Dig It: The best golf courses built upon old mines

Like his famous father, Robert Trent Jones Jr. has built hundreds of golf courses all over the world.

But nothing gives him satisfaction quite like a reclamation effort, turning old mines and quarries into courses held in high esteem. "It is ironic that some of our best work is restoration," he said recently.

His firm has turned neglected lands into a major championship site (Chambers Bay in Washington), a World Cup host (Mines Resort & Golf Club in Malaysia), a Top 100 course in America (Links at Spanish Bay) and a state-ranked hidden gem (Three Crowns Golf Club in Wyoming), among others.

RTJ Jr. believes former mining and quarry sites become successful golf developments for several key reasons. 1, The land is more affordable for developers. 2, The sites can be quite rugged and dramatic with features most traditional courses simply don't have. 3, Saving scarred land brings good will, something that isn't always the case when other new courses are built.

"The public sentiment is positive when you are reclaiming something," he said. "They are seen as a transformation."

In the case of Three Crowns, that meant trying to erase more than a century's worth of devastation by an old oil refinery that contaminated the surrounding landscape and the water in the North Platte River in Casper, Wyo.

The biggest challenge, according to RTJ Jr., was adjusting to the requirement that cuts could not be made deeper than six feet deep. During pre-construction, more than 3,000 miles of pipe and 400,000 cubic yards of concrete was removed. Eight lakes were dug where the soil was deemed safe. Four of them, lined with geotechnical fiber to avoid contamination, and a series of man-made wetlands continue to fight water pollution today, thanks to an intricate system of pumps, oil separators, and monitoring and recovery wells. Three Crowns - named for the original crown-shaped logo of Amoco Oil - still contains millions of gallons of refinery product scheduled for recovery over the next two decades.

Many architects, at some point in their career, have worked on sites like this. For Forrest Richardson, that project was The Hideout Golf Club, a golf course in Monticello, Utah. The original plans called for a course to be built on an old uranium mine and mill site until logistical issues forced it to be built nearby. The old mill was then converted into a park as part of the deal.

Richardson said he dealt with at least eight different local, state and federal agencies and countless permits during construction. Every month the soil had to be tested for safe uranium levels. The 6,600-yard Hideout opened in 2001 and remains popular, despite its remote locale.

"I'm real proud of it," Richardson said. "I know it's not the greatest course in the world. I know it is unusual and has some holes that are forced layups, but it is a thinking, gamesmanship course. No two holes are the same, even though it is in same valley. We managed 18 truly unique holes. That's what I always try to do. You couldn't ever duplicate this (today), that's for sure."

In a nod to history, many architects leave artifacts behind, like the chimney in the middle of the fairway at Fossil Trace, built on a former clay mine in Colorado. Other sites are so subtle that most golfers probably won't notice the mining features incorporated into their design.

Florida-based architect John Sanford, the current president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, carved Juliette Falls from a phosphate mine in Dunnellon, Fla., 80 miles north of Orlando. Sanford said mining "gouges" gave him rolling 25-foot elevations to use, instead of Florida's traditionally flat landscape.

"On the eighth hole, the way the routing worked out, we sunk the green into the bottom of the phosphate mine. That accentuated the downhill shot," Sanford said.

In compiling the latest Deegan's Dozen - a list of 12 of the world's best public courses built upon old mines - I was amazed at the quality of choices after finding more than 40 such projects. That a course the caliber of Juliette Falls couldn't crack the rankings is proof. It ranked among the top 30 public courses in Florida by Golfweek in 2016 and was No. 6 in Golf Advisor's 2014 ratings for Florida.

Have a favorite "mine" course of your own? We'd love to hear about it in the comments below:

EDITOR'S NOTE: Keep in mind, these selections are separate from the best public courses built in quarries featured in this story.

12. Rope Rider at Suncadia, Cle Elum, Wash.

The seventh hole on the Rope Rider Course at Suncadia Resort bends right.

The name Rope Rider comes from the miners who precariously balanced themselves on the roped coal cars that maneuvered the steep mine shafts at the historic Roslyn Mines located nearby. This is the newest, more playable and most versatile course at the Suncadia Resort 80 miles east of Seattle. PGA Tour pro-turned-architect Peter Jacobsen and design partner Jim Hardy created generous fairways and open green fronts, allowing players to attack however they wish. The towering Tipple Hill, a 120-foot pile of coal tailings, frames the tee shot of the long par-4 seventh hole that bends left to right. The routing accommodates families with youth tees on every hole and shorter three- and six-hole loops.

11. Twisted Gun Golf Club, Wharncliffe, W.V.

This links-style course by Mark Nicewonder was built upon the mountaintop Low Gap coal mine. It's a journey of two miles up winding, switchback roads in southern West Virginia just to reach what might be the ultimate "hidden gem". Coal wastes hauled to Twisted Gun from a nearby preparation plant were spread and capped with two inches of subsoil, so grass could grow. Reminders of the industry are everywhere: Flakes of coal in the bunkers, a brown Norfolk Southern rail car near the fifth green, a red caboose at the 14th tee and most noticeably, no trees. Both nines finish at a double green wrapped around a two-acre pond. Ten of the 12 Golf Advisor reviews are five star. User 'u000006531671' wrote in his review: "It is a difficult drive but such a great place to play."

10. Bucks Run Golf Club, Mount Pleasant, Mich.

The three large lakes prominently in play at the Bucks Run Golf Club were dug during the property's life as a quarry, where both rock and mineral rights were mined for more than 30 years before shutting down in the 1990s. According to General Manager Jon Conklin, the owners were having trouble with the people sneaking on the property to camp and cause havoc. "It was becoming a liability", he wrote in an e-mail. Golf was the solution. Jerry Matthews, Michigan's most prolific architect, came to the rescue, creating what might be his crowning achievement in 2000. Fisher Lake and the Chippewa River influence more than a dozen dramatic holes. For the record, we included it in this story - and not our quarry story - because it doesn't have that distinct quarry look of rock walls lining certain holes. Golf Advisor user 'rpruck' had this to say in his review: "If I could give 6 stars this course would get it."

9. Fossil Trace Golf Club, Golden, Colo.

Several pieces of machinery remain on property at Fossil Creek from its days as a mining operation.

Working on a former clay mine outside Denver, architect Jim Engh left rusty pieces of mining equipment along certain fairways at Fossil Trace. All that clay preserved some incredible prehistoric fossils on holes 11 through 15. Check out the Triceratops footprints next to the 12th green. More fossils, set in plaster footprint casts, are displayed in the clubhouse.

8. Stewart Creek Golf and Country Club, Canmore, Alberta, Canada

Stewart Creek Golf and Country Club's par-4 14th hole features a mining entrance to the left of the fairway.

Generally considered one of the top 25 public courses in the country by Canada's Score Golf Magazine, Stewart Creek was built upon the Canmore coal mines, which were in operation from the 1880s until 1979. Abandoned mine entrances remain visible on the first and 14th holes of the Gary Browning course built in 2000. The Club Championship trophies are actual lanterns used in the mines. Winners receive a replica to take keep. The surrounding Canadian Rockies serve up breathtaking views of the Three Sisters, Cascade, Pigeon and Ha Ling Mountains.

7. Sandpiper Golf Club, Santa Barbara, Calif.

What an approach to the par-5 13th hole at the Sandpiper Golf Club.

The beautiful ocean views from Sandpiper are marred only by the offshore oil platforms, reminders of a bygone era when the site was an oil refinery. Oil was first discovered in 1927. The Japanese shelled the facility in 1942 during World War II. Production officially ceased in 1965. Seven years later, the course sprang to life with remnants still above and below ground. Sandpiper has earned the name the "Poor Man's Pebble Beach" for its relatively low green fees for oceanfront golf ($150-$200 for visitors and $75 for residents).

6. Mines Resort & Golf Club, Seri Kembangan, Selangor, Malaysia

The world's largest open cast tin mine became a celebrated RJT Jr. course in 1993, eventually hosting a slew of major events - the 1999 World Cup won by Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara; the 2000 Women's World Cup; the 2003 Carlsberg Malaysian Open and the CIMB Classic from 2010-12. Most pros loved playing the Mines. "The course is great," Troy Matteson said in 2012. "I hear great things from everybody about the course just because it's -- you've got to play your way around here. You can't just hit driver on every hole, you've got to make some decisions, you've got to hit some irons, you've got to hit some 3-woods. I think guys really enjoy that, whereas most of the courses we play all year are just hit the driver as far and as hard as you can."

5. Old Works Golf Course, Anaconda, Mont.

In Montana, Old Works Golf Course is one of best value Jack Nicklaus courses you can play.

