It was one of the rarest of days. I had nine courses remaining and just thirteen days before the deadline to complete my one-year quest to play the Golf Digest 100 Greatest Courses in America. Seven of the remaining courses were set; two continued to elude me. Across our vast country, several people were flipping through there physical and mental directories trying desperately to come up with a host for me at Shinnecock Hills and Pine Valley. Jimmy Dunne of 9/11 and golf fame had committed to doing his best to get to Southampton on the final day that guest could play Shinnecock ahead of the U.S. Open, but was not yet certain that he could pull it off. Sergio, (not the Spaniard, but the Colombian who hosted me at Maidstone), had also talked with a friend and member of Shinnecock, who may also be able to host me that day. Caddies, Head Pro’s, Assistant Pro’s, locker room attendants from several of the previous courses I’d played, were making calls. Old and new friends alike were contacting everyone they could think of. But with thirteen days remaining, the puzzle of my improbable dream that required the best of what America has to offer, is still missing two critical pieces.
Ninety-eight or ninety-nine is not going to do it. This isn’t horseshoes nor hand grenades. This is a promise made that must be kept. I owe it to all those who have shown the kindness and generosity that has gotten me to 91 courses played and commitments for seven more. I cannot let the people who believed in me and my dream down. I never used the word “trying.” I always said I was going to. Now I must figure out how to. There are two courses left in Chicago, one in addition to Shinnecock Hills in New York, two in Idaho, one in South Carolina and one in North Carolina. I had to get firm commitments for tee times at Shinnecock Hills and Pine Valley during a window of three days, June 3rd through 5th. There are no other options. The other seven courses must be played as currently scheduled. The difficulty of my task is weighing hard on me. I must stay strong and determined. Even Erika, my supportive and optimistic wife who set this whole thing in motion by getting me on to Augusta National and giving me that book about the guy who played the top 100 courses in the world over a lifetime is starting to have some slight doubts. She hasn’t given up on me and never would, but she did ask, “if you can’t get Pine Valley and Shinnecock before June 11th, will you still finish the quest later?” It was something I didn’t want to even consider, but she was right, I needed to start thinking about what I would do if I failed.
So there I sat alone at the desk in the confines of my room at the Marriott Hotel in Naperville, Illinois browsing my email desperately looking for one from any of the many people who were grinding trying to find someone who could commit to hosting me at Shinnecock Hills and Pine Valley during that three day window. Sandwiched between scores of junk mail I spotted a familiar name. The email from Dave who hosted me at Scioto read,
I met you at Merion and hosted you at Scioto.
I am sure you remember me- you’ve only played with about 300 people this year!
My friend Jim lives here in Columbus but is a member at Pine Valley.
He is interested in contacting you about getting on at Pine Valley.
He didn’t think the timing was good but What the heck- it’s a start.
I will email the two of you to start the introduction.
Absolutely, I remembered him along with all my other hosts, playing partners, caddies and most of the other people I met along the way during the 91 rounds that I’d played. A second email from Dave that immediately followed provided Jim with my contact information and me with his. I called Jim at his request. Jim and I immediately determined that my June 3rd through June 5th window wouldn’t work, but undaunted, he offered to do something that is extremely rare. He, who had never met me and was doing a favor for a friend who barely knew me, offered to seek a fellow Pine Valley member who could host me during my window. This is so rare because people spend a lifetime building their reputations and it only takes one jerk (remember I don’t use colorful metaphors, but there is another word that starts with an “a” that gets right to the heart of the matter) to ruin that reputation.
Emotions swelled up inside, not because Pine Valley was starting to look more probable, but because I was so touched that someone who hadn’t met me and had only heard about me through a friend, was willing to take this chance to help me reach my dream. It was the emotions tied to all the people across my entire lifetime that had believed enough in the dreams of an impoverished snotty nosed kid to help me rise above my humble beginnings.
Jim said, “I can’t make any promises, but give me twenty-four hours and I’ll get back to you.” Thirty minutes later he called back to tell me that he had worked the biggest challenge and that was getting a tee time on June 5th. He explained that at Pine Valley, members can only have so many reservations in the system at one time. He needed to make sure he could add a reservation on the books for that day. He then said, “now give me until tomorrow to find a member that can play with you.” Two hours later, I was all smiles. Jim called back to inform me that a friend and fellow member, Chris had agreed to play with me on June 5th. I wept.
Against all odds, I had not given up. With 35 days remaining, I had to play 29 courses, several of which were not firm. I continued to crisscross the country by car and by plane to play courses without knowing whether I could get all one-hundred done before June 11th. Now thanks to the amazing golf community where four hours marching across a field chasing a little white ball can build bonds between strangers that last a lifetime. There was now just one piece of the puzzle standing between me and the realization of an improbable dream.
I awoke the next morning with renewed hope and a sense of confidence that it was all going to work out. I drove through the small bedroom communities west of Chicago and arrived at The Chicago Golf Club with very high expectations. My head was higher than the cumulus clouds floating across the sky. I had broken eighty during my last two rounds. Only two of my last 13 rounds on some very difficult courses had been above 90. I had good reason to expect this was going to be another great golf day. My swing was firing on all cylinders and I was playing on a Seth Raynor designed course with its wide fairways, large greens, and template holes. There was no reason to doubt.
JJ, the Flint Hills National President, along with Steve and David, Koch Industry executives had flown into Chicago that morning. JJ and David joined Martin, my host and me for the round. Steve, who hosted me at Estancia had asked Martin to host me at Chicago Golf Club after Jimmy Dunne and I had difficulty aligning our schedules during the final months of my quest. Martin was gracious enough to move something around in his schedule so that we could play on the day before my scheduled round at Rich Harvest Farms. After we firmed the date, he sent me a pamphlet on CGC that made two things very clear. First, there is no tolerance for cell phones on the property. And secondly, the normal stakes at CGC is a one-dollar Nassau, and nothing more. I became a little concerned that first eighteen-hole golf course in America might be a stodgy place. I could not have been more wrong. Well the inside of the clubhouse which contained artifacts that characterize the history of the club – a founding member of the USGA, that hosted several US Opens and US Amateurs, a US Senior Open, a US Women’s Amateur and two Walker Cups, could use a little updating. But the warm and welcoming members and PGA staff created a relaxing environment. The locker room is cozy with very few lockers, some with familiar names.
Martin, Steve, JJ, David and I enjoyed a light lunch before making our way to the first tee. Steve was unable to play due to an injury, but he accompanied us in a cart. Our caddies, three college students, Dan, Killeen, and Lucas all dressed in khaki shorts, white shirts, and red caddie bibs, joined us on the tee. There were only three because JJ rode in the cart with Steve.
We chose to play from the white tees which measure 6571 yards with a 72.4 rating on this par 70 course and a slope of 134. The 450-yard first hole with its flat wide-open fairway is one of the longest opening par fours that I played. With the clubhouse and its historical photographs and documents at my back, I hit a 250 yard drive down the left side of the fairway, next to where JJ hit his.
I was left with 205 yards to a back pin just left of center. The first 300 yards of the hole is essentially bunker free. The last 150 yards, not so much. A cross bunker cutting in from the right side at 150 yards from the green is the first of several bunkers along both sides of the fairway. The green has the long narrow bunkers typical of Macdonald and Raynor designs along its sides and off the back. I sliced by approach shot, sending it into the right rough well short of the green.
My pitch shot rolled off the back of the green. I chipped back on to 10 feet past the hole and two-putted to cap off my worst ball striking in several rounds. That was all it took for all that hope I awoke with to quickly dissipate. It was a level of mental weakness that I was not very proud of and a reminder that a good golf swing is a very fleeting thing.
The second tee box is aligned with the right side of the fairway on the 440-yard second hole. Offset tee boxes are the bane of me. I always have alignment problems with them. To make matters worse, unlike the first hole, the first 300 yards of the second hole has bunkers for as far as my eyes could see. There is a long one off the right side starting at 150 yards from the tee and four successive ones off the left side starting at 220 yards out. My drive sailed right and landed on the mound past the bunker off the right side.
