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NO ONE HIT WONDER – SWEETENS COVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the Good Guys

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

How did you get introduced to golf?

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

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

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

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

How did you get into the business?

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

Who is your favorite Golden Age architect, and why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you get involved with the Sweetens Cove project?

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

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

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

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

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

What do you love about practicing your craft?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sweetens Cove Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

HOLE #1 – 563 yards – par 5

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

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

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

HOLE #2 – 375 yards – par 4

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

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

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

HOLE #3 – 582 yards – par 5

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

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

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

HOLE #4 (King) – 169 yards – par 3

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

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

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

HOLE #5 – 293 yards – par 4

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

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

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

HOLE #6 – 456 yards – par 4

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

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

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

HOLE #7 – 328 yards – par 4

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

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

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

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

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

HOLE #8 – 387 yards – par 4

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

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

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

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

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

HOLE #9 – 148 yards – par 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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LINKSGEMS AUSSIE ADVENTURE

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

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

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

Click on any gallery image to enlarge

ROUND 1: YARRA YARRA GOLF CLUB

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

ROUND 2: ST. ANDREWS BEACH

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

ROUND 3: VICTORIA GOLF CLUB

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

ROUND 4: WOODLANDS GOLF CLUB

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

ROUND 5: BARWON HEADS GOLF CLUB

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

ROUND 6: ROYAL MELBOURNE WEST

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

ROUND 7: ROYAL MELBOURNE EAST

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

ROUND 8: KINGSTON HEATH GOLF CLUB

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

ROUND 9: ROYAL MELBOURNE WEST

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

ROUND 10: PENINSULA KINGSWOOD NORTH

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

ROUND 11: PENINSULA KINGSWOOD SOUTH

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

ROUNDS 12 & 13: CAPE WICKHAM GOLF LINKS

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

ROUND 14: OCEAN DUNES

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

ROUND 15: KING ISLAND GOLF & BOWLING CLUB

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

ROUNDS 16 & 17: BARNBOUGLE DUNES

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

ROUND 18: LOST FARM

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

ROUND 19: BONDI GOLF & DIGGER CLUB

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

ROUND 20: NEWCASTLE GOLF CLUB

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

ROUND 21: NEW SOUTH WALES GOLF CLUB

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

ROUND 22: KOOYONGA GOLF CLUB

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

ROUND 23: ROYAL ADELAIDE GOLF CLUB

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

BONUS: KOALAS

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

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

Copyright 2020 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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EMBRACING MACDONALD’S LEGACY AT SLEEPY HOLLOW

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

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

— Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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

The Evolution of a Design Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calling in the Cleaner

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

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

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

The Retrovation

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

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

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

The expanded 27-hole routing after Tillinghast’s addition

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

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

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

The original short – Credit: Simon Haines

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

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

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

Restoring the thumbprint – Credit: Ben Hillard

Grassing the newly shaped putting surface – Credit: Ben Hillard

Gil taking in the finished product – Credit: Ben Hillard

Bunker and thumbprint fully retrovated

A place where magical moments happen at Sleepy Hollow

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

The Course

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

Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

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

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

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

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

HOLE #1 “Leven” – 418 yards – par 4

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

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

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

HOLE #3 “Eden” – 172 yards – par 3

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

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

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

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

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

HOLE #6 “Lookout” – 475 yards – par 5

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

HOLE #7 “Redan” – 221 yards – par 3

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

HOLE #8 “Road” – 488 yards – par 4

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

HOLE #9 “Knoll” – 424 yards – par 4

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

HOLE #10 “Lake” – 168 yards – par 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOLE #14 “Spines” – 414 yards – par 4

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

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

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

HOLE #16 “Short” – 149 yards – par 3

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

HOLE #17 “Hudson” – 446 yards – par 4

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

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

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

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

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

Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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WHAT’S IN A NAME – LONGUE VUE

A LinksGems course tour and appreciation of the Robert White designed Longue Vue Club by Jon Cavalier

Much attention is paid to National Golf Links, Oakmont, Cypress Point and their peers, and for good reason. But it also useful and enjoyable to shine a light on a lesser known, but very worthy golf course. Longue Vue Club, designed by Robert White, a St. Andrews native and former president of the PGA of America, as well as the architect of the first putting green ever installed on the White House lawn, is well deserving of our attention and praise. The course opened for play in 1922 and a decade and a half later, A.W. Tillinghast lent his eye and his mind for potential improvements. The club wisely acted on several of his ideas, including changes to the first, ninth, tenth and eleventh holes. 

 

The product was a first rate golf course on an astonishing piece of land high above the Allegheny River. The course incorporates several templates of the Macdonald/Raynor school, including a Redan, Eden and Punchbowl. Despite the hilly nature of the property, the course is a joy to walk and to play. The staff does a fabulous job of keeping the conditions ideal for enjoyable golf and the club maintains firm fairways, fast greens and penal but playable rough.

  

Longue Vue has a tendency to be overlooked due to its location in the long shadow of nearby Oakmont and Fox Chapel, but this gem is more than worthy of discussion. I hope you enjoy the tour.

The Clubhouse

I tend to rattle on a bit about clubhouses in my tours, as I have always believed that, when done right, a clubhouse can add to the experience of a golf course. Longue Vue’s clubhouse is, in a word, exceptional.

Designed by architect Benno Janssen, the clubhouse is entirely stone with a slate roof and includes several large archways.

As seen above, the clubhouse is designated a National Historic Landmark and appears on the National Register of Historic Places.

Upon arrival at the club, and depending on the entrance used, the player drives through the arched tunnel to reach the parking lot.

The landscaping surrounding the clubhouse is impeccable, and colorful flowers are planted in seemingly every available space.

The views from the club’s main patio are likewise impressive – hence the name.

This view from the west side of the clubhouse shows the 18th hole, which finishes steps from the building.

Even the walk to the first tee is impressive.

The Course

Longue Vue plays to a yardage of 6,606 from the back tees and to a par of 71. The course is routed loosely in a counterclockwise fashion, though it doubles back on itself frequently on the second nine.

HOLE #1 – 396 yards – par 4

A tough opener, the first doglegs to the left around a sharp falloff—anything to the left of the fairway is looking at a bogey or worse.

A tee shot hit too long or too timidly to the right will find rough and a challenging angle. An accurate drive is a must on this hole.

