March 10, 2008

THE ROUGH LIFE: Nov 05, AU Edition

At Pacific Dunes, Eli Jameson plays a round – and pulls out his sand wedge

Port Stephens, NSW – Getting a chance to drive up the coast and play a round of golf is always a special treat. And it’s a double treat if it takes place on a weekday. And if the golf is to be played not on a well-worn public course but a top-flight resort facility, well, that’s just the icing on the cake.

Pacific Dunes Golf Club, just outside Newcastle on the New South Wales coast (a two-and-a-half hour drive from the Sydney CBD), is a brand-new course and residential development managed by Troon Golf, the world’s premier golf management company. The centerpiece of the facility, of course, is its 18 championship holes, but there is plenty more on offer, including clubhouse facilities and, for those who don’t want to go home, an eventual 450 homes – many lining the rich, green fairways.

My playing partner and I arrived from Sydney at around lunchtime, and were immediately greeted by helpful attendants who had us sitting in a buggy with our bags strapped on the back in a matter of moments. From there, it was off to the first tee: a confidence-building 329-metre par 4.

Now here’s something you should know: I am not one of those golfers who confidently whips out his driver and hammers a Titleist 280 metres straight down the fairway from every teebox. My drives are a bit more, shall we say, anemic, and I don’t get to play anywhere near as often as I’d like to keep my handicap in fighting trim. So I was pleased to see that the course opens gently, even if there was water snaking through the middle of this fairway (as it does on many, if not most, holes here). Even better, I cleared this water hazard – my balls normally head for the drink faster than Ted Kennedy at last call – with my shot landing comfortably on the happy side of the river, just a short iron into the green.

‘Great’, I thought. ‘Not playing for the past two months obviously hasn’t hurt my game any’.

Oh, there is one more thing to keep in mind. There are dozens and dozens of bunkers scattered around this course, both along fairways and ‘protecting’ the greens. (I’ve always loved that turn of phrase) And even if I never found water once, I think I found the sand on just about every hole, which led my playing partner to give me the new, rather undignified nickname of ‘Sandy’.

That’s the thing about Pacific Dunes: it’s a challenging course that doesn’t reward sheer brute force, but rather clever and careful shotmaking ability and course management. To really play the course well, one should have a really strong idea of how far every iron in his or her bag will fly, and be able to judge distances with precision. Like a game of chess, players have to think not just about the shot they are playing, but their next move or two down the track, with a close eye on what the course is looking to throw up in response.

(This more cerebral sort of game is also more democratic; since it doesn’t need to be overpowered, but rather out-thought, it can be enjoyed by just about anyone with a good knowledge of their own individual game).

Taking an easy bogey on the first hole, we moved on to the second, and the third, which was a particularly sneaky, 297-metre par 4: again, not daunting in terms of length, but with fairway bunkers and a false-fronted green, a serious challenge.

Moving through the front nine, my playing partner and I began to get the sense of the course, and the architects behind it have definitely given it a real personality, like an intellectual friend who one doesn’t always understand, but who is never short of challenging ideas.

Rounding the clubhouse turn we stopped for lunch, and had a pair of hot gourmet sandwiches washed down with a couple of beers, and headed off to attack the rest of the course. Along the back nine, we saw what will be much of the heart of this new facility, the properties that line the course and will form the basis of the Pacific Dunes community, and mused about what fun it would be to get out of our inner-city Victorian shotgun shacks and adopt a live-to-play, play-to-live lifestyle, though we quickly came back to Earth when we realized that our non-golfing wives might take an exception to this.
Having gotten the rhythm of the course over the front nine, the back end of the course is a real challenge – as if the landscaping itself is saying, ‘you think you know me, but you don’t’. The 10th features a creek that runs all the way along the left side of the hole; the 11th has water that cruelly runs around the front of the green, making what would normally be a simple approach shot a fraught and tense gamble.

If one is short, one is wet; otherwise, you’re in the woods.

Again: risk and reward, and the requirement to be disciplined.
Another striking thing about Pacific Dunes, at least for the city-dweller, is the way in which it is designed in such close sympathy with nature. The sheer number and variety of birds on the course had me wishing I had brought my field guide, and by the time we hit the 14th, we had to be careful not of hitting other golfers, but the kangaroo families that suddenly emerged out of no where for their afternoon tea.

As we pulled in from our round, twilight was approaching and about a dozen locals were sitting around a couple of picnic tables, finishing their wines after a long day out on the course. It wasn’t clear whether they were all old friends, or just comrades thrown together by their love of the crazy game of golf. They were having a great time, though, and one thing was for sure: they’ll be back.
As will I.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 10:12 PM | Comments (0)

THE ROUGH LIFE: Dec 05, AU Edition

Eli Jameson hopes his kids don’t wind up inheriting his handicap

Frank Sinatra famously sang that he’d had regrets, but that they were “too few to mention”. (One has to wonder what those regrets would have been: Letting Peter Lawford into the Rat Pack? Cozying up to the Kennedys? The famous “two-dollar whore” remark on his 1974 tour of Australia – if only because it inspired the dreadful The Night We Called it a Day?)

Personally, I try to live much of my life by Sinatra’s credo. Sure, I don’t punch out blackjack dealers (much), can’t stomach Jack Daniel’s, and my wife isn’t named Nancy. But I do believe that it’s good to keep the regrets of one’s life to a minimum. Looking back on my life, however, there is one thing I would have done differently.

