18 Essential Golf Experiences
Published: July 2009
By Jeff Silverman
When you turn in your final scorecard, what will it show?Did you play the courses you dreamed of playing?Execute the shots you worked so hard to master?Present yourself as the sportsman your dad hoped you would be?To help you keep track, we humbly submit a checklist of a golf life to which you might aspire.
1. Rock the Cradle
“Say,” exclaimed Sam Snead when he first eyed the sacred swath on the edge of St. Andrews, “that looks like an old, abandoned golf course. What did they call it?” We all know the answer, and no golf life is complete until it’s joined the long march through time across the Swilcan Burn and back, a journey every great champion from Old Tom Morris on, save Hogan, has taken. But St. Andrews, golf’s Eden on the Eden estuary, is more than the sum of the Old Course’s parts, though some of those parts—the Road Hole and its bunker, the Valley of Sin, the Principal’s Nose, Hell Bunker, Granny Clark’s Wynd, the Spectacles, the Beardies, the Coffins, the adjacent Himalayas putting green and the feel of your pulse reaching warp speed as you approach the first tee, in the shadow of the R&A clubhouse—top every golfer’s greatest-hits list and should be honored. No, St. Andrews isn’t just a place. It’s a blissful state of mind, something that, in assaying the city and its unique atmosphere almost a century ago, Bernard Darwin identified as “that utter self-abandonment to golf.”
2. Do Augusta Right
April, Augusta and the Masters. Talk about sensory overload! So do the experience right. Inhale the bouquet of Magnolia Lane as you enter. Eye the carnival of azaleas. Taste the tang of pimento cheese. Take in the pre-Toonamint par-three competition. Marvel at the skill it takes for even the best golfers in the world to skip shots across the water on sixteen in practice. Stake your claim to a spot early in the opening round and watch the groups come through for several hours, then on Friday and Saturday follow your favorites over several holes, especially as they navigate the perils of Amen Corner. If one of those favorites is Tiger, even better: how sublime to watch the best of all time in his prime on one of the game’s most storied outposts. On Sunday, pray for a charge, and keep attuned for the roars, for although Sunday at the Masters may make for perfect television, in person it satisfies our Jones for the game even more.
3. Work the Ball
What’s the difference between a slice and a fade?A hook and a draw?Control—and lots of practice. What a sense of accomplishment to see a ball obey its master’s whim, to watch it turn uncannily in the proper direction to best access a tough pin position, or stay low to cut through wind, or hug the ground near the green to take advantage of the topography. Comprehending the physics behind how and why the ball flies the way it does makes any golfer a smarter golfer. Yet at every level of the game, the overall emphasis on length over finesse has turned the deft shotmaking skill of magicians like Bobby Jones and Lee Trevino and Severiano Ballesteros into an endangered species. Even Tiger, who works the ball with genius (his own Nike One Platinums are built to spin so he can maneuver them at will) rues the trend, but understands it. “Most of today’s young players,” he has said, “never had to work the ball growing up because they were more concerned about distance.” Buck the trend. Throw straightness a curve.
4. See the USA
It’s impossible to imagine a lifetime itinerary that doesn’t include a fair sampling of America’s great resorts. Pebble Beach?Atop everyone’s checklist. Bandon Dunes?Naturally. The American Club?Check. Pinehurst?Check. The Greenbrier, the Homestead, Sea Island and Sawgrass?Check, check, check and check. Kiawah?Check. The Broadmoor and the Sagamore?Check. Kapalua and Princeville?Check and double-check. Check one, check all. Each is a veto-proof line item in itself, with Pebble adding the allure of the photograph no golfer should pass up: sitting on the fence at the eighteenth tee, thoroughly Jacked on simply being there.
5. Play Away
Far away. No other game overflows with such fabulous landscapes in such distant destinations. The likes of Royal Melbourne, Barnbougle Dunes, Kingston Heath and Moonah Links in Australia. Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs in New Zealand. Nirwana in Bali. Hirono in Japan. Mission Hills in China. The Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail in Vietnam. Durban and Fancourt in South Africa. The wonderful world of golf keeps expanding—and beckoning. And as Alan Shepard demonstrated, many decades ago, even if we can’t yet swing on a star, there is always the moon.
6. Adore Dornoch
At Royal Dornoch, the transcendent Scottish links north of Inverness, a quintet of flags flies in anticipation of your arrival. Stop beneath those banners for a pre-drive snapshot before the Dornoch nameplate, then brace for one of the most stirring moments in golf: the theatrical parting of the gorse in the approach to the third tee. It reveals an unforgettable communion of links-land, hills, beach and sea. Not only did Old Tom Morris put his designer’s imprint on this famous course, the town itself gave the world Donald Ross—the family home on St. Gilbert Street still stands. Dornoch was Ross’s golf schoolroom, and his devotion to it ran deep. “Modesty forbids me saying more than it is the most beautifully situated links in the world,” he wrote, and no sentiment could stop Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw from agreeing.
