Geeked on Golf


4 Comments

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


4 Comments

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


Leave a comment

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


2 Comments

GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS – PRAIRIE DUNES

An in-depth look at the design synergies created by the work of Perry and Press Maxwell at Prairie Dunes Country Club

When the membership of Prairie Dunes Country Club decided, almost 20 years after the opening of what was described as the greatest nine hole golf course in America, to have Press Maxwell complete the course started by his father Perry, skepticism would have been forgivable. Family businesses that pass from founders to heirs frequently underperform. We need look no further than the Jones family to see that relationships between fathers and sons are often complicated in art and commerce. And rarely was a Golden Age course added to or altered decades later for the better. The deck was stacked against Press, but in the end he delivered on his father’s vision in his own way. Prairie Dunes is not just a great original nine with nine more. It is a unified and cohesive father and son golf adventure. It is the Maxwells’ masterpiece.

The Sum of the Parts

Take a trip to the same course with the same buddies four straight years and two things happen. First, after dozens of rounds—from all tees, at all times of day, in all weather—you get to know the course well. Second, if those buddies be geeks, every aspect of the course is discussed and debated. Prairie Dunes is one of those rare courses that, over numerous rounds, not only holds attention, but deepens it.

A question arose in our discussion this year, posed from different angles: Which nine do you prefer, Perry or Press? Front or Back? The chalk answer is Perry/Front, giving maximum love to those holes designed by Perry Maxwell. The respect is deserved as the old man knew what he was doing, and arguably used the best land for his nine. To date, nobody has responded Press/Back. Sorry, junior. But some, including myself, give the somewhat nonsensical response Perry/Back. How could one say that they prefer Perry’s work, but choose the nine that only has three of his holes? For me, the surface reason is that my least favorite hole is on the front, and the three Perry holes on the back are among my favorites of his nine. Deeper consideration of this seemingly discordant perspective reveals the source of Prairie Dunes’s interest and greatness. The combination of the work of father and son produced a richness and variety greater than either could have achieved alone.

Several factors aligned to set Press Maxwell up for success in completing his father’s course. While in school, Press would come home to work on the construction crew on Perry’s projects under the direction of his uncle, Dean Woods. He observed first-hand how Woods translated the elder Maxwell’s vision into features on the ground, including the greens. Press also absorbed his father’s design principles, most notably the aversion to machinery driven earth moving from tee to green. Perry preferred to highlight the land, rather than remake it. By the time he graduated from college and joined the family business, Press was well indoctrinated into the Maxwell method. And finally, in routing the full eighteen, Perry did not simply tack on nine more holes in a separate area. He added three holes on one side and six on another, thereby blending together the old with the new.

From this foundation, Press completed the course staying true to his Perry’s principles. In some instances, he seemed to consciously play off his father’s holes. The 4th plays similarly to the 2nd. The 5th runs uphill along a dune like the 17th. The 12th green shares characteristics with the 6th, but amped up. And the 14th is the inverse of the 8th from tee to green. As most sons would, however, he did stretch his wings by adding creative flourishes that are among the most memorable on the course: the tee shot down to the angled fairway on the 3rd; the green-front hump on the 11th; the trees guarding the approach to the 12th; the lower back tier on the 14th green; the flanking trees on the 15th tee. Each of the eighteen holes at Prairie Dunes fits the land beautifully, is strategically bunkered without being cluttered, and is punctuated by an all-world green. While retaining that Maxwell consistency, father and son expressed their own artistic perspectives, resulting in the course’s singular greatness.

Could It Have Been Even Better?

The most common knock against Prairie Dunes centers around the three-pars. As single holes, each one is terrific, but as a set (the argument goes) they lack variety. All four play uphill. The yardages are in a narrow band: 161, 168, 185, 200. Holes 2, 4 and 15 play in a similar direction, diminishing the variability provided by the wind. Those who withhold the word “perfect” when describing the course on this basis are not entirely without standing. Our group fixes the yardage issue with creative teeing. Playing the 2nd up (138 yards), the 4th back (171 yards), the 10th up (128 yards) and the 15th back (203 yards) provides all the variety a player could want. It turns out that Perry Maxwell had it in mind to avoid the compass direction and elevation change issues with his original routing of holes 3 through 5, but that stretch was not built according to his plan.

What happened in the handoff from father to son? Based on a scan of the fantastic timeline research done by Ed Oden on the Perry Maxwell Archive, we know that the work on the first nine concluded in September, 1937. At some point prior to his death in 1952, Perry Maxwell completed the plan for the full eighteen. When Press began discussing building the remaining holes with the club in 1954, he reportedly had the plans in hand. By June, 1955 a newspaper prints the routing below, indicating the course we play today.

From the Hutchinson Herald / Perry Maxwell Archive

Zooming in on the current par-4 3rd, par-3 4th and par-4 5th, we find them looping around a dune ridge, with the 3rd and 4th on one side, and the 5th on the other.

Club lore and historical sources suggest that Press ran into “drainage issues” while trying to build the longer par-5 5th from Perry’s plan. But conflicting accounts muddy the water. In The Midwest Associate, Maxwell historian Chris Clouser points out, “But in an interview with Ron Whitten, (Press) would later say that he could never find the original routing his father created.” Did the son rebelliously disregard his father’s wishes in order to do his own thing, or was he simply solving a problem in the field not foreseen at the time of the original design? We’ll never know for sure. We can, however, speculate as to how Perry might have built this stretch of holes to solve the issue of par-3 variety.

It is generally agreed that Perry’s 3rd hole would have played to the current 4th greensite, retaining the distinctive drive while adding drama to the approach. Walking off the back right of that green and along the dune ridge above the 8th, players would them take on a drop-shot par-3. In Clouser’s account, that hole would have played in a direction too similar to the 10th, so I have taken the speculative liberty of flipping it, using the existing fantastic 3rd green as a stand-in. A slightly farther walk to the tee yields a short, downhill par-3 facing a different direction on the compass. The 5th could have remained a par-4, been stretched to a par-5, or both.

Press made the decision to build these holes as he saw fit for reasons unknown. Would his father’s version have been even better? Opinions vary. The fact that variety among four great one-shotters is the only criticism speaks to how strong Prairie Dunes is, and only a fool would repaint a portion of the Mona Lisa because it might be possible to make it a little bit better. Walking the fairways with fellow geeks, however, such harmless conjecture and daydreaming does add to the fun.

The Course

Returning to the course today, players find two nines with complementary characters. The outward half is compact with internal loops, two of which return to the clubhouse. The inward takes more of a wander out to the far corner of the property, and then back again. And as a bonus, at the right time of the day, visitors can easily play the Perry nine (1-2, 6-10, 17-18).

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

If the opening holes are any indication, Perry Maxwell was not a big fan of gentle handshakes. The 1st is a dogleg left par-4 with a wildly contoured green and surrounds. The 2nd is a short, uphill par-3 that is hard to hit, harder to hold, and harder still to putt. Getting out of the gate at level par is an accomplishment, especially when the wind is blowing.

