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Making the Monthly Rounds

By: Jeff Shelley


On occasion, golfers encounter serendipity in unlikely forms. Such moments may occur while playing new and exciting golf courses, meeting interesting characters, experiencing rare and exquisite moments of playing brilliance, and forming life-long friendships out of trying, but ultimately fulfilling, circumstances. Something similar to these happened to me in March 2008.

Spring is usually a busy time of year for those of us who write about golf. In addition to prepping readers for another season filled with stories about Tiger, Lorena and the Masters, we occasionally do freelance pieces, most of which have deadlines in February and March. Among my "outside" gigs at this time of the year are golf articles for Alaska and Horizon Air's in-flight magazines, which I've done for over 10 years. My focus is on the new courses that will be opening in the airlines' ever-expanding flight paths during the coming year. I also regularly contribute to Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, a publication of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association, and other non-golf periodicals that request stories about the game in America's upper left-hand corner.

Early in the Month - Antigua

During this busy period my wife and I took a two-week vacation to Antigua, a Caribbean island where my sister-in-law, her two kids, and my brother-in-law reside. We've been going to this Leeward Island for 25 years; indeed, July 31st of this year will be our silver wedding anniversary and Antigua is where we spent our honeymoon. We've had some interesting visits to this far-flung place, including the time when I tried to calm down and tend to the major wounds of a paranoid-schizophrenic man who'd jumped off a third-floor patio onto rocks below, yet miraculously survived. But that's a story for another time.

During our five trips I've managed to play all three - actually two and a half - courses on the island. They include, in chronological order of playing them: the very exclusive Mill Reef Club; Cedar Valley Golf Course on the north end of the island; and Jolly Harbour Golf Club near Reed's Point. In the 1950s my wife's grandfather built a magnificent home at Mill Reef, which was later owned by her uncle. On our honeymoon we stayed in the boat house, directly across the bay from Green Island, which is easily accessible from the house by boat.

Because we were there in August of 1983, the place, whose entry is only through a set of guarded gates, was virtually empty, yet we had lunches with a couple of residents who lived there year-round. They regaled us with tales about the celebrities and/or business barons who'd been refused permission to become member-residents. There are strict, and apparently arbitrary, rules about who can join Mill Reef, a former retreat of the Mellon family. Recent rumors relate the club's board denial of a request for residency by actor-comedian Eddie Murphy. Antigua native and New Yorker journalist, Jamaica Kincaid, once wrote disparagingly of the place, "Like pigs they keep to their own pens."

My round at the nine-hole links course was memorable for several reasons. My partner was Mason Starring, a Mill Reef regular - now long gone to the fairways in the sky - who was pushing 90 when I played that round with him a quarter-century ago. Mason golfing accoutrements included a power cart, an orange ball and a human forecaddie.

Barely able to see, he steadfastly refused my offer to drive the cart. So our routine was this: Mason barely able to lift the club to shoulder level and then virtually dropping it to make contact with the orange ball; us lumbering back into the cart as the forecaddie pointed at the ball 30 yards ahead; us driving right past the forecaddie because Mason couldn't see him - or the ball; make a U-turn and repeat the previous procedure. And so it went for three-plus excruciating hours. I had to hand it to the forecaddie though; he was amazing at finding my errant shots in the scrub and throwing the balls back to nice lies in the fairway.

My second Antigua round took place about 15 years ago at Cedar Valley, a par-70 18-hole layout that "stretches" 6,157 yards from the tips. The initial nine opened in 1970, with the full 18 unveiled seven years later. Someone named Ralph Aldridge was the designer and builder. Though I don't think there's a cedar tree within 1,000 miles of this island, the facility must exude golf as it's among a pantheon of like-named layouts located throughout the world. Cedar Valley is relatively rough-hewn, particularly in winter (a term used loosely in Antigua since the temperature still hovers around 80 degrees) when the hilly, tree-lined holes turn a tawny brown color.

During our trip this March I finally checked the final Antigua golfing grounds off my list. When we arrived at Jolly Harbour, located within an eponymous resort now owned by the international firm La Perla International Living and slated for a major remodel, the greens had just been aerified and sanded. Because of the less than ideal conditions, I asked - and received - a significant discount on the $50 (U.S.) green fees. My wife and I gathered up our rental clubs, power cart and the two sleeves of new balls we'd brought from home and set out.

