Monday, January 31, 2011

Bring the gallery back to the Gallery

The North Course at the Gallery Golf Club in rests in the shadow of the Ritz Carlton Dove Mountain Resort and Golf Club. Like the Ritz, it is about 20 miles north of Tucson in Marana, Arizona. Like the Ritz, the scenery is spectacular with two hundred year old Saguaro cacti lining the fairway at the foot of the breathtaking Tortolita Mountain range. And like the Ritz, the greens, the fairways, the rough, the sand and every other little detail is spectacular.

On the surface the two courses are nearly identical: 6800 yards, wide fairways, large, fast greens and well manicured rough carved into one of America's most beautiful desert settings. Both courses will run you about $150, if you can get a tee time. Both courses will challenge you in places, but all in all they really aren’t that tough.

And for all intents and purposes, the Gallery and the Ritz are on the same piece of land- a plateau in the shade of a small but scenic mountain range in the midst of a rocky desert surrounded by a forest of cacti overlooking the Tucson valley.

As hard as I try, I can't come up with one tangible reason that that these two courses are different. I even shot the same score on both courses.

But god damnit these two courses are different because the Gallery course puts the Ritz to shame. Somehow, for all of their similarities, it’s like nothing is the same.

It begins and ends with course design. At the Gallery, the course gives players the opportunity to hit up hill, downhill, and around hills. In the fairway, side hill lies aren't uncommon. The tee boxes use the mountain slopes to provide incredible views an incredible photographs. The holes themselves are even creative, ranging from the 609 par five ninth, to the 168 par three over water. Even the practice facility is incredible.

At the end of the day, I walked away from this course feeling like I had played a fun, fulfilling round of golf whereas at the Ritz I felt like I had just hit a ball from point A to point B.

Of course a tee time at the Gallery doesn't come without its drawbacks. First and foremost the Gallery is a semi-private club, so they won't allow you on their hallowed ground until after 11 AM and they won't send you out with any of their members. While their staff is still exceedingly polite, you still feel as if you are there as a guest, not as a patron. It's not ideal, but certainly worth your money.

Without question, the most memorable hole on the course for me was the aforementioned 609 yard ninth. At 609 yards from the blues, this hole is now officially the longest hole of golf I have ever played (surpassing the 604 yard 8th at Miramar Air Station in San Diego).  From the tips the hole plays a whopping 725 yards, making it the longest par five in America.  Even though it plays downhill from start to finish, and the 3,000 foot elevation makes the ball fly about 7-10 percent further than at sea level, don’t even think about getting home in two. Traps on your right and desert on your left present even a skilled player with a visually difficult tee shot, and an undulating fairway and monstrous manmade lake present players with a challenging second shot. All but the most perfectly placed second shots (in case you were wondering, mine was not) will necessitate an approach over the lake to a wide, sloping, elevated green. If you escape with a par here, my hat is off to you.

Image: The Gallery Golf Club, Marana, Arizona
Even though I played the Ritz course twice and the Gallery only once on my trip to Tucson, there is no question in my mind that the Gallery should be the destination course in the area. That's why I can't figure out why the PGA TOUR packed up their bags and moved the Accenture Match Play from the Gallery to the Ritz? I have never run a golf tournament, and I am sure that there are a million different things for the sponsor to consider. But you'd have to think that interesting holes, which make for interesting play, would also make for an interesting tournament.

I vote that the PGA brings its gallery back to the North Course at the Gallery Golf Club.

Grizzly Golfer Rating: 9.25/10

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The grass may be greener...

The Ritz Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain, host of the Accenture Match Play, has the greenest grass I have ever seen.  The emerald fairways are pristinely manicured, the greens look untouched, and the sand has descended straight from heaven.  The greens on the course contrasts sharply with the dry desert browns and greys of the desert off the course and the crystal clear blue Tucson sky above.  It looks like Nirvana.

Unfortunately it doesn't play that way.

While I have never played or on seen better conditions, I can only say that I was disappointed with my overall experience at Dove Mountain. 

With an 8 AM tee time I awoke before dawn.  In true southwestern spirit, I started the day with New Mexico coffee and a Breakfast Burrito.  A breakfast of champions. 

We arrived at the course about 40 minutes before our tee time and the parking lot was empty.  The complementary valet parking was a nice touch, so was the friendly staff handling our bags.  I was beaming.  It looked as if we would blow through our round without seeing a soul, save the occasional quail and roadrunner that frequent the Saguaro Cacti that line the course and the mountains above. 

Then the troubles began.  As we walked into the undersized proshop, I was surprised to see about a dozen grown men huddled around a small TV.  Sure it was still a wee bit nippy outside, but since when has that kept die hard golfers off the green? or the Range?  Oh, right, since there was a frost delay.

As we walked up to check in the staff informed us that the greenskeepers were still working on the course and that unfortunately it looked like there would be another hour to an hour and half wait before we could get out on the course.  No problem we said, why not have another cup of coffee and just relax a bit.  I am on vacation, no rush here.  "Where's the restaurant," we asked? 
The restaurant was closed.  No hot coffee for their cold delayed golfers.  We figured we would at least go have a seat in the clubhouse.  No luck there either.  Closed.  "You can't sit down because the restaurant is closed," they answered apologetically.  So, with no options left, my Dad and I just left to sit in the car, then drive around in circles for forty-five minutes.  When we return, the staff informed us, still apologetically, that we would have to still wait another 20 minutes before we could even hit balls and putt.  Thirty minutes later, we finally set foot on their precious grass.
Traffic jam at the practice area, 9 AM
The delay was understandable, but frustrating.  They do have arguably the best regular season PGA event coming up in about a month, so it only makes sense that us mortals should not be messing up the course for the real pros.  But the course staff was so matter of fact about it, and so-- I'm sorry i still can't think of a better word-- unapologetic, that it made the whole experience maddening.  Then, when we were finally allowed on their grass, the flood of golfers to the practice areas was like nothing I have ever seen.  Players were two deep on the range and there were three players putting to each hole.  It was crazy.

At 920 I walked up to a staff member and asked when our group would be going off.  We had an 8 AM tee time and it seemed as if we should have been one of the first groups off.  Oh, let me ask, he says.  He briefly walks away as his radio crackles, exchanges a few hushed words, and then returns to inform us that they are already waiting for us at the first tee.  They explain that we will be playing the "Tournament" course, which begins with the 9-hole Saguaro course and is followed by the 9-hole Tortolita course.

As we make our way over to Hole #1, my anxiety is beginning to melt away.  We briefly discuss the course with the Starter and decide that the 6,811 yard, 134 slope Copper tees are the right ones for me.  I tee up, take a deep breath, take a little waggle, and hit a straight ball right at the bunker the starter told me to aim at.  My ball draws a bit instead of fades, but hey, you cant ask for everything to go right on the first tee, right?  When we get out to the first fairway my ball is nowhere to be found.  The anxiety returns as I realize that my 10 yard draw probably made my ball careen off a small hill and off into the desert abyss.  Damn.  I didn't really need to start with a double bogey today...

It took a few holes but I managed to turn it around by the par five fifth.  The hole was a 535 yard, double dog leg that was protected by desert oasis's on either side of the fairway.  With little rough to slow errant shots, placement and distance control was at a premium.  In the thin 3,000 foot air, I was already struggling with my distance control, so after a drive that found the fairway, I opted to hit an iron to a safe spot at about 80 yards out.  It was a good call.  A pitch, a putt and a tap in later, I was safely in with my first par of the day.

Leading up to the round, I had read that the greens are the only defenses for this course.  That the subtle, hard to read undulations made precision putting difficult.  While this was true (I missed about a dozen 5-10 footers by an inch or so...) I didn't really think they were all that hard.  Yes, a ball occasionally broke left that I expected to go right, but the greens were so consistent that this didn't matter.  The speed of the Dove Mountain Greens were remarkably consistent which really helped build consistency and confidence. 

