Geeked on Golf


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TIPPING THE SCALES

A Geek Dad’s Diary entry reflecting on the complexity of golf culture and how we welcome beginners

Golf is a game of invitation and camaraderie. Very few are those players who come to it without being brought by friends, family, colleagues or a mentor. Fewer still are those who stick around long enough for the love of the game to take hold without patient and persistent support from their fellow players. Getting the ball in the hole is difficult. Navigating the rules and norms of etiquette, perhaps even more so. Without the welcoming invitation followed by the supportive camaraderie that are at the heart of what’s best in golf, these challenges prove too daunting for most.

This past week’s golf adventures, which included my son Henry, illuminated a balancing act that is deeply ingrained in the game. On the one hand, there are many aspects of golf—traditions, exclusivity, cost, difficulty—that are unwelcoming. On the other, most golfers are enthusiastic, courteous and generous, especially to those who exhibit a genuine interest in meeting people, having new experiences and enjoying the game. At the end of the day, it’s the players who tip the scales. Will they help beginners along, or will they intolerantly turn them away, like a teacher who kicks a child out of kindergarten for not knowing how to do long division?

Back to My Beginning

Earlier in the week, I had occasion to be up near my home town. Time allowed for me to stop in Fort Sheridan to take a walk. When it was an operational Army base, the Fort had a golf course that was open to active and retired servicemen and women, and their families. That is where I learned to play the game. My dad and grandfather, who both served, started taking me out when I was six with sawed off clubs. They would drop my ball at the 100 yard marker and let me play in. Fun was the priority, but I was not allowed to run wild. They patiently taught me when it was my turn, to be quiet when someone else was playing, to replace divots and rake bunkers, and the other standards of etiquette. I had to earn my way backward to play from the tee. The course at Fort Sheridan is no longer there, along with many other community golf courses in America, but the memories and foundation I gained while walking its fairways are ever present.

My week also included the privilege of getting out for an afternoon loop with buddies at the Old Elm Club, where I caddied from intermediate school through college. Old Elm is a small men’s club that’s as exclusive as they come. It always surprises my friends now to learn that back in my day, the caddies were almost all teenagers who were allowed to play after work at 5:30pm Tuesday – Sunday, and after noon on Mondays. Suffice it to say, my fellow golf bums and I took advantage of the perk. Our days were spent learning all manner of lessons from adults on the course, and fellow caddies in the yard. Evenings were for chasing the sun, where one rule reigned supreme—play fast. We didn’t care if you were a novice or an expert, a hack or a stick. Just get on with it. As I look back now, I can see the scales balanced, with exclusivity on one side, and the generosity of the members on the other. It’s complicated, but one thing is simple. My days as an Old Elm caddie were highly beneficial in my life, and I wish that youth caddie programs were thriving rather than dying.

On the Road

The memories and musings of the week were packed up and we headed to Indianapolis for the weekend. On Friday, Henry and I met my buddy Jamison at his favorite local track, Pleasant Run. The course was laid out on rolling land with a creek running through it and plenty of quirk baked in. It’s not easy to play or walk, but Henry made it and we had a blast. Pleasant Run is community golf at its best—fun, affordable, interesting—and the combination of friendly staff and a terrific host made us feel right at home.

Contrast that pleasantness with our experience at The Fort. After receiving a less than warm welcome in the pro shop and being reminded that Henry wasn’t permitted to drive the cart with his grandmother, it came to our attention that someone on the staff made a stink about a 9-year old being allowed out to play. Henry plays well, fast and with solid etiquette. He has played Olympia Fields, Lawsonia, Kingsley, and Arcadia Bluffs, and has done just fine. Of course, this person at The Fort didn’t know about Henry or his game, but they didn’t bother to ask me either. They made a snap judgment based on his age and in the process made him feel unwelcome. Ironically, we were greeted on the 3rd tee by a nice lady selling raffle tickets to raise money for youth golf in Indianapolis. Apparently the message is that The Fort supports youth golf as long as it doesn’t happen there. The encounter clearly bummed Henry out, and after 2.5 hours of watching adults make a mess of the front nine at an excruciatingly slow pace, he asked to quit.

