Standing at the tee for No. 16 on the Ghost Creek course at Pumpkin Ridge, I only briefly searched my mind for what hole this short par three, surrounded by a pearl necklace of bunkers, resembled. Measuring 23 yards long by 18 wide, the tightness of the target justified the short distance (133 yards from the tips). I quickly realized I had seen similar holes at Donald Ross and Tillinghast courses across the country, in restoration before-and-afters, reflecting how the once monumental greens had shrunk for decades, and how the restoring architect brought the putting surfaces back out to the edges of the hazards, establishing that points were to be scored not merely by hitting the green, but by hitting the proper spot on the green.
The difference here is that Bob Cupp intended No. 16’s raisin green from the get-go.
The Ghost Creek course reflects the era during which it was designed, where penalists punished players and reaped income. Tactics such as placing bunkers on both sides of the fairway 170 yards out (but not 250 yards out) to whip high-handicappers (see No. 2). Or putting a grove of trees inside the dogleg to help the powerful get closer and the weak get farther away (see No. 12). Where the closing hole obviously needed to be a long par four with a pond hugging the last 100 yards and, if you were lucky, No. 9 would get the same treatment (see respective holes here).
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t keep my eyes out for signs of revival. Such happened at No. 7, the top handicap hole. I had already enjoyed the tee shot, where a player could challenge the three large fairway bunkers with a draw off the tee, or bail out by bee-lining over the first bunker toward the wide right side of the fairway (at the cost of a longer approach). Two bunkers pinch the fairway about 25 yards out from the green, and I cleared them with an iron, watching the ball roll on in regulation. I bring this up to stroke my own ego but also, perhaps just as importantly, because I later looked at the yardage guide and noted that the turf behind the bunkers was recently second cut. Cupp had not intended the classic strategy that I saw and played; he intended the player to make a full carry to the green and stop it there. Pumpkin Ridge, however, has converted it to fairway. The bunkers create a visual deception that the hazard is much nearer to the green than it is, prompting the less confident player to over-club, when the opportunity exists to play a more ground-focused game.
The long story short: A heavy-handed redesign wasn’t necessary. It just took a bit of creative mowing around Cupp’s existing design.
Likewise, holes such as the aforementioned nos. 2, 12 and 16 don’t require Gil Hanse’s brain or budget to fix (you’re on your own for Nos. 9 and 18). The club has put considerable time and income into maintaining the property to the prim standards that courses of the Nicklaus and Fazio design trees tend to be hired for…a little bit of extra cash thrown at a Dan Hixson or a Jackson-Kahn could go quite some distance. In fact, improvements to Nos. 2, 12 and 16 would be less of a “fix” and more of a “step toward being truly impressive.”
Thus far I’ve rapped Cupp’s knuckles but to be fair, the client is always right and — as with many other architects of his generation — Cupp’s designs that haven’t aged well don’t stem from he being a clod, but perhaps being too timid to suggest going against the then-problematic grain. There are moments within the sometimes-adventurous tenets of his era where Cupp’s designs click quite well during a round at Ghost Creek.
No. 17, a short par, offers a range of realistic options off the tee. Go for the green and risk a creek and pond. Carry the creek (230) for a short, easy angle into the green. Lay up short of the creek and face a longer approach at a good angle. Lay up long and right for a shorter, more awkward angle in. All options have risks, costs, or both. That’s great design. No. 6 applies the same principles to an inherently penal-era hole: Challenge the creek down the right for the best angle to the green. Challenge the bunkers on the left for a shorter approach. Or go right for the middle of the fairway, avoiding punishment but also avoiding any definitive scoring benefit.
It will be interesting to watch both courses at Pumpkin Ridge over the next few years. Tree-clearing has been ongoing along the back stretch of the Ghost Creek property, and an immaculate set of new back tees caught the eye throughout the round; it turns out the upcoming LIV event will be a hybrid 18 of the Ghost Creek and Witch Hollow courses. Granted, that tour’s schedule does not reflect particular interest in courses showcasing strategic design (nor has Greg Norman been particularly avid for it in his role as a designer). But should the tour make a return visit to Pumpkin Ridge, money will follow. Whether that goes to further improvements or doubled-down Tour-ification (which I’ll define as “summing up the major trends in course design during the second half of the 20th Century”) remains to be seen.
The former could bode well for Ghost Creek.
Date: April 28, 2022