With the wind and 97 of Americas 100 Greatest Courses behind me we sped across the ripples along the surface of Lake Coeur d’Alene in Jed’s Cobalt 302 sportboat on a cool Friday morning under a cloudless light blue sky. Jed, a family friend of Bob’s stopped by the dock at Black Rock to pick up Bob, Mike and me before swinging by to grab Charlie, another family friend of Bob’s, from the dock at his house. These men, two whom I’d met and played a round with at the Golf Club of Black Rock on the day before and two whom I’d just met, were there for one purpose only, to help a stranger achieve a dream. We raced across the lake to Gozzer Ranch in pursuit of the 98th course in my one-year odyssey to play all 100 of America’s greatest golf courses in a single year.
It took but moments for it to feel like Charlie, Jed and I were old friends, men from a generation unafraid to say we believed in God, family, and country. One could see it as a gathering of old men (Charlie, Jed and me) looking to kick the butts of a couple of young men (Bob and Mike). After docking the boat and a short trek to the Clubhouse, we were in route to the first tee of a scenic Fazio designed course stretching along a peninsula jutting into Lake Coeur D’Alene. In the relaxed environment of Gozzer Ranch Golf and Lake Club we were ready to rumble. I loved that the five of us could all play together rather than having to split into two groups. As he’d done the day before, Bob collected a ball from each of us and tossed them in the air to determine who would be the first wolf, Charlie got the honors.
Pine trees lined the fifty-yard wide fairway just beyond the long bunkers off the edges of the 375-yard first hole. I hit my first drive of the day 230 yards into the bunker off the left side leaving 160 yards to a back pin.
My bunker shot landed just short of a bunker 25 yards from the front of the green.
I pitched onto the green and watch the ball chase past the hole all the way to the back. After leaving my par putt four-feet short, I rolled the next one into the cup to start my round with a bogey to match Jed and Mike. Bob and Charlie opened with pars.
Our next stop was at the snack for coffee and juice before continuing on to the tee box of the 495-yard par five second hole, a relatively flat hole with a slight incline and bend of the fairway as it stretched past a bunker off its right side and three off its left side separating it from the trees. My drive sailed 260 yards down the left side of the fairway.
As I prepared to hit my second shot, I noticed water off the left side of the fairway as it approached the green. It had not been visible from the tee box. I wanted nothing to do with the water, so I aimed toward a tree in the distance off to the right. The ball faded and dropped into a bunker well right of my intended line.
With just 80 yards to a middle pin I thought I’d easily clear the low lip of the bunker. I didn’t. The ball caught the lip and landed in the rough just 25 yards ahead.
I pitched over the bunker but coming out of the rough there was no spin on the ball. It ran past the flag to the edge of the green.
I two-putted for another bogey.
The green on the third hole is well below the tee box and backs up to a spectacular view of the lake. The flag was 162 yards away but playing downhill to just 140 yards. I hit the ground before the ball taking all the momentum out of my nine iron. The ball fell 45 yards short of the green.
My pitch shot stopped 50 feet below the hole.
I took care on my putt, focusing primarily on speed to ensure I lagged close enough to guarantee no worse than a bogey. I push the ball toward the hole with my putter. Watching as the ball rolled toward the cup, I said, “this could just go in.” In a flash the ball fell into the cup for my first par. Charlie matched my par while everyone else made double bogeys.
The fourth hole is pure beauty and temptation. The forty-yard wide fairway with tight trees necks down to 10 yards just short of a green whose front edge is just 255 yards from the tee tempting everyone to ignore the deep bunkers off the green’s edges and go for it. With encouragement from Bob, Charlie, Jeb, and Mike, I pulled out my driver and gave it a whack. The ball sailed toward the green and dropped into the rough just to the left of where the fairway narrows to a meager 10 yards leaving 30 yards to the pin.
I pitched the ball past the flag to take advantage of the slope on the back-right portion of the green. The ball rolled back down the slope and stopped five feet from the cup.
