Rater's Notebook: Re-engineered Ford Plantation

Rater's Notebook: Re-engineered Ford Plantation

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Rater's Notebook: Re-engineered Ford Plantation

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Feb. 23, 2015 issue of Golfweek.

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RICHMOND HILL, Ga. – It took a quarter century, but they finally got The Ford Plantation right.

On the surface, it looked like a heck of a property: 1,800 acres along the Intracoastal Waterway of northeast Georgia’s Ogeechee River basin. The problem was that the surface was low-lying, brackish muck – the remnants of an old, abandoned plantation. It had been taken over by the late industrialist Henry Ford in the 1920s as a winter outpost before its conversion into an upscale golf community with 400 homesites.

That flood plain was ideal for rice cultivation a century ago but lousy for modern golf. The original design and construction, most of it undertaken by Pete Dye’s younger son, P.B., would have taxed even the most experienced architect. The entire back nine, built atop marsh framed by a two-mile-long, man-made levee, comprised little more than fill from ponds that had been dug on the inland front nine. Two inches of rain would shut down the place for two days.

It was, in other respects, an idyllic retreat, with residents enjoying boating, fishing and equestrian, and with the gracious culture of downtown Savannah only 22 miles to the northeast.

Now, after a yearlong closure for a total rebuild, the Pete Dye-designed Ford Plantation finally lives up to the promise of its setting. The routing remains the same, except for moving the green on the short, par-4 10th hole from way left to way right, to a site along the bulk-headed marsh that no one even knew existed. All it took was Dye, 89, bushwhacking his way through dense understory and claiming the site as buildable. But that’s what happens when you turn this guy loose. His sidekick, Tim Liddy, did most of the site work, but so much of the intricate strategy and nuancing of drainage and sight lines was created in the dirt by Dye, on hands and knees, scratching out ideas on the ground.

All it took was time, a commitment by the club and $7 million. Which is what it takes to move 94,000 cubic yards of soil, install 30 miles of drain pipe and 29 miles of irrigation line for 3,500 irrigation heads connected by 281 miles of electric wire. The course became 304 yards longer. The old, leaky bulkhead was removed, most of it replaced by more solid, secure earthwork. Every green was rebuilt and expanded – in some cases back to their original dimensions – by a total of 20 percent. Every bunker was rebuilt, this time with polymer liners. And to ensure proper drainage – Dye is dead serious about adequate drainage, mind you – he built a new sump pump capable of removing 16,000 gallons per minute. Now when it rains, they play golf.

As for managing the new playing field, resident turfgrass guru Nelson Caron already is proving his mettle in managing the Celebration Bermudagrass fairways and Tifdwarf greens at a level that looks like well-established maturity, with a smoothness, consistency and firmness that the grass never had before. Kudos, as well, to the construction team from MacCurrach Golf for keeping track of Dye’s seemingly primitive form of communication. The best-laid plans of powerful course design these days remain closer to hieroglyphics than to Auto CAD.

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RATER’S NOTEBOOK: FORD PLANTATION

A look at key features that determine rating on a 10-point scale

Ease and intimacy of routing: 8

Returning nines, with a big, looping, counterclockwise front nine through woodlands and a more tightly wrapped, counterclockwise back nine on reclaimed marshland.

Quality of feature shaping: 8

Beautiful work, with a mixture of Dye’s trademark long, flowing lines and the occasional, abrupt permutation of a bunker face, mound or pond-side edge. Also on display: his unique penchant for angling the fairway bunkers toward the green fronts and the greenside bunkers to the back of each putting surface.

Natural setting and overall land plan: 9

Modest entrance, but then the classic white, wooden equestrian fencing draws you in toward the clubhouse and golf shop within view of the waterway.

Interest of greens and surrounds: 7

Nothing contrived, decked or plateaued; more like soft rollouts from a central high spot, which facilitates drainage yet also creates the ability to work the ball to peripheral areas. Placement of bunkers and supporting mounds manages to create the occasional optical intrigue.

Variety/memorability of par 3s: 6

Two short draws (7-iron, wedge) and two longer cut shots (6-iron, 5-iron), one each on both sides. Each offers a safe option on the outside line and calls for flirting with a major hazard on the inside of the bolder approach.

Variety/memorability of par 4s: 7

Dye, a lifetime right-to-left player, turns his holes left with a lot more boldness and character than he turns his holes to the right. Nos. 2, 7, 14, 15 and 18 have such a distinctive look, several of them with an endless, low-slung strip bunker on the inside. The left-to-right holes – Nos. 5, 10 and 13 – seem less confident. Still, they betray Dye’s ability to create an attractive direct line that’s filled with danger and offering a much safer outside line.

Variety/memorability of par 5s: 8

Nobody in course design is better at setting up a relatively small target green for a par 5 and making it imperative that you approach it from the proper angle after the second shot. The best of these is, by far, the banana-hook left 16th hole, unbunkered and yet filled with fairway shape and the sense that if you lose on the inside, you’re done.

Basic conditioning: 9

Very impressive, with rollout that brings lots of peripheral elements into play.

Landscape and tree management: 8

Plenty of playing width, with the occasional intrusion on second shots during the front nine, but with room to the far side if you can shape a shot. The back nine is as exposed as you can get in golf.

“Walk in the park” test: 8

The transition from well-treed front nine to wide-open expanse of the back nine makes the walk a pleasure and brings golfers alongside a briny waterway with wonderful diversity of marine, fowl and mammalian life.

Overall (not cumulative): 7.4

A course that sat for more than two decades beyond the pale of modern gems is now firmly ensconced within it.

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