7. Read the Classics
Though none of us needs a Darwin to suggest we golfers are a breed apart, the originator of the species whose function is to explore, dissect and explain why we are who we are and do what we do was a Darwin nonetheless. Bernard Darwin (1876–1961), Charles’s grandson, virtually invented the craft of golf writing, then perfected it through a half-century’s worth of insight, observation and survivingly fit prose. You’ll certainly evolve as a golfer just by reading him. Start with the natural selections in Bernard Darwin on Golf (edited by yours truly). Continue on to Darwin’s American protégé, Herbert Warren Wind, well represented in the collection Following Through. Like Darwin, Wind was a fine player who understood golf’s nobilities and its monkeyshines from the inside and mused on both with equal good humor.
8. Lighten Up
We all know how golf got its name: The other four-letter words were taken. Yet as maddening as this enterprise may be, we make it only more so by sacrificing the good spirit inherent in golf’s communal culture to petulant bouts of on-course self-loathing. Walter Hagen identified that propensity and pooh-poohed it. His counsel: “Don’t hurry. Don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” So when you’re on the golf course, appreciate where you are—even after a flub or foozle. Congratulate yourself for scrambling to save bogey when it could have been much worse. Admire the arc of a well-struck shot. Relish the putt that holds its line. Revel in the camaraderie, and uphold the game’s traditions of etiquette and sportsmanship: Be ready when it’s your turn, never stand in another’s line, replace divots, fix ball marks, and if you do happen to come across a few flowers now and then, stop and whiff one for the Haig.
9. Dig into the Rules
Yes, the rules of golf are daunting, but if we’re not playing by them, we’re not playing golf. Back in the 1950s, Joe Dey, the USGA’s savvy chief, compressed the complexities into three commonsense principles: (1) Play the course as you find it, (2) play the ball as it lies, and (3) if you can’t do that, play fair. That’s a good place to start, but it’s just a start. Unfamiliarity with the essentials of Dey’s third principle leaves the unschooled dangling metaphysically out of bounds. It’s not necessary to know all the fine print, but a confident working knowledge helps keep rounds on the square. Know when to give and take relief. Know when a hazard is lateral and what that means. Know when an obstruction is moveable and when it’s not. Grounding yourself in the rules makes for one less doubt to contend with in a game filled with doubts. Besides, as James Bond showed Goldfinger—check Rule 15-3.a—a healthy knowledge can provide a valuable leg up toward victory.
10. Go Irish Green
Listen as the names dance off the tongue: Lahinch, Ballybunion, Waterville, Dooks, Tralee, Doonbeg and Dingle. Ask where you find a pot of links at the end of the rainbow, and the answer leads to the Emerald Isle’s southwest quadrant. The wild land breeds a wild concentration of wild courses, ideal for essaying in groups of four. This rugged patch of Ireland may well be golf’s greenest destination—and its most welcoming buddy trip.
11. Enter the Sanctums
Pine Valley. Cypress Point. It can be easier to pass a caddie through the eye of a needle than to enter these exclusive, elusive and extraordinary enclaves, but that’s why they’re Pine Valley and Cypress Point. The world’s top-ranked courses are also its most coveted invites. The moment one comes—to either—drop everything, not just for the golf but for the overall assault on the senses. Nothing else in the game is quite like crossing the railroad tracks that separate Pine Valley from the rest of civilization; stopping at the guard gate to find your name on the list; being greeted at the clubhouse by caddie master Lenny Ward (a fixture since the 1950s) as he directs you to the upstairs locker room; picking up a logo ball in the pro shop (cash only, no credit cards); examining the course map painted on the wall in the Big Room; dressing for dinner; sampling the turtle soup; and spending the night on site in one of the guest cottages. All of that makes Pine Valley Pine Valley, as much as Hell’s Half Acre, the Devil’s Asshole and a stratospheric slope rating of 155 from the tips. A bit easier to gain access to is a host of other classic clubs, each occupying its own niche in golf history, each boasting its own traditions and ethos. Think Shinnecock, the National Golf Links, Winged Foot, The Country Club, Newport, Merion, Oakmont, Baltusrol, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Seminole, San Francisco Golf Club and Riviera. One good connection to any of these sanctuaries is all you’ll need to make you feel that you’ve arrived as a golfer and that you do, indeed, belong. Even if just for a day.
12. Ace a Hole
What’s more divine than hitting one shot—and only one shot—then marking a vertical digit on the scorecard?Though the odds of making a hole in one are in the neighborhood of one in 12,500, that neighborhood is open to all, and boasts an impressive population. It goes back to Young Tom Morris, who scored the first recorded ace, on the eighth at Prestwick in the 1869 British Open. Tiger notched the first of his eighteen when he was just eight. Elsie McLean, the oldest acer in the books, had to wait until she was 102. And in the space of just two hours, Doug Weaver, Mark Wiebe, Jerry Pate and Nick Price all marked ones for their efforts on the sixth hole at Oak Hill in the ’89 U.S. Open. No course on Tour has yielded more than Riviera, and no player can boast more than California amateur Norman Manley, whose fifty-nine aces include ones on back-to-back par fours in 1964. You never know when it’s your time, so be prepared. Bring a hopeful heart to every par three—and a witness.
