I am working on a “Post Election Special” for the December issue of Home On The Course, our almost-monthly newsletter. I had been hoping that my research would show more and more golf communities surrounded by counties with a near-balance of red and blue voters. But so-called “purple” counties are still far and few between in the Southeast Region.
Because voting patterns are volatile one election to the next, the definition of a “purple” county must necessarily be broad. For example, nationwide there were 206 “pivot counties,” those that voted for Obama in both his elections and then for Trump in 2016. Based on that, they meet my definition of a “purple” county. (Note: Just because a county is “purple” doesn’t indicate that a specific golf community within it is the same color. Still, some golf communities, especially those in rural counties, comprise a large chunk of the local electorate.)
By definition, McCormick County, SC, a pivot county and home to the sprawling Savannah Lakes Village, is purple. It voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for President Trump in 2016. In this year’s election for Congressman in the district that comprises McCormick County, Republican Jeff Duncan garnered 67% of the vote. McCormick County results are not yet available for that race but the widespread and reliably Republican district includes such notable golf communities as the Cliffs communities at Lake Keowee, The Reserve at Lake Keowee and Keowee Key.
Chatham County surrounds The Landings on Skidaway Island, the 4,800-acre, six-golf-course community just 20 minutes from downtown Savannah, GA. The Landings is home to 8,000 residents, most of them full-time. Voters in Chatham County showed their independence by overwhelmingly throwing their support to Democratic candidate for Governor Stacey Abrams but also to Republican incumbent Congressman Buddy Carter, each with just under 60% of the votes.
You would think a rural county like Nelson in western Virginia might be deep red but, in fact, it is a shade of purple, depending on whether the election is for Congressman or Senator. In the race for Congress, the Republican won by about 53% to 47%, yet in the Senatorial election, the incumbent Democrat, Tim Kaine, earned 52% of the vote to 46% for his Republican opponent. You don’t get much more purple than that.
I’ll cover the election results relative to golf communities in the December edition of Home On The Course. To receive your emailed copy, free of charge, subscribe today: Click here.
Click here to sign up for our Free monthly newsletter, loaded with helpful information and observations about golf communities and their golf courses.
My home course in Pawleys Island, SC, was recently re-rated by the USGA. In the last few years, a few changes made the course marginally easier to play. And yet, from virtually all tee boxes, the course rating and slope ratings have remained substantially the same, or actually increased.
The significant tweaks in recent years at Pawleys Plantation were designed to reduce the time per round on the challenging layout. For example, two large live oak trees that shielded the right half of the green on the par 5 11th green about 80 yards in front are now gone, making a lay-up placement less of a daunting task and a shot at birdie more frequent. The acres of bunkers that line many of the fairways on the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course are now designated waste bunkers almost all the way to the green, making it possible to ground your club behind the ball before your take a whack at it. For those uncomfortable with hovering the club above the sand before full swings -- count me as one -– that is a consequential change.
From the tips at Pawleys Plantation, the Golden Bear tees -- named for designer Nicklaus -- the layout plays to a total of 7,031 yards. The latest course rating is a whopping 75.2 with a slope of an equally robust 150, down from a rating of 75.7, but with an increase of slope from 148. At Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey, acknowledged as one of the toughest courses in the nation, the course rating is precisely the same as at Pawleys, 75.2 on a layout that is only a few yards longer, although the slope at Pine Valley is 155. At the relentlessly difficult Shinnecock Hills, the rating and slope are 74.4 and 140, respectively. Pine Valley and Shinnecock are very much private clubs; anyone looking for a stern challenge can play Pawleys Plantation. (Note: Those who want to play the back tees are asked to seek permission in the pro shop.)
The course and slope ratings for the other popular men’s tees at Pawleys have not changed significantly, although they are uncharacteristically high for a publicly accessible golf course. The Blue Heron tees, typically appropriate for those with handicaps of 6 and less, rate about the same as before, at 73.2 and 145, respectively, compared with a previous 73.7 and 144 (total yardage is 6,549). The White Egret tees, which I played for a few years before I turned 70, have gone from 72.0 and 138 to 71.6 and 140 (6,184 yards); they are suggested for those with handicaps of 6 to 18. I have been playing the Yellow Finch tees this year because I am not hitting the ball much beyond 210 yards off the tee, and their ratings did not move much; the old ratings of 69.2 and 132 are now 69.1 and 130 at 5,560 yards.
