By Jeff Neuman
The light was dim as the four players arrived at the thirteenth tee of Friar’s Head. At 5:45 a.m. there was a light mist in the air, and a scrim of fog draped the clubhouse beyond the green. The light would be dim again at 8:52 p.m. when the four putted out on the eighteenth green at Liberty National – not because of weather, but because the sun had set over Jersey City twenty-one minutes earlier.
The round of golf that took place on June 20 – with support from Rolex, the Presenting Partner of the Modern Dream 18 -- consisted of a fourball match on eighteen holes selected from eighteen courses built in the Met Area since 1982, and lasted just over fifteen hours. The preparation for that match, however, took many months of effort on the part of MGA staffers, and involved untold numbers of people at the clubs and courses, sponsorship from valued partners, a caravan of communications people, and a donation of the use of one very luxe ride.
It began simply enough, with the decision to feature a new Dream 18 on the cover of the June/July 2017 issue of The Met Golfer. As described there, the MGA had named past “All-Star teams” of holes from around the Met Area in 1982 and in 2007; this time the goal was to spotlight the dynamism of the local golf scene by selecting only from courses built in the last 35 years. And if we were going to name such a Dream 18, why not do what was done in ’82 and try to play all eighteen in a day? It would be an opportunity to promote golf in the area and celebrate the clubs and courses that had successfully taken on the challenge of breaking into our well-established golf landscape.
The first step was to choose the eighteen holes, a process explained in the June/July issue. In February, Gene Westmoreland – longtime tournament director and assistant executive director, currently a Special Consultant to the MGA – began contacting the clubs to explain what we had in mind. Westmoreland had done the same for the original Dream 18, and he worked largely in the order the holes would be played in case any unforeseen snags necessitated a re-routing.
“I gave them a little thumbnail of what the day would encompass: roughly what time we expected to arrive, that we’d need carts to meet us when we arrive, there’d be the four players, we’d hope to have someone from the professional staff or one of the leading caddies accompany us and give us some inside knowledge,” he says. “We knew time to get it all in would be tight, so I said we’d need to go right to the tee of the hole we were playing, and after they play the hole they’re going to have to go directly to the van and take off to the next club.
“In many cases they said right away, ‘We love the idea, we’re in.’ Some said, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ but I can’t think of an instance where it took more than overnight for them to get back to us. There was so much enthusiasm for it, they loved the uniqueness of the idea and did everything they could to make it work.”
Once the courses were lined up, getting around to them became the next problem to solve: “Brother, can you spare a helicopter?” Someone who could – or at least was willing to donate the use of one – was Harris Schwartzberg, a golfing friend of MGA president Michael Sullivan. “Mike started talking to me about this Dream 18, and I said we’d love to be a part of it, to support the MGA,” says Schwartzberg of his private aviation company PRVT. “The hardest part was logistics – approvals, landings, timing. My guys are all golfers, and they had a great time doing it.” The copter, a Sikorsky S 76, has comfortable seating for six in a compartment reminiscent of the inside of a limo.
All that was left was assembling the foursome. This proved more difficult than expected. The foursome in 1982 consisted of the MGA president Joe Donahue; executive director Jay Mottola; Golf Magazine editor George Peper, a former MGA communications director; and Ben Crenshaw, the popular PGA Tour pro. In 2017, the MGA president was a given; Sullivan was eager to take part. The organization wanted to include a prominent local player, and fortunately Joe Saladino, two-time MGA Jerry Courville Sr. Player of the Year, was available and was game for the adventure. A local sports celebrity was supposed to play, but due to major lightning storms in the east the day before the event all his possible flights to New York were cancelled; at around 11 p.m, it was decided that MGA executive director Brian Mahoney would substitute for him.
