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LIVES IN BALANCE

Three men’s connection to the Onwentsia Club, and their shared path to excellence in golf and life

Deep in the hearts of many men and women is the desire to do great things, and perhaps even leave a legacy. The obvious path to achievement is characterized by singleness of purpose and the willingness to trudge along until arriving at the destination. Less intuitive is the approach of allowing the well-rounded and enthusiastic life to produce excellence organically. Renaissance men have made their mark on the game of golf in America. Macdonald, Tillinghast, Jones, Hagen, Nelson and others, each in their own way, lived life to the fullest, making room for much more than just golf, or a particular aspect of it. Their varied interests in no way detracted from their performance and accomplishments.

The past two years have seen a healthy discussion arise among golf course superintendents about the interrelation between career success and life balance. The path of singular focus and dedication can lead to greatness, but it can also end in burnout. These professionals, who care deeply about their work, are wrestling with conceiving of a practical answer to a nagging question: How can we deliver results of which we can be proud, and still have healthy and vibrant lives off the course?

Among those involved in rediscovering the path of varied interests is family man, photographer and Superintendent at the Onwentsia Club, Scott Vincent. Serendipitously, he finds himself at the original family club, whose golf course was influenced by two of the game’s early bon vivants, Charles Blair Macdonald and his son-in-law Henry James Whigham.

As we seek to unpack and contextualize this weighty topic, Scott (@srvpix) has graciously shared his story and his gorgeous photography, which is presented here in three sets:

  • SET 1: Onwentsia from the Players’ Perspective
  • SET 2: The Course through Greenkeeper’s Eyes
  • SET 3: Magic Moments Away from the Job

The images are inspiring for golf geeks and lovers of beauty alike (click on any gallery image below to expand).

American Beginnings

New York, with its Apple Tree Gang and Long Island Clubs, is generally considered to be the birthplace of golf in America. However, the game’s roots run equally deep in Chicago. C.B. Macdonald left the Windy City to live with his grandfather and study at the University of St. Andrews in the early 1870s. The magic of the town, The Old Course and the Morris family cast a spell on the young man, who chased his ball around the links during every available moment. Macdonald returned to the States and suffered through a period he referred to as the “dark ages” during which he had difficulty convincing anyone to join him in his newfound pastime.

The run-up to the Columbian Exposition in 1893 created an opportunity for golf to take hold in Chicago. Seeking to create a playing field for visiting Brits, Macdonald found a site on the North Shore. He recounted the story in his book, Scotland’s Gift—Golf: “Then my friend, Hobart Chatfield-Taylor, knowing that I was a golf enthusiast, asked me if I wouldn’t lay out a few holes on the estate of his father-in-law, Senator John B. Farwell, at Lake Forest, which I did in May or June, 1892. There were seven holes, not one of which was over 250 yards long and at least four not more than 50 to 75 yards long, running under the trees of the lawn and between flower beds. Of course, this was not real golf, any more than the course of the “Apple Tree Gang” at Yonkers. However, it gave Lake Forest an idea of what golf might be, and this eventually bore fruit in the formation of the Onwentsia Club.”

Macdonald was concurrently laying out his own rudimentary course in Belmont and forming the Chicago Golf Club from among his curious friends and business colleagues. Both clubs continued to evolve in stride. “In 1894 they started the Lake Forest Golf Club with nine holes on the McCormick farm,” he wrote. “There they played until 1896, when they bought the farm of Henry Ives Cobb where they first had nine holes and then eighteen which H.J. Whigham laid out for them in 1898. The club then took its charter, and it was called Onwentsia Club. In July 1899, the United States Golf Association amateur championship was held on this course.”

While Macdonald maintained his connections to his fellow golfers in Lake Forest, his attention shifted to growing the Chicago Golf Club, first in Belmont and ultimately in Wheaton. This new club would also play a prominent role in the formation of the governing body that would come to be known as the USGA. As a contemporary club, Onwentsia could have similarly asserted itself among the game’s early leadership, going all in on the tradition-based growth of golf in America. The club’s members took a different path, choosing to focus inward on developing strong bonds among the members as they indulged their shared passion for sport.

