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NO ONE HIT WONDER – SWEETENS COVE

Revisiting the Sweetens Cove story and a 2016 conversation with architect Rob Collins of King-Collins Golf Course Design

Election Day in 2016 now seems like a lifetime ago. After watching election returns that night from an Atlanta hotel, I hit the road early the next morning to make a much anticipated jaunt to Sweetens Cove. Fellow geeks had been lauding the course—the architecture of Rob Collins and Tad King as well as the unique vibe—and my lucky day had finally arrived. What I found, making loops with Rob and Patrick Boyd, was a confirmation of the special character of Sweetens Cove, and the men who had devoted themselves to its creation and survival. As a follow-up, Rob shared his story and that of the course in the interview and tour below.

Much has changed in the world and in South Pittsburg, TN since that day. Dylan Dethier’s New York Times article in August, 2017, among other media coverage, brought national attention to Sweetens Cove, and with it, an influx of pilgrims seeking their own awakening. The vast majority have enthusiastically reported that the course delivered a fun and creative version of the game that fanned the flames of their passion for golf.

Among those converts were two guys named Peyton and Andy, who have become partners in the venture, setting it on a path to an even more exciting next phase. King-Collins Golf Course Design has also seen a change in its fortunes. After a false start at The Buck Club, the duo have created another 9-holer in NY, and are hard at work making their own modern statement on the Nebraska sandhills. New projects continue to fill their pipeline.

While Sweetens Cove certainly has a cult following, to write off its success as merely a novelty fueled by golf-Twitter hipsters is to breeze over its depth. Those who have followed Rob’s work, or who have been lucky enough to meet him, know that he is not just talented. He is authentically good. Sweetens Cove is an eclectic blend of strategic, heroic and penal design, with a heaping helping of visual flare on top. It is a course that could be played every day without a hint of repetitiveness. What makes it truly great though is not only what it is, but the delta between what it was and what it has become. A flat, lifeless mud-pit of a course has been transformed into a golf geeks’ amusement park. Look beneath the surface, and one finds the powerful parallels between the making of the Sweetens Cove, and the hard-fought birth of its architect’s career.

It is worth revisiting Rob’s story and that of the course at this point. The attendant tour contrasts the before, during and after perspectives on each hole. The designers words are complemented by a mix of photography from Jon Cavalier (@linksgems), Rob (@KingCollinsGolf) and me, illustrating the many moods of Sweetens Cove. The variety of colors and contrasts are among the many ingredients that keep a steady stream of devotees coming back for more.

One of the Good Guys

The interview that follows is presented with minimal modification to Rob’s answers from November, 2016. His answers still demonstrate his thoughtfulness and passion.

How did you get introduced to golf?

I played golf for the first time as an 11 year old with my Dad. At that time in my life, we only played a few times a year. It was nothing more than a minor hobby in my early years.

When did you know that the game had a hold on you?

I decided to try out for my high school team my senior year. At the time, I was an absolutely horrible player, but I enjoyed the sport and I thought I might have a shot at making the team. As it turned out, our team was so bad that I was able to squeeze in at the six spot. Playing on a more regular schedule helped build my interest in the game. As I started to see some marginal improvement, I began to like it more and more.

After my freshman year in college, I was invited to go on a trip to St. Andrews.  By that time, I was really enjoying the game, and was primed to fall in love with it.  Our loops on the Old & New Courses, along with watching the first three rounds of the Open Championship at Turnberry, solidified my addiction to the game.

How did you get into the business?

I started in the graduate landscape architecture program at Mississippi State in 2002 with the intention of using that degree to help me get into the field of course architecture.  In 2004, I was hired by Rick Robbins as an intern, an opportunity for which I will be forever grateful. I learned a great deal from Rick and his team, and I was fortunate to transition that into a design coordinator role with Gary Player Design.

Who is your favorite Golden Age architect, and why?

That is a very difficult question, but I think I would have to go with MacKenzie. His writings have had a huge influence on me. Not only do I love his artistic flair and adherence to strategic principles in the design and construction process, but his willingness to cut against the grain of conventional wisdom appeals strongly to me on a personal level. His twelfth green at Sitwell Park exemplifies his brilliance, self-confidence, and one-of-a-kind flair for the dramatic, and his words in defense of his work amount to my all-time favorite golf architecture quote:

“I have got accustomed to measuring the ultimate popularity of a hole or course by the amount of criticism it gives rise to in the first instance…It is only natural that players who have been spoon fed on insipid, flat uninteresting golf should view with a considerable amount of suspicion anything which is undoubtedly out of the ordinary.”

Who has had the most influence on you, both inside and outside of golf?

I think I have to start with the people who first believed in me. Rick Robbins gave me my first job in course architecture. Also, Frank Henegan from Gary Player Design brought me into their organization. I learned a tremendous amount about the design and construction process from both him and his colleague, Jeff Lawrence, a Senior Designer with GPD.  Also, I would be remiss not to mention my partner, Tad King. Not only is Tad one of the most talented shaper/finishers anywhere, but he is also a master of managing the construction and grow-in of golf courses. His common sense and streamlined construction methodology has had a massive influence on me, and his approach provides the basis for much of the philosophical component upon which King-Collins was founded.

What should every owner/Green Committee member learn before breaking ground on a golf construction project?

There is another way! You don’t need to hire a contractor to build the course, and for God’s sake, keep the consultants and so-called experts as far away from the project as possible. It is all too common in the golf world for unnecessary expenditures to be passed off to the client by self-interested parties under the guise of obtaining a quality result. Tad and I have both seen it firsthand, and we believe firmly that one of the biggest problems facing the game and golf construction, more specifically, is overinflated construction costs. When courses cost too much to build, people who would otherwise build golf will look in other directions for how to spend their money when developing land. At a certain point, it becomes impossible to recoup the initial investment if the golf course construction budget spirals out of hand. Furthermore, inflated green’s fees result from uncontrolled expenditures, which obviously make the game less accessible to the general public. In sum, less golf gets built AND the game costs more to play when costs aren’t controlled.

We believe, and I think that Sweetens Cove is living proof, that our method not only works, but that it is the best method for designing and building golf courses. Simply put, we are able to maintain quality and artistic control over all aspects of the course while keeping costs to a minimum. Here are a few prime examples:

During the Sweetens Cove construction, Tad and I visited another course that was also undergoing a renovation.  Both Sweetens Cove and this other course were using the same sand to cap the fairways. We were told during one visit by the contractor’s project superintendent that they would no longer be using the sand because it had failed in testing and grass wouldn’t grow on it. 419 Bermuda, which will grow across a cart path, wouldn’t grow in this sand according to that job’s contractor! Think about how idiotic that is and what the consequences were for the client:

  • They had a mountain of sand, which they were told they could no longer use. This amounted to a huge waste of resources, time, and money.
  • They actually paid money to a lab and a consultant to acquire those results.

The end result is that they spent more money to go slower with zero improvement in quality. Those kinds of situations occur all of the time and the cost of decisions like that can be astronomical. As an aside, the fairways at Sweetens Cove, which were planted in the nonconforming sand, are perfect.

The second example that comes to mind is related to a project that we were hired for in the Canadian Rockies.  Unfortunately, the Montane Club was never built, but we put together a $4.9M budget on a piece of land that had previously been budgeted by a former touring pro, signature architect at $1M/hole. With the signature architect’s army of consultants and a golf contractor on site, the project easily would have spiraled upwards of $25M. Had it been built, how would the client have recouped these costs? Unfortunately, stories like these repeat themselves over and over, every day all around the world of golf construction.

So, to answer your question directly, I would encourage all green committee members, owners, clients, etc. to educate themselves about construction costs and work hard to discern what costs are necessary and which ones are not.  After that, they should call us (half kidding, sort of…ok, not really kidding at all).

How has your commitment to creative collaboration in the field impacted your work?

First, the design / build method, which we employ, is the best way to build golf. Golf courses are built in the field, not on a desk 1,000 miles from the site. The best decision I ever made in my career occurred right out of graduate school. I had two opportunities. One was with the Player Group as an on-site design coordinator, which would immerse me in the daily routine of a construction process or as a CAD/office designer for a competing firm. While I was hugely grateful for both offers, I chose to go with the offer from Player, and I am thankful every day that I made that decision. Not only did I fall in love with the construction process, but I learned the fundamentals of how to build a golf course and the degree to which construction and design are intertwined. So, the process of collaboration in the field forms the basis for my work. Every great golf course in recent memory has been built using the design/build method, and Tad and I formed our company on the belief that we could deliver elite quality with a reduced price using that approach.

How did you get involved with the Sweetens Cove project?

I was referred to the project by King Oehmig. I was desperate to remain involved with architecture after the economic collapse in ‘08, and King was spearheading the Gil Hanse project at Sewanee. I approached him to see if I could get involved up there, and he said he would be happy to help. He took it a step further and referred me to my client who was looking to do something with their nine-hole course, Sequatchie Valley G&CC, which would ultimately be rebranded as Sweetens Cove Golf Club after the renovation.

What place do you see courses like Sweetens Cove having in the future of the game?

I think they will be extremely important. The days of spending an entire weekend at the local club only to show up at home on Sunday night are long gone. A lot of people don’t have time for an eighteen hole round, and quality courses of alternative lengths will be increasingly important for the game as it works to stay relevant and expand. Furthermore, Sweetens Cove operates on a budget that is a fraction of your typical maintenance budget, but it delivers high quality conditions thanks to the tireless efforts of the staff and the design of the course. Finally, I think Sweetens Cove is a prime example of how you can have fascinating and engaging playing scenarios on a site that, at first glance, didn’t seem like it could possibly yield good golf. I believe that the notion that great golf cannot be derived from an inferior site is a flawed one. If anything, Sweetens Cove proves that you don’t need eighteen holes or a good site to create a great golf course. On top of that, an outsized maintenance budget isn’t needed either. If there were more courses like Sweetens Cove and fewer courses like (fill in the blank), the world would be a better place.

What is your favorite part of a golf course to design? To build?

I love bunker construction, but the most fascinating part of construction comes at the greens. Our goal is always to match the green contours to the strategy of the hole. Ideally, I want players to be considering the slope and contour of the green surfaces and their surrounds while they are on the tee. If you can get people to do that, then I think your work has been very effective. Essentially, we want to provide ground for endless shotmaking and strategic scenarios to unfold. Working to create that in the field is a thrill.

What do you love about practicing your craft?

I love the reward that comes with seeing things unfold. It starts with an idea and then it evolves a little more each day. That evolutionary process is what gets me excited. At Sweetens Cove, we kept turning it up and turning it up. It was so much fun to obsess over and refine the minutest of details on the course. Ultimately, a golf course is a sum of its parts, and it was our goal to pack Sweetens Cove with micro details across the entirety of the property.  We never placed one detail in importance over another. For example, the edgework on the back side of an island in a part of a massive bunker that nobody was ever going to see was equally as important as the edgework on the flashiest, most highly visible bunker.

With that approach, you are guaranteed to have a course full of highly personalized details when it is complete. That is how you get that attitude and character in a course that you can feel but you can’t quite put your finger on. The best courses do that, and I am most proud of that aspect of Sweetens Cove. Nothing was overlooked and nothing was taken for granted. That is why a nine-hole course in a flood plain in rural Tennessee has received massive amounts of publicity and attention. None of that happened by accident. Instead it was a result of untold countless, thankless hours of labor when no one was watching. Looking back on that effort and seeing what we have today fills me with desire to go out and do it again. We love the creative process, and we are ready for #2.

What courses are at the top of your hit list to see or play next?

There are so many that it is impossible to come up with an adequate list, but here are a few off of the top of my head:

Crystal Downs, Old Town, Prairie Dunes, Maidstone, Shoreacres, Chicago, Seminole….and, I would like to wave a magic wand and take a three month trip to GBI to travel and explore the endless options there. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening, but it would be great if it did.

When you are not working or playing golf, what are you doing?

I have six and eleven year old daughters so my wife and I spend most of our time outside of work juggling parenting responsibilities.

The Sweetens Cove Story

In the summer of 2010, I was desperately searching for a way back into golf architecture. I had heard that Gil Hanse had been hired to renovate the golf course at Sewanee, which happened to by my alma mater. I asked around and found out that a graduate of the Seminary School at Sewanee and a local golfing legend, King Oehmig, was heading up the project. Via Mark Stovall, the former superintendent of Lookout Mountain, I was placed in touch with King. In May 2010, he wrote me this note as part of an email chain about the Sewanee project:

PS: I do know that Mr. Bob Thomas, the proprietor of Sequatchie Concrete Company, who is a Sewanee Alum, has just bought a little course right outside of Kimball, TN, the Sequatchie Country Club.  Right now, it needs a lot of work; I would suggest that you contact Bob, and you can tell him that I suggested that you call him about possibly helping him with fixing it up.  Thanks. – KO

Reading back through that old email brings back a flood of memories: my internal feeling of desperation about returning to golf architecture, my hope for getting involved with the Sewanee project, the VERY early days of King-Collins, and my gratitude toward King for suggesting me to Mr. Thomas. Reading it now makes it hard to believe that over six years of my life have gone into this project.

Soon after King’s recommendation, we began a discussion with the Thomas family about possibly renovating the Sequatchie Valley G&CC. We were eventually hired in March of 2011 for the job, and Tad and I were extremely excited to have the opportunity to put our ideas into the ground. We brought in Gus Grantham to be lead shaper on the project, construction commenced on June 2, 2011 and the course was grassed out a year later in June of 2012.

The golf course, which only had one foot of fall across the entire property sits in a flood plain near Battle Creek. In addition to having extremely minimal drainage, the site sits on heavy clay soils. We, therefore, had a massive task ahead of us if the resulting work was to have even a modest level of playing interest. First and foremost, we had to devise a way to drain every drop of water off of the property while creating highly interesting golfing features. In the end, we moved about 300,000 cubic yards of dirt & installed fifteen (15) miles of drain pipe. I am very proud of the fact that we did all of this “in house” while building the course for a fraction of the cost of a typical project. In addition to the earthworks, the site was capped with approximately 4” of sand, which has been wonderful for helping us maintain firm and fast conditions across the property.

