It’s very rare for me to struggle to describe in words augmented with photos the true essence of what a golf course offers. Today’s round at Lakewood Golf Club was so much more than tee up ball, hit ball, putt ball.
If the nature and the natural beauty that prevails in this area on the gulf of Mexico moves you then before you even arrive on the grounds of Lakewood Golf Club prepare to be awed. One of the dominant species of trees in the southern US is the live oak. These massive sprawling trees are one of the most incredible, breathtaking gifts of nature anywhere in the world. Their massive twisting branches meander like flailing octopus tentacles. They line both sides of many avenues and streets in the south looming over the traffic below creating a wooded leafy canopy letting in rays of sunshine and light. This is the drive that brings you inward for a couple of miles from Mobile harbor to Lakewood Golf Club home of the Dogwood and Azalea golf courses.
Live oaks also line many holes on the Dogwood Course and its natural beauty will be met with many great shots and exultations of glee as we play it. Truly, this is one of the finest courses we have played in the whole of the US.
Home to 1,300 members who are privileged to play not only The Dogwood course, but also the recently renovated Azalea course, Lakewood Golf Club embodies every positive aspect of a golf facility; an outstanding practice area, flawless course design and complimenting amenities like a stylish pro shop and very cozy restaurant, bar and outside patio.
It is accessible by nonmembers if one is a guest of the adjacent Grand Hotel Resort or equally accessible if you are simply a guest of a member.
The needs of a member is often more extensive than an infrequent player, but at Lakewood GC both are treated with an equal measure of warmth and professionalism. The daily presence of active members helps to develop a kinship and sense of family with the staff and fellow members. The welcome we received as we approached the golf shop counter was the beginning of a series of thoughtful gestures and kindness that often has a greater impact than any great tee shot or long putt made.
Bob lit up as I introduced myself as if Jack Nicklaus had sashayed in himself. He took the time to then offer the business card of the Director of Golf, Niall Fraser. He enhanced his hospitable demeanor by introducing both Myra and me to Ian Patten. Ian is in charge of the most unique practice area I’ve seen anywhere aptly called The Experience. Bob also mentioned that Niall was Canadian, a statement that always warms me, meeting a fellow Canuck.
Ian was heading to The Experience practice area to meet Niall Fraser. Eager not only to see The Experience, but actually experience it firsthand we exited the gorgeous, stylish clubhouse. As we were leaving, I heard a lady standing next to a power cart say the word “Edmonton”. As I politely asked her was she from Edmonton, an upright and exuberant man came towards me hand extended asking quizzically “Bill Flower?” followed by a confident announcement “ I‘m Niall Fraser”. What ensued was now a veritable Canadian love in. The aforementioned lady was indeed from Edmonton, as was her female friend and Niall. Myra and I living in the adjacent and most western province of beautiful British Columbia were fodder for about 10 minutes of humor, laughter and a general sharing of the importance of golf and fun joined in unison.. We had now met the conductor of the symphony, Niall, for our day playing The Dogwood at Lakewood GC.
Under the warming 70F sunshine, Niall escorted us the 500 yards to The Experience which is an outstanding array of sectioned off diverse practice parcels. 2 bunkers, a putting green, chipping green, full grass range, even a spot where long grass replicating the rough out on the course was provided. Ian Patten showed us an outdoor, covered lounge area called The Caddy Shack. Built for those golfers wanting intense practice sessions or simply ones who need a soft arm chair and cool drink, The Caddy Shack offers a unique respite from the blazing sun, shanked irons or bombed drives. It would be a place I could exhaust myself if I were a permanent fixture in the membership directory.
The first tee of Dogwood was beckoning us and we said so long to Niall and his two lady friends who themselves were off to tee off on 10 of Dogwood. Already, Myra and I were delighted being at this golfing oasis. As we were getting ready to tee off, we were pleased to meet yet another person injected with the “kindness” gene, Kimberly running the beverage cart. We told her we were probably ok for the round after she had helped us out by taking our photo. We looked forward to her passing us on the course as she waved and smiled each time she cruised past.
Harkening back to what Niall had said a round of golf on Dogwood requires an awareness of a local menace aka “a gator”. The landscape is filled with grassy marshlands, ponds and lakes which can be home to these scary beasts. So, on top of making sure the ball makes it way to that 4 and half inch depression in the ground known as a cup, there was a remote chance that we could be todays lunch special.
