Today, I review the golf course at Stone Mountain Park. Specifically, I review the Lakemont Course.

Stone Mountain Park is close to where I grew up. As such, I am pretty familiar with the park and its attractions. When my friend recently suggested we visit the golf course, I thought it would be a good subject for review here on the PF.

Stone Mountain Park (http://www.stonemountainpark.com/) is a park built around a natural monument east of Atlanta, GA. “Stone Mountain” is a monolith–essentially, it’s a large outcropping of granite. Although it is technically not a “mountain,” it is definitely a large rock. Many years ago, crews carved a picture of Civil War heros into the side of the mountain–similar to Mount Rushmore, but not quite as grandiose. The park has many attractions–including the laser show, a walking track around the mountain (about 5 miles) that joggers and cyclists use for exercise, a trail to walk up the mountain, and a ski lift for those who don’t want to walk. From the top of the mountain, you can see 7 states (or so I’m told).

Stone Mountain Park also includes two golf courses–and, to understand some of the nuances, you must understand the history. The first, Stonemont, was designed and built by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. in 1969. The Stonemont course lay by itself for almost 30 years, until, in 1988, Stone Mountain Park built the Lakemont course. The Lakemont course encompasses much more of a resort feel to it and was intended to focus at least some holes around Stone Mountain’s new man-made lake. In order to do this and to maintain two full 18s of play, Read the rest of this entry »

This year’s US Open was played at Congressional country club. While more of the pre-tournament coverage was focused on the lack of a clear front runner than any other single story, one of the more interesting stories, for me, came from the course itself: the controversy over the par rating of the course. For the members, Congressional plays as a par 72. For Tiger’s AT&T National championship, the course plays as a par 70. For the US Open this year, it played as a par 71. This metamorphosis got me thinking about the value that golfers place on the concept of par.

Par derives its name from Latin, in which “par” means equal. To me, par means the number of strokes that an accomplished golfer should take to complete a given golf hole. This number is usually based on the length of the hole from tee to green. With that basic definition, the concept ends, and of you want to see the variety of interpretations of “accomplished” that this phrase has generated, you need look no further than any two courses designed by different architects. By way of example, the 9th hole at the Davis municipal course that I learned to play this game on is a narrow hole that measures 237 yards from the back tees. That hole plays relatively flat and the prevailing wind is a left to right cross wind. The hole has a relatively small green that is protected by a bunker in front and on on both sides. There is a small run up between the bunkers in the front and on the right. On the other hand, 12th hole at Las Campanas is 247 yards that has a large green that is protected by a lake on the left that runs from the tee to the green and a bunker on the right. There is also a small run up, but the elevated tee prevents lower trajectory shots from being as effective as they may be on other topologies.

Despite these similarities, The 9th at the muni is a par 4, while the 12th at Las Campanas is a par 3.

Now, realistically, there is very little difference in how a given golfer should approach these holes. If he or she is capable of carrying the ball 230 yards off the tee and hitting it reasonably straight, the hole should be played as a par 3. For the rest of us, the hole is more likely a short par 4 that should be played with a layup short and right of the trouble surrounding the green with a short pitch remaining to the flag.

So what gives? How do these course designers or raters come up with these seemingly arbitrary par values for holes? What difference does it make? And for me, why isn’t par different for different players?

I heard recently about a new movement to help golf draw new players called “tee it forward” which encourages golfers to play one or two sets of tees forward of tees they are playing now to help bring some of the fun back to golf. While the theory is sound in principle, to me, it makes little sense to ask a weekend player to move forward because of the simple fact that his or her short game is the real reason why they are shooting high numbers. It doesn’t really matter if I hit driver-hybrid short of the green or driver-7 iron short of the green, it is my short game and putting that will determine the number that I write down on the scorecard. Also, for the average hacker, hitting driver into the woods from tees that are 25 yards forward of his usual tees does not make searching in the woods any more fun or less irritating. Finally, for the male ego, shooting 96 from the white tees is infinitely more humiliating than shooting 101 from the tips. (what happened out there today, Sally?) At best, rounds may take slightly less time, but are not likely to produce lower scores that will ultimately lead to more “fun.”

Since scores are what ultimately drive entertainment for most players, why not change par to reflect what the “average” golfer should shoot rather than what the accomplished golfer would shoot? I can’t imagine a more fun round for the average hacker than shooting -2 (even if par is 90). Short games may not improve, driving will not improve, and technique will not improve. Indeed, none of these will improve from a national “movement.” Instead, entertainment value for a round will go up, and hopefully course management skills will improve. I am not naive enough to think that people will not try to make eagles on every hole instead of birdies, but the resulting pars will take the sting out of the poorly hit second shot, and possibly encourage some players to play safer routes to the hole to make birdie. Indeed, for players striving to break 100 or even 90, why not think of every hole’s par value as one more than the value listed on the scorecard? This strategy is exactly how I broke 90 for the first time with an 87.

JK, if we assume that something has to be done to make golf more appealing to new players, and massive overhauls to courses are not practical, what do you think courses can do to to draw new players?

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Response from JK:

To me, there are 2 reasons that interest in playing golf is waning (playing, not watching; we all know TW is the reason that interest in following golf is waning): (1) it takes forever, and (2) it costs a lot of money. I justify #2 by looking at my current golf bag, for which I got bargain basement deals on most of the equipment and still have spent over $700. The balls I play are $4 each, and they are the most commonly played balls in the game. In most areas, $90/round is not an uncommon price. Even in Atlanta, where golf is “cheap,” a typical course charges $55 on a weekday morning and $75 on a weekend. Although it is 4+ hours of entertainment, it’s easy to see why the average joe isn’t going to break into this sport.

So, for those who can swallow the cost, they have consigned themselves to the fact that the game is addictive, interesting, and fun. The thrill of achieving a new level is what brings us all back.

However, you know just as well as I do that there’s nothing worse than spending 5 hours on a golf course on a Sunday. Picture the scene: a beautiful spring day; it’s 80 degrees and a little breezy; you can smell the grass clippings from the early morning crew. You’re standing on the first tee, ready to tee off, looking at a wide, green fairway. Nothing but open possibility in front of you. You start to approach the ball to go into your pre-shot routine. All of a sudden, you hear the crack of a golf ball squarely contacting a pine tree. 2 golf carts come flying out of the woods into your fairway. 4 golfers get out of their carts, crack a beer each, grab a 3-wood, and proceed to take 9 practice swings each before topping the ball 40 yards ahead of themselves, into a bunker. You watch painfully as they struggle just to make contact. One slices into the woods right of the green. One puts his in the left front bunker (with a back right pin placement). One thuds 3 shots out of the fairway bunker trying to get it out, then just gives up, picks up the ball, and throws it back in the fairway, then spends 8 minutes raking the bunker he just obliterated, only to take 9 more practice swings from the fairway and top his ball, hitting the worm-burner onto the green. His friends tell him he’s hit a “nice shot,” which you can hear because they’re speaking at a volume normally reserved for movie theater sound commercials. Finally, after this ordeal, the fairway is clear. You stripe your tee shot down the right side of the fairway. But you know that, as soon as you get to your perfectly hit ball, you’re going to be paying for their mistakes again, waiting for the group in front of you to putt out on the green.

This is the main reason why I don’t want to play weekend golf. While I like the idea that the game is available to everyone, I don’t like that everyone cannot manage themselves and their games in a courteous manner for the betterment of all of the golfers behind them. This fact alone makes the game less enjoyable for the new golfer starting out. It’s impossible to enjoy the game with either (a) people holding you up in the fairway, or (b) people behind you pushing you to play faster. One or the other is not going to be happy.

