New Look For The Old Game

A roster of new Georgia golf courses, many serving as centerpieces for residential developments, is defying a national trend. But golfers’ demands for year-round course perfection are increasing the cost of playing the sport and, some say, taxi

Chris Busbee is the golf professional for two different courses 45 miles apart, a double-duty existence that, under ordinary circumstances, would lend itself to the occasional bout of fatigue. But today he sounds particularly drained, like a guy who was awakened by a 4 a.m. phone call from the fire department telling him one of his clubhouses was burning.

“I get the call and they tell me, ‘Your building is engulfed in flames, what would you like us to do?’ That’s not the sort of conversation you want to start your day with,” Busbee says. “What was I supposed to say? I told them to put water on it. Then I hit the road.”

Busbee lives in Locust Grove, where he serves as the club pro at Eagle’s Brooke Golf & Country Club. About an hour after getting the surreal wake-up call he was at Durham Lakes Golf & Country Club in Fairburn.

“The fire was out, the fire department was doing an excellent job, so we went to work, pulling golf carts to the upper parking lot,” Busbee says. “We were lucky because the carts were all safe, and we got the first 30 or 40 golfers on the course, told them to check in when they were finished, and we were fully operational by 1 p.m.”

Golfers have swarmed over Durham Lakes, which opened in July 2006, and other impressive new courses that have opened across Georgia, defying a national trend – in 2006, when national golf course closings exceeded openings for the first time in six decades, Georgia finished well in the black (nine reported openings versus 4.5 closings).

Durham Lakes ultimately accommodated 85 golfers the day of the fire, a healthy weekday crowd even when your clubhouse isn’t reduced to a smoldering heap of ashes. But even without the clubhouse – which was temporary anyway, if fully functional – Durham Lakes continues to impress as one of the best of the new.

“I don’t go there for the clubhouse,” says Allen Haile of Lilburn, a golf photographer and avid player who competes on several regional amateur tours. “Durham Lakes is a pretty good hike for me, but well worth it – excellent design, everything is hard and fast, reasonably priced and a great challenge.”

If he likes Durham Lakes, he’ll probably like Eagle’s Brooke. Scott Pool designed both courses for the developer, Killearn, Inc. (which also developed Eagle’s Landing in Stockbridge, Waterfall Country Club at Lake Burton and Kingwood Golf Club near Clayton).

“The designs are fairly similar,” Busbee says. “The difference is, Durham Lakes is a public course open to the daily fee player and corporate outings, and Eagle’s Brooke is exclusively private.”

Both courses serve as centerpiece to growing residential communities, the predominant trend among Georgia’s new golf course crop.

The Fairways of Canton, opening this summer, is putting a different spin on that trend – built within the Laurel Canyon residential community, it’s a public recreation facility that will offer free memberships to citizens of Canton, which owns the golf course.

The Fairways is one third of a diverse trio of new-ish courses located within a few miles of each other, along the Georgia 140 corridor. Callahan Golf Links is a new public course opening this summer near Waleska, and nearby, the Lake Arrowhead development is totally revamping its course (five holes are being renovated, 13 will be brand new).

Manufactured Perfection

Durham Lakes, billed as a public course that looks private, plays across 7,070 yards (from the back tees), surrounded by hardwood and pine forests and scenic wetlands, culminating with the No. 18 signature hole, an uphill par 4 guarded tenaciously by 11 bunkers and one of the course’s three lakes.

Eagle’s Brooke opened its back nine to member play in November and plans to open the front nine in September. At 7,400 yards from the tips, this is the longer of the two new Pool designs. Another trend in evidence at both courses is golf carts equipped with GPS systems.

“We don’t cut corners at the public course, it gets the same level of care as the private one. Both are very well manicured,” Busbee says, touching on yet another trend that modern golfers expect, especially in the United States – we want our courses to look the same from one day to the next, weather be damned.