Just off the heels of sinking a 50-footer, I was confident that I could roll in a five-footer for birdie. So confident that I forgot to strike the ball with force. The ball trickled to a foot short of the cup before coming to a dead stop. I tapped in for a disappointing par.
The 404-yard fifth hole looks wide open compared to the previous holes. The right side of the still narrow fairway borders the second hole as has but a few trees. While there are thick trees off the left side, most of them are pushed back from the bunkers and waste areas that run along its edge. I hit a 230-yard drive down the middle.
The wind had picked up and was blowing directly into us. With 175 yards to the pin, I hit my 190-yard club into what I thought was a two-club wind. But I believe it was Bobby Jones who said, “a ball struck purely, is unaffected by the wind.” My ball sailed unimpededly over the flag and rolled to toward the back of the green.
Three putts later, on a green that sloped back to front, I recorded a nasty bogey.
The wildflowers between the tee box and the start of the fairway added color to the number one handicapped hole on the course. The sixth hole measures 374 yards with a thirty-five wide fairway that bends left to right past a bunker off each of its sides and thick trees and a small pond off to the right as it approaches the green. I pulled my drive left of the cart path into some gnarly native vegetation filled with rocks.
With limited options I pitched out to the fairway leaving 110 yards to the flag.
The pin was positioned in the middle of the green which meant I’d have to hit over the left edge of the pond if I wanted to go at the flag. I got less helped with the wind that expected as the sprang off the face of my sand wedge and flew directly toward the flag before dropping just short of the green.
I again failed to strike my putt with enough speed. The ball stopped eight feet short of the cup. I jammed the next putt into the back of the cup to save bogey. Mike took advantage of a brilliant approach shot to five feet and sank his putt to make the first birdie of the day in our fivesome.
Large masses of stone abound on the 176-yard par three seventh hole. The hole appeared to have been blasted out of a six to eight-foot-tall glacier of stone. I pulled by tee shot to the tall rough atop the hill overlooking the 25 by 30 yard green.
We found my ball sitting down in the tall rough a few feet to the left of a tall pine. Fortunately, the pin was toward the back of the green resulting in an unobstructed path to the green. I pitched onto the slope and watched the ball roll onto the green leaving 25 feet to save par.
A firmer stroke and the ball would have held its line. Instead it broke off just short of the cup. I tapped in for another bogey.
The alley formed by the tight trees leaves barely enough room for the narrow fairway let alone the bunkers sprinkled along its side on the longest hole on the course. The par five eighth hole measures 529 yards. The fairway ends at 345 yards off the tee before resuming on the other side of a bunker cut into the rough. I sent my drive sailing down the middle of the fairway. The ball drifted slightly to the right before dropping onto the fairway.
I got a little anxious about carrying the bunker in between where the fairway stops, and picks back up. I looked up too quickly and topped the ball sending it along the ground for about 85 yards. I was left with 200 yards to the pin.
My approach shot landed on the green but rolled 40 feet past the flag. I struck my putt well. The ball looked like it would drop in for a birdie but slid just off the edge of the cup to five feet past. I made the comebacker to save par.
I was in desperate need a of par on the 414-yard ninth hole to finish the front nine with a reasonably good score. The crescent moon shaped fairway sweeps from left to right through the trees. I popped my drive up to the right. The ball landed in the rough just short and to the right off the bunker at the beginning of the fairway, 255 yards from the middle of the green. I’ve learned through the years that more often than not, thinking about score rather than making a good swing results in disaster. Yet I find myself doing it often.
As I stood over my ball, I noticed that it was in a hole behind the clump of grass. I hit down hard on the ball and popped it up. It barely made it over the bunker.
The ball was still in line with the trees between it and the green. With no clear path to the hole, I pitched to the fairway leaving 150 yards to the flag.
My fourth shot landed 15 feet left of the cup.
I rolled the ball five feet past the hole before making the come back putt for a double bogey. It was a very disappointing finish to the front nine for a 43.