I decided to play it conservatively. I laid up in the fairway rather than going for the green.
The layup seemed to pay off as my third shot soared toward the clouds on an arc toward a back pin tucked behind a bunker short of the left half of the green. The ball dropped from the sky and stopped 10 feet below the hole.
Unfortunately, I missed my line on my par putt and the ball skirted past the hole. I tapped in for a bogey.
The small amount of confidence that I’d regained after sticking my third shot on the second hole to ten feet vanished as I pulled my tee shot into the fescue left of the square green framed by narrow rectangular bunkers along its sides and off its back on the 220 yard par three third hole. We all saw where the ball landed but couldn’t find it. I continued to search but gave up looked after JJ, Martin, and David completed the hole. I took a double bogey.
I was still trying to figure out what happened to my tee shot on the third hole as we played the highest rated hole on the course, a 536-yard par five with a right to left slanted fairway. The tee box is aligned with a narrow seventy-yard bunker off left edge of the fairway. The fairway narrows in the landing zone. Martin suggested that I might want to consider hitting a three wood rather than my driver. I took his suggestion. I lined up for a fade but pulled the ball. It landed in the fescue beyond and to the left of the bunker.
I pitched back to the fairway leaving 280 yards from a back middle pin.
Since I didn’t hit my driver off the tee, I decided to hit it off the deck in a valiant effort to reach the green on my third shot. The ball sprang from the face and rose steadily on a line toward the bunker off the right side of the green. As the ball approached the bunker, it curved and rolled onto the green, but rolled back off as it lost speed on the upslope.
Fearing that my chip could come racing back down the slope toward me, I gave it too much juice. The ball zipped past the flag and came to rest in the deep rough off the back edge of the green. I chipped on and two-putted for a very disappoint double bogey after being 25 yards from the pin in three, leaving me wondering why I love a game that doesn’t love me back.
The first four holes of the Chicago Golf Club is one of the toughest openings in the top 100. They include the three of the five most difficult holes on the course. The fifth hole offers a reprieve at just 320 yards and a 60-yard-wide fairway with a cross bunker that is easily carried with a tee shot greater than 200 yards. I hit a three wood off the tee for accuracy on a line toward the small bunker on the left side of the fairway knowing that at 240 yards out, I couldn’t reach it. The ball drew and landed in the rough about 15 yards short of the bunker. So much for accuracy. It’s a good thing that I was playing with such great guys, otherwise my frustration would likely have gotten the better of me.
I stared my approach shot down as it flew high on a line toward the flag. My heart sank as it landed short, hitting the top of the bunker on the left front of the green and kicking back into it.
My sand shot landed six feet right of the flag.
I failed to roll my par putt into the cup and tapped in for a bogey.
My own play was awful, but I was enjoying David’s ball striking. It was clear that he was an excellent golfer. JJ and Martin were also playing better than I, but not as well as David who had made par on all but the par three third hole. My play didn’t get any better on the 395-yard sixth hole. I hit my drive to the deep fescue off the right side of the fairway. My third shot made it back to the fairway, but I still had 185 yards to the pin. My poor play finally got to me. I’d expected so much better after shooting in the seventies on my last two rounds. I almost throw my club in anguish, but in fourteen years of golf, I’ve never done that. To get some modicum of relief, I tossed my club into the air and caught it on the way down. It wasn’t one of my finest moment on the golf course. I went on to make a double bogey on the hole.
As we stood on the seventh tee box, I calmed myself and mentioned to JJ that I’d gotten frustrated. I apologized and commenced to hitting my tee shot on the 185-yard par three classic Redan template hole with its steep right to left sloping green. The ball landed in the fescue. I accepted the result of another poor swing without frustration, pitched out and then put my third shot to six feet.
I made the putt to save bogey.
I don’t recall the various conversations but do recall that the friendly banter and chatter as we made our way around the course helped me feel at ease. One of the nice things about golf is that in most cases no one really cares about whether you play well or poorly. All anyone cares about is whether you’re pleasant to be around because we all count ourselves as blessed to be on a golf course, especially one of the best and most exclusive courses in the country. Being on the 92nd course of my quest was just as magical to me as being on the previous 91. I relaxed and hit my drive. It sailed over the cross bunker at 180 yards out and landed in the fairway to the left of the small bunker off the right side of the fairway at 170 yards from the middle of the green.
I attempted a fade to the oval green to avoid the two bunkers off its life front. My ball hung out to the left and landed in the rough.
I chipped to 15 feet short of the hole.
My par putt rolled past, but I made the comebacker to save bogey.
The front nine at Chicago Golf Club opens with a challenge but the last three holes provide a soft landing. The last of the three is a 403-yard par four that is the 11th rated hole on the course. It is one of only two holes where water comes into play. The flat fairway has a diagonal bunker on the left and a cross bunker on the right as it shifts from left to right. I topped my drive and sent a worm burner speeding toward the bunker on the right. The ball rolled through the bunker before coming to rest in the rough just above it.
That short drive bought the pond in the middle of the fairway and 100 yards from the green into play. I wisely chose not to challenge it and laid up.
My third shot landed 15 feet below the hole and slightly to the right.
Two putts later, the first nine holes of my round were in the books without a single par.
The back nine offers a slightly easier start than the front nine and I always approach a back nine with a renewed hope following a poorly played front nine. The 139-yard par three 10th hole is the shortest hole on the course. It is the second and final hole with water. There is no refuge between the tee box and the green although there is a narrow bunker between the end of the pond and the front of the green. It wraps around the right side and continues to the back where a strip of land separates it from the bunker that wraps around from the left side. I thought I’d hit a nice tee shot, but I missed clubbed. My ball landed short of the bunker and rolled back into the pond.
As was the case on so many occasions on this day with dark clouds looming above, I was a few yards short of a good shot. I removed my right shoe and sock, placed my right foot in the water, my left foot on the bank and took a whack at the ball. I whiffed.
My second attempt was more successful. The ball landed on the green and stopped 15 feet from the flag. I hadn’t made a fifteen-footer all day. This time was no different. Double Bogey.
We noticed that the clouds had gotten a little more menacing as we prepare to tee off on the 410-yard par four eleventh hole with its C.B. Macdonald version of a slight dogleg to the left as the fairway narrows and approaches the green. The hole started innocently enough with a 225-yard drive that rolled into the first cut of rough off the right edge of the fairway.
My next shot landed in the bunker. I mimicked my whiff from the previous hole leaving the ball in the bunker and proving that hitting a ball from the water or bunker aren’t that different. I made a rare triple bogey on the hole. I’d already gotten over my poor play and was just enjoying being on the course with a great group of guys, so I put the hole behind me and moved to the next one.
The 414-yard twelfth hole with a tee box aligned with the fairway looked like it was in my wheelhouse. I made a good swing expecting to stripe one down the middle of the fairway. I was so anxious to see the shot that I looked up too soon. The ball faded and landed in the fescue about a foot from the lower cut rough about 190 yards from the pin set in the center front of the punchbowl green.
The approach to the 12th green is wrought with peril. There is a bunker cut into the left side of the fairway at 70 yards from the front of the green, another in the middle of the fairway 30 yards farther and a final one off the front right. Coming out of the fescue, I decided not to take them on. I laid up to the middle of the fairway.
My third shot landed fifteen feet from the hole.
It took 12 holes, but I finally rolled a ball into the cup for a par.
The par three thirteenth hole is the easiest hole on the course at just 152 yards, most of which is a carry over fescue and a bunker fifteen yards short of the green. My tee shot didn’t quite carry them. The ball came to rest near the lip of the bunker.
A sand shot and three putts put me back on the double bogey train.
The short par four fourteenth hole with its crescent wrench shaped fairway has what I think is the longest bunker on the course stretching about sixty yards along its left side. There are also a couple of well-placed bunkers cut into the right side of the fairway at 225 yards off the tee and at 60 yards from the green. I hit my three wood straight down the middle of the fairway on the 351-yard hole. As we walked off the tee box, we heard the lightening detection alarm. We immediately headed for the clubhouse. The skies opened into a downpour just as we reached the door.
