With Masters week looming, people keep asking what question I’ll spring on Tiger Woods at his Monday press conference. They assume, based upon my background as an investigative, that I will throw him hardballs such as, “Who is Janine, and how did she get your signature on a golf flag?”
Their assumptions are wrong. I’m going to throw the spitter. I’m going to ask Tiger the question that my weak-kneed, pusillanimous colleagues won’t touch with a two-foot pole: “Who is the best course designer in this year’s field?”
I expect Tiger to blush and stammer, because nothing embarrasses him more than his oh-for-three record as a golf architect. Three years after he opened Tiger Woods Design in a blind mail drop outside a mall in Windermere, Fla., Woods has yet to cut a ribbon at a course opening. His Al Ruwaya course in Dubai is stalled, his Cliffs at High Carolina course remains hypothetical, and his Mexican clients have put off construction of their Punta Brava seaside course until they get assurances that they can build it with American labor.
Should Tiger dare to answer my question, he’ll have to weigh the design credentials of a couple of dozen tournament players — many of whom have actually visited the courses they are credited with designing. He’ll have to give consideration to two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, who has put his stamp on some 17 courses on three continents. But Langer might not prevail in a design playoff with former Masters champs Raymond Floyd (Turnberry Isle Resort and Club, Aventura, Fla.) and Vijay Singh (The Water at Jumeirah Golf Estates, Dubai). And those two worthies would certainly meet their match in three-time Masters champion Tom Watson, whose Independence course at the Reunion Resort in Orlando, Fla., has drawn categorical praise from GOLF Magazine, Golf Digest and Golfweek. Watson showed what he’s made of when he agreed to renovate the marvelous Ballybunion Old in County Kerry, Ireland — a judicious tweaking that saw Ballybunion fall only three places, to No. 5, in the Top 50.
The best designer to tee it up on Thursday, however, will be yet another two-time Masters champion: Ben Crenshaw. With his acclaimed design partner, Bill Coore, Crenshaw is the only active player with two courses in the Top 50: Sand Hills Golf Club, No. 19, and The Plantation Course, No. 34. And that’s not counting the duo’s renovation work on Prairie Dunes Country Club, No. 6.*
*Is there a correlation between Masters titles and design potential? I think there is. Phil Mickelson, a two-time Masters winner, successfully partnered with Gary Stephens on the Lower Course at Whisper Rock Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. The salient fact is that Mickelson finished Whisper Rock in 2001, three years before he donned his first green jacket. (That augurs well for non-Masters winner Ernie Els. The Big Easy has co-designed roughly a dozen courses to date, including the Anahita Golf Course on the isle of Mauritius, chosen “Best Golf Development for Europe and Africa” by CNBC International Property Awards.)
Tiger may not see it my way, but what’s he going to do? Change the subject to his marriage?
Top 50 on TV: The Nabisco Championship, the first major of the LPGA season, returns to the Mission Hills Tournament Course, No. 44. I’m very fond of this course, having sharpened my game on its eucalyptus-lined fairways during countless playing lessons with my West Coast swing guru, Rob Stanger. It lacks, I admit, the symbolic depth of Desmond Muirhead’s later work — such as his par-4 “Guernica” hole at the Segovia Golf Club in Chiyoda, Japan, which commemorates Picasso’s famous painting of a town savagely bombed during the Spanish Civil War. (“A dismembered foot and hand surround the green,” Muirhead wrote in his program notes, “a solitary eye glares at you from behind it. The teeing ground is elevated as a symbol of power for the golfer and to help to see clearly the horse’s head around the lake.”) I also think that Mission Hills, situated as it is in the desert, could use a few more water fountains.