Masterly Performance at Belvedere for Cliff Martin

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The 16th hole at the Belvedere Golf Club.

The 11th playing of the Belvedere Hickory Open was June 16-18. The event, hosted by the Belvedere Club (c. 1871) has drawn much praise for the hospitality of its members, the organization, and detail with which the event is managed, and the outstanding William Watson golf course, c. 1925.

Participants come from around the Midwest, Canada, Virginia, the Carolinas, Nebraska, Florida, and California. There were 48 this year, the number fluctuating with the years and the competitors’ own schedules. All were looking forward to another few days in Michigan’s glorious cool spring near that big lake, to renewing friendships, and to testing their games on the challenging course.

Watson’s layout is mostly unchanged and features generous fairways, sentinel bunkers that catch the wayward or careless, and greens that may be conquered only through familiarity and patience. It is a course that will yield to the wise and steady suitor, never the brash or impatient. Those who would claim a Michigan Amateur title know this. The course has been the site of this important championship 40 times.

The greats of the past have played here, too – Jones, Hagen, Sarazen, Armour, Snead, Shute, Diegel, and Hutchinson. Tom Watson is an honorary member of the club and still makes summer visits. Watson’s fantasy course of 18 holes includes the 16th at Belvedere, a devlish par 4 with a narrow plateau green perched on a hillside. The green falls steeply away to the right, a declivity that has wrecked many a promising round.

Belvedere’s membership may be unique in Michigan, if not the entire country, in claiming the largest compenent of hickory golfers. There are 31, including four women, who play golf with hickory clubs. Many of them are fond of the original clubs and play these exclusively. Dr. Jim Gels of Charlevoix says he finds the clubs fascinating, “absolutely fun to play,” and he has become something of a local expert in their care and maintenance such that other Belvedere members seek him out for help on their own hickory play sets.

Given the historic course, the charming Charlevoix setting, and the unqualified hospitality and enthusiasm of its members, the annual Belvedere Hickory Open has come to be associated with the very finest that modern hickory golf has to offer.

The Thursday scramble is the perfect warm-up. Several teams participated under skies that had been suspect of rain in the morning, but that cleared to mild breezes and drifting clouds. Both Friday and Saturday tournament rounds were played under such perfect conditions that host professional Marty Joy drew suspicions of being in league with the local weather gods. Such is his attention to detail, it is a collusion that could not easily be dismissed.

The Chicago Club hosted the now-customary Thursday night party. Our thanks to the club’s GM Richard Golding, and members Jerry and Mary Jean Esselman of Cincinnati, Ohio, among others, who welcomed the hickory players.

The Chicago Club is a venerable association of vacation cottages founded in 1881. Founders include Melville E. Stone, later head of the Associated Press; and Edwin Uhl, an ambassador to Germany under Pres. Grover Cleveland. The old and historic vacation homes have been in the same families for many years. The grand clubhouse with its long veranda overlooks a spacious lawn and tennis courts with Lake Charlevoix in the distance. A beautiful spot for a refreshing glass, delicious food, and good company.

Friday evening found the hickory players, spouses, and guests at the golf club clubhouse for a casual evening and a lively aprés golf gathering where tales of woe and triumph of the day’s round were heard long after the sun had set beyond the distant trees and the now-quiet golf course, which kept its own secrets as to the day’s events.

Saturday pairings are revealed on Friday night, adding the taste of discovery to the conversational spice. Rare it is at Belvedere to be disheartened in one’s pairing, such is the quality of the company and the genuinely shared passion for hickory golf of all players.

Saturday and the back ninebelvedere_2016_1
Clear blue skies on Saturday served to raise hopes and nurture expectation in the soul of each golfer, most hoping to better the scores of the previous day. It would be hard for Cliff Martin of Los Angeles (shown at right) to better that 1-under 71 on Friday. It was a score that served notice to his nearest competitors– Ernie Ernst of Neenah, Wisc., the 2014 champion; and the club’s beloved pro, Marty Joy, the 2013 champion. Hard on their heels, indeed tying Ernst with a 77 on day one, was Jason Kronenberger of Dayton, Ohio.

These four gentlemen in the Open Division were the only golfers to post below-80 scores on Friday. The 2016 champion would likely come from this group.

To witness first-hand the battle, several golfers who finished earlier equipped themselves with gin & tonics from the bar then returned to the course to follow the final threesome. It was Mr. Kronenberger’s lot to join the pentultimate grouping as the day consisted of threesomes. The Ohio professional gave it his best shot, but fell prey to the occasional bogey and fell behind as the day wore on.

