisional landed just short of the green.
Fortunately, I found my ball short of the hazard. It was a red stakes hazard so I would have been able to drop behind the green and chip on had the ball gone in the water. It didn't so no penalty stroke and no laying four just in front of the green. Just a chip and a putt and I had my second par.
The third hole is the first of the three par 5's on the course. It doglegs left and measures 535 yards from the blue tees. There is a bunker on the right side of the fairway just before it doglegs. The green is elevated with a waterless gully in front of it but it is free of bunkers. I hit a pop up on my drive of only 210 yards to the right rough, short of the bunker. At 340 yards out, I hit my 3 hybrid to lay up to 150 yards from a front left pin, but still in the rough just off the right side of the fairway. There was a tree between my ball and the green. I hit a 7 iron over the tree to the right edge of the green. The ball kicked into the rough on the right side of the green.
With two pars from getting the ball up and down on the first and second holes, the question now was could I get up and down for a third time and record my third par. The answer was no, but a good no. I got up and in for a birdie. I chose a spot to hit to on the same line as I would have putted. The ball landed on the green and never deviated from a direct line to the hole. As I looked in the cup the ball was pinned between the pin and the inside of the hole. This was easily my best start on a course during my top 100 tour. I had opened par, par, birdie with only two putts on the first three holes.
As I approached the Par 3 fourth hole, I was reminded of that dreaded par three on the River Course at Blackwolf Run. The hole measures 175 yards to the center of the green, has a water carry from the tee box to the front of the green, and has trees along the right side that must be cleared if you wish to avoid the potential of hitting into the water on the left side of the green.
I chose to hit a six iron to the front pin location over the trees to the right side of the green rather than challenging the water. My ball landed to the right of the flag and past it. I two putted for another easy par. Four holes into my round, I was one under par and had faced only one challenging par putt.
I looked out at the fairway on the Par 5 fifth hole. I didn’t have a clear sense of where to hit my drive. The hole measured 535 yards. There is a carry over rough to get to the fairway. There are three trees that blocked the beginning of the fairway. There is water along the left side of the fairway and more trees along the right side along with a fairway bunker that is in play off the tee. I decided just to hit right over one of the trees that were blocking the start of the fairway.
My ball drew just enough to land on the left middle portion of the fairway. The ball was 295 yards from the flag. I decided to hit away from the water and a bunker on the left side of the fairway and lay up to pitching wedge distance. I hit what I thought was the perfect shot, only to find that I had left my self between a rock and a hard place for my approach shot. The rock was right green side bunkers that I needed to carry and the hard place was the water that ran along the left side of the green and the back of the green. The pin was at the back of the green between the bunker and the water.
I needed to fly the bunker, but not carry the ball into the water. The pin was 120 yards away. I had hit my approach shot 10 yards further than I wanted to. 120 yards was too much for my sand wedge and too short for my pitching wedge. I didn't have a gap wedge in this set of clubs. At this point in the round, I was one under par. I decided to play conservatively and hit a lob wedge to the front of the green.
After executing the shot exactly as I had planned, I was left with a very long birdie putt to the flag all the way at the back of the green. I had good speed on the putt but left the ball four feet to the right of the flag. The only par putt that I had faced earlier beyond virtually a tap in was on the second hole where I’d made a 12 foot putt for par. I hit my putt expecting a slight break toward the water. The ball just stayed to the left, and skimmed the cup. I should have just hit it firm down the middle of the cup. With that putt, my bogey free round at Oak Tree National came to an end. I was now back to even par. On another note, I discovered once I was on the green that there was a bunker between the back of the green and the water. Had I chosen to go at the flag on my approach shot and hit long, the bunker would have stopped the ball from going into the water. This is where playing with a caddie or a member would be helpful.
The three putt bogey on the fifth hole was the start of a string of non-par holes for me that went unbroken until the thirteenth hole. The sixth hole at Oak Tree National is a short par four of 310 yards. I hit a 3 hybrid off the tee into the wind to 130 yards from the green. The green plays uphill. There is a tree on the front left of in front of the green and a bunker on the back right of the green. The tree is easily cleared with a short iron approach shot.
My approach shot landed on the left edge of the green and rolled down the slope of the elevated green. I putted on to within nine feet of the cup, but missed my par putt and made my second bogey of the round.
