There have been many great stories written and told during my one year quest to play the Golf Digest America’s 100 Greatest Courses, but not many as great as the one I’m about to tell you. Back in January I traveled to California to play golf at a private club in Los Angeles and at the Valley Club of Montecito. It was during the same week that tragedy befell Santa Barbara County and mudslides took the lives of 21 people. There were many more who were injured. Playing golf fell way down the list of priorities. My round at the Valley Club was postponed until the community could start to heal and recover.
The golf course at the Valley Club was also damaged during the mudslides. By mid-March as the community continued to recovery, the Valley Club was able to reopen eight holes and add a short par three to provide the members with nine holes that could be played twice if they wanted to play eighteen. My host, Pat, arranged for friends of his to host me at the club on my birthday in late March. On that day, for the second time in just three months, the area was inundated with heavy rains. My round was again postponed as out of an abundance of caution, local officials called for an evacuation.
I returned to the Los Angeles area for a third time in April and on a beautiful spring day I was able to play the Valley Club as a guest of John and Barbara. John was recouping from an injury, so I had the pleasure of playing with Barbara who kicked my butt.
After completing the nine holes on the front part of the course, Barbara and I returned to the first tee to replay the holes from a second set of tees. Don and Caroline were already on the tee with two friends when Barbara and I got there. They invited us to play through since we were a twosome. Before we hit our tee shots Barbara introduced me to Don and Caroline. She told them about my quest to play the top 100 courses in the country.
Don and Caroline asked if I’d played the Country Club. I told them that I was planning to play there in May during a member-guest event. I told them the name of my host and asked if they knew him. They happened to be very good friends. I told them that I’d played the course before back in 2009 when we lived in Cambridge while my wife was a visiting Professor at Harvard Business School. My host and his family were our host family at the Park School in Brookline where our kids attended.
As coincidence would have it, not only were Don and Caroline friends with my Country Club host, Caroline had attended the Park School herself and her's and Don’s kids also attended. This was another case of it being a small world and a case of fate once again intervening in my quest.
Barbara and I hit our tee shots and then drove down the fairway toward our balls. Barbara looked at me and said, “you know Don and Caroline would have been happy to host you at the Country Club.” Since I already had a host, I said, “that’s very kind of them, I appreciate their willingness to help.”
After I returned from California, I sent my Country Club host a email to let him know that I’d met Don and Caroline. He responded that they were lovely people and dear friends. He also mentioned that a work conflict had arisen on the day we were scheduled to play at the Country Club. He was very mindful of the deadline for completing my quest and asked if playing later in the summer would present a problem for me.
I wrote back to him letting him know what Barbara told me about Don’s and Caroline’s willingness to host me. He thought that was a good idea and suggested I contact them to see if they were available during the week that I was planning to be in the Boston Area.
I emailed Barbara and asked if she would contact Don and Caroline on my behalf. She let them know that I could use thier help with playing at the Country Club in May. Caroline immediately sprang into action. Within a couple of hours, she had arranged for a tee time for Don and me to play on Wednesday of the week that I was planning to be in the Boston area. I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that Don and Caroline may have even modified their plans to be able to host me.
I have met some amazingly wonderful people during my quest. I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness and generosity that the people in the golf community have shown me. The story of the help that everyone has provided as I strive to play all 100 courses in a year is truly to me the greatest story ever told during my quest. On this occasion a serendipitous meeting of strangers with unknown links became a critical piece of the puzzle to complete the picture of 100 golf courses played within a year.
On Wednesday morning following a week of golf in New York and two days of golf in the Boston area, I drove from my hotel to the Country Club of Brookline. As I traveled along familiar roads I was reminded of the mornings I drove my kids to school when we lived in Cambridge. Those were precious moments. My kids were six and four. I’m sure all of you who have kids remember those days when your kids thought you hung the moon. That moon you read to them about each night in “Goodnight Moon.” Well, mine are teenagers now. To them their formerly all-knowing parents have become as dumb as a box of rocks. For a few brief minutes as I drove past the Park School, I was able to recapture those moments.
