Camelback Golf History is Made

Chip smilesWow!!! Those who know me will assure you that it is a rare occasion when I’m left speechless. Chip Nelson created one of those instants Wednesday when I was handed his group’s scorecard. Chip had just obliterated the existing course record for the Ambiente course by shooting a 60 from the Verde tees.

It was a warm day. Winds occasionally gusted to ten knots. The course was in good shape. The stage was set for an 11:10 a.m. tee off in a group with Dr. Jack Summers and Captain Lee Mitchell. The opening hole on the Ambiente course sets the tone. It’s a challenging dogleg with both fairway and green guarded with cavernous sand traps. Chip carded a birdie three.

Chip birdied the second hole and stood on the tee box of the 504 yard par 5 third hole. He was already two under par. He carded an eagle on the third to go four under after three. After another birdie on the fourth hole, Chip just missed the green with his drive on the par 4 fifth. That didn’t appear to hurt him because he chipped it in for another eagle. After five holes, Chip was seven under par!

He settled down a bit and parred the next two holes. On the 210 yard par 3 eighth hole, Chip found the pin tucked in behind the massive trap known for eating golfers and their balls. After a masterful tee shot, he drained the putt for another birdie. He was eight under par after eight holes of golf.

With a par on #9, he recorded an almost unbelievable 28 on the front side.

It’s hard to imagine someone being a bit disappointed to shoot a 32 on the very challenging back nine of Ambiente, but that’s the score Chip had to live with … a mere four under par 32. All golfers come to the scorer’s table with the thought of “If only that one putt would have fallen …” In Chip’s case, he narrowly missed a putt on #18 that would have left him with a 59. Poor guy – he’ll do his best to own up to his record setting and personal best 60. We saw Camelback history made yesterday. A rousing cheer for Chip Nelson for an absolutely spectacular round of golf.

Chip with card
Ten holes with 3 or lower!

All Hail! The Cup is Home

The CupFor the first time in three years, The Camel Cup has been brought home. With sixteen spirited and competitive individual matches and eight tough team matches, the team from Camelback Golf Club defeated Gainey Ranch 15-9 on the Padre course. Camelback golfers had the edge 9-7 in the individual matches. They also prevailed 6-2 in the team matches.

Gainey’s Sam Engel took home low gross honors with a strong 67 from the White tees. Sam’s opponent, Chip Nelson, threw four birdies at him, but he couldn’t quite overcome Sam’s six birdies and fell to Sam one down.

Camelback’s Peter Arena and Gainey’s Bill Petsas shared low net honors with excellent scores of 68. Camelback’s Hans Birkholz and Gainey’s Jr Grow ended up one stroke back at 69.

An interesting sidelight to the match involved the skins match. There was a lot of time and effort invested in putting the competition together. Negotiations between the clubs were lengthy and at times, complex. One of the issues discussed was whether or not the skins should be validated, i.e., where a skin is not won unless the winner gets a net par of better on the subsequent hole. The Gainey team felt strongly that there should be no validation requirement.

When all the cards were evaluated, there were five skins. Jim Mantle (Gainey), Hans Birkholz (Camelback), Matt Flores (Camelback), Bill Burleson (Camelback) and Bill Petsas (Gainey) each walked away with $120 for his efforts. However, had the validation requirement been in effect, only one skin would have been paid and that would have been a $600 skin.  Four out of the five did not validate. What’s surprising is that the four that failed to validate were the players with the four lowest handicaps in the group. The only validation came from the golfer whose handicap was more than double the average of the other four. Jim Mantle would have gone home with $600.

It seemed like all the participants had fun and some new friends were made while old acquaintance were renewed.

A special, albeit mysterious, thanks to Aaron Thomas and Bill Newton. They contributed handsomely to the victory for the Camelback team. Shiloh Hagey also contributed to the effort and as always, we owe him a debt of gratitude for his efforts. Course Ranger Rick Issac did another fine job of player assistance while monitoring the tournament.

Finally, a very special thank you to Camelback member Bob Joselyn who spent hours sitting in hundred degree heat in order to capture some memories of the event.  A few of his images are shown below. Click on any one of them to enlarge it. Enjoy!