I would have learned to play golf when I was much, much younger.
In fact, I grew up overseas, in a city where golf courses were pretty inaccessible except to those who had the money for a pricey membership, the time and fanaticism required to camp out for a tee time at a public course, or both. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties and was living in a golf-mad town that I finally picked up a club, when some mates announced they were going to the driving range after Sunday brunch. Having nothing better to do on a hot summer afternoon, I asked if I could tag along.

To make a long story short, I was hooked two minutes after first picking up a club. (I sliced thirty seconds after picking up a club, but that’s another story). My friends put a 9-iron in my hands, gave me a bucket of balls, some basic tips on set-up, stance, and swing, and I was off. The memory is hazy, but I know that only about half of my first dozen swings even came close to connecting with the ball, and those that did saw shots skitter wildly across a 120-degree field of fire that managed to include the course’s first fairway.

Then it happened: the one magic shot that took off high and straight, describing a parabola, before settling down to earth with a satisfying thup and little puff of dust, a la Wile E. Coyote when he has one of his unfortunate run-ins with gravity. Like the caveman at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey who discovers the power of an old bone as a club, I had discovered the power of the 9-iron as, well, a club. The following day I went into the office, ordered up a set of clubs off the Internet, and pestered my friends to take me out on the course the following week. (In a tremendous dose of beginner’s luck, my very first shot on my very first hole – a par-3 – was a 5-iron that landed nicely on the green. Everything about both me and my game has gone downhill since.)

And that’s the problem: I will never get to be really, really good at golf. Breaking 90 is a pipe-dream. Perhaps if I were a natural-born athlete who’d done sporty stuff his entire life, I could have adapted my other skill sets to fit the game, but there’s really no chance of that happening at this point.

That’s why I’m determined that I won’t make the same mistake with my kids. I’m going to do whatever it takes to be the Earl Woods of the Southern Hemisphere. I’m going to turn my offspring into stone-cold golf nuts with negative handicaps by the time they turn 18 and have the world wondering when they will take the US PGA by storm. And as their manager, I’ll never have to worry about how my super is doing again.

OK, maybe that’s a bit much. Still, though, I hope they decide to gather their rosebuds – or work on their mid-irons – while they may. I guess it’s a case of another aphorism that I first came across in a Tiger Woods book about golf strategy: Never make the same mistake twice.

Or something like that.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 05:32 PM | Comments (0)

The Rough Life

golf.jpgSWING TIME
Welcome to Investigate’s new and occasional tribute to the greatest game on Earth

If there were an identifiable chemical compound called golf, it would have been scheduled as an illegal drug by now. To the outsider, a golf ‘user’ getting his fix looks about as bizarre as a heroin junkie doing his thing: an assortment of special equipment, the requirement of a special place (though a golf course is generally a lot nicer for non-participants than a bus station toilet), bizarre contortions all cause others to think, ‘Why on Earth…?’

Golf can be like other drugs as well. It can drain a wallet faster than a coke habit, and turn someone into a crashing bore who thinks he has a lot of deep and profound things to say to people who don’t share his enthusiasm faster than three bong hits of the highest-grade hydroponic.

About the only drug it’s hard to parallel golf with is ecstasy: not much chance of seeing players hugging up on one another under flashing lights while listening to trance music. Of course, you can’t spell ‘clubhouse’ without ‘club’, so I could be wrong.

And yet. Like a drug, once someone gets hooked on golf, it can be a lifelong affair: one that breaks up far fewer families (though some, to be sure!) than the hard stuff, but is just as addictive.
The first time I picked up a club I was hooked. I was in my mid-twenties, and I had been living in a small city – more like a big town – surrounded by golf courses, and where the only two social activities for young men were hitting the bars and hitting the links. So when a few friends said they were heading for the driving range after brunch one Sunday, I asked if I could tag along.

To make a long story short, they handed me a nine-iron, a bucket of balls, and gave me about thirty seconds worth of instruction. Which, considering the amount of money I’ve wasted on golf books, tutorials, and sessions with pros over the subsequent years, makes it far and away the most cost-effictive swing coaching I’ve ever had. If I remember right, it was pretty much ‘OK, stand like this, and then swing’, followed by a lot of impromptu Caddyshack routines. (‘Be the ball, Danny. Be the ball.’)

Of course, the first several balls I managed to hit went skittering off in all sorts of embarassing directions, some of them caroming off the wall of my stall on the range. Then came the moment of connection, when everything aligned more-or-less properly and my clubhead hit that range ball with a quiet, distinguished click and the ball took off on an high and graceful arc, hung for a moment at its apex, and then drifted back down to Earth, landing in a ‘Roadrunner and Coyote’-style poof! on the dusty range.

That was something of a fluke, but that didn’t stop me from beating several more buckets (and tearing up my shoulder and palms in the process) and demanding that we all go and play the following week – an experience better left undescribed.

But that’s what this new column, ‘The Rough Life’ is all about. Average golfers who love the game travelling around Australia to hit some balls on some of our best courses.

It won’t be written from the perspective of a jock who hits 300m off the tee; that’s not most of us. Instead, it is devoted to the hackers, the slicers, and the happy hookers who take mulligans, ride in buggies, and are addicted to this great game, no matter how badly they play it.

See you at the 19th.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 01:48 AM | Comments (0)