This is why I don’t have as big of a problem with Tee It Forward as you. I think you’re spot-on that ego is the biggest reason that golfers won’t play the forward tees, but how often is that a reasonable justification for anything? The game is about putting the ball into the hole, not about how far you hit it, how good you play from the trees, how well you can drive a golf cart…nothing; all that matters is that the ball goes in the hole. The problem with playing the back tees is apparent for the weekend golfer. Most of them don’t hit the ball over 240 with a driver. They slice it more often then not, but never play for the slice. If you’re playing the tips, that combination of shortness and inaccuracy is deadly, not only for score, but also for round length. If there’s a 230-yard forced carry over water, my 275-carrying driver doesn’t even come close. But the weekend golfer is knocking knees trying to make it. And, if he doesn’t, he has to re-tee his ball and try again. Not exactly the best way to ensure that the game is enjoyable.

Your example re Davis Muni and Las Campanas is a little skewed. 247 yards is not a reasonable length to call anything a “par 4,” unless it’s playing straight uphill. Oakmont has a 290-yard “par 3.” Plus, you misrepresent Las Campanas a little, as 237 yards downhill in the desert plays closer to 210. Your point is well-taken: just because you call it a par 4 or par 3 doesn’t make it so. However, I don’t think it’s a realistic strategy for making the game more enjoyable. Telling someone that par is 90 only exemplifies the “everyone gets a trophy” idea. While golf is about you and you alone, the achievements made are universal. “Birdieing” a difficult hole only matters when it’s against an objective standard. For some people, birdie is an incredible score; for others, it should be expected one of four times playing the hole. But you can’t cheapen the value of that by saying my 3 is a birdie when your 5 is a birdie.

Moreover, what you’ve suggested is already accounted for by the USGA handicap system. A player of a 15 handicap “gets a stroke” on each of the 15 most difficult holes, giving him or her a relative value to par. When was the last time you actually saw someone use this system?

I agree with your advice that par is only a suggested number. For example, I played a 502 yard par 5 this weekend. After a good drive, I played it like a par 4, as I had only about 200 yards into the green. 500 is a reasonable length par 4 on the PGA Tour. However, most golfers can’t do that. If they play a 450-yard par 4, they should realistically think of it as a par 4.6 or 4.7, wherein they will par it only 1/3 or 1/4 of the time. But that determination is based on the player’s length, not their playing ability. Certainly, that player should not be upset with a 5, unless the hole is 80 feet downhill. However, teeing it forward alleviates this problem altogether, in that no forward tees will force a 450-yard par 4 on a player that can’t drive the ball over 240. Your strategy–thinking of each hole as a par of one greater than it actually is–is a good suggestion for course management. But that’s all it is. Few players will actually be encouraged by using that strategy to make the game more fun or enjoyable.

At the end of the day, the average golfer needs to accept that the tees you play are only a determination of the total length of the golf course. They are not an indication of how good you are. Some golf courses (i.e., the Judge) are insanely long, even from the forward tees. Others are short (i.e., Harbour Town), even from the back tees on a professional course. Shooting 96 from the forward tees may be the same in your mind as shooting 105 from the tips, but at least you broke 100. And if you shoot 72 from the forward tees, is anyone going to say “oh, well, you were playing the forward tees; it doesn’t count unless you’re on the tips”? Once people get over their own egos, the game naturally becomes more enjoyable. You stop worrying about your results, and you start worrying about enjoying the process of improvement.

Play of the Week 17

June 21, 2011

This week’s play of the week is obvious to anyone who would read this blog. Rory, you were superb. Four rounds in the 60s, a -16 finish to the US Open, breaking or tying a dozen records–it was truly amazing. From his scores in last year’s British (I believe he shot 62? LG, correct me if I’m wrong) and this year’s Masters (4-shot lead heading into the final day), we knew Rory had game. But the Norman-like collapses left us doubting. This was no doubt. You performed like Tiger, Jack, or Arnold. And, better yet, you were humble and personable afterwards, which this game needs. I’m looking forward to seeing more.

