If there is a top fifty list for most fun golf courses to play, then Mountain Lake would be on the list. The only question would be how high on the list as one could place it in the top ten in the USA. I was fortunate to play it the day before they closed the course to guest play due to Covid-19. I also had one of the best hosts I have ever had due to his knowledge and affection for the course as well as his knowledge of both Seth Raynor and other great golf courses around the world. My host handed me a four-page overview and hole-by-hole guide prior to playing and then augmented that with his own insights as we played.
Mountain Lake Estates is a historic district developed in the 1920’s by Frederick Ruth as an exclusive gated residential area. The Ruth family hired Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr, from the family of perhaps the USA’s most famous landscape architects, to design the community as well as Colony House, the small hotel on-site with beautiful public rooms and vistas that serves as the clubhouse. The pro shop is located in a separate building near the first tee. One of the early residents was Edward W. Bok, the editor of Ladies Home Journal and a Pulitzer-prize author with the famous Bok Tower Gardens of 250 acres located adjacent to Mountain Lake. One can see the Bok Tower Carillon on several holes, particularly ten, eleven, seventeen and eighteen, as it sits nearby on Iron Mountain which is one of the highest points in Florida at 295 fee with the carillon being 205 feet high. As an aside, Mr. Bok’s wife, Mary Louise Curtis, founded the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia by purchasing three mansions on Rittenhouse Square, which I have frequented as a nearby resident. Several other notable residents have resided at Mountain Lake.
The community has 125 historic and newer homes set on 1100 acres. Bordering one side of the property is 500 acres of citrus groves owned by Mountain Lake and on the other side is Bok Tower Gardens.
I mention all of this because the surroundings add to the serenity of Mountain Lake.
Mountain Lake sits on a nearly perfect piece of land for walking a golf course with small rises here and there, particularly starting with the tenth hole and ending on the eighteenth. The fairways are wide which should make the golf stress-free. The challenge to Mountain Lake, similar to other Seth Raynor designed courses, is to avoid some perfectly placed fairway bunkers and then execute an approach shot which is heavily dependent on the pin location. However, on most holes the most important shot for that hole is the first putt one faces due to the excellent shaping and contours of the greens.
The choice for designing the course came down to Donald Ross, who designed the nearby Lake Wales Country Club, and Seth Raynor. I was informed that Donald Ross was very busy at the time so the selection of Seth Raynor was made. Whether this is Seth Raynor’s first original design on his own is possible as he worked with Frederick Law Olmstead’s contour maps to lay out the routing for the course while working around the housing sites, potential roads, lakes, and the site of the hotel. The routing and design for the first nine holes was completed in 1915 with nine holes being built in 1916 which consisted of holes 1-6 and the current 16-18. Holes 7-15 were added and opened in October, 1920 to complete the eighteen.
One significant change to the Seth Raynor routing was made only nine years later by Charles Banks who combined a par 4 and a par 3 eighth and converted these two holes into a par 5 and then built a new par 3 ninth hole.
The famous “template” holes are here with none of them ranking as the “best” of their kind, but they are worthy candidates of the top five of the courses designed by Raynor/Macdonald. As is typical of Seth Raynor, most of them are not as dramatic as what Macdonald would build, although the redan hole has a very bank and right to left tilt.
The routing is very good. Whereas I was disappointed by having only one dogleg at Yeamans Hall, there are several here. Even if the front nine has basically straight holes, the rise and fall of the land provide an interesting definition to the holes. Mr. Raynor moved very little earth here as the land is nearly perfect for the corridors of play.
Various other golf architects have been involved in Mountain Lake such as Ron Prichard (which is odd in that he is more associated with Donald Ross). The club more recently brought in Brian Silva to do more restoration as many greens has lost their original shape and intent with too many bunkers also being removed. Mr. Silva and the greens committee brought back the strategy and decision making by restoring these bunkers leading to better shot values thereby returning Mountain Lake to its previous glory.
