Travelin’ Joe’s favorite (and surprising) new courses of 2017

December 19, 2017

Plenty of highlights peppered my year in travel, from my opening round in early January at Scottsdale’s Grayhawk to closing it with Tiger in mid-December at Mexico’s Diamante. In between, I hung my shirt and stored my shoes in Arnold Palmer’s locker at Cherry Hills, and then played the course; I played back-to-back rounds at Pebble Beach; I talked LSU tailgating with David Toms during a rainy, joy-filled round at Big Cedar Lodge’s Buffalo Ridge Springs course in Missouri, during the PGA Tour Champions’ Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf Pro-Am. That’s a great year by any measure.

But to narrow it down, here are my three favorite new courses that I sampled in 2017, plus three older courses that pleasantly surprised me.

The Newbies

Cathedral Lodge GC
Thornton VIC, Australia

Unquestionably, the most remarkable setting I witnessed this year for a new golf course was the mountain-valley tableau at Cathedral, two hours northeast of Melbourne. Granted, I had a pretty good guide to assist in my appreciation: Greg Norman, the course architect. But it was clear that the place had completely captivated globetrotting Greg, and it had the same effect on me. “The site was perfect, and the native flora and fauna we had to work with was quintessential Australia for this region,” the Shark told me. “Pair that with the passion of owner David Evans, in achieving his dream of achieving something special with the least-disturbance approach, and that’s everything you could ask for.”

The layout unfolds over rolling terrain slashed with handsome trees and ravines, with off-the-charts scale, where mountains in the Cathedral Range practically dwarf the golf. Instead of competing with the setting, Norman slotted golf holes to fit the land without forcing anything that would approach artificiality. He could have manufactured bigger bunkers — and more of them — and could have sited and contoured greens more dramatically, but he chose instead to favor playability and strategy over all else, which allowed the unique surrounds take the starring role. Given its location and its low-key, private nature, not many of you reading this will ever tee it up here, but if you find yourself in Melbourne … wow!

Streamsong Black GC
Bowling Green, Fla.

Think there was any pressure on architect Gil Hanse to produce a winner? Florida’s Streamsong Resort already possessed two superb tracks, the Red, ranked No. 10 among GOLF’s Top 100 U.S. Courses You Can Play and the Blue, ranked 14th.

“It wasn’t really pressure we faced,” Hanse said, shortly before his track’s September opening. “There was more of an acknowledgement that the bar was already set high. We didn’t need to go out of our way to try and do something monumentally better. But we understood that right over there were some great examples of golf architecture. And we needed to make sure that our course fit in with that.”

Hanse, partner Jim Wagner and his team achieved all of that and more. Black is the kind of course Alister MacKenzie would have built were he around today. It’s of massive scale, it borrows the look and visual intimidation that MacKenzie favored in his Australian Sandbelt masterworks, yet like the good doctor’s greatest efforts, it’s a blast to play, because of the superior variety of alternate routes to get you to the green. Risk/reward shots, tiny holes that pair with would-be brutes and helpful slopes that aren’t always obvious at first blush make the Black a course you want to play over and over. Blend that with some grin-inducing sand sculpting and a set of the most imaginatively contoured greens of any public-access course I saw this year and Streamsong Black rules with me.

Danzante Bay GC
Baja California, Mexico

The government of Mexico originally intended for Loreto, a coastal town on the Sea of Cortez, to be a prime golf and resort draw for upscale tourists on the Baja Peninsula. Instead, it was Los Cabos, 315 miles to the south that claimed the honor first. Rees Jones is aiming to change that with Danzante Bay at the Villa del Palmar Resort.

Best known as the “Open Doctor” for his renovations of U.S. Open courses, the younger son of Robert Trent Jones Sr. has carved out some noteworthy original designs as well. His newest is certainly one of his best. With its desert-meets-the-sea surrounds, Danzante Bay opened with 11 holes in 2016, and the complete 18 debuted in mid-December 2017. They were worth the wait. The seven holes, numbered 2 through 8, are absolute stunners, nearly overwhelmed by their canyon setting amid the Sierra de la Giganta Mountains, yet boast outstanding playability, thanks to friendly containment features that Jones and associate Steve Weisser installed. The forced carry (though with a healthy bailout) 207-yard, par-3 3rd would be a standout anywhere, but it’s one of the older holes that has already made a gigantic splash, the 178-yard, par-3 17th. The downhill hole features a peninsular green jabbed into the rocks, the diagonal green fronted by sand, cactus and canyon. In the backdrop are the Sea of Cortez and a sliver of mountain in the distance. Jones told me that the hole is “the most spectacular natural hole we’ve ever designed,” right before he lofted a mid-iron onto the putting surface. I managed to match him, but he lipped out for birdie, while my attempt for a 2 wasn’t even close. For pure fun — this hole and the entire course could very be Rees’ defining statement.

