Wandergolf: Home, Sweet, Homestead

The colors of fall made their debut in the trees of southern Virginia this past weekend. Nature’s annually renewable color wheel turned out rustic-red, campfire-orange, and squash-yellow leaf swirls for our viewing pleasure, as my wife and I meandered through the Allegheny Mountains to arrive at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. This was my first visit to this resort, and the timelessness that met me here in Bath County ensured that it will not be my last. While the picturesque drive there, hassle-free check-in and plushy sleeping situation slowed things down, the breakfast buffet delivered the final pulse-lowering blow. The pre-hibernation feast available quashed all ideas I had of walking the Cascades Course. Always in the “Top 100 Courses You Can Play” list, the Cascades is the textbook mountain course, ensconced by natural surroundings that showcase it well. Man, I love playing a golf course with room. When you have a fairway lined with 150-foot hemlock trees and a backdrop of a mountain five miles away, who cares where your ball lands? Well, me, but I shouldn’t. Highlights of the round for me included the approach shot to the slightly inclined, elevated shelf-like green on #4, and the tee shot into the deep left side of the soup-bowl valley on #7. No matter if it was your second or third stroke (or fourth, fifth or sixth), the approach shot over the pond on the par 5 #16 hole was spectacular, and the uphill tee shot over water to the 18th green ended the round on a high note. I also appreciated the mountain-inspired acoustical smack of the flag being dropped to the green by far away fellow golfers being audible from a great distance away. At this time, I would not recommend using orange or yellow balls. The Canyon Ranch Spa services that my wife availed herself of were reportedly luxurious, and she almost overslept for dinner. The post-treatment outdoor lounge with natural springs and wood-burning fire pit, surrounded by satisfied “spadets” in white robes, could have passed for a Roman marshmallow roast. In less opulent surroundings, the men-only natural springs five miles away that Thomas Jefferson once soaked in provided me warmth and humor, as I listened to a fellow bather lament upon the color choices of the “noodle” flotation devices that were available to us grown men. A jacketed affair, complete with late-era live band music, dinner in the main dining room lasted about as long as a good movie. Starring roles were pheasant and strip steak, with cameos by crab Louis and oysters Rockefeller. The menu at Jefferson’s, the other upscale restaurant at the Homestead, looked equally appealing and will have to wait for our next visit. The Old Course at the Homestead, built in 1892, is home to the nation’s oldest first tee in continuous use. Last Sunday morning it was home to 30-something degree weather, as the first cold snap appeared out of nowhere. The cold burned off to become a crisp, beautiful, sunny mountain day with spectacular views making an appearance once again. The Old Course, while not in the same league as the Cascades, is the best kept example of resort golf I have ever seen. This is a perfect course for a couple or a family to play. The back tees might keep a seasoned golfer happy with yardage and difficulty, but a seasoned golfer would never think to complain about either because of the available views. Memorable golf moments for me were the tee shot at the par three #5 against the “double-mountain” looking backdrop and the five minutes my wife and I marveled at the views down the #13 fairway from the tee box. I really enjoyed playing the Old Course with my wife and will file this in the “Special Round” category. Whichever activities I chose to participate in on my visit to the Homestead, I was still going to be left with a list for future visits. Falconry is not something you see every day, and learning how to fly fish in the mountain streams surrounding the Homestead are two things on my list. The hiking trails and horses may see more of my wife in some future trip. When we first pulled into Hot Springs and I saw the Jeffersonian brick and white grounds of the Homestead, and when we later exited onto Sam Snead Highway to leave, I found myself thinking roughly the same thing: How cool is it that something like that exists in Virginia? [gallery ids="101514,150884,150886" nav="thumbs"]

