GolfPass - The Approach | A Southern Draw
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A Southern Draw

Back in late-October of last year, the time when fall slowly begins to creep up on NYC, I found myself staring at the next two weeks on my calendar, slyly smiling, knowing that I would soon be elsewhere. Where was I going? In short, I was headed to the South. A region that has always inspired a gut-full of intrigue within me, but one that I had never had a chance to fully understand. Why was I going? Admittedly, this trip was never supposed to be centered around golf. However, with a bit of maneuvering, the pieces began to fall right into place to make it just that.

I’d start my journey in New Orleans, Louisiana where I would join my brother and friends from NYC. We were going there to celebrate what New Orleanians do better than anyone else at the end of October – Halloween. Second fiddle only to Mardi Gras, Halloween in The Big Easy is serious in every sense of the word. The people, their costumes, the decorated cast-iron balconies of The French Quarter – encompasses exactly what Halloween should feel like. Not to mention, Voodoo Fest – one of the city’s largest music and arts festivals was being held that weekend. The stage was set for a strong start to my southern tour.

Armed with my carry-on bag and golf clubs, but still lacking a halloween costume, I arrived in New Orleans. I had no planned golf until the weekend was over. That was to come at the next destination. However, my perpetual itch to explore new destinations and their surrounding areas quickly got the best of me. That second itch of mine, spelt G-O-L-F was also staring me right in the face as I placed my clubs down in our Treme shotgun house.

Before I knew what happened, I scoured through the weekend’s itinerary and pinpointed the exact day and time I could squeeze in golf. I then booked my first-ever round of golf in the South. A mid-day round at the host of the PGA’s Zurich Classic and a Pete Dye design, TPC Louisiana.

Located in the New Orleans suburb of Avondale, TPC Louisiana is a world-class golf venue within reach for all who know of it’s off-the-beaten-path-but-not-all-that-far-from-the-french-quarter location. Set on over 250 acres of wetlands along the Mississippi River Delta, the course itself is a nature reserve of sorts. Giant oak trees guard the best of approach shots, cypress trees line fairways, and alligators patiently wait along the numerous ponds and bayous salivating for their Chubbs Peterson moment. To bring the ambience full-circle, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” was played multiple times during my round. There aren’t many moments quite like hitting out of a Pete Dye pot-bunker with 5 ‘gators as your audience, and CCR’s cajun-twang and bluesy tone seducing the golf ball towards the hole.

Pete Dye did a masterful job with the piece of land he was given to work with. Incorporating this kind of landscape into almost every hole he built is what makes TPC Louisiana such a unique southern golf course. Still, Dye leaves his marks all over the course – railroad ties, mini pot bunkers scattered around greens, and snake-like bunkers that seemingly go for miles hug numerous fairways.

“There aren’t many moments quite like hitting out of a Pete Dye pot-bunker with 5 ‘gators as your audience, and CCR’s cajun-twang and bluesy tone seducing the golf ball towards the hole.”

The finishing stretch of holes – 16, 17, and 18 – best encapsulate Dye’s distinctions and all that TPC Louisiana has to offer. The 16th hole, a par 4 that longer hitters may dare to drive, begins with a cypress lined, slithering fairway. The green, guarded by water both left and long, features a tiny pot-bunker on the right with a tractor beam-like quality, only bested by the Death Star, if one’s approach is not perfect. The picturesque, par 3 17th is exposed to the same water as on 16, leaving anything hit left wet, very wet. The green, with railroad ties sloping into the wetland abyss, is a must-hit. TPC Louisiana finishes in style with the 18th hole – a par 5 that offers multiple vistas of the course, clubhouse, and surrounding wetlands. With water guarding the entire right side of the hole, Dye places an equally long bunker alongside it, keeping golfers honest and forcing accuracy off the tee. To get home, navigate the green that is, once again, surrounded by those pesky pot-bunkers.

The ability to access TPC Louisiana, a track on the professional circuit, was one of the top 5 courses I’ve ever played on. Not much different than the city it resides in – the authenticity, unique characteristics, spontaneity, and bayou vibes of my round at TPC Louisiana left me longing for more of it. I quickly squashed that feeling, though, as I headed off to meet my friends in the French Quarter for Sazeracs and jambalaya. Life is about balance people.

My trip to New Orleans was an eye opener for me and since this particular visit, I have returned once and plan to do so again in the near future. But the story doesn’t end there, nor does my dabbling with golf in the South. I had more places to be and what better way to see a place that my eyes hadn’t gazed upon than to drive right through it? So I said goodbye to my friends as they departed to brisk NYC, grabbed my brother, hopped in a car, and we headed east.

As you leave New Orleans, Lake Pontchartrain appears to you as a vast gateway to the “real” south. The road to follow coursed through the Mississippi Gulf Coast where I began to get a sense of the vast shift in landscape that, for an outsider like myself, seemed so uncharacteristic of the South I had been told about. We pushed on, even though the idea of a bed of jumbo gulf shrimp, seen on the hundreds of billboards along the way, slowly coaxed me to do otherwise. Once we reached the border and entered into Alabama, our 1st stop on our stint in The Heart of Dixie was within our grasp. Just outside of Mobile is Magnolia Grove – 1 of the 11 courses forming the famed Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, and the first of three that we would get a chance to play.

To many golfers, the RTJ Golf Trail represents much more than merely a network of golf courses. It was built as a symbol of what golf is supposed to be – beautiful, natural, majestic yet unassuming, and affordable. When I look at golf’s greatest builders, and he is undoubtedly one of them, I view RTJ as the Architect of the People. Growing up in New Jersey, I spent much of my youth learning the game at a muni-course near my home, Hominy Hill, built by the same man. Of the other courses built by him that I’ve had the joy to play such as Montauk Downs on Long Island and Port Royal in Bermuda, all evoke the same feeling that I experienced in my sampling of the RTJ Golf Trail. Quite openly, that feeling is home.

Magnolia Grove, set in the woodlands of Mobile, has 54 holes of pure parkland golf. We arrived in the late afternoon without a tee time and strolled to the 1st tee of The Crossings course. The course felt as if it was our very own. Towering pines, the sound of wildlife, and deep creeks weaving through a number of holes set the theme for many tee shots. As we made our approaches, RTJ’s near symmetrical, multi-pronged, greenside bunkers etch his signature into the golf course throughout. Maybe as an ode to Pete Dye, or perhaps a self-realization that this is what characterizes a small piece of golf in the South, railroad ties make multiple appearances. As we finished our round at Magnolia Grove and the sun was about to set, my brother and I enjoyed a beer overlooking the 1st tee of the Falls course with the thought of “what we would do for another 18”. But as I said earlier, we had places to be and light had eluded us. We will be back.

2 hours up the road, on the way towards Montgomery, and after a quick breakfast at Waffle House (a first for me – big waffle guy) we arrived at Cambrian Ridge. Characterized by dramatic elevation changes and an abundance of water, it is now fully apparent that the indication of a great golf course is to do more with less. If given the right land to build on, a golf course will shape itself. There is no tool that can do the job quite like mother nature can and Cambrian Ridge fits perfectly into this train of thought. 3 separate 9-hole courses – Canyon, Sherling, and Loblolly – allow the golfer to choose which test they want to take. Rest assured, any combination of the 3 presents an uphill challenge (at times literal) for even the most skilled of golfers. Of all the courses on the RTJ Golf Trail, Cambrian Ridge is the most remote and perhaps the most unique.   

“Quite openly, that feeling is home.

At our final stop along the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, our travels took us from Greenville to Dothan in the south-east corridor of the state. Cotton fields leading to the horizon and roadside-BBQ pits, smoking some of the best pulled pork on this planet, highlighted the trek through the rolling hills. I had finally been given credence that my my perception of the South wasn’t entirely off. Better late than never. Knowing our final round in Alabama was fast approaching, we pulled into Highland Oaks with only one thought in mind – let’s have some fun. The hidden charm of the RTJ Golf Trail is that, along the trail, 7 of the stops include golf’s most relaxed layout – the short course. Highland Oaks’ rendition, 9-holes of par 3 bliss totaling 1,809 yards, fit the bill. With only a few irons in our bags and some cold ones stowed away, because what’s fun without beer, we hit the shorty. An hour and a half later, and with 12 holes under our belts (shhhhhh) we had accomplished our goal. The three water holes deserved a replay as they were among the most enjoyable holes I played during my entire journey.

Leaving the RTJ Golf Trail behind with an appetizer of it’s full potential, I knew I had to return. 48 holes in 48 hours at 3 of the 11 trail sites laid the groundwork of my understanding that golf is not Pebble Beach nor Augusta, but what you wish to make of it. Golf is so inherently personal. Walk or ride, driver or wood, muni or private, bermuda or bent, links or parkland – no one will ever truly experience the game the same way you do. Except, at this moment, I was the driver. We took the car and headed just north of Jacksonville, FL to Amelia Island.

“Golf is so inherently personal. Walk or ride, driver or wood, muni or private, bermuda or bent, links or parkland – no one will ever truly experience the game the same way you do.”

My story of golf in the South had reached its final destination. From the moment I arrived in Amelia Island, gentle ocean breezes, swaying palms, and towering sand dunes introduced me to a different version of the South. This South shows up to a party adorned in linen, a panama hat, cigar in mouth, and a flask of rum. Cool, laidback, had some class, but clearly didn’t take themselves too seriously. What this small island also had to offer was golf, and a lot of it. Whether by chance or illusory correlation, we had a tee time booked at Oak Marsh. An early Pete Dye design built in 1972, shortly after his completion of Harbour Town Golf Links in South Carolina. For me, coming full circle back to another Dye course solidified his place as one of, if not the, most influential architect in golf in this region of the country.

Meandering through the marshes of Amelia Island and draped in Spanish Moss, Oak Marsh was as pleasant to play as it was scenic. Clear that a young Dye was still perfecting his style and grace, imperfection can sometimes be the ultimate perfection. Where he is rough around the edges in his design approach, he is clear in his intent to utilize the land as his saving grace. Creeks dissect greens forcing even the most accurate shot to think twice, while the course’s largest marsh dazzles the eye for four straight holes presenting imminent danger in the same breath. My favorite hole, which lies along the northern shore of the marsh, is the par 5 9th. The hole, with the marsh stretching along the right and a waste bunker, featuring a giant oak tree, nestled next to it, unassumingly asks your tee sheet to test it. With the wind at your back, a birdie could be in the cards. A perfect way to reach the turn.

From New Orleans, through Alabama, and finally in Amelia Island I had gotten my first taste of golf in the South. While my trip would continue even further south to Miami and ultimately end in Rincon, Puerto Rico – a surf haven on its northwest coast – my clubs would not join me. What did were my impressions of a region filled with altering terrains – the wetlands of Louisiana, the wooded highlands of Alabama, and the Atlantic shores of Florida – people rooted in their distinct culture, and an outlook towards golf that intersects tranquility, heritage, and approachability.

I had been drawn to the South for many reasons and, now, it had a firm grasp on me.