This could have just been a bad moment for a few people at The Fort, or it could have been a symptom of a wrong-headed, unwelcoming culture. I don’t know, and frankly, because my child was involved, I don’t care. I took to Twitter and blew off some steam with a rant. What happened next is one of many reasons why I love golfers. Not only did Henry receive messages of support and encouragement, but he also got invites to play in Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Lexington. I have passed the messages along to him as they come in, and he is thrilled. His love of the game goes on while golf culture puts on its balancing act. Fortunately, the good folks consistently show up to tip the scales.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that private clubs swing their doors wide open, or that we replace the game’s rules and standards with a behavioral free-for-all. There is room on the golf landscape for all manner of courses and clubs—one size does not need to fit all. And the fact that we voluntarily adhere to rules for competitive play and etiquette at all times is part of what makes the game special. This diary entry is not meant to come to sweeping conclusions, but rather to be a reminder that, to one degree or another, we were all brought into golf. In turn, we each have an obligation to pay that kindness forward by welcoming others and helping them find their way so that they too have the chance to fall in love. The experiences of the week, linking my younger self to my son, reminded me that in the complicated culture of the game, I need to put forth the effort to tip the scales.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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CREATIVITY WITHIN CONSTRAINTS AT LOST DUNES

A look at the relationship between design constraints and creativity at the Tom Doak designed Lost Dunes Golf Club

Spend any time on GolfClubAtlas or Twitter, and it becomes apparent that many armchair architects live in their own world. It’s a place without limits, where any tree can be cut, budgets are infinite, interpersonal politics don’t exist and government oversight agencies are on permanent holiday. In short, it is fantasyland. The real world in which the designers we revere operate is filled with a variety of constraints—timelines, boundaries, environmental regulations, budgets, client desires, infrastructure needs, player abilities, endangered species, maintenance profile, wetlands, specimen trees, roads and building locations, among others. The most experienced and talented modern architects find a way to create great golf holes and courses within the constraints, rather than taking their ball and going home because they don’t like the rules of the playing field.

Tom Doak has a strong personality and, along with his associates at Renaissance Golf Design, a design portfolio to match. He has also been outspoken about his willingness to walk away from potential jobs if the client, site or circumstances don’t fit his eye. It is therefore understandable that a myth has developed wherein Doak is not susceptible to the same constraints as his contemporaries. Although he is steadfast in his belief in himself, his team and the principles that underlie great courses, he must still deal with reality. Such was the case with the opportunity to create Lost Dunes in southwest Michigan. Rather than be hampered by the numerous constraints of the site, the Renaissance team produced a course as creative and varied as any of their other works.

Finding Lost Dunes

Doak has a book on routing in the works which includes a focus on Lost Dunes. Without giving away the story, he allowed me to pick his brain about the site he was given, and the inherent challenges of laying out the course.

The site of Lost Dunes, before construction

Lost Dunes was built on an old sand quarry. The mining operation left behind large ponds with a unique characteristic. “All the ponds on site are un-lined and the water level varies with the level of Lake Michigan,” explained Doak, “which has gone down and back up more than four feet since we built the course.” Fairways and greens could not be built too close to the water’s edge because the level was and is in a state of constant flux.

To complicate matters further, the original service road and Interstate 94 cut through the property, crossing to subdivide it in conjunction with the lakes. The land presented a complicated routing puzzle for which there was no perfect solution, but also an opportunity for variety. Each of the sections has its own topography and character, which give players the feeling of visiting distinct zones. Lost Dunes has a feeling of adventure.

Water and roads subdivide the Lost Dunes property

The map had a few tricky red lines to deal with, but it was still a sandy site with dunes, so the rest of the job should have been a tap-in, right? Not exactly. “The Michigan Critical Dune Act, written to prevent future companies from mining the sand dunes along Lake Michigan as they’d done prior to building Lost Dunes, actually prevented us from filling up against the steepest slopes on the clubhouse side of the highway,” said Doak. “This had everything to do with how and where #14 tees, 14 fairway, 15 green, and 16 tees and green are built.”

Zooming in from the macro picture revealed another set of environmental challenges to sidestep. “The mining company had dedicated big portions of the site as ‘conservation areas’ when de-commissioning the mine, so there were lots of wetland and wooded areas we couldn’t touch,” recounted Doak. “Even the little ditch and trees to the left of #18 green are a conservation area!” And lest we forget, the flora had a say in the matter as well. “There was a threatened wildflower scattered about the site, which we had to mitigate by creating a separate habitat for it left of #12, because there was no way to work around all the little patches on other holes. The wildflower is listed as threatened in Michigan, because it only grows in that corner of the state, where it’s hottest. They actually told me its native habitat is ‘an abandoned sand quarry’, which makes me wonder where it got its start,” Doak recalled while still scratching his head.

This scenario tends towards the extreme end of the constraint spectrum, but it illustrates the reality faced by modern architects. The redlined map, with mitigation and infrastructure requirements, has to be overcome to create interesting golf. That is exactly what Tom Doak and his team accomplished for the owner and membership of Lost Dunes, and in the process, the argument can be made that the constraints drove creativity down the line.