13. Win Something That Matters
Skins and Nassaus have their place, but they aren’t commemorated on trophies or clubhouse winners boards. A weekend victory among friends, no matter how gratifying, can’t compare with winning an organized competition. “There are two distinct kinds of golf,” Bobby Jones insisted, “Just plain golf and tournament golf.” They are not the same, and the boards and assorted hardware are testament to valuing the difference. Tournament golf, as Jones well knew, is “terribly hard work.” It is golf under punishing pressure, a constant test of nerve and nerves, and triumphing beneath that rubric deserves recognition, both for the self-satisfaction and for the respect of others it engenders. It hardly matters whether it’s the Claret Jug or a plate from the third flight of a member-guest. What does matter is its message: tournament winner.
14. Know One Course Intimately
“About this one course in the world,” conceded Bernard Darwin, “I am a hopeless and shameful sentimentalist and I glory in my shame.” We should all be blessed to be so enraptured as the writer was of Aberdovey, the links on the west coast of Wales that he returned to throughout his life. But like any deep romance, this one takes work to sustain and seeks regular renewal. To truly know a golf course, embrace its history, discover its secrets and learn its nuances. Feel it through your feet. Annotate a personal yardage book. Get the long and the short of it from each set of tees. True, the course you love may not always love you back, but that’s life. At least you’ll appreciate the finer points of a complicated relationship.
15. Collect to Connect
All golfers are hyphenates, and the descriptive that fits most comfortably in the second position is “collector.” Wherever we wander to test what passes for our game, we generally bring back shirts, hats, pencils, logo balls and whatever else isn’t structurally reinforcing the pro shop. All are tangible—even useful—reminders of where we’ve been. But one of the joys of golf is the variety of extant artifacts that have no use at all anymore other than to be held in our hands and admired as reminders of where the game has been and how we fit into its gloried and continuing procession. Collectibles come in all shapes and sizes—old hickories, gutties, trophies, art, books and autographs—and are peddled in myriad ways, from reputable dealers to eBay. The most coveted objects are pricey. The National Gallery of Scotland paid some $2 million (the pinnacle for a single relic) in 2002 for The Golfers, Charles Lees’s iconic 1847 painting of a match played at St. Andrews; a featherie ball can fetch four figures; and a single long-nosed putter from the early 1700s was recently gaveled down at Sotheby’s for $181,000 (with no cure for the yips included). Still, clubs from Old Tom Morris’s shop, turn-of-the-last-century balls with curious cover patterns, and classic first editions can all be found for less than the price of a round at Pebble. Expensive?Sure. But purchasing even one item you’d otherwise have no business splurging on makes a statement—a personal homage to a personal passion—that no one but you needs to appreciate or understand.
16. Shoot Your Age
It’s a remarkable accomplishment whenever it comes about, but the younger we are, the better our game has to be. Fifty-nine is the standard, recorded, just once, by a player that age (more than thirty years ago). But the route through vigorous longevity has much to recommend it, too, not the least of which is vigorous longevity. Sam Snead regularly slammed into and through his age, even on the PGA Tour, but he didn’t live long enough to cover the spread by twenty-one, the way Canadian Ed Ervasti did in 2007, carding a seventy-two at age ninety-three. The secrets?Good health. Continued exercise. The right clubs and ball to maximize distance. Plenty of practice. A decent overall game to provide hope, and a short game solid enough to save precious strokes. All of which is definitely worth shooting for.
17. Hail the King
Imagine golf over the past half-century without Arnold Palmer. Impossible, right?So thank him personally. But he’s Arnold Palmer! Precisely. In a game built on relationships, we’ve all at least imagined some kind of personal relationship with Arnie—credit his blue-collar roots, his go-for-broke style, his genial TV presence and the grace with which he’s aged. What’s so astonishing about Palmer is that he’s also maintained a remarkable relationship with us, in large part because he has always seemed approachable in ways that the two giants who’ve followed, Jack and Tiger, never have. The Army may have decamped, but the King holds court regularly at his Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, home of the annual Arnold Palmer Invitational. You may run into him there, and if you do, shake his hand and get a grip on what’s so royal about the royal and ancient endeavor.
18. Pass It On
If you have introduced a child (your son, daughter or nephew, perhaps) to the game, there will come a day when he or she trumps you over eighteen. It’s not your loss. Rather, it’s a rite of passage. Be proud. Be happy. Realize that long after you’re gone, your presence in the game will play on.