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Breezy Point

Local Golf
September 24, 2017

From The Village To The Hills
Barbara Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus during the honoree ceremony for the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club.
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Barbara Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus during the honoree ceremony for the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club.
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By Joseph North

I've officially had the best Spring EVER on a golf course without hitting a shot.

Let's start with The Memorial.

In late May I "attended a conference" in the northern suburbs of Columbus. This conference just so happened to occur around the dates of the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio.

The tournament is played annually at Muirfield Village - a Midwest version of Augusta. Walking the course is very much like stepping into a golf dream. Locusts were buzzing. Gorgeous, rolling greens rolling true. Streams framing fairways. And the ever-present cottonwood fluff floating across the sunburst and landing like a butterfly with broken feet.

Walking Jack's immaculately manicured property was a bucket list moment - and the fact that I was able to rub elbows with my own version of the Dad Golf Hall of Fame was simply an added bonus. Following Wednesday's practice round I got knuckles from Justin Thomas. At a glance I could spy Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Andy North, Barbara Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Golf Digest scribe Jaime Diaz. The list goes on.

Players (most visibly Charl Schwartzel) blended into the crowd to catch Jack's traditional Wednesday post-round address kids peering through the plat glass window of Nicklaus Pharmacies. I managed to edge my way within 15 feet or so of the aging Golden Bear whose gray jacket matched his hair.

The timbre of Nicklaus' Upper Arlington mezzo-soprano is unmistakable. A few times I closed my eyes and simply listened. Or more accurately, I absorbed. Not usually one to take a bunch of grainy cellphone pictures, I couldn't help but continually fire the shutter to capture my all-time favorite golfer. I was unabashedly geeking out.

Over the course of an hour, Mr. Nicklaus held the crowd in rapt attention, and didn't edge more than a few yards away from his wife, Barbara.

Nicklaus honored the Memorial's past champions and 2017's honoree Greg Norman - who was looking as fit and commanding as he did at his mid-90s peak. In a style he reserves only for the game's greats, Nicklaus barbed Norman - mentioning Greg's "cold top" of his drive off the first tee the first time a 21-year-old Norman was paired with Nicklaus (at the 1976 Australian Open).

(Side note: I have no idea what a Cold Top is, but one can assume it's a TOUR-player way to say "topped" shot. Does that mean you topped it because you're going in cold, as in no warm up swings? I tweeted Diaz who clarified that it has to do with "the purity of the top.")

Muirfield was surreal. But it was just the beginning of my 2017 Spring Swing.

U.S. Open Your Eyes

Even while surrounded by golf's greats, being on the road will open your eyes to what you really miss. Despite having the privilege of playing a nice little Jack Nicklaus (II) course - The Medallion Club - not far from Muirfield Village, I was already longing for home.

Alas, once I arrived home I didn't even unpack, going straight to another (albeit very good) conference in downtown Chicago. Over the course of three days my ears were open, but my eyes were closing.

Two days after arriving home from Chicago, U.S. Open week began. I was at Erin Hills at 4 a.m. five of the seven days of the championship, assisting the volunteer maintenance crews with everything from moving lattice around green surrounds, to sending communications (a.k.a. text messages to crews), to - my personal favorite volunteer job - assisting with what's known as "course setup."

It was Friday of the championship and I was running on fumes, adrenaline and sugar-free Red Bull. I hadn't put in nearly the lengthy hours at the course that most of the volunteers had. But after a long week of assisting the grounds crew at Erin Hills during the wee hours, booking back to work to train in new employees through the afternoon, and then back to the course to assist in the evenings, I was mentally and physically spent. That is until I plucked from my pre-dawn daze before the second round to join the team tasked with pin selection and placement.

I was honored to assist in the 11 steps it took to create a U.S. Open pin placement. I witnessed the process working a little bit like this:

1. United States Golf Association Executive Director and CEO Mike Davis no doubt works with a committee to select the general radius a pin will be placed.
2. A scout team of USGA turfgrass professionals paces off and places an electrical flag on the green in a general area they think the cup should go. The placement process is all very old school, largely unscientific, and based mostly on whether they agree that it's a tough but fair pin.
3. Before Davis arrives, grass clippings and particles of bunker sand are blown off greens with a leaf blower. Following close behind, a volunteer (me) hand clears anything that could withstand the 150 mph blower. This includes any insects that dare land on the quad-cut green. Truthfully, the greens were immaculate and didn't really need to be "hand cleared," but I felt it added a certain level of detail.
4. Finally Davis arrives, armed with a late-model Odyssey White Hot mallet to roll putts across the massive green complexes to that day's prospective pin placement. More than once I heard Davis, who displayed deft touch in his practice putts, comment on how the team (USGA) had "fixed" a location that had putts previously running too far past the intended cup placement. No doubt this was accomplished through hand watering and monsoon-like rains, but still - the USGA didn't seem transfixed with the idea of turning the greens into Teflon-coated pans. Instead, they focused on creating fair placements. Nothing more, nothing less. On the other hand, I might have heard a "they deserve what they get" if an approach were to carry past No. 12 pin. But hey - all's fair in love and U.S. Open pin placements.
5. Davis confers with his USGA team for a final consult and might move the electrical flag marker upwards of a few feet before announcing, "This one's good to go." Once the magical phrase is spoken, the dozen grounds crew volunteers comprising the Course Setup Team (we're talking assistant superintendents from high-end clubs like Shinnecock and Chicago CC, and Erin Hills' finest full timers... and little old me) sprung into action.
6. First, the cup is cut with an exacting, yet forceful blow. Imagine having to put a wine cork back in the bottle while still on the corkscrew - with all of the guests at a party watching your every twist - and you're not too far off.
7. The emerald turf, long roots and excess sand are surgically removed, and a steel cup (complete with a mini mic and battery pack created by Fox Sports) is placed snugly inside the 4.25 inch wide hole.
8. Next, The Painter steps in to spray paint an egg-white counter clockwise stripe, followed by a clockwise stripe to cap the cup. If too much paint is applied, it's removed with an index finger. I may have floated the idea to The Painter of putting his initials or an emoji in one of the cups' paint with a stencil. He loved the idea, but perhaps not on the Friday of the U.S. Open.
9. The cup is then hand-trimmed to remove excess paint with what appears to be manicure nail nippers. The Cup Cutter then replaces the bald pin, eyeing it from four sides to ensure it is set vertically.
10. The Flag Team then constructs the pin. Man A holds the black-and-white-checked pin while Man B slides on the red flag and screws it down. Tightly. (While winds weren't what they usually are, I didn't want to be responsible for having the flag fly off before an approach. So I guarantee that holes 12-16 on Friday had very snug flags on those pins.)
11. The Cup Cutter returns to replace the now head-dressed pin, and taps it down. Following a final look, he gathers his tools and the teams set off to repeat the ceremony on the next hole.

All told, it's a 30-45 minute process to setup each hole. Looking over my shoulder, down the fairways after a completed hole, the view from inside the ropes, ensconced by grandstands, is a special one I'll never forget. But it wasn't even the best thing I saw that day.

I left course setup early to make it to my daughter's daycare in time for Daddy Daughter Donut Day. As soon as she threw her arms around me and yelled, "Daddy!" I was overwhelmed by my daughter's love. We read a book. Played house. Raced around outside. We picked flowers for her hair. She leveled me with a single look and a final hug.

And in that morning, I had simultaneously been the luckiest golf geek in the U.S., and the proudest dad in the world. The holes at Erin Hills were cut well, but it was the half donut at daycare with my daughter that made the day - perfect.

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