From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten:
Back in the late 1990s, Tom Fazio and Jerry Pate collaborated on the design of two golf courses for the Mississippi Band of Choctow Indian's casino operation. It was one of the first of a slew of casino golf courses created by native American tribes around the country and was named Dancing Rabbit after a nearby creek where a treaty was signed between the Choctaws and the Federal Government that returned land back to the Indian nation. I followed the construction of both courses, the Azaleas Course, which opened in 1997, and the Oaks Course, which opened two years later.
Both remind me of courses found in Birmingham, Ala., with fairways running over red clay hills slashed by creeks and lined in pines and scattered hardwoods. As its name suggests, the Oaks Course has grand old oak trees decorating some holes.
Being a fly on the wall, so to speak, I was able to observe some examples of conflicts that arise when creating golf courses. For instance, Fazio wanted bentgrass for the greens on both courses. Pate was urging they use the then-latest hybrid ultradwarf Bermudagrass instead, but Fazio was insistent. So they provided life support systems for the greens, burying electrical plugs for fans that would be placed around each green to provide air circulation. They also installed a SubAir-branded oxygen-injection/water-vacuuming system beneath each green, before seeding the bent. Needless to say, those items increased the construction costs.
A year later, when the Azaleas Course was open for play and the Oaks Course was being grassed, I stopped by with Pate. The greens on the Azaleas Course were dead, killed by a fungus called pythium blight, which can wipe out bent greens in a matter of hours. Pate was so upset that he theorized the SubAir system accelerated the pythium blight by sucking the fungus right down into the roots, but in truth, by the time any system was turned on, it was too late.
Today, Dancing Rabbit has beautiful greens. Azaleas has ultradwarf Bermuda TifEagle on its greens, while Oaks has Champion Bermuda, another ultradwarf. The lesson: Mississippi’s climate has never been conducive to growing bentgrass.
Two other conflicts I observed involved the design of holes. On the third hole of the Azaleas Course, Andy Banfield, Fazio's main design associate back then, wanted to dam up a creek and create a lake along the left side of the fairway—so after clearing pines for the fairway, they cleared more trees, all the way to the creek, then started digging the lake bottom. But ultimately they couldn't get the permit to dam the creek, so they were left with a corridor over 100 yards wide, half hill, half hole. Pate suggested expanding the fairway into the proposed lake bed to create alternate routes.
The finished hole now has a vast fairway of upper and lower sections. (And yet I somehow managed to miss the fairway with my drive last time I played it.) With two diagonal bunkers on the slope between the levels, the third hole is attractive and certainly offers a couple of strategic options, but back then, such a patchwork improvisation on an $8-million job made me feel uncomfortable.
Second example: on Azaleas’ par-4 14th, tree-clearing had been completed to make the hole a dogleg right. But then Banfield stopped by and decided to relocate the green and make the hole a dogleg left, so he had a new corridor and green site chopped from the forest on the left. That resulted in a huge void on the right where trees had been previously removed. Banfield's solution was to fill the void with a massive bunker. Fair enough. But then another Fazio designer, Tom Griswold, stopped by and had the sand pit planted with trees and vegetation, to give it a Pine Valley look, which even back in the late 1990s was being overused.
The result at the time was a strange-looking short par 4, with a green to the left and a massive sandy waste area not really in play on the right. Today, Griswold's trees have grown and matured, and golfers hardly notice that old right-hand fairway that went nowhere.
The second lesson I learned: Mistakes should be made on paper, not in the dirt.
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