A Course in Creativity

Constraints aside, the dune and lake setting of Lost Dunes is visually stunning. Doak’s routing does a terrific job of first introducing players to the themes of his design before moving into the more dramatic area of the property.

One-time visitors have been known to criticize the course for being “tricked up”, especially the greens. Those critiques miss the point that the design is not primarily for them. It is for the members, many of whom log dozens of rounds annually over a period of years. For the membership, the course’s holes, features and greens are not tricks at all. They are puzzles to solve in which failed attempts are often just as fun as the successes.

After multiple loops around Lost Dunes, several strong themes emerge. First, there is great variety in the questions posed on the tees of the two and three-shot holes. Angular, straight and shaped driving requirements are all in play for those of us mere mortals who don’t carry the ball 300 yards. Second, the highly creative tee-to-green hazards—bunkers, mounds, wastes, water—are employed to tempt and deceive, rather than to punish. This course is much more Dye than Jones. And finally, the greens do live up to their reputation as evocative. They vary is size, shape and orientation, and the contours throughout reward those who smartly play the positioning game, while rejecting the less strategically-minded. This combination of tee shots, hazards and greens makes every day at Lost Dunes different, and every hole a pleasurable challenge.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

The opener is a short four that provides a great intro to the course. The drive is up to a fairway rise that then turns left and works down to a small contoured green running away. The 2nd is Doak’s fantastic Leven hole, with a huge green fronted left by a sandy mound. Positioning and use of slopes are critical to have a good birdie look. The par-3 3rd has a green set quietly in a corner of the property with contours as loud as they come. The yardage on the card at the par-5 4th has players thinking birdie or better, but misjudged approaches will lead to bogey or worse. The opening stretch concludes with the long, downhill 5th, a one-shotter that demands a confidently struck tee ball in the face of its intimidating look.

The next two par-4s work out and back to conclude the exploration of the section east of I-94. The 6th begins with a tough drive to a fairway with trees left that make the corridor appear narrower than it actually is. The green is equally demanding with pronounced tiers. The 7th turns back, playing up to a wide fairway flanked by bunkers right, and then to an elevated green with more subtle contours.

Players next head back under the Interstate toward the clubhouse. In fairness, holes 8-10 do have green to tee gaps that Doak probably wishes were much shorter. However, knowing what we do about the reality of the constraints, it was a brilliant move to deal with this awkward part of the property in the middle of the round, when the flow of play would be interrupted by the turn anyway.

Looking more closely at the holes in this stretch independent of the routing, they are quite good. The par-5 8th is stout, beginning with a forced carry over water  and ending with a ticklish approach into a tiered green. The one-shot 9th has an angled green set beyond a wetland with the clubhouse as a backdrop. The 10th is a par-5 that can be reached in two if the wind is right, but not without a healthy dose of risk provided by the water around the green.

The next stretch of five holes is one of the best in modern American design, working around the flat shores of the lakes left behind by the miners. Players are afforded jaw-dropping views revealing the scale of the property from the elevated tee boxes while taking on a series of thrilling drives and approaches. These holes are, in a word, outstanding.

The par-4 11th plays uphill to a massive bowl green set in the saddle of a dune. The tee shot on the 12th plays significantly downhill from the top of the dune to the wide fairway below, and then back up to an elevated green. The par-3 13th is reminiscent of the 3rd at Crystal Downs, with its green resting in a hollow at the base of a dune. The bunkerless par-4 14th snakes around the water to a tricky putting surface at grade. And to cap this stretch off, the three shot 15th heads diagonally over water to a heaving fairway and then up to a green benched into the duneside.

A forgettable set of closers would be forgivable, but Lost Dunes brings the round home in style. The par-3 16th plays over the wetland and demands a precisely judged shot from a tee exposed to the wind. Players then head into the woods for the two-shot 17th, culminating in a stellar green with a slope that feeds weak approaches into a front left bunker. The home hole has a wide fairway largely hidden by a set of forebunkers. One final solid approach is required to hit the home green which plays smaller than its footprint.

Would Lost Dunes have been a better course if, like Donald Ross and other Golden Age masters, the crew had been free to fill in wetlands or disregard sensitive flora and fauna? I’m not so sure, even though Tom Doak leans toward suspecting that it would. “A couple of my associates have noted in the past that our designs turn out to be more interesting if we have to work around constraints like these and find a way to make the golf compelling,” he reflected. “I’m not sure that’s the case—negotiating the nature of the red lines on the map is time-consuming and often leads me to feel that the lines are quite arbitrary.”

