I have had years in which I played more golf courses than I did in 2015, but this has to be near the top when it comes to quality of golf courses and great experiences. I was very fortunate.
For the year, I played 28 different courses in 10 states. No new states in 2015, so I have still played golf in 33 of the 50 states. Of the 28 courses, 15 of them — more than half — were courses that I had never played before.
I don’t know exactly how many rounds I played, but I posted 90 handicap scores. I certainly played more than that as I don’t always remember to post 9-hole rounds and quite possibly missed a couple of rounds
Pure Michigan: One of the highlights of the year was a great Michigan weekend that included single rounds at Orchard Lake and Crystal Downs and multiple rounds at the Kingsley Club.
Orchard Lake is a Colt and Allison design in suburban Detroit that was recently renovated by Keith Foster. I didn’t know a ton about the course before playing there and didn’t have the highest expectations, but was very impressed. It has a great flow, cool bunkering and some really cool greens. If it was in the Twin Cities, it would push for inclusion in the top five in the metro.
The next day was a great treat. Not only did we get to play Crystal Downs – No. 13 in the US according to Golf Digest and the No. 10 Classic course in the US according to Golfweek – we got to play with architect Mike DeVries, who worked at the club growing up and is a member. This was my first Alister MacKenzie golf course and only the second time I got to putt greens constructed by Perry Maxwell (who assisted on the design). When you look at the scorecard, you see it is only about 6500 yards and a par 70. How hard can it be to break 80 here? Well, on your first time around, it can be quite hard.
The greens are magnificent. I hit the green in regulation I believe on No. 5 and felt pretty good. I was basically pin high and had mentally written a par on the card. At that point, DeVries said, “you’re dead.” That was a bit of an exaggeration, but my first putt had probably 5 feet of break and I made a heck of a two putt just to save par. There were a number of holes where you absolutely couldn’t be above the pin because if you were long, the odds were decent that you could just tap the putt and end up off the green. There is a lot of defensive putting.
It was the kind of place where you walk off 18 and want to immediately go back to the first tee. We didn’t do that, but we did go to the outdoor area out outside of the main clubhouse and enjoyed some Michigan craft beer.
Kingsley – No. 18 on Golfweek’s list of US Modern golf courses – is one of those places where I had been interested in visiting for some time. Similar to clubs like Ballyneal, Kingsley is a place that has onsite lodging and very few local members. My friend Howard invited me and I planned some of my summer around this weekend. Kingsley is very cool, there are a bunch of great holes and there is the ability to be very creative. Sometimes the best play around the greens is to hit it several feet away from the hole and allow the earth to funnel the ball to the hole.
Kingsley is a very relaxed place. It never seems to be that busy, so you kind of play when you want to play and once you are there, you kind of have the run of the place. After playing Crystal Downs and getting some food, we went out for an emergency nine and raced the sun. It was a fun preview for the next two days and the highlight was nearly making an ace on the par 3 ninth hole in near darkness.
A return to Texas: Early in the year, I made a return trip to Texas. Between a winter trip there in 2012 and some work travel over the years, I’ve probably played in Texas five or six times in the past dozen years.
This year, I met some friends there for a long weekend of golf. After landing at IAH, we immediately drove to Champions Golf Club, which is known as the Houston club that is all about golf. We weren’t in the locker room – which is the center of activity there – for more than a few minutes before meeting club founder Jack Burke Jr., the winner of the 1956 Masters.
It was the start of four days of golf – albeit some of it in pretty cold weather – on some cool golf courses. Just as importantly, I was able to meet a bunch of cool guys who are also big dorks when it comes to golf course architecture and the game.
Alabama and The Masters: For the second year in a row, I organized a foursome of guys who spent a weekend playing golf in Alabama and then went to the Monday practice round at The Masters. We again played most of our golf and stayed at FarmLinks, a cool place about 45 minutes from Birmingham. The golf course is pretty interesting and the lodging/food combo is top notch. It is also not usually all that busy there, so pace of play is good and you feel like you own the place.
The Masters was The Masters. It is just such a cool place. If you are a golfer – or even just a sports fan – you should go. Practice round tickets can be won in the lottery (I’m living proof) and walking around the place is awesome. With my past life as a sportswriter, I saw a lot of cool things, but Augusta National is one of the small number of places that lives up to the hype.
