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The Art of Golf Course Design
I didn't know his name or his work, but from the first shot I knew he was someone I'd like, clearly a man of humanity and humility. Earl Stone was pleased I'd called. He is 83 and retired after 50 years of designing courses in the Southeast. "Never had a course go bankrupt," he said. "I'm proud of that."
We begin slowly to understand what works and what doesn't work in this era of a flagging economy and designer golf courses that, for my mind, are often too long, too hard and too hard to maintain.
I was on a tour of courses along the 32 miles of Alabama's white-sand Gulf Coast. My first 18 was Peninsula Golf Club, on the edge of Mobile Bay, gracious and welcoming, a testament to the passion and prudence of Stone.
Back in the 1950s, an old pro told Stone something he never forgot. "He said, 'Earl, don't build a golf course for you, build it for the people who will play it. There isn't anybody who doesn't like to score.' "
The Gulf Shores gets lost sometimes in the attention focused on the Alabama Trail, the collection of Robert Trent Jones courses that ring the state, each one first-class, each one about two hours from the other, each one surprisingly inexpensive. The rack rate for the majority of them is $52 a round, including cart.
But the courses are difficult - as RTJ courses tend to be, long and often requiring balls that carry water and ravines and what have you. "No forced carries if I can help it," said Stone. "I was once a single-digit player but I try to envision each hole the way an 18-handicapper would. Then I build a couple of tees back in the woods for the big boys."
Peninsula is owned and operated by Honours Golf, as is Craft Farms and Rock Creek, all part of the Golf Gulf Shores group (www.golfgulfshores.com) that offers enticing play-and-stay packages. Bob Barrett, the CEO of Honours, a Birmingham-based company, said he has turned down many offers to purchase and operate courses, some willing to hand him the keys for nothing.
"Why take on something that's just going to lose money," said Barrett, who said the industry retraction shows that courses charging less than $60 a round are more likely to survive than those that aren't.
In this economy especially, he questions course conditions that emulate Augusta National. He questions adding 1,000 yards to make a course "championship" when fewer than 10 percent of the players use it. "It costs a lot of money to build and maintain those longer courses," Barrett said.
And then there is the art of playability, of allowing golfers to get around the course quicker and with fewer strokes and lost balls. Stone's courses generally have a slope of less than 120 from the white - or everyman's - tees. He's never won any awards for his courses, but he has won an astute following.
"I hate that," said Stone, "when I see architects trying to make their reputations at the expense of the people who support and make the game."
Gulf Shores' courses are all high quality. They have the look of half-resort and half-country club, and are operated that way. The rack rate - $50-$99 - is slightly higher than the Alabama Golf Trail, but still well below Arizona and Hawaii.
The piece de resistance is Kiva Dunes, voted at one time the top course in Alabama, a Jerry Pate design that looks and feels linksy, especially when the coastal winds blow. It recently reopened after all its greens were replaced.
I thought our first stop, Lost Key, would be typical of the Gulf Shores courses, an Arnold Palmer design through swamps and lagoons that reminded one of target golf in Arizona. But there is no typical golf course in southern Alabama. That's the point. Timber Creek near Mobile has some very hilly terrain. At one point, Stone built a couple of boardwalks into a swamp for the women's tees, eliminating what would have been a ball-swallowing carry.
"Peninsula was my best work because there was no elevation gain," he said. "We had to do everything. At Timber Creek, God left us a golf course just waiting for someone to grow grass on."
Besides Stone's work at Peninsula and Timber Creek, Stone did the splendid Rock Creek near Fairhope, a Carmel-like community. Rock Creek has a hole with a bulkhead behind, not in front of it, producing some interesting shots.
Palmer's design group did the two courses at Craft Farms, which led the way to golf in these parts, replacing what had been a gladiola farm. Jay Morrish and his son, Carter, did a remake of the Wharf, which I enjoyed very much. Glenlakes and Soldiers Creek offer additional quality in the area with even lower green fees.
More than most, they are all courses we all can play.
This story originally appeared in Cybergolf on August 26, 2009.
Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.