Halfway Point Discoveries

Last weekend I played my 20th round of the year.  Tomorrow I embark on the inward half of the journey to completing 40 for the season.  The news is mostly good.

After finishing a series of four lessons with my instructor, I’ve seen payoff in three primary areas; driving distance, consistency of contact with the fairway woods, and accuracy with the wedges inside 100 yards.  The latter of which was my primary reason for seeking professional assistance.  The long iron game remains a work in progress.  Mentally, I’m more at peace around the greens after switching back to my old Cleveland Tour Action sand wedge.

What’s most encouraging is my ability to play a good round right after a bad one, and I attribute that to the conviction in my approach.  During a period of learning, your swing WILL fall off the rails, but rather than search for a band-aid, if you return to the fundamentals you are trying to correct, more often than not, you will have your fix.  Fans of Tiger Woods know that when he changed instructors to Sean Foley, he entered a perpetual state of playing golf swing instead of playing golf.  He became an engineer instead of an artist.  This is to be avoided at all costs and my goal is to move steadily away from engineering to artistry.  I’m still at some point in between but the difference is that when I hit a bad shot, I can take comfort knowing that it’s just the old habits reappearing.

Whether you’re an engineer or artist, at the end of the day, we measure improvement by score.  2016 concluded with my index rising to a recent historical high of 6.3.  It’s down to 4.9 which is super encouraging since I’ve just completed the most difficult stretch of the season (Myrtle Beach trip).  I had one goal at the beginning of the year and that was to improve to 10+ GIR.  Through the tough stretch, I’m still between eight and nine but my index is down which is telling me my proximity performance with the wedges has improved.  I also feel more confident with my short game.  Now as I distance myself from the bi-weekly instruction, it will be interesting to see how quickly I can return to thinking about shots rather than mechanics.

So the learning process has been very satisfactory.  One final note on instruction.  My last lesson included only 15 minutes on the practice tee and then we went for a four-hole playing lesson.  Get a playing lesson if you can.  The time spent on the course with my instructor watching every aspect of my game was invaluable.  I picked up information on ball position for bunker shots, course management, club selection, and a simple putting tip that made a huge difference in my round the following day (took only 27 putts).

See you on the lesson tee and play well!

Wild Wing Avocet – Course Review

Summary

The practice putting green

On Tuesday, May 30, 2017, our travel group teed it up at the Wild Wing Plantation (Avocet course) in Conway, SC.  Wild Wing used to host a magnificent 72 hole facility.  There was Avocet, Hummingbird, Woodstock, and Falcon.  But alas in 2006, Woodstock and Falcon closed as did nine holes on Hummingbird.  The huge clubhouse that was previously servicing this golf factory is still there but is sparsely outfitted and looks like it’s more utilized for banquets.  In the last ten years, the Grand Strand has lost about 25 golf courses, mostly to housing development, and Wild Wing is certainly a top casualty.

When you enter the grounds, you are confronted with a parking lot the size of the Myrtle Beach International Airport, which is also a leftover from the previous decade of vibrancy.  The bad drop was staffed by a single guy who did the unloading, fetching of carts from the barn, and staging of groups for play.  Clearly they could have used more help, and we felt something was a little off kilter.

Cary ordering at the Players Pub

Facilities (2.5 out of 5.0)

The driving range; wet and closed

Our day started off rough because the driving range was closed.  I asked the bag guy if I could borrow a cart to go take pictures of the range and he was kind enough to grant that request.  The range is actually quite large and beautiful, and is all grass but it was soaking.  Balls are sold in the pro shop for $4.00 a bag and it appeared to be a good decision to keep it closed.  Playing a strange course with no warm-up and cart path only for the first four holes was rough.  Most of the guys were hacking and trying to get loose.  The course was wet and played fairly long from the blue tees (6,658/72.7/131).

Now, the Good, Bad, and Ugly.

The Good:

The golf course is a great play.  The greens used to be bent grass but were redone in Mini-Verde Bermuda after the brutal summer of 2011.  They were beautiful and rolling true with a medium fast pace despite the moisture.  The course has a mixture of parkland routing framing a lot of the par 4s and 5s, and links style architecture around the greens with big undulations on the surfaces, tall mounds protecting the approaches, water in play on tee shots and approaches, and deep penal green side bunkering.  You will struggle to get it up and down if your ball striking is off but I thought this was an awesomely interesting mixture of holes with many being unique and memorable.  Several of the par-4s are long.  #6 at 451 yards with water all down the left, was playing into a stiff breeze.  I knew I couldn’t reach and played it like a short par-5.  #7, a par-5 at 553 yards was playing in the same direction and took two massive hits to have a shot to reach.  #14 is a cool short par-4 with so many bunkers it looked like the face of the moon.  Even with rangefinder in hand, it was a bit of guesswork as to where to hit it first time through.