My overall vision for the project going in was to create an inland links that borrowed lessons from some of my favorite places in golf: Pinehurst #2, TOC, Tobacco Road, North Berwick, the 1932 version of Augusta National, and others. However, I had no interest in playing copycat.  It was very important to me that the course have its own unique flair while still grasping the core lessons at the heart of the aforementioned greats. Essentially, I wanted to take the things that I liked in architecture, put them in a blender and come up with a concoction that would hopefully remind others of places they had seen or been but with a degree of uniqueness that would ideally leave one feeling as though they had found a true original. Those qualities are not something that you can plan for in the office. To the contrary, the highly personalized details only rise out of the ground through intensive site work. The long, thankless hours that we spent fashioning the course are something of which I am very proud. There were countless opportunities to mail it in or walk away from the project entirely, but we never did. I think that our unwavering commitment to it shines through in one’s playing experience, an aspect of Sweetens Cove that elevates it over most.

After grassing was complete, the course remained under the umbrella of our client’s various business interests until August 2013. They made an internal decision to return the focus of their business solely toward concrete manufacturing, and I was approached about the possibility of leasing the property from Sequatchie Concrete. Given the level of commitment that I had exhibited to the course, I was a natural fit, and as a result, I enthusiastically began the search for a like-minded partner. Fast forward to Thanksgiving 2013 when I received a call out of the blue from Mark Stovall that Ari Techner & Patrick Boyd, partners in Scratch Golf, were interested in touring the course. As always, I was pleased to show it to any interested parties, and soon after that visit, Ari & I embarked on a quest to launch Sweetens Cove. We were able to get a signed lease in the spring of 2014, and the course officially opened in October 2014. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be an owner/operator of a golf course, but my intoxicating relationship with Sweetens Cove would not allow me to see it return to nature. It’s an interesting wrinkle in the saga that Mark Stovall was the linchpin for the entire project in that he originally connected me to the project via King Oehmig and also introduced me to my future partner who would help me save it.

Following are some of my thoughts behind the architecture of the course and the backstory of the construction of each hole.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

HOLE #1 – 563 yards – par 5

I think I struggled with the design of this hole more than any other. I had a number of different ideas about the design for the green complex, before settling on the current version, which has a reverse redan tilt set inside a punchbowl. The green itself is protected front and center by a deep and foreboding hazard, which was nicknamed the “Mitre Bunker” by Sweetens Cove GM, Patrick Boyd. Like the rest of the course, the original hole was dead flat with a pond, which we were not allowed to touch, near the landing area on the right side. To complicate matters, water from the mountain on the left side of the hole would pour onto the first fairway during rain events via culverts buried under Sweetens Cove Road. After the left side was cleared of its excessive trees and underbrush, Gus, Tad, and I embarked on a plan to create a thrilling opening hole that would remain dry. Given the existing site conditions, this was an extraordinarily difficult task.

Nowhere was the moniker for the original course “Squishy Valley” more apt than on the first hole. During the original rough shaping of the hole, long buried golf balls were bouncing off of the blade of the dozer. In order to prevent water from draining onto the hole, the entire left side of the hole was built up, and water from the mountain and road are now captured prior to reaching the course. Additional drainage was installed throughout the fairway, and like all of the other holes, the fairway was capped with roughly 4-6” of sand.

Regarding the strategy, and overall look, I think that the first does a good job of introducing players to many of the themes that they will see during the round at Sweetens Cove. The tee and approach shots both allow for multiple routes of play, and the heavily contoured green welcomes well played running and aerial shots. Most importantly, Sweetens Cove never dictates to players exactly how to navigate the terrain. Instead, golfers are left to choose their own path, with each respective route providing its own unique challenge and set of options.

HOLE #2 – 375 yards – par 4

In a pure construction sense, the second at Sweetens Cove is one of the most important holes on the course.  While the second hole at the original Sequatchie Valley was also a drainage nightmare, it offered an opportunity to simultaneously handle the water on a large swath of the property while creating much needed fill material for construction. The original hole was a long, straightaway par four of approximately 440 yards.  When the first green was moved back toward the property line, the second tees shifted forward. Even with this change, we were still left with a massive dead space in front of the tees. In order to handle the drainage on the second hole and the second half of the first hole, we dug a large lake near the tee complex. I was adamant that most players not be forced to carry the water on the tee shot. As a result, I angled the lake away from the line of play from the blue tees forward and into the massive dead area behind the seventh green. Fill from this lake was used for shaping and to gain much needed elevation on the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth holes.

On the tee, the primary goal is to miss the deep, centrally located pot bunker, which has been nicknamed “Tupac” by a Sweetens Cove regular. If you’re in it, you’re dead. The ideal line of play on most shots is from the small patch of ground adjacent to his bunker and the right-hand bunker, which is approximately thirty yards closer to the green. From this angle, players will not be forced to deal directly with the very strong contour along the left side of the green. As with all greens at Sweetens, there are many different potential pin locations.  Perhaps the easiest and most fun pin is in the bowl in the front of the green, a lobe of the green which came close to never existing. When the green was originally shaped, it was about 25% smaller. I couldn’t get comfortable with that iteration, and we kept pulling out the front portion of the green until that pin location was created. I think that change took the green from good to great, and is an example of why it is so important to maintain artistic control on a project. Had we settled on the earlier version, it would’ve been fine but nowhere near as good as what is there today. The most difficult pin, by contrast, is the far left location.

As all of the greens at Sweetens are surrounded by tightly mown shortgrass, the bold contours along the front left and left side of the green can repel indifferent efforts on the approach. This green complex is as good an example as any of how short grass can at once open up a Pandora’s Box of terrible outcomes while at the same time provide unlimited shotmaking options. Short grass simply has a way of delivering a level of awe and fear that many ‘typical’ hazards can’t approach. The multifaceted nature of tightly mown turf has always fascinated me, and the second green complex, which is defended only by contour and the speed of the surrounds, fully immerses players in the shotmaking possibilities at Sweetens Cove.

HOLE #3 – 582 yards – par 5

The third hole is the second par five on the layout and the first real taste of how we utilized dead space on the Sequatchie Valley layout by tying the golf holes together. One of my favorite things about Sweetens Cove is how the holes relate to and complement one another. Prior to construction, the majority of the 72 acre site was covered with a monochromatic carpet of bermudagrass. Now, waste areas and large swaths of native plants add texture and complexity to the layout. The waste area which borders the right side of the fairway serves as a way to add strategic and visual interest, and negates the dead space that previously existed between the third and fifth holes.

During construction, the first half of the hole was raised slightly in order to ease drainage. All water from the tee to the central bunker drains to the pond by the fifth and sixth holes, and the second half of the hole drains to the pond behind the green. At the green, I really wanted to do something different with the strategy, and I chose to leave a lone Oak tree in the center of the approach. This tree and the location of the pin on the massive green impact decision making on the tee. If the pin is left, you have to come in from the left side of the fairway, and conversely, if it is on the right, it is wise to favor that side of the fairway on approach. If the pin is behind the tree, it is generally easier to approach from the right side, but the tree and the shaping of the green complex present the golfer with a host of options: intentionally play to the left or right of the tree with the intent of using the contours to funnel the ball toward the hole or play over the tree.

The green itself is divided into sections by large rolls. From the right side, the 10,000 square foot surface of the green has the appearance of a waterfall tumbling down a slope, and all pinnable areas can be reached by playing away from the hole with the intent of laying the ball dead at the hole after it rolls out along the bold contours. The third is the first truly wild green at Sweetens, and it serves in many ways as a primer for what lays ahead during one’s round. Thematically, the third fits with the rest of the golf course in that it is a terrific match play hole where eagle and birdie are achievable, but the short grass, contours, and hazards can conspire to deliver a firm punishment for anyone out of position.

HOLE #4 (King) – 169 yards – par 3

There is only one hole at Sweetens Cove that has a name on the scorecard. The fourth was aptly dubbed “King” after King Oehmig, the man who referred me to the project, in addition to providing the design inspiration for the hole.

When I first toured the site with King in July 2010, he remarked, “Rob, it would be so cool if you could find a place out here to build a Himalayas hole.” As a fellow lover of classic, quirky architecture, I wholeheartedly agreed with his proclamation, and I set out to find the spot to make his vision a reality. During one of my subsequent visits, I came upon the spot where the current fourth resides. The fourth green was tucked into a small corner at the edge of the current fourth hole. Adjacent to the miniature green was a large open area that could easily accommodate a first rate Himalayas hole. During construction, we used dirt from the lake excavation to create the ridge that runs between the tee complex and the massive 20,000 square foot green.

The green itself is 87 yards deep, and the hole can play totally blind, partially blind, or 100% visible depending upon the tee and pin location. It’s not uncommon to play the hole at 110 yards completely blind on one day and visible and 210 the next. I think the unlimited combination of pin and tee locations, along with the heavily contoured, serpentine green, makes the hole a fascinating challenge from day to day. In the sense of pure variety, fun, shotmaking options, and ability to change complexion from one round to the next, the fourth probably embodies the true spirit of Sweetens Cove more than any other on the course. Along with being great fun to detail, the massive waste hazard, which was built into the ridge, provides a sense of visual and strategic continuity with much of the rest of the course.

HOLE #5 – 293 yards – par 4

Drivable par fours are my favorite type of hole, and I knew that we had a great opportunity to do something special when we first laid out the concept for the fifth. There was no interesting terrain to work off of, but we had all the width that we needed to create a highly unique, option-filled short par four. I felt early on that the third, fourth, and fifth holes were the heart of Sweetens Cove. I’ve always liked that they represent three different pars, and the natural ebb and flow of the routing adds emotional depth to the layout. As you come off of the challenging fourth, which can play up to 210 yards, you are greeted with a drivable hole of only 283 yards.  Along with multiple eagles, I have scored everything up to a ten on the hole. At its widest point, the fairway is 100 yards wide, and the boomerang green gives the hole loads of variety in possible pin placements.

On the tee, the key feature to avoid is the ten foot deep greenside bunker that is partially bordered with railway sleepers. I absolutely love what this hazard does to the player psychologically. While not large in physical size, it is guaranteed to weigh heavily on the minds of all players on the tee. The extremely penal nature of the hazard means that multiple shots to clear its depths are not uncommon. Additionally, the bunker plays larger than it looks as some of the greenside and surrounding contours will help funnel balls toward the sand.  Finally, we paid extra attention in the finish to the contours around the bunker, which will allow the clever player who is stymied by the bunker to play away from the flag along the ground in an effort to lay the ball dead at the hole. One of my favorite memories of my time at Sweetens Cove involved this exact scenario. I watched a player that could not have had a handicap lower than 36 approach the green from about fifty yards away toward the pin tucked directly behind the bunker. With his hybrid in hand, he topped a ball that looked as if it would be gobbled up by the bunker. Instead, he caught the perfect contour and his ball rolled around the perimeter of the hazard and rolled to within a foot of the flag. It was an extraordinary thrill to see the contours that we had labored over help produce such a miraculous shot!

One of our members at Sweetens Cove had a similarly heroic shot this summer when he aced the hole with a three wood. Similar to the previous example, the pin was behind the pot bunker, and his shot, which carried long and right of the hazard, ran up on the strong back right ‘catcher’s mitt’ contour, took a hard left turn, and rolled fifty feet into the bottom of the cup. These types of playing scenarios are what make the course so special, and it never ceases to give me great pleasure when I hear a new story about someone’s shotmaking. Ultimately, the fact that success and failure reside in such close quarters is what makes the fifth a timelessly entertaining hole.

HOLE #6 – 456 yards – par 4

The natural ebb and flow of a good routing demands that there be a handful of highly challenging holes, and the sixth at Sweetens Cove fits that mold. A long cape hole, which plays over 450 yards from the tips, this two shotter can wreck a good scorecard with one slight misstep. I also love that the sixth is sandwiched on either side by short par fours. The psychological pull of feeling as though one needs to hang on and get through the hole without falling prone to disaster can weigh on the player. Those who are unsuccessful will find a sliver of hope with the knowledge that the possibility of redemption awaits later in the round.

Overall, the design of the sixth is fairly simple in that it uses the strategy of the cape hole design template.  However, I wanted to do something different at the green. Whereas many cape holes have a kidney shaped green that hugs the water, I wanted to have a large part of the green run away from the water. In order to get the unique angle, shape, and contour right, we ended up wearing the dirt out here a little bit. In the end, though, I am really pleased with the way the hole turned out. The green has the far left, nearly impossible “Sunday” pin along with easier pins on the right and middle of the green.

The transitions and rolls throughout the green can at times complicate matters on the approach or provide the option to play away from certain locations while keeping the ball on the ground with the intent to use contour to get the ball near the hole. This is particularly true on the lower shelf, which is bisected by a strong roll. The clever player can use this feature to aim the ball away from the water while trying to get the ball close to the far left pins. The roll also adds complexity to shots that approach middle pins. Slightly pulled or short shots to the middle pins can be shed away by the same contour that may have helped you on previous rounds. Again, we see an instance of elasticity in the greens, a core component of how a golf course can provide sustained interest round after round. One of the more difficult pins on the green is, ironically, the one furthest from the water. There is a small, upper shelf, which is most easily accessed through the air, one of the few shots at Sweetens that has that characteristic. Overall, the hole requires precision and excellent ball striking to avoid bogey or worse.

HOLE #7 – 328 yards – par 4

Prior to construction, the seventh and eighth holes were by far the worst back to back par fours that I had ever seen. The two holes were bisected by an open concrete ditch, and the playing corridor of the seventh was choked down in size by trees along the right side of the fairway. On a golf course riddled with poor turf quality, the ground on the seventh, especially near the open ditch, was barren. While each hole had its challenges, I am most proud of what our team accomplished on seven and eight.

The two holes combined cover an area approximately 350 yards long by 150 yards wide. Our primary challenge lay in how to drain every square inch of this acreage without importing any fill material. This was accomplished by cutting into the ground and using the generated material for shaping. All low areas were drained to the ditch, which was covered with concrete slabs to support the earth that was pushed over its top. By taking this approach, we were able to rid the holes of the overly penal and immensely unattractive ditch while, at the same time, providing the necessary width to create the ground where endlessly varied playing scenarios could unfold.

