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Len Ziehm On Golf

Greenbrier, Homestead, Bay Hill, Pinehurst — What a winter it was!

What have you done golf-wise since dropping your last putt in the Chicago area in 2014? Not as much as me, I’ll bet.

This has been an extraordinary “offseason.’’ It began in November when we made a series of golf/travel-writing stops – a few days here, a few days there — at some very choice locations. How about French Lick, Greenbrier, Homestead, Hilton Head, Bay Hill and Pinehurst?

It’d be hard to beat those, but we also tossed in a couple of Pete Dye-related stops that aren’t as well known – Mystic Hills in Culver, Ind., and Keswick Hall, the legendary architect’s newest creation in Virginia.

And, after that 27-day golfing marathon was over, we settled in Florida where we made two stops in the Orlando area as spectators — to watch Bernhard Langer and his 14-year old son win the Father-Son Challenge and Jordan Spieth post a run-away victory in Tiger Woods’ Hero World Challenge at Isleworth. Then, after the calendar changed to 2015 we visited the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando and the LPGA’s new season-opening tournament, the Coates Championship in Ocala.

That was a ton of golf – but don’t think it was too much. We’re anxious for the Chicago season to start just as much as all of you who weren’t as lucky as we were in getting away for the winter.

It’d be hard to beat our November odyssey for sheer enjoyment, though. While there might be a call to rank the famous courses, we won’t do that. It’d be like comparing apples and oranges. Each has their own special charms. We just enjoyed them all.

Most interesting, though, was Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club. The 18-hole championship course there is a PGA Tour site in March, when it welcomes the Arnold Palmer Invitational. I’ve played perhaps 20 courses that have hosted PGA Tour events, and Bay Hill – while very much a challenge — is the most playable for the recreational duffer (like me).

What makes Bay Hill special, though, is Palmer himself. Bay Hill is his winter home. He was frequently around when we were there, playing cards and dining with friends. He wasn’t hounded by well-wishers. He was just enjoying himself. Where else could he be caught in such a relaxed setting?

We were told that Palmer, now 85, rarely plays the 27 holes available at Bay Hill these days but that he does frequently hit balls on the range. Simply put, he helps Bay Hill guests feel welcome in what to him is home.

Being big on golf history, we were fascinated by Homestead’s Old Course in Virginia, where we teed off on the longest No. 1 tee in continuous use in America. It was first played in 1892 and the resort, dating to 1766, is even older than the United States. The late, great Sam Snead grew up in the area and was the first head professional at Homestead’s Cascades course and his son Sam Jr. owns the Sam Snead Restaurant there. Not only was Sam Jr. on hand when we dined there, he even sent over a signed memento from our visit.

We witnessed lots of progress at both Hilton Head, the long-time golfers’ mecca, in South Carolina, and Pinehurst, where we played that famous resort’s newly-acquired Jack Nicklaus design in North Carolina. It had been called National Golf Club; now it’s Pinehurst No. 9.

The work recently completed or underway at Hilton Head was most impressive. Over $200 million has been spent on upgrades in recent years at all the resorts there with Sea Pines the trend-setter. Pete Dye’s Heron Point course was renovated there last year and Davis Love III will re-design the Ocean course beginning this October.

More noticeable is the work at Harbour Town Links, which has hosted the PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage Classic since 1969. A new $25 million clubhouse will be unveiled when the tournament returns a week after the Masters in April. In May the Harbour Town course will close for a summer-long renovation.

In all Riverstone Group, of Richmond, Va., will spend $55 million on improvements at Sea Pines in addition to its projects that are either underway or completed at Kiawah, another South Carolina hotbed, and Keswick Hall, site of Dye’s recently-opened Full Cry layout.

The aggressive spending going on, particularly at Hilton Head, was another clear indication that the golf industry is weathering the economic downturn that thwarted progress the last few years.

Finally, the Dye designs continue to be well-received. Mystic Hills, one of his early ones, resulted in our completion of the seven-stop Pete Dye Golf Trail. Riverstone Group has made Full Cry the centerpiece of its spiffy Keswick Hall facility in the history-rich area near Charlottesville, Va.

French Lick’s Pete Dye Course will get its biggest dose of exposure come May when the Indiana resort hosts the Senior PGA Championship – an event that Chicago golfers should consider visiting.

NOW THAT it’s about time for golf at home again, there’s plenty on the horizon. Two Chicago area players, Kevin Streelman and Carlos Sainz Jr., got off to good starts when the PGA Tour began its first split season schedule last fall. Sainz claimed a $100,000 payday with a tie for ninth place at the Sanderson Farms Championship – only his second PGA Tour event. Streelman has wins in the last two years. He could make an even bigger impact in 2015.

Luke Donald, working again with swing instructor Pat Goss, showed signs of recapturing his former magic late in 2014 and will benefit when the BMW Championship returns to Conway Farms, his home course in Lake Forest, in September.

The local scene will also include the Champions Tour’s Encompass Championship at North Shore and the PGA’s John Deere Classic, unfortunately held over the same July dates, and Rich Harvest Farms will have a one-two punch of big amateur events when it welcomes the Palmer Cup and Western Amateur.

It’ll be another year for lots of good playing and lots of good viewing just as soon as the snow melts. I say, bring it on!