The Artistry of Being a Marshal

Marshall DillonI’ve been swinging at golf balls for more than sixty years (although I’m barely into my late forties). There was a period in my life when I played seven days a week. I’ve since cut it back to three or four times a week. I estimate that in all, I’ve played on the order of 3,500 rounds of golf. With that said, you can trust me when I say I’ve seen a course “ranger” or two. I think I’ve earned the right to comment on the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I will refer to them as “rangers” or “marshals” synonymously in this piece. I also suggest that either term is a pejorative in that it implies they have the role of an overbearing “cop” or enforcer which of course, they are, but why raise the hackles of the customer unnecessarily? Golf course operators would serve themselves well to give them titles that convey a warm, fuzzy, beneficent function. Consider “Player Assistant”. Think about it. The “marshal” is the enforcer trying to “catch you” doing something wrong and punishing you for any transgressions. A “Player Assistant” loves you and is there to “assist” you, to give you love and administer an occasional hug following an errant tee shot. He only entreats you to pick up the pace a bit because he loves you and wants to help you avoid the stress of having the group behind continue to shout obscenities at your group.

Ranger Joe Baldo
Joe Baldo was one of the greats

There have been good ones, bad ones, mediocre ones, great ones and abysmally miserable excuses for course rangers. As a general rule, the friendlier and happier the man, the better marshal he makes.  Who that played Camelback Golf Club in recent years can ever forget the ever present smile on the face of one of the great ones, Joe Baldo. He was a giant of a man who always did the job a marshal is (in theory) hired to do. Yet when he asked someone to play a bit faster, he did it with a grin that just made you want to move along if for no other reason than to help him out and be his friend.

Literally without exception, the great marshals have been friendly and happy ones. They know how to smile.

Another attribute of the great ones is the ability to make you believe they give a damn about you. Undoubtedly, some of them do care because they’re just the kind of people that actually do care about others. And no doubt, others really would rather see me fall in the pond and drown, but they’ve got me convinced they care. If they really don’t care … I don’t care. If they’ve got me convinced, that’s all that matters. I’m far more anxious to cooperate and help someone who I believe cares about me.

Great marshals empathize. They care about other people. (Even if they don’t!)

Good quality marshals flock together. By that, I don’t mean they necessary spend all their spare time socializing. But I do mean you tend to find them at the same golf courses. Clearly, this suggests that golf course management has a lot to do with the level of service you get from your marshals. After all, if the marshal hopes to keep his job, he will try and perform at or above the minimum level expected by the management.

Ranger Tom
Tom always gets it done

Course marshals at some of our area courses perform better than others. At Camelback, expectations are higher than at most other area courses. As a result, we have some of the best in the business. You know who they are and I suspect they do too. At other nearby courses, expectations run a little lower. Once while engaged in particularly miserable round of golf that was stretching beyond the five hour mark at Silverado Golf Club, the ranger did everything humanly possible to avoid contact with any disgruntled golfers. If the Unabomber had gone to such extremes to avoid detection that the Silverado ranger had pursued, the Unabomber would still be at large. Recently at McCormick Ranch Golf Course, one ranger was backed into a corner from which he couldn’t escape. He actually had to speak with the golfers in two groups backed up on a single tee box. He was in a situation from which he had no exit. However, rather than “confront” the source of the problems, he put on a Two Act theatrical performance with a litany of every possible excuse under the blazing sun as to why he couldn’t get the fivesome (which he admitted was not allowed on the course) in front to hasten its performance.

Good marshals go to the source of problems rather than hide in the bushes attempting to avoid them.

At courses known for good marshal management, hiring and training, you’ll find they work to actually solve problems. For example, at Camelback where marshals tend to perform with a higher level of professionalism, they’re proactive. At times, I’ve seen them actually try and gently “train” inexperienced golfers on how to quicken their pace. In more extreme cases, our marshals may actually stay with a group for a hole or two to provide assistance. When they do it with a smile and a caring attitude, the golfers being watched get the message and may actually appreciate the help. If they don’t, oh well. They can spend some time reading the “Etiquette” section of the USGA Rules of Golf.

Good marshals are problem solvers.

After talking about some of those things that make the marshals great, let’s talk about a couple of things that relegate them to the scrap heap of marshal hell. Some marshals

Rick Issac
Ranger Rick gets it done with a smile

have mastered the art of camouflage. They have learned how to hide in plain sight. How often have you heard someone in the home stretch of a five hour round say, “I haven’t seen a marshal all day”? There are some who have become so expert at conflict avoidance that they have become completely invisible.

