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.

Andrew Plays Golf: Prepping for Pebble Beach

My dad’s coming to the Bay Area in a few short weeks. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, many of our usual father-son activities are off the table. For instance, in-restaurant dining is out of the question (even if it was allowed, we almost certainly wouldn’t do it, for understandable reasons), and while horse races will be run at the Alameda County Fair in nearby Pleasanton, fans will not be allowed on the grounds.

One thing we can do, however, is play golf. My dad is a lifelong player, a multiple-time club champion at various courses in upstate New York, and a single-digit handicap who often finds ways to grumble about scores in the high-70’s. I know this because he usually calls me on his way home after posting said scores.

In my case, though, “play golf” is a relative term. Perhaps the more appropriate description of my activity would be “attempt to not awaken the ghost of Old Tom Morris by partaking in the biggest earth-moving project in the history of Contra Costa County.” My all-time best round was a 96 at Rancho Park in Los Angeles, the former site of the LA Open before it moved to Riviera. I finished par-par-par, including a 5 on a finishing hole that once induced a 12 from Arnold Palmer, and I felt like turning my driver into a bull, a la Adam Sandler in “Happy Gilmore.”

I’ve never been a consistently active golfer, even after moving to California, where the golf season doubles in length from where I grew up. I enjoy the game, but between working on weekends for most of my career and having a lot of other stuff going on, I’ve never had the time to devote to being good at it. Add in that they don’t really make golf clubs for people who stand 6’5” and that most golfing activities involve bending something that usually doesn’t bend much for people my height, and you wind up with an awkward marriage of hobbyist and hobby.

This may seem verbose, but you need to have a clear picture of all of it, as everything you’ve just read leads to a two-part declaration.

Part one: My father and I will be playing Pebble Beach.

Part two: I am mortified.

This is the most renowned public golf course in the country. It’s hosted six U.S. Opens. Nicklaus hit one of the best shots of his career with a 1-iron here. Watson holed the ultimate “you could put a bucket of balls out there and never do that again” chip here. Tiger could’ve won the 2000 U.S. Open here playing on his knees.

And they’re letting ME play there?

I sweat over the pick box in Saratoga’s Pink Sheet every day of every meet. I hurl my phone into the couch when horses I bet lose photo finishes (my phone and couch can attest this happens often). I rage-quit video games, and I full-heartedly fling myself into things where nothing more than bragging rights are on the line (if you’re in Group Four in the contest being put on by the fine folks at The Daily Gallop, you know this already). Put that together with a tee shot that naturally veers further to the right than Mitch McConnell, and you have a recipe for disaster.

EafS2CIU8AAjpw1I need help, and lots of it, so I’m trying to work my way into something resembling decent form ahead of my father’s visit. Step one came Sunday with a trip to Diablo Hills, a nine-hole, par-34 course a few miles from my apartment. I got thrown into a foursome with three nice, outgoing people who were kind enough to laugh at my usual pre-round proclamation, “I suck, but I suck quickly.”

Early returns were not promising. After teeing up the first of three Titleist golf balls marked, “I’M NOT LOST, I’M HIDING FROM ANDREW CHAMPAGNE,” I took a deep breath through my mask, pulled, my driver back, and gave it a big move through the ball. True to form, the drive looked great for about 75 yards before making a hard right turn and ignoring my pained cries of, “hold, ball!” When the ball stopped 200 yards from the tee, it did so thanks to a conveniently-placed fence that trapped it in its wiring.

EagTZUBUwAACFutAfter thanking the fence profusely for its service and giving myself a drop that was questionable in legality (basically, I treated the fence as though it was a hazard and used the foolproof, “I’m not walking all the way back there to hit another tee shot,” defense), I pulled out a wedge, and all of a sudden, things got weird, as my body was momentarily possessed by a golfing spirit that knew what it was doing. My uphill shot dodged a nearby tree, floated through the air, and came to rest on the front part of the green about 40 feet from the cup. I salvaged a two-putt bogey, and with that, we were off and running.

Diablo Hills is built around several apartment complexes, several of which must feel like war zones in the summer with golf balls bombarding roofs, walls, windows, and parked cars from dawn to dusk. The fourth hole is a 90-yard par 3 down a hill near a major road in town. My playing partners confirmed moving cars had been hit by errant tee shots in the past, so I had plenty of apprehension as I stood over my ball (especially since said ball had my full name on it and could be used against me in traffic court).

I gave it my best three-quarter wedge swing, and it looked good off the clubhead.

“Be right,” I pleaded as it approached the green and a bunker guarding it.

It was, but barely. It missed the side of the bunker by about three feet, bounced once, and skidded to a stop about 10 feet past the hole.

Fear not, though, as I remembered my lack of skill on the green and squirted the birdie putt a foot or two past the cup on the right side. Crap.

Still, I wound up playing like I actually had some sort of clue, which shocked me. Despite a three-putt double-bogey on the course’s lone par-5 (a devilish, 500-yard uphill hole that points and laughs at walkers too brave/cheap to rent a cart), I signed for a respectable 44, and it could’ve been two or three shots lower with better putting and/or drives kept on the planet.

