The Firestorm Tour, Day Three: The lightning round

Bear Creek Golf Course

Bear Creek Golf Course

WINTHROP, Wash. – They take pride around here that the back nine has such a different character from the front. That’s saying something at a nine-hole golf course.

At Bear Creek, here in the Methow Valley in the North Cascades, they didn’t just move the blue tees 10 or 15 yards back or forward of the whites, like your average nine-banger. They radically altered the view and the challenge from the teeboxes, front nine to back, on several of the holes. They reduced the yardage enough on one back-side hole to change the par.

In general, they revamped the vibe of the place on the second nine. And on No. 17, just for us, they called forth thunder and lightning and the roaring wind.

All in all, it made for a lively round of golf in fire country. We’d come, the day before, from Pateros, and the best  that can be said about that is now, at least, the community there and in the rest of the vast acreage of the Carlton Complex fire can begin to think about rebuilding, rather than fleeing.

The front nine at Bear Creek is a good country golf course, and if that was all it was, there’d be a place for it among the top niners in the state of Washington. It’s well-groomed throughout, lush and green at ground level, with the brown and barren hills and peaks of the Sawtooth Range and Pasayten Wilderness as a constant pictographic backdrop.

No. 3 morphs, on the back, into an elevated tee shot, from a completely separate teeing ground, through a narrow break in a thick canopy of trees. That the fairway below is broad doesn’t matter if you don’t get there.

No. 4 becomes a No. 13 with another wide-open fairway, but the dense foliage near left of the tee is a looming obstacle.

On the second time around, what was a 332-yard par-4 No. 6 is a 176-yard par-3 No. 15, down into a smallish green sloping sharply away on the sides.

On 17, we heard the first grumblings of thunder … the lightning in its wake was far off. By the time we got to 18, the lightning was close, and it felt like real life. We picked up our balls, awarded ourselves bogeys, and scrammed for the clubhouse.

By the time we got on the road away from Bear Creek, the wind was tearing limbs off trees and knocking out power. We pulled into our lodging, the rustic Virginian Resort , to find it had gone dark minutes before.

The forecast had said dry lightning storms, the worst imaginable prospect for this parched region. The weather folks, thankfully, got it wrong: The storm dumped rain for a good 40 minutes, not enough to prevent a small lightning fire we could see in the hills above the resort but enough, as it turned out, to minimize its spread.

The Firestorm Tour came to Winthrop, experienced the power of nature, and got a really worthwhile round of golf in just under the wire. And we lived to play again.

The Firestorm Tour, Day Two: Gamble Sands unveiled

David McLay Kidd takes the ceremonial opening shot at Gamble Sands.

David McLay Kidd takes the ceremonial opening shot at Gamble Sands.

BREWSTER, Wash. — It was a question David McLay Kidd was ready, maybe even eager, to answer.

Yes, Gamble Sands is a true links golf course.

“As a Scotsman, I have the right to defend it,” said Kidd, architect of Gamble Sands Golf Course in Brewster, Wash. , the newest course in the Pacific Northwest.

To qualify as a links course, no questions asked, a course must lie alongside a body of water (in this case, the Columbia River) and be planted in 100 percent fescue grass.

“It’s the same grass as the Old Course (St. Andrews),” Kidd said.

Finally,  and most important to Kidd, a links course must be built on sand. The world is rich with courses claiming the “links” label, he said.

“Then they build a course on dirt,” he said.

“I don’t think people will believe this is links until they come and play it.”

Kidd has a track record: his portfolio includes Bandon Dunes, Tetherow in Bend, Ore., and the Castle Course in Scotland.

The world, or a hundred or so press types and invited guests, got the chance to come and play Kidd’s latest on Aug. 1. What they found at Gamble Sands was a richly scenic course flowing through the north-central Washington badlands, more a bump-and-run experience than a wedge-and-stick.

You’ll get some roll here, and it’s  designed to help you turn the right direction.

“Hard and fast, firm and true,” is how the mad scientist/architect describes it.

Kidd was born near Glasgow, son to a greenskeeper, so he learned about golf courses from a young age. He prefers to create courses that don’t beat you up.