Previous commentary notwithstanding, the first group of Press holes is terrific. The 3rd green is overlooked—it falls away on both sides and behind, and features brilliant, subtle internal contours. The 4th, with its shallow green above is quite demanding. Regular players are accustomed to the agony of watching approaches, and even putts, trickle down the false front. The 5th fits the land nicely, with a benched green that inspired Bill Coore’s work at Sand Hills.

Perry’s par-4 6th tumbles downhill from a dune-top tee. The green is deceptively fronted by a bunkered mound and has a glorious set of Maxwell rolls. The 7th is a sneaky good five-par that is reachable in two with the right wind and a confident drive over a rise in the fairway. Flanking bunkers guard a putting surface that pours out the back. Tricky recoveries abound for errant shots on the 7th.

The 8th is quite simply all-world. This par-4.5 plays up over a large hill to a green seemingly floating in air. Getting above the hole on the tiered putting surface is death. The 9th is an underrated straight-away four par with a rolling fairway and a table-top green that falls away on three sides. The one-shot 10th sits masterfully among the dunes, bringing to mind Maxwell’s work with Dr. Alister MacKenzie on the 14th at Crystal Downs.

Press next throws four straight four pars at players, each with its own distinct features. The dogleg left 11th is brawny, but its little green-front mound provides the biggest challenges. Sentinel cottonwoods guard the approach to the wild 12th green. A massive blowout tempts the bold on the inside of the bend on the 13th. The 14th swings downhill inviting players to have a go when the wind is right. Birdies are a possibility in this stretch, and so is a four hole ride on the bogey train.

From the back tee, the par-3 15th delivers one of the course’s most iconic looks. The tee ball must shoot the chute and then land softly on the elevated green. The 16th works uphill and right to a wonderfully angled green with a high left shoulder.

Prairie Dunes closes with two final Perry holes, each of which is magnificent. The uphill par-5 17th, with its tiny and tricky green, is a close relative to the 8th at Crystal Downs. Strategically brilliant, sometimes brutal. The home hole is a par-4 that calls for one more downhill, angled tee shot. Many a player has hopefully hoisted an approach only to helplessly watch it trickle off the left slope. Prairie Dunes ends as it began—making demands on the skills and patience of players.

Perry and Press, father and son, decades apart. With the complicated dynamics and gap in time, the creation equation at Prairie Dunes could very well have yielded mediocrity. Instead, the Maxwells’ course is exceptional in every sense of the word. The land, the vision and the execution add up to a whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


4 Comments

HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT – CROOKED STICK

The fifth edition of this season’s Upping My Dye-Q series asserts that Crooked Stick is among the three most important courses in the history of golf architecture in America

Golf course architecture in America has been marked by several eras, each with a short list of courses that epitomize the craft in their time. Early in the 20th century, Charles Blair Macdonald’s quest to create the ideal golf course, based on principles gathered from in-depth study of the courses of the British Isles, resulted in National Golf Links of America. Macdonald’s method set a new standard for design that would drive the Golden Age up until the Great Depression. In the early 1990s, a beloved professional and a largely unknown architect partnered to build a throwback masterpiece in the middle of Nebraska. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s Sand Hills Golf Club would be the spark that ignited the modern renaissance of course design that we are still enjoying today. These two courses, among others from their respective eras, are rightly held in esteem for their merit and importance. But what of the intervening period? Was there no course built between 1945 and 1990 that belongs in the same discussion? Indeed there is, and it is called Crooked Stick.

The period during which the Dyes cemented their legacy has been retrospectively dubbed the “Dark Ages” by some. This blanket condemnation is misplaced and fails to recognize the context in which architecture was practiced. Coming out of the Great Depression and World War II, Americans were feeling heroic and unbeatable. Architects, led by Robert Trent Jones, wielded technological power to create courses where growing numbers of players could demonstrate further heroism. There was an unfortunate sense of “out with the old, in with the new” that was an understandable reaction to emergence from such a dark period in world history. Pete and Alice Dye stood apart during the Heroic Age in their desire to blend the old with the new, and Crooked Stick was where they pounded their historically significant stake into the ground.

The Course (and Careers) that Might Not Have Been

Before diving into the aspects of Crooked Stick’s importance, a little context is appropriate. The success of the Dye’s development project was far from assured during its infancy, much like their budding careers as designers. Pete and Alice were accomplished players and had several courses under their belts, but to call them prominent architects nationally would have been a major overstatement when they set out to build the country’s premier modern golf club in the mid-1960s. They didn’t have the land, the money or the gravitas that would have made realizing the dream a safe bet. They did have support from a few key players in Indianapolis and Alice’s family, but it was not offered without a bit of trepidation. “The O’Neals were likely not entirely enthused about Pete and Alice’s career choice,” confirms club historian Chris Wirthwein, whose book Crooked Stick Golf Club: A Story of the Original Masterpiece from America’s First Couple of Golf chronicles the club’s history. Even Bill Diddell, founding member of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and early mentor to the Dyes, attempted to steer them in a less risky direction.

Pausing to reflect on this moment in time illuminates the first aspect of Crooked Stick’s historical significance. Pete and Alice, standing at a crossroads, could have chosen to abandon their dream, returning to comfortable lives of amateur golf, the insurance business and raising a family. Nobody would have judged them, and Alice’s family might even have celebrated. Instead, they courageously pressed on, and an arduous decade later, their vision and persistence was rewarded.

Had they given up, it is hard to imagine where course architecture would be today. Not only would there have been no counterbalance to the influence of the Jones and Fazio families, but the Dye Family design tree would never have existed. Might we have never heard from some of their progeny?

To name a few…Dave Axland, Chris Cochran, Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw, Brian Curley, Bob Cupp, Tom Doak, P.B. Dye, Perry Dye, Roy Dye, John Fought, Chris Gray, Gil Hanse, John Harbottle, David Heatwole, Bruce Hepner, Rick Jacobson, Stephen Kay, Tim Liddy, Jim Lipe, Jason McCoy, Tom Meade, Scott Miller, Chris Monti, William Newcomb, Jack Nicklaus, Jack Nicklaus II, Greg Norman, Tom Pearson, David Pfaff, Scott Pool, Dan Proctor, John Robinson, Lee Schmidt, Scot Sherman, Bobby Weed, Rod Whitman…in addition to the next generation of talented designers and shapers now coming into their own.

One thing is certain—the architectural landscape would have been far less interesting had the Dyes chosen a different path.

Where the Old Met the New

Pete and Alice brought to the table a design perspective based on their exposure to great Golden Age courses such as Camargo, Culver Academies, Pinehurst #2, Scioto, Seminole, the University of Michigan Course and many more. In the spirit of C.B. Macdonald’s study trips abroad, the pair made a point of visiting 30+ courses in Scotland while there to compete in the 1963 British Amateur. They took in the links and took photos to create a database of ideas for later use. Like National Golf Links, Crooked Stick was built upon the principles that gave those courses their timelessness, but with a fresh twist. Modern architects like Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, Dave Zinkand and others followed Macdonald and the Dyes’ footsteps, honoring the maxim, “To be a great architect, see great courses.”