Charlie & Henry

C.B. Macdonald’s influence on golf was as great as any man’s in history. He was a capable competitive amateur on the national stage, a prolific writer and champion of the game’s Sottish heritage, and a course design genius. The fact remains though that had he so chosen, he could have accomplished even more. He began turning down invitations to compete as soon as he felt his skills were slipping. And even more notably, after developing his “ideal concepts” approach to design and creating early masterpieces of golf course architecture in America—National Golf Links of America, Piping Rock, Sleepy Hollow, The Lido Club, St. Louis Country Club and Mid Ocean—he stepped back and handed the practice to his protege Seth Raynor. Macdonald preferred to spend time with family, and on the links playing friendly matches with friends. He just wanted to be Charlie.

When she married H.J. Whigham, C.B.’s daughter Frances could not have made a more suitable addition to clan Macdonald. The Whighams hailed from Tarbolton, Scotland and H.J.’s father David was a classmate and frequent golf partner of C.B. Macdonald at St. Andrews. Henry James learned the game from renowned Scottish professional Willie Campbell and was already an accomplished player when he was invited to travel to the United States to demonstrate his skills at the Columbian Exposition.

This first taste of American life prompted Whigham to relocate in 1895, and he took a job at Lake Forest College, teaching English and Economics, while playing golf at Onwentsia whenever his busy schedule as a writer and lecturer allowed. He won the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1896 at Shinnecock Hills and successfully defended his title in 1897 at Chicago Golf Club, establishing himself as the premier amateur player of the day. There was more to life than golf for Whigham though. He was a man of letters and had an intense curiosity about the world.

Whigham would not try for a three-peat, preferring to become a war correspondent covering the Spanish-American War in Cuba, the Boer War in South Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. Global adventures finally concluded, he found himself on Long Island in 1907, assisting C.B. Macdonald in his quest to create the ideal golf links in Southampton. Unlike Macdonald’s other collaborator Seth Raynor, Whigham would not develop a career as an architect. He continued to write, but high profile pursuits in golf were not for him. Being Henry was apparently good enough.

Twice a Year

Performance in most professions is judged based on victories. In others, like NFL linemen and golf course superintendents, success seems to be linked to the absence of defeats. Players are mostly to blame for this dynamic. As we do with our own games, we tend to focus on what went wrong rather than what went right. The day’s round could have been better, if only…and we turn that critical eye to the course. It’s in good shape, except the speed of the greens, or that dandelion in a bunker face, or that wet spot in the fairway, or the depth of sand in the bunkers…on and on, ad nauseam. Unfortunately, superintendents too often get infected by this obsession with shortcomings. “We have short memories about how far we’ve already come,” Scott Vincent confessed.

Vincent has been in the business of greenkeeping for 25 years, with one side foray during which he scratched an entrepreneurial itch in a technology start-up. Perhaps the look at a different industry gave him the perspective to better stay in touch with the aspects of his job that bring him joy—coaching a team, directing an organization from the office and the field, and as he puts it, “managing a living product under the ever-changing conditions of the seasons, weather, member expectations and my own goals.”

With a resume that includes new course construction and grow-in, as well as time spent at Myopia Hunt Club, New Haven C.C. and Skokie C.C., he is accomplished in his own right. Eleven years into his tenure at Onwentsia, Vincent has found the right fit. “I am challenged every day,” he explained. “If I provide a product that members and guests like, within the budget, they let me do my job.” The membership trusts their man because he consistently strikes an elegant balance—everything is done, and nothing is overdone. He collaborates with architect Bruce Hepner to push the course presentation forward, but they are not trying to transform Onwentsia into something it is not. In that authenticity lies its greatness, and the deep affinity held by the members for their course.

