Course architects focus on design in 2009

No. 18 at Old American Club at The Tribute.

No. 18 at Old American Club at The Tribute.

For the past decade, the year in review always has included a strong mix of major renovations along with new course openings. But 2009 appears to be unique in terms of how slow the U.S. market has become – only 55 course openings for the year, as per the National Golf Foundation, the lowest figure since the early 1980s.

An anecdotal look at the U.S. design map for the year shows – despite, or maybe because of, the slow down – plenty of experimentation as architects and developers try to snare public attention and market share.

Case in point: the Pete Dye Course at French Lick (Ind.) Resort, where the Marquis de Sod has blessed the hills of his home state with as sharply honed a set of holes as he has ever created in his half century of Hall of Fame work. The 8,104-yard back tees on this par-72 layout are a reminder of how absurdly hard and long an architect can make a course today. From the middle tees, its iconic etched fairway contours are far more negotiable, but the edges often tumble off so precipitously that you get the feel Dye’s out not just to make a point about severity but to inflict it. Actually, the place is lovely, with its theatric long views and the zero-horizon line backdrops of the putting surfaces. As a “walk in the park” it’s inspiring, but as golf design, it’s just over the (mountain) top.

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No. 7 at Old American Club at The Tribute.

In the opposite stylistic corner from Dye’s heavily sculptured undertaking is Old American Golf Club at The Tribute in The Colony, Texas, which runs along the shore of Lake Lewisville 30 miles north of downtown Dallas. Architect Tripp Davis has teamed with PGA Tour star Justin Leonard to build a ground-hugging retro course, one whose offset bunkering and shaggy grass lines evoke the sensibility of Shinnecock Hills, National Golf Links and Prairie Dunes. Leonard, who lives near the golf course and thus was able to be on site extensively, wasn’t just along for the ride, but got his boots dirty both in designing and building this unusual place, even painting fairway lines and delineating bunker faces. The course was open for just a glimpse in early fall and then was shut down for completion of grow-in and a spring 2010 unveiling.

The Chase Course at Coyote Springs (Nev.) is a Jack Nicklaus entry that might have made more of an impression if anyone could have found it – 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas, precisely in the middle of nowhere. One day, developers might manage to complete what is planned on paper as a 159,000-home, 16-course development encompassing 67 square miles. Only the one course has been completed, and it is generous in width off the tee, with greens that get increasingly voluptuous (this is Vegas, after all) as the round unfolds.

Luckily, it’s not plagued by the same overly busy greens that Nicklaus debuted this year at his Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain in Marana, Ariz. In lieu of a normal course christening, this one opened up to the world by serving as home to the PGA Tour’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. It was met with widespread criticism by the world’s best players and immediately shut down so that the putting surfaces could be tamed and has now already re-opened. At least there’s something to be said for the effect of thoughtful criticism in architecture.

Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain isn’t the only high-profile new course to go through considerable renovation in its infancy. Tetherow, a David Kidd-designed course in Bend, Ore., opened in 2008, was softened considerably in the last year through the removal of numerous mounds and approach-area bunkers. And Erin Hills in Hartford, Wis. – a daily-fee layout from 2006 designed by Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten that is being touted as a future U.S. Open site – is about to get its second overhaul within the last 18-months.

The real theme of 2009 might just be major overhauls. Pine Lakes Country Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C., got a thorough housecleaning, including two new holes, all new putting surfaces, much improved drainage and a complete airbrushing of its Colonial-style clubhouse. TPC Potomac (Md.) reopened this year after a complete transformation and re-rerouting of this former PGA Tour stop shut down for more than a year. And at the five-course Doral (Fla.) Golf Resort and Spa, renowned instructor Jim McLean reshaped much of the former Silver Course. With the routing land-locked, McLean was limited to recontouring fairways, greens and bunkers. While considerably improved, the newly minted Jim McLean Signature Course at Doral did not quite achieve its hoped-for firm and fast playing quality because of the decision not to sand cap its fairways.

The gutsiest renovation of the year came at California Golf Club of South San Francisco, where architect Kyle Phillips took an A. Vernon Macan-Alistair Mackenzie design from the 1920s and undid a lot of the tawdry modernization, tree planting and pond installation that had overtaken the course in the last four decades. And special mention must be accorded to back-to-back projects on the south side of Chicago, where the Olympia Field Country Club South Course and Flossmoor Country Club nearly touch. Steve Smyers sharpened all of the features and opened up the strategic options at Olympia Fields South, and even if the occasional bunker or mound looks a bit too sharp and angular, the whole thing represents a massive improvement nonetheless.

As for Flossmoor – which despite its name isn’t disproportionately favored by dentists – the redesign credit goes to Ray Hearn. He made 56 visits over a two-year period as the club phased in green expansion, tree removal, fairway widening and a total overhaul of its bunkers. A course that dates to an 1898 layout by H.J. Tweedie is now firmly implanted in 21st century agronomy that showcases its traditional ground contours.

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