The Battle of Attrition at Arizona’s Whisper Rock Golf Club is not your ordinary tournament

January 23, 2012

More than 30 memebrs of Whisper Rock Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., play golf for a living, and a handful of others could if they so desired. The club has no tennis courts, no swimming pool and no social memberships. It is a golfer's club, for a certain type of golfer. The range is blanketed with ProV1s and lined with so many millionaire pros, says CBS announcer and founding member Gary McCord, that "If you need a ride on someone's airplane, you just go in the locker room and holler, 'Is anyone going to Dallas?' "

The club championship, naturally, is a beast of a tournament, as unforgiving as the stunning landscape of massive boulder formations, jagged rock washes and stubbly cacti that compelled Phil Mickelson to shape his first course design here, with Gary Stephenson, in 2001. Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, has never won the title, and members like to recall the time the Aussie finished 10th in the club championship the same week he placed ninth on Tour. The co-champions that year? Ben Hayes and Bret Guetz, no doubt stalwarts on your fantasy golf team.

The reigning king of the Rock is PGA Tour pro Kevin Streelman, a former Whisper Rock caddie-turned-member. Tour regulars Todd Demsey, Chez Reavie and Billy Mayfair have also claimed bragging rights. Says Mayfair, a five-time Tour winner: "It's a bit like winning a mini tour event."

But every club has a club championship.

The most maddening exam at Whisper Rock isn't its club championship but rather an annual sacrificial slaughter known as the Battle of Attrition. Held in January, it is a test of skill and courage whose warped parameters bring to mind equal parts Salvador Dali and Pete Dye, or a U.S. Open layout — on acid. The tees are stretched to 7,417 yards, the holes are cut on precipices, and the greens, which are as receptive as the wing of a 767, exceed a terrifying 13 on the Stimp. Though as Trent Rathbun, Whisper Rock's director of golf, points out, "Once you get past 13, does it even matter?"

The "B of A" is a four-man team event — Jim "Bones" Mackay, Phil Mickelson's caddie and a 2-handicap at the club, has anchored a winning side with his deadeye putting — but it also rewards individual play. The event reflects the fun-first sensibility of the Rock, or more precisely the daffy, slightly demented ethos of McCord, who helped establish the place eight years ago.

A four-time senior club champion, McCord is also the club's de facto director of hijinks and, with the blessing of club owner Gregg Tryhus, social outreach ambassador. McCord brought J.B. Holmes to Whisper Rock in January 2006, when nobody, not even McCord, knew Holmes. (They met through a mutual friend.) The announcer was struck by the kid's length, but not struck dumb. He decided to stage an elaborate ruse.

"On the range we saw Geoff Ogilvy, Fred Couples and Paul Casey," McCord recalls. "I said, 'J.B., when we meet these guys I want you to hit the first few balls as hard as you can.'

"So we walked up," McCord continues. "I said, 'Guys, listen, I want to introduce you to a new guy on the Tour. I've been working with him a bit and I'm trying to tell him he needs some more clubhead speed if he's going to compete on the PGA Tour.' The back of the range is 378 yards, and there's an upslope at about 370. J.B. got up and flew the first one all the way back there. I said, 'Geoff, look at that! See how short his swing is? I need to get him longer!' He hit the second one, and it also went 370. Couples walked away and said, 'Oh, my gosh, not another one of these guys.' "

To put it mildly, the Battle of Attrition is McCord's kind of golf tournament: fun, absurd, but still golf at its core, and thus worth trying to win. "One year I was paired with McCord and two other guys, and we were on the seventh hole of the Lower Course, a very difficult par-3," says CBS's Peter Kostis, another founding member. "I hit a shot in there about 12 feet from the hole. No one else hit the green, and their low score, before I tried my putt, was 6.

"The pin is always cut right on a shelf so if your ball doesn't hit the hole it goes 40 feet down the hill," Kostis continues. "McCord said, 'What are you going to do with this putt?' I said, 'I'm going to try to make it.' He said, 'No, no, aim two feet right. Lag it so we can make a team par and get out of here.' We argued about it, and finally that's what I did — I aimed it out to the right. I lagged it maybe two and a half feet, three feet right, but I lipped out my par putt. It went 40 feet down the hill and I made a 7. Every hole is like that." In other words, every putt is a stomach-churning, make-it-or-chase-it proposition, much like the ubiquitous "volcano hole" in miniature golf.