The fourth player, Matt Ginella of Golf Channel, agreed early on to participate and to report on the experience for “Morning Drive” and to his many followers on social media. But his road to the event from Orlando proved tricky when he and his cameraman Donny Goertz found their connecting flight from Baltimore to Islip delayed indefinitely. “Flights are getting cancelled all around us, they bumped us back – we decided we had to abort and get a rental car, but first we needed our bags – and the airline tells us they’ve stopped getting bags off the tarmac, too many flights are cancelled. But in order for us to go my guy needs our camera equipment and I need my golf clubs. And we had to plead our case. I knew if we could just get out, it would be a 4 ½-hour drive from Baltimore to Friars Head. Our window of opportunity was closing as we were sitting there, and we were at the mercy of the baggage people. Finally, after two hours, we hear that our bags have arrived and they’re coming off the belt. Five of our seven bags come off the belt, and the camera bag wasn’t one of them. So now we have to go back to them, and we go, ‘Hey, guys, thank you’ – you’ve got to say, ‘Thank you so much, great going… but we’re still missing a bag and we can’t go anywhere.’ They told us, ‘Oh, well, we can’t, that’s the best we can do…’ After more pleading, they said they’d get to it as soon as they could. And it was another 2 ½ hour wait. You know how, in order to become a saint you need two acts of miracles? The Southwest bag people performed two acts of miracles, and we needed both to be able to get out of Baltimore and drive to Friars Head, getting in around one in the morning.”
Four hours later, the players took to the Friar’s Head range. Ginella was the most nervous: “I was a little intimidated by the enormity of the thing, and with the lack of sleep, I wondered if I would play ok. But I hit the first green in two and had a decent birdie putt, and that helped.” Fifteen people including owner Ken Bakst and head professional Adam McDaid made their way up the fairway as the group played, and then they all piled into golf carts and headed back to the parking lot, where the players and followers headed for the second stop. At Laurel Links they played the 18th hole and received a warm hand from the grounds crew and other workers who watched from the balcony of the clubhouse.
The travel for the first six holes, on Long Island, was by car; they would meet the helicopter at East Hampton Airport and then fly to Silo Ridge. The caravan hit morning traffic on the way to Sebonack, and Ginella worried that this would cost the group too much time, but Brian Mahoney told him, “No, we had all this accounted for and built into the schedule.” Indeed, the timetable had been calculated to the minute using an approximate time per hole, a small allotment for greetings and goodbyes, and a check of Google Maps and Waze for actual drive times at the corresponding hours.
“I sat down with Brian [Mahoney] during the planning,” says Westmoreland, “and we talked through all the timing at the courses, too – at Sebonack, to get out to the 11th hole from the clubhouse is going to take a while, we figured it would be seven minutes to ride to the tee, about sixteen minutes to play the hole, and another seven minutes back to the clubhouse. So we really had it all timed out as well as we could.”
At Atlantic Golf Club, the fog was so thick that the fairway was a rumor from the tee. Spectators behind the green saw balls land on the surface before seeing the players who hit them. The Bridge greeted the players with an assortment of hats to choose from. At East Hampton Golf Club, the group got word that the helicopter was running behind schedule. “My pilots were texting me pictures,” says Schwartzberg, “and when I saw what that fog looked like, I thought, boy, you guys thought of absolutely everything but nobody anticipated this. There couldn’t have been more than 150 feet of visibility.”
Fortunately, the fog was lifting and the day was clearing as the foursome played East Hampton’s par-5 fifth hole, their sixth and last on Long Island. “In twenty planning meetings, I don’t think we ever contemplated fog affecting the helicopter on the East End,” says Mahoney. “I mean, we’re only going to finish this by the hair on our chinny-chin-chin, and now we’re talking about a 30-minute delay just to get out.”
The time at the airport gave the players a chance to catch up on their social media following – a integral part of the experience now, something unimaginable in 1982. “We were getting text messages from people – what happened to the live feed? What hole are you on? Are you going to make it?” says Saladino. “I had a buddy of mine on a trading desk say his whole floor basically stopped and was just watching us online.”
At last the copter arrived, and once everything was loaded the group set off for Silo Ridge in Dutchess County, a ride that gave the five riders a chance to joke about the match, learn more about each other, and generally take a crash course in camaraderie.
“We must’ve said a thousand times, ‘How cool is this?’” says Saladino.
“It was like we’d spent four years of college together in one day,” says Ginella.
“Jay Mottola gave us some really great advice from having been a part of it in ‘82,” says Mahoney. “He was a really strong advocate for us, the four players, staying in the same car together whenever we were traveling with other people. It really helped build the team aspect, the sense of togetherness that kept us going.”