In his work, camaraderie with fellow superintendents helps keep Vincent grounded and inspired. “I love participating in this highly connected subculture of supers, pros and other golf geeks,” he said. Life outside of work is equally energizing, with his beautiful family, his faith and his passion for photography. “My dad was a 35 mm junkie,” he reminisced. “He developed his own film at home and bought me my first camera.” Capturing special moments comes naturally to Vincent, but the quality of his images is equally resultant from effort. The current frontier involves stringing moments together into a cohesive narrative. Like greenkeeping and fatherhood, there is alway something to learn and practice in photography.

“We’re only happy twice a year,” said Vincent, conveying an old superintendents’ witticism, “for the member-guest, and when we shut off the irrigation for the season.” There is truth in that humor, but in his experience, Scott Vincent knows that it doesn’t have to be that way. His professionalism precludes calling anyone out, but any self-aware golfer knows that we can do better at adopting an attitude of gratitude and saying “thank you” more often to the dedicated men and women who tend our playing fields. Among their ranks, supers are being increasingly open about their struggles and supporting each other, especially as it relates to unplugging from the job. An awareness is growing of the diminishing returns gained by effort and resources expended beyond the point of reasonableness.

Could Macdonald have built more great courses? Could Whigham have captured more championships? Could Scott Vincent, with all his talent, get an even bigger Superintendent job? It is entirely reasonable to answer all three of these questions in the affirmative. It does not necessarily follow, however, that any of these men’s lives would have been better, or that their achievements are somehow lessened by their decisions to give time to friends, family or creative hobbies. Onwentsia was born in part from one of American golf’s first families, and a family club uninterested in chasing acclaim it remains. The perfect spot for a family man like Scott Vincent, whose quality of work is attained through life balance, rather than in spite of it.

Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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As Good As It Gets – Lost Dunes & The Dunes Club

Last season, I screwed up royally.  I have access to Lost Dunes, the Tom Doak gem in SW Michigan, and I did not go.  Pathetic, I know.

Determined not to make the same mistake twice, I wrangled two Superintendent homies, Scott Vincent (Onwentsia) and Brian Palmer (Shoreacres) for a spring outing.  And since we were in the mood for adventure, we also lined up The Dunes Club (thank you Michael).  If one outstanding course is good, two in a day must be great.

We set off before sunrise, and returned well after sunset.  Everything in between was pure golfy joy.

Scott and I both love to take photos (and Brian calls us a couple of Wangs).  I take a lot of photos in the hope of getting a few good ones.  Scott is a legitimate stud photographer (follow him on Instagram @srvpix), and he has graciously given me some of his photos to add to mine and share.  Before the course photos and commentary, a thought or two about the trip.

As you know from my previous posts, Desert Days and A 1,537 Mile Drive, I do not hesitate to hit the road solo on golf adventure.  I enjoy the solitude of the open road and an empty golf course.  As I grow older in the game, I find it much more satisfying to share these experiences with fellow geeks.  It is invigorating to riff on architecture, travel, music, family, business, and I everything else I find interesting.  It is a blast to celebrate the good shots and rib each other for the clunkers.  It fills me with gratitude to spend time in the company of kindred spirits.

Scott and Brian are genuinely good dudes and they are certainly kindred geek spirits.  Their company was a gift, and made what would have been a good day into one that is as good as it gets.

Now, Lost Dunes and The Dunes Club.


LOST DUNES

Tom Doak rightly gets accolades for Pacific Dunes and his subsequent courses.  Lost Dunes may be under the radar for the masses, but folks who have played it repeatedly appreciate it at multiple levels.  I count myself among those who consider it among my favorites in modern architecture.  It is creative, beautiful, strategic and challenging.  From the first tee until the 18th green, there is no point at which a player can afford to take a mental holiday.

The club straddles I-94, and always tugs at my heart strings when I drive back and forth from Northern Michigan.  Every time my itinerary involves stopping for a play, my love of Lost Dunes is renewed.

