Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pasatiempo: Neutering Golfers Since 1929

This is a cycle that many golfers share: You post some good numbers at the local muni, maybe low 80s or flirt with breaking 80. You start to practice because the days are longer in summer and your golf fever increases. "I've got game; I'm pretty good. I'm feeling it."

Then you go to a big-boy course and get emasculated.

Such was the case with our foursome over the weekend at Pasatiempo in the hills above Santa Cruz, California. We played from the white tees, 6,125 yard with a slope of 136. We are decent golfers, 11, 12, 15 handicaps, in that range, but no one in the group broke a 100. Oh, it's a par 70. It was $165 each with a cart and in some ways was worth the price for a borderline-historic course that is in the top courses nationally and designed by Alister MacKenzie.

I have never played a course that had more Jekyll and Hyde qualities. The first three holes are not that hard but I had some nerves and three-putted the first two holes. You then have a difficult up-hill par 3 of 190 yards. Everything out here is heavily bunkered, the greens are slick, balls roll off the green before you can mark and you know that this is not your 115-slope crap course next to the dog track.

Every hole is different, another indicator of a great course. I birdied a couple holes but would then take a triple on an uphill 175-yard par three. I then had a parade of Snowmen, mother of God I swear I have never had trip, consecutive ochos. Our group likely had a couple four putts.

The carts do not have GPS. With hindsight we all should have bought the yardage book. Case in point is the uphill par 4 11th, 390 yards with a ravine smack in the middle. In our group a 7 won the hole. The problem is you don't know how far it is to the ravine; you think it's like 190 yards so you hit a 5-iron thinking it should get you close enough to go for a utility. But, I butchered my 5 iron and then started shooting balls into the ravine. Oh, the green did not just have a "false front" but more like a fake two-thirds. You had to put the ball all the way in the back to keep it from running off the green.

Another ball-buster is the number 16, top handicap hole par 4 365 yards to a triple-tiered green. Our buddy Pete lashed a low screamer right down the middle that we never found. The fairway slopes right to left and he should have been in the middle.

The only thing that was weak about the place was the wait we had on the first few holes and the range having mats. Uh, high end places should have you hitting off grass with those little pyramids of balls already stacked.

Analysis of My Stats

Like any obsessed golfer I look at my score cards trying to break the code. As if I could find something that would jump out at me and fix my game.

I have found a telling stat. Eighty-percent of my double bogeys and worse come from bad drives. It's rare for me to get off the tee well and then take a double or worse. I count a "bad drive" as something where I either had a penalty or had to take an extra shot just to be where a good drive should have landed.

I had a weird stat last week at Alameda. I only had one green in regulation, one legit birdie chance on a flat easy course, but only had 27 putts. Most of us bogey golfers deal more with AGR--Almost Greens in Regulation.

I'm convinced that golf is not a game of excelling but more a game of disaster avoidance. In my 100 at PasaTiempo I had 10 horrendous holes of double and worse and only three good holes--birdies and pars. Cut back on the disasters and the scores could have been in the low 90s, not that good still but a hell of a lot more palatable than triple digits.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I Broke 80, Bitches!!!!!!!!

If you are not remotely interested in golf just walk the F away. Scat. Rory this, Rory that. Folderol. This is a story about a 12-handicapper, Mr. Michael J. Spencer, who brought desert golf gagging and choking to its knees one fine day on a podunk muni in Palm Springs on Super Bowl weekend in 2011.

For the rest of you, let me tell the story. Pull up a chair and pop a cold one. Glug, glug, glug, here you go. I played from the blues, 6300 yards at Cimarron Resort

Rory was born to golf. I wasn't. He and his silky swing and Gumby-like flexibility. Going 16-under at the US Open was his birthright. I, on the other hand, was born to aspire to journalism, club rugby and private investigations.

I took up golf at the tender age of 35, battling a whopping astigmatism, impatience and saltiness. What set me on my golf odyssey was fat old farts drubbing me on a course in Reno in 2000. I vowed never again to lose to men who couldn't get out of their Cadillacs sans walker and hydraulics.

The day prior I had shot a pedestrian 94 on a much tougher track near Palm Springs. As my usual habit, I perseverated the minutiae of the failed round over night, tossing and turning about missed putts, missed drives, errant approaches, the bitter unfairness of it all. Then I got right back on my horse.

