Golf Road Trip: Royal Links in Las Vegas

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It’s looking like a slow traffic week for me posting on the blog this week. I’ve got to catch up on some writing commitments. But I wanted to do a photo post today because I put a few of these on Twitter last week and made people who haven’t played here curious.

This is Royal Links in Las Vegas. It’s what’s called a replica course, meaning holes that replicate – or for legal purposes are “inspired by” – golf holes taken from the rotation of the British Open courses. There’s something similar for PGA Tour championship courses called Tour 18.

Anyway, I played Royal Links last February and thought I was going to make it back last week. Alas, it didn’t happen. So instead of a review, which I will go back to do some time, here’s just a photo fly-by on the course with a little more info.

This is the only course I’ve played in Vegas so, unfortunately, I’m not much help with course recommendations, though I know people who have lived in LV and can share their preferences.

Out of the myriad of golf options in Vegas I chose Royal Links because I was still in golf school at the time and was taking a course design class. We studied links courses, and though I had played links-like courses before, I had never played one that aimed to so closely replicate the look and playing characteristics.

To be a true links course you have to located on a body of water – a sea, an ocean, a fjord – so Royal Links doesn’t qualify in that regard, but I did get the wind in the afternoon so I did get to play the course with that other characteristic we ascribe to true links golf.

I had a blast. I know others who have enjoyed this place as well. I’ve also heard someone call it “fake.” I don’t know if Old Tom Morris shows up on this person’s Ancenstry.com, but I can only agree in the sense that, yes, I wasn’t actually at St. Andrews. I didn’t recall a plane ride or passport before teeing off, thus, I didn’t have that expectation. But you can bet your gorse that you won’t be wondering if it’s real when you’re trying to recover from waist-high grass on the back.

That said, my tour of Royal Links begins at top with the photo of the clubhouse, a castle that can be seen from most holes on the course. The flags flying at the top let you know when the wind has arrived.

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       They do this on every tee. They tell you what hole is being replicated and a little history of the hole. I dig this in a big way. And then you can see the first tee and the bridge that leads to your Open experience in the desert.

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     We’ve all seen these tee boxes when watching the Open, right? It’s these little details that Royal Links does a great job of getting right.

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      This is No. 8. Let’s play a little “Jeopardy.” Under “British Open” for $500, Gene Sarazen famously aced this hole during his last British Open appearance.

      What is …

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     … the Postage Stamp at Troon. As you see, it’s an incredibly short par-3, but beware of the square bunker you can barely see on the right. It’s a tough up and down from there.

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     And it wouldn’t be a links course without hundreds of these lying in wait, right?

     They give you a yardage book to play the course – and you’d be in a world of hurt without one. You most don’t see these of the bunkers from the tee. All you mostly see if fairway and green.

      I didn’t hit a single trap on the front until I finally had the moment I’d been waiting for on No. 9. A long tee shot down the middle found … a bunker. And my only out was a 56-degree wedge. Then my approach found a bunker right thanks to assist from the wind. I took double to dent what was going to be a pretty nice number.

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    And you could hardly have a British Open replica course without the Road Hole from St. Andrews, right? This is the turn and starts you on what I found to be a much tougher nine than the front.

    I’m proud to say I parred the Road Hole, which is regarded as possibly the toughest par-4 in the world. I drew my tee shot around this sign and found the middle of the fairway. My approach ended up a little long, but short of the wall. I got up and down for 4.

     And that’s where my photos run out. But I will say, again, that I thoroughly enjoyed my round here and highly recommend it, especially for those who’ve never had a links experience, or one like this.

     One of the best things about golf is the array of our playing fields, which is something golf has over every other sport in a big, big way. It gives golf character and an ability to adapt to every environment – it’s still the only sport to have been played on the moon.

     You don’t quite know the game until you’ve known it like this because links is how golf began and has influenced every course every built since. Until you and your clubs can jump the pond, this will do. Tee it up, take it in and take your medicine in the bunkers. Cheers.