Whisper Rock is a stern test even under normal conditions. That nearly 200 of its 555 members have handicaps of 5 or better is impressive given how often they find themselves chipping for birdie. The Lower (Mickelson) Course, with its small, undulating, Pinehurst-influenced greens, is rated 73.3 from the way-back tees, while the newer, Upper (Tom Fazio) layout is at 73.0. "A 6-handicap at Whisper Rock is probably like a 1 or a 2 at most clubs," says club champ Streelman.

But a 6-handicap might not break 90 in the Battle of Attrition. (The club's lower-handicap members play on the Lower Course, while high-handicappers compete on the Upper.) "Ball-in-pocket" is a popular term that day, as is "no card." Other terms are unprintable. Competitors either suffer horribly or survive by adopting a prevent defense.

"Twenty yards short of the green is better than four feet above the pin," says Fred Couples, who shot 79 and was co-champion with Paul Casey in 2006. (Couples is no longer a member.) Rumor had it they shared the title because the laconic Couples couldn't be bothered to play extra holes, but the truth is the B of A doesn't have a playoff. Eighteen holes is enough.

"We had to talk Fred out of quitting at the turn, and he ended up winning the thing," says Mackay, Mickelson's caddie, who played in Couples' group that day. "It just goes to show that you can shoot 45 on the front nine, which I think he did, and still have a chance."

Competitors usually end up bemoaning the B of A pin placements, and so the club is vague about who exactly perpetrates them. Rathbun, the director of golf, will only say that the course is set up by a loose coalition that may or may not be comprised of the superintendent, sadists from the pro shop and one or two other oddballs who wish to remain anonymous. "It's not even close to being fair," he says. "But setting it up is the fun part. McCord helped on this last one, which was a kick."

The Battle is usually held opposite the Hope, but this year's edition was contested during the Sony Open in Hawaii, which meant fewer pros in the field. Still, something unprecedented happened: the winner, a pro named Tom Kalinowski, broke par. His 1-under 71 beat the second-place finisher, Nationwide Tour pro Scott Harrington, by a whole touchdown: seven strokes.

"People talk about it like it was the best round ever played there," Kalinowski says with a laugh. It's a fairly dubious achievement, and he shakes his head at the absurdity of it.

A 39-year-old father of four whose best year as a pro was in 2000 ($150,000, 22nd on the Nationwide money list), Kalinowski is still trying to reach his potential after suffering a wrist injury in '01. He is skinny and wears his hair long. He smiles a lot, like Mickelson but without the fame. He's been trying to make it to the Tour for nearly two decades, and after washing out of Q School last fall, he has no status on any tour.

Kalinowski was able to Monday-qualify for this year's FBR Open by shooting a 63, in which he was 9-under through 12 holes. He's shot in the 20s on every nine at Whisper Rock. He is scary good and largely anonymous, exactly the type of golfer that seems to permeate the membership. Or at least he was anonymous.

"We did not think there was any chance anyone could break par," Rathbun says.

"I e-mailed Trent and said, 'That score is unacceptable,' " Streelman says with mock indignation. "I told him, 'I'm setting up the pins next year.' "

Mackay says he's already hearing rumors that the course will be set up harder than ever next year thanks to Kalinowski's round, in much the same way that the Lords of Augusta retaliated after Tiger's 18-under tally at the 1997 Masters.

Kalinowski admits he got a bit lucky. He finished his round by spinning a 123-yard wedge shot into the cup for eagle on the par-4 sixth. And his round nearly fell apart on his first hole, the seventh. Facing a par putt of less than three feet, he missed and watched his ball exit the green. His ensuing chip shot left him with the same putt for double bogey. "At some point during every round you wonder if you can finish the hole," he says.

But Kalinowski made the putt and was off and limping. When he managed to birdie three of his next five holes, he started to think he had a chance. Of course he'd thought the same thing the year he was 1-under through 13 holes, with an L-wedge in his hands in the middle of the 14th fairway, and made 7. "You know a train wreck is coming," Kalinowski says. "You just don't know when."

Making the Tour is next on his to-do list, but so is a W at the club championship, where he's finished second three times.

Kalinowski ended up shooting 75-74 to miss the cut at the FBR in January. He said he left everything short on the TPC Scottsdale greens, which were downright sluggish compared to the Rock's glassy surfaces. That ought to secretly please Rathbun and the rest of the members. Belatedly, and on a different golf course, the Battle of Attrition had claimed yet another victim.