A group of talented artisans has a certain capacity for creative output on any given project, and the deeply committed are sure to expend that entire capacity, one way or another. When constrained, they will find another avenue for expression. In the case of the compelling tee shots, variety of hazards and complex putting surfaces of Lost Dunes, it is clear that the capacity of Team Doak found its outlets. Regardless of the final conclusion on the relationship of creativity to constraints, Doak makes the bottom line clear, “I am pleased when golfers play the course and aren’t aware of them.”

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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COMPLICATED, BUT PERFECT

Part 27 of the Journey Along the Shores series tells the story of the launch of a new youth golf program at Canal Shores

An idea about inclusiveness and enjoyment of the game of golf was born in our community this summer. That idea was transformed into a reality at Canal Shores by an unlikely team of high school students, a former social worker, a blogger, a community leader, golf instructors, parents and 18 brave kids who had never set foot on a golf course before. Their story embodies elements—inspiration, serendipity, perseverance, caring, courage—that when mixed together among people pursuing a common cause, tends to produce meaningful success. This story is about the inaugural Evanston Cradle to Career golf program at Canal Shores and the kids who went through it, but it begins in the mind of one kid.

It’s fitting that I would catch Thomas Haller for a conversation about his experience while he was driving with a buddy up to Sand Valley. He is my kind of geek—a teammate of my son Jack on the ETHS golf team, a member of YouthOnCourse and the NewClub golf society, a caddie, and a budding architecture connoisseur. Even better than all that, he believes that the game should be readily accessible to all. Coincidentally, his idea for a youth golf program came from another car ride. The Hallers were discussing diversity (or lack thereof) in the game while on the way home from the course one day. It was an issue that had been on Thomas’s mind. “Evanston is a diverse community, and all the sports teams at our school reflect that diversity, except golf,” he said. “So my friends on the team and I were aware of it, but the question is, what are you going to do about it?”

Thomas’s mom is a HeadStart teacher in Evanston and she originally suggested that he take her students out to play golf. That suggestion morphed into his idea for a youth program. He had seen how popular the kids camps and clinics at Canal Shores were and thought that he might be able to piggyback on those. “We are so fortunate to have a perfect place like Canal Shores in our town where kids can get introduced to the game,” he pointed out. “I probably couldn’t have done this in many communities in the area.”

Through a series of connections, Thomas found himself applying for a community building grant through Evanston Cradle to Career’s Advocates for Action council, an organization that advocates for systemic equity while pursuing life-enhancing opportunities for Evanston families. As he made his grant presentation with robust support from his parents, the Canal Shores Association Board and other members of the community, he realized that he was onto something big. “It was certainly overwhelming at first,” he recounted, “but I had lots of people helping me. When I saw how excited the parents and kids were for the opportunity to try golf, I didn’t want to let them down.”

The Buddy System

The kitchen table of Kelly Marcele’s home is a wedge away from the 15th green at Canal Shores, and yet she has never played the game. There was something about Thomas Haller’s idea that struck a chord with her though, and so the former social worker turned Advocates for Action volunteer stepped up to be his “grant buddy”. She recalled the lively internal conversation about race, recreation, outreach and inclusiveness prompted by Thomas’s application. The fact is that most people in Evanston’s African-American community have never been to Canal Shores, or any other golf course, and many have no familiarity with the game. Was a white teenager’s youth golf program really the best use of their resources? A fair question, but in the end, the answer came back affirmative. Thomas had his money, and the support of Kelly and others within Advocates for Action.

That support would prove to be crucial in bringing the idea to life. The first problem that needed solving was finding interested kids. After an initial outreach attempt failed, Kelly contacted blogger and community activist Nina Kavin who runs DearEvanston.org for help. With less than a week to go before the start of the program, Thomas had no kids signed up. Nina generously posted the opportunity on her Facebook page, and twenty-four hours later, the team had more inquiries than available spots. “My biggest takeaway was that minority kids weren’t playing not because they were disinterested,” shared Thomas. “They just didn’t have exposure and opportunity.”

The next challenge was one of logistics. The kids were signed up, but would they show up? Any parent of teenagers knows that little things like transportation and snacks aren’t top of mind. Once again, the community stepped up, led by Kimberly Holmes-Ross, Engagement Coordinator for Advocates for Action. Like Kelly, Kimberly was a believer in Thomas’s idea. The two ladies also shared a determination to do whatever it took to help see the program through, whether it was giving rides, gathering forms or welcoming parents and kids. Their efforts paid off as the group of participant families came together, and the players took to the game.