However, women who play the Yellow Finch tees from 5,560 yards really saw a jump in their ratings, from 72.7/130 to a whopping 74.3/142. The women’s Redtail Hawk tees at 4,932 yards have also jumped significantly, from an already challenging 70.1 and 122 to 71.4 and 130. By the numbers, Pawleys Plantation is not particularly women “friendly,” although women's league members do not seem to mind.
During a recent visit to celebrate the club’s 30th Anniversary, Jack Nicklaus told members and others at dinner that the course he designed in 1988 would benefit from some changes. For example, as happens with most golf courses over time, greenside bunkers have pulled away from the putting surfaces as the greens themselves have shrunk. He suggested restoring the greens to their original size, something many observers believe will make hitting greens in regulation considerably easier. He also recommended that much of the sand in the huge fairway bunkers be replaced with grass; that would speed up play and also make the game easier for double-digit handicappers.
These are ideas that most of us who play the golf course regularly certainly endorse. But given many of the forced carries to greens, surrounding marshland that is very much in play, and long greens that afford some nasty pin positions, the challenges at Pawleys Plantation will always rival some of the toughest courses in the land.
Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, spent the afternoon and early evening this past Monday at Pawleys Plantation Golf Club, one of his signature designs of the late 1980s, about the time his golf architecture business began to take off. He has been one of the world’s most successful course designers since.
Mr. Nicklaus, as most referred to him during the day, had lunch with the golf club’s owners, Founders International Inc, drove the course he hasn’t seen for 30 years and then spent more than an hour with about 40 children enrolled in the Myrtle Beach area’s First Tee program. Their parents made up a sizable and enthusiastic audience.
The visit was in celebration of our club’s 30th anniversary. One of the most popular golfing destinations on the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach since its opening in 1988, Pawleys Plantation’s layout has stood the test of time in terms of entertainment and challenge. Early Nicklaus designs like Pawleys put a premium on forced carries over wide expanses of sand and water or, in our club’s case, marshland. The signature par 3 13th, virtually surrounded by marsh with a green smaller than the famous island green at TPC Sawgrass, is the most iconic of the hundreds of holes in the Myrtle Beach area. My fellow members like to refer to it as “the shortest par 5 in Myrtle Beach.” From the regular tees, it plays about 120 yards.
As good and challenging as Pawleys Plantation is, Father Time and Mother Nature have had their way with the course. Greens, which were designed medium small originally by Nicklaus, are now officially “small” after years of aggressive mowing. This is not unusual for golf courses of a certain age. The effect is to pull the greenside bunkers away from the edges of the greens, sometimes by a couple of yards or more. From the fairway, it can appear to a first-time visitor that the Bermuda fringe and rough is actually the green. The illusion forces improperly under-clubbed shots from the fairway. When the course was first opened and in succeeding years, a shot over the bunker would have led to a putt, not a chip.
At a fund-raising dinner at Pawleys Plantation the night of Nicklaus’ visit, he was asked his reaction to his layout 30 years after completion. He validated criticism of the reduced size of the greens, encouraging that the bunkers be pulled closer to the putting surfaces. He also said, rather emphatically, “Get rid of a lot of the sand out there.” Some holes he designed include waste bunkers that are almost 200 yards long and, unlike the greens, they certainly haven’t gotten any smaller. Back in the day, they served as framing for some of the longer holes, but they have always been especially penal for higher handicap players. Pawleys Plantation attracts many buddy golf trips, and it is often painful – and slow -- to play behind such high handicappers, especially after they ignore warnings posted at the 1st and 10th tee boxes about which tees are appropriate for which handicaps.
