Tag Archives: Ben Crenshaw

Masters Field Too Strong for Tiger?

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.

Photo of Cassique Golf Club

The 15th at Tom Watson's Cassique Golf Club, Kiawah Island, S.C. (Tom Watson Design)

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.

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Kapalua: Don’t Call It a “Sand Trap”

I explained last time that it will take a few days to get the Top 50 operation up and running again.   The ping-pong table in my basement is covered with cartons of office supplies: highlighter pens, fan-fold paper, post-it notes, flashlights and candles, staple guns and legal pads. My granddaughter Megan has installed graphite bearings in the file cabinets, and the furnace man is expected any minute to service the water panels. Unfortunately, a major winter storm has crippled our efforts. With a foot-and-a-half of snow in our driveway and 30-mph winds causing drifts, Team Top 50 can barely summon enough energy to shuffle to the kitchen for a hot chocolate.

It takes little effort, however, to press the buttons on my remote. Two clicks and I’m watching Golf Channel’s first-round coverage of the SBS Championship at the Kapalua Resort on the Hawaiian island of Maui. I have covered this tournament a number of times, and fans of my old Mats Only column may remember the many laudatory paragraphs I’ve bestowed upon the resort’s splendid practice facility and golf academy. The Plantation Course itself, if you’ll check the sidebar, is currently ranked 33rd.*

*Full disclosure: I served as an unpaid consultant to the design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw during the construction of the Plantation Course, but my contribution was limited to the so-called “Garrity Bunker.” I have played the Plantation Course several times as a guest of management, but only on designated “media days” and only after offering to pay with Sports Illustrated expense-account money.

The sprawling Plantation Course, which tumbles down from the West Maui Mountains to the sea, is more fun than a roller-coaster, but the serious student of golf architecture will focus her attention on the thirteenth hole, a devilish par-4 that runs uphill along the edge of an old lava flow. The thirteenth fairway is where you’ll encounter the infamous “Garrity Bunker,” a sand hazard at cliff’s edge on the left. You haven’t played the Plantation Course until you’ve tried to reach the green from this hell-hole with a 40-mph trade wind in your face and lava grit stinging your ankles.

It is a myth, however, that the bunker got it’s name because my drives always landed in it.*

*You might be thinking of “Ike’s tree” on the 17th hole at Augusta National, so named because some golf-mad president wanted it cut down to afford him a clearer path off the tee.

Here’s the real story. I was playing the nearly completed Plantation Course in February, 1991, with Kapalua’s golf director, Gary Planos. “When we got to the thirteenth, an uphill par-4 of 407 yards” — I’m quoting now from an old Mats Only column —   “Gary didn’t tell me that it was the most difficult hole on the course ….”

… And I hasten to add that the trade winds were not blowing with their customary hurricane force. I drilled my drive up the left side of the fairway, long and straight, and watched the ball disappear over the crest, well to the right of some sinister treetops. “That should be perfect,” Gary said, “unless …”

I found out what he meant by “unless” when we drove up the hill and down to where my ball should have been. There was no ball. I had driven it off a cliff into either the treetops or that thigh-deep grass that Jesper Parnevik was stomping around in all last week. “That’s not right,” Gary said, staring over the edge. “I’ll have to tell Ben about this.” Ben, of course, was Plantation’s co-designer, Ben Crenshaw.

No problem. I dropped a ball, hit it somewhere, and got on with my life.

Almost a decade later, I returned to Kapalua for the 2000 Mercedes Championship to see if Tiger Woods could extend one of his PGA Tour winning streaks to five. (He could.) That’s when tournament media coordinator Linn Nishikawa said, “Oh, you’re the gentleman they built the bunker for!” Intrigued, I found Gary Planos, who cheerfully confirmed that my long drive had literally changed the landscape at Kapalua. “The day we played was a Tuesday,” Gary told me.

“I remember that because I flew the next day to Oahu to talk to Ben, who was playing in the pro-am of the Hawaiian Open at Waialae. I caught up with him on the eighth fairway, and since he was just waiting for the green to clear, I called him over and told him about your drive. He said, ‘You’re kidding me!'”*

*Crenshaw was astonished that the prevailing wind would allow a long hitter to reach the cliff. I’m sure he wasn’t questioning the quality of my game.

“Anyway,” Gary continued, “Ben agreed that we needed to put in a catch bunker, because from the tee you can’t see that your ball disappears. That’s why we now grow three-inch rough there. We’ve even expanded the bunker to ensure that balls that go left don’t all disappear.”

So that’s the story. The rest of the week, Gary kept introducing me as the idiot-savant behind the 13th-hole catch bunker. And ever since, when some reckless pro yanks his drive into my namesake pit, I hit the “mute” button, turn to my wife, and launch a 5-minute soliloquy explaining my role in the pro’s predicament.

There are worse ways to spend a snow day.


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