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Can Fun Save Golf

Can Fun Save Golf?

Driving down Ponte Vedra Boulevard you can see the Ocean Course at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club is starting to come back after being torn up for renovation. Same thing in town when you drive down San Jose. San Jose Country Club is re-doing their fairways and greens and changing one of their par threes nobody liked anyway. You can’t see it from the road but Pablo Creek off Butler Boulevard has also been taken down to the dirt and being rebuilt. And driving down A1A in Ponte Vedra you might notice the part of the Oak Bridge golf course you could see from the road is gone. Leveled to make way for an expansion of the Vicars Landing assisted living facility.

The Ocean Course, San Jose and Pablo Creek are going through the kind of renovation maintenance any golf course needs for long-term viability.

But at Oak Bridge, they’re doing something completely different.

“We’re looking to change the golf experience,” Oak Bridge Head Professional and General Manage Mike Miles said this week.

Miles is a former PGA Tour player who still has plenty of game, playing in the Senior PGA last year in Rochester. He shot 69 in the opening round at Oak Hill and played well enough to be paired with Bernhard Langer on Sunday. He hit it past Langer off the first tee but said he didn’t play well alongside the former Masters champion.

“He shot 67 and when I took my hat off to shake his hand on 18 I told him what an honor it was to play with him,” Miles recalled. “And I joked that I hoped my playing wouldn’t hinder his game in the future. He looked right at me and said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Ponte Vedra resident David Miller is the developer of the project and brought Miles in to make it happen. They met through golf when they both lived in Southern California and have a big vision when it comes to what Oak Bridge will become when it’s opened under it’s new name, “The Yards.”

The “Front Yard” is an update of the front nine at Oak Bridge.

“It’ll be plenty of a challenge for what I like to call the ‘Big G’ golfer,” Miles explained. “But we’ll also have it set up so just about anybody can play here.”

Miles oversaw the re-construction and redesign of the new/old nine holes, with MacCurrach Golf giving it plenty of “playability” with only ten bunkers in the loop. He recreated the holes with a nod throughout to famed golf course architects like Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Arnold Palmer and others.

“We want people to have fun while they’re here,” he said pointing to a spot on the ninth hole where there used to be a bunker that everybody seemed to hit into. “I want guys to come in and have a beer and a hamburger when they’re done. Not stomp over to their car, throw their clubs in the trunk and drive off.”

I heard the word “fun” a lot talking to Miles this week, especially when we moved to the “Backyard.” What used to be the back nine on the old golf course is now unrecognizable. A beautiful new lake, stately oaks, practice greens, a huge putting green and a walking three-hole short par three course called the “beer loop” fill your vision as soon as you clear the back of the clubhouse.

“We want people to have options,” Miles said. “You can come over here from the Front Yard and play 12, 15 or 18 holes. Or just come straight here sit on the patio with your friends, enjoy the view, laugh, walk the beer loop, whatever.”

That’s a far cry from the rules-laden, stiff upper lip image that golf has in a country club setting.

Is this where golf is going? Judge Smails probably would not approve.

“I call it ‘fun golf,’” golf course architect Erik Larsen said when I asked him about the concept. Larsen is a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and was the Executive Vice President of Palmer Course Design in Ponte Vedra. He redesigned Selva Marina into today’s Atlantic Beach Country Club. He’s seen plenty of hidden entrances and stuffy locker rooms but thinks there’s a change in the game on the horizon.

“There will always be a demand for traditional 18-hole golf courses,” he explained. “But golf play has reduced because of the time it takes. Time is a valuable commodity. Want to play less? Just go play three, four, six and come back. No big deal. We don’t have to recreate the wheel, there’s a practicality to all of it.”

When Larsen’s former colleague and fellow golf course architect Harrison Minchew did the redesign at the Jacksonville Beach Golf Course he specifically was thinking about giving players a chance to play, but play in less time.

“There are some scenarios at Jax Beach where they could play six or nine or twelve holes,” he said noting that the operator of any golf course has to be willing to create that scenario “Part of the design philosophy is to allow clubs to have players play less than 18 holes. You bring them back to the clubhouse not just at nine and eighteen. There are ways to do that if that’s part of your market.”