Olympia Fields: I was very fortunate to be able to make multiple trips this year to Olympia Fields Country Club in suburban Chicago. It is a great place with two really good golf courses. The North is a Willie Park designed championship course that has hosted a number of majors and hosted the 2015 US Amateur. The South is a Bendelow design was redone about a decade ago by Steve Smyers. The greens are super – maybe the best set of 18 greens in Chicago – and there are some really cool holes. No. 6 is a tremendous short par 4 and some people say it is their favorite hole on the entire property.
All told, it’s a wonderful club with a great staff and a friendly membership. And with 36 holes, it is easy to get out. It’s just a cool place with a nice laid-back vibe.
A cool day in Indy: The quick summary goes like this: 18 holes on a really good Pete Dye design (Crooked Stick) in the morning; Skyline Chili for lunch; 18 holes on a Donald Ross design (Broadmoor) in the afternoon. It doesn’t get much better.
When work travel is awesome: I generally don’t mind work travel, but there are times when it can be a drag. There are other times when it leads to great experiences. I had two of those experiences this year on separate trips to Seattle.
The first trip was in mid- February. I was scheduled to fly to Seattle on a Tuesday morning and on Monday I checked the weather forcast there. It was going to be 60 degrees. I knew that if I busted my tail on Monday and worked into the evening, I could be in a spot where I could tee it up with only a little bit of guilt. So I flew to SEA, grabbed my rental car and then drove to Washington National, a decent Bob Cupp design about 25 or so minutes from the airport. It was great fun despite the course being in winter conditions (meaning softer than soft). It was unexpected, but it was a blast.
The second surprise was in June. I was going to spend time in both Seattle and Vancouver on the trip and I was going to drive between the two cities. When I looked at the dates – picked because they worked for my boss – I realized I was going to fly into Seattle on the Monday of US Open week at Chambers Bay. So I ended up booking the first flight out, I bought a cheap practice round ticket off of StubHub and spent much of the day checking out the course before driving up to Seattle. It was great fun that had be very much looking forward to the event that Jordan Spieth would eventually win.
The state of my game: I generally spend more time talking about where I play than how I play, but humor me for a moment. While my handicap actually went up a little bit this year, there were some signs of life. Among them:
– Winning the season-long match play at my club: Over the course of the summer, I won five matches and won the lower handicap division of the match play. While the matches are handicapped, I never got a shot. I had to give shots in four of the five matches and the other match was straight up. I was thrilled with how I played in these matches in part because I felt like I played with confidence and composure.
– A great round: On Father’s Day/US Open Sunday I played in the early afternoon with plans of heading home to watch the final round from Chambers Bay. While I pumped one out of bounds on the second hole, I made a couple of birdies and shot 37 on the front. On the back, I managed to birdie 10, 11 and 13 to get to 2-under and I was seriously out of my comfort zone. I quickly made bogey on 14 and found ways to save pars on both 15, 16 and 17. I stood on the 18th tee 1-under for the day and my goal was to make a par and finish under par. What happened? I drove it in the fairway, hit a good approach shot and made the birdie for 70. It was my lowest round ever at Midland and my lowest round overall in several years. To make six birdies in one round is pretty unheard of for me.
– A really good round at Olympia Fields. I played in a really strong group in June on the North course. I played with a buddy who has played in several Wisconsin amateurs, his friend a club pro and a guy who won multiple Wisconsin Ams and Opens before a stint as a mini-tour player. Somehow I managed to make a couple of birdies and – despite bogeys on 17 and 18 – shot 76. I was the low guy in the group. It was a casual round on a Sunday morning, but it still felt great. Now if I had only avoided limping in.
Fun MN golf: There was a great afternoon at White Bear, an evening at Edina, a weekend that included rounds at Midland, Windsong and T&C. I played in steady rain at Minikahda and Southview. I caught up with old friends at Mendakota and saw the new bunkers at Stillwater. I made a trip to St. Cloud to play with a friend just days before he had open heart surgery and can happily say that he’s doing great.
It was a great year with great friends on great golf courses. I feel very fortunate and am looking forward to 2016. .