“I will see you in Kiawah in two weeks,” I said to Erika as I kissed her goodbye and headed out the door for one final swing across the country to try to play the remaining courses in my one-year quest to play the 2017-18 Golf Digest 100 Greatest Courses in America. I’d been home for just thirty-six hours, but the sand was slipping through the hour glass. Over sixteen days I needed to travel to North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Idaho, South Carolina and then back to North Carolina playing eleven courses, two of which, Shinnecock Hills and Pine Valley were still eluding me. The prospects for Shinnecock were looking especially bleak. There was just a slither of hope remaining that I would get on the course prior to the US Open, but I was clinging to the slither and moving forward with the rest of the courses.
The five-hour drive along the winding roads and ever-changing terrain running through the national forests and mountains in northern Georgia and western North Carolina provided me with yet another opportunity to enjoy the beauty of our great country. The weather changed from overcast skies to clear skies and back to skies filled with storm clouds as I drove through the small towns quaint buildings and charming cottages leading to the entrance of Diamond Creek. My eyes widen I as looked out upon the undulating fairways nestled in the hills near the Sugarloaf and Beech Mountains.
I pulled up to the wood and stone clubhouse topped with a green slate roof. This mountain hide-away had the feel of a first-class operation from the moment I stepped out of the car and was greeted by an attendant who helped me with my clubs and introduced me to my caddie, Hal, a short lean fellow with a full head of gray hair protruding from beneath his golf cap. He directed me to the locker room which felt more like a warm and welcoming family room in well-appointed mansion. After changing my shoes, I walked down the hall to the pro shop which had the feel of a charming boutique. I gave the assistant pro my credit card to cover my guest fee and headed outside to join Hal on the cart for the ride to the driving range. A few stretching to loosen the muscles that hand tightened during the scenic drive from Atlanta and I was swinging my clubs with confidence and watching balls sail through the thin mountain air. I hit a couple of drives to close out my warm up and headed to the first tee.
Hal asked which tees I wanted to play from. We decided against the 6675-yard back tees and in favor of the Middle Tees which measure just 6115 yards with a 68.7 rating and a 131 slope, making it one of the easiest courses I’d played.
Standing on the perched tee box on the 385-yard par four first hole, Hal told me there were 240 yards before fairway ended abruptly with a swath of rough. I took aim toward the left side to avoid the two bunkers off to the right at about 160 yards out. I hit a low piercing drive that landed in the left rough leaving 162 yards over that swath of rough to a green with closely moved apron leading up to it and a large bunker just off the right front.
My approach shot flared a little to the right. The ball landed short of the massive front right bunker.
Standing over my ball, I had just one thought in my mind, get the ball over that huge crater of a bunker. My pitch shot flew over the bunker and didn’t come to rest until it was over the green. I made matters worse by hit behind the ball and leaving my chip short of the green. A better next chip put the ball a foot short of the cup. I tapped in to open the round on this beautiful lush green course with a double bogey.
The 175-yard par three second hole plays between the trees and to a slightly elevated green. Hal said, “with the pin on the back right, the hole will play just over 185 yards. I made a nice smooth swing with my five hybrid and sent the ball soaring directly toward the flag. The ball flew over the flag and landed on the back of the green before rolling just into the fringe.
My birdie putt from the fringe broke a whole lot more than we expected. The ball stopped three feet to the right of the hole.
I hit a firm putt to the back of the cup for my first par of the round.
The third fairway slopes a little from left to right before bending in that same direction at about 220 yards off the tee. The bunker on the inside of the bend served its purpose of preventing me from trying to cut off the angle with my drive. What it didn’t do was prevent by ball from fading into the bunker.
The ball came to rest in the middle of the bunker leaving enough room for my five iron to clear the lip in route to the flag at 175 yards away on a green with a deep bunker along its right side. I dug my shoes into the stand and made what I thought was a fade swing. The ball came out on a line to the left of the green and held that line, landing in the rough to the left of the green.
A lack of concentrate led to a fat chip and a ball that landed short of the green.
Hal and I watched the ball closely as it rolled to five feet past the hole after I stroked it a little to firmly with my putter from off the green. The firmness of my next putt was intentional. The ball dropped into the into the cup to make that nice confirmation sound as it hit the bottom to save bogey.