Went to the range, no magic but some decent shots. I joined my foursome on the T box, two older dudes with a strong Midwest accountant/possible aging lover vibe and an even older guy,
Eric, recovering from hip surgery and chain-smoking. Eric would be my Obi-Wan Kenobi for the round.

My drives more or less found the fairways on the front 9. I think I had two birdies and no doubles, in for an amazing 37. I wasn't even drinking but I drank a ton of water.

Pace of play started to slow. At the turn I had a big boy Coors Light. I had to piss like a stallion but play was under way and the place was stingy with its outhouses. To maker matters worse, no bathrooms out on the course and not even some decent cover for me to let Big Ed out for some air without fear of scaring away the Ladies Club. I of course knew that I had to come in under 43 for my magic sub 80 round.

It was on the 10th hold that I spazzed a drive and then lashed a fairway wood to 40 yards out to an uphill green. Then, magic! I softly gripped a lob wedge and holed it. Up on the green, a few hops and down she went.

I still had to pee, horrendously so. We now waited on each t box for about five minutes because of the slow pace. At hole 15 I knew I had a good chance if I could avoid the meltdown.

On the 17th, short par 3 over water, I hit into the drink but my ball skipped to within 2-feet of terra firma. It was in mud against a rock. I waded in and hit a wedge over the green into a bunker. I started to think I could take a triple and then all bets would be off whether I could make the magic number. I hit out of the bunker to about 6-feet and sank the putt.

I was on in regulation on the par 5 18th. I think I 3-putted but could care less cause I had sealed the deal.

At the end of the round Eric bought me beers. Turns out he was a retired gym teacher from Washington who had played collegiate rugby. He downed three Irish coffees, congratulated me and I took off.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Winter Golf Sucks Unless At a Resort

This is the time of year when golf nut friend Charlie tries to get me out to golf in the rain and wind. He loves it because he is a short knocker.

I don't. What says pain-in-the-ass like lift and place, winter rules golf?

It's hard to golf when you have so many layers you are more Michelin Man than Mickelson. Do you really want to carry a towel and wipe that ball all day long?

I know it's all relative. Like if you are from Michigan or Buffalo you think I am the whingingest sack-of-shit golfer ever from California. I am.

Golf was meant for 65-degrees and over, under blue skies. If I rip the ball and make good contact off the tee I expect 250-yards plus. I don't want great contact and 200 yards then plug. Or rooster tails of rain off my putt on a wet green. It's not golf.

So get my ass to Palm Springs or Arizona or Hawaii in the winter and I will enjoy my golf.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Oakland's Golf Goddess: Lake Chabot Golf Course

He showed up on the first tee one foggy Sunday afternoon at Lake Chabot Golf. He wore jeans, a plaid work shirt and sported a week's beard. He swigged from a whiskey pint. He stumbled to his ball. He smoothly striped the fairway, catching the downhill slope coming to rest 280 yards later. His name is Gary.

He parred the tough 400 yard first hole, parred the uphill par 3 160-yard second hole. He limped and grimaced. He disclosed, as if telling you the time of day, that he had some DUIs and that his wife had given him a ride to the course and would pick him up later. He was just getting warm.

Holes three and four are back to back uphill par 5s of about 480 yards that play like 500 and 520 yards. I learned to play at Lake Chabot and what I saw next I had never seen in 11 years of playing my home course. On the third hole he was just off the green in two; he chipped and made his birdie putt.

Gary pounded a drive on the 4th, another 270 yarder. His second shot, playing 220 yards uphill, found the green from a towering 5-wood. He missed his eagle putt but sank another birdie. In all my years I have never seen anyone on the fourth green in two strokes. Gary played the rest of the front nine about 1 or 2 strokes over, clutching his back and nipping whiskey. It was getting dark so we went our separate ways.

Gary was just another Lake Chabot critter. One of the reasons I love muni golf and my home course is the parade of characters like Gary. The other great golfer I had encountered there, a young guy from the hood, smoked a joint every three holes and finished the round two over par.

What makes a home course is that it's close to you, a 15 minute drive for me. Lake Chabot has had a resurgence lately because it's fixed the drainage, finally added colored flags and generally just tidied up. It's cheap, $10 to walk during the week for an Oakland resident.

I always walk the course. I know that it has 11 distinct uphill climbs. When I walk it the first time, if I have not played it in a while, I huff and puff. But the next time I play it I find my legs. People who don't play it often hate it. "I don't like the hills," they say. "The place doesn't have a flat lie," etc.