As a bridge between eras, Crooked Stick now belongs on the priority list for study, which is exactly what Chris Wirthwein has done. His extensive research, which included numerous conversations with the Dyes, provides a deep dive into the design process. Walking the fairways with Wirthwein is like being taken on a tour of a museum with its curator. Sources of Pete and Alice’s inspiration are built into every hole, each with its own evolutionary story. Beginning at the tee, Crooked Stick is a throwback. Dye embraced angles and hidden landing areas to make players uncomfortable on the tee. The holes are decidedly not “right there in front of you.” Some landing areas have speed slots to discover, offset by uphill slopes that kill drives. Dye further channeled the Golden Age by laying out several of his par-4s as switchbacks. If a left-to-right ball flight is optimal from the tee, right-to-left is recommended on approach, and vice versa. The greens and surrounds are an homage to the couple’s favorite courses and architects. Players will find six MacKenzie (3,6,10,13,14,15), four Ross (1,2,8,9), three Raynor (5,7,18), one Dunn (4), and three Dye original (11,16,17) styled greens. From methods to strategies to features, Crooked Stick is a significant link from the past to the present.

Revisionist History

Pete Dye was not afraid to tinker, even if that meant having to revise features and entire holes. Crooked Stick is historically important because it provides a window into the evolving mind of a master. Rare indeed are those courses where the architect had a chance to come back year after year to experiment, test and fine tune their ideas in the ground.

The tinkering began with construction and shaping. During construction, the club was not flush with cash and so the Dyes had to be creative in conjuring a course from the flat farmland they had acquired. Large lakes and “Dye-pressions” were dug to provide fill to build up fairways and green sites in other areas. They used bulldozers, farm equipment and any other available machinery for earth moving. For the finer shaping, Pete invented a method to achieve the look he wanted. “So somehow I figured out to take an old farm disk—and a farm disk is rigid—and crack the frame so that it would float over the ground,” Dye explained to Wirthwein. “Then I’d take the loader, dump some dirt, and get on the tractor and just pray to God when I go over those hills that something good would happen. Well that disk would ride on the surface and you’d end up with all these different undulations you couldn’t get with a bulldozer.” This spirit of invention extended to the detailing, and even the agronomy, giving the course an old-world feel.

Architects will often say that they wish they could go back and make edits after seeing their courses years later. At Crooked Stick, Pete took advantage of the trust bestowed upon him by the membership by acting on that impulse. Driven by a steady stream of high profile championships, large-scale renovations took place in 1978, 1985, 1986, 1989, 2001 and 2009, with plenty of tweaking in between. Each iteration got a bit better than the last while keeping members, guests and competitors on their toes. Has all of this revision resulted in perfection? Surely, Pete and Alice would say no. The result has been to leave a fascinating design record born of the Dyes using the course as a living laboratory.

The Course

Players today find a Crooked Stick that is at once beautiful, vexing and fun. The spirit of the place can perhaps best be summed up by an excerpt from a Board of Directors resolution honoring Pete Dye’s work:

“WHEREAS, there were fields without fairway; there were water holes without land; there were holes with streams so fiendishly criss-crossed that a ball missing the first criss would surely catch the second cross, or (if exceptionally well struck) the third criss; there were some great sand traps like the Gobi Desert and many small ones scattered about like buckshot; there were some greens so large as to require putting with a full backswing; others so small so as to leave no room for the hole; one green requiring a wedge shot over a trap at its mid-point; some greens so contoured as to roll in two directions at once, and still others so buried in the woods as to be invisible from any direction…NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED…that words are inadequate to describe our gratitude to our founder, PETE DYE, who has done so much to so few with so little provocation.”

For lovers of variety and fun challenges, Crooked Stick provides an endless supply. The course winds its way around the created countryside, changing directions regularly and giving a different look on every hole, while maintaining unified themes central to strategic golf. Every hole has an aggressive play and a safer option. The nature of the player’s adventure is theirs for the choosing.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

The front nine begins with a straightforward (by Pete Dye standards) par-4 to a small, tricky green. An initial dose of thrill comes at the 2nd as it turns left around an imposing set of bunkers. The 3rd is a tough three-par that requires a confident tee ball to a canted and contoured putting surface. At the par-4 4th, players are confronted with an unsettling tee shot, followed by an approach to a large green that plays much smaller to certain pin positions. The opening stretch is capped off by the first par-5, punctuated by a bold green that would make Seth Raynor proud.

Water is a theme for the next set of holes, beginning with the often photographed par-3 6th. The large specimen tree back-right is sadly gone, but the hole is no less gorgeous and treacherous. The drive on the par-4 7th is blind, followed by an approach reveal into another Raynor-inspired green complex. The 8th is Dye’s cape hole, wrapping around a lake left to a peninsula putting surface with very little margin for approach error. To complete the outward half, the par-5 9th makes players think position, with a creek cutting across and and the green set back among the trees.

The inward nine starts with a tough three hole stretch. The 10th heads out, the lake running along the right, to a deep, false-fronted green. The par-5 11th plays up over a rise and then down to a fairway that winds left around the Dye’s rendition of the church pews. The two-shot 12th begins with the most disorienting tee shot on the course to a canted fairway with a deep valley right. The green, inspired by the 5th at Maxinkuckee CC, might be the best of the bunch.

The next set of holes begins with a serpentine creek and ends with a boomerang. The par-3 13th is a unique little one-shotter over the water to a green partially obscured by a hillside. The dogleg left 14th asks players to take on the creek again off the tee. The bold are rewarded with a shorter approach into the difficult putting surface. The par-5 15th plays up over a rise and then to a beautifully set green inspired by MacKenzie and Maxwell’s work at UofM and Crystal Downs.

From both everyday and championship perspectives, the closing holes at Crooked Stick are grand. The 16th comes back over the fairway hump and then down into a modified biarritz green with water right. The 17th is a stout three par that demands a well judged and executed tee ball from an elevated box exposed to the wind. Various forms of disaster await misses on either side, or long. The home hole angles right around the lake to a big green with an amphitheater setting in the shadow of the clubhouse. Holing out, it’s not hard to imagine the crowd roar cascading down the hillsides. A special finish to a special course.

Pete and Alice Dye had a vision for a pure golf club, a place where kindred spirits could come together to share in camaraderie and the joy of the game. In turning their dream into a reality at Crooked Stick, they not only achieved their goals for the club, but they created a course that sits among the most historically important to golf architecture in America. As a bridge between eras, a jumping off point for so many careers in design, and a window into a hall of fame designer’s mind, Crooked Stick is worthy of its place among the all-time greats.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


3 Comments

CREATIVITY WITHIN CONSTRAINTS AT LOST DUNES

A look at the relationship between design constraints and creativity at the Tom Doak designed Lost Dunes Golf Club

Spend any time on GolfClubAtlas or Twitter, and it becomes apparent that many armchair architects live in their own world. It’s a place without limits, where any tree can be cut, budgets are infinite, interpersonal politics don’t exist and government oversight agencies are on permanent holiday. In short, it is fantasyland. The real world in which the designers we revere operate is filled with a variety of constraints—timelines, boundaries, environmental regulations, budgets, client desires, infrastructure needs, player abilities, endangered species, maintenance profile, wetlands, specimen trees, roads and building locations, among others. The most experienced and talented modern architects find a way to create great golf holes and courses within the constraints, rather than taking their ball and going home because they don’t like the rules of the playing field.

