As host of the PGA Tour's annual Honda Classic, the Champion Course at PGA National Resort & Spa is one of the most rigid tests in golf. Water comes into play on all but two holes, and its smallish, elevated greens, deep bunkers and narrow fairways all add up to a relentless examination, especially when the wind is up (i.e., practically always). It's a chore for the pros to play; for amateurs, it can be nightmarish.
So it is interesting and refreshing that in a few months' time, the resort will debut a golf course that is the polar opposite of its flagship layout.
One of five 18-hole layouts owned by the resort, PGA National's Squire Course opened in 1983, originally designed by George Fazio with son Tom assisting. It was, by all accounts, a fairly typical South Florida residential golf course: flat and prone to soggy conditions, with tight fairways lined by trees, lagoons and real estate; solid shot values but no real standout features. "Nothing exciting about this course. Been on many public courses that are much better," reads a review from 2019.
That's all about to change.
Architect Andy Staples is putting the finishing touches on a complete overhaul - a "reimagination" - of the course, turning it into a shorter, fun-forward 18-holer with a whole new ethos.
Improving on a mostly forgettable original layout, Staples and a carefully chosen team of assistants, shapers and contractors are forging something memorable and potentially paradigm-busting. Not bad for a project that not only had to respect the original corridors, but used only 16 of them to create 18 new holes (the land occupied by the old 1st and 18th is now a cheeky new par-3 routing, also by Staples).
What was the Squire will now be the Match Course, its raison d'etre being competition between friends rather than scorecard-and-pencil stroke play, as is the case at practically every other American golf course. Staples' intention is to establish a set of "house rules" for the course, with medal play strictly forbidden in most cases.
One intentionally missing piece of the experience will be tee markers. Instead of pre-determined starting gates, Staples wants the previous hole's winner (or loser) to choose the tee location for the following hole. If you want to force your opponents back to the tips on one hole and then make the next into a drivable par 4, go ahead.
If you are staying on site and make a tee time at the Match Course with your normal foursome, the expectation is that you will play some sort of match - best-ball, alternate shot, singles, Wolf - rather than count your strokes on each hole and add them up at the end. Quick rounds will be the order of the day, since losers will be expected to pick up when they are out of a hole.
If it seems like the golf course is forcing you out of your comfort zone, it is by design - literally. Besides, if you don't like it, PGA National has four other, more traditional golf experiences, including the aforementioned, spirit-breaking Champion.
Tossing out the typical scorecard format from the outset freed Staples up to incorporate certain features and occasionally severe spots that scorecard-and-pencil-clutchers might deem "unfair." This is evident on the very first hole, which will play to a maximum of 437 yards from the back of the free-form teeing ground. The green is small, two-tiered and elevated above its short-grass surrounds (formal rough will be all but non-existent on the course), meaning a miss in the wrong spot could present a nightmare up-and-down. If this sounds like a tough par 4 to start, you're right, so why not call it a par 5? In the end, it doesn't matter since in match play, the lowest score wins, whether it amounts to a birdie or a double bogey.
You can see why Staples is even reticent to assign formal pars to each of his holes, instead preferring to let golfers play them how they may. Kudos to Brookfield Asset Management, the resort's ownership group since 2018, for giving Staples the creative freedom to pursue a much-needed new spin on the golf experience in one of the densest markets in the world.
Grow-in is proceeding well, and the Match Course is expected to open late this summer. I look forward to my first match there.
Other notable golf course renovations opening in 2021
This is a big year for restorations and renovations at historic, muscular championship venues.
Oakland Hills Country Club (South Course) - Oakland Hills, Mich.
In July, the vaunted South Course will open after a $12-million, 21-month restoration effort by Gil Hanse. Originally designed by Donald Ross, the course was overhauled in the 1950s by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., giving it something of a dual identity. Hanse's restoration seeks to bring back the Ross feel more thoroughly, in the hope and expectation that the club can soon add to its major championship pedigree: six U.S. Opens, three PGA Championships, two U.S. Amateurs and a Ryder Cup.
Baltusrol Golf Club (Lower Course) - Springfield, N.J.
This historic club, with four U.S. Opens and two PGAs to its credit, also hired Hanse to restore its famed Lower Course, originally by A.W. Tillinghast. Among the many features Hanse brought back: the massive cross bunker at the "Sahara" par-5 17th, which measures more than 600 yards. Opening in May, the course will have had ample time to mature before hosting the 2029 PGA Championship.
Congressional Country Club (Blue Course) - Bethesda, Mary.
Congressional's Blue Course, where Rory McIlroy announced his presence in golf's upper echelon with an eight-stroke victory in the 2011 U.S. Open, has been drastically overhauled over the last year-plus by up-and-coming architect Andrew Green. Though it is not a restoration to the course's original parameters, Green drew stylistic inspiration from original architect Devereux Emmet. "Congo" will loom large over big-time golf in the 2030s, hosting the PGA in '31 and the Ryder Cup in '37.
Muirfield Village Golf Club - Dublin, Ohio
"Jack's Place" has been tweaked several times over the years, but never to the extent of the most recent renovation, which began in such earnest in 2020 that greens on the front nine were being ripped up while Jon Rahm was putting the finishing touches on his three-shot victory in the Memorial Tournament. A complete re-grassing of the course, bunker renovations and some design changes that include a more or less complete redesign of the short par-5 15th hole and the re-contouring of most of the course's greens. This hole-by-hole rundown in the Caddie HQ section of the PGA Tour website has more details. The course will reopen for member play two weeks before the 2021 Memorial Tournament.
More notable golf course renovations in 2021
As ever, renovation work continues apace in the Sunshine State. Andy Staples' new-look Match Course at PGA National represents one of the biggest ongoing overhauls, but several others deserve attention, too. On the Panhandle, Bill Bergin is in the midst of a down-to-the-studs renovation of Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Club, with an eye toward reopening the course this fall.
Bergin continues to turn out quality work throughout the interior South; he is also finishing a renovation at Highands Falls Country Club in North Carolina this year, and his renovation work at Dalton (Ga.) Golf & Country Club opened in recent months as well.
Here are some more notable renovations happening around the United States, plus a couple of international note:
Southern Pines (N.C.) Golf Club
Recently purchased by the owners of the nearby Pine Needles and Mid Pines courses, this Donald Ross gem is being brought out of the rough by Ross restoration expert Kyle Franz. Restored bunkering, natural areas and enlarged greens (to Ross' 1906 specs) are all underway, with the lionshare of the work set to start in May.
Status: Reopening August or September, 2021
Entrada at Snow Canyon Country Club - St. George, Utah
David McLay Kidd's group is in the midst of a 10-month overhaul of this Johnny Miller original design with several holes weaving through dramatic lava fields. Kidd's scope of work includes new bunkering and greens, plus general re-grassing of the entire course.
Status: Reopening September 2021
Pointe West Country Club - Vero Beach, Fla.
One of the latest modern golf courses to drastically reduce its bunker square footage, this club's new owner brought original architect John Sanford to oversee a renovation with positive implications for members in terms of playability and for the superintendent in terms of maintenance, especially after thunderstorms that would wash out the old, oversized hazards. Future plans include expansion of this residential club's greens to their original edges after a couple decades of natural shrinkage.
Status: Already reopened
San Vicente Golf Resort - San Ramona, Calif.
Located 40 miles northeast of San Diego, San Vicente is a quiet resort where Andy Staples spent much of 2020 breathing new life into its golf course, originally designed by Ted Robinson and opened in the 1970s. In similar fashion to his PGA National course redesign, here, Staples added some needed creativity into the bunkering and green complexes, as well as emphasis on ground game options.
Status: Already reopened
Llanerch Country Club - Havertown, Penn.
Longtime Tom Doak associate Brian Schneider has made a passion project of Llanerch, the Main Line club that hosted the 1958 PGA Championship. In addition to expanding greens to recapture lost hole locations, Schneider and his team have invested the course with a distinctly Victorian aesthetic and set of features. Trench-like bunkers and abrupt berm mounding give the course considerable visual flair.
Status: Reopening Spring 2021
Blythefield Country Club - Belmont, Mich.
Thanks to the recent notoriety of Lawsonia Links in central Wisconsin, golfers have come to view early 20th-century architects William Langford and Theodore Moreau with great affection in recent years. Michigan-based architect Chris Wilszynski has spent the last couple years doing his part to preserve their legacy with his revitalization of this club outside Grand Rapids, which opened in 1928 and hosts the LPGA's annual Meijer Classic, which will be played June 17-20.
Status: Reopening May 2021
Chart Hills Golf Club - Biddenden, Kent, England
When it opened in 1993, the Nick Faldo/Steve Smyers-designed Chart Hills was one of the most heavily bunkered courses in the United Kingdom. The inland layout in Kent, about an hour east of 2021 Open Championship host Royal St. George's, suffered from poor grass-growing conditions for several years until new ownership, who own Royal St. George's neighbor Prince's Golf Club, undertook a significant renovation project that included new drainage and new grass. This project was initially expected to take until 2022 to complete, but COVID-19 lockdowns enabled club overseers to get things done a year early.
Status: Already reopened
Apes Hill Golf Club - Saint James, Barbados
Apes Hill originally opened in 2009, in the midst of a global economic downturn. It struggled from the beginning, but is currently being revitalized by architect Ron Kirby, who also designed nearby Barbados Golf Club. A new island-green 19th hole, a 9-hole par-3 course and on-site Titleist Performance Institute are some of the new amenities coming soon.
Status: Reopening November 2021
Is a beloved course near you reopening after a renovation this year? Post about it in the comments below.