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Pinehurst A “Major” Advertiser

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I don’t mean to go all Editor & Publisher on you, but I had to point out this Pinehurst ad in this month’s issue of ClubCorp’s Private Clubs Magazine.

When you’ve been in the business for more than two decades, including 10 years in magazines, these are the things you notice.

This appears in the first few pages of the magazine,and it just stops you. It’s a clean ad with a tremendous photo and smart copy that promotes Pinehurst No. 2 hosting both the men’s and women’s U.S. Open this year.

It reads: “In June 2014, the greatest men and women in golf will play Pinehurst No. 2 … Until then, the first tee is open.”

A simple yet brilliant play on golfers’ desire to follow in the footsteps of the pros – or precede them. This ad makes me want to get on plane tomorrow. Now that’s a good ad.

Of local note, Scott Slater of San Diego hamburger fame as the owner of Slater’s 50/50, is also featured in the issue, which reminds that I need to get back to Slater’s. The only time I’ve been there I had no advance notice about what a goliath of a hamburger I would be served, and I was defeated soundly by a very tasty burger. A rematch is mandatory, preferably after a suitable fast.

Slater is a ClubCorp member at the University Club atop Symphony Towers, thus meriting the profile.

One for the Books: A Look at the Course Record at Twin Oaks

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      While doing some reporting for a future piece on Twin Oaks Golf Course in San Marcos, I discovered that we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the course record being shot.

Blaire McKeithen carded a 61 last January during Farmers Insurance Open pre-qualifying, which takes place again next week at Twin Oaks.

Anyway, for those who play Twin Oaks regularly, I thought it’d be fun to post the scorecard from the record round, and Twin Oaks Head Golf Professional Troy Ferguson graciously provided it.

Ferguson makes an interesting observation about the record round:

“People look at the yardage (6,535 from the back) and think they can overpower this course, when it’s really a course-management course.  The card for the course record doesn’t have one eagle on it.”

So, for the record, here’s the record:

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     That’s a lot of red. Gives us all something to shoot for.

The Year in Par-3s, Part I

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No. 5 at Kapalua’s Bay Course

If you’ve paid somewhat close attention to the blog since it started four months ago, you may have noticed a slight bias toward par-3s.

This isn’t because the blog likes par-4s or 5s any less; it’s more of a visual thing. The overall goal of providing quality content on the blog includes visuals (golf’s a visual game, and perhaps the most visual game, right?), and par-3s just happen to be largely easier to photograph. That’s not to say you can’t make good or even great photos of some 4s and 5s (you can), but par-3s are just a little easier and even the most novice photographer can grasp why.

Anyway, one thing I’ve also noticed about courses is that great ones almost always have great par-3s. When reflecting on my golf season, that’s one thing that occurred to me. I tried to think of my favorite courses throughout the year and in nearly every instance I could easily recall at least one truly outstanding par-3.

And, as we know, par-3s in golf come in all shapes and sizes (legal limit being 275 yards, I believe) and beauty or appreciation can often be in the eye of the beholder (I’ll take a one-stroke cliché penalty there) with an obvious birdie/bogey bias. We don’t tend to the love the holes (or courses) that don’t love us back.

Well, regardless of what ended up on my card, I can say I love all the par-3s I’m about to list.

Since golf is a game of nines, here are nine of my favorite par-3s from the year that, I think, represent the range of what has undoubtedly been the best golf year of my life. I’m going to simply give course, hole number and reflection on these unless the exact yardages are really necessary. I’d like this to be a visual joy ride as much as anything. And there is no attempt to rank here, although my No. 1 is hardly a mystery.

Also, for the purposes of being blog-friendly, we’ll do this in three parts throughout the week.

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No. 5 at the Bay Course, Kapalua (Maui/Hawaii)

We’ll start with the hole of the year, regardless of par or score. The pinnacle of my golf season was standing on this tee box in Maui in July.