The popularity of Top Golf facilities around the country (there’s one you can see from I-295 at the Town Center) has brought a lot of new people to the game, somewhat unexpectedly.

“More than 70% of the people who go to Top Golf have never touched a club before,” former TPC at Sawgrass General Manager Bill Hughes explained. Hughes is now the GM and CEO at the Country Club of the Rockies outside of Vail, Colorado but while in Ponte Vedra was an early advocate for a new kind of facility for Miles and Miller at Oak Bridge.

“You can’t just be another golf course,” he explained. “I love the ‘fun golf’ thing. Ponte Vedra already has world-class golf courses. You have to build something that fits the population. An aging community along with a lot of young people you want to bring to the game.”

Nobody is going from Top Golf to the first tee at the Stadium Course. But that’s where the new Yards and places like Jax Beach get involved.

“Top Golf is that kind of phenomenon,” Larsen added. “It’s fun, and that’s what a practice facility can be. Light it, put some targets out there, play some music, have a bar and make it fun. That experience is fun and successful, so some resorts are looking into that.”

“Fun golf has to be beautiful,” he continued. “Lighting and landscaping will be the key. It’s on top of what the game is built on. Will it bring people to the game? Maybe. But it’s an interim step to bring non-players eventually to the first tee of a golf course.”

“Oak Bridge is going to fill a void, introducing people to golf,” Minchew added. “They’re playing music at Jax Beach outside the clubhouse. There’s room for them to expand the putting green to a putting course. They’re covering the practice tee. There’s a Top Golf feel going on there. I think most places are going in that direction. Golf needs to be fun, if that’s part of it, they should have at it.”

And Minchew added an important part of the equation.

“They made money in their first year and that’s unheard of these days. That’s a success story, making it fun, playing music. Just being there is fun, that’s what it’s all about.”

Larsen agreed that the new Yards is a perfect fit for the shifting demographics in Ponte Vedra and golf in general.

“The location makes it popular because Oak Bridge is in a community with a young population. It fits what’s going on there. If they promote things for kids, evening play, take two clubs, walk a few holes, they’ll hit a home run.”

Hughes believes The Yards will be the start of a trend in the golf business.

“The game has to figure out how to get people over to the ‘green grass,’” he said. “Building a facility like this can become the epicenter of health and wellness, a hub of activity for an entire community.”

In addition to the golf, The Yards will have a state-of-the-art pickle ball facility starting with twelve courts. A new grill with an outdoor patio as an adjunct to the Three Palms restaurant that’s in there now and they’ve even planned a spot for weddings under the oaks and alongside the lake.

“That’s exactly what we’re looking for,” Miles said with a smile. “We’ll have members but we’ll be open to the public. We’ll make it affordable. We want people to come out and enjoy themselves. There’s no better place to do this than right here.”

Stats Can Make You Better

Each September my brother Gust invites me to play in the fall Member-Guest golf tournament at his club in Detroit. It usually happens near the middle of the month and I’ve always been amused at the conversations we have with our competitors.

It’s one of their final tournaments of the year so much of the banter is about the hockey and bowling leagues that are forming that week. They’re lacing up their skates on Sunday following the final round to get ready for the winter season. Their golf clubs are going in the deep freeze for the cold weather.

Here, we’re on the opposite schedule. It might be the middle of the NFL and the College Football seasons, but most local golfers are also working on their golf games to enjoy the weather over the next nine to ten months

With a six to eight month golf season up north, ours can be year around, especially if you’re willing to play in the heat of July, August and September. They don’t have that option in the snow and cold of much of October through April.

My brother recently won the Senior Championship at his club. So how has he maintained his near scratch status when he has to quit playing half the year because of weather?

These days it’s simple. Technology has allowed us to take the game indoors to small spaces. Players up north can keep their games sharp through data and information.

Two companies, FlightScope and TRACKMAN have developed computer generated data that analyzes your swing, equipment and shot selection and can make you a better player.

“People love the technology,” says former professional golfer John Schroeder who’s the owner and an instructor/fitter at MasterFit Golf in Orange Park. “It makes it so easy for people to understand why the ball flies the way it does.”