The highlight of the day came on the par 5 eighth hole on the Saguaro course.  The long dogleg right is punctuated by a dry wash along the right hand side that crosses the fairway at about 285-300, depending on your line.  From the teebox, the fairway in front of you is obscured  by a set of three massive bunkers, leaving a player who has never played the hole without a good target line.  I stepped up and pushed my drive a bit to the right and saw it land and take a big hop in the wash to the right.  It took a while but I was able to find my ball sitting up nicely at about 220 yards out from the green.  The line was yet again obscured by a set of bunkers that crossed the fairway about 20 yards from the green.  I figured that I was lucky enough to find my ball, so why no push the luck a little further?  I grabbed my 3 hybrid and tattooed the ball straight at the pin.  The ball landed just over the bunker and rolled up to 15 feet.  Although I missed the putt for my first-ever eagle, I did have an nice 3 inch putt for my first birdie of the day.

When we made the turn to the Tortolita side, I felt the scenery improved.  The mountains that were once in the background were now pressing up closer to the course.  The massive 30 foot cacti remained a constant, but the homes and washes were replaced by orange and rose colored boulders and foothills. 

I played much better on the back nine, improving my score by four strokes, but as I approached the finish I couldn't help but feel that there was something missing.  Yes, that's right, I'm telling you that before I even finished this course I knew it had not met my expectations.  What stands out now is that there was not a single shot which required me to take an elevation change into account.  It was flatter than flat.  And given the fact that this course is literally abutting a picturesque mountain range, I think this is entirely unacceptable.  The course even lacked elevated tee boxes that would showcase the extraordinary settings of the course. 

Frankly, I think course designer Jack Nicholas really missed an opportunity to make this course spectacular.  The greens and conditions did make up for a lot of his lack of insight and poor design, but it could only make up for so much.  In the end, it turns out, you cant hide a boring course with great conditions.

Grizzly Golfer Rating:  8/10

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Its so nice...

Thank God its golf season again. 

Is there anything better than sitting on the couch, drinking a beer, and watch an undisturbed round of golf? 

We are in Tucson to celebrate my parents birthday, to get out of the cold, and to get in a few good rounds of golf. But it never occured to me that I would be sitting here watching--not playing--golf. 

The season snuck up on me.  Work was hectic, football was consuming, and the holidays were... busy.  And frankly, it was a pleasant surprise when I figured out that I would be able to use some of my much deserved vacation to watch last year's winners blast their way around Kapalua.

Well, watch as they blast"ed" their way around the course. 

Its a bit strange to watch day old golf in the middle of the day.  With the five-hour time change in Hawaii (or six???) it' wierd to watch new coverage with dinner and old coverage with lunch.   Wierd, but certainly not bad. 

Now some quick commentary.

1) Robert Garrigus' long ball puts Dustin Johnson to shame.  I just watched Garrigus drive a ball 394 into the wind on the downhill 18th.  DJ, a few groups earlier laid into one and only hit it 372.  What a sissy.

2) Rules are stupid.  Camilo Villegas shouldnt have been disqualified from the tournament for his flippant "grounding of the club".  What a crock.  If anything, the whole pitch it up to the green, have it roll back, pitch it up to the green, have it roll back, pitch it up to the green again experience was great because it showed amateurs like you and I that this shit happens even to the best of us.

3) Kapalua rocks.  I can't wait to play there for two reasons.  First, I want to hit a 400 yard drive. And second, I want to go to Hawaii.  The scenery is beautiful and course is outstanding.

I'm Sorry

I feel like I have been living a lie, I'm sorry.

For the last six months I have been planning a sixtieth birthday surprise for my parents.  My sister and I surprised them with a trip to Tucson this week, and here I am.  It is 60 degrees, no snow, no wind. I am in golf heaven.

We are staying a few blocks away from the Dove Mountain golf course, home of the Accenture Matchplay Championship.  You can guess why. 

I have been working on my game in secret.  Hitting the range more than I have admitted.  Putting in my living room.  Chipping into my couch.  The works. 

I am sorry that I havent told you about it.  Please forgive me.

So the bottom line is this.  I have a week of immaculate golf to come.  I have a new camera that will show you what I see.  And the time to tell you all about it.  It is going to be a good week.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Join Grizzly Golf Fantasy League!!!

Hey Guys sorry for the short notice.  Join my Fantasy Golf Group.  League starts tomorrow witht the opening tournament at Kapalua.

Click on Join Private Group, sign in to Yahoo! (if your are not a member it's free and easy)

Enter the following info when it asks:

Group Name:   Ol' Dirty Balls
Group ID #:      1669
Password:         Grizzly