The Bad:

The green part of the golf course was the allure at Wild Wing, with the excellent layout and conditioning.  The rest of the grounds needed serious work.  Several holes played adjacent in a back and forth direction which is fine, but there were shared cart paths which left you  dangerously close to the ball flight of opposing groups and occasionally left you playing a game of chicken with the carts.  A lot of the cart paths were crumbling and in a state of disrepair.  There were only two water coolers on the entire course, which is a major ding, and one ran dry around 3:00 p.m.  This can be dangerous in the summer time heat, as most courses take care to ensure you have fresh water every 3-5 holes.  And finally, the on course restrooms were filthy.

The Ugly:

Mike and I were the only ones to replay in the afternoon.  We were parked by the par-5 15th green and as we were preparing to exit our golf cart, the beverage cart rammed into our golf cart.  Mike was holding the steering wheel and the impact jerked our front tires and wrenched Mike’s hand.  The cart lady didn’t even apologize and insisted on blaming us for the collision.  This left a very sour taste in our mouths and some pain in Mike’s hand and wrist for the rest of the afternoon.  As we drove up the 18th hole, we saw the cart lady parked in the rough with her head down.  Couldn’t tell if she was texting someone or sleeping off a hangover from sampling her own wares, but she was parked in the same spot for several minutes – very unprofessional.

Mike on #3 tee. Par-4, 424 yards

Value (3.5 out of 5.0)

 

Chris sizing up his tee shot on #5. Par-3, 157 yards

Avocet isn’t a bad value for just pure golf.  Our greens fee on the Founders package was the lowest of any course at $56 and we replayed for $40.  This course seems to be a low budget affair with regard to facilities, maintenance, number of staff, and they sink their available funds into keeping the golf course in as good as shape as it’s in.  As a traveler and avid player, the whole experience was a bit of a disappointment.  There is also some previous day bias because Monday we had opened our trip at Grand Dunes Resort and everything there is first class.

Customer Experience (3.0 out of 5.0)

Dual green for #6 and #17 (foreground)

What’s odd is that everyone working at Avocet was very accommodating, kind, and professional, except for the beverage cart operator.  A special thank you goes out to Meagan, who operated the Players Pub and assisted Mike with some ice for his hand after our on course accident.  The starter was very flexible and helpful in getting us out for the afternoon.  He suggested we start on the 2nd tee to avoid a foursome that had just teed off #1.  We appreciated that and played #1 as our final hole after zipping around in 3.5 hours.

Overall Rating (3.0 out of 5.0)

You need some local knowledge to score on this golf course.  I shot 88 in the morning and followed that up with a 79 after I was suitably warmed up and knew where to hit it.  Again, the course is a fun play but only if you don’t mind the marginal facilities and low budget feel of the place.  I’m mixed on a return trip to Avocet.

Mike bunkered on #1

Willbrook Plantation – Course Review

Summary

On Thursday, June 1st, 2017, our travel group teed it up at the Willbrook Plantation in Pawleys Island, SC.  The plantation was established in 1798 and a visit here provides a mix of lovely old southern charm with a humbling history lesson.  The place is beautiful with large live oaks framing the clubhouse, course, and surrounding residential areas, but you also can find historical markers noting the location of slave quarters and burial grounds that remind you of our 18th and 19th century culture and lifestyle.  Everything is done tastefully and the atmosphere is welcoming to all.

Our group has played Willbrook on several previous trips and unfortunately most of those visits were spent in the clubhouse watching doppler radar and sitting on the porch in stately rocking chairs waiting out torrential rain storms.  No problem with the weather on this day as we enjoyed broken clouds and temperatures in the 80s, but we had our full rain gear packed.

The staging area at Willbrook

Facilities (3.5 out of 5.0)

Spent many hours in these rocking chairs during previous visits

You’ll notice as you first enter the facility that everything is on the small size, from the parking lot, to the clubhouse, to the grill area, to the driving range.  The range was all grass and was in wonderful shape but only had about seven hitting stations.  Balls were $4.00 per bag and were sold in the pro shop.  There were two medium sized putting greens; one between the range and clubhouse and the other conveniently located between the clubhouse and first tee.  Traffic flowed nicely around the staging area.