Producing Golfers

Peter Donahue is a beloved figure at Canal Shores. As head of The Golf Practice, his camps and clinics have been growing steadily since 2013, with this year’s class totaling 450 youth golfers. He is calm, caring, indefatigable and in charge—exactly the way he needs to be to marshal such a horde. A community golf course in Evanston is not where he planned to end up when his PGA Professional career began in the early ‘80s. “I thought I would be the next Hubby Habjan at a club like Onwentsia,” he reminisced. “As I went through my apprenticeship, I was encouraged to explore opportunities in the public space as well.” Peter found himself in Winnetka where he tapped into his love of instruction. “People who are enthusiastic students are a pleasure to be around, especially kids,” he said with enthusiasm of his own. Years later, that calling to teach would give rise to a robust program now known as The Golf Practice.

Peter had taken in disadvantaged students through the Canal Shores Association Board’s scholarship program before, with some successes. He saw in “the Haller project” (as he calls it) a different opportunity that got him excited. “What would it be like to take a kid with no exposure to the game, but who was interested in it, and see if we could produce a golfer?”, he wondered. Answering that question motivated Peter to sign on as a partner, helping Thomas to develop an introductory program that both welcomed players and taught them the basics.

“It was a revelation,” concluded Peter. He had always believed in the potential of a community course like Canal Shores to play an important and powerful role in the game, and during the weeks teaching Thomas’s recruits, he witnessed that potential being fulfilled. He wasn’t the only one making note of the profoundly positive vibe. “I’ve always been around kids who grew up with golf,” explained Thomas. “It’s a given in our lives, and we tend to get caught up in scoring and competition. These kids are in it for the love of the game, which puts it into perspective for me.”

More Than a Game

Golf’s just a game. What difference could it possibly make? I’m seeking answers to that question as I sit in the office of Canal Shores’ General Manager Tony Frandria. We’re discussing his impressions of the program, while the chaos of preparation for the first Northwestern University football home game swirls around us. The EC2C camp has ended, but Tony is clearly still affected by what he witnessed. “I don’t know what you were doing when you were in high school, but I sure wasn’t putting together youth golf programs,” he said with a laugh. “Thomas is a great kid with a great idea, and the result was all these other kids having a chance to learn the game. It was so cool to see the diversity of this place continue to grow.”

Amidst tight budgets, logistics of football parking, neighbor relations, course maintenance and challenging weather, the energy of the youth programs recharges Tony’s batteries, helping him continue to fight to make Canal Shores thrive. He noted the impact on families as well. “I heard through the grapevine that one father and son are ditching video games and buying clubs,” he gushed. “I have seen a mom and her son who was in the program continuing to come over on Fridays to hit balls in the nets together. Hearing stories like that and seeing the connections for myself…it’s just awesome.”

One particularly profound success is that of a camper named Judah. He went from never having played golf to making the boys team at Niles West High School in one summer. Clearly he was a natural, waiting to be found. But Judah’s experience is deeper and more important than what happened on the course, as his mother Abigail shared in a note to Kelly. “An African Proverb says ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ My son and I went through some really tough times since (his father) died, and I felt so alone and overwhelmed” she wrote. “Judah was making me exasperated by hanging around with some bad influences…I remember crying myself to sleep one night and saying, ‘My God, I don’t have anybody!’…I had no idea that golf would bring brighter days and friendships and a village that would help take my son to the next level. He has connected with some really great young men and adults…I feel truly blessed by this experience with each and every one of you.” Thomas, Kelly, Peter and Tony all spoke of Judah, and as they did, their emotions were palpable. Can a game make a difference? Community golf can.

Reflecting back on this pilot program, all parties have ideas for how it can be improved going forward, and they are unanimous in their desire to see it do so in 2020 and beyond. “This was a good beginning,” said Peter. “Now we see what’s needed to keep it going, to make access happen.” Given that almost half of the first class of kids intend to stick with the game, there is good reason to press on. “We want to expand and include girls next time, and I will be recruiting my friends and teammates to pitch in,” Thomas strategized. “Perhaps we can turn it into something that gets passed down.”

Like many forms of sport or recreation, golf has the inherent ability to bring people together who wouldn’t normally mix. The club, ball and hole ahead don’t care if you are young or old, male or female, black or white. The challenge is the same for all. Get that little ball in that little hole and you are automatically bound to all the other players who have experienced the same joy of accomplishment. Unfortunately, barriers to entry to the game do exist, and that is what makes this story so impactful. Ultimately, it is about more than the game. It is about what it really takes to break down barriers. It is true that without Thomas Haller, this camp wouldn’t have happened. It is also true that with only Thomas Haller, this camp, and the greater good it produced, wouldn’t have happened. To create change and make a positive impact, the community must come together and act, as they did with Thomas’s idea. Not easy, but possible. Kelly summed it up best, “It’s way more complicated than people think, but it ended up perfect.”

