PINEHURST, North Carolina – These are extraordinary times for the “Cradle of American Golf.’’
The U.S. Golf Association will begin unveiling its new campus in Pinehurst on Dec. 1. This six-eight acre spot will evolve leading into the U.S. Open in June, 2024. That may turn out to be the most significant addition to the golf industry, but — shortly before the big tournament — Pinehurst No. 10 will become the first new design to open at the resort in nearly three decades. Its opening is scheduled for April 3.
In between the two openings the USGA will be working its way into a new era, and it’s been a long time coming. Discussion about the move from New Jersey to Pinehurst started during the frequent rain delays during the 2009 U.S. Open in New York. Now those talks have come to fruition.
“Our campus all along was to showcase all our values, not just our championships,’’ said Janeen Driscoll, director of brands communications for the USGA. “This community only knows us for the U.S. Opens we bring here. We truly believe this is the center of the golf universe, and we’re going to give back.’’
The USGA received $27 million from the state of North Carolina to help bolster economic development and Pinehurst donated the land.
Pinehurst also produced 1,200 on its volunteer wait list, community involvement that impressed the USGA, and the organization was also interested in working with the well-regarded North Carolina State University agronomy program.
Several Pinehurst people were hired by the USGA to open an office after the 2005 U.S. Open was played at Pinehurst No. 2. It was a small operation – a max of 20 staffers to focus on U.S. Open matters – while the corporate office remained in New Jersey. There are 350 people based there.
With the shift in headquarters the Pinehurst office staff will max out at 65. It’s a massive facility built on land that had been used for tennis courts and is located between The Carolina Hotel and the first tee of Pinehurst No. 2 with the address of 3 Carolina Vista.
One wing of the complex will house administrative offices and the equipment testing center. The other will have the USGA Experience on the bottom floor and the World Golf Hall of Fame on the higher floors.
At our museum in New Jersey most everything is about the history of golf,’’ said Driscoll. “About 90 percent of our collection is in a vault below ground, though, and most people don’t get to see it. We have golf bags of most every president, books dating back to 1400 and a very rich art collection related to the game of golf. That’s why we built this. It’s not just to look back at history.’’
The World Golf Hall of Fame started in Pinehurst in the 1970s. Upon its return the Pinehurst Resort wil become the site of the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies every year a U.S. Open is held in Pinehurst. The next inductions will be sponsored by CME Group next June 10.
Some items from the New Jersey museum will be brought to Pinehurst and exhibits will change every six months. The walk through the USGA Experience and Hall of Fame will be seamless.
The USGA Experience will feature a championship gallery, interactive exhibits, movie shorts and video clips that will intrigue golf devotees.
“It’ll give us a chance to story-tell more than we had in New Jersey,’’ said Driscoll, a golf industry veteran who has been a Pinehurst area resident since 2000. “This will be almost double the size of what we have in New Jersey.’’
The equipment test center in New Jersey will be demolished and moved to Pinehurst. The new headquarters will also be a base for the USGA to develop a national team similar to what other countries have.
That’ll be headed by Heather Daly Donofrio, who came over from the Ladies PGA Tour to become USGA managing director of player relations and development. In September Chris Zambri, associate head men’s coach at Pepperdine University, was named the first head coach of the U.S. National Development Program.
ALL THESE NEW THINGS tend to overshadow the hard work put in by the longstanding members of the Pinehurst golf industry. The course at the Talamore Resort, for instance, once was known for the llamas that graze in an area on the back nine. That’s still a novel feature, but the course has been renovated and is now called The New Course and its practice range includes Trackman technology.
Talamore has been an old favorite. This time we were introduced to Southern Pines, which has its own following. Those golfers just got a new 18-hole putting course, called Overhills. It’s a Kyle Franz design.
ABERDEEN, North Carolina – The Pinehurst area has dubbed itself “Cradle of American Golf,’’ and there’s no argument here – especially given what’s coming soon.
The Pinehurst Resort has announced that it’ll open its 10th course, called Pinehurst 10, on April 3, 2024. Soon after that the U.S. Golf Association will open its Golf House Pinehurst to the public on July 1 with the World Golf Hall of Fame to be ready soon after that. The USGA is moving is headquarters from New Jersey to Pinehurst and the Hall of Fame is being shifted from St. Augustine, FL. Construction is well underway on both projects, to be located between The Carolina Hotel and the No. 1 tee of Pinehurst No. 2, the site of the 2024 U.S. Open in June.
For the golf traveler, the opening of a 10th course may be more significant – especially when you know that Pinehurst No. 11 is already on the drawing board. No. 10 also has USGA ties.
“Pinehurst gave us 40 acres of land over there, some of which will be used as our test pavilion for clubs and balls’ compliance,’’ said Janeen Driscoll, director of brand communications for the USGA. Turfgrass research may also be done there, too.
First things first. No. 10 will have a good story to tell once it opens. Reservations are already being taken for players wanting to be among the course’s first players. It’ll be the first original course built by Pinehurst in nearly three decades.
No. 10 is a Tom Doak design that was put together in a surprisingly short time on land that once housed The Pit, a Dan Maples design that was built in the early 1980s. Its revival was rumored for a long time. This is no revival story, however.
“The Pit was successful for a long period,’’ said Bob Farren, director of golf course & grounds management at Pinehurst. “Traveling guys always wanted to play The Pit. It had its niche. It was really a unique golf course – rugged, short, mounds of dirt. It was successful for 25 years. Then Michael Strantz built Tobacco Road.’’
Farren describes Tobacco Road as “a larger-scale version of The Pit.’’
“It became the next must-play course, and that didn’t bode well for The Pit, ‘’ said Farren. “In 2008-09 we owned the property by it, and The Pit had been closed. Pinehurst bought it in 2010, and that brought us up to 900 acres over there.’’
For a decade nothing was done with that land, then the decision-makers came to an agreement. Doak would build a new course there, but getting the project going wasn’t easy.
“Tom wanted to do the job, but couldn’t do it until 2025 or 2026 (because of other projects he was working on),’’ said Farren. “We wanted it done this year. Tom said that could be done, but it’d have to be finished by September. We had doubts about that, what with getting permits and things like that.’’
