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Fergal O’Leary takes America on… again

30 September, 2013

Fergal O’Leary takes America on… again

Fergal continues his quest to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World. His latest adventures were in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Illinois

Fox Chapel

The architect needs no introduction. The names of the holes need no introduction. As Raynor was making his way through Pennsylvania in 1923, the town of Fox Chapel was about to establish itself on the golfing map. With horses traversing the golf course shaping the iconic greens and rolling fairways, the evolution of a masterpiece was underway. As my eyes studied the scorecard on the 1st tee, I could feel my mouth watering as I saw the names of the holes and was about to embark on a trip down memory lane.

The testament to Raynor comes to fruition when golfers around the world debate his greatest piece of work, and nobody can ever come to an agreement. The difference between modern day courses and those courses created during the Golden Age is that the grandfathers of architecture created layouts which require shot-making and imagination and barely tip out at 6,500 yards. The older courses were crafted by horse and excessive manual labour which is a far cry from the endless supply of machinery and technology we see today that generates the 7,500-yard courses we have to slog around in modern times.

Fox Chapel Golf Club is an example of a golf course where golfers come to celebrate the Redan, the Punchbowl, the Cape, the Alps and who could ever forget the Biarritz (to name but a few). The club restored its bunkers a few years ago and ensured the steep lips were renovated back to original design. Each green is squared off at the front which is an old school characteristic I admired along with the history that echoes around the clubhouse. Breathe it in.

Fox Chapel is fun to play and it’s exciting to peer down the adjacent fairways and see the architecture from many angles. The fact that the architect gave each hole a name, illustrates the personal connection that he made with each one. They are uniquely identifiable and collectively unforgettable.

Pikewood National
The State of West Virginia possesses one of America’s most difficult golf courses. With a slope rating of 147 and a course rating of 75.1 from the member’s tees (I won’t even bother mentioning the metrics from the championship tees), this layout will leave you out of breath.

The genius of the property is that world famous architects didn’t create it. It was created by the owners of the land who had travelled the world playing golf and decided to exercise their imagination. With Golf Digest rating the course at #45 in America, I was eager to travel to Morgantown, West Virginia, to see for myself. The names of the holes at Pikewood National Golf Club sparked great curiosity and I subsequently learned that they were influenced by the owners’ friends based on their experiences throughout their respective golfing adventures. You can’t help but smile when playing holes called Hagge’s Knocker, Beaver and Cypress Pint.

Exceptional conditioning, a natural routing and an appreciation for world-class design variety continually characterize Pikewood National. The naïve golfer will look at this land and think they are going to be climbing hills all day. You’ll quickly realise that although there are a couple of elevated tee shots, the fairways and topology are mostly flat despite being at altitude. The penal nature of the golf course is its demand for accuracy and finesse, but each green certainly has accessibility ensuring good playability. This golf course will host State or USGA events and is not to be taken lightly. The pride that the owners have for their land is mirrored in the care they take with its upkeep and the never-ending search for improvement for its members.

I’m not a proponent of the landscape surrounding a golf course being a reason to give a higher rating, because the architect did not create the mountains, forests or oceans. I shake my head when I hear inexperienced course raters being asked “how did you like the course?” and their immediate response is “the view of the ocean is amazing”. I focus on what the architects created. At Pikewood the holes are developed in a direction that celebrates and leverages the views which are available, so it becomes a natural flow of how the golfing topology becomes one with the vistas. From the 2nd green you can see four different States and the holes take you on a private tour of the region. I highly commend the owners for having the “audacity” to develop Pikewood National as the best is yet to come for this exclusive club. Each hole is by itself and has its own evolving story.

On a personal note, I look forward to returning to see the Shamrock shaped plaque on the 17th hole celebrating this Irishman who hit a drive 418 yards down the par five speed-slot. Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow didn’t get in the way of that ball. The hole is called Coupe DeVille, and it’s about to become a little bit more like Ireland after my unforgettable visit.

Erin Hills
Erin Hills is the second public golf course in Wisconsin to host a major championship. The 2011 US Amateur was, for most people, the club's introduction on the world stage. The announcement of the 2017 US Open further cemented its place in American golf history.