While it is certainly not apparent upon first glance, the strategy of the hole is similar to that of the fourth at Pebble Beach, one of my favorite holes at the famous Links. On both holes, wide fairways greet the player, but the ideal angle of attack is from the far right side. At Sweetens Cove, this strategic dilemma is set up by the placement of the bunkers in relation to the angle of the tee shot and the direction of the central axis of the green. At Pebble Beach, players need to challenge the cliff along the right side of the hole to gain the best angle to the tiny green. Frightening bunkers flank both sides of the narrow putting surface, making any approach from the far left side of the fairway extremely difficult. I have been fortunate to play the hole several times, and my only scoring catastrophe there occurred after a tee shot that ended up on the far left side of the fairway, which forced me to approach the green over the left greenside bunker and from an angle that is perpendicular to the central axis of the green. From that position, the margin of error is finite, and absolute precision is required in order to achieve par, a dynamic that I absolutely love on a short par four.

Unlike the fourth at Pebble, the seventh green at Sweetens is bunkerless, and the extremely strong fall-off contours on the right and left side make approach from anywhere but the ideal sliver of fairway extremely difficult.  With the tightly mown shortgrass of the surrounds, it is not uncommon for scores to balloon around this green, which may be the most devilish on the course. In fact, we have an inside joke at Sweetens that the seventh is the hardest 310 yard par five in America. In spite of its difficulty, the shortgrass around the domed green is a far more interesting hazard than bunkering, in my opinion, because it provides the opportunity for a greater number of players to attempt and find success with difficult recovery shots. It is essentially impossible for a 20+ handicap to have a chance to get up and down out of a difficult bunker, whereas even the worst players can keep the ball on the ground leaving open the possibility that their ball will wind up near the hole.

I should also mention that one of my favorite hazards on the course is the large bunker on the seventh, also known as “Dan’s Bunker,” which was named after the Coore & Crenshaw associate, Dan Proctor, who provided early assistance with bunker construction on the seventh, eighth, and ninth holes. The intricately detailed hazard is a terrific example of the bunkers at Sweetens, which were intensely labored over during every stage of construction.

HOLE #8 – 387 yards – par 4

Given that the seventh and eighth are parallel par fours of a similar length which occupy the same fairway, there was a danger that we could get repetitive in this part of the course. This potentially negative outcome was on my mind as I thought through design for the eighth hole. In contrast with the previous hole, the double plateau green at the eighth is massive, coming in at approximately 12,500 square feet. With wildly different outcomes and shotmaking scenarios possible with each hole location, it is imperative that the player identify the proper angle of approach. For nearly all hole locations, the far left or far right side of the fairway is best.

Central bunkering and a few scattered trees add drama on the tee shot. Even though the fairway is 150 yards wide, I find that this tee shot is one of the most unsettling on the course. From the tee, the area to the right of the centerline bunker appears to be much narrower than it is in reality. This visual deception creates indecision in my mind and a sense of unease on the tee. Conversely, the far left side of the fairway can be tricky to reach because of the large oak that we left during construction. Also, any balls that take the left-hand route off the tee risk winding up in one of the central bunkers if the tee shot is pushed.

Prior to construction, the fairway narrowed to approximately twenty yards wide between the ditch on the left and a large grove of pines on the right, a scenario that is hard to picture given the current realities on the ground. Without the tree removal and the ability to cover the ditch, the hole would’ve been unrecoverable. As it is now, it presents a wild variety of shotmaking options on approach and recovery, and the extreme width of the hole allows golfers of all skill levels to choose their own route to the pin.

The green, which is one of the largest on the course, is also one of the most severely contoured. It is often, fairly, called a sideways Biarritz green. While it was not my intention going into construction to design and build a green of this style, the end product is a result of our approach to the process. I explained to Gus, our shaper, that I wanted a double plateau with a large, central roll fronting the green. I trusted Gus’s immense talent and let him take a stab at putting something cool in the ground. Given that it was only our second green to build, we were very early on in the construction process. What Gus shaped blew me away and solidified my belief that we were well on our way to delivering something exceptional at Sweetens Cove. I think the evolution of this green perfectly encapsulates our approach to field work. Had I shackled Gus and not believed in his innate abilities, the green wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it is. I think that designers need to grip the job firmly enough to have control but loosely enough to let uniquely artistic features unfold. In the end, if the green hadn’t fit my eye, it would’ve been changed, but the point is that you have to have a certain level of trust to let things unfold naturally. The key is in laying out a vision and trusting the people with whom you are working to help you deliver. At Sweetens Cove, we didn’t have a lot of personnel, but the ones that we did have were immensely talented and capable of creating unique and memorable golf holes.

As a penultimate hole on a course designed for match play, I am very fond of the ability of the eighth to unveil both heroic and disastrous play. With a very wide range of potential scores in play, golfers embroiled in a tight match will feel nervous with the lead and optimistic playing from behind, a psychological dynamic key to all great match play venues.

HOLE #9 – 148 yards – par 3

Like everywhere else on the course, there was nothing remarkable about the ground at the ninth hole prior to construction. In fact, the old ninth green was bizarrely located underneath the tree that borders the left side of the current first. The one natural feature that we did have to work with on the entire course was the hill leading from the clubhouse site to the valley floor. By locating the tee behind the eighth and benching the green into the hillside beneath the clubhouse site, we had the bones of a thrilling finishing hole. All that was left to do was to shape a 10,000 square foot redan / short hybrid green and construct and detail a two acre waste hazard that would provide the necessary angle and visual drama for a highly unique par three finish.

One of my favorite aspects of the course is that it ends on a one-shotter. All of the match play drama that can build over the preceding holes can come down to a 130 yard short iron shot. As I mentioned before, each hole at Sweetens Cove has a wide gap in potential outcomes and scores, and it could be argued that the ninth has the widest gap of all. To date, the hole has seen an extraordinarily disproportionate number of holes in one, and the dreaded “other” is never too far away. Fifteen aces have been registered since we opened two years ago, and none were more exciting than the ones that occurred during the Mack Cunningham Baylor Preview Golf Tournament in August. We hosted thirty of the best female high school players from around the state, and the fireworks at the ninth on the final day of the tournament put the design of the home hole on full display.  Early on the second day of the tournament, two sophomores playing in the same group beat seventeen million to one odds to record back to back aces. Not to be outdone, Ashley Gilliam carded a hole in one on her final swing of the day to give her team a one stroke victory in the tournament – a walk off ace!

During the planning stages and construction, we imagined that it would be possible for that type of drama to occur on our home hole, but what I witnessed that day was beyond my wildest imagination. Unlike many one shot holes, this hole presents a variety of options on the tee shot. You can play away from the far left flags by using the giant redan kick plate to bring the ball around to the hole, or the bold golfer can choose to fly directly at the flag. When the pin is on the middle tier of the green, the hole plays much more like a traditional short. By marrying two of the most iconic par three designs into one on hole, I think we created one of the most unique, entertaining, and vexing one-shotters anywhere.

Another great aspect of the ninth is the elevated nature of the green, which allows golfers to see the entire complex with its highly visual bunkering from every hole on the property. During construction, I realized that this visual reality is similar to the auditory trigger that one has when they are approaching a big rapid on a rafting trip. Analogous to the sound of a roaring river, the dominating visual presence of the ninth is a constant companion for the golfer. You know that drama and exacting shotmaking await you in the future and are fully aware that in order to complete your round successfully, you will eventually have to face that harrowing final shot. The sense of anticipation for that moment adds to the drama of the final shot.

I think the hole is a perfect ending to one’s round at Sweetens. It presents a variety of options, and thematically, the ninth is another unique take on classically inspired golf architecture motifs.

Sweetens Cove has become a hit because it is a wonder. Years ago, it might have been reasonable to doubt that Rob Collins and Tad King would ever have the opportunity to prove that they could do it again. Now, the self-confidence that Collins has always carried inside is manifesting more projects in the ground. The hits just keep on coming.

Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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LINKSGEMS AUSSIE ADVENTURE

A photo recap of Jon Cavalier’s 2020 trip down under

Jon Cavalier kicked off his 2020 golf adventures in style by taking a trip that will likely remain a dream for even the most ardent American golf traveler—Australia. The word epic is overused, but a quick look at the stats indicates that it applies to this trip: 15 days, 20 courses, 23 rounds, 6 cities/islands, 10 flights, 25,000 air miles, 6 rental cars, 1,500 road miles, dozens of new friends and thousands of great memories.

Jon got a heaping helping of Aussie flavor that he captured with his breathtaking photography. Compiled below, the photos will surely bring back great memories for those fortunate enough to have strolled those fairways, or will serve as fodder for those of us who can only live vicariously. Enjoy!

Click on any gallery image to enlarge

ROUND 1: YARRA YARRA GOLF CLUB

The Australia tour kicked off in Melbourne with a round at Yarra Yarra Golf Club, a beautiful 1929 Alex Russell design with recent upgrades by Renaissance Golf. Great par-3s and unbelievable greens—some of the best I’ve seen anywhere.

ROUND 2: ST. ANDREWS BEACH

A 2004 collaboration between Tom Doak and Mike Clayton, St. Andrews Beach is long on gorgeous scenery and wildly fun greensites. Doak and Clayton largely took what the land gave them here, and Mother Nature was, as usual, quite generous.

ROUND 3: VICTORIA GOLF CLUB

This venerable sandbelt classic, influenced by the great Alister MacKenzie in 1928, recently received a facelift via restored greens newly seeded with Pure Distinction grass and new fairway irrigation. Truly a treat to play.

ROUND 4: WOODLANDS GOLF CLUB

I’d never heard of Woodlands before this trip, but I’m certainly glad we got to see it. Reminiscent of the great members clubs back home, the course features some terrific greens, great par-3s and several world-class short par-4s.

ROUND 5: BARWON HEADS GOLF CLUB

An incredibly pleasant surprise, this historic links dates to 1920 and was designed by Vic East, head professional at Royal Melbourne. It’s the Australian version of England’s Rye and America’s Kittansett, and it is amazing.

ROUND 6: ROYAL MELBOURNE WEST

In a word, amazing. Designed by Alister MacKenzie in 1926 and built over five years by Alex Russell and greenskeeper Mick Morcom using only a horse-drawn plow and scoop, this is golf at its very best. World-class in every respect.

ROUND 7: ROYAL MELBOURNE EAST

Is it possible to have a better day of golf without getting in your car than an afternoon round at Royal Melbourne West followed by an evening round on the East? I don’t think it is. Quite possibly the best “B” course in the world.

ROUND 8: KINGSTON HEATH GOLF CLUB

A true charmer on an intimate parcel, Kingston Heath brings to mind Garden City Men’s or Chicago Golf as a masterpiece of strategic design on flat ground. Cliche, but I could play here every day and be quite happy. Lovely spot.

ROUND 9: ROYAL MELBOURNE WEST

A place so nice we played it twice—I could play it a hundred more times and still never experience every aspect of its brilliance. Rare that a course with such high expectations exceeds every bit of them, but Royal Melbourne does.

ROUND 10: PENINSULA KINGSWOOD NORTH

Of all the places people recommended that we see in Melbourne, none was more popular than this 2019 redesign by Mike Cocking. To all who suggested it, our thanks—this is a remarkable golf club and a brilliant design.

ROUND 11: PENINSULA KINGSWOOD SOUTH

A quick sunset loop around this 2019 Mike Cocking redesign was a real treat. The two courses here are both a lot of fun, but each has its own unique feel. The Peninsula Kingswood members are quite fortunate to have two of the best in town.

ROUNDS 12 & 13: CAPE WICKHAM GOLF LINKS

WOW! This 2015 links byMike DeVries on the northern tip of tiny King Island beneath the Cape Wickham lighthouse is absolutely incredible.Everyone who has previously hyped this course is right: Cape Wickham is off-the-charts dramatic, stunning and fun.

ROUND 14: OCEAN DUNES

A surprise stunner, this 2016 Graeme Grant design hugs the rugged coastline of King Island. Jagged rocks, colorful ice plant and huge breakers highlight the coastal holes beginning each nine, while the inland holes play through giant dunes.

ROUND 15: KING ISLAND GOLF & BOWLING CLUB

King Island’s oldest course, the Golf & Bowling Club has 16 tees and 12 greens, which combine to form an extremely fun 18 holes with ocean views everywhere. Reminiscent of the original Sheep Ranch and the back nine at Pacific Grove.

ROUNDS 16 & 17: BARNBOUGLE DUNES

As authentic a seaside links as there is outside of the UK, this 2004 design by Tom Doak, Mike Clayton and Brian Schneider is draped in and across huge dunes on Tasmania’s north coast. A brilliant design in a beautiful location.

ROUND 18: LOST FARM

This 2010 20-hole Bill Coore design sits northeast of Barnbougle Dunes across the Great Forester River and is a wonderful mix of holes in large seaside dunes and expansive sandy parkland. Put together 38-hole complex at Barnbougle is truly world-class.

ROUND 19: BONDI GOLF & DIGGER CLUB

It was pouring rain during our morning visit to this beautiful little 9-holer, but we came back to the area for dinner at dusk and I nabbed this shot of the course atop the cliffs, Bondi Beach and the lights of Sydney.

ROUND 20: NEWCASTLE GOLF CLUB

A drive two hours north of Sydney brought us to this sandy gem cut through a beautiful forest of eucalyptus. Newcastle Golf Club has fairway contours that rival the very best of the sandbelt, and some fun greens to boot. Great spot.

ROUND 21: NEW SOUTH WALES GOLF CLUB

We wrapped our visit to Sydney with a stop at the incomparable New South Wales. Conditions weren’t great for photography, but were perfect for golf. This place is truly a stunner—great design on an incredible piece of land. Unforgettable.

ROUND 22: KOOYONGA GOLF CLUB

Our penultimate stop, Kooyonga was strongly recommended by many of our friends and followers as a must-see in Adelaide, and as usual, they were right. Five Australian Opens have been contested on this 1923 W.H. Rymill design.