So here’s to you Rory. Let’s hope you can save golf.

A PS for the PF here, I also want to honorable mention YE Yang and Robert Garrigus. Both Garrigus and Yang tied for third behind McIlroy and Jason Day. Anyone who reads this blog knows that Garrigus appears on it regularly–I think maybe his game gives me hope that one day I can be on the Tour too, because we have similar swings and many of the same faults. Yang showed that he’s not just a one-hit wonder (winning the PGA over Tiger two years ago). Garrigus, playing in just his 3rd major ever, showed he has the skill to compete. We at the PF salute you both too for sticking around. We’re looking forward to following you as well.

Wow…were we wrong. Actual answers in bold.

(originally published Jun 16, 2011)
It’s that time of the year again! Our National Open is being played in our nation’s capital at Congressional near Bethesda, MD.

Here’s how we think things will shake out:

LG:
Winner: Dustin Johnson Rory McIlroy
Winning Score: -2 -16
Runner Up: Phil Mickelson Way wrong. +7, T-54
Low Amateur: Peter Uihlein wrong, Patrick Cantlay
“Unknown” in the Top 10: Jason Day correct (T-2), although I question if Day is really an “unknown.” The real answer is Kevin Chappell
Most difficult hole vs. par: 18
Easiest hole vs. par: 16
Last Year’s Winner (GMac) Will … (Win, Top10, Make the Cut, or Miss the Cut): make the cut, but be outside of the Top 10. Correct, T-14
Fred Funk will: MC Correct
How many prior winners will be in the Top 10: 0 Correct
Will there be a hole in one: No
…Which hole: n/a
Will Rory blow the 54 hole lead?  Probably. Hell No
Will Obama present the trophy?: He should! but no. Correct
Who will be more embarrassed at the end of the tournament? Mickelson or McIlroy?  If Mickelson doesn’t win, he should be more embarrassed.  I expect Rory will just be forlorn. half correct…Mickelson definitely should be embarrassed with +7. Rory was definitely not forlorn
Will someone win it, or will everyone else lose it?  Everyone else will definitely lose. Wrong. 4 rounds in the 60s, Rory won it
Who is most likely to “Dustin Johnson” it?  I’m going to go with Phil on this one.  I’d prefer to call it “Phil at Winged foot-ing it” yea, no one really did this, so, Phil’s +7 is about the closest thing to it

JK:
Winner: Stewart Cink Wrong. Cut
Winning Score: +1 WRONG -16
Runner Up: Matt Kuchar and Jason Day Day T-2, Kuchar T-14
Low Amateur: Peter Uihlein wrong, Patrick Cantlay
“Unknown” in the Top 10: Andres Gonzales wrong, MC. Correct answer was Kevin Chappell
Most difficult hole vs. par: 18
Easiest hole vs. par: 16
Last Year’s Winner (GMac) Will … (Win, Top10, Make the Cut, or Miss the Cut): Miss the cut. Too much going on in that dome. wrong. T-14
Fred Funk will: Seriously? Is he even in the field? MC correct
How many prior winners will be in the Top 10: 4 When I read this question, for some reason I thought this said “how many prior major winners in the top 10.” There were 3, Schawrtzel, Oosthuizen, and YE Yang. DLIII was T-11, so I almost got it.
Will there be a hole in one: No
…Which hole: n/a
Will Obama present the trophy?: If he reads the PF, I’m sure there’ll be a presidential veto of the authority to award the trophy. conclusion: obama does not read the PF
Who will be more embarrassed at the end of the tournament? Mickelson or McIlroy? Mickelson. Just seems to do dumb stuff in majors. correct.
Will someone win it, or will everyone else lose it? It’s the Open. Regardless of McDowell winning it last year, the bigger story will be everyone else losing it. jees was i wrong here
Who is most likely to “Dustin Johnson” it? Dustin Johnson. Again. T-23…I’d say I was wrong

The Grantland, a compendium of sports knowledge and humor started by the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons, recently ran an article that got me thinking about the sad state of golf today:

“3. The U.S. Open, Congressional Country Club, Bethesda, Md.

