It was the best of nines, it was the worst of nines. It was a day with good shots, it was a day with bad shots. The day had started like many of other days that I was scheduled to play golf at a prestigious country club, steeped in golf history. There had been the round at Augusta National with its drive along Magnolia Lane. Then there was Valhalla with its peaceful serene drive along the white fence that was reminiscent of a Kentucky horse farm. And on this warm sunny morning in Oklahoma, there was the drive from the entrance gate to the club house at Southern Hills Country Club. It had the length of drive at Valhalla, the beauty of the drives at both Augusta and Valhalla, and something that neither possessed – a crescendo. As the scenic drive with its overhanging oak and maple trees approached the club house, its elevation gradually increased until it plateaued on a perch overlooking the beautiful grounds of the Country Club and the skyline of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Along the drive to the club house, on the left there is a practice facility with a dual end practice range and a short game area, and glimpses of the Championship Course. To the right is the West Course which provided a view the of the bunkers common on both Southern Hills courses. These bunkers have the potential to make all other bunkers look like child’s play. I’m not even sure they should be called bunkers. They are more like craters. Their biggest challenge is the fear they put in your heart and the lack of confidence that accompanies your swing when you find yourself trying to hit out of one. Yes, these gigantic bunkers made an early impression on me.
As I approached the club house at the top of the hill, I looked for the stature of the caddie that the guard at the entrance gate said would be my landmark for making a left turn to the bag drop area. I was greeted by an attendant as my car came to a stop. The guard had surely called ahead to let them know that I would be arriving in a few moments. Still the warm personal welcome of “Good Morning Mr. James. Welcome to Southern Hill,” was much appreciated. The southern charm and hospitality of Southern Hills was on full display. Every encounter with every member of the staff was pleasant and welcoming.
The attendants at the bag drop handed me off to Leonard, one of the men’s locker room attendants. Leonard led me to a locker and made sure I was settled in comfortably. After changing shoes, I headed to the Pro Shop to look for Cary Cozby, the Head PGA Professional, and to purchase a cap, a yardage book, and a medallion. Jeff Johnson at Flint Hills Golf Club had worked with “Coz”, as Jeff affectionately called him, when he offered during my visit to Flint Hills, to arrange for me to play Southern Hills.
Jeff or JJ, as he is also known, was on the search committee that recommended Coz for the Head Pro position at Wichita Country Club in Wichita, Kansas. Coz also told me that his wife introduced JJ to his wife. As you can imagine, they are not only colleagues in the world of PGA Professionals, they are close personal friends as well.
I had arrived at the club before Coz was available. The assistant pro told me that he was sure that Cary would seek me out later that morning. As I was purchasing items in the Pro Shop, John Allan, one of the two members that I was scheduled to play with, came up and introduced himself. From that moment on, I was in his capable hands and those of Doug Terry, the other member that I was scheduled to play with.
After the introduction, John advised that I could head to the practice facility. He told me that he would meet me there after he got dressed for our round. I grabbed the cart with our golf bags and headed for to practice range. John joined me after I’d warmed up for a few minutes. From that moment on, he became an indispensable guide for my round at Southern Hills.
His guidance was plentiful and purposeful. He suggested that after I’d hit some shots from the end of the practice range that we were on, we should head to the other end of the range. The other end of the range had the short game practice area. He advised that it would be good for me to practice getting out of the bunkers, which were massive and deep (remember, these bunkers got my immediate attention on my drive along the tree lined road to the club house). He thought it would be best for me to get a feel for hitting out of them before I encountered one on the course. That was sage advice. He also recommended that I practice hitting chips and pitches from the tight lies on the Championship Course, not only to get a feel for hitting the ball, but also to see how the ball would roll out on the greens. This was also sage advice. We wrapped up our pre-round practice with putting. Everything we covered was helpful during the round.
As John was taking me through our practice routine and filling me knowledge of the course, and the history of the club, Doug arrived. John introduced us and filled Doug in on some of the details of my quest to play within one year, the top 100 courses on the Golf Digest 2017-18 list. While John would be my Mike Kilkenny from Crooked Stick and my Walter Young from Dallas National, Doug would be my Bill from Blackwolf Run and my Tommy from Dallas National. Mike and Walter were great on club knowledge and history. Bill and Tommy were great at reading greens.
John, Doug, and I continued to warm up and talk until our 9:30 tee time. As we stood on the first tee, Coz stopped by to introduce himself. It was almost like we were old friends. He was warm, open, and gracious. A man who I could imagine as a dispute resolver extraordinaire. I could clearly see how the warmth, I’d received from the moment I spoke to the guard at the gate and every encounter thereafter, emanated from the top. I doubt if there has ever been a person that Coz has met, that he did not greet as a friend. It is no wonder he was selected as the PGA Professional of the Year in 2016.
With the introductions and practice now complete, it was time to face the Southern Hills Championship Course. We chose to play from the white tees which measured 6600 yards with a rating of 73.8, and a slope of 143. Doug and John allowed me as their guest, to tee off first. I looked out over the fairway as we stood on what had to be one of the highest elevations in Tulsa. Remember, Oklahoma is a place where the wind comes sweeping down the plains. With plains being the operative word. Apparently, the Championship Course at Southern Hills, didn’t get the memo. This was no flat course.
The front nine was the worst of nines for me. The first five holes extracted a pound of flesh. I’m sure John and Doug were asking themselves what happened to that guy they saw warming up. I know I was asking myself what happened to that guy that had shot rounds in Houston over the weekend in the high seventies and in the mid-eighties. Well, that guy eventually showed up, but not until I was 9 over par with just five holes played.
The front nine starts with a 454 yard, Par 4 that has a narrow fairway and slight dogleg to the left. Trees impinge just off the left and right sides of the fairway. I hit my first drive over the trees along the left side of the fairway. The ball was playable, but my hosts insisted that I hit another. You really don’t have to ask me twice, but unfortunately, this was the second day in a row and the third course in a row, where I’d taken advantage of a second ball off the first tee. Now mind you that my balls were playable, so I don’t know if in either of those cases, my score was affected by the generous opportunity of a second first hole tee shot. My second drive hugged the tree line on the left and landed in the left rough. Doug and John hit their tee shots and we were off.
My drive left me 175 yards out. I scuffed my second shot, but followed with a third shot onto the green. My putting practice didn’t help me on the first hole as I three putted for a double bogey. John and Doug both were on in regulation and easily made pars.
As we stood on the tee box for the second hole, I noticed two big bunkers in the middle of the fairway. These bunkers seemed close and like unnecessary punishment for someone who popped up their drive and narrowly escaped going in the creek that runs across the fairway, to only find themselves in the deep bunker. I asked Doug and John why the bunkers were there. They assured me that the bunkers were much farther than they appeared.
My drive found the fairway and at just over 230 yards, only cleared those bunkers by about 10 to 15 yards. So not only did Perry Maxwell mess with my head with the gunch at Prairie Dunes. He was now getting in my head with his sense of distorting scale with these massage bunkers. I was till 200 yards out after my drive. I pushed my approach shot into the trees to the right of the green.
I pitched my third shot over the right greenside bunker, but close enough to the green to putt. Again, I three putted and scored a second double bogey. Doug was providing good reads, but I couldn’t get the speed right.
As we left the green on the second hole, Doug informed me that we had gotten past the two toughest holes on the front nine. He said it would probably now get a little easier. I guess that was true since I made a bogey on the third hole. The third hole was certainly shorter than the 455-yard first hole and 435-yard second hole. But it wasn’t the length on those holes that caused me a problem. If I could have putted better, I could have saved bogey on both holes. On the third hole, I two-putt and put an end to that double bogey mess. At least I thought I’d put an end to it.