IMG_8239I felt strangely optimistic as I took my golfer’s mask off in the car. Diablo Hills is no Pebble Beach, but if I can straighten out the big stick and start making some putts, perhaps I won’t totally embarrass myself on a big stage.

Then again, if I do, it’ll make for a pretty funny column.

Andrew’s Play of the Day: 2/11/20

RECORD: 25-10

Happy news is always appreciated around here, so it’s with great delight that I use this space to wish my big sister, Alex, a happy birthday. As I said in a toast at her wedding several years ago, she’s a tough act to follow. She got her J.D. from NYU, made partner at a high-powered law firm in New York City, and has two beautiful daughters…while her goofball brother made a living writing and reporting about horses turning left.

My sister’s always encouraged me to be me. She’s one of my biggest fans, and I hope she knows I’m one of hers, too. Love you, Alex! Go play “Chutes and Ladders” with the kids.

MONDAY’S RESULTS: The return to this space was a good one. Underdog Colgate won outright over BU, Baylor covered by a half-point at Texas, and both plays wound up in the left-hand column.

TUESDAY’S PLAY: I’ve only got one play for Tuesday’s college basketball slate, and it comes in the Big 10. Red-hot Penn State travels to Purdue in a game that could have big bubble implications for the Boilermakers. The number that intrigues me here isn’t the spread, but the total. Both teams can score, so the 134.5-point total seems a bit low to me. I’m taking the over and rooting for lots of offense.

Andrew’s Play of the Day: 2/10/20

RECORD: 23-10

As some of you know, I got in a pretty bad car accident last week where I was t-boned by a pick-up truck. Before I dive into my analysis, here are some things I learned from that experience (or, in some cases, things that were reinforced).

1) Don’t get t-boned by a pick-up truck.

2) If you must get t-boned by a pick-up truck, do it in a Nissan Altima. The car’s almost certainly totaled, but I walked away from the accident with no major injuries.

3) Life’s short. I was t-boned on the passenger’s side of the car, and I was thankfully alone. If I get hit on the driver’s side, the best-case scenario is that I’m seriously hurt. The worst-case scenario, well…

4) Sports are diversions.

5) There are lots of good people in the world, as evidenced by the outpouring of well-wishes I received last week. If you sent me something, know that I appreciate it greatly.

This leads to how I’m going to approach this section for the next week or so. Because I’ve been juggling other stuff (not to mention a busy time at the real job), I haven’t offered anything since the Super Bowl. However, I decided to concentrate on a “play of the day,” rather than several plays each day, largely because I believe concentrated, focused gambling strategies are what pay off in the long run, so I can’t, in good conscience, give out seven plays and be back on track.

With that in mind, I’ll middle this a bit. I’ll be offering two plays a day until I’m caught up, barring a situation where I simply only like one game. I’ll hopefully be back on track sooner rather than later, and with a little luck, it’ll be with continued success.

MONDAY’S PLAYS: My primary action comes in the Lone Star State. #1 Baylor heads to Texas and is giving just 6.5 points. I understand that it’s a road game, but the Longhorns aren’t exactly setting the world on fire and the Bears may be the best team in the country. I’ll take the visitors to cover the spread.

In addition, there’s a fun Patriot League matchup in New England, as Colgate travels to Boston University. The visiting Raiders have quietly put up a 19-6 record to this point in the season, including a 10-2 mark in conference play, and beat the Terriers by nine earlier this year. With all that said, why are the Raiders 1.5-point underdogs? I’ll take Colgate here and hope they complete the season sweep.

Andrew’s Play of the Day: 1/30/20

RECORD: 20-9

Larry Collmus is out as the head announcer at the New York Racing Association. The change was made after Collmus served five years in that post after replacing Tom Durkin and, for my money, did as good a job as anyone on the planet could have in that capacity.

I’m not here to speculate on what happened. However, a lot of people on social media were quick to do just that, and many of those posts did something that I take plenty of exception to. If you made a post along the lines of, “I think Larry should wind up at (insert track that already has an announcer here),” pay close attention: You were wrong.

If Larry Collmus (or any other announcer, for that matter) gets a job somewhere where someone else is currently employed, it means the second person lost it and has to find an opening on a carousel that seems to have fewer and fewer spots each time it turns. Rooting for that to happen, at a time when a lot of people in racing have lost their jobs for reasons that have nothing to do with talent, stinks to high heaven. It’s one thing to wish for Larry (an excellent announcer and a really good guy) to land on his feet, but this behavior was several steps too far.

WEDNESDAY’S RESULTS: We split yesterday’s action after a too-busy Tuesday kept me off the grid. Seton Hall and DePaul went under, but Navy covered an 11-point spread against Holy Cross to salvage the day.

THURSDAY’S PLAY: I’m headed to the Big 10 for a clash in Champaign. The Illinois Fighting Illini host the Golden Gophers of Minnesota, and the spread here puzzles me. Illinois is red-hot, has home-court advantage, and yet is only a five-point favorite over a team that’s shot better than 38.3% from the floor just once over its last four games. Give me the Illini in this spot, as I think they cover pretty easily.