As I approached the Country Club, the memories of my kids sadly gave way to thoughts of the historic and hallowed grounds that I was about to enter. This is the oldest country club in the America. Its existence precedes the golf course by years, but it is also one of the original founding five clubs of the USGA. It has been host to several tournaments including 1913 US Open which was won by Francis Ouimet who was only 20 at the time and had a nine-year-old as his caddie. Francis shocked the golf world when he defeated the leading golfers of the day for the win.
The story of Francis Ouimet’s win is told in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” by Mark Frost. Mark Frost is also the author of the “The Match” which tells the story of a golf match between amateurs Ken Venturi and Harvey Ward and professionals Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. The match arose out of a challenge between millionaires Eddie Lowery and George Coleman. Eddie Lowery, was Francis Ouimet’s nine-year-old caddie when he won the U.S. Open. Both books are great reads.
The Country Club was also home to the controversial 1999 Ryder Cup where the American team snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat after Justin Leonard sunk a 42 foot birdie putt. The other players and the crowd erupted. This may have led to Jose Maria Olazabal missing his 22 foot birdie putt assuring Leonard of a half point and the U.S. of the win. The U.S. had trailed by four points going into the final round of the match.
As I entered the grounds and drove along the road that cuts across the fifteenth fairway, I could see the iconic clubhouse. It is one of the most recognizable clubhouses in the country. I had returned to The Country Club on a day with much nicer weather than that wet summer day in 2009. I parked my car and asked for directions to the men’s locker room.
Don arrived while I was waiting on my golf shoes. I’d asked the locker room attendant if he could dry them for me. They were still wet from my damp and foggy round at Kittansett. After my shoes were dry and on, Don and I headed to the practice range for a quick warmup before heading to the first tee.
On the first tee Don introduced me to John, our caddie. Don and I decided to play from the white tees. They measure 6341 yards on this par 71 course with a rating of 71.8 and a slope of 139. The Country Club has far more than 18 holes. The course can be step up in a variety of configurations. My round was played on the normal configuration. When I played the course in 2009, it was set up in the Championship configuration.
The par four first hole is beautiful in its simplicity, yet it is one of the toughest opening holes I’ve faced during my quest. Primarily because this level hole with a narrow dogleg left fairway measures 441. The hole is rated as the seventh most difficult hole, but I found it to be much more difficult than some of the other holes that have a higher difficulty rating. There are but two bunkers along the fairway. They are on the left side at 230 yards off the tee. There are trees on both sides for the first half of the fairway, but they are sparse.
With the length of the hole dancing around in my head, I felt the need to hit the ball a long way. I swung much too fast and popped the ball straight up. The ball landed in the rough well short of the fairway. I had just taken a very long hole and made it much longer.
I hit my second shot to the fairway, my third shot to the right rough and my fourth shot to just short of the green. I then chipped on to the green and one-putted for an opening hole double bogey.
The Country Club has a distinct pattern. There is a long and difficult hole followed by a shorter and easier hole. This pattern repeats through the all 18 holes with par threes and par fives sometimes substituting for the par fours as either easy or hard holes.
The first hole is long and hard so the par four second hole is short and easy. It measures 285 yards and is the fifteenth handicap hole on the course. The hole starts with a short 120 yard carry over rough to a fairway the bends slightly from right to left around a couple bunkers at about 160 yards off the tee. The fairway continues until 45 yards before the front of green. The right side of the space between the fairway and the green is occupied by a couple of bunkers. The right side is just rough. I hit a three hybrid off the tee to the first cut of rough off the right side of the fairway.
I was left with 108 yards to a back right pin on a narrow oval green. By hitting my tee shot to the right, I took the bunkers short of the green out of play. With the pin on the right side of the green, the two bunkers around the green were also out of play. I pulled my sand wedge a little on my approach shot. The ball landed 20 feet left of the flag.
I missed my birdie putt but made the second putt for my first par of the round.
The par four third follows the course pattern. It is long and difficult. The hole measures 429 yards and is the number 1 handicap hole. While the opening hole on the course is beautiful in its simplicity, the third hole is not. The hole looks complicated from the tee. There is a 160 yard carry over rough to the widest section of the fairway. That section only lasts for about 80 yards, but is certainly enough room for my tee shot. There is a long bunker off the left side that runs for most of the length of the wide section.
The fairway narrows significantly after the wide section. There is a slight bulge at about 90 yards from the front of the green. The last 185 yards of the fairway is fairly narrow with trees dotting the sides. To ensure I landed the ball in the widest section of the fairway, I hit a three wood off the tee. The ball landed in the middle of the fairway near the end of the bunker off to the left.
Hitting a three wood off the tee got for good for hitting the fairway but I was left with 220 yards to the middle of another very small green. The green is protected by bunkers on the left and right leading up to it and bunkers off both sides. With all that trouble around the green and the very narrow fairway leading up to it, John said, “Mr. James I think this would be a good time for you to lay up to your favor distance. I hit the ball a little fat and it landed 115 yards from the pin instead of the 100 yards I expected.
The pin was position on the back left side of the green. John said,”there is nothing good behind that green, just the cart path and a pond.” I didn’t want to risk going over the green on my third shot, so I tried to get a sand wedge back to the pin. I dipped a little and hit it fat. The ball landed just short of the green.
I putted from off the green but left the ball well short of the hole. I missed my bogey putt and tapped in for my second double bogey of the round.
Following the pattern, the fourth hole is a 324 yard par four. It has a handicap of nine, but is still easy compared to the really tough holes. The challenge on the hole is the uphill blind tee shot. All you see from the tee box is a daunting hill, a few trees to the left and the sky. The trees are off the right side of the fairway. The left side of the fairway has a few trees but its most prominent feature is the two bunkers immediately following the landing area. The fairway has a nice wide landing area if you keep your tee shot to less than 220 yards. With this in mind and the fact that Don and John told me to not go left, I hit a five wood off the tee toward the right. I popped the ball up to the right rough leaving over 190 yards to the hole.
My approach shot went right and into the trees past the green.
I hit two shots to get onto the green from the trees. After two putts I’d raked up my third double bogey in just four holes. After the first three holes, I thought my score would just follow the hole pattern. If that was the case, I should have made a par on this hole. I guess the golf gods didn’t get the memo.
The fifth hole is a return to the hard holes. It is a 420 yard par four with a sloping fairway whose view is partially blocked by mounds. The fairway becomes surprisingly flat as it flows past the mounds and bends slightly to the right. There are no fairway bunkers on the hole but the fairway is interrupted by rough at 80 yards from the front of the cross bunkers at 45 yards out. There are also a couple of parallel bunkers off the left side of the green. I hit my drive to the right fairway.
As Don and I walked from the fifth tee box to the fairway, I learned that we had more links than our common friends in Montecito, my original host for the Country Club, and the Park School. Apparently, Don and I had been in the same buildings at the same time several times. Don’s company and ExxonMobil had worked together on developing a high-tech thermal insulating material for industrial use. Don knows several of my former colleagues. It is a small world indeed. This is another case of a random meeting bringing me together with people whose path had previously crossed mine. Life’s intersections can be truly amazing.
I was left with 188 yards from a front pin on a narrow but deep green. I hit my three hybrid into a strong wind. The ball landed pin high 18 feet to the left of the flag.
I left my birdie putt short but made an easy par on the third most difficult hole on the course. That’s the type of pattern busting that I like!
I had made a few good swings. The question now was whether the upcoming easy sixth hole would follow the pattern of the second hole where I made my first par or the fourth hole where I made my third double bogey. The hole is the shortest par four on the course. It measures just 280 yards. The hole is on the perimeter of the golf course so there are trees tight along the left side to buffer it from the adjacent street.
The tree line bends right as the 30 yard wide fairway approaches a series of bunkers off its right side at about 180 yards off the tee. I hit a three hybrid off the tee to the fairway leaving 110 yards to the pin.
The approach shot plays up hill to a green with four rather large bunkers just short of it on each side and one each off the back left and right. The pin was located on the back middle part of the green. 110 yards is slightly beyond the limit of my sand wedge, but even though the approach shot was uphill, I thought my gap wedge would be too much. I went with my sand wedge. I thought I’d hit a great shot until I got to the green and saw that my ball had gone over the back.
I chipped on but on but couldn’t stop the ball from rolling down the slope toward the front of the green.
My ball was farther from the hole than Don’s, but he decided to putt first so that he could show me the line. That quite nice of him especially since he was putting for a birdie and I was putting for a par. He missed his birdie putt but did a good job showing me the line. I made my putt for par and said, “thanks Don, I owe you one.” I’d really broken the pattern now. I had made two consecutive pars.
The seventh hole is the only par three on the front nine. The hole measures 179 yards from the white tees and is fairly straightforward. All that stands between the tee box and the hole are a couple of bunkers. One is short of the green on the right and the other one is off the left front. I hit my tee shot well short of the hole. The ball landed between the right bunker and the front left edge of the green.
I left my first chip short, then chipped on and one-putted to save bogey.
It was back to an easy hole after the hardest par three on the course. The eighth hole is a medium length par four at 371 yards. The fairway is down hill from the tee box and flows past trees and a small pond on the left. There are four bunkers starting at about 230 yards off the tee. The fairway looks very narrow for the perched view on the tee box. I hit a drive straight down the middle of the fairway.
I was left with 135 yards to an uphill green on my approach shot. The green is protected by four bunkers. There is a small one off the front left of the green which is followed by a long one. There are two smaller bunkers off the right side of the green. I hit my approach shot to 10 feet left of the front right pin.
Don’s ball was farther from the pin than mine but one a different line. After his putt he walked over to my ball and read the line. He said, “just a slight right to left break,” as he pointed to the line. I lined the ball up and sank the putt for a birdie.
The front nine finishes with tough hole. The ninth hole is a 418 yard par four with a fairway that is just 25 yards across. There are two bunkers off both the left and right sides of the fairway at about 200 yards off the tee. With the wind blowing into us this was just a “mano y mano” hole where you needed to drive it long and straight. I did neither. My ball landed in the left rough, 230 yards from the middle of the green.
There was no way that I was getting to the green from the rough at 230 yards out. Oh, it was also uphill and into the wind. I decided to lay up. I hit a solid five iron and was still left with 130 yards to the green.
I walked slightly uphill to get a view of the green. It was so small I said to Johm, “I think I need a pair of binoculars to see it.” The ninth green is only 15 yards wide and 20 yards deep. The two bunkers off the left and right sides of the green probably combine for more area than there is on the green. I left my third shot of the front of the green.
I pitched to five feet below the hole and made the putt to finish the par 35 front nine with a bogey and a score of 42.
The 310 yard par four tenth hole is beautiful from high atop the tee box where the tour player play it. The fairway is shaped a little like the continent of Africa. There is a 140 yard carry from the tee box to Cape Town. There are a couple of bunkers off the western coast of South Africa and Namibia, one more near Cameroon and Nigeria and yet another just north of Morocco. The eastern side of Africa has a bunker east of Egypt and the Sudan.
I hit a five hybrid off the tee to the fairway leaving just 105 yards uphill to a green that was over a portion of the Mediterranean Sea to one of the islands. There is actually no water between the end of the fairway and the green, just rough.
I pulled my sand wedge on the uphill approach shot. The ball landed in the rough just short of the small bunker off the left front of the small circular green.
I pitched on to 15 feet and missed the par putt to open the back nine with a bogey.
The eleventh hole looks intimidating from the slightly elevated tee box. The 503 yard par five hole has a narrow and curvy fairway that starts just beyond two ponds separated by a land bridge. The fairway ripples past rocks on the left and then immediately shifts left at about 200 yards off the tee. Not long after the shift the already narrow fairway gets even more narrow before expanding again ahead of being interrupted by a narrow creek at about 150 yards from the middle of the green. The fairway resumes on the other side of the creek and continues to about 40 yards from the front of the green. As we looked out over the fairway, John said, “this is probably another good opportunity to hit your three wood so you stay short of where the fairway gets very narrow.” It was a smart strategy that was poorly executed. I hit the ball about 160 yards to the right rough.
I wanted to make sure I stayed short of the creek, so I hit a five hybrid from the rough to the fairway leaving 174 yards to the flag.
With the wind in our face, the slightly uphill 174 yards was playing 190 yards. The fairway ends 45 yards from the front of the green with rough and four bunkers of various sizes in between. The pin was on the back left portion of an almost perfectly round green. I hit my five hybrid again right at the flag. While the ball was in the air I looked and John and said, “it’s not enough, I should have hit the three hybrid into that strong wind.” The ball landed just short of the green.
The greens at the Country Club have a small amount of fringe around them. Some have shaved areas along the front. Some have no shaved areas around them at all. The eleventh green has nothing but rough around it. Even though my ball was just short of the front of the green, the rough was too thick to use a putter. I chipped to five feet. John said, “two balls on the right.” I pulled the putt and missed the cup. I tapped in for a bogey.
After a round start with three double bogeys on three of the first four holes, I’d righted the ship. That changed on the shortest and easiest hole on the course. The par three twelfth hole measures a mere 125 yard. The green is a narrow one and has a creek and then a bunker just short of it. There are also three bunkers along the left side. The sides of the green slope severely down and away. A simple pitching wedge should have gotten the job done. Unfortunately, I pulled my tee shot and the ball landed left of the bunkers off the left side of the green.
I compounded my first mistake by attempting to deal with that very narrow green with a Phil Mickelson type flop shot over the bunker. I almost pulled it off. The ball hit the bank and rolled back into the bunker. My bunker shot rolled across that narrow green and into the rough off the right side. I chipped to two feet and tapped in for the double bogey. It was a comedy of errors. It’s the one hole where I would liked to have a mulligan.
As they say in Scotland, there is no such thing as a mulligan. We moved on to the 400 yard par four thirteenth hole. The hole starts with a carry across rough and a creek to a beautiful tree lined fairway. While the fairway is extremely narrow, unlike most of the other holes, there is a fair amount of first cut rough off both sides between the edge of the fairway and the trees. The only fairway bunkers are the ones off to the right just as the fairway makes a slight dogleg to the right. I hit my drive to the left rough.
I hit my second shot to the fairway, 85 yards short of a back left pin. The fairway ends 35 yards short of the front of the green. There are two bunkers in the rough between the fairway’s end and the front of the green.
I pushed my lob wedge to the right leaving the ball 45 feet from the hole.
I hit my par putt three feet past the cup. I made the comeback putt for another bogey.
The final par five on the course is the 510 yard fourteenth hole. It’s a treacherous hole. The tee box is offset to the left of the fairway. The hole sets up perfectly for someone that can reliably hit a draw. I’m not that someone. The left side of the fairway has a deep pot bunker that has to be carried with a fade. With a draw you can cut off most of the pot bunker by aiming at the three fairway bunkers off the right side of the fairway at about 200 yards out and draw the ball to the middle of the fairway. I hit my fade far enough to carry the pot bunker. The ball landed in the right side of the fairway.
The only real trouble on the lay up shot are the two bunkers that were about 170 yards from my ball. I laid up to the fairway short of the bunkers off the right side leaving 155 yards to a back left pin on a beautiful elevated green frame by trees. There are two bunkers on the left and one on the right leading up to the green. The one greenside bunker on the hole is off the front right. I hit a nice approach shot along the right edge of the green that drew right toward the flag. Don said,”now that’s a golf shot.” I smiled. The ball rolled just by the flag to 30 feet past.
I hit a good birdie putt but the ball slide by the hole. I tapped in for a par.
The 417 yard par four fifteen hole is another hole that looks very intimidating from the tee box. The forward tee box is elevated and partially blocks the view of the fairway. Trees on both sides form a narrow alley that frames the beginning of the fairway which follows a 180 yard carry from the tee. The road on which I entered the club cuts across the fairway at 290 yards off the tee and 110 yards from the front of the green. There are no bunkers to be concerned with off the tee. I pulled my drive into the left rough.
With 230 yards remaining to the green and the ball sitting down in the rough, I tried to lay up to the fairway. I pulled the ball again. I advanced it a mere 100 yards and didn’t make it to the fairway.
I hit my third shot to just short of the green and chipped on to two feet. I tapped in to save bogey.
As we approached the 169 yard par three sixteenth hole I was mindful of the fact that this was my final opportunity to make par on a par three. The hole is rated as the fifth easiest hole on the course. It must be rated easier than the par three twelfth hole just because of its length. This hole is slightly more straightforward than the 12th hole. The green which is set beautifully in the trees, isn’t as elevated as the twelfth hole so balls that miss to the left or right don’t roll as far away. The bunkering is tighter around the green with all four bunkers that guard the green right off the front left and right and along the left and right sides. I hit a nice straight tee shot but left the ball about five yards short of the green.
My chip shot was probably my best one of the day. The line was good, and the distance was good. About half way to the hole it looked like it was going to go in. The ball rolled just past the hole and around it.
I tapped in to finally make a par on a par three.
The seventeenth hole is a medium length par four with a fairway that doglegs from left to right around four bunkers off the left side. The right side of the fairway is wide open. I hit a popup to the middle of the fairway leaving 180 yards to the green.
The 40 foot wide seventeenth green is protected by five bunkers. There are two off the front, one off the left and one off the right, one on the back right and two additional ones on the left. I hit my approach shot to the right of the front right bunker.
With the flag on the left side of the green, I had lots of green to work with but still just barely cleared the bunker on my pitch shot. The ball landed in the rough between the green and the bunker.
I chipped onto the green to five feet and made the putt to save bogey.
The regular course at The Country Club ends as it began – with a difficult par four. The 395 yard 18th hole is rated as the fourth most difficult hole on the course. It runs parallel to the first hole just in the opposite direction. The hole has large trees with a small amount of space separating them as they line the sides a fairway that sweeps slightly from right to left toward the final small circular green. I hit my drive to the right rough.
With my ball sitting down in the rough and over 200 yards out from that small green with a very large bunker in front of it and two additional ones on the left side, I decided that my best chance at finishing with a par would be to lay up to my lob wedge distance. I also had flash backs to nine years earlier when I tried to clear that large front bunker from the fairway and 200 yards out. I hit a three hybrid. The ball fell one foot short of clearing the bunker. On this my second trip to The Country Club, I laid up to 70 yards.
The wind had picked up and was blowing into us, so the 70 yards was playing like 80 yards. With that big front bunker dead in front of me looking like two bunkers, I hit my lob wedge right at the flag. The ball rolled 15 feet past the hole.
The putt that I’d hope would be my final putt on my 81st course, broke a little more than John, Don and I expected and slide by the hole. I tapped in for a bogey to finish the back nine with a 44 and to close out my round with an 86.
Don had to jump on a conference call immediately following our round, but still he took the time to take me to the Pro Shop to meet Brendan Walsh, the head pro. Brendan was the head pro when I played the course on that rainy day in the summer of 2009. I was also able to meet Sara Dickson and pass on the greetings sent from the folks at Quaker Ridge where she had worked with Mario Guerra. I told her the story of how fate had brought Mario and me together along a street adjacent to Quaker Ridge. If you are not familiar with the story, please read it in the Quaker Ridge blog. After telling Sara the story she said, “that sounds just like Mario, he is such a great guy.” I agree.
Following my discussions with Brendan and Sara, I returned to the men’s locker room, did a quick tour and talked with the bar tender and locker room attendants before heading to the car to make the drive back to my hotel.
I am truly grateful to Don and Caroline for their tireless efforts to ensure that I was able to play golf at The Country Club during my trip to the Boston Area. My journey across America to the greatest golf courses that we have to offer has been filled with amazing stories. I count this one on how I met Don and Caroline and what they did to help me as one of the greatest stories thus far that I’ve had the privilege of telling.