That kind of high maintenance not only takes a toll on the environment (more cutting, more watering, more fertilizer – more green), but it drives up the cost to play. Even if a golf course architect strives for environmental sensitivity in design, golf course managers and superintendents are expected to maintain pristine conditions to keep the membership satisfied.

It’s a market-dictated, artificial manipulation of nature that leaves designer Denis Griffiths wondering about alternatives steeped in the tradition of the game.

“Go back to Scotland and the United Kingdom, and golf started out on courses that played according to the weather. If it was wet, the course was soft and slow. If it was warm and dry, the course was hard and fast,” says Griffiths, who has designed about two dozen courses in Georgia, including the four at Château Élan, where his firm (Denis Griffiths and Associates) is headquartered.

“Golf has evolved in the U.S. to become a game for the perfectly maintained course. Americans like green, they think green is very important. You’re talking more fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, water. Is this the best direction to go in, environmentally? Every course wants perfection. The equipment has gotten unbelievably sophisticated and expensive. All of it has really increased the cost of golf, the price to play.”

The American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) held its annual meeting this past spring in Atlanta. Griffiths says he was reassured to hear many of his fellow designers ask, “Why do we have to keep this up? Why not go back to the ‘as weather permits’ model?”

“Your ball may roll seven feet one day, 12 on another. This is what the game is all about,” says Griffiths, so far the only American to complete course designs in St. Andrews, Scotland. “You shouldn’t be facing the same shot every day from the same place. They say golf is like life. Well, there is uncertainty in life and that’s what makes golf so rich – the uncertainty, the unexpected. The hard part is getting the golfing public to accept this as OK.”

Georgia golfers have given Griffiths a big okey-dokey for two of his new designs – Crystal Falls (Dawsonville) and Crystal Lake (Hampton). Both opened as semi-private amenities to developing communities (Tim Jones and J.P. Evans own Crystal Lake, a firm called Dawson Cherokee Capital owns Crystal Falls). Both will go totally private when they have acquired enough members.

Crystal Lake, which opened in March 2006, is getting about 2,000 rounds a month and plenty of fanfare – NBA legends Michael Jordan and Julius Erving have played there. It is 7,200 yards from the back tees, “but it plays like 7,600,” says Craig Martin, director of golf. “We’ve got the state amateur tournament qualifier here, and if they play from the back tees, I don’t think anyone will shoot par.”

Crystal Falls opened its front nine in November, its back nine in January. It’s been averaging about 2,500 rounds a month and play is sometimes slow, especially on the weekend, according to club professional Dirk Dill. “On the front nine, it’s grip it and rip it golf,” he says. “You really have to think about your shot on the back nine.”

Griffiths has two distinctly different courses under way and slated for opening within the next year – Fox Lake, part of an upscale mountain community a few miles from one of his earlier gems, Brasstown Valley near Blairsville; and Brazell’s Creek, the golf course at Gordonia-Altamaha State Park in Reidsville, where he’s restructuring the old nine-hole course into an 18-hole layout scheduled to open in 2008.

More than 100 acres of the Brazell’s Creek property is protected environment, so golfers will be able to stroll or ride on a 2,000-foot boardwalk bridge to get from one playable area to the next. “There are places back there on that bridge where you won’t see the sun,” Griffiths says, espousing a close-to-nature-but-not-too-close approach to golf course design.

Course architect Mike Young mastered this approach at Cateechee Golf Club in Hartwell. Part nature park, part golf course, the Audubon Signature Course opened several years ago. Young’s latest Georgia opening, another layout dictated by the natural lay of the land, is Long Shadow Golf Club in Madison. A semi-private course set on rolling hills among seven lakes, with grassy vistas that suggest links style golf, it is the linchpin in the Madison Lakes residential development.

The Big Names

A short drive away, Long Shadow is the newest offering from Reynolds Plantation on Lake Oconee. The Creek Club, designed by Jim Engh, opened in May. You have to become a member at Reynolds, or be the guest of one, to play this course, the resort’s fifth. Just east of Reynolds, in the town of White Plains, a new course is taking shape at The Briar Rose, an upscale private community that will feature an equestrian center, lake marina and a 27-hole golf course, The Hamlet, designed by Roy Case.

“Where many designers, big name designers, move about 2 million yards of dirt, Roy Case will move about 250,000. He’s known for gently laying a course on the land, and this will be an example of that,” says Adam McMichael, sales executive for Briar Rose developer Jeff Davis. The first nine should be open before winter this year.

Big name designers have laid their hands on two of Georgia’s newest upscale private clubs, both in Alpharetta. The Manor and the Georgia Tech Club opened for play in 2006.

The Manor caters to homebuyers who can ante up $800,000 to $2.5 million for luxury digs in a gated community; it features golf on a course designed by Tom Watson.

For roving golfer/photographer Allen Haile, it’s golf and nothing but golf at the Georgia Tech Club, where Rees Jones designed a course that already is ranked among the most challenging in the country – only seven courses in the United States have a higher slope rating.

“It’s one of the top five courses in the Atlanta area, period,” says Haile, who gained admittance with his camera (he gets 200,000 hits a month at and his clubs (he played in a tournament). “This is going to be one to be reckoned with, truly a world class course.”

The sleek 7,558-yard course, located within the gated Echelon community (230 homesites), will serve as home course for the Georgia Tech golf team, whose players may luckily forego the refundable $40,000 membership initiation and $325 monthly dues.

Love Links

Love Golf Design (LGD), under the guidance of Mark Love and his famous brother, PGA star Davis Love III, has brought together geometry and history at two distinct patches near the coast – The Golf Club at Sanctuary Cove and the Brunswick Country Club, one a reinterpretation, the other a restoration. Taken together, the projects demonstrate LGD’s self-inflicted “Rossnor” style characterization – part Donald Ross, part Seth Raynor, design legends from golf’s golden age.

Sanctuary Cove (Waverly) represents new territory for LGD. It is the firm’s first project that does not bear Davis’ name as the signature designer. The Love boys have partnered with their pal, former Masters champ Fred Couples, in what has been called a “Love Golf Design/Fred Couples Signature” course.

But it’s the spirit of Raynor, the pioneering early 20th century architect, that has been channeled at this par 71, 7,003-yard layout, which has been playing about 2,200 rounds per month since opening in April 2006.

“Not many people have been exposed to this type of architecture – the cross bunkering, the geometric shapes, straighter-edged, grass-face bunkers,” says Mark Love. “It’s definitely not a cookie cutter golf course.”

John McKenzie, vice president and director of business development at Love Golf Design, says the course strives to evoke golf’s golden age. “Sanctuary Cove is more of a throwback course than anything we’ve done so far.”

The Golf Club at Sanctuary Cove, part of a residential community, has the engineered look – McKenzie hesitates to say “manufactured” – that Raynor, an engineer by training, was known for: bold, straight lines; greens with squared off edges.

It fits within the mostly flat terrain, but doesn’t have the natural, rolling flow of a course designed by Donald Ross, the Scotsman who came to America and became one of the game’s celebrated designers. More than 400 courses bear his signature, including the Brunswick Country Club.

“It’s the course that Davis and Mark grew up playing on, a design from the late 1930s that had hardly been touched – no reshaping or anything, rare for a course that old,” McKenzie says.

Membership had dipped down to around 120 when the course closed last year for the rehabilitation project. When it opens again in November, the club will have some 400 members, one of whom actually had Ross’s original drawings, which came in handy for the $1.5 million restoration.

They’ve redone the greens, bunkers, tees, hardly touched the fairways in an effort to faithfully recapture the classic Ross character.

“Davis and I grew up talking about those old designs, and we always tended to really enjoy the older, classically designed courses,” says Mark, whose firm also designed Ricefields, a course opening on Hampton Island this year. “We like to bounce around between styles, not copying holes but borrowing elements, capturing the look or character of the classics, but making adjustments for today’s game.”

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