Another way for the marshal to endear himself to the customer and to reduce his chances of cooperation to near zero levels is to act like the boss hog in a Southern speed trap. A smile goes a mile, but a bossy grimace goes even further, just not in the right direction. The marshal isn’t a cop. He’s not a drill sergeant or a Marine D.I. If I want someone to be a sour, bossy-assed, thug, I’ll call my ex-wife; I don’t need it from the marshal.

The Best Way for a Marshal to Piss-Off the Entire World!

But … If a marshall truly wants to annoy the hell out of anyone and everyone, there’s always one surefire way to do it. Here’s the trick. Take the case where there’s a slow group in front of you. You discover they’re being held up by a slow group in from of them who in turn, are held up by another slow group. As it becomes apparent the entire course is backed up, you realize the marshal doesn’t have a lot of options short of shooting every fourth golfer to set an example. You just accept the fact that you’re round isn’t going to finish in less than four hours. You adjust your mindset, slow your pace and try to put a smile on your face. You might even have time to engage in a friendly chat with the marshal himself.

However, if you’re waiting five minutes between every shot because of the glacial pace of play of the group in front of you and you notice there’s no one in front of them. They’re three full holes behind the next group. Your frustrations are inflamed when the group stops at the drink cart for five minutes to freshen their libation reserves. They’re now four holes behind the next group. You see the marshal and wave him over. You explain the situation and point out that the waits are getting untenable.

Here it comes. Brace yourself! “They’re on pace”, says the marshal. You grip your club so tightly that your grip crumbles while you actively contemplate the question of whether or not murder is a capital offense.

“They’re on pace” is the single most ludicrous statement that a marshal can make.

Yes, the management needs to define some measure of a reasonable round length. However, that is an estimate subject to course conditions, setup, weather, golfer load, etc. It is NOT the law by which all rounds are deemed good or bad, fast or slow, acceptable or not acceptable. Assume, for example, that the marshal has been “taught” that a four and a half hour round is not unreasonable. This doesn’t mean a four hour and twenty five minute round is fast; it means it’s almost unreasonable.

If ten foursomes are all playing on a four hour pace and the next group is a full two holes behind, but on a four hour and twenty minute pace, that IS NOT acceptable. No one can justify their pace by saying “They’re on pace”. They ARE NOT. The acceptable pace of play for that given day was clearly defined by the ten foursomes that all finished in four hours. If the marshal tries to justify a two hole gap by saying, “They’re on pace”, that marshal should be bound and tortured on the spot until he confesses his sins.

If the “on pace” argument is valid, then I should be allowed to play seventeen holes at my customary three hour and forty five minute pace, hit my tee shot on #18, saunter to my ball, spread a blanket out on the fairway and have a forty five minute picnic while groups stack up on the tee box. I’m “on pace”. Please pass the mustard.

If there is more than one full hole open in front of a group, those golfers ARE NOT ON PACE. Please, please, don’t try and sell the outrageously insane argument that they’re on pace. Use anything else. Say they’re in a time warp. Say the open holes are actually being played by invisible aliens. Say they’re playing slowly because they’re sweeping the field of landmines. Say anything, but don’t say, “They’re on pace.”

A good marshal or even a mediocre marshal or even a crappy marshal will never ever try to justify slow play with the phrase “They’re on pace.”

Diabolical Plan Rattles the Group!

With an understanding of and an abiding faith in the USGA Handicap System, we have permitted participants in our games to play from any rated set of tees. We have adjusted handicaps accordingly as stipulated by the USGA Handicap System. With literally thousands of rounds of golf to analyze, I can say the Handicap System works. It has its flaws, but by-and-large, it does the job of leveling the playing field as it was intended.

With the said, let’s look at what we did yesterday. Unlike in nearly all of our matches where the arbitrary selection of the “base tees” is the forward men’s tees, yesterday’s chosen base tees were the tips, i.e., the championship tees (Black) on the Padre course. The end result was that anyone moving forward (and everyone did) actually had to give up strokes. For example, Mike Clifton elected to play the forward tees (Yellow). He actually had to give up five strokes to the field. So instead of a course handicap of 20, he had to play with a course handicap of 15. Everyone else in the field also gave up strokes by moving forward. You can see in the images below exactly how many strokes everyone had to yield by comparing the “Hdcp” columns in the two images.