After playing Mountain Lake and driving away, I immediately started to think about where I would rank it amongst the Raynor/Macdonald designs of the ones I have played as well as the courses where Seth Raynor did some work. Note: I have yet to play Blue Mound, Lookout Mountain, St. Louis, Fairfield, Greenbrier (both), and Mid Ocean so there are some very good Raynor courses left. In terms of my personal ranking, I would list them as: Fishers Island, National Golf Links of America, Chicago GC, Piping Rock, Camargo Club, Fox Chapel, Monterey Peninsula Dunes, Shoreacres, Sleepy Hollow, The Course at Yale, Mountain Lake, Maidstone, The Creek Club, Yeamans Hall, Deepdale, CC of Charleston, Blind Brook, and Greenwich CC. If people have a preference and flip the order of these, I would not argue it much.
It is an amazing list.
The one criticism one could have regarding Mountain Lake is that for the longer hitter/scratch golfer the primary challenge is on the green due to the lack of length. From the Black tees it is 6677 yards and from the Blue Tees it is 6165 yards with the White tees at 5629. While the greens are always well defended with bunkers, the longer hitter/low index player is likely to have no more than a 8-iron into nearly every par 4, with the possible exception of holes 10 and 12. The single longer par 4 on the front nine is the second hole but it plays downhill.
To increase the challenge, one could add another one-two bunkers on several holes. But this would make it look too much like a modern Florida-style course. This would not be recommended. There are few opportunities to add significant length.
Why make these changes for the handful of longer hitters/lower index player? It might change the character of the course too much. This is a course meant for enjoyment of its members and fortunate guests, dedicated to the pleasures of the game through those marvelous green complexes and an appropriate placement and number of fairway bunkers. Why change a course that is near perfection of joy? This course is one of the handful of courses in the USA that remind me of playing on a great course in the British Isles, where there is not much noise from nearby traffic such as at St. Enodoc Church or Muirfield.
Gil Hanse has been retained as a consulting course architect. I am certain the members of Mountain Lake are in very good hands with Mr. Hanse.
The first hole is 358/342 par 4 with two flanking trees on the left opposite two bunkers and another directional bunker farther down on the left with a single tree on the opposite side. However, one can miss the fairway on the left and have a reasonable chance at the green. The green is double plateaued and shaped like a beaker with the wider section at the front. Bunkers are right and left the length of the green with a bunker behind. The rear bunker, whether sand or grass, is a feature of Mountain Lake. It is a devilish green if one’s putt is longer than 20 feet or you have to navigate the plateau. It almost feels as if there are three plateaus given the overall slope from the lower front left rising to the back right.
The second is 451/428 with two bunkers left that the average length player is not likely to reach often despite the downhill tee shot to a fast-running fairway. There are two trees on the right that could come into play for the longer hitter but the result is likely still a good shot at the green. Near the rectangular green is a bunker that should not come into play. There are bunkesr nearly the length of the green on either side. The back of the green is steeply raised with a 70 degree rise to the grass bunker behind the green. The green is steeply sloped from back to front with a large thumbprint from the center to the front of the green. My host pointed out that Mr. Raynor intended for the shorter hitter to be able to run a ball onto the green but there is a sprinkler at the center front and a depression of land near it that prevent a ball from bouncing onto the green. This sprinkler should be moved.
The third is a 397/372 par 4 named Alps which does not make a lot of sense as the rise is not much. The ideal line into the green is from the right side as long as one avoids the fairway bunker. Another bunker lurks farther down the left side and another on the right before the green. This hole is an excellent example of having a few bunkers but they are perfectly placed. The apostrophe shaped green has an similar shaped bunker mirroring the green on the front left and a bunker on the right side halfway into the green and continuing all the way behind it. The green is raised but not as much as the tenth hole’s green which is why the name confuses me. This is one of my favorite greens on the golf course, expertly sloped with different sections of shelves and a tier. It is also one of the better holes on the golf course.
The first par 5 is the fourth at 556/530 laid out basically straight but with scattered bunkers dictating playing as near to the center as one dares unless they can carry those bunkers. The second shot must avoid an area of taller/rough grass where a stream once crossed the fairway. The large green is well protected with two long bunkers on either side and a grass bunker behind. There are also two grass walk-up areas onto the greens which is a very nice addition. The green is tilted back to front and right to left but is one of the easier ones to read. As I am a traditionalist in most cases, I would put the stream back which would be 30-40 yards in front of the green as I think it adds to the strategy of the golf hole.
