Pebble Beach Tore My Face Off, And I Don’t Care

MONDAY, JULY 6
11:45 am-ish

I sauntered off the sixth green at Pebble Beach Golf Links on a beautiful summer day several steps ahead of the rest of my group. This twist on social distancing was by design, because I needed a minute.

I stood on the seventh tee box after filling our caddy in on what I was feeling and why I needed some time. Looking down on the green from about 100 yards away, preparing to play one of the most picturesque par-3 holes in golf, my eyes started welling up.

I waited as my dad, he of numerous club championships in upstate New York and a 4.8 handicap index to match, hit a wedge about 30 feet past the hole.

“I’d buy that right now if I could,” I thought to myself as I put my yellow Callaway, colored to make life easier for my caddy when shots inevitably went askew, down behind the tee markers.

I took a deep breath as I addressed the ball, hunched over due to the whole “I’m 6’5” and golf isn’t a sport for giant people” thing. I bent my knees, brought a three-quarter swing back, and came through the ball.

We’ll leave that shot in the air for a little while. In this case, the journey to Pebble Beach and the emotions it brought out, rather than scores written on a card, is what mattered more than anything else.

– – – – –

My dad was supposed to go to Scotland in May on a journey that would include 18 holes at St. Andrew’s. He was pumped to cross several things off of his bucket list…and then the coronavirus screwed everything up.

After planning a journey to Northern California, Dad did some digging. The research led to a shocking discovery: Pebble Beach was not requiring its traditional two-night hotel stay in order for guests to play one of the most famous courses in all of golf.

Following a few phone calls, Dad and I had a 10 am tee time for his trip out here. I was excited, but also scared out of my mind. As I’ve written, I enjoy playing golf, but I’ve never been anywhere near good at it. Occasionally, I’ll slap a few good holes together, but between my busy schedule and the whole “I’m way up here and the ball’s way down there” thing, it’s just never been something I’ve been able to improve at.

Before his arrival in the Bay Area, I took my clubs out for a spin and tried to work out the kinks. I was encouraged by my first outing, when I shot 44 on a par-34 course near my apartment, but visits to several 18-hole layouts varied from “humbling” to “where is my face and why did this force-carry decide to rip it off?”

When Dad got here, we played Hiddenbrooke, a public course in Vallejo (about an hour north of Oakland). It’s a beautiful Arnold Palmer design that has hosted several LPGA Tour events, and my banana-like tee shot was in no way prepared for it. After recording an 18-hole score of 108 (and a liberal 108 at that), plans were made to hit the driving range on Sunday.

Due to either uncommon foresight or common hoarding (both frequent behaviors within the Champagne family), we had several drivers laying around. One of them, a Taylor-Made, had an adjustable clubhead, and one of the employees at the range had a screwdriver. After moving the setting very far to “draw,” with a clubhead that may as well have been at a right angle, I at least had some general idea where the ball was going.

That enthusiasm waned when Dad decided we needed to be awake at 5:30 am for the drive to Monterey the next morning. How am I suppose to apply what I learned and swing a golf club correctly, I thought, if my consciousness was still laying on my couch? Alas, that was a battle I was never going to win. The alarm, predictably, came early, and off we went to Pebble Beach.

– – – – –

We left my apartment at 6:23 (I know because Dad complained we were eight minutes late). The first win of the day came when Bay Area highways, known for being some of the worst in the country, were miraculously mostly empty save for a trouble spot near San Jose caused by debris in the road. We got from parking spot to parking spot in almost exactly two hours, which allowed for plenty of wandering around before our tee time.

As Dad went into the shops, I found myself looking at the wall of plaques honoring winners of professional and amateur events held on the course. I couldn’t help but wonder, “what the heck am I DOING here?,” as I read about the exploits of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Gary Woodland, and a host of other golf legends.

Before going to the putting green, Dad and I watched a foursome tee off. The last player was a kid, maybe 10 or 12 years old, and Dad remarked how the kid may not be old enough to appreciate Pebble Beach. I countered by saying, “you watch, the kid probably has a better swing than I do.” I was proven correct when he hit a decent little drive about 180 yards down the right side of the fairway, one I’d have gladly bought from him had he been willing to sell.

