Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Kiawah Island Club

Talk about a great home club to play golf. Two radically different architectural approaches with two outstanding efforts. One of the best Fazio golf courses The River Course and Tom Watson's collaboration with Charles Arrington known as Cassique. Add to this reduced cost access to the Ocean course by Pete Dye - arguably the best, certainly top 5 public access USA courses - and you have a great two fer plus a bonus. Not done yet, a sister course in Ireland Doonbeg completes a pretty solid offering.

I'll apologise early for the quality of the Cassique Photos as the day of play was fairly hazy, they had to be massaged pretty firmly.

There are those that prefer Fazio's River to Watson's Cassique, the club is better for the choice. I fall into the Cassique camp. Having the same architect build a pair of courses is more common, but I think the better modern offings have split the architectural duties. I have gained appreciation for just how much effect the owner/developer has on the outcome. I still have huge issues with the routing of Fazio's courses in general for which there is little if any excuse when that team's courses are "created" in Old Tom's own words, straight from his book. Very loosely translated, whatever features there are on site is bulldozed away to allow a clean canvas for construction whereas some architectural teams go to the opposite and sometimes self-defeating end of using what is on site and not enhancing the property enough to create an even better golf course (see sidebar). This routing shines and is fully walkable and a very professional caddie corps is available at both courses.

At the River Course a very interesting set of greens is created in a fairly similar way to greens created by the Fazio team elsewhere. Many small internal contours might escape the casual glance.

There are a forgiving area or two on many of the greens, but having recently toured the River Course with literally 18 show-off pins in one seating, how to look at greens on courses on any given day was our gift. It can be revolutionary in one's architectural education. Hard isn't necessarily good, but it's so important to look at green contours for future plays.

In general terms, the greens on River are not classically strategic in the sense that play angles create reward to certain pins, but rather that distance control and overall precision into large greens is the strategy. This is in keeping with the tenets of the modern American game. Many times, best illustrated on the 480 yard long seventh, one finds a deep green perhaps 55 yards or so with crossing or intruding ridges. These are sometimes fully across sometimes not; they create subtle parcels of green which are so rewarded.

The fairway, however being perhaps 65+ yards wide really offers little reward for a particular tee shot placement on any given day. Eventually, your finishing point on the green, with attendant knowledge of internal green contours, is what the demand is and on a private course with a wide variety of handicap separation, this is a great idea to satisfy all. It certainly is more egalitarian in many ways.

We therefore find very fast, very true greens with flat areas, but several Sunday spots wherein more micro contours come into play. It certainly is a wonderful way of getting the job done if fast, firm conditions and good turf quality is in the budget. This cannot be done cheaply or under varying conditions, it is absolutely paramount to have conditions for a design ideation in these circumstances.

Cassique on the other hand uses much more severely sloping and contoured green complexes to get the job done. This approach is far less dependent on a single set of agronomic parameters to test players of all skill sets. This can lead to a misconception that I have heard from many a player including those who have played each of these courses many a time. That would be "Cassique is not as hard as it looks". I would say that if conditions are soft and benign and the pin positions more forgiving, than this is true. However, if slow receptive greens are present on the River course that it would be the less demanding as the smaller features would not be as dramatic nor severe under those circumstances. Two very distinct ways of getting the job done

The River Course architecture at the finish bogs a little as three parallel holes are built in faux dunes with less visual variety, especially after playing the stunning par 5 13th.

Par 5 #13 - one of the best on the course due to second shot options. Location of tee shot not as critical, but driving down the left side gives biggest boost and best approach for a two shot try. Challenge teh bunker and reap a reward.

14 and 15 tees

Par 5 sixteenth

Seventeen, including a show-off pin

Heading Home to the magnificent clubhouse

The exciting seventeen-eighteen finish likely removes that bit of blandness in design from most players minds.

The Fazio Team has a strong following for the "Framing" given the golfer. The idea is to guide the player around a course and provide a road map for play. Landscape Architectural ideals achieve maximum beauty and that is a strong positive for Fazio designs which one will find on virtually every one of their efforts with the concept of providing the owner/client eighteen "signature holes" (Again from Fazio's own book.) . The most interesting Fazio courses add further details such as I have noted as regards the green contours.

An interesting design concept is to often provide trouble in the form of bunkers and other hazards as a message to go the opposite way where strategic concepts might often dare a golfer to go as close as possible to said hazards for maximum rewards.

