The 18-hole layout at Bluejack National is the first headline design to open in the United States for Tiger Woods and architect Beau Welling. Situated an hour’s drive north of Houston city centre, the course is the centrepiece of an upmarket real estate project on land owned by Dallas-based Beacon Land Development in partnership with Lantern Asset Management.
You’d hardly imagine that a golf course recently operated on the same property from reading most of the articles that have been written about Bluejack National since it opened in 2015 – certainly you’ll find no mention of any former enterprise on the new development’s website – but it really has an interesting golfing background which is well worth relating.
Blaketree National Golf Club opened in 2001, shortly after its owner, Thomas W. Blake, died. Blake was quite a character, a five-times married lawyer-turned-oil-tycoon from Houston who meddled so much in the design of the course during the 1990s that architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw walked away from the project, leaving Blake to complete the last seven holes himself.
The Blake family opened the course to the public and ran it for a few years but the business ran at a loss, forcing the property to be sold. It lay dormant for the best part of two years before new owners took over and they set about repairing the irrigation system, upgrading the maintenance equipment and installing new cart paths, all with a view to selling peripheral real estate on the back of an improved golf course.
When that particular plan failed, in stepped Beacon Land Development’s Michael Abbott and Casey Paulsen – who have extensive experience of developing and operating private communities and resort properties in the United States, the Caribbean and Mexico – and they knew the course had a better chance of attracting homeowners if it was to undergo a dramatic transformation by a big-name design team pairing.
And so the Woods-Welling collaboration resulted in the total reconstruction of the old Blaketree layout, retaining most of the mature trees that were planted decades ago, though some lesser arboreal specimens were removed to open up the landscape in places. Only four of the old playing corridors were preserved and a couple of former fairway directions were reversed, partially to accommodate a new clubhouse and other recreational amenities.
Most of the new TifEagle greens are lie of the land, rather than raised platforms behind protecting sand, with plenty of room at the front to promote the ground game. Large, tightly-mown green surrounds also present golfers with interesting short-game options, allowing the bump-and-run shot to be played, and there’s also a general absence of fairway rough, giving players recovery options and speeding up the pace of play.
It appears to be fashionable nowadays for new golf projects to incorporate a "golf-lite" design option within the development and Bluejack National is no different in that respect. Similar to Coore & Crenshaw's 13-hole par three course at Bandon Dunes, there's a 10-hole floodlit short course here called "The Playgrounds" which can be used as a relaxing place to play and interact with other family members or as a cool hangout spot in the company of other golf buddies.
In my opinion, it’s Beau Welling that deserves 99% of the credit here. He is the true golf course architect. I maintain a personal philosophy that professional golfers should not / cannot design a course. This is the job for an architect. How many courses solely designed by Ben Crenshaw get world-wide celebration? Without Bill Coore, this design team would not reach the heights it has. You get my point.
Bluejack National is a breath of fresh air for the huge state of Texas. It has been said that the state does not possess many outstanding courses, but Beau Welling’s creation at Bluejack National begins to turn the page on this argument. The feel of the course is as close to the “situations” you find yourself in at Augusta National. I recognise that 99% of the world will never experience these “situations”, but to give you a sense of it – Bluejack has implemented its own interpretation of the green-side aprons, the run-offs and the magical flash bunkering to add visual deceptions just like Alister MacKenzie has done around the world.
The scale of the course is enormous, yet very tranquil. The change in elevation adds a massive test, as do the raised green sites which have been perfectly discovered. Tiger has added some playground elements to entertain children that the media can get distracted with, but for the architectural students out there, focus on Beau’s under appreciated efforts out on the course.
I have now played this course several times and my appreciation for it has grown over that time. Some people may discount how good it is simply because it bears Tiger’s signature, and not that of some of the more en vogue designers, and because it doesn’t dazzle with rugged or elaborate bunkering. TGR design showed surprising restraint by how few bunkers they used and by how lay of the land this design is. In many ways golf needs more of courses like this. It is an enjoyable walk, playable for all abilities, yet gets more difficult and interesting the closer you get to the hole. The strength of this course is in the interest on and around the greens and how the firm and tight conditions give the player both choices and perhaps the opportunity to second guess themselves. The course will continue to be interesting and fun because the angles matter and there is always a preferred place to miss for those who have learned the greens. By clearing out the areas under the trees, they have eliminated the most time consuming and least enjoyable part of golf, searching for wayward shots so rounds are always played at a nice pace.
