Oxymoronic as it sounds, I think golf is a secular religion. It is a manmade sport, but to its more fervent adherents, it is engrossing enough and enriching enough that the swing of a seven iron can feel like communion with the divine, especially when we catch a shot flush.
It is an honor, a privilege and a pleasure to get to be a member of golf's clergy, bringing the proverbial Good Word about the game - specifically where and when to play it - to fellow followers.
2018 was the first full year I got to visit, think about and write about golf courses for Golf Advisor, and I enjoyed telling my fellow golfers about courses and resorts from Brooksville to Big Cedar and from Abaco (Bahamas) to Ireland. The latter two countries were first-time visits for me, and they reminded me just how much fun it is to smack a ball into the air, watch it bounce and roll, chase it down and do it again.
I used this year-in-review format last year, so here's my look back on a fun and enlightening 2018:
Different Courses Played:
New Courses Played in 2017:
- The Abaco Club on Winding Bay - Golf courses that challenge one's preconceptions are rare and special. The Abaco Club forced me to rethink the meaning of links golf. Situated as it is in the Bahamas - where cool-weather turf naturally doesn't work, and courses tend to be aerial challenges by necessity - the course played as firm and fast as you could ever ask for, and the wind and Donald Steel's linksy features - pot bunkers, undulating greens and sometimes-baffling fairway contours - all had an effect on the process of getting one's ball around. It is a special course at a special club.
- Lahinch Golf Club - No surprise here, but the quintessential west Irish links did not disappoint. The tight, firm turf, wind and sense of total integrtion of course and town makes the memory of a round at Lahinch all the brighter. The Klondyke and Dell holes kick off a stretch of ten holes that are hard to beat for scenery, variety and fun.
- Streamsong Black - In order to push an art form, the artist must be willing to risk controversy and failure by drilling holes in the boundaries. Gil Hanse and his Cavemen did that at Streamsong Black, and the result is a course that demands more of one's putting abilities - lag-putting in particular - than any course I have played. People rightly point out the spectacular wildness of the punchbowl ninth green, but it's the profusely lumpy par-5 12th green that typifies the audacity of the design.
- The Greenbrier (Old White TPC) - It had been about eight years, one name change, one renovation and one devastating flood since I'd last played the Old White, and I was pleased to see just how well dialed-in it is, and how its own stateliness reflects that of the classic resort where it resides. The crisp lines of the fairways, greens and bunkers contrast with the flow of the valley it's in and the mountains that surround it, showing that that distinctive and alluring style of design has a place in any setting. The more times I get to play C.B. Macdonald/Seth Raynor courses, the more of them I want to play.
Most Challenging Courses Played
- PGA National Resort & Spa (Champion Course) - There are a lot of tough golf courses out there, but few offer less shot-to-shot letup than The Champ. The "easiest" shot of the day is probably the tee shot on the par-5 tenth, only because its fairway is the widest on the course and there's no water in play. Every other full shot either courts water, narrow fairways bordered by tough rough, deep bunkers, or some combination thereof. The course is not even overly long - it is just hard.
- Old Corkscrew Golf Club - Jack Nicklaus has softened a bit over the years in his course design, but there is very little that's forgiving about Old Corkscrew. The fairways are generous at times, but the greens feature more undulation than any Nicklaus course I've played.
- Creighton Farms - Another Nicklaus design, Creighton Farms is a bit more modern in its shapes (read: the fairways are wider than, say, 1980s Nicklaus courses), but like Old Corkscrew, some seriously undulating greens can make many holes play noticeably tougher or easer one day to the next. It's a steep challenge, but it's plenty of fun, too.
- Jupiter Hills Club (Hills Course) - One of the best courses built in the so-called "Dark Ages" of course design, Jupiter Hills played host to the USGA Four-Ball Championship this year. Four-Ball events tend to be birdie-fests, but the Hills Course's un-Florida-like elevation changes and lightning-fast greens kept scores pretty moderate. When I played it on U.S. Four-Ball Media Day, it ate my lunch.