Nicklaus’ most amusing critique of the course he built was also the most surprising. If he had a specific signature when he first started laying out golf courses, it was to leave small trees in the middle of fairways as directional markers, more than obstructions. At Pawleys Plantation, such trees are in play at the par 4 5th hole, the par 4 9th fairway and the par 5 14th – and they certainly have become larger. Of the tree on #14, Nicklaus said, “Take it down. It shouldn’t be there.”
At age 78, the man who always obsessed about his golf swing has the same mania to improve his course designs. Here’s hoping my golf club’s owners take him up on his offer to bring a very good golf course back to its original outstanding status.
Hurricanes that begin with the letter 'F' – indeed that begin with the letters F-L-O -- have a thing for North Carolina. The strongest storms of the last two decades have been Floyd and Florence. Last month’s Florence created a group of disasters that will take years to clean up, including runaway waste produced by hogs, the carcasses of dead turkeys, and ash, a toxic by-product of coal that overflowed its containers in the eastern part of the state. We recap the storm damage in North Carolina, including an update on a few North Carolina and South Carolina golf communities, in this month’s Home On The Course newsletter, which will mail electronically in the next couple of days.
No place on earth seems totally safe from extreme weather. Sure, you expect it to rain at a moment's notice in Scotland, where I spent 10 days in September, and you certainly expect the wind to blow. But at 100 mph? That is what happened in September in Dundee and other locations across the nation. I made it out of Edinburgh barely 15 minutes before authorities closed the Forth Bridge because of high winds. The previous day, at Dunbar Golf Club, I played in gusts up to 50 mph. There were a few shots where you just could not hit the ball hard enough. It was a unique, and intimidating, experience. More in this month’s Home On The Course. To subscribe, click here.
Jet lag has its compensations. After my return from a 10-day trip to Scotland, I kept falling asleep around 8 pm EDT –- 1 a.m. Edinburgh time –- and waking up between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Connecticut time. This, however, was during the Ryder Cup whose TV coverage, as U.S. golf fans know, began at 3 a.m. EDT for the first two days, 6 a.m. on the last day. I got to see it all…painful as it was after the first morning’s set of matches.
It was a sad spectacle for the American side, but sadder yet was the aftermath, which came off as mostly sour grapes, especially from the preternaturally impertinent Patrick Reed. You might recall that after winning a few tournaments by the age of 23, the gifted Reed declared himself one of the five best players in the world. (He was ranked 44th in the world at the time.)
Reed misses Spieth
In the wake of the disastrous Ryder Cup, Reed did not go quietly onto the losers’ bench. He complained after the team press conference about Captain Furyk pairing him with Tiger Woods instead of Jordan Spieth, with whom he had enjoyed a stellar record of success in the two previous Ryder Cups. “We make each other better,” Reed said of his partnerships with Spieth. True love never runs smooth, and Spieth apparently preferred the company of his longtime friend, Justin Thomas. Furyk put them out there together where they ran into the Molinari-Fleetwood buzzsaw.
Reed played mediocre golf with Woods in their first loop around the course and then really spit the bit in match two, obviously spooked by the narrow fairways at Le Golf National, which his golf ball rarely found. (Some observers believe Reed would not have broken 80 on his own ball.) Reed, whose signature attitude is to thumb his nose at hostile crowds, the larger the crowds the better, apparently thought that partnering with the most famous golfer in the world and major gallery magnet didn’t make his game better, and let the world know it. Brooks Koepka explained the U.S. loss much better: "We didn't make the putts. We didn't hit the fairways."
The lonely game
Virtually every competitive professional round on the PGA Tour is played individually, and I don’t believe any pro golfer has complained, publicly at least, that the members of the threesome or foursome they were matched with over the four days of a PGA event failed to make them “better.” As you stand over a shot in team play, you are out there alone, and whether it is Tiger Woods or Jordan Spieth standing on the other side of the fairway, they cannot swing the club for you or make you any better than you are in the moment. All team golf does is apply the pressure that comes with the possibility that you will let others down. A hotshot like Patrick Reed is supposed to thrive on such pressure. He didn’t.