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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THE WELCOME MAT IS OUT AT AIKEN

A look at what makes the McNair family’s Aiken Golf Club a place that any geek would love to call home

A knock against golf in America is that it is unwelcoming. The game itself is intimidating for beginners. Just getting the ball airborne and ultimately into the hole is hard enough, but there are also a gaggle of rules and customs which must be learned to fit in among those who are in the know. Add to those dynamics the socio-economic and gender exclusivity of certain clubs, and the game does not exude a vibe of open arms for the newcomer. Initiatives have popped up with the intent of changing perceptions and bringing more people in, and some are as effective as their flashy marketing would lead you to believe. There are certain clubs and courses, however, where a welcoming spirit comes naturally. Making players of all ages, genders and skill levels feel at home so that they can enjoy the game is their purpose. Aiken Golf Club is one of those places.

Adapt or Die

Use the term “sandhills” and the minds of most golf geeks will likely go to Nebraska. The O.G. of sandhills golf is in the Carolinas though. To be more specific for the cartographically inclined, drop a pin on Ohoopee Match Club in Georgia and then draw an arc northeast up through Augusta (GA), Aiken (SC), Pinehurst (NC), into southern Virginia and you have charted a path through an entire region ideal for building golf courses. Along the edge of a vast coastal plain, gently rolling hills of sand, clay and minerals were built up through thousands of years of rising and falling seas, as the geological processes of erosion and deposition played out.

Zooming in on the Augusta/Aiken area, it turns out that Bobby Jones and Dr. Alister MacKenzie weren’t the only designers to recognize the potential and plant their stakes in the ground. Donald Ross was also active in those parts and in 1912, he and his associate J.R. Ingles routed and built the course that would ultimately become Aiken Golf Club. A long and winding road began there and then, with ups and downs and necessary adaptations along the way.

The course was originally a companion to a popular hotel-resort, until the Depression hit. It then became a muni owned by the city of Aiken. In 1959, long-time golf professional James McNair fulfilled a dream by purchasing the course, changing it yet again to a private club. It thrived through the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, but by 1995 Aiken Golf Club had again fallen on hard times. James’s son Jim was running the club and in an interview with Andy Johnson on The Fried Egg podcast, shared the story of reaching his breaking point. “Our course started to really show its age,” he recounted. “We had to do something drastic. I’ll never forget that day…I was exhausted. I worked 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week. I walked in and I cried…(My father) said, ‘Son, What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘We have two options. We can either sell it and walk away, or we have to completely redo the golf course.’”

Thankfully, the family opted to go the renovation route. Over the next four years, Jim McNair and three members of his grounds staff would rework every element of the course except the routing, using the guiding principle “What would J.R. Ingles do?” as they went along. The course reopened in 2000 in the form that players find today, although some tinkering continues. The club has changed to a semi-private model, welcoming guest play. “We want to be accessible,” explained McNair. “We want people to come and enjoy the golf course…We want to be inclusive, not exclusive.”

There is a clear tone of gratitude in Jim McNair’s voice as he talks about his family’s course. It’s the depth of earnestness shared by those who have been through a near-death experience, but now live on. “Why the Aiken Golf Club is still here after 106 years is the fact that we have been able to adapt, and we have our own niche,” he reflected. “It may be a small niche, but it’s the history, the routing, it’s walkable…It’s just a charming, quaint golf course with a lot of character.” As the family enters its seventh decade of ownership, the club and course are as healthy as they’ve been since Ross and Ingles walked the grounds.

The Course

A professor from the University of Georgia at Athens, an architect from Charlotte, a high school golfer from Evanston and his geek dad convened at Aiken for a memorable winter day. The first loop around was characterized by joyful surprise that this course—with its gorgeous topography, varied hazards and playful greens—even exists. The second loop was spent hitting fun shots while wondering how much better the game would be if every community had a course this good. In between the two rounds was an attempt to pay for the replay at which point we were informed that the $25 walking rate was good for the whole day.

Jim McNair summed our feelings perfectly. “I have a love affair with every hole, because of what went in to each hole,” he mused. “Each hole is so different, yet they all blend together, and they roll you through this crazy ride.” Indeed. Let’s take a quick look at that crazy ride.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

Aiken opens with a short par-4 over undulating ground that culminates with an elevated green which is connected to the 17th. If ever there was a tone-setter, this is it. The 2nd then plays gently downhill and to the right to a large green set in a hollow.