ROUND 23: ROYAL ADELAIDE GOLF CLUB

Our final round, and we saved one of the best for last. What’s not to love? Royal Adelaide features red sand bunkers, a brilliant routing, with a strong MacKenzie influence, and best of all, a train running through the course. Remarkable!

BONUS: KOALAS

Australia is full of amazing animals, none more majestic than the sleepy koala. These little guys have been devastated by deforestation, fire and disease, but Australia’s wildlife sanctuaries are working hard to protect them.

For fans of Australian golf and Jon’s photography, stayed tuned for updates to the galleries on this page. More photos to come over time…

Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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BLUE’S GREENS

A look at the heart of Blue Mound Golf & Country Club, the tremendous set of Seth Raynor designed greens

For a golf course to be great, its different components—land, routing, strategy, hazards, greens—should ideally work together, and have independent strength of their own. Ask a large enough group of golf geeks which of these course elements is the most important, and the answers will likely run the gamut. Such is the varied nature of the game, its playing fields and the opinions of its players. A strong case can be made that the greens are the heart and soul of any golf course. Their orientation, magnitude and contours create a game within the game, and when well-conceived, dictate strategy all the way back to the tee. It is nearly impossible to have a truly great course without a set of high quality greens. Pebble Beach is the exception that proves this rule, and only by virtue of its setting in one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring places on planet golf.

Seth Raynor, in collaboration with both Charles Blair Macdonald and Charles Banks, belongs on the Mount Rushmore of green builders. The size and boldness of his green complexes is matched with contouring of the putting surfaces that oscillates between wild and sublimely subtle. His greens can take a lifetime to master on the approach and with the flatstick. Among the MacRaynor cognoscenti, the sets at National Golf Links of America, Chicago Golf Club and Camargo often get the nod as the best. Few will put Raynor’s work at Blue Mound Golf & Country Club in that rarified company, but perhaps they should. Recent work on expansions, surrounds, bunkering and opening up the property through tree management is placing a spotlight on Raynor’s genius, and placing Blue Mound in the must-see conversation.

Mr. Raynor Goes to Milwaukee

“Very little has actually been written about that course,” said Seth Raynor historian Nigel Islam, “but we do know a few things.” After moving from its original location, the club recruited Raynor, whose reputation as a solo designer had been elevated in the Midwest with the openings at Shoreacres and Camargo, as well as the rework of Chicago Golf Club. Indeed, Macdonald gushed about how his protege had proven himself a prodigy. “He scarcely knew a golf ball from a tennis ball when we first met,” recounted the mentor in Scotland’s Gift – Golf. “…he never became much of an expert in playing golf, yet the facility with which he absorbed the feeling which animates old and enthusiastic golfers to the manor born was truly amazing, eventually qualifying him to discriminate between a really fine hole and an indifferent one.”

On a gentle piece of ground on a plateau above the Menomonee River, Raynor designed the course to be an enjoyable challenge for players of all skill levels. A pamphlet issued by the club in 1924, prior to the opening of the course, described the holes and passed along a message from the architect to the membership. “Mr. Raynor says that any player who can get a carry of about 100 yards will keep out of trouble,” it read. “ It will be an interesting course to the great number of players who score 90 and over, and at the same time, it will tantalize those few golfers who are able to shoot 80 or better.” Raynor intended for players at Blue Mound to have room to chart a suitable route to each green where they would ultimately find abundant interest and challenges on the putting surfaces.

Seth Raynor still greets players with a watchful eye on the 1st tee at Blue Mound

Over the decades, both fairways and greens shrank at Blue Mound. Thankfully, that trend has been reversed. Retrovation work got underway as the highly-regarded Bruce Hepner consulted with former Greenkeeper Steve Houlihan on tree removal, changes to mowing lines and greens expansion. The process has continued, driven by the Greens and Grounds Committee and energetic, new Superintendent Alex Beson-Crone, including reconstruction of the Alps and Short bunkers, and firming up of playing surfaces. The club is eschewing flash, instead honoring the simple elegance of Raynor’s design by focusing on the finer details. “Blue Mound is not trying to be something that it is not,” explained Beson-Crone. “Raynor’s engineered contours produce an effect. Being outdoors on this course is a spiritual experience. It just feels right.” With that level of reverence and enthusiasm, the membership is right to be excited for what lies ahead.

Returning to the greens, Beson-Crone’s appreciation has grown with each passing day. “Sometimes I find myself standing in the middle of a green getting lost marveling at what they built,” he said, with a tone of awe in his voice. A sign of their quality reveals itself in the difficulty of choosing either the strongest or the weakest among the set. “I will probably have a new favorite green this year,” laughed Beson-Crone, “and every year.”

Heat maps illuminate the variety of contours possessed by Blue’s greens – Click on gallery to enlarge

Hepner is equally effusive in his praise. “What makes Raynor’s greens so interesting is that they are huge with all these internal contours,” he shared in a presentation to the club. The architect went on to make his case for following through on the expansion work. “The process is to get them out to the precipice, to the edges of these plateaus. Men and horses and mules built these greens and I guarantee that they wanted putting surface on every inch. Otherwise, they wasted a lot of sweat.” With each passing year, the retrovation progresses, reintroducing the variety of hole locations that Raynor intended to keep the course interesting for everyday play.

The Course

The land on which Blue Mound sits is understated, but far from boring. The outward nine loops around the perimeter, culminating with a four hole stretch that interacts with the ridge and slope above the river valley. The inward half meanders around the center, flirting with a tributary creek.

As we take a tour through the course, our focus will be on the greens, which have been captured beautifully by club member and architecture geek Jerry Rossi (IG: @putt4dough24). Special attention has been paid to the one-shotters, which are stellar. Hepner stated his position clearly to the club, “You have the best set of par-3s of any Raynor course that exists.” For those interested in greater tee-to-green detail, Blue Mound produced a series of flyovers featuring architect commentary that have been compiled into a YouTube playlist.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

Raynor comes right out of the gate with strong par-4s back-to-back. The two-shot redan 1st plays into an angled and elevated green with a high right side. The 2nd features an enormous double plateau with transition contours as grand as any he ever built. “Macdonald invented the double plateau at National Golf Links,” explained Hepner. “It gives that ‘floating in the air’ feel and forces you to trust your eye. That’s how modern architects get professionals.”

Macdonald’s inspiration for the most polarizing of his ideal three-pars came from Biarritz in France, and its famed Chasm hole.

Although they did not build one of these long par-3s at The National, subsequent designs at Piping Rock, St. Louis Country Club and Lido Club included prominent renditions.

The Biarritz at Piping Rock – Photo credit: Jon Cavalier

Raynor continued to employ the concept at Fisher’s Island, Shoreacres, Camargo, and on the 3rd at Blue Mound. Although the game has become more aerial in nature, creative shotmakers can still enjoy the fun of the low-running approach that the architect intended.

The next stretch of three par-4s works its way over to the river ridge and includes some of the most famous concepts. The Alps 4th recently had a retrovation of the cross bunker by Hepner that fronts a green which he describes as, “…a semi-punchbowl that is subtle, but on which there is a lot of contour.” The 5th is an uphill Road hole with an infinity green angled front-right to back-left. The 6th, named Strategy, presents players with options to position themselves for an optimal approach into the canted and contoured green. “I think this is one of your coolest holes,” Hepner told the members. “It’s patterned after the 1st at National Golf Links.”

The Short hole concept was brought back by Macdonald from the sleeper-fronted original at Brancaster.

Photo Credit: Simon Haines

Golden Age architects such as Ross and MacKenzie, as well as the Dyes in the modern era, shared the belief with Macdonald that at least once in a round, a player should be required to step up and hit a precise shot with a short iron. No bailout. Do or die. National’s version initially donned the Brancaster look, but the wood sleepers were ultimately removed.

Photo Credit: Simon Haines

Raynor had a knack for locating his Shorts in the most scenic spots on the course. With the Mount Mary campus as a backdrop, his setting at Blue Mound was no exception.

An alteration to the front bunkers over the years caused the 7th to lose some of its MacRaynor feel.

Bruce Hepner and the Blue Mound crew excavated the original footprint and returned the moat look, once again providing that all-or-nothing thrill.

Bunker shaping complete, prior to regrassing

Today’s 7th stirs the soul and quickens the pulse, just as Seth Raynor intended.

The front nine turns for home at the Punchbowl 8th, which because of its uphill orientation, has an Alps quality to it. “It is so strong,” mused Hepner. “It’s the coolest green I think I’ve ever expanded.” The par-4 9th plays past a set of string-of-pearls bunkers to a green that falls away hard to the left.

Lest players fret that Raynor peaked too early with the stellar close to the outward half, the 10th quickly signals more greatness to come. “Raynor poached the best ideas from the 2nd and 3rd place winners in the Country Life Magazine design contest that MacKenzie won,” shared Hepner. His “Prize” hole ends with a green that is among the most interesting and unique that he ever built. At the Cape 11th, the architect plays with Macdonald’s concept by angling the elevated green in opposition to the gentle sweep of the fairway. The drive on the Hog’s Back 12th grabs attention, but making a par four requires overcoming the equal challenge of subtle green contours.

“Take a narrow tableland,” wrote Macdonald of the concept he borrowed from North Berwick, “tilt it from right to left, dig a deep bunker on the front side, approach it diagonally, and you have the Redan.” The original was inspired by medieval fortifications…

Photo Credit: North Berwick

…which Macdonald and Raynor morphed to create their first at National Golf Links. In every subsequent design, they made this brilliant three-par a hallmark. It is no mistake that architects continue to follow in their footsteps by building Redans today.

The Redan 4th at NGLA – Photo Credit: Simon Haines

The negative impact of over-treeing is no more acutely evident than in a photo of Blue Mound’s 13th prior to Hepner’s retrovation. The aesthetics and strategy of the hole, suffocating under tree branches, cried out for freedom—a call that the membership and Hepner wisely and mercifully answered.

The Redan 13th now plays as intended. Aerial and ground attacks are both options, but deep bunkers lurk beyond, waiting to ensnare the overzealous.

Every great routing has a rhythm, with ebbs and flows. The stretch from the 14th through the 16th provides a quiet complement between the heart of the course and its closing holes. “14 and the Leven 16th have the opposite strategy,” said Hepner. “They work well together.” In the middle is the par-4 15th, with yet another outstanding green.

The final par-3 takes its name from the Eden estuary that runs behind the green at the original on The Old Course at St. Andrews. The three front bunkers have given players fits for more than a century, including Bobby Jones.

Photo Credit: St. Andrews

Macdonald and Raynor often represented the rear hazard with a long bunker, as was the case with their first rendition at The National.

Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier

Raynor took creative liberties with his design of the front bunkers on Blue Mound’s 17th. They serve the same purpose though—present a strong defense of the canted and contoured green.

With one final nod to The Old Course, Raynor concludes Blue Mound with the Long par-5 18th. The finisher requires three well-struck shots to have a good birdie look to close out a round. The green setting delivers a finishing touch of class, as Hepner explains. “Whoever sited the clubhouse did a great job in relation to the 9th and 18th. It is set at an angle, which enhances the view.” The difference between good and great, details.

Indulge me, for a moment, in the construction of a logical question:

If greens are the most important component of a golf course, and Seth Raynor was among the very best green builders in history, and his finest set of par-3s is at Blue Mound, and the strongest greens at Blue Mound are not on the one-shotters, and it is extremely difficult to identify the weakest green on the course, because they are all strong…Then, does it not stand to reason that Blue Mound is highly underrated among the Golden Age greats?

Perhaps my leaps of logic are too broad to accept, but this much is true—the club membership has a newfound zeal for polishing their hidden gem, and they have charged Hepner and Beson-Crone with recapturing all of its upside potential. Wherever one might have rated the course in the past, a return trip to Seth Raynor’s Blue Mound is sure to be cause for serious reconsideration.

Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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A NEW STANDARD FOR GREATNESS

Musings on the power of kinship, on and off the course

The subject of greatness is one that I have spent years now exploring in my golf travels, conversations, debates and attendant musings. What makes a golf course great? What makes one greater than another? Is it even possible to objectively evaluate a course, or are all such attempts hopelessly entangled with the individual’s experience on any given day?

Previously, I set forth a personal standard for my favorite courses based on their ability to elicit a desire for endless loops, my 108 in 48ers, which has been updated to include new entries from this past season. This angle on the questions above speaks to the enjoyment provided by these courses over multiple plays. It also points to the perspective one gains by playing and studying worthy designs at depth. Certainly, there is great value in expanding the breadth of one’s horizons through seeing new courses of all kinds. Profound gains in perspective are also available to those who explore every strategy, feature, contour and condition of their favorites, giving thought to the most impactful qualities. Equal parts breadth and depth yield the most profound enlightenment.

Subsequent to the creation of the 108 in 48 standard, I also made an exploration of the far ends of the spectrum. At one end are the courses that are universally considered exceptional. At the other end are those that possess qualities—architectural interest, fun, quirkiness, setting, community vibe—that when coupled with a reasonable green fee, place them among my favorites. Aiken GC, Rock Hollow, Pleasant Run and others were all welcome additions to this group for me last season.

Lawsonia Links – The gold standard for value

The bottom line for any golf geek is that, regardless of how many rounds we get to play on various courses, we would all like to play more. There are, sadly, constraints of resources and time. That makes maximizing the value of the time and money I spend on golf a high priority, worthy of attention and effort. Politeness and enthusiasm still go a long way toward gaining access to private clubs. Golfers are a generous lot, and they enjoy sharing their courses with kindred spirits. Lacking such access, resources like the GeekedOnGolf Global Guide and Sugarloaf Social Club’s Hidden Gem Project make finding the value plays easier than ever for the curious and adventurous.

A new criterion has been added to my list that is increasing in weight as the years go on—camaraderie. In any walk of life, if one looks for the goodness in people, it can be found. In my experience,  the game of golf seems to attract people and bring out that goodness in a way that I find particularly enriching. Perhaps it is the choice of a pursuit that can never be exhausted or mastered, one that provides at least as much of the agony of defeat as it does the thrill of victory, which creates the conditions for bonding and kinship.