Wandergolf: Getting a Grip

The last false start to the end of miserably wretched seasonal affectation disorders that have prohibited Washingtonians from golfing may finally be water under the bridge. While Mother Nature's final green light to swap out the snow shovel for the sand wedge may mean the season is ready for you, are you ready for the season? Consideration of the age-old basics, a little cash, some good karma and a new tuna recipe may be just what you need to break into the seventies this season. So here we go: Size matters and flash inspires. Have someone industry-knowledgeable confirm you are using the right clubs. It makes a difference. Buy a shiny new bag, sporty new shoes, some Pro V1's with a picture of your dog on them and replace cadaver-ready golf gloves. Replace the nine iron you cleaned the gutters with, and ditch whatever you were hiding in your golf bag all winter in the garage. Bust a move. Exercise will ensure a safe couch-to-course transition, and low poundage correlates to low golf scores. Walk, do push-ups, ride to work, do backyard tai chi in your underwear, but do something. Pre-golf movement will spike your moods and help with injury avoidance. Want birdies, eat bird food. Stop eating poor bratwurst imitations and buffet tacos at the clubhouse. Go to the bulk food section at Whole Foods and design your own nut and berry mix for the season. Google spicy Asian tuna fish on the internet, and finally use that insulated pocket on your bag for something other than warm beer. Have wasabi-flavored almonds for a snack after the seventh hole. "Wax on, wax off." Seek out wise and enlightened counsel to design a three-lesson plan that smooths out some rough edges in your game and gives you some direction for practice time. The cost of a few lessons is probably a hundredth of what you spent on the game last season and will pay dividends. Know a 97 from a 79. The rules of golf read like a 33-part real estate transaction between three generations of four non-NATO participating countries, but there are crib notes available almost everywhere, and you should read them and know them. You do not have to always play by them but you should know how to. When you do shoot a 70s game, it will mean something. Home on the range, home on the course. You are what you do, so squeeze in meaningful range time. Sequentially practice shots that mirror your favorite golf holes, and spend equal amounts of time on the putting and chipping greens. Sometimes take only two clubs to the range. Putt for quarters. Have the humility and diligence to play a par three course to work on your short game, but make it a competition. Carrier pigeons are obsolete. Embrace technology and computerize a list of all the people you know that play golf, complete with phone numbers and emails, then send it to every one of them. This says you are open for business. Pulling off the Tuesday afternoon ad-hoc game becomes an easy reality. Having a co-conspirator on the fly will diminish "helpful suggestions" from others about how you spend your valuable free time. Get out of Dodge. Be a leader and plan a long golf weekend for later in the season. Do it now, get it on the books. Myrtle Beach, Kohler, Bandon Dunes and the U.K. are all a phone call away. A healthy, natural, competitive fear will force you to play enough to pass muster on the trip. Who cares how many people go? You will have fun. That one phone call may turn into your club's annual event. Pass it on, pay it forward. Introduce the game of golf to a young person by taking them out to play a round or to hit some at the range. Somebody did it for you. If the idea of footgolf (or any other multi-land use ideas for golf courses) nauseates you, than man up and teach the incoming generation to appreciate the status quo. This advice nugget can be the one on this list that doesn't even necessarily have to involve golf. Spending an afternoon a week in an old folks’ home cheering people up will put your poor golf shots in perspective. Crack a book. Read a golf classic by John Updike, Jack Nicklaus or Dr. Alister MacKenzie. If you have attention-span issues, then just replace whatever magazines are in your bathroom with the golf classics organized in "snippets of sense" fashion. Harvey Penick, Hogan and Bob Rotella books are all ideal for ADD golfers, and the haphazard lessons will find a way into your game. Have a stake in the game. Throw a hundred bucks at a fantasy golf league. Pick one that doesn't require a statistician's background to play. This participation will prompt phone calls, emails and wisecracks about the game, making for pleasant white noise during the work week. Man vs. himself. Go play by yourself once in a while. The same foursome all the time will eventually suffer from "cellmate mentality" issues. One-word jokes, out-of-date bathroom humor and obscure music and movie references might creep into your professional vernacular or domestic conversations. Fun people play golf. Go meet them. Record outstanding occurrences. A golf diary or journal is not necessary, but if you hit an outstanding shot on a sunny day in a cool place, write it down. An encounter with someone memorable, a treeful of rare birds, mid-fairway solutions to a problem or the end of a midlife crisis may all surface during frequently scheduled four-hour activities – and are worthy of remembrance. Paragraph them on three by five cards, punch holes in them and keep a flip chart of noteworthy thoughts nearby to remind you of the little things that make life worthwhile. I hope this year’s golfing season brings you much joy, and that the rocks, trees and greens conspire to send your balls bouncing in their intended directions. I hope you remember to tell your spouse and family about the wildlife you saw on the course and the interesting people you met (not just all about which irons went where). I hope to see you as you trudge the happy fairways of destiny. Most of all, I hope you play fast.

Growing Up Golf

I can always tell when I am playing golf with someone who started playing early in life. There is a degree of confidence present in the way they choose clubs, address the ball and shrug off bad shots that suggests a long relationship with the game. They are usually in decent physical shape, don’t drink on the course, have good manners and seem well organized. I didn’t start playing until my mid-twenties. This past Saturday, I arrived for a tee time at Raspberry Falls in Loudoun, and there were 320 kids there for the skills assessment day of the Loudoun Junior Golf Association. I was absolutely floored. LJGA President Charlie Hoffman spent an hour educating me about the league and turning my astonishment into admiration. Born out of Leesburg Parks and Recreation in 2004, the league has since become its own 501(c)3 and grown to include 12 golf courses, both private and public, and now has corporate sponsors like ExxonMobil and Jersey Mikes. The price for annual membership is $275. This includes an assessment, four lessons (chipping, putting, woods and irons), score keeping and etiquette instruction and participation in six tournaments. There are five divisions to accommodate every skill level and age. Satisfying their annual volunteer requirement, PGA pros happily lend their time to these clinics, ensuring top-notch instruction. All positions are volunteer-based, and most, if not all, of the volunteers have or have had children in the league. Raspberry Golf Academy and Goose Creek paid for the uniforms this year. This is not the Bad News Bears sponsored by Chico’s Bail Bonds. This is a well thought out, responsibly grown and accessible golf program for kids, one which is encouraging its footprint to be copied. Spending a day talking to golf professionals in Fairfax County and finally back to Washington, D.C., to see what junior golf programs were available presented a different story from Loudoun. Junior golf outside of private clubs in Fairfax County also began at Parks and Recreation, and for the most part, still is where the majority of junior leagues are found. Five county-owned courses in Fairfax County have been competing in league play for a couple of years now, according to Jeff Winkle, General Manager of Oak Marr Golf Complex. While Fairfax County has some good courses, most of the tournaments and clinics for juniors are at par 3 courses. Loudoun kids are playing courses like Lansdowne Resort, River Creek and Raspberry Falls. Washington, D.C., junior golfers have even less of a chance to experience different types of courses. There are some great programs like the First Tee of Greater Washington and Paul Berry’s Get Hooked on Golf programs. If you are a child in D.C. public schools and want to take the six-week Get Hooked on Golf Clinic, it will be provided at no cost, including transportation. Once you finish the clinic, the organization will pay for your rounds at East Potomac Golf Course. This is made possible in conjunction with D.C. Friends of Ireland and the PGA of America, which partners with the program. These programs are a wonderful resource, but the three courses in D.C. are extremely crowded, and variety is limited. Terry McFarland, General Manager of Rock Creek Golf Course, worked with the PGA of America to form leagues last year, but there were not enough participants at the three courses to sustain a program. He said he would love to see a situation where the course would be active with golf leagues, but it would need to make good business sense for the three D.C. courses. The difference between these programs and Loudoun is that the parents and volunteers are the ones running the leagues. If parents ran the leagues in D.C. and Fairfax County, as they seem to do in so many other sports, they could compete with other areas and visit their courses. LJGA’s Hoffman says he would love to be able to compete with other areas and work with other organizations and would even help set them up. The PGA of America says the same thing. “I will come talk to anyone, anywhere, that wants to start a golf league for kids,” says Bob Heintz, Junior Golf Director for the Mid-Atlantic section of the PGA of America. Heintz says that he has gone to talk to Loudoun over the years and is glad to see them doing well. “Leagues do not even have to be PGA members to have PGA support,” he says. It seems that there is room here for all sides of the equation to benefit. League play, organized by D.C. and Fairfax Volunteers, however large, could work with other leagues like Loudoun to allow their kids access to more courses in the area. Golf courses, county and non-county alike, can focus on providing the best facilities for play they can and be paid for it. Sponsors that are willing to help kids play golf can show support for these leagues and have tax benefits. Lastly, as a community, we can reap the benefits created from raising more children in the area that espouse the good qualities that the game of golf seems to install in them. For answers to your questions, comments or suggestions, please email: wally@wandergolf.com

Mission Hills Resorts: Mainland China and Hainan Island

Whether your arrival is straight from a knee-crunching, 20-hour airline experience or a shuttle over the border from the space-starved city of Hong Kong, the welcoming 20 square kilometers that comprise the world’s largest golf resort at Mission Hills promise plenty of leg room, long irons and lady loopers. Mission Hills Dongguan and Shenzhen edged out Pinehurst in 2004 for the Guinness Book of World Records honor, boasting a total of 12 championship courses. Combine these with the ten additional courses located at Mission Hills Haikou Resort on Hainan Island, and you can see where an eight-day trip there might be an option-wrenching experience for a golfer. No one has expressed anything like real sympathy for me as of yet. I played my first round of nighttime golf -- readily available at all Mission Hills Resorts -- at Dongguan. It turned out to be an eerily cool way to deal with jet lag. Time became confusing while sleepily wandering around the fluorescent-filled fairways, sporting oxygen-deprived swollen ankles. Golf balls began resembling Atari asteroids as they rocketed from my clubs and disappeared off screen. Having arrived skeptical as to how a resort could uniquely differ from so many neighboring golf tracts, I left overwhelmingly impressed. The thick forest-lined Norman course weaved in and around the Mainland China Hills and was probably the most challenging course at Dongguan. The meandering layout promoted solitude, and my inability to speak Mandarin prompted a fun practice of miming out shot intentions to my caddie. Knowledgeable caddie notwithstanding and appreciated, I very much enjoyed playing by myself and will remember this quietly pleasant Norman walkabout for some time. The number of sand traps on the famed Olazabal Course necessitate the creation of greenside outdoor showers and a name change to “Playa Del Iraq,” but make it an outstanding test of shot placement skills. Mission Hills Shenzhen, a short shuttle away, was no less expansive or inviting. While waxing golf is something I am partial to, no account of time spent here would be complete without addressing the magnitude of activities besides golf that are available to the “golfed-out” and non-golfer. If world-renowned spas, eco-friendly trail hikes, curvy swimming pools or optical illusionary “Trick-Eye Museums” become old hat, guests can go buy new ones in Hong Kong. Culinary possibilities featuring Chinese, Japanese, American and Korean menus are available in venues, ranging from your bed to private dining rooms. A golf course science and technology museum is available for kids (and held my attention), while life-size dioramas espousing resort responsibility for green and responsible growth are educational and captivating. Just walking through the grand ballrooms is fun. Visiting celebrities have all left cement handprints in walkways throughout the grounds, and finding your celebrity match is a popular pastime. Algebraically, I learned that: My Hands < Nick Faldo’s Hands < Yao Ming’s Hands. It was a special treat to play a Pete Dye course in China, where the trademarked railroad-tie designs came complete with the exotic three-noted chimes of emerald doves overseeing play. The highlight round of Dongguan and Shenzhen was the World Cup Course, designed by Jack Nicklaus. Made famous when Fred Couples and Davis Love III won here in 1995, it remains one of the most famous courses in China. I flew into Mission Hills Haikou on Hainan Island, having no idea what to expect, and I was wowed all over again. Hainan Island is generally referred to as the “Hawaii of the East,” as it has the same tropical climate and volcanic rock. I was even necklaced with a flowered lei upon hotel arrival. Mainland Chinese flock here for the relaxed attitude and recreation it provides. The golf courses I played at Haikou were unbelievable. The Blackstone Course, which hosted the exhibition match between Rory and Tiger last October, featured a contrasting trio of lava rock, white sand and green grass in a sharpness that I have never seen before. International awards and competitions litter its pedigree. If Blackstone were the heavyweight, then the Lava Fields Course would be a barroom-brawling cousin. These two courses were more alike than any others I played at Mission Hills, and this was not only forgivable but desirable. I saw the sun rise at Mission Hills Haikou from the Blackstone Course my last day because I had to play it a second time. The amenity base at the Haikou Resort already surpasses anything I have ever seen at a golf resort, and future expansion plans are no less promising. A Lan Kwai Fong shopping, dining, and concert venue to sister the existing one in Hong Kong is set to deliver late this year (think East Asian Times Square), and an entire movie-themed town is also just wrapping up. Hyatt and Hard Rock are under construction. Mission Hills may have most of its golf courses situated, but the Mission Hills brand is just getting underway. Home to the world’s largest spa and mineral springs, the resort is also the largest tennis facility in the world. The vast real estate holdings that make all of this expansion possible could hide a million people, and yet it would not feel crowded. If you want to feel crowded, you can visit nearby Haikou City. Not only did I wander off campus to do this, I even undertook an evening “Hainan Impression” show, showcasing the history of the island. A seafood dinner expedition in town allowed me to pick out whatever I wanted to eat from hundreds of fresh seafood tanks. There are more than 600 golf courses in China, and that number is growing monthly. The sheer numbers associated with the breakout of the Chinese upper middle class is something the world has never seen, and the number of golfers there are predicted to eclipse their American counterparts inside of ten years. Mission Hills Resorts will be there to cater to them, and a family or group trip to China to experience them will round out any American golfer’s resume. The inability to portray the monumental number of experiential possibilities available to me on this trip in a single column leave me no choice but to leave you with this simple directive: Google Mission Hills, and go there. I definitely will be going back soon. 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Pin Hunting on Penobscot Bay: Samoset Resort

