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Review: Tom Doak’s Confidential Guide To Golf Courses

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In 1988, a smack of Tom Doak’s friends had a glance at a volume he called The Confidential Guide To Golf Courses. Although the word “confidential” was placed prominently in the title, those friends didn’t exactly heed the warning and the tome gained a bit of publicity.

In that original treatise, Doak had placed a spotlight on the golf courses that made the game enjoyable for the golfing public and also presented the classic elements of design strategy. Doak also identified the architects he considered to be the true executors of those design principles. The CG was not a puff piece, mind you.

[quote_box_center]In the words of the author, the Confidential Guide “reviewed every course on its own merits, gave no free passes, and shredded the myth that hiring a big-name designer guarantees a quality product.”[/quote_box_center]

It also took to task the courses and creators that had strayed from the original notions of what golf was and is: a game played equally along the ground and in the air, over turf that allows a running shot an opportunity to access fairways and greens if the golfer is skilled enough to decode the architect’s intent.

Although the original Confidential Guide was received with disdain by architects like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio and the Jones family, at the time some of the most popular choices for new-build golf courses in America, Doak did not shrink from his notions nor his rankings. Doak had initiated the original Golf Magazine ranking system, at the behest of then-editor George Peper. For the Confidential Guide, a personal system from zero to ten, known as “The Doak Scale,” was born. At the one end was the goose egg, defined like this:

[quote_box_center]A course so contrived and unnatural that it may poison your mind, which I cannot recommend under any circumstances. Reserved for courses that wasted ridiculous sums of money in their construction and probably shouldn’t have been built in the first place.[/quote_box_center]

At the other end of the scale sat the perfect ten, the Nadie Comaneci of golf course architecture:

[quote_box_center]Nearly perfect. If you skipped even one hole, you would miss something worth seeing. If you haven’t seen all the courses in this category, you don’t know how good golf architecture can get. Drop the book and call your travel agent, immediately.[/quote_box_center]

To get to this point, Tom Doak had done what Pete Dye, A.W. Tillinghast and Charles Blair MacDonald, other celebrated architects from distinct eras, had done before him. He had packed a bag and traveled the finest courses of the world in order to learn. Most of us cannot imagine walking a course without playing it; for Tom Doak, it was an accepted practice. He didn’t have time to golf all of those holes, so he often settled for a walking tour.

Through the 1990s and 2000s, Doak’s due diligence paid off. His firm designed the second course (Pacific Dunes) at the Bandon Dunes resort in Oregon, one of two courses at Streamsong Resort in Florida, and a host (some 30 at last count) of the world’s newest, best courses from New Zealand to Scotland to the sand hills of Nebraska.

In the early 2010s, Doak decided to revisit the Confidential Guide. He had learned much since the mid 1980s and missed writing. His works on Alister MacKenzie and the making of a golf course echoed more distantly in his past. Doak decided to enlist the help of three respected golf architecture aficionados and off they went to research and produce the updated Confidential Guide, with a twist.

The Review

What exactly is the Decade 2010 version of the Confidential Guide to Golf Courses? To begin, it’s a five-volume series. The first volume, released in September of 2014, covers the courses of Great Britain and Ireland. Subsequent volumes will visit The Americas (winter); The Americas (summer); Europe, Middle East and Africa; and Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

The first volume measures a tidy, 180 pages and is anything but a slog through densely-written prose. The four horsemen (Doak, Golf Club Atlas website founder Ran Morrissett, Planet Golf website founder Darius Oliver and Asian golf course reviewer/editor and architectural expert Masa Nishijima) saddled their devices and rode back to the structure of the original guide. In it are these unique sections: Gourmet’s Choice, Course Reviews, The Gazetteer and Most Wanted.

Gourmet’s Choice

The GC of the CG is a group listing of the 18 courses to which Tom Doak, et al., would take a friend to play. The offerings are not always the highest-rated courses in the book, but they are all near the top. The courses combine compelling architecture, ambiance, and the unexplainable sensation of being in the proper place at the appointed hour, accompanied by the necessary people.