Once you have the ability to make all the shots, golf is almost entirely played between the ears. It was in that few-inch space that Patrick Reed didn’t have it for the team rounds of the Ryder Cup –- and certainly not in his comments after.
I met up with my friend Bob this week at the Crail Golfing Society for a round on the famed Balcomie Links, although not quite as famous as Carnoustie, which Bob, who lives in North Carolina, and his friend Bill played the day before. During our walk on Balcomie, Bob told me that his wife Leonne had started a regimen of walking after not feeling too chipper for a few months. She met a man on the trail who told her he had thrown away all his pills after starting a routine of 10-mile walks every day. That’s quite a commitment if you figure a brisk walk is at five miles per hour. But she tried it and in a short time started feeling a lot better.
Since open-heart surgery two years ago, I have taken a golf cart for virtually every round. But in the run-up to my Scotland trip this last week, I walked a few miles every other day on a tread mill and vowed not to give in to the temptation of taking what the Scottish refer to as a “buggy.” It is embarrassing to toddle around in a golf cart while other 70-somethings are keeping a brisk pace (and there are a lot of older gents walking the Crail courses).
I have now walked five courses this past week, and my iPhone tells me that totals 28 miles (including a couple of miles of non-golf-course walks). I am diabetic, and my blood sugar readings this week have been way lower than typical, and I feel more stamina every day. I can’t wait to get home and walk my local course. I have begun pricing online those battery-powered “trolleys” that eliminate the need to push and pull your bag up hills; you walk along with your clubs, and the battery caddy will never misread a putt for you. The return on investment is probably about 10 rounds given that live caddies, with tips, command at least $80 per round these days (and many of them are of no help reading putts).
I am not ready to commit to the two hours of daily walking that adds up to 10 miles, but I have already demonstrated to myself the benefits of five miles daily. Long live the Scots, literally.
When I think of St. Andrews and all the wonderful courses in the area, I am reminded of the old Yogi Berra attributed quote about a particular restaurant: “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Anyone who has tried knows how difficult it is, for example, to get on the Old Course. Pick a day, throw your name in for the lottery, and pray. Kingsbarn, arguably the course in the area that gets the most positive reviews, now commands Pebble Beach type fees –- and gets them. If the economy and stock market remain robust, there is no telling how long it will be before true commoners have easy access again to the courses in the Kingdom of Fife.
I have found in the past two days that there is an alternative not only for those who might want to play Scottish golf courses that don’t command back flips or second mortgages, but to have access to additional activities that include things other than golf and whiskey –- not that there is anything wrong with those. To wit, a stay in the cosmopolitan city of Edinburgh and, get this, an easy and cheap train ride to a number of world-renowned golf courses, and a few others that perhaps should be.
On Monday, I threw my clubs on my back, stuck my shoes in a bag and carried all to Waverley Station, Edinburgh’s main train station just a five-minute walk from my hotel on George Street in the New Town section of the city. (The easy, downhill walk from the train station in North Berwick to the golf course takes about five minutes.) Along the way, not a single person on the crowded streets near the train station gave me a sideways glance as I bumped a few of them with the bag. This is Scotland, laddie.
My train trip to North Berwick took just a half hour, with stops that included Musselburgh, home to a golf course reputed to be the oldest in Scotland. North Berwick is a legendary links layout from which other great courses inherited such features as the “redan” green which runs, rather severely, from front right to rear left. I have played redan style greens in the States, but never one like #15 at North Berwick. The green runs a good 60 yards from front to back with a huge depression between the two halves of the green and bunkers along the left half of the green making it foolhardy, if not impossible, to play toward a back pin position. My playing partner from Australia left his approach on the front right edge of the green with the pin sitting near the back and actually two-putted from about 150 feet. I’ll bet he will be talking about that one back home.
North Berwick features other “quirks, such as old stone walls that run alongside fairways and greens and definitely come into play. One man’s quirk is another man’s “cool.” I think walls on a golf course, especially those that might actually redirect a wayward shot (i.e. close behind a green), increases the chance for creativity on the golf course. That certainly adds to the fun quotient.
