The first Saturday in June, I attended a grand opening exhibition by Tom Watson at his new Tom Watson Signature Course at Loch Lloyd Country Club in the Kansas City suburb of Belton, Missouri. The club itself is over 20 years old, used to host a Senior PGA Tour event (what's now the Champions Tour) on a decent 18-hole layout by Kansas City architect Don Sechrest.
New owners purchased the club in 2000. They then asked Watson, a lifelong KC resident, to determine if a second 18 could fit into a parcel of land -- a "hidden valley" -- right next door. Tom told them it had potential, so they bought it, too. But a second 18 never developed.
Ten years later, the owners contacted Tom again, this time asking if he could design nine holes in the hidden valley and link it to the existing back nine to create a new 18. With the help of his chief designer Bob Gibbons (a Purdue grad who's been with Watson since 1991), a routing was developed, along with a recommendation that Watson be allowed to remodel that back nine as well.
Watson played only 10 holes that day (his aching wrist was still on the mend), but not the new 10 he designed. Instead, as a convenience to the gallery of 200 or so, he started and finished at the clubhouse, playing the first five, then skipping over to the 14th to play his way back home.
He had a wireless microphone on him, and with big speaker mounted on a golf cart, his commentary of each hole, and each shot, could be heard by all spectators. At least, that was the plan. But as the gallery crowded around the first green to watch him putt, his microphone went out. A hand-held microphone was soon found, but it, too, failed.
A technician was rushed in. He immediately determined the problem. So many fans were raising their smart phones to snap photos of Watson that their collective radio interference was interrupting the connection between Watson's microphone and the speakers.
Gee, maybe there is a legitimate reason why airlines insist we shut off our phones before takeoff.
The sound system was abandoned, and Watson simply raised his voice, talking himself hoarse as he explained his design to members and the media.
He said he made only modest changes to the opening hole (the old 10th). "I think a golf course should have an easy start, a handshake, not a slap."
The 171-yard second hole at Loch Lloyd C.C.
The old par-3 second (a bad par-4 converted to a downhill par 3 by Sechrest in the late 1990s) featured a pond behind the green. Watson moved the green beyond the pond, adding much needed length to the hole, although more intimidation. He also built the green on a diagonal, to further test one's mettle.
"I don't like water behind a green," he told the crowd. "What's behind a green is rarely important. What's in front is always important."
Unfortunately, original architect Sechrest must have loved putting water behind greens -- I guess he figured it was scenic but not hazardous -- and Watson was forced to retain a stream behind both the third and 16th greens because of property lines. Curiously, though, on the uphill par-4 17th (probably the hardest hole on the old course), Watson removed a babbling brook that crossed in front of the green and ran it instead around the back and left of the putting surface. The hazard was unfair in front of the green, he felt, because it was mostly blind on the uphill shot.
As he played and talked his way around his design, it became clear that, as an architect, he thinks like a magician. He enjoys messing with golfers' minds by providing illusions.
Even though he lowered the right side of the par-4 third hole considerably (pictured above), the tee shot still plays over a horizon to an unseen fairway. "There's an element of anticipation in this tee shot," he said. "I like that.
We followed him into the fairway and gazed downhill at a generous green tucked in the horseshoe bend of a creek. "This is a large green that plays small," he said. "There's a ridge that separates the front from the back. You want to hit to the correct side."
(When I later toured the remainder of the course, I found Watson used that same trick on two other greens, which was a bit too often for my taste. But I did love his Biarritz green -- with a trench through the middle -- on the par-3 13th, pictured above.)
On the tee of the par-3 fifth, Watson told his audience, "I like to make each hole look either more difficult or easier than it is. This hole looks easier than it really is. If you hit it just a bit to the right, it's going to drop down in a deep hollow." After lacing an iron to within eight feet of the pin, he led a tour into that hollow (pictured below), to discuss the various options for playing a recovery shot.
There was more slight of hand on the par-4 16th (he cut across, remember, after the fifth hole). "This is my favorite tee shot on the course," he said. "It looks wide, but it plays narrow."
Sure enough, the dogleg-right fairway had an overhanging tree on the inside corner, and his faded tee shot had to deal with it on the approach. Sometimes, the magician can fool even himself.
By the time we reached the tee of the par-4 18th, Watson had become almost predictable. "This is a friendly-looking tee shot," he said, "but it doesn't play friendly. If you go left at all, you'll face tree trouble and a blind second shot."
To me, the 18th (pictured above), was the one letdown of the day. The old 18th had been hideously gaudy, with a massive fake waterfall at the back right of the green. It's still there, although toned down considerably. In a city built on a shelf of limestone, I suppose a waterfall of limestone slabs isn't entirely out of place, but on an otherwise quiet, gentle, graceful layout, it seems too harsh for me.
Besides, I was standing by the waterfall as Tom putted out, and I couldn't hear his closing remarks.
That waterfall may look serene, but it plays noisy.
A complete set of Watson's hole-by-hole plans for Loch Lloyd can be viewed at www.lochlloyd.com.