You know what’s fascinating about Lee Westwood? Nothing is fascinating about Lee Westwood. According to this profile, Lee Westwood is proud to declare that he has never read a book in his entire life. He may be the most boring man alive, and he is the no. 2 golfer in the world. Good luck in your new Tiger-less paradigm, golf.”

Really, Lee?  You’ve never read a book?  Come on, guy.  No wonder people hate golf and think of it as an elitist, bland, mayonnaise flavored “game.”

I was recently visiting one of my favorite watering holes in Palo Alto with a golfer and two non-golfers.  After having a few adult beverages, we got into a discussion about who was the most famous athlete to attend Stanford.  The two non-golfers were adamant that it was John Elway while the golfer and I were equally adamant that it was Tiger Woods.  The two non-golfers did not dispute that Tiger made more money, is/was more dominant, or is more decorated in his game.  Their dispute was that golf is not a sport.  Now, my guess is that neither of these clowns had ever tried to hit a golf ball, but their argument becomes more tenable when players like Tiger are laid up with injuries and we are left with Phil’s “golf” handles to fill up the 55″ widescreen.

I guess my point is, Tiger, the game needs you back.  Rory’s looking good this week, but its still not that compelling.  He (literally) just tied your record for most strokes under par at the U.S. Open, but I’m still not riveted.  From us at the PF, we wish you a speedy recovery, Tiger.  Make golf interesting again.

Aside:  I don’t mean to diminish Rory’s achievement.  Tying any one of Tiger’s records is a feat that any golfer should be so lucky to achieve.  -12 in a U.S. Open is phenomenal.  Rory has played beautiful (and as of  this writing) bogey free golf.  I hope you keep it up, sir.  Tiger shot -12 at Pebble, with second place at +3.  Your work is cut out for you, sir.  I take my hat off to you.

(Click here for the full article from Grantland)

One of the best things about having a golf blog is having the opportunity to do a write-up of great golf courses. In line with others, this week I review Cobblestone Golf Course in Acworth, GA.

I have been playing Cobblestone off and on for the last 15 or so years. Every time I go back, I am reminded that it is one of the more fun layouts near the city of Atlanta.

Cobblestone is, oddly, a municipal golf course maintained by Cobb county. Unlike many munis, however, it’s not a golf course that was just clear cut out of some trees and plopped in place. Serious earth was moved to put this course in place. The result is a layout that intrigues.

Cobblestone is placed at the very southern tip of Lake Acworth. 8 of the 18 holes play on, over, or around the lake, giving many picturesque vistas. The 11th hole (shown below–that tree is actually growing out of the marsh at the southern tip of the lake), a 436-yard par 4, plays to a wide fairway some 250-yards out, but necks down after that to only about 20 yards across. The green on the 11th sits less than 2 paces from an embankment to the lake, making for a very tough approach shot with a long iron.

At 6700 yards from the back tees, it’s not terribly long. However, the 73.5 rating (on a par-71 course) shows that it has some bite. 12 of 18 holes include hazards noted on the scorecard, and several others include treacherous shots.

The appeal of Cobblestone is not only that it is challenging, but also that it includes a good mix of golf holes. At par 71, the course includes four par 5’s that are all reachable–two that are flat that play under 530 from the back tees, and two that are well-downhill at 542 and 570. I had a 3-iron into the 570-yard par 5 9th when I played it recently. Although I’m a “big hitter,” we are talking about reaching par 5s, which short hitters would not consider. The course has a good amount of elevation change as well, which is rare for courses this close to water. Part of this can be seen from the views of the par 3 16th below.

