Dormie Club worth playing in N.C. Sandhills

An aerial shot of the Dormie Club's 18th hole

An aerial shot of the Dormie Club's 18th hole

WEST END, N.C. – For 25 years now, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have been doing things differently.

A down-home, aw-shucks pair of guys who are more comfortable in jeans than jackets and ties, they came into the design-and-build industry as a low-key, dirt-scratching team when most other architects preferred a fleet of bulldozers and big construction budgets. While others sought celebrity status with their “signature” designs, Coore and Crenshaw almost seemed embarrassed to be paid for something they loved to do.

As ground-hugging naturalists, they work with existing contours rather than manufacture their features. Their chief virtue always has been restraint. In 1991, while building the Kapalua Resort-Plantation Course in Maui, Hawaii, they managed to tame a rollicking, rolling coastal site by giving wide shotmaking berth to the immense vertical and horizontal scale of the land.

Four years later, in the far subtler example of Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb., they masterfully winnowed down 150 potential holes by finding the softest, most readily walkable linkages across stunning open prairie. And in 1997 at 36-hole Talking Stick Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., they managed to tease a few precious feet of elevation change here and there out of a site that initially offered nothing with which to work.

The chance to work in the golf-savvy Sandhills of central North Carolina must have been an appealing one, especially on a property only nine miles north of Pinehurst No. 2, which Coore and Crenshaw reinvigorated through their recent makeover. Initial plans for the 1,033-acre site called for a core golf parcel of 310 acres, with 228 homesites to be arrayed away from the fairways. But the project ran into financial issues, thanks to unrealistic expectations about private membership fees and the difficulties of selling real estate in an already saturated housing market. Ultimately, a new group of investors took over the golf course and now operates it on more modest terms.

Technically, Coore and Crenshaw have yet to complete the now-opened course. Finish work remains on the transitional areas as the fairways bleed out into the native sandy-scrub wasteland. Proper rough, as such, does not exist; the model here might well be what they achieved at Pinehurst No. 2. Bunker delineation is also an issue at Dormie Club; it’s not yet clear whether sandy pits will play as maintained bunkers or as “through the green” waste areas. None of this prevents anyone from playing and enjoying the course.

If there’s a drawback at Dormie Club, it’s that the tee shots seem uninteresting, if not repetitive. It doesn’t help having so many forced carries over wetlands and then having to take an indirect route to the fairway. This breaks up the rhythm of a round and makes the holes feel redundant at the start. It’s also maddening that on at least three occasions (eighth, 11th and 15th fairways), the flow and playability of the holes would have been enhanced dramatically had Coore and Crenshaw ventured out of their comfort zone and just nudged a little dirt here and there to reduce obvious (natural) intrusions along the line of play.

• • •

Rater’s notebook: Dormie Club

1. Ease and intimacy of routing: 6

Not an easy site, what with 200 feet of elevation change and lots of wetlands crossings on tee shots, plus one very awkward crossover in the routing. Course is arrayed in a series of large loops, each of which is walkable, but the connections prevent a unified flow.

2. Quality of feature shaping: 8

Ground-hugging and tied to natural grades at every moment, never forced, though some softening of the ground contours would have helped.

3. Natural setting and overall land plan: 8

Golf course certainly exists in its own expansive envelope. Limited long views are oriented to the interior of the property and within the hole corridors.

4. Interest of greens and surrounding chipping contours: 10

Genius of this and other Coore and Crenshaw designs is how they use shortgrass around greens as semi-hazards. There’s lots of room around and behind their greens for missing the ball and allowing it to roll out; the complexity is in the variety of recovery options (lob wedge? putter? 7-iron chip? fairway wood?).

5. Variety and memorability of par 3s: 9

I like their predilection for what is best described as the “half-par hole”: whether a super-short par 3 (No. 12, 118 yards) or the extremely long one (No. 7, 243 yards); the short, drivable par 4 (Nos. 3 and 14) and the inordinately long two-shotter (Nos. 8 and 13); or the extreme difference in strategy for the easily reachable par 5 (Nos. 6 and 17) versus the full-bore three-shot version on the 659-yard 10th hole.

6. Variety and memorability of par 4s: 6

See item No. 5. Only hesitation is the similarity among some midlength par 4s.

7. Variety and memorability of par 5s: 9

See item No. 5. The 659-yard 10th hole is overloaded with a “Principal’s Nose,” but “Hell’s Half Acre” on the uphill, 506-yard 17th is perfect.

8. Basic conditioning: 8

Greens are a mix of A-1, A-4 and Crenshaw bentgrasses; collars are tightly clipped and firm MiniVerde Bermudagrass; fairways are 419 Bermudagrass and tees are Celebration Bermudagrass. They won’t overseed. Bunker conditioning to be determined, but they are certainly playable as is.

9. Landscape and tree management: 8

Pines dominate, with no ornamental magnolias or flowering trees. Tremendous width to fairways, though a few trees need to be minded on tee corridors and into the periphery of some greens.

10. “Walk in the park” test: 6

A good stroll through the Sandhills, though at times you feel you need to be guided, especially as the absence of long views foreshortens the experience of the landscape.

Overall rating: 7.5

Immediately falls in behind Pinehurst No. 2, and with Pine Needles and Tobacco Road, as among the area courses worth visiting and replaying.

• 6,988 yards, par 71 (74 rating/140 slope)

• 6033 Beulah Hill Church Road, West End, N.C. 27376-9159

• 910-215-4587; www.dormieclub.com

• Private: membership by invitation only

• Depending upon membership category, $10,000-$45,000 refundable deposit plus $1,200-$4,800 annual dues

• Limited public play allowed; green fee $115-$195, depending upon season

• Caddies, carts and forecaddies available upon request; course is easily walkable

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