A double, a par, and a bogey were carded on the first three holes. As Hal and I stood on the tee box looking out at the left to right sloping fairway that seemed to flow directly into the distant peaks on the fourth hole, I said, “I need to take advantage of this par five and make a birdie to complete the cycle.” Hal told me that to make a birdie on this 545-yard hole, I had to hit the fairway. I’d missed the fairway on both my previous drives. I relaxed and stripped a 270-yard drive right down the middle of the fairway.
With a wide fairway and only the bunker off to the left 25 yards ahead, between my ball and the green, it was time to show off. I asked Hal for my driver. He looked a little stunned and said, “hmm.” The stiffness of the long drive from Atlanta had worn off. “I got this shot,” I said, “and it’s the perfect time to use it.” I loosen my grip on the club, made a full turn and a very relaxed swing. The ball sailed off the ground as if I’d hit it off a tee. We lost sight of it as it dropped from the sky just beyond the crest of the upslope in the fairway. Hal, “said, you are going to like that one. It might even roll onto the green.” As we got to the crest, we saw the ball resting in the fairway about 15 yards from the front of the green. I smiled knowing that whatever came later in the day, I’d hit that one shot that showed I could occasionally command the club and get it to respond as I wished.
I hit a low shot with my pitching wedge toward the flag at the back of the green. The ball rolled to eight feet below the pin.
After a good read from Hal, I made a confident putt and watched as the ball rolled right to the cup and dropped in for a birdie. I high fived Hal or maybe low fived, Hal, before he reached into the cup and removed the ball. With a birdie under my belt, and the storm clouds moving away, I couldn’t imagine that it could get any better.
The fifth hole is the shortest of the three par threes on the front nine. The hole is wide open with a green that sits on a small plateau below the tee box. The two bunkers and the distracting beautiful scenery are its only protection. My tee shot started off left of the green and stayed left. The ball landed pin high and about four feet off the green.
I hit my putt on a great line from off the green but not firm enough. The ball stopped eight feet from the cup.
Hal held the flag in his hand as he walked completely around the hole to make the read. He said, “the reads could be tricky in the mountains.” I hit another good putt, but the ball slide just below the hole. I tapped in for a disappointing bogey.
The hill sloping down toward the left edge of the fairway dominated my view from the tee. The tree off the front right of the tee box blocked my view of the right edge of the fairway. I was convinced Mr. Fazio did this to get in my head and make this short 330-yard hole look like it played longer that it did. Hal said, “yeah it’s a short hole, but it is a tough hole. It’s rated as the seventh toughest hole on the course.”
I wasn’t intimidated. I took a three wood and hit the ball right down the middle of the fairway. It would have been a nice 215-yard walk on the short grass to my ball, but we were in a cart, so I didn’t get the full satisfaction.
Hal told me that the pin was just a few paces off the back of the green, adding an additional 15 yards to the shot. I hit a high pitching wedge right at the flag. The ball drew and landed 20 feet to the left of the flag. Hal pulled my putter out of the bag and handed to me. I made the long walk in the short grass with putter in hand as he drove the cart to the green.
In my excitement to get a second birdie, I didn’t make a full stroke with my putter. I stabbed at the ball and left it four feet from the cup. I made the four-footer for a disappointing par. But make no mistake about it, I like pars of any kind.
A certain calmest came over me as I stood on the tee box and gazed beyond the 540-yard par five seventh hole at the stone and wood clubhouse in the distance at the base of the tree covered hills sloping toward it. The wide seventh fairway sloped from the right toward the left side with a bunker at 240 yards out. Neither the calmness nor the width of the fairway prevented me from hitting my drive to the left rough leaving 330 yards to the middle of the green.
I hit well behind the ball with my three hybrid on my second shot. While I got the ball to the fairway, I only advanced it 110 yards.
The strike with my three hybrid from on my third shot from 220 yards out to a slightly uphill green with two bunkers off its left side, was pure this time, there was no North Carolina dirt before hitting Titleist. The ball landed just short of the right front of the green.
I grabbed my sand wedge and chipped the ball to five feet right of the pin.
With the firm stroke of the putter, the ball settled in the bottom of the cup for another par.
The flag lay stiff against the almost camouflaged pin on the eighth green enclosed by trees off both sides and the back. I struck the ball well and made a high finish with my eight-iron pointing toward the sky off my left side as the ball sailed over the ravine toward the left side of the green 145 yards away. The ball landed just five feet onto the green before rolling a couple of more feet toward the flag, leaving 50 feet to the back-right pin.
