The new PGA Tour season starts this week at The Greenbrier, but the golf season is winding down for most of us in the Northeast. Days are getting shorter, nights cooler, and our weekends are becoming consumed by football. The last few rounds are wedged into September and golf clubs are prepping for a long winter’s sleep.
The Fall Harvest at Fox Valley Club was last week, and it’s the 4th “Major” of the club’s season. The last chance for glory, which means getting your name on the giant plaque that decorate the walls of the lockerroom. Having your name engraved on one of the plaques is a major award like the leg lamp in a Christmas Story, on display for all to see. If you follow me on social media (Twitter:@kevsylvester Instagram:@kevinsylvestert2g) you already know my partner Dave Nebral and I won the tournament. I apologize for taking the suspense away from those that didn’t know. The story isn’t that we won, but how we won.
I have always thought the Fall Harvest was the most fun event held at the club. The Member Member, Invitational, and Club Championship are great, but there is more tension in those events. The Harvest is a gathering to celebrate the season that was, making it a little less edgy. I play in it because it’s a little looser, price is friendlier, and no black tie dinner. No fancy tee gift, Calcutta auction, or match play to win (although we had a Ryder Cup style match within the tournament). I like all of those things, but you can’t do them all of the time (or at least I can’t afford to).
The format for The Harvest was a 2 man scramble for round 1 with 25% handicap, best ball in round 2 with 90% handicap. Dave and I have been league partners for four years and usually play in the Member Member together, but I was unable to play this past June, so we decided to team up in The Harvest. You’re allowed to play with a fellow member or bring a guest, which also adds to the fun of the event and other categories to win if you don’t win the overall (did I mention we won the overall? Sorry, just proud and still excited). It also worked out that Dave’s traditional Harvest partner relocated out of state and wasn’t available. It was meant to be.
I believed for us to have a chance at winning we would have to put up a very low number in the scramble. Dave is a bomber (despite being 170 pounds soaking wet) and I’m more of precision player. That’s a great combination for a scramble, and we were getting five strokes. We set the goal of -10 for the day, and figured that would give us a chance. We arrived at that figure due to Dave’s ability to reach the par 5 second and twelfth holes in two shots, and drive the greens on four and ten. Our starting hole was the 4th, which we felt was perfect. I led off with a drive of 250 yards in the fairway which allowed Dave to give it a rip (this was our formula). His drive headed up the left side of the 290 yard hole and landed in the rough, just off of the collar of the green. The hole location was back right, giving us plenty of green to work with. We each played a chunk and run out of the thick rough and ended up inside of 10 feet for birdie. Dave’s was a left to right downhill slider, while mine was below the hole, fairly straight. After too much discussion, we chose to putt uphill and missed. A par on the hole that is THE birdie hole on the course. We were stunned and down right out of the gate.
We quickly recovered on the next tee, the par 5 fifth hole. It’s not reachable in two shots, unless you can bend it around the corner. Dave did that, leaving us 230 yards to the surface. We didn’t make it to the green in 2, but had a reasonable 15 footer for birdie. We missed that too! A bogey on the par 3 sixth hole had us contemplating calling the beer cart over to start the weekend party early. However, we birdied the 7th to keep our hopes up, and made another on the 9th that netted for eagle to inject more energy. We were net -3 heading to the par 5 second hole (stayed on the front 9 because of the Ryder Cup match angle to the event) that Dave seems to reach in two shots every week in league play. Not this time. He smashed a drive, but it ran through the fairway and into the penalty area. My drive was fine, but 240 away, not the 190 Dave usually is. Despite this, Dave uncorked a majestic 3 wood that was carrying over the giant tree that protects the left side of the green and dogleg of the hole. While admiring the shot, we heard the ball hit wood. It was puzzling because we knew he cleared the tree (I hit the giant tree to block my shot out). When we reached the green, Dave’s ball was past the right side of the green behind a cluster of three smaller, but good sized trees. He hit it too far, putting us in a spot he had never been or had ever seen anybody play from before. We made par for net birdie, but it was a huge let down. We finished the front 9 with a 32, only -4.
We HAD to better on the back 9 or we could forget about any chance on the weekend. I’ll make the long story short. We didn’t. We shot 34 on the back (-2) to finish the day with a(-6) 66, Most notably, we didn’t record a birdie on any of the par 5’s or the two drivable par 4’s. When we told some of our competitors that, they couldn’t believe it and we’re thankful. Our score of 66 wasn’t terrible, four strokes back of the leaders, and one back in our flight. All was not lost, but we would need a huge day of best ball in round two.