Willbrook has Bermuda grass through the green and on this day, the putting surfaces were rolling true and at medium speed but had a light layer of sand applied.  The course conditioning was very good with all the tee boxes, fringes, and bunkers neatly manicured.  I only remembered a few of the holes, probably because the last time through, we were so focused on keeping ourselves and our equipment dry, the course play-ability and routing were not at the forefront of our minds.

At 6,292 yards from the white tees (70.3 / 129), the course is not an overly stern test.  It has a mixture of short to medium length par-4s with all the par-5s playing over 500 yards.  If you are driving it straight you can score.  As it was, they had many of the pins cut on small crowns and slopes, and while I hit 11 greens, I couldn’t make any putts, but managed to avoid any three-putts, and carded a solid 4-over 76.  I recall a much tougher time playing in the rain from the blue tees at 6,722 yards.

A few playing notes:

  • #1 tee shot is tight (pictured below).  You have a big tree on the right to contend with and water on the left.  Drive it straight 🙂
  • #10 is a par-4 that only plays 356 yards but a large oak tree guards the right side of the green.  Shots right center in the fairway may be blocked from coming in high, even with a short iron.  There’s plenty of room left even though it doesn’t look like it on the tee.  Take it.
  • #18 is a hard dogleg right par-5 and is super tight.  There’s a bunker at the end of the fairway 250 yards from the tee.  Long hitters should lay up.  There’s a big tree on the right guarding the dogleg so you have to get it far enough out there to avoid.  Up by the green, there are more large oaks that block the left side of the approach.  If you can get it to 100 yards, you can get over them with a wedge, otherwise, you are blocked.  Try to keep it right.  I felt this hole was a smidgen unfair, as did others in my group.

Jim and Cary before the round

 Value (4.0 out of 5.0)

The look from #1 tee

Willbrook was $71 on our Founders package.  The replay rate was $40, which is a good value, and the beauty of the package is that it included a $100 gift card to use at all 21 of the Founders courses.  We also learned that the replay rate at Willbrook could be applied at a higher end course, which is exactly what we did.  We booked a replay at Willbrook and decided not to use it but called Myrtle Beach National – Kings North, and they let us play the afternoon for the Willbrook price, which was $22 less than the Kings North price.  As long as you played your first round on a Founders group course, you can leverage this benefit and I would take advantage of that again.

Pat in a bit of trouble on #5

Customer Experience (3.75 out of 5.0)

Me before teeing off on #10, a tricky par-4

The bag drop guys provided snappy service as soon as we pulled in.  The pro only had a single replay time when we inquired so we grabbed it.  The tee sheet evidently fills up quite fast at this course and I was glad we had the opportunity to replay, but there’s a chance we could have got shut out.  We also figured with one replay time, the course would be full and slow.  When we replay, we usually enjoy a quicker pace because most courses in the area are empty.  It pays to look for courses with more than 18 holes when you consider replaying.  Our decision to play at Kings North was a good one, as they have 54 holes and we flew around in under four hours.

On the course, the marshals kept play moving and were friendly and helpful.  The pace was good as we were in threesomes and were never pushed and did not have to wait on any shots.

The grill area is small and has a limited selection of food items.  After the morning round, I settled for a chili dog, chips and soda that cost me $6.00.

Overall Rating (3.75 out of 5.0)

Pat tees off on #15, par-5, 538 yards

I enjoy playing this course and will come back to Willbrook on future trips.  If you want a medium end course that’s not too difficult or expensive, add it to your playlist.

At the final hole, sharp dogleg right par-5

2017 US Open Picks

Photo from Erinhills.com

Erin Hills, site of the 2017 US Open, has been characterized as long, bouncy, devoid of trees, and with perfect greens.  No major has ever been contested here and the course otherwise remains a mystery.  A par-72 layout is rare for the US Open and may lend itself to less of the traditional fairways and greens grind and more of a birdie-fest.  You’d think that’s not in the best interest of the USGA, and I hope they set it up tough but fair.  After all, this is not La Quinta, and golf fans don’t expect to see 20-under win the tournament.

Unlike The Masters, not all the big names are in top form.  Rory McIlroy is coming off a broken rib and missed the BMW Championship in Europe in late May.  Ruled out.  Dustin Johnson, would be a natural pick and he may be fully recovered from his butt busting slip down the stairs at Augusta, but his game hasn’t recovered.  I didn’t like his form at Memorial (+8 and a missed cut).

A key statistic I like for the US Open is the little known “bogey avoidance”.  This is an excellent indicator of short game proficiency, course management, and mental toughness, all critical elements for US Open success.  DJ is ranked #2 which demonstrates the improvements he’s made to his short game.  I was considering Jason Day, but he’s way down at 129th.  Day gets into too much trouble with his driver and his putting and concentration seem off this year.  He’s out.