No. 5 is the second of the consecutive ocean holes on the front nine and the epitome of golfing on the ocean.

The name Kapalua means “arms embracing the sea” and you rather feel the sea embracing you on this stretch – or trying to blow you off the island depending on the day. Playing out and back on an emerald peninsula, you are completely surrounded by the ocean.

We had a gentle breeze the day we played, and I could’ve stood on this tee box for days. It’s golf heaven, as I currently know it.

If you’ve ever been, or have golfed in a similar tropical scenario, just viewing the photo probably already has transported you there.

But for those who haven’t been …

Yes, the water is that clear, and waves are crashing all around. You may need to zoom in a little to clearly see the pin, but it was in the front of an undulating green where the wacky physics of Hawaii golf are fully in play.

Arnold Palmer did some fabulous work here. I’ve never seen a hole that fits my eye more, and possibly perhaps a little too much.

The seductive quality of the hole, and the lack of a guarantee you’ll ever get back here, makes you want to go for broke and chase the ace of your dreams, risking water or crashing on the rocks into a very serene OB.

My playing partner, who had played here before, thankfully talked me out of it.

“You don’t need to go for the green,” he said. “Play it out left and let gravity take over.”

That proved to be some wise caddying. I hit a smooth 7-iron and watched my ball find the fairway and track right to the fringe of the green. I walked off perfectly content with a two-putt par.

We played a lot of great golf over three rounds in Hawaii, but I didn’t play a more beautiful golf hole than this. It speaks to your golf soul and you spend the rest of your round playing blissfully with your head in the clouds. Bogeys couldn’t dent me the rest of the day.

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No. 17 at Journey at Pechanga (Temecula)

And now for an entirely different kind of “awe” … as in awe-fully hard.

This is the monster par-3 that waits two holes from the finish at Journey at Pechanga. This was the hardest golf hole I played all year, made all the more so by playing it from the tips – 200 yards, all carry, into a mid-afternoon gust. Gulp.

A fairly solidly struck 3-wood never had a chance, although my playing partner, a former teaching pro, reached the horizontal oblong green with a terrific Rescue that just caught the right side.

A course staff member confided that he’ll go here most days and hit one from the back just to see if he can “get lucky.” Yes, this is what a golf lottery shot looks like.

Understandably, this is one of the holes that gives Pechanga its fearsome reputation, but difficulty aside, it’s also one of the holes that gives you views unlike many other places. The four “view” holes on the course highlight a course that is still pretty great when it brings you down from the mountains.

If you descend with a par at 17, you’ll have bragging rights in the bar and grill because it’s doubtful you’ll have much scorecard company.

I need another run at 17 in 2014 and to try it from the blue tees. Put a par here on my wish list for the New Year.

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No. 8 at Royal Links (Las Vegas)

I played Royal Links in February, thus the dormancy, and I was quite stoked to do so.

At the time, I was taking my Golf Course Landscape and Design class at golf school and we had just studied links courses. Royal Links, for those unfamiliar, is a replica course with holes modeled after those in the British Open rotation, all routed around a clubhouse that is built like a castle.

I had played links-like golf before but nothing that aimed to so closely recreate the British experience. I loved this place and walked away with a major appreciation for links-style golf. I can’t wait to do it again.

Until you stand on the tee box of a par-4 with a yardage book in hand that shows 10 scattered fairway pot bunkers, and you see none, you can’t truly grasp the challenge of this style of golf.

The more you know your British Open history, the more you can appreciate Royal Links. For those who don’t know, the stone hole markers that are designed like books are only too happy to clue you in.

This is No. 8, the par-3 taken from Royal Troon nicknamed “The Postage Stamp.” Played at a mere 153 yards from the tips, this is where Gene Sarazen made ace at age 71 in his final British Open appearance.

The photo doesn’t quite do this one justice, but what it doesn’t show is a square bunker off the right side of the green. I recall it clearly because I was in it.

