For the love of Vinnie

Vince1 (640x163)

I talked to Vin … he’s going OK, and he wouldn’t shut up thanking me, and I’m thinking what we did was pretty good.

I had fun, and I know Vince and Casey had fun, and you didn’t have to be in the room with Kim very long to know what it meant to her.

We raised hardly enough to put the tiniest dent in the insane costs of the Fucking Medical-Industrial Complex (FMIC), but we aren’t professional fundraisers, either. The Voodoo  Vinnie Open did all right.

 It was cool just watching it unfold, from the day I met with Steve McNelly at Cap City to set the date, right on up to tournament Saturday. Every day it seemed like something surprising and deeply generous would walk through the door.  Dan Castro – you know him, The Chancellor – didn’t let a day pass when he didn’t ask what he could be doing or tell me what he’d already gone and done. The majority of the items in the silent auction came from Dan or through him.

Did you see the Voodoo Vinnie banner? That’s Dan, too. His better half, the excellent Julie, stepped in wherever she was needed and did more than she needed to. Steve Mildenberger orchestrated the silent auction, and me, I brought the autographed bowling ball.

Vin gets his swings

Vin gets his swings

 And it all worked. The weather, well, I’m sorry about that … I was a little bit cold, when I stood in the shade, and the sun was a little bit glaring. Maybe next year.

There were all sorts of little moments through the day when all of you who were there kept on doing the right thing and then more again. Vinnie really is ridiculously grateful. He’s blessed with amazing friends, and so is The Commissar.

P.S. I’ll be sending formal thanks to Jocelyn, Frederick and Jennifer, our stellar servers all day, and their boss, and of course to McNelly and his team, and to our other sponsors and donors. I’ll be speaking on behalf of all of you, if that’s OK. I expect it probably is.

(photos by Steve Bloom)  

Vinnie Strong: The better story to tell

Vinnie buttonIT STARTED with a basal cell carcinoma on his face, and it progressed. That’s enough.

There’s more to tell, but then this would be a story about cancer, and I won’t give it the space.

I’d rather talk about The Voodoo Vinnie Open, and the man himself, and how people who maybe don’t even know Vince Caronna saw a way to let the good human beings inside themselves come out and play golf.

It’s Saturday, at Capitol City Golf Club, and we have 36 players and a raft of Friends of Vinnie helping out. That’s the nut of it … that’s The Voodoo Vinnie Open. I didn’t say the first annual, because I’m well trained, but there will be a second annual, next year.

A golf tournament was such a natural as a way to help Vince and his family that it was all there was, for me. I wasn’t prepared for the people, and how very cool and kind they can be.

I wasn’t prepared for the smiley-face icon in the email response from one golf course professional, reminding me that real fund-raisers come armed with a 501(c) number (just an FYI, he wrote), which said to me, “You’re really too small for us … but good luck on your little event.”

It was Vince who said, “Let it go, man.”

He went to LSU, and he’s a huge Bayou Bengals fan, which is a good thing because their color is purple, and he’s a Husky fan, too, at least when he’s around me. He humors me, at no time more than when we play golf.

Vin has had medical challenges in the recent past, even before this one. I don’t know if he believes in the healing powers of a round of golf in the long shadows of late afternoon, but it was such a round, with me, after his 2012 heart attack, that maybe got him back into life a little bit and should have taught me something about the relative importance of life and family and friends versus a triple bogey on No. 13.

Vince is playing in The Voodoo Vinnie Open tomorrow.

He had his first treatment this week, with an experimental medicine that has the nice side effect of not making him puke his guts out. I won’t say more, because then the story would be about cancer. I just don’t have the space.

Two rounds of golf

IT’S FUNNY HOW OFTEN that old-school timepiece on my wrist gets called on by the same people who wonder why anyone would buy a watch these days because, duh, you have the time right there on the face of your smartphone.

Don’t ask me what time it is, then. Or better yet go right ahead, because it gives me a chance to look at my watch, which – today – is a handsome Alliance model by Victorinox I bought during a period of watch-acquisitiveness last year when I came into some money.

I didn’t stop with the one Swiss Army watch but brought home a couple Citizens, an Oceanaut and another Victorinox.

That last (for now) Victorinox is a comfortingly solid pocket watch that’s lived in my pocket only one day, which by no coincidence was the opening day of the Grey Goatee Golf Association season,  for which the pair of houndstooth trousers I wore, also by no coincidence, has an honest-to-God watch pocket.

Scorecards 1The silver chain looked swell hanging like a watch chain should, and that day I was hoping the sporting gentlemen of the 3GA would ask me how much time was left before the first group went out. Well, I would say, let me look at my watch, flipping it open to ascertain and announce the time of day and then slipping the watch back into its place, ever so casually.

So it works as a pocket watch works, but the face cover also folds under to make it into a sturdy stand-up clock. Lately, it rests on a perch just above my desk in the small space out back I use as a writing room.

Tucked in behind the clock are two golf scorecards from the 1940s  (best guess) from two different nine-hole golf courses in Iowa. One of the players on each of the cards was a dude named Glen. He wasn’t much of a player, judging from the faded pencil scratches, all the more reason to suspect he’s related to me.

I say the 1940s, because if it was early in the decade Glen was still in high school, not yet having taken early graduation to join the Army Air Corps; mid-decade, Cpl. Potter was doing his military duty in World War II; later, he was at Iowa State in Ames and fixing to marry my mother. Anywhere in there he could have found himself in central Iowa with time for golf, I suppose, but who the hell knows.

One of the scorecards is from Rolling Hills in Glen’s hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa. The golf course is long gone. His buddy, identified by the initial M, shot 53 that day, one better than G.

Among the local rules printed on the back of the card: “Do not buy golf balls from caddies.”

The other scorecard is from Pine Lake Country Club in Eldora, 20 miles north and another 10 miles west of Marshalltown. Pine Lake was, and remains, a private club, but they must have allowed some public play because Glen Potter was not then, or ever, a country club guy.

Glen and his friend Don played 18 that day, and though Glen started out par-birdie on 1 and 2, he slipped to a 51 for the first nine and shot 61 on the second.

Scorecards 2Pine Lake local rule: “If a ball lie in a wagon or auto rut, hole made by burrowing animal, casual water, or ground under repair (not considered a hazard) it may be raised and dropped – not placed – one club length distance, not nearer the hole, without penalty.”

How or when I came to have the scorecards I can’t recollect: a lot of boxes were examined and emptied when Glen died, when my mother moved out of the family home, and again when she died last year, but by then I’d had the cards in my golf junk drawer for a long time.

It was only when I needed to decorate a room that I took a closer look. I hope they weren’t his career-best rounds.

The scorecards, these cardboard-and-pencil-lead histories, can’t tell me the hour, the day or the year, and they don’t say which club Glen used to approach the green when he finally wrote down a par for No. 9 at Rolling Hills.

All I know for sure is my father played a couple rounds of golf in and near his hometown when he was a kid. For some reason, when he emptied his pockets or cleaned his house, he held on to the scorecards.

He kept time.

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.