I like the form Justin Thomas and John Rahm are showing, but mentally they lack a bit of the even keel needed to steady themselves over the grind.  Rahm is a hot head and Thomas gets too pouty when things go wrong.  This tournament will come down to three individuals. Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, and Masters champ, Sergio Garcia.  Rose is hungry after his playoff loss at Augusta.  He’s been preparing diligently for this tournament and even skipped last week’s Memorial, which I’m not sure was a good idea, but he’s focused and I’m throwing out his final round 80 at The PLAYERS as an aberration.  Spieth has seen a remarkable resurgence in his GIR stats, going from 145th last year to 4th in 2017.  Garcia, is arguably the first or second best ball striker in the world, which ultimately won him The Masters.  Despite his first major win, I still didn’t like the way he putted at Augusta, and his putting stats are just awful.  You can’t win the US Open putting badly.

Put a great course manager and the best putter in the world on great greens, and you have a champion.  The All About Golf US Open kiss of death goes to Jordan Spieth.

Enjoy the action and play well!

Palmetto State Peaks and Plummets

Phote from myrtlebeachonline.com

The “One Ninety” is the new roller coaster at Busch Gardens named after my recent golf trip to Myrtle Beach.  Playing 189 holes in six days with a series of golf lessons fresh in your mind was the inspiration.  What the hell was I thinking?  Folks, don’t try this at home without plenty of cold beer and Advil.

First the good news.  The weather was terrific and the company of my friends was fantastic.  Most days we had six players and went off as two threesomes and sometimes a single would be paired along giving us the opportunity to meet fellow travelers and on occasion, a local retiree.

Before the round at Willbrook

On the golf course, of the ten full rounds played, I managed to break 80 five times, which is good for me and the most since the 2011 trip.  The bad news was three of the other rounds were 88, 88, and 89 but I seemed to follow a bad one with a good one more easily than in the past.  In short, the fun part was pulling off shots I knew I couldn’t hit in previous years because of the swing work I’d been doing with my instructor.  The hard part was obviously playing golf swing while attempting to play a ton of golf shots over a protracted duration.  But whenever I got into a bad rut, I would return to the swing keys my instructor gave me and usually correct on the spot.  In the past, I’d often be searching in many different directions for a band-aid.  While the courses were beautiful, some were very difficult, and I had hoped after two months of instruction and practice that the new habits would be more ingrained, but alas I wasn’t quite ready to go Justin Thomas on Hawaii.

My review for TPC of Myrtle Beach is up and reviews are coming for Willbrook and Wild Wing Avocet.  Most of the courses have gone to Bermuda greens in lieu of the higher maintenance cool season grasses.  It was a pleasure to play six straight days on the same surfaces, albeit with different speeds and undulations.  Putting Bermuda is difficult coming from Bentgrass greens because it is grainy.  When the ball slows near the hole, the grain will throw it off line and often on longer putts, part of the putt will be with the grain and part against.  Up close, you need to summon the courage to bang your short putts and take some of the break out.  Generally, I had a good feel for the speed but didn’t master the shorties.  Game report card:

  • Driving: B+
  • Fairway woods: A-
  • Mid and long irons: C-
  • Short irons and wedges: B
  • Short game: B
  • Lag putting: A
  • Short putting: D
  • Course management:  B

Someone located a swimming pool next to the driving range at Avocet

I loved this trip and just to cap the roller coaster ride, our plane trip home to Baltimore was uneventful until the final 30 seconds.  We were literally seconds from touching down and the pilot pulled back hard on the stick and gunned his engines sending our stomachs to the floor and the blood rushing from our heads.  He informed us as he circled around that another aircraft was on our runway.  Thank God our guy was paying attention even if the air traffic controllers were not!

Play well.

TPC of Myrtle Beach – Course Review

Summary

On Saturday, June 3rd, 2017, our travel group had the pleasure of playing TPC of Myrtle Beach in Murrells Inlet, SC.  For visitors to the southern end of the Grand Strand, this Tom Fazio design is in the the top tier of courses along with True Blue, Caledonia, and Pawleys Plantation.  Most golf courses have one defensive feature whether it be fast greens, narrow fairways, or whatever.  TPC has them all.  The course is lined with tall pines and strategically placed fairway bunkers that frame long difficult tee shots.  There are deep green side bunkers, plenty of water, and fast Bermuda greens.  An outing here is not for the faint of heart or those with crooked drivers.  Bring your A-game, plenty of golf balls, and prepare for one heckuva challenge!