I was a little strong on the uphill putt. The ball rolled to eight feet past the hole. A much better stroke on my par putt got the ball in the cup.
The center gable of the Diamond Creek clubhouse in the distance provided a perfect line for my tee shot from the elevated ninth tee box. I had an expansive view of the fairway that begins just beyond a ravine and has a thick grove of trees off to the left that give way to a pond. This 440-yard par four is rated as the most difficult hole on the course. I took my eyes off the beautiful setting and made a hard swing. The ball sprang from the club face and easily cleared the creek at 180 yards out as it soared toward the distance mountains. It dropped into the fairway and rolled to a stop well short of where the fairway narrows at 150 yards from the middle of the green. My approach shot landed on the front edge of the green before trickling five feet back down the front slope.
I chipped on and two putted for a bogey to finish the front nine with a very respectable 39.
The seahorse shaped fairway on the short 330-yard tenth hole runs toward Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance. Hal advised that I hit a three wood off the tee to avoid the bunker on the right just beyond where the fairway narrows, and the rough covered slope falls off into a pond. My swings with my three wood are so much smoother than the ones with my driver. The ball stopped short of the bunker leaving 105 yards to a back pin on a wide but shallow green protected by bunkers off its front right.
My approach shot landed 25 feet to the right of the flag on a green that slopes right to left running away from my ball. I tapped my putt and watched the ball slowly roll to five feet right of the hole. I rammed the ball into the back of the cup to save par.
The trees to the left and the right off the front of the long tee box on the 350-yard par four 11th hole with Sugarloaf now at my back formed a nice chute to focus my vision on the fairway as it appeared to fall off on its way toward the distance hills. Without a single bunker within my sight I hit my three wood and watched as the ball easily carried the hundred yards between the tee and the start of the fairway and landed in the first cut of rough off the left side.
I was left with just over 100 yards to a slightly right of center pin on a green that rises slightly at the end of the downhill fairway and was perfectly framed by trees off to the left and right and those tree-covered hills that seemed so far in the distance from the tee box. I took a little too much off my sand wedge on by approach shot. The ball landed on the front of the green before rolling back off and five feet down the slope.
My putt from off the green didn’t have enough mustard on it to maintain its speed after climbing the slope off the front of the green. The ball stopped well short of the cup. I then missed my par putt and tapped in for a disappointing bogey.
It felt a little claustrophobic as Hal, and I stood between the trees that lined each side of the long and narrow tee box on the 185-yard par three twelfth hole. I hit my tee shot right at the flag on the almost round green with a bunker off its right front. I tried to avoid thinking about the possibility of finally getting that elusive hole-in-one that I so desperately wanted to make during my quest. The ball landed short of the flag and rolled right past the hole. I two-putted for an easy par.
From the thirteenth tee box is difficult to see beyond the bunkers off the right side of the fairway at just over 210 yards out as it flows between the trees impinging off its left and right sides. The fairway appeared to bend behind the trees off to the left, but Hal said it was more of a narrowing than a bend. I hit a drive that seemed to fly almost as high as it did long. The ball landed in the right side of the fairway 225 yards off the tee.
I hit across the fairway to lay up at 90 yards from the flag.
The hole was cut on the back-left side of the green in line with the bunker off the front left of the green. I tried to feather a high sand wedge shot over the bunker to the flag but caught the ball fat. It landed in the rough on the upslope of the bunker.
It’s never good to catch too much grass between the clubface and the ball. My chip came off the closed club face and stopped 10 feet left of the hole.
My center cup putt stopped inches from the hole. I picked up for a second disappointing bogey.
As in life, every golfer must learn to put the holes he’s played behind him and focus on the very next hole in front of him. I’m not very good at that. As we road to the 410-yard par four 14th hole, I couldn’t shake off that I had squandered two nice shots in route to a bogey from 90 yards out. The fourteenth hole with its tight tree-lined fairway deserved all my attention, but it didn’t get it. I popped my drive up. The ball landed in the rough short of the fairway.
My troubles continued with my second shot when I topped the ball and advanced it just to 150 yards out.
By my third shot I’d lost interest in the hole. A one putt saved me from total disaster. I made a double bogey on the hole.
