Where To Golf Next

Looking back for a glimpse into future of design

4 golf courses scheduled to open or reopen in 2020 offer a blueprint for how golf can reduce maintenance, add playability and boost the all-important fun factor

By the looks of some golf course projects to open – or reopen – in 2020, the industry is getting smart about what it offers to players. The key of late has been diversity and innovation. That runs the gamut, from repurposing a moribund municipal layout to creating an alternative, non-traditional golf course for a resort or restoring a venerable championship venue. Along the way, consumers will learn about some new architects doing interesting work, as well as some established names doing things differently.

The par-4 2nd hole at The Refuge Golf Course in Flowood, Miss., one of 3 new holes at the Nathan Crace-renovated municipal course in suburban Jackson that is scheduled to reopen late this summer.

The Refuge Golf Course, Flowood, Miss.: Here’s an example of a complete rebuild in place, undertaken as part of a partnership between a municipality and a private developer. Credit for the redesign work goes to architect Nathan Crace, a graduate of Mississippi State’s professional golf management program who has parlayed a career in course management into a burgeoning design practice.

The Refuge, just east of Jackson, was a struggling muni, handicapped by extensive wetlands, poor drainage and overgrowth of trees and understory. It was not a facility consistent with the expectations of this prosperous suburban town of 8,000. Then came developers of a proposed 10-story resort hotel and conference center, willing to invest in a site that sat next door to the region’s fast-growing Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.

During the project, the original golf course closed for three years to accommodate the vast scale of site construction. When the branded Sheraton hotel opens later this year, guests and convention goers will have access like the daily-fee golfers in town to a golf course that is longer, wider and drier than its predecessor. When it reopens in late summer, The Refuge will be more playable, rerouted with three new holes and feature returning nines rather than its former out-and-back loop.

In the emerging populist tradition of the American Longleaf Restoration Initiative, Crace has provided teeing grounds ranging from 4,000 to 7,005 yards, coded to correspond with players’ average distance off the tee.

Sheep Ranch, Bandon, Ore.: As if 85 holes were not enough! Bandon Dunes owner Mike Keiser has been a visionary industry leader in developing memorable golf properties. With four 18-hole layouts and a 13-hole par-3 course already drawing steady play at this southwest Oregon coastal resort, Keiser now is developing a course (with partner Phil Friedmann) that features nine of its 18 greens perched on the edge of the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

The setting, on the northern edge of the resort, includes one mile of oceanfront. For the past 15 years, it was the scene for a mythic layout by Tom Doak that had 13 hand-watered greens, with tees and fairways improvised as players went around on their own – often with hickory-shafted clubs. Now the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw is providing a 6,745-yard, par-71 layout whose main hazards will be the wind and the native landforms. As for sand, well, forget it. There are no bunkers out there. It would be hard enough just keeping sand in them anyway in those breezes. When it comes to the ground game, Sheep Ranch will be in a category all its own. Plans call for a June opening.

Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course, Pittsford, N.Y.: We’d be remiss to overlook a major restoration on a private course so frequently seen on TV. Oak Hill East has been home to two U.S. Amateurs, three U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships, two Senior PGAs, a U.S. Senior Open and a Ryder Cup. For all that renown, the Donald Ross design from 1924 had become seriously corrupted in the name of modernization.

Now, with the retro movement all the rage as part of the game’s return to its roots, restoration specialist Andrew Green has plied his hand with flawless historical attention to detail. In the process of bringing back the strategic character of the original design, Green has adapted those elements to modern conditions of play. The result is greens that are reclaimed by 10 percent, bunkers shifted into more relevant carry zones, a widening of some fairways and undoing the clumsy work from the late 1970s that had saddled the course.

Among the changes: the overly receptive, modern par-3 sixth hole, where four players made holes-in-one within 90 minutes of one another in the first round of the 1989 U.S. Open, is now gone. So, too, is the Florida-style water hole par-3 15th. Here, Green brought back Ross’ trademark version of a short, drop-shot par 3. The overall result, when Oak Hill East reopens this spring after closure since August, is a bold return to classic design craftsmanship.

San Vicente Resort and Golf Course, Ramona, Calif.: Few golf markets are as competitive as Southern California’s, where rising labor costs, water restrictions and an oversupply of courses have conspired to pressure facilities across the board. In an effort to stay ahead and offer a more interesting, more sustainable layout, San Vicente Resort and Golf Course, about 40 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, will shut down in April for a six-month blitz by Scottsdale-based architect Andy Staples, with the construction by Heritage Links.

When San Vicente reopens in the fall, it will offer homeowners, resort guests and the public a far more diverse playing surface: more shot-making options, more varied greens and greater flexibility of teeing grounds. Two years ago, the course underwent a 20-acre turf reduction in a program that is now paying dividends in water savings. Next up will be a complete rebuild of bunkers and greens. The re-grassed putting surfaces, outfitted with high-performance bent grass, will present a smoother, more consistent surface that is easier to maintain.

Four courses. Four different paths to innovative design. These days, it's all about sustainability: going natural, minimizing inputs, proving possibilities for more fun, and looking back as a guidepost to the future.