Our goal for the second day was to win our flight. Four strokes was a lot to gain on the leaders and there were also 5 teams ahead of us with better handicaps. I think that fact played into our favor as we didn’t put any pressure on ourselves to win the overall, thinking it was out of reach. Okay, I thought it was out of reach, Dave did not. We again started on hole 4, the drivable par 4. I started us off and was feeling great after smoking drive after drive on the range. That didn’t translate to the course (does it ever?). I hit big swooping cut that somehow ran through a fairway bunker into the rough. Dave did worse. He hit it onto to Ransom rd! Out of bounds on the first hole. I played a nice approach, keeping the ball below the hole, a must on the 4th. My birdie attempt was on a perfect line rolling uphill, right to left, but stalled at the front edge. Two days in a row with a par on the easiest hole on the course! Dave lipped out a birdie putt on the 5th, and we took bogey on the 6th. It was the same start as the day before, Net even par through three holes. Ugh. The group we were playing with was three strokes ahead of us after the first day (63), and we figured we had to get even with them to have a chance to win the overall. We fell further behind after the bogey on 6.
The seventh hole provided hope once again with Dave getting a stroke. We both hit good drives and were on in two. I putted for birdie first even though I was shorter because I was not getting a stroke. I just missed on the right side, but the aggressive putt rolled 4 feet above the hole. Dave had a 30 footer downhill that he put a good stroke on and came up 3 feet short, above the hole to the right. His par putt for net birdie rimmed off the left edge of the hole, a bad break for sure and one that we thought crushed our chances. We left the green with a net par and fell another stroker behind the competitors we were trying to gain on. I was pissed. We played four holes, burned 3 edges for birdie and had nothing to show for it. Dave wasn’t happy either and decided to do something about it.
He hit a solid drive and approach to 25 below the hole on 8. I had 4 feet for par and missed that damn thing! No matter, Dave drained the birdie prompting me to the recite the tag line of my late great golfing friend Mark Pacer, “That’s what I’m talking about!”. I actually yelled it, backing the players off of the 7th tee (sorry again guys). Dave picked us up even more with another birdie (net eagle) on the 9th, the most difficult hole on the course to move us to NET -3. I made a huge par saving putt on the first hole for a net birdie, and another for birdie, net eagle on the second to move us to -6. We finished the front side with a 30, while our competitors we were trying to catch shot 32. We were within striking distance.
Indeed we were. The lead group played well with a 32, which put us two back of the overall lead, but our 30 put us in a tie for the lead in our flight. Remember our goal was to win our flight with the outside chance of winning the entire event. Our starting hole was the par 4 13th. We both made par on 13 and 14, but were not worried. The 15th hole par 5 is the second most difficult, but doable. I was in good position, solid drive and layup to 130 yards in front of the creek. Dave had smashed a drive and was ready to go for it in 2 from 189 yards, but there is no room for error on the approach. We decided I would play first, and if I reached the green he would go for it. I launched a 9 iron towards the back pin and stuck it! I was 5 feet for birdie, net eagle. This allowed Dave to go for it, but he pushed the ball into the woods. We thought it was gone, but a squirrel grabbed the ball in mid flight, threw it out across the cart path into the rough next to the green! That’s how we saw it happen anyway. Dave got up and down to join my birdie and all of sudden we were -2 through 3 holes. A par net birdie on the 16th had us -3 and thinking about victory. Not so fast!
I pulled my tee shot on the par 17th (I was -1 gross through the first 4 holes on the back) into the penalty area, and Dave pushed his far right of the green, a natural reaction to his partner being out of play. We ended up bogey, double bogey on the par 3 for a net bogey. Our chance to rebound on the 18th turned into disaster with both of us making double bogey for a net bogey. Ugh and beyond. We quickly went from -3 to -1 on the inward nine producing a profanity laced tirade from me directed towards me. I actually apologized to myself among others for how nasty I was to myself.
The apology didn’t set me straight on 10 as I hit an absolutely terrible drive, blocking me from the green. Dave didn’t let that phase him, cranking one down the middle just short of the green. He got up and down for birdie after I made a bogey (+5 in the last three holes by me) to resuscitate our chances. As we walked to the 11th tee, Dave said “if we can get a net eagle on one of these next two we have a chance”. We were both thinking that would come on the par 5 12th, a birdie hole for both of us as we could both reach the par 5 in two shots. But we had to get through 11 first and we were both getting strokes.
The par 4 11th is a very tight hole with an elevated green that possesses a ton of movement. We both hit quality drives to the fairway. I played my approach first and sent an 8 iron right over the flag, 15 feet for birdie. Dave played his to the right of the flag, spining to the right edge of the green. We both had decent looks for birdie. Dave’s putt was uphill, right to left and his goal was to just get it close for a tap-in par net birdie so I could give my slick putt a real go. My putt was not necessary because Dave drained it! The net eagle had landed! In two holes we went from jumping off a bridge to jumping up and down. On the par 5 12th, we were both hole high, but off the green in two (I had a miraculous second shot from the tree line). My chip was a near miss for eagle, but ended up being net eagle after Dave’s eagle chip came up three feet short. Dave pulled a hat trick to finish the round and help us put another 30 on the board to go along with the front nine 30 for and improbable best ball round of -12!
We were the leaders in the clubhouse, waiting by the scoreboard for two groups to come in. The fellas that had a two shot lead heading into the final 9, and the guys we played with on the front 9 that were one better than us. The younger guys with the two shot lead came in to scoring first, but scored 35 to finish 66 on the day and 128 overall. We had them by 2 with our 126. It took forever for Roger and Bill to come in. When they pulled up, I didn’t wait for them to get out of the cart to ask what they shot. Roger responded “31”. We were tied and headed to a sudden death playoff. And when I say headed, we hopped right into our cart following the head pro to the 18th tee box. No warm up, not time for a beer, just right to it.