It has: deer, wild turkey, potheads, boozers, hacks, kids, geezers, ladies, Asians, college golfers and working stiffs. The fifth hole is next to a house with two German Shepherds that bark like hell as you line up your putt.

Chabot has serious design flaws. The road to the clubhouse runs through the center of five holes. Golfers and motorists dance oddly passing through, pausing for each other to go by. And yet I am not aware of any shattered windshields.

Many of the holes are cupped so that if you are somewhere near the fairway the ball funnels back towards the center. The ninth hole, a par 3, is off a cliff that drops about 200 yards down to a pie plate green. It's only about 6100 yards from the blues but plays more like 6500.

Up on the back nine you have spectacular views of Alameda, San Francisco and Hayward. The 18th hole is about 640 yards, 530 yards downhill, and is the only par 6 that I know.

I take refuge at Chabot. Cell phone reception is spotty so you can play hooky. Many times I just drop three or five balls near the green to work on my approach shots.

Over the years the City floats ideas of privatizing the course or selling it off to some fat cat. And yet these deals never happen.

Chabot will make you a better golfer.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Tucson Venture

Spend the extra money and stay at the Arizona Inn. During the week you can get it for $140 a night, do it. First-class pool, rooms, etc. Classy, old-school digs.

Fresh off a month's chirorpractic after the last golf binge, I went to Tucson to play Tucson National and then El Conquiistador Country Club, both in the Oro Valley about a 20 minute drive north of Tucson. I would get so focused that I had to remind myself to look off at the nearby Catalina mountains, which provide the backdrop for both courses.

I got National for $60. This track is a classic layout. Played it from about 6610 yards but did not get much role due to humid conditions and a recent rain. You can score at this place, greens were a little on the slow side. It's the only par 73 on which I have played. The back nine has a few rolling hills.

My only knock on National was not enough signature holes. Eighteen was close, 400-plus dogleg right between two ponds, aim for the fountain in the middle and then hope you are inside 200 yards to an elevated green. Outstanding practice facilities. I managed an 89 here but did not feel that good about my game.

It threatened rain all day and doused us on the 10th hole for about 20 minutes. I had to play with a guy who claimed to be a 5-handicap but who started throwing clubs after his fourth consecutive 6. I take my golf seriously but if I wanted conflict and bad feelings I would just work. Guy was a straight-up douche.

The next day I popped for $40 at El Conquistador. Practice facilities are not very nice here, ratty mats on the range, no short game or putting area available and just a general feeling of cheapness. Staff seems jaded from all the play the place gets.

This was a tougher course than I thought, played from 6300 yards. The fourth hole was a par 4 with a desert strip making up about 150 yards. So to score on the hole you had to hit it about 225 yards to the edge of the sand and then blast over the hazard. I did not do this and took an ocho, lost ball drive, shanked lay up, into the sand, out, etc., etc.

It also had uphill and pretty tough par 3s. The front offered nothing surprising other than the desert-hazard hole.

The back nine at this place stood out for the changes in topography and thoughtful, challenging holes. The back has blind shots and elevated tee boxes. I would say the signature hole here is 16, a 410 yard dogleg left, then a downhill slope to an uphill, tiered green guarded in front by bunkers.

The greens role true but not lightning quick. (I developed an annoying problem with my irons in that I felt as if grip shifting just at impact, leading to weak hits.)

El Conquistador requires a lot more course knowledge than National, and the back nine at El Q. rocks. I blew at El Q., hitting a 98 but I am blaming 5 strokes on lack of course knowledge.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

He's The Firestarter

In most rounds the biggest fear is: What if the beer-cart girl doesn't show soon? (Please read this to the tune of Firestarter in the clip below.)

But on a crackling, arrid, windy, summer day about six years ago at Poppy Ridge Golf in Livermore, Rean Dader's crisis was: What if I burn to death in a ring of fire that I started with my shot in tall, dry grass?

I had just recently met Rean when we drove an hour to the amazing course to strap it on against aged warriors Charlie "double socks" and David "the rudest man in golf." We were young and svelte then so Rean and I walked the course while the elder dudes galavanted in their cart. It had to have been about 95-degrees, with 25 mph winds and about 20-percent humidity. Or, what we call in California: Fire Weather.

The old dudes slapped their drives. I followed and split the fairway (uh, right.) Rean took a mighty cut and duffed one about 60 yards into the brown stuff in front of the tee box. The grass was taller than what you might find in an Oakland grow-house.