The course flattens a little on the 488-yard par five tenth hole making it a little easier for me to hit my drive right down the middle of the 40-yard wide fairway. Holes with oblique tee boxes wreak havoc on my alignment.
The fairway takes a slight dip before rising gently bending from right to left and passes three bunkers as it makes its way to the elevated green. Even though I was only 250 yards from the middle of the green, I decided to play conservatively and lay up to my lob wedge distance. The ball carried a little farther than I expected and landed in the fairway 75 yards from a front left pin.
I took a little off my swing as I hurled the ball right at the flag. It landed just short of the green. A full shot would have gotten it there.
My putt from off the green raced six feet past the cup. I missed the come back and tapped in to save bogey. Charlie showed his golf prowess by recording the second birdie of the round for our group. Everyone else followed my lead and made double bogeys.
The par fours at Gozzer don’t get any longer than the 416-yard eleventh hole with a fairway that seems to drop into the mountains off in the distance. I swung too fast trying to hit the ball far enough to reach where the fairway begins a downward slide. I hit behind the ball and launched it straight up into the bright blue sky. The ball came down in the middle of the fairway but had traveled only 185 yards on the horizontal plane, leaving 230 yards to the a green framed by tall pines off its sides but with a back reminiscent of the infinity greens at Pikewood National that flow toward heaven.
My second shot faded into the right rough and came to rest a few yards shy of a huge boulder covered with prickly weeds.
There is just 75 yards to the flag and the physics seemed to indicate that a lob wedge launch angle should be enough to clear the rock. But I saw another possible rock in my future, a headstone with, “an engineer who trusted physics and died.” I played it safe and hit left of the rock. My ball landed just off the front of the green and l lived to make another swing.
There was a lot of grass between my ball off the left front of the green and the hole on the right front of the green. I still chose to use the good ole Texas wedge. The grass slowed the ball more than expected and it stopped six feet short of the cup. I sank the putt to save bogey.
Before heading to the twelfth tee box we paused for a photograph to freeze the moment in time where four friends came together to share the dream of a stranger on a beautiful golf course with the Rocky Mountains off in the distance.
The twelfth hole has all the features of a short but dangerous par four. Stretching just 315 yards the wide fairway has an island of rough, sand, and trees in the middle of it that grabbed my attention as I stood on the tee box in search of the green. The lower fairway to the left of the island seemed like the most direct route to the green but required a carry over several bunkers. The upper fairway to the right of the island looked longer but safer. Jed and Charlie suggested that I take the high road. I hit my ball to the upper fairway leaving just 105 yards to a back-left pin cut on the upper tier of the green.
I hit a high sand wedge directly at the flag. The ball hit into the slope about 15 feet short of the hole. I got “Fazio’ed.” My ball rolled back down the slope leaving a 25-foot putt uphill putt rather than a flat 15-footer or less.
I continued to struggle with my putting speed, striking the ball too softly to get it up the slope and to the cup. It stopped eight feet short. I failed to sink the par putt and recorded a three-putt bogey.
If we could vote on which hole is the most difficult hole on the course, the thirteenth hole rather than the sixth hole would get my vote. It plays longer, the fairway is narrower, the trees are tighter, and the bunkers are bigger. If that wasn’t enough, the wind was blowing directly into us. I put all of that out of my head and ripped a drive down the middle leaving 190 yards to the pin.
The wind felt like at least one extra club was needed to reach the hole, I took two, hitting my three hybrid directly at the pin. The ball hit next to the flag and rolled 25 feet past and onto the upper tier of the green. A pure strike with my five hybrid would have been perfect.
My downhill putt rolled six feet past the hole. I made the easy putt back uphill to save par, but don’t let my par fool you, this is a tough hole. Especially when played into the wind!