The right side of the first hole gives the player his first look at some of the scenery to come.

The first green is sloped substantially from back to front, providing a receptive target for longer approach shots while penalizing balls hit long.

A very solid opening hole.

HOLE #2 – 390 yards – par 4

The next of two stout par-4 openers, the second hole plays gently downhill to a fairway bending in the opposite direction from the first.

The fairway falls off to the left and feeds into these bunkers, which make for a challenging recovery to the elevated and well-protected green.

The proper play is down the left side of this fairway, which provides both the ideal angle and view into this green.

The slope of this fairway, the angle to which it feeds into the green, and the left to right tilt of the green itself combine to provide for some very interesting approach shots.

HOLE #3 – 202 yards – par 3

An excellent Redan, the third plays over a large ravine to a green at tee height.

There is little room for error here—misses short or left are dead, and those long or right make for extremely challenging recoveries.

The green is unique among Redans, in my experience, as it contains both a hollow and a second tier to the right rear.

The third is a standout hole at Longue Vue.

HOLE #4 – 553 yards – par 5

The first three shot hole of the round begins high above the Allegheny River and drops steeply downhill.

An accurate tee shot on the proper line will run forever, and will provide most players with a second shot into the green.

Those who choose to lay up are offered a generous fairway, which then tightens considerably near the green.

The large green is receptive to shots hit from distance, but care must be taken to avoid the miss long or right. An enjoyable hole.

HOLE #5 – 198 yards – par 3

An Eden template par-3, the fifth plays over a shallow ravine to an elevated green with replica Hill and Strath bunkering to either side.

The green slopes hard from back to front here, and the Eden bunker is ready to catch balls hit long. The hazard bounding the right side of the hole adds an element of difficulty due to the steep slope from the green to the trees. Though not as dramatic as some Macdonald Edens, the fifth at Longue Vue is a fine example of this template.

HOLE #6 – 390 yards – par 4

The sixth requires a tee shot to a banked fairway running left to right around a large ravine that encroaches from the right side.

The banked fairway rewards well-struck drives that fade right to left with some extra distance and a kick down into the flat bottom of the fairway.

The large green is accessible, but the penalty for missing it is high, as it is surrounded on all sides with trouble in one form or another.

HOLE #7 – 312 yards – par 4

The shortest two shot hole on the course, the seventh asks for a tee shot to a narrow fairway benched into the side of a hill. Longer hitters wishing to challenge this green off the tee must confront a set of bunkers set into the hill above the left side of the fairway. The contours of the fairway obscure parts of the landing area and the green.

This unique bunkering presents a visual and actual hazard on the seventh hole.

As seen from behind the green, the topography at Longue Vue makes for some challenging and interesting golf. A fun risk-reward par-4.

HOLE #8 – 548 yards – par 5

The start of what might be considered Longue Vue’s prettiest stretch of holes, the eighth begins on a rise and proceeds over the club’s entrance road to a fairway canted steeply uphill and hard from left to right.

This fairway is truly difficult to hold, and your author thinks this hole could improve from good to great if the fairway were widened by 20 or more yards. In any event, second shots are hit from a significantly uphill lie.

The fairway short of the green is beautifully contoured and open to encourage running second shots. While the ideal approach is down the left side, the cross bunker some 50 yards short of the green on the left must be avoided.

Once again, the rolling land provides character and interest to this two-and-a-half shot hole.

HOLE #9 – 452 yards – par 4

The bunkerless ninth hole at Longue Vue may be the most difficult on the course. The tee shot requires a carry over a ravine to a fairway not only sloping left to right, but substantially undulating as well.

Level lies are few and far between in this fairway, making the long second shot that much more difficult.

Missing the fairway off the tee means having to confront this deep depression some 80 yards short of the green.

The interest of the ninth is increased by the fact that the horizon green slopes from front to back, a feature made more challenging by the length of the hole.

A superb hole, and perhaps the best on the course.

HOLE #10 – 171/148 yards – par 3

A gorgeous par-3 set at the edge of a bluff, the tenth is all carry to a green that appears suspended in mid-air.

As this view from short and left of the green illustrates, there is almost no room for error here. Further, the green itself cants sharply from high left to low right, which is exacerbated by some pin positions.

The slope of this green provides it with near-redan like characteristics, as properly flighted balls can be aimed at the larger, safer side of the green and use the slope to funnel down toward the hole. The ninth is visible in the background. A beautiful setting for golf.

HOLE #11 – 417 yards – par 4

A rise in the fairway obscures the landing area on this tough, dogleg right par-4. The hole slings to the right, opposite the slope in the fairway, making a fade the much preferred shot shape off this tee.

Most second shots will be blind here as well, as the hole continues its gentle climb up and around the hillside to the large green. The flagpole marks the center of the green.

This view from the right reveals the depth of the green, appropriate for receiving the long, often blind approach shots required here.

Bunkers to the left of the green catch any shots not properly aimed, which is complicated for the player by the blindness of the approach.

HOLE #12 – 200 yards – par 3

A long one-shot hole to a very dramatic green, the twelfth is played over another large ravine with the slight elevation creating partial blindness from the tee.

The green is riddled with ridges and undulations, making a two putt far from certain, even for those shots that are fortunate enough to find the putting surface from the tee.

Pins on a high tier in the right rear of the green provide their own set of additional challenges. A first rate par 3 hole.

HOLE #13 – 334 yards – par 4

A Robert White Alps/Punchbowl! The short thirteenth is your author’s favorite hole at Longue Vue. The tee shot plays out over a pond to a bowled fairway that rises sharply uphill.

The approach shot is blinded by the Alps feature, here a fairway mound fronting the green.

The punchbowl green is open front right but extends deeply to a back left corner. The green itself slopes from back to front and contains all manner of pockets and hollows.

This view from behind the thirteenth reveals the back left pocket, which provides for the best pin positions on this outstanding green.

Who among us doesn’t love a well-done punchbowl? The thirteenth at Longue View certainly qualifies.

HOLE #14 – 445 yards – par 4

Having ascended the alps hill, the course plays out across the highest point of the property. The fourteenth begins with a slightly uphill drive to a wide fairway that bends gently left. Bunkers guard the inside of the dogleg, while the right is bounded by a steep, tree covered slope.

The wide fairway flows seamlessly into the green, allowing long approaches to be run on to the putting surface.

One last gentle hole before the drama of the closing stretch begins.