Bluejack is Tiger Woods' first design in the USA and his second design worldwide (first being El Cardonal at Diamante in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico). The full 18 holes opened in April 2016, so not on any Top 100 yet. The property is about 750 acres in size and contains an 18 hole course, a 10 hole par three course (all holes<105 yards…lite at night…great for kids), a wonderful driving range which includes a “bulls eye” target about 180 yards out and 40’ high on a pole, a large lake stocked with a wide variety of fish, and a whole bunch of cabins being constructed. As Bluejack is a good hour and 15 minutes from Houston without traffic (a rare occurrence there), the cabins are rented (or purchased) by members for weekend stays…and with all the activities, it is a great place for the entire family…the place exudes “fun”. Interesting concept and got the sense it is working.
I played with a friend David W. and a friend of David’s Craig W. (both belong to Champions GC), and head professional Rich Barcelo, who is a very strong player (played on PGA Tour and Web.com Tour for 15 years) and great guy.
Put simply, this is a fun course that unabashedly is an effort to capture some of the concepts that made Augusta National great. From the back tees it is big…7552 yards (I played it at 6178) and par 72. It reminded me of the “pre-Tiger Proof” ANGC. Wide wide fairways (strategic design) creating seemingly easy long shots (but the angles define the approach shots), very few bunkers (39) but they are all massive, fabulous use of a highly contoured piece of land (shockingly contoured…I always thought of Houston as being very flat), very very tough around the greens, intimate routing (generally short walks from green to tee) on a huge piece of land, scenic beauty very much like ANGC with long leaf pines everywhere, and overall, a true test but really really great fun. Around the greens the lies are very tight…and the greens have big slopes, with subtle mounds and crests (me thinks Maxwell Rolls) on many. Also, given how new the greens are, they were firm and fast but receptive to well hit shots. Rich Barcelo said they were able to get them receptive with a very deep green punching.
Many have tried to capture the “sense” of ANGC through the years (two best examples that immediately come to mind are both Tom Fazio courses…Sage Valley in SC and Alotian in AR). Sage Valley in particular tries to capture the “look” of ANGC, but to my mind, it does not capture Augusta’s architectural subtleties. I walked off BJ with the sense that Tiger has captured these subtleties in a very unique and original way. Golf architecture aficionados are very familiar with the Macdonald/Raynor “template” hole concept. That is…building adaptations (not copies…but adaptations) of great old designs found mostly in GB&I. The most interesting “adaptation” to my mind is the Biarritz hole (e.g. #9 at Yale, #16 at Yeamans. #5 at Fishers, #11 at The Creek, #8 at Greenbrier White, etc etc etc). The original (which no longer exists) was located at Biarritz GC in southwestern France and featured a chasm/inlet from the sea in front of the green (like #15 at Cypress Point or #16 at Cabot Cliffs). As such a feature is available at very few locations, MacDonald and Raynor created an adaptation featuring a grass swale in front of or in the middle of the green.
At Bluejack, Tiger seems to have adapted “situations” or “features” as opposed to holes. For example, the 10th hole felt to me very much like the 10th at ANGC. At the green, Tiger added a large swale to the left and behind the green. To my mind, that swale was adapted from the swale to the left and behind ANGC’s 13th hole. Similarly, the back left corner of the 18th green at Bluejack reminded me of the front left corner of #4 at ANGC; the 18th is a totally different hole concept than the ANGC 4th…but I think Tiger used this feature here. I think this concept of “template features” or “template situations” is simply brilliant.
Here are some holes worthy of special comment:
--#1…dogleg left par 4, 458 yards (see picture of us with first hole in background)…only two bunkers, but note their size…and key feature is the slope to the right of the green…hit approach shot right of the green and watch the ball trickle down toward the pin…fun way to start a round and get you loose;
--#7 par 3, 158 yards; no bunkers but water short and left; two tiered green that is wide but shallow on left side (upper tier is on left); 4’ fall off behind left side of green. Bring your distance control or bail out right.
--#8 par 4 of 352 yards…drivable from forward tees (in my case if I manage to hit a few sprinkler heads)…green slopes sharply from back left to front right, and off the right side of the green land tumbles down a good 15-20’ (deceivingly, from tee this slope is not at all obvious)…pitch from down there is no fun at all; back left bunker slopes up to its back which means it yields mostly downhill lies to a green sloping sharply away from you (and toward that nasty slope to the right of the green). So you big boys, go at it, there are rewards but real risks
--#12 par 3 of 200 yards…green similar in shape and angle to ANGC #12 (BJ’s is somewhat larger); water (but no bunker) in front and two bunkers behind; this is some sort of hole from the back (but of course no architect can duplicate the winds at ANGC #12)
--#13 par 5 just 508 yards…four well placed bunkers in fairway keep you thinking about how to play this one; hole is dead straight and #14 is right behind it in same line…so from 13th tee you look down a corridor that is about 900 yards long (see pic);
--#17 short par 4 (337 yards) to shallow elevated green protected by massive and very deep bunker in front of green’s right side.
Yes, I liked it a lot!
If you get the chance to play it, do so!!