Most Pleasant Surprises
- Riviera Country Club - No, it's not that Riviera, but rather the one that anyone can call up and play, just outside Daytona Beach. Run by pro Mike Boss for the last 40 years, Riviera is a rare public course that doesn't have tee times; just call ahead, tell them when you want to play, and they'll work you into the tee sheet. The course is not difficult but is plenty pleasant, with walkable fairways and cool push-up greens. Greens fees - even in Snowbird season - top out below $50.
- Brooksville Country Club - With more than 1,000 courses, Florida has a lot of mediocre layouts, but also a crownful of gems. Brooksville is 14 holes of lovely Florida parkland and four quarry holes which constitute one of the craziest mid-round interludes you're likely to ever play. Nearby World Woods gets a lot of (justifiable) attention, but you must play here as well.
- Fort Myers Country Club - Donald Ross' best-known designs tend to be concentrated farther north, but he left plenty for golfers to love in Florida, too. Fort Myers' muni was renovated by Steve Smyers back in 2014 and is now as good a value as the Sunshine State offers. Firm fairways, pedestal greens and a canal cutting through the middle of the tract make it a fantastic public play.
Courses I Most Want to See Again
- Bacon Park Golf Course - Another well-done Richard Mandell restoration of Donald Ross, Bacon Park was having some big problems with their greens when I stopped by in August. Nevertheless, I loved the open, rolling feel of the middle part of the course. Next time I play, hopefully the putting surfaces will be back to a good standard, as proper conditions would make the course one of the South's best municipal facilities.
- Links at Perry Cabin - Pete Dye's decades-long expression of a unique, idiosyncratic vision helped shape several other architects' careers, as well as the attitudes of millions of modern-day golfers. For that, the world owes him a debt of appreciation for his courses. Playing Perry Cabin, his final design, was an emotional experience this past October on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, but weather challenges interfered somewhat. I would love to return in the next couple years as the course matures.
- Sea Island (Plantation) - The Plantation is far from my - or anyone's - favorite course, but I'm excited for my next round there because it will be very much a new layout, thanks to Sea Island resident Davis Love III and his design team, whose renovation work will put some Golden Age character into the layout, which had been something of a hodgepodge. I've played a handful of Love courses and enjoyed them very much. DLIII and design consultant Scot Sherman will do a splendid job in Georgia's Golden Isles.
- 65 (-7) in the first round of the St. Lucie County Amateur at Fairwinds Golf Course. I played lights-out by necessity - I was paired with a 2020 University of Virginia-committed junior, and he shot the same score. I couldn't keep up for 36 holes, though; he beat me by three shots the following day to win.
- 68 (-4) in the first round of another local tournament, the Sebastian Am at Sebastian Municipal Golf Course. It was another tournament in which I didn't seal the deal; finishing second. It's hard enough to play one great competitive round; doing it on consecutive days takes another level of skill and focus.
- 85 (+13) at PGA National - Champion. I mentioned above what makes the course so hard. It ate my lunch, especially the Bear Trap, which I played in five-over par.
- 82 (+10) at The Fox Club in the second round of an FSGA event. The course's narrow fairways psyched me out, and after one of the rare good tee shots I hit, I managed to hit the wrong ball, costing me two strokes. D'oh!
- My solo round at Old White TPC was just a skosh over two hours. Hat-tip to my caddie and the foursome that waved us through on the third hole. I was eating lunch overlooking the 18th hole when I saw them putt out more than 90 minutes after I had.
- My round at Riviera was made all the more memorable by the circumstances: I was part of the first group of the day to tee off, so early that I did not see my opening tee shot or second shot land. The three retirees I was paired with played perfect fast-but-not-rushing golf. They found the quickest way to each shot and took no more time to hit than was necessary. I struggled to keep up at times, and I fancy myslef a fast player. Having teed off just before 7, we were finished by 10.
- A post-PGA Show round at Orange Tree Golf Club in Orlando stands out for two reasons. The first was the company: four colleagues with whom I had a blast laughing, trash-talking and just plain enjoying some time on the course at the end of a fun but busy week. The second: I made my third-ever hole-in-one, a seven-iron that I flew into the hole (and didn't even damage the cup). Ari, Corey, Dave and Kelly went nuts while I stood frozen in shock.
