Friday, October 31, 2014

A Different List

With college football and professional soccer proving a constant disappointment, I chose to not wallow in my depression, but instead reflect on the pleasure that another sport has provided me this past year - not as a spectator, but as a participant.

Through some luck and some planning, I've had the opportunity to play some great golf courses in 2014.  Here are my top ten favorites:

     1.  Jasper Park. Jasper, Alberta, Canada. A great Stanley Thompson layout in South Central Alberta. Far from a mere resort course, it is both a great test of golf and a tribute to the surroundings, with bunkers mimicking the surrounding peaks of the Canadian Rockies. My favorite hole was the fourteenth, an uphill dogleg par 4 with a carry off the tee over the bright blue waters of Lac Beauvert.

The second shot to the elevated green of the 14th at Jasper.

     2.  Arcadia Bluffs.  Arcadia, Michigan. A links course in the sense that it has few trees and has many holes nestled alongside of or with a view of Lake Michigan. Criticized by some because it is not "natural" (the moguls, dips, hills, and valleys were largely man-made), it is nonetheless a beautiful course with several testing holes. My favorite was the par 5 eleventh, which goes uphill from the tee and then works its way down to the Lake. Arcadia also gets my vote for the friendliest, most accommodating staff (at the course and the hotel) of any that I experienced this year.

Looking back to Arcadia's 11th from a knoll.

     3.  Banff Springs. Banff, Alberta, Canada. I was admittedly underwhelmed the first time I played Banff two years ago, but liked it much more the second time around. Overall, the golf is just a half-notch below that of Jasper, but the memorable holes are spectacular. It's hard to choose between Banff's two signature holes - the par 3 fourth, The "Devil's Cauldron," and the 470 yard par 4 fourteenth (which was the original starting hole) as my favorite.

The Devil's Cauldron. (photo courtesy of Nathan Spencer)

The 14th tee at Banff. (photo courtesy of Nathan Spencer)

     4.  Forest Dunes. Roscommon, Michigan. My experience and that of my playing partner Charlie was tempered somewhat by the twosome we were paired with for our first 18 and boorish golfers around us on the second loop, but on reflection we both really liked the course. Not exactly a links course, but there are some links-like holes that wind through the dunes, particularly on the second nine. My favorite hole was probably the tenth, a par 4 that's not particularly long, but has both its fairway and green split by bunkers, without having a "tricked up" feel to it. 

View of Forest Dunes from off of the putting green.

     5.  The Old White (TPC) Course at The Greenbrier. White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. I last played this course probably 20 years ago, before the renovations. Then it was just another short, vanilla resort course, albeit one with a long history and distinguished pedigree. Restored to C.B. MacDonald's original vision, it's now a great track and visually much more appealing. It's still a resort course in that it's highly playable, especially from the white tees (which I wussed out and hit from). Favorite holes include the "Redan" par 3 eighth (having actually played the original Redan hole at North Berwick I'm particularly fond of them) and the dogleg par 4 sixteenth.

The Old White's 16th hole.

     6.  The Blue Monster. Doral GC, Miami, Florida. I've never played on a course with as much groomed sand as The Blue Monster. Hard as heck, but in great shape and an interesting layout. Don't know if I can say it's my favorite but the most memorable hole for me was the dogleg par 4 tenth, which requires a 180 yard carry over a lake to hit the fairway, with bunkers behind and a tight out-of-bounds on the right. I hit the fairway (laying three after I blocked the first one OB on the right).

The view from the 10th tee at Doral.

     7. Stewart Creek. Canmore, Alberta, Canada. Unlike Banff, I didn't like this course quite as much as when we played it two years ago. May be due to the extensive flooding which damaged the course, or the fact that the staff didn't seem nearly as welcoming as the first time. Still a beautiful course with spectacular views. Built around an old mine site, the front nine hugs the ridges of the mountains while the back is more pastoral. The course reminds me of the Pete Dye Course in Bridgeport, West Virginia, but the Canadian Rockies provide a more dramatic backdrop. While the front is pretty and tough, the hole I remember most clearly is the tenth, a dog leg par 4 which starts in a meadow with a wide landing area, then narrows to a small green nestled in a pine grove with traps on all sides but the left back.

