One Week of Golf Heaven

Photo Aug 04, 12 28 00 PMIt has long been my belief that America possesses no finer quality of golf than you’ll find in the state of Michigan during summertime. Sure, we all wrestle to cram our sticks into travel cases in the dead of winter, but from June to October the undisputed champ of golf in this nation is located in the Mitten.

This author has long acknowledged to any and all, that I have been spoiled over the last 17 years of hosting Michigan Golf Live. Hosting a radio and television program has opened a remarkable number of doors to an unbeatable roster of courses that have often resulted in friends and viewers reminding me of how much they would welcome the chance to trade places for a few months.

Well, this may be the ideal time for me to issue a content advisory to those who suffer from golf envy. You may wish to click over to a blog featuring a less emotional topic, like “5 Creative Ways To Launch Your First Rap Album.”

Why would I encourage those jealous golfers to turn the channel?

Because from July 31st to August 4th, my son and I spent a week exploring what can only be described as Golf Heaven – Oakland Hills South, Arcadia Bluffs, and Crystal Downs.

Incredible. Blessed. Spoiled. Thankful.

While the coolest part of the journey will always be the fact that I was able to spend time on the road and the course with my son, we were also excited to introduce some newcomers to a couple of the courses along the way.

I have no intention of boring you with a recap of the quality of our play. Let me summarize that part of the travelogue with one simple assessment: we played poorly.

Instead of dwelling on the scorecard, I’d like you to see the courses through the eyes of our playing partners. For them, this was the first time to tee it up on courses they had long dreamed of playing. With that in mind, let’s head to Bloomfield Hills, MI for the start of our week in Golf Heaven.

ROUND ONE – Sunday, July 31st

Oakland Hills South Course

The day prior, in a beautiful and emotional ceremony on the west side of the state, my daughter was married. After months of planning and preparation, the event was done, the newlyweds were flying to an exotic honeymoon locale, and all of us could breathe a little. It was time for memories of another kind to be made!

Another major at Oakland Hills!

Another major at Oakland Hills!

With the United States Amateur Championship just a few days away, there were precious few chances left to tee it up on the historic South Course at Oakland Hills before the USGA came in to take over for final course prep. The team leading the U.S. Am effort was kind enough to allow me to auction off 2 playing spots to join my son and I for a Sunday afternoon lunch and round on the Monster.

The auction took place online and was won by an MGL viewer/fan named Larry Hemmerly. His generous contribution to one of our key charities set a perfect tone as we met for lunch in the Men’s Grill at Oakland Hills.

From here, Larry picks up the narrative:

Fearsome 4Some Tackles Monster

Fearsome 4Some Tackles Monster

I’ve driven by the entrance to Oakland Hills thousands of times, but today I turn in. I still can’t believe this is happing. I pull up to the bag drop and inform the young man that I’m here to play with Bill “Hobbs”. He looks at his list and then at me with a very questioning look. I’m so excited I forgot Bill’s last name!

I meet my good friend, and playing partner for the day, Jeff Sarandrea at the pro shop and we head up to the Men’s Grill to meet Bill & his son Bo for lunch. After a fantastic meal and conversation Jeff and I take a tour of the club house. The walls are covered with pictures of most every past and current legend of the game. Pictures of the 2004 Ryder Cup teams, US Amateur, Open and PGA Champions.  The history of the club is amazing.  In a few minutes we’ll be playing one of the top ranked courses in the world!

I’ve been on the grounds as a spectator for the 2002 US Amateur and  2004 Ryder Cup, but walking onto the first tee as a player triggers many emotions. Excited to be here, fear that I’m going to hit a bad drive, and nervous about playing well with Bill and Bo. As we are leaving the tee (I had a reasonable drive) Bill lets us know he heard a rumor that in an effort to protect the greens for the Amateur, all the holes were set in some of the most difficult edge positions possible (the rumor was confirmed as the round progressed).

The Opening Tee Shot

The Opening Tee Shot

The rough was three inches high and thick, all the bunkers are very deep and the greens are slick. Other than that, just your normal track. When we got to the 16th, The Monster, we started talking about the shots of Gary Player and Sergio Garcia from the rough that impacted their respective PGA Championships (Player won in 1972 & Sergio lost by two in 2008).  I’m not sure why Ben Hogan tagged it “The Monster” cause I made birdie!! Standing on the 18th tee I remember Phil’s bad swing in the Ryder Cup, but now understand just how bad it really was.

Like every round a golfer plays we can always go back and find a few shots. But today I played Oakland Hills South and those shots didn’t matter!

Thank you Bill & Bo for a wonderful day and an opportunity to contribute to the Hiawatha Youth Camp.  You’re the best!

Couldn’t have summed it up better. Truly a special day at a special place.

And the fun was just getting started!

ROUND TWO – Wednesday, August 3rd

Arcadia Bluffs

 Perfection

Perfection. If challenged to sum up the Arcadia Experience in a single word, I’m sticking with “perfection.” We’ve written about it, produced TV shows about it, and experienced it firsthand a number of times. Arcadia Bluffs is simply the epitome of a perfect golf experience. Though he’s been back a couple times since his initial visit, my son Bo’s initial thoughts about Arcadia still ring true.

I would also invite you to watch the 30-minute special we produced about this amazing place.

DAY THREE – Thursday, August 4th

Crystal Downs

Classic golf. The Downs

Classic golf. The Downs

Welcome to one of my favorite courses on the planet. Crystal Downs (or, “the Downs”) is pure golf at a high enough level that most nothing else matters. There’s no pretense to the clubhouse. The tee markers take me back to my childhood efforts at learning the alphabet. But the course is simply incredible.

