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Whistling past the golf graveyards

The par-3 4th hole at Brier Patch Golf Links in Beckley, W.Va.
At the defunct Brier Patch Golf Links in Beckley, W.Va., the par-3 No. 4 hole – 190 yards from an elevated tee to a green perched atop an imposing brick wall – didn't exactly invite a runup shot.

From coast to coast, course carcasses litter the landscape, leaving a wandering writer with some warm memories of more than a few bizarre routings amid the cold reality of businesses gone bust

The kid in that eerie Bruce Willis movie “The Sixth Sense” uttered the iconic line: “I see dead people. ”

I know how he feels. I see dead courses.

It depresses me how many golf courses are closing. According to the National Golf Foundation, 205 courses went under in 2017 and 198 in 2018, continuing an annual trend in the U.S. that dates to 2006. That’s an average of more than one every other day. It’s just business, I know, but every failed golf course takes somebody’s special memories with it. I will be surprised if this year’s coronavirus pandemic doesn’t accelerate the closures.

One of my hobbies is keeping track of how many courses I play, an activity I recently moved from a spreadsheet to a new course-counting app, GolfPlayed. While inputting my list on GolfPlayed, I realized that a startling number of courses I’ve played no longer exist.

So, I’m creating a new list, My Top 50 Golf Corpses, which could turn into a series. Here are 10 old favorites, in no particular order, that were memorable for me.

Ponce de Leon Golf Course
St. Augustine, Fla. Born: 1916. Died: 2003.

Ponce, as locals knew it, was a wonderful Donald Ross design with stunning Intracoastal Waterway views. Former President Warren G. Harding and comedian Jackie Gleason were frequent visitors once upon a time.

A handful of new area courses plus the World Golf Village complex helped doom Ponce, which also was saddled with badly outdated resort buildings.

The course was riotous fun and a frequent stop when I was in town for the Players Championship. I remember yanking an awful shot on a scenic par 3 by the water that stopped right next to a ball washer on the next tee. I accidentally hit a perfect flop shot and made a dumb-luck par. Yes, I got up and down from a ball washer. That’s the kind of historic moment a golfer treasures 25 years later.

18th hole Minerva Lake Columbus, Ohio
The 18th hole at Minerva Lake in Columbus, Ohio

Minerva Lake
Columbus, Ohio. Born: 1931. Died: 2016.

While covering the 2016 Memorial Tournament, I read online that Minerva Lake was going to close in a month, the day after the Fourth of July. So, I dragged two Sports Illustrated colleagues along to get a look before the bulldozers came.

The original course must’ve been something. It was built next to a turn-of-the-century amusement park, casino and railroad station. The few remaining original holes looked like something out of an A.W. Tillinghast playbook. The fourth hole was an uphill par 3 to a plateau green that made you feel as if you were storming a fortress. Money problems and housing developments encroached over the years and wiped out some classic holes, replaced by rejiggered routing and glorified temporary greens.

The 18th was a par 3 between an overgrown alley of trees to a green just below the ramshackle golf shop. Our trio enjoyed a great day of golf … and beat another deadline.

El Rivino
Bloomington, Calif. Born: 1956. Died: 2005.

You never forget a course that slaps you in the face with a par 6 as the opening hole. It took three darned good shots to get home on that 626-yarder in the days of persimmon woods, or so I recall from a few visits to this track near San Bernardino in the late 1970s.

Riv, not to be confused with Riviera, had another extreme hole. The fourth was a 425-yard par 4 with a peninsula green guarded by a pond. It was not inviting with a long iron in your hands. Did I skull a chip into that pond? For the record, I don’t recall. Just between us, maybe. The back nine had back-to-back par 5s, an unusual feature, and the course played to a par of 73 despite being relatively short at 6,437 yards. Love it or hate it, El Rivino had character.

Bayou Barriere
Belle Chasse, La. Born: 1963. Died: 2017.

Bayou Barriere logo
Bayou Barriere in Belle Chasse, La.

Before GPS, I needed a good map to find this course tucked away near the Intracoastal Waterway on New Orleans’ West Bank. Bayou Barriere had three nines and a nice golf shop before abruptly closing early in 2017 after suffering from neglect for a few years. Doug A. offered this 2014 review on Yelp: “Don’t waist (cq) your time. Conditions are insulting. I would not raise livestock on that golf course.”

I fondly remember Bayou Barriere’s large, kitschy logo of a crayfish wielding a putter. It was so bad, I bought two golf shirts – one orange, one lime green – and gave one to a media friend. When he asked why a lobster was putting, I tried to sound offended and answered, “That’s not a lobster. That’s a crustacean!” Sometimes at PGA Tour events, we’d declare “Crustacean Thursday” and wear the shirts.

Jim & Lilie Golf Club
Jackson, S.C. Born: 1956. Died: 2012.

The homespun name, the equivalent of Billy Joe’s First National Bank, piqued my curiosity. I stopped at J&L en route from the Masters to Hilton Head Island, and the course was as rudimentary and barely maintained as the name implied. The greens had thick, raised veins of Bermuda roots sticking up that made putting feel like off-roading, but Jim & Lilie was apparently on its – their? – last legs by the time I visited.

An online review from a former regular lamented its deteriorated conditions and remembered it as a fun layout—par 34, 2,626 yards, with no par 4s over 325 yards and only one par 5, a 500-yarder. He noted that it attracted a surprising number of Augustans to play.

There was a shack to check in and golf pencils engraved with the unique course name. I kept a couple as souvenirs. eBay, here I come…

Brier Patch Golf Links
Beckley, W.Va. Born: 1997, Died: 2019.

I stopped off here for a quick late-day round while driving home to Pittsburgh after last year’s Heritage Classic on Hilton Head Island. The course was unwalkably hilly – well, this is West Virginia, after all – and so over-the-top challenging that it was easier to count lost golf balls than strokes. It was a spectacular layout with spectacularly bad maintenance. A course worker told me later that the water pump broke, so they hadn’t been able to irrigate in a while. That didn’t explain why it was semi-unmown. When I asked when the pump would be fixed, he shrugged. The answer probably was, Never, and the course closed instead.

The signature hole had to be the par-3 fourth, 190 yards from an elevated tee over a pond to a green that sat atop a 15-foot brick wall. It was a scary, intimidating hole. And kind of dumb.

High Pointe Golf Club
Williamsburg, Mich. Born: 1989. Died: 2008.

This was noted architect Tom Doak’s first solo design. I remember three things from my round in 1994. It was bone-chilling cold; the course was schizophrenic, with a wide-open front nine and a tree-lined and very hilly back nine; and the 14th hole, known as Hogs Back. The latter, a blind shot from the white tee, featured a crowned fairway and a green that resembled an armadillo’s back. Or maybe a Volkswagen Beetle.

High Pointe was memorable and maybe too difficult, built in the harder-is-better era. It made one golf mag’s list of the nation’s best public-access courses in 2000. Eight years later, it was gone, no thanks to a recession and northern Lower Michigan’s glut of courses.

Woodlawn Golf Course.
Tarentum, Pa. Born: 1962. Died: 2015.

I went back to play this low-rent, Pittsburgh-area executive course a second time two years ago, but I was too late. The gate was locked.

Too bad, because it was a fun nine-hole course – par 32, 2,376 yards – with an unusual feature.

Woodlawn was awkwardly wedged against a steep hillside. From the fifth green, I walked into a wooden structure in which the sixth tee was like an enclosed hitting bay. The hole was the No. 1 handicap hole, a 187-yard par 3 with a steep drop in elevation. After I hit my tee shot off a mat, I walked down several flights of steps to get back on solid ground and head to the green. That’s almost as unusual as the elevator that takes golfers from the 17th green to the 18th tee at the swank (and hilly) Pittsburgh Field Club.

Mountain View Golf Course
Denver. Born: 1983. Died: 2006.

This track was a frequent stop off I-25 for me as I trekked south to cover The International, a PGA Tour stop at Castle Pines Country Club best known for its Stableford scoring system and daily afternoon lightning storms. (The International expired shortly afterward, in 2007.)

Mountain View was a short, par-33 nine-hole course with a nice practice range and a beautiful view of south Denver and the Rockies, making it a great place to hit balls in the morning. I recall one par-4 green that was drivable if you dared to send a tee shot over the maintenance shed. You could make eagle or wound someone, a true risk-reward hole.

The Dunes Golf Club at Seville
Brooksville, Fla. Born: 1988. Died: 2013.

This Arthur Hills design was used for bombardier training during World War II. The result was big sand pits and dunes scattered throughout rolling hills. All sandy areas were played as waste areas. Think Wisconsin’s Sand Valley, Florida-style.

The 13th was a smart par 3 of 140 yards (but later lengthened to 170), from one plateau to another. Players waiting to hit could check three nearby bunkers for tracks left by several big resident gopher tortoises. The par-5 17th was a great way to ruin your day, a downhill-then-uphill fairway between waste areas ending in a blind approach shot and self-loathing.

Seville, as it was originally known, was a hidden gem in a remote location that habitually suffered from a lack of maintenance and finally closed due to lack of play/revenue.

Let’s share a moment of silence for these dearly departed tracks. May they rest in divot-free peace.

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