Schroeder and MasterFit have been in business for 25 years both on Phillips Highway and in Orange Park. But nothing has accelerated his ability to do his job like the technology explosion. MasterFit was an early adopter of Flight Scope. Fifteen years ago they were the first practice range to have the technology in the state of Florida and have partnered with them ever since.
“There’s a fine line between the artistry of golf and the advancements in technology,” Sea Island Golf Performance Center Manger Craig Allan said from his teaching and fitting spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. “We walk very carefully along that fence.”

Sea Island and Allan use TRACKMAN technology developed by a Dutch company that’s been in the swing data business from the beginning.
It used to be that an instructor told you to “keep your head down,” or “get to your left side.” With the modern technology how the equipment performs is part of the equations. Spin rates and launch angles are a big part of the conversation when it comes to the equipment they choose.
“I can push a player toward game improvement technology in clubs but the player has to like the club they’re looking at on good days and bad,” Allan explained.
“We can look at 28 different parameters of your swing and ball flight,” Schroeder, who played college golf at UNF, added. “Ball, flight and swing parameters. Launch, landing, smash factor, spin rate swing speed, angle of attack, club path, face to path they all are invaluable from a teaching standpoint.”

Instruction has come a long way even from the time when a video camera and a radar gun seemed advanced. While the technology can help instructors improve your golf game, it can also match your game with the right equipment.

“We’re building a shaft that matches your swing speed,” Schroeder said. “You want to get your driver from 50 feet to 80 feet in the air? We can measure the data, we know what different shafts can do so we match those two things up.”

With over 40,000 shafts to choose from onsite at their 8,000 square foot facility on Wells Road, Schroeder says the data from FlightScope and watching your swing allows him to improve your game almost instantly.

“We’re looking at launch, spin and landing angle when it comes to optimizing your ball flight. FlightScope measures the shaft how it’s loading and unloading. That helps me build a shaft for you.”

With the right equipment in your hands, you can be a better player. It also allows instructors to develop your game the way you play it.

“Much easier,” Schroeder said when asked if his job as an instructor has gotten easier or more complicated.

“We’re not going to focus on all 28 data points. We’ll focus on one or two and when people see that, they can understand it much easier. ‘Why did I slice it 30 yards to the right?’ It shows your clubface was 13 degrees open at impact. And that’s easy to understand.”
Allan said he and tries not to rely just on the equipment to make better players. The combination of the “hands-on” traditional instruction combined with the technology takes learning the game to a new level with the right equipment.
“Some great players have gotten away from the artistry of the game and relying on technology,” Allan said about the blend he tries to use in his work. “But it’ll always remain a game that relies on feel and athleticism. We’re just trying to enhance that.”

David Duval, Best Analyst On TV

I’ve always liked David Duval. I know people have said he’s aloof and distant. He’s described himself as “quiet and reserved.” That might have been his personality as a golfer and it worked for him.

Not anymore.

Working for the Golf Channel, Duval is the best analyst on television. Not just the best golf analyst, the best analyst, period. John Smoltz is good on baseball. Eddie Olczyk is good on hockey. Troy Aikman is good on football. Duval is really good on golf.

Much like his heyday as a player, being #1 in the world and the only player who Tiger Woods admitted got his attention on the leaderboard, David is fearless as a broadcaster.

And that’s not easy to do.

As a player you can insulate yourself inside the ropes. You can be distant with fans and the media. You can wear Oakley wraparounds to help keep everybody out. And you can lose yourself in the game. (BTW those glasses originally were used to cut down the pollen in his eyes when he wore hard contacts in college.)

If you want to be any good at television though you have to be willing to expose yourself. Unless you’re authentic, actually yourself, not acting like yourself, you look like an actor or a phony on TV.

We see it every day when we watch television. Some people have it, others don’t. Duval is fearless on TV in a way that’s rare: He’s prepared, he has an opinion, and if you disagree with him, it’s OK. You’re not going to change his mind.

If you’re authentic on television, when you walk into a room full of people, only you know that all of those people in the room know the real you. And all of those people watching on TV know the real you. And without a certain level of confidence and preparedness, that can be terrifying. Duval never revealed that as a player. Now, he does it every time he appears on television.