In the words of the author, “…the places that stir our souls, and will reward the visitor with something out of the ordinary.” As a result, courses like Ballybunion in Ireland, the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland and Royal St. George’s in England, commingle with Pennard in Wales, Royal County Down in Northern Ireland, Mildenhall in England and Askernish in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Doak describes the Royal West Norfolk club (known locally as Brancaster), the course that taught Pete Dye about railroad ties, in this manner:

[quote_box_center]It is so low-lying that the entrance drive to the club is flooded by high tides twice a day, and the members of the Royal West Norfolk club have to keep tide tables handy to know when they are free to come and go. If sea levels do continue to rise over the next fifty years, Brancaster will be one of golf’s first casualties.[/quote_box_center]

Each of the 18 courses receives a 1.5-page treatise and a hole-by-hole categorization of sorts. In the latter, Doak utilizes chess demarcations to signal a great hole (!), a one of the best in the world hole (!! and !!!), an odd/questionable hole (?) and an odd hole that turned out brilliant (!?).

Course Reviews

TomDoak

This is the meat of the book. The four-man coterie identified 289 courses (a lifetime of golf for me!) in Great Britain and Ireland and rated each from 0-to-10. As Tom Doak points out, for over half of the courses, the co-authors disagree with the main man. Debate is a good thing, after all. Who knew that there was a Spanish Point in Ireland, a New Zealand in England, a Cruit (pronounced ‘crutch’) Island in Ireland and a Muir of Ord or a Boat of Garten anywhere? Each co-author presents a number from 0 to 10, the order being consistent, with Doak followed by Morrissett, then Nishijima and Oliver. If one hasn’t played the course, a dash fills the void.

For consistency, the entire book is written in Tom Doak’s narrative voice. It is a soothing and direct one, with a tone that seeks to inform yet suffers no fools in any capacity. Doak has spent years being critical of his own design work and that of others. The book reflects this thought process and vision. To be fair, there is a pinch of praise for even the lowliest course, while the highest echelon (including the single course to receive 10s across the row) still manages to be kept grounded with a bit of criticism. These honest assessments leave no titans ungrazed:

[quote_box_center]Nicklaus’ web site quotes him as saying it [Gleneagles Hotel PGA Centenary course] was the finest piece of property he’d ever been given to work with; if that were true, the result would be a tremendous disappointment. Its ugly concrete cart paths will be on display to the world at the 2014 Ryder Cup.[/quote_box_center]

A subsequent assessment of Ganton Golf Club works at dispelling what it is and what it isn’t. It is this type of revelation that helps all golfers to seek out new terrain over which to test their love of the game:

[quote_box_center]Ganton is a wonderful course that was for many years overlooked due to its location and genre. It’s neither a links nor a heathland course, and describing it as “parkland” does not do justice to its firm temperment. As a non-links, it can’t host the big championships and it’s well removed from the major centers of British golf.[/quote_box_center]

What it does have, the Confidential Guide explains, are deep, well-placed bunkers, accompanied by memorable par-four holes. Whether the former or the latter, anticipate forthright sincerity throughout the tome.

The Gazetteer

Despite his connection to the original Golf Magazine Top 100 list, Tom Doak is no fan of using this technique to validate anyone’s work.

[quote_box_center]”…lists have also done a disservice to golf course architecture over the past thirty years…rankings have drawn attention to the business, but they’ve distorted the practice of golf course architecture.”[/quote_box_center]

The concerns of Doak and other current architects revolve around the need of an owner or a membership to have their course ranked by one of the magazines. Whether you see it as cart before the horse or the tail wagging the dog, it’s a simple as the case of the student who worries more about the grade than the knowledge.

The Gazetteer, therefore, is a sequence without rankings, of clubhouses and their modest, their lunches and their settings. Also found are accommodations, including on-site dormy houses, nearby resorts, and course conditioning (both natural and human-aided). It is the courses themselves that receive the most diverse categorization, from bumpiest contours (this is where golf was born, after all), artistic routings, best bunker names and the expected delineation of fun, difficulty, wide and slender.

And in case it’s your thing, you can also travel to the 10 courses where you’re most likely to hit an animal…

Most Wanted

Although this impregnable quadrilateral of golf architecture doyens appears to have seen (or built) every golf course around the world, it hasn’t. Each of the contributors has yearnings (in this case, 10 of them) and they let us in on their hidden desires. Most surprising are the fact that Tom Doak wants to see the Welsh Ryder Cup course at Celtic Manor; that Ran Morrissett hasn’t seen Doak’s sole Scottish course (the Renaissance Club) or the New Course at St. Andrews (which is still 120 years old); that Masa Nishijima’s resume has a gaping English void; and that Darius Oliver hopes to one day get to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

This might be the depressing part of your read of this volume. If you’ve traveled to (or live in) Great Britain and Ireland, you’ll quickly come to understand how well-read (or well-played, or well-traveled) this group is. They get around. Don’t let this get you down. Live vicariously through their experiences and connect the features of the courses you typically play with the ones detailed in here. You might discover that your local muni has a connection with Royal Dornoch (as is the case with the Mark Twain golf course in Elmira, New York) or that your home club was designed by the same architect who built a course listed among the Gourmet’s Choice. Perhaps you’ll even find encouragement to travel; the private clubs of Britain, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are much more open to visitors than are U.S. clubs.

Final Thoughts

It is nice (albeit jarring) to read one man’s pure, undriven opinions on golf courses and their architecture. Tom Doak does not seek out controversy, but neither does he shy away from its eruption from honest discourse. After scalding Jack Nicklaus’ architecture in the original CG, the Golden Bear and Doak ended up working together on Sebonack (site of the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open) in a delicious irony for some. The result was that each architect took something away from the other, some nuance that had been previously unconsidered.

In the first volume of the new CG, Doak gives design rival David Kidd’s Castle Course at St. Andrews a zero, although it’s hard to understand why, as he expresses sympathy for the Scotsman while simultaneously gutting him numerically. Soon after the release of volume one of the new Confidential Guide, Mike Keiser of Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links fame announced that Kidd (and not Doak) would build the second course at Sand Valley in Wisconsin.

To be sure, the words of Tom Doak, et al., in The Confidential Guide To Golf Courses, Volume 1 2014, won’t please nor satisfy many of his architectural colleagues. The ASCGA (American Society of Golf Course Architects) has in place a mandate that society members will not criticize the work nor methods of their fellows. Since Tom Doak never joined the ASCGA, he is free to espouse as he chooses. If you ask, “what gives him the right to sound off in this manner?” you won’t be alone. You can and should disagree, but be prepared to substantiate your position. If you choose to walk away from the conversation or the debate, you’ve missed the point of the books.

It’s a bit much to ask the world’s golfing population to care about golf course architecture in the same way that its principles and its aficionados do. Visit the Golf Club Atlas web site if you wish to see how enthusiastic this latter bunch is. Doak holds the GCA brethren in such high regard that he is a regular participant in the site’s discussion group. Imagine that: a golf course architect who interacts online with the people who pay to play his courses. Talk about a total-access package.

However, it is books like the Confidential Guide that bring us neophytes and novices that much closer to the preparations and underpinnings of the courses we trod and golf. Sleeping Bear Press (the great golf publishing house of the 1990s) and its successor, ClockTower Press, are gone now a decade. Take great golf works when you can find them! In this one’s case, you can put your hands on the first now, with the anticipation of four more to come.

For information on the new Confidential Guide To Golf Courses series, visit the Renaissance Golf website.

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Ronald Montesano writes for GolfWRX.com from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. don davis

    Jan 3, 2015 at 1:39 am

    The more you know the greater the fun in golf. The site Golf Club Atlas is a fantastic must read for all golfers. I love Ran and all the guys there. I have had some my greatest memories on golf courses that were horrible. It is still golf . Tee it up, watch it fly and go hit it again . Thank God for the Tom Doaks of the world who keep golf the greatest game in the world.

    • Ronald Montesano

      Jan 3, 2015 at 5:39 am

      I suspect that one of the goals of the authors is to bring an appreciation for classic architecture to readers who aren’t aware of the game’s true origins. If it helps unwitting club chairs to fell some trees and make life easier for the greenkeepers, then it is a win.

  2. Chuck

    Jan 3, 2015 at 12:29 am

    This is always fun, for us happy owners of an original singed Sleeping Bear Press edition; a check of what they are going for on Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/1886947090/ref=tmm_hrd_new_olp_sr?ie=UTF8&condition=new&sr=&qid=

    • Chuck

      Jan 3, 2015 at 12:46 am

      Uh, “signed,” not “singed.” A “singed” copy might only be worth a couple hundred bucks, what with smelling like smoke and all.

      By the way, all; for those who know the original book and those who’e never heard of it (it is true legend in golf architecture circles), one of the great joys of the book isn’t any particular ranking or Doak Scale number(s). Rather, the joy is Tom’s terse, delightfully descriptive prose. I’m not so certain his tastes and mine are exactly the same, but his judgment is nearly unerring when it comes to defining good qualities in a golf course or even an entire golf club. I literally keep my copy in a bedside table and I pick it up to re-read portions almost every month of the year.

      It’s a book that has given thousands of hours of joy and enlightenment to thousands of golfers.

      • Ronald Montesano

        Jan 3, 2015 at 7:35 am

        Chuck,

        I’m sure that a singed copy, if recorded, would fetch something on the open market.

        It’s a sign of hope when tastes don’t necessarily align, yet the discussion and mutual respect function in a civil manner. I hope that we continue to read of your tastes in the comment boxes of WRX.

  3. Ronald Montesano

    Jan 2, 2015 at 6:33 am

    Written like a true Jones, Bubba. No matter who writes the review of these books, no matter the site, volume or show, the frankness, the candor of their narrative voice will always be mentioned.

    Since the life span of the “profession” is often discussed in certain circles, how long do you think it will continue as a profession? The restoration cycle will run its course and the available land will eventually be used up. What then?

    • Ronald Montesano

      Jan 2, 2015 at 6:34 pm

      I have heard that there is a movement afoot, directed toward the classic values and worth of more natural golf courses. The British isles might be the fortunate place, as its courses were built before modern technology offered the notion of earth moving and shaping. That might be why the typical scores on the scale were in the 5-9 range. We should see more in the 0-4 range once the Gang of Four gets to the colonies.

      I don’t agree that there will always be land. The sad part will be when the courses that served the lower and middle classes are paved over, while the ultra-private reserves receive a variance. For golf to succeed as anything beyond a niche sport, it needs to have the participation of these other classes.

  4. Ronald Montesano

    Jan 1, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    Thanks to dead-eye Thomas Dai, we’re changing the location of Cruit Island to Ireland, where it belongs.

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19th Hole

15 things to know before booking your Bandon Dunes golf trip

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Bandon Dunes. Almost from the day it opened, the passion project on the Oregon coast by developers Michael Keiser and Howard McKee has been one of the most sought-after golf destinations in the world. Fast forward, and the resort now boasts 5 courses, three of which are rated in the top 10 public courses in America. It started with Bandon Dunes, arguably the first true links course in the United States. Designed by Scottish wunderkind David McLay Kidd. It is the embodiment of pure golf, a revolution and a revival at the same time. If you woke up on the first tee and didn’t know where you were, you would swear that you were on one of the great courses of the Emerald Isle or bonny Scotland.

After Bandon Dunes came Pacific Dunes, the Tom Doak masterpiece that debuted in 2001 with more ocean views than the QE2 and now ranks only behind Pebble Beach among public courses in the United States. Pacific Dunes is as stunningly beautiful as a Hollywood starlet and, when the prevailing North wind is blowing, about as difficult to approach.

Then came Old Macdonald, another links gem that ranks number 10 in the country but may have the most passionate following of all of the courses. Even though it’s only been around for about a decade, it has an old soul. Old Macdonald is a course completely without pretense; walking it is in so many ways like a walk through life, full of beauty and fraught with danger, moments of glory and of potential four-putt despair. Like all great links layouts, Old Macdonald can be successfully navigated by players of all abilities and styles.

And there is the classic parkland beauty of Bandon Trails by the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, the partnership that is dropping a trail of golf magic from coast to coast. The cherry on top is Bandon Preserve, the 13-hole short course that is a condensed version of the original and now ranks as the No. 1 short course in the U.S., just ahead of a 9-hole course in Augusta, Georgia that is reasonably difficult to book a tee time for.

Most people rightly compare the Bandon experience to Ireland or Scotland; the golf is stellar no matter which course you play, it is surprisingly affordable, and the off-course amenities are as memorable as the courses themselves. Truth of the matter is that from the East Coast it’s easier to get to Dublin than it is to get to Bandon. But once you get to Ireland you’d have to spend days moving from hotel to hotel on roads the size of cart paths in order to get the level of golf that is available within a five minute shuttle ride of your hotel room at Bandon Dunes. With the golf, the food, and the camaraderie, you are almost guaranteed to have a memorable golf experience at Bandon Dunes. But there are a few ways that you can 100 percent guarantee that it will be extra special…for your consideration, I present some tips to assure a perfect Bandon Experience.

1) Be prepared to walk

With only the rare exception (two or three rounds a day), all of the courses at Bandon Dunes are walking courses and they are not an easy walk . One round takes you on a 5+ mile walk up and down the dunes, and if you plan to play 36 holes on at least one day (see below), it will take a toll on your body. Walk some rounds or get on a treadmill to prepare before you get to Oregon and bring plenty of your preferred pain medication.

2) Book during May or December

The weather on the Oregon coast can be unpredictable to say the least, even in the summer months when tee times are the most expensive and difficult to secure. Booking in the shoulder season means not only greater availability; it’s also about 30% cheaper. And Bandon veterans know that there are days in December when warm Southerly winds bring weather when you can play in shirtsleeves.

3) Bring the proper gear

As mentioned above, the weather at Bandon is predictable and unpredictable at the same time in that you know it’s going to rain but you just don’t know exactly when or how much. Bring quality rain gear and plenty of changes of shirts and socks.

4) Fly into Eugene and drive to Bandon

Coming from the East Coast you can fly into Portland (4-hour drive) or North Bend (30-minute drive), but the best option is Eugene, about a 2-hour drive to Bandon. It is a gorgeous drive that will have you stopping often to snap pictures of some of America’s most beautiful scenery.

5) Stop at the Sugar Shack in Reedsport and SharkBite’s Seafood Cafe in Coos Bay

Ok, it’s going to take more than 2 hours from Eugene because you will have to make a couple of stops. The Sugar Shack in Reedsport is an old-school bakery that has warm service, hot coffee and some of the best donuts you have ever tasted. If you are feeling lucky try the Bigfoot, a donut that is roughly the size of an Air Jordan. And just outside Bandon in the town of Coos Bay is the SharkBite’s Seafood Cafe, a relaxed little joint that offers hand-crafted cocktails and quesadillas the size of a boogie board.

6) Stay for at least 4 days and play every course at least once

This is especially true if you are from the East Coast. It is a long trip, maybe once in a lifetime, and there are multiple courses to play. There are some hardy souls that plan 2-3 day trips with 36 holes or more per day. That’s ambitious at best and potentially self-destructive. Plan for at least three days of 18 holes and at least one day of 36.

7) Play The Punchbowl

The Punchbowl is an 18-hole putting course that has become an end of day ritual for Bandon regulars. It’s a great place to have a drink (brought to you on the course from the clubhouse), smoke a stogie and make a friendly wager or two. I find watching a group of good friends play the Punchbowl, with the laughter and shouts of friendship as a soundtrack to the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean, almost relaxing as playing.

8) Have the Lamb Stew at McKee’s Pub

Howard McKee, along with Mike Keiser, was the visionary developer who brought Bandon into being. A gifted architect and an exceptional human being, McKee passed away in 2007 at the age of 68. He is remembered by all who knew him and his spirit lives at McKees Pub. Located near the clubhouse for Bandon Dunes, McKees feels like stepping into a pub in Edinburgh, and tastes like it too. Everything on the menu is good but try the Lamb Stew, a big bowl of slow cooked goodness. You will gain the wonder and admiration of your friends of you finish it.

9) Play At Least One Solo Round

Bandon is all about spending time with old friends and making new ones. That said, I find the solitary round at either the beginning or end of the day to be like going to church. If you have time, book a late afternoon round at Old Macdonald. Walking alone with only your clubs and your thoughts will give you time to truly appreciate how wonderful our game truly is…and how lucky you are to be able to experience it.

10) Book a Massage

On some golf trips, many guys think of massage as something that the significant other goes for while they are out on the course. But after several days of navigating the ups and downs at Bandon the muscles will be screaming for relief. Book a massage at the on- property spa and you’ll get welcome relief.

11) Budget for the Pro Shops

Five courses, five logos and thousands of great gift options await at Bandon. If you are a collector of shirts you might want to bring an extra suitcase for the gear you are going to bring back. Like Vegas, set a limit before you go in the door and walk away when that number is spent.

12) Collect Cheap Souvenirs

Like I said souvenirs can be a costly business, especially if you are buying for friends as well as yourself. Scorecards, ball markers and even empty water bottles are frugal ways to score some memorabilia for your buddies back home.

13) Have a Cigar in The Bunker Bar

As the name suggests, The Bunker Bar is located on the lower floor of the Bandon Dunes clubhouse. There isn’t a lot of signage for it and on the stairs down it seems like you are going to end up in a storage room. But what you find is a cozy retreat that features poker tables, pool tables and a bar with a skilled bartender and a first-class collection of spirits. And since you can smoke indoors there, feel free to channel your inner Don Draper and try one of the fine choices offered at the bar or bring one of your own.

14) Bring a Phone Battery Charger or a Camera on the Course

The courses at Bandon are one big photo op, and you don’t have to be a pro to take snapshots that are magazine worthy. Taking all those snaps will drain your phone battery faster than a pony keg at a frat party so bring a battery pack or a dedicated camera so that you won’t be cameraless when you find yourself standing in front of the perfect sunset.

15) Hit The Boat for Fish and Chips

On the drive home, stop at The Boat Restaurant in Coos Bay. This little gem is packed with locals munching on the some of the best fish and chips in the area. While you wait for your grub you can take a quick stroll through the train museum next door.

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Courses

You’ve never played anything like Sweetens Cove

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What do you say about a 3,300-yard, nine-hole course in rural Tennessee with a prefabricated shed for a clubhouse, a port-a-john for a locker room, and a practice green the size of a coffee table? For starters, it’s the most enjoyable golf experience I’ve had in years.

Sweetens Cove isn’t the kind of course where you can say, “Well, it’s like a little bit of this course and that one put together.” It will never be called “a classic so-and-so design.” I’ve played everything from munis to tour stops all the way to the Old Course, and I can promise you it’s not like anything else you’ve ever played.

Picture a world-class, challenging, and ridiculously fun golf course. Now strip off the 15,000-square-foot clubhouse, the pro shop, the driving range, the short game area, and even the superfluous nine holes you can’t remember anyway. Now, go ahead and shave another 300 yards off the tips. That may sound sacrilegious, but once you’ve distilled the experience into only what is necessary, you’re left with something that takes you back to when you first fell in love with golf. Maybe even something that takes you back to the birth of golf itself.

A view of the sixth green at Sweetens Cove looking back toward the tee box. Photo Credit: Rob Collins

Rob Collins is the man behind the course’s creation. When he started the project, it was May 2011 and golf was in a full recession. Courses were closing their doors, companies were struggling to make ends meet, and Rob was betting everything he had on his brand new company (King Collins Golf Course Design, a partnership with Tad King) and their first project of turning a forgettable muni called Sequatchie Valley G&CC into something memorable.

I was inspired by my favorite courses in Great Britain and Ireland along with Pinehurst No. 2 and Tobacco Road, to name a few domestic courses that provided inspiration,” Rob said.  “Additionally, the 1932 version of Augusta National was a huge inspiration for the architecture. The overall goal was to create a great strategic course that places a premium on approach and recovery shots. Hazards, angles, and green contours all work in concert with one another, laying the foundation for a course where there are no weak or indifferent shots during one’s round.” 

Happily, Rob and Tad’s endeavor fared much better than many of their contemporaries’ projects in the wake of the 2008 recession, though it did have many twists and turns along the way. Chief among them was in 2013, roughly a year after construction was completed, when the ownership group disbanded and left the course for dead.

I was desperate to do anything that I could to get the course open,” Rob said.  “The course was my baby, and I believed that what we had created out there was architecturally significant and deserved to see the light of day. As it turned out, my client [the original ownership] approached me and asked if I would like to take the course over on a long-term lease. I said yes to that proposition and set about trying to find a partner for the venture. I was introduced to Ari Techner through the former superintendent at Lookout Mountain, Mark Stovall. Ari and I hit it off and partnered in a venture to take over operations of the course.  Since that time, our partnership has expanded and includes Patrick Boyd as General Manager as well as a few others.” 

Once securing new ownership, Sweetens Cove took off on a consistent upward trajectory that even has it ranked above some major championship venues in certain publications.

The pot bunker to the left of Sweetens Cove’s fifth green, appropriately nicknamed “The Devil’s A**hole.” Photo credit: Kevin Livingood

Admittedly, arriving at Sweetens Cove for the first time can be a disorienting experience for the recovering country clubber. Meandering through a town of 3,000 people in the East Tennessee foothills, you find a wooden sign marking the entrance that guides you to a gravel parking lot with no marked spaces. Stumbling out of the car, you find a curious hunter green shed for a clubhouse that might lead you to question all the buzz you’ve seen on social media. The walk from your car to the clubhouse, though, provides the perfect perch to gaze out on the King Collins creation… and you start to realize that maybe there’s really something to this place.

When you embark on your journey, you encounter absolutely no resemblance to the mechanical, formulaic assembly of a typical, rubber-stamped golf course design. Instead, you’ll find massive waste areas, perfectly placed pot bunkers, and a movement to the land that captures the imagination. The greens are equally receptive to flop shots and bump-and-runs, but they demand a precise execution of either choice.

The bermudagrass fairways are relatively firm and generously-sized, but uneven lies are a common occurrence. Should you find yourself outside those fairways, prepare to take your medicine. Waiting for you there are those waste areas, as well as tall fescue and even clover and thistle in some areas. While some may scoff at such a notion, this is a microcosm of Sweetens Cove’s ethos. It’s a palace for the golfing purist: a minimalist, essential experience that harkens back to when golf geniuses like Old Tom Morris knew exactly where (and where not) to focus their energy. If something adds to the golfing experience, Sweetens Cove has it in spades. If it doesn’t add to the golfing experience, the folks at Sweetens Cove don’t bother.

Sweetens Cove course layout designed by Tom Young at Ballpark Blueprints. Image property of Ballpark Blueprints, Ltd.

The opening hole (pictured to the far left of the above image) is a par-5 of 563 yards. It’s a three-shot hole for most mortals, but your best chance of getting home in two is to start by carrying the bunker on the left about 270 yards off the tee. Be very careful about how you approach the green. It’s guarded by a gnarly pot bunker bordered by vertical railroad ties. The green on this hole is a foreshadowing of what’s to come on the next eight with bounding ridges and multiple potential pin locations that each provide a totally different perspective.

The greenside bunker at Sweetens Cove’s first hole, nicknamed “The Mitre” after its resemblance to the Pope’s hat. Photo credit: Kevin Livingood

The second hole is a par-4 of 375 yards, and the star of the show is the nastiest little pot bunker. It’s placed squarely in the middle of the fairway about 260 yards from the tee. If you miss it, you’re likely fine, but if you don’t… well, good luck. The smart play is hybrid off the tee to stay short of the bunker, leaving yourself a short iron into the green.

No. 3 is a par-5 of 582 yards. Feel free to let fly with the driver off the tee, but beware how you approach the green. The green is perched high above the fairway and guarded by a massive tree in front and a waste area to the left. If the pin is located on the left side of the green, you’re in for a surprise when you walk up to the flag. The ideal landing area isn’t much larger than a couple hundred square feet.

No. 4, King, is the only hole with a name. It’s a 169-yard par-3 according to the card, but the green is 90 yards long. The shot can play anywhere from 120-200 yards depending on pin location and the direction of the swirling winds. And did I mention the tee shot is blind from the tips?

View of the fourth hole, King, from the tee box. Photo credit: Rob Collins

No. 5 is a 293-yard par-4. For longer hitters, it’s reachable from the tee with the right wind, but be careful where you miss. Short right of the green is all waste area that is relatively escapable, though your second shot will likely be to a blind pin. Short left is another nasty pot bunker.

No. 6 is a massive 456-yard par-4 with a sweeping dogleg left that tempts you to hit a hard draw. What you are likely to find out after the fact is that a good portion of the fairway slopes to the left and into a water hazard that runs the length of the hole. This will be one of the hardest holes on the course for most golfers. The only way to miss this green and still be in play is to be short and/or right of it, but getting up and down from there will definitely test your nerves, skill, and imagination.

No. 7 is a 328-yard par-4. It’s all about what club you select off the tee. Driver straight at the flag (which must carry a bunker on the right) is aggressive but likely safe. A driver left will leave you with that dreaded 60-yard bunker shot, and driver right could be behind a tree. Be smart and hit a hybrid. If you miss the green left or right, you may waste a shot or two going back and forth due to the steep drop off on either side.

No. 8 was my personal nemesis. It’s a 387-yard par-4 that, in retrospect, places an emphasis on an accurately planned tee shot (notice a theme here?). By that I mean at the tee, you need to evaluate where the pin is and pick the club and line that will give you the best angle — while keeping in mind the location of the bunkers and trees that could impact your intended path.

The eighth green at Sweetens Cove. Photo credit: Rob Collins

No. 9 is an uphill, 148-yard par-3 with a massive waste area in front, another bunker beyond, and a back-right to front-left sloping green. Matt Cardis’ photo below from his @golfinyourstate Instagram account is taken from the No. 9 tee box.

A course with virtually no excess is a challenging proposition. Everything has to be in exactly the right place, as there’s nothing to divert your attention away from anything that doesn’t meet expectations. Sweetens Cove is definitely up to the task, forcing you to constantly zoom in and out mentally to evaluate the macro and micro of every single shot. There are no less than three shots that can be played from any given situation on the course, but you had better commit to the strategy you’ve chosen and execute or you will pay the price.

The entire journey is spent on the razor-thin edge between heroism and disappointment. Sure, there are elements of this designer and that designer; of links golf and American golf, but Sweetens Cove is truly a golf course without a parallel. It’s a place that serves as a refreshing counter-culture to the vast majority of 21st-century golf courses and, frankly, to the American lifestyle in general. In a world with so much excess, Sweetens Cove will remind you that if all you had left was just a fantastic golf course, all would still be very much right with the world.

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The Winds of Change At Shinnecock Hills

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Two-hundred and seventy-six. That’s the number of strokes it took for Retief Goosen to secure his second U.S. Open Title in 2004, but the number of strokes is the last thing anyone would remember from that year’s toughest test in golf. Take this article from ESPN’s David Kraft and Peter Lawrence-Riddell summing up the final round of Goosen’s triumph:

“The seventh green at Shinnecock Hills was so hard to play for the first two groups Sunday morning that USGA officials decided to water it between every pairing for the final round of the U.S. Open.”

Just as with the 1974 “Massacre at Winged Foot,” the 2004 U.S. Open will forever be remembered as the day the USGA dropped the ball. The USGA claimed that the seventh had been “inadvertently rolled” on Saturday. Walter Driver, chairman of the USGA Championship Committee at the time, told reporters on Saturday, “I found out after play was completed today that, for some reason, a different person on the grounds staff rolled that green today despite the orders that we had given not to roll the green.” Even a typically mild-mannered Jerry Kelly had harsh words, according to the same ESPN piece, “They lied [Saturday],” said Jerry Kelly, who finished with an 81 after shooting 71 Saturday. “Talked to the superintendent. Superintendent said, ‘Hey, I’m not getting in the middle of this. They told me to roll it.’”

Whether the grounds crew was told to roll the seventh green or not, it gave up three triple bogies in the first two groups, so the USGA watered it between each group for the rest of the day. As the 2018 U.S. Open returns to Shinnecock for the first time since that fateful day, the USGA looks to redeem itself this year. With some subtle changes, maybe they can.

In 2004, Shinnecock played 6,996 yards at par 70. In the past 14 years, there have been no major renovations to the course, but once the decision was made to bring the Open back to one of the founding clubs of the USGA, the American Governing body was determined to ensure Shinnecock was presented with its best foot forward. According to a Golfweek report from October of 2017, the following changes have been made to accommodate not only the tournament but the redemption of a reputation:

  • There are 17 new back tees that will stretch the course from the previous 6,996 yards to a total length of 7,445 yards.
  • The par-4 14th hole has been extended 76 yards and will now play 519 yards. The par-5 16th will now play 616 yards.
  • While the fairways will still be more generous than most U.S. Opens, they have been narrowed by Shinnecock’s standard. They will play between 28-32 yards on average.
  • The greens have not been recontoured, but on the greens with the “most severe contouring,” an extended collar of rough has been added between the edge of the greens and the greenside bunkers.

With the course is still expected to play at a par of 70, it will likely be a tougher test than 2017’s expose at Erin Hills, even if there is little wind. In 2004, all eyes were on the par-3 seventh on Sunday. From the time the first minute of Live From The U.S. Open airs on TV, all eyes will be on the same hole: 189 yards with a raised green that runs away from the players and to the right… but so much more.

As there always is with the U.S. Open, the course will be a character in the story more so than any other championship. Hale Irwin won his first of three majors (all U.S. Opens) at the “Massacre at Winged” with a score of seven over par, and 32 years after that championship Peter McCleery of ESPN was still writing about it. And with Shinnecock hosting the U.S. Open the year after Brooks Koepka swept the field with a 16-under par victory at a helpless Erin Hills, who knows what will happen as the horses are released from the gates on Sunday of this year’s U.S. Open?

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