A good place to start - the view from the 1st tee at Stewart Creek.

     8.  Edgewood Country Club. Sissonville, West Virginia. Yeah, it's my home course and, yeah, I'm biased. But I think it's a well-maintained course and a fine layout in the hollows of Appalachia. There are some tough par 3s and playable par 5s. The most memorable hole is the tough seventeenth, with a big dip from the fairway to the green and water lurking on the left. My favorite is probably the par 4 third, which winds its way around a ridge to an elevated, multi-tiered green. A straight tee shot leaves you feeling good about the second, but missing the green, or even hitting the wrong level, can lead to headaches.

A view across the water to the green of the
risk/reward dogleg par 5 5th at Edgewood.

     9.  Harding Park TPC. San Francisco, California. Unfortunately, I was playing Harding Park as part of a group outing and only got to complete 13 holes because of the "golfers" in front of us. It would probably rank higher if we had been able to complete our round. Still, it was a great municipal course (when you got over being startled by the firing at the nearby rifle range).  The uphill par 3 third, surrounded by cypress trees and the green surrounded by sand, was among my favorites, although apparently the fourteenth through eighteenth are the stars.

The 3rd (I think) at Harding Park.

     10. Country Club of Jackson (Woods/Marsh). Jackson, Michigan. The course I grew up playing and got to play twice this summer. Twenty-seven holes, only the first 18 (the Pines and Woods nines) were there when I lived in Jackson. The newer Marsh has some great holes and a few space fillers, but overall is probably my favorite nine now. The course is always impeccably maintained. My favorite hole on the Marsh is the par 5 third, a big uphill dogleg left with marsh to the left and mounding in the fairway.

From the 3rd tee on the Marsh course.
 The green is somewhere way off to the left.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Plastic Grass and Level Playing Fields

While the U.S. Women's National team has qualified for the 2015 World Cup (and, if you remember, that was not a given four years ago), the question remains: on what surface will its members be playing?

You may have heard that FIFA, in its imperial wisdom, has sanctioned next summer's Women's World Cup in Canada to be held at six venues, all of which have artificial turf. Unlike in 1994, when U.S. Soccer was required to lay natural turf fields over the artificial surfaces of the Pontiac Silverdome and The Meadowlands (which, admittedly, were vastly inferior AstroTurf as opposed to today's FieldTurf), FIFA has not required the Canadian Soccer Association to alter the turf of the host stadia for the 2015 tournament to comply with what has been a consistent FIFA requirement: that World Cup matches take place only on natural grass.

In responding to concerns over requiring women to play on plastic grass next summer, FIFA czar Sepp Blatter has declared that "artificial pitches are the future." Well, for women anyway. While many clubs in the Russian professional leagues have fake grass due to the extreme winters, there hasn't been even the faintest whisper that any of the venues for the 2018 men's World Cup will be played on artificial turf. The same for Qatar and its 110F summers, which are seemingly not conducive to growing grass (it's a desert!) and the pitches for the 2022 tournament.

Blatter has also responded by cranking up the FIFA propaganda machine, with its Head of Women's Competitions Tatjana Haenni declaring that "we play on artificial turf and there is no Plan B" for the Canadian games and by directing that a Roger Goodell-esque "interview" be performed with "independent consultant Prof Eric Harrison" in which the virtues of plastic pitches are touted and the merits of installing temporary real grass fields are poo-pooed. 

The reaction of women players to FIFA' double-standard has been emphatic and increasingly militant. It appears that, left out of the inscrutable process that is decision-making in FIFA, they've decided that they've got nothing to lose by actually fighting back. Megan Rapinoe, never one to mince words, summed up her reaction to FIFA's inaction in response to unofficial entreaties from women asking to play on real grass like their male counterparts, this way: "Maybe you're not having a thousand times more injuries [on turf], but there's an aspect to the purity of the game and the quality of the game that is played on grass that is different on turf. They can say what they want, but it's all bullshit to me."