The fifth is the first par 3 and a long one at 211/184. This hole could be lengthened as much as 40 yards by removing trees between the current tee and the second green. This hole has a stretched biarrritz green with its depression of approximately three feet, perhaps a bit higher on the right side. The green also tilts substantially right to left. A long bunker guards the right of the green with two separate bunkers on the left. A three here is an excellent score. This hole is maddeningly fun.
The sixth is a par 4 of 401/356 with the tee box pointing one at the trees on the left after on the other side of Gate Lake. There is a bunker perfectly placed to catch balls on the right side. The back tee makes the hole a dogleg left although I believe the longer hitters easily carry all of the trouble but possibly risk hitting into the trees on the right. The green is surrounded by bunkers with the exception of the front of the green. There are openings in the bunkers for walk-off areas. This hole has one of the easier greens on the course in terms of avoiding a potential three putt, but has subtleties to it.
Seven is the hole I most under-estimated on the entire course, perhaps because we let people play through and was engrossed in a conversation. It is named “Road” as the green is located near the road with not a lot of room between the green and a line of bushes to the right to block the view of the road. Some say it is named road because the angle to the green is best played from the right side of the fairway, much like the seventeenth at St. Andrews Old requiring one to carry the hotel and stay as right as possible to a green that is shaped to favor a shot from the right. I am uncertain the “St. Andrews Old” version is correct but perhaps that is because technology has changed the character of the hole as it is a short par 4 of 345/325 and longer hitters will likely hit it over the right fairway bunker. The green has flanking bunkers nearly the length of the skinny green which is tilted and very quick with significant breaks once the ball loses speed. I walked away thinking the hole might be named Road because the green is about as wide as the road just behind the bushes – so three potential reasons for the name!
The eighth is the longest hole on the course with the Black tee (595) hidden behind the trees to the left of the seventh hole requiring one to carry the small pond but also avoid the bunkers expertly placed with one on the left and two on the right. From the Blue (523) tees located on a small island in the pond one has to avoid those same bunkers but if one does the next shot is simple in strategy which is to avoid the pond fronting the green on the right. The tear-drop shaped green is angled left to right with bunkers to either side. This hole is a combination of an original par four and the green of a par three as revised by Charles Banks. Some might say the green is slightly small for the length of the hole but I disagree. The green has a lower and higher portion to it slanted towards the water with a severe/tall grass bunker behind it with another walk-off area. This is the final par 5 on the course.
Nine is the second hole created by Charles Banks, a par 3 of 146/113 to a very large green with another thumbprint in the green. When I looked at the oval green I thought it was more the size of a hand. I also initially felt the green was slightly too big for the length of shot although that is likely due to the thumbprint. As I looked more at the green I realized it is more appropriately viewed as small sections. There are putts on this green that would need to navigate two substantial slopes – down and then back up. The green has the trademark bunkers left and right and another deep/steep one behind it. There is room to lengthen the hole by 20 yards but since it is the short par 3 I would recommend against it given the quality of the green.
Ten is perhaps the most difficult hole on the golf course, a long par 4 of 465/429 playing as a dogleg right with numerous bunkers down the left from the original routing when the hole played straighter with the tee box likely located closer to the current eighth green. The hole is named “Up” as it rises gently eventually ending at the raised green. There are three bunkers left and right but the ones on the right should be easily carried by the average hitter. Going too far to the right, even at the edge of the fairway, will leave a long approach shot blocked by two trees pinching into the fairway. There is a single bunker left and only one at the green. There is some discussion that the raised green is too high and unreceptive to approach shots but I do not think so. For the longer hitters they are likely only hitting a six or seven iron into the green. For the shorter hitter they are likely only able to run a ball up the bank onto the green. Some say the round green is too small for the length of the hole but again I thought it to be appropriate in size. Every course should have one hole where par is well earned and this is it. Bok Tower can be seen in the distance. It is one of my favorite holes on the golf course.
Eleven is the redan on the hole with a significant bank at the rear of the green. The ideal line to this par 3 of 181/160 is on the right side of the green, perhaps five yards right of it as the slope of the land and the bank at the back of the green will send balls rolling down towards the hole. I decided to go at the hole which was located front middle behind the large, deep bunker. There is a bunker short and one to the rear as well. Every ball will go either down to the front of the green or run nearly all the way off to the far back left. Since there are not many pin placements possible on the right third or half of the back right to center of the green, trust that a ball hit right will feed down towards the pin and will not go into the front bunker because there is a slope acting as a guardrail. A ball hit long should be played right of the pin towards that guardrail next to the front bunker and not be fooled into playing left of the pin anticipating the same slope from the tee shot. It is a clever green that angles right to left and a fun hole to play. One wants to stay on the tee hitting ten balls just to watch what happens. From here to the finish, every hole will require real thought but always fun.