As Played (Black)
Handicaps with the Black tees as base tees
Play yellow base
Handicaps with the Yellow (forward) tees as base tees

When I made the announcement that the “Black” tees would be the base tees, I wrote I did so “… just to cause trouble.” Well, what do you know? It worked. People fretted over which tees to play. “I can’t afford to give up five strokes,” some said. The psychological piece of the pie was a real show stopper. It’s funny to see how traumatic it was to “give back” something, but that it’s never a concern when the base tees are designated as the forward tees. You’re giving up five strokes by NOT moving back to the tips, but that’s not a big deal, presumably because you never had them in the first place.

Truth be known, it really doesn’t make much of difference what your handicap is as long as it is set to a number that reflects your scoring ability relative to the rest of the field. If you’re playing against Bubba and you’re two strokes better than Bubba, you can play scratch and give Bubba two pops or you can claim a handicap of 30 as long as you give Bubba a 32. As further evidence of all this sleight-of-hand, the images that follow show the match results from yesterday with the “Black” tees set as the base tees. Below that, the image shows the match results as they would have been with the “Yellow” tees set as the base tees.  Not much different!

Results as played
Match results – Black tees as base
Results (Yellow base)
Results with Yellow tees as base


There is some impact on the prize money in the area of skins. Those who move back may find it a little more difficult to win gross skins. You might be adding thirty or forty yards to your tee shot on some holes. There a good chance that birdies will be a little more elusive when you’re playing another 500 or so yards of golf course. Note that there were four gross skins awarded yesterday, but there would have been five if the yellow tees had been the base set.

A couple other comments are in order lest this diatribe run off the rails. This leveling of the playing field occurs if and only if the following conditions are met

  1. The course rating and slope are property determined,
  2. The course is setup as it was rated,
  3. Player handicaps are “honest” in that they truly represent the player’s ability.

In reality, picking your tee set can give you a slight edge or put you at a slight disadvantage. A thousand-and-one considerations come into play in selecting your best tees. If you’re not a good trap player, pick the tees that take the traps out of play from the tee box. If there’s a strong wind blowing, the shorter course means you’re ball will spend less time in the air being blown around by the wind. There are other examples, but you get the drift.

Also realize that a significant component of a course rating is its length. As a general rule, the course rating increases by one full stroke for every 220 yards of length. If your average drive is 240 yards or longer, you’re basically getting a little extra bonus relative to the course rating and your handicap. Play the longer tees. On the other hand, if you typically hit your drives 190 yards, playing the shorter course is to your advantage from a handicap (not to mention pace-of-play) standpoint. Move it forward.

Golf Erotica for Mathematicians

Math chalkboardI recently received an email from one of our golfers asking for an explanation of the “Odds” column on the Gross Score Report found at the bottom of the “Match Sign-Ups” page on this site. It dawned on me that others may have that same question. What follows is a copy of my response to the email.

If you have something important to do, like watch your grass grow or look for dust bunnies under your couch, skip everything in black below and go directly to the answer in red at the bottom of this diatribe. Either way, let me know if you have any other questions. Cheers.

What time is it, you ask? Let me tell you how to build a watch!

Years ago, the number crunchers at the U.S.G.A. analyzed (I presume) a couple million rounds of golf. They built a chart showing the probabilities that someone with a given handicap index would shoot a particular gross score on a golf course with a specified rating and slope. That chart was published in the USGA magazine and a variety of other places. When I saw it, I was enraptured. (Mathematicians and engineers like me are frequently aroused by statistical challenges. Yes, we’re a strange lot.)

When I saw the chart, I was driven to analyze the data in much greater detail. I called the USGA and spoke with someone in the appropriate department. I asked if they would share the raw data with me. The guy was aghast. “We don’t share our data with the public” he responded with arrogant contempt dripping from his voice. When I told him I wasn’t “the public” that I was in fact a USGA member, he was almost as impressed as if I had told him I was owned a pencil and knew how to use it. He wouldn’t budge. I’ve always been of the ilk that the only challenges worth pursuing are those that aren’t supposed to be possible. The guy just made me more determined than ever.