It wasn’t the jail that many British Open bunkers can be, but it was challenge nonetheless, so for a score, let’s just go with “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” shall we?

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         Stay tuned for parts II and III of my par-3 series throughout the week.

        

Highlight Hole: No. 9 at Wilshire CC

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You know a golf course has been around a long time when it has a Ben Hogan story. Having been established in 1919, venerable Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles is that type of place.

I played there for a charity event on Monday and was clued in on the lore of Ben Hogan, the ninth hole and the Hollywood sign. The ninth is a 418-yard dogleg-left par-4 that begins with a blind tee shot. Wilshire CC is located in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, which is visible at several points on the course but most prominently on No. 9 because it’s part of the backdrop, as is the sign for the high-rise El Royale apartment building, which you see on the right. The green is visually located beneath the Hollywood sign.

The story I was told by my playing partner actually involves the El Royale sign, but I searched online and found an LA Times story that says it’s actually the Hollywood sign, which makes more sense, but the gist is the same.

Apparently Hogan, the master ball-striker of his time and perhaps all-time, arrived at the ninth tee and was told by his caddie to aim at the Hollywood sign. A few moments passed and Hogan had neither spoke nor addressed his ball. The caddie interjected and asked, “Mr. Hogan, do you have a question?”

“Yes,” Hogan replied. “Which letter?”

A former sportswriter friend once told me a similar Hogan story about him playing a practice round where the sightline involved a water tower. When Hogan played the course the second day, he was reminded about the water tower being the aiming point and said, “Actually, it’s two feet to the left.”

Now that’s precision.

I played No. 9 by hitting my usual draw and hoping it would follow the fairway. It didn’t. We found it on the right side in some very thick rough and I got to chop it out from 175 yards. My approach was left and fortunately found a rare safe landing spot amongst the myriad of bunkers that guard this hole and, for that matter, every hole at Wilshire. It’s the most severely bunkered course I’ve ever played and fortunately the format we played has us rarely playing out of them.

Anyway, after a pitch and a tricky two-putt, I took 5 on No. 9, but walked off happy to have had the experience of following in the footsteps of a golf legend.

Thanks to the staff at Wilshire for being gracious hosts for a quintessential LA golf experience and thanks also to the charity sponsor, Prototypes, which advocates for mothers with children who are going through recovery to keep their children out of foster care. This was their fourth annual tournament. I’ll be providing additional information about the event in a separate post.

Golf Day Trip: San Clemente Muni

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While playing Monarch Beach last spring, I received a course recommendation from two Orange County playing partners that stuck with me: the municipal course at San Clemente.

I had been in California for eight months and that one was new to me, even though I’d played in the San Clemente area before.

“Ocean views, great value and a course that will surprise you,” they said. Intrigued, I filed it away for future exploration.

Well, on Monday, I realized my afternoon was open and decided it was a good day for a break from my regular course rotation and recalled San Clemente muni.

What I discovered was a course that fit what I was told to a T and certainly exceeded my expectations. I’ll definitely be back and want to relay to you a little of what makes this course special.

For this feature, I’ll suspend the course review format and just give you an overview, some course history and a few hole highlights.

The course begins in a very familiar muni-style – wide, straight, flat – for the first five holes, but then gradually morphs into a different course and ultimately a drastically different, and unexpected, experience on the back.

I was fortunate to walk on with two playing partners who were very familiar with the course and its history, which I knew very little prior of to Monday.

Here’s a little of the history, courtesy of the course’s web site:

The San Clemente Golf Club has long been a favorite of Southern California golfers. Built by renowned Golf Course Architect William “Billy” Bell on land donated by city founder Ole Hanson, the course consisted of nine holes on opening day in 1930, with what is now the back nine being added in 1955.

         Municipally owned and operated since its inception, the San Clemente Golf Club is aptly known as the “Pride of the Pacific.”