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(click on images to enlarge)

#1 – Par 4

Lost Dunes opens with a short 4 playing over the entry road from the tee.  After hitting the green, the player gets a taste of what’s to come – a green with contours that produces 3-putts like the spring Canadian geese produce, well, you know…

LostDunes1-Greenabove.JPG

#2 – Par 4

This hole is my favorite on the outward nine, and illustrates the principles of strategic golf at its best.  Taking on the right side bunker from the tee yields the best position from which to go for a left pin.  The safer route down the left leaves the player with the option of playing short, on, or long of the green in two.

Every position presents its own challenges in getting down in two.  Par is a good score on this hole, which requires both thought and execution.

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#3 – Par 3

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#4 – Par 5

The first 5-par offers the player a multitude of routes to take on the drive, second, and approach.  There is no “right” way to play the hole, but it does require confidence to score.

#5 – Par 3

The second par-3 at Lost Dunes is just plain hard.  The wind whips across this exposed section of the property making hitting the green from 225-245 a feat.

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The left side mound can be used by the creative shot-maker, and provides ground-game excitement as a reward.

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#6 – Par 4

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#7 – Par 4

#8 – Par 5

Lost Dunes offers numerous thrills, not the least of which is the tee shot to the angled fairway on the par-5 8th.

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The corridor narrows on this 600+ yard brute as the green is approached.

#9 – Par 3

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#10 – Par 5

The back nine begins with the reachable par-5 tenth, which gives the player a first encounter with the large lake around which many of the best holes on the course play.

#11 – Par 4

The uphill 11th is my favorite hole on the course, and begins one of my favorite stretches of holes (#11 – #15) in all of golf.

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The green is brilliantly seated in a natural hollow in the dunes and is guarded by an enormous bunker short right.

#12 – Par 4

With a new tee higher up on the large dune that separates Lost Dunes from the highway, the tee shot on the par-4 12th is even more exciting.  Imagine a well struck shot rising against a blue sky and then gently falling to the fairway below.

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(photo by Scott Vincent)

This 390-yard hole packs plenty of challenge from tee to green.

#13 – Par 3

The setting and design of this par-3 bring to mind the 3rd at Crystal Downs, a source of inspiration for Tom Doak, and many other architects.

#14 – Par 4

The 14th features another one of Lost Dunes’s gorgeous, thrilling tee shots.

LostDunes14-Teezoom.JPG

This bunkerless hole lays upon the land and winds around the lake so beautifully, additional hazards are simply not necessary.

#15 – Par 5

Once again, Lost Dunes gives the player the option to decide how much risk they want to bite off.

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(photo by Scott Vincent)

The closer to the target line of the distant dune one plays, the greater the chance of getting home in two.

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(photo by Scott Vincent)

This roller coaster par-5 plays down and then back up hill to a well-defended green.

#16 – Par 3

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#17 – Par 4

Walking off the 16th green, the player re-enters the more wooded area of the property for the final stretch.

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Approach shots must be hit precisely into this green if they are to avoid the nasty bunker left.

#18 – Par 4

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The walk up the fairway of the par-4 18th toward the clubhouse elicits mixed feelings – joy for the wonderful golf experience, relief at surviving the challenge, sadness that it must come to an end.   Like all great architecture, Lost Dunes is evocative, and it leaves you wanting more.


THE DUNES CLUB

As Lost Dunes tests all facets of a player’s game, the Dunes Club is also a test.  It tests one’s ability to throw off the conventions of modern, American golf and reconnect with the pure joy that originally hooked each of us.  This private playground of the Keiser family and their fellow members could not be more graciously inviting, laid back, and fun.

It has been my good fortune to visit the Dunes Club for three straight years, and every time I return, it blows my mind.  Under the stewardship of the Keisers and consultation by Jim Urbina, the course continues to evolve for the better.  Proactive tree management and brush clearing have allowed more air flow and sunlight, which Superintendent Scott Goniwiecha has parlayed into ideal playing conditions for firm, fast, and fun golf.  Cleared areas are now being converted into artful sandy wastes featuring fescue and native vegetation.