While he still thinks of himself as a golfer and a player who can compete, Duval is a television analyst of the best kind.

“I think it’s the rare person who is 40 to 55 years old who doesn’t think of themselves as a golfer still. That’s how I view it. That’s how I go about it when I analyze something.”

Unlike with golf, he was good almost immediately on television. It took him two years to win his first tournament in college, but then he was dominant. It took him a while to get used to the week-to-week grind of professional golf. But once he did, he was dominant. We texted a few times when he started on the Golf Channel, just exchanging some ideas and a few tips I had picked up over the years in front of the camera. But it was easy to see he was going to be great.

“There is a difference in being critical and being mean. Critical is fine. Mean is not,” Duval told Global Golf Post about being on television

One thing Duval has always seemed to have is perspective. Even at a young age he looked at things differently. Some of that came from the loss of his older brother Brett. That tragedy for the Duval family has been well documented. But David has always seen things from a different angle.

As comfortable with Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as he would be with a beer and a sports magazine in his playing days, Duval’s smarts go beyond just golf. And that’s essential to be able to sit there and talk without a script (ad-lib is the term in TV). A view from 30,000 feet as well as an intimate knowledge of the subject allows David to speak with authority. Not act like an authority, but be an authority.

“He’s good because he has good knowledge,” Nick Faldo a six-time major champion and now the lead analyst on CBS has said about Duval. “Players who have really felt it, not just played it or walked the walk, the players who have really felt it – and he’s felt both the big climb to get to No. 1 and that story and that phenomenal run of wins and gets a major and then for whatever reason went on a different walk of life – he can add an awful lot of golf life experience to it.”

I first met David before he got to high school. His dad Bob was the pro at Plantation and invited me out to play with the two of them. Needless to say, even that young, David was an impressive player. Long, straight, great touch, it was clear he was going to be something special

He got to the top of the game and instead of enjoying it, he found it isolating.

“Some guy asked me about Bosnia,” he once said to me after a press conference. “Just because I’m ranked #1. They didn’t care what I thought when I was #2,” he said shaking his head.

Now 46-years old, he played in The Open Championship this week at Carnoustie as a past Champion Golfer of the Year. Once you win The Open, you can play there each year until you’re sixty.

I will admit David gave me the sporting thrill of a lifetime ten years ago at the Masters.

“Who’s caddying for you in the Par 3 at Augusta,” I said to David one day at his house when he was near the top of his game.

“You are,” he answered with a laugh. And sure enough that year I was on the bag Wednesday of Masters week.

(There’s a full accounting of that day on samsportsline.com)

We had two memorable exchanges that day; one was on the first tee.

“Two rules,” David said as he pulled a club from his bag. “Keep up and don’t lean on the putter.”

On the 8th tee David grabbed 9-iron out of the bag. “It’s wedge,” I said. “I don’t think so, the pin is all the way back,” he quickly responded. And promptly hit the ball in the water behind the green.

“I guess it was wedge,” he said with an easy laugh and a bow to the crowd. That gave everybody a glimpse of the David Duval we now see on golf broadcasts.

When he left Episcopal for Georgia Tech, it was a surprise move to play college golf where nobody expected him to go. “Where’d you want me to play?” he asked me when I wondered why he was going to Atlanta. He was a four-time All-American for the Yellow Jackets.

He made a splash as an amateur, leading the BellSouth Classic by a couple of shots at the 54-hole mark in 1992. But it took him a while to figure out how to be a pro. “You have to get used to it,” he said of the traveling circus the tour can be, week after week. “The travel, eating, sleeping, playing, you need to figure it out.”

And once he did, Duval fulfilled his awesome potential, ascending to number one in the world. He won 11 of 34 tournaments he played in just over a one-year period. He shot 59 in the last round at the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, making an eagle on the final hole for a come from behind win.

He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated behind his Oakley sunglasses. He contended in the Masters and the US Open, and he won The Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2001. He was the #1 golfer in the world. He won in Japan later that year.

At some point Duval is going to move off the Golf Channel and into Johnny Miller’s chair as the lead analyst on NBC’s coverage of golf.

I’ve seen Duval first-hand play golf as the best player in the world. Now we all get to see David as the best analyst on television.