Getting a crew together at short notice was a problem, too. A New Jersey firm said it could have 65 people there in January, but two-thirds would have to be taken away (for other projects) in six months. No problem. The work would begin. Clearing started in late December of 2022 and the real work started in January. Angela Moser came on site as Doak’s associate architect and when we visited in mid-September Pinehurst No. 10 looked very much like a soon-to-be intriguing golf course.
While that work was being done the Pinehurst hierarchy was already making plans for No. 11. Nothing’s been announced yet, but Farren is sure it will be coming. The architects have been chosen and preliminary work has begun. This project has an interesting history, as well.
“Robert Trent Jones (Sr.) had owned the property there, and we bought it,’’ said Farren. “Rees Jones (son of Robert Sr.) had built our No. 7 course and the first version of No. 4.’’
A Jones-designed course was planned for that property when Pinehurst bought the land.
“Then 9/11 happened. We had wanted to build a village there but then we had to put a chain on the gates,’’ said Farren.
That’s where the No. 11 project stands now, but probably not for long.
“No. 10 will be a concept for 3-5 years, then it’ll be a destination by itself with No. 11 beside it,’’ said Farren. “We’ve got the routing on the ground. There’ll be cottages so people can stay on the property.’’
A tour of No. 10 with Farren verified his claim that “it’ll be an entirely different course than The Pit. It’ll be cut from the same fabric as No. 2 and No. 4 together – broad, expansive fairways, centipede turf rough with native sandscape and some wiregrass plants in the bunkers.’’
The 10th hole of No. 10 will be a 640-yard monster with lots of humps and bumps. There won’t be much water on the course, mainly just an irrigation pond at No. 17, and when it opens the course will be walking-only with caddies. With 75 feet of elevation change it’ll make for a good walking course.
Nos. 9 and 15 will share a tee placement. There’ll be three types of bunkers, and they’ll be hazards with native plants in them. A bald eagle has made a home at No. 10 but the most talked about hole will be the par-4 eighth. The tee shot there will be over (or around) an unusually high mound and four more such mounds surround the green. It’ll be a hole you won’t forget.
One thing won’t be ready at opening. There won’t be a clubhouse until 2025. The last remnant of The Pit is its old clubhouse. It’s still standing, and has been used to house interns working on the course. For now it’s a landmark, but down the road probably not.
GALENA, Illinois – Mark Klausner changed most everything since taking over ownership of the Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa four years ago – with one notable exception. We’ll get to that one later.
Klausner hosted the grand opening of his pride and joy, the Stonedrift Spa, earlier this year and it is something to behold.
The original spa, located in the resort’s Inn, measured 3,500 feet. The new one, located in what had been the General Store, is 12,000 and was two years in the construction phase.
Its antique columns are 150 years old and came from a building in nearby Dubuque, Iowa. They’re old, but they add to the attractive architecture of the new place.
Notable features of the new spa are lighted vanity mirrors, vaulted ceilings, saunas in both lockerrooms, a barber pole, beautiful co-ed relaxation rooms, manicure and pedicure stations, state of the art showers with power sprays, a movement studio and facilities for unusual treatments. All those enhancements have boosted the Spa’s attractiveness for wedding planners.
Klausner declines to give a cost estimate for all the upgrades he’s given to the resort, but the Stonedrift Spa alone was a $3.5 million project and is a big boost for women guests. Colin Sanderson, the 10-year marketing and sales director, estimates that Spa users are 70 percent women.
Beyond that, long-time visitors to Eagle Ridge might not recognize the place. The 63 golf holes are still in place, but the nines on The General course were flipped. The old General Store is now located near The General and has been enlarged. What is now Lounge 289 there used to be a pro shop.
Klausner struck a deal with Illinois-based John Deere Company to revamp the golf course maintenance equipment and a new 30,000 square foot maintenance building has been built by the South course. Course conditioning has marketably improved throughout the resort because of those changes.
Solar panels have been installed at all the resort’s profit centers and striking back-lit signs have replaced the old ones at the resort entrance and in front of the Eagle Ridge Inn.
The Inn was also converted from propane to natural gas and the entire complex has been re-roofed. The computer and telephone systems have been upgraded and the indoor swimming pool, while still located in the Inn, has been given some enhancements.
There’s been some new key staffers, most notably Steve Geisz as general manager and Mel Anderson as executive sous chef within the last year.
There’s also that previously mentioned new/old one. That would be John Schlaman. He’s back as Eagle Ridge’s director of golf operations after leaving that post 25 years ago. His return contrasts with all the new things going on at the resort but adds a nice touch as well.
Schlaman’s first post-college job was as an assistant professional at Eagle Ridge in 1984, the year the South course opened. There’s even a classic picture in a golf shop of Schlaman teeing off on The General when that course was under construction. (It opened in 1997).
Pete Jones was Eagle Ridge’s head man then. He left in 1987 to take the head job at Cantigny, in Wheaton, IL., which was also preparing to open a new course. The Cantigny opening came in 1989.
When Jones left Schlaman, who had also been working for five winters at Innisbrook Resort in Florida, was named Eagle Ridge’s director of golf in 1988. He stayed until 1998, then spent two years at River Hills, in Valrico, FL.
Schlaman came back to Illinois in 2002 as general manager at Prairie Landing, an upscale public facility in West Chicago that was well-known for its state-of-the-art practice facilities. He was also doing some work with a winery when Eagle Ridge beckoned again.
Ownership changes had played a part in Schlaman’s earlier departure from Eagle Ridge, but his wife had been from nearby Iowa and was also involved in the winery. That made a return to Galena an attractive possibility.
“It wasn’t my intent to retire when we came back here,’’ said Schlaman. “Both of us wanted to work.’’
He worked with his wife at a Galena winery until Mike Weiler, then the new director of golf at Eagle Ridge, invited Schaman to join his staff as the head pro at the South course. While Schlaman was well known in the Chicago golf community after his Prairie Landing stint, Weiler had also been in charge at two other Chicago clubs – Bull Valley, in Woodstock, and Wynstone, in Barrington.
