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Sunday, September 4, 2016

A caddy's-eye view of Stonewall as U.S. Mid-Amateur approaches

   The U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship comes to a couple of Tom Doak originals, Stonewall’s Old Course and North Course, this week, two unique layouts carved out of some beautiful farmland in the northwest corner of Chester County.
   Since I was laid off after a 38-year career as a journalist, most of it spent in sports, and since I had spent much of my late teens and 20s as a looper at Merion Golf Club’s famed East Course and since I don’t live all that far away from Stonewall and since I had some time on my hands, I returned to my caddying roots this spring and summer.
   If nothing else, I figured I’d have the kind of insight on Stonewall that you can only get from playing or looping at a course that is going to host a USGA championship. And the journalist thing never paid that much, so caddying was the only way I was going to gain that kind of access to a place like Stonewall.
   The main stage at Stonewall will be the Old Course, which measures just more than 7,000 yards from the tips and plays to a par of 70. There are three par-5s, five par-3s and 10 par-4s. Despite its name, it isn’t that old, about 22 years, but it feels like it’s been there forever. It’s an old soul of a golf course, if you will.
   From what I can gather, that is one of the strengths of a Doak design. He takes what’s there and works with it.
   The USGA will utilize the Old Course and the North Course, a little younger than the Old, but with many design similarities, for the qualifying for match play Saturday and Sunday. The 64 survivors from qualifying will commence match play at the Old Course Monday, Sept. 12. There is one twist, however, as the last two left standing, the finalists, will get one more shot at the North Course as both courses will be utilized for the scheduled 36-hole final.
   Some of the original Stonewall members insist that the Old Course has become too easy, that there isn’t as much fescue as there originally was and what is there isn’t as penal. Trust me, you don’t want to be in it. Some of the lies you get in it are just brutal and that’s assuming you can find your ball at all.
   That fairways are generous, but still get missed a lot. The greens are very challenging and I have yet to see them at their top speed, although I think I’m about to. It’s just been too hot in this part of the country to cut greens too close because you’d risk losing them.
   The Old Course is what I would describe as muscular. It is certainly a much different challenge than Merion East, which I walked 1,000 times, easy, in a decade-plus of looping there, capped by an assignment in the 1981 U.S. Open.
   But Merion East and Stonewall’s Old Course share one characteristic: There just isn’t a bad hole on the golf course. There’s some “breathers,” but don’t get too comfortable or you’ll be looking at double bogey – or worse – before you know what hit you.
   I can’t shake the feeling that a good player looks at the Old Course scorecard, sees two par-5s in the first three holes, the 511-yard first and the 564-yard third, and thinks “attack.” And that’s not a bad thought.
   But there are potential pitfalls and if you happen to let your approach to the first drift to the right and into the sneaky pond that it shares with the third, where the water is very much in play off the tee, and suddenly, you’re on the defensive. There’s another “gotcha” pond that can gobble up your tee shot on the par-4 second.
   The key to the early part of a round at the Old Course, whether you’ve birdied the two par-5s and are feeling pretty good about yourself, or you’ve found the water and are even or over par, might be the No. 1 handicap hole, the 397-yard, par-4 fourth.
   It is a tight driving hole that most, if not all, of the Mid-Am participants will have to gear down with something less than driver off the tee. It has a hard left-to-right slope in the landing area and then an approach to a small green with bunkers left and right. Like so many holes at the Old Course, long is death. It is the kind of hole that can short-circuit a stroke-play round. Take your par and head up the hill for the first of the five par-3s, the 197-yard fifth.
   The fourth also starts a claustrophobic stretch of holes that runs right through the 236-yard, par-3 ninth. There are three par-3s, the downhill fifth, the 170-yard seventh and the ninth.
   In between is the 442-yard par-4 sixth, a manageable hole if you can get your drive off the elevated tee to find the fairway, and the 439-yard par-4 eighth with a fairway that is missed – a lot – and often with disastrous results. The rumor persists that the USGA, loving the drivable par-4 as it does, will move the tee at eight up to the ladies’ tee and see if anybody wants to have a go at it from 330 yards or so.
   All three of the front nine par-3s have large, difficult greens, although last weekend I did see a very good player birdie both seven and nine in a stretch that also included a birdie at eight. So birdies can be had at the Old Course if you let them happen. Pretty sure he won the money in that match.
   The back nine is longer, by nearly 300 yards, despite having only one par-5, the 596-yard 11th. The Mid-Am participants can unleash the driver quite a bit more on the back, at the 10th and 11th, maybe at the 12th, certainly at 13, maybe at 14 and certainly at 16 and 18.
   The 187-yard par-3 15th might be my favorite hole on the course with a tricky tee shot to a narrow green. The par-3 17th would normally be considered the easiest hole on the course, but the new back tee that turns it from a 130-yard short-iron shot to a nearly 240-yard beast makes it quite a bit tougher.
   It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the golf aspect of the course, but the Chester County vistas on 13 and 16 are just magnificent.
   And 18 is just a gorgeous finishing hole, the 451-yard par-4 descending toward the farmhouse-like structures that house cottages for overnight visitors, a banquet/dining hall, a bar and patio, locker rooms, the pro shop and, slightly below ground, the caddyshack. If you check out the tournament home page on the USGA’s website, the view from the 18th fairway is what you see.
   The North Course is shorter than the Old Course, measuring 6,825 yards from the tips, and, like its counterpart the Old, it has three par-5s, five par-3s and 10 par-4s for a par of 70.
   While the greens on the Old Course can be very subtle and difficult to read, Doak seems to have let himself go a little when he built the green complexes on the North. There are several multi-tiered putting surfaces and getting approach shots on the same level as the hole will be crucial.
   I have not toured the North nearly as much as I have the Old Course. The North is the course the caddies can play when the club is closed on Mondays, but I have yet to challenge it with my middling-at-best game. Some of my colleagues in the caddy yard who are better players are convinced that there will be some low scores at the North, something, say, in the order of 65 or 66.
   The par-5s -- the 527-yard third, the 602-yard eighth and the 524-yard 18th -- are certainly exploitable for a good player. But like so many of the holes on the Old Course, there are potential pitfalls that can lead to a train wreck that can ruin a stroke-play round.
   It will be a different ballgame when the tournament turns to match play when a bad hole is just a lost hole, but in the medal-play qualifying rounds, a bad hole can keep you from ever making it to match play.
   I can’t shake the feeling that a few Mid-Am participants will walk away from the North muttering, “I thought this was supposed to be the easy course.”
   Practice rounds get under way Thursday and Friday with qualifying for match play scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. I know it’s football season, but if you’re a golf fan, you should think about dragging yourself away from your big-screen television for a day and watching some of the best amateur golfers in the country take on Stonewall.
   Not sure what the parking deal is yet, but Stonewall is easy to find from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Downingtown exit if you’re coming from the East or the Morgantown exit if you’re coming from the West.
   The caddyshack at Stonewall has been looking forward to the Mid-Am and the Stonewall caddies will be rooting for the Stonewall caddies as the match-play field narrows to the two finalists for the Sept. 15 title match.
   Portions of the Sept. 14 semifinals and the final the next day will be broadcast on FS1. The images will be coming from a little slice of golf heaven known as Stonewall.

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