Some concepts just seem to fit together perfectly; others, by contrast, appear completely at odds.
In the latter category we can safely put mountains and Florida: the Sunshine State may have many virtues, but, as anyone who has played a bit of golf there will testify, topography isn't at the top of the list. So a Florida golf course going by the name of Sugarloaf Mountain might seem a little incongruous. Discovering that the said course is no more than half an hour's drive from downtown Orlando makes it seem even more unlikely.
The design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw has been responsible for some of most highly acclaimed modern golf courses in the US. Without doubt, a major reason for this is the high degree of architectural skill they bring to a project; but even the best designer in the world cannot create Pine Valley or Muirfield from a flat, featureless field with heavy clay soil. Design shops such as Coore & Crenshaw, Tom Doak's Renaissance Golf Design practice, or David Kidd's firm may have many high quality courses in their portfolios, but the hard-earned ability to select projects with potential is an important reason for their success. In short, top firms rarely take projects on lousy sites.
Florida, though, is the poster boy for lousy sites. Although the state has many fine golf courses, most are the result of large scale engineering projects. Take Pete Dye's legendary TPC Sawgrass: the course was largely a swamp before Dye got to work. Florida-based architect Steve Smyers has built a career on his ability to create fine courses on apparently unpromising pieces of property. But the minimalist design style of Coore & Crenshaw has, over the years, been founded on careful selection of sites.
That, one might think, is why the pair has never before built a course in Florida.
West of Orlando lies Lake Apokpa, and west of the lake is an upland area that an observer would be very unlikely correctly to identify. Mostly a fruit growing region, the area around Clermont rises to more than 300 feet above sea level, the highest point in the main Florida peninsula. And underfoot is pure, beautiful sand, the golf architect's best friend. It's here that golf community developer LandMar is building Sugarloaf Mountain.
I can't overemphasise how unlike the clichéd view of Florida this piece of property is. From the start, there is great topography: the soon-to-be-built clubhouse, located as is normal on the highest point of the site, will have great long-range views towards downtown Orlando, and the first hole, a not-tootough par four given a solid tee shot, ambles downhill towards the green.
The first 'wow' hole is the fourth, another downhill par four with a blind drive over a crest. When I played the course, I was fortunate to be partnered with a visitor who had already been round, and could advise on the ideal driving line. This is the kind of shot that would not raise an eyebrow in Britain, but which, to a golfer raised on American resort courses, might seem quirky.
Sugarloaf Mountain, though, will be a members' course, and, as a wise man once said, it is only blind once. The green, nestling at the bottom of the hill, is especially well done, and is protected to the left by a quite beautifully built bunker.
A strong run of holes continues at the fifth, the course's first par three.
Requiring a solid blow with a mid to long iron, the hole has a large and challenging green with a spine running through the centre, separating it into high right and low left sides. Trees run along the left side of the hole, with a large lake beyond. The tendency, therefore, is to leak the ball right, where there is at least some room, but bunkers above the green and scrubby rough beyond will ensure few pars are scrambled from up there. This may be a rarity: a tiered green where the toughest pin positions are on the lower side.
One key issue on an undulating site like this is how the uphill holes are managed.
Sugarloaf Mountain has been designed as a course to be walked by its members, and, mostly, it should be a comfortable stroll, but the – wholly understandable and normal – desire to put the clubhouse at the top of the property means that it's inevitable there will be some uphill drags heading home. At the ninth hole, a picturesque par five with a dominant central bunker determining strategy from the tee, this is managed well – the hole climbs steadily, but, except for the final push to the green, is never that steep. The home hole, though, is a little more extreme, as the golfer might guess when he checks the scorecard and sees that, despite being only 465 yards from the back tee, it is rated a par five. Climbing over 100 feet from tee to green, this is a severe walk for the final hole of the day.
Elsewhere on the golf course, though, the tumbling topography is brilliantly managed. The wonderful thirteenth hole, for example, is routed over a crest and then plunges downhill to the green. The fairway is a textbook example of how golf course construction should be done – ledges have been created in the hillside to provide playable landing areas, but the shaping is never obtrusive and, unless the golfer takes a close look at the out of play areas, he could easily be fooled into thinking the contours were wholly natural. The green too is exquisitely done: its contours seem gentle from a distance, but the player who has seen a ball feed across the slopes towards a rear pin position will be well aware of the fastbreaking putt that awaits him.
Another fine – this time very small, although rapacious – central bunker is to be found on the par four tenth hole, which traverses some of the flattest land on the site. Also in this corner of the golf course is my single favourite hole, the tiny par three eleventh. Barely 110 yards from the back tees, and less than 100 from the tees most players will use, the hole uses the native sand to present a fascinating visual challenge to the golfer. Waste areas to the front of the green transition into formal bunkers at the edge of the putting surface, which is pushed slightly above its surround. This small elevation prevents the player seeing the back of the green, and the miniscule length of the hole creates an inevitable belief in his mind that the green must be tiny, which it is not, or at least not especially so. Thus, instead of swinging confidently with what, after all, will only be a sand iron or punch wedge for most, the golfer is convinced the ball must be landed just over the fronting bunkers. Result: the shot is underhit, the ball finishes short, and the architect claims another victim. In my group of four, not one of us – even the player who had seen the course before – hit the green or made par! If the eighteenth will be the hole most golfers complain about, I think the par four fourteenth will create the widest disparity of opinions.
A severe dogleg to the right around a tongue of lake (that was dry when I visited), the hole is essentially a severe example of the 'bite off as much as you can chew' tee shot. Lay up with an iron in the wide fairway to the left, or try to carry part or all of the hazard. A very long hitter with a controlled, powerful fade might just be able to drive the green, but it would be a tremendous shot.
The problem with the hole is that, either because the lake is often dry, and thus the edge of the hazard is undefined, or to reduce the likelihood of players hitting into it, the architects have built a long, narrow trench bunker above the bank. I can see why this is there, but on a golf course that, elsewhere, blends so beautifully with its surrounds, this looks glaringly unnatural. As ever with Coore and Crenshaw's work, the bunker edging is actually really well done, but it still sticks out like a sore thumb.
Conceptually, the hole is tremendous; visually, however, I thought it jarring.
But this is a quibble. Sugarloaf Mountain is a triumph – a brand new golf course that genuinely looks as though it has been there for many decades. Developer LandMar plans to build two villages on the property, one next to the golf course, and the other across the road. If I lived in Orlando and were looking to move, I would be racing up County Road 455: the future residents have a gem on their hands.