The next stretch of holes amps up the creativity of hazards and greens and embodies the integration of the course with its surroundings. Train tracks next to the 3rd green, a street crossing after the 5th, and the homes near the 6th and 7th are all facets of the unique Aiken experience.

After another road crossing and a quick stop for homemade bread at the snack shack, players then enter a more spacious section of the property to take on the 8th through the 14th. The course’s two par-5s work over these hills in dramatic fashion, and two tough Ross par-3s also lie in wait.

The closing stretch is no letdown. The green at the short par-4 15th is all-world. The par-3 16th is a downhill stunner. The par-4 17th plays back up to that wild double green, which makes just as big of an impression upon the second visit. And finally, the round is topped off with a one-shot home hole with the clubhouse as a backdrop. It is sublime.

No Tricks, Just Great Golf

As my son Jack and I wrapped up our inaugural visit to Aiken, we noticed a young guy practicing on the club’s putting course. This was no casual putt-putt session—he was clearly serious, and good. We were caught a bit off guard as that same guy walked up to us in the parking lot, hand extended. “I’m George. Heard you were coming and just wanted to say hello and thanks.” It took a moment to register with me that he was George Bryan of Bryan Brothers Golf fame. As we chatted, it became apparent that he shared our love of the course and he delivered us a final helping of Aiken hospitality. Jack and I headed off to the airport in Atlanta, and I couldn’t wait to tell my nine year old Henry that I had met one of the Bryan Bros. The more I thought about the encounter though, the more it made me wonder what he was doing there. A follow-up was in order.

The Bryans hail from Columbia and both played golf for the University of South Carolina. They caught lightning in a bottle with their trick shot videos, but their shared dream was always to make the PGA Tour. Wesley has fulfilled that dream, notching his first victory. George is still working his way up through the ranks of the feeder tours and currently calls Aiken home. “I was looking for a place to play and work on my game during the peak of the Bryan Brothers,” he shared. “Jim let me use his facilities when other clubs turned me away.”

George was grateful for the McNair welcome, and ecstatic about the quality of the course. “It helps you get good at approaches, short game, scoring and going low,” he gushed. “Aiken is refreshingly different than the courses we normally play on tour.” He is now an honorary member at neighboring Palmetto Golf Club, but still spends most of his time at Aiken. In an attempt to repay Jim McNair’s kindness, he has deputized himself to be the club’s ambassador, including telling the story on social media. A vibe this special needs to be shared.

There are those who lament the effect that modern media is having on the golf landscape. “Tis the death of the hidden gem!,” they cry. They go on to wring their hands about groupthink abstractions, and the impact it’s having on design. To the owner-operators of publicly accessible golf courses in America and beyond, this coffee house debate misses the point of what they work so hard every day to accomplish. Their blood, sweat and tears go into providing interesting and fun places for us the play the game we all love, while hopefully remaining a viable business for their families and communities. To find some nebulous overexposure downside in a visit from Matt Ginella or Erik Anders Lang would be an overthought distraction from their purpose of welcoming golfers and reconnecting them to the joy of the game.

For this geek, the media serves no greater purpose than to point people in the direction of good folks like the McNairs, who have great courses like Aiken Golf Club. Put simply by Jim McNair, “We feel fortunate to be able to offer this to golfers…We welcome you. We’d love to have you here.”

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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SUNSET SPECTACULAR AT ARCADIA BLUFFS

How to experience the magic of twilight golf on the water at the Warren Henderson designed Arcadia Bluffs

Who doesn’t love chasing the sun on a golf course? As the golden hour gives way to the gloaming, the game’s most magical moments have a way of materializing. Add to that time of day a large body of water, and goose bumps rise on a golfer’s arms. In the States, with a few exceptions, that special combination of course, sea and sunset can only be found at those “single name” courses—Pebble, Bandon, Cypress, Chambers, Torrey. Here in the Midwest, we have one such course of our own, and it belongs in the same conversation in its ability to stir sun-chasers’ souls—Arcadia.

Lest I be labeled a superficial hypocrite, a few points to reiterate and clarify. As a rule, resort golf is not my cup of tea, especially when played in carts. It takes too long for my taste due to players using the wrong tees relative to their skill level, and general sight-seeing. I’ve run the gamut from blasting this glacial pace to finally coming to terms with it while playing at another notable course on the other side of Lake Michigan. Personal preferences aside, I still recommend these places for those who have the money and patience. They are indeed neat experiences.