The golf course boasts sweeping ocean views, interesting elevation changes, a challenging-yet-fun layout reminiscent of the golden age of golf, and best of all, reasonable green fees.

         The moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean ensures frost-free winters and cool summer breezes. Popular from its very beginning, San Clemente now hosts roughly 95,000 rounds per year, making the “muni” one of the most popular courses anywhere.            

Those familiar with California golf architecture will recognize William Bell, the designer of many California public courses, including, most notably, Torrey Pines.

Like I said, the first five holes are fairly straightforward, but then you get to six, which is a dogleg right, uphill par-4. It’s the first time you really have to work the ball and, well, being in the trees on the left, I had my work cut for me.  This hole finishes next to the clubhouse and then you cross the road and discover three holes that foreshadow the experience you get on the back.

There’s an uphill par-5 going out that plays longer than the 485 on the card, and then you’re pointed back toward the coast and get your first true glimpse of the ocean. It provides the backdrop for a whole lot of golf hole – a 419-yard par-4 into an ocean breeze and buffeted by bunkers. Given what you’ve played up until now, it’s a bit jarring to be faced with such a stiff test, but it serves notice that the course plans to challenge you from here on out.

The front nine closes with a terrific little 165-yard (from the blues) par-3 with an undulating green, different than what you’ve mostly played up to know and more like what you’ll find on the back. I underestimated the wind here and flew the green, leaving me a delicate pitch back that stopped well below the hole. (Note: The greens became deceivingly quick on the second nine. Our group didn’t drop many putts.)

Previewing the back, one of my playing partners told me, “You’ve got some very special golf holes coming up.” And after three holes that were more reminiscent of the start of the course, he was right.

Here’s a hole-by-hole of 13 to the finish (yardages from the blue tees):

No. 13, 205-yard par-3: You’ve got the ocean breeze at your back as you stand looking at a fairway that’s steeply sloped on the left side and will kick your ball right. I hit what felt like a flushed 5-iron and came up short. Apparently the hole plays a bit long, too.

         No. 14, 304-yard par-4: Yes, you read that right – 304, seemingly a baby par-4, or is it? Hardly. The whole plays dead uphill through a somewhat narrow fairway to a green surrounded by bunkers. Play for placement here. Iron or hybrid off the tee and then get ready for an approach to a green that slopes away from you. Not all what you’d expect from just looking at the scorecard and the beginning of a golf roller-coaster ride to the finish.

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No. 15, 196-yard par-3: An elevated par-3, and the course’s signature hole. And what a view. Again, ocean breeze at your back and gorgeous green and palm trees below. I decided not to club down here and didn’t regret it. I needed every yard and found a little bail-out area right for an up-and-down par. Part of the reward for reaching the green here is that you get your first fully panoramic view of the ocean. And it’s stunning.

No. 16, 387-yard par-4: The trickiest tee shot on the back as it’s a dog-leg left with a huge cluster of trees blocking the middle of the fairway. You can glimpse the green to the left. You choices: Carry a chasm 250 yards and try to get close, or hit it out right and play safe but have a long approach.

What you don’t see from the tee is the drastic drop off in the middle of the fairway. You need to layup to about 150 yards to avoid having a downhill lie to an elevated green. A lot going on here. Choose wisely.

No. 17, 358-yard par-4: The back closes with parallel par-4s. As is often my fate with parallel holes, I found the opposite fairway and ended up chopping out of thick grass. Thus, I recommend hitting the fairway here and taking the easy road on this uphill hole.

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     No. 18, 408-yard par-4: You close your round with the ocean on your right and the clubhouse in the distance, a fantastic finishing panorama. It’s a great finishing hole that slopes downhill at around 150 yards to reward big hitters. Provides a great chance for a finishing birdie if you sink that last slick putt.

Since we teed off around 2, when walked off, the sun was setting behind San Clemente Island, which you can get a glimpse of from the practice putting green. It was the last beautiful surprise in a round full of them. I truly enjoyed my round here and will surely be back.