Saturday, August 31, 2013

Forest Creek Golf Club (North Course)

I was fortunate enough to stay two nights in the clubhouse at Forest Creek. I played both their North and South courses with the owner and two founders of the club. Forest Creek is one of two private clubs in the Pinehurst area of North Carolina. The vision for the club began in the early 90’s when the owner inherited 1,500 acres of land in Southern Pines. Over a decade later, that land contains two Fazio design courses, possibly the best facilities in the area, and around 500 members who are lucky enough to say they belong to Forest Creek.

The club was built on the exclusive private community model that commonly failed elsewhere during the 2008 financial crisis. One must be a property owner at Forest Creek in order to become a member. There is no unaccompanied guest play and the courses get fairly little play. One of the members with whom I spoke said, “Other than the golf and facilities, it is the privacy and ability to play a round without seeing another soul that I am paying for... Where else in Pinehurst could I get this?” The member has a point. Most people don’t even know Forest Creek exists and, on any given day, you most likely don’t even need a tee time to get out and play a round of golf.
The clubhouse at Forest Creek has everything a golfer could desire, from an extensive bar to beautiful accommodations upstairs. However, it is the locker room that cannot go unmentioned. Forest Creek’s locker room stands at the juncture of traditional old hardwood and leather locker rooms and the best of the modern. The locker room is a different building from the clubhouse and is built to resemble stables that would have originally been found on the property.
Forest Creek's clubhouse
Huge showers, a sauna, a steam room, and a bar with large sitting area and fireplace are all found in the locker room. Locker room attendants address members and guests by name. In the morning a table of breakfast foods had been laid out for members and, during lunch hours, hot wings and other snacks were waiting for members and guests. Ornate oiled leather riding saddles line one wall, in keeping with the stable house theme. Michael Jordan is a member at Forest Creek, and I was lucky enough to use his locker during my stay.
Forest Creek GC's stable style men's locker room building
The North Course:

A common complaint of Tom Fazio designs is that they seem to lack character. It is said a Fazio design could be “plopped down anywhere.” I have been able to play many Fazio designs and tend to somewhat agree. However, I found Forest Creek’s North Course to be unique from other Fazio courses that I have played. The course makes use of the local sandy terrain, with large “natural areas” that can also be found at Pinehurst #2, and now Mid-Pines, among other Sandhills/Southern Pines area courses. Parts of the course have a distinct Pine Valley feel, which I hope comes through in the photos.

  Hole #1 - 370 yards
A short first hole eases golfers into the round with a slight dogleg left. Waste areas down the left are a small taste of the larger hazards lurking later in the round.

Hole #2 - 185 yards
While picturesque, the 2nd hole is a typical Fazio par 3, reminding me very strongly of the 8th hole on Pinehurst #8. The hole requires a strong and accurate shot with penal bunkers guarding the green.

Hole #3 - 522 yards
View from the tee
View from 200 yards out
The 3rd hole is the first taste of Pine Valley at Forest Creek's North Course. The par 5 is a double dog leg, first moving right off the tee before curving back left for the approach shot. A long and accurate drive makes the green reachable, but otherwise, the hole is a difficult 3-shotter.

 Hole #4 - 159 yards
The par 3 4th hole played tough during our round with a back left pin, which is guarded by the front left bunker.

Hole #6 - 360 yards

A number of holes at Forest Creek feature a semi-blind uphill tee shot followed by a downhill approach to a well guarded green. Hitting the fairway is a necessity on these holes. A driver isn't necessary on the 6th hole, and a long straight tee shot provides a short iron or wedge into the green.

 Hole #7 - 427 yards

The tee shot on the 7th is similar to the tee shot on the 6th, but the approach to the green is different altogether, and much longer. A good drive on this hole left me 165 yards into the green, which plays much more downhill than the picture leads one to believe.

Hole #10 - 532 yards

The par 5s on Forest Creek's North Course are very strong. The 10th hole was one of  my favorites. It is long enough to be just out of reach for some longer hitters, and placement of the layup is crucial, depending on the pin position. Bunkers and a large false front guard the green and shirk off any mediocre approach shots.

Hole #12 - 386 yards

The 12th hole is one of the strongest on the course. To quote my host for the round, "This is where the course really starts to take off." An uphill, dogleg left approach leaves another uphill shot to the devilishly guarded green. This was one of my favorite holes on the course. The bunkering is genius and I doubt you could find a similar hole to the 12th on another Fazio course.

Hole #13 - 350 yards

The short par 4 13th would initially appear easy, and if you hit the fairway with plenty of distance, the hole should be no problem at all. A straight drive over waste areas leaves a downhill dogleg left approach to the green. Laying up short of the dogleg bend or missing the fairway turns this otherwise easy hole into a quick bogey.