The 145-yard par three fourteenth hole is the easiest par opportunity on the course despite the 140-yard carry over a pond and a bunker to reach the front edge of the green. With the wind now at our backs all I needed was a nine iron to get to the green. The ball looked good the whole time it was in the air. It landed pin high just off the left edge of the green but took a weird hard bounce farther left and into the first cut of rough.
I putted from off the green to eight feet left of the cup and then missed my par putt. Rotten bogey. No matter how easy the hole is, Golf is HARD.
One of the most unobstructed views of Lake Coeur d’Alene and the mountains can be seen from the tee box on the 358-yard fifteen hole. The view makes the hole look even shorter than it is.
I hit my three wood straight at the peak of the mountain. The ball looked like it would fly all the way to the lake. It dropped into the fairway, just 120 yards from the green and what had to almost be heaven.
Gazing at the blue lake and the silhouetted mountains beyond it made the treacherous bunkers around the green just fade away. I pulled my approach shot. The ball landed just off the left front edge of the green.
Still mesmerized by the blue pastels of the water and mountains beyond the bright greens illuminating the golf course, I left my chip eight feet from the cup. My par putt rimmed out. No matter how beautiful the scenery, Golf is HARD. Bogey. Well at least for me. Charlie made the hole look easy with his second birdie of the round.
I could stand on the sixteenth tee box all day taking in the beauty around Lake Coeur d’Alene, but the sweeping left to right fairway of the 485-yard par five was calling. My worse drive of the day answered the call and sliced into the trees along the hill off the right side of the fairway never to be seen again. I landed my next tee shot in the fairway and laid up on my fourth shot.
My fifth shot landed on the green. Despite the horrendous tee shot, I still had a chance to save bogey. It was not to be, I left my putt short recording just my second double bogey of the round. Golf is Hard. Only Jed and Charlie escaped the hole without double bogeys.
The final par three on the course provides a similar view to the view on the approach to the fifteenth green with Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Rocky Mountains looming in the backdrop, but the bunker off the left front of the green and the one that runs along the left side before wrapping around the back are two obvious to ignore. My tee shot fell short, landing just off the front right of the green.
While gazing at the beautiful lake and layers of mountains behind the green, my putter brushed against Idaho before connecting with the ball. I left the ball well short of the hole and then two-putted for a bogey. No one else in our group of five made par.
The fairway on the finishing hole starts just beyond the fifty yards of rough between it and the tee box. After a very short bend to the left it straightens and runs between a bunker off each side on its way to the green. The ball came off the toe of my driver and shot straight right, staying in the air just long enough to reach the bunker off the right side of the fairway, 180 yards from the tee.
I hit my eight iron out of the bunker to make sure I cleared the face. The ball landed in the fairway, fifty yards from a middle pin.
With a beautiful view of the lake off my left side, I pitched my ball onto the front of the green.
Two putts later my 98th course was in the books and my day of fun and camaraderie with Jed, Charlie, Bob and Mike along the shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene was over. We stopped by the Taco shack for drinks before heading back to Jed’s boat.
The ride back across the lake seemed to pass too suddenly as Charlie and Jed dropped Bob, Mike and me off then cut through the ripples as they rode off into the sunset putting a period at the end of a delightful day.
With a few hours to kill before my plane took of from Spokane, I returned to a place of comfort and amity, the bar at the pool at the Golf Club of Black Rock. I also stopped by the indoor bar to chat with Beau, one of the bartenders and the only other black face I’d seen since landing in Spokane two days earlier. Beau hails from South Carolina, I told him that was the next stop in my journey. Beau told me he had just started to learn the game after a few of the members at Black Rock collected money to buy him a set of clubs. I thought that was very generous and thoughtful of the members. Besides, we golfers love to see others come join us in our love/hate relationship with the game.
Mountains jutting up from deep valleys dominated my windshield as I drove through the panhandle of Idaho back to the airport in Spokane. I paused as I watched the sun drop behind the peaks realizing that the sun would soon set too on my journey across the country turning strangers into friends and enriching our lives along the way. Just three days and just two courses remained between me and the realization of a dream.