The course from the outset oozes shear quality in every way. The opening hole is a fairly gentle Par 5 and is a great indicator and preparation for the rest of the round. The fairways are perfect, tees level with plenty of choices on length, the bunkers are immaculate and the greens are obviously rolled after they have been cut. The course in every aspect is as close to a 10 as you can imagine. It’s very playable and scoreable, but in no way is it a push over. I played from the Orange tees at 6,500 yards so a lot of my par 4’s were well over 400 yards in length.
The pace was very smooth until the 5th hole as we caught up to a twosome who I doubt received any “gator” advice. They fished balls out of every pond and I said to Myra I sure hope we don’t have to call 911 during this round. By the 9th hole which is an absolutely amazing finishing hole that required a second shot over water to the well-guarded green, the two gents behind us had caught up to us. Rather than continually wait, we decided to play as a foursome which would allow the twosome to get well away from us. They introduced themselves as Ken, the member, and Bob, his lifelong friend both retired former dedicated employees of the Hoover Vacuum Company. Ken and Bob were an excellent addition to our golfing experience. Golf is a sociable game and the number of enjoyable rounds we have shared with new golfing partners just increased by one.
As the back nine was more inland than the front it offered a totally different layout and style in many parts. The opening holes of the back nine have some of the most incredible stands of live oak dripping with long strands of Spanish moss. The entire front right side of the tenth green was protected by a huge one sprawling out into the fairway and the dog leg right Par 4 11th was breathtakingly lined all the way down the right. With a better camera lense I would have taken numerous photos of any one of them and had them framed.
One of the most enjoyable features of the Dogwood course is that it’s fairly flat and could easily be walked. We saw many golfers playing it strolling along using a pull cart or simply going old school with their golf bag slung over their shoulder. This in itself would glean more rewards than whipping along in a power cart as it would allow more time to take in the fauna and wildlife. Unique to this area are fox squirrels, some with red and black coats and white tipped noses. The most unusual little tree resident this Canadian has ever seen for sure. Keeping these gorgeous little characters company slightly farther away in the marshy areas were grey herons, egrets and a variety of orchestral songbirds. My what a memorable time we had, all four of us.
We putted out and said farewell to the two gents and at the same time Niall Fraser and his group had finished up their round. In spite of the incredible 4 hours golfing we just had, in my mind the highlight of the day was the next 30 minutes with Niall Fraser. A man whose career in golf began with a commitment to attend the Michigan State University turf grass management program which catapulted him directly into the lap of one of the most revered and talented golf designers of all time, Mr. Robert Trent Jones Sr. Lakewood Golf Club has an arms-length connection to The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail which is Alabama’s most famous claim to golfing fame.
After cutting his teeth on numerous global projects with the RT Jones design team Niall was one of the key persons among an armada of over hundreds of workers and sub-contractors brought in to build the entire Robert Trent Jones Trail . In fact, if you play any of the courses at the 11 different sites on The Trail, Niall Fraser had a hand in shaping them, designing them and building them. In the lexicon of world ranked and talented golf course construction projects and renovations he would easily sit very high on the pecking order of superstars. He shared incredible stories of building these courses, some on sites that required the building of dams, holding reservoirs and blasting out enormous rock outcroppings. From pumps that failed during torrential rain storms to heavy duty machinery sliding precariously into ravines Myra and I took it all in eyes wide open. He glowed when he shared that he traveled the globe with RT Jones Senior, being as close to him in his last 15 years of life probably than any other person. When it came to settling down into a more sedated and a less physically demanding role in golf Niall planted himself at Lakewood Golf Club in Point Clear, AL. where he was integral in revitalizing both The Azalea and Dogwood courses with multi-million-dollar uplifts.
So as much as Myra’s 2 great pars and my highlight reel fairway bunker shot from 170 yards to 15 feet on 9 might command more description, the real reward was our time spent in close contact with Niall. He ended our day by gifting Myra a lovely cookbook put together by the Lakewood Ladies Golf Association called From Tee to Table. Myra was extremely grateful for this act of kindness, a perfect cherry on the top of our golfing sundae. A return to review and play the newly renovated Azalea Course next year is already in the works with a huge bag of smarties in tow. Now try and figure that one out people.