Tom Doak has a strong personality and, along with his associates at Renaissance Golf Design, a design portfolio to match. He has also been outspoken about his willingness to walk away from potential jobs if the client, site or circumstances don’t fit his eye. It is therefore understandable that a myth has developed wherein Doak is not susceptible to the same constraints as his contemporaries. Although he is steadfast in his belief in himself, his team and the principles that underlie great courses, he must still deal with reality. Such was the case with the opportunity to create Lost Dunes in southwest Michigan. Rather than be hampered by the numerous constraints of the site, the Renaissance team produced a course as creative and varied as any of their other works.

Finding Lost Dunes

Doak has a book on routing in the works which includes a focus on Lost Dunes. Without giving away the story, he allowed me to pick his brain about the site he was given, and the inherent challenges of laying out the course.

The site of Lost Dunes, before construction

Lost Dunes was built on an old sand quarry. The mining operation left behind large ponds with a unique characteristic. “All the ponds on site are un-lined and the water level varies with the level of Lake Michigan,” explained Doak, “which has gone down and back up more than four feet since we built the course.” Fairways and greens could not be built too close to the water’s edge because the level was and is in a state of constant flux.

To complicate matters further, the original service road and Interstate 94 cut through the property, crossing to subdivide it in conjunction with the lakes. The land presented a complicated routing puzzle for which there was no perfect solution, but also an opportunity for variety. Each of the sections has its own topography and character, which give players the feeling of visiting distinct zones. Lost Dunes has a feeling of adventure.

Water and roads subdivide the Lost Dunes property

The map had a few tricky red lines to deal with, but it was still a sandy site with dunes, so the rest of the job should have been a tap-in, right? Not exactly. “The Michigan Critical Dune Act, written to prevent future companies from mining the sand dunes along Lake Michigan as they’d done prior to building Lost Dunes, actually prevented us from filling up against the steepest slopes on the clubhouse side of the highway,” said Doak. “This had everything to do with how and where #14 tees, 14 fairway, 15 green, and 16 tees and green are built.”

Zooming in from the macro picture revealed another set of environmental challenges to sidestep. “The mining company had dedicated big portions of the site as ‘conservation areas’ when de-commissioning the mine, so there were lots of wetland and wooded areas we couldn’t touch,” recounted Doak. “Even the little ditch and trees to the left of #18 green are a conservation area!” And lest we forget, the flora had a say in the matter as well. “There was a threatened wildflower scattered about the site, which we had to mitigate by creating a separate habitat for it left of #12, because there was no way to work around all the little patches on other holes. The wildflower is listed as threatened in Michigan, because it only grows in that corner of the state, where it’s hottest. They actually told me its native habitat is ‘an abandoned sand quarry’, which makes me wonder where it got its start,” Doak recalled while still scratching his head.

This scenario tends towards the extreme end of the constraint spectrum, but it illustrates the reality faced by modern architects. The redlined map, with mitigation and infrastructure requirements, has to be overcome to create interesting golf. That is exactly what Tom Doak and his team accomplished for the owner and membership of Lost Dunes, and in the process, the argument can be made that the constraints drove creativity down the line.

A Course in Creativity

Constraints aside, the dune and lake setting of Lost Dunes is visually stunning. Doak’s routing does a terrific job of first introducing players to the themes of his design before moving into the more dramatic area of the property.

One-time visitors have been known to criticize the course for being “tricked up”, especially the greens. Those critiques miss the point that the design is not primarily for them. It is for the members, many of whom log dozens of rounds annually over a period of years. For the membership, the course’s holes, features and greens are not tricks at all. They are puzzles to solve in which failed attempts are often just as fun as the successes.

After multiple loops around Lost Dunes, several strong themes emerge. First, there is great variety in the questions posed on the tees of the two and three-shot holes. Angular, straight and shaped driving requirements are all in play for those of us mere mortals who don’t carry the ball 300 yards. Second, the highly creative tee-to-green hazards—bunkers, mounds, wastes, water—are employed to tempt and deceive, rather than to punish. This course is much more Dye than Jones. And finally, the greens do live up to their reputation as evocative. They vary is size, shape and orientation, and the contours throughout reward those who smartly play the positioning game, while rejecting the less strategically-minded. This combination of tee shots, hazards and greens makes every day at Lost Dunes different, and every hole a pleasurable challenge.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

The opener is a short four that provides a great intro to the course. The drive is up to a fairway rise that then turns left and works down to a small contoured green running away. The 2nd is Doak’s fantastic Leven hole, with a huge green fronted left by a sandy mound. Positioning and use of slopes are critical to have a good birdie look. The par-3 3rd has a green set quietly in a corner of the property with contours as loud as they come. The yardage on the card at the par-5 4th has players thinking birdie or better, but misjudged approaches will lead to bogey or worse. The opening stretch concludes with the long, downhill 5th, a one-shotter that demands a confidently struck tee ball in the face of its intimidating look.

The next two par-4s work out and back to conclude the exploration of the section east of I-94. The 6th begins with a tough drive to a fairway with trees left that make the corridor appear narrower than it actually is. The green is equally demanding with pronounced tiers. The 7th turns back, playing up to a wide fairway flanked by bunkers right, and then to an elevated green with more subtle contours.

Players next head back under the Interstate toward the clubhouse. In fairness, holes 8-10 do have green to tee gaps that Doak probably wishes were much shorter. However, knowing what we do about the reality of the constraints, it was a brilliant move to deal with this awkward part of the property in the middle of the round, when the flow of play would be interrupted by the turn anyway.

Looking more closely at the holes in this stretch independent of the routing, they are quite good. The par-5 8th is stout, beginning with a forced carry over water  and ending with a ticklish approach into a tiered green. The one-shot 9th has an angled green set beyond a wetland with the clubhouse as a backdrop. The 10th is a par-5 that can be reached in two if the wind is right, but not without a healthy dose of risk provided by the water around the green.

The next stretch of five holes is one of the best in modern American design, working around the flat shores of the lakes left behind by the miners. Players are afforded jaw-dropping views revealing the scale of the property from the elevated tee boxes while taking on a series of thrilling drives and approaches. These holes are, in a word, outstanding.

The par-4 11th plays uphill to a massive bowl green set in the saddle of a dune. The tee shot on the 12th plays significantly downhill from the top of the dune to the wide fairway below, and then back up to an elevated green. The par-3 13th is reminiscent of the 3rd at Crystal Downs, with its green resting in a hollow at the base of a dune. The bunkerless par-4 14th snakes around the water to a tricky putting surface at grade. And to cap this stretch off, the three shot 15th heads diagonally over water to a heaving fairway and then up to a green benched into the duneside.