Rean, a stubborn Okie, would not reload on the 6th hole tee box at Merlot. Poppy has three 9 hole layouts with a wine theme, each named after, guess what, wine veriatals! The others being Zinfandel and Boone's Farm. No, Chardonnay.

I stood to the side slightly in front, looking ahead to spot his ball. Instead, I hear a "snap," like someone cracking a whip. I swivel my head and see Rean shaking his water bottle at little smoldering flames starting to leap near his legs. A spark from his club hitting a pebble must have caused it.

Soon, the flames encircled his waist and he had to run for it. He had gone down, down, down and the flames went higher. And it burned, burned, burned and became a ring of fire. Rean came and joined me as we tried to catch up to our partners. Groundskeepers saw the fire and tried to put it out with their hoses. Charlie just groused: "What took you guys so long?"

We finished out the hole at the same time the fire had spread and roared west down a hill towards the 7th hole on Merlot. Meanwhile, the course had activated every single sprinkler to try to fight the flames.

I recall the 7th hole so vividly because it might have been the only one I had parred in the round. Not only that, I hit all my shots through sprinklers and smoke. My 50-foot putt parted water on the green and sank into the hole for my miracle 4 on the 400 yard par four. Shades of Caddyshack.

The flames kept spreading west. The course crews had lost and had to call in the California Department of Forestry. I guess that about 20-acres burned. One CDF member suffered a sprained ankle on the hill.

We somehow kept playing. Charlie could care less about the inferno as it was slowing HIS round. Rean had turned white. At the turn he gave his name to course management. A few holes later he gave a statement to a CDF captain. Course management was sort of kissing his ass, letting slip that another golfer had been burned in a similar accident.

To this day we regret that Rean did not try to parlay the incident into free golf for life. We were just back there the other day and are proud to report the landscape is recovering but still slightly charred.

Poppy ranks as one of my favorite Bay Area spots. It is fun golf without too much pretense and has a fantastic range, short game area and putting greens. You can get mid-week rounds with a cart for about $50. Poppy Ridge, Feel The Burn.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Coyote Bites Golfer's Wallet!

I have played most high-end, public courses in the Bay Area. Coyote Creek golf in San Jose clipped me for $80 recently on a mid-week round and it definitely WAS NOT WORTH IT.

You can get on Stonetree in Marin, Wente in Livermore or Poppy Ridge for under $80, and those courses are all better and more interesting. Coyote, a Jack Nicklaus venture, is worth about $45 but I guess because it's Silicon Valley it's going to stick it to people. The other courses I mentioned also provide not just better golf but a better golf experience.

For years I had driven by Coyote Creek on U.S. 101. It has two courses, Tournament and Valley, that always looked extremely golfy and inviting. My friend Bete Planchfield and I finally decided to take the plunge.

I looked at the scorecard and decided to play the Tournament course from the whites, about 6400 yards, since it had a hefty slope of 137. The front nine proved interesting, though too many holes alongside the freeway with power-lines directly over head. Some of us golf to escape, and a roaring highway doesn't help.

The first sign something was wrong was on the second hole when my ball found a large puddle in a trap, on a sunny dry day at 11 a.m. A decent course should not have a mother-effing puddle in a green-side trap. I noticed the traps did not have sand as much as a semi-cement.

The greens were good, receptive but true and pretty quick. The front had some fun dogleg holes, back to back par 5s, some gimmicky short par 4s and manageable par 3s. But the design feature of this course soon became apparent--little marshes in the middle of the par 5s or just in front of the greens on the par 3s.

You can score well on this course because of the ease of the par 3s, broad fairways and rough that allows you to make productive shots.

Play was a little slow and of course not a marshal in sight.

The back nine was boring, flat and nothing terribly noteworthy. The course does not have a signature hole.

My partner hit a sand shot and gasped in horror. Not at his shot but at the tar-like goo clinging to his wedge. Apparently, the traps don't have enough sand in them so he must have dug his club into the liner, which is often comprised of recycled tire shreds.

By the time we got to about the 15th hole the attention spans had shrunk. We both looked at each other and said: We paid $80 for this?

It's not a bad course. But if you are going to charge a premium you have to provide a bit more. The range and practice areas are large and in good shape.

Shot an 88, 41-47, despite a blow-up from a blown flop shot, a butchered par 3 and an approach that found water on the 17th.