I deliberately kept my goals low. In summary, there were only a few benchmarks I wanted to hit.

– Don’t be the worst player our caddy had ever worked with (mission accomplished).

– Take two shots to get out of as few bunkers as possible (this happened twice, but it could’ve been worse).

– Don’t leave the ball on the hill separating the fairways on the sixth hole (I hit one of my best shots of the day to get a hybrid over the hill and near the green).

– Par the seventh hole (we’ll get to that).

We met our caddy, Mike Z., and our playing partners on the first tee. I warned him, “you won’t need to help my dad much, but I STINK.” He laughed, and he would wind up doing an amazing job for us. Pro tip: If you play Pebble Beach, spend the money for a caddy. They’ll help you around, provide a wealth of knowledge (especially around the greens), and can even act as photojournalists taking photos and videos throughout your round. I can’t possibly recommend Mike Z. any higher, either. He added to the experience in a way we’ll always rave about.

Dad striped his tee shot down the first fairway, and then it was my turn. Somehow, I put together a controlled series of motions resembling an OK golf swing. While the yellow Callaway had left-to-right spin on it and found the right rough, it gave me a clear second shot into the green and was far from the worst tee shot the starter would see that day.

In an odd, welcome plot twist, I actually scored pretty well early. I bogeyed the first three holes, but made several 15-foot putts to do so, including one on the third hole that took one or two trips around the cup before falling in.

I made the turn in 53, with only three lost balls (coming on the fourth, eighth, and ninth holes). Despite wasting a great opportunity by dumping a wedge into the hazard after my best drive of the day on the ninth hole (a low stinger that caught a downslope and kept rolling), I considered the front nine a complete and total success. This continued when I made par on the 11th hole (albeit on a first-tee mulligan when I grounded one just barely off the tee box; I then hit a decent drive up the fairway, a good 7-iron to within about 25 feet, and two-putted). At that point, visions of a 99 danced in my head.

And then the back nine at Pebble Beach ate my lunch.

The 14th hole is when the day took a turn for the worse. After a drive into the right rough off the tee, I hit two solid hybrids to within about 60 yards of the hole. Unfortunately, that left me with one of the most daunting shots on the golf course: An uphill half-wedge, with no green to work with and a bunker staring at me with a menacing, “COME AT ME BRO” look.

I attempted to hit a half-wedge, but was intimidated enough to hit a three-quarter wedge that went long-left and flew the green. Several chunks and bad putts later, I slinkered off to the 15th tee box, where I hit one of my few push-slices of the day. Somehow, it stayed in bounds, and I wound up with a punch shot that I’d hoped to send between two trees and out to the front part of the green. I made great contact and missed one with ease, but the ball clipped an extending branch of the second one and went straight down into the ground.

“Five feet left and it’s perfect,” I grumbled on my way to making 7.

Still, I had a chance at a decent score (by my subterranean standards) as we headed to the 17th hole. I wound up playing most of the long par 3, as I grounded the tee shot short, put a second shot into the bunker short of the green, took two to get out, hit out of the bunker LONG of the green, and made a less-than-graceful quadruple bogey.

After taking a few pictures on the 18th tee box, though, I exorcised the demons with a beautiful drive up the right side of the 18th fairway. I hit a decent second shot, too, but chunked my third and wound up directly behind a tree adjacent to the green. Once again, I made 7, and I wound up signing for a 111 while Dad found ways to grumble about turning a 77 into an 84 (I hate him sometimes).

I did, however, say that scores didn’t matter as much as other things. This is where we teleport back to the seventh hole.

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– – – – –

As you may know, my grandmother, Carolyn Hake, passed away earlier this year after contracting the coronavirus. Between being 3,000 miles away and the pandemic not allowing for funerals or memorial gatherings of any kind, I never really got a chance to say goodbye to her, and it’s eaten at me for a while.

