Imagine my surprise when I saw something called “Hombre Golf Club, the Bad and Ugly Courses” listed among the nearly 100 local qualifying sites for the 118th U.S. Open. What passes for names these days! First we had the Mighty Ducks in hockey, now we have the Good the Bad and the Ugly in golf? What’s next? Is the Outlaw Josie Wales gonna pop out from behind a Tombstone and demand a Fistful of Dollars from The Wild Bunch?
Anyway, before someone starts designing Middle Earth Country Club and naming holes after Radagast the Brown and Grima Wormtongue, let’s take a look at the best, the worst, and the headscratching among the USGA local qualifying venues.
Most golf fans will find Whistling Straits the most recognizable name on the list, but they should curb their enthusiasm and rein in their fear; the Irish course will host the qualifier, not the formerly terrifying Straits Course. I say formerly terrifying because Jason Day burned it to cinders at the 2015 PGA Championship. (You should not be allowed to shoot 20 under at a major. Pass it in the House and Senate, and send it to the President’s desk. Apologies to Henrik Stenson as well…)
Still, the Irish Course is quintessential Dye – diagonal angles off the tee, whimsically shaped but fearfully deep bunkers, and both micro and macro movement to the greens. So unlike some venues where the players will be racing as far under as they can go, no one should be embarrassing the golf course.
Another venue where the course will keep the golfer on the defensive – and arguably the best course on the entire list - is Alister Mackenzie’s Pasatiempo, in funky Santa Cruz, Calif. It’s both a round of golf and a walk through history, as you stroll past Mackenzie’s home on the left side of the sixth hole. I always pay my respects whenever I’m there, and you should, too. Never forget, that man had to beg friends for money to buy firewood, yet he gave us Cypress Point and Augusta National. We owe him big time.
The size of Pasatiempo’s bunkers brings the old word “Brobdingnagian” to mind. For those off you scoring at home, “Brobdingnagian” is the opposite of “Lilliputian;” quintessential British satirist Jonathan Swift coined both words in Gulliver’s Travels. If you don’t know what either of those words means, ask the guy next to you. Pasa, as she’s called by her friends, is also known for its wild green contours, so don’t expect people to be firing 65s like at other venues. At the other local qualifiers held there recently, between par and 2 under usually gets you in.
Pasa recently underwent a wildly successful restoration by golf architect Tom Doak, who will also see two of his original designs host qualifiers – Common Ground in Colorado and the Rawls Course at Texas Tech University. Happily, both of those courses are not only public, but reasonably priced. Most of Doak’s public-access work is at expensive resorts such as Bandon Dunes or Streamsong, or in far-flung destinations like Tasmania and New Zealand. Kudos the the USGA for all the hard work they do promoting the great public access courses of the country. Getting to play a Doak for under $80? That’s champagne quality at beer prices.
Wine Valley in Walla Walla, Wash., a Dan Hixson design that many call a “public Ballyneal,” is cut from the same cloth. Designed by, essentially, the same team of shapers that worked at Ballyneal, (minus Tom Doak, of course), both courses have wild greens with fierce contours, natural looking blowout bunkers, and enormous land plans; Wine Valley is spread over 300 acres. Yet both are minimalist in design; hardly any earth was moved during construction. Of course, both courses play fast and firm.
Finally, Essex County Country Club, restored by the late George Bahto, is another of those superb Charles Banks courses that pepper New Jersey. Many of the Macdonald-Raynor-Banks templates are here, including Maiden, Redan, and Double Plateau.
The Bad and the Ugly
Once upon a time Dog Hill -- I mean, Cog Hill (Dubsdread Course) -- was supposed to host U.S. Opens and be Chicago’s rejoinder to Bethpage and Torrey Pines. But changes made to the course by Rees Jones during the period when it hosted a FedEx Cup event were met with significant criticism, most notably by Phil Mickelson, normally the friendliest quote in the media center. I don’t blame Rees, however; I blame Cog Hill. Its terrible architecture underlines all the design mistakes of the penal era of golf design, and the property has the least character this side of Tortilla Flats.
Kaluhyut (pronounced Kuh-LOO-yuht), one of the Turning Stone Casino courses, also had pipe dreams of hosting a U.S Open, and they hired Rees’s brother Bobby to bring it to Utica, N.Y., baby!
I’m checking back with you now? How did that work out?
“They told me they wanted a U.S. Open, and I kept telling them no one will want to play this course, it’s too hard,” recalled Jones, Jr., and he was proved prophetic. With trees or water hazards lining pretty much every fairway and constant long forced carries, few people play it, and fewer still return.
Similarly, Orange County National’s Crooked Cat course is another boring, watery, center-line slog, so much so that during the week of the PGA Show, you’ll often hear golfers that played it lament that they missed a good day looking at the exhibits. Crooked Cat once again proves true the old adage of “Never play a golf course with an animal in its name,” and includes John Daly’s Wicked Stick (RIP).
Finally, at Pine Hills, Jack Nicklaus and Rees Jones had a bland-off in the Cranberry bogs outside Boston, fighting it out to see who could put more golfers to sleep per 18 holes. This year, Jack is the winner, apparently, but neither of those courses impresses with strategic design or visually arresting natural setting. They are public, and they move a lot of Boston golfers around on weekends: good news for those of us wanting tee times at Red Tail, George Wright or Granite Links.
As for “Hombre Golf Club – Good, Bad, and Ugly Courses,” well, you can’t say the USGA doesn’t have a sense of humor…