Saturday, September 17, 2011

Champion Hills

            Have you ever had a small sampler of an amazing piece of food, but it just wasn’t quite enough and you weren’t able to get more? Two years ago, I walked the back 9 at Champion Hills in Hendersonville, NC. I was watching friends play during a junior tournament. It served as a little teaser, which made me long to see the whole course and play it for myself. In the following two years, a few chances came and went to play the Tom Fazio design, but I never pulled the trigger on driving down. When another chance was offered up, I didn’t hesitate in saying yes. In addition, fall in Western North Carolina is hard to beat. A nice breeze accompanied by upper 70’s temperatures and sunshine can be had nearly every day. My round was no exception to this weather. With time running out before heading back to St Andrews and the weather being perfect, I made the drive, and don’t regret it for one minute.
            I met the club professional from Champion Hills while he was in Scotland leading a golf trip of talented juniors around the British Isles. I was able to join him for a round at Elie Golf Club and a friendship began. He encouraged me to come down to Champion Hills and play during the summer when the course would be in prime shape. I realized that he had done me a favor when I was told my tee time was on the day of their Men’s Club Championship. The course was in prime shape with manicured fairways and greens running fast and true.

            Champion Hills was ranked #5 in North Carolina in Golf Digest’s Best Courses list. It was beaten out by the likes of Wade Hampton and Pinehurst #2. This ranking alone speaks to the strength of the course.
Stunning first hole

            The first hole at Champion Hills sets the tone for the round: Gorgeous, picturesque holes with elevated tee boxes and lush fairways cut into the valleys below. There are fourteen of these downhill holes on the course. Fazio makes use of the contour of the land in his design (as seen in the par 5 third hole pictured below). There were at least six holes on the front nine, which could have served as the course’s signature hole. The surrounding mountains provide an impressive backdrop for nearly every tee shot.

            The ninth hole at Champion Hills is a roughly 185-yard par 3 with a massive elevation drop from tee to green. Having never played the course, judging clubs and distance changes was challenging, but the local knowledge feature added to the experience.
View from the 9th tee box

View of the 9th showing the impressive elevation change

            Fazio has been quoted saying, “It looks hard but plays easy.” With five sets of tees at the course, it can play as easy or difficult as the golfer chooses. I played the course from the tips, with the final day Club Champs pine placements, and it provided me with plenty of challenge. This quote from Fazio speaks to the entire philosophy of the club along with the cross-section of people who would be living at or playing Champion Hills on a consistent basis. The Champion Hills clientele is made up mainly of early 60’s retirees.
            The clubhouse at Champion Hills is very impressive. There is a healthy balance between monstrous clubhouses and a small shanty with a pro shop. This clubhouse tastefully meets that balance. A large bar area included a large buffet style lunch during my visit. There is also a “formal” dining room along with everything else that would be expected in a high level golf club. The locker room was spacious and I imagine would have scored a respectably high PowerShower rating. To top off the clubhouse experience, large windows provide a panoramic view of the gorgeous North Carolina mountains.
Par 3 11th hole
            I owe the professional at Champion Hills for his hospitality and generosity during my visit to the course. The Fazio designed course is very strong and the overall experience of Champion Hills leaves very little to be desired. It isn’t the first club I would try to join in Western North Carolina at this point in my life, but I’ll never turn down another opportunity to play the course.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pine Valley (September 2011)

            The feeling of playing Pine Valley will be tough to beat. Passing the security gate, a new world is entered. It is a unique world where golf is the main and only focus. The Pine Valley history book in the pro shop calls it “A Unique Haven of the Game.” It is a common thread found in most write-ups about Pine Valley: the club has no frills or unnecessary features. Golf is the goal, and they do it right! (The #1 in the World ranking speaks strongly) 

The weekend of my Pine Valley round included 25 hours of driving, which covered 1420 miles.  On the day of the round, I felt like a kid waking up on Christmas morning. It was a fifteen-minute drive to the course, so I naturally planned on the drive taking an hour. No amount of traffic or car troubles would keep me from being on time. After the drive only took twelve minutes, I sat in a CVS parking lot trying to control my hyperventilation and butterflies. I still hadn’t quite settled down when I pulled up to the Pine Valley gate, but things got much better once the attendant checked my name off the list.
I was able to drive my car all the way to the south end of the driving range where I met the member who would be hosting me for the round. The range at Pine Valley is very impressive. It is double-sided and as large as an entire golf course in itself. After warming up and getting fairly loose on the dreamlike expanse of a range, we headed back toward the clubhouse and first tee to begin what would be one of the most enjoyable rounds I’ve ever played.