Many years ago, she got to play Pebble Beach with my grandfather (my mom’s dad), who at his peak was a scratch golfer. The story I was told went like this: They got put with two guys who wanted no part of playing with a woman. Nana countered as only she could, kicking their butts all the way around the golf course. The highlight came on the seventh hole, when she hit a wedge in and made par.

This is why keeping myself composed on the seventh tee box was hard. It’s why I wouldn’t have been surprised if the ball went anywhere between 10 feet off the tee box or halfway to Oahu, and why I needed to be careful in ensuring the golf club wasn’t shaking in my hands as I took it back.

I can only speculate, but chances are the wedge she hit was probably far more graceful than mine. While I hit it somewhat fat, though, the ball came off the center of the clubface and went to the right of the flagstick, where I had aimed in hopes of accommodating an ocean breeze that naturally subsided when I made contact.

“GO!,” I yelled, hoping it wouldn’t land in a bunker shy of the green.

The yellow Callaway obliged. It hit the green and rolled just off the back fringe, and golfers all over the course probably heard me yell, “FINE!,” from under the golf-themed mask my girlfriend bought me.

We got down to the green, and I was the first to putt from my lie in the rough. I had the speed perfect, but the ball stopped a foot or two to the right of the cup. Dad gave me the par putt and I took the ball away, pumping my fist as discreetly as I could while my eyes welled up again.

Dad lined up his birdie putt right as I’d recomposed myself. Like lots of putts at Pebble, it wasn’t easy. It went left to right, with a few feet of break and ocean waves crashing in the background.

He hit the putt.

There was no discretion necessary in the reaction.

There were a lot of special moments in that round. I’ll remember putting before the round and the practice green magically emptying for us for 10 or 15 minutes. I’ll remember the pictures we took and how lucky I felt to be with my father in those moments. I’ll remember remarking to my caddy, “these putts DO break the same as in the WGT video game!” I’ll remember going up to people working in various spots, from marshals to food and drink venders to salespeople in the shops, and saying, “you must REALLY love your job.” I’ll remember all of them saying that, yes, they did indeed love their jobs.

The seventh hole, though? That’s burned in my brain, and it’ll stay there as long as I live.

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I never got the chance to say goodbye to my grandmother. I suppressed the feelings from that for quite a while, simply because there’s no playbook to dealing with that stuff and there was no acceptable way to deal with the grief and frustration that I felt. Doing something she did as well as she did it isn’t going to heal everything, but it’s as good as I was going to do. Sometimes, that has to be enough.

I debated throwing my ball into the ocean after the hole was over, but I decided against it. After all, the ocean would have many more chances to deliver a souvenir to her, and that’s what it did on the next hole. After hitting a really nice 4-iron to just shy of the cliff’s edge, I took a 5-wood, attempted what Jack Nicklaus calls the greatest second shot in all of golf…and pushed that yellow Callaway dead right into the Pacific Ocean.

“Close enough,” I though to myself as I put another ball down.

The score really didn’t matter. Everything else did.

Thanks, Dad.

Should They Run at Saratoga? A Unique Answer

I swore to myself I wouldn’t write an article on the likelihood of racing in Saratoga unless I could promise it would be different from anything else that’s out there. In a roundabout way, I got to that point Tuesday, when multiple Saratoga discussions populated my social media timelines and got my brain going.

Right off the bat, I’ll start with a disclaimer: This is not an impassioned article to go full-speed ahead, torpedoes be damned, and run at Saratoga. That may surprise you given my background, but I urge you to move forward with an open mind. On the other hand, this is also not something admonishing NYRA for still considering the possibility of a Saratoga meet.

Instead, this column focused on the most underused phrase on social media, and one I feel is as valuable as any in the English language. It’s a simple, three-word, three-syllable phrase that doesn’t reflect nearly as much weakness as it implies, and one a lot of people should have tattooed on a forearm as a reminder of what to say during tricky situations.

In a convenient plot twist, I’m also alluding to my specific feelings on the Saratoga conundrum. All of this can be summarized with this very sentence: I don’t know.

Let those words resonate for a moment, and let me tell you how hard it was to arrive at that conclusion. You may find people who love Saratoga as much as I do, but the list of people who love it more is very, very short. I’m an Upstate New York native who spent parts of every summer in the backyard picnic area and frequently travels back east from California to spend a few days there with my family and remaining friends within the industry.