Tell it like it is Megan (photo from

Instead of just engaging in what would likely be a losing war of words, the women decided to take action. Earlier this month they filed an application before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario seeking a ruling that FIFA and the CSA be ordered to provide "proper, lawful playing surfaces [i.e., grass turf] for FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015."

The complaint contains a damning laundry list of past discrimination against women by FIFA and the CSA as well as an extensive analysis of the dangers and game-altering properties of fake grass. Amusingly, the players' counsel turns FIFA's words on itself, quoting from an article in the March 14, 2014 FIFA magazine "The Weekly" in which an English journalist examined the use of plastic pitches by four MLS teams and stated that "non-grass pitches are widely regarded as deeply problematic."

While in their complaint the players do refer to numerous studies that establish a possible link to increased lower extremity injuries to turf fields and the certainty that minor injuries (contusions and abrasions) occur with greater frequency on fake grass, the primary emphasis in the complaint is simply that FIFA and the CSA are clearly comfortable with requiring women to play on inferior surfaces as opposed to their male counterparts. This strikes me as a smart strategy -- arguing fundamental fairness is much less complicated than quibbling over whether or how much the risk of substantial injury is increased when playing on turf instead of grass.

In support of their assertion that there is a clear mandate that men's games be played on real grass, the players quote CSA officials who have declared in the past that play on turf for male World Cup qualifying matches is a "dealbreaker" and that the surface that that men's team plays on "has to be grass." They also cite FIFA's past and on-going requirement that World Cup matches take place on real grass, mentioning the Silverdome, The Meadowlands, and the future World Cups to be held in Russia and Qatar (seriously, Qatar). 

The players also note that FIFA "invited" female players to express whether they had a preference to play on grass or turf (the vast majority responded in favor of the former) and then promptly ignored their input. Finally, the players seek an expedited ruling on their application to allow FIFA and the CSA sufficient time to comply with the Tribunal's anticipated ruling before the games begin next June.

Having had Canadian courts described recently to me as "California on steroids" as far as their proclivity to find for litigants asserting discrimination, I find it difficult to believe that the Tribunal will find against the players. This seems rather clear-cut gender discrimination.

While undoubtedly FIFA and the CSA will oppose the players' application, it's difficult to conjure up many good arguments that they will have in response. The usual recourse followed by FIFA, to ignore or obfuscate issues, is not going to work this time around. The response that "there's no Plan B" won't either. And certainly, if it reads the same handwriting on the wall, it is not in either organization's interests to attempt to delay the proceedings since it will only make identifying alternative stadia or planning to overlay existing turf fields well in advance of the competition more problematic. 

My guess is that there are two different sets of conversations taking place in bowels of FIFA and the CSA right now: one in which FIFA, the CSA, and their lawyers are trying to figure out how to respond to the application without looking like bigger misogynists than it already depicts them to be; and the second between FIFA and the CSA to figure out who is going to foot the bill for the temporary surfaces. 

If we've learned anything about Blatter, it's that his only true concern is FIFA's bottom line. It would be completely consistent for him to be less concerned at this point with defending the "pitch of the future" and more worried about how he can strong-arm the CSA into paying for the renovations while holding on to every penny of proceeds that he can from the tournament.

Will the women play on grass next summer? There's a very good chance they will. Will it be FIFA that pays for the same playing surface that it demands for its male players? There's a better chance that the 2022 World Cup will be held in the middle of a desert in July.
Footnote: The only World Cup match I have seen in person was at the Silverdome in 1994. The U.S. men played Switzerland to a 1-1 draw thanks to a fantastic free kick by Eric Wynalda. What I remember most about the game was it was the most miserably hot I have ever been for an extended period of time (well, until I spent three days in a field in Southern Tennessee in July). The Silverdome wasn't air conditioned and since it was a true domed stadium, they had to keep it ridiculously humid to try to keep the grass alive, without sun, for as long as possible. The first step into the arena was like walking into a sauna.