If I don my architecture hat, I can understand why the Bluffs Course at Arcadia receives criticism. The course was the first big opportunity for Warren Henderson to showcase his skills, and not surprisingly, it is overdone in certain regards. For example, the decision to build giant revetted bunkers was bold and the results are striking. The choice to distract from those distinctive (for America) hazards by also including blow-outs and large sandy wastes was unfortunate. From a strategic perspective, there are a handful of holes that have me scratching my head and one that causes me to pull my hair out, but the bulk are quite good with a few standouts like the 3rd, 8th, 12th and 15th mixed in.

My criticisms of the course likely preclude me from ever being a corporate spokesperson or comped guest, and my praise probably makes the purists cringe. No worries here as I’m happy to be a paying customer who enjoys the challenge of Henderson’s design and the playing conditions delivered by Director of Agronomy Jim Bluck and his crew. I’m grateful to owner Rich Postma for having the vision and determination to create a golf course in this spectacular setting.

The GeekedOnGolf Twilight Loop

The foregoing matters having been settled, let’s return to those sunsets and an insider’s tip. There is a way to experience the magic of Arcadia without breaking the bank or taking up half a day. It can be done at any time of the year, but works best at non-peak times. It is called the GoG Twilight Loop, and for those players who have an adventurous spirit, it is nearly guaranteed to deliver lasting memories. Two prerequisites must be put on the table before proceeding:

First, to do this Loop, you have to walk and the walk is not easy. There will be moments when you might feel like you’ve entered the Olympic biathlon. You will catch your breath, and I promise that the exertion is worth it.

Second, you have to be patient and courteous. In the late afternoon and early evening, Arcadia Bluffs gets a bit chaotic with groups doing replays and the twilight crowd coming out. Everyone understandably wants to get in as much golf as possible and you might bump into a group or two. Go with the flow.

If you’re still with me, let’s begin with the objective. You want to be on the 12th hole, which runs along the bluff above Lake Michigan, when the sun is setting. Arrive at the course approximately two hours before sunset and pay the 9-hole green fee. I have developed a routing that will get you where you need to be by just the right time.

Head to the first tee and follow the map. There is a bit of dune hiking involved, but you’ll find that the path ahead is typically intuitive. The tour below will whet your appetite with a taste of the holes in the Loop.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

The opening holes at Arcadia Bluffs lead east away from the clubhouse, brilliantly producing anticipation of the lake views to come. The par-5 1st swings right around a hillside and can be reached in two by longer hitters. Sod wall bunkers flank the fairway left and front the large green, offering players an initial impression of the bold style to come. The 2nd is a mid-length three par that plays over a large sandy waste to a tiered green in the shadow of the course’s lone specimen tree.

After heading up a hill to the highest point on the property, Arcadia’s first jaw-dropping reveal awaits on the 3rd tee. The course’s second par-5 is the most strategic, with three bunkers angling across the fairway inviting players to test their tolerance for risk on the approach. The table-top putting surface makes positioning crucial. The two-shot 4th continues the trip downhill to a large punchbowl green which injects a solid dose of fun.

Instead of continuing on to the 5th, our twilight routing doubles back with the uphill 7th. This four-par is straightforward tee to green, but features a large putting surface that is canted and subtly contoured. Cutting across the road, players then take on the fantastic lay-of-the-land 8th with its enormous centerline bunker. Left off the tee yields the better angle, but right shortens the approach into the elevated green. Solid strategic design.

After following the path to the tee on the 9th, the GoG Loop next goes into billy goat mode to cut over to the back tee on the par-5 11th. The drive is semi-blind to a wild fairway that tumbles down a valley to a green set on the bluff. Players next climb the steps to ascend a dune to another great reveal at the 12th tee. From this vantage point, the Lake Michigan coast stretches north for miles. It is stunning. The hole itself is also no slouch, requiring a tee shot over rugged terrain to an angled fairway. The 12th green is fronted by a large bunker with infinity beyond.

Stop here to feel the wind blow and take in the full beauty of the sunset. If you are lucky, Mr. Postma will cue the bagpiper to play you a tune that floats down the hill like an irish mist. The 18th hole is your route home, with a moon rise in the distance and happy golfers conversing over cocktails on the lawn above.

Northern Michigan is a long way to travel to only play nine holes, so to make a day of it, one final insider’s tip. Set aside a full day. Get one of the first tee times at the South Course at Arcadia Bluffs. The course is very walkable. Grab a quick lunch and then head over to Champion Hill for some home spun cart golf. If you book close to or between the Memorial Day or Labor Day holidays, you should have plenty of time left over to execute the plan above for the perfect end to an epic golf day. Post your sunset spectacular photos and tag me so that I know who deserves respect for completing the adventure. Enjoy!

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf