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The Agony of PGA National’s Bear Trap

How demanding is “The Bear Trap” on PGA National’s Champion Course?

Since 2007 — when the PGA TOUR moved The Honda Classic to the Jack Nicklaus-redesign — a total of only 20 players have gotten through the industrial-strength trifecta of holes bogey-free over four rounds. 20!

Part of the problem is the trio of testy teens – 15, 16 and 17 – comes at a crucial juncture when the world’s best are trying to post a score with the clubhouse just on the horizon. Many a pretty scorecard from the first 14 is left bloodied trying to reach the 18th tee unscathed.

And it’s not like golfers aren’t forewarned. A giant snarling bear statue welcomes those who dare to tame this perilous portion of The Champion. An accompanying plaque with Jack’s famous quote says it succinctly: “It should all be won or lost here.” The great Nicklaus is probably more like half-right – “lost” is the likelier outcome.

The potential agony starts with the seemingly benign 15th – a par 3 of 179 yards with a green flanked on three sides by a tranquil lake. However, many a golf ball has unceremoniously traded its playing career here for the sedentary life of a water-soaked bottom dweller.

Why so hard? The prevailing South Florida wind crosses boldly from the left toward the water hazard on the right. Hitting it left might keep you dry, but the probable bunker shot plays toward the drink and requires the touch of a safecracker. “Up-and-down” becomes like “up-over-wet-drop-down.”

Sixteen is a dogleg par 4 of 434 yards with a canal and gigantic fairway bunker lurking down the right harboring the evilest of intentions – hit it there and say hello to double-bogey. The approach is a wind-fighting flight over H2O to a slanted green with cavernous bunkers gobbling up anything not hit with full authority.

Seventeen is another treacherous par 3 and the toughest of the lot. The green rises up out of the pond with steep, ball-repelling sides. It looks like the target is the roof of a car from the back tournament tee of 205 yards. Anywhere on the promised putting land is good. Anywhere else is a nightmare.

Australian Robert Allenby, known as one of the best ball strikers on the PGA TOUR, says, “On Sunday when the pin is in the back right on No. 17, this is the hardest hole we play on TOUR.”

Yet, we golfers love our agony. One of the great things about The Champion Course is that visitors can come down to Palm Beach Gardens and test their mettle against the Bear Trap just like the pros.

PGA National offers a “Bear Trap Package.” The minimum two-night offer ($299 per person, per night, double occupancy) features two rounds (one on The Champion as well as one on its new Fazio Course), resort accommodations, daily breakfast, “Bear Trap” gift on arrival, golf cart, unlimited range balls and golf bag storage.

Visit www.pgaresort.com for more information.

A pebble beach caddie with PGA dreams

For a caddie with PGA dreams, the Pebble Beach Golf Links isn’t a bad locale to ply one’s trade in the meantime. Your workplace is 18 holes of world-class golf hugging the rugged coastline of California’s Monterey Peninsula that author Robert Louis Stevenson once called the world’s greatest meeting of land and sea. Golfers – those who think little of shelling out for the hefty $495 green fee as well as those who save up for the once-in-a-lifetime golfing experience – tend to tip well as the Pebble Beach golf experience seems to enthrall players and thus loosen their wallets.

While not earning the hundreds of thousands of dollars out on the big tour like Stevie or Bones or Fluff, caddies at Pebble Beach can earn a nice living.  For carrying doubles (the bags of two players at the same time) as most of the top caddies there prefer to do, a five-hour loop can bring in as much as $300 a day – $75 a bag plus gratuities that usually, at least, double the fee. Many caddies have their own private “whales” as they call them who frequent Pebble Beach and will sometimes drop tips as big as $500 to their favored beast of burden.  Not bad in this current economic climate. Often caddies with seniority who get the coveted early morning tee-times will go out for another stint in the afternoon. It’s not unknown for caddies at Pebble to raise families on what they earn from looping.

Recently, I was at Pebble Beach to play a round of golf. My caddie for my first ever round at Pebble knew its intricacies well. He’s walked the 1919 Jack Neville / Douglas Grant design at least a few hundred occasions while working there since 2004. The guy was a pro. Since entering this line of work six years ago, he’d caddied on most of the upper echelon tours: Champions, LPGA, Nationwide, Canadian, Asian, and even several events on the coveted PGA TOUR – the bag hoofer’s Holy Grail. He’d also caddied for a handful of golfers with hopes of obtaining their PGA card at various stages of the pressure-cooker Q-School in both California and Florida. He’s put tens of thousands of miles on his car as while crisscrossing the U.S. from event to event – often without even knowing if he’d find a job once he got there. His credit card balances soared, but he figured it was all an investment in something he loves doing. He is now staying closer to home in nearby Pacific Grove and thus keeping his expenses low until he gets a call to the Big Time and a steady gig with a solid player. And for my trek around the storied links, rather than one of those giant professional golf bags that look bigger than some New York City studio apartments, he was carrying my skinny golf bag and its mismatched set of clubs.

