I think Old Memorial, a Steve Smyers design, is the best golf course in the greater Tampa, Florida area. It makes me want to seek out other golf courses that he designed or worked on. To date, I have only played a few of them: Chart Hills, Blue Heron Pines East, and Isleworth, but I want to play more as I believe Mr. Smyers to be a talented architect.
Full disclosure is that many years ago I played at Palmetto in Aiken, SC with Mr. Smyers and then later had a couple of discussions with Mr. Smyers while playing Old Memorial. He is both a gifted golfer, knowledgeable about golf architecture, and a good conversationalist.
I have played Old Memorial approximately 30 times and after each round I felt like it played slightly differently as well as I felt as if I had discovered a new feature. That is what I want in a golf course, one that is consistently interesting and feels “new” while having decisions to make throughout the hole. However, one overall criticism is that this course requires one to play defined angles into the greens. If one misses the preferred lines and landing spots dictated by those angles, then the difficulty of the hole is considerably raised. Combined with the tight lines from the closely mowed fairways, the course can play very difficult, perhaps even overly difficult. Longer hitters have a definite advantage on this course as they can blast their way beyond these angles.
The routing is very good for its location where wetlands, sizeable water features including Hixon Lake, and substantial vegetation had to be considered. The routing is a bit more cramped near the end of the round where the wetlands and vegetation feature more heavily whereas the front nine is built a bit more around Hixon Lake and a pond. The front nine loops in all directions while the back nine is more counter-clockwise with a spur at 16-18.
There is heavy use of sand whether as large waste bunkers, a series of fairway bunkers, or green side bunkers. It is amazing the amount of sand on this golf course. Some of the greenside bunkers nearly touch the edge of greens making one think of the great golf courses in the Sandbelt area of Australia. Some of the sandy waste areas are enormous requiring long carries to clear or play away from them. At times it feels as if there is slightly too much use of sand as a defense, particularly on the windier days.
The greens are well sloped, most are not overly done and there is a good mixture of flat and raised greens, several with false fronts, tiers, and some with severe tilts and run-offs. Some of the greens are relatively large but in general the size of the green is consistent with the length of the hole. A few greens are overly done and could be softened to improve the player’s experience rather than result in frustration.
The par 3’s are a mixture of long and short lengths but the key factor is always the wind which can make the more exposed par 3’s (4 and 11) play much more difficult. Holes four and eleven make one feel as though there are playing a defined angled into the green.
There is a nice mixture of long and short par 4’s although some might have a bit too much sand.
The four par 5’s are routed to bring more angles and strategy into play with the exception of the sixteenth hole which is on the most cramped land on the entire course but with a very silly green added to it to likely make it the most disliked hole on the golf course. On sixteen is very easy to turn a potential birdie/par into a double bogey due to the size and shape of the slightly raised green with a false front guiding balls into a front left side bunker. I rarely say a green is so bad that it should be blown up and re-done but the sixteenth green is one where that should happen. There is no joy or fun in the hole.
One criticism of the golf course is that it is very difficult for the average player, and a better course for the low index player. Playing below bogey golf for the average player is an appropriate goal. Playing below one’s index means one has played an exceptional round of golf. From the “Champion” tees it is a par 72 at 7389 yards (75.9/144) with the “member” tees at 6943 (73.9/140). The “founder” tees are 6674 yards (72.9/140). It isn’t until one gets to the “medalist” tees that the yardage gets manageable for most at 6373 yards (71.2/137). I will reference the champion and founder tees.
The first is a nice par 4 (433/412) playing that is a dogleg left but for the shorter hitters you think you need to play out to the right side and then back slightly right. Think about that: a dogleg left but the green location asking you to play down the right. There are bunkers waiting on the right side as well as a series of bunkers down the left ultimately replaced by two large bunkers nearly to the green. Another bunker is off to the left side and comes into play far more often than it should. The proper way to play the hole is to come in from the left side of the green and try to use the bank to kick a ball to the right onto the green. The green has a substantial fall-off if one goes long and some speed to a putt on a slope left to right with little hollows. It is perhaps too difficult a hole to start a golf course although the forward tee makes it a bit easier.
Yet the second hole is an even more difficult par 4 (473/427) requiring one to carry bunkers on the right side on the tee shot to hit a sweet spot in the fairway. Going too far to the left will leave one blocked by trees pinching into the fairway on the left. There are three fronting bunkers to clear short of the green and bunkers left and right with the back left and front right bunkers edging to the green. The green is large but balls have a tendency to run out which means the proper shot either lands slightly short of the green or at the front. The green has a subtle spine in it which makes a 30-feet or longer putt particularly difficult.
The third is a long par 5 (668/551) requiring a tee shot to either carry the bunkers on the right or thread a shot between the bunkers left and right. Hitting into the bunker on the left is almost a guaranteed bogey. There are two large bunkers after a waste area on the left that one has to carry or play out to the right leaving a potential bad angle into the green. The green sits back to the left a bit particularly as a large tree blocks the green if one comes in from the right side. Trees and a bunker are on the left. As if there isn’t enough sand to navigate the back of the green has a long bunker. The green again has spines and hollows in it although it is not often in good condition perhaps due to those trees.
You have played three difficult holes and next comes perhaps the most difficult par 3 on the golf course, playing over a corner of Hixon Lake and with multiple bunkers fronting and on the right side of the green. It is a semi-blind shot of 223/180 that often plays much longer as the wind is often against you or pushing to the right. This hole requires a shot that is shaped left to right. Missing to the right will result in being in a waste area with tall grasses. Missing left, right or behind the green has additional bunkers coming right to the edge of the green. The green is sloped back to front and left to right and has subtle tiers in it. The green can be very speedy. A par on this hole is a fabulous score as this is one of the most difficult par 3’s I have ever played.
The fifth continues the challenge as a sharp dogleg left par 4 (459/425) from a slightly elevated tee wrapping itself around a side of Hixon Lake with shorter hitters possibly having to confront a carry over water of 200 yards or a layup shot in front of the green. The water somewhat forces one to play out to the right which lengthens the hole. Yet going down the left side are three large bunkers making a lay-up shot play difficult. At least one of these bunkers on the left side is unnecessary. There are bunkers at the turn of the dogleg and one near the front left of the green. The green is sloped steeply right to left. A par here is perhaps more difficult than on the first four holes.
The sixth feels like one can take a breather but the reality is you cannot. It is a shorter par 4 (389/380) playing as a dogleg right requiring one to avoid the wetlands to the right. There is another tee that plays over a pond but usually the tee makes the hole play as a dogleg. On the left side is another series of bunkers where a lot of balls end up. One has to thread those bunkers and the wetlands. It is one of the more difficult greens to hit and hold with two large and deep bunkers left and a bunker short on the right. Missing the green on the right will result in going fairly far away down a large swale. Missing long will result in one going down a run-off. The green has a false front as well as a tier halfway through it. This hole is defined by its angles. Once again, par is a well-earned score despite the shorter yardage of the hole.
Finally, there is perhaps a breather at the seventh hole, a mid-length par 3 (164/147) requiring one to carry the water and avoid the sand fronting the bunker and down the left and right side. Missing wide right will likely mean a lost ball due to the vegetation. The green is sloped back to front but is one of the easier greens to read as well as judge the pace. Thankfully there is not a bunker behind the green.
The eighth hole brings back the challenge to what appears to be another breather hole. It is a short par 4 (352/325) but with a pond left and bunkers down the right. There are two greens on this hole with the right-side green being smaller and harder to achieve par as it has massive bunkers left, a false front, is raised with big fall-offs right and behind and finally also has a tricky spine in the middle of this thin green. It is unfair. The left green is flatter but also has a spine and is well-bunkered. For a short par 4 it is deceptively difficult once again due to the angle of play.
The ninth brings the second par 5 (562/513) playing out of a chute as a dogleg left with the bold play to shorten the hole requiring one to carry the tree line on the left to cut the dogleg. Off to the right is a series of bunkers. If one hits a good shot they can decide either to try to carry two different sections of large cross bunkers or play out to the left as far as possible to try to avoid them. There are bunkers fronting the green and some at the rear which are very problematic due to their depth. Once again, much like the bunkers in the Sandbelt, they come right to the edge of the green. The green has a false front and a large spine across its middle. A back pin position is almost impossible.
The tenth hole kicks off with a par 4 (444/406) that is a dogleg left. It is a simple tee shot due to the width of the fairway out to the right but that lengthens the hole considerably. Trees go down the left side with trees coming in from the right to pinch the fairway at about 150 yards from the green which has a significant false front and a smaller tier in it. Thankfully the only greenside bunker is on the right. It is one of the easier greens.
The eleventh plays across a valley as a par 3 (203/187) that can play significantly easier or harder based on the wind. There are large and deep bunkers on either side of the green and a severe fall-off behind the green. A pond is found more often than one might imagine to the left of the green. The green is very tilted right to left with another spine in it. This makes me believe Mr. Smyers crafted a homage to a redan template hole but it might not be the case. A ball hit slightly too long will likely go over the green due to the mid to back slope. It is a difficult putt from more than 20-feet. Once again even though this is a par 3 one must hit to the correct section of the green.