A forgettable set of closers would be forgivable, but Lost Dunes brings the round home in style. The par-3 16th plays over the wetland and demands a precisely judged shot from a tee exposed to the wind. Players then head into the woods for the two-shot 17th, culminating in a stellar green with a slope that feeds weak approaches into a front left bunker. The home hole has a wide fairway largely hidden by a set of forebunkers. One final solid approach is required to hit the home green which plays smaller than its footprint.

Would Lost Dunes have been a better course if, like Donald Ross and other Golden Age masters, the crew had been free to fill in wetlands or disregard sensitive flora and fauna? I’m not so sure, even though Tom Doak leans toward suspecting that it would. “A couple of my associates have noted in the past that our designs turn out to be more interesting if we have to work around constraints like these and find a way to make the golf compelling,” he reflected. “I’m not sure that’s the case—negotiating the nature of the red lines on the map is time-consuming and often leads me to feel that the lines are quite arbitrary.”

A group of talented artisans has a certain capacity for creative output on any given project, and the deeply committed are sure to expend that entire capacity, one way or another. When constrained, they will find another avenue for expression. In the case of the compelling tee shots, variety of hazards and complex putting surfaces of Lost Dunes, it is clear that the capacity of Team Doak found its outlets. Regardless of the final conclusion on the relationship of creativity to constraints, Doak makes the bottom line clear, “I am pleased when golfers play the course and aren’t aware of them.”

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


7 Comments

THE WELCOME MAT IS OUT AT AIKEN

A look at what makes the McNair family’s Aiken Golf Club a place that any geek would love to call home

A knock against golf in America is that it is unwelcoming. The game itself is intimidating for beginners. Just getting the ball airborne and ultimately into the hole is hard enough, but there are also a gaggle of rules and customs which must be learned to fit in among those who are in the know. Add to those dynamics the socio-economic and gender exclusivity of certain clubs, and the game does not exude a vibe of open arms for the newcomer. Initiatives have popped up with the intent of changing perceptions and bringing more people in, and some are as effective as their flashy marketing would lead you to believe. There are certain clubs and courses, however, where a welcoming spirit comes naturally. Making players of all ages, genders and skill levels feel at home so that they can enjoy the game is their purpose. Aiken Golf Club is one of those places.

Adapt or Die

Use the term “sandhills” and the minds of most golf geeks will likely go to Nebraska. The O.G. of sandhills golf is in the Carolinas though. To be more specific for the cartographically inclined, drop a pin on Ohoopee Match Club in Georgia and then draw an arc northeast up through Augusta (GA), Aiken (SC), Pinehurst (NC), into southern Virginia and you have charted a path through an entire region ideal for building golf courses. Along the edge of a vast coastal plain, gently rolling hills of sand, clay and minerals were built up through thousands of years of rising and falling seas, as the geological processes of erosion and deposition played out.

Zooming in on the Augusta/Aiken area, it turns out that Bobby Jones and Dr. Alister MacKenzie weren’t the only designers to recognize the potential and plant their stakes in the ground. Donald Ross was also active in those parts and in 1912, he and his associate J.R. Ingles routed and built the course that would ultimately become Aiken Golf Club. A long and winding road began there and then, with ups and downs and necessary adaptations along the way.

The course was originally a companion to a popular hotel-resort, until the Depression hit. It then became a muni owned by the city of Aiken. In 1959, long-time golf professional James McNair fulfilled a dream by purchasing the course, changing it yet again to a private club. It thrived through the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, but by 1995 Aiken Golf Club had again fallen on hard times. James’s son Jim was running the club and in an interview with Andy Johnson on The Fried Egg podcast, shared the story of reaching his breaking point. “Our course started to really show its age,” he recounted. “We had to do something drastic. I’ll never forget that day…I was exhausted. I worked 10-12 hour days, 7 days a week. I walked in and I cried…(My father) said, ‘Son, What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘We have two options. We can either sell it and walk away, or we have to completely redo the golf course.’”

Thankfully, the family opted to go the renovation route. Over the next four years, Jim McNair and three members of his grounds staff would rework every element of the course except the routing, using the guiding principle “What would J.R. Ingles do?” as they went along. The course reopened in 2000 in the form that players find today, although some tinkering continues. The club has changed to a semi-private model, welcoming guest play. “We want to be accessible,” explained McNair. “We want people to come and enjoy the golf course…We want to be inclusive, not exclusive.”

There is a clear tone of gratitude in Jim McNair’s voice as he talks about his family’s course. It’s the depth of earnestness shared by those who have been through a near-death experience, but now live on. “Why the Aiken Golf Club is still here after 106 years is the fact that we have been able to adapt, and we have our own niche,” he reflected. “It may be a small niche, but it’s the history, the routing, it’s walkable…It’s just a charming, quaint golf course with a lot of character.” As the family enters its seventh decade of ownership, the club and course are as healthy as they’ve been since Ross and Ingles walked the grounds.

The Course

A professor from the University of Georgia at Athens, an architect from Charlotte, a high school golfer from Evanston and his geek dad convened at Aiken for a memorable winter day. The first loop around was characterized by joyful surprise that this course—with its gorgeous topography, varied hazards and playful greens—even exists. The second loop was spent hitting fun shots while wondering how much better the game would be if every community had a course this good. In between the two rounds was an attempt to pay for the replay at which point we were informed that the $25 walking rate was good for the whole day.

Jim McNair summed our feelings perfectly. “I have a love affair with every hole, because of what went in to each hole,” he mused. “Each hole is so different, yet they all blend together, and they roll you through this crazy ride.” Indeed. Let’s take a quick look at that crazy ride.

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

Aiken opens with a short par-4 over undulating ground that culminates with an elevated green which is connected to the 17th. If ever there was a tone-setter, this is it. The 2nd then plays gently downhill and to the right to a large green set in a hollow.

The next stretch of holes amps up the creativity of hazards and greens and embodies the integration of the course with its surroundings. Train tracks next to the 3rd green, a street crossing after the 5th, and the homes near the 6th and 7th are all facets of the unique Aiken experience.

After another road crossing and a quick stop for homemade bread at the snack shack, players then enter a more spacious section of the property to take on the 8th through the 14th. The course’s two par-5s work over these hills in dramatic fashion, and two tough Ross par-3s also lie in wait.

The closing stretch is no letdown. The green at the short par-4 15th is all-world. The par-3 16th is a downhill stunner. The par-4 17th plays back up to that wild double green, which makes just as big of an impression upon the second visit. And finally, the round is topped off with a one-shot home hole with the clubhouse as a backdrop. It is sublime.

