CABO SAN LUCAS Mexico – It’s an unusually windless late-December day at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula – perfect for showcasing one’s shot-making talent. Tiger Woods has just completed an hour-long clinic on The Oasis Short Course with patrons at the residential enclave, Diamante Cabo San Lucas.
The calm conditions enabled him to demonstrate his capacity to bend the ball either way and to alter trajectory with seemingly minor adjustments of his setup or finish. One ball forward at address for a draw, one ball back to set up a fade. A low finish produces a stinger-like flight. With a high finish the golf ball rockets skyward.
“It all depends on what the golf course calls for,” Woods said.
Later he sits down with his team from TGR Design along with Diamante founder/CEO Ken Jowdy for a conversation about course architecture. The group includes Woods’ outside design team led by Beau Welling, 47, formerly executive vice president for Tom Fazio before starting his own eponymous firm in 2007. Welling and his design associate, Shane Robichaud, do all of the detail documentary work and routing specifications for TGR Designs on a contract basis.
Woods starts with the appeal of the 12-hole, 1,124-yard par-3 Short Course he just opened.
“It’s walkable, family-friendly, inclusive, can be played on the ground,” he says. “It’s fun, the teeing grounds are unstructured and you can make up holes as you go.”
Woods quickly relates those virtues to his visions of design. His favorite course, he says without hesitation, “is The Old Course at St. Andrews.” He loves the variety, the options – not all of them leading to ideal paths of play.
“The left side is wide open off the tee out there, but it leaves you with no angle into the green,” he says of the Old Course.
Woods also loves that you can play the ground game there, which means it’s accessible to all classes of players. It’s no mistake he was able to win two of his British Opens on the Old Course, in 2000 and 2005, the first time without ever landing in a bunker. He recalls how in 2000, on two occasions he putted for his second shot to the par-4 sixth green, “from 92 and 87 yards out. It was the only shot that made sense to me,” he says.
Woods is stepping into course design on a major scale, with work to show and plenty to come. He’s opened Bluejack National (18 holes and a short course) in Montgomery, Texas and El Cardonal (18-holes) here at Diamante. TGR Design has another short course and two 18-hole courses in construction, with three other full-scale projects on the drawing board. This after a few false starts a decade ago – not unusual in a business that depends on global economic trends and the local financing prowess of clients.
Back in 2006 when he launched his design shop, Woods was getting “100 calls a month,” according to his right-hand man and longtime friend, Bryon Bell, 42. It was Bell’s job to respond to inquiries, and it quickly became obvious to him that he had to develop criteria for the necessary due diligence to see whether the offers were serious and worth Woods’ time. Soon the golf economy tanked, with course development slowing to a crawl. The golf/real estate downturn coincided with Woods’ personal issues as well as recurring injury. An initial real estate project with the Cliffs Communities called High Carolinas outside Asheville, N.C., fell victim to under-capitalization, as did a subsequent development in Dubai.
Jowdy, who had opened the Davis Love III-designed Dunes Course at Diamante in 2009, was among those who recognized the value Woods brings to a project. It took several months of courtship, negotiations, due diligence and site visits before Woods agreed in 2012 to a long-term contract with Jowdy that would include El Cardonal, the Oasis Short Course and – still in plan development – a third full 18-hole course for Diamante.
“Nobody moves the needle like Tiger,” Jowdy said. “That’s worth a lot. Still, we all had to make sure that the project succeeded financially.”
Mike Abbott, founder of Beacon Land Development, is among those convinced that Woods’ design fee – a matter of speculation, since nobody involved on either side of the contract discusses it publicly – “is an investment that is worth a lot to us.” He marvels at Woods’ commitment to Bluejack National. And it wasn’t just the “eight to 10 site visits” that Woods made, said Abbott, “but the quality of his vision, his attention to detail, that he could make adjustments in the routing and in the field during construction and that he could implement his vision of the game. I mean here’s a guy who had made more money than anyone at golf, who could beat everyone in his heyday, and he was concerned about family golf, about growing the game, and people having fun.”
On the design side at Bluejack National, that included extensive space for ground-game golf and an avoidance of forced carries into greens. The fairways are wide – 91-acres in extent. Only 49 bunkers give the place a sparse, strategic feel with lots of low-mow greenside surrounds. The family-friendly atmosphere extends to a much-played 10-hole short course called The Playgrounds. “It’s so busy we have to turn the lights off at midnight or they’d never stop,” Abbott says.
Following the success of Bluejack National in terms of course ratings (No. 11 Residential, Golfweek’s Best) and real estate sales, Abbott and Beacon Land Development turned to Woods for their next project, Jack’s Bay in Rock Sound, Bahamas. The initial plan was for an 18-hole golf course as the centerpiece of a private beach club and resort. But at Woods’ insistence, Jack’s Bay is first opening a 10-hole short course, also called The Playgrounds, with holes set right against the bay and some of the greens occasionally splashed with sea spray.
“Tiger sees that the game of golf can grow again,” Abbott says. “For a long time, golf and golf development were stuck as being controlled by the better players. He sees it more from an average state of mind.”
Plans for a full-length, 18-hole course at Jack’s Bay call for Woods to start construction sometime in 2018. He also has an 18-hole project called Payne’s Valley that is well underway in Ridgedale, Mo., near Branson. The Dubai course has been revived with different ownership under the name Trump World Golf Club Dubai.
Among three other projects on the drawing board at TGR Design, the 27-hole renovation of the South Shore and Jackson Park courses on Chicago’s South Side lakefront might be the most attuned to Woods’ approach to design. He’s doing it at the behest of former President Barack Obama in conjunction with a presidential library and the rejuvenation of a community park.
Golf Channel’s Mark Rolfing is the founder and president of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, the privately funded volunteer initiative coordinating the golf and park revival. Rolfing said “Woods has been very generous with his time” in having his design team create an 18-hole layout and short course. There are plans for affordable public golf as well as a learning center and shorefront environmental restoration, “all of which ties in to his larger vision,” Rolfing said.
Negotiating the complexities of Cook County politics to secure approvals will test even Woods’ legendary skills. It’s a testament to his patience that’s he’s willing to try. Clearly, he has ambitious designs: to make golf part of something more inclusive.
(Note: This story appears in the January 2018 issue of Golfweek.)