As we did a few days earlier at Oakland Hills, our trip to Crystal Downs allowed me to share the experience with a longtime friend, Jon Bloom.

JB had provided an incredible treat for Bo and I earlier this year and, thanks to the kindness of a friend who is also a member at the Downs, I was able to repay Jon with a bucket list round in Frankfort, MI.

Here, through the eyes of a CD first time visitor, is his summary of our closing day in Golf Heaven:

Luck is the zest of life, as well as golf.

-Alister MacKenzie

 

That’s a quote I remember reading years ago, and was excitedly reminded of when reading the latest golf book I picked up.  It just so happens that I got that new book after an unforgettable round at MacKenzie’s famed Crystal Downs with my good friend Bill Hobson and his son Bo. 

Bill, Jon, and Bo

Bill, Jon, and Bo

The occasion came about as a thank you of sorts after the Hobson boys just 4 months prior had been my guests on an exhilarating behind the scenes experience at the Masters. 

Little did I know that our host and my cart partner for the day, Dr. Roy Vomastek (aka the dude the aforementioned book “Roy, the 78-year-old Champion” was written about) would nearly upstage the historic golf course we were about to play together.

I’ll get back to the book in a bit; but first let’s flash back to 1997 when I was hired for my first sportscasting job out of college at Sportsradio 1130, WDFN in Detroit.  As a guy born and raised in the SF Bay Area and then schooled in Syracuse for 4 years, I had very little knowledge of Michigan golf.  It wasn’t until I moved there for the job and started meeting fellow golfers and playing various courses in the Detroit area that I realized the jackpot I hit getting to start my career in such a fertile ground for two things I was so passionate about: talking sports & playing golf.

Bo on the 3rd tee

Bo on the 3rd tee

I quickly learned about how Northern Michigan was home to some of the best courses in the state (not to mention the world).  I can remember numerous conversations that included Crystal Downs by those who both had the fortune of playing it and more often those yearning for the seemingly unattainable opportunity.  I became one of the latter and remained there nearly 20 years until a gorgeous Thursday morning in August.  

I don’t think I’ve been so excited for a round of golf since my lone experience playing Pebble Beach while on a trip to cover the Lions and 49ers on Monday Night Football back in 2001 (a reward I actually feel I earned having to cover that miserable 2-14 season).   The morning was finally here and the more than two hour drive I made across the state flew by as I arrived on the property a little more than an hour before our tee time.

Bill had mentioned that we were unable to play with his friend who is a member, but that he had set us up with another member for the day.  All I knew was that his name was Roy, until I got into the clubhouse and saw the books bearing his name and life story sitting on the desk near the cash register.  We made quick introductions and off we went. 

As we took the cart to the first tee it started to sink in how special this day would be.  Dr. Roy offered up his vast course knowledge right away and I felt a sort of calm take over (always a great feeling before starting a round of golf).  That feeling remained even after a three putt double bogey on the challenging first hole, bunker trouble resulting in a snowman on the par 4 fifth, and a triple bogey on the 7th.  That calm was also likely a source of astonishment for Bill who has seen me lose my cool numerous times while playing far better golf in the past.  Fortunately, I have matured since I was in my 20’s, and thankfully I’ve realized that there is nothing worth getting upset about when given an opportunity like playing golf at a place like Crystal Downs. 

Tee markers at CD

Tee markers at CD

Roy’s calming effect was consistent and his invaluable tips helped me sprinkle in a few pars and a birdie on the par 5 eighth.  More importantly the company of the doc & the Hobsons enabled me to appreciate the impeccable routing & nuances MacKenzie visualized over 80 years ago that without question have stood the test of time.  As a golfer who prides himself on the art of the short game and the use of the flat stick, I felt like a kid in a candy store throughout the 18 holes of challenging the Downs’ undulations and tiered greens.  I’m not going to lie, I even felt a little bad after hitting a shot pin high and making a 2 putt par while watching Bill get triple-victimized by the diabolical false front on the par 3 14th hole.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Roy’s knowledge wasn’t reserved for his playing partner.  The gracious one-of-a-kind small town Michigan family doctor with a life story fit for a screenplay managed to shoot 5 shots better than his age despite not having his “A-game.”  Read the book and you’ll learn all about those skills that propelled him to an epic club championship as a 78-year-old just six years ago.  For a man that seemingly has made very few mistakes in life, he might just have committed a regrettable one at the end of our round though when he invited me to come back and play Crystal Downs again.

Here’s hoping the doctor is in next time I’m back in Michigan!

 

I’m often asked to list my favorite courses in the state. From media interviews to casual fans, everyone seems to be interested in which works of art I most enjoy. It’s a question that amuses me because I’m not sure why my answer is relevant to someone else’s enjoyment, but when the question comes, the three courses you’ve just read about are always in my answer.

The odd thing is, it’s not just the courses that make golf so special. For these three rounds in Golf Heaven, I was blessed to play with my son, two men who wanted to make an impact for a charity that changes lives, and a longtime friend who has never wavered in his allegiance or support. Add in the Mark Twain-like influence of Dr. Roy, and I’m reminded yet again that it’s the people in golf that make the game just a special as the places we play.

Like you, I’ve played wonderful courses with lousy partners over the years. If the company you keep for 5 hours is not enjoyable, it’s pretty difficult for the course to overcome that obstacle.

With that in mind, my recommendation for your next week in Golf Heaven is to make sure the people you play with will truly appreciate, enjoy, and soak in every moment. That, my friends, is the primary element of this story to be envied. For three remarkable rounds on three bucket list courses, I was in the company of people who took none of it for granted, soaked up the history, and never once let the scorecard dictate their level of enjoyment.

Incredible. Blessed. Spoiled. Thankful.

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