Out on the course my caddie surveyed the line of my putt-to-be before handing down the final verdict in a resolute voice, “Inside the hole left. Hit it 20 percent of what you think you should. You’ll have no trouble getting there.” We were on the diabolically tiny 8th green – a hole that Jack Nicklaus has called his favorite in the game as the second shot plays from cliff to cliff over a stunning ocean inlet too gorgeous to be created by a golf course architect and bulldozer. The backdrop is stunning. Out on nearby Stillwater Cove, hundreds of pelicans were dive-bombing for sardines as the sun was threatening to come out from behind a gray cloudbank casting a bluish sheen over the bay.

Doing as instructed, I tapped the ball lightly with my putter to merely get it rolling. It quickly gathered speed like a runaway train, but somehow plopped into the cup. My caddie was thrilled to have his instructions followed as he gave me a nice compliment, “Well done. That’s one most everyone misses on the low side.” Truth be told, left to my own devices, I’d never have read that slippery slope correctly and would probably still be out there trying to finish the hole. Usually as one who carries his own bag while playing golf, I began to see the value of an experienced caddie.

Full disclosure, the caddie happens to be my younger brother Patrick. He’d kindly consented to carry my bag as he didn’t have a whale in town that day. I was curious to see him do his job as I knew him to be accomplished at whatever he puts his mind to. His hasn’t been a normal career path. Patrick is a classically trained French chef with stints in California, Germany, France, Russia, and Mexico. After 25 plus years of cooking, he’d left the heat of kitchens behind and had gone corporate for a few years as the Executive Chef for Alaska Airlines (back in those heady days of early 2000 when airlines still actually gave passengers meals in-flight).

In 2002, on a whim (and sight unseen), he left that position and bought a bed-and-breakfast in St. Andrews, Scotland a little over a block from the infamous Old Course. There he joined the local residents who get to play the burg’s numerous courses – including the Old – for 90 pounds a year for unlimited play. After two years of inn keeping and getting his golf handicap into single digits, he sold the B&B at the height of the market and returned to another golf Mecca – the Monterey Peninsula where he’d worked as head chef in the later 1990s – with the dream of becoming a caddie and securing a job on the PGA Tour.

I’d visited his various workplaces over the years as he had hop-scotched restaurants and locales. As he gave me the yardages to pins or deciphered a tricky putting line his tone told me he was all business. This was his work voice – confident, authoritative, firm. I had first heard that voice by accident as I had wandered into see him several years back when he was the Executive Chef at the Monterey Plaza Hotel.  It seems a crisis had broken out in the kitchen just before a large banquet was about to be dished. One of the entrees had been ruined by an assistant. Off the side and unknown to him that I was there, I watched him handle the catastrophe with poised resolve as his concerned staff snapped to and started to follow his missives. Order ensued as the kitchen started humming to correct the dilemma. Having never seen that side of my brother who I had mostly known as rather carefree, that incident was an eye-opener his older sibling.

As long rivals – especially in golf – as brothers tend to be, I enjoyed us working as one in our goal of getting me around Pebble in as few strokes as possible. While walking between shots, Patrick told me a few of his caddie tales I hadn’t heard. For example, just back from St. Andrews and intent on his goal of securing a bag immediately on the PGA Tour, he drove from California to the Shell Houston Open and arrived on the Monday of that tournament week and “worked the parking lot.” He hung out as the pros arrived in their cars and he would ask them if they needed a caddie for the week as they got their gear out of the trunk. “Most of them looked at me like I was out of my mind. Marco Dawson nearly bit my head off,” he said as he laughed about his naivety. He approached former British Open winner Todd Hamilton who “looked at me like I was from the moon.” Looking back, he said he was thankful he didn’t land a job that week, “I really didn’t know what I was doing back then. There’s more to professional caddying than you’d think. It’s tricky out there.”

Deciding he’d have better luck on other professional tours first, Patrick took his parking lot scheme to the LPGA and secured the bag of 20-plus-year veteran Penny Hamel for a couple of events. But, unless you’re caddying for one of the top players, it’s tough to make much more than expenses carrying on the LPGA. However, he is thankful that Hamel gave him a shot. “I owe a lot to Penny. She showed me what is required to caddie for a true professional.”

After bouncing around from week-to-week and driving to whatever event on the LPGA, Champions, and Nationwide Tour was closer to wherever he was, he got work in roughly half the tournaments – often the Monday qualifying round or the Wednesday Pro-Am. ¬Soon he started meeting other caddies and golfers and networked a bit. His face began to get known the more he showed up. His parking lot days were over. He began getting weekly bags and learning the craft.

Deciding that the Nationwide Tour – the minor league stepping stone to a PGA TOUR card – was his best chance to reach his goal, Patrick decided to give that tour his all in 2006 and 2007. He ended up having longer stints employed by New Zealander Tim Wilkinson and then Michael Letzig – both of whom had success with Patrick as their wingman. Wilkinson and Letzig are both firmly entrenched on the PGA Tour. Unfortunately, he found it hard to maintain a residence back in Pacific Grove while out on the road and decided to give a full-time go at Pebble Beach while he awaits his chance. “I’ve paid my dues out there. I know a ton of pros and caddies. I’ll get my break.”

Meanwhile, Patrick walks Pebble five times a week with bags in tow. He has built up a clientele who seek his local knowledge of the famed course. He’s known as one of the better readers of the difficult greens there. He loves that he gets paid to take a walk on the beautiful seaside course. “I get exercise in one of the great spots on the planet, and I do what I can to help my player enjoy their day at Pebble.”

Someday I’ll be watching television and see Patrick striding down the fairway carrying the bag of a player in the thick of the hunt at one of the majors. Until then, he’ll be at the Pebble Beach Golf Links – where all-in-all – life isn’t that bad.

The Original Rules of Golf Revisited

Back in 1744, in-between swills of whisky and claret, the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers came up with the “13 Original Rules of Golf.” One need only to look at Rule 2: “Your tee must be on the ground,” to know they were consuming mass quantities of liquor.

After all years, it’s time for a new “13 Rules of Golf.” Here’s my shot at it:

  1. After a round, no golfer shall say what they shot unless asked. No one cares! The penalty for breaking this rule is to buy a round of drinks for everyone within earshot as well as the college tuition for their heirs.
  2. Any golfer yelling “Fore!” after an errant shot must yell “Fore!” before their ball actually hits the ground. The decibel of the shout must be louder than Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK. For failing to live up to this standard, the offending golfer will immediately be put on a PT boat about to be hit by a torpedo in the middle of the South Pacific.
  3. Saying the tired cliché: “Hit it, Alice!” after leaving yet another putt short of the cup, the offending golfer shall have to write a 1,000-word essay on the fact that the actual phrase is: “Hit it, Aliss!” and refers to Peter Aliss leaving a putt short in a crucial Ryder Cup match.
  4. Any golfer caught whistling in an irritating manner while playing golf (and in recorded history the only non-irritating whistling is the opening theme of The Andy Griffith Show) shall lose the use of their putter and driver for the remainder of their golfing life. Remember, if the Golf Gods wanted you to whistle they would have given you wings and a beak.
  5. The penalty for the wearing of spandex by any male during a round of golf is the electric chair. No exceptions.
  6. Any golfer begging: “Is this good?” on the putting surface shall have to play 20 rounds of miniature golf before being allowed back on a real golf course.
  7. The failure to replace your divot will result in having to place the offending divot down your trousers for the remainder of the round. For a second infraction of this rule, the other golfers in the group shall have the option to glue two divots on the side of the offender’s face like muttonchops.
  8. Any golfer wearing shorts must take a long look in the mirror before venturing to a golf course. If veins on exposed legs look like the grid of the U.S. Highway system or a Shar-Pei or both, long pants are mandatory. Failure to live up to this norm will result in the wearing of a bee-keeper suit while playing for the rest of your golfing years.
  9. A golfer giving unsolicited swing advice to playing companions shall be barred from the game for the remainder of their life as well as golf in heaven (or hell) if it exists. No exceptions.
  10. The failure to rake a bunker after hitting out of said bunker shall result in having the equivalent amount of sand placed into the golfer’s shoes forthwith. The shoes must then be worn for a fortnight, even while bathing.
  11. The failure to pay up on a golfing wager shall result in the deadbeat being tied to the roof of the vehicle used to pick up range balls. The pro shop shall supply free range balls to any golfers wanting to take advantage of this situation.
  12. Failure to repair your pitch marks on a green shall result in having to hit your shots with garden tools for a year. All drives must be played with a weed-whacker.
  13. Any golfing saying: “I didn’t quite get all of it,” after hitting a drive of 250 yards or longer shall be required to replay their drive with a Nerf Ball. If this golfer is male and repeats this infraction a second time, they will be required to play the next hole in spandex, which according to Rule 5, results in the electric chair. No exceptions.