I set about the task of mapping all the data points from the chart that I thought necessary to accomplish the task. I then performed a nonlinear multiple regression analysis on all the manufactured data. I developed the following formula:
With that formula, I can produce a reasonably reliable estimate of the probability of a person shooting a given score.

Since I developed this tool, I have entered many tens of thousands of rounds of golf into my personal database. The formula has proven to be quite accurate when applied to my database, so the snooty dude at the USGA can go suck on his own database.

Needless to say, my formula – like the USGA predictor – is contingent upon a number of assumptions that suggest stasis, i.e., the golfer isn’t in the midst of a series of lessons, hasn’t had his legs cut off and the course is properly rated. Nonetheless, it provides an interesting metric that’s useful in a number of ways, some not terribly obvious. Think about using it as a tool for the handicap police to root out cheaters and sandbaggers.

So, in answer to your question … the “Odds” column reflects the probability that the golfer will shoot the score that was turned in. If the number appears in brackets, it means the number is actually the inverse of the probability, i.e. less than even odds.

Skins and the Quest for Fairness

GolfSkinsEveryone agrees playing a skins game is great fun as long as you win one. Others say it’s not nearly as fair when you’re not collecting a portion of the prize money. The issue of “fairness” is rarely broached by those collecting money, but often questioned by the empty handed competitors. Let’s take a look at the mechanics of “skins games”, especially as played with our regular group at Camelback Golf Club.

In its purest form, a skin is earned when one player singlehandedly scores the lowest gross score of all other competitors on any given hole. A variation on the theme calls for “carry-overs” where any previous holes not yielding a skin go to the first person to win a skin. If everyone shoots a gross par on the first hole and someone earns a skin on the second hole, he wins two skins, one for the current hole and one for the unclaimed skin on the previous hole. This approach to skins is great as long as all players are scratch or even of equal abilities. Personally, I believe it would be fair to play only gross skins, but only in cases where all of my competitors have handicaps higher than mine. So much for that idea. It’s not going to happen except in a blue moon.

Harbour frustratedThe USGA comes to the rescue with the Handicap System. Handicaps level the playing field, don’t they? Unfortunately, in a skins game where all the players get their handicap strokes where they fall on the scorecard, it doesn’t level the playing field. From a statistical standpoint, high handicap players have much better odds of scoring a net eagle than do low handicap players. If all groups played strictly “net skins”, the higher handicap players would haul a disproportionate share of winnings home. Instead of the high handicappers grumbling with gross skins, the low handicappers will be grumbling.

A common “solution” is to play both gross and net skins games. This calls for a leap of faith where the inequities of the two formats neutralize each other and true fairness is attained. If you believe that’s true, knock yourself out, but I’m not in. The inequities persist especially when a high handicap player runs in that long putt and wins both a net skin and a gross skin on the same hole.

In some cases, groups will play separate gross and net skins games and make participation optional. That may be a step closer to “fair”, but complicates the accounting dramatically. In some cases, one format is optional while the other is mandatory. The end result is there’s one patently unfair game played for higher stakes, while the other game offers lower payouts when those at a disadvantage opt out.Allison frustrated

Within our group, we have attempted to equalize the competition by making participation a requirement to playing in the day-game. We’ve done this by playing what we refer to a “combined skins”. Both gross and net skins are paid, but no golfer can win both a gross and net skin on the same hole. From a statistical standpoint, we believe this is a step in the right direction. To summarize this approach, assume all competitors are playing a par four hole and everyone gets one handicap stroke on the hole. If a player wins a gross skin with a birdie, he obviously will also have claim to a net skin with a net eagle. Not so fast; you’ve won the gross. We’re not paying the net skin as well.

Here is the next move toward true equity. When playing within our group, any participant can completely opt-out of the skins game, but he must announce his intention to do so prior to the day of the competition. Once I receive the request to opt-out, the free market comes into play. I will email all other participants to advise them that one or more skins cards are up for auction. The highest bidder acquires the rights to any skins the person opting out may win. The proceeds from the auction are put into the skins pot and distributions are adjusted as may be appropriate given the new prize money balance. In the past, we have had cards sold for as little as a dollar and as much as twenty dollars when the normal player contribution to the skins pot is ten dollars.