The analogies between bacon and golf might escape the neophyte leisurist, but any expert loafer in the wild at this moment may have already casually surveyed the frying pan rack, mentally reviewed the contents of his trunk and will soon be pressing #1 for the pro shop. Eating little blueberries and slurping up lobster can only shine brighter when bacon shows her face, while Andrew Wyeth paintings and puffin sightings are truly more appreciated when bookended or framed by a few rounds of golf. Nestled along the Penobscot Bay in Maine between the tidal water towns of Rockland and Rockport, Samoset Resort was my vacation bacon. Celebrating a centennial of golf in 2002, the course underwent major renovations in the 1970s, and many recent tweaks and additions have landed the resort in the pages of Conde Nast Traveler and Golf Digest for its resort amenities and beautiful views. One hundred and seventy-eight rooms and three cottages are crowned by "The Flume," a moat surrounded, majestic oceanside residence for rent along hole #15, where actor John Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston supposedly spent their honeymoon night. More recent and weighty geographical significance has surfaced in its cameo role as the house behind the sand trap that I chipped in from to make birdie. Highlights on the front nine are made even higher by the presence of the Atlantic Ocean on every single hole. Lobstermen dropping traps in the water, puffy white sailboat triangles and Rockland's Breakwater Lighthouse Trail all come together in bad-shot-erasing panoramic views that put the exclamation point in time already being well spent. Definite front nine favorites for me were holes #3 and #4. The third hole's uphill tee shot to a green beneath a watercolor-worthy copse of trees could be the textbook case for clubbing up, and the blind shot to reach the #4 green in two could be one of many ways to play the hole. I consider the number of times a golfer has to consider risk and reward in a round a good measure of course architecture, and Samoset has had good architectural input over the years. The course's only four non-oceanside string of holes starts out with a very nicely laid out par four on #10. The challenging approach shot over water can only be made harder if you manage to hide behind the one three-inch wide sapling in the middle of the fairway (I did). Hole #11 is a good-looking, spicy little par three with pleasant water fountain white noise to even out swing tempo. The accolades from me for the back nine belong to holes #13 and #14. The spicy little par three's bar brawling uncle with tattoos makes up the wicked thirteenth par three; it’s a 230-yard shot over water. Any separation anxiety stemming from lack of ocean is more than quelled by the water's stunning return at the end of the lengthy lounge-chair shaped par 5 number 14 hole, easily my favorite hole at Samoset. Maine's humidity-avoiding, transient, late summer population is represented well at Samoset, and it was very easy for me to find people that felt obligated to let me join them. As happens over a round of golf my new friends Bob, Dave, and Fred soon became Bobby, Davey and Freddy. The staff at the club was extremely welcoming, and while I had plans of playing some other nearby courses, it just seemed natural to store my clubs at Samoset when asked. Club professional Gary Soule was very welcoming and fun to talk to, and 94-year-old starter Ray Fogarty, a 34-year course veteran, recently had "Ray's Creek" dedicated to him for years of service. When I met him at 7 a.m. the other day, he was munching on a Danish with a cartful of empty beer bottles he claimed were just collected for recycling. Having worked at the Samoset as early as 1934, Fogarty remembers when the club had barracks for visiting baseball players that would play exhibition games for guests. Lobster, organic farms, bird watching, kayaking, biking, hiking, little blueberries, lighthouses, country roads, watercolors, music festivals and gas stations that serve award-winning soups are all reasons I will be back in Maine next summer. This summer, I added golf at the Samoset to the list. [gallery ids="101808,139919,139914" nav="thumbs"]