Twelve is a blind tee shot with fairway bunkers at the top of the hill on either side showing one the correct line. Behind the bunker one can see on the right are two additional blind bunkers. This par 4 of 463/425 could have another 30 yards added if they wanted to take a bit from someone’s property. A longer hitter will easily carry the crest of the hill and actually get a bit of roll-out. This hole ups the challenges as there is a long bunker lurking left of the green with three smaller ones at the green which is another large rectangle with a substantial shelf on the right. The shelf actually narrows from front to back. If the pin is on the right and you slightly miss the shelf to the left you will run down a steep slope and potentially have an 80-feet putt up the slope. From an architectural standpoint, this hole is perhaps the best on the golf course given its many defenses while still being fair. This hole would fit in perfectly on any highly ranked golf course.
Thirteen plays as a slight dogleg right par 4 of 389/366. The ideal line is to play a fade over the two bunkers on the right and to stay away from the bunkers farther down the left side. The green again has a deep bunker on either side. This oval shaped green has subtle slopes to it. Aball can land short of the green and make it to the back.
Fourteen plays the opposite of thirteen as a dogleg left with trees on the left and two bunkers about 30 yards apart down the right side at the turn. This green has a bunker left and right and returns to having a deep bunker behind the green. There is a hogback running down the center of the rectangular green. The approach shot into the hole is pretty.
Fifteen is the shortest par 4 at Mountain Lake at 316/300 and has a punchbowl green. Trees and a stream go down the right side of the fairway for the tee shot with the stream continuing down the right beyond the green to empty into the pond behind it. A single bunker protects the left side of the fairway. There is a large bunker on the left and a smaller one to the right of the green. The punchbowl is quite substantial. I was lucky in that the pin was in the punchbowl and not on one of the plateaus. I was doubly lucky in that I guessed correctly that a safe line was just inside the mounds on the left of the green which kicks the ball to the right. Given the length of the hole, as long as one does not land in a fairway bunker, this hole should bring a grin to one’s face.
Sixteen is a longer par 4 of 424/398 and plays as a slight dogleg left slightly downhill. There are three bunkers left and a single one on the right before a tree. Longer hitters can carry all the bunkers. This oval green is sloped front to back where one can land their ball short and have it carry onto the green but must avoid the small bunker at the front right.
Seventeen brings the last par three at 177/163 and this can only be lengthened if one builds another island tee such as on the eighth. There is a large round bunker short right of the green. This is followed by a smaller one at the right front of the green with a large bunker the length of the green on the left and another deep bunker the length of the rear. The green has a more gentle slope to it. There is a nice view of Bok Tower here.
Crossing the road you arrive at the tee for the eighteenth, a par 4 uphill dogleg left of 412/391 finishing in front of Colony House. The tee shot requires one to carry part of a small pond but to a wide fairway. For a final time there are flanking bunkers left and right for the tee shot followed by three bunkers on the right side. One has to add a club due to the uphill approach shot. The green is thin but wide with a substantial depression near the middle and substantial slope back to front. It feels like three separate greens and is the green I think to be the best on the golf course. The green is an adaption of the Maiden. Much like the redan hole where one wants to stand on the tee and hit multiple tee shots, I wanted to stay on the green and putt from multiple locations for ten minutes. The one negative to the hole is that the round is over.
Mountain Lake is a gem of a golf course. Other than the greens it will not consistently challenge the long hitters/low index players. For its members, they are blessed as am I for having played it. As stated earlier, none of the template holes are the best that Raynor built, but they are all in the top five. The course has variation in its holes in both design, length, direction and green shapes which results in one having constant interest in it. The course is very fair and on nearly every hole a wayward approach shot has a chance at recovery. Sometimes that chance is not a high probability, but it’s there. While my personal rating of Seth Raynor courses would put many above it, much of that is due to having better land or a more scenic location with the exception of Chicago GC. In terms of ranking Raynor courses I want to play again and again, this would go ahead of a few that I listed.
Date: April 02, 2020