I finally started to drive the ball better and found the fairway on both the fourth and fifth holes but also managed to find bunkers on those holes. The bunkers were not my friend. I double bogeyed both the short 350-yard par 4, 4th hole and the 589-yard par 5, fifth hole. The good news is that I got experience in the bunkers under stress conditions. This helped on the next hole.
Five holes into this worst of nines front nine, I was 9 over. I had corrected issues with my drives. I’d hit three of the last four fairways, and I was no longer three-putting. I needed to take a deep breath and refocus. I did just that on the sixth hole. The sixth hole is a 170-yard par 3. It has a creek running diagonally from along the left side to across the front of the green. There are two bunkers protecting the front of the green, one on the left and one on the right. My tee shot started out on a good line to toward the pin in the middle of the green, but faded into the bunker as it approached the green. My first thought was “oh no, not another bunker!” But then I recalled, that I hit every practice shot that morning from the bunker onto the green. I knew how to do this. It was time to focus and execute. I took my club back about twice as far as I would take it for a pitch of the distance between me the flag and me. I then hit exactly one inch behind the ball and exploded through the sand, finishing high. The ball landed on the green and rolled to within five feet of the hole. I made the putt and had finally made a par on the Championship Course at Southern Hills Country Club!
With my confidence somewhat restored, I played the par 4, 370-yard seventh hole, like I knew how to play golf. I hit my drive into the fairway, put my approach shot pin high and 20 feet to the left. Unfortunately, I missed my birdie putt, but made an easy par.
I left my tee shot short of the green on the 200, par 3, eighth hole. I chipped on and two putted for a bogey.
On the ninth hole, Southern Hills showed me a little more of that southern hospitality when I got a member’s bounce on 9th hole. My drive hugged the trees on the left a little too closely. The ball hit a tree and bounced backward, but into the fairway. I did not take advantage of this southern grace. I was still 230 yards out. I topped my three wood as I tried to kill it. The ball rolled only 60 yards. I then hit a five iron on a straight line, right at the flag. The ball landed on the back of the green and hopped into the rough behind the green. I chipped on to the green and left my bogey putt two inches short of the hole, closing out this worst of nines with a 47. With only one par 5, the front nine has a par of 35. Doug finished the front 9 with a 41 and John finished with a 42.
The best of nines, back 9 started with what I thought was a nice drive since I had hit the ball well and it was in the left fairway. The par 4 tenth hole plays 366 yards. My drive left 125 yards to a back left pin position. The problem was that the ninth hole is laid out in the shape of a boomerang. My ball was in the apex of the boomerang and there were very tall trees between my ball and the green. The green is surrounded by those Perry Maxwell specials. You know, those craters with sand in them. There was one in front of the green and directly in my line. There were also two on each side of the green.
I did my geometry test with my pitching wedge. The result was slightly daunting. If I launched the ball on the precise angle of the club face, it would clear the trees by three to five feet. Any angle less than that and the ball could boomerang right back at me. John then demonstrated that a gap wedge would clear the trees. My concern with the gap wedge was that big crater at the front of the green. But since I knew a ball off the face of the gap wedge, could clear the trees with a sufficient margin of error, I went for it. Not only did I clear the trees, I cleared the crater!
But just barely, leaving a 25-foot putt for birdie. I missed the birdie putt, but made the putt for par to start this best of nines off with a par.
The par 3 eleventh hole plays 155 yards. From a helicopter, the hole would look like it is laid out in the shape of a question mark. The only question for me, was could I put the ball on the green and avoid the four bunkers that protected it. There were two bunkers on the front of the green with only a slither of grass between them. Then there were side bunkers on the left and the right. Each starting about five yards behind those front bunkers. The only safe harbor on this hole was the 10-yard wide, 25-yard deep, postage stamp green. Long, short, left, and right – all no good. I took out my seven iron, recalling what Rick Hatfield taught me about hitting irons when I was at Flint Hills National, I struck the ball purely. I didn’t even feel the club face contact the ball. The sound was that nice click you hear when the club makes solid contact with the ball. The ball landed pin high, three feet from the hole, hopped once and stopped.