One final twist on the way we play our skins game. For a long time, some participants have suggested we add a “validation” requirement to our game. This means that to win a skin on any given hole, the player must score a NET par or better on the following hole. To win a skin on the eighteenth hole, validation becomes dependent upon the results from the first hole. I have analyzed the results from the past 500 or so rounds of golf to see what impact validation has on our games. Here’s what I’ve found.

  • The number of skins earned is reduced by between 25% and 30%.
  • The size of the skins prize is thereby increased by roughly 30%.
  • The average handicap of a skins winner did not change in a statistically significant manner, i.e., validation appears to put neither high nor low handicapSummers frustrated players in an advantaged or disadvantaged position. It is “fair”.

So why play “validated” skins? You’ll know the answer well when you stand over a three foot putt that is needed to validate the skin you hope you’ll win on the previous hole. Every now and again, even the most inept of us whacks a 35 foot putt into the hole. We shout “Whoopee” while our player partner says, “Hey that could be a skin.” We go on our merry way with fingers crossed.

Now with the validation requirement, the subsequent hole takes on a whole new significance. The adrenalin begins to flow and the excitement level is definitely ratcheted up a notch. Now you’re not only competing against the field, you’re competing against yourself. You’re thinking a little more. Strategy calls for your attention. The competitive juices are flowing and you’re playing golf the way it is meant to be played. Validate and you feel good. Fail and you kick yourself down the path. But there’s always the next match.

One for You Number Junkies

I can’t help myself. Statistics have intrigued me since I was a little kid. I read Darrell Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics” when I was in the fourth grade. I was calculating the “Earned Run Averages” of baseball pitchers when I was in the third grade. Statistics are my drug of choice. What are the odds?

Stats overallWednesday’s golf match on the Ambiente course was played under the agitated hand of Mother Nature. Winds for most of the competition hovered around ten knots and gusted to twenty for most of the day. For the most part, winds were at our backs for the first ten holes then spit in our faces for the last seven. As expected, some of the players chanted the mantra of how difficult it was to score with the wind whistling as it did. However, I observed no instance where the wind blew only as one particular player put his ball on the tee and stopped when another prepared to tee off. Everyone played the same course under the same conditions. In other words, it was a fair match.

But for the number junkies, it was an opportunity to evaluate the impact of the wind. So like a kid in a candy store, I dug in. Here’s what I found after analyzing 2,606 rounds of golf played from the Camel tees of the Ambiente golf course.

  • Under “normal” circumstances, the back nine on Ambiente plays about a tenth of the stroke easier than the front side. That’s probably not terribly significant statistically – call it even.


  • With ten knot winds like we had Wednesday, scores were relatively unaffected when the wind was at our back. You no doubt got a little distance boost, but shot making was complicated by the need to estimate the effective distance. Everything seemed to work itself out with (if anything) a slight increase in difficulty.


  • When the wind was in our faces, we still suffered the same complication of estimating correct distances, however, that problem was compounded by the loss of distance when hitting into a headwind. The end result is the back nine played a little over one full stroke harder than the front side. Little slices were big slices; little hooks were big hooks. The back nine played at least one full stroke more difficult than did the front.


  • The biggest positive impact on scores when the wind was at our back came on the par five holes. The biggest negative impact appeared on the shortest holes. Yes, with these observations, it’s clear I have a keen sense of the obvious.


  • With the wind in our face, the reverse was true, i.e., longer holes issued greater punishments, another revelation of the obvious kind.


What can we learn from all this? It’s harder to play in the wind!

Upon closer scrutiny, there probably are some little tidbits that can be extracted from the data that will give you a competitive edge. But in the final analysis, it will undoubtedly amount to the following adage; “smart golf” carries a premium under adverse conditions. You might want to give a little more consideration to club selection. “Grip it and rip it” is NOT necessarily the best advice for windy days.

With all that said, here are a couple of quotes to put in your quiver for defense against number junkies.

“There are three kinds of untruths: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

“Torture numbers enough and they will confess to anything.”

“Four out of three people have trouble with fractions.”

Finally, one more statistic that conclusively proves it is well within the realm of possibility to play well in high winds. Observe the scorecard. Then congratulate Dr. Bill Yarbrough.

Yarbrough Ace