On Tuesday, I had my fill of creative shots at Dunbar Golf Club. I repeated the now familiar routine of walking with clubs to the Waverley train station, buying a round-trip ticket from an easy-to-use machine and heading for Dunbar, about 13 miles south of North Berwick along the same coastline. Even though a longer distance and slightly more expensive trip, the train made only one stop, in Musselburgh, and arrived at Dunbar a few minutes faster than the trip to North Berwick. The trip from Dunbar’s train station to its eponymous golf club required a taxi for the five-minute ride. The golf course may not get the attention of North Berwick, but it costs about half the price (80 UK pounds, or around $100) and is actually in better condition, the greens much slicker and smoother than those at North Berwick.
My golf ball in ruins
Walls again play a great part in a round at Dunbar, with a particular stretch of par 4 holes late on the front nine presenting the most-narrow fairways on the course, the wall encroaching on the right. (Of course I chose one of those holes to hit my only slice of the day out of play.) But it was another feature, on the par 3 10th hole that I will not soon forget. The long par 3 at 202 yards required a three wood shot that I pull-hooked short and left of the green –- into the ancient ruins of what must have once been someone’s home overlooking the North Sea. Miraculously, my ball bounced off the old stones onto a perfect patch of grass far enough away from the house’s southern wall that I was able to lob a 20-yard shot onto the green. (If I had made the putt for par, I certainly would have been regaling friends back in the States.)
It is the North Sea, as it is at North Berwick, which provides most of scenic drama on the layout, although only bits and pieces of it come into play. Oddly, the fierce gale winds that kicked up on the back nine blew toward the ocean, not from it, and they were the strongest I have ever played, a good and steady 35 mph or so straight at us on virtually every hole on the incoming nine. (Typical “links” courses are laid out with nine holes heading directly away from the clubhouse and the second nine pretty much straight back in.) On the par 3 16th, called “Narrows,” I hit my 170-yard club toward the green 145 yards away, probably my best strike of the day. I had figured on about a three-club wind, and my playing partner, from England, was sure it was going to find the middle of the green. But we watched as it floated back in our direction and landed 15 yards short.
For my three-day stay in Edinburgh, these two courses were a perfect choice. But you could easily spend a week using the city as your hub and playing excellent layouts of all stripes. Although North Berwick is not in the Open Championship rotation, it does host the qualifier whenever the event is held at nearby Muirfield. Muirfield, though expensive, could certainly anchor the high-end of any golfing week in the area. Yet there are plenty of fine alternatives, including the historic Old Musselburgh Links, allegedly the oldest course in the world (but only nine holes); Royal Musselburgh Golf Club, which has its own storied history; Gullane, with its three courses by the sea (including Gullane No. 1, host to the Scottish Open); the Archerfield Fidra Course, positioned between Muirfield and North Berwick, which gets its name for a large rock island (Fidra) within site off the coastline; Bruntsfield Links, which was redone in 2017 and is parkland in style; and at least a dozen other viable options within a reasonable distance of the center of Edinburgh.
I did a quick check of golf packages in the area, and they tend to run from 100 British pounds per night on up for lodging and golf and, in many cases, extras such as breakfast. One package that starts at 150 pounds, called the Scottish Links Experience, includes Kilspindie, Gullane, North Berwick, Glen Links and Longniddry Links, all an easy train ride from Edinburgh. Just Google “Edinburgh Golf Packages” for a range of options.
A couple of friends decided to meet for a round of golf and a meal two weeks ago. We live about four hours apart -– Glenn in New Jersey and me in Connecticut – and Patriot Hills Golf Club in Stony Point, NY, was about two hours from each of us. We love the game and enjoy each other’s company and, as extra incentive, I promised Glenn I would buy us both a superb pastrami sandwich after the round (at the New City Kosher Deli, one of the best outside of New York City).