HOLE #15 – 540 yards – par 5

Wow. The fifteenth hole plays straightaway along the ridgeline, with the Allegheny Valley in full view far below. The view from this tee box is surpassed only by the one from the green.

While traps down the right will catch balls careening toward the cliff’s edge, hidden bunkers down the left see far more action, as players naturally bail out away from the certain death of a miss right.

The beautifully rolling fairway will reward accurate drives with added distance and the promise of an opportunity to go for this green in two. The cliff looms right for the entire length of the hole.

Again, the green is open in front to receive running approaches, but is surrounded by sand, including this bunker short left that will gather shots missed left.

Golf in the Pittsburgh area does not get more scenic than the fifteenth at Longue Vue.

HOLE #16 – 198 yards – par 3

The par 3 holes at Longue Vue are extremely challenging, and the sixteenth is no exception. In fact, it may be the most difficult of them all. An uphill tee shot into the prevailing wind is required, and accuracy is a must, as the green will shed balls missed right or long.

The area short of this tough green is mowed and maintained as fairway, and can be used by players to bounce balls on to the putting surface.

HOLE #17 – 470 yards – par 4

Longue Vue closes with two lengthy and difficult two shot holes that run downhill and back to the clubhouse. The first of the pair, the seventeenth, plays down to a fairway moving gently from right to left. The hill obscuring the beginning of the fairway makes distances difficult to judge.

The fairway banks slightly from right to left, making a level lie a difficult find. Once more, the green is open in front but well-protected to the sides.

The lack of trees immediately behind the green plays yet more tricks with judging distance, and the green itself slopes from right to left.

The seventeenth—a hole as pretty as it is difficult.

HOLE #18 – 471 yards – par 4

Strong courses have strong finishing holes, and Longue Vue is no exception. The second of two consecutive 470+ yard par-4s, the eighteenth plays out over a rise to a wide fairway. Like the eighteenth at Eastward Ho!, the finishing hole at Longue Vue hides its drama until the second shot is reached.

Playing directly at the gorgeous stone clubhouse, the final hole winds its way down the rippling terrain to a large green.

The green slopes slightly from front to back and hard from right to left, and out of bounds is tight to the rear of the green, incentivizing a ground approach.

A last look back up the eighteenth hole leaves one in awe of the effort that must have been needed to build a course on these grounds nearly 100 years ago.

Longue Vue is a course that is under the radar of most, but for those who enjoy their golf fun, fast and challenging, and with some gorgeous scenery sprinkled in, it is not to be missed. Next time you find yourself in the Pittsburgh area, you should give Longue Vue a look. I can guarantee you won’t regret it.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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BOLD, BEAUTIFUL BAYONNE

A LinksGems course tour and appreciation of the Eric Bergstol designed Bayonne Golf Club by Jon Cavalier

Bayonne Golf Club is, to put it mildly, one of the more unique golf clubs in the United States. Built entirely from scratch by Eric Bergstol, the course represents the antithesis of the “minimalist” trend in golf course architecture, and yet, somehow, appears more “natural” than many other courses built in the last 20 years.  The result is, in a word, spectacular.

The course winds its way through man-made dunes, some nearly 100 feet high, constructed from muck and filler dredged from New York Harbor. Look to the north from the course’s high points and you’ll know you’re within the shadow of one of the world’s largest metropolises. But down in the dunes, you’d be forgiven for losing yourself for a moment and imagining you’re walking the fairways at Pacific Dunes or Ballybunion.

Meanwhile, above this dreamscape looms a gorgeous clubhouse reminiscent of a New England lighthouse and one of the largest American flags you’ll ever see. It is fair to assume that the melding of these three elements—the distant cityscape, the rolling dunes, the majestic clubhouse and flag—would be at best disjointed and at worst an overblown disaster. In the case of Bayonne, however, such an assumption would be completely wrong.

Bayonne is a club that, perhaps due to its youth or the fact that it has yet to host a significant event, flies under the radar of many people outside its immediate geographic area. In fact, when brought up as one of my favorite New York-area courses, no course generates more quizzical looks than Bayonne. One purpose of this tour is to shine much deserved light on this modern architectural gem.

With the possible exception of Shadow Creek, no course more clearly illustrates what a golf course can be with a blank canvas, ample funds, and a dedicated and motivated developer. From this standpoint, Bayonne warrants our study. I hope you enjoy the tour.

The Clubhouse and Flag

Together, Bayonne’s clubhouse and accompanying flag play a larger role in the club’s identity and have a greater impact on the feel of the golf course than at perhaps any other modern club. Situated on the highest point of the property, the flag and the clubhouse are the first things the player sees when approaching Bayonne by car, and they are the most identifiable aspects of the property when approaching by air or sea. 

The clubhouse itself is spectacular. Built to suit the club’s location on the water, the lighthouse-inspired building manages to impress without seeming ostentatious and feels welcoming rather than forbidding (no small feat with a building such as this). 

The lighthouse contains an incredible bar and grill room with spectacular 360 degree views. A terrace provides a wonderful place for a post-round lunch. The interior of the building is entirely hardwood and gives the appearance of a rustic retreat.

The top of the lighthouse affords the club’s members and guests some of the best views in New Jersey.

Bayonne’s flag is perhaps even more impressive than its clubhouse. Flying at the top of a 150 foot pole, the 40×70 foot flag is the second largest American flag flying on the East Coast.

The flag is so large that the flagpole is 22 inches thick at its base and is set 15-feet into a concrete block to anchor it against the tremendous forces on the pole that are generated by the wind catching the flag. In a nod to tradition, the flagpole is topped with a 24-inch, 70 pound gold plated copper ball.

The massive flag is easily visible from tall buildings in Manhattan, including the new World Trade Center, and is a memorable and distinguishing element of the club’s presence.

Getting There

The drive into Bayonne is…interesting. To say that the club’s immediate surroundings give no clue as to the beauty within is an understatement. From the south, the club is minutes off the Bayonne Bridge from Staten Island. From the north, it is accessed via the Newark Bay Bridge or the Manhattan tunnels. Regardless of the direction of travel, the golfer passes industrial sites, harbor terminals and empty lots before hitting the entrance.

Though an overused description, entering the gates at Bayonne is quite literally like entering a different world. Industry gives way to a driveway bordered by tall dunes, with Bayonne’s massive flag and clubhouse emerging on the horizon. The experience is truly one of crossing a threshold.

