2004: America's Best - Hidden Creek all natural

Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have unlocked the key to fine golf course architecture. They take their time. They work in the field and with the land. And they use small equipment and lots of handwork to shape features. That’s what gives their Hidden Creek Golf Club outside Atlantic City such a quirky, aged and yet sensible feel.

Opened in 2002, the par-71 private course, 6,872 yards from the back tees (131 slope / 72.2 rating), fits the land. It has scruffy edges, wavy roughs, and hazards that look like they are hazardous.

Those in search of laser-edged features and dense green turfgrass are strongly advised to take their golf carts elsewhere. Here’s a place inspired as much by English heathlands (Sunningdale, Wentworth) and the Australian Sand Belt (Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath) as by the nearby Philadelphia School (Pine Valley, Merion).

Many modern designers claim to be influenced by classicists such as Alistair Mackenzie, A.W. Tillinghast and Donald Ross. But they undermine those professed sentiments when they start designing everything on paper, then hand it over to a contractor who uses large earthmoving equipment. When you rip up native contours you disturb natural drainage flow and have to compensate with hundreds of annoying catch basins that ultimately impede the roll of the golf ball.

Starting in 1995 with Sand Hills Golf Club (No. 1 on Golfweek’s America’s Best Modern Courses list) in Mullen, Neb., Coore and Crenshaw have pioneered a different approach. Even when the land is flat, as at Talking Stick (North Course) in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1998, they’ve been able to stagger their bunkering, including short carry bunkers and diagonal placement in the second-shot landing areas of par 5s. And they’re not afraid to build dramatic green contours – as they’ve proven at Friar’s Head in Baiting Hollow, N.Y., opened in 2003 and already No. 11 on the Modern list. (Hidden Creek is No. 76.)

It’s hard to build interesting green contours when you core out putting surfaces and build them like a three-tier, embedded layer cake as specified by the U.S. Golf Association. For reasons both agronomic and strategic, Coore and Crenshaw build a variant of USGA-spec greens. Too many modern architects are afraid to create slope for fear of green speeds getting out of hand. And they polish off their greens so that everything falls in a continuous, smooth grade.

At Hidden Creek, Coore and Crenshaw have built massive greens, averaging 7,500 square feet. They have lots of movement and uneven interiors that make every putt a thrill ride.

Not only do the greens work, so do the chipping areas. These greenside areas aren’t those trendy collection pockets that designers are throwing in to be stylish. These are Pinehurst-style in breadth and character. They drain well and they do something rare in American golf – namely, make recovery from the far side of the hole an interesting proposition.

Roger Hansen, club founder and owner, merits praise for adhering to a simple yet elegant vision. Here’s a place that welcomes the walking game – replete with a caddie program, mowed paths through the fescue from tees and no trace of cart paths.

Hidden Creek isn’t long by modern standards, though you easily could add 1,000 yards since there’s 30-60 yards available behind nearly every tee that doesn’t affect play on the previous hole.

With its flexibility, fun tee shots and maddening greens, Hidden Creek occupies a unique niche in American course design. It proves that retro-inspired design traditions are relevant today.

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