- Technically this was a tour and not a round, but I enjoyed every minute checking out the new Ashford Short Course at The Greenbrier with superintendent Kelly Shumate. Superintendents are undoubtedly the unsung heroes of golf and Shumate's love for the courses he gets to oversee (and, in the case of Ashford and parts of the Meadows Course, design himself) is infectious. If you're having a particularly good time playing a particular golf course, chances are there's a superintendent nearby who really loves his or her job.
- My round at Ozarks National at Big Cedar Lodge alongside a group of Golf Advisor Getaways participants was a special day I won't soon forget. Resort owner Johnny Morris was kind enough to let our group play the course nearly two full months before its official opening, offering a rare sneak-peek opportunity at the latest Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw design. New courses tend to be in rough shape, but Ozarks National was utterly pristine for us.
Best Trip Accommodations
- Big Cedar Lodge has a rustic, backwoods feel but its accommodations are anything but spartan. I stayed in a cozy two-bedroom cabin with authentic furniture and furnishings that made me feel embraced by the wilderness.
- The Abaco Club's standalone cabanas were pitch-perfect: open and airy inside, with every convenience taken care of. Navigating the property by four-seater golf cart (every guest gets one upon check-in) added to the fun.
- "Quirky" can sometimes be taken as a negative, but in the case of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in southwestern Pennsylvania, it is a great thing. I had the opportunity to enjoy a couple day at Falling Rock, Nemacolin's Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired lodge, with comfy accommodations, immaculate service and some bizarrely beautiful common spaces. Oh, and milk and chocolate chip cookies with nightly turndown service.
Favorite Locker Rooms
- The Sea Island Men's Locker Room is pretty much perfect. Between the camaraderie, the lunch and the mind-numbing water output of the showers, there's nowhere I've been in golf where I'd rather freshen up.
- The busiest locker room scene I was a part of this year was at Tralee Golf Club. The last of a five-round trip was a cold and wet one, and everyone coming in off the course was availing themselves of the terrific showers.
- For historical gravitas, it's hard to beat Bay Hill's locker room, knowing how much time Arnold Palmer spent holding court there.
- When the City of Hartford brought Keney Park Golf Club back from near-death, it also chose to completely renovate the course's Tudor-style clubhouse, which now features a cozy gastropub for its restaurant. By the way, one wall of the structure is no more than three feet off the back edge of the ninth green, bringing it into play on the long par 4.
- There are few golf courses worth getting to early or lingering at late because of the clubhouse, but Caledonia Golf & Fish Club is one of them. If you schedule an afternoon round at Caledonia (the superior time of day to play this particular course), be sure to have lunch in the clubhouse beforehand. There is not a single item on the extensive menu that is less than very good. Then, as the sun sets after your round, climb the stairs to the clubhouse deck and sit in the rocking chairs as the day's final groups approach the 18th hole. It's Lowcountry golf bliss.
- Dooks Golf Links' clubhouse is tucked into a dune just downhill from the first tee, and its interior, while not opulent, is purpose-made for a local golf club that also takes in its share of visitors. It is Irish hospitality itself.
Favorite Grill Rooms / 19th Holes
- The restaurant at LPGA International was lively when I went in for a pre-round lunch back in February. The shape of the bar lends itself to a good view of a TV, crucial for watching golf or, in my case, NCAA basketball.
- Grand Cypress' sunken bar area cleverly divides the large open-plan interior of the clubhouse, making a big space feel cozy and welcoming.
- The post-round bar scene each day of the Myrtle Beach World Amateur. Even though I played in the Gross Division, the amount of breeze-shooting and beer-drinking in each host course's clubhouse reminded me that the World Am is really a week-long golf party where competition occasionally breaks out.
- I had the chance to share a few minutes' conversation with Jack Nicklaus in June at Creighton Farms. I don't tend to get starstruck, but I'll admit to feeling some nerves until the Golden Bear's firm grip and friendly eyes dissolved any apprehension. We chatted about Pawleys Plantation, a course that shaped me as a golfer. Lo and behold, I would see Mr. Nicklaus four months later at Pawleys Plantation, where he shared his thoughts on refreshing the looks and playing characteristics of one of his Signature courses.