The eleventh hole as an example provides a bunker complex on the right which saves the golfer from a worse fate wherein the left side of the fairway provides a more preferred approach.

The integrity of hole-to-hole design quality at Cassique only suffers from a mild case of deja vu as regards the green contours on the par threes - and I am being very tough in rendering that opinion. There is variety of club and degree of severity and size of steps there, but a general staircase shape of the par 3 greens is seen in the last three examples at Cassique.
Seven is seen further below
The Thirteenth

The Sixteenth

Wind direction adds variety from day to day for sure and overall the two course quality levels are indiscernible to the individual not well versed in architectural principles which is the overwhelming majority of golfers - interestingly including most highly proficient players. That's an essay all in itself and I am walking away from that sleeping cur right now!

Personally, I think I would prefer Cassique day-in-and-day-out, but that's me. There is no right answer, just your own.

I will show the "The Cape Hole". Not to be pedantic, the prototypical hole that is considered a Cape is the fifth at Mid Ocean in Bermuda. It has two very distinct features but in common lore and even to most who fancy themselves a bit architecturally savvy it is the less obvious that has been labeled "Cape".

"Biting off what you can chew" is a good description to what most think of as a Cape. That part is a tee shot that allows a myriad of choices that require distance and direction precision to safely hit the fairway. That is what is generally known as the Cape Hole. However where the green sticks out as a cape into the water or other hazard is the true cape. Similarly a "tongue of grass jutting into a bunker" is the "cape" of a "cape and bay" bunker arrangement.

The Cape tee shot is what is usually seen. Most golfers think a Cape green is too demanding, so we rarely see it in its natural state. The old 17th at Congressional where Tom Lehman lost his USGA Open is a great example of a cape green.

At River the carry pretty much determines all as there is much bailout room to the left or safe side of the fairway; at Cassique, this is not at all the case, missing long can cost you a full stroke or more with your tee shot. This is however traded off for the player as if one tries to carry to the fairway and fail, fairly receptive waste bunkers may give you a heroic chance at redemption (that greatest of all golf outcomes - the successful recovery shot). Short at the cape tee shot at River and it's re-tee.

17th at Cassique - a panorama from the tee showing a myriad of tempting options. The bush is key to selection and is a good reference. Sergio Garcia directly drove and held the green from the back tees on his visit. A carry of some 300 yards.

From the forward tee the shape of the fairway is clearly seen and this tee still offers a very nice set of options for the player who plays those tees (something the short hitter or woman often laments - lack of strategic intent - is handled very well here). Note carefully the shape of the shore as it relates to the position of the bush seen from the panorama creating highly varied options even without the wild card of changing winds.

A good view of the last 70 yards or so emphasizing a bit of buffer which exists. It yielded the redanman a birdie from 155 the last visit.

Make no mistake, this is a powerful one-two punch as good as any private club has to offer. A few photos of great features are included from each course.

Featuring more Cassique:
Cassique #5 - This is one of an alternate pair in a different sort of routing. An elevated tee and windswept conditions make for extraordinarily exacting shot requirements. Brilliant.

Cassique #7 - First look at the low country, a very demanding shot, perhaps a long iron or rescue for most with an obliquity to the green contours increasing with tees of increased length. Add wind and you're on your own and a bit clenched.

Cassique #8 - a wonderful short and even drivable par 4 but execution is a must.

seen on approach from a conventional tee shot

Cassique Eleven is illustrated as a very fun and interesting mostly three shot par 5 that I think is fun for all skill levels to play. The tee shot offers strategic options including carrying all the left trees and bunkers (at least 295 from the back tee) to various degrees of playing more or less to the right to allow maximum angle to the chosen second landing area. The green is well-contoured as are all at Cassique and placement of second for approach provides reward for the club golfer who can keep a good mental picture of the green contours. Water is in play over the back left, but that can be taken out of play with skillful strategic play. Overall the tee shot is fairly forgiving with an interesting second and third shots unless you want a two shot approach. Then that layup must be tackled carefully.

Cassique Eighteen with a backdrop of the lovely English Arts and Crafts Clubhouse, one of the absolute finest I have ever visited and one of my personal favorites anywhere. It is of superior architectural design and detail.

Routing: Cassique - follows a fairly interesting progression around the property. Some housing on the back, but unobtrusive and a nice walk requiring a short cart ferry from 9 to 10. Well integrated and devoted to the two disparate styles, it works well for a very pleasurable walk. River - several tunnels to reach a few pods of holes (e.g. 3-5) and the simple run back-and-forth through the faux dunes. In addition to the 9-10 cart ferry, one is used between 7 and 8 and some walks such as 9 tee are backward. More homogeneous in consistency of course character, certainly the more conventional of the two and one of the Fazio studio's better routings.

Overall Quality of Individual Holes: Rather high overall even compared to only other new private courses. Again, what a pair of courses.

Par 5's: Cassique - a very good set with two or arguably three links inspired and one memorable low country hole. I prefer 15 the most and it also is most demanding with ever present wind. A persnickety drive and lay-up with a severely angled green is all that waits. Very terse questions are asked and in dormant season, only the biggest bombers have a shot in two. Then, consider a very intriguing green complex with a burn, a spectacle complex blinding the green and this is a super set. River - Fazio's cape tee 8th is a classic of this type and one of the team's favorite design done well. Generally the fives reward the longer driver. The exception is the exceptional thirteenth well-documented. Perhaps one of the team's best fives, a drive left yields more safety and length for all who go that way and perhaps the most rumpled green on the property awaits. Water dictates a clear go-no go decision, perhaps too black and white for some. Being critical in discussion may suggest a too-long approach for the third (laid up short of the water) as being penal for the shorter player.

Par 4's: Cassique - Ranging from the potentially drivable eighth to several mid to long fours, the overall distribution is tilted toward the interest of strategies and variety without going for the seemingly required super-long "strong par 4" characteristic of the modern game and design. Most of the greens dictate angles rather than long approaches. Given Watson's love of Links, this is not a surprise. The personal favorites of mine tend to back this concept up as the fours as a group are tightly bunched in appeal. River - Fairly and solidly distributed throughout the length spectra, the greens generally tend to be more demanding the shorter they get with some of the longer par 4's having enormous greens where hitting the green is no an absolute reward. I must admit that I'm not particularly a fan of long par 4's; true to form seven stands out as relatively uninteresting to me. Make no mistake - this a very fun set of fours to play.

Par 3's: Cassique - five available for play, the downhill version of the fifth is my favorite as the shot is short (accessible to all), very demanding and exposed to the slightest breath of wind on any day. The looks of the remaining three are all quite varied even if the green prescription is somewhat similar. Range short to rescue clubs. River - quite a remarkable set with #3 having a modified Biarritz influence with an added right-to-left tilt. It may be too demanding for some tastes with a tree almost dictating the required fade shot needed to get close. Two water holes and a marsh hole complete the set; range of clubs is mid to long and depth of greens can dictate even longer. An interesting shortie requires some finagling on a given day but is doable. Very demanding set.

Course Cohesion: Cassique - two distinct styles transition well given their disparate origins, as well done as possible due to feature styles, actually a treat. River - Other than the back and forth faux dunes section, very much solidly maintained and a great experience.

Green Complexes: Perhaps the most defining difference. Cassique - Larger sweeping and more severe slope changes, but likely challenging at all green speeds. River - Many micro contours that more and more define the difficulty as green speeds increase. A rather interesting set of modern championship greens, among Fazio's top sets.

Bunkering Schema: Cassique - Generally strategic, rarely penal, varied with the inherent hole style. River - Many well-placed bunkers to enhance shot values of ever-increasing difficulty. All the bunkers fit well into their respective styles.

Conditioning: Ridiculously good. Even with dormancy, seemingly never a bad lie or bumpy putt.

Trees: Cassique - the demanding short par 4 8th and par 5 11th have trees in play on otherwise very high risk shots requiring even higher precision from the most skilled players. Links style holes appropriately very much open and devoid of foliage. River - Double hazard of an enormous oak and inside dog-leg bunker on 18. Tree on par 3 third described above, otherwise superb specimen trees used for framing throughout.

Rest of Club: Unparalleled pair of clubhouses. Why ever go home?

As I began, this is a tough club to match up against. Place this on the wildlife sanctuary that is Kiawah Island with its 10 mile unbroken south-facing beach and it's a breathtakingly good place for all ages. (Don't forget the Ocean Course is more or less included, too.)

This is arguably America's broadest appealing and finest golf community.

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