Ohoopee Match Club and Ozarks National: Golf Digest's 2019 Best New Course Winners
Here's why I don't gamble.
Last winter, after I compiled the list of nominees for Golf Digest’s 2019 Best New Courses survey, I privately handicapped the chances of each course, just for my amusement. I gave long odds to Gil Hanse’s entry in the private category, Ohoopee Match Club, an exclusive course in rural Georgia designed to cater to match play, with a total of 22 holes in two routings. Though it sounded like a fascinating concept, I figured that because our evaluation criteria seems tailored toward stroke-play competition, panelists would struggle to fit our square pegs into Ohoopee’s offbeat golf holes. Especially because panelists would be judging courses in 2019 (and thereafter) using a newly revised set of evaluation categories. Shot Values has become Shot Options, the simplified definition reading, “How well does the course present a variety of options involving risks and rewards and require a wide range of shots?”
Also, although the Resistance to Scoring category has been re-named Challenge, it’s still all about counting strokes. Under our new definition, our panel of more than 1,700 low-handicap male and female golfers no longer judge each course by how difficult yet fair it is for scratch golfers playing from the very back tees, but instead “from the tees designated as back tees for everyday play (not from seldom-used championship tees).”
We also eliminated the Memorability category in favor of a new one called Distinctiveness: “How individual is each hole when compared to all others on this course?”
Two other categories are also used in judging Best New. Layout Variety is our old Design Variety criterion under a new name. Aesthetics, which judges the scenic beauty of a course, remains unchanged.
Given all that, I didn’t give Hanse’s unconventional creation much of a chance of prevailing.
Needless to say, Ohoopee Match Club has won in the balloting. It’s Golf Digest’s Best New Private Course of 2019, finishing ahead of The Summit Club, a Tom Fazio design in Las Vegas. TPC Colorado, an Art Schaupeter design in Berthoud, north of Denver, finished third, and Pete Dye’s final full design, Links at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels, Md., is fourth. In fifth place is Aberdeen Golf & Country Club in Boynton Beach, Fla., a design by Jim Fazio, Tom’s brother, that replaces a controversial layout by Desmond Muirhead.
I was equally incorrect at predicting the winner in the Public Course race. There had certainly been a lot of pre-opening buzz about Ozarks National in Hollister, Mo., south of Branson. I had examined the property twice during construction, once with owner Johnny Morris, who is single-handedly trying to convert the honky-tonk Branson area into a legitimate golf destination, and later with architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Morris had given them some rocky, rugged, Ozark hills on which to build the course (part of it the former Murder Rock Golf Club), and I could tell the designers and crew were working hard to make the re-sort course walkable and playable. Morris had wanted holes plunging into box canyons; Coore and Crenshaw did not, and they prevailed with a routing that consists of holes running out and back along ridge tops spread like fingers of a hand.
Although scenic, the location does not offer the world-class views of, say, Cabot Cliffs in Nova Scotia, Coore and Crenshaw’s 2015 Best New winner. Nor was it a sandy site like Sand Valley in Wisconsin, their 2017 Best New winner, where golf features could be sculpted with ease. Everything in southwest Missouri has to be hand-chiseled into shape, then coated with sand before grassing.
2019 BEST NEW PRIVATE COURSES
1. Ohoopee Match Club
Cobbtown, Ga.; 7,325 yards, par 72; Gil Hanse, designer
2. The Summit Club
Las Vegas; 7,457 yards, par 72; Tom Fazio, with Andy Banfield
3. TPC Colorado
Berthoud, Colo.; 7,991 yards, par 72; Arthur Schaupeter
4. Links at Perry Cabin
St. Michaels, Md.; 7,023 yards, par 72; Pete Dye and P.B. Dye
5. Aberdeen G. & C.C.
Boynton Beach, Fla.; 7,091 yards, par 72; Jim Fazio
So my money was on others. For instance, Hanse’s new Pinehurst No. 4, in the middle of North Carolina’s sandhills and next to famed Pinehurst No. 2, where, nearly 10 years ago, Coore and Crenshaw converted its lush, grassy roughs to stark scars of native sand. I knew Hanse and his associate Jim Wagner would do the same in re-routing the old No. 4 layout at Pinehurst, likely producing something akin to Streamsong Black in Florida, Hanse’s winning Best New Effort from 2018.