On opening day, before the press hacks teed off, he used as his example the nearby 18th green, deep front-to-back with a gnarly bunker just behind.

“If you’re an aggressive but not thinking player,” Kidd said, “you’ll stand there proud as punch … and watch it roll right into the bunker.”

If you get a good bounce at Gamble Sands, it might not be by accident.

“There’s a lot of luck that you’re going to get that I had something to do with,” he said. “I’m going to fold the contours and bump it toward the pin.”

I played the back nine first, made par on the par-3 10th, and went on to a decent round for me. A big part of it was I got a chance to talk to the designer – and I was smart enough to listen.

Don’t throw big high wedges into the greens, Kidd said, which presupposes you can get air under the ball, anyway, from those tight fescue lies. What you do get is roll, so putter is a good play from well off the green on about any hole.

On the par-5 13th, I hit into a fairway bunker with a deep front lip. I got out, but barely – on most other courses, I would have stopped cold in heavy grass rimming the sand. The guy said he’d built some luck into the golf course, and here, I had to tip my hat: the ball I dribbled out of the bunker didn’t stop rolling until it was on the green, 100 feet away … thanks, Kidd.

So here I am with my head down, as usual, obsessing about golf shots when I should be lifting my eyes to the big-sky forever of the Gamble Sands spectacle.

Pick your panorama.

On No. 15, you stare from the teebox at a ridge as broad as your field of vision.

On 18, the Columbia’s interplay with the desert terrain far below looks almost like fjords in the smoky distance.

The sweep of No. 3, a gentle double-dogleg, is heightened by its 600-plus yards of golf hole.

I could go on. I need to return here, on a day less busy, and try to notice the holes I didn’t. Once noted, there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to describe them.

 

The Firestorm Tour, Day One: Red sun through the smoke

 

The green grass of an intact home, alone among its neighbors.

The green grass of an intact home, alone among its neighbors on this Pateros block .

PATEROS, Wash.– It was calm and normal on the road – if thorny traffic on I-90 is as bad as it gets in a day, a guy doesn’t have much to complain about on the way to the hardest-hit town from the worst wildfire in Washington state history.

If we hadn’t known we were getting close, we might not have stared as  hard at the roadside and hillside, which on second look were scorched black. There was no sign pulling into town  that whole neighborhoods were burned to rubble. Pateros was quiet in the early-evening heat, but when we looked back at the sun, low in the western horizon, it glowed red in a haze we realized was smoke.

If we hadn’t driven away from our hotel, up the hill west from the highway, we would not have seen the devastation on a long block between Ives Street and a narrow unmarked lane at Dawson Avenue. It looked like London after the blitz, which I’ve only seen in photos. The pictures I took won’t do justice to these scenes in Pateros. We didn’t linger long.

If we hadn’t turned our heads and opened our eyes, we could have come to town, eaten, drank, laughed and slept, and left without a clue. Oh, well. Let’s go play golf.

The Firestorm Tour: A new view

The Washington wildfire at its worst

The Washington wildfire at its worst

THE ONLY RIGHT NAME is The Firestorm Tour, and in choosing what to call this annual road trip we are not making light of the brutal wildfires that changed landscapes and changed lives in north-central Washington state in July.

As usual, golf is at the center of the tour, first at the Northwest’s newest golf course and last in the low-key capital of high-quality public golf in Washington.

It all begins with a drive eastward from Grey Goatee World Headquarters into the heart of fire country. What we find, I suspect, will be worse in every way than we can imagine right now, right here, where we’ve watched the wildfires from a safe distance.

I also expect we’ll see people doing what people do when their homes and families and neighbors and worlds are thrown into chaos and loss.

“The emergency response and volunteerism has been overwhelming, and incredible to see,” said David Christensen, general manager of the brand new Gamble Sands Golf Course, near Brewster, which was unaffected by the historic Carlton Complex fire.

Christensen said the firestorm, helped along its way by extreme heat and high winds, stayed mostly west of Highway 97, a north-south state highway that stretches to the Canadian border. Gamble Sands is just east of 97.

How, and why, the fire missed his golf course, Christensen doesn’t know.

“Thankfully, it did,” he said Wednesday. “We were totally fine. Unfortunately for a lot of families in the area, that wasn’t the case.”

