Bringing the Sticks–Golf in Atlanta

If one photo encapsulates Atlanta golf, it might be this one: big elevation changes, cart paths, obscene housing developments, yet occasionally thoughtful hole designs (this is Windermere, Mark and Davis Love III design).

If one photo encapsulates Atlanta golf, it might be this one: big elevation drops, infinite cart path loops, double-sized McMansions, and yet, in spite of it all, occasionally thoughtful hole renderings (this is Windermere, a Mark and Davis Love III design).

For a lot of people Georgia represents a very specific American golf ideal. Most of that feeling, of course, is tethered to the fantasy of Augusta National and isn’t so different than how the rest of us might look at Pebble Beach and imagine a California full of courses dancing on ocean cliffs or a Florida overrun with compelling target golf and unique island greens. Sure, it exists, but it’s not the reality.

Fairways slicing through pines and dogwoods, the blooming azaleas, mirror-faced ponds, the ghost of Bobby Jones–this basically represents one golf course in Georgia. The rest are like they are anywhere–packed in residential developments, strung along backyards and miles of cart paths, overcrowded, often struggling, shaggy, overpriced, sometimes overdesigned, exceedingly normal.

In other words, when thinking about golf in Georgia, or specifically golf around Atlanta, think of the rule and not the exception. For a city the size of Atlanta, the overall access, quality and affordability of public access golf leaves us wanting more.

The problems are manifold: suburban sprawl, traffic, developer myopia, the colonization of middling residential courses, clay soil which results in poor drainage, uncompromising terrain, invasive tree cover and undergrowth, and a lack of aesthetic originality. Of course, I’m biased–I live here.

The 7th hole at Atlanta's Bear's Best outpost.

The 7th hole at Atlanta’s Bear’s Best outpost: how does this make you feel?

Atlanta is also a private club-driven market, and the success of a handful of exclusive clubs influences how public courses are perceived, maintained, developed and designed. Too many courses chase a pre-conceived program or presentation, and too few reflect the natural aspects and limitations of the land they’re on and the demographic they’re in.

Much of the public and private golf is spread throughout the rugged foothills of the expanding northern suburbs, with more courses to the east and northeast and, to a lesser extent, the west and south. Playing anywhere outside one’s neighborhood requires a commute, and the particular place and time of day can add significant time and frustration to the commitment.

Offerings intown, the area that lies within the I-285 perimeter that circles the city, are few. The handful of inexpensive city courses, however, actually have solid bones and display some degree of authentic charm–notably North Fulton and Browns Mill, in my opinion–though poor conditions, spartan operations and slow play often plague them.

With the worst having been said, there are some venues worth pursuing. In different ways, these courses find ways to add umami to the commonness that dilutes the flavor of public-access golf in Atlanta.

The First Five

Cobblestone Golf Course (Ken Dye, 1993)–Located in the northwest suburb of Acworth, Cobblestone looks like a product of its era. There’s a certain manufactured appearance defined by fairway benches, greenside mounds and flat-bottomed bunkers with grass faces, but it works well on a site that slopes down toward Lake Acworth. The course is lovely (8 holes touch the lake shore), is tightly routed with almost no surrounding real estate, possesses a rhythmic variety of hole lengths and concepts, and features pronounced but not severe elevation changes. If I were limited to just one area public course to play over and over, Cobblestone would be it.

The dainty, and dangerous, par-3 16th at Cobblestone.

The dainty, and dangerous, par-3 16th at Cobblestone.

The Frog (Tom Fazio, 1998)–Tom Fazio didn’t make his name building affordable public courses (by affordable we’re talking $50-$60), but he created a good one here. Like Cobblestone, the course sits by itself with no housing on it, riding the large property with few limitations. Simple, attractive and graceful par-4’s like 1, 2, 6, 7, 12 and 17 aren’t surprising, but thought-provoking holes like 5 and 18 are. The greens feature slight crowns and nice contouring, and the bunkering is assertive without being overcooked. A top notch course.

The Frog is routed over milder ground more common to the west of Atlanta.

The Frog is routed over milder ground more common to the west of Atlanta.

Reunion Country Club (Mike Riley, 2001)–Now we’re getting into some of that north Atlanta terrain funk. Riley, an Atlanta-based architect, didn’t have much to work with beyond hillsides, forests, ravines and some residential corridors and restrictions. But due to some good routing decisions and bold architectural strokes (including a par-5 with alternate greens) he packed it full of excitement while mitigating much of the usual severity. It doesn’t all work all the time but there’s more guts in this design than in the next ten courses combined.

A typical excerpt from Reunion's--and north Atlanta's--flowing and choppy terrain.

A typical excerpt from Reunion’s–and north Atlanta’s–flowing and choppy terrain.

Legacy on Lanier Golf Club (Joe Lee, 1988/Billy Fuller, 2009)–Scenery was never the problem with this course, with well over half its holes sitting atop Lake Lanier. But a recent renovation added length, new holes and some needed attitude to the design. I’m not a big fan of some of the bunkering, but there’s plenty of action off the tee with some tantalizing drives across corners of water, and the inland holes are typically as engaging as those on the shore.

Water, water everywhere. It makes for a scenic, and probably multiple-sleeve day, at Legacy on Lanier.

Water, water everywhere. It makes for a scenic and probably multiple-sleeve day at Legacy on Lanier.

Cherokee Run Golf Club (Arnold Palmer Design, 1995)–A course like Cherokee Run wouldn’t rate very highly in a more pure public golf city like Denver or Chicago or Phoenix, but in Atlanta it gets noticed for pure thrills if nothing else. Located 30 minutes east in Conyers, the course just keeps throwing objects and obstacles in your path–hills, ravines, rock walls, granite outcroppings, drop-shot holes, island fairways and greens tucked behind streams and ponds. It’s a bit of a hot mess but one thing’s guaranteed–you won’t be bored.

Worth a Look

Woodmont Golf Club (Robert Trent Jones, Jr., 1999)–Woodmont’s not far behind the first five, and if you absolutely hate gimmicky golf on difficult ground, go ahead and swap it out for Cherokee Run. The course is broad, smartly bunkered and much more relaxed conceptually than some in the first tier.

Mystery Valley (Dick Wilson and Joe Lee, 1965)–This is a vintage gem. It’s a little rough around the edges and not likely to impress the international traveller, but with the natural rise and fall of the tree-lined fairways and unforced composition of holes, Mystery Valley gets more and more priceless with each passing year.

North Fulton (Chandler Egan(?), 1937)–There’s some uncertainty about the true origins of North Fulton, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a warm, throwback course in the heart of Buckhead that will remind you of hoofing your bag when you were 12 years old, at least if you came up on scruffy, lovable muni’s like I did.

Crystal Lake Golf & Country Club (Denis Griffiths, 2006)–In spite of a routing that’s all over the place this golf course is a blast off the tee with fast spacious fairways, some tasty short par-4’s and challenging line-of-play bunkering. If Grifiths would have bothered to contour the greens at all he might really have had something here.

Bear’s Best (Nicklaus Design, 2002)–Remember the hype when the Bear’s Best courses opened a decade ago? This one is much more palatable now that it’s no longer inflated with self-importance. It lacks continuity but so do most north Atlanta courses, and a few really strong holes and a nice property overcome the tired “all-star holes” concept.

Private Eyes

Don’t turn down the opportunity to play Atlanta’s marquee private courses–Peachtree Golf Club, East Lake, Atlanta Athletic Club, and I might throw TPC Sugarloaf into that category too. They’re great experiences, but once you get past the luxury, conditioning, clubhouses, pro tournaments and history I’m not convinced they’re the best places for pure golf.

A sense of the bunkering and shaping at The Standard Club's par-5 2nd.

A sense of the bunkering and shaping at The Standard Club’s par-5 2nd.

The Standard Club, Capital City Crabapple, and Rivermont Country Club are particular favorites. The Standard Club roams a spacious site with little interruption for Mike Riley’s highly aesthetic redesign work, now almost ten years old.

Capital City’s Tom Fazio-designed Crabapple Course similarly sits on what feels like virgin, limitless land north of Alpharetta. Best known for hosting the 2003 WGC-American Express Championship, won by Tiger Woods at just -6, it’s both lovely and full of options, with wide fairways and slope-shouldered greens and some of the most penal rough in the region.

Mike Riley also renovated the old Joe Lee-designed Rivermont course in Johns Creek, this time installing classic hole concepts (a great Redan; a formidable Winged Foot-inspired putting surface, etc.) as well as some bold fresh ideas into the formerly ordinary holes. The owners are receptive to outside play if one expresses interest in high level architecture.

The serious contour's of Rivermont's par-3 6th were inspired by the 10th at Winged Foot East.

The serious contour’s of Rivermont’s par-3 6th were inspired by the 10th at Winged Foot East.

A Word About Some High Profile Places…

Chateau Elan–This winery and resort, with three 18-hole courses (one is private) designed by Denis Griffiths, is one of Atlanta’s most popular. The golf is solid and pleasant if not particularly novel, with clean and well-presented holes strung over wooded elevations. Only the most discerning will be disappointed, though only the most accepting will be dazzled.

Stone Mountain–There are two 18-hole courses at Stone Mountain, a recreational playground near an enormous granite outcropping east of Atlanta. The original Robert Trent Jones holes are solid though not very memorable, and the John LaFoy holes, added years later, are questionably executed even when running along the serene shore of a large lake. Play at your own risk.

Echelon–One of the most upscale developments to open right before the economic and housing crash of 2008 was Echelon, originally intended to be the Georgia Tech Club. The club and Rees Jones-designed course never got off the ground in spite of some positive–and absolutely wrong–reviews. Play only if you like cart-ball courses hammered into uneven and unforgiving landscapes.

The 14th at Echelon is a stair-step slog nearly 100 feet uphill.

The 14th at Echelon is a stair-step slog nearly 100 feet uphill.

Longshadow–One of the area’s most original and interesting courses, Longshadow, a Mike Young design less than an hour east of Atlanta, went bankrupt and closed a few years ago. Too bad–it was probably in the top two or three best designs we had.

One of the area's best, now lost...Longshadow's par-3 17th.

One of the area’s best, now lost…Longshadow’s par-3 17th.

Final Word

If you don’t have the juice to get onto a lot of private courses you’re going to find Atlanta a difficult, and probably unfulfilling, destination. There are more decent golf courses than I’ve listed here, but really outside maybe Cobblestone and The Frog you could group the next dozen or so in the same category.

Well-traveled players, in short, will not be impressed by the greater Atlanta public golf menu. For those seeking something more substantial and more representative of the southeast, take the most common advice: find the time to head out to Reynolds Plantation and Cuscowilla at Lake Oconee.

Sorry, but this is a silly, and all too typical, scene from around Atlanta.

Sorry, but this is silly…and all too typical of golf around Atlanta.

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