Facilities (4.5 out of 5.0)

Team Myrtle Beach 2017. From left to right: Pat, Mike, Ronnie, Jim, Cary, and Brian

TPC was built in 1999 and has a prestigious history.  The course hosted the 2000 Senior PGA Tour Championship (won by Tom Watson) and is the present day home to the Dustin Johnson School of Golf.  Inside the clubhouse are several cases smartly displaying DJ’s memorabilia, and the presentation reminded me of the Payne Stewart display at Pinehurst.

After checking in, we started the morning by warming up at the fabulous short game area.  The bunkering and approaches were neatly manicured and there were ample spots to set up for all kinds of shots without getting in your neighbor’s way.  I don’t usually take sand shots before a round, but the bunkers were beautiful and inviting, and the prospects of visiting sand during the round were high.

When you check in, the bag drop guys get you on a cart immediately which allows you to drive to the range.  The grass stations were beautiful, the balls complimentary, and everything was in top shape.  At the end of the driving range was a medium sized putting green.  If I had a minor pet peeve it was that you couldn’t easily walk to the putting green from the clubhouse and staging area.  It seems like it was designed to have players putt last, and right up to the time before they teed off.  Again, minor issue, but if I just wanted to come out and putt, the jaunt to the area would be a little inconvenient.

Dustin Johnson display case in the clubhouse

The course was double teeing and we were sent off #10.  I find the back nine here more difficult than the front and #10 is a tough hole to start on.  While only 360 yards from the blue tees, the tee shot is tight and water comes right up to the front of the green.  Sure enough, I rinsed my approach, but manage to get up and down from 100 yards and was thrilled with my bogey 5.  We started our afternoon round on #1 which is a par-4 of roughly the same length but has a little more room off the tee and no water guarding.  For some reason my eye doesn’t fit #10 and I recall struggling there in previous rounds.  Given my druthers, I’d start on #1 every time.

Dawn at the short game practice area

The front nine features three par-4s over 425 yards and #9 actually had the tees at the back markers and was playing 472 yards.  Oddly enough, I was more comfortable hitting driver and a fairway wood into these longer holes than some of the shorter par 4s that were tight and well bunkered.  The premium on the par-5s is the second shot.  You don’t need a fairway wood but MUST stay out of fairway bunkers and water.  In short, there’s a premium on excellent ball striking.  The greens are fast but are not tricked up.  You have to avoid some of the mounding that surround the approaches because pitches from these lies to fast greens are difficult.  A word of caution on the par-4 15th hole.  The fairway runs diagonal and you must carry a marsh on the left and avoid woods on the right.  Take your range finder and shoot a comfortable distance on the far bank of the marsh to aim for.  I didn’t measure, thought I hit a perfect drive, and ended up in the woods and with a seven on my scorecard.

We played the blue tees at 6,600 yards and normally that’s a comfortable distance for me.  Out here, I’d say if you have a handicap of 5 or less, those markers are suitable but if your iron game is off, as mine was, you’ll get punished.  You’ll have a better chance to score playing the whites at 6,193.  Next time I may just try them.

Value (4.0 out of 5.0)

Tee shot on #4. Par-4, 430 yards

As part of our Founders Group package, the cost to play TPC was $109.  Our replay was only $42 which was a genuine bargain for a course of this caliber.  After 27 holes, the lightning detection system went off and they had to clear the course.  It never rained but after a brief delay, we elected to call it quits and the course provided a 9-hole rain check which was good at any time.  At this price and the quality of operation and facility, this is a very good value.

Mike checks his yardage

Customer Experience (4.25 out of 5.0)

Looking down at #7. Par 3, 176 yards.

The bag drop staff were excellent and had us loaded literally as soon as we arrived.  There was no waiting around to get set up and the organization of the place was evident.  The marshals on the course were courteous and had supplies of cool drinking water on their carts.  There were ample supplies of water at rest rooms and rest stops which is important when it gets hot and the humidity is stifling.  The lady running the beverage cart seemed a bit disinterested in servicing the players and was more focused on just completing her rounds of the course.  She did stop in the afternoon when one of our players made a point to flag her down.

The boys enjoying a sweet tea after the round

Overall Rating (4.25 out of 5.0)

I will be back to TPC and try my luck again next time I’m in Myrtle Beach.  This is an awesome golf course from the point of layout, conditioning, and operation.  Everything about TPC is first class.  Good luck if you give it a try!

View of #18 from the clubhouse. Par 5, 515 yards