I’m also not without a financial interest in this debate. As you’ve heard me shout from the mountaintops every summer, I’m the featured handicapper in The Pink Sheet, which is sold outside the track and distributed around Saratoga. I’ve also profiled Saratoga races for freelance gigs at entities such as The Daily Racing Form, The Saratoga Special, Oddschecker US, and Horse Racing Nation. Simply put, you’re not going to find many people in racing’s media contingent whose reputations are so tied to one particular high-profile track, and if races scheduled for Saratoga are not run at Saratoga, chances are I’m out a significant chunk of change.

On the other hand, there’s no playbook to fight back against what has happened over the past few months. When the coronavirus hit, it sent societies everywhere into panicked frenzies, and justifiably so. Even now, as some states prepare to cautiously roll out plans designed to achieve some version of normality, there’s a lot we don’t know, as evidenced by the healthy social distancing regulations in place even in states eager to “reopen.” Major sports leagues, for instance have already seemed to accept a reality where fans are not in attendance, which would’ve been a blasphemous thought just three months ago.

How does horse racing properly weigh all of this? I don’t know.

I’m friends with people who want tracks to reopen yesterday with protocols in place similar to the ones at Oaklawn, Gulfstream, and other locales currently open for business. They feel this way out of legitimate concern for both the industry and the people whose livelihoods depend on it. On the contrary, I also know people who wonder how we can justify racing at all, anywhere, for any amount of money, during the current pandemic. These reasons are understandable, too. They don’t want people possibly exposing themselves to a deadly virus when millions of people are following orders to shelter in place.

If we’re solely using those two standpoints, I’m going to lean to the side advocating for the reopening of tracks, provided systems are in place that protect all stakeholders involved. I can’t support denying people the right to make an honest living, especially when unemployment numbers are rising every day. If the protocol that has been rolled out by several tracks has been proven effective, let’s use it and, at a minimum, get an industry that employs a lot of people on the road to recovery.

Having said that, there are other factors in play when Saratoga is involved. Boutique meets at tracks like Saratoga, Del Mar, and Keeneland rely heavily on community support and on horses and their handlers shipping in from out of town. Even if New York wasn’t one of the areas hit hardest by the coronavirus, it’s almost impossible to see a pre-pandemic scene at Saratoga materializing anytime soon. Add in the dizzying numbers that have been coming out of the Empire State, specifically New York City, and things get even murkier.

What should they do? I don’t know.

None of the alternatives are attractive. No sane person wants a situation where New York’s horse racing circuit is done through the summer. The idea of running Saratoga’s races at Belmont during its designated time of year has been floated, but with all due respect to Belmont, that would feel like a cheapening of the product. One could also foresee a scenario where Saratoga runs its dates later in the year in hopes of attracting crowds after the public threat of the coronavirus subsides, but it gets cold early (anything after mid-October would be risky), weekday crowds would be non-existent since kids would be back at school, and for all we know, the virus may still be around at that point.

There’s no outcome that’s going to please everyone, and the stakes are high. If racing returns to Saratoga too early, one of the most beloved tracks in the country could take a substantial hit. If it doesn’t return at all, NYRA’s business gets clipped in the knees, and horsemen and horsewomen struggle to make payroll. Like everyone else in the world, racing executives in New York are at the mercy of a virus that doesn’t have a designated end date, and tough decisions are going to have to be made.

When I was thinking about writing this article, a close friend told me that my stance wouldn’t win any arguments, which seems like the real currency right now. I find it hard to disagree with him, especially in the culture that’s been created by experts in the “shout loudly and mobilize fellow loud people” field. Still, I’ve heard a lot of opinions by a lot of smart folks of late, and I’m left wanting a solution that almost certainly doesn’t exist.

How does New York make what seems like an impossible decision, one that has far-reaching effects on horsemen, horsewomen, the city of Saratoga Springs, and, by extension, the United States racing circuit at large?

I don’t know.

And I don’t know when, how, or why it became a bad thing to say that.