Eagle Falls to Test All-Stars at Team Challenge

By: Jay Flemma

Sunrise made the golf course emerge as if from a dream. One by one the stars winked out in the West and, with a stretch, a yawn and a slow unfolding of her legs from bed, the sun gradually gave a streak of pale, watery light that crested the wrinkled brow of the Pinto Mountains in Palm Springs, Calif. As they have since Genesis, the broad, rugged, rumpled shoulders of the hills reached from the floor of the dusty plain below and lifted the sun into the sky so she could greet 17 altruistic professional athletes as they begin their quest to change the lives of those less fortunate than themselves.

Though the day is barely begun, the Fantasy Springs Resort and Eagle Falls Golf Course are already full of light and music and movement. The Team Challenge - where four all-stars from baseball, football, hockey, and basketball will face off in a two-day golf showdown for charity - has begun. Each sport's four-man team of golfers plays the others in a round-robin series of nine-hole best-ball matches today, before squaring off in four skins matches tomorrow. Using accelerated scoring for the best-ball matches and a 5-3-1 point distribution for the skins, the winning team will present their charity with $100,000. But it won't be easy.

For most of their lives, these athletes have been lethal marksmen, indeed sharpshooters. No matter which sport they've played, steadily they walked, stealthily they stalked; big game hunters in search of their trophy. They moved with confident aggression; brimming with self-assurance, impeccably prepared and possessed of laser-sharp concentration.

Mario Lemieux slashed through three, four, or even five Minnesota North Stars or Chicago Blackhawks before twisting enemy goalies Jon Casey and Ed Belfour into knots as they watched the puck fly past. Bret Saberhagen mowed down sluggers with lethal efficiency, pitch after befuddling pitch in the fiery cauldron of a pressure-filled Game Seven. George Gervin would coldly stare down an enemy guard, freeze him in his tracks, then blow by him like a wintry wind that cut like a laser before his shot hit the bottom of the net and the crowd shouted, "Icccccccccccccccccccce!." Michael Strahan beat the unbeatable foe, as adoring fans sang "18 and 1!"

At their chosen sport, they see a mark, take it down, no problem.

But at the Team Challenge charity golf shootout, the hunter may become the hunted. Slyly contoured greens become torture chambers, sending balls slithering every which way. The rough swallows balls, the bunkers are savage and players plummet to earth as fast as names dropping off the leaderboard without a parachute. Eagle Falls Golf Course could become Jurassic Park, with the animals more likely to eat the hunters. All is quiet…then with a rustle of grass, a flash of a steely talon and a mournful wail, it's the player who is bagged, tagged and sold to the butcher in the store.

Eagle Falls is a schizophrenic golf course: at times strategically perplexing, at times a bombers paradise, she is ever-changing, requiring the player to be on high alert to her quirky nature. Although short on the card - par-72, 6,700 yards from the tips, 6,150 from the regulation tees - there are many subtle and clever intricacies. Well-protected, well-contoured greens one minute, devilishly deep bunkers that appear closer to greens than they actually are the next, and heaving undulations in the fairway everywhere, the players must be prepared to carefully calculate how the terrain will shape their shot. A great match play and skins venue, it will test not only every facet of a player's game, but their creativity, their guile, their golf acumen, and, most importantly, their patience.

"Absolutely nothing in football translates to golf," said future Hall of Fame QB John Elway. "Yep, it's a different beast altogether," agreed Pierre Larouche, a former Pittsburgh Penguins hockey star. "It's the hardest game I've ever played. In hockey you don't have time to think, just react. But in golf you have to think and stay focused all the time, and when you make most players think on the golf course, they can make a mistake by being indecisive."

The first four holes are a perfect example. A cross-bunker complex bisects the first fairway, frustrating greedy bombers who hoped to use brute strength to their advantage. The par-4 second resembles a "Bottle Hole," the fairway pinching between dangerous bunkers and dunes covered with tall, thick rough, before emptying into a green cut in half by a deep horizontal swale. At the third, a greedy player busting out "The Show Dog" - the driver - will find his ball on a severe downhill lie to reward his machismo and may chunk his approach into the deep bunkers guarding the green. At the par-5 fourth a centerline bunker winks bawdily at the players, triggering more curses than at an Eagles-Giants football game. The tiny green sits precariously on a hill above a fiendish bunker. After these four holes, players could easily be tied and have not halved a single hole, that's how tumultuously the swings of match play could affect these amateur golfers.

There are, however, some easier holes as well.Two driveable par-4s appear at 11 and 14, (269 and 338 yards respectively). The better players will have eagle putts. Several players, Saberhagan, George Brett, Elway and Larouche for example, already drove those greens in the pro-am. An eagle in a nine-hole match can be demoralizing.

Nevertheless, the goal of charity drives the players to excel, whether scratch golfer or high-handicapper. "If not us, who?" asked Larouche valiantly. "We have a chance to do great good. Hockey Fights Cancer [Team Hockey's chosen charity] saves lives and helps families through the hardest times they might ever face." Larouche is only too proud to do whatever he can.

Kathy Mejasich, the Vice President of Corporate Alliances for United Service Organizations (USO) is only too happy that the athletes are battling one another for such noble charitable causes. "We've been supporting military service members and their families for more than 67 years. Many athletes, like Charles Barkley and John Elway have spent their holidays, vacations and precious free time to thank our nation's heroes for their daily sacrifices. The difference they make in the morale of the troops is more than just palpable, but energizing and inspiring. You can't underestimate the power of thank you."

Michael Strahan agrees. "I just love helping kids. When they see any player come to spend some time with them, their faces light up and they share their hopes and ambitions and dreams with us," he says, smiling that wide, sincere smile that is his trademark. Strahan and the rest of Team Football are playing for Operation Kids, a charity chosen by captain Drew Brees. "I feel great helping them feel more confident about achieving those goals," Strahan continued. "I can't even begin to tell you how good it made me feel."

That warm glow is as unquenchable as the watchlight of freedom that glows in a patriot's breast - or a Giant's breast in this case. It's that feeling of doing something for others that will help drive Strahan to overcome the nerves a twelve handicap will get facing a stronger golfer. "You just have to trust that you're prepared and that you've practiced enough. That's how you overcome nerves in anything," he said pragmatically. After all, as poet T.S. Eliot wrote, "only those who risk going to far can possibly fins out how far one can go."

As the Sun slowly sets in the west, the waterfall's tranquil murmur lulls the mountains to a restful sleep. Joyful streaks of orange, the red, then purple slowly fade as the stars awake and wink on one by one in the crystal blue prismatic depths of the summer sky. But although the last of the solstice's light fades, the flame of generosity, of compassion, of noble valor in fighting for those who can't fight alone still burns ferociously. This time, it isn't only a game. This time, the players' victory is a victory for a great many.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.