It has also been my good fortune to find a tribe of geeks for whom the score on the card, while not meaningless, is secondary to a $1 Nassau, and lively discussion of course architecture and history. It was our common interest in the game that connected me to these great people, but our friendships have gone far deeper. I find myself enjoying getting to know them more just as much as the courses we’re playing together, with modern connectivity allowing us to extend our 19th hole conversations indefinitely.

Therefore, where I choose to spend my time and resources playing is now strictly on courses that are likely to meet my standards for greatness—some new, but an increasing percentage tried-and-true. And further, it is a rarity that I find myself legging out a solo round on some new (to me) course just because it’s on a list. There are obvious exceptions. Your number gets called for Cypress, Pine Valley, Augusta, etc., you find a way to go, no matter what. Beyond those “once in a lifetime” experiences though, I will take course+camaraderie over just the course, every day.

Scenes from an emergency nine at Cal Club

Let’s take this year’s CA Swing as an example of these standards in practice. A quick trip to the Bay Area afforded me the privilege of a return visit to one of my favorite courses. A stone’s throw away is another top club, which I have not yet played, but could likely be accessed with enough effort. It would be nice to play that course, and it is possible that I might like it marginally more than the one I was visiting. Some people do. But on a trip like this with limited time, playing there would not only have meant foregoing a round at one of my all-time favorites. It would have meant losing time with my buddies. It might have also cost me the opportunity to make a new friend, who as a long-time sports reporter, regaled us with terrific stories from years on the NFL and PGA Tour beats. For me, the value of that kinship far outweighs another check on my list.

Had it been possible, I most certainly would have made time to see the San Geronimo Golf Course in Marin. Unfortunately, as detailed in my previous article, the battle over the course has left it in an unmaintained state. I did, however, have the honor of attending the Save San Geronimo fundraiser at Terrapin Crossroads in San Raphael. An inspiring spirit was alive and well among this group of warriors who are fighting to bring their community course back to life. As confirmation that I was in the right place, a conversation with the winner of the auction of a trip to Sand Valley revealed that he bought it for his buddies, with whom he has been taking golf trips for 35 years. My hope for every golf geek is the ability to some day claim such a track record.

My exploration of great golf courses started with a focus on the playing fields. After years of adventure, I have finally realized that key ingredient for me is the players. Great courses can be found and accessed by the open-minded and motivated, regardless of means. Upon identifying the venue, sharing the experience with good friends is what makes one’s favorites transcend any rating, ranking or list.

Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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A WIN-WIN-WIN SOLUTION AT SAN GERONIMO

This installment of the GeekedOnGolf Community Golf series looks at the fight to save and reinvent San Geronimo Golf Course in Marin County, CA

For centuries, a story has been unfolding in the San Geronimo Valley, highlighting the relationships between people and the land, and each other. Important questions about stewardship, land use, ecology and community have been raised over the years, with complex and ambiguous answers. The fight to save the San Geronimo Golf Course is just the most recent chapter in the history of an area where tensions between competing interests make finding win-win solutions to problems more challenging. The question about the immediate future of this community course will soon be answered, and the next phase of the relationship between the people and this land will begin. What remains to be seen thereafter is what will become of the relationships among the residents of the valley and Marin County at large.

An Evolving Landscape

The San Geronimo Valley is in the heart of Marin County, over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It is home to several small towns surrounded by open space preserves. Creeks meander down from the hillsides and combine to form the ecologically important Lagunitas Creek Watershed that is habitat for endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Native American tribal territories – Credit: Drake Navigators Guild

The oldest known stewards of this land were the Coast Miwok people. Evidence suggests that going back more than 4,000 years, these indigenous hunter-gatherers used controlled burns to manage vegetation, promoting the growth of oaks that provided them acorns. They also caught fish in the creeks and hunted deer. Among their first contacts with European explorers was Sir Francis Drake, who reached the coast in 1579. Other settlers and fortune hunters followed, reducing the Miwok population from thousands to the low hundreds when their lifestyle and stewardship gave way to ranchers and farmers in the mid-19th century.

By the 1950s, Valley leadership recognized the need for a plan to better organize resources for the growing community. Recreation was a part of that plan, including a golf course.

The San Geronimo Valley in 1952 – Credit: Josh Pettit

A Scot and an Irishman came to America long after the Englishman Drake, each making their own mark on the West Coast. The one that most golfers have heard of is Dr. Alister MacKenzie, designer of Meadow Club, Cypress Point, Sharp Park and Pasatiempo. The other is Arthur Vernon Macan Jr.—a top amateur golfer who spent his days in the company of luminaries such as Bernard Darwin and Charles Alison, competing on and discussing the storied courses of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1908, he emigrated to British Columbia in Canada and earned his first commission as a course designer at Royal Collwood, which opened for play in 1913.

“Royal Collwood set the standard for West Coast architecture before Pebble Beach or Cypress Point,” said Jeff Mingay, golf course architect and student of Macan. “He was brilliant at routing, was a master green builder, and his courses drained really well—he pioneered golf course architecture in the west.” Macan made his way south to the Bay Area, working at high profile clubs like California Golf Club of San Francisco. His decades-long career would end in the San Geronimo Valley, with the opening of the community course in 1965. It would include his trademark, solid routing and challenging green contours, in a lovely natural setting. “Macan made clay models of his greens,” explained Mingay. “The only surviving model, which is now at the British Columbia Golf Museum, is from San Geronimo.” The course, which would be enjoyed by the community for generations to come, was an important piece of the history of golf architecture in America.

The San Geronimo Golf Course in 2017 – Credit: Josh Pettit

Of course, most of the players and other visitors to San Geronimo Golf Course could have cared less about the design pedigree of their local gem. For adults of all ages and skill levels, it was a place to get outside, connect with friends and nature, and have a go at capturing the magic of a few well-struck shots and holed putts. For boys and girls, it was a welcoming spot to learn the game and perhaps graduate to playing on one of the high school teams that used the course for matches. For non-golfers, it was an open space to walk the dog or take a stroll while good-naturedly pondering why on earth a sane person would ever become obsessed with trying to get a little white ball into a hole in the ground. San Geronimo was ground for recreation, and it was beloved by its community.

The facility had notably overcome two of the major issues plaguing courses across the country—financial and ecological sustainability. The Lee family, which owned and operated San Geronimo from 2009 through 2017, turned solid profits, in spite of the ebbs and flows of golf participation during that period. They emanated an inclusive spirit and embraced a multi-use approach to event hosting, activity offerings and tending of a community garden.

The Lees were also sensitive to the ecological impact of their golf operation. In 2014, the comprehensive Coho-Friendly Habitat and Operations Plan for the San Geronimo Golf Course was created in partnership with the community, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN). It set out to provide analysis and actionable recommendations for enhancement of riparian habitat, stormwater management, water use, integrated pest management and invasive species management (click here to see the Coho-Friendly plan). The document is thorough, holistic, well-conceived and a credit to the collaborative process of those involved.

It is worth highlighting that the Lees voluntarily participated in that process, and followed up by taking action on the recommendations for pest management, water use and invasive species management. Community volunteers also began pilot projects to enhance salmon and trout habitat in the creeks. “The previous owners of the golf course did a good job of not modifying the creek,” said Eric Ettinger, aquatic ecologist with the Marin Municipal Water District, in an interview. “I don’t think the golf course was ever the problem for salmon in the watershed.” The Lees and their partners in the community were taking action not because they had caused the problem, but rather because they saw an opportunity to be a part of the solution.

A Shift in Direction

In the midst of community-driven progress, San Geronimo was sold 2017, setting off a regrettable chain of events that has left the course in limbo. Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni led an effort to entice the Trust for Public Land to purchase the golf course at a premium, presumably to ensure that it would not fall prey to developers. Once the TPL ownership had been secured, Marin County would step in, purchase the land and “rewild” it into parkland. From the perspective of a single-minded champion of conservation, this plan likely seemed like a stroke of genius, justifying the lack of public consultation and transparency. The community had a different reaction.

The residents of Marin lean activist, to say the least, and when they got wind of the Rodoni-TPL deal, they got active. When attempts to get their voices heard by County Supervisors and TPL representatives failed, the San Geronimo Advocates group filed a lawsuit to block the resale of the golf course to Marin County, ironically on environmental protection grounds. The Advocates won, causing the county to walk away from the deal. The Trust for Public Land continued operations at the course for a time, but it now lays fallow. The community did not confine its advocacy to the courts, however. They organized and collected more than 12,000 signatures to qualify a ballot measure for March of 2020 that would protect the existing designation of golf as the primary use of the San Geronimo land, unless a future public vote determines otherwise.

The faces of San Geronimo – Credit: SaveSanGeronimo.com

Reading through the letters-to-the-editor and local news stories regarding the fight to save San Geronimo, two things become abundantly clear. First, the battle is over more than a golf course. It is about the right of the people to participate in the process of determining how land in their community will get used. Second, this fight has become emotionally charged, with trust diminished and nerves raw. In violating its publicly stated principle to “work with communities to ensure that development happens for them, and not to them,” the Trust for Public Land has done damage that will take some time and effort to repair.

The Path Ahead

Why should valuable public land be used for the benefit of a few rich, white guys? This hackneyed question that the game of golf’s detractors love to trot out when debating public resource allocation is particularly misplaced at San Geronimo. The broad spectrum of players at the course, and the thousands of local ballot initiative supporters make this point emphatically. Golf provides recreational benefits to its players, and San Geronimo’s value as an open, green space and managed fire break extend well beyond golfers.

Further, the logic inherent in the question is fundamentally flawed. It implies that one kind of outdoor recreation (e.g. hiking, playing on a playground) is better than another (golf), and therefore more worthy of taxpayer support. The goal of any process of public land use planning should be to maximize recreational value to as many stakeholders as possible, ideally touching on aspects of ecology and community as well. It should not be to impose the values of the few on the many.

Josh Pettit has heard the “Why golf?” question while making the rounds to evangelize and pitch a new vision for the course. He grew up in Fairfax and learned to play the game at San Geronimo. Pettit went on to obtain a degree in Landscape Architecture and start his own business, Pacific Golf Design. He has been involved with the effort to save San Geronimo, offering his design services pro-bono. “San Geronimo always had a great reputation,” he recounted. “People from all over the area would come to play it. Given the overwhelming local support, the residents clearly still see the value in this golf course.” Pettit has sketched out a long-range plan that delivers wins to numerous stakeholder groups, and stands ready to jump in if given the chance by TPL, or a future owner.

Like the residents who wrote letters and collected signatures, Josh Pettit is both frustrated and determined. “The people at TPL initially expressed interest in my ideas, but it became clear that the conversation wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. The new owners seem not to have learned their lesson regarding connecting with the community as well. They have one website set up to gather public comments, with an air of open-mindedness. Another is dedicated to defeating the Advocates’ ballot measure. Given that the Trust for Public Land already has golf course properties in Colorado and New Jersey in their portfolio, their anti-golf stance at San Geronimo is curious. “One of the project managers who was not a golfer told me that he got emotional watching Tiger Woods win The Masters this year,” shared Pettit. Golf can have that effect. There is still hope.

For those in positions of authority and power who are convinced that their way is the right way, there will always be a temptation to bypass the messy democratic process and impose their will. This is a recipe for suboptimal outcomes and backlash. A vastly superior outcome for San Geronimo can be achieved if the various stakeholders work together, as they have in the past. The risk of refusing to do so is that one group gets their way with the land, but the fabric of the community is torn in the process. What point is there in winning the battle, if both sides ultimately lose the war?

The sun has not yet set – Credit: SaveSanGeronimo.com

It has been thousands of years since the San Geronimo Valley was wilderness. In the eras since, people have called the area home, managed the land, and used it for food, commerce and recreation, including golf. At the very least, for fire safety and ecological responsibility, generations to come will need to carry on that stewardship. In spite of missteps and conflict to this point, the opportunity still exists at San Geronimo to evolve the land once again to create an outstanding community asset that delivers immense recreational and ecological value. Here’s hoping that all parties involved take a step back, take a breath, and find that win-win-win.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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EMBRACING MACDONALD’S LEGACY AT SLEEPY HOLLOW

An in-depth look at the evolution of the C.B. Macdonald-designed and Gil Hanse retrovated Sleepy Hollow Country Club

“From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of Sleepy Hollow…A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.”

— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Perhaps there was a time when the public’s consciousness of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor’s work at Sleepy Hollow Country Club fit this description from Irving’s classic tale. With a retrovation of the course led by Gil Hanse now largely complete, players and architecture enthusiasts are fully awake to its greatness. In The Legend, suitors Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones vie for the heart and soul of Katrina Van Tassel, climaxing in a ghostly confrontation at a crossroads in the woods. That story foreshadows the challenge Hanse, consultant George Bahto and the club’s leadership would ultimately have to face. Standing at a crossroads, haunted by ghosts of architects past, which path would they take? By committing to recapturing the heart and soul of Macdonald’s Sleepy Hollow, they laid those ghosts to rest in a fashion that can best be described as legendary.

The Evolution of a Design Philosophy

By all accounts, Charles Blair Macdonald was a man of both feisty temperament and erudition. He was worldly and his wide-ranging interests included commerce, art, sport and architecture. Through his studies, he became aware of the work and writings of Humphry Repton, who was influential in Britain around the turn of the 19th century, coining the term “landscape gardener”. As Macdonald would later be considered the father of American golf course architecture, Repton’s publishing of The Art of Landscape Gardening in 1797 conferred upon him similar patriarchal status in his field. A passage in the book was particularly resonant with Macdonald and would send him down a path of evolution toward his distinct brand of design: “I can only plead that true taste in every art consists more of adapting tried expedients to peculiar circumstances than in the inordinate thirst after novelty, the characteristic of uncultivated minds, which from facility of inventing wild theories, without experience, are apt to suppose that taste is displayed by novelty, genius by innovation, and that every change must necessarily tend to improvements.”

Perhaps a respect for the traditions of the game and its playing fields came from time spent with Old Tom Morris in St. Andrews, but even while pushing the craft forward, Macdonald retained a connection to the unequivocal greatness of the old links. He did not believe that new and different necessarily equated to better in creative pursuits.