The drive up the hill to the 18th tee brought back some memories and a chance for redemption for Dave and me. We played that hole in sudden death four times during the 2018 Member Member, only to lose to the three time champion. That playoff was alternate shot, and I twice had birdie putts to win but came up just short both times. The loss has stung ever since. This was our chance to erase that and put our names on the board. We were confident and ready.
Head PGA Professional John Daddario flipped the coin and it landed on my call of heads to win the honor. He explained that it was best ball and I was the only player not receiving a stroke on the hole. I took that as needing to make birdie to have a chance. I walked to the tee first as we have done all day and always do in league play. I love the tee shot on 18, always hitting a baby cut three wood. During the alternate shot sudden death playoff in the 2018 member member tournament I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I hit four perfect tee shots with the same club I was holding in my hands in this playoff. This tee shot didn’t end up in that same position 145 yards in the fairway from the hole. Instead, I hit the ball as if I swung a pitching wedge instead of a three wood. The ball (OnCore Elixr Gary Player signature model) was sent very high and very left. The driveway to the club is left of the 18th hole and we clearly heard the ball bounce on said road, but didn’t see if after that. I didn’t swear, but did apologize to Dave. He swung his 4 iron as if I was already on the green and flushed it on the fairway. Bill put his ball in the right fairway bunker, and Roger hit a beauty to the left edge of the fairway.
We drove down the hill headed left towards the driveway. We did not expect to see my ball, leaving Dave to fly solo. To our surprise, the ball bounced to the right, settling in the rough 190 yards from the center of the green. I still can’t believe the ball was not in the creek or in the penalty area left of the driveway. My angle was pretty good with the hole location front right, but the lie was not easy with the ball below my feet and buried. The only thing I could see was Gary Player’s first name of his signature. I took out my Cobra hybrid (shameless plug) and rehearsed a mighty swing. I closed the club face a touch to give myself of better chance for square contact. There were a few trees that were on the edge of my line and blocked my off from the audience of fellow competitors on the patio above the 18th green (many said they couldn’t see me from the patio and the ball came out of nowhere). I took my stance, delivered the club face to the ball with as much speed as I could muster. I connected and the ball came out of the rough like a bullet. It raced by the right edge of the willow tree, rising towards the elevated green. I thought it looked pretty good, and I’m pretty sure Dave said “Great shot!” before it landed. Land it did. The ball hit the center of green, rolled towards the back and then made a right turn. The gallery on the patio started chanting “go, go, go, Go, Go!” and then a huge cheer! While we couldn’t see it, it had to be good.
Bill was up next and I can imagine the pressure he must have felt playing from the bunker and having to follow a shot that sounded like it was next to the flag. He hit heavy and advanced about 20 yards into the rough. Roger played next and had even more pressure on him, but he hit a quality shot to the front left of the green. It was going to be tough to get down in 2 from there, but he was also getting a stroke. Dave played last and a shot to the right side of the green would likely seal the win. He pulled it a little long to the back left of the green. It would be near impossible to keep the ball on the putting surface, that’s how severe the green is sloped back to front on the hill.
We drove up the green with anticipation to see just how close I was. The climb up the hill revealed my ball to be 8 feet above the cup, making it perhaps the bet approach shot I’ve ever hit given the circumstances and tee ball result. However, it was going to be a hard put, downhill and fast! Bill had some difficulty and played out for a 6, net 5. It was down to the three of us, with Roger and Dave getting strokes. Roger putted first, sending the ball uphill toward the center of the green. The ball reached the apex and started downhill towards the right and the hole. It was a really good putt from 50 feet, but it missed on the left side and continued to roll, off the green into the rough. He would have an uphill chip of around 15 feet. Dave had to be even more delicate with his putt. He played it well to his left (also in the 50 foot range), hoping to catch the ridge and have his ball feed down the cup. His plan worked, and the ball looked as if it was going to stay on the green after missing right, but it did not. The ball trickled right off and stopped a few feet closer than Roger’s. Roger was to play first, and he’s a good wedge player. His ball popped up in the air, landed short and rolled a tad to the left, leaving him 5 feet for a 5, net 4.
Dave was next and planned to keep it below the hole, putt out for the 5, net 4 and give me a run for the natural birdie and win. My putt was a fast 8 feet, but makable. Dave took his stance, popped the ball on the green, releasing a rolling ball that fell over the front lip and in. He made it! A walk off chip to win The Fall Harvest! I went to hug him but he was running down the hill in celebration. The patio gallery was going nuts. I was was going nuts. Does it get any better than that! We were on the board and will be forever.
The subtitle to this column was Harvesting Victory, and now you see why it fits. I needed to go through all the shots and holes so you could see how we unearthed the victory. It took great shots, unlikely birdies, some adversity, and a chip in to win. Just like harvesting a crop, we had to dig in to win.