The Good Life

Tiger the Designer

One of the greatest golfers ever is now designing golf courses, and his first public course in the United States just opened in August
| By Larry Olmsted | From America’s Most Notorious Mobsters, November/December 2020
Tiger the Designer

“Dynamite and creativity and here we are,”says Tiger Woods with a chuckle. It’s September 22, opening day at Payne’s Valley, his first public golf course design in the United States, and he is standing in the clubhouse after his round, explaining the dramatic design of the course’s 19th hole. Just 15 minutes earlier he had made his par putt on the island green par-3, after officially opening the layout with a charity match where he and fellow pro Justin Thomas took on European superstars Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose.

With occasional taunts from both sides, the Americans won the lighthearted contest then took a ceremonial approach to the bonus hole, joined on the tee by legends Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus—the only golfer with more major wins than Woods. All six avoided the water and found the putting surface some 140 yards out.

“The scale of the property is enormous,” says Woods, “so small water features would have looked out of place on this golf course.” There isn’t much that’s small about Payne’s Valley, a beautiful, hilly property that’s studded with rock formations and towering cliffs of exposed 300-million-year-old limestone, some of which now have been enhanced with impressive waterfalls, in turn feeding ponds, creeks and creating peninsulas and island greens. The 19th—a hole for settling bets, or breaking a tie in a close match—sits in a pond carved out of an even bigger 25-story limestone cliff.

Payne’s Valley is the fifth course at the Big Cedar Lodge resort in Hollister, Missouri, where Nicklaus and Player have also done designs. Big Cedar is the flagship resort of the growing hospitality company of billionaire entrepreneur Johnny Morris, founder and CEO of the Bass Pro Shops retail empire. 

“Johnny,” says Tiger, “was constantly challenging us to think bigger.” The clubhouse sits atop the course’s highest cliff, more than 250 feet above the valley floor. The first two holes play impressively downhill into the valley in which the rest of the routing is set, but getting back up at the finish had Woods stymied.

 “Originally, 18 played more down and to the left, and we were having a hard time trying to figure out how we were going to get people back up here [to the clubhouse],” Woods says. “Johnny had this vision that we needed to come through the rocks. How were we going to do that?” 

This is where the dynamite and creativity came in. They blasted out a canyon in the cliff, creating a spot that remains completely hidden from view until a golfer leaves the 18th green. Carts ascend “Cliffhanger Trail,” a nearly mile long path that switchbacks up the steep rock face, traversing a metal bridge across a deep gorge and a short cave tunnel through the cliff itself. But this memorable finale is just the whipped cream on a delightful sundae of a golf course, and one that clearly announces to the biggest audience yet that Woods just might be as adept at designing courses as he has been at playing them. It is safe to say there is no finish like it in the world of golf, a world few know as well as Woods, who has quickly been making a big architectural splash by drawing deeply on his knowledge and experience. 

Woods is a household name, arguably the most famous name in golf, and was in the spotlight even before turning pro in 1996. But he’s new to the design world. Since launching TGR Designs in 2006, Woods has completed three full-sized, 18-hole courses. The first one to open was El Cardonal at Diamante, in late 2014, in Mexico’s vacation paradise of Los Cabos, where he and TGR have racked up accolades for his series of courses. His first U.S. track, the private Bluejack National in Montgomery County, Texas (near Houston), opened in 2016 and has been earning raves for several years. In August, only days before opening Payne’s Valley, he opened another routing in the Bahamas, and he has another three underway, as well as three short courses (with 10 to 12 holes), and a fourth at Pebble Beach scheduled to open in the first half of 2021. (See sidebar, page 95, for the full list of Tiger’s courses.) It is finally time for the traveling golfer to start taking note of Woods’ work.

“People will want to play a Tiger course because it’s a Tiger course, just as they have embraced Jack Nicklaus designs in the past few decades,” says Michael Patrick Shiels, an author and broadcaster who covered the PGA Tour for years. “In the insular golf industry, we tend to focus on top architects, but the reality is that the average golfer doesn’t necessarily know who Tom Doak or Gil Hanse is—or care—but everyone knows who Tiger Woods is, and if they play golf, they care. As he starts to roll out more public courses, people are going to go out of their way to visit them. Fortunately for golf travelers, every public course he’s done so far, and his coming one at Pebble Beach, is set at a top golf resort with multiple courses that is well worth visiting.”

Even though the scope of his work is small, Woods nonetheless has quickly made it clear that he has a particular signature style, and a big part of that style is playability, which is surprising. Many top-players-turned-designers struggled for years to grasp the simple reality that few players hit the ball as well as they do. 

“Playing in countless pro-ams over the years, I’ve realized that most golfers struggle with the game,” Woods says. “That has had an impact on my philosophy as a golf designer and wanting to create more playable courses. But I also think back to when I was a kid and couldn’t hit the ball very far. That’s why I like to create areas to bounce the ball onto the green, which was often my only option.” 

Payne’s Valley is a pilgrimage-worthy design, a mashup of best practices Woods has seen in his storied career. The island hole is reminiscent of the late, great Pete Dye, while some critics see in his work reflections of Augusta National, where Tiger has won five Masters. Not coincidentally, Dye and Augusta co-designer Alister MacKenzie are among the very few architect influences Woods will openly name. The open fronted greens, intended to accept running shots and even putts, are a hallmark of his self-proclaimed favorite architectural style, the links courses of Scotland and Ireland. The broad and forgiving fairways pay tribute to the Old Course at St Andrews, where Woods won two Open Championships. All of these elements add up to a very high level of playability and nonstop, non-penal fun. 

Woods is a believer in bigger fairways “to help the higher handicapper keep the ball in play,” he says, “but the preferred angle of approach in these wide landing areas is usually protected by bunkers or other hazards. This challenges the better players to take on these hazards if they want to have the best chance to score.” Woods has embraced the use of clear risk/reward holes at Payne’s Valley, something he demonstrated while playing the par-5 fourth. He boomed a drive over the far off left fairway bunker to set up a second shot to the green for an eagle opportunity (which did not materialize). The green is downhill from the landing area but protected in front by a rock-strewn tumbling creek fed by one of the waterfalls cascading down the limestone cliffs that encircle the back of the green in amphitheater style. The result combines great course management strategy with an eye-popping, Jurassic Park–worthy visual. Shorter hitters will lay up before the hazard while big drivers can flirt first with the bunkers and then the water.

At times, the fairways—almost entirely rough free—seem impossibly wide. To put this in context, the next most open of the five courses at Big Cedar is Buffalo Ridge (designed by Tom Fazio) whose fairly generous fairways comprise 50 acres of short grass, immediately flanked by high, penal rough. Payne’s Valley has nearly three times as much room to spray it off the tee, with 85 acres of fairway and another 45 of first cut rough so short you might not notice the difference. “It’s very playable,” said Thomas after his round, “but it’s also fun for us because I felt that while the fairways were big, after playing it you can see that one side is usually better than the other.” In their match, the fifth hole was designated as a long drive contest, and while the other three players blasted massive tee shots down the left center, the apparently shorter line, Tiger used his inside knowledge to take the right center line to a higher and better draining section of the fairway, going for the big bounces from the harder surface. When his ball finally came to a stop after 348 yards, he had won. 

Whether you visit Missouri or Mexico or any forthcoming Woods venue, here’s what you can expect from his design style. Wide forgiving fairways, links-style open approaches to greens lending themselves to running ground approaches, very visible bunkers both framing landing areas and marking aggressive lines for long carry shortcuts, and numerous eagle opportunities. That includes drivable par-4s (there are two at Payne’s Valley) and par-5s that are potentially reachable in two. “My goal has always been to design a limited number of distinct and memorable golf courses that are fun and playable for golfers of all abilities,” Woods says. 

The courses are also well balanced to offer challenge alongside playability, with a wide variety of par-3 lengths and some markedly longer holes. At Payne’s Valley, he follows a short, drivable downhill par-4 with an uphill monster par-5 that plays considerably longer than the 600-plus yards on the scorecard—from the white tees. Even famous long hitters McIlroy and Thomas had mid-irons left after hitting driver and a fairway wood, something now rare at the pro level. 

“Tiger Woods, the architect, is all about width and broad earth moving with crisp, clean bunkering… His holes aren’t terribly daunting for novices to play and generally void of forced carries or greens that are too extreme,” says Brandon Tucker, senior managing editor for GolfAdvisor.com, the digital home of the Golf Channel. “What is particularly refreshing is that he is very high on short courses and family-friendly golf. At Bluejack, he’s got the “Frank” set of junior tees and The Playgrounds short course. He’s also got short courses in the Bahamas, Cabo and now Pebble Beach. He may be chasing Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors but he’s in no way trying to mimic his architecture career.” Nicklaus, in sharp contrast to what Tiger is doing, emerged on the scene with some courses so difficult they seemed designed as if only he would play them.

Tiger’s passion for short courses fits his long involvement in the quest to get more youth involved in golf, and is one of two other constants he seems to be embracing no matter where he goes to build. Big Cedar’s Payne’s Valley is the first 18 he has done, private or public, that does not have an accompanying short course, mainly because the resort already has two of its own. The other quickly emerging Woods design signature is a concerted effort to showcase the local feel, beauty and natural features of each area, from Sonoran Desert dry washes to Ozarks lake views. 

“I always try to incorporate the local environment into my golf course designs. At El Cardonal [in Los Cabos], I oriented as many tee shots as possible toward the big views of the Pacific Ocean. At Bluejack National, the golf course feels as if you’re playing through a forest of oaks and pines. Payne’s Valley created a tremendous opportunity to highlight the beauty of the Ozarks. We incorporated many of the rock outcroppings on the property into features of the golf course. We also placed the tees and greens in locations to best experience the spectacular views of the surrounding areas.”

Johnny Morris built the immense Big Cedar resort (and spared no expense in expansion and continuous improvement) because he grew up in the region, passionately loves the beauty of the area and is obsessed with sharing that beauty with others. One of the ways he chose to do that was to invest millions in a cadre of famous golf course designers from the critically acclaimed duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to Nicklaus, the most famous player turned architect, to Tom Fazio, the most reliable long-term career designer in the business, with contributions by Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. The only unknown he took a gamble on was Woods, who he first met through their shared passion for fishing and the outdoors. “Personally, I can’t stand being inside the house,” says Woods. “I love being outside.” 

Morris says that before committing he went to see private Bluejack National in Texas, where the beauty convinced him he had the man who could do justice to his dramatic setting. It was the same case for Sir Franklyn Wilson, KCMG when he was planning his luxury Jack’s Bay resort development in the Bahamas. 

“Tiger was the ideal golf course architect to pair with this exceptional parcel of land. Firstly, he is the world’s most creative architect. Secondly, he knows the Bahamas well. Thirdly, his concept of ‘The Playground’ and the freedom to play it as you wish was a perfect match for the Island of Eleuthera, which itself means ‘Freedom.’ It begins with a profound appreciation that Mother Nature is the Designer in Chief... After all, it was Mother Nature who placed within one parcel of land pretty much everything which makes the Bahamas so physically attractive.” Jack’s Bay includes a unique, 10-hole coastal short course by TGR Designs, which Woods described: “When drawing up the plans for The Playground, I wanted to create a course that was fun and welcoming but also provided a challenge. The 10-hole short course turned out incredible. Playing alongside the Atlantic Ocean, the views are spectacular, but it also means the wind is a factor.”  

Despite Woods’ success at golf course design, his main focus remains his competitive playing career. (He won the 2019 Masters, his 15th major victory.) As a result, he’s been turning down design offers. 

“We’ve been fortunate in opportunities, but I’ve turned down a lot. For now, I just want to be able to work with great partners on great properties and I think that my playing career is still there.” 

When asked where he would want to do an original design if he could choose anywhere, he answered without hesitation. “I’ve always loved links golf and I think people will see elements of that in all my designs. Allowing players to be creative and use the ground as their friend is always something I’m thinking about. I would love to design a links course somewhere in Ireland or Scotland. Links golf has always been my favorite golf to play because of all the options and creativity needed to score. I have a lot of fun designing golf courses, but the idea of creating something that could be around long into the future is quite humbling and exciting.”

Golf

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