By now, I had realized something about the greens and the fairways on this course. There are undercover humps and bumps that affect your ball. You can’t see them, but you feel them in the fairway with the movement of the golf cart as it rolled across them. You also can’t see them on the greens, but you can feel them under foot as you walk across the greens. The next question on this question mark of a hole was whether one of those clandestine, curvatures of the green would affect my three-foot putt. The line had a clear right to left break as it traveled slightly downhill toward the hole. I steadied myself over the putt. I lined my putter with a spot just short of the hole and to the right of it. I slowly took the putter back and ever so softly, pushed it forward through the ball. The ball rolled on the line of my intent and dropped to the bottom of the cup. All questions answered – I had my first birdie on this best of nines back nine at Southern Hills.
As is the tradition of all duffers, I followed my birdie putt with the obligatory PBF drive. The twelfth hole is a 425-yard par 4. I hit my ball into the trees on the right. There was no southern hospitality this time. My ball hit a tree and came straight down into the rough under the tree, 265 yards from the middle of the green. A green protected by water and bunkers. I have neither the skills nor the clubs to hit a ball 265 yards from the rough, over a pond and a creek, while ensuring I don’t land in the bunker. I chose to lay up to 80 yards out and take my chances with a lob wedge to the pin. I hit a flyer out of the rough and my six iron shot, traveled 215 yards, stopping short of the creek and only 50 yards out.
This was not the shot I wanted. A 50-yard shot over water and a bunker. These are some of the toughest shots in golf. Anxious to see whether I cleared the water and the bunker, I looked up during my downswing and hit the ball slightly thin with my lob wedge. The ball rolled long, but stayed on the green. I then two putted for a bogey. I was now even par on this best of nines back nine.
The thirteenth hole is a par 5 that measures 525 yards. I hit my drive to the rough on the left of the fairway. There was a tree in front of me with an opening through which I could advance the ball forward. Being in the rough and needing an accurate shot to get through the opening in the tree, I decided to hit my five iron. It is the longest iron in my bag. What I didn’t notice when I was formulating my plan, was the bunker, drown and across the fairway that was on that same line, and 180 yards away. I hit the ball well and on line. It flew right through the opening in the tree and traveled 180 yards into the bunker, close to the face. I decided to just take my medicine rather than risk not getting out of the bunker. The green was 180 yards away. The ball was too close to the face to hit a long iron and be assured that I’d get to the green. I also didn't want to risk landing in the water that was in front of the green. I took the loftiest club in my bag, my Lob wedge and safely hit out the bunker, but only 30 yards, leaving 150 yards to the flag. My fourth shot landed 8 feet right of the flag. I still had a good chance at par. That’s all it ended up being was a chance. I missed my par putt and settle for a bogey.
As John and I approached the tee box for the par 3, fourteenth hole, he said that this was a tough hole with a lot of trouble around it. When we arrived on the 14th tee box, it was clear that John’s characterization of the hole was spot on. The hole was playing 190 yards with a green protected by six bunkers. The only safe landing area anywhere around the green that would not result in a ball in the bunker, was off the back of the green. But an up and down from there would be no picnic either.
In this type of situation, the best thing to do is to aim for the middle of the green. I took out my 5 hybrid, made a good swing and hit the ball to 18 feet past the flag. Doug then gave me an excellent read on my putt.
I hit the ball on the line he gave me and on this tough hole, my ball dropped into the cup for my second birdie on this best of nines back nine. I was no back to even par on the back nine with four holes remaining. Could I do it. Could I finish the best of nines back nine at even par?
The answer to the question came quickly. On the 380 yard par 4 fifteenth hole, I hit my drive into the trees on the left side of the fairway. The 25 to 35 yard wide fairway bends slightly to the left. My ball bent a little more than slightly to the left. I managed to hit my approach shot around the trees and into the front right bunker. My bunker shot sailed to the back of the green, from there I two putted for a bogey.