Perhaps nobody has incorporated a site's mining past into the course design better than Jack Nicklaus. Cleaning up Anaconda’s century-old copper-smelting plant, one of the largest Superfund sites in America, took a collaborated effort from the community, and state and federal agencies. Many elements of mining became centerpieces of the course. The black slag, the byproduct of smelting, in the bunkers gives Old Works its signature look. Granite slabs from the old mill line the banks of the trout-filled Warm Springs Creek near the 10th green. Massive stone furnaces border the third fairway, while a 150-foot flue provides a dramatic backdrop to the fourth green. Nicklaus returned in 2016 to celebrate the course's 20th anniversary.

4. Tobacco Road Golf Course, Sanford, N.C.

The par-3 eighth has one of the most difficult greens at Tobacco Road.

This controversial Mike Strantz design is either one of the great architectural achievements of the modern era (1998) or a place to avoid, depending upon your point of view. Strantz transformed an old sand quarry and mining site into a wild ride of blind shots, heavy dunes and as you'd expect, bunkers everywhere. Tobacco Road recently refurbished an old building into a cottage for stay and plays.

3. Links at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach, Calif.

The par-5 14th hole on The Links at Spanish Bay is called "To The Sea.

Hard to believe that the coast of California was so ravaged by mining operations, isn't it? The Links at Spanish Bay was built on a vast, sandy wasteland once occupied by a sand-mining operation. During construction in the 1980s, RTJ Jr., Tom Watson and Sandy Tatum used links golf as their inspiration, while restoring the natural environment of dunes and wetlands. In the early seasons, more 100,000 native species of plants grown in nurseries were replanted across the property each year. Holes hidden in the Del Monte Forest are encountered during the middle of the round, bookended by opening and closing stretches near the ocean.

2. Cabot Links, Inverness, Nova Scotia, Canada

The 6th hole at Cabot Links is a cape hole that hugs the harbor.

What a beautiful walk Cabot Links is. Now imagine the same walk 2,500 feet below the ground. That's what the miners - paid $1.25 a day - did while digging out coal back in 1904. Coal was discovered on the northern extremity of the links in 1863 and sustained the local economy for nearly a century. Now it's golf's turn. Once the par-70 Cabot Links by Rod Whitman debuted in 2012, coupled with the opening of Cabot Cliffs by Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw in 2015, this tiny outpost quickly blossomed into one of the world's best - and most remote - golf destinations.

1. Streamsong Resort, Bowling Green, Fla.

Streamsong's Red Course (shown here) and Blue Course co-host the 2016 Streamsong Amateur Aug. 6-7.

The engaging look and dunesy features of the Mosaic Company's former phosphate mine in central Florida teed up homerun designs for Tom Doak, Coore/Crenshaw and Gil Hanse with their respective Blue, Red and Black courses, all built since 2012. These famed minimalists stuck to what's made Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon so coveted, creating walking-only courses with interesting nuances: a punchbowl green, blind shots, elevated tees, limited water features, short par 4s, half-par holes, yawning waste bunkers, etc. The architecture of Streamsong's buildings, from the 216-room contemporary Lodge to the glass-walled clubhouse at the new Black course (pictured above) and the 12 guestrooms above the original clubhouse, are just as cool.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
7 Comments
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Commented on

Coal Creek Resort near Ryley, Ab, Canada is a gem of a course and was built on a reclaimed open pit coal mine

Commented on

Someone forgot about the "The Quarry" in San Antonio, Texas. Great course and highly rated!

Commented on

I have had the pleasure of playing The Old Works Golf Course in Anaconda Montana a couple of times. It is one of the most beautiful courses I have had the pleasure of playing. One of my best friends , Mike Nicholes, lives in Hamilton Montana, and took me there. I would recommend this course very highly!!

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Streamsong and Tobacco Road are two of the most interesting courses around. Both are unique with no two holes being the same. If you get the chance play them.

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I've played a number of these and they are all interesting. Old Works and Anaconda are disorienting in the scale of the mining operation. The slag bunkers are wonderful. Suncadia an Cle Elum are full of natural beauty. It's fun to hunt for shark's teeth on the paths at Streamsong...

Commented on

How could you not include the best golf course built on an old coal strip mine outside of Evansville, In, Built by Tom Fasio, Victoria National Golf Club. Incredible layout, host to Web.com tour tournament. Private but if you are lucky enough to get an invite it will be well worth the trouble.

Commented on

I've heard great things about "the Vic" but it wasn't included because, as you noted, it is private.

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Dig It: The best golf courses built upon old mines