The rain stopped after about thirty minutes and we were given the all clear to return to the course. We took carts just in case the dark clouds turned into danger again and we needed to make a rapid escape. I stood over my ball, swung, and pull it into the narrow bunker that followed the contours of the greens edge. JJ followed and hit his approach shot to a foot past the flag. As we arrived at the green, there was no need for him to get out of his cart to claim his birdie. Someone picked his ball up for him.
My ball was pin high as it rested on the sand. That made for an easy bunker shot. The ball landed on the green, spun, and checked up six feet from the hole. Martin’s putt from the other side of the hole provided a clear read for me and my caddie, Dan. I sank the putt for only my second par of the round.
The 393-yard fifteenth with its wide fairway brought us to another long hole with an offset tee box. This one pointed toward the three bunkers off the left side of the fairway at 220 to 260 yards off the tee. I hit my drive 240 yards to the rough between the middle bunker and the left edge of the fairway leaving 160 yards to the middle of the green.
My approach shot landed on the green and rolled to 30 feet right of the hole. Dan gave me a good read.
I struck the ball and all eyes were on it as it rolled toward the hole. The ball ran out of steam just inches from the cup. I tapped in for my second consecutive par. Perhaps I needed that rain delay to find my swing.
My new found swing proficiency didn’t last long, as I sliced my drive on the 525-yard par five 16th hole into the fescue off the right side of the dogleg right fairway. I inched my way toward the cup hitting my second shot to the left fescue, my third to the fairway, my fourth to the right rough, and my fifth onto the green before two putting for a double bogey.
I recovered on the straight forward 382-yard seventeenth hole with cross bunkers in the fairway at 175 yards on the left and 225 yards on the right. My drive landed in the right side of the fairway.
It is so much easier to hit a ball from the fairway than it is to hit one from the fescue. My approach shot easily sailed over the two adjacent cross bunkers cut into the fairway at about 50 yards from the middle of the green and landed 20 feet below the hole.
I missed another birdie opportunity but easily made par an easy par just like C.B. Macdonald likely intended.
With dark clouds still looming, but absent any electricity, I completed the long par four bunker ladened eighteenth hole with a double bogey after another drive to the fescue and an unnecessary three-putt. My 94 was a far cry from the 78 and 79 I’d shot during my previous two rounds.
After posing for pictures with our caddies…
and our foursome plus Steve,
Martin gave me a tour of the historic clubhouse. I don’t recall exactly how I learned that Jimmy Dunne was going to be at Chicago Golf Club the next day, but I did and I left a note on his locker to let him know that I’d now played 92 of the 100 courses and had tee times at all the remaining eight with the exception of Shinnecock Hills. JJ also sent him an email to follow-up on whether he’d be able to host me there on the final day that guest could play the club ahead of the U.S. Open.
We showered and headed to dinner at Ivy’s in downtown Wheaton. While we sat at our table in a tight corner of the restaurant and chatted over dinner, JJ and I received an email from Jimmy confirming that he could host me at Shinnecock ahead of the open. It was the best email I’d received during the 353 days that I’d been on my quest. Over a fateful two days in Chicago the final pieces of the puzzle had come together. First came Pine Valley and now Shinnecock Hills. I responded to Jimmy’s email with immense gratitude and I could have kissed JJ for his help which began with a lunch at Flint Hills National following just the third course in my quest. During my quest, I tried to limit help from any one person to no more than three courses. JJ was an exception, he helped with five. I’ve never asked him why he chose to help but my guess is its because he is just a great guy with a big heart.
With twelve days and eight courses stretching from Illinois to New York to New Jersey to Idaho to South Carolina and finally to North Carolina, it is all about execution now. There is little room for mishaps. I have eight days for eight rounds of golf and four travel days to get from the Midwest to the Northeast to the Northwest Rockies and back to the Carolinas in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. Just the thought of it is enough to tire me out. Tomorrow I move on to number 93, Rich Harvest Farms. Tonight, I savor the kindness and generosity of the golfing community.