Twelve is a hole I do not particularly care for as a par 5 of 642/558 with options to play to a narrow fairway down the left which provides the longer hitter a chance to reach the green in two or certainly lay up to the front of the green getting over the longest waste area of sand I have ever seen. It has to be nearly 200 yards long and roughly 40 yards wide at its widest point. Playing to the fairway on the right one still has to stay out of the trees on the right and that waste area. The waste area has sections of raised grass in it such that if one’s ball is close to the grass then the next shot should simply get back to the fairway. It is a severe dogleg left with a raised green much like a “volcano” green that has a substantial run-off at the front and to the right. Even going long will result in a shot going 20 yards away from the green unless one is truly fortunate. That long waste area looms to the left side of the green. While I have seen birdies here, more often I see bogies or higher. The waste area on this hole makes the waste area on the fifth hole on Chart Hills (Anaconda bunker) seem small by comparison. I do not really care for the hole despite the options.
Thirteen is a short par 4 (314/306) that is not driveable due to the large bunkers fronting the green beginning about 50 yards short of the green leading right to the green. There is another wicked green placed at the middle behind the green. The long hitter tries to play over the mounds out to the left leaving the best angle into the thin/narrow green sloped back to front. The shorter hitter tries to play short of those bunkers or slightly to the left of theme leaving likely a wedge into the green, but one that must be judged nearly perfectly to hold the green. Once again, although it is a short hole, it is a fairly difficult hole that requires thought and precision.
Fourteen is a dogleg right par 4 (480/389) with a nod to the sixth hole at Pine Valley requiring the shorter hitter to either fly the most left-sited bunkers or play out to the right leaving a longer approach to the green. Those bunkers down most of the right side are not an issue for the longer hitter but they are an almost guaranteed dropped shot if you get into them. At the green there are five bunkers left and one right to a green that has a bank on the back right that makes it a difficult pin position. In my opinion, this hole has too many bunkers on the left and at the green.
Fifteen is another long par 4 (438/411) that is a dogleg right from the founder’s tees but plays straight from the championship tee. There is another long continuous bunker on the right of about 80 yards long as well as trees on the left. Once again, Mr. Smyers is asking one to hit the fairway. At the green there are two bunkers left and one on the right side. The green has a substantial false front and a tilt and swale that sends balls right to left and down off the front of the green. This is yet another difficult hole with one of those bunkers on the left at the green a potential for being removed.
Sixteen, as discussed above, has a terrible green. This is a short par 5 of 519/507 playing as a substantial dogleg left with a narrow fairway with trees on either side followed by a cross bunkers. The green has a bunker right and left with the left bunker capturing a lot of balls due to the slope of the green. I do not like the hole nor will ever like the hole due to the green.
Seventeen is a nice par 3 (175/159) playing over a waste area and ultimately surrounded by sand to a thin green with a smaller spine in the middle. This is perhaps another breather hole but I have also seen a fair number of double bogies here due to the size of the green.
The finishing hole is a par 4 (451/391) bending slightly to the right. Trees are heavy down the right side with trees scattered down the left. The ideal tee shot plays to the left side to have the best approach into the green. The green is once again surrounded by bunkers with a narrow landing area in front of the green where if one is lucky enough to find it, then they can roll their ball onto the green. There are too many bunkers near this green which has a mound on the back left.
After reading my hole-by-hole review one could wonder why I like the golf course and the work of Mr. Smyers. I have just described a course that the average player is unlikely to post a good score (my best score is 82 from the Founder tees in 30 tries) due to the requirement that one must find the correct lines to avoid all of the sand, wetlands, and waste areas to have a reasonable approach to the greens. Many of the greens are similar to the Sandbelt where the bunkers come to the edge of the greens. There are several sand bunkers over a hundred yards in length, cross bunkers, and deep and long bunkers. There are too many bunkers. The greens all have a spine in them as well as false fronts that require a precise shot into the green. The grass on the fairways and near the green are mowed very tightly meaning one must clip their shot precisely at the right spot or a ball is either thinned or hit fat. Some of the holes have greens overly done such as the twelfth and sixteenth. Yet I like the golf course because it is an easy walk, the holes are varied, and most of the greens are interesting. The routing moves in all directions and each hole is unique unlike a course such as Yeaman’s Hall. It is a golf course meant for low index players and longer hitters. It is not a course suited for average length or short hitters or high handicappers.
Old Memorial is one of the more difficult courses I have played ranking with the likes of Bethpage Black, the composite of Royal Melbourne, Butler National and Pikewood National. If you do not want a golfing challenge, then do not play it. But if you want to test the skills of tee to green, this is a course worth having a round or two.
Date: March 22, 2020