Tuesday, August 28, 2012

playing the top 100

I wrote a story about my quest to play the Top 100 golf courses in the US for Avid Golfer magazine.
Here is a link to that article

I was standing on the 18th tee box at Pebble Beach and my caddie said to me, “You are standing on the tee box of the greatest finishing hole in all of golf.”
Something about that statement resonated with me, and as I walked up the fairway I could feel I was walking in the spike marks of the greats: Hogan, Nicklaus, Palmer, Woods. After the round I wondered how I could recreate this experience? Then it hit me – play the top 100 courses in the United States.
And just like that, a dream was born.
First, to accomplish this, be aware that this was not a cheap venture. It took me 10 years, but it was worth every penny and every ounce of energy I put into it. If you decide to do this, the airlines, hotels, restaurants and car rental companies will be very grateful to you. And you probably will find that the guest fees are but a small portion of your costs.
Sixteen courses currently on this list are public or at least public access, and in at least three cases you can hit two courses in one trip to a resort (Bandon Trails and Bandon Dunes; Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill; Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits). Each of these trips will cost anywhere from $1,200-$2,000 for rooms, golf and caddies, plus airfare.
That’s the easy part (if you consider earning and spending the money easy). The hard part is getting on the private courses.
It’s going to take some begging and pleading to get yourself an invitation to the most exclusive clubs in America. For instance, I called my friend in Los Angeles, who called his cousin in Baltimore. She asked her husband, who called his uncle, who would become my host at Baltimore Country Club (Five Farms). That is how my life went for 10 years of this quest.
What I also found was people love to help, and I feel that is especially true in the golf community.
A business colleague of mine, Steve B., told me, “my dad’s a doctor and his partner is a member at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y.” Steve called his dad who then called his partner. “I would be glad to host Larry,” he told Steve’s dad.
I had never met this man before in my life, but after a few telephone conversations I was told I would be staying at his house with him and his wife and they would be picking me up at the airport.
Somewhere in the human universe is the “mother lode person.” Mine was a Wall Street broker, John, whom I met through a lady named Donna, who lives in Monterey, Calif. (all the way across the U.S.). I called John and told him my challenge – to play Golf Digest’s top 100 U.S. courses. My goal was to arrange a golf game at Garden City Golf Club.
“Any friend of Donna is a friend of mine, Larry, so consider it done,” John said.
Then he dropped a bombshell.
“While you are here what other courses do you need in the New York area? The person at the desk next to me is a member at Shinnecock and the guy at the desk next to him is a member at Baltusrol.”
He arranged four courses on that trip and two more on a return trip. Then one day John asked, “How about Columbus, Ohio? I am a member at the Golf Club and can also arrange Double Eagle.”
To say that John quickly became my new best friend is an understatement.
Pine Valley seems to always stand at No. 1 and the demand to play there is great. But it has nearly 1,000 members, so finding one is not as hard as you may think. Even though they are scattered across the country, many live in a 50-mile radius of P.V.
Here are some things you don’t want to miss!
Yes, this goal is all about the golf courses, but there is so much more to many of these experiences. For example, every guest at Augusta National Golf Club stays in one of the cabins. I stayed in the Firestone Cabin, which that alone was a huge treat. The dining room has no menus because the chef prepares whatever you want.
I also toured the Masters Champions locker room, the Crow’s Nest (where the amateurs in the Masters Tournament sleep), the media room, the Eisenhower Cabin (where the former president lived for several years) and, of course, the Butler Cabin. Where’s my green jacket?
The next morning we started on the par-3 course and then continued to the 18-hole course. If you’re one of the lucky few to get an invite, don’t miss an opportunity to play the par-3 course. If there were a top 100 in the world list of par-3 courses, Augusta National would have to be No. 1.
As I was getting in the car to leave at the end of the day, my host reminded me, “Larry when you wake up tomorrow morning, remember, this actually happened; this was not a dream.”
There are many challenges to getting on Augusta National, but one that is overwhelming is the members live all over the United States. You are not just asking someone to spend four hours to play golf with you; you are asking the member to travel quite a distance to spend the day with you. That is a big request. And don’t worry about the group ahead or behind you. A big day at Augusta National is five foursomes.
The history and memorabilia at places like East Lake in Atlanta, where Bobby Jones grew up playing golf (his former house still stands across from the club), is unbelievable. The locker room at Seminole will stop you in your tracks as you gaze on the history depicted on the wall there. The locker room at Milwaukee Country Club has an atmosphere that is incomparable. It stands near the top of the best 100 locker rooms list (yes, there is one of those lists, too). And for you Texans, standing in front of Ben Hogan’s locker with his hat, sweaters and, of course, 1-iron at Colonial, or just standing on the section of the range where Mr. Hogan hit balls almost every day, is quite inspiring.
The Tuscan style steaks at Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska are unlike any other, as is the legendary peanut butter, jelly and bacon sandwich at Fishers Island. And if you are a car buff, don’t miss the collection at Rich Harvest Farms.
At one point, a quest like this becomes as much, or more, about the people you meet and become friends with as it is about conquering the real estate. The networking takes on a life of its own. The telephone is a large part of the networking, but you can also use a blog or an email list to keep people informed.
Is this hard?
It depends on what you mean by hard. Networking your way onto these courses takes serious time and effort. But the friends you make will be well worth it.
Are the courses hard? You can bet the championship courses are a true challenge. The pro at Oakmont told me that in the few days prior to the last U.S. Open that was played there, members were quitting after just a few holes. Even without a U.S. Open set-up, I thought it was the hardest course I ever set foot on. Also, consider yourself a hero if you don’t four-putt at least one green at Augusta National.
This quest is not for the faint of heart. It took me 10 years, and because the list changed five times in those 10 years I actually played 117 courses to complete the 2002 list.
So go do it and have a blast!
Larry Berle is a golf travel writer who has played the entire Golf Digest list of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses and wrote a book about it: “A Golfers Dream.” Learn more at www.GolfersDreamBook.com.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Mighty Majestic Oaks