I gave equal odds to Dana Fry’s Arcadia Bluffs (South) in Michigan, his tribute to the geometry and strategy of Seth Raynor. Nearly 95 years after Raynor’s death, he remains a cult figure in golf architecture. A new course channeling that vibe has to be a winner, right?
What do I know? Ozarks National scored highest among public-access courses in our panelist survey and is Golf Digest’s Best New Public Course of 2019. Pinehurst No. 4 takes the runner-up spot, and Arcadia Bluffs (South) is third. At No. 4 is Sage Run Golf Club, a Paul Albanese layout on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, his second for the same casino operation but far different from the original. In fifth place is the Corica Park (South) in Alameda, Calif., a Rees Jones design of considerable merit.
I’m pretty poor at picking ponies, but I’m fairly good at describing the contestants. Here’s a closer look at the top five in each category.
BEST NEW PRIVATE WINNER
I’ve been told Gil Hanse had first examined the site of Ohoopee Match Club as far back as 2006 considered it ideal for golf: gently rolling terrain with no severe elevation changes, and beautiful sandy soil deposited by the nearby Ohoopee River, perfect for drainage and firm, fast conditions. The ground around tiny Cobbtown, Ga., is also perfect for growing onions—it’s just northeast of Vidalia, world-famous for the Vidalia onion. Indeed, Ohoopee’s logo is a freshly picked onion, although if you look closely, its roots are three writhing snakes. Any symbolism pertaining to match play is uncertain; perhaps it simply suggests the sort of putts one will face.
What’s the composition of a course meant for match play? One might think it would contain lots of penal hazards, because a triple bogey on any particular hole would not be fatal in match play. Perhaps the targets would be smaller than normal, to level the playing field between big hitters and short-but-accurate golfers. That’s not the composition of the 7,325-yard championship course at Ohoopee. Hanse did produce dramatic visuals in this sandy locale that hark back to portions of Pinehurst and Pine Valley, from long expanses of sandy rough dotted with native plants to deep, foreboding pits of sand, but they’re mostly on the far perimeter of holes. The fairways, with one exception, are extremely wide, and almost no fairway bunkers eat into any landing area. It’s as though Hanse is encouraging golfers to swing away as hard as they can off the tee in search of birdies and eagles.
Indeed, five of the first seven holes, on a conventional 18, would be considered eagle opportunities: the 547-yard second followed by the even longer third (with a downhill approach to a deep green) and then the 525-yard sixth and 602-yard seventh, with a potential drivable par 4 at No. 4. On the second nine, holes in the range of 500 yards are back-to-back at 11 and 12, and the 14th is just 312 yards. On paper, that would seem to be eight holes offering potential drama.
But Ohoopee is not a conventional 18. The scorecard lists the second, sixth and 12th holes not as par 5s but at a par of 4½. The 14th isn’t considered a drivable par 4; it’s a par 3½. Par doesn’t matter, remember, because this is a match-play design. (The drink coasters in the clubhouse read, No One Cares What You Shot.) In the early 1900s, many courses had “half-par” holes listed on the card as bogey scores, where a half-par guaranteed the hole would not be halved in a match against the imaginary “Colonel Bogey.” That’s not the case at Ohoopee, where nobody plays alone. The half-pars on the scorecard were simply added as a bit of whimsy.
The ultimate targets are as generous as the fairways: big, rolling greens, many with lateral ridges, and big surrounds off the putting surfaces, tightly mowed turf and sand bunkers well removed from the edge of greens to encourage ground game approaches. The theory here, I think, is that at Ohoopee, no one should ever be out of the hole. There’s always hope when one has a decent pitch from a clean lie.
Another interesting aspect of Hanse’s design is that on several holes, the landing areas are obscured from view off the back tees, meaning a certain gamesmanship is removed. Players won’t know the fate of the opponents’ tee shot, so they can’t automatically play safe.
2019 BEST NEW PUBLIC COURSES
1. Ozarks National
Hollister, Mo.; 7,036 yards, par 71; Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, designers
2. Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort & C.C. (No. 4)
7,227 yards, par 72; Gil Hanse
3. Arcadia (Mich.) Bluffs G.C. (South)
7,412 yards, par 72; Dana Fry
4. Sage Run G.C.
Bark River, Mich.; 7,375 yards, par 72; Paul Albanese
5. Corica Park (South)
Alameda, Calif.; 6,874 yards, par 72; Rees Jones, with Steve Weisser
Ohoopee’s 18th hole is a fine-looking 440-yard par 4, which at first seems at odds with a tradition of match-play courses—like Inverness in Toledo, Olympic in San Francisco and Prairie Dunes in Kansas— where the finishing hole is a short drive and pitch so that a birdie might win the match. On further consideration, I conclude Hanse has upheld that tradition, because 440 yards is just a drive and a pitch for far too many golfers these days.
We can’t leave Ohoopee without mentioning its alternate Whiskey Routing, a delightful par 69 of less than 6,000 yards that starts at the first hole, skips the next four, plays the sixth as a par 4 from a shorter tee, then after 7 through 10 incorporates five alternate holes—desig nated as A through E—before rejoining the regular routing from 12 to 18, most often from forward tee boxes.
There are only two par 5s in the Whiskey Routing, one being the unfortunately named A hole, which features a fabulous punch-bowl green with a back-left corner hidden from view, still accessible using the correct contours. The B hole is also surprising. Hanse is well-known for his disdain for trees on golf courses, yet on this 350-yard par 4, he left a towering oak directly in front of the elevated green, just 38 yards short of it, forcing golfers to play over, around or through tree branches to reach the putting surface. After consecutive par 3s at C and D (the latter intersecting the 10th fairway at right angles), the E hole is the 11th played not from its 562-yard back tee but from just 298 yards.
With no par 4 more than 400 yards and five par 3s, Ohoopee’s Whiskey Routing seems perfect for my dream round. But then I remember: Match play is king here. Nobody will care what I shot.
BEST NEW PRIVATE (2–5)
Thirty years after “creating a golf environment” from flat, lifeless Shadow Creek north of Las Vegas, Tom Fazio and his longtime design associate Andy Banfield returned to Vegas to produce another fantasy playground, this time a residential-development layout on the far west fringes of town, hard against Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The Summit Club, our Best New Private runner-up, replicates much of what made Shadow Creek famous, with holes plunging through valleys framed by hillsides of transplanted trees, mostly willows and palms rather than the pines found at Shadow Creek, and a recirculating brook full of rocks and cascades that meanders through five holes. From the clubhouse and several elevated tees, there are glorious wideangle views of red rocks to the west. To the east are downtown Vegas and the entire Strip, a twinkling, glittering panorama each day at dusk.
No. 3 TPC Colorado, designed by Art Schaupeter of St. Louis—he’d done nearby Highland Meadows Golf Course for the same client 15 years earlier—touches the edge of two massive reservoirs and has fine views of the Rocky Mountain front range beyond. Its par 3s are outstanding. The second is not just a Biarritz green (with front and back sections separated by a trench) but is diagonal on a peninsula in a pond. The long eighth is another peninsula green, this time on a natural point poking into Lonetree Reservoir. The 16th plays downhill to a wide horseshoe-shape putting surface above the lake, its left portion inspired by the 12th at St. Andrews, the right portion by the 16th at Augusta National. A sprawling tournament venue of nearly 8,000 yards at a mile above sea level, TPC Colorado was the host of a Korn Ferry Tour event in 2019 and will be again in 2020.
As mentioned, No. 4 Links at Perry Cabin is considered Pete Dye’s final design (see “Swan Song,” Golf Digest, October 2019).
Working from his father’s instructions, P.B. Dye totally rebuilt the old Martingham Golf & Country Club on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a course that Pete had done with his brother Roy in 1971. What had been a primitive low-profile design of small greens, shallow bunkers and soggy fairways is now vastly improved, highlighted by the par-3 seventh, the only Biarritz green ever to appear on a Pete Dye design. Other courses routed by Pete have yet to be completed, but Perry Cabin “is the last course where Dad signed off on all 18 greens,” P.B. says.
Aberdeen Golf & Country Club, No. 5 in our private course survey, was once Florida’s most notorious layout, the late Desmond Muirhead’s 1987 return to America after a self-imposed absence of more than a decade. Muirhead’s eccentricities—a mermaid hole, a fish bunker, Mae West mounds—are all gone now after a total redesign by Jim Fazio, who wasn’t hired to eradicate Desmond but rather to solve massive drainage issues.
Aberdeen is now a far more conventional Florida course, with sculptured bunkers, flowing greens and bulkheads edging water hazards. The one Muirhead feature Fazio retained is the alternate island fairway on the par-5 fourth. “It embraces all the Homeric ideas of courage,” Muirhead wrote in ’87, adding, “Odysseus would have liked this hole.” Fazio summed it up differently: “It cuts a hundred yards off the hole.” To spice this hole up, Fazio added a Biarritz green.
If you’re sensing a trend among designers, you’d be correct. Even Hanse has a Biarritz green at Ohoopee, although it’s truncated on the long par-3 13th, with only a trench and back portion. They call it a Biarritz green nonetheless.
BEST NEW PUBLIC WINNER
Missouri native Johnny Morris started his fishing-equipment Springfield in 1972, and if you’ve ever visited one of his Bass Pro Shops, you know from the indoor fish ponds and elaborate taxidermy displays that he’s a showman. He turned his attention to golf in the mid-1990s, starting Big Cedar Golf by having Jack Nicklaus design a nine-hole par-3 course called Top of the Rock, which now hosts portions of the PGA Tour Champions’ Legends of Golf event each spring. While you’re there you can drive carts through Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail. During the 2½-mile trek, you wind along steep ravines, drive through a limestone cave and pass over a high wood bridge before emerging onto the edge of a gigantic sinkhole near the clubhouse. It’s Johnny Morris’ amusement park ride for grown-ups.
Morris has no comparable build-up to his latest addition. It isn’t needed, because Ozarks National’s entire 18 is one of thrills and potential spills.
Coore has long had the reputation among his colleagues of being a master at routing courses, so it’s not surprising that his plan at Ozarks brilliantly flows holes onto this mountainous terrain. It helped that the back nine of the old Murder Rock Golf Club had been on this land, so he was able to utilize parts of seven of its corridors. The layout is something of a rib cage, playing out and back along ribs and up and down the wider breastbone. To avoid steep climbs, he anchored each fairway on a ridge top, some barely wide enough to accommodate side-by-side holes. The par-5 first and par-4 third, for example, share one long, wide diagonal fairway, playing in opposite directions.
The sensation on most holes is like playing on the top of the world. One side of nearly every hole plunges into a steep ravine of dense trees and underbrush. But even Coore’s consummate routing encounters three spots where we’re forced to jump from rooftop to rooftop. The three occasions produce the three most stunning holes on the course: the 178-yard eighth over a chasm to a tiny diagonal shelf of a green fronted by three deep bunkers; the 254-yard 12th over an even bigger void to the largest green on the course; and the long par-4 13th with a 60-foot-deep ravine between tees and fairway, a 212-yard carry from the back tees but 230 yards needed to clear a pair of Spectacles bunkers.
On the latter hole, Morris is especially proud of the 400-foot wood-beam and plank bridge that spans the creek, hand-built by Amish craftsmen.
It’s probably unfair to Coore and Crenshaw to highlight those three holes, because forced carries don’t reflect their preference for the ground game. But they also pride themselves on using only what Mother Nature provides, and at Ozarks National, nature provided three deep hollows that had to be traversed to make the routing work. It’s to their credit that they produced such gorgeous golf holes.
Elsewhere, the ground game is fully apparent. Fairways are wide as they can be, with bunkers most often placed along canyon edges to save errant shots that might otherwise run into oblivion. There are several carry bunkers on the course, notably the “String of Pearls” on the par-4 15th, and the par-5 11th has a tall pine tree in the middle of the fairway, a real change of pace for these designers.
Ozarks National measures 7,036 yards from the tips, but the par 71 can be a darned difficult resort layout, with little margin for a push, pull, hook or slice, particularly if the wind is blowing, which it normally does on this mountaintop. In April 2019 the course served, along with Top of the Rock, as co-host of the Legends of Golf, a two-man team event. That might be the smartest way to play Ozarks National.
BEST NEW PUBLIC (2–5)
Pinehurst No. 4 dates to 1919, but in the 1950s, then-owner Richard Tufts new fourth 18 for the resort without the help of Donald Ross, who had died in 1948. But because Tufts incorporated nine holes from the Ross-designed Pinehurst No. 3 into his layout, many have insisted that No. 4 was a Ross design, too. No matter. Tufts’ work was replaced in the 1970s by Robert Trent Jones, then refashioned in the 1980s by his son Rees before being ripped up in the 1990s by Tom Fazio, who scattered 140 pot bunkers about the course. A few years ago, Gil Hanse was brought in, and he bulldozed the Fazio layout, replacing it with long expanses of sand that frame twisting fairways and greens positioned atop crests of hills. Hanse might well have been focusing on match play at his Ohoopee course in Georgia, but his new design of No. 4 was deemed worthy enough to co-host, with No. 2, the 36-hole final of the nation’s top amateur match-play event, the 2019 U.S. Amateur (see “Four Real” Golf Digest, September 2019).
Veteran designer Dana Fry was given a tough assignment when asked to build a second 18 at Michigan’s Arcadia Bluffs. The resort’s 20-year-old original 18, now called the Bluffs Course, tumbles through glacial deposits high above Lake Michigan and has been ranked on Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest since 2005. Fry was hired to create a worthy companion course on an open, empty barley field a mile south. He came up with something entirely different, a geometric design with rectangular fairways and greens edged by diagonal bunkers of uniform width and depth, with strategies solved by invoking lines and vectors. It sounds scientific but is actually old school, drawing on the work of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor (mostly Raynor) from 100 years ago. Finishing third in our 2019 Best New Public competition, Arcadia Bluffs’ South Course could join the Bluffs on the 100 Greatest someday.
No. 4 Sage Run occupies a unique northern Michigan landscape, gently rolling open meadow interrupted by a long, rocky drumlin (a hill created by glacial flow) some 150 feet high and once covered in trees before some clearing was done. Architect Paul Albanese took full advantage of this feature—by the end of the round, golfers have intersected the drumlin 10 times in different ways. Some shots are blind leaps of faith, others are hang-time heart-stoppers. Sage Run is architecture at its entertaining (and occasionally aggravating) best.
Sitting adjacent to California’s Oakland International Airport, No. 5 Corica Park (South) is part of Alameda’s municipal golf complex, now operated under a long-term lease by Greenway Co. Five years ago, Greenway hired Rees Jones to redesign the South, but he and design associate Steve Weisser didn’t just rebuild it, they buried it, under 220,000 tons of sand brought in from San Francisco’s BART excavation, transported by 150 trucks per day for 24 months. The entire site was originally concave, with portions below sea level reclaimed from San Francisco Bay. To give the course some roll and elevation change, they varied the sand deposits in different spots.
Jones and Weisser reversed the direction of some holes and added new ones, left a mature stand of eucalyptus at one corner and reshaped another corner into a windswept dunescape. The state-of-the-art Bermuda fairways and bentgrass greens are immaculate, the bunkering is artful and the course, once a quagmire below sea level, is now playable even in rainstorms. (Disclosure: This writer has been hired as a design consultant to project manager Marc Logan, who is redesigning the shorter North Course.)
Those are the 10 Best New courses in America for 2019. What’s ahead for 2020? The early talk is in the public category: Johnny Morris will reveal his next Big Cedar Golf project, Payne’s Valley, designed by Tiger Woods (on parts of the old front nine of Murder Rock) and highlighted by a 19th hole at the base of a 300-foot wall of rock. Its competition will include Coore and Crenshaw’s latest, the Sheep Ranch at Bandon Dunes, perhaps the final 18 to be built at that dream destination. I know how I’m handicapping that race, but I’m not saying.