We soon encountered the day's dominant conditions: a howling wind and rock-hard fairways. Within two holes we'd lost three of our six balls. I quickly determined that the rented driver and 3-wood were unusable as the grips twisted completely around in my hands whenever either club struck the ball. So the rest of the way a more trustworthy 5-wood was the driver of choice on all the par-4s and par-5s. Meanwhile, we both kept wary eyes on locating "finders" in the rough so we could complete our round.

On the first hole a chameleon jumped in our cart and stayed planted on the windshield for the next 16 holes. As we drove over grass (green or brown), cart paths (whitish) and other areas (various hues) the lizard almost immediately changed colors with its new surroundings. When the chameleon finally jumped out after a couple hours, it arrived at a place it had probably never seen in its life, likely separated forever from family and friends.

Several "greens" at Jolly Harbour had received way too much sand during the topdressing ritual; I'm afraid that, unless the maintenance staff later worked the grit into the turf's profile, these putting surfaces have suffocated under the unforgiving Caribbean sun. But they were pretty quick, as was our round, completed in less than three hours. Other than a friendly Rasta on a mower, we saw only one other twosome on the course.

On to Sublime Pebble Beach & Del Monte

While in Antigua I received an email - the Internet works well in this part of the world - from my boss, telling me that he'd set up a trip to Pebble Beach and would like to take four of us from the office for an outing. I'd never played Pebble, so now was the chance.

After getting back home to Seattle - a 19-hour process eased by completing "Tommy's Honor" by Kevin Cook, "The Seventh at St. Andrews" by Scott Gummer, and "Marley & Me" by Scott Grogan - and catching up with a pile of emails, we flew to San Jose International Airport four days after I had returned from Antigua. Within a couple of hours of touchdown I was standing at one of golf's hallowed shrines.

Talk about a difference - besides the $550 difference in green fees - between Jolly Harbour Golf Club and Pebble Beach Golf Links! About the only common threads were that the weather was glorious at both places and each course sported tees, greens and fairways. Though the round at Pebble took well over five hours - for many, this is the golf trip of a lifetime and visitors want to savor, and prolong, the experience, the cloudless 70-degree day was fabulous. Owing to the sluggish groups ahead of us, playing the fabled 18th hole in the dark was also interesting. After the round we headed to Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch for steaks on the propane-heated deck.

The next morning, before returning to Seattle, we headed to Del Monte Golf Course in Monterey. Built in 1897, the historic layout at the base of Jack's Peak is also a joy. No frills or gimmickry, just what-you-see-is-what-you-get - or, more likely, where-you-hit-it-is-what-you-deserve - golf. After our four-hour round at Del Monte, we drove back to San Jose and flew back to Seattle.

Seattle Golf Club

A couple of days later I was back on the golf course, again with the Cybergolf team, for a pro-am at another place with rich heritage, Seattle Golf Club. With roots dating back to the late 1800s and three sites for its courses over the past century, venerable Seattle GC is one of the West Coast's oldest and most enduring golf institutions.

The current course, built in 1906, was crafted by early-day architect John Ball and Bob Johnstone, one of the Northwest's first golf pros. Arnold Palmer extensively renovated the course in the mid-1990s, adding shimmering ponds and refurbishing 15 holes in all. The result is an eminently walk-able track boasting considerable hole-after-hole variety, with stately, towering Douglas firs, cedars (a species that is actually in abundance in our neck of the woods), and ornamental trees creating claustrophobic lines of play.

So to recap: The first round of golf in March completed my Antiguan triumvirate at Jolly Harbour on a wind-swept 80-degree day and a white-capped Caribbean Sea in the background. Next up, Pebble Beach and Del Monte, where I got more sunburned than during my previous two weeks in Antigua. Finally, back home and a competitive round at the exclusive Seattle Golf Club, where the temp was 40 degrees colder than the previous two places, but the greens were still fast and firm.

Who says golfers aren't adaptable? And despite 5,000 miles, an aching back from airplane seats and a lot of frequent flyer miles, not a bad way to spend the month of March.