The Pleasant Surprises

Trinity Forest GC
Dallas, Texas

Situated 10 miles south of downtown Dallas, Trinity is a private club that opened in October 2016 and counts Jordan Spieth among its members. It was built on old landfill, and lacked much of anything in the way of natural features. Coore took a look, and ultimately discovered some intriguing contours. Bill and Ben then did what they do best, utilizing the best natural pitch and roll the terrain offered, and molded the rest to create a truly wondrous track. Typical of a Coore-Crenshaw layout, strategic options and ground game emphasis predominate, leading to tremendous variety. Also noteworthy are the shapes, sizes and placements of bunkers — as well as nary a water hazard, virtually unheard of on the PGA Tour these days. When I launched one of my rare quality strikes on the chilly day I played Trinity, I found the left side of the green complex at the wild par-3 17th, and watched my ball doink to the right, creep along the giant, sectionalized green and settle eight feet from the pin. All the while, Coore cooed appreciatively, “That’s how to play it!” Naturally, I missed the putt, but I can’t wait to see the PGA Tour tackle this unusual firm, fast-running, cunningly contoured test in 2018, when it becomes the new host for the AT&T Byron Nelson.

Kingston Heath GC
Melbourne, Australia

It’s not as if Kingston Heath’s greatness should have surprised me. I had walked a few holes at this Melbourne, Australia-area layout back in 1992 and was immediately smitten with the most remarkable bunkering I had ever encountered, in my then-young career. I didn’t play it, and didn’t really explore it, but felt like I got to know it through tournaments on television. I heard Tiger rave about it, and saw it rise to No. 20 in the World in GOLF’s 2017 Top 100 Courses ranking. Could it really be that good? I wasn’t convinced, even after I asked Gil Hanse what course he considered to be the best ever built on modest or mediocre terrain. “Everyone points to Kingston Heath as the perfect example of a great golf course on a fairly uninspiring piece of land,” said Hanse. “The architect (Dan Soutar with Alister MacKenzie on bunkers) took what the site possessed, the sand, the scrub, the vegetation and enhanced that property by features that sit down at ground level. Truly great work.”

What I learned was that you have to see it, walk it, and play it for yourself to fully appreciate its merits. I did that in October. For me, Kingston Heath still doles out the best-looking bunkers I’ve ever seen. Now, however, I know that they’re more than just pretty faces. They intimidate with steep lips and with positions that obscure fairway landing areas and seemingly block green entrances. In truth, you ultimately discover there is sufficient room to play, accessible avenues where you can avoid the bunkers and scrub, but that there is a preferred angle, and corresponding risk/reward at every turn. This is a small, easily walkable property, without a water hazard, yet it delights and confounds throughout the round. Kingston Heath is superior architecture, period.

Mountain Lake CC
Lake Wales, Fla.

Underrated Golden Age great architect Seth Raynor made a career out of crafting superb courses for low-key, wealthy clubs and clients. One of his most off-the-radar creations is Mountain Lake, a 101-year-old private enclave in central Florida, roughly an hour south of Orlando. Folks swore by its quality and ambience, but I never scored a tee time until this past February. What I discovered was that there are likely 5,000 tougher courses in the U.S., but few enjoy Mountain Lake’s charm. It’s blessed with the full complement of Raynor “template” holes, those replicating classics in the British Isles that had been learned in the employ of his mentor, C.B. Macdonald. I was tickled to stiff my tee shot to two feet at the “Redan” par-3 11th, but was otherwise routinely humbled by its Old World enticements. Most surprising was the utter time-warp aspect to the place — I doubt it’s changed all that much since 1916 — and the unexpected elevation change in the surrounding community. If you get an invite to sample Mountain Lake, accept it immediately.