2003: Perspective - The highs and lows of design

This Best and Worst in Golf Architecture List is in its 15th year, making it the longest continuously running column idea in U.S. golf (or maybe it just seems that way). Based upon my travels this past year, it is the product of strict scientific observation, with the results verified by the accounting team at Enron.

“How Stella Got her Grove Back” Award: Grove Park Inn, Asheville, N.C.

Here’s proof that good restoration brings a course into better shape than ever before. A mediocre Donald Ross routing shoehorned onto 88 acres, then left to rot for years, now stunningly brought back to a life it never knew by Greensboro, N.C.-based course architect Kris Spence. Credit also goes to the most erudite golf pro in America, Dal Raiford, who actually reads real books. He guided the project along and made it part of the GPI’s comeback into the ranks of the country’s grand hotels.

Edifice Wrecks Award: Rustic Canyon GC, Moorpark, Calif.

Great native golf routing and ground features vs. a wildly stark clubhouse and practice range. The clubhouse looks like the product of a do-it-yourself kit that was assembled despite the missing parts. The monstrous structure of a range looms like a Godzilla cage over the 12th green and dominates the landscape as you enter the site. It’s fully netted, about 80 feet high, with garish green artificial turf and mats to boot.

So we are talking extremes here – wildly in contrast with the admirable land plan and strategy of the Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford-designed course. It’s as if someone put a Denny’s next to La Cumbre Golf and Country Club in 1928 and tried to peddle it as part of architect George Thomas’ plan.

Hog Press Madness Award: 18th hole, Golf Club at Briar’s Creek, Johns Island, S.C.

Each nine on this new layout along the Intracoastal marsh starts and ends on strong, strategically diverse holes, but the par-5 18th (576 yards) just might be the best one Rees Jones has ever come up with. The green sits on the far side of doom, tree corridors have been cut to allow for risk assessment and alternate lines of play, and the wind often howls up a storm here.

No Flop for Lefty Award: Whisper Rock, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Phil Mickelson’s design debut, with close collaboration by veteran architect Gary Stephenson.

Surprisingly sophisticated, diagonal setting of putting surfaces places acute pressure on proper line and trajectory of approach. Well-pitched greens tend to have a shallow axis, which leaves lots of floppy up-and-over recoveries. Too bad the fairways are low-lying, meaning that Phil won’t get enough practice on the kind of shot he needs in order to win a major: a left-to-right shot from a right-to-left lie, and vice versa.

Looking for a Few Good Men Award: Black Sheep Golf Club, Sugar Grove, Ill.

A low-profile prairie/links sensibility, with a traditional, very walkable design by up-and-coming architect David Esler. This new private course, 40 miles west of downtown Chicago, had high marks but too few raters to rank among our top 100. Gee, if the club didn’t have a policy of excluding women, perhaps enough of our female raters could have played and voted it onto the list.

Aretha Franklin R-E-S-P-E-C-T Award: Mountain Lake Club, Lake Wales, Fla.

A sepia-toned gem with an Olmsted land plan and a vintage Seth Raynor layout, now boldly restored by Brian Silva. The linear bunkering and newly recaptured putting surfaces are amazing to play. Students of architecture allowed in for a rare glimpse universally praise the place. If only the membership knew how lucky it is to have this for a home course.

Trumpeting the news: Trump National Golf Course in Briarwood Manor, N.Y., now is officially the greatest golf course in the world, thanks to an entirely original design by Tom Fazio that, in the architect’s own words, was not constrained by his having allowed himself to be influenced by such nearby layouts as Winged Foot, Quaker Ridge or Fenway. To celebrate, Trump is now sponsoring “wet ’n’ wild” kayak rides on the rim of the 110-foot high waterfall at the $7 million, par-3 13th hole.

Stick it to the Superintendent Award: Short game guru Dave Pelz’s new device for more accurate measurement of green speeds goes to market this spring. The contraption looks like a dwarf steeplechase. Best thing about the PelzMeter is that compared with the Stimpmeter, green chairmen can’t shove it you know where.

Trends to watch: 330-yard drives; golf course construction companies going bankrupt; environmental pressure on water use in the Southwest that further limits irrigation; fire sale of golf courses at bargain-basement prices; popularity of extremely affordable daily fees; classical wooden flagsticks; bunkers and swales built with back hoes and hand labor rather than with large bulldozers; PGA Tour bunkers that are firm and provide players with mindlessly easy uphill escapes; real championship-test quality bunkers that are soft and fluffy and tilt toward the targets rather than providing uphill lies.

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