Yardage Is For Suckers

To our right the sun was setting over the ridgeline on the last tee as my golfer drove on the last hole. I was standing near the back of the box, next to the other player in our twosome: the owner of the club. As the ball left the clubface I turned to the owner and said sotto voce, “You think that last putt was a hundred twenty-five K?” He looked surprised for a moment and then, recovering, said “Yeah, maybe.” Then we raced the sun down the fairway.

I’d been waiting for five hours by the time we’d stepped on the first tee of Chicago Highlands, a golf course that had just opened the day before. The head pro had been an assistant last year at the golf course I usually work at, and he invited a few of us to help inaugurate their caddie program. The night before the opening day I’d been on the club’s website trying to find out about the course, but what I found was not only largely unhelpful—instead of a map showing distances to various bunkers and the depths of the greens, it only had written descriptions of each hole—but also couched in the kind of over-the-top rhetoric usually reserved for late-night used car ads.

The tagline on the main page, for instance, quoted somebody as calling the course the “Eight Wonder of the World!” As Hegel will tell you, that sort of talk is bound to produce a reaction. What I found out in two loops there however was that, while the rhetoric was overblown, the golf course was indeed perhaps one of the most interesting courses in Chicago. Most Chicago golf courses are typical American parkland designs: fairways cut through trees, greens surrounded by bunkers. That style of golf architecture is different from the Scottish courses where golf began.

In Scotland, and especially St. Andrews—a golf course for the past 500 years—golf is played on the ground, not the air. That’s because the fairways are usually wide open, without a tree in sight—which means that the wind, unblocked by foliage, plays a major role. In Scotland there may be greenside bunkers, but usually there’s some opening somewhere where a golfer can run a shot up to the green, rather than trying to fly a shot (which the wind might disturb) to land on the green. Whereas American golf usually calls for high shots that can stop on the green, the Scottish game often demands low, bouncing shots that roll on the ground a long way.

That in turn has other effects: because American courses ask for those high shots, the greenskeeper is under pressure to make the greens soft by watering them often. The fairways are also watered often because the grass on them is competing for resources from the nearby trees (this has effects on water resources, as I’ve written about in another post). Scottish courses though mostly don’t have the kind of high-priced irrigation systems American courses have, partly because it’s Scotland (it rains in Scotland) but also because the Scots play a different game: a rolling ball needs hard and firm ground.

Chicago Highlands plays more like a Scottish kind of course: hard and fast fairways leading to greens with openings to them. The course is built around one of the highest points in Cook County—on the summit sits the ninth green—and because there are no trees wind is usually a factor in deciding how to play a hole. Earlier that day for example, on a downhill 3 par that measured around 150 yards, I’d advised my player to hit a wedge—because we were downwind. The shot landed in front of the green, bounced over a bunker, and ended up about four feet from the hole. Later, on another 3 par that was only about fifteen yards longer, I advised the same guy to hit a five wood—because we were into the wind. He missed the green left that time, but the point is that there was an eight club difference between the two holes.

That’s like something American golfers often like to talk about after returning from Scotland—how the Scottish caddies don’t really care about yardages. They might tell you to hit a wedge on a 160-yard shot on one hole, and a three-wood from 150 yards on the next. In Scotland, yardage is for suckers. That’s actually true anywhere, of course—what matters is the shot, not the distance—but it’s easier to discover in Scotland I suppose. Until now.

On my loop that day I was working for a prospective new member the owner was trying to persuade to join. When we got to the 17th hole, the shortest hole on the course, it was playing directly downwind. The flag sat on the front of the green. My player had not hit his sand wedge all day, other than out of bunkers, but that’s what I wanted him to hit—and he wasn’t having it. I remonstrated. He objected. It was worse than Bo Van Pelt on 17 at Sawgrass this year.

Eventually I prevailed after a struggle. Then he hit the shot—and nearly missed it. Every golf shot produces a sound, and the quality of the sound indicates the quality of the shot as I’ve explained in the past. Here the sound was tinny; he’d missed the sweet spot. The ball climbed away from the tee, and I was swearing under my breath knowing it would be short (as did everyone else). But near the top of the arc the ball held for a moment—and climbed again. The wind had the ball, and it rode on the back of the zephyr like a sultan on a sedan chair all the way to the green, where the wind deposited it like a cat with its kitten before the flag. I screamed “Get in!” as the ball rolled up the green. It nearly did.

When we got to the green the ball was six feet past the cup. The putt was a cunning little downhill left-to-right slider—not much of a break, but that is the toughest sort of putt in golf for a righthander. The read was directly on the edge of the hole—naturally, and because fairy-tales do come true, he made it. The cost of a membership at Chicago Highlands? One hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars.