Golfweek Magaine-Cuscowilla keeps classic look intact
Co-designers Coore, Crenshaw opt for tradition over modernism
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February 19, 1999 -- For all the courses debuting these days – more than 400 a year, a record rate – there are precious few that offer a distinctive vision of the game.
Many of the new layouts are technically impressive in terms of construction and turfgrass. And today’s courses are designed with a greater diversity of players in mind than ever before, making the game attractive to all ranks. But too many courses that seek to make a statement do so in a loud and offensive way – as if shouting from the top of a highway billboard.
What a joy, then, to stumble upon a new layout that looks like it has been there for ages. Such is the case with The Golf Club at Cuscowilla, an hour and a half southeast of Atlanta, in the Lake Oconee region of central Georgia. One only has to stand on the first tee to appreciate a course conceived and designed by people intent upon preserving classical standards.
Architects get all the credit, but a successful project demands the commitment – and restraint – of many talented people. At Cuscowilla, course designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw drew upon the lessons of linksland in hand-crafting an exquisitely understated residential development. Yet the presence of housing on the 600-acre site along six miles of lakefront is little more than a distant rumor. The holes are routed effortlessly over undisturbed land, and the distance from green to next tee is never more than a few steps away.
As a condition for accepting the job, Coore and Crenshaw requested of owners Peter Bailey Jr., Heinz-Wilhelm Nathe and Rolf Witt that they be granted complete freedom to fit the holes where they saw appropriate. This would not be one of those projects with golf shoehorned into a routing dictated by a land planner and a banker.
The result is an elegant little walk in the park, with each nine strung out in a double counter-clockwise loop that twice returns to the clubhouse area. The 6th, 9th, 14th and 18th greens all snuggle in within easy walking distance of the first tee.
A vigorous caddie program makes it all the more likely that golfers here will learn the pleasures of traditional golf. A golfer opting to walk will scarcely notice Cuscowilla’s concrete cart paths hidden deep in the woods. The paths force those who take cart-path-only buggies to walk farther back and forth than do golfers who tread tee to green.
Modern golfers might look askance at Cuscowilla’s dry, firm fairways. A golfer accustomed to an Augusta National-style manicured look should head elsewhere; perhaps down the road to Tom Fazio’s new Reynolds National Course, where the greens are heavily watered, the densely sodded bunker edges are manicured with a laser, the sand is shiny white and the holes were only made possible after extensive earth-moving.
Coore and Crenshaw’s team built Cuscowilla by working with native contours, rather than ripping them up. Not much dirt was moved – only 19,000 cubic yards. Thanks to shaper Jeff Bradley, the bunkers, with their loose, scratchy edges and erosive clay soil base, portray centuries of erosion.
At 6,847 yards, the par-70 Cuscowilla layout is not long by modern standards. Four native farm ponds come into play, and two holes sit along Lake Oconee. In line with traditional golf values, the landing areas are generously wide, and there’s never a forced carry. As Crenshaw noted at an opening-day fete, “You can’t beat golfers over the head with problems they can’t solve.”
Nor should one be presented with putting surfaces whose sole virtue is speed. “Green contours defend the hole and make them interesting for golfers,” Crenshaw said.
He and his partner have not been shy in this regard. There are some who will find Cuscowilla’s firm, Crenshaw bentgrass greens frustrating if they insist on lobbing dart-like shots at the pins. This is a layout built for the run-up approach. It’s also a course that calls for a proper angle of attack, lest a drive on the disarmingly wide fairways leaves you with the wrong angle in.
Cuscowilla is a “literate” course that demands, and allows for, careful reading. The opening tee shot, with a line of bunkers intruding on the left and a more open tee shot to the right, sets the tone; the bolder the line of play, the easier the second shot.
Nowhere are these options better presented than at Cuscowilla’s fifth hole, a slightly uphill, 305-yard par-4 with a double fairway that wraps around a gaping, 70 yard crevice of sand that ends short of a humpbacked green. Crenshaw acknowledges being inspired here by Alister MacKenzie’s scruffy-edged handiwork, especially the famed No. 12 hole at Royal Melbourne’s Composite Course in Australia. Crenshaw, however, takes MacKenzie one step further by introducing an optional landing area to the left.
The bunkers, kept jagged and raw, don’t do all of the work of strategic definition here. In clearing and shaping Cuscowilla – built on a site that used to be an experimental nursery, with tall, sturdy pine trees – Coore and Crenshaw allowed a number of pines to come into play, though in every case there’s an optional route. The high leaf canopies of these conifers leave plenty of space underneath for imaginative recovery shots.
Within the past decade, the Lake Oconee area has grown drastically, thanks to a number of big-name golf communities. Designer Bob Cupp has two courses, one at Port Armor and the other at Reynolds Plantation. Designers Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish did the Harbor Club, and after Jack Nicklaus’ Great Waters project came Fazio’s Reynolds National. Plans are now underway for a Rees Jones layout at Reynolds, adjacent to a 250-room Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel.
In contrast to the lush, heavily watered look of these other properties, Cuscowilla offers a starker, linksland image – more akin to a wheat field than to a suburban front lawn. The roughs, comprising brome sage, blue stem, and switch grass, were native to the area long before the golf course arrived. Superintendent Rusty Mercer said that such long, wispy grasses need little maintenance: “Only the occasional controlled burn rather than irrigation,” he said.
In an area of market segmentation, this course stands out against all the surrounding modernism, thanks to its aged quality.