Schlaman was happy with his new golf role at the South course and stayed around the resort as night manager after the golf season,” he said. “I wore a white shirt, a tie and a name tag. That was a good move on my part because I got to know all the people within the resort.’’
Then Weiler opted to retire, announcing his decision on April 27.
“It hit me by surprise,’’ said Schlaman. “I applied for the job when Mike left. The (people at the resort) didn’t want to go through a hunt, and I was quick and easy.’’
At 62 years old, though, he had to take a second look at his eventual retirement plans.
“I gave them a five-year plan to transition to the next guy,’’ said Schlaman, who moved his office from the South course to The General and quickly campaigned for a range ball machine for the practice area. Artificial turf is also to go in at the back of the range to minimize damage on busy outing days.
Already a lifetime member of the PGA of America, he just had to have his membership shifted from the Illinois to the Iowa section.
While he doesn’t see a major tournament coming Eagle Ridge’s way — “the population here is a little thin,’’ he said, “but I see some regional college potential and some high school events.’’
Even before all the changes Eagle Ridge – spread over 6,800 acres — was Illinois’ premier golf resort. It has 80 guest rooms at the Inn and over 150 homes and villas located throughout the Galena Territory.
HARBOR SPRINGS, Michigan – Boyne Golf has a lot to celebrate these days.
Boyne Mountain, the first of the group’s three Michigan destinations to open, is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The Highlands, a few miles down the road, is celebrating its 60th and long-time senior vice president of golf operations Bernie Friedrich has been named the winner of the prestigious PGA Golf Executive of the Year by the PGA of America.
All that is secondary to the ground-breaking for the new nine-hole short course and Himalayan-style Putting Course near the Lodge at The Highlands. Described as “fun’’ and “ultra-inclusive,’’ the still unnamed layout will be Boyne’s 11th course in Michigan.
“It’ll add an entirely new dimension to our portfolio,’’ said Josh Richter, senior vice president of golf operations for the three resorts. “We have plans to build short courses at our other facilities in coming years as well. Non-golfers and families can enjoy them as an activity while avid golfers can play a few more holes without playing another 18.’’
This one was designed by Michigan architect Ray Hearn. It’s located on the site of the former Cuff Links nine-hole par-3 course. The new one will be lit to allow for night-time play and will be a big upgrade from Cuff Links.
“My favorite part of the project are the famous approximate green complexes I was able to create, drawing inspiration from some of my favorite greens in Scotland, Ireland and America that I have played and studied over the years,’’ said Hearn. “I was able to create fun, scaled-down versions of the originals and route them along the ski slope with uphill, downhill and sidehill holes creating some thrilling golf shots.’’
Two to three fairway options are available for each hole. Construction began in mid-July and is expected to be completed by the fall of 2023. The planned course opening is the spring of 2024.
In reality, though, it’s just the latest in a ton of projects completed or planned around the resorts.
“In the 15 years I’ve been at Boyne I’ve never seen as much re-investing and as many golf course improvements as I’ve seen in the last year and a half,’’ said Ken Griffin, the director of marketing and sales.
It all started in the aftermath of the pandemic and will continue for years.
“Ray and Bernie (now focusing on renovation projects) put together a 10-year plan for enhancements and improvements on every hole on every course at our resorts,’’ said Griffin.
Hearn’s first project was making the Highland’s Moor course more playable. He did that last year. He also started hole-by-hole upgrades at the Donald Ross Memorial. One hole was done last year. Now five have undergone major upgrades.
The Alpine and Monument courses at Boyne Mountain underwent major upgrades and the sand in all the green-side bunkers was replaced on all 18 holes at the Arthur Hills course at The Highlands. Fourteen bunkers were removed at Crooked Tree, one of the courses at Bay Harbor. Over eight miles of new cart paths and five new irrigation pumps were installed at the courses since last fall.
Golf-wise, those were the biggest projects in the start of the 10-year plan but more will come down the road and one possibility is particularly interesting.
It’s not impossible to think that Boyne might one day have a Pete Dye course. At least Hearn and Friedrich worked one into the 10-year plan, which is a tentative thing for projects further down the road. Dye, a legendary architect who died in 2020, designed a course for the resorts in 2002 but work on it stopped abruptly to shift resources to the creation of a water park. It opened in 2004 and remains the largest indoor water park in Michigan.
By no means have all the recent upgrades been in the golf operation. Most noticeable is SkyBridge Michigan, built at Boyne Mountain at a cost of over $10 million. It opened last October as the world’s longest and tallest timber-towered suspension bridge. The bridge is 1,203 feet long and the five-foot wide walking surface is 118 feet above Boyne Valley. Resort guests who choose to walk it get some spectacular views and there’s also an eatery that can add to the adventure.
Newly renovated lodging accommodations were added at The Highlands and Boyne Mountain got a 32-room boutique hotel, Chalet Edelweiss. Upgrades priced at $4 million were made at the airport at Boyne Mountain. The speed in which all these projects were completed is impressive, and they’ve initiated a change in Boyne’s perception.
The Boyne resorts have long been popular for golfers and skiers but now it’s beyond that. Boyne is approaching the same level as North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort as far as golf goes.
“We’re the two resorts with the most holes of golf under our control,’’ said Griffin. “It’s not just the holes. It’s the resort golf experience. We’re the two biggest in the U.S. We’ve gone from a national to an international destination.’’
Next June the Boyne resorts will host 350 tour operators from around the world at the International Association of Golf Tour Operators convention. They’ll see what a great golf experience Northern Michigan offers. No doubt they’ll be impressed.
SPRING GREEN, Wisconsin – This was one of those odd stops where we stayed at a golf resort — and it looked like a pretty good one — but didn’t hit a shot. House on the Rock has 27 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., but we were there to see a couple of attractions that have intrigued us for years.
In addition to being a resort, House on the Rock proper is a complex of distinct rooms, streets, gardens and shops. It’s not an easy place to describe, but it’s been a popular tourist attraction since 1960.