The 400 yard par four seventh hole follows the short sixth hole. This was the first hole of the day to give me some real trouble. The fairway on the hole has trees lining the right side. This forces you to hit a draw that bends as the hole makes a slight dogleg to the left. There is a bunker on the right, just before the turn begins. I tried to hit a draw on my drive but the ball went straight and landed in the left fairway bunker leaving 190 yards to the flag.
My shot out of the bunker with my three hybrid caught the lip of the bunker and stopped in the fairway 135 yards from the flag. I then missed the green to the right with my third shot, pitched short, then chipped onto the green and made the putt for a double bogey, the first in my round at Oak Tree National.
The bloom was starting to come off the rose now. After opening the round with three pars and a birdie, the three putt bogey on the fifth hole still loomed in my mind. Golf is such a mental game. I needed to put that three putt on the fifth hole out of my mind and start making good swings again.
The eighth hole is a 170 yard par three with water running along the hole from the left side of the tee boxes to past the green. The left side of the green also has a long bunker separating it from the water. The front right side of the green is also protected by a bunker. I continued to make bad rather than good swings. I made good contact with the ball but didn’t close the club face. My ball sailed way right of the green. Fortunately, there was someone from the maintenance crew working in the area. He saw exactly where my ball sunk into the deep rough and could point it out to me.
The ball came out of the deep rough much better hand I thought. It landed on the green but rolled across the green and into the bunker between the green and the water. I hit out of the sand and then two putted for my second and final double bogey of the round.
The front nine closes with a 360 yard par four. It plays straight but the mounds on the left do catch your attention. There are trees lining the right side of the fairway. There is also a solo fairway bunker on the left side of the fairway.
I hit a low ball to the left with my drive. I then shanked my next shot and landed just short of the green on my third shot. I chipped on and one putted to finish the front nine with a 41. I was kicking myself for the lost opportunities. I begin the round playing very well and then let one three putt side track me. I took my time getting to the 10th tee so that I could reflect on this.
The 10th hole is a scary monster from the tee box. The tee box is nestled between trees. Like a few of the previous holes, there is tree blocking the middle of the fairway. There is a very long bunker along the right side of the fairway and several small bunkers along the tree lined left side of the fairway. The only saving grace on this hole is that it is short. From the blue tees it was playing 360 yards to a back center pin position. I hit a good drive into the wind which left just 130 yards to the pin. I hit my approach shot into a strong wind. It hit on the right side of the green and then kicked into the right green side bunker.
I hit my sand shot a little long and just off the back of the green. I two putted from there for a bogey.
The eleventh hole is the longest par four on the course at 425 yards from the blue tees. I hit my drive to the right of the cart path into the right rough. This positioned the ball on a line with trees blocking the approach to the green. I hit a fade around the trees the but the ball landed short of the green. There was a bunker between the ball and the flag.
I pitched over the bunker but couldn’t stop the ball short of 20 feet past the flag. I missed the par putt and made my second bogey on the back nine.
The 12th hole is long and narrow with a creek running across the undulated fairway at about 50 yards from the green. I hit my drive to the right first cut of rough. I made my third bogey after missing the green to the left on my approach shot and failing to get up and down for par.
After opening my round with three pars and a birdie, I was finding it very difficult to find the bottom of the cup in the number of strokes allotted for each hole. The par three thirteenth hole was my lucky hole. It’s a picturesque hole that is spoiled by the view of a house off the back of the green. The hole plays 140 yards. There is water along the left side of the green and trees that are tight just past the tee boxes. There is along bunker running parallel to the trees and one lone bunker off the front right of the green.
I hit a nice tee shot that landed pin high but rolled to the back of the green. I hit my first putt with a good pace and the ball stopped 2 feet from the hole. I finished off the putt to finally make another par.
Hole number 14 is a 415 yard par four with a tree lined narrow fairway that bends left to right. The fairway also slops severely toward a creek running along its right side. I hit my drive to the right rough well short of the fairway. I laid up to 85 yards.