If you have ever wielded a hickory club, you know that this is not an easy thing to master, at least for the middling golfer. For the first-class men and women, a good swing is a good swing and “the fundamental things apply” as the song goes. Thus it was with some awe in the minds of those who followed the final group that soaring approach shots traveled much farther and with greater accuracy than any of us witnessed, or authored, in earlier rounds. The gin & tonics came in handy then.

Martin played a masterly game, missing only at the whim of the winds or an unlucky bounce. His putting was uncannily sharp. He has a way of assessing a green that reminds one of an artist sensing the texture of a canvas and knowing just where to apply the brush and with what pressure.

He would be the first to abjure excuses, but it was clear that Joy, with his mind divided through attention to details of the tournament, was a bit distracted. Four strokes behind Martin after day one, it was all Joy could do to mangage an 80 on Saturday. Frustration was apparent on his face following a missed opportunity on 14. Still, given the responsibility of the event, Joy has a steady game and a sound swing that, had he the time for the proper oil of practice and application, that solid swing would be hard to beat.

As for “Big Hickory,” Ernst of Wisconsin, the big fellow’s muscular arms and bear-like physique applied hickory and iron to golf balls that made one shudder at the blow. Surely the ball would be obliterated. For all his strength, Ernst displayed a fine touch with the short game, though he may wish he had sunk another putt or two. He finished on Saturday with a 78, one over his first day.

It would be Martin’s day. He matched his first round of 71 for the noteworthy feat of two competitive hickory rounds under par.* And this with newly acquired original clubs. Martin came to the tournament aware of the Belvedere members’ fondness and respect for original clubs. Hoping to show that his game is not a product of what some call a tilt in favor of replicas, Martin put that argument to rest with his mastery, not just of the clubs in his bag, but in his application of them to the matter at hand – the test of the Belvedere Golf Course.

“I feel that I have more of a bond with my originals,” Martin said. “I personally have done some of the work on each club getting it playable and I feel more of a connection with the past using them. Each one has its own personality and requires slightly different swing thoughts to get the result I want. I enjoy playing them over my reproduction sets and now that I have an original set that works, I don’t feel that reproductions offer me any type of advantage.”

Modern clubs, original or replica hickories, Martin takes pride in his game and works hard to maintain those skills at his home course of Bellaire in Los Angeles. Though he prefers hickories, Martin occasionally uses modern weapons in those Bellaire competitions that disallow hickories as “non-conforming” clubs.

So, the 2016 Belvedere Hickory Open is in the books. The Belvedere club hosted all players and guests to a fine awards dinner on Saturday evening at their clubhouse/casino overlooking Charlevoix Lake. Awards were given for several categories and playing divisions. Dr. David Brown, president of the Society of Hickory Golfers, thanked the members, Joy, and the golf course staff and superintendent for their splendid work and hospitality.

A special nod to the five women who played in the tournament. It seems a small number, but when one sees, generally, only two or three women at some of the larger outings, we are hopeful that the Belvedere ladies will raise the bar and encourage more of the fair sex to take up their hickories and give it a go. The group is shown in a photograph below.

Congratulations to Cliff Martin, the other divisional champions, and to the members of the Belvedere Club who, once again, show how it should be done.

Click here for a list of the Belvedere Hickory Open awards.

Click here for complete scores for the entire field.

*Jeremy Moe is the only other golfer, to this writer’s knowledge, who has put two sub-par rounds together in a competitive hickory field. This was a 70-71, on the Bay Course at Seaview in 2013; and a 137 at the Ashville Country Club in North Carolina in 2014. That score of 7 under at Ashville is the low score record in the USHO and perhaps in all of hickory golf to date. Moe does use replica clubs. (If you know of other such rounds, please let me know. Modern hickory golf records are sketchy from 2008-11.)

Randy Jensen listed several sub-par single rounds in his book, Playing Hickory Golf (2008, Airlie Hall Press, p. 263). A 66 was recorded by Glenn Jevny in the 2004 Canadian Hickory Championship. Jensen himself accomplished three rounds in the 60s, the first back in 1991 at the Heart of America, a 3-under 69.

Below are a few photos from the outing.
Click here for a gallery of photos taken by Logan Hess.

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The Big Three – Cliff Martin, Marty Joy, and Ernie Ernst.

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Dinner at the Chicago Club, on the veranda.

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The lawn off the veranda looks out over Lake Charlevoix.

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The ladies. From left: Birdie Whitley, Sue Hays, Patty Runquist, Mary Jean Esselman, and Sally Shiff.

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And four of the gents. From left: Ray DeRoche, David Brown, Ernie Ernst, and Chuck McMullin.

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The 2016 Belvedere Hickory Open players and guests.

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Evening falls on another beautiful day at the Belvedere Golf Club.