ORLANDO, Fla. – Building interesting holes on a dead-flat site is among the toughest assignments in golf design. The traditional Florida solution, championed in the 1950s by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Dick Wilson, was to dig out ponds and use the excavated material to build up tees, fairways and greens. The result generally had all of the charm of highway grading.
It took Pete Dye to devise a new strategy for dealing with featureless land, using sharp vertical separation by digging 1 foot down, flipping the dirt and creating a 2-foot-high contour line that separated distinct landing areas. The abrupt look, sharpened to extremes at The Players Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach in 1982, defined a new age of design.
Rees Jones, schooled by his father, made his mark in the 1970s and 1980s by massing large, circular land forms and creating features on top of the existing grade. His work always suffered a certain familiarity in that it sat uncomfortably above the natural contours. Thankfully, he has been adjusting his style during the past decade or so, away from the older school of piling up dirt, toward gentler, more natural contours.
The younger Jones’ Waldorf Astoria Golf Club, which opened last year, is a welcome attempt to create tiered playing surfaces and interesting, irregular bunker forms without relying upon circular patterns. Platform tees give way to low areas fronting fairways, and the landing areas leave approach shots into modestly elevated fill pads. The result is a clear sense of elevation change and shot progression across the terrain.
It would help if the fairways had a bit more bend to them. Twelve of the 14 par 4s and par 5s are straightaway holes. The only two doglegs, the 13th and 15th, both par 4s, bend the same degree left. And the bulk of the hole alignments are parallel, on an identical north-south axis.
The result is a regrettable loss of identity and distinctiveness to holes that, individually, are carefully laid out and interesting to play, but collectively blend visually into one another.
It doesn’t help that the fairways are narrow, totaling only 23 acres. There is little variance in width, and the tree-lined hole corridors are framed by similar-looking beds of ornamental grasses. The greens are propped up to a nearly identical-looking height, with uniform downslopes behind each one that a golfer will need to avoid.
The course’s maintenance quality is outstanding. The par 3s are exemplary for their different length and demands. And the bunkering is among the most interesting that Jones has ever done. The bird life (and alligators) in 20 acres of ponds and on 482 acres of pristine habitat adjoining the course make golf a fascinating wildlife adventure, even if the residual impact leaves you wishing the routing were more imaginative.