Reinvention and reaffirmation are the themes of Golf Digest’s Best New Course winners for 2018. The Black Course at Streamsong Resort, the third 18 at the hugely popular central Florida golf mecca, prevails in the Public Course category. This Gil Hanse design introduces a new concept to American golf, the jumbo-size green, and the surprising manner in which that idea came about is a big part of its story.
This is Hanse’s third Best New win, after Rustic Canyon in 2002 and the remodeled TPC Boston in 2007. Streamsong Black won in a close contest over Mammoth Dunes, the second 18 at another extremely popular golf resort, Sand Valley in central Wisconsin. This David McLay Kidd design features huge fairways, some 100 yards wide, all edged in sand, an idea he introduced five years ago at Gamble Sands in eastern Washington. In third place is the Craddock Course at the Retreat & Links at Silvies Valley Ranch in east-central Oregon, one 18 of a reversible design by architect Dan Hixson. Its counterpart companion, the Hankins Course, routed in the opposite direction with a couple of alternate holes, finished fourth.
In the Private Course category, the winner is Congaree in southeast South Carolina, yet another in a line of Best New victories for veteran golf architect Tom Fazio, reaffirming that the 73-year-old, recently rumored to be retired from the business, is still a force in course architecture. This is Fazio’s record 16th Best New Course award, dating to Wade Hampton in 1987, covering courses in 13 states. Congaree prevailed by a healthy margin over Trinity Forest Golf Club, the firm-and-fast Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw layout that is the host of the PGA Tour’s AT&T Byron Nelson. Another Dallas-area design, Maridoe Golf Club, by architect Steve Smyers, built on the site of the old Columbian Club, finished third. Vestavia Country Club, a Lester George replacement design on the site of a well-established Birmingham, Ala., club, finished fourth.
Our Best New Courses are determined by evaluations from our national panel of experts, nearly 1,500 low-handicap male and female golfers who played candidate courses during the past 12 months and evaluated them on seven criteria: Shot Values, Design Variety, Resistance to Scoring, Memorability, Aesthetics, Conditioning and Ambience.
Keeping the golfer engaged
The commission to design and build a third layout at Streamsong Resort was a daunting challenge for Hanse, given that the resort already has two courses ranked among Golf Digest’s top 200, the Red Course by Coore and Crenshaw and the Blue Course by Tom Doak. Hanse, now the busiest course architect in the world, knew when he started at Streamsong in 2015 that his work would be compared to those two stunning 18s, so he wanted to deliver something distinctive on the largest piece of property—more than 300 acres—he has been given to work with. What’s more, Hanse says when he got the job, he was told by officials of The Mosaic Company, the mining concern that owns Streamsong—the complex is a phosphate strip-mine reclamation project—to produce a course worthy of championships. The company wanted the Black to be its tournament venue, should the PGA Tour or other entities ever show interest.
What Hanse and design partner Jim Wagner came up with is a bit curious as a tournament venue. For one thing, it doesn’t have returning nines—the ninth green is about a thousand yards from the clubhouse—which complicates matters when trying to start rounds on the first and 10th tees. But Bethpage Black (site of the 2019 PGA Championship), Pebble Beach (2019 U.S. Open) and Torrey Pines South (2021 U.S. Open) don’t have returning nines either, so that’s by no means a fatal flaw.
Also, Hanse and Wagner designed Streamsong Black as a par 73 (7,331 yards from the tips) with five par 5s, including three on the back nine, unusual for a championship test, but it’s conceivable that in competition the tee markers on the 548-yard 10th could be moved up and played as a par 4.
Finally, there are the Black’s greens: humongous, glorious, over-inflated putting surfaces. They average 13,000 square feet, more than twice the size of normal greens. In competitive golf, the only comparable set is at the Old Course at St. Andrews, where 14 of its 18 contain two flags and serve two holes playing in opposite directions. No such double duty occurs at Streamsong Black. Each green is its own massive island of grass, protected by deep, artfully shaped bunkers and occasional stretches of man-made sand dunes peppered with plants. (The par-4 13th has alternate greens, one high right on a ridge, the other low left in a hollow, but even those are bigger than normal.)
Here lies the secret of Streamsong Black: What exists today are not the greens that Hanse originally designed. He intended something far more conventional: standard-size putting surfaces surrounded by chipping areas. But those have morphed into enormous, unconventional greens.
We had discussed how to make the course difficult for tour players yet keeping it playable for resort golfers,” Hanse says. “They [Mosaic officials] suggested making severe contours around the outsides of the greens, to provide some difficulty in recovery shots [with more benign hole locations available for resort players].
I liked that idea. It’s what Mark Parsinen had preached when we were building Castle Stuart together in Scotland: Keep the golfer engaged.”
The greens were to be planted in Mini Verde hybrid Bermuda, same as Streamsong’s Blue and Red Courses (a choice over rival Champion hybrid Bermuda originally made by Crenshaw, who said he didn’t like the way Champion putted). Director of Agronomy Rusty Mercer suggested to Hanse that the green surrounds—the chipping areas—contain the same Mini Verde grass as the putting surfaces, cut at a slightly higher height, to provide a seamless transition for balls bouncing onto greens or being chipped, pitched or putted from around them.
Hanse liked the idea, which is as old as the oldest courses in Scotland, really, where everything is mostly fescue turf mowed at a variety of heights. But it’s a relatively new concept in America.
Doak and Jim Urbina championed it during their restoration of Valley Club of Montecito in California about a decade ago. That impressed architect Jay Blasi, who in his massive 2016 redesign of Santa Ana (Calif.) Country Club grassed his new putting surfaces and their surrounds in a single bentgrass known as Pure Distinction. Blasi took it a step further, shaping the surrounds not simply as gentle chipping swales but as knobs and dips and humps and hollows. On the outside edge of one green, Blasi created mounds reminiscent of the bosomy shapes of Alister MacKenzie’s famed Sitwell Park green in England which had been abandoned long ago because it lacked hole locations. By incorporating it as part of the green surrounds, mowed slightly higher than the putting surface, Blasi reasoned, it had the effect of being an extension of the green without the concern for actual hole locations.
We’re told General William Tecumseh Sherman burned nearly all of Davant Plantation during his march around the South during the “war of aggression.” Only two buildings were spared. One was a kitchen, which was subsequently remodeled into overnight lodging. In the early 1990s, actress Julia Roberts stayed in it while filming several scenes for a movie on the plantation, so the old kitchen is now called the Roberts Cottage. The 1995 movie was called, “Something to Talk About