2017 USHO first-class from the start
By Robert Birman
Exasperating. Astonishing. Taxing.
These words characterized so many players’ rounds at the 2017 U.S. Hickory Open. I suspect that many who traveled to Del Monte links in Monterey in mid-July presumed the 1897 design would be less than a “major” challenge. After all, how hard can an old track, and the least in-demand of those in the Pebble Beach Resort portfolio, be?
On first sight many felt “this should be a birdie fest.” But after the opening practice round, every player knew better.
Del Monte’s defense is two-fold. Tiny greens and abrasive, penalizing rough. The fairways and greens were in fine nick, lush, cushy, true, and that was just the fairways! The greens were quick, diminutive, and pure. Visually, nearly every hole seemed fairly straightforward.
There aren’t any water holes. The bunkering seemed reasonable, not devilish. Savvy competitors took note of the subtle color variations in the bunkers – some pure sand, others more grit and dirt, but all fair. Lesson number one, approach shots had to be exact. These were among the smallest greens many have seen in a long while, a trait this writer found engaging, albeit perversely so. What a great test!
The diabolical nature of Del Monte includes surprising slope in greens that, at first, appeared fairly benign. Players found few flat spots anywhere on greens, period. The dilemma that caused many to add strokes to their tidy scores stemmed from balls that trickled three inches into the gnarly rough around those small greens. It is hard enough to judge speed out of thick, grabby rough, but adding break made it a major-level challenge for all.
The weather was ideal. Steady, low winds. Not a cloud in the sky either day. High temps around 70 degrees.
Ninety-eight players from several countries and a dozen or more states gathered to mark the 10th playing of our Open. Tournament Chair Rob Ahlschwede organized an impressive three-day event with superior service (as expected), high grade food, an impressive trade show and tee gifts and awards the envy of tournaments three times the size.
Net scores in the upper 60s were tops on the first day (Rich Schmidt in the Championship Division with a net 69, and five players in the Senior and above divisions). And – as is becoming traditional now – a sudden-death playoff was required on day two to crown the eventual champion. Two players, both Californians, were tied at the top, with gross scores of 153, Cliff Martin the 2016 runner-up, and Nico Bollini a top-ranked player with some professional touring experience. Bollini settled the score on the opening playoff hole, the par 5 17th, to cement his victory.
A very moving keynote speech by John Fischer III, current president of the Golf Collectors Society, inspired everyone at the Tuesday night tournament dinner with the story and legacy of his father, who was a top amateur player in the U.S., one who played hickories even after steel became the norm. Fischer, and his son, John IV, were on hand to present the course with two framed collectible items commemorating Del Monte’s place in the great old courses of the West, and to inaugurate a new trophy, to be presented each year to the low amateur of the Society’s U.S. Hickory Open. Bollini also accepted that honor late on Wednesday afternoon.
Numerous SoHG board members were in the field, including current president, William Geisler, and past-president, Dave Brown.
Many regional hickory societies were represented at this, the first-ever USHO on the West Coast. A full field pleased the tournament organizers, and it appears that a strong percentage of contestants were first-time USHO participants – a fitting testament to the SoHG’s goal of serving its members by moving championship series events around the nation.
A very special note this year were numerous youth among the ranks, including young lads from Australia and one junior female player from the U.S. – they were popular figures on the putting green! Congratulations to all.
It is worth noting how gracious and attentive the Del Monte staff were to our competitors. All of us noted their generosity and kindness, and we all took a special moment to appreciate the life-size portrait at the entrance to the Club of the early caddies at Del Monte, all boys – two of whom became legendary figures in the Pebble Beach golfing community, and a third (believe it or not), Phil Mickelson’s grandfather.
Tradition and history pervade Del Monte’s links. While the course included expansive areas (not in play) that were left without irrigation (a nod to the modern trend to minimize over-watering), the state of the course was grand and nearly every player hailed this event as a winner for everyone involved.