Gamble Sands will go ahead with a media event Aug. 1, and has its public grand opening this Saturday, Aug. 2.

In the planning for this road trip, long before we had a reason to call it The Firestorm Tour, we talked about a stop at Alta Lake Golf Course near Pateros, Wash. Today, it’s closed: It lost its pro shop, all its brand new golf carts, and virtually all its course-maintenance equipment and infrastructure to the firestorm.

The fire jumped the Methow River and destroyed 40 homes along the golf course.

According to a good story in the Wenatchee World, Alta Lake owner Parker Barth is promising to rebuild and welcome golfers as soon as the power comes back on. In the short term, Christensen has loaned some of Gamble Sands’ maintenance equipment to Alta Lake until its new stuff arrives.

It’s not until you read down into the comments section of the World article that you learn that Barth and his family lost their own home to the fire.

The Firestorm Tour
Day One, July 31 – Travel day: east on I-90, north then east and north again on 97, to Pateros, where more than 30 homes in town burned to the ground. Golf is for tomorrow.

Day Two, Aug. 1 – We get to play Gamble Sands, which is the newest but might also be – early signs say – one of the best courses in the state.

David McLay Kidd designed it, and that’s reason enough for most people in the golf industry to be optimistic about its quality and high on its prospects. Do a flyover here.

Day Three, Aug. 2 – A short road trip Friday night, north on 97 then east on the North Cascades Highway, will bring us to Winthrop. Pretty country, and among the charms of this town is Bear Creek Golf Course, a respectable nine-holer. Stay tuned.

Day Four, Aug. 3 – We pull out of Winthrop and head back westward, with our eventual destination the college town of Bellingham. If we slide into Mount Vernon on the way and get in a quick nine at Overlook Golf Course, who’ll be surprised?

The Firestorm Tour is about golf, of course, and judicious enjoyment of the life and lubricants in the towns and cities where golf lives. But this year, our tour will take us to new places, changed places, among people for whom golf is the furthest thing from their minds.

Howling in a new era: We could get used to it

Bartlett, Potter and George ... into the gloaming.

Bartlett, Potter and George … into the gloaming. (Photo by Chris Mallory)

We are, for the most part, what we are – a demographic. As such, you would think we’d act our age.

Oh, hell no.

We weren’t partying on a deck hanging over the Hood Canal tidelands, and we had to pay actual money to rent the house, but there were tradeoffs: location, location, and location. You could see the canal in the near-distance from the golf course; you could see George, if you knew what you were looking for.

This year we took over a whole different sector of rural Mason County USA, a little more civilized venue than we’re used to but still Howl-worthy.

This was, of course, the traditional midsummer brawl of the Grey Goatee Golf Association, the 9th annual Howl at the Canal, the weekend every July that we kick up our heels, kick out the jams and kick down the door (or open it gently, with a key, so as not to endanger our damage deposit).

Yes, it was the Howl, boys and girls, and there was golf – the fourth stop on the 3GA Tour, this time hosted by the good folks at Alderbrook Golf and Yacht Club in Union, Wash.,

Alderbrook is a classy, well-tended and challenging course, ripe for the carving by the 3GA, distinguished by the double-dogleg par-5 No. 8, which, by the way, the local pro plays hybrid-hybrid-wedge.

So, okay, I buried the lead. This wasn’t just any Howl at the Canal … it was the first post-cabin Howl, and it was only painful when I thought about it and/or breathed.

Instead of the cabin, which The Commissar’s family kissed off last fall, the Howl HQ for Grey Goatee Nation was a big house no farther than a fat wedge from the Alderbrook clubhouse.

This was a damn mansion, by 3GA standards, far too nice for the likes of us, but we persevered with the required activities après-golf: charring red meat, drinking beverages of many colors, and burning long brown cylinders into ash.

3GA hatWhen an impromptu 10-hole, two-club tournament broke out at dusk, it started at the No. 9 teebox, a  7-iron from the greenside deck. The players came back insisting it had to be a new Howl tradition.

In the real 3GA tournament, well, sometimes change is good. First-place money went to The Commissar his own self, and be assured that does not happen often in this tournament or any other.