Just a few miles away is Taliesin, the long-time home of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. These places aren’t related and have very little in common other than location. Still, people come to this town to visit both.
The one area where they are similar is in their creators. Both Wright and House on the Rock’s Alex Jordan Jr. were extremely creative guys with unique personalities.
House on the Rock is more fun than anything else. Taliesin is more historical. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and spotlights the unique style that Wright was known for during his lengthy architectural career.
I got interested in Wright after reading a “historical fiction’’ book on his life, “Loving Frank,’’ several years ago. His architectural was controversial and always evolving. His lifestyle was as well.
Wright called Taliesin his home and design studio for most of 50 years. He lived for a significant portion of his career in Oak Park, IL., but Taliesin was where he did his creating. The low ceilings were the most striking from my perspective.
Taliesin is built on 800 acres with great views of the Wisconsin River and very informative tours of one-, two- and four-hours available.
Shuttles take you from the Frank Lloyd Wright Welcome Center, which was one of his creations, to Taliesen, which is just a few minutes away.
House on the Rock, meanwhile, is a self-guided visit and has three options. The “Ultimate Experience,’’ which we chose, covers the whole place. It gave us a good four-hour walk. Two shorter tours are also available.
Founder Alex Jordan was the opposite of Wright, in that he was a recluse who started work on a one-man retreat in 1945. Word of the unusual things he was creating inside rock formations got out and, by 1960, Jordan decided to open it to tourists. It’s grown from there.
The “Tribute to Nostalgia’’ and “Streets of Yesterday’’ were my favorites. Meticulouusly furnished and crafted doll houses and circus displays were impressive as were two towering carousels. The Carousel Room had one carousel that had 269 animals; 20,000 lights and 182 chandeliers.
Music played throughout the three sections if you wanted to hear it. Tokens were required to play the music and animation machines, and you could cash the unused ones in for purchases in the gift shop.
We spent the whole day at the two attractions, the morning for House on the Rock and the afternoon at Taliesin. That was plenty enough time for House on the Rock but – if you are a Frank Lloyd Wright fan – you might need more.
The gift center there is filled with good reading on Wright and the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail, 200 miles of sights and sites relative to Wright’s career, can take you through nine counties in south Wisconsin. It offers dining, hiking, the arts and cultural opportunities not part of the Taliesin experience.
DAYTONA BEACH, FL. – The Daytona Beach area is good place for golfers, no question about it.
The greater Daytona area has 20 courses. Two are part of LPGA International, the area’s premier golf destination. Since 1994 it has been the home of the Ladies PGA Tour, and it hosts the final stage of the circuit’s Qualifying School each year. Its courses were designed by luminaries Arthur Hills and Rees Jones. Enough said.
Three of the other courses have withstood the tests of time, as they’re included in the 50 facilities selected for the Florida Historic Golf Trail. One of the oldest such conglomeration of courses in the country, it honors courses that were built between 1897 and 1949 that remain open for public play.
That trio includes Riviera, in Ormond Beach. It’s the home of The Riviera Open, the longest-standing mini-tour event in the U.S., and two designs by the legendary architect Donald Ross – New Smyrna Beach and the South course at Daytona Beach Golf Club.
Ross designed the first nine holes of Daytona Beach South in 1921 and completed the 18 in 1923. He also did a re-design in 1944. In 1945 the course celebrated with a star-studded foursome – Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Jug McSpaden were brought together for an exhibition — and the following year Jimmy Demaret replaced McSpaden and won the competition by shooting a 63.
New Smyrna is one of Ross’ last creations, and he only did the front nine. He started his work there in 1947, died in 1948 and the first nine opened in 1949. The full 18 wasn’t available until 1956 and Bobby Weed did a complete renovation in 2006. A side footnote on New Smyrna is that Jim “Bones’’ McKay, the well-known caddie for Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas and part-time TV analyst, grew up there.
Another course in the mix is Spruce Creek Country Club in Port Orange. It’s part of the largest fly-in community in the country.
As far as a golf destination goes, Daytona has a problem, however. Chances are the golf – while interesting – will always play second fiddle to Daytona’s biggest attractions, its white sand beaches and the Daytona International Speedway, home of the Daytona 500 auto race.
“We have a wide group of courses,’ said Andrew Booth, director of communications for the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, “but we offer a lot of different things. We’re a great destination. There’s lots of ways you can plan your visit.’’
Indeed he’s right, and big things have been happening there – most notably around the Speedway. A $400 million renovation was initiated in 2014, which greatly upgraded the motor sports aspect. More recently One Daytona, a shopping and entertainment area across the street from the Speedway, has enhanced tourism options.
“The renovation transformed the area into an arena experience,’’ said Booth, “and that was a real game-changer.’’
The family of Bill France, the founder of NASCAR who opened the Speedway in 1959, had a big vision for the area. One Daytona now includes The Daytona Hotel, a variety of restaurants and shops surrounding a play area for youngsters willing to get wet whether or not the hot sun is shining.
While the dining is fine at One Daytona, there’s one area restaurant that’s not to be missed. Rose Villa Southern Table, in Ormond Beach, was established as a bed and breakfast in 1901. It evolved with the times and is now an upscale former historic home that serves a wide variety of cuisine in a Southern hospitality atmosphere.
In addition to One Daytona the Speedway itself is welcoming more than motor sports enthusiasts. Soccer matches were played there last year and a rock music festival drew a huge crowd this year. Now Jacksonville’s National Football League team, the Jaguars, are considering playing some of their games there while their own stadium is undergoing a two- to three-year renovation.
Sure, the 11 miles of vehicle access around the beaches is nice, but there are other things to consider on a visit to Daytona.
The Speedway has a museum that interests more than just casual racing fans. The Daytona Tortugas are a minor league baseball team that plays in an historic place. The Jackie Robinson Ballpark, which opened in 1914, was renamed to honor Robinson, who made his professional debut there in 1946 when he played in a spring training game for the Montreal Royals. That was the lead-in to Robinson breaking the color barrier in the Major Leagues the following year.
