Golf Life: Atlanta’s Bobby Jones Golf Course becomes reversible in its rebirth

Bobby Jones Golf Course

Golf Life: Atlanta’s Bobby Jones Golf Course becomes reversible in its rebirth

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Golf Life: Atlanta’s Bobby Jones Golf Course becomes reversible in its rebirth

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Perhaps the most wide-ranging discussion in golf architecture in recent years centers around the various grassroots efforts at developing 21st-century models for community-oriented golf. Not that far behind has been a renewed interest in the potential of reversible routings – a concept as old as the Old Course at St. Andrews itself, but one that in practice was mostly moribund until 2016, when Tom Doak unveiled The Loop at Forest Dunes in northern Michigan.

The notion that a project might combine these two elements – and not just in a leafy suburb but in the middle of a major American city – would have been almost unthinkable a decade ago.

In 2013, when Atlanta resident Teddy Gillen applied to become a Golfweek course rater, he was confronted by a thorny question on the application:

“What is the worst course you have ever played, and why?”

After some consideration, he answered: Bobby Jones Golf Course, a muni in the heart of Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood.

“The facilities were decaying, and it was a place where people went and got blackout drunk,” Gillen explained, and, citing its number of tight, parallel fairways, added: “You needed a helmet for safety reasons.”

After an odyssey of nearly a decade and a half, the course that carries the name of golf’s most venerated figure has a new lease on life. Driven by the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation – a consortium of heavy hitters in Georgia golf that includes Jones’ grandson, Bob Jones IV – the golf course renovation, conducted pro bono by the late architect (and Buckhead resident) Bob Cupp, is complete. Without enough land to rebuild what might be considered a proper 18-hole course, the facility was changed to a nine-hole reversible course. A new clubhouse is set to open in 2020. The facility also now includes a driving range and a short “kids course.”

Though Bobby Jones technically reopened last fall, dreadful weather in the Atlanta area has essentially made this spring its first full season. In March we made an overnight visit to see how the new course seemed to be settling in.

Dormant Bermuda, and lots of it

The first thing an early-season visitor to Bobby Jones might notice, when looking down from the temporary clubhouse into the large bowl in which the course sits, is dormant Bermuda, and lots of it. It’s a matter of taste whether one believes in the old U.S. Golf Association turfgrass adage “Brown is beautiful,” but what’s truly appealing is the entire sward is mowed at fairway height – a broad creek, a manmade lake and a number of bunkers serve as hazards, but there’s no rough.

Bobby Jones is just the second course to employ a new drought-tolerant strain of bermudagrass known as TifTuf – the first was the highly touted Ohoopee Match Club, about three hours down the road in Cobbtown, Ga. The firm turf allows for a pleasing array of shots around the greens, which are grassed with a complementary TifEagle bermuda. In contrast to the aforementioned Loop, the greens at Bobby Jones are of the St. Andrews-style, double-green variety.

They average a massive 12,000 square feet, so while critics might carp about taking an 18-hole course down to a reversible nine, nothing has been lost when it comes to the variety of hole locations.

The tees at Bobby Jones also are worth mentioning. There are nine sets – a startling number – and looking at the course map online it would be easy to be fooled into thinking you’ll be staring at pushed-up cake boxes all day. Nothing could be further from the truth. The tees are mostly built at grade and melt pleasingly into the landscape.

Cupp’s design is managed so that golfers can play each version of the routing (Magnolia and Azalea) on back-to-back days, though the facility also has begun arranging well-attended shotgun events in which the hole locations and direction of play are switched after nine holes.

The pros and cons of Cupp’s reversible design should be apparent within the first nine holes, though. Architects prize bold landforms in creating conventional one-way routings, but they can be a liability in the design of a reversible course.

The most consistent golf at Bobby Jones is found in the flattish field that defines the property’s southern section. Here, double-green complexes such as No. 1 Azalea/No. 8 Magnolia and No. 3 Azalea/No. 6 Magnolia showcase the kind of pleasant surprise that comes from seeing details that one may have missed while playing in the opposite direction.

Before its recent renovation, one Golfweek Rater said the Bobby Jones Golf Course was the worst he ever played.

As the golfer tracks north toward the bridged crossing of Tanyard Creek, however, the course takes on a Jekyll-and-Hyde character. The abrupt rise of a hillock just beyond the waterway creates a sequence of holes that work beautifully in one direction but play awkwardly in the other

Cart paths aplenty

Each routing features both highlight and head-scratcher holes.

The best one-two punch might be Magnolia’s long par-3 third, which is benched into the hillside, followed by the blind-yet-drivable downhill par-4 fourth. However, on Azalea, these same landforms will test the patience of even the most quirk-tolerant golfer. After a good drive on Azalea No. 6, in order to hold a green that is now falling steeply and blindly away, the golfer must land an approach just a yard or two beyond the cart path that inexplicably cuts perpendicular across the line of play.

Anything that catches the path likely will end up down the hill and far below the green.

This is the other drawback to the golf here – there is cart path seemingly everywhere.

To be fair, the facility is committed to adaptive golf, and the paths combine with zero-degree-entry bunkers to help individuals with physical impairments get around with ease. The concrete mars a few too many vistas, but for a community-oriented course, this is a noble goal.

And that’s the new Bobby Jones in a nutshell.

As a work of course architecture, it is far from perfect. But it’s clear that accessibility and a renewed role as golf incubator and community nexus were the top priority, and in these functions the course’s prospects look promising. Taken at face value, there’s something to be said for simply introducing an out-of-the-box architectural concept to a broader golf audience. It’s much more than that, though – Bobby Jones has a “vibe” now. The driving range (which the facility lacked before) is regularly packed.

Connections made between new and old

“You’ll see a guy in a tracksuit next to a guy with a Pine Valley logo on his hat,” general manager Brian Conley said.

“It builds connections between new and experienced golfers.”

Speaking of connections, Bobby Jones also touches on what inarguably has been Atlanta’s most significant urban development of this century: the Beltline. Inspired by Manhattan’s High Line but in many ways far more ambitious, the city is engaged in the long-term project of repurposing 22 miles of old railbed into a multi-use trail network. The Beltline makes it possible to move between neighborhoods by bike, motorized scooter or simply on foot in a mostly car-free setting.

Where Bobby Jones used to occupy a small wedge of land north of Peachtree Creek, people out for a leisurely stroll on the Beltline now can see golf being played. A few might be moved to take the game up themselves, but as at the Old Course and other front-and-center public facilities, simply showing golf as part of normal daily life – and not the exclusive reserve of multimillionaires – has the potential to gradually change minds.

Finally, though a major impetus of Bobby Jones’ transformation came from the desire to create a home course for the Georgia State University men’s and women’s golf teams, the unmissable fact of the new facility is that you will see younger kids – lots of them – sinking their teeth into golf in various ways.

Above all, Bobby Jones is trying things, and backing it up with investment. Anyone interested in the future of urban golf or developments in the world of architecture should see what’s happening in Buckhead – the golf is good, but the conversation over how it works and what it all means might
be even better. Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the Golfweek’s Best 2019 issue.)


  

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