The purpose of the Review of The Month feature is twofold. Top100GolfCourses has always aimed to salute and encourage those who are putting admirable effort into reviewing the world’s great golf courses. Moving forward, we are also looking to learn from these experts! We’ll be chatting with the month’s star authors and discussing topics such as golf in their area, what they like to see in a strong course review, and of course dig a little deeper into their own winning review.
July 2022’s Review of The Month comes from Clay Brett, who sheds some light on Bentwater’s Grand Pines course, as well as many other Houston hotspots!
1. You suggest that Grand Pines is underappreciated...certainly the club's "Weiskopf" course has a more prominent architect. Pines's architect, Jeffrey Blume, seems to be a more Texas mainstay. Have you had the opportunity to play many of his courses? Any other recommendations?
I've played two Blume renovations in the Houston area, Riverbend and Quail Valley (El Dorado). They are very distinct from the setting of Grand Pines, Riverbend being parkland and El Dorado playing through residential housing, and an architect would not have quite the canvas that Grand Pines presents in hilly, piney woods. Riverbend has some cool history as the stomping grounds of the University of Houston golf team during one of their famous eras of Fred Couples and Jim Nantz — I believe they met for the first time on the first tee at Riverbend. It is just down the road from my home club, Westwood. Riverbend provides fearsome elevated and tucked green complexes for a parkland design on basically flat terrain, which is a complement to Blume's ability to create unique challenges out of nothing. At Grand Pines, the dramatic elevation around the greens at the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 14th and 15th melts into the forest hills and appears given by the land. Both sets are very well done and I would recommend Riverbend in the Houston rota for any visitor.
Grand Pines is underappreciated because not many people get on there. Bentwater is a gated residential community on Lake Conroe with a separate and primary golf membership on the Weiskopf and Miller courses. These courses route through the neighborhoods and out to the lake. A Grand Pines member will already be a member at the primary Weiskopf-Miller club and be a resident in the community. The Grand Pines membership is thus a subset of golf fanatics or purists from a separate private community. For a resident of Houston, almost an hour south of Grand Pines, that profile is fairly insulated and becomes an out-of-the-way place to make a connection for a round. I am fortunate that my wife's parents are generous hosts; in the COVID-lockdown era Bentwater and Grand Pines became our retreat from the city and we enjoyed many peaceful afternoons in the pines.
2. You touch upon the heroic nature of some shots at Grand Pines. Any thoughts on the fine line between exhilarating design versus punishing design?
For most golfers you might draw the line based on the options available to a player. A penal design may feel like, "hit it to X exactly or ruin your card" whereas a heroic design may feel like, "I can bail out in spots X and Y, but if I carry it to Z I win the hole and jump a shot or two on the course." These characterizations exist on a continuum, with strategic design in the middle, and there is always healthy debate.
On the Par 4 10th hole, the hazard cuts into the landing area of the tee on the right side, halving the width of the fairway, and the hazard is long enough, and the tree-lined corridor is narrow enough, that carrying the hazard is going to be unhinged and out of the question for nearly every player from appropriate tees. Thus the player has one choice off the tee, play a mid iron(!) left off of the tee, stretching the shot's rollout up a small landing area between tee and hazard jutting up the left side towards the hole. The safe zone of the landing area terminates about 140 yards before the middle of the green as the far side of the hazard runs away from the tee right to left. The green complex is 20 feet above the fairway, nestled into trees, protected by a front bunker and steep slope causing short shots to roll back towards the hazard. On this hole the player is going precision mid-iron, then mid-iron or short-iron, without many options or forgiveness for an errant shot. A player daunted by the approach shot, or who plays short of the hazard on the right side off the tee, can bail very short right and play their third shot from 50 yards uphill. The bailout is 20 yards wide between forest and hazard. I would characterize this profile of a hole as fairly penal.
In contrast, the par five 11th hole provides a heroic opportunity for the player who can shape and loft a fairway wood. The tee shot plays to a very wide, undulating fairway, downhill, where mounding will move anything on the right side of the fairway down to a collection area center left. However, this collection area's terrain also rolls and does not provide a flat stance. Nonetheless, the collection area leaves a player 250 yards into another 20-foot raised green complex with a 30 yard window in the trees over a creekbed to get home in two. The green complex moves away from the player left to right, heavily guarded by bunkers, with a safe miss long. On the second shot, if the player has the distance and the stance, the player can take the hero line attempting to carry the bunkers and thread the trees. The greenside bunkers are not fun and require a powerful lob. A shot that clips the trees is probably dead. Alternatively, the player can lay up to an awkward yardage right before the creek - inside the window, and on a downhill fairway sloping towards the hazard - and play a short iron up to a blind green. For most players; the third shot approach from over the creek and up to the pin is very challenging in its own right. When the player gets to the green, they find the landing area is actually pretty generous and they may spend the next few minutes replaying their choices on the hole. This is a tough risk reward challenge, with some demand and deception, that presents a choice and an opportunity each time, and the second shot is more dictated by stance than distance. I would characterize this profile as a hole as more heroic, with elements of each school of design. It is very frustrating to layup with a pitching wedge from 230 yards in the middle of the fairway because of an awkward stance!
3. The Houston area currently features the most entries of any city among Texas's Top 100 ranking, but few instantly recognizable names for the outsider. Any in particular that you recommend for visitors?
Whispering Pines and Bluejack provide incredible and unique golf experiences of very different variety. Whispering Pines sits on a fabulous property in a secluded setting north of Grand Pines and nails both the Pine Valley homage and the dramatic over and around the Caney Creek. The club has a fantastic and small membership, doubly so for a national club. Do not pass up an opportunity there. Bluejack is a very fun-focused Beacon Land property with rock music blaring on the range, live bands, barbecue and halfway houses sprinkled throughout the golf course and edge-to-edge manicured fairway providing an experience loved by all skill levels. Bluejack's par 3 is often played barefoot. Both are north of town.
Inside the city limits, we love our clubs Champions, River Oaks, Houston Country Club, Westwood and Lakeside, but we are very proud of our Doak-redesigned Memorial Park, which is a municipal parkland routing with heavily undulated variegated green complexes that remind me of Streamsong Blue throughout. Doak was able to shape flat land into deceiving looks and the new sand cap drains the course better than any other land in Houston. Wide fairways with greens that prefer a single and non-obvious line of charm, it is some of the best strategic design the public can play.
4. Now that you're a celebrated "Review of The Month" winner, let us know what factors you appreciate in a strong golf course review!
Thanks! A great review will capture the essence of the experience as a whole, or the nature of many holes at once, with brevity, or perhaps a single sentence. While I have read many 18 hole reviews, sometimes with a notepad or yardage book in hand ahead of an upcoming round, the great reviews provide a sense of place, challenge, conditioning and feel in a paragraph or two — look no further than the Doak reviews in his Confidential Guide books for confirmation, where Tom nails hundreds of courses around the world with wit and wisdom in a rating number and a sentence or two.
5. What's one course that you'd love to write a review for during 2022 (or plan to)?
I am really excited about the 2022 Fall golf swing that will take me through Shinnecock, National Golf Links, Friar's Head, Castle Pines, CommonGround and Fallen Oak, and on the latter courses I hope I will come away from them with something to add to the written record.