George Bahto, wrote the book on C.B. Macdonald, literally. In assembling his compendium of Macdonald’s life and work, The Evangelist of Golf, Bahto and his collaborator Gib Papazian illuminated the progression from a restless dissatisfaction with the quality of America’s courses to the creation of the ideal golf course at National Golf Links of America.

Another writer, Horace Hutchinson, built on the intellectual momentum of Repton when he published articles in Golf Illustrated in 1901 exploring the best and hardest holes of that time. Macdonald was affected by the articles’ premise. “These discussions certainly caught the attention of Charlie Macdonald,” wrote Bahto. “Why shouldn’t America have golf equal to that in the British Isles? In his mind, the content of the article was the definitive listing of those holes reverenced by the world’s greatest players. If America was to have golf that compared to that in Britain, its courses must be based on the same timeless genius as those across the Atlantic.”

From 1902-1906, a series of voyages back across the Atlantic ensued. With an assist from Devereux Emmet, a study was made of the greatest holes of the British Isles with the original intention of replicating them on American soil. “Now why should not one try to absorb that sanctified tradition of each hole by copying its features in another climate where in time tradition might sanctify its existence,” wrote Macdonald “The flowers of transplanted plants in time shed a perfume comparable to that of their indigenous home.” The plan to transplant holes morphed into a distillation of the strategy and features that could be drawn upon to create new courses. Bahto described that shift of focus, “It became clear to Macdonald that his original concept of topographic duplication was not as relevant to the quality of the course as the individual strategic elements.”

The land on which The National was built was optimal for Macdonald’s first experiment with his ideal concepts approach to design. It shared characteristics with traditional linksland—unforested, with topographical movement that was interesting, rather than severe. The project also fortuitously connected Macdonald with Seth Raynor. The combination of the former’s ideas with the latter’s surveying and engineering brilliance, applied to that land, resulted in a masterpiece. But what about more “peculiar circumstances”, as Repton put it? Would the approach hold up on wilder terrain? The duo’s next three projects at Piping Rock, St. Louis Country Club and Sleepy Hollow, which opened for play in 1914, proved that the ideal concepts could be applied to great effect on any site.

The original course explored the slope, the ridge and the valley, with the greater portion on the clubhouse side. Although the routing stayed mostly close to home, there was an adventurous spirit to the manner in which Macdonald and Raynor laid their ideal holes out on the dramatic landforms. Their creation was well received, but it would not take long for the course at Sleepy Hollow to begin evolving away from this starting point.

Calling in the Cleaner

How did a man who was a dry cleaner by trade become the foremost authority on the work of one of the Golden Age masters? Serendipity, or rub-of-the-green, had a strong hand in George Bahto’s story. He took up golf as an adult in New Jersey and found himself drawn to courses with bold features. Curiosity about the who, how and why behind his favorite holes and courses led him to the discovery of Charles Banks. Research on the protege Banks uncovered the mentor Seth Raynor, which subsequently brought him to Charles Blair Macdonald. The men’s creative approach fascinated Bahto, and down the rabbit hole he went, resulting in an avocation as a golf architecture historian.

Bahto connected with Gil Hanse, who got him involved in his first construction project at Stonebridge Golf Links, a course that drew some design inspiration from the philosophy of Raynor. It would not be his last. In writing The Evangelist of Golf, George Bahto enlightened the world on the value of C.B. Macdonald’s approach to design. He cleaned up Macdonald’s image, and the thinking of many club Green Committees who had been directly or indirectly degrading his courses for decades. It should therefore come as no surprise that some of those clubs would turn to Bahto for counsel, including Sleepy Hollow, which brought him on as a consultant.

It is worth noting that in all of Bahto’s writing about Charles Blair Macdonald, one word is conspicuously absent. That word is “template”, which has become shorthand when referring to the holes Macdonald, Raynor, Banks and others created using the ideal concepts. Unfortunately, the term carries with it the potential for an intellectually lazy inference that Macdonald and Raynor’s design process was somehow akin to dumping out a bag of cookie cutters and arranging them willy nilly across the landscape. The strength of each of the holes at Sleepy Hollow, with their strategically placed hazards and wondrously varied greens, is evidence that any downgrade to the ideal concepts approach as involving shortcuts is entirely off-base. The application of timeless and proven design elements to a unique landscape is more demanding because the architect is choosing to adhere to a constraint. There is no bailout, and no acceptance of inclusion of weak holes on a course. Bringing the course back up to Macdonald’s higher standard, and his constraints, was the challenge that would occupy Gil Hanse and his team for more than a decade.

The Retrovation

By the time that Gil Hanse found himself standing at a design crossroads with George Bahto at Sleepy Hollow, he had already traveled a long road to gain an understanding and appreciation for the architectural roots that gave rise to America’s Golden Age. He followed in Macdonald’s footsteps by taking an extended study trip to the British Isles, returning to initially work for Tom Doak before venturing out on his own. In 2003, as Hanse Golf Design was beginning to gain momentum, Hanse contributed an essay entitled “Stop Making Sense!” to Paul Daley’s Golf Architecture: A Worldwide Perspective in which he shared a point of view that at first glance seems discordant with respect for Macdonald’s philosophy.

“The use of natural landforms to create interesting and creative golf holes should not be held to any formulas,” wrote Hanse. “If a rule must be stated, it should be that no rules apply to the use of a landscape to create playing grounds for golf. The golf course architect should be creative in utilizing natural features to dictate the strategy of the course. Inherent in the unique character of every site are unique golf holes just waiting to be discovered. Is this not the true challenge of golf course architecture, to build fresh and innovative holes that derive their beauty, playability, and interest from their natural surrounds?”

Repton might have raised an eyebrow reading those words. There are certainly times when exercising one’s creative license courageously involves blazing a new trail. Making the choice to honor tradition is not mutually exclusive with creative freedom by default though. As it turned out, Hanse’s focus on working from the ground up, coupled with his reverence for the Golden Age, was exactly the remedy needed to cure Sleepy Hollow’s ills. Over the years since Raynor completed the original eighteen, the course had changed considerably. New holes were created by Tillinghast and others when land was sold and the club expanded to 27 holes.

The expanded 27-hole routing after Tillinghast’s addition

More recently, other architects and green committees without the benefit of Bahto’s knowledge of Macdonald made further modifications that altered hole strategies and aesthetics for the worse. The initial wave of retrovation focused on consistency of style, primarily of the bunkering, prioritizing the Tillinghast holes. Those phase one changes having been well received, Hanse and the club’s leadership decided to fully embrace Macdonald’s ideal concepts. This decision was momentous at two levels. First, they were removing the work of A.W. Tillinghast in the Westchester neighborhood where he reigns supreme. Second, they were choosing to accept Macdonald’s standard for greatness. They were all in.

“Deciding to remove the work of Golden Age architects, especially one as prolific as Tillinghast, is always a difficult choice,” explained Hanse’s associate Ben Hillard, who worked extensively on the Sleepy Hollow retrovation. “If you consider golf architecture in Westchester County, Macdonald & Raynor have one course and Tillinghast has a handful, including a couple of masterpieces. With the bulk of the holes to be restored/renovated being Macdonald & Raynor, a more cohesive course could be made by taking the Tillinghast holes and replacing them with holes like ‘Road’, ‘Knoll’ and ‘Double Plateau’, some of which had been lost when the club sold land to the North side of the property in the late 1920s.”

It would not be enough to simply add those features and holes back into the mix, however. They had to do so in a manner that would fit the land as well as if the Macdonald and Raynor had done it themselves. In being attuned to the landscape at such a high level, Hanse was able to channel the true genius of Macdonald’s ideal concepts. The Leven 1st, Road 8th and others are new, but could easily be mistaken for originals. The remaining holes were brought even further into line with the ideals. The following montage of the Short 16th illustrates the extent of the transformation over time.

The original short – Credit: Simon Haines

Before the retrovation began, with misfit bunkering – Credit: GolfClubAtlas

After phase one of the retrovation with trees removed, bunkering and green partially restored

Excavation of the tee and green surface begins – Credit: Ben Hillard

Restoring the thumbprint – Credit: Ben Hillard

Grassing the newly shaped putting surface – Credit: Ben Hillard

Gil taking in the finished product – Credit: Ben Hillard

Bunker and thumbprint fully retrovated

A place where magical moments happen at Sleepy Hollow

Like Macdonald and Raynor, George Bahto would sadly not be alive to see this current, magnificent iteration of the course that began a century ago. The spirit of all three men and their ideals can be found in the completed work of Hanse and Hillard, and one can safely surmise that generous praise and approval would be forthcoming.

The Course

“…there is a little valley or rather lap of land among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquillity.”

Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

The club takes its name from the Pocantico River valley in which it sits. The Dutch name for that river was Slapershaven, or “sleepy harbor”. Although it might have accurately described their maritime activities, “sleepy” is not an adjective that applies to the land the course traverses.

Arriving at the grand front gate, visitors are immediately aware that an awe-inspiring experience awaits. The drive up to the mansion that now serves as the clubhouse provides tantalizing glimpses of golf holes arrayed across the hillside. After a warm welcome from staff and members alike, players walk onto a porch with stunning views of the Hudson River and Palisades of New Jersey beyond. Before striking the first shot of the day, the spirit is already soaring.

The first two holes bring players up the western side of the ridge that serves as the anchor feature in the routing. The 3rd through 15th explore the terrain high and low on the eastern side. The iconic 16th returns players to the top of the ridge, from which the final two holes return home. A loop around Sleepy Hollow has a literary quality that would make Irving proud. The story builds in a broad arc toward climax, interspersed with moments both dramatic and quietly sublime.

The Hanse retrovation unified Sleepy Hollow, and Superintendent Tom Leahy and his team continue to refine and present it beautifully. It is a highly cohesive golf course comprised of eighteen holes, each worthy of study and appreciation. To allow for an examination at depth, the tour that follows includes original sketches by Gil Hanse (@Gil_Hanse), the artwork of Tom Young (@BallparkBlueprints), the photography of Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) and commentary from Ben Hillard (@Ben.Hillard). Playing the course has a wonderfully transportative effect—we invite you to get similarly carried away as you read on.

HOLE #1 “Leven” – 418 yards – par 4

The 1st is finally a worthy start to this golf course. Gil Hanse knocked down trees and opened better views, and turned a flat, boring green into a wild one. Though it doesn’t get the publicity that some of the other holes do, this is low-key one of the most improved holes on the course. “This hole was not in either of the first two renditions of the golf course and was built at some point in the 1930s,” explained Hillard. “We transformed it into a Leven by introducing a whole new strategy to the hole. Golfers are encouraged to play towards or past a big bunker on the left edge of the fairway to provide the best angle into the green which is protected by a mound short right.”

HOLE #2 “Climbing” – 372 yards – par 4

The short par-4 second is a transition hole—it’s main purpose is simply to take a player from the bottom part of the course to the upper shelf. These kinds of uphill transition holes are usually rather boring, but this is one of the better versions of its kind, thanks to an exciting green sloping hard back-to-front and a deep bunker front right. This is a birdie opportunity, but it’s also a hole that can bite the careless player. We speak from experience when we say that you can be on this green in two, in the front bunker in three and walking off with a triple before you know what happened.

HOLE #3 “Eden” – 172 yards – par 3

The 3rd is the first of Sleepy’s brilliant foursome of par-3s, and maybe the best of the bunch. With a panoramic view of the Hudson at your back, you play over the ravine to a huge, sloping green protected in front by a deep Strath bunker. Hanse’s restoration of this green opened up an infinite number of outstanding hole locations, and it’s not uncommon to have a putt that breaks more than 10 feet.“The green for the third hole originally played as a blind ‘Alps’ from somewhere near the current 5th tee area,” recounted Hillard. “This can be seen in the earliest plans of the course. At some point the hole changed to being the mid-length par-3. Although called an Eden it lacked the proper characteristics. The decision was made to build an entirely new green and bunkers for the hole—only the very deep bunker on the right hand side of the green was original.”

HOLE #4 “Headless Horseman” – 415 yards – par 4

Be sure to take in the view of the famous 16th and the river behind and check the pin location on the blind Punchbowl 15th, then try to avoid the fairway bunker up the right. Long tee shots will clear the ridge and offer a view of the skinny, deep green, which was expanded by Hanse’s crew. The connected complexes and shared bunkers of the 4th and 14th are a personal favorite.

HOLE #5 “Panorama” – 435 yards – par 4

Another strong par-4 on the front side, and a LinksGems favorite. The tee shot over the hill is completely blind, and players need to stay to the right to avoid rolling out into the rough on the left. Cresting the hill in the rolling fairway is one of the great visual reveals in all of golf, and the uphill approach to this infinity green is among the most exciting shots on the course. The putting surface has been significantly expanded to the right and the views from this spot are some of the best on the property.

HOLE #6 “Lookout” – 475 yards – par 5

The first of only two par-5s at Sleepy, the 6th is an eagle opportunity if you can manage to put your drive in the upper fairway—easier said than done. A Principal’s Nose bunker guards the layup zone, and the green itself is canted sharply front to back. If you’re trying to hang a number, you need to make no worse than five here. “One of the coolest Macdonald/Raynor green complexes we’ve ever seen,” gushed Hillard. “George Bahto said that he’d never seen a Macdonald green like it.”

HOLE #7 “Redan” – 221 yards – par 3

The 7th holds the place of LinksGems all-time greatest reverse Redan. It plays steeply downhill to a green sloping HARD away toward the back right. Right-to-left shot shapes can attack the green directly, but a straight or left-to-right tee shots must use the slope. Shots played to the fairway left of the green will tumble all the way down to the right side of the green. Recent tree removal has brought the wind back as one of this hole’s many defenses and the green has been expanded to allow for additional hole locations.

HOLE #8 “Road” – 488 yards – par 4

This monster par-4 is the toughest on the course. Hitting the hog’s back fairway is a must, as players will then need to contend with the treacherous Road Hole bunker guarding this green front left. It looks big and plays bigger than that. Par here is a great score. “We converted this Tillinghast hole to a Macdonald ‘Road’, repurposing the existing hog’s back in the fairway, which adds a layer to the strategy of the hole,” said Hillard.