No Tricks, Just Great Golf

As my son Jack and I wrapped up our inaugural visit to Aiken, we noticed a young guy practicing on the club’s putting course. This was no casual putt-putt session—he was clearly serious, and good. We were caught a bit off guard as that same guy walked up to us in the parking lot, hand extended. “I’m George. Heard you were coming and just wanted to say hello and thanks.” It took a moment to register with me that he was George Bryan of Bryan Brothers Golf fame. As we chatted, it became apparent that he shared our love of the course and he delivered us a final helping of Aiken hospitality. Jack and I headed off to the airport in Atlanta, and I couldn’t wait to tell my nine year old Henry that I had met one of the Bryan Bros. The more I thought about the encounter though, the more it made me wonder what he was doing there. A follow-up was in order.

The Bryans hail from Columbia and both played golf for the University of South Carolina. They caught lightning in a bottle with their trick shot videos, but their shared dream was always to make the PGA Tour. Wesley has fulfilled that dream, notching his first victory. George is still working his way up through the ranks of the feeder tours and currently calls Aiken home. “I was looking for a place to play and work on my game during the peak of the Bryan Brothers,” he shared. “Jim let me use his facilities when other clubs turned me away.”

George was grateful for the McNair welcome, and ecstatic about the quality of the course. “It helps you get good at approaches, short game, scoring and going low,” he gushed. “Aiken is refreshingly different than the courses we normally play on tour.” He is now an honorary member at neighboring Palmetto Golf Club, but still spends most of his time at Aiken. In an attempt to repay Jim McNair’s kindness, he has deputized himself to be the club’s ambassador, including telling the story on social media. A vibe this special needs to be shared.

There are those who lament the effect that modern media is having on the golf landscape. “Tis the death of the hidden gem!,” they cry. They go on to wring their hands about groupthink abstractions, and the impact it’s having on design. To the owner-operators of publicly accessible golf courses in America and beyond, this coffee house debate misses the point of what they work so hard every day to accomplish. Their blood, sweat and tears go into providing interesting and fun places for us the play the game we all love, while hopefully remaining a viable business for their families and communities. To find some nebulous overexposure downside in a visit from Matt Ginella or Erik Anders Lang would be an overthought distraction from their purpose of welcoming golfers and reconnecting them to the joy of the game.

For this geek, the media serves no greater purpose than to point people in the direction of good folks like the McNairs, who have great courses like Aiken Golf Club. Put simply by Jim McNair, “We feel fortunate to be able to offer this to golfers…We welcome you. We’d love to have you here.”

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


1 Comment

SUNSET SPECTACULAR AT ARCADIA BLUFFS

How to experience the magic of twilight golf on the water at the Warren Henderson designed Arcadia Bluffs

Who doesn’t love chasing the sun on a golf course? As the golden hour gives way to the gloaming, the game’s most magical moments have a way of materializing. Add to that time of day a large body of water, and goose bumps rise on a golfer’s arms. In the States, with a few exceptions, that special combination of course, sea and sunset can only be found at those “single name” courses—Pebble, Bandon, Cypress, Chambers, Torrey. Here in the Midwest, we have one such course of our own, and it belongs in the same conversation in its ability to stir sun-chasers’ souls—Arcadia.

Lest I be labeled a superficial hypocrite, a few points to reiterate and clarify. As a rule, resort golf is not my cup of tea, especially when played in carts. It takes too long for my taste due to players using the wrong tees relative to their skill level, and general sight-seeing. I’ve run the gamut from blasting this glacial pace to finally coming to terms with it while playing at another notable course on the other side of Lake Michigan. Personal preferences aside, I still recommend these places for those who have the money and patience. They are indeed neat experiences.

If I don my architecture hat, I can understand why the Bluffs Course at Arcadia receives criticism. The course was the first big opportunity for Warren Henderson to showcase his skills, and not surprisingly, it is overdone in certain regards. For example, the decision to build giant revetted bunkers was bold and the results are striking. The choice to distract from those distinctive (for America) hazards by also including blow-outs and large sandy wastes was unfortunate. From a strategic perspective, there are a handful of holes that have me scratching my head and one that causes me to pull my hair out, but the bulk are quite good with a few standouts like the 3rd, 8th, 12th and 15th mixed in.

My criticisms of the course likely preclude me from ever being a corporate spokesperson or comped guest, and my praise probably makes the purists cringe. No worries here as I’m happy to be a paying customer who enjoys the challenge of Henderson’s design and the playing conditions delivered by Director of Agronomy Jim Bluck and his crew. I’m grateful to owner Rich Postma for having the vision and determination to create a golf course in this spectacular setting.

The GeekedOnGolf Twilight Loop

The foregoing matters having been settled, let’s return to those sunsets and an insider’s tip. There is a way to experience the magic of Arcadia without breaking the bank or taking up half a day. It can be done at any time of the year, but works best at non-peak times. It is called the GoG Twilight Loop, and for those players who have an adventurous spirit, it is nearly guaranteed to deliver lasting memories. Two prerequisites must be put on the table before proceeding:

First, to do this Loop, you have to walk and the walk is not easy. There will be moments when you might feel like you’ve entered the Olympic biathlon. You will catch your breath, and I promise that the exertion is worth it.

Second, you have to be patient and courteous. In the late afternoon and early evening, Arcadia Bluffs gets a bit chaotic with groups doing replays and the twilight crowd coming out. Everyone understandably wants to get in as much golf as possible and you might bump into a group or two. Go with the flow.

If you’re still with me, let’s begin with the objective. You want to be on the 12th hole, which runs along the bluff above Lake Michigan, when the sun is setting. Arrive at the course approximately two hours before sunset and pay the 9-hole green fee. I have developed a routing that will get you where you need to be by just the right time.

Head to the first tee and follow the map. There is a bit of dune hiking involved, but you’ll find that the path ahead is typically intuitive. The tour below will whet your appetite with a taste of the holes in the Loop.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

The opening holes at Arcadia Bluffs lead east away from the clubhouse, brilliantly producing anticipation of the lake views to come. The par-5 1st swings right around a hillside and can be reached in two by longer hitters. Sod wall bunkers flank the fairway left and front the large green, offering players an initial impression of the bold style to come. The 2nd is a mid-length three par that plays over a large sandy waste to a tiered green in the shadow of the course’s lone specimen tree.

After heading up a hill to the highest point on the property, Arcadia’s first jaw-dropping reveal awaits on the 3rd tee. The course’s second par-5 is the most strategic, with three bunkers angling across the fairway inviting players to test their tolerance for risk on the approach. The table-top putting surface makes positioning crucial. The two-shot 4th continues the trip downhill to a large punchbowl green which injects a solid dose of fun.

Instead of continuing on to the 5th, our twilight routing doubles back with the uphill 7th. This four-par is straightforward tee to green, but features a large putting surface that is canted and subtly contoured. Cutting across the road, players then take on the fantastic lay-of-the-land 8th with its enormous centerline bunker. Left off the tee yields the better angle, but right shortens the approach into the elevated green. Solid strategic design.