Moreover, Cobblestone includes a good mix of holes. There are doglegs in both directions. There are holes that play over water and holes that play through the trees. There are some wide fairways and some narrow fairways. Some long par 4s (the 2nd, for example, at 472 yards, and the 14th at 461) and some driveable par 4s (the 17th, at 316 and about 60 feet downhill, and 4th at 313, shown below). Some long par 3s (the 8th at 240), and some short ones (the 16th at 133 over water). Cobblestone tests all parts of your game and gives a great opportunity to see how you play all your shots.

Cobblestone is a surprising muni, both for its quality and its beauty. The course is truly a gem of a layout.

There are always drawbacks, however. The condition of the course the last few times I’ve been out has been less than ideal. Far less. There was a temporary green on the 1st hole (which the staff did not warn us about). This comes less than 10 months after a full renovation where the course was converted from bent greens to bermuda (which I dislike anyway), leading me to wonder if they are capable of maintaining the course. The fairways were in good shape in many places but also had a good amount baked and dry spots as well as muddy puddles–in other words, it was very inconsistent, even when in the fairway. I guess the staff have never heard of bagging mowers, because they were still dragging the fairways to pick up the grass clippings when we teed off–not something you want to see (see the picture of the fairway at the 11th, above). Bermuda greens–I guess that’s all I have to say about that. At $56/round, I would have expected more. And it’s not exactly close to Atlanta. I guess there’s a reason why all the courses worth playing aren’t built anywhere near the city of Atlanta, but I’m starting to get sick of driving 45-minutes outside of the perimeter just to play a course worth playing. While the course is fun to play, there’s a reason why I don’t get out there but once every other golf season or so. Still, it’s always enjoyable, and I love a good layout.

Layout: 10/10
Greens: 7/10
Fairways: 7/10
Other Maintenance/Upkeep: 6/10
Cost: 5/10
Value: 6/10
Location: 7/10
Staff: 8/10

Overall: 7/10

Fail of the Week 4

June 8, 2011

This week’s FAIL is the state of golf. Currently, the game has never been less intriguing, and the reason is that we haven’t seen the dominance of the players we like and root for. Tiger has been out of contention in most tournaments (or just out of them), Phil hasn’t played well, and the big boys who made so much noise last year (DJ, Bubba) have been very quiet this year.

Don’t get me wrong, Luke Donald is a fine player. He’s currently #1 in the world rankings (which makes no sense because he hasn’t won a major, but, whatever, that’s the case). He plays measured, consistent golf and deserves the money and publicity he gets. But it really speaks to the current state of the game when THIS is what the #1 player in the world looks like:

The #1 player in the world should look like a champion. This guy looks like a pack of watermelon gum. It would be one thing if this were a rare moment, but, unfortunately, I think he might’ve borrowed his wardrobe from Ian Poulter.

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My grandmother wouldn’t wear that shade of pink, much less in pants. And to pair it with a black shirt–at Harbour Towne, no less–you’re asking for trouble.

Don’t get me wrong; I like pink, when used appropriately. But, this is not appropriate. This just speaks to the state of golf. If you asked 100 people on the street who the top 3 golfers in the world were, none of them could tell you Donald, Westwood, and Kaymer in that order. Yet that’s what we have.

It’s sad, but the most in-your-face and recognizable American golfer we have is Rickie Fowler. Can anyone explain this? I mean, seriously? This is what people want to see?

Here’s Rickie Fowler looking like a prison inmate:

Here’s Rickie Fowler dressed like a grape popsickle:

Here’s Rickie Fowler’s award wardrobe for selling the most Mary Kay:

Moreover, news came out yesterday that Tiger will not be playing in the US Open, and his absence from golf is putting a further decline on the popularity of the game.

Tim Finchem, please, do something. Fast. Otherwise, you’ll be losing more than just the casual fan.

For a photo of Ian Poulter’s ungodly obsession with the color pink, see http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01583/ian-poulter_1583748c.jpg. Warning, too shockingly pink for the PF. Proceed at your own risk