It would be reasonable to say that the Dunes Club could not get any better, but the trend of the last several years indicates otherwise.

 

TheDunesClub-AerialJWSketch.jpeg

There are no tee markers at the Dunes Cub, and each hole has multiple teeing areas, often at drastically different angles.  Holes can be shortened or lengthened as players see fit.  Throw in contours, ground features, and hazards that encourage creative shot-making, and the only limitations to variety that exist at the Dunes Club are those in the players’ minds.

#1 – Par 4

The par-4 first illustrates the benefits of tree and brush clearing.  Width of the playing corridor off the tee has been restored, opening up different lines of play.  The hole is no less stout of an opener though.

DunesClub1-Approach

The first also gives an indication of the creativity of the bunkering and sandy waste areas throughout the course.  They are as beautiful as they are challenging.

DunesClub1-Greenback

#2 – Par 3

With two teeing areas at significantly different angles to the green, the second embodies variety.

#3 – Par 5

The third is separated into three islands, first by grassy mounding and then by a low waste area.  Only the longest hitters can reach in two – more often, it requires three precisely placed shots.  From the forward tees, it can also be played as a solid two-shotter with a fun tee shot to the center fairway section.

The area short of the green features a style of fescue clumping that is at once rugged and artistic.

DunesClub3-Approach-SV.jpg

#4 – Par 4

The fourth has always been my favorite hole on the course.  The dogleg left par-4 plays to a fairway sloped downward from left to right.  It requires a tee shot with a draw, or an extremely confident line down the left to get in the best position for the approach.

DunesClub4-Tee-SV.png

(photo by Scott Vincent)

The second shot is best played with a fade to access all pins, or the player can use the contours short and left to feed a running shot onto the green.

#5 – Par 4

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The only water hole on the course, the fifth features a beautifully sited green surrounded by wonderful contours.

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#6 – Par 3

The short 6th takes variety to another level with teeing areas at numerous lengths and angles.

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(Photo by Scott Vincent)

Recent rework to the green has also made it more playable.  Good shots are well received, and the green surrounds punish poor shots.

#7 – Par 4

The seventh is in the midst of one of the most dramatic transformations.  It is still a work in progress and I cannot wait to see how it turns out.

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This bunker complex that borders the left side of the fairway is one of the coolest that I have ever seen.

#8 – Par 5

The wild par-5 eight has elicited a love-hate relationship among players.  Ongoing tree work has returned options to the hole and made it more a test of strategy than just accuracy.

DunesClub8-Fairwaybunker-SV.jpg

(Photo by Scott Vincent)

The tee shot can be laid up short of the waste area.  Or for the bold, a route left into the 5th fairway shortens the hole and makes reaching in two a possibility.

Big and bold – there is nothing subtle about the 8th green complex.  This hole does not yield birdies easily.

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(Photo by Scott Vincent)

#9 – Par 4

This tough but fun, uphill par-4 can play anywhere from 425+ yards to 275.  Factor in wind and change of elevation and this relatively simple hole is packed with variety.

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An argument could be made that this bunker guarding the center of the green has become a bit out of style with the rest of the course as it has evolved, but I like it.  It is a throwback to the course’s roots, and taking it on adds one last thrilling exclamation point to each loop around the Dunes.

DunesClub9-Bunkershort.JPG

We played 22 total holes on this particular day, which meant that we got three cracks at the ninth.  We played it from the back tees the first time, and then the forward tees on the second and third.  Old Man Way, as I am affectionately known, delivered in fine fashion by driving the green twice in a row.  As we high-fived and laughed at the mild absurdity of it, I felt like a kid again.

That, to me, is what golf does at its best.  For short periods, it makes the world melt away and leaves only the joyful present moment.  Great golf courses naturally produce those moments, and at that level, there is no greater course of which I am aware than the Dunes Club.


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Copyright 2016 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf