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Ari’s Course Reviews: Bethpage Black

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Bethpage’s Black course was designed by A.W. Tillinghast and opened for play in 1936. It was immediately considered one of the best tests of golf in the world, and it has tested golfers coming from all over the world in its 83-year history. Bethpage State Park itself has five courses. The Green was the first course built and was originally called Lennox Hills Country Club. In the early 1930s, the Bethpage Park Authority purchased Lennox Hills CC and other adjacent property and turned the whole thing into what is now known as Bethpage State Park. Course architect A.W. Tillinghast was hired to remodel what would become the Green course as well as build the Blue, Red, and finally the Black. The Yellow Course was designed by Alfred Tull and opened in 1958.

Bethpage first hosted a major championship in 2002 when it hosted the U.S, Open. What is somewhat forgotten 17 years later as it hosts its third major, is how much the course had fallen into disrepair by the mid-1990s. Luckily, the USGA could see through all of that and helped fund a complete restoration that was overseen personally by Dave Catalano, the larger than life (in both stature and personality) head of Bethpage State Park. Dave had been working at Bethpage since he was a kid in 1967, picking up papers in the picnic area. It was his baby, and with Rees Jones by his side, they painstakingly restored the Black to its former greatness and into a true championship test of golf. After the PGA Championship, the Black will be back in the spotlight 2024 as host of the Ryder Cup, joining a very short list of courses to host a U.S. Open, a PGA Championship, and a Ryder Cup.

Playing the Black is one of the most unique experiences in the game because of what it takes to get a tee time. There are a very limited number of tee times. They are easier to get if you are a NY resident, but for most of us, it’s first come, first serve. Which in practical terms means they have a parking lot with numbered spaces and people start showing up the day before to sleep in their cars to play. In fact, I can proudly say that the last three times I slept in my car it was just to play at Bethpage. One of those times I didn’t even get out on the Black and had to settle for playing the Red! Should have eaten dinner in the car I guess….

Every time I have slept in the car I have had a great time. It’s a party in the lot with a bunch of golfers hanging out all excited to play the next day. There’s usually a few beers around and one of the times, someone called a cab and went and got 50 cheeseburgers from McDonald’s at 1 a.m. to show us all some top-notch NY hospitality! That’s definitely not an experience you will have going to play any other top courses!

Once you finally do get to sleep, the staff wakes you up around 4 a.m. to go get in line and get your tee time and course assignment. Then you can go back to sleep or go eat breakfast or hit balls or whatever you want until it’s your turn to tee off. On your way to the tee, you see the famous WARNING sign telling you that the Black Course is an extremely difficult course which they recommend only for highly skilled golfers. Hopefully, you didn’t lose your tee ticket because you will need that to get onto the tee and trust me, they aren’t messing around with the rules!

The golf course itself sits on a huge, sprawling, fantastic piece of land with abundant elevation change and lots of random contours. The bunkering is big and bold and not to be messed with. There is abundant long fescue and numerous trees off to the sides of the holes which combined with the beautiful bunkering makes for a very beautiful setting.

The first hole is a downhill, almost 90-degree dogleg right. The fairway is pretty flat and so is the well-bunkered green. The key for the player is to put their drive into the right place in the fairway to get a good angle to the hole location. From here you cross Round Swamp Rd and head to the second, which is a short, uphill par 4 of 389 yards. The fairway slants a little right to left and the green is elevated and can be a challenge to hold. The third is a par 3 that plays about 160 yards normally but has been brought back to 230 the PGA. This is one of the more interesting greens on the course; it’s wide on the right and falls away as it gets to the back and tapers to a smaller, more narrow section on the left. Bunkers flank the short left and right side of the green.

The fourth hole is vintage Bethpage Black and probably the most photographed on the course. A huge bunker flanks the left side of the fairway off the tee of the 517-yard par-5. Another, even more huge bunker looms at the end of the fairway cut into the from right to left. The tee shot is downhill but the rest of the hole is uphill. There is a second fairway to layup over the big bunker where you will have a partial view of the small, flattish green that falls away slightly and is protected by two more deep bunkers to the front and left. The fifth is a monster par 4 of almost 480 yards. A massive fairway bunker guards the right side of the fairway which is also the best angle to come into the small, elevated green guarded by two deep bunkers short and one over the green.

FARMINGDALE, NEW YORK – MAY 15: A general view of the fifth green is seen during a practice round prior to the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 15, 2019 in Farmingdale, New York. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

No. 6 gets back into the more open and less tree-lined part of the property. The tee shot is semi-blind and over a hill. The landing area is pinched by bunkers on both sides. The long hitter who can carry the hill should have a very short shot into the flattish, oval shaped green that’s open in front and protected by bunkers on both sides. No. 7 is a converted par 5 that plays as a par 4 for the PGA. At 524 yards, it’s very long and the tee shot requires a long poke over another large fairway bunker. The green is again pretty flat and protected by deep bunkers in front.

The eighth hole is unique for the Black as it’s the only hole with water in play. A 210-yard drop shot to a green with some slope from right to left and front to back and a ridge running on a diagonal angle through the middle of the green. The shot must carry the pond short of the green and there is a deep bunker left and a hillside right. Nine is a 460-yard hard dogleg left that drops down off the tee and back up to the green. Another very deep bunker guards the left side and can be carried by the longer hitter. The right side of the fairway is the safe play off the tee but leaves an awkward shot out of a gully up to the green. The green is heavily guarded in front again by deep bunkers.

As the players make the turn, they are confronted with another long, tight par 4 of just over 500 yards. Hitting the fairway is key here as the fairway is heavily guarded by bunkers and fescue. The green sits on the other side of a little gully and is guarded once again by a set of deep bunkers. The 11th hole is 435 yards and has probably the most interesting green on the course. It has a little false front and two distinct tiers with some nice internal movement. A really good green on any course it stands out on the Black amongst what is mostly a flatter set of greens. 12 forces the players to carry it 285 over a massive cross bunker on the 515-yard par 4. The green is back to the more typical flattish oval, and characteristically is guarded in the front on both sides by deep bunkers. 13 is a par 5 of over 600 yards. One of the least bunkered holes on the course, there are a few bunkers on the left and a great little cross bunker about 60 yards short of the green that obscures the view of the green and will make the players think twice about going for the green in two. 14 is the best chance for birdie on the course. A par 3 that plays only 160 yards over a valley to a narrow, long green.

After walking off the 14th green the players cross back over Round Swamp Road to the home stretch of the course. 15 is always the hardest hole on the course for me when I play the Black. The hole plays 460 yards. The tee shot is flat to a fairway that bends slightly right to left and has no bunkers. The second shot is massively uphill. Over a hillside set with bunkers and a small section of fairway to a green set into the top of the hill and guarded by the deepest bunkers on the course. A very hard hole to make par if you miss the fairway or miss the green. The 16th has a downhill tee shot that will test the player’s judgement of the wind if there is any present. The green is well guarded especially to the right and is small with a little slant to it. The 17th is an uphill brute of a 210-yard par 3. The green is 45 yards wide and is huge. However, it does not look big from the tee as it is set amongst a veritable minefield of bunkers waiting to swallow up any wayward shots. The players walk up a hill to the 18th tee and stare down at a fairway that gets severely pinched in the middle by the huge bunkers on both sides. The green is then back uphill, it’s medium sized with a slight kidney shape and two deep, artistically shaped bunkers set into the hillside short.

All of this adds up to a great test of championship golf.  The course is pretty straightforward. There is not a ton of strategy other than hit it long and straight and make as many putts as you can. The greens are mostly pretty flat so there should be a lot of chances for birdie for those that can reach the greens in regulation. That said, the course has a ton of character when it comes to the land movement and elevation changes as well as the massive, artistic bunkers. New Yorkers are VERY proud of the Black and for a very good reason. It’s a fantastic golf course. Golf needs more top courses like the Black that are accessible to everyone and challenging to even the best players in the world.

 

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Ari Techner has been obsessed with golf since he was a kid. His first job was at Carls Golfland picking the range as a 14 year old. He attended the University of Michigan and then the Professional Golf Management program at Ferris State University. At 23, only a little more than a year after graduating from college, he founded Scratch Golf Clubs where he served as President/CEO for 13 years. He is one of the world's most accomplished Club HOs having once completed a 4 round tournament with 4 different putters and finishing in the top 5. He is happy to be free of the shackles of Scratch Golf, giving him the opportunity to HO more than just drivers and fairway woods again! The only thing Ari loves more than golf clubs is golf courses. He has traveled all over the world playing golf, having played most of the USA Top 100 and most of the great courses in Ireland, Scotland and England. He is currently the Director of Business Development for King Collins Golf Course Architecture an up and coming design firm responsible for Sweetens Cove Golf Club the 59th ranked course on Golf Week's Top 100 list and only the 2nd 9 hole course to ever make the list. When he first played Sweetens Cove he was so impressed with the work that King Collins had done that he became a part of the ownership group when the opportunity presented itself. He is also a member at 4 courses in the USA Top 100 including 2 in the Top 20 and a Royal club in the UK that was designed by Old Tom Morris in 1864.

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Courses

What GolfWRXers are saying about Seminole and TaylorMade’s Charity Relief skins match

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@pgatour

In our forums, our members have been discussing Seminole and TaylorMade’s Charity Relief skins match. The course has received plenty of praise from our members, and WRXers have been sharing their thoughts on the event as a whole in our forums.

Here are a few posts from the thread, but make sure to check out the entire discussion and have your say at the link below.

  • tw_focus: “Amazing event all around, golf is back baby. RF played well, but he missed badly on the last shot while Rors was clutch, as always. As good as this event was, it’s just the undercard for next week The Match II. Can’t wait to see TW back!”
  • RainShadow: “Seminole looked beautiful. A course designed for strategy and nuance. Anyone know the individual scores? Rickie 66 maybe, Rory 69, DJ 69, Wolff 70? The players all looked a little rusty, Rory and Rickie looked like they’d played a bit recently though. Need to do more of these after this thing is over. More of carrying their own bags and reading their own putts………..Side note….DJ, go back to a blade putter.”
  • dcfas: “I enjoyed it. Thought it was interesting to see and hear some of the discussion on shots and breaks. Thought it was also interesting to see their performances without caddies, and while carrying bags. Also fascinated to have a “close up” look at Seminole. Added it to my bucket list of courses extremely unlikely I’ll ever get to play. Good cause. Thumbs up.”
  • Lark: “If they do this again, they should have two matches at the same time to avoid so much dead airtime. Have the winners play a one hole playoff for a final prize.”
  • Dave230: “Good concept and some good bits but to be nit-picking: Far too many ads, I know Americans are used to more ads than Europeans, but they hit their drives…ads….hit their second shots….ads. It’s just hard to watch. Too much intervention from the commentators, if the players have microphones on then let them speak and just leave it there, you don’t need to talk over everything. I prefer commentary that’s not afraid of dead space. The phone calls…the less said the better.. Just let it play, even if they’re walking, let us see them talking and the surroundings sometimes. Still manage to overproduce even in a restricted setting. Apart from that, grateful for golf to be on television again and well done to those involved.”

Entire Thread: “Seminole and TaylorMade’s Charity Relief skins match”

 

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An interview with Bill Coore

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With the impending completion of the final course at Bandon Dunes, the Sheep Ranch, the golf architecture world focuses on the incredible trace that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw fit into a piece of land that confounded experts.

It is appropriate to revisit a 2016 interview with Bill Coore on his background in golf and his thoughts on golf course architecture and the game.

The interview is reprinted from our Ronald Montesano’s website, BuffaloGolfer.Com, with permission of the interviewer.

If you’ve never been on a golf trip, I bet you’re tempted to go to Myrtle Beach or someplace like that. If you do, you’ll have fun and you might stumble onto a course designed by Mike Strantz, a terrific designer. If you want to see some great, great golf course architecture, you might end up in Bandon (Oregon) Pinehurst (North Carolina) or Inverness (Nova Scotia), any place you can find a Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw golf course. Soon you’ll be able to play one at Sand Valley (Wisconsin), and there are many others. Bill Coore spoke to us from a site that he was then assessing, near Charlottesville, Virginia. He SPOKE with us for AN HOUR, as he was mucking through the woods and grasslands of the site. No interview subject has ever given us that much time (over on hour on the phone) and we are humbled. 

RM: Tell us about yourself and your history with golf, prior to embarking on your chosen career.

BC: I grew up in rural North Carolina, in Davidson county. I was introduced to golf by my neighbor, Donald Jarrett. He loved to play golf and he would go on weekends and play local public courses in the area. I would caddie for Mr. Jarrett some when I was a kid and he would say, every once in a while “Here, hit one.” He had some old clubs that he let me use and I’d make up some golf holes in his yard or in the corn field, just hitting shots. It wasn’t a formal way, but it was a fun way to be introduced to the game. When I would caddie for him, he would show me the proper way to do things, the rules, etiquette, conduct? I was fortunate in that way. I didn’t grow up in a family with a club membership. I learned what I still think of as proper golf from Mr. Jarrett.

We actually formed a golf team at my high school, my senior year. We talked the baseball coach into letting us play a golf schedule, even though it coincided with the baseball schedule. I went to college at Wake Forest, and played a bit of golf there. And that got the process started, of why do I like this and not that? Why do I like this course? Why do I like Old Town (Winston-Salem, N.C.) so much? I did my own assessment, of why I liked certain courses and not others. I took a serious interest in golf, and from there, a serious interest in golf courses.

RM: How did an interest in golf course architecture lead you to choose a career in the field?

BC: I was fortunate enough, being in North Carolina, which has some very good courses. The Pinehurst courses, in the 1960s, were very affordable, very accessible, particularly in the summer, their off season. Mr. Jarrett would go there once in a while and I would caddie for him, and we would go there once in a while to play golf. I got to experience playing golf there, on Pinehurst #2, and all the other courses there. There is no question that that experience, of being introduced to golf at Pinehurst, and then when I was at Wake Forest, at Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, a Perry Maxwell course, helped me. Pinehurst #2 is basically flat and Old Town is quite hilly, so there were two extremes of land forms and visuals. I just was so fortunate to play those on a regular basis. You don’t appreciate how good they really are, and when you see other courses built or being built, it’s the beginning of an awareness where you gravitate toward a certain style of golf course architecture more than others, and perhaps it was dictated to some degree by my game. I was never a long player, I depended a great deal on short game, finesse, and the ability to run the ball on the ground a lot. And Pinehurst #2, a championship golf course of the highest caliber, would allow you to do that. And a lot of the other, so-called, championship courses, that were already built or being built, just didn’t allow that to happen. I got to the point where I thought, Number two allows me to play my game and it would allow the longest player on tour to play his game, and although we might play from far different spots, we both had the ability to succeed. And that came upon me quite early on. And the man who taught me to play golf, Mr. Jarrett, we were playing our little public course that we had played many times, with a little par three down the hill with a creek that stuck out on a peninsula, with a creek in front, on the right, and behind, and a little hillside to the left. And I would invariably aim at the flag and come up in the creek. (At this point, our phone call dropped, and then my recording app dropped, but the gist was to use the hillside to feed the ball to the green, another revelation for Mr. Coore.) Playing golf at Old Town and at Pinehurst #2 was the foundation for my understanding of what exceptional golf and golf course architecture were all about.

RM: What sort of preparation/training did you do post-college for golf course architecture? Was your undergraduate degree helpful?

BC: My undergraduate degree was in Classical Greek. Most people would likely say I can’t imagine how that could be applicable in any way, but I might disagree somewhat and say, it was helpful because it taught me discipline. Translations of classical Greek in the classroom and preparation for the classroom are quite tedious, very detail oriented, and it takes great patience and attention. I happen to believe that those are attributes that work well in the golf architecture business: attention to detail, patience, and persistence at times. Though it would seem that they don’t have any connection, I would think that the discipline gained, that process, when I was at Wake Forest, was very helpful. I don’t have any technical training. I spent a couple of years in the Army after graduating from Wake Forest. When I was getting ready to get out of the Army, I saw the work that Pete Dye was doing at a public course called Oak Hollow (in High Point, N.C.). It was different, in the Harbor Town mode. It was shorter, it was finesse, it was quirky, with the railroad ties and pot bunkers. It was things you didn’t see and it just fascinated me. I managed to badger Mr. Dye to the point where he just gave up after telling me No so many times. He offered me a job, working as a laborer, and then as an equipment operator on another course he was starting to build in North Carolina, called The Cardinal golf club (in Greensboro.) All my experience and background, my preparation in golf course architecture, doesn’t really relate directly to what I studied in university. It was a process of acknowledging an interest and then starting at the bottom. Mr. and Mrs. Dye were both kind enough to allow that to happen. It was just one of those extraordinary, fortuitous occurrences, just like when Mr. Jarrett took me to play golf, stumbling into Pete Dye building a golf course, not knowing who Pete Dye was. There’s nothing glamorous about any of it, the labor, wearing hip waders, cutting trees three feet deep in water. It was just a process and it all led to today.

RM: How did you and Ben Crenshaw meet, and what led the two of you to believe that a partnership would be both manageable and fruitful?

BC: I had started a design company. I had been given an opportunity to design a course in south Texas with one of the guys who still works with us, in 1980. It was a place with extraordinarily limited funds, so they were desperate enough to give me a chance to work on it. We built nine holes and then skipped a year, and then built the next nine. This takes us to 1984. I had been asked a number of times, You’re designing some golf courses that are pretty good (at this time there were only two) and why don’t you have a partnership with a well-known tour player? It was just not something I had given much thought to, to be perfectly candid. One day, a potential client, also on a site in south Texas, asked me a question: I’d like you to come down and look at another site. It was never going to be a golf course; it was impossible for it to be a golf course. Right along the gulf, it went under water at high tide, and it was salt water at that. The man took it upon himself, in the course of the conversation, he said Why don’t you work with someone? It was 1984 and Ben had just won the Masters, and I had read some articles, and in those articles, it was mentioned several times about his interest in golf course architecture. And I could tell by the comments, that he knew something, that he had studied. When the potential client kept pressing the issue, I said, Well, I guess if it was going to be anyone, it would be Ben Crenshaw. He got in touch with Ben’s business manager and mentioned something about this project. He’s the one who actually got us together. Ben had heard of the golf course we had already done, close by, and he came to look at this other site. The project manager introduced me to him. We never worked on that golf course, of course, and we had no intention of working together, but we started talking about golf architecture over the next year, off and on, and we became friend first. At some point, we said, well, maybe we should try one of these things together. We both felt comfortable enough with each other, both personally and philosophically, regarding golf course architecture. It was no great plan, it wasn’t something that was programmed from the beginning, or something that I had given serious thought to, or something Ben had given serious thought to. Again, it was simply another one of those fortuitous things that happens. That was thirty years ago, and then in December of 1985, we formed our partnership. This past December was the 30th anniversary of our partnership.

RM: Does each of you (Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw) have easily-defined roles in the partnership? If so, can you tell us what they are?

BC: I think the answer to the first part of the question is No, we don’t have easily-defined roles. There are some things, given the amount of time that we can spend on the site, that gravitate more toward one or the other. The routings, just because I have the freedom of time, over Ben and his playing career, have come a bit more in my domain, but in no way exclusively. Take the Austin Golf Club, for example, it’s totally Ben’s routing. We’ve collaborated on almost all of them, but if you had to say that one of us concentrates on a certain aspect more than the other guy, well, Ben has certainly taught me so much about the details of the land forms that affect the best players in the world and how they think, and how small details can influence the best players in the world. Little slopes here, little contours or hollows there, tilts of the green, angles, the way the wind blows, wind directions. Ben is so extraordinarily perceptive. You could say that if you’re trying to categorize us, it might be those two things, but basically, we overlap. We use each other as sounding boards and we talk to each other about the concepts of the courses, the routings, we go walk them together and make adjustments together. We talk about the concepts of the holes, the bunkering schemes, the greens, and the contouring of the putting surfaces. We bounce ideas off each other, as well as listing them to the guys who work with us, who are extraordinary. In many ways, we’ve both become editors. We do the routing and then we are adamant with the guys that we work with that nothing is set in stone. If something neat begins to happen, go with it. Every one of our guys has the freedom to abandon the original concept at any point, if they think that something better could materialize. In that regard, sometimes, we give a main concept, they work on it, and sometimes you walk back up there and a green complex or a bunker has been roughed in, and you think, well that’s not exactly what we talked about, but it’s better! We’ve always tried to maintain flexibility in the process.

RM: Please describe your process for assessing a piece of land and determining a routing.

BC: When we’re called to look at a piece of land, the first thing we do is go walk the property. We try to get a sense if the land, in its actual state, looks and feels like golf. We try to get a sense of whether you could lay a golf course on that landscape, without huge amounts of alteration to the land forms. If so, we’re very comfortable with that. We’ve done courses where you’ve had to do major alterations, but it’s not our preference. After walking the property (sometimes it can take two or three weeks) if we determine that this property can yield a course to attain the owner’s goals, with us working on it? There are some sites that we have looked at, where someone else could do a great job, but we would spend a lot of money and not do a very good job. We’ve looked at other sites and thought that other architects would be way better at it than we would be. And there are some sites that we look at and say, well, no one could ever do a good job on this. And finally, there are sites you look at and say, this is right in our comfort zone. We try to understand our limitations. The worst thing that can be done is to spend a lot of money and build a bad golf course. The owner needs someone who can sit across the table or stand on the grounds and say, I can do this. I’ve seen some sites where I’ve not known what to do, and Ben hasn’t known what to do, and [another major architect] has built beautiful golf courses on those sites.

RM: You have established a successful working relationship with Mike Keiser. How did that come about and what makes both sides click together?

BC: It was like we won the lottery. Mike Keiser was a founding member at Sand Hills in Nebraska (a course designed by Coore & Crenshaw, recognized as the best new course of the 2nd half of the 20th century), so we had met Mike, but neither one of us really knew Mike. He called me on the phone and he said Bill, I’d like to talk to you and Ben about doing the third course at Bandon. I’m going to be very candid with you: it’s not on the ocean, a lot of it’s going to be interior, back in the woods, most people will probably perceive it as an inferior piece of property to what Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes are on. We had seen what he had done out there with David Kidd (the original Bandon Dunes course), with Tom Doak and Jim Urbina (the Pacific Dunes course) and it was fantastic. We wanted to look at the site at the very least. We went out and looked at it and the results of studying it for a fairly long time, and after various conversations about where the golf course should be, it ended up being Bandon Trails. We knew that it had some difficult spots; there is a big ridge that runs through it that we had to work around.

Ben and I felt that All we want to do here is build a golf course that complements the other two somehow. We don’t want to build a golf course that nobody wants to play, but we think we can do something hopefully good enough that people will appreciate it. He gave us the chance to do that and in that process, he became not only an extraordinary client, but a very, very good friend. Mike Keiser has incredible insight from the standpoint of, as he calls it, the retail golfer, what the paying customer looks for, and the experience they hope to have, as well as an affection for seaside or sand-based golf. We got to work at Bandon Trails, Lost Farm at Barnbougle Dunes (Tasmania) and then more recently, up at Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, and last the par-three course, the Preserve at Bandon, so Mike has been so generous to us, that I would never know how to thank him. He has given us opportunities that anyone in this profession would be thrilled for. In my mind, he is the patron saint of modern-day architecture. He affords people in our business opportunities that we could have never dreamed of, spectacular sites to work with, and the freedom to work with them. I’ve enjoyed every walkabout, whether it’s to assess a new property or a course under construction, like the first course at Sand Valley, in Wisconsin (designed by Coore and Crenshaw, that will open for play in 2017.)

RM: Give us a sense of where you see golf course architecture heading in the next 25 years, and what you hope your firm’s role will be.

BC: We hope that golf architecture evolves in a fashion that maintains people’s interest in the game. That may be in the form of shorter courses, courses with less than 18 holes. I grew up on a nine-hole course and most of the public courses around me were nine-hole courses. Certainly, Ben and I are not dismissive of courses with less than 18 holes, or of shorter courses. If there are ways to make golf more accessible and more enjoyable for people, that’s fantastic. You only have to look at the two, non-18 hole courses at Bandon, to understand this. The one we did, the Preserve, is absolutely chock full of people, all the time, playing it over and over. It’s tremendous fun. It doesn’t require excessive strength or excessive skill to enjoy. The Punch Bowl, which Tom Doak did out there, is a giant putting course. Now, do you call that a golf course? Well, I guess it depends on your definition, but you could certainly spend all day out there, or an hour. That’s just as much golf as any of the big courses at Bandon. Those are just two examples of things that could happen. The world is so fast-paced, and families have so much going on, that it’s almost unreasonable to ask people to go spend the entire day at a golf course. Any type of golf course architecture that provides interesting golf and which can be experienced in a shorter period of time, be it three hours or an hour, is the way that golf out to go.

RM: What question haven’t we (or anyone) asked, that you would love to answer? Ask it and answer it, please. This was a challenge for me and Bill. It ended up being more of an idea than a question, and here it is:

BC: Any question that would allow us to express how talented the guys who work with us are.

I said earlier that Ben and I often fulfill the role of editors rather than authors. The fellows that work with us are so often referred to as shapers or bulldozer operators; they are that but so much more. There are several of them that have done their own designs. Dave Axland and Dan Proctor did Wild Horse (Nebraska.) Dave Zinkand who worked with us for twelve years, has redesigned Desert Forest (Arizona.) These fellows have all done their own designs, and yet they come out and work with us on equipment, help us build bunkers. Rod Whitman, the Canadian architect, has three or four of the top ten courses in Canada. He has worked on greens, bunkers, fairways and tees on our golf courses for years. Our list of about ten guys who are so extraordinarily talented, there’s not one of them who could not go out on his own, if circumstances presented themselves, and design one heck of a golf course, that we would all be proud of. They are just extraordinary: Jimbo Wright, Jeff Craig, Jeff Bradley, the premier bunker guy in America. It’s fun to see them, to see the talent, and to be a part of it.

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Jack’s back! A first look at Reynolds Great Waters reopening

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I was happy to accept a recent invitation to attend the grand reopening of the Great Waters course at Reynolds Lake Oconee. Over the last five years, I have come to know Reynolds Lake Oconee quite well. It is a gated community that is cozied up next to a man-made lake halfway between Augusta and Atlanta, Georgia (fun fact: almost all of the lakes in Georgia are man-made) and is populated by a lot of people who have that increasingly rare ability to be well-off and well-behaved, which makes it a really pleasant place to reside.

Reynolds Lake Oconee also has a Ritz-Carlton hotel for those that want to soak up some southern-style luxury; one of the things that I like most about RLO is that the place is golf-centric without having that “golf monastery” feel of some of the newer multi-course golf destinations. It is a prime location for Masters ticket holders to stay during tournament week, and I have been there a couple of times myself for their version of Monday after the Masters.

Over the years, Reynolds Lake Oconee has very quietly become one of the country’s great golf destinations, kind of a Georgia peach-flavored version of Pinehurst. The property boasts six championship golf courses, including designs by Nicklaus, Bob Cupp, Tom Fazio, Rees Jones. Great Waters (Nicklaus) and The Oconee (Jones) are ranked it the Top 100 public courses in America, with Great Waters at #2 in the state. And to top it off, the Kingdom of Golf by TaylorMade is located at RLO. Gearheads will know that The Kingdom is one of the highest-regarded instruction and club fitting facilities in the country. Make an appointment to try it out and you can tell your friends that you got fitted for a new driver or set of irons at the same place Jason Day and Rory McIlroy tweak their bags during Masters Week.

Great Waters was the first course that I had played there—five years ago I was invited to play in the Big Break Invitational. It was very cool to hang out with Tommy “Two-Gloves” Gainey, Don Donatello and the rest of the gang that I had watched on TV for years. I got to play a few holes with Tony Finau right before he jumped to the PGA Tour (you forgot he was a Big Break-er didn’t you?). I knew he was going to do OK when I saw him dismantle a short par-4 with a 290-yard 3-wood to the front of the green that led to a tap-in birdie and a big ‘ole Finau grin. Great Waters’ credentials also included hosting the WGC Match Play in its early days, as well as a slew of local and regional championships.

But after almost 30 years of play, Great Waters was in need of maintenance, repair, and upgrades to some infrastructure, so the word was that Nicklaus and the owners would do the maintenance and also take the opportunity to apply the wisdom and the advancements gained since the original launch and make some structural changes to the layout.

2020 Mercedes-Benz AMG GLC 63

2020 Mercedes-Benz AMG GLC 63

I flew into Atlanta and picked up my ride to Greene County, a 2020 Mercedes-Benz AMG C63, a 500-horsepower SUV coupe that made the ride to RLO infinitely more comfortable and considerably shorter than the same trip in the hotel shuttle. As I cruised the satellite radio bands and dodged state troopers on I-20, I was thinking about how Jack might have changed the course. Nicklaus is nothing if not prolific as a golf course designer; he has over 260 course designs to his name and if you include co- and re-designs that number gets to 300. But the honest truth is that while every Nicklaus course is a challenge, they can take on an air of the familiar.

It’s not all his fault; a developer from Argentina plays your track in Florida and then wants to pay you a million dollars to do roughly the same thing in Caracas, you do it. And many of the Nicklaus tracks can be extremely penal, especially for resort courses. For that reason, I have developed a shortlist of favorite Bear tracks that, in my humble opinion, got the balance of challenge, opportunity, beauty and fun exactly right. The Manele Golf Course at the Four Seasons Lanai is my absolute favorite Nicklaus course, and Great Waters was just behind it. I was hoping that Jack wasn’t going to respond to the advances that had been made in club design and the ever-expanding length of the golf ball to fortify the layout to the detriment of playability. Great Waters was great fun to play, and I selfishly wanted it to stay that way.

As I arrived at the practice facility before the opening round at Great Waters, the first thing that struck me was the practice facility itself. It was opening day for that facility too, and it was immaculate. I noticed that there were a lot of thin shots being hit because no one wanted to take a divot from the immaculate turf on the practice tee. I went to the practice green to roll a couple of putts; the TIFF Eagle surface was rolling at a speed roughly equivalent to a gym floor. Not a good sign for scoring on the potato chip greens that I remembered from my previous trip around Great Waters.

Golden Bear Tees

The first and most predictable difference was the length of the course. It was expanded with the addition of “Golden Bear” back tees that play a robust 7,400 yards; to put that in perspective, on the first hole, they actually had to place the Golden Bear tees on the practice green! But there were also new tees placed at 4,500 yards to increase playability, pace-of-play and birdie opportunities for the less prodigious. I was playing with three 30-somethings, so I swallowed hard and played from 6,900-plus, all but assuring that most of the birdies I’d see that day would be perched in the Georgia pines.

The opening holes are classic Georgia golf, meandering through the pines with glimpses of the lake As I went through the front nine, the changes I saw were mostly technical. Extensive tree clearing took place to reduce shade and improve overall turf quality. Speaking of turf, the grasses that were used for the renovation are state of the art, with Zeon zoysia for the fairways and TifTuf Bermuda rough, both of which should hold up well with minimal water and chemical treatment in the sweltering heat of Georgia summers.

I was hitting driver well that day and was loving the way that zoysia “tees” the ball up for approach shots. The greens complexes are all new and have also been converted to TifEagle Bermuda, a grass that performs better in the shade and holds color in the fall. That, along with the lowering of some embankments allow for wider fairways and more views of the lake. The fairway bunkers, somewhat surprisingly, had not been moved, but they were in perfect condition, as were the greenside bunkers. The greens, as expected, were table-top hard, but they will definitely soften as they mature and settle after the rebuild.

Great Waters #11

As I was making the turn, I was pleased; the course so far had been improved without fundamentally changing an already exceptional experience. But if the front nine is a sonata, the back nine is a rock anthem. Perhaps the most stunning hole is the 11th, a gorgeous 311-yard par-4 that is the dictionary definition of “risk-reward” (and the hole where Tony Finau had given me a look into his future). Lowering the hillside on the left side of the hole allows the players to see much more of the lake that frames it. Deciding to go hero mode and hit driver is a common mistake on the hole; if you dunk it in the lake on the left you’ll probably find at least a sleeve of Pro V1s left by previous victims waiting for you in the grass near your drop.

Great Waters saves the best for last, as every hole except No. 10 has Lake Oconee either visible or in play, and on a perfect fall day like we had it is a lovely sight indeed. The final four holes are a chorus line of beauties that offer some of the best views in American golf, and the par-3 17th and the massive par-5 18th rank as one of the best finishing combinations in the Nicklaus portfolio. I went par/bogey on the finish, but from the distance I was playing, I couldn’t complain. On the contrary, I walked off with the same feeling that I had when I played the first time: ”I’d love to play it again tomorrow.”

Great Waters #18

The great man of Great Waters gave a press conference the day after the opening round, and he was reflective when speaking about the project in terms of his life and career.

“I think that I have learned some things over the years, and you see that [at Great Waters],” Nicklaus noted. “But the members and residents here have always wanted a property they can be proud of, and I think that’s what we gave them.”

Jack Nicklaus

In all, Great Waters is just as challenging and just as much fun, if not more, than before. The aesthetic changes to the course have made it more picturesque than ever, but if you want to want to score well, you’ll need to spend more time lining up your putts than your pictures.

“The thing a course designer wants to hear from golfers when they see a hole is, “Wow,” said Nicklaus.

For sure, Great Waters has provided its share of “wow” moments, and with this project completed, it is sure to be providing them for years to come.

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