For those who prefer a different method of travel, Bayonne has its own ferry to shuttle members and their guests to and from Manhattan, as well as a helicopter landing pad. These fine amenities are located at the far end of the property, adjacent to the 16th green and 17th tee.

Practice Facilities and Driving Range

Bayonne provides players with a typical practice green, set mere paces from the clubhouse and the first tee. The practice green affords the player a view over much of the golf course and city skyline, heightening the pre-round sense of anticipation.

The range at Bayonne is yet another unique aspect of the club. Pressed for space, the club’s range is the harbor itself. Golfers tee off from a narrow strip of manmade land out into a section of water roped off with floating line.

The range balls used at Bayonne perform like regular golf balls, but they float. The prevailing currents and tides typically push the balls into a corner of the range, where they are scooped up with a net by a club staffer in a small boat. The views from this range are impressive, as the Verrazano Narrows Bridge looms large to the south.

The Golf Course

As noted above, the course at Bayonne sits on an entirely manufactured landscapes with dunes rising to nearly 100 feet. The result is a winding, thrilling ride up, down and across some of the largest dunes in the East. The course is maintained in impeccable condition and provides its members with true links style golf—firm fairways, fast greens and ever-present wind—and despite the size of the dunes, the course remains quite an enjoyable walk.

The course stretches to a Championship yardage of 7,120. Typically, members play from a respectable 6,712 yards (the yardage used for this tour) or 6,303 yards. Each of the holes at Bayonne is named—a practice I wholeheartedly endorse—and can, on several occasions, give the golfer an idea of how a hole is meant to be played.

The routing at Bayonne is superb, beginning in a northwesterly direction and meandering out to a corner of the property, turning back and forth on itself before returning to the clubhouse at the turn. The back nine begins by playing to the southern edge of the property before returning to the clubhouse after the 13th, 15th and 18th holes. No two consecutive holes play in the same direction.

HOLE #1 – “Dell” – 343 yards – par 4

The first tee at Bayonne is so close to the pro shop, the player almost feels as if he is teeing off from inside the building. A gorgeous tee shot it is.

From the elevated tee, the first plays down through a canyon of dunes to a generous fairway. The Bayonne Bridge is visible in the background.

This undulating fairway, standard at Bayonne, is sure to provide an array of interesting and challenging lies to the golfer. Notably, the green sits hidden to the left and is only visible from the far end of this fairway…

…and only then is the magnificent punchbowl green revealed.

The greens at Bayonne are quick, firm, undulating and extremely challenging. Their brilliant design allows for numerous interesting hole locations on each putting surface.

From the green, only the dunes, the clubhouse and the flag are visible. The first at Bayonne would be a signature hole on most golf courses. Here, it’s merely an appetizer. 

HOLE #2 – “Wee Burn” – 386 yards – par 4

Like its namesake in Connecticut, Bayonne’s “Wee Burn” does indeed have such a feature running through it. But first, golfers must find this rolling and partially hidden fairway with their tee shot, which given the stunning background, is easier said than done.

From the fairway, the approach to the second green is a short iron or wedge over the burn, here a wide tidal depression from which there is no recovery.

The green itself is small, and there is little room for error—there is simply no good miss on this tough but fair two-shotter.

HOLE #3 – “Redan” – 170 yards – par 3

An exceptional rendition of this classic template, the third at Bayonne plays like a traditional redan and has all the traditional elements, save for the drop-off and bunkering behind the green (though missing long here might be more of a penalty).

The beautifully sculpted green will direct balls to the left-hand pin locations, though here, care must be taken to ensure a kick to the proper tier.  The pin position on the high back shelf is the most difficult to access.

The back half of the redan green, as seen from the walk to the fourth tee. Gorgeous.

HOLE #4 – “Church Spire” – 534 yards – par 5

The first three-shot hole at Bayonne is named for the spire of the church visible from the tee. The hole demands a tee shot to a generous fairway that runs out into a large bunker.

The bunker, reminiscent of Hell’s Half Acre, will catch overly-aggressive drives and/or meek second shots, depending on the day’s wind.

The fourth green, like the second at Myopia Hunt Club, sits below fairway height and is thus invisible for all but the final few yards of the hole.

The green can be reached in two by longer hitters electing to use the right side of the fairway, which leads down into the approach, but the fronting hazard makes for a difficult recovery.

The putting surface on the fourth is one of your author’s favorites at Bayonne.

HOLE #5 – “Butterfly’s Feet” – 140 yards – par 4

Playing back in the direction of the clubhouse, the one-shot fifth is slightly uphill to a blind green fronted by a large, deep pot bunker.

As the name of the hole implies, a high, soft iron is the preferred shot to this well-protected green.

The green itself, while not small, is divided by a ridge crossing from 3 to 6, while another ridge protruded into the green from the 12 o’clock position. Precision is a must on this hole.

HOLE #6 – “Bay’s End” – 331 yards – par 4

An exceptional short par-4, the sixth runs out to the far northwestern end of the property. As all great short two-shot holes do, the sixth at Bayonne offers a choice: lay up to a preferred distance and approach the green over the waste area on the right…

…or go for the green via the fairway to the left, using the terrain to circumvent the hazard.

A brilliantly designed hole that one would never tire of playing.

HOLE #7 – “Beach Rose” – 415 yards – par 4

Changing directions once more, the seventh transports the golfer back to the higher ground amongst the dunes. Playing to an angled, rising fairway, the it demands a long, straight tee shot if the green is to be reached in two, especially when playing into the wind.

Once again, a rumpled, canted fairway provides an added degree of challenge and interest on this long two shot hole.

Entirely open in the front, this green is built to encourage and accept running shots which, due to the length of the hole and the wind, will be the preferred choice for many players. However… 

…accuracy is still in high demand, as the encroaching finger of rough must be carried or avoided.  A challenging hole.

HOLE #8 – “Salt Marsh” – 565 yards – par 5

The longest hole on the course, and the most difficult of the three par-5s, the eighth begins on an elevated tee and plays back toward Manhattan. Most of the hole, including the green, is not visible from this tee.

The eighth offers the brave player an opportunity to attack the green in two, but such a shot requires negotiation of a salt marsh and is all carry. The typical player will lay up down the right side of the marsh.

Even from the safer right side, the approach is no bargain—the marsh must still be carried from this angle, and the green is well protected on all sides.

The green is heavily contoured and, once past the halfway point, slopes substantially from front right to back left.

The slope of the green makes front right pin placements very challenging…

…and putting to a back left pin position can easily result in a chip for one’s next shot. This is an exceptional green.

HOLE #9 – “Plateau” – 390 yards – par 4

Bayonne’s ninth asks for a tee shot to an angled fairway and allows the golfer to pick his line. Generally, the preferred line is just left of the bunker shown below. Any ball left short will end up in deep grass on the side hill, making for a nearly impossible recovery. Bayonne’s clubhouse and flag loom large above this hole.

The approach to the ninth must carry a break in the fairway and negotiate a false front before reaching a green set in a bowl. The contours on the ninth green are some of the wildest on the property. Putting from back right to a front left pin on this green is an adventure, and then some.

HOLE #10 – “Highlands” – 440 yards – par 4

The back nine begins with a tough par four. The length of this difficult two-shot hole is mitigated by the fact that it plays substantially downhill, but the hard dogleg right nonetheless requires accurate placement of the tee shot.

The tenth fairway can assist shorter players who are able to use its contours to negotiate the dogleg.

Once again, the green is entirely open in front to encourage a ground attack, and the undulating putting surface provides one final challenge on perhaps the most difficult hole on the course.

HOLE #11 – “The Nook” – 210 yards – par 3

An outstanding one-shot hole, the eleventh requires a wood or a long iron to a green surrounded by large dunes. In the background, only the very top of One World Trade Center pokes into view.

Partially obscured from view by dunes, the eleventh green is roomier than it appears from the tee and provides an apron to allow balls to be run or bounced onto the green.

HOLE #12 – “7 Sisters, 6 Brothers” – 417 yards – par 4

This stunning par-4 runs downhill away from the clubhouse directly toward New York harbor. The tee shot must carry scrub and waste area before finding the wide fairway below. The Verrazano Narrows Bridge is visible behind.

Once in the fairway, the approach must carry the ridge of a crossing dune pocked with the bunkers that give this hole its name.

The horizon green makes judging distance difficult, and the surroundings make focusing on the task at hand a challenge.

A beautiful spot for golf.

HOLE #13 – “Old Glory” – 544 yards – par 5

Your author’s favorite three shot hole at Bayonne, the thirteenth, playing back up through the dunes toward the clubhouse, appears ripped from Turnberry or Lahinch.

The movement in this wide fairway and the bordering dunes make attacking this beautiful hole in two an enticing proposition, but it plays longer than it appears.

As is the case with nearly every long hole at Bayonne, the green is open across the front. But this double-plateau is no pushover—being on the wrong tier of the putting surface can easily lead to a three putt…or worse.

This view from behind the green illustrates the severity of the slope in the green and the fairway, and gives a sense of the elevation change in this excellent par-5.

HOLE #14 – “High Tide” – 202 yards – par 3

This long downhill par-3 backdropped by the harbor and the New York skyline plays to an elevated green that falls substantially on all sides.

Once again, simply hitting the green does not guarantee a par, as the many ripples and hollows can frustrate even the best lag putter.

HOLE #15 – “Sheep’s Bed” – 293 yards – par 4

The fifteenth begins the outstanding closing stretch at Bayonne. A wonderful short, uphill par-4, it plays over a large ridge in the fairway which hides most of the landing area from view, adding tension to this otherwise straightforward tee shot.

The fairway narrows considerably the more aggressive the tee shot, and a large waste area right provides a formidable hazard for wayward drives.

The putting surface is protected by a massive false front that will repel tee shots up to 50 yards back down the fairway.

The elevated green and the false front make judging even a wedge shot into this hole a challenge.

The fourteenth green, though relatively tame by Bayonne standards, can nevertheless create challenges—any putts from above the hole on this green are terrifying.

A flat out gorgeous hole, and a superb short par-4.

HOLE #16 – “Heaven’s Gate” – 453 yards – par 4

The back to back 15th and 16th holes are equally spectacular but diametrically opposite. The sixteenth plays downhill toward the harbor to a wide fairway. The view from the tee is one of the best on the course.

A dogleg left, the sixteenth plays to a green tucked into a far corner of the property and bordered on all sides by dunes and bunkers.

Like the 17th at National Golf Links, tee shots out to the right play shorter into this hole but are left blind by the dunes…

…while the farther left one plays, the better the view of the green.

Open in front to receive shots on the ground, the sixteenth green is slightly elevated and substantially contoured.

The view from the sixteenth green is almost as good as the view from the tee. A stunning hole.

HOLE #17 – “Water’s Edge” – 450 yards – par 4

The aptly named seventeeth is a long, cape style par-4 that hugs the shoreline of the harbor. The player has the option to play farther to the left to shorten the hole…

…but the penalty for misjudging one’s ability is high.

Playing safely out to the right side of the fairway allows for a full view of the open green.

Once again, the green abuts the water so tightly as to make judging distance difficult and to inject an element of perceived challenge into even the most standard approaches.

Use of the ground to approach the green is again an option.

Water’s Edge indeed. Beautiful.

HOLE #18 – “Lighthouse” – 429 yards – par 4

Perhaps the prettiest tee shot on the course, the final hole of the day requires a drive over a large dune obscuring the left half of the fairway. Befitting the name of this hole, the ideal line is directly at the lighthouse. Standing on this tee, it is hard to believe Manhattan is over your right shoulder.

The final approach at Bayonne is to a green ringed by a stone wall and set at the base of the gorgeous clubhouse.

From this fairway, nothing is visible beyond the green besides the clubhouse and the flag.

As nothing else would suffice, the eighteenth green confronts the golfer with one last putting challenge. Walking off, the view back down the final fairway instills players with a deep sense of accomplishment.

To be frank, I was quite surprised with the impact that Bayonne had on me after my first visit. Like most architecture geeks, I tend to prefer my golf courses old and traditional. But I found myself continually flashing back on my round at Bayonne. The course is truly unique in modern golf, and certainly on the East Coast, and is unquestionably an achievement in engineering and design for which Eric Bergstol is to be commended. But more than that, and unlike some of its neighbors, Bayonne is a course that focuses on providing its members with enjoyable golf. In that regard, Mr. Bergstol truly does deserve our acclaim, and our thanks. After all, isn’t that what golf is all about?

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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THE MIDWEST MACKENZIE – CRYSTAL DOWNS

An in-depth look at the collaboration of Dr. Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell at Crystal Downs C.C.

Crystal Downs is not Dr. Alister MacKenzie’s only Midwest design, but it is certainly his most highly regarded work in the region. The greatness of the course can be linked to the interest and variety inherent in the land, and MacKenzie’s visionary ability to embrace what a site offered. He was fortunate to have as his collaborator Perry Maxwell who expertly translated ideas into reality on the ground, adding his own touches and creative flourishes as he went. For nearly a century, Crystal Downs has been challenging, delighting and inspiring its members, including architects Tom Doak and Mike DeVries. More recently and in spite of its remote location, pilgrims have eagerly followed in the footsteps of a young Ben Crenshaw, making the journey to little Frankfort, Michigan to get a taste of MacKenzie and Maxwell’s genius.

A Connection of Like Minds

It was a pilgrimage of sorts that led to the initial connection between Perry Maxwell and Dr. Alister MacKenzie. In his biography The Midwest Associate, author Christopher Clouser chronicles the journey that Maxwell took to his ancestral home in Scotland to explore his family roots. Additionally, he aimed to study the finest links in the home of golf, much as C.B. Macdonald had done before him. Naturally, he made his way to St. Andrews and it was there that he first met MacKenzie, a man who struck Maxwell as a kindred spirit. They had each entered golf course design as a second career. They both drew inspiration from the great courses they saw, most notably The Old Course. They shared a common belief that the best courses were not forcibly made—they were found on suitable land by making use of and accentuating natural features to present players with a series of strategic questions to answer. Upon Maxwell’s departure for the States, they agreed that a design partnership would be desirable were MacKenzie to ever make his way to America.

Although the collaboration of MacKenzie and Maxwell was not as prolific as that which The Good Doctor had with Robert Hunter in California, or Russell and Morcom in Australia, the pair did work together on several courses during the late ‘20s and early ‘30s. The mutual affinity felt in St. Andrews grew during their time working together, as evidenced by the letter that MacKenzie penned after visiting their first course collaboration, Melrose Country Club outside of Philadelphia. It read in part:

“My Dear Maxwell, When I originally asked you to come into partnership with me, I did so because I thought your work more closely harmonized with nature than any other American Golf Course Architect. The design and construction of the Melrose Golf Course has confirmed my previous impression. I feel that I cannot leave America without expressing my admiration for the excellence of your work…Few if any golfers will realize that Melrose has been constructed by the hand of man and not nature. This is the greatest tribute that can be paid to the work of a golf course architect.”

Crystal Downs Collaboration

Through Robert Hunter, the founders of Crystal Downs were able to convince MacKenzie and Maxwell to take a detour north on their cross-country trip east. Being unfamiliar with the Northern Michigan duneland topography, the architects did not bring high expectations for the project. What they did bring was a proven approach to creating compelling greens and beautiful bunkering, and a desire to find interesting land on which to practice their craft. Upon arriving at Crystal Downs, the men were immediately impressed. The site seemed to manifestation of the sentiment from MacKenzie’s writing found in The Spirit of St. Andrews:

“…there are few things more monotonous than playing every shot from a dead flat fairway. The unobservant player never seems to fully realize that one of the chief charms of the best seaside links is the undulating fairways such as those near the clubhouse at Deal, Sandwich, and, most of all, at the The Old Course at St. Andrews, where the ground is a continual roll from the first tee to the last green and where one never has the same shot to play twice over. On these fairways one hardly ever has a level stance or lie. It is this that makes the variety of the seaside course, and variety in golf is everything.”

The duo set to work laying out the course, and designing the greens and features. MacKenzie spent ten intensive days finalizing his vision and Maxwell worked diligently over the following three years to bring it to life. Stories of the course’s creation have become mythologized: MacKenzie getting intoxicated and only routing eight holes on the front nine; Maxwell having a lady friend in town; which of the two came up with the idea for a particular green site or feature. The veracity of these tales might be questionable, but this much is certain—the final product is a masterpiece of wildly varied strategic design and the collaboration clearly had a synergistic effect.

Although he is firmly in the camp of those who consider Crystal Downs to be an Alister MacKenzie design, Mike DeVries does not minimize Maxwell’s contributions. In the foreward to The Midwest Associate, he wrote:

“Maxwell’s respect for a landscape’s inherent qualities and use of those features in it is one of the great aspects of the golf course at Crystal Downs…he made the course better due to his recognition of the intricacies of the land.”

DeVries has spent decades at The Downs. He grew up playing the course with his grandfather, worked on the grounds crew, and now as a member, continues to study it for inspiration in his own design work. When asked what makes Crystal Downs so special, his answer was a chuckle and a question. “How much time do you have?” He continued, “The rhythm and flow are as good as any course in existence. It has a cadence, like a piece of music or drama.”

Drilling into the dramatic theme, DeVries went on to describe the different acts, each of which brings the player to a climactic high point. The prologue begins at the clubhouse with a walk down the stairs to the jaw-dropping reveal from the 1st tee. Act 1 takes place across the hillside and valley of the front nine, peaking at the 8th green and the par-3 9th, which runs perilously across a high ridge. Act 2 begins with the 10th and takes the player away from the clubhouse along the dune ridge that separates Lake Michigan from Crystal Lake, ending with the long view north from the 14th green. Act 3 is the return journey home with one final thrill at the 17th green. The closing hole is an understated epilogue, giving the player an opportunity to reflect and absorb the entirety of the drama, as well as the holes and shots within it.

DeVries’s romantic language speaks to his love of Crystal Downs, but also to his recognition that it is a true work of art born out of the trust that the artists felt for one another. “Every day I am at The Downs,” concludes DeVries, “I learn something new about architecture.”

The Course Today

The spirit of collaboration continues in the preservation and presentation of Crystal Downs. Tom Doak plays the dual role of happy member and consulting architect, working with long-time Superintendent Michael Morris and his team to present the course such that the greatness of the design and features shine through. The turf is fast and firm, the fescue gorgeous and the tree management darn near perfect. If MacKenzie and Maxwell came back today, they would approve.

DeVries, Doak and Morris are proof of the gravitational pull of Crystal Downs, which has had the same effect on Head Professional Fred Muller for forty years. Muller wrote the course guide and sums up The Downs:

“Crystal Downs is a thinking person’s golf course, where long is good but not necessary…where the position you leave your ball is critical, and where the wind always blows. Crystal Downs is the coming together of golf’s greatest architect, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, at the zenith of his career (after designing Cypress Point and just before Augusta National), with a marvelous piece of property.”

The outward half is intimately routed over the rolling duneland below the clubhouse. An argument could be made that it is among the best nines in all of golf.

The inward half shifts gears, taking players on an out-and-back adventure through a wooded area along a dune ridge. The difference in the two nines further adds to the wondrous variety of The Downs.

That tour that follows features the photography of Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) as well as a few of my own, complemented by Mr. Muller’s hole descriptions (in quotes). One more time, collaboration revealing just how special Crystal Downs is.

Click on any gallery image below to enlarge with captions

The opener is no gentle handshake, from the undulating fairway through the severely sloped green, it tells players everything about the holes to come. “Although downhill, this hole plays every bit as long as its 449 yards suggest. It is usually into the wind, and like many holes at Crystal Downs the tee shot lands into a rising fairway. Sneak up on a wildly undulating green with a shot that lands short and pitches on. A miss to the left is a bogie, a miss to the right is a disaster.”

The next three holes are subtly brilliant, working off the side of the hill and requiring both well conceived and executed shots. “Avoid the bunkers left and right of the fairway on the 2nd and you’ll face a medium iron or fairway wood to the green. Although generally downwind, the green is 25 feet above the tee. Take enough club.  Golfers have putted off every green at Crystal Downs, and the front pin here is one where it happens often. Downhill and into a swirling wind, the 3rd is a most difficult hole for club selection. Remember how much the wind was helping on #2, and that’s how much the wind is hurting here. The green sits on an angle to the tee, one more club to the left side than the right. Fade the drive on the 4th or risk running through the fairway into the left hand rough. The long second shot will run up into the green only from the right front, however, pitching from the left front of the green is no disaster.”

This set of three four-pars are incredibly creative and could be played on a continuous loop without ever getting remotely boring. Birdie is a real possibility on each, as is double. “The 5th is one of MacKenzie’s great holes and most complicated, and is rated by Golf Magazine as one of the best par fours in the world. Hit the tee shot over the left edge of the giant oak, leaving a hanging lie 7 or 8 iron to a green that slopes dramatically from left to right. Or ‘bite off’ some more of the ridge on your tee shot to leave a pitch. Don’t bite off too much. Always pitch to the left portion of the green or risk rolling into the right hand green side bunkers. The 6th hole is MacKenzie’s idea of a ‘forced carry’. If you make the crest of the hill, the short iron to the largest green on the course is fairly easy. If you fall short on the drive, a blind long iron or wood awaits. The famous ‘Scabs’ are the bunkers to the right off the tee. Don’t even think about that route. On the 7th, a 210 yard tee shot leaves a short iron to a most unusual green—a kidney shaped ‘MacKenzie green’ in a punch bowl. A 230 yard drive leaves a short pitch to the green, but it’s a blind shot. It’s your choice, but be sure to get your second shot on the proper lobe of the kidney.”

This outstanding par-5 is lay-of-the-land architecture and its finest. No need for fairway bunkers when nature has provided such heaving contours. “Crystal Downs’ first three-shot hole is rated as one of the world’s best par fives. Drive down the middle on the 8th, fairway wood up the right side and a medium iron into the green. No problem…except you will encounter all kinds of uneven lies. You are at the mercy of the fates. The 150 yard mark is one of the longest in golf, and the green’s not very big either with lots of undulation.”

The next three holes make the turn at the clubhouse hill, and then take the player out to the long dune ridge. Each requires precise judging of distance to avoid punishment. “The green on the 9th is over 30 feet above the tee, which slopes from back up to the front (yes, it’s an uphill tee). Do not attack this hole. Hit a low shot and bounce the ball onto the front center of the green. Be careful with your putter. A careless shot could send you back for a wedge. The perfect tee ball on the 10th from an elevated tee is something inside the 150 yard mark in the right fairway. This leaves a middle iron shot over a pot bunker and straight up the slope of the green. Hit an extra club to carry the bunker yet avoid going long and left. You’ve heard those wonderful words of wisdom ‘stay below the hole’. Do that on the 11th.  The green is some 20 feet above the tee so it plays long. With that in mind choose a club that will get you to the front level of this three level green. Putt or chip uphill to the pin. Now, change philosophy and get the ball to the hole or you’ll be stepping aside as the ball rolls back past you, and maybe off the green.”

This pair of par-4s illustrates how MacKenzie and Maxwell were comfortable demanding shot-making from players. Fades and draws are optimal to navigate the bends, side-slopes and greens. “The magnificent beech tree straight ahead is on the left side of the fairway on the 12th. Your tee shot must be to the right of the tree. The green slopes from front to back, and unless you hit a large drive leaving a short iron, you should hit a low running hook shot that will bounce up and onto the green. A pitch back to the green from behind is no problem. The 13th is the most difficult par at Crystal Downs. Hit a hard fade off the tee that will run with the contour of the fairway. The shot into the green is determined by the pin placement. The green is very small, with a tiny front portion, dropping off to a larger rear portion of the green. Choose a club for your second shot that reaches just short of the green and then pitch it at the pin if it is in front. Try to hit the ball deep into the green for the rear pin. The greenside bunkers are easy to roll into and difficult to recover from.”

The peace and beauty of being at this point on the property tend to distract from the task at hand—hitting a good shot with a short club to collect a safe par, rather than carding an other. In the vein of other great Golden Age short threes, the 14th adds an important component to the examination of a player’s game. “This beautiful little gem is a straightforward 139 yard shot. The green on the 14th slopes less from back to front than it looks. Enjoy the view of Sleeping Bear from the back of the green and stay out of the sand.”

The next two holes, a short four and long five, turn and head back toward the clubhouse. In keeping with the theme of variety, they present very different challenges. “We call the 15th ‘Little Poison’. The fairway is narrow, the green is tiny and elevated, and the wind is usually in your face. The key to this short par-4 is a long drive. It takes 225 yards to crest a hill that will leave a short pitch. Not cresting the hill can leave an uphill blind shot. This green repels shots, so hit for the center of the green. Hit your tee shot hard on the 16th. Hit it hard again. And if the wind is blowing, hit it hard again. This green slopes from back to front; don’t putt it too hard.”

The 17th is the wildest and most polarizing hole on the course and the 18th one of the most benign. The two combine to give players one last set of thrills before making the walk back up the hill to the clubhouse. “The 17th is three hundred and one of the most frightening yards in golf. A 200 yard tee shot leaves a 9 iron or wedge. A 180 yard tee shot leaves an unplayable lie. A 215 yard tee shot leaves a blind, uphill, difficult pitch to the green. Now, if the wind is helping, you could drive the green. The greenside bunkers mean bogey or worse, and you don’t want to putt off the front of this green, because it won’t stop rolling for 50 yards. Drive your tee ball straight on the 18th. Don’t cut the corner, it won’t work. Your target is the 150 yard mark. The beautifully bunkered green is well above the tee shot landing area. On your second shot, hit enough club and keep the shot to the right. Anything to the left will kick into the bunker.”

Crystal Downs cannot be muscled or overpowered. It not only encourages creative shot making, the course demands it. Players who like to have their minds engaged and who are willing to experiment will be hard pressed to find a more stimulating golf course in America. The Downs has its secrets, and those secrets must be teased out. That is what places it in such high favor, and what makes it a joy to revisit repeatedly. The like minds of MacKenzie and Maxwell, working with exceptional land, created a midwest masterpiece.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf


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TILLY’S TALE AT SOMERSET HILLS

An in-depth look at the A.W. Tillinghast designed Somerset Hills Country Club

Somerset Hills embodies a rare opportunity for golf architecture aficionados and players alike. For the design enthusiast, it is a course to be studied closely as an integral step in the progression of one of America’s greatest architects, A.W. Tillinghast. This pivotal work remains frozen in time, largely free of alterations that befell his later courses, especially those that host championships. For the avid player, whether duffer or stick, Somerset Hills is a course to be enjoyed for its beauty and wildly varied set of challenges. A single play only begins to unlock the riddles that Tillinghast put in the ground in Bernardsville, N.J., employing equal parts respect for the land, creative flair, and knowledge of design history.

An Afternoon Walk

Step back in time and imagine that you have been invited to spend an afternoon touring the newly opened course at Somerset Hills in 1918. You get your first intriguing glimpse as you travel along Mine Mount Road, making the turn into the unassuming club entrance. Arriving at the clubhouse, you are surprised to find that your guide for the day will be none other than A.W. Tillinghast himself. A well-heeled and well-traveled Philadelphian, Tilly explored the British Isles, including spending time in St. Andrews with Old Tom Morris, undoubtedly absorbing the oral history of the game that was taking hold of his imagination and heart. Before designing courses, Tillinghast was an accomplished player and writer at a time when the golf craze in the U.S. was peaking. You quickly realize that your walkabout will be complemented by stories born of a particular breadth and depth of experience.

Somerset’s Redan 2nd – Credit: Simon Haines

A good storyteller does not immediately begin yelling at you, maintaining that intensity from start to finish. There are ebbs and flows that build toward a climax, all delivered with creative color. It is clear to you that A.W. Tillinghast is a master storyteller as he strolls along telling tales of his sources of inspiration, his design ideas and how they manifested on the site he was given at Somerset Hills. Of course, a great design begins with taking a player on an exploration of the land. You notice the way his holes meander, change direction, and bend, coherently combining to create moments of quiet intimacy contrasted with expansive views. He pauses on many greens to direct your focus backward as a reminder that what lies behind often foreshadows what is to come.

Like Macdonald before him, Tillinghast was entranced by North Berwick’s redan and created his version at the 2nd. Other “ideal hole” elements can be found throughout the course on the 13th, 14th and 16th. He points out the classic quirk of rugged mounds and bunkers cut into humps that were built by man, as well as the contours and creeks provided by nature for hazards. The greens are of such character and quality that you want to stop and spend extended time at each, but your guide will not allow for interruptions to the natural flow. As your tour and the story unfolds, the theme of variety becomes apparent throughout, maintaining the level of engagement even in moments of rest. With the afternoon light fading and Tilly’s cigarette smoke wafting by on the breeze, you find yourself mildly intoxicated by the combination of the journey completed and the stories told. Departing the property with a final glance back, it occurs to you that A.W. Tillinghast shared the story of golf architecture up to 1918, and his course at Somerset Hills embodies that history.

The 10th green, with 17th and 18th behind – Photo Credit: Jon Cavalier

An Inflection Point

Somerset Hills was not Tillinghast’s first design, but it would come to be known as his first great one. He drew upon the standout courses and holes he had seen in the U.K., as well as home grown offerings like Myopia Hunt Club, Garden City, National Golf Links, Pine Valley and Merion. His experience afforded him a treasure trove of strategic and visual elements into which he dipped liberally, always adding his own creative flair. Somerset was not just important as an homage to the first twenty years of American design though. It was a jumping off point for an incredible run of courses—Quaker Ridge, San Francisco G.C., Philadelphia Cricket Club and Baltusrol, among others—each expressing Tilly’s grasp of the principles of strategic architecture and his commitment to variety, while always staying true to the unique sense of place of each site. His portfolio stands as a testament to his versatility, as well as an inspiration to the architects who followed in his footsteps.

Taking the time to look backward from each green at Somerset Hills provides insight into how the holes on all of his courses remain brilliantly relevant to this day. He had a gift for finding good green sites, and for building wonderful putting surfaces and surrounds on those sites. Working back, the ideal angles into the different sections of the green become apparent. Tilly positioned his tees and routed his fairways over the topography, accented by varied hazards, giving players a chance to work those angles to their advantage. Well conceived and executed shots are rewarded. From the tee forward, the ideal route is often not apparent. Somerset has its fair share of blind, semi-blind and visible-but-intimidating shots. Like many in the Tillinghast portfolio, it is a course that hides its secrets from first-timers, only revealing itself through repeat play.

The Course

A round at Somerset Hills is a tale of two nines. The outward half is routed intimately in a gentle valley below the clubhouse in a space previously occupied by a race track. Tillinghast incorporated remnants of that track into the design. The inward nine makes its way into the woods, past a lake, through wetlands and then takes a final hilly ride back up to the clubhouse. The only meaningful change Tilly’s original is a repositioning of the 10th green to stretch it from a par-4 to a par-5.