Now Ponce Inlet Watersports offers boat tours to explore glimpses of manatees and dolphins as well as kayaking or parasailing for the more adventurous visitors. The Atlantic Ocean is right there for fishermen and Tomoka State Park is an ecological masterpiece for those into cycling, botanical study, paddling, hiking, boating or wildlife viewing. And, the Museum of Arts & Sciences, has a diverse collection of art, history and science exhibits.
Latest attraction is pickleball. Forty-nine courts – some shaded, covered or lighted – are available. They were the site of the USA Pickleball Diamond National Championships in 2022.
Getting back to golf, though, you don’t want to miss Spruce Creek. It was an airport before it was a golf course. The airport existed during World War II. The golf course opened in 1972 and home-building started after that. Lots of retired pilots and commercial pilots live in the area.
“People can fly right in and drive their airplanes right into their garages. We have a lot of hangar homes and a whole lot of roadways for airplanes to drive on,’’ said Jason Pomroy, Spruce Creek’s head golf professional. “It’s quite a unique environment. Aviation is first, and golf is always second here.’’
The club has about 400 members. Past members included actor John Travolta, but his jet was too big for the airstrip around the Nos. 1, 8 and 9 holes so he moved on. The club is semi-private now and still accepts public play. About 10-15 planes go in and out on some days, particularly Wednesdays and Saturdays. You shouldn’t expect peace and quiet on your rounds at Spruce Creek, but you are guaranteed a unique golfing experience.
Playing golf in the mountains isn’t our norm, but when the opportunity arose we jumped at it – and we’re glad we did.
The International Network of Golf Spring Forum was held in Valley Forge, Pa., and the mountainous area known as The Poconos was barely an hour away. As soon as the Forum was over we were on our way to the Poconos.
A good mix of golf is available on the Lehigh Valley Poconos Golf Trail and we experienced three very different types of courses with rounds at Jack Frost National, in Blakeslee; Woodloch Springs, in Hawley; and Shawnee, in Shawnee on the Delaware.
We had roughly two-hour drives between Valley Forge and Jack Frost National; another two hours from Jack Frost to Woodloch Springs; and still another two hours from Woodloch to Shawnee. These were all over winding, rolling roads through small towns. They provided pleasant glimpses into the quaint, charming communities but the roads weren’t designed for speed. You had to take your time and enjoy the scenery.
Jack Frost National was the most interesting of the three courses, Woodloch the most challenging and Shawnee the most historical. We’ll save Shawnee for last, just because it has the most interesting story to tell.
JACK FROST NATIONAL: This layout, measuring 7,256 yards from the tips and spread over 200 acres, is championship caliber but few big events have been played there.
“It’s hard to schedule them because we’re a busy place,’’ said director of instruction Ryan Kearn. “We do 218 rounds a day.’’
Most striking about the course are the changes in elevation, most evident between the par-5 ninth hole which plays uphill, and the par-3 eleventh, which is all downhill. No. 14 is the designated signature hole.
The area has a ski hill in operation during winter months, but Kearn says there’s no overlap between the sports. The golf and ski facilities have different owners.
“In each of the last three years closing day (for skiers) came the day before our opening day,’’ said Kearn. “Our course is interesting, fun, wide open with big greens and fairways and only one water hole.’’
The bar/dining area is covered but open air on the sides, a nice friendly place for socializing before and after play.
Architect for Jack Frost National was Terry LaGree. He holds a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Wisconsin but is best known as the chief executive officer at Florida’s Black Diamond Ranch. He completed Jack Frost National in 2007.
WOODLOCH SPRINGS: Rocky Roquemore designed this toughie in 1992. It’s only 6,579 yards from the back tees but there’s some demanding shots that can’t be avoided. Nos. 3 and 7 – the front nine par-5s – have three landing areas on the way to the greens that can’t be missed without costing strokes.
Roquemore is a busy, internationally-known designer. He’s done courses in Portugal, France, Venezuela, Colombia and the Caribbean as well as across the United States. His best-known courses are probably the Magnolia, Lake Buena Vista and Palm at Florida’s Walt Disney World. His resume also includes Pine Meadow, a popular public course in Illinois.
The Woodloch Springs playing experience, while challenging, offers some fine views and deer meander through the layout without showing any fear of the golfers.
Woodloch Springs is a semi-private facility. There are two restaurants in the clubhouse of the country club, and The Grille provided outstanding dining during our visit.
SHAWNEE: History abounds here at this Inn and golf resort that has 27 holes. The first 18 was the first design of the legendary architect A.W. Tillinghast, who went on to design such famous layouts as Winged Foot and Bethpage Black, in New York, and Baltusrol, in New Jersey. Tillinghast’s first course opened in 1910.
Big tournaments were commonplace there then. Top tour players Fred McLeod and John McDermott, a two-time U.S. Open champion, won Shawnee Open tourneys in 1912 and 1913; Alexa Stirling captured the U.S. Women’s Amateur there in 1919 and Paul Runyan won a title match with Shawnee pro Sam Snead in the 1938 PGA Championship.
In 1943 the resort was sold to singer/entertainer Fred Waring. Jackie Gleason learned to play golf there and Hale Irwin won an NCAA title at Shawnee before Karl Hope purchased the resort in 1974 and built a ski area with three-time Olympic gold medalist Jean-Claude Killy heading the operation on the slopes.
Arnold Palmer met his first wife, Winnie, on the porch of the Shawnee Inn and golfers there over the years included Lucille Ball, Art Carney, Perry Como, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Eddie Fisher, George Gobel and Ed Sullivan.
Indiana architect Bill Diddel added a third nine to Tillinghast’s work in 1963 and Tom Doak created a nine-hole practice facility at the resort. A major bridge construction was underway when we visited. That’s significant because the course is divided by what director of marketing Jeromy Wo describes as “international waters.’’
The par-3 second hole on the Red nine plays over the Delaware River to an island that ends when golfers tee off on the No. 7 hole of the Blue nine and the holes come back to the mainland. Twenty-four of the 27 holes at Shawnee are on the island.
“The island isn’t part of either Pennsylvania or New Jersey,’’ said Wo.
The three nine-hole courses are basically flat, but very much fun. Shawnee isn’t all about golf, however. The 80-room Inn is old, but charming, and there’s vacation cottages and the Delaware Lodge also available for visitors.
The resort has two pubs and a brewery. Spa Shawnee and Salon is a place to get pampered and unwind. There’s also river boating and rafting, an indoor Olympic-size swimming pool, a beach along the Delaware River, biking and hiking trails and a playhouse.
That’s a lot to digest, but Shawnee is a special place and I’m glad to have experienced it.
ALL OVER, Alabama – There’s a handful of golf trails across the country – and then there’s the Robert Trent Jones Trail that stretches over about 400 miles in Alabama, from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf Coast.
This collection of courses is like no other. It includes 26 courses — or 468 holes — spread around 11 locations. Eight of the locations have upscale lodging available. The scenery is beautiful throughout.
Every serious golfer should visit the RTJ Trail at some point. They’ll find courses that reflect the best golf in the U.S. and offer challenges for players of all abilities. Course conditions are uniformly good and the greens fees are fairly priced. One warning, though: Be prepared for significant elevation changes on most every hole, not just every course. Flat courses don’t fit the RTJ style.
We’ve made three visits to the Trail. Two were over-night stops spread over several years. The last was extensive – seven courses over six days with no hotel stay longer than one night. We were on the move to experience everything the Trail has to offer, on and off the courses.
We made stops at seven of the 11 Trail destinations and, while the golf certainly didn’t disappoint, we were taken almost as much by the non-golf attractions along the way. The RTJ Trail isn’t all about golf.
A little history first. Dr. David Bronner, the chief executive officer of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, is the visionary credited with getting the Trail launched in 1992. It gave a big boost to Alabama’s tourism. With millions of dollars worth of television commercials provided at no cost by the state pension fund each year the Alabama tourism industry has grown from $1.8 billion in 1992 to over $24 billion. That’s according to Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department.
In promoting the Trail, the media attention also benefitted many other attractions – and we were happy to check them out in between our rounds.
A tour of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio gave us an interesting glimpse into the state’s rich musical history. The Studio was in its heyday from 1969-78. The Rolling Stones called it “rock and roll heaven.’’ Cher was the first artist to use the Studio, but among those who followed her there included Lynryd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart and Willie Nelson.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center, in Huntsville, could command a full day to experience everything there. Space travel evolved after German engineers hooked up with American scientists there in 1950. Now the Center includes a Space Camp where youngsters from all over the world come to learn how to become astronauts, and many have already made it.
Much more recently the Tony & Libba Rane Culinary Science Center has opened at Auburn University. It features an upscale teaching restaurant – the only one in the world – where students learn about all aspects of hospitality management.
While the Auburn facility, which opened less than a year ago, tells you what’s coming in the hospitality business, the Grand Hotel Resort & Spa, in Point Clear, tells you what it was like in the good old days. The hotel opened in 1847, was used as a miliary hotel during the Civil War, overcame fires, hurricanes and ownership changes and emerged as a place that includes spas, tennis courts, Bucky’s Lawn (which serves great Mint Juleps by its fire pits) and facilities for all sorts of yard games. It’s a charming place all around.
Dining? No problem here. There are all kinds of restaurants around the Trail. The most memorable was 360 Grille at Marriott Shoals. It’s located at the top of a tower and the restaurant slowly moves in a circle while you’re eating. Straight to Ale Brewery at Campus 805, in Huntsville, took over what had been a high school and remnants of the school days were still there. Back Forty Beer, in Gadsden, was a friendly place with an Astroturf play area where kids of all ages could toss a football. The Hound, in Auburn, is a hopping place with 28 craft beers on tap and a menu that includes wild-game sausage and claims to focus on “bacon, bourbon, community and family.’’
And now for golf on the Trail.
None of the courses are easy, but Silver Lakes, in Gadsden, has three nines that are aptly named Heartbreaker, Backbreaker and Mindbreaker. Yes, they’re tough.
Lakewood Club, in Point Clear, has the only Trail course not designed by Robert Trent Jones. The club opened in 1947 and Perry Maxwell designed its Dogwood course, with Jones eventually renovating it. Dogwood recently hosted the 59th U.S. Women’s Senior Amateur.
Fighting Joe, at The Shoals, opened in 2004 as the first course on the trail to exceed 8,000 yards from the back tees. It 8,097 from the back – but that was no place we wanted to go.
Hampton Cove, in Owens Cross Roads, has a course without a single bunker. It’s no pushover, though. It’s called The River for a reason – lots of water holes.
Capitol Hill has three courses. The Senator, a links course, has 140 pothole bunkers and lots of blind shots — but no trees and water on only No. 17. The LPGA has used it for tournament play and Lexi Thompson got her first victory there.
Grand National, in Auburn/Opelika, has two 18-holers, one of which is called The Links. It has wide, roaming fairways but they have lots of slopes – the most of any course we played. Never an easy shot to the green there. It also has the strongest finishing hole on the Trail.
Oxmoor, in Oxmoor, has a par-3 course called The Back Yard. It has nine holes that can play as short as 59 yards and the course’s longest hole is 132.
The best course? Fighting Joe was my favorite but you can’t choose the best without playing them all. It may take some time, but we’re looking forward to doing just that.
SYLACAUGA, Alabama – Alabama is a golf-rich state, with the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail dominating the lists of top courses there. There’s only one thing missing from the Trail’s 26 courses spread around 11 destination sites. All of those layouts don’t include the best one – at least according to GolfWeek, one of the best-known rating publications.
GolfWeek gave the nod to the FarmLinks course at Pursell Farms as the No. 1 public course in Alabama for the first time in 2011. Then the Michael Hurdzan-Dana Fry design regained the top spot on those GolfWeek rankings in 2013 and has held it right through 2023.
“We’re No. 1 and they (the RTJ Trail courses) are our competition,’’ said David Pursell, the visionary who spurred FarmLinks’ creation. “They have all the breaks in the world, and five of the Trail courses are in short distance to us.’’
FarmLinks, though, is as challenging as any Trail course from the back tees and more user-friendly from the shorter markers. That’s a good combination, and Pursell also has a good story to tell on his course’s history.
His family had been involved in the fertilizer business since 1904, being first called the Sylacauga Fertilizer Company. Working with his father Jimmy, David Pursell devised a marketing strategy to attract golf superintendents to visit the property in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains near Birmingham.
They got 10,000 of them from all parts of the country to come for three-day visits to what had been Jimmy Pursell’s cattle farm. Choosing Fry and Hurdzan to do the course design work was a wise one, as their later creations included Wisconsin’s Erin Hills, site of the 2017 U.S. Open.
FarmLinks, however, wasn’t built to host tournaments. It was originally built to stimulate fertilizer sales, and — after three years of superintendent visits — it worked.
“We built trust with the golf course superintendents and taught them a lot about the fertilizer business,’’ said David Pursell. In those days the course included 28 varieties of grasses and conducted chemical treatments on the fairways to educate their visitors. Fertilizer sales took off, and offers to buy the company started coming in. One from a Canadian company was accepted.
“In that one transition we made more money than the company had in 102 years. My Dad was really happy about that,’’ said Pursell.
The sale came in 2006. Then, with David taking on an increasingly bigger role, the family decided to switch from fertilizer to the hospitality industry.
“The American dream is to build something up,’’ said Pursell. “I was in my 40s, and I wanted to do something here. The family decided to re-invest and do something different.’’
Pursell and his wife have lived on the property since 1981 and have six children and 10 grandchildren. Most have worked at the Farm at one time or another.
After being visitors in the fertilizer days in 2012, we were stunned by the massive changes the Pursells have made to turn the property into a boutique resort, a transformation that took off following Jimmy Pursell’s death at age 84 on Father’s Day, 2020.
Golf remained the key part of the operation, and the course gained a more detailed appreciation. Nos. 5, 8 and 17 became recognized as great downhill par-3s. No. 5 may be the most notable of those. It has a 170-foot drop from the back tees to the green, and golfers are offered watermelon slices when they head from tee to green.
Pursell recalls how that memorable hole came about.
“Dana Fry got me out of my office to look at it,’’ he said. “Dana, who had worked for Tom Fazio, had me look down to the green. Then he said `we can have one of the most dramatic holes in the Southeast, but the cost will be seven times what it was going to cost.’ I said `let’s do it.’’’
That was a good decision; so was the decision to name the holes – particularly No. 4, a downhill par-5. A plaque there stirs memories of Andrew Jackson, a former U.S. President and war hero. In 1814 he led his militia, the Tennessee Volunteers, against against the Red Stick Creek Indians in what became known as the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
At No. 5 there’s a plaque recounting a not-so-pleasant part of course history. It’s called “Jimmy’s Fall” because Jimmy Pursell made a visit by himself during course construction to see how the elevated tee was progressing. He took a tumble, fell 40 feet and suffered several broken ribs and fingers and a punctured lung. His recovery started with 10 days in a Birmingham hospital.
David Pursell also designed the resort logo, a combination of legendary Bobby Jones and longhorn steers. It looked good, until Pursell realized there were no steers on the property. He had a herd brought in before the grand opening and they have grazed peacefully at the resort entrance ever since.
“I’m creative. I had no agronomic skills at all,’’ said Pursell. “I’m in between P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney, but on a much smaller scale.’’
It’s not all golf at Pursell Farms now. The Orvis Shooting Ground is a strong second attraction that attracts hunters and fishermen. There’s also 30 miles of hiking trails. Hamilton Place, built in 1852, has become a popular wedding venue and spa. Cottages, cabins and an Inn have swelled the lodging options to 81 guest rooms.
Old Tom’s Pub, The Grille and the Arrington Restaurant are all well-received dining options and the resort also offers high-tech office meeting space, an outdoor pool and fitness facilities. Indeed Pursell Farms has become a very special place.
So, what’s next on the FarmLinks golf scene? It seems like a big tournament could be an option, since Escalante Golf – one of the resort’s partners – has hosted at some of the LIV Tour events.
“We can’t shut the whole property down for something like that,’’ said Pursell, “but we have identified the perfect spot for what would be a private club.’’
With 3,200 acres to work with, there’s plenty of room for Pursell Farms to expand in other directions when the time is right. While the place has come a long way, its final chapter is a long way from being written.
It’s no secret that the horrible pandemic gave a boost to the golf industry nation-wide, and that is most evident in Mississippi. The sport has really taken off there in the last few years.
That was evident when a small group of golf media members from all parts of the country spent a week getting a thorough look at the state’s best courses, be they private, resort or public.
While I don’t take any of the major course rating polls as gospel, our group played seven of Mississippi’s top 10 in the Golf Digest rankings. That gave us a good feel for what golf has done for the state since the pandemic.
“We were the No. 1 state in the country for recovery,’’ said Craig Ray, director of tourism for Visit Mississippi. “That’s according to the U.S. Travel Association. We got our casinos open early and encouraged our golf and other outdoor activities (to do the same). That’s why we came back quicker, with a smaller percentage of losses than any other state.’’
The casinos were important, of course, but golf was also a big key to recovery.
“We wanted to get people to the casinos, see a show, get a great dinner,’’ said Ray. “We wanted the golfers to see everything else we have to offer – the hunting and fishing, the culinary tours. We have the largest music trail system in the world. We wanted to show them the whole state.’’
On our trip the group took in a couple of the casinos, Beau Rivage in Biloxi and Pearl River Resort & Casino in Choctaw. We enjoyed some fine dining at Field’s Steakhouse and Oyster Bar, Jia (featuring Pan-Asian cuisine), Phillip M’s Steakhouse, Mama ‘N’ Ems and Cameron’s at Old Waverly Country Club.
The good golf, though, was spread around the state. Using the Golf Digest rankings, we hit No. 1 Fallen Oak, No. 2 Mossy Oak, No. 3 Old Waverly, No. 5 the Azalea course at Dancing Rabbit, No. 6 Grand Bear, No. 8 Dancing Rabbit’s Oaks course and No. 10 Shell Landing.
While that was a good sampling of what Mississippi has to offer golf-wise, our visits did not include three others in the top 10 – No. 4 Annandale in Madison, No. 7 Reunion in Madison and No. 9 The Preserve in Vancleave – or Country Club of Jackson, site of the state’s only PGA Tour stop — October’s Sanderson Farms Championship.
What we did see, though, was plentiful and impressive. Our stops were roughly divided into three sections.
COASTAL – Beau Rivage’s 32-story MGM-owned resort is Mississippi’s tallest building and offers spectacular views of the Gulf of Mexico and Biloxi’s Back Bay. Its Fallen Oak course has long been the consensus No. 1 among the state’s courses. A Tom Fazio design, it hosted PGA Tour Champions tournament from 2010 to 2021. (The pandemic forced cancelation of the event in 2020). Fazio has long been one of the premier designers of his era, and Fallen Oak is considered one of his best creations.
Beau Rivage recently completed nearly $100 million in property enhancements including a $55 million remodeling of each of its 1,645 hotel rooms. The resort offers live entertainment in its 1,550-seat theater, an upscale shopping promenade with 12 retail shops, the Black Clover Lounge and Topgolf Swing Suite and a world-class spa. It also has 12 restaurants in addition to an 85,000 -square foot gaming area.
Clearly it’s Mississippi’s full-service sports betting and entertainment destination.
As for Fallen Oak, the course opened in 2006 and has consistently been ranked as the No. 2 casino course in the U.S., trailing only Shadow Creek – its MGM sister course in Las Vegas. Probably because only Beau Rivage members and resort guests can play Fallen Oak the course doesn’t get heavy play and is the best-conditioned of the layouts our group played.
When Fallen Oak asked out of hosting the PGA Tour Champions in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic the tourney switched sites to Grand Bear, a Jack Nicklaus design in Saucier, in 2022 – the last time the tourney was held. Grand Bear, a public course, opened in 1999 and – for the record – our media tour group considered it very much on par with Fallen Oak.
Nicklaus courses are generally very demanding and this one is literally “a Bear” from each tee placement. The front tees are called Teddy Bear, then they go back to the Black Bear, the Brown Bear, the Golden Bear and the Grizzly Bear from the tips.
The course measures 7,204 from the back tees, but this Nicklaus creation, built along the Biloxi River, is more user friendly than many of his others. Grand Bear hit the national spotlight as the site of the Rapiscan Systems Classic in 2022. Steven Alker was the lone senior star in command that week. Finishing 62-65 he finished at 18-under-par in the 54-hole test and enjoyed a six-stroke advantage on Padraig Harrington and Alex Cejka.
Shell Landing, a heavily-played public course in Gautier, gives Coastal Mississippi a third course in the state’s top 10. Shell Landing, designed by Davis Love III, was immediately well-received by national golf publications when it opened in 2002. In addition to its popular 18 holes Shell Landing has a 15-acre practice facility.
DANCING RABBIT – The Pearl River Resort is operated by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and its Dancing Rabbit Golf Club is one of its biggest attractions. The facility opened in 1997.
Dancing Rabbit has two 18-holers, The Azaleas and The Oaks. Both were designed by Fazio in conjunction with Jerry Pate, a Floridian who won the U.S. Open in 1976. Both are well-received public courses with more elevation changes and tighter fairways than were offered at the Coastal courses.
Aa major renovation was recently completed at Dancing Rabbit Inn and the Geyser Falls Water Theme Park is also an available attraction.
With more than 6,000 employees, the Choctaw Tribe is one of the top five private employers in Mississippi and the Pearl River Resort is one of its biggest properties. It encompasses the Silver Star and Golden Moon hotel/casinos.
The Silver Star has a spa and salon where guests can enjoy a full complement of skin and body treatments, soothing steam baths, a whirlpool, sauna and outdoor pool. Its fitness center is filled with state of the art equipment.
Golden Moon is a bit different. Its amenities include The Whiskey Bean (for coffee, sandwiches and pastries), Bistro 24 (for a broader menu that includes mouth-watering steak), Timeout Lounge (for easy TV viewing while enjoying a variety of drink selections) and the excellent restaurant, Mama `n’ Em, with particularly interesting menu offerings.
MOSSY’S ARRIVAL – West Point has been a Mississippi golf hotbed once George Bryan’s Old Waverly Country Club opened in 1988. Bryan passed on in January but left the place in great shape as a unique two-course complex.
Old Waverly is a prominent name, especially in women’s golf. The U.S. Women’s Open was played there in 1999. The Handa Cup, a team event for senior women stars, followed in 2014 and the U.S. Women’s Amateur came in 2019.
That was all well and good, but Bryan and Toxie Haas, a long-time business associate and West Point resident, wanted more. They rallied some friends to add a second course and there’s no other course in Mississippi like Mossy Oak. It’s a sporty but challenging layout that also is the home of the Mississippi State University men’s and women’s teams.
“Our whole goal with that course was to develop a different atmosphere,’’ said Greg Flannagan, the director of golf who is in his 23rd year at Old Waverly. “We didn’t want golfers to get bored with the stay-and-play option.’’
The courses are very different. Old Waverly is private, yet can be played by those staying at either the Mossy Oak Cottages or the lodging option right at Old Waverly, while Mossy Oak is comparatively new and, well….different. While it’s officially public, most all of its play comes from stay-and-play visitors.
Mississippi State holds its annual men’s tournament at Mossy Oak while the women’s team conducts its big event at Old Waverly. Both courses have accompanying cottages that make for most pleasant stay-and-play visits.
Flannagan says the goal for the year is to get over 22,000 rounds played on Old Waverly and reach 13,800 on Mossy Oak. The newer layout still has some rough spots and could use signage in a couple places to facilitate play, but it was without question the most fun course that our media contingent played during our most memorable tour of Mississippi.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: visit www.VisitMississippi.org/golf.