Let it be said – dare I? – a Howl was had by all.

The Bandon experience, Day 2: Bandon Trails

It can’t be said our waterproof gear failed, really. It just didn’t work, against the insistent rain, the weighty rain, the damned and damnable rain that blew in our faces and seeped down our necks, that sloshed over our shoes and rendered meaningless their two-year waterproof warranties.

By the end, we just wanted to get warm and dry … so while weather is part of the deal at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, we were glad to be done with 18 at Bandon Trails and in no mood or condition to play our afternoon round*.

Which is a shame, because Bandon Trails, the most inland of the four full-length Bandon courses, is beautiful, sweeping, dare-to-be-great devilish and not like any course you’ll ever see.

Bandon Trails is not a course you can quit at the turn when the weather is shitty … it’s not built that way. For the first 10 holes, the rain was spotty, anyway, and the wind no less punitive than usual.  On No. 11, it started dumping, and it didn’t stop.

Therefore, most of our impressions of the Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw design are of the first nine holes.

Silvery phacelia: The hat

Silvery phacelia: The hat

No. 2 is a relatively easy par-3, 166 yards from the green tees, but the eye stretches to the broad and misty forever – take a breath.

The fifth, another par-3, has a wide, deep and undulating green, and it was the site of the only KP of the day. Thank you, boys, for buying my martini (dry), once we hit the Bunker Bar (dry) in fresh clothes (dry).

To get from the 13th green to the 14th tee, you climb up to a road and catch a tram, or whatever you want to call the motor transport with cheerful driver and – on this day – a roof angled perfectly to sluice a thick stream of water onto the golfers clinging to the back seats – namely, Barry and Kevin. It was maybe not so hilarious at the time as it was – to me – over dinner.

We were a forlorn threesome on the course, for sure, and to think being that wet would not affect our golf is too much to expect, and finally, pretty funny. We didn’t take any pictures, and if anybody had we were a vision, marinated in our Smartwool.

Its off-coast routing earns lower marks from some players compared to the other Bandon courses, but the three of us agreed that Trails was the Bandon course we most wanted another crack at … on a better day.

*Bandon Preserve postscript
We had no stomach for the 2 p.m. tee time at Bandon Preserve, which was a disappointment. Preserve  is the newest course at Bandon, a pretty and challenging 13-hole par-3 layout designed by Coore and Crenshaw.

Bandon Preserve’s creators protected, during construction, the silvery phacelia, a tiny flower endangered by non-native species. Net profits at the course go to an organization that supports coastal conservation.

I’ve never seen silvery phacelia up close, but on the Preserve logo it looks a little like a plant species that is legal for recreational consumption in two states, which might or might not have affected my decision to buy the hat.

The Bandon experience, Day 1: Bandon Dunes

Along about the time we were getting serious about making plans, weighing dates and times and all the minutiae, one of us had a medical episode. It wasn’t serious, though it could have been, and it was timed so badly I had to laugh. This is the same guy who often says, We gotta do these things, these life-list things, because you just never know … I always tell him to shut up and quit the drama queen shit. He recovered promptly, and there were no lingering effects, so we had no reason not to go, just go and do it.

We drove south on a Wednesday morning, in a rented minivan, into the rain. I was with Barry Bartlett and Kevin Patterson, two guys without whom it wouldn’t have felt right going to Bandon. The rain kept raining and wiped out our scheduled round at Langdon Farms in Aurora, just south of Portland. Three hours later, when we got to Florence, it was pretty okay. We teed off at Sandpines, a really good golf course that deserves better than being an “on the way to” visit. We got in a niner, got minorly wet, ate a great meal in downtown Florence, then split for Bandon.

Kevin took a selfie on No. 5.

Kevin took a selfie on No. 5.

Day One: Where it began
It was right that we played our first day at Bandon Dunes, the first Bandon course carved from the cliffs and linksland of the southern Oregon coast, the course that first began to shape the legend of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.

Two of our party had missed Bandon Dunes in a previous visit to the resort, and the third was a first-timer in Bandon, so it was new to all of us.

The David McLay Kidd layout, opened in 1999, is splendid. If its newer neighbor, Pacific Dunes, is higher on the best-of lists (usually tucked in just behind Pebble Beach), does that make Bandon Dunes a lesser course?

Nicklaus is “better” than Palmer, by most measures, but who’s The King?

We teed off in windage that seemed manageable at the time … That we never managed the wind, or anything else in our round, was all right. We got around.

No. 5 is the hardest hole on the course, and you wonder whether it’s because a player is so moved by the ocean spectacle on his left that he loses focus on the shots he needs to hit. On this hole, that’s a drive to the right side of a split fairway, then an approach to a brutally narrow green.

That’s the Pacific, to be specific, and No. 6, a mid-length par-3, is straight ahead from the 5th on the same coastal bluff. Club up here, boys and girls, because you’re hitting into the wind, most days.

Even moving from one ridiculously gorgeous hole to the next, I had to remind myself, more than once, to get out of my brooding brain and take a deep breath and a long look around. At No. 8, it’s around and around and around, a panorama that threatens to tip your visual sensors into overload. If ever you forget you’re there to play golf, this might be the hole.

No. 16 is the only hole where I deposited a golf ball into the Pacific. It’s a lovely hole, the bitch.

Walking up 18, I was tired, ready to stop playing golf for the day, but nowhere near ready to be done with Bandon Dunes. So I’ll be back, if death and doctors and life itself don’t intervene.

Next: Bandon Trails.

U.S. Open, Day 2: The Kaymer wave

Martin Keymer

Martin Keymer

Pinehurst No. 2, Friday, June 13

3:00 p.m. PDT: Free fall Phil
With Kaymer posting a second-straight 65, Phil Mickelson would love to be one of the players putting pressure on the auto-cruising German. But Mickelson is spinning his wheels at 2-over par through 15.

Graeme McDowell is sharp in his white standup-collar polo and trousers with a dash of red threaded thinly through a silver-grey plaid. Not flashy, but solid, and we’ll see what he brings out for the weekend … he’s probably within the cut-line, but at 2-over through 15, you never know.

Brendon Todd just got to 4-under through 15, and Kevin Na is back at 3-under after a bogey at 17. Snedeker is at -3 through 16, and Jordan Spieth is just now at -3 after a birdie on 13.

Are any of them close enough? Say this, for sure: There’s not a fashion contender among them.

8:44 a.m. PDT: Boss Kaymer
Martin Kaymer is all high-end in his fashion apparel while his golf score goes low and lower. Hugo Boss provides his clothes, and today it’s a nice silver-grey-on-black polo, with a Mercedes-Benz logo claiming prime real estate on the right chest.

Which, it could be argued, is all incidental, because Kaymer’s all the way to 9-under par for the tournament as part of the Friday-morning wave at Pinehurst No. 2. He’s six shots clear of the field right now.

Earlier, when the GG fashion committee had just tuned in to the ESPN cablecast, commentator Curtis Strange said, “I don’t think his mindset’s changed much with a six-shot lead.” Six-shot lead? It happened with four birdies in a 32 on the back nine, and another birdie on No. 3 when he drove the green on the 307-yard par-4 and comfortably two-putted.

A cluster of players under par tee off in the afternoon wave, including Graeme McDowell (-2), yesterday’s Fashion Leader who remains the odds-on favorite, even sight unseen today, by consensus of the committee.

It’s U.S. Open week: Day 1

Pinehurst No. 2, Thursday, June 12

5:10 p.m. PDT: Kaymer
Martin Kaymer once clearly aspired to Fashion Leader status. You could tell by those scarf/dickie/cravat things he used to wear when he played, to which the Grey Goatee fashion committee said, “Hell, no.”

Now, the 29-year-old German wears a more-or-less normal polo, like everyone else, and see? It’s working for him. He won the Players Championship this year, and today he shot 65 at Pinehurst No. 2 to take the first-round lead by three strokes.

He could contend, but we’ll see on Sunday. No damn scarves.

11:20 a.m. PDT: Notes on fashion
The obvious choice, too obvious, for the fashion leader in the clubhouse — with half the U.S. Open field done for the day – would be Rickie Fowler. And you have to  like the plus-fours, a nod to Payne Stewart, and argyle knee socks. But for us, the first-day champ is Graeme McDowell.

