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Selwyn Herson Played Them All

More often than not, by far the hardest part of each golf experience was getting on the course. Doing so often required resourcefulness, luck and a willingness to take advantage of opportunities as they came up. "Most people in L.A., if they get invited to play in Santa Barbara, will come up with a hundred reasons to say no," Herson says while breakfasting at Riviera on his usual: oatmeal with honey, and hot chocolate. "But I have a 'no whining' rule. Get on with it. Be positive, commit to the experience, have fun."

Eighty percent of the courses on the list are private, which forced Herson to spend countless hours organizing his schedule and networking. Early on he determined that he would always use an intermediary, whether it was a member of the target course or a friend of a member. Herson worked hard at developing the relationships to make it happen. In a few cases he asked Riviera head pro Todd Yoshitake to make an introduction on his behalf. "You cannot do it by yourself," says Herson. "Some of the clubs just won't deal with you." For those that did, the fact that he himself belonged to a top-100 club probably didn't hurt.

Herson discovered that there are clubs and then there are golf's hal­lowed grounds, some of which were established in the nineteenth century, when the locker room may not have had running water. Consider the Chicago Golf Club (#31; Wheaton, Illinois), founded in 1895 and said to be the first eighteen-hole course in America. The active members (fewer than 150) at this links gem didn't par­ticularly care about Herson's agenda. But Herson had done some business with one of them, Jerry Maatman, who finally agreed to take him out. He got on the two private Japanese courses after winning a whimsical bet (don't ask) with a South African CEO who had lots of business connections in Japan.

Herson found there was a certain amount of kismet that made things happen for him, but sometimes with unexpected consequences. While vaca­tioning on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, Herson was in a Jacuzzi with some new golf buddies with whom he had hooked up for four days in a row. Upon hearing of his quest, one of the guys, a stockbroker, boasted that he could get him on Shadow Creek (#89; North Las Vegas, Nevada), which at the time was a tough track to crack since owner Steve Wynn allowed only a handful of foursomes a day. "When I meet the guy in Vegas, he has this enormous limousine waiting to take me to the Mirage, where he is gambling with more money than I have ever seen in one place before or since," Herson says. "He was playing with chips I didn't recognize." On the course the next day, the stockbroker heavily touted a high-flying stock. Herson made a small investment and unfortunately learned a valuable lesson when the stock went belly-up soon after. "I figure the round at Shadow Creek cost me significantly more than the greens fee."

As for the quest's personal cost, Herson claims to have had the unwavering backing of his wife, Orin. "I did this in partnership with my wife," he says. "I asked her, 'If I'm going to do this, will I have your support?'" Based on my own fourteen years of experience with marriage, I found that difficult to buy, so I interviewed Orin separately before dinner one night. Turns out she was indoctrinated into Selwyn's passion early on. "Before we were ever married, I was listening to the radio and I heard that he had won a national golf tournament in South Africa," she said. "At that point I knew golf was going to be a very big part of our lives." With a twinkle in her eye she added, "But Selwyn is very smart. He knew exactly how to play this. He always made me part of the planning." For example, when Herson wanted to play Sawgrass (#57; Ponte Vedra, Florida), he induced his wife to come along by arranging for them to spend the following night—Valentine's Day—in South Beach, and to fly from there to the Dominican Republic so that he could tackle Casa de Campo (#34; La Romana). While she often skipped destinations that did not interest her, when she did come along she sampled the best hotels and spas in the world. "I could participate without ever being jealous of the process," she said.

He also had the support of his son, Jonathan, now twenty-three, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado. Over the past eight years, Herson has included Jonathan on many of the golf trips he has taken, including that stormy round at Lahinch. "The wind was blowing 30 or 40 m.p.h. and it was freezing," recalls Herson, sounding very much the proud father. "My son loved it. He never would have played on in those conditions unless I had to. And to this day we still talk about it."

Herson had a number of golf-related epiphanies along the way. On his flight to play The Country Club (#33) in Brookline, Massachusetts, he prepared by reading his friend Mark Frost's fabulous tome on the 1913 U.S. Open, The Greatest Game Ever Played (now a movie). "When I got to the course, the member who invited me had brought along another member who was a historian," Her son remembers. "And this guy was showing me spots on the course and saying things like, 'This is where Harry Vardon took a divot.'" On one hole, the historian pointed out that Vardon had hit a driver followed by a three-wood. The same hole today can be reached with a driver and a wedge, Herson says. "One of the sad things for me was to see how technology is wreaking havoc on some of these historic gems," he says.

Then there were the interpersonal challenges. Herson played a number of courses where language was such a barrier that he could not converse with his playing partners. At El Saler (#93; Valencia, Spain), he played the front nine with a woman who did not utter a word of English. On the back nine it was no better, when they were joined by a non-English-speaking couple. For a gregarious type like Herson, this is tantamount to golf torture. He also figures he played about ten of the courses by himself when he could not round up a member or the local pro.

Some of the members Herson did play with had their noses in the air, although he eventually won most of them over. At the ultra-exclusive Southern Hills (#41; Tulsa, Oklahoma), Herson and his member host played the first five holes in near-complete silence. "On the sixth hole the guy makes the first hole in one of his life, and after the round he would not let me leave the course," Herson recalls. "Then we went to dinner and he would not let me leave the restaurant. We were out until 2 a.m., and he said it was one of the best days of his life."

When you sit down with Herson and he starts talking about the quest, you do become convinced that there was a certain magic attached. Acquaintances introduced him to acquaintances who seemed eager to get involved. If you can't do it yourself, why not help a fellow golfer who has the resources, the drive and the time to get it done?"I've become very good friends with lots of people all over the world, and that just might be the single best fringe benefit of the whole thing," he says.

Not everyone buys into the deal, however. I talked with a mix of dif­ferent golfers and got a range of reactions to Herson's achievement. "I think I would rather play the top ten courses ten times each," scoffed John Carr, son of Joe Carr, Ireland's three-time amateur champion, and a member at two top-ten clubs.

When Golf updated its list of the world's top 100 last summer, Herson couldn't pass up the challenge to keep current. Of the eight new courses on the list, he had already played three. In early October he conquered two more (Hamilton Country Club, #84, Ancaster, Ontario; and Trump National, #87, Bedminster, New Jersey) and made a special trip to Asia later that month to play Tokyo Golf Club (#94) and Nine Bridges on Jeju Island, South Korea (#95). That left only Barnbougle in Bridport, Tasmania, Australia (#49), which he intended to visit before the year was out.

Once Herson plays Barnbougle, he will be in more or less the same place he was after holing that final putt at Kauri Cliffs: filled with mixed emotions and uncertain about what to take on next (at least until the 2007 list is released). "I think I may want to develop a golf course at some point," he says during our final conversation at Riviera. With his drive, this is not a remark to be taken lightly. "But I wouldn't develop one unless I thought it could make the top 100," he says, without a hint of irony. If he does build that course and it makes the list, the only downside for Herson will be that getting on will be no challenge at all.

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