The radical changes in elevation on the Patriot Hills course, the distractingly beautiful mountain vistas behind virtually every green, cart-path-only restrictions because of soggy conditions, the six-story-high tee boxes, blind shots to fairways and greens, my current golfing slump and Glenn’s hip replacement operation earlier this year provided us with plenty of excuses for our poor play.
But the golf played second fiddle to the bonhomie of the day. We were matched with a twosome from New York City, both hale fellows well met, who had made their own 1½ hour drive to the course. Glenn, who is not fond of gaps of silence and has a quip always at the ready, would have made a great radio announcer. As our New York companions made comments about the golf course or a particularly bad shot, Glenn would weigh in with a relevant pun or original witticism. Okay, some were not knee slappers, but these guys apparently weren’t used to being matched up with golfers of good cheer, and they seemed to have a great time. We had a lot of laughs during a round of otherwise forgettable golf.
Glenn bought me a beer in the clubhouse after, and the lady bartender laughed at a few more of his off-the-cuff remarks. We learned from her that the dozen or so beautiful and large stone buildings adjacent to the golf course were formerly part of a home for the mentally challenged, called Letchworth, which opened in 1903 and closed in the 1990s. In its day, it was legendary for its high quality of care and research on mental disease. (I learned later that one Letchworth researcher had discovered that a simple change of diet was the cure for a specific form of mental disease.)
In less sensitive times, such a place was referred to as an “insane asylum.” That realization caused Glenn and me to consider the intersections of such an institution and the mental challenges of golf. In the wake of the terrible quality of our golf at Patriot Hills, Glenn rued the fact Letchworth was no longer open for business.
“We could have driven right over from the 18th green and checked ourselves in,” he said.
A mere three days after our round, Glenn suffered a massive heart attack while he and his wife Carol were staying at their favorite golf resort in New Jersey. After heroic efforts by the medical staff at the local hospital, he passed away there yesterday. He was 68.
Just before we said goodbye after our pastrami sandwiches, we talked about my upcoming trip to Scotland. “Please take me with you,” he said, half-kiddingly. In a way, I will be doing just that.
Bill and Karen Reutemann’s search for their post-retirement home in a high-quality golf community started in a suburb of Los Angeles, where they had lived for almost 20 years, and ended up in Chapel Hill, NC’s premier golf community, Governors Club. In between, they researched and visited dozens of golf communities; by the time they found Governors Club, they had more than enough information to make a solid and confident decision.
“This was our last chance to build our dream home,” Bill says, “and we found the perfect lot, and were able to rent a home inside the gates and keep an eye on construction progress on our new house.”
From start to finish, the job took about 15 months, even though the Reutemanns had purchased a flat piece of land that did not require special removal of rocks and boulders. (The large collection of rock outcroppings at Governors Club, which give the community and its 27 holes of Jack Nicklaus golf their distinctive look, can make home site preparation daunting in the community.)
Chapel Hill, with its college-town atmosphere, access to the highest quality medical services and entertainment, and fairly temperate climate, was the main attraction. But a couple of visits to the community and the three months living inside the gates of Governors Club, playing the manicured 27 holes of Jack Nicklaus Signature golf and meeting their neighbors before they hired an architect, solidified their choice.
You know a couple has found its perfectly matched community when, unprompted, they tout the benefits of life there. The Reutemanns are squarely in that camp; in fact their unsolicited note to me, and contribution of photos, prompted this update on Governors Club.
“Membership [in the golf club] is up,” Bill wrote me, “and there is an influx of younger members…or maybe it just looks that way because we are getting older. “
Governors Club is doing all it can to continue to attract retired couples who want to live in an active golf community, as well as local professional couples who would like their family to have the access to the perquisites and amenities of an adjacent country club.
“This year,” Bill added, “the club finished an upgrade which included a complete overhaul of the kitchen and dining rooms. That spurred a significant increase in spending by club members. The fitness center has been upgraded also, and the golf course cart paths have received a major overhaul.”
Despite having completed what will likely be their last search for a golf community home, Karen and Bill still are avid readers of our newsletter, Home On The Course. In a recent issue about travel distances from golf communities in the Southeast to popular international destinations, we indicated that the trip to Paris from Governors Club -– via Raleigh/Durham International Airport -– was among the shortest in the region.