Today, McDowell is sporting a really fabulous polo with textured-purple body and  solid-color sleeves, which as always in his line (G-Mac by Kartel) features the standup, hidden-buttondown collar.

It’s a long four days, and somebody could emerge, but for the fashion committee at Grey Goatee HQ, the smart money is on McDowell, who never seems like he’s trying quite as hard as Fowler. If anybody cares, he was also tied for the lead in the golf tournament until five minutes ago.

9:25 a.m. PDT: Mickelson watch 
If I had an editor, besides myself, he or she might have asked earlier this week, “What’s the story at the U.S. Open?”

I might have  answered, “Mickelson, maybe.”

And the editor might have said, “Mickelson, maybe?”

Phil Mickelson is always the story at the U.S. Open, because he’s come close and lost it so many fucking times. And this year, he teed off under the cloud of allegations he might have made trades with insider knowledge (comes word, via the New York Times today, that he did not).

He still seems tone-deaf to the world, naïve when he should be savvy, a big dumb kid when he should be making the decisions of a supremely skilled 43–year-old man of some intelligence.

This is the same Mickelson who whined over the taxes he, as a multimillionaire, has to pay. Who flew home for his daughter’s middle-school  graduation. Middle school? To me and many, it seemed like a stunt to make him look like big family-man man.

And still, I root for the guy, a habit from the days he was unanimously regarded as the best player never to have won a major. Now, he has a cluster of majors … but no U.S. Opens.

With his mind on golf full-on, presumably, Mickelson has played well today, tied at 2-under through 14 holes, though he dropped a shot on 15 and just missed a birdie putt on 16 and hooked his tee ball into trouble on 17.

He’s healthy, wealthy and wise, more or less, and he’s always, in this tournament in this era, the story.

Teacher’s Corner: Cassidy, Lesson 2

NEVER LET IT BE SAID this game is simple.  John Cassidy, the teacher in this little drama, says often: “Golf is hard.”

He makes it look so easy.

Cassidy, of course, is not just Dr. John, teacher to the stars (and lowlife bloggers). He’s a player, in fact champion week before last against a strong field at the Washington Open Invitational at Meridian Valley CC. He’ll try to make it a Northwest two-fer June 10-12 at the Oregon Open at Black Butte’s Glaze Meadow.

Golf is hard …

So the euphoria of the best round of my life – a round in which I know I did at least some of the things I worked on with Cassidy – was followed by a couple rounds with little of the snap and flow I felt that day.  Not horrible, but not great, and no one in my group would have said they noticed much difference in my game at all.

But I know, and there’s no going back. After two lessons, it feels better, even when the scorecard looks about the same.

John Cassidy, 32, teaches golf at Alderbrook Golf and Yacht Club in Union, Wash. His student is a 50-something-nearer-to-60 hack who is sick of being so bad.

And I have the evidence of my lowest round ever, and it wasn’t a fluke, it wasn’t a coincidence … it felt like where I should be, and still with room for improvement – lots of room.

So I have to be excited about Lesson 3. Dr. John says in his experience the third lesson is where the student really starts to get it. Golf is hard … but this is fun.

John Cassidy

John Cassidy

***

A Cassidy sampler (from Lesson 2):

After my comment that the core and stability exercises are the ones I tend to skip in my workouts: “That’s OK, it’s only the most important part of the golf swing.”

“A lot of sitting on your back foot …” So he shifted my stance, my hips mainly, slightly forward. It felt right, instantly. I felt like I was not falling forward when I swung, but I still felt like I was in motion through the swing, toward the target.

“We’re doing better making the (shoulder) turn, but we’re not quite making the turn.” He gave me one of the fundamental drills in golf instruction: with hands crossed over the chest, holding the club shaft parallel to the ground at shoulder level, turn back until the left shoulder is over the ball, then back through, in balance … so that when I’m turned all the way onto my left side I can lift my right foot off the ground and not topple over.

It’s a process, it’s an order of operations … If you can get everything started correctly, if you can get to the top in a good position, you will swing down in the correct way, too , naturally, because you’ve set ourselves up to deliver the club to the ball. But if you go back incorrectly, everything from that point is a makeup.”