One of the biggest thrills in golf for us amateur hackers is the opportunity to tee it up on a course where the pros play. The chance to walk the fairways which host the PGA Tour, a major championship, or even a Ryder Cup, is the equivalent of the Magical Flying Unicorns softball team being invited to play a game at Wrigley Field. Needless to say, it was particularly special when I stepped onto the first tee of The Champion at PGA National Resort, a course which has hosted all three.
|The greeting at The Bear Trap|
Common sense was in desperately short supply, as I set up my Pro-V1x behind the black markers on #1 tee. The heady experience of my dream round at Pebble Beach, fooled this barely-better-than-average golfer into believing that I was up for all 7100 yards of the challenge. Never mind that The Champion is often called the hardest course on the PGA Tour. For you non-golfers, this would be like Michael Jordan's Charlotte Bobcats spotting 10 points to his 1996 Chicago Bulls.
The best way to get ahead in any sport is to understand the competition. In golf, the adversary isn't another person or team, but the course. I knew very little about The Champion, outside of what I'd seen on television during the PGA Tour's Honda Classic. Its finishing stretch of holes nicknamed "The Bear Trap" are some of the toughest on tour, but that said nothing of the other 15 which I foolishly decided to take on from the black tees. Still, my confidence was high, and my expectations of a great score even higher. That is until I blasted my tee shot on #2 straight into a row of condominiums...
|Don't be short on #1|
Shaken by this brush with reality, I forged ahead in my quest to tackle this beast. Like any reasonable golfer, I shunned the driver which was responsible for my encounter with the condos - because it's always the club's fault - and gave the nod to my trusty 3 wood. The 3 wood could be relied upon to avoid shattering glass doors, but made this 7100 yard monster even more frightening. Still, I plodded along and finished the front 9 holes with an uninspired score of 43.
The back 9 picked up right where the front side left off. A couple encounters with "Old Man Par" mixed with a few boring bogies, brought me to the 15th hole, and the start of "The Bear Trap," standing at 10 over par. This put me on pace for a score of 84, a respectable number given the insanely difficult layout of The Champion. All that stood in the way was the most difficult stretch of holes on the PGA tour.
|"Um...can I help you?"|
Thanks to a solid bounce on the cart path, my tee shot on #15 came to a rest about 10 feet from the flag...on the 12th hole. Particularly embarrassing considering another group was still on the green. This brought on the golfing equivalent of the "Walk of Shame," an exchange between me - the golfer that just yelled "FORE!" and nearly maimed a foursome - and the group targeted by my disgraceful excuse for a golf shot. Thankfully, they were pretty cool about it, and didn't take the golden opportunity to rub salt in my open wound.
|#15. Yes, there's a green out there somewhere...|
Things didn't get any better on the 16th hole, a monstrous par 4 with water all down the right side of the fairway and short of the green. My trusty 3 wood was no use here, because it would have left me too far away from the green on my second shot. So I pulled the driver back out of my bag - trying to block out my run-in with the condos on #2 - and proceeded to hit the exact same shot I did 14 holes earlier, straight into the water. Two swings...two nearly identical results...and one very frustrated golfer.
|Nothing like still having this for a 4th shot...|
Two-thirds of the way into The Bear Trap and I was already caught. All I could do was try and survive the last two holes, before the momma bear brought her cubs over for a snack. What little was left of my concentration went into blocking out the water which surrounded the small green of the 17th hole. The ball took flight, drifted in the air toward the right edge of the narrow peninsula that was it's target, took one bounce on dry land, and splashed into its watery grave. I wanted to use the 5 iron as a shovel to dig my own....
|#17... The Bear Trap ends with a bang...|
This was the first time I can remember truly giving thought to quitting in the middle of a round. I was beaten to a pulp, and the thought of getting back in the ring with this heavyweight for one more hole was unimaginable. Almost as unimaginable as encountering water, sand, and trees all on a single hole, but that's exactly how the 18th played out. Apparently, The Champion has no problem kicking a man while he's down.
|The wind certainly didn't make things any easier...|
The foolish dreams of a respectable score that floated through my head at the beginning of the round, were a distant memory as I drove away from the 18th green. Perhaps I was a little delirious from the heat and the mind-numbingly difficult golf, but I swear the scorecard laughed at me as I wrote down "90" in the last box. I considered defending myself, but then I realized two things. People would think I'm crazy, but more importantly, I deserved it...
In the last 3 months, I have played the host course for 5 different PGA Tour events, and without a doubt The Champion was the most challenging of them all. Golfers who love putting their skills to the test on the most difficult of layouts will fall in love with this Jack Nicklaus designed masterpiece. The torture I described was mostly self inflicted, but like any lover of this great game, underneath the agony and pain was a smile that even a bear trap couldn't take away.
Enjoy Your Stay
Special thanks to PGA National for hosting me on The Champion. All opinions, especially that of The Bear Trap, are my own...