My next shot was a thing of beauty. My ball was on the left side of the fairway. The flag was on the left side of the green tucked behind a bunker with very little green between the bunker and the pin. I notice a slop on the green past the flag. I hit my lob wedge over the flag and into the slop. The ball rolled down the slop to within six feet of the cup. I made the putt for my second par in a row.
The fifteenth hole is the last 400 yard plus par four. ` It plays 401 yards from the blue tees. There is a creek that bisects the fairway, but it is close enough to the tee box to not be in play. There is also a fairway bunker on the right side. The biggest challenge on the hole is that the fairway is extremely narrow with trees that overhang as it approaches the green.
I hit my drive to the light rough on the right side of the fairway, but to the left of the fairway bunker. I attempted to hit a fade to the green to get around the trees that over hung the right side of the fairway. My ball caught the trees that were overhanging the fairway on the left and drop into the rough. I hit my third shot onto the green to just 12 feet left of the flag. I missed the par putt, but made the second putt for bogey.
The sixteenth hole is the last par five on the course. It measures just under 480 yards. The hole requires an adequate drive to a tight landing zone that is framed by trees with a creek also running along the right side of the fairway which slopes toward the creek. The creek crosses the fairway diagonally and runs to and along the front left side of the green. There is a tree without leaves on the green side of the creek as it bends toward the left side of the green.
I hit my drive straight down the middle of the fairway. I got lucky on my ill-advised second shot. I attempted to reach the green in two but hit the shot fat. Fortunately, the ball stopped short of the hazard on the left.
My next shot was like a dart hitting the bullseye. I hit a lob wedge from 80 yards over the bunkers to just 2 feet from the pin. I made the easy putt for my second birdie of the round.
The seventeenth hole is a challenging par three that measures 185 yards from the blue tees but was only playing 150 yards. The hole has a water carry from just past to tee boxes to the front of the green. There is a large bunker between the right side of the green and the water. The flag was back and on the right side of the green. The safe miss on the hole is to the left where there is grass and only one small bunker.
To avoid the bunker, I attempted to hit a fade along the left side of the green and have it move to the right on the green. The ball hung out to the left leaving a long birdie putt. I two putted for par.
Approaching the final hole on the course, I felt like I’d played a long round. That is probably because I had such a good start on the course with the first four holes and then struggled for several holes before finding my swing again. The eighteenth hole is a beautiful hole with water between the tee boxes and the beginning of the fairway. The fairway is narrow and tree lined with bunkers on the left and right. The hole looks almost like what you see when you look from the green back toward the tee box on the first hole. It is as if the first and eighteenth holes act as matching bookends for the course.
I made a loose swing on my drive and hit the ball to the trees on the right. The ball came to rest close to a tree. I also had trees blocking a direct path to the green. I hit a fade around the trees, but was short of the green.
I pitched on to the back pin position and then two putted for a round closing bogey and a score of 39 on the back nine. The 39 matched my back nine score on the other top 100 course in Oklahoma, Southern Hills. The difference was this round was not a tale of two nines. I played more consistently on both nines. I had a birdie on both nines, but didn’t have any double bogeys on the back nine. My total score of 80 was the lowest score that I’d shot to date on my quest.
After closing out my round, I spent some additional time talking to Steve Kimmel the Head Pro at Oak Tree National. Steve suggested that include the cost of my quest in my write ups since others who may want to attempt to play the top 100 courses in one year would have a sense of how much it might cost. I considered Steve’s suggestion, but upon thinking about an experience on the cost of something during the early days of my marriage, I decided against including the cost.
Early in our marriage, my wife and I took a bed and breakfast tour of New England. I had time back then because I had not yet discovered my passion for golf! One of the inns where we stayed was in Bar Harbor, Maine and was one of the former summer homes of the Astors. This was a place of luxury and comfort. While I had not yet discovered my passion for golf, I had discovered my passion for being frugal. I asked my wife how much the place cost. Her response led to a long and happy marriage. Her response was that “no good would come from the answer to that question!” I never again asked her how much something cost.
As I was about to leave Oak Tree National, I noticed some of the staff observing the eclipse. They shared a pair of glasses with me and I ended my wonderful day there with a view of one of nature’s marvels.
I’d like to thank Will at Cherokee for arranging my round at Oak Tree National and Steve and his staff for making me feel so welcome during my visit. Next up Oakmont