Mighty Majestic Oaks

by Larry Berle

Majestic Oaks Golf Club is located in Ham Lake MN  just a 25 mile drive north of Downtown Minneapolis.  This is the home to 3 golf courses, The 18 hole signature course, playing to 7073 championship yards, The Crossroads course playing to 6396 yards  which was designed by Garett Gill and of course the executive course which is par 29  (two par 4’s and seven par 3s.  That is a total of 45 holes.
The signature course, which we are playing today was designed by Charles Maddox.

This is the place that is also home to snow golf, for those that need their golf fix in the middle of winter.  The holes are 50-150 yards long and you play with yellow tennis balls. The fairways are groomed, but everything else is a hazard. The holes are six inches wide, the flags frozen in place, and if the golf isn’t challenging enough, playing in the freezing cold will be.  Its cheap $7.00 and if you need it they will throw in a cup of hot chocolate. They expect to do over 3000 rounds this winter.  But its seasonal, ya gotta wait till the snow flyies.
With 45 holes and an enormous banquet facility that can serve 600 for a sit down dinner. So they can host a good sized wedding and a post golf tournament banquet simultaneously.
Majestic Oaks hosts close to 150 golf events a year and over twenty of them are large enough that they take up both courses. They have 28 leagues, hosted 115 weddings last year, have a boot hockey league, and in Fall and Spring host “Glow Ball” golf events.  This is a very busy place.   General Manager, Dan Jacott  told me “ We are having a terrific year financially.” There are not many golf courses these days that can say that.
Last year they were host to the 2011 Women's state Publinx  and recently hosted the Remax Long drive qualifier.
They get all this traffic because it’s a wonderful course at bargain rates.
Playing behind me are the Mueller brothers.  Between them one of them has won the club championship  12 years in a row.
The opening par five is a beautiful way to start.  It’s a dogleg left  (there are 6 dogleg lefts on the front nine)  Like most of the holes here it is tree lined but rarely on this course do the trees  pinch in the fairways  and if you miss the fairway, you may have a tree to contend with but they are sparse enough that you are rarely “in jail.”  But the rough is plenty penal, so keep it in the fairway. The greens are large, making for an abundance of pin placements. The greens are not only in good shape but putt true and hold their line.  The sand is consistent and not hard to hit from  (I know I was in it a few times)
There are four sets of tees, and at the tee boxes the distances from each tee box are clearly marked  (you are going to need it because the carts do not have GPS).
The course was in terrific shape but with all the traffic it gets, they have more than their share of divots on the fairways.  And unlike most public courses, they have a full locker room with 6 showers and towels.

IF you go:
701 Bunker Lake Blvd. NE
Ham Lake, MN 55304
Phone: (763) 755-2140

Larry Berle is a travel writer who writes on many travel topics but specializes in golf travel.  He is author of A GOLFERS DREAM: HOW A REGULAR GUY CONQUERED THE GOLF DIGEST LIST OF AMERICAS TOP 100 GOLF COURSES.   Learn more about his book at www.GolfersDreamBook.com