The sixteenth hole is a short par 5. It has a fairway that is as narrow, if not narrower than the fairway on the fifteenth hole. There are trees along both sides of the fair way and a lone bunker on the left side of the fairway, just about 300 yards out from the white tees. My drive was down the middle of the fairway and well short of the bunker. I laid up to 115 yards. The green is another well guarded green with craters on the left front, the right side and the back. I hit my approach shot to 25 feet from the flag and two putted for a par.
The 17th hole is a short par 4. It plays just over 330 yards from the white tees. The fairway seemed wide compared to the narrow fairways on the previous two holes. This led me to the bad decision to hit my driver rather than playing it safe with a fairway wood or hybrid which would leave a pitching wedge or sand wedge to the green. My drive went into the drive on the right side of the fairway, about 70 yards out from the green. We weren’t sure whether my ball went into the creek that ran through the trees or cleared the creek. If it had gone into the creek, there would not be a good place to drop, so I hit a provisional. The provisional ball went in the same direction, but farther.
We found my first drive short of the creek. We didn’t find my provisional, so we assumed it ended up in the creek. I now had to hit under a tree, over the creek and two bunkers to get to the green. I cleared the creek but landed short of the bunkers. I pitched over the bunkers and on the green. I two putted for bogey.
The closing hole at Southern Hills Country Club is a long par 4 that doglegs right. The fairway is wrought with trouble right where the fairway doglegs to the right. There is a creek that cuts halfway into the fairway, but doesn’t go all the way across. Just past the creek are three bunkers. On that cuts into the left edge of the fairway, one in the middle of the fairway and one that cuts into the right edge of the fairway. I hit my drive to the left rough. I popped up my next shot and landed my third shot onto the green.
Doug hit his approach shot into one of the massive craters guarded the front of the green. This bunker is so deep that you can’t see the surface of the green when you are standing in it. Doug manage to hit his sand shot onto the green and two putted for a bogey. I also two putted for a bogey. John made the only par on the hole for a strong finish. He finished this best of nines back nine with a birdie and two pars for a 39. Doug finished with a 41 and I carded my best nine holes of my tours, matching John’s 39. John and Doug had full round scores of 81 and 82 respectively. I combined my worst of nines and best of nines for a total score of 86.
I’d like to again thank Jeff and Cary for arranging my play at Southern Hills and John and Doug not only for hosting me, but also for the guidance and advise on getting around the course.
We were completed the round in under 3 ½ hours. This was great, and gave me a chance to shower before I had to rush off to catch my flight. If you read my blog on my round at the River Course at Blackwolf Run, you will recall that I had dropped my son off at camp at Duke University, two weeks earlier. I now needed to get from Tulsa to Durham by 10 am the next morning to pick him up. We teed off at 9:30 am and my flight was at 2:50.
I thought I was cutting it close, only to find out when I got to the airport that my flight was delayed. Since it was critical that I get to Durham, I had a contingency plan if my flight was delayed for too long. My original flight was through Chicago where I connect on a flight to Durham. It that didn’t work, there were other airports I could fly into from O'Hare that would ensure that I’d get to Durham in time to pick up my son by 10 am. I also had other options out of Tulsa. I could fly to Washington Dulles and then to Durham, getting in just before midnight, or if worse came to worse, I could fly American Airlines direct to Durham.
Well, what I didn’t plan for was a flight that took off from Tulsa before needing to trigger any of the contingency plans, but returned to Tulsa after the contingency flights had departed. The plane I was on lost cabin pressure after take-off. By the time we got back on the ground, all the other flights except one had taken off. The one flight that hadn’t taken off was a Delta flight to Atlanta. Fortunately for me, that flight was delayed by an hour. I caught that flight to Atlanta, came home and slept for four hours before making an early morning drive from Atlanta to Durham to pick up my son. Mission accomplished!
Next up – Merion.