“It is a great airport,” said Karen, “with wonderful domestic and international connections. The long- and short-term parking is relatively inexpensive, and the airport is only 35 minutes from the Governors Club gate.” Karen added that she and Bill have been traveling quite a bit the last two years.
On the real estate front, Governors Club has seen sales activity similar to other high-quality golf communities across the Southeast. Homes generally range in price from $500,000 to $900,000, but Bill says there has been an uptick in construction of seven-figure homes recently. That, of course, typically stabilizes and improves home values below the million-dollar mark
A few choice lots remain for those who, like the Reutemanns, are looking for that last shot at building a home precisely to their specifications. If you fit that description, or would prefer a re-sale home in one of North Carolina’s premier college-town communities (the University of North Carolina and Duke University are just a few miles away), let me know and we can arrange for more information and a visit to Governors Club.
My daughter’s lifelong friend moved to Jackson Hole, WY, and fell in love. I think it was the skiing and, most definitely, the boy. The couple decided on a huge engagement party for family and friends in the shadow of the Grand Tetons and a smaller family wedding at a later date. My daughter, wife and I were invited to the engagement party, quite the trip from Connecticut; but we love Nicola and her family and, not inconsequentially, I had heard that the golf in the Jackson Hole area was pretty special. I was not disappointed.
Actually, the two golf courses I played were technically in Wilson, the town where we stayed for the weekend, a few miles outside the more famous Jackson and its Hole (another name for a “deep valley”). Shooting Star Country Club and Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club are about two miles apart as the crow flies but, unfortunately, crows can’t fly you to the Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club from the other side of the Snake River. Roads in the area are at the mercy of the surrounding mountains, and my trip from our lodgings just south of Shooting Star to the Jackson Hole golf course took about 30 minutes – nine miles south, a sharp left turn and then nine miles north.
Shooting Star Country Club
First up, though, was Shooting Star Country Club, sited at the base of the hulking Tetons and immediately below the Jackson Hole ski resort in Teton Village, often rated the best ski resort in the land by those who rate such things. I am not a skier, but the ski runs looked imposing from below, like a bunch of narrow fairways between the trees, laid out almost parallel to each other. The drops from the 10,450-foot high peak looked intimidating. A gondola moved up and down the mountain as I played my round, adding to the visual drama of golf at the base of the Tetons. (In the late afternoon, my Shooting Star caddie informed me, you can ride the tram for free to the top and have a cocktail and appetizer, with views you are not likely to forget.)
Shooting Star, which was opened in 2009, is private and, it is fair to say, exclusive, many of its members coming from the surrounding community of impressively large homes designed to fit the surroundings and priced well into the millions. The golf course is one of Tom Fazio’s most dramatic, and takes the fullest advantage of its setting against the backdrop of the Grand Tetons. At Shooting Star, the artist in Fazio started with the frame -– those dramatic and snow-capped mountains –- and built his artwork inside it. The architect commanded that tons of dirt along the flat valley inside the frame of mountains be pushed around to create gentle elevations that seem almost a small-scale model of the mountains hovering above. It all works to the benefit of the golfer’s eye.
The effort was substantial. For example, the small hill that before construction was the highest point on the property is today a field of sage that runs along a few of the holes on the back nine. A 50-foot deep lake at the south end of the course was created from all the dirt scooped out and deposited strategically throughout the rest of the course. The flat nature of the valley was disturbed, yes, but that undeniably improved the land visually. (Keep in mind this is a golfer talking, not a rancher.)
As for conditions on the course, they were pretty much impeccable with few blemishes on the fairways; greens were smooth and as fast as I’ve played in 10 years; I’d estimate they were running around 12 on the stimpmeter. By the 18th hole, I still hadn’t figured out the speed, despite consistently perfect guidance on breaks and contours by my forecaddie, Goose, who shares his golfing wisdom in winter with golfers he caddies for at a club in the Scottsdale, AZ, area and at Shooting Star in summer. I counted four three-putts for my round, the results of going well past the hole on my initial putts; I racked up 41 putts in all, a good seven or eight above my average. Getting to the greens at Shooting Star is only half the fun.
