By Jamie Katz
We piled out of the car, grabbed the bags and hit the course. I had five lads with me, all between 16 and 20 years old. We didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of our strenuous training for golf’s newest, biggest prize: an Olympic medal. In 2016, golf comes to the Olympics in Brazil and with persistence, effort and a bit of luck, my boys will be there, representing what we hope will be a newly-great golfing nation: Ethiopia.
Okay, so what if the course we were going to was on an indoor simulator? And so what if the Ethiopian guys I had with me knew only one thing about golf: that Tiger Woods played? And so what if I’d never taught anyone, other than my daughter, a damn thing about golf? The quest was on.
A bit of background. My family is, in itself, a rainbow coalition. We adopted my daughter from China. I have one surfer-dude, California nephew; a niece born in the great state of Massachusetts; and three nieces and two nephews born in Ethiopia adopted by my sister, a single mom.
The boys, Amanual and Dawitt, are natural athletes and good runners. Skinny and strong, they played lots of soccer as kids, mostly because there weren’t a lot of other sports for them. In the US, they picked up basketball, football, dreams of making money and girls along the way. We live in the Boston area, so they’ve become Boston sports fan, with a particular passion for the Celtics.
I live in the same town with Amanual and Dawitt. I’m 60 years old. Where they are lean and fast, well, I’m neither. Not even close. I can beat them in swimming, skating, tennis and other sports they didn’t play in Ethiopia, but they’re catching me in everything else.
We live within a half-mile of a driving range that also has a pitch and putt course. In the vain hope that my daughter might like golf, I took her to the driving range a number of times when she was younger and had her take a few lessons from a good pro there — that’s a story for another day. I brought Dawitt along for a couple of the lessons. The pro loved his smile and his enthusiasm for trying to hit golf balls, though Dawitt didn’t have much early success at it. He and my daughter, who is about four years younger, trash-talked each other as they wailed away, balls going in many directions, while they tried to follow the pro’s instructions.
I played with the two of them once on the pitch and putt. Dawitt loved the fact that I only beat him by six shots. Of course, I didn’t explain to him that on most holes, we kept my score from the first shot but didn’t start keeping his score until he’d taken two or three shots off the tee and had one that was playable. The highlight for all of us was when my daughter hit a beautiful 9 iron about 90 yards. Trouble was, the hole was only 30 yards long and beyond it was a fence, then a road. She missed a car driving past by about two yards.
Back to my Olympians. When late November hits Boston, it’s time to take the clubs to indoor simulators. So one weekend afternoon a few years ago, I told Dawitt and Ahmanual to grab a couple of their friends so we could play golf indoors. At first, they didn’t understand what I was talking about. But since so much of the lives of teenagers is spent online or on video games, a golf game on a simulator is just as real to them as a real golf game. But they were still thrilled to play — if they could play Tiger Woods on Xbox, they figured they could play with real golf clubs.
The owner of the golf facility gave me a quizzical look as we approached the simulator. I’d been there a number of times, but always on my own to use the practice bays or occasionally to use the simulator to work with specific clubs.
“Who you got with you?” the owner asked me.
I was stymied for a moment, but then it hit me.
“The Ethiopian Olympic team. Training starts today,” I said.
He laughed, but in that moment, I realized I’d found my destiny.
In that first session, only two of the guys had had golf lessons. The other three had never used a club before. That did not stop them, of course, from assuming that since they were all good athletes — all of them some were some combination of runners, basketball, football or soccer players — they would easily master golf. And, of course, they would beat me.
The simulator, thankfully, was like hitting into a cave. It had heavy vinyl curtains all around and on top, except for the front. Nobody could see in and no balls could get out. But, of course, other golfers could hear the sounds of balls hitting everywhere but the screen, along with a heavy dose of trash-talking that came in English and Umparik, the Ethiopian national language.
I gave the kids quick lessons in the grip, the stance and the swing, and had them take practice swings with balls off the tee to start. Very few of their shots went straight or far, but they kept bashing away. I did my best to instruct, but they were too busy dissing each other to pay much attention.
Then we started on the course. I picked the easiest course, with wide open fairways, and I put them on the shortest tees. I let them play the first couple of holes themselves. Nobody hit the ball more than about 70 yards towards the hole, a 300-yard par four, though one hit a long out-of-bounds slice. They all took between six and nine shots to get on the green. They gave the most verbal abuse to the youngest player, who hit the shortest, but straightest shots. When he managed to sink about a 30-foot putt, against all odds, the trash-talking actually stopped for a moment.
At No. 3 hole, I let them all hit first. Somebody had a drive close to 100 yards, but again balls were splayed all over the place and multiple mulligans were taken. Then I stepped up to the tee. I played from the back tee and hit a good drive for me, about 250 yards down the middle. For the second time, silence, but then, “Oh, my God, that’s like Tiger Woods,” “Look how far that is,” and a bunch of Umparic comments that were probably along the lines of “How did an fat, old guy do that?”
We finished the day a slight bit more polished than when we started. But only a slight bit. We’ve gone back a number of times since and will be back there this winter. I figure we’ll ramp up the training this year. More balls go straighter now. Guys are now getting out there close to 150 yards. The guy who owns the indoor range welcomes us with a smile on his face, knowing he’ll have a bunch of happy, enthusiastic golfers, even if their shots don’t quite yet merit the enthusiasm.
Despite the grueling training I put them through, the young men all have fun. I figure that after this winter’s intense training, I’ll get them on golf courses next summer at least a few times. We have to step it up — I have three years to whip them into shape.
You’re skeptical, I know, I can read it in your eyes. But hey, I believe in these guys. And as for their places on the Ethiopian Olympic team, I figure we’re in pretty good shape. Last time I looked, Ethiopia had one nine-hole golf course and a six-hole course at the British Embassy. How good can their competition be? And after all, we’re getting better and playing a harder course — Pebble Beach on a simulator. What could be tougher training?
Jason Day’s performance coach, Jason Goldsmith, joins the 19th hole
In this episode of the 19th Hole, Jason Goldsmith of FocusBand talks about how the breakthrough technology has helped PGA Tour stars Jason Day and Justin Rose to major wins. Also, host Michael Williams gives his take on Tiger Woods’ return to golf.
Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club
Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own.
Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.
All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.
Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.
Trees, or no trees?
The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.
The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.
Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.
A good variety
Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16. What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14. These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set. The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.
The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s temp the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.
Green complexes are…complex
Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world. They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.
The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a descent lie.
Ari’s last word
All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.
Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure
My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.
Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.
Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.
I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.
First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.
Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.
Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”
Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!
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