Located 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee, the architects uncovered, rather than manufactured, the most impressive holes they could find on the property. The length of the course is barbaric from the black tees (7,823 yards) and even from the blue tees, it takes a foursome five and half hours to get round. So this place isn’t for casual players looking to enjoy the countryside for an afternoon while waiting for a Packers game to commence.

The front nine is severe with very long par fives, greens with excessive undulations, a couple of blind tee shots and forced carries. Pulling the correct club as you judge wind and elevation change is paramount. With the exception of the beautiful 9th hole, I personally found the collection of par threes to be somewhat bland. I don’t think anybody will write home about them. The course will only tolerate perfect shots as danger and turmoil is literally waiting with open arms. If you hit a tee shot on the wrong side of a fairway, you could have a blind approach. If you hit an approach shot on the wrong side of a green, you’re looking up to the heavens for mercy. I feel like the course needs a little more design variety in terms of shorter holes and less punishment. I was informed that the undulation in the 3rd green is being softened ahead of the US Open which is clearly a step in the right direction. The yardage book gives advice on each hole, and it portrays the gauntlet nature of everything to avoid. The average golfer hasn’t a hope unless they play from the White tees.

Erin Hills is a wonderful test of skill and it’s very rewarding for a scratch player to walk off the course even par. I thoroughly enjoyed my round and scored very well, but could quickly see how different it is from the classic layouts from decades gone by. I understand why it was selected to host the US Open and I pray for their sake that the wind doesn’t blow because the USGA will have their hands full setting up the monstrous layout. When I reflect on my day at Erin Hills, I think somebody should make a copy of the sign on the first tee at Bethpage Black and bring it to Wisconsin.

Butler National
When it comes to the epitome of a men’s golf club, one doesn’t have to look much further than the club that rests behind the large white-pillared entrance in Oak Brook, IL. The membership represents the nation’s elite and the golf course represents hell on grass.

Butler National Golf Club has a reputation for being amongst the most difficult and penal layouts in America which examines every aspect of your game. The demographic of the golfers who play Butler is pretty one-dimensional as this place isn’t for average golfers. You’ll use every club in your bag and you’ll find yourself in awe of the property the whole way around.

The bunkering is so impressive that each of them looks like it could jump up and bite you. They have huge muscular lips and weave amongst each other to carve your way through this unforgiving gauntlet. With that said, Tom Fazio was fair in so far as the ball will always roll back to the base of the bunker and give you the ability to get out.

With such little play, this course is always in immaculate condition and is an immense privilege to be there. No matter how many times you play at Butler, it will always give you fits. The look of disbelief on golfer’s faces as they peer out in front of them is quiet entertaining. One could not imagine such brutality if their lives depended on it. Aggregate 640+ yard par fives, doglegs around water, doglegs through corridors of tall trees, treacherously tight entrances, rolling terrain crafted by the man above, putting surfaces that will repel anything less than perfection and greens running at 12 that would even make Hitler flinch, that’s Butler National. I have a friend who is a scratch golfer and has played at Butler many times over the years who says “Playing at Butler National feels like you’re slamming your hand in the car door for 4 hours”.

The reputation, the challenge and the prestige made me fall in love with this club. It’s the type of layout where you really want to play well and you can sense your level of concentration increasing with every stride. The service inside the clubhouse is world class and the facilities are second to none. You haven’t been in a hot tub until you’ve been in the Butler National hot tub with a cocktail in your hand. You haven’t been to a “men’s bar” until you’ve been to the bar at this place. With no menus in the dining areas, you just have to tell them whatever you want to eat, and trust me they can make it. The gentleman who calls Butler National his home club owns a golf course that is the essence of golfing Mecca.

Upon reflection of my latest visit to the Windy City, these 18 holes in Oak Brook achieve greatness in playability, resistance to scoring, design variety and up holding the true traditions of the game.

Article written by our US Consultant, Fergal O'Leary, who continues his mission to become the youngest person to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World. Images courtesy of Fox Chapel, Pikewood National, Erin Hills and Butler National.


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