Hole #15 - 403 yards
Holes 15-17 all feature a man-made lake built while developing the property. The 15th requires a long and accurate drive to clear the lake. The water then borders the right side of the green, a potentially challenging hazard, depending on the pin position.

Hole #16 - 185 yards
The 16th hole is a long par 3. Scoring well on the hole is as simple as striking a mid to long iron into the center of the green. As with most Fazio designs, the hole is right out in front of you, but if you miss, a heavy price will be paid. Very few forced carries are to be found at Forest Creek's North Course.

Hole #17 - 386 yards

The 17th is one of the most picturesque holes on the course. A risk/reward aspect to the drive leaves golfers deciding how much of the lake they want to cut off. You can't necessarily relax once in the fairway because the lake hugs the right side of the green. While the lake may not directly come into play with a front pin, it subconsciously affects every approach shot.

Hole #18 - 495 yards
The round finishes on an uphill dogleg right par 5. The waste areas through the fairway are reachable for longer hitters. An uphill approach to a well bunkered green sloping back to front ends the round on a high note. 

If given the chance to play either course at Forest Creek, don’t turn down the opportunity. Park your car next to the Ferraris and Bentleys in the parking lot and make your way into the lavish clubhouse. Make the most of the Titleist Pro-V1 practice balls and 5 star locker room before you have to leave the property and crash back down to reality with the rest of us. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Pinehurst No. 2

In the same vein as St Andrews, a golfer's life isn't complete until he has made the journey to play golf at Pinehurst. The entire experience is unique, from the lodgings to the golf and people. Bobby Jones is quoted saying, "There is something about Pinehurst that tops even the position which it naturally occupies as the St Andrews of United States golf. And that is the people that you find there, and play golf with, and exchange reminisces with - the hosts of Pinehurst, who always make you feel happily at home."
Fredrick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park, laid out the village of Pinehurst. It is a unique place. I heard it described as "similar to Disneyland," which is nearly spot on. The village is built with perfect storefronts, employees running off scripts, and shuttles moving guests from hotels to the spa and golf courses like clockwork. The only way to book tee times at Pinehurst over 24 hours in advance is to buy a package and stay at one of the resort's four accommodation options. 
I have been fortunate enough to visit Pinehurst and play Pinehurst #2 quite a few times while growing up in North Carolina. I was especially eager to play #2 on this first trip with my Dad since the 2011 restoration project by Coore & Crenshaw. The project has taken the course back to its original Donald Ross design. The project also reestablished the course's unique connection to the St Andrews Old Course. Both designs use very large fairways and greens that shed balls into collection areas and hollows. There is no longer any rough on the course. "Natural areas" (waste bunkers full of tough grasses) now border the large fairways. The removal of the rough cut out 650 irrigation heads and  exposed the sandy soil upon which the course was built. 
To quote from Golf Club Atlas's article on the course, "The intended consequence of Coore & Crenshaw's removal of thirty-five acres of bermuda rough is that Pinehurst’s sandy floor once again shines through with No. 2 properly reflecting its environs of the Sandhills of Moore County. Predominantly found along coastlines, Pinehurst’s sandy soil is its ultimate trump card over virtually every inland course in America. Reinstating the course’s natural sandy qualities, rather than burying them beneath acres of bermuda rough, was a key objective to Coore & Crenshaw’s successful restoration project. Given that about 85% of the world’s top twenty-five courses are built on sand, overstating its virtues is impossible."

Hole #1 - 391 yards
The 1st hole on the course exhibits the wide fairways that will be found throughout the day. It also marks a golfer's first encounter with Donald Ross's diabolical greens. Pinehurst #2 is famous for the domed greens, and the first holes sets the tone. Hitting this green in regulation with a two putt makes for a great beginning to the round. 

 Hole #3 - 350 yards
Photo taken from the point at which the fairway begins to bend and narrow

The signature domed greens allow for extremely difficult pin placements
A smart play on the short dogleg right third hole is a hybrid or fairway wood short of the point at which the fairway narrows. This hole should be a birdie hole during the 2014 US Open, which will be played on #2. The Women's US Open will be played the next week on the same course. 

Hole #4 - 507 yards

The par 5 4th has always been one of my favorites at Pinehurst. The hole has become easier since the fairway has become wider and is no longer guarded by thick rough. The green slopes from back to front, and being above the hole is dangerous in quick conditions. 

Hole #5 - 436 yards
The blind uphill tee shot on the 5th is difficult, but the true challenge lies in the approach to the heavily sloping green. Photos cannot do the slopes justice. The approach is an uphill shot, and, depending on the green, it can be nearly impossible to hold a shot. Large collection areas surround the green.

 Hole #9 - 174 yards

View from the left side of the green looking at the slope off the back edge (left side of the photo)
The difficult par 3 9th is visually intimidating off the tee, and would be even more so if golfers could see the extreme slope falling off the back of the green. The green is two tiered. A very difficult putt is left for those on the wrong level. If the greens are fast and firm during the 2014 US Open, this will be a very interesting hole to watch. 

 Hole #13 - 385 yards
The 13th hole is unique on Pinehurst #2. It is a slight dogleg right with an elevated and heavily bunkered green. Long hitters should not hit drivers, and missing the green carries a heavy penalty.

 Hole #14 - 479 yards
Severe slopes off the back edge of the 14th green
Tee shots from the elevated 14th hole are fairly straightforward, but the green can be extremely difficult, depending on the pin position. One of the golfers in my group hit his approach shot slightly long and then found himself 5-6 feet below the green trying to flop his ball back up off a tight lie.

Hole #16 - 511 yards
The only water found on #2 doesn't really come into play for golfers if they choose their set of tees wisely. The 16th is a dogleg left par 5 and has always been another one of my favorite holes on the course. The hole is reachable and should create some drama during the US Open. The green is heavily bunkered, and, as with any well designed risk-reward par 5, a heavy penalty is to be paid for missing the green.

Hole #17 - 186 yards
This hole has been the site of drama in previous US Opens played over Pinehurst #2, and it ranks as one of the stronger par 3s that I have played. The front pin seen in the photo above is one of the more inviting pins. I have to give a shout out to my Dad for a great birdie on this hole during our round.

Hole #18 - 415 yards
View from the back of the green looking down the hole
The 18th is a strong uphill finishing hole. It is not unreasonably difficult, but missing the fairway leaves a tough and long shot into the sloping green. If you need to win your match on the 18th, hit the fairway and aim to have a short iron into the green. Anything over the green falls into a large collection area. This hole has its fair share of history, particularly the famous putt made by Payne Stewart to win the 1999 US Open over Phil Mickelson. His famous fist pump has lived on in infamy, not only at Pinehurst, but in all of golf. 
Pinehurst will always be one of my favorite golf destinations. In addition to eight green courses, the atmosphere of the village and surrounding area creates a unique and homey feeling. This quote from Tommy Armour sums up my thoughts very well. "The man who doesn't feel emotionally stirred when he golfs at Pinehurst beneath those clear blue skies and with the pine fragrance in his nostrils is one who should be ruled out of golf for life."

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sleepy Hollow Country Club

Sleep Hollow Country Club marked the last round of golf during my time in New York City. The summer of northeast golf ended on a great note. Sleepy Hollow is one of the great under recognized courses in the northeast US. In his book, The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, Tom Doak refers to Sleepy Hollow as, "Westchester's best unknown golf course." This is quite a compliment considering the quality of courses in Westchester County and Doak's notoriously strong opinions. After playing a handful of great golf courses the summer, Sleepy Hollow easily ranks as one of the most enjoyable rounds that I played.
Famous headless horseman club logo
William Rockefeller built the club for a “who’s-who” of New York businessmen. Over after its creation, the members still hold a special place at the club. I had been told by my host member at Winged Foot, “You are going to love Sleepy Hollow. The course is great, but it is the members who make the place so special. They are all really good people.” His advice held true during my visit to Sleepy Hollow.

The first thing to strike golfers arriving on the property at Sleepy Hollow is the mansion clubhouse. The clubhouse is a spectacular old Vanderbilt estate house, known as “Woodlea”. The clubhouse was completed in 1894, and was sold to Sleepy Hollow Country Club in 1920.
The golf course has an interesting history. Charles Blair Macdonald designed and finished the course in 1911, but its history doesn’t stop there. In the late 1920s, A.W. Tillinghast was brought in to add an additional 9 holes to the club. In so doing, Tillinghast created what are now the first, eighth through twelfth, and eighteenth holes, and then knitted them into Macdonald’s course. It created two different flavors coming from two very different designers.

Over the years, various greens committees, with the help of “name” designers, changed the course in attempts to “modernize” it, achieving lukewarm results. In the mid-2000s, Gil Hanse, with the help of Macdonald expert George Bhato, was brought in to restore the course back to its original Macdonald design. The removal of trees, changes in bunkering, and overall layout alterations resulted in what Golf Club Atlas described as, “...a renovation that represents one of the great transformations in the history of golf course architecture. (Sleepy Hollow) went from a lifeless course that had lost its soul, a ‘new old’ course full of character...”

Hole #1 - 406 yards - "Sunnyside"
The round begins with a downhill par 4 moving to the golfer's right. The elevated tee box at the base of the Vanderbilt mansion provides just enough of a view to whet your appetite for the holes to come.

Hole #3 - 153 yards - "Haunted Bridge"
The par 3 3rd requires a shot over a large gorge. This hole is Macdonald's Eden hole at Sleepy Hollow. Bunkers on the left hillside and low right of the green act as tough penalties for any wayward shots. Click on the picture to enlarge and have a closer look at both the green and the unique bridge across the gorge.

Hole #5 - 403 yards - "High Tor"
The tee shot on the fifth is blind cresting a ridge. The photo above is taken from the top of the ridge. As golfers leave the tee box and proceed up the fairway, the view is breathtaking... Some members called this the most improved hole on the course after Hanse did his work. There were once a large number of trees behind this green, completely obstructing the view of the river. Removing the trees opened up the hole and allowed the gorgeous view to come through.

Hole #6 - 458 yards - "Headless Horseman"
This par 5 is an almost 90 degree dogleg right with the bend on the top of the hill seen in the distance. Short hitters play into the valley and then play a second shot up over the hill. Long hitters can cut the corner and play to the top. Part of the brilliance of this hole is that, despite the short length, it is a three shot hole for those unable to carry the ball over 250 yards. The hole is a great use of the terrain.
The picture above shows the approach to the green once on top of the hill.

Hole #7 - 193 yards - "Tarry Brae"
This downhill reverse Redan hole is one of my favorite par 3s which I have recently played. The green slopes right and away from the tee box. A slope short left kicks ball down and onto the green. My photo doesn't show the green particularly well. I could have sat with a bucket of balls on this tee and happily hit all afternoon.

Hole #9 - 439 yards - "Katrina's Glen"
The 9th hole gives golfers a true taste of AW Tillinghast's input at Sleepy Hollow. Holes 8-11 have a noticeably different feel, yet they still flow well with the rest of the golf course. The 9th is a dogleg right par 4. A shot out to the bunkered corner of the dogleg leaves a very interesting 150 yard approach. The green appears to be open for the taking, but bunkers left and right, along with a sloping front present a challenge. 

Hole #10 - 156 yards - "The Lake"
This par 3 is another one of the course's very picturesque holes. It holds a different kind of beauty from the expansive views of the Hudson seen at other points in the round. The hole plays slightly downhill, and a back left slope acts as a backboard for the safe long, left shot.

Hole #12 - 513 yards - "Double Plateau"

The 12th hole saw the largest change during the Hanse and Bhato renovation process. Over two hundred yards were added to the hole, turning it into a par 5. A completely new green complex was created. A long, straight par 4 was turned into an interesting dog leg left par 5, incorporating a creek on the second shot. The name "Double Plateau" comes from the tough, two tier green. Be sure to make note of the pin placement and/or obey your caddy. I did not, and I payed the price with a double bogey. The changes to this hole also drastically improved course routing, which originally required a very long walk from the 12th green to 13th tee.

Hole #13 - 384 yards - "Andre's Lane"
The severity of the slopes in front of this green are not fully realized in this photo. It is a challenging approach shot to the elevated green. The fairway is also filled with strategically placed fairway bunkers. The green also slopes from back to front. That fact combined with fast green speeds dictates extreme caution when putting from above the hole.

Hole #15 - 437 yards - "Punchbowl"
The 15th hole also saw major changes during the restoration. The hole was changed from a par 5 to a long par 4. Average length golfers would have around 100 yards for their third shot into the punchbowl green. This eliminated use of the strategic slope short left of the green. By moving the tee boxes up and creating a long par 4, Hanse fully capitalized on Macdonald's original design. This was one of my favorite par 4s on the course.

Hole #16 - 150 yards - "Panorama"
"Panorama" is a fitting name for this par 3. The bunkering around the green saw a drastic change during the restoration. Small, cluttered bunkers and mounds guarded this green instead of the wrap-around bunker seen today. After looking at a 1920s photo of the hole in the clubhouse after the round, it is obvious that the current design is the original. Greens committees and various designers had changed the bunkering over the decades.

Hole #18 - 406 yards - "Mansion Rise"
The final hole on the course is fairly easy if played correctly. However, enter a fairway bunker or one of the massive bunkers front right of the green and you will pay a huge price. The hole is framed beautifully by the mansion clubhouse directly behind the green. 

I hope to have the chance to play Sleepy Hollow again. The photos barely do the views and beauty of the course justice. The round presented me with the necessary reminder that golf isn’t only about difficult courses capable of hosting major championships. My round at Sleepy Hollow was fun. It required a huge variety of shots, and each hole had unique character. The clubhouse, the overall aura of the place, and my playing partners all combined with the course to make an extremely enjoyable day.