George Crump designed Pine Valley and it was his only design. He passed away before the completion of the 12th-15th holes, but, on account of his meticulous design notes, those holes were completed just as he had envisioned them.  The cost of construction of the course and clubhouse was $100,000. The original 250 memberships sold for $100 each. The good old days!  For the remaining $75,000, bonds were issued and members were urged to subscribe.  One member purchased $50,000 worth of the bonds: presumably, George Crump, himself. (Talk about having trust in your creation!)  The Pine Valley history book speaks extensively on these beginning days of the course.
I won’t get into the specific shot-by-shot aspects of the round. That being said, I do want to highlight birdies of mine on the 3rd, 4th, and 7th holes. Keep in mind (or look at the photo of the scorecard), the 7th hole is the #1 handicap hole. It is also the hole that features the infamous “Hell’s Half Acre,” which is an expanse of sand and scrub that consumes golf balls as a child eats M&Ms. 

The par 3 10th has the famous “Devil’s Asshole” bunker guarding the front right portion of the green. During the round, I dropped a ball into the bunker just to see if I would be able to get out. I have learned to hit out of many deep bunkers, including, on a nearly weekly basis, the cavernous Road Hole Bunker on the Old Course. No matter how well I struck the ball in this bunker, it was not coming out. That darn bunker is the deepest small trap I have ever encountered. It’s the combination of small size and extreme depth that makes it so difficult. I couldn’t get out after multiple swings. Eventually, the member and my caddie, who had been chuckling  at my futile efforts, tossed me a hybrid and told me to swing away. Running the ball up the face with a low lofted club was one of the few ways, which I would never have considered, to get out. Gotta love some local knowledge!         

Par 3 10th Hole. Devil's Asshole front right -
I bogeyed the 17th hole and parred the 18th to finish with a +5 75. I played solid golf and was able to get around in a respectable fashion. In order to score well at Pine Valley, you have to hit fairways. They are large! If the golfer misses the fairway, a price is to be paid. I only missed three during my round. I made 3 doubles on those holes. A section out of the Pine Valley history book, which is sold in the pro shop, describes the course best: “The inspiring principle of Pine Valley’s design is simplicity in itself: the island. The tee is an island. The fairway, almost 50-55 yards wide in the tee-shot landing area, is also an island (or two). So is the green. Each of these isolated plots is virtually surrounded by sand, scrub, dense woods, sometimes water, sometimes severe slopes, a vast no-man’s land, as it were of potentially unplayable lies. And woes betide the man who… fails to put in consistently at a safe harbor. The penalty ranges from double bogey to incalculable.”

My caddie for the round was a friend of mine with whom I have played golf on the Old Course. He balanced helpful advice and knowledge of the course masterfully against trust in my own personal knowledge of my golf game. Thank you, Joe, for helping me get around the course in 75 strokes!

Short Course:

            After our round on the “Big Course,” we made our way off the green and my host asked, “Graylyn, are you in a hurry to get anywhere this afternoon?” After momentarily weighing my alternative of an afternoon sitting in a hotel room, I  calmly responded that I was free. He asked if I wanted to play the ten holes of the Short Course after a pint or two in the clubhouse. I couldn’t have pictured a better way to follow up an amazing round. 

            The Short Course at Pine Valley was built in 1992 and it consists of ten holes, eight of which are based off holes on the big course (2, 3, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 are copied). These holes replicate approach shots a golfer would find on the Big Course. The other two holes are original designs: one done by Tom Fazio (a Pine Valley club member) and the other done by a member named Ernie Ransome, who originally developed the idea for the Short Course. Ransome, an involved member for over 50 years, served as club president from 1977 until 1988. The Short Course has its own head greens keeper and is in perfect shape, just like the big course.
            Only a few of the copied holes are identical.  One nearly identical hole is the first hole, which is modeled off the tenth hole on the big course. The elevation change from the tee to green is within a foot of the full tenth hole. Ransome was quoted saying, “I always said I would never build a second course at Pine Valley to compete with the original, but I did get the idea of doing this, and thought it would be nice to duplicate some of the original holes. Tom took it from there and did a wonderful job.” Ransome’s idea was to offer the members a way to practice approach shots that could be found on the course in a competitive and interesting manner.
            Playing the Short Course was an almost eerie experience on account of how closely certain holes matched their original course counterparts. While standing on the green of the hole copying the 13th, I noticed that everything in my view matched the same hole on the big course, including the positioning and species of the trees lining the fairway. The Short course was the cherry on top of an amazing day. I appreciated the member taking the time to play the course with me as well as sharing a lot of Pine Valley history.
            Ransome followed the legendary John Arthur Brown as president, the member who ruled the club for half a century as a dictator-type figure. Brown ran Pine Valley in much the same fashion Clifford Roberts ran Augusta National: a committee of one. Ransome has a scholarship established for students attending the University of St Andrews. Based on his amazing golfing knowledge and connection to my University, he is a favorite of mine!

          I don’t know how many more times I will be able to play Pine Valley. If I never play it again, my only round there will have been incredible and nearly perfect. The entire experience was something I’ll never forget and if I ever go back, I doubt the greatness will have changed one bit.