I tried to steady myself as I surveyed the 375-yard fifteenth hole from the tee box. It’s the second most difficult hole on the course. Playing like I did on the fourteenth hole wasn’t going to cut it. Hal pointed to the bunker to the left, off the outer curve of the orange slice shaped fairway at 245 yards out and said, “you might want to hit your three wood here.” I thought the three would was a good idea. It would be easier to make a more controlled swing with it than my driver. It didn’t quite work out that way. I swung across the ball and sliced it into the rough on the slope off the right side of the fairway.
With the ball sitting well above my feet, my safest option was to take my medicine and just pitch the ball back to the middle of the fairway.
As I stood over my ball in the fairway, I took a deep breath. The flag was still 185 yards away, the ball was still slightly above my feet, but my only hope for saving par was to hit a fade. There was no margin for error. I had to swing the ball out over the ravine that separated the fairway from the green and let it fade back toward the flag. I focused and made the same swing I made off the tee, intentionally cutting across the ball. The ball started on the exact line I wanted, curved around the trees and carried the ravine, landing just short of the green.
I chipped on and made the putt to save bogey. I hopped in the cart with Hal and road to the next tee box with renewed confidence in my ability to control my swing.
With several pars on my scorecard and just two double bogeys, I was well positioned to break eighty for the first time since my round at Monterey Peninsula back in the Fall. I looked at Hal and said, “if I can make pars all the way into the clubhouse, I will break eighty for just the third time on my quest.” He replied, “well, let’s do it, the toughest hole will be the one coming up.”
The view from the sixteenth tee through the narrow chute of trees to the equally narrow and curvy fairway through the green with the mountains rising beyond it is the most spectacular view on the course. I ripped a drive right down the middle of the fairway that landed well beyond the bunker off the right side and short of the bunker off the left side. The ball rolled to the right and came to rest 185 yards from a pin cut right in the middle of the green.
I got lucky after pushing my approach shot to the right. The ball hit a tree before kicking backwards to the middle of the fairway leaving 65 yards to the pin.
With the distance dialed in, I pitched the ball to twelve feet right of the flag.
The ball rattle at the bottom of the cup after I sank the straight twelve-footer for par to keep my hopes of breaking 80 alive.
It looked like I was in a tropical paradise rather than the mountains of western North Carolina as I gazed at the blooming azaleas, small ponds, and the sandy bunker short and right of the green tucked in at the base of a quarry with rock walls rising toward the clouds. The par three 17th hole measures just 160 yards and plays even shorter to that lowered green.
I hit my tee shot a little fat and tightened my butt cheeks as I wondered if the ball would carry that meandering stream that cut across the front of the green and continued along its left side. The ball landed in the rough on the upslope just short of the front of the left side of the green. I released my butt cheeks and let out a sigh.
The chip shot from the front of the green was almost as perfect as any chip I’ve ever hit. The ball landed on the green two-thirds of the way to the hole and rolled directly toward it. It lost speed and curled slightly to the right just before it reached the hole.
I tapped in for my par. Hal said, “you are almost assured of breaking eighty now. The last hole is a short par four.”
The eighteenth hole is indeed short with a creek running along the right side of the fairway and a cluster of bunkers off the left side as it runs between sloping hills pushed well off both its sides. “How far to get past the bunkers?” I asked. “Just over 200 yards,” Hal responded. I asked for my 3 hybrid and made a smooth swing that sent the ball sailing high down the middle of the fairway.
We pulled up to the ball. It was resting in the short grass just 95 yards from a pin position about 12 paces from the back of the green.
Another smooth swing with my sand wedge sent the ball flying high. It fell from the sky and landed just past the hole and eight feet to the right.
Now it wasn’t enough to just make par and break 80. I wanted to close with a birdie. Hal and I studied the putt for a long time before I took my stance over the ball and made the stroke that delivered it to the bottom of the cup for a round ending birdie and a nice score of 78.
I thanked Hal for a well-managed round as he delivered me back to the clubhouse where I had the opportunity to meet Mike Mola, the Head Golf Pro at Diamond Creek and the General Manager, Joe Humston. We chatted about my very favorable impression of the clubhouse and the setting for the course. I thanked them for working with Will Bartram, a PGA Pro who’d worked at my club in Atlanta, to arrange my round.
Following our chat, I jumped into my awaiting car and pointed it in the direction of Newtown Square, PA. It was over 8 ½ hours away and I had a 1:00 pm tee time scheduled for Aronimink the next morning. I wanted to make it to Washington, DC before bedding down for the night.