Courses You Can't Play - Membership has its Privileges

By: Crai S. Bower


"…You can play." Those three words at the end of the golf magazines' "Top Courses You Can Play" drive daily-fee golfers nuts. Even if we can tick Monterey Peninsula, Pinehurst and Bandon off our checklist, we secretly crave just one journey 'round a mythical course named Pine Valley, Augusta National or Oak Hill.

Playing such an exclusive private course stops the grillroom banter mid-swing. Even getting onto the local country club course in one's hometown becomes a certain right of passage and, like first-class air travel, we get used to the privilege as quickly as our muddy golf shoes show up in our locker clean.

Even though I grew up in Rochester, N.Y., less than 10 minutes from Oakhill Country Club, all I ever knew about the place was which bunkers were the best for making out and that, according to my member-friends, the Tudor clubhouse's burger and fries were the best hangover antidote around. Though I don't get back to Rochester often, when I do I plot a round on the East Course - considered Donald Ross' greatest design - with the ferocity of a high-school kid looking to make out. Each time I play, I simply can't believe old friends of mine get to play courses like Oak Hill East or, for that matter, West, every day.

This envy also informs an annual drive to visit my in-laws in Florida. Avid golfers, they've retired at Jupiter Hills Club, home to two of the best courses that the John Q. Public can't play in North America. They also belong to Greg Norman's Medalist Club, Norman's first course design with Pete Dye and the "poster layout" of extremely exclusive courses designed to be so tough, they experience a steady decline in their intentionally tiny membership of mid-handicappers who grow tired of playing a PGA Tour-caliber test.

If there's any doubt that the Shark's home course lacks teeth, take a look at the number of Tour pros who are members.

Impossibly hard or not (we typically visit just after the Masters, when Medalist has been set up as a practice course for local touring pros), I couldn't wait to play it. But golf club members behave differently than you or me, especially those who live next to top-100 courses.

Upon my first visit to Jupiter, it was I alone who could think of little else than playing golf. The combination of being there with my family, my father-in-law's health and, frankly, my rather inconsistent game - escaping from bunkers was the saga-du-jour, severely limited my playing window.

It appeared, to my horror, that the grandfather of my children was more excited about spending time with his daughter and grandkids than tooling around in a golf cart with me. Even my hints - dressing in golf shirts, shorts and socks everyday, hanging my glove out of my back pocket or putting around his tiny backyard adjacent to a great par-5 - led no closer to me being on the first tee. My kids and wife could just as easily been ceramic urns in the foyer as related to me.

Like the family dog that begins uncontrollably wagging her tail every time an adult passes the leash basket, I kept a furtive eye on my in-laws all day long for any hint that they were moving toward the golf-cart garage.

Most of us public duffers crave 18 holes so deeply that we'll transform it into 36 with very little prompting like, say, a text from our wives stating they are going to a friend's for dinner. Eighteen holes doesn't mean much when you actually live on a golf course that is free of inconveniences like tee times or check-ins, even when that course is a George and nephew Tom Fazio design which was established by two gentlemen named William Clay Ford, Sr. and Bob Hope!

Thus, what I hoped would be a lazy 18 on the Village Course and perhaps a twilight outing or two on the Hills' track became teasing samples of three to four holes between errands and dinner. My Dr. Jekyll side - the gracious son-in-law happy to hit a few balls at the driving range besides the majestic, columned clubhouse - fought daily with my craven Mr. Hyde, who screamed to play and play and play, family and good manners be damned.

On the fourth of six days of our trip I finally played the famed Hills Course, a 7,344-yard, par-70 monster which, as I had envisioned, was dressed in a verdant suit without a single frayed thread. I kept score through the first five holes until a Florida sand trap resulted in an "X" on the card that rendered it meaningless and elicited a few sighs from my relatives. I can't even remember if we finished the round.

The fifth day of my visit, I pretended not to notice the looks of horror from my wife that I would hijack my children's grandparents to play golf. Exacerbating my Hyde-like decision was that children were strictly forbidden at Medalist, as it is one of those "pure" golf clubs. Once on the course, I tried to assuage my guilt, calm my glee and ignore the bevy of flaws in my game that crawled out of my bag like the local lizards.

I quickly learned just how a championship course with touring pros as members differs from all those other "championship" courses I have played. Balls I assumed that had but a slim chance to roll into bunkers always rolled into bunkers, their speed not slowed by forgivingly trimmed taller grass but accelerated by shaved sidewalls.

Most greens, rolling at 12.5 or 13 on the Stimpmeter according to my caddie, were no more forgiving of my approach shots then my wife would be for kidnapping (her words) her parents from their grandchildren on the penultimate day of our cross-country visit. Were I foolish enough to keep score, my self-proclaimed 14-handicap would yield howls from the grillroom.

As eviscerated as Dye and Norman's routing left me, I was still crestfallen when my father-in-law suggested we forego the remaining nine and grab an early lunch. "Sounds fine to me," as I thought I heard my inner Jekyll respond.

But, in fact, I'm sure it was actually Hyde, satisfied that these greens may just be a little too rarefied for my monster of a golf game.

This story originally appeared in Cybergolf on December 17, 2010.

Crai S. Bower publishes 80-plus articles a year in over 30 publications. He has written about golf in Alaska Airlines Magazine, Journey, Travesías and Travel.MSN.com, among others. He received the 2008 Northern Lights Award for Excellence in Canadian Travel Journalism. He contributes "Destination of the Month" for aaajourney.com and is the travel commentator for NPR affiliate, KUOW. For more details about Crai, Twitter @craisbower or visit his website: www.FlowingStreamWriting.net.


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