On their way to the 17th tee at Silo Ridge, the golfers stopped at one of the course’s legendary comfort stations before facing one of the many daunting tee shots in the day. “Every hole was tipped out and every pin was tucked,” Saladino said after the round. He hit his tee shot at Silo “off the planet,” he recalls, “And traditionally in match play, you have a bad hole, two minutes later you have another hole to play so you forget about it and move on. Here, you might have an hour or two before you hit another shot.” The hardest part of playing, he said that evening, was stepping up to the tee after arriving at each course – first-tee nerves on all eighteen holes. (On the plus side, the time after Silo gave the players a chance to metabolize the post-hole shot of tequila served in a shotgun shell, a traditional amenity at clubs owned by Discovery Land Company.)
Lunch was waiting at Purchase, one of the many welcoming touches encountered along the way. The front nine concluded with another long par-3, the 16th at Hudson National. The front nine had taken more than eight hours, and the players were beginning to feel a little time pressure – though much of the travel from the 11th hole on would be by helicopter.
“All the way around, the welcome was so amazing,” says Mahoney. “It was almost celebrity-esque when you got out of the car and people were taking pictures and everything. Every single club was jazzed, and it was uplifting for us – we’re all healthy enough people to deal with eighteen holes and stopping and starting, but it’s a long day and you get tired. The way it felt when we got to a new cool place with a great hole to play, the people greeting us with a hat or balls or a bag tag and something to eat – it got your spirits up and jazzed all over again. And you want to make sure that you’re respectful and show your appreciation, but at the same time you’ve got to keep on looking forward, recognize the schedule and get on to the next course, and the next, and the next.”
At GlenArbor, playing the shortest par-four on the Dream 18, Sullivan made the day’s only birdie: drive in the fairway, approach to about 15 feet, one downhill putt. “I was the oldest guy, which was the first time in a long time I’ve been in that seat,” Sullivan says. “For me to make the only birdie – you could’ve gotten pretty long odds on that one.”
More provisions awaited at Anglebrook, where the club had packed a goody bag. “Anglebrook’s a good example of what this day was all about,” says Sullivan. “If you’d asked me about Anglebrook, I don’t know if I could’ve told you where it is. But it turns out that five or six people I know are members there, and I definitely want to play it now. We have so many great places to play in this area, and it’s easy for a really cool place to get overlooked.”
The helicopter ride to Trump Ferry Point gave the group its first glimpse of the city skyline; after playing the 18th hole, they boarded with a few very welcome beers. Liftoff was a little before 5 p.m., and they were increasingly wondering if there would be enough daylight to finish the round.
The helicopter refueled while the players took on the 3rd hole at Metedeconk; there were five holes remaining and all the travel would be by air until the final short drive. (Metedeconk and Hudson National both had outings scheduled for the day, but very much wanted to take part anyway and figured out how to make it work.) At Neshanic Valley, the golfers at this 27-hole public facility formed a gallery walking up the fairway and ringing the green. Trump Bedminster is used to hubbub these days, and helicopter arrivals are taken in stride. Saladino had never seen Hamilton Farm before, and he says the 18th hole “is just a great spot; we caught it at a great time of day, and there’s such a neat look back up to the mansion there.” (Saladino and Mahoney closed out the match at Hamilton Farm, but the players agreed to play a two-hole double-or-nothing match to the end, with the winnings to be donated to the MGA Foundation.)
As the golfers stood on the 16th tee at Bayonne, Ginella had the goosebump moment of a day full of goosebumps. “You’re standing on the tee up by the clubhouse and that big American flag,” he says. “[Bayonne owner] Eric Bergstol told me personally that he had that big flag so ships know they’re landing in the United States, it’s one of the first indicators they see that they’re in the U.S. The sun was setting, we knew we were going to finish, we were feeding off the energy of that, Old Glory flapping in the wind, this group, this concept, this day, we landed in a helicopter down there by the green – it was overwhelming, very humbling, we really felt like we were a part of something much bigger than just, hey, let’s go out and play a round of golf.”
Thus inspired, Ginella hit the fairway and green and two-putted to win the hole; when the foursome halved the last hole at in the gloaming at Liberty National, the win meant that the “old guys’” $100 from the original match would be donated by the younger pair to the MGA Foundation.