Wander Golf: Groundhog Day at Pawleys Island, South Carolina

One way a truly exceptional golf course distinguishes itself from its rivals is through the quality of excuses it makes available to golfers for poorly executed shots. Post-shot outbursts last weekend at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club in South Carolina of “Both alligators surfaced closer at the same time” and “That heron stabbed a fish in my backswing” once again confirmed this course to be one of my all-time favorite layouts. Caledonia and its sister course, True Blue Plantation, have been Myrtle Beach itinerary favorites for years, and every year on the way home someone says, “Man, we should just play those courses every day!” Last weekend, we played the same 36 holes of golf at Caledonia and True Blue at the same times for four days in a row to put it to the test. Is too much of a good thing wonderful? These two courses, both designed by Mike Strantz, differ from each other so greatly that they make a great pairing. Caledonia is a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of flowers, wildlife and Spanish moss draped from massive century-old oak trees. This golf course has more energy than any other golf course I have ever played. Wing-drying cormorants line the banks, where alligators sun and white snowy egrets fly over southern fox squirrels at play. Fish jump when you are actually looking. The course feels like a Disney-animated, closed-circuit ecosystem. Caledonia showcases landscaping in a way that even the wildlife seems to appreciate. The rolling, expansive and immaculate fairways of True Blue stand out amid what feels like 60 percent of the course that is made up of waste bunkers and has the opposite feel of being landscaped. It has a natural feel to it like Kiawah or Pinehurst. It also has a natural feel to it like a beach. The sheer amount of sand on some holes leaves open the possibility of getting so lost that your fellow golfers forget who you are by the time you get to the green. The trees and wildlife seem totally different at True Blue, and, once again, this makes for a great pairing with its big brother course. If Caledonia is the Who, then True Blue is Dire Straits. Staying at True Blue in Pawleys Island, right next to both courses, was key to enjoying this many rounds at them. While Myrtle Beach has more than 100 courses, staying in the middle of it and running around to play golf all over has a cafeteria feel to it that I don’t like. I really liked getting to know the two courses well. I looked forward to improving on my play from prior rounds. There is a reason sports franchises compete with each other in a series. Look at the pros: they play the same course every day for five days, week in and week out. The downside to being afforded the ability to improve upon prior play is that you have no place to go but down after playing well, which can be tough. Repetitive play has a way of sucker punching the eternal optimist in every golfer. Having the same golf schedule every day also makes it easier to plan meals, which -- along with water, suntan lotion, and anti-inflammatories -- become important factors in finishing rounds every day. Both courses have grill rooms with solid options and finishing hole views. Nosh and Bistro 217 are two excellent restaurants nearby for anyone left standing at the end of the day. Golf magazine just came out with its 2014 list of “Top 100 U.S. Courses You Can Play,” and Caledonia was #27 and True Blue made the list for the first time at #77. Architect Mike Strantz unfortunately died young in 2006 at the age of 50, or I am sure we would see a lot more of his courses in the spotlight. He worked under Tom Fazio before breaking out on his own with Caledonia in 1993. Virginia favorites Stonehouse and Royal New Kent are Strantz designs also. Tobacco Road in North Carolina is also one of the nine courses he designed. Riding to the eighteenth green for the last time, around what is left of the former rice plantation at Caledonia, I was feeling dismayed at not having a breakthrough round on the trip. At that moment, a giant seabird spread its wings and took flight across our path, while a rabbit darted the opposite direction. While an alligator circling the green was leaving a quiet wake, a fish jumped three times in a row so close that I could see the spots on its side. Exiting the course for the last time, the starter appeared out of nowhere at our window and said, “You fellows make sure to come back and visit us again, ya hear.” In my last backward glance, I swear I thought I saw a bluebird on his shoulder. [gallery ids="101837,139040,139049,139046" nav="thumbs"]