HOLE #9 “Knoll” – 424 yards – par 4

“The fairway bunkers on the 9th are truly penal, and any shot that misses the green left is in major trouble. The green itself—one of the few cut off from the fairway by a section of rough—can play relatively easy when the pin is up front, but is much tougher when the hole is cut on either of the back tiers. This is one of the most improved holes on the course. “We converted this one to a ‘Knoll’ with rough across the approach, which was a bit of a bold choice but it separates the playing and visual characteristics of the 9th and 11th holes,” Hillard elaborated. “We were particularly excited about how the 8th and 9th turned out, especially when looking down the two holes from the halfway house.”

HOLE #10 “Lake” – 168 yards – par 3

The 10th is a picturesque par-3, and the only hole at Sleepy Hollow with water near a green. “This is an all new green expanded out to the lake edge,” detailed Hillard. “We lowered it to make the green expansion work.” The two sets of tee boxes—one attached to the back side of the 9th green and the other short and left of it—combined with the huge spine installed in this green by Gil Hanse allows the 10th to play like four different holes in 1, depending on the day’s hole location. Putting across the spine is a lot of fun but not very healthy for your score.

HOLE #11 “Ichabod’s Elbow” – 433 yards – par 4

This par-4 favors a left-to-right tee shot, as it’s no fun trying to hit a long iron into this volcano green if the drive doesn’t get far enough up the fairway. It’s really a ‘hit it or else’ proposition—anything short will roll all the way back to the fairway, a miss left or right catches the deep bunkers (if you’re lucky), and if you go long, you might just want to keep walking into the clubhouse.

HOLE #12 “Double Plateau” – 536 yards – par 5

The second of the two par-5s and the first hole substantially changed by Gil Hanse, the 12th used to play as a hard dogleg par-4 to a green along the woods line. Hanse turned the hole into a beautiful par-5 playing through a rocky valley and over a winding creek to a beautifully designed Double Plateau green. “The Tillinghast green is still visible short and 100 yards right up on the hill,” Hillard said. “We also formalized the meandering brook to help with drainage and add strategy to the hole.”

HOLE #13 “Sleepy Hollow” – 408 yards – par 4

The 13th is the LinksGems selection for most underrated hole on the golf course. The ridge in the fairway hides some terrific squared off bunkering up the left side, while the green is guarded by one of the deepest bunkers on the course. As on the 11th, there are few good misses here—the little bunker in the face of the rise helps players more than it hurts them. “Very soft alterations were made to the front of the green to expand the pinnable area closer to the false front,” added Hillard.

HOLE #14 “Spines” – 414 yards – par 4

The par-4 14th marks the beginning of a four hole run from the highest point on the property to the lowest. Staggered cross bunkers make this an exciting tee shot, but the green is where the fun really begins. Formerly an unremarkable complex, Hanse restored two spines running from the back of this green toward the front, effectively chopping the huge putting surface into three smaller ones. “The original Macdonald green was manipulated at some point and significantly reduced in size,” Hillard explained “In looking at some aerials of the golf course from the 1924 aerial, we found a larger squared green with two spines running from the back well beyond the center that were begging to be recreated.” It is now in the realm of possibility to be on this green in regulation and make double.

HOLE #15 “Punchbowl” – 502 yards – par 4

With the exception of the 4th at Fishers Island, this is the LinksGems favorite Punchbowl. Blind from everywhere, the green can be hit directly, but players who aren’t long enough to make the full carry can land approaches 50 yards short up the left side and use the chute to bounce a shot into the bowl. When the hole is cut on the little shelf on the left edge of the bowl it plays a full shot harder. “We made minor edits to the green to introduce more pinnable space,” detailed Hillard, “and completed the punchbowl to ensure all balls that make it over the hill find their way onto the putting surface.”

HOLE #16 “Short” – 149 yards – par 3

One of the most photographed holes in the world (due in no small measure to LinksGems), this par-3 is as memorable as they come. From an elevated tee over a ravine to a square green ringed with sand and featuring a deep thumbprint, with the Hudson River and the Palisades below and beyond, this is like playing golf in a postcard. “Working off of an old photo from the club’s archives as well as what we saw in the ground, we figured that the original green had been manipulated at some point but not completely rebuilt,” said Hillard. “The horseshoe was still there, but the surface either side of it had been filled in. The high point of the horseshoe was identified and then we delicately removed that extra material to expose the original contours—an incredible moment for a shaper.” When the pin is in the middle, you’re thinking of making an Ace, but the real fun is playing to a pin on one of the edges—the green is pinnable to all eight sections outside the thumbprint.

HOLE #17 “Hudson” – 446 yards – par 4

On most courses, this hole would be the signature, but even after the 15th and 16th, the par-4 17th with a bridge and harbor view still impresses. The sharply canted fairway plays games with your head—the line is farther left than you think, and the bunkers down the right catch everything. The large green, which was expanded by Hanse’s team, makes the distance of the approach hard to judge. Trust your caddy, it’s farther than it looks.

HOLE #18 “Woodlea” – 426 yards – par 4

“This hole was built at the same time as the 1st hole in the ‘30s. A new, larger green was built inspired by Macdonald and Raynor, featuring a large false front and much flatter rear tying into the clubhouse steps,” concluded Hillard. “It sits much better on the landscape.” Playing back up to the mansion, this is your classic gut punch par-4 finisher—it will make your earn your match. The large tree on the right is murder on leaking tee shots, and the false front rejects indifferent approaches. The new back right section of this putting surface makes for some tough but fun recoveries, especially when the patio is crowded. A fitting finish for one of the greatest courses in the world.

Stories are often told of the great artists reaching inflection points in their work. Those moments when they can stay in their comfort zones or push forward into new territory. To leave a legacy requires the courage to take the latter path. In embracing the philosophy of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor at Sleepy Hollow, not only did Gil Hanse evolve as an artist, he left a legacy for the membership and the game at Sleepy Hollow. The Legend’s author sums up best the impression left on the fortunate by a visit to this special place.

“If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.” 

Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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OPENING BANKS

Part 28 of the Journey Along the Shores series takes a look at our work to stabilize the canal banks and create vistas throughout the course

“What are you doing down there?” That is a frequently asked question that floats down from the ridges and bridges as we undertake work on the canal banks. The short and pithy answer is “weeding”. As is the case with many aspects of the journey along the shores, the full answer is a bit more involved, touching on golf, ecology, community and aesthetics. Retrovation work on the banks provides and instructive example of the broader effort to maximize the potential of our community golf course.

What is Retrovation?

Land is constantly evolving, subject to the forces of nature and the hand of man. During the process of creating the Ecological Component of the Canal Shores Master Plan, we were informed by the experts of the simple fact that a true restoration of our site was not possible because the canal is man-made. Restoring our property to its natural state would require filling in the canal. This is the same problem faced by many golf club green committees. It is often impossible to go back to square one, leaving it up to the leaders of a renovation project to decide how to proceed. Similar to many golf courses and clubs, we decided to move steadily forward with renovating Canal Shores while honoring its roots. We’re undertaking a “retrovation”.

What that means is that we have studied the ecological history of the area, and the design history of the course. Insofar as we can given contemporary constraints, we are basing enhancement projects on that historical perspective. For example, the photo above shows an early view of the canal, with the El bridge between the 12th and 3rd holes. The slopes are grassy, with dotted shrubs and trees. This hardwood savanna habitat is one of several native options recommended to us by the ecologists, with prairie and wet meadow being the others. This original intent for the land has been lost under invasive overgrowth, but we can retrovate it over time.

Restoring Scale

A priority for our clearing efforts has been in areas where issues of playability and safety exist on the golf holes. As the recap video below indicates, improving scale and visibility were the goals of the work performed on the 16th hole this fall.

The thrill of taking on the challenge of clearing the canal on this par-3 can only be fully experienced if players are able to see both the water and the land on the far side. Knowing the punishment for a poorly struck tee shot heightens the excitement and quickens the pulse. Pulling off the carry and seeing the ball land safely on the other side is the satisfying payoff that keeps players coming back. An added benefit of our work is that visibility improves safety in this section of the course that is highly trafficked by walkers.

Beyond the 16th, our ridge and bank clearing has focused on areas adjacent to tees and greens. The more buckthorn and invasive vines we cut back, the more sunlight gets to the ground and air flows over it. Those are the conditions necessary to keep our turf healthy and happy.

Bank Stabilization

One of the many problems created by the invasive species that have overrun Canal Shores is erosion. This seems counterintuitive for those who are used to looking at the course from eye level. They see green and assume that all is well. Taking a closer look beneath those green leaves reveals bare ground caused by the thick canopy of buckthorn and vines. That exposed dirt slowly washes off, destabilizing the roots of the trees. The trees begin to lean and ultimately fall, ripping up the bank as they go. The cycle of erosion continues. In some places on the property, the issue is quite evident and will need to be addressed with machinery in a larger renovation. For now though, we can help to stabilize the banks through clearing.

Photo Credit: The Nature Conservancy

A seed bank of grasses, flowers and other forms of ground cover exists throughout the course. When we clear brush, vines and dead trees, the sun hits the ground allowing the seeds to grow. Plant coverage is what holds the banks together best, and although some of the plants that grow are undesirable, we are also seeing stands of goldenrod, phlox, milkweed and other pollinator-friendly natives. After clearing, we can enhance the areas over time according to the guidelines of the Master Plan.

Compression & Release

In addition to being a fun and playable golf course, we also want Canal Shores to be visually interesting and beautiful for the broader community. Diverse, healthy habitat is one factor in achieving that goal. Employing the design principle of compression and release is another. This concept was advocated by Frank Lloyd Wright and his landscape architecture contemporaries, and basically refers to complementing confined spaces with more expansive ones.

As players and walkers make their way around Canal Shores, they will find alternating sections—some with dense vegetation and trees, and others with open vistas containing specimen trees or small copses that have been tagged by the ecologists for preservation. These complementary spaces create a rhythm to the journey of compression and release. The map below indicates (in purple) where we have begun to create the vistas.

At the north end of the property an opening is planned right of the 6th green, allowing players to see Wilmette Harbor and Lake Michigan from the upper tee on the 7th.

Restoring playability and visibility to the 9th is well underway. A vista between the 3rd and 11th greens has also been started.

Clearing to increase light and air for the 13th green and 2nd has begun to improve turf health, while also creating a vista. The areas between 14 green / 15 tee and 17 green / 18 tee are also being opened up.

In keeping with our theme of community, these vistas also allow visitors to catch glimpses of other people enjoying outdoor recreation. There is a pleasurable camaraderie that is fostered by seeing our friends and neighbors at play that extends beyond the course out into the community.

At present, these clearing and enhancement efforts carry on in “pilot project” mode, but with an eye to bigger retrovation steps in the future. We welcome volunteers willing to come pitch in labor, as well as donors who would like to sponsor improvements. As we make progress, we hope that you come out to visit and enjoy our open banks.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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COASTAL BIASES – ST. LOUIS C.C.

A look at how C.B. Macdonald unleashed his creativity across the rolling hills of St. Louis Country Club

Charles Blair Macdonald was not lacking in self-assurance. He expressed his supreme confidence through action and proclamation. The action was to create a portfolio of golf courses, topped by National Golf Links of America, that would revolutionize golf course architecture in the U.S. and spark the Golden Age. One of his many pronouncements was that the greatest ground for golf was in New York, specifically on Long Island. To go along with his healthy ego, C.B. had a coastal bias.

I fancy myself to be less egotistical than Charles Blair Macdonald, but do I share his bias? As a third coast Chicagoan, I live in the area considered by those in the East and West to be flyover country. The best of the country’s golf, the coastal players say, is in places like Long Island, Westchester, Boston, Philadelphia, Monterey, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The courses in Chicago are nice, but they don’t quite measure up. In smaller midwestern cities like St. Louis? Not even in the conversation. While I bristle at slights to my hometown, introspection reveals that coastal bias has seeped into my consciousness. Perhaps that is why I never quite believed claims made about the greatness of St. Louis Country Club.

My buddy Derek is well-traveled, and a man of typically impeccable taste. Among his endearing qualities, however, is a penchant for coming out of left field with a hot take. Many a raucous debate has arisen from this tendency. That is why, after returning from his visit to St. Louis Country Club, I was both skeptical and intrigued when he claimed it to be among Macdonald and Raynor’s very best designs. The coastal bias in me discounted Derek as temporarily insane for comparing St. Louis to The National or Piping Rock, but my inner geek hoped he was right. I resolved to see for myself, and set about making preparations.

Architectural Ideals Move West

By the time that C.B. Macdonald received the inquiry from the membership at St. Louis C.C. about designing a new course on recently acquired land in Ladue, his architectural collaboration with Seth Raynor was clearly ascendant. The pair had confirmed the merit of Macdonald’s concept of employing timeless design ideals at National Golf Links, which opened to acclaim in 1910. They subsequently proved themselves beyond one-hit-wonder status at Sleepy Hollow and were hitting their creative stride as the opportunities began to roll in. To that point, Macdonald and Raynor’s work had been largely concentrated in the Northeast. One can speculate that as they headed west to the Gateway City, coastal bias and curiosity might have been engaged in an internal tug-of-war. Would the ground be good for golf? Would the players be sophisticated enough to appreciate their concepts?

Macdonald was met with the perfect conditions upon arrival in St. Louis. The club’s original course had been designed by James Foulis, and its head professional Willie Anderson was a four-time U.S. Open Champion. The membership, with leaders like George Herbert Walker, had a solid golf I.Q. and growing enthusiasm for the game. They knew exactly what they were getting with C.B. Macdonald and desired for him to paint creatively on the canvas they provided. In The Evangelist of Golf, George Bahto describes the onset of the relationship. “Arriving in St. Louis, (Macdonald and Raynor) found the site nearly perfect, with rolling terrain and many natural green sites on which to build their trademark holes.” wrote Bahto. “Free of the kind of interference from the club’s board that they had encountered on their two previous projects, Macdonald and Raynor went right to work.”

The course that Macdonald and Raynor delivered was an adventurous and eclectic mix of their ideal holes and originals. Concepts like Road, Punchbowl, Long, Narrows and Alps were all present and accounted for, each set expertly on the land with dashes of Macdonald’s panache. The set of one-shotters was stronger than usual as well. Renditions of the Biarritz, Eden, Short and Redan were each breathtaking, but the duo did not stop there. A fifth par-3 called Crater was added to the mix, arguably the best of the bunch.

For daily play, the course provided members and guests with infinite challenges and plenty of drama. It also held up quite well as a championship test. If good design identifies the best players, one need look no further than the 1921 U.S. Amateur results to ascertain the greatness of St. Louis C.C. Francis Oumiet was the stroke play medalist. Quarterfinalists included Bobby Jones, Chick Evans, Jess Sweetser and Robert Gardner. Jesse Guilford defeated Gardner 7&6 in the final match. Among the membership and golf luminaries of that time, the quality of Macdonald and Raynor’s creation was resoundingly confirmed. Nearly a century later, visitors to St. Louis Country Club are grateful that C.B. shelved his coastal bias and boarded that train headed west.

The Course

When the Ladue course opened, St. Louis was a club in the country. Today, it is a country club embedded in a neighborhood. Driving the adjacent streets and entrance road, visitors get glimpses of features that are as bold as ever, on beautiful land with long views through the old growth woods. In 2000, the club hired architect Brian Silva to develop a master plan for retrovating the course, which had strayed a bit from Macdonald’s intent. Over the ensuing years, Superintendent Tim Burch has continued to refine with assistance from Kye Goalby. Players today find a course that is true to its roots, wonderfully presented to be precisely the kind of lively challenge that Mcadonald and Raynor envisioned.

The artistry in the shaping of the hazards and greens is such that it is easy to get visually overwhelmed playing St. Louis. Deeper reflection reveals another layer of the brilliance of Macdonald’s design. Certainly, the features that he and Raynor built are incredible to behold, but where they chose to locate the greens and hazards is what maxes out the variety. The one-shot holes are sited using valleys to increase the intimidation and drama. Longer holes are routed with the result that at no point during a round does a player have two consecutive shots over level ground. Blind shots are scattered throughout the course, and uneven lies abound. Tee to green is a thrill ride, and the putting surfaces are equally varied and engaging.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

Convention goes out the window with the first stretch of holes at St. Louis. The opener is a par-4 that plays over a rise and then downhill to a canted green. Macdonald next tests players with two consecutive par-3s. The Biarritz 2nd and Eden 3rd are both brawny, penalizing still-cold swings that produce errant shots into the deep, flanking bunkers.

The 4th is a two-shot rendition of the famous Road Hole. Macdonald used a valley that cuts diagonally across the fairway to create the strategic challenge from the tee. The green features a pot bunker front-right, a trench bunker back-left and a road back-right, all as creative nods to the St. Andrews original. The par-5 5th plays past a large, snaking bunker left and a principal’s nose complex center before arriving at the punchbowl green. Navigating these novel features in pursuit of a gettable birdie is a geeky joy.

On the par-4 6th, players have a chance to get aggressive from the tee as they play position for the approach into a green that has pronounced plateaus. Bold putting surfaces continue at the Short 7th, with its devilish thumbprint. The 8th is a downhill Cape that works right around a creek to green set beautifully in a nook below an old stone wall.

The 9th is a more conventional hole by Macdonald’s standards, but again, he uses the land brilliantly. The drive is over a hill and if not struck well, leaves a tricky decision for how to handle the creek that cuts across the lay-up zone. After a halfway house stop where lingering for a moment is encouraged, players take on the uphill par-4 10th which culminates with another heavily sloped green. The 11th comes right back with its putting surface fronted by a set of mounded bunkers that look playful, but if found, punish.

The 12th is Macdonald’s original par-3 and it is a beauty. The canted green sits across a deep valley from the tee, surrounded by mounds and bunkers. The Long 13th requires three well conceived and executed shots as the fairway runs along a ridge that falls away right with both flanking and cross bunkers. The putting surface once again features enough tilt to make short putts knee-knockers. The par-4 14th turns and heads back over the same undulating ground to an outstanding green with redan characteristics. A pot bunker behind waits to grab overcooked approaches. This stout stretch of holes concludes with the course’s final five-par. Imposing cross bunkers are built into a ridge and obscure the approach into a big green with a towering back plateau. Surviving the 12th through the 15th without disaster is no small feat.

Players cross the street to tackle the closing stretch at St. Louis. The 16th is a prototypical reverse redan with a back bunker where many a poorly judged tee shot has gone to die. The par-4 17th plays uphill to a green intimately tucked in among bunkers and mounds. Putting an exclamation point on an incredible round, the closer is an Alps-Punchbowl with a 10-foot deep bunker fronting the green.

By journeying from the coast to the heartland, Macdonald discovered just how wide ranging was the opportunity to create great golf in America. He and Raynor married outstanding land with both timeless ideals and creative flair to produce an extraordinary course that deserves to be considered among the top tier of the Golden Age. Following in Macdonald’s footsteps, I arrived at St. Louis Country Club with my bias and left having experienced something truly special. Mea culpa, Derek. How right you were.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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INFINITELY INTERESTING – KINGSLEY CLUB

An in-depth look at Mike DeVries’s brilliant design at Kingsley Club

Our conversation was supposed to be focused on Mike’s thoughts about Kingsley as it approaches its 20th birthday. Before I knew what had happened, he had flipped the spotlight on to me and how my experience of the course has evolved over the years of playing it regularly. We did eventually get to his perspective, and in the process, I gained further insight into what makes Mike DeVries a great architect. Like all good designers, he studies the land and draws from a mental database of feature and hole ideas to lay out a course. There is an extra dimension that makes Mike special though. He is genuinely interested in how players experience a course. Not only those who play like he does and not only good players—he thinks about ALL players and he strives to create courses that engage them, regardless of how they play the game.

Taking into account that range of factors—the land, routing, strategy, aesthetic beauty, interesting features, drainage, agronomy, maintenance functionality, and the potential shots that any golfer of any skill level might hit—is a tall order. In fact, it is beyond the capability of a person with average mental computing power to handle. Mike DeVries is a world-class architect because he has that power and he cares to use it in pursuit of creating golf courses that will hold their interest over time and repeat play. That is what he accomplished at Kingsley Club, and that is fundamentally why I love it now more than ever.

Great or Not at All

Spend any time with Ed Walker, and it quickly becomes clear that sitting still is not his thing. His gears turn and he stays in motion, so it comes as no surprise that when faced with the choice between the waiting list at Crystal Downs and building his own course, he opted for the latter. That decision was by no means a repudiation of Dr. MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell’s northern Michigan masterwork. Quite the contrary. Walker and his partner Art Preston sought counsel from Fred Muller, long-time Crystal Downs professional, who suggested Mike DeVries. “I spent thousands of days at The Downs, playing with family and working on the grounds crew,” recalled DeVries. “Every day I was there, I learned something about architecture.”

The group of men began to explore a piece of land that Walker and Preston had access to in the fall of 1998, with DeVries working on various routings. “Art and Ed just wanted a great golf course, and I wanted to create an experience like The Downs,” DeVries recounted. “We agreed that if we couldn’t meet that standard with that land, we wouldn’t build it at all. We’d go find a parcel where we could.” With an adventurous and walking-focused routing finally determined, construction began. The front nine was completed in 2000 and the back nine in 2001.

DeVries drew upon his home course for inspiration at Kingsley, and he also looked to the Home of Golf. “The Old Course is a riddle that players have to unlock,” said DeVries. “My goal was for Kingsley to have that same quality. It is very playable, but not simple.” The kind of design that he delivered only reaches its full potential if the right agronomic and conditioning choices are made though. “Fortunately, the ownership and membership care more about how the turf plays than how it looks,” explained DeVries. “When it comes to growing fast and firm fescue, (Superintendent) Dan Lucas is a genius.”

The course was more than a decade old when I first experienced it in 2013. After a full season of play, it inspired me to share a novice perspective on what captured my attention and heart—the interest, variety and beauty. Looking back on those early impressions, they were on point for me at the time. But the question remained, after several more years during which I would see many of America’s greatest courses, would Kingsley’s stature endure? Would it continue to hold my interest when compared to the best among its contemporaries, as well as the works of the Golden Age masters?

Exploring the Depths

Mike DeVries has gone on to design and build other outstanding courses including Greywalls at Marquette Golf Club and Cape Wickham, in addition to his noteworthy retrovation work at classics like Meadow Club. His experience in his craft has broadened and deepened. With that perspective, how does he feel about Kingsley today? “I’m still super excited about it,” he responded without hesitation. He continues to enjoy watching players pick their lines and navigate the slopes of the greens and surrounds. What thrills him most is encapsulated in an early encounter. “Dan Lucas and I were out in a cart checking grass lines and discussing work to be done,” he recalled. “We came upon two members, one of whom played a lot of golf at a course that was more about execution than strategic thought. He stopped us to excitedly share how Kingsley changed his perspective, with all the shots to try and figure out.” DeVries chuckled as he told the story, satisfied in the surety that these and so many subsequent golf souls have been brought to the light.

As Mike talked, he illuminated how my own paradigm has shifted over the years and numerous loops around the course. After my initial introduction to Kingsley, I knew it was a riddle, but I still believed that it could be solved. I now see that the right answer to the question, “What’s the best way to play this hole?” is always, “It depends.” It depends on the day’s pin position, the weather, the wind, the time of day, and the stiffness and fatigue of my muscles. Add to those variables a brilliant design and the rub of the green delivered by the ball bouncing over firm turf, and there is truly no bottom to the well of Kingsley’s variety. The happiness of playing the course does not come from solving the riddle, but rather from the experience of trying.

Further, I understand Mike’s enjoyment of watching others play. It is my great pleasure to host fellow geeks at Kingsley. There is joy in watching these newbies take on the challenges of the course, with a mixed bag of victories and defeats a veritable certainty. I used to act as tour guide, explaining what I thought my comrades should do on each hole. These days, I try to keep my mouth shut, preferring to observe their voyage of discovery. Perhaps it’s mischievous to watch ping pong between the bunkers on the 2nd or a putt seemingly breaking uphill on the 12th without offering guidance. Kingsley is full of mischief, so I offer my apologies (and condolences) for hosting in a similar vein. To date, it has proven far better for each visitor to take their own dive into Kingsley’s depths.

The Course

Kingsley was initially intended to be walking only. It has evolved to allow for cart traffic, as well as other minor changes. Astute observers will note some of the differences between the original course map and the course today.

What remains the same are the wild movement of the land and the bold green complexes that give the course its character.

The seasons in northern Michigan are distinct and the weather is highly variable. Kingsley draws a moody personality from its setting. In the photo tour that follows, I am assisted by Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) and Noah Jurik (@Noah_Jurik) in bringing you those moods.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

As players stand on the elevated 1st tee with a giant center bunker staring them in the face, they often voice a question that is a theme. “Where am I supposed to hit it?” The par-5 plays over that hill down into a valley, and then back up to a two-tiered green in a partial bowl. The 2nd is a short par-3 that runs along one of the several dune ridges of an area known as the “south forty”. First-timers have the easiest time with this tee ball, as they don’t yet carry the scar tissue associated with missing the tiny green.

The next two four-pars run back and forth over undulating ground. The 3rd swings gently right to an angled green that plays like an inverted biarritz. The 4th is straightaway over a heaving fairway to an enormous putting surface in a bowl. Players don’t know if they have found the same section as the hole until they crest the fronting ripple. Quite the thrill ride!

The par-3 5th has some pins that are easy to access, and others that are nearly impossible. Regardless, it is always fun to throw a ball onto the left hillside and watch it scoot across the green. After conquering yet another sloped dune on the par-4 6th, players face what appears to be a benign approach. Arriving at the greensite, however, they find that shots left or long fall far away down steep slopes.

The stretch of the 7th through the 9th hugs a ridge created by two tall dunes on the west side of the property. On both the par-5 7th and par-4 8th, DeVries used the topography to create partial blindness and awkward angles. The one-shot 9th has a green that looks like a spaceship landed below the clubhouse when viewed from the hilltop tee boxes. Holes in one are a regular occurrence—almost as regular as double-pars.

After making the turn, players begin a journey into a new section of the site on the 10th. This two-shotter lays out simply and works its way up to a green at grade. Subtle internal contours often lead to head scratching on the putting surface. The par-3 11th has a canted green with easy hole locations front left and crazy tough ones back right. Many a pin seeking tee ball ends up tumbling off the right slope.

The lay-of-the-land 12th tumbles downhill with nary a bunker in sight. The thrill of hoisting a shot up against the blue sky from the elevated tee and then watching it float down to the fairway below is one of the most exhilarating on the course. The drivable par-4 13th offers players options off the tee and one of the boldest greens they’ll ever see, featuring high front and rear plateaus with a low bowl in the middle.

The tee shot on the par-5 14th is semi-blind to a fairway that turns right and then heads downhill. The tiered green is set in a nook between bunkers and a stone wall. The 15th turns back to climb uphill, providing Kingsley’s stoutest challenge. Hitting the angled and elevated green with one’s second shot demands precision on both the line and distance. The wooded stretch concludes with Kingsley’s redan-esque 16th, taking the player back up to a high point.

The rollercoaster par-5 17th begins the closing stretch. Tee shots that carry the hill run down far enough to leave a short second into the green, making birdie or better a real possibility. DeVries tests players with one final strategic par-4 on the home hole. Ideal position off the tee is dictated by the pin which can be in the open left, or tucked right side of the green. Until the very end, the mind and swing are fully engaged.

Back when I penned my first impression of Kingsley Club, I was eager to get to know the course much better. At the same time, there was a tinge of concern that someday I would arrive in the parking lot and not feel the same excited anticipation for the adventure ahead. Today, that fear is gone. The infinite interest of the course, painstakingly built by Mike DeVries and expertly presented by Dan Lucas’s team, is sure to engage me and other lucky visitors for decades to come.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf