On Friday, when I took some time to head down to Copetown and play Mystic Golf Club, it had been more than a year since I had last wandered around the Tom Pearson-designed course. At that time it was owned by Roland Berger — a fellow with seemingly few golf-related skills, and who debated me regularly on this site.
The cracks began to show at Mystic as soon as it opened. The design was difficult and those involved in the project seemed to think the public would embrace an overly challenging course with fairways that were US Open wide in places. On top of that, the conditioning was not nearly appropriate for the prices Berger was charging. Fairways featured packed dirt in place of grass. It was clear the course had opened too quickly.
At the same time, Berger advertised widely — and I suspect the handfuls of players that showed up the first fall and in the spring of 2006 were very disappointed by the conditions. My take was slightly different — I thought Berger had a great piece of property and simply built a course that, with its forced carries and narrow fairways, would be unplayable by all by a small group of low handicap players. My review of the course is here.
All of this ended badly, with Mystic forced into receivership, followed by a time when the course was run by the receiver and original superintendent Don McFaul. The GolfNorth, the company that is majority owned by Research In Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie, swooped in and snapped it up for a reported $8 million price tag. That was in June, and I had not had the chance to get back down and see what had been done with the course — until Friday.
Before heading out to see the course, I met with GolfNorth president Al Kavanagh about what his organization was up to and what plans it had for Mystic (more on that in an upcoming Score column). Kavanagh toured me around the back nine of the course, which was full with golfers on a lovely fall day, and talked about the difficulties he’d had falling the acquisition of the course. Little had been done properly, he said, and even the irrigation system had been shut down when GolfNorth took over.
Immediately GolfNorth began trying to tame the most radical elements of the course, including removal of fescue which stole balls on a regular basis; cutting long blue grass rough; sodding and restoring fairways on #2, #17 and others; adding proper signs throughout and a ton of other little nuances. It was a big job, Kavanagh says.
So where are things at? Mostly the greens on the course were in good shape (there was a large bare patch on the knoll on the par five fourth), and the fairways were vastly improved from where they were the last time I played the course. Areas where fescue had been growing — especially around the tees — were gone and often had not been replaced. Kavanagh said the whole course was a work in progress and almost had to be treated as a brand new track, though it has been open for two years.
Pricing for the day I was out was $65, including cart, and that’s probably a pretty good indicator of why the place was full of golfers.
However, I still contend the basic design of the course is flawed, and my opinion was reinforced by watching others on Friday. First of all, the 9th hole, an intersection where the 6th tee, 8th green and 9th tee come together, seemed to always have at least three groups waiting to tee off. I can only assume that’s because the hole, which I think is one of the best on the course, is also one of the hardest. The backup then continues through 10, [photopress:10th.jpg,full,alignright]one of the worst three shot holes I’ve seen in recent years. It continues to be a poor design, with a difficult tee shot, followed by a long forced carry to a small approach area the other side of a ravine. Then players have to hit a short iron over trees to a green once again fronted by a ravine. I’m always left shaking my head and wondering why anyone would create such a penal hole — and how many players can actually manage it. At the very least trees should be cleared on the left of the fairway, the landing area across the ravine should be extended to the right, and a couple of the trees in front of the green should be removed.
However, the hole still makes me wonder about Pearson’s abilities as a designer.
In other places, Pearson seems to think public golfers would enjoy a round on a US Open styled course. The landing area on the 6th hole is no more than 15 paces wide, and protected by two large bunkers on either side of the fairway. Though the shot asks players to hit a draw around the left bunker, the fairway is sloped away, so that even the perfect drive that hits the fairway is likely to end up in the right rough. Once again, it just appears that Pearson doesn’t understand shot values and strategy.
Thankfully there’s some good stuff at Mystic as well. The 9th and 18th holes are great epic par fours, which ask for two good shots. The green on the 18th, however, only allows for players to fly in the ball; the 9th, which is longer, is better and allows players to run a ball into a back pin position.
All of which makes me think GolfNorth has some challenges in front of them. Kavanagh’s group has tried to tame the wilder elements of the course with some success, but there are some design areas that need to be softened to simply make the course more playable and to cut back on round lengths. As said, GN is doing many of the right things.
Only time will tell whether they can get everything in place to make the course attractive to the average golfer.