Handicapping Your Golf Game: It’s Time

There probably is not another aspect of the game of golf that is as controversial as the golf handicap. A golf handicap is basically a numerical measure of a golfer’s potential playing ability, derived from a ridiculously complicated mathematical formula that, for the purposes of quick explanation, is what a golfer may on average shoot over par. If you shoot an average score of 92 on a par 72 course, you will be close to a 20 handicap. It is the golf handicapping system that allows golfers of any skill to compete against each other fairly. Since a golf handicap is self-reported, like income taxes, people regularly lie about them. When you “hang” a golf handicap (get one), you are making a commitment to play by the rules of the game of golf, which are difficult to understand, sometimes hard to play by and probably cause more arguments per capita than religion and politics combined. Traditionally, handicaps have been associated with private club membership, but not anymore. The Internet has provided many outlets where you can get one, but the USGA (United States Golf Association) only recognizes handicaps associated with golf clubs. This will cost you anywhere from $25 to $40. If you play golf regularly, you should have a golf handicap. Having a handicap will allow you to honestly measure the progress of your golf game, allow you to enter tournaments, join leagues and play a host of non-traditional golf games that can be really fun. I frequently play a Stableford format with a group of golfers for which I need my handicap. A Stableford format awards points for performance on each hole, and each golfer’s potential to earn points is dictated by his handicap. It is extremely popular overseas. In small doses, wagering on golf is extremely fun, and a handicap makes that possible. Some consider themselves not good enough for a handicap. If you regularly shoot over 120, perhaps you have an acceptable argument there. One thing that may persuade you to get a handicap is to realize that golfers who are better than you are more likely to play with you if you have one -- and you are more likely to get better at the game by playing with golfers that are better than you. Not only does it make it possible for them to liven up the round by competing with you, but it displays a respect for the game that will certainly be noted. Non-handicappers will generally not follow the rules, which any serious golfer will find less interesting than someone who does. The golfer that wants to have better scores before he hangs a handicap is no different than the person who wants to get in shape before they join the gym or someone who insists they want to lose weight but somehow never buys a scale. Knowledge is power. You have to define a starting point to measure anything. When someone says that they just play golf to enjoy themselves so they don’t want to have a handicap or play by strict rules, I can see that point of view and respect it. When these same people throw clubs, scream, berate golf personnel, brag about golf scores or want to bet on their games, I run for cover. It seems unbelievable to me that the same person that is willing to spend two grand on clubs and accessories will turn around and claim to only play for fun or say that hanging a handicap would be too expensive. There are some legitimate criticisms of the golf handicap system. A frequent one is that golfers who only play the same course will have lower handicaps. Well, who cares if someone has an artificially low handicap? The only time you will meet this person is at an event outside his club, which you are more likely to win with an accurate handicap. Another common complaint is that the system does not account for bad weather. Yes, it does. In coming up with an “average” of your scores the lowest 10 out of 20 scores are used. You could have 10 scores more than 150, but if the other 10 average at 85, you will be close to a 13 handicap. If you play in weather that is so bad that you score that poorly half the time, you should quit the game or move anyway. The most common argument against the handicap system is that people are not honest, and that they do not follow the rules. This complaint is surely true enough some times, but I feel like the same complaint can be made about life. Yes, it can be frustrating to know that people cheat sometimes, and not be able to do anything about it. Losing a local tournament to some sandbagging loudmouth or cheater may not be ideal, but you will have ideals. It truly is how you play the game, not whether you win or lose, that matters. This saying has never been truer than when applied to the game of golf, because, like life, it is a game that you can never really win anyway. You may be able to tell if you are doing well lately, or if you have some work to do, but the only way you will ever know this is if you start with a benchmark by which you can measure your behavior. In golf, this is your handicap. Go get one. Wally Greeves is the golf columnist for the Georgetowner and is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and can be reached at Wally@wandergolf.com.

Quicken Loans at Robert Trent Jones

Certainly no stranger to hosting major events, having welcomed four President’s Cups, Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., is busy readying itself for the Quicken Loans PGA event for summer 2015. In a very close vote, as many members object to the lack of access to the course around tournament time, Congressional Country Club has decided to host the event in upcoming even years only. TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm will host in 2017. The PGA event was formerly known as the AT&T National and continues to benefit the Tiger Woods Foundation. Having never even been to RTJ (Robert Trent Jones), I saw the tournament’s move as a great opportunity to learn more about the club. After a phone inquiry about the tournament, I was pleasantly surprised by an invitation to join the board member liaison for the event in a round of golf, along with the head professional and another long-time member. I cannot remember a recent visit to a golf club that I have enjoyed more. On entering the club, the first thing I noticed was the mammoth glacier-white pile of sand being used to freshen up the traps for the tournament. Flags on lampposts announcing the dates came next. Expecting a beehive of activity inside the clubhouse, the wall of timeless serenity that greeted me was grabbingly comfortable. While the clubhouse furnishings, finishes, dining areas, bar, locker room and pro-shop were all architecturally immaculate, each of these areas reeked of usability. Even with some construction happening on certain holes of the course, the round was absolutely picturesque, showcasing the October colors that Virginia is famous for, and I appreciated walking the course. The trap placements up the right side of the fairway on the first hole, a dog leg right par 4, were of a classical risk-reward design that are trademarks of Robert Trent Jones-designed courses. While water does not come directly into play on that many holes, the presence of Lake Manassas that can be felt on almost all of them gives off a non-threatening, almost meditative vibe. The string of holes visible along the lake from the ninth green was an impressive view, and reminded me of the famous sequential holes at Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican Republic. The 11th hole par three over water could be considered a signature hole and was a favorite for me. The peninsula that made up the par 4 hole #13 was also a big favorite for me, with the changing colors of the trees highlighted against the lake on the walk down the fairway. I could have taken a nap in that fairway. There were not any bad songs on this album. The quality of the course and the lack of design gimmickry left me with a clear feeling for where my game needed work, which is what a great course should do. The ending holes were a pair of par fours that delivered us to a stately and inviting view of the clubhouse, which is where we headed. The bar area has that perfect dark wood, comfortable chair, low table feeling that is a great place to digest a round of golf and tell stories. There are no social memberships at RTJ, no pool and no tennis courts. It is all about the game of golf. A round here is designed to be something special for members and guests. In fact, a requirement of membership is that it be secondary to another golf club membership, ensuring that it stays a special treat. This was the first time I really think I got a good understanding of what the negotiations between the PGA and a golf club are like when designing an event. Thanks go to board members Bill Craig and Mike Prentiss and to head professional Cary Sciorra for taking the time to explain the changes going on. Altering tee boxes, lengthening holes and updating sand trap designs are measures undertaken to ensure a fair fight. Like a boxing match, the exciting events are the bouts that go the distance. Nobody wants to watch pro golfers shooting fish in a barrel, and nobody truly wants to watch them hate their jobs either. The negotiators for the courses and the PGA are who make sure this doesn’t happen, and I will have a new appreciation for them moving forward. I don’t think the PGA could have found a better venue to host its Quicken Loans event. While the next few years are spoken for, it would be nice to see the event eventually return to RTJ as a permanent fixture. What a welcome relief it is to watch a world-class golf club express humility in its approach to hosting an event and all the excitement about the game that it creates. Wally Greeves is the golf columnist for the Georgetowner and is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and can be reached at Wally@wandergolf.com.

Wandergolf: Touring South Africa with Pro Golf Safaris

While the flight was long and Table Mountain was huge, it wasn’t until a South African native waitress clicked through some Zulu expressions that the waves of delightful unfamiliarity washed over me and far-awayness kicked in. The April trip to South Africa with some other writers and tour operators was with Pro Golf Safaris, the most noteworthy golf and safari tour operator in South Africa. Making bogeys taste good is this group’s specialty, and the seemingly endless depths of South African resources available to them in this undertaking made this an enchanting trip and introduction to the country. Topping the New York Times list of places to go in the world in 2014, Cape Town has something for everyone. Twelve hours after my arrival, I was staring into the wide open mouth of a 17-foot great white shark as it banged itself against the wimpy and bent up cage I was diving in, an experience I will never forget. We saw the wobbly little penguins by the hundreds at Boulder’s Beach, which was (there is no other way to describe this) totally cute. Reaching the top of Cape Point, I was laughingly disabused of the notion that I would see a jagged and watery line where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. The Cape Town waterfront offers multitudes of excursions involving helicopters, whales, wine and other activities — the most famous probably being the trips to Nelson Mandela’s former prison on Robben Island. Fresh eateries and local markets are around every corner, and we consumed local biltong by the pound the whole trip. Biltong is a 400-year-old South African snack similar to beef jerky, but chewier and prepared differently, featuring every type of game meat conceivable. Not having yet picked up a golf club or gotten over jet lag, I was already wowed by South Africa. The most distinctive golf in SA lies along the Eastern Cape and Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. De Zalze, a parklands course on a 300-hectare estate boasting substantial vineyard and farming efforts, was a great example of just how much golf and wine scratch each other’s backs in the SA economy. A visit to the picturesque Ernie Els Winery and his nearby Stellenbosch restaurant, The Big Easy, culinarily hammered this point home. Farther down the road and voted #5 in SA, Arabella Golf Course was an absolute treat to play. Nestled amongst the hills of the Palmiet Mountain Range above the Bot River Lagoon, the course was a sanctuary of bird life and beautiful views. South of Mossel Bay, the caves directly beneath Pinnacle Point Golf Course, are a heritage site, which are believed to be one of the first places that humans used heat to make stone tools. Forty thousand years later, I was hoping to reap karma benefits from using forged irons at the breathtakingly stunning course. Halfway between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, Pinnacle Point reminded me of an elevated Pebble Beach, and the views from above the blue waters of the Indian Ocean may be the best I have seen in golf. The Links at Fancourt, designed by Gary Player, was recently voted #34 in the world. The caddied round here was special and portrayed traditional golf in a way conservatives would toast as near perfect. The two other courses at the resort, Montagu and Outeniqua, along with the exemplary dining facilities and accommodations, rate this a destination by itself. We stayed three days, but many retire there and do not leave the premises. The massive grounds are a botanist paradise. We stayed an evening at the Conrad Pezula after that, dined in Flintstonian proportions, and in the morning drove the impressive Pezula Course designed by Jack Nicklaus. The game drives over the next few days at the Kichaka and Pumba Reserves on the Eastern Cape were amazing. The highlight of my Kichaka experience was a quiet sunset tailgate in the bush, punctuated by the velvet pattering of giraffe pillow fights less than 100 yards away, as they whipped their gangly necks at each other’s torsos. The unexpected baby rhino sightings at Pumba were thrilling, and on the last evening there we stumbled upon a family of white lions and watched the cubs play with each other as we sat in silence. Wildebeests just look weird, and watching them run in circles was interesting. The tendency for startled warthogs to scatter and then immediately return to where they were startled was Darwinistically interesting. Monkeys are always a welcome addition, as long as all of your food is within reach. Nighttime hippopotamus noises were new to me, once you figured out they didn’t come from someone in your own crowd. I like to think of myself as a contrarian, a non-cruise-ship guy, someone who makes their own plans and comes out ahead. But I was overwhelmingly thankful and appreciative for Pro Golf Safaris by the end of this trip. It’s too hard to be in the know this far from South Africa, and good operators have a finger on the pulse of their specialty areas. Most tour operators get roughly 30-percent discounts on almost everything, especially outfits like this that do a large volume business with the places you want to go. The skill that results in good times and cultural education for me now seems to be in communicating with folks like this about exactly what you would like to do, because it’s all available. This was a lifetime experience, and I will go back. The last conversations with my travel friends all concerned bucket-list amendments and revisions to include repeats and further research. There is golf everywhere, and certainly closer, but what about the penguins and biltong? What about the wines they don’t ship and the plants that don’t grow here? What about the Indian Ocean? What about Zulu? Knowing the answers to these questions makes up for the truth: that I will never play on the PGA Tour. You may contact Pro Golf Safaris at 1-800-701-2185, or go to progolfsafaris.com. [gallery ids="102273,128233,128225,128251,128243,128240" nav="thumbs"]

Happy 250th Birthday, Homestead

With its birthday celebrating a quarter of a millennium rolling around next year, the Omni Homestead is considered America’s first resort, which began as a lodge in 1766. It makes me feel proud to be an American and a Virginian that it existed before the American Revolution. Daily and monthly theme-oriented activities involving fireworks, speakers, concerts, historic menus, and a lot of cake will commemorate the year. I am eagerly awaiting some kind of major ghost activity announcement. I could feel the excitement building on a fall visit this year, as I watched every employee on grounds group together for a fly-over photo. The Homestead is one of the most timeless places I have ever been, and the drive to Bath County from Washington, D.C., is a sunroof and radio proposition. Showcasing smaller and smaller Virginia settings at progressively slower lifestyles until you finally wind between and amongst the Allegheny Mountains to arrive there, the drive gives you just the right amount of time to decompress and close down shop before you lose cell coverage, the air thickens, and you make the jump to historical hyperspace. The main dining room is a trademark affair and should not be missed. Elegant dress, outstanding employees and traditional food greats make a wrong turn unlikely. That being said, on this visit Jefferson’s Restaurant was the culinary hand that just plain smacked me around and left me laughing on the scale the next morning ... twice. A group of us ate one of every appetizer on the menu the first night, and my friend had a mouthwatering steak that was so big that even after he was done they cut it up into two sandwiches for golf the next day. A visit is not complete without a meal at Sam Snead’s Tavern, just to pay homage to the slamster himself. Stories of Sam Snead’s ability to kick the tops of door frames from a dead stand still, even into his seventies, are fun and factual. The old saying that there is “something for everyone” has never been more true than at the Homestead. I focused on food, golf, foot massage and exploring creaky hallways, but I could have shot stuff and fished, too. I strongly encourage a tour from the historian on grounds, who entertained us with his present tense accounts of notable guests from different eras. Men and women have kicked off their shoes and had a good time at this place. The period photos really show it, and they are fun to peruse. The Old Course, designed by Donald Ross, has America’s oldest continuous tee still in use, and many presidents have played it. This course is picturesque against the Homestead, is forgiving, and the perfect round to enjoy with a spouse or friend. The Cascades Course is one of my all-time favorites. I played it three times during this visit. Heralded as perhaps the best mountain course in the country, the fall scenery here is Virginia’s finest. The last round we walked with caddies, and a finer day of golf I have not had. I love Virginia: so walking through the mountains with a friend and playing the game I love would be a win-win, no matter the score. The added bonus of having Bart as my caddy to stop me from tripping over myself was great extra “day enjoyment” insurance. The people at the Omni Homestead are what make the place special. I was lucky enough to play a round with the recently retired Director of Golf at the Homestead, Don Ryder. He took the time to introduce me to J.C. Snead, Sam Snead’s nephew and PGA Tour winner, who happened to be hitting some balls on the range. Retiring after 43 years of service at the Homestead, Don has had over a hundred relatives work at the resort, at last count. His cousin Barry Ryder took over as Director of Golf, while Don will still play a role as Director of Golf Emeritus. Bob Swiger of Raspberry Falls Golf Course, upon my mentioning the round with Don, stated, “A finer ambassador of the game does not exist.” Don and I were approaching a tee box on the Old Course in separate carts that day, and all of a sudden out of nowhere he roared off down the hill at top speed. I looked around for what I was sure would be poorly behaved guests, or an emergency of some magnitude, only to see Don racing a hedgehog across the valley, through the fairway. Watching him outdistance the hedgehog, and then turn the cart around to block the animal’s forest entry with a series of right and left dance moves, just left me laughing out loud. Upon his return to the tee box, I asked him who won, and he replied, “Just visiting an old friend. I used to just reach down and grab ’em.” What can I say? This kind of catchy enthusiasm, interest, and energy speaks for itself. I highlight my experience with Don as one example of the quality of people that make the Homestead work. It truly is an exceptional family within this small community in southwest Virginia. Celebrating 250 years is a big deal and is worthy of a place on your calendar in 2016. I always look forward to going there. The anticipation of a trip there will cause me to take pause when deciding what shirts to pack and what music to bring. I rarely use a cell phone there, and I always take the time to wash and wax the car before the trip. I laugh a lot there. My ghost will hang out there sometimes. [gallery ids="102365,124542,124537" nav="thumbs"]