After following the path to the tee on the 9th, the GoG Loop next goes into billy goat mode to cut over to the back tee on the par-5 11th. The drive is semi-blind to a wild fairway that tumbles down a valley to a green set on the bluff. Players next climb the steps to ascend a dune to another great reveal at the 12th tee. From this vantage point, the Lake Michigan coast stretches north for miles. It is stunning. The hole itself is also no slouch, requiring a tee shot over rugged terrain to an angled fairway. The 12th green is fronted by a large bunker with infinity beyond.

Stop here to feel the wind blow and take in the full beauty of the sunset. If you are lucky, Mr. Postma will cue the bagpiper to play you a tune that floats down the hill like an irish mist. The 18th hole is your route home, with a moon rise in the distance and happy golfers conversing over cocktails on the lawn above.

Northern Michigan is a long way to travel to only play nine holes, so to make a day of it, one final insider’s tip. Set aside a full day. Get one of the first tee times at the South Course at Arcadia Bluffs. The course is very walkable. Grab a quick lunch and then head over to Champion Hill for some home spun cart golf. If you book close to or between the Memorial Day or Labor Day holidays, you should have plenty of time left over to execute the plan above for the perfect end to an epic golf day. Post your sunset spectacular photos and tag me so that I know who deserves respect for completing the adventure. Enjoy!

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


Leave a comment

STEAM SHOVEL SCULPTING AT MAXINKUCKEE

The fourth edition of this season’s Upping My Dye-Q Series speculates on the influence of Langford & Moreau’s work at Maxinkuckee Country Club on the Dyes

In order to truly understand and appreciate the work of an architect, it is necessary to look at their sources of inspiration. After all, there are very few (if any) completely original ideas in art or science. Contemporary practitioners are always building upon or reacting to their forebears, and their work is therefore linked to the past.

Pete Dye brought to his craft several different influences which were touched on in the second edition of this series which looked at French Lick. It is not hard to imagine how The Old Course, Pinehurst #2 or Camargo would make an impact on a budding designer—each course is brilliant in its own way with a story to tell about form and function. But there is a far less likely source of inspiration that Alice O’Neal Dye added into the mix that was just as important in terms of both aesthetics and methods. By bringing Pete to her family’s vacation town of Culver, IN and exposing him to the work of William Langford and Theodore Moreau at the Culver Academies course and Maxinkuckee Country Club, she cemented the bold approach that would epitomize the pair’s courses for years to come.

The Little Club on the Lake

A short drive south from South Bend, IN is a lake named Maxinkuckee and on that lake is a town called Culver. Not exactly remote, but certainly out of the way. Like many towns throughout the Midwest, Culver is known for its natural, bucolic beauty, attracting residents and vacationers to its quiet life of recreation since the mid-19th century. What makes this town quite a bit different than most is that it is also home to Culver Academies, a world-class boarding school, and its associated summer camp.

The Academies had a grand plan to build a resort with 36 holes of golf designed by Chicago architect William Langford and his partner Theodore Moreau. The first nine opened in 1920, showcasing the duo’s magnificent architecture on a piece of land that is half open, half wooded and rolling throughout. Sadly, the additional 27 holes would never be completed.

The home hole at Culver Academies

At the same time, just down the road, the membership at Maxinkuckee Country Club was catching the golf bug. They built a rudimentary little course on a hillside parcel of land with a creek meandering through it and began play in 1921. Culver being a small town, those early golfers were well aware of Langford’s work and when it came time to expand their course, they naturally turned to the Chicagoan. Five holes were added, the others refined, and by 1925 play was in full swing on the course that would remain largely unchanged until decades later when the Dyes enjoyed and were inspired by it.

The Course

The first three holes at Maxinkuckee are not anything special by country golf standards, save a few noticeable flourishes on and around the greens. Upon reaching the tee at the par-3 4th with its contoured green set in a stand of old-growth trees, Langford devotees begin to get a sense that their perseverance will be rewarded. Players walk up to the top of the ridge that separates the two sections of the site, and from the 5th through the 8th, Maxinkuckee delivers a shot of bold features to the vein on par with Harrison Hills, Spring Valley and Kankakee Elks. Any person with even a passing interest in architecture or engineering has to stand and marvel at these creations and wonder, how did they do this? Pete’s Dye’s interest was much greater than passing, and he must have been enthralled.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

Sculpting with a Steam Shovel

There is something that just looks right about the forms that William Langford and Theodore Moreau built, epitomized by courses like Lawsonia Links and West Bend. It’s a subtle elegance that complements the bold style, striking a perfect balance on a natural landscape. After my first visit to Maxinkuckee, with the “how” question still burning in my mind, intriguing hints were delivered from two trusted sources.

First, Ian Gilley of Sugarloaf Social Club posted this aerial photo of the outstanding 5th hole with its green seemingly extended out onto a peninsula.

It is as stunning from the ground as it is from the air.

Second, Derek Duncan discussed Langford and Moreau and their approach to steam shovel architecture with Kye Goalby on the Feed the Ball podcast. Goalby is the consulting architect at West Bend Country Club and he said, “The first time I tried to build the Langford bunkers, I failed miserably…I started looking up steam shovels online and you start seeing how a steam shovel works.” He went on to explain in detail the difference between the function of an excavator, with its bucket facing and digging down, and a steam shovel with its upward facing bucket and extending arm.

Returning to Ian’s photo and Google Earth a flash of insight hit illuminating how Langford and Moreau went about their work. Although they had the might of the steam shovel at their disposal, like any skilled builders, they would have sought to conserve effort while producing the best possible holes. Sculptors fundamentally have two distinct methods from which to choose—start with a block and chisel, or build the form up from scratch—and both were brilliantly used to create Maxinkuckee’s 5th and 6th holes.

The 6th tee, the approach and green on the 5th, and a portion of the 7th fairway run diagonally along high ground.

The steam shovel, which rotates in an arc from a stationary base, was positioned at various points to carve away from the higher ground, creating the peninsula on which the 5th green sits. This was equivalent to chiseling a statue out of a block of granite. Some of the shoveled material was likely used to build the green and its surrounds up even higher to increase the scale.

The bulk of the material was moved to build the pad and surrounds for the 6th green, pushing it up significantly from the existing topography, in much the same way that a sculptor would build up a statue using lumps of clay. Once built, refinements were made with hand labor.

The artist’s vision was combined with the engineer’s efficiency to produce two green sites of equal greatness.

Pete Dye did not have YouTube to search for steam shovel videos like Kye Goalby and I did, but he would have noticed the features and landforms, leading a mind like his to ponder the how and why of it. His curiosity and willingness to tinker in the field was critical as he and Alice were often tasked with creating courses on less than ideal sites. It is one thing to be able to envision or sketch a hole. Figuring out how to build that hole is entirely another matter. Over the decades, the Dyes proved their genius in both aspects of the craft. Their tools were the excavator and bulldozer instead of the steam shovel, but their charge was the same as the architects who inspired them at places like Maxinkuckee—sculpt the earth to create compelling golf that stands the test of time.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


1 Comment

FROM CHRISTMAS TREES TO GREEN FEES AT CHAMPION HILL

The story of the Stone family’s Northern Michigan journey into golf course construction and ownership at Pinecroft and Champion Hill

“Are you going to play Champion Hill this time?” My golf buddy Ben knew that I was making trips to Northern Michigan and he would text me this question every time I posted a photo of Kingsley Club, Arcadia Bluffs or Crystal Downs. “It’s on my list,” I would reply. Not a lie, but a truth lacking in any sense of urgency. I was busy getting intimate with three of the best courses in the state, the region, and perhaps even America (depending on who you ask). What need did I have of seeing a country course, even if it was a favorite of the locals? After years of this exchange, I finally made the short trip, and by the time I reached the fourth tee it was clear why Ben was so insistent. Champion Hill is a joy of a course with hand-crafted architectural feel on a piece of land that is as good as The Downs—all at a green fee that makes you feel like you’re taking advantage of the family who owns it.

Do You Think We Might Have Something?

The Stones have been a farming family for generations, growing cherries and other fruit, along with Christmas trees. City folk might not give much thought to where those firs, pines and spruce come from. Thank growers like the Stones. By the late ‘80s, tree farming had become a grind as big box stores squeezed producers and pushed out independent tree lots. The family was getting by but feeling the pressure, prompting Lee Stone to begin contemplating other uses for the land.

In college, Stone had taken a golf class and then played with his father at the courses around Benzie County throughout his twenties and thirties. To call him an avid golfer would be a stretch, and he certainly didn’t have any experience in designing or building courses. He was, however, on the lookout for opportunity, which materialized in the morning queue at the Signal Hill Golf Course in Panama City Beach, FL. Stone shared the story of inspiration hitting while on a family vacation with NewClub’s Matt Considine on the Bag Drop Podcast. “Standing there with a bunch of guys and it wasn’t even light yet,” he recounted. “I thought, maybe that’s what we do with the farm up north. That was the start of it.”

The Stones might not have had a golf pedigree, but they did have land in what has come to be seen as one of the ideal places in America to build a golf course. Northern Michigan’s trademark sandy soil and glacier-made topography characterized their property. Lee connected with Jim Cole, who left turf school at Ohio State to work on construction of the courses at Agaming and Crystal Mountain. Cole had a landscaping company at the time, but agreed to take a look at the land that would become the family’s first course, Pinecroft. “What do you say Jim, do you think we might have something here?” The answer came back strongly in the affirmative. Testing from Michigan State confirmed that the soil was perfect for golf, requiring only stripping, screening and seeding. Cole and the Stones set to work clearing, shaping, and installing irrigation, doing nearly everything in-house. Pinecroft opened for play in 1992 and the tee sheet filled up immediately.

The magnificent lake view from the 16th green at Pinecroft

Let’s Do Another

Pinecroft was a resounding success with locals and golf tourists alike. Lee Stone was pleased with the result, and upon reflection found the process of building the course to be highly enjoyable and satisfying. He proposed to Cole that they create a second course on another site owned by the family. The 350 acres that became Champion Hill sits on the highest point in Benzie County with views of Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan in the distance. A setting that rivals its much more famous neighbor in Frankfort.

By the time clearing began in 1995, Stone and Cole had augmented their hands-on experience with study of the subjects of architecture, construction and agronomy. The pair agreed to a simple set of timeless design principles for their second offering: an open, airy feeling with wide fairways; no trees or water hazards in play; natural, sand-pit style bunkering; big, contoured greens. In rural Michigan, they had organically settled on the formula that would also captivate golfers in the sand hills of Nebraska, along the coast of Oregon, and beyond.

Stone hopped on the family’s new bulldozer and did most of the shaping himself between 1996 and 1998. He likes to tell the story of meeting an up-and-coming architect named Mike DeVries, who stopped by to see the project and offer his services. Stone politely turned DeVries down because he was having too much fun doing it himself. What was born of necessity came to be permeated with a joy that players still feel twenty years later.

The Course

Champion Hill is a course that achieves the holy grail of playability. Interesting, challenging and fun for players of all ages and abilities. With holes working up, along and over a primary ridge, the hilly terrain makes for a tough but doable walk. Stone and Cole stayed largely true to their design principles. Trees are part of the scenery, but with the exception of a few nods to the orchard heritage of the land, they are not on the stage. There is enough strategy baked into the design to satisfy geeks and sticks alike, and enough quirk to charm even the well-traveled.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

The round begins with three consecutive par-4s that work up to the high ground. The 1st is straightaway, the 2nd banks left around a large set of bunkers, and the 3rd is an up-and-over to a green set at the base of a hill. This opening stretch introducers players to the naturalized aesthetic and the wonderful contours to come. It culminates with a green-back view of both lakes that is worthy of a brief pause to absorb.

The 4th is a bunkerless par-4 that runs along the base of the dune, providing plenty of challenge in spite of its lack of a hazard. The par-5 5th features a dramatic downhill tee shot to a sharp dogleg right. Deciding how aggressive to be with that corner gets tricky at elevation. The first one-shotter on the course, the 6th plays over a valley to a green benched into the hillside.

The short par-5 7th is a stunning example of lay-of-the-land architecture. The tee shot is downhill into a valley. Players are then faced with an uphill approach to a lay-up area and green that are defended by sneaky tough bunkers. The putting surface is large and can be held with longer clubs, but is contoured to make lag putting no bargain.

After the 7th, the course comes up over the ridge to begin the descent to the turn. The 8th is a picturesque par-3 with a shelf green and expansive views. The 9th once again asks players to choose a line down to a fairway set at an angle along the foot of the hill. Upon making the turn, the 10th is a simple but tough four-par with a very deep green.

The par-3 11th is one of the most heavily bunkered on the course and can be a card wrecker when the wind is howling. Not to be outdone, the green on the two-shot 12th has devilish contours that give players fits. The final par-3 on the course, the 13th requires a stout tee ball while dealing with the distraction of the breathtaking vista from the high point of the property.

The next two par-4s are among the most creative and strategic holes on the course. Anything from a mid-iron to a driver works off the tee on the 14th, with its drivable green perched near the top of the ridge. The 15th requires that players check the hole location as a small tree fronts an offset green that runs away. Angle of approach is critical to set up a birdie chance.

The closing stretch begins with the par-4 16th, which plays over a rise and then down to a deep, well-defended green. Back-to-back par-5s complete the round. The 17th swings right around an orchard and the 18th includes the only water on the course, short left of the home green.

Listening to Lee Stone discuss his creations with Matt Considine, the discomfort he feels being the focal point is evident. Pay close attention and you can also pick up flashes of confidence and pride. He knows that the collaboration with his old friend Jim yielded a gem at Champion Hill. Best of all is the satisfaction that he expresses knowing how much players have enjoyed his courses over the years. Go play Pinecroft or Champion Hill and you will feel like you’re a part of that great, big golfing family.

As is the case with family farms, many family owned golf courses are struggling to survive. If we want the best of these courses, like Champion Hill, to be around for the long haul, we have to seek them out and play them regularly. Don’t do it out of charity, though. Do it because it is a golf experience that is much richer than the shots hit on the course.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf