History Part of Appeal at Alabama's Lakewood Golf Club

By: Steve Habel

The tall oaks and dogwoods that define expansive property of Alabama's Lakewood Golf Club are metaphorically draped in a history of the region, from the site's nod to Confederate Army dead, to the design of one of its courses by the venerable Perry Maxwell, and to the resort and hotel from which the demand for the facility was initially born.

The 3rd Hole at Dogwood

The 36-hole Lakewood, a member of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, had its beginnings in 1944. But its site in Point Clear on the eastern banks of Mobile Bay has had historical significance since the Civil War days.

The club and its two courses right across the street are part of the Grand Hotel Marriott Point Clear Resort & Spa. There weren't any great battles fought here, but part of the hotel was used as a Civil War hospital in the 1860s. A small cemetery with the remains of 300 Confederate soldiers - mostly privates wounded in the Battle of Vicksburg - sits among the thick trees near the 18th tee on the Azalea course.

It would be about four score years after those soldiers found their final resting place that Lakewood opened. Maxwell, designer of Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa and renovator of Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, brought his extraordinary skills to bear with two nine-hole routings, called Dogwood and Azalea, which opened in 1947 and were the first professional-quality courses in south Alabama.

Maxwell was a master at blending beauty with danger, and, using this trademark integrated an array of massive bunkers to safeguard the greens. His two nine-hole layouts - now combined as the Azalea course - extend through magnificent old oaks, magnolias, pines and clusters of dogwoods. The two sides flow between the trees like corridors of huge green carpet toward and then back from Point Clear Creek, which runs through the property.

In 1965, the nine-hole Magnolia course, designed by architect Joe Lee, was added to complement the Old Course (Azalea). Lee carved Magnolia through heavy swamp and lowlands along Point Clear Creek, crafting three water holes at Nos. 2, 4 and 9.

The 1st Green at Dogwood

And in the fall of 1986, then-director of golf Joe Glasser and architect Ron Garl fashioned nine more holes on a part of the property that used to be the club's polo field. This nine features expansive use of space and undulating greens, and is now combined with the Lee-designed Magnolia nine to make up Dogwood.

Lakewood has survived numerous hurricanes - the latest was Katrina in 2005, which hit the area hard - and has undergone a handful of renovations and updates in the past 67 years. The latest renovation to Dogwood was completed pre-Katrina and Azalea was refreshed in 2006. Dogwood actually sits five feet higher than before the renovation, eliminating the flooding that once hampered the course.

Both courses are part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and feature that entity's strict standards for playability, maintenance and conditioning. There are creeks, ponds and spring-fed lakes and often-rolling fairways winding through pines, magnolia, dogwood and oaks. Each of the tracks has a natural feel, with strategically placed bunkers and sand areas and a handful of putting surfaces braced by bulkhead walls.

Aerial View of Azalea's 14-16th Holes

Azalea Grabs Attention at the Start

Playing at 7,504 yards and a par of 72, Azalea grabs your attention from the get-go and demands focus throughout. The first hole, a 636-yard par-5 with a tee next to the clubhouse, calls for three great shots to reach the putting surface. But that's when the real fun begins as any shot left of the cup leaves you with a downhill putt that falls away and could roll off the green.

Length is required to tame Azalea, which cards five par-4s of at least 448 yards and four two-shotters of more than 463. Included in that hearty handful are the 463-yard eighth, the 470-yard ninth, and the three closers - the 471-yard 16th, 475-yard 17th and 476-yard 18th.

That said, the closing quartet on Azalea's front nine may be the most varied offerings at Lakewood. Aside from the aforementioned eighth and ninth, the 572-yard par-5 sixth is played around a lake along the right before rising uphill to a green protected in front by two bunkers. The seventh - a 225-yard par-3 - is also raised and guarded by sand.

Other holes of note include the 514-yard par-5 11th, reachable under the right wind conditions but requires a hard right-to-left approach over sand; the 545-yard par-5 14th, where the approach is over water to an island green; and the 195-yard par-3 15th, which asks for an uphill tee shot over water and sand to a shallow putting surface.

Of the two courses, Azalea may be a bit easier, carrying a rating of 75.3 and a 132 slope from the tips. But the greens are smallish and wavy, making accuracy and a mastery of the flat stick essential.

Lakewood Country Club

Dogwood Asks for Precision

The Dogwood 18 is not as long as its older brother, but - at 7,063 yards from its back set of five tees - accuracy is needed in spaded. Eight of the holes on the Lee-designed front side sport water hazards, including the already-noted trio of demanding par-4s - the 425-yard second, 399-yard fourth and No. 9, a 398-yard par-4.

The ninth, while ranked as the No. 13 handicap hole on Dogwood, is especially devious, and can be a nightmare for right-handed golfers who hook. It winds left around the lakes, with a creek fronting the green. "The best you have ever played might just be good enough to take par," Lee wrote about this hole.

Glasser and Garls' nine-hole contribution (the inward side at Dogwood) is highlighted by its tough par-4s, especially the 445-yard, dogleg-right 11th; the 463-yard, water-guarded 14th; and the 454-yard, over-water-then-left-and-uphill 15th. The 16th - a par-5 at 572 yards - also doglegs right and the approach is through a narrow chute with trees left and water right.

Dogwood, with a rating of 72.9 and 128slope, is tighter off the tee, especially on the back. The greens at Azalea are a lot smaller, but not as undulating as you will find on its younger sibling. A lot of the holes on Dogwood are target golf, and for the most part, there's no running it up to the green as most of the putting surfaces must be negotiated with a light touch over a variety of bunkers.

Lakewood Golf Club has hosted the likes of President Gerald Ford, Dr. Billy Graham and Bob Hope and the restored designs lend themselves to superb conditioning year round. The facility has several times been named to Golf Magazine's "Best Golf Resorts in America" listing.

The Grand Hotel is Appropriately Named

The Grand Hotel Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa offers a departure from standard Point Clear hotels. With its 20,000-square-foot European-style spa, an array of dining options and a sizeable marina, the Grand is a destination in itself.

Located along the Eastern Shores, down a long and scenic road, it overlooks the bay, and most guest rooms are right above a small marina with its bobbing sailboats. The beaches and pool complex at this Gulf Coast hotel offer plenty of entertainment for the whole family.

For more information, visit http://www.rtjgolf.com/lakewood.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Texas CEO Magazine and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) on his many travels, which took him across the nation and to 105 different golf course in 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.