When you think of top quality golf, Alabama isn’t a location that springs immediately to the forefront of the mind. About the only times the state has touched on the consciousness of the international golfing world have been when the Nicklaus-designed Shoal Creek, outside the city of Birmingham, has hosted big events – two PGA championships, a US Women’s Open and a US Amateur; oh, and also when club founder Hall Thompson became involved in a very public debate about the club’s lack of African-American members at the time.
Next year, though, a course will open that promises to take Alabama golf to a whole new level. An hour and a half southeast of Birmingham is Lake Martin, a reservoir created in the 1920s by the damming of the Tallapoosa River. At the time of its creation, Lake Martin was the largest man-made body of water in the world, and it remains among the largest man-made lakes in the United States, with over 700 miles of shoreline.
Most of that shoreline is owned by two organisations, Alabama Power and Russell Lands. A long-established family-owned company, based in Alabama since its foundation, Russell Lands traces its history back to the 1840s, when the family started acquiring land in that part of the state. It continued expanding its holdings for eighty years, until the lake was created in the 1920s. The family farming business officially changed its name to Russell Lands in 1960, and, later in that decade, began the development of the Willow Point Golf & Country Club on the lakeshore. Now, the company has developed eight neighbourhoods on the shores of Lake Martin, and wanted to do another golf course development, just a couple of miles away from Willow Point.
Russell hired Coore & Crenshaw to design the course, to be known as Wicker Point. Bill Coore says: “When I first visited the site, Russell Lands president Tom Lambeth said to me, ‘Bill, we want to showcase the lake and this part of Alabama. If you do the course, we definitely want you to use the lake. We have plenty of shoreline here!’ He wasn’t kidding either – the lake has so many inlets that it creates hundreds and hundreds of miles of shoreline. I have heard that there is as much water frontage on Lake Martin as there is in the whole of California. But it’s all ins and out, and it is very, very beautiful. The shoreline is very broken, with coves and inlets and peninsulas.”
Lambeth was as good as his word. Coore & Crenshaw’s routing gets its first glimpse of the lake on the par-three eighth hole, but from there, it is by the water almost all the way – nine of the eighteen holes have water frontage.
Coore says that, despite the beautiful surroundings, the routing was not an easy creation. “The difficulty was that, because the lake is man-made, all the peninsulas that run down to the water used to be ridgelines,” he explains. “They’re quite rounded, and not naturally that conducive to golf. But Russell gave us free rein to find the right land – of which they have a lot! Some sites that we looked at were beautiful, but their landforms were too severe for interesting golf. The Russell guys said, ‘You look at the properties we’ve got within the general area’. I said, ‘What’s the flattest ground you have?’ Which isn’t the sort of question I normally ask a prospective client! But the family live there, so they’re very sensitive about how they treat the area.”
Unlike most of Coore & Crenshaw’s more famous courses, Wicker Point is not built on sand, but on the red clay so common in America’s south. “The soil is heavy, but there is plenty of it,” says Coore. “Birmingham, which is the nearest city, is quite hilly – it’s the lowest reaches of the Appalachian Mountains. But fortunately, we haven’t encountered any rock on the site, so no need for blasting.” The course is also requiring more earthworks than the minimalist firm is associated with. “I’d be lying if I said the holes were just there – we have had to do some substantial recontouring of the ridges for the fairways,” says Coore. “But hopefully we’re doing it in such a way as it’ll still look pretty natural. There are some places with maybe ten-foot cuts and slightly bigger fills, but we’re trying to leave lots of tilt and sweeping movement. Most of the earthworks are basically taking the natural landforms that are there and keeping them intact, but softening them to accommodate golf.”
The requirement for some fairly significant earthworks meant that a main contractor was required, and Landscapes Unlimited were hired to build the course. “Landscapes also built the first course for Russell, so they are familiar with the client and the area,” says Coore. But most of Coore & Crenshaw’s regular construction guys have been on site during the build. “Jimbo Wright is there, along with Jeff Bradley who is building the bunkers, and at different times quite a few of our crew will have rotated through,” says Coore.
The course will feature Zeon Zoysia grass for the approaches, tees, fairways and rough and TifEagle bermuda on the greens accentuated by bunkers with sand native to the area. The Alabamian appearance of the course will be surrounded by longleaf pine plantations. In addition to the native forests, out-of-play areas will be plentiful with native grasses and wildflowers. To preserve and encourage the growth of these species, Russell Lands is working in conjunction with Claude Jenkins, the most recent recipient of the National Wildlife Federation’s National Conservation Leadership Award. Course superintendent James Morgan worked with Coore & Crenshaw on the Trinity Forest course in Dallas, where he was first assistant during the build. “James is a super-talented young guy, and he had dealt with Zeon Zoysia, which is what we are using at Wicker Point, at Trinity Forest, so he was a great choice,” says Coore. “They are going to sod the fairways. With some of these rolling hills and slopes down to the lake, there is potential damage that could occur and damage the quality of water in the lake as well as eroding the golf course. Sodding will reduce the risk of that happening.”
Wicker Point is the anchor for a new 1,500-acre residential development called The Heritage, which, in total, includes twelve miles of shoreline. Russell expects to begin residential sales later in 2022.
Meanwhile, Coore says that the aim is to finish golf course construction this year. “The goal is to finish by the end of October,” he says. “It might lap into November a bit, but that is still really nice weather in Alabama. Last fall, we completed four holes – including the eighth and seventeenth, both par threes – that all come very close to the lake. Those were sodded last year, and the rest will be done in 2022.” Wicker Point is expected to open in the spring of 2023.
This article first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.