Woodlake Country Club, near Pinehurst in North Carolina, will reopen its Ellis Maples-designed golf course next year following work by Kris Spence to revive the abandoned layout.
The course was laid out by Maples and then-associate Ed Seay in 1971, and a second layout by Seay and Arnold Palmer was added in 1995. But both fell into disrepair and eventually closed, in 2015 and 2018 respectively.
The closures were part of a troubled period for the Woodlake community, under an ownership group led by German investor Ilya Steiner. When Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, the Woodlake Dam (built in 1987 to create the 1,200-acre Lake Surf, which borders the Maples course) almost breached, forcing hundreds of people to leave their homes. Concerned about the stability of the dam, the state drained the lake, thereby eliminating the source of irrigation water for both courses. In 2018, Woodlake residents successfully sued Steiner’s company for $162 million, with the judge finding the ownership group unwilling or incapable of fixing the dam.
Keith Allison’s Atlantic National Capitol bought the Woodlake development (including both golf courses) for $3.5 million in a March 2021 foreclosure auction. Allison then hired Spence to work on the Maples course (the Palmer layout is to be repurposed) and was awarded $9.6 million by the state to restore Woodlake Dam, which has remained dry since the state drained it, but will be refilled once the Maples course reopens.
“During my first tour of the course, I could barely see across the holes due to trees growing everywhere,” said Spence. “Small pines and other woody shrubs were taking over the bunkers, and the greens were covered with sedge grasses and other tall weeds, thus preventing me from seeing any contours.”
Spence and his team began the process of mowing and spraying herbicides to remove the broadleaf weeds that had taken over the property. Fertiliser was then used to see how much bermuda had survived.
“To my surprise, once the sun and fertiliser kicked in, the bermuda came back with a vengeance and started to cover the tees and fairways quickly,” said Spence. “At this point we did not have an irrigation water source or a functioning irrigation system, so we were relying on mother nature to provide the moisture. We got lucky with the right amount of rain and accomplished a good recovery.”
In autumn 2021, a new Toro irrigation system was installed and work to rebuild bunkers and resurface greens began.
“We cleared the weeds and smoothed out the old rootzone on the greens, being careful to preserve as much of the original contouring as possible,” said Spence. “I liked the green surfaces so much that I wanted to restore them. Jim Harbin, my design associate and lead shaper, did an incredible job bringing the definition back to the contours of the greens.
“The green surrounds needed new grass, so they were stripped and regraded to ensure they had good surface drainage and would be playable. After sodding the surrounds with TifTuf bermuda, greens were sprigged with TifEagle ultradwarf bermuda in July of this year.”
Respecting Maples’ original design has been key for Spence. The course opens with four holes on flatter ground near the western bank of Lake Surf, before turning inland for 10 holes, with the final four returning to a flatter section near the lake.
“Maples routed holes in a manner that exposes the player to uphill, downhill and severe sidehill lies on fairways,” said Spence. “He was not shy when it came to the amount of tilt the landing areas had, something most modern designers shape out of the land. Maples designed most holes with a fair bit of side-to-side movement, which, coupled with the elevation changes, gives the player just about every conceivable shot option available.
“The greens have a mix of internal movements that section off pin positions in strategic corners or between rolling ridges, terraces, valleys or knobs. Maples was known for designing very creative greens with a good amount of undulation. I have worked on over 10 of his courses and the greens at Woodlake are some of the best I’ve seen. He designed and shaped them in such a fashion that just about every conceivable concept is on the course: wide, shallow, narrow, deep, low-profile punchbowl, raised plateaus and greens on natural crowns. These greens will hold their own against anywhere else.”
Spence has remained faithful as much as possible to Maples’ original routing. Only the eighteenth has changed – it will be converted into 25 lakefront lots. The new final hole is now played over what was the first hole of the Palmer course, but in reverse.
“We tried to leave as much of the original course intact as we could, especially in regard to the routing and locations of tees and greens,” said Spence. “We have removed several bunkers from behind greens, combined others, reduced the size of some, and repositioned a few to address changes in the game. We have around the same number of bunkers, but we have reduced the overall footprint by about 40 per cent. The bunkers are shaped stylistically with laced edges and flashed faces, so they fit into the landforms naturally and really catch the eye of the player.”
Following this “resurrection”, as Spence calls it, the course remains a par 72, playing from 4,400 to 7,350 yards, although the architect says the slopes in the landing areas make it play longer. Tree removal has widened landing areas significantly.
“The par threes are very strong, especially the fourth and eighth holes,” said Spence. “The fourth is situated in a very open and panoramic setting that requires players to hit their tee shot over a corner of the lake to a beautiful and well-bunkered green. The eighth is another standout par three at 238 yards, playing downhill from the highest point on the property, with a drop of over 75 feet.
“The 595-yard tenth is a really good par five, requiring a tee shot to the right of a small pond before players hit their approach to an angled green well defended by bunkers. In my opinion, it is a textbook example of a well-designed three-shot par five.”
Spence expects some preview play to begin in November, ahead of a grand opening in 2023.