I played the hybrid “Silver/Gold” tees at 6,060 yards; they carry a rating of 69.5 and slope of 122. The championship tees at 7,633 yards carry a course rating and slope of 76.9 and 148, respectively. I started my round the way I sometimes finish my rounds, a bit winded and feeling slightly lethargic. It took me a hole or two to realize, with Goose’s help, that it was the altitude. I did get used to it and I wound up, poor putting notwithstanding, playing one of my better rounds of the year. The thin air was a two-edged sword; tough on the lungs, at least for a while, but helpful in terms of distance.
I wish my aging eyes could have followed my ball flight better because the few sights I did catch of my tee shots rising against the backdrop of those mountains was one of the payoffs for a long trip to Wyoming.
Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club
Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club may be only a couple of miles away from Shooting Star, but the perspective of the mountains is totally different. Whereas at Shooting Star you look almost straight up to see the tops of the mountains -– some of them snowcapped in August –- at the Jackson Hole course you catch the entire vista, top to bottom, on most of the holes. A well-launched drive rises against the background of the mountains, reaches into the blue sky, and then floats back down those same mountains.
Unlike Shooting Star, Jackson Hole is accessible to the public. Based on my Saturday morning round, the course is clearly popular, and because it is close to the well-trafficked resort areas of Wilson and Jackson Hole, it attracts a fair number of golfers who, to put it kindly, don’t play regularly. I played as a single behind a slow foursome, something that might have bothered me on my favorite muni in Connecticut, but with a camera in tow on a beautiful day and all those amazing mountains, I was in no rush. (For those thinking it was my own damn fault for playing by myself, a foursome would have waited on every fairway for the group in front.)
The golf community adjacent to the course is surrounded by three mountain ranges –- the aforementioned Tetons, the Snake and Gros Ventre ranges. Whereas I normally have to work hard on a golf course to find a unique or interesting camera shot, no such effort was necessary at Jackson Hole (or Shooting Star, for that matter). Any bad shot with the camera was the result of operator error, not the subject matter.
Airplane noise took a little getting used to during my round. On virtually every hole, it seemed, a plane was either taking off from nearby Jackson Hole airport or landing there. (The ones taking off make more noise.) But once you understand that air traffic is part of the scene, you stop hearing it, or at least it doesn’t affect your play. And some of those jets looked great against the mountains. Needless to say, Jackson Hole is a popular destination in summer as well as winter.
Jackson Hole Golf Club opened initially in the mid-1960s. A few years later, Laurance Rockefeller purchased the surrounding resort and commissioned Robert Trent Jones, Jr. to totally redesign it in 1974. The layout is a wonderful mix of typical Jones bunkering, especially guarding the amply sized greens, and enough water, mostly in the form of small lakes, to keep your attention. I played the RTJ1 tees at a total of 6,142 yards; the layout from there sports a fair 68.6 rating and 122 slope. (If you include the hybrid sets of tees, which pretty much alternate the distances between two sets of regular tees, the total number of “courses” you can play at Jackson Hole is a whopping nine. That is helpful, given that the next regular tees back from the ones I played are about 600 yards farther.) At the tips, the numbers are 7,390, 74.2 and 135, respectively. At an elevation higher than 6,000 feet, those of us who don’t hit the ball too far get about a 10% boost in distance.
Nevertheless, the layout I played at just over 6,100 yards was a lot of fun, which a resort course should be. Fairways were generous if you didn’t stray too far into one of those ubiquitous Jones bunkers, greens were on the medium fast side, the turf was in fine condition throughout, and you could not ask for a nicer greeting from staff -- from the pro shop to the starter to the director of membership who had arranged for my round.
I ran into him as I was leaving the course; he was showing an engaged couple around the club for a possible wedding venue. Given the facilities, the friendly staff and especially the mountains, if the couple chooses Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis, their marriage will literally be off to a beautiful start.