The Cascades Golf Course
Tied to the justly world famous Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, The Cascades Golf Course has remained one of William Flynn‘s most notable works. This is as it should be, in part because William Flynn spent over a dozen years continually refining and improving his original work as both he and his wife cherished their annual visit to The Homestead. Given the diverse natural features of which he took full advantage, it is no wonder that the course has hosted many important events including the 1928 US Women’s Amateur won by Glenna Collett, the 1966 Curtis Cup, the 1967 US Women’s Open, the 1980 US Sr. Amateur won by William C. Campbell, the 1988 US Men’s Amateur, the 1994 US Women’s Amateur and 2000 US Mid-Amateur. However, golf courses are living, breathing things and the question now is: does the Cascades Golf Course still warrant its reputation as a world class golf course?
One thing is for sure and that is that The Cascades Golf Course did deserve its mighty reputation in William Flynn‘s day. Indeed, in many ways, it was an early harbinger of what William Flynn had to offer as he successfully – and apparently with great ease – was able to drape the holes over the land, creating varied stances and lies that required great skill in approaching pitched greens. Nothing jaw dropping but highly effective nonetheless at providing an engaging test as witnessed by the championships that it has hosted.
However, that’s not to imply that the property was an easy one with which to work. Indeed, two men before him cast doubt as to the land’s merit for golf. According to William Flynn historian Wayne Morrison, The Homestead in 1919 brought in Peter W. Lees but he was underwhelmed by the property’s potential. Undeterred by Lees’s negative report, The Homestead then retained A.W. Tillinghast in 1920 to both review Mr. Lee’s designs for an expanded Goat Course and to again evaluate the Rubino property for golf. Likewise, Tillinghast said that the Rubino land could not provide what was needed for good golf.
William Flynn was then invited to see the property and walked it along with Fay Ingalls through brier, weeds, bushes, cornfields, a cress lake, and along limestone ridges. By dusk, William Flynn announced that if a ¼ acre site with a tenant’s shack could be obtained (the site of today’s fourth green), an outstanding course could be constructed. Thus, The Homestead went ahead and acquired the Rubino property and hired William Flynn to design it.
Ever the efficient architect, William Flynn took only thirteen months to design and build The Cascades Golf Course. Trees were cut, cleared, and hauled to a mill for use on the construction of the course. Dynamite crews worked carefully so as not to disturb the mineral springs. Boulders as large as twenty tons (!) were removed. A 300-yard ridge of limestone was reduced. Tractors plowed, disc-harrowed and did finish grade work along with horses and mules. An irrigation system was put in. A steam shovel (a novelty back then for this area) filled in the watercress lake using 38,000 cubic yards of fill. Swift Run (a stream with a catchment area of twenty square miles) was redirected westward to the foot of Little Mountain in some areas and sent underground in others through 76-inch reinforced concrete pipes cast on the property.
Morrison notes that the materials used included: 20 tons of dynamite, 1204 tons of manure, 16 tons of fertilizer, 1287 tons of sand, 6 tons of seed, 208 tons of horse and mule feed, 83 tons of cement, 330 tons of crushed stone, 76 tons of building supplies, 32,000 linear feet of water pipe, 11,400 linear feet of rubber hose, 10,000 linear feet of drain tile, 20,000 linear feet of conduit and cable, 181,000 square feet of creeping bent stolons, 23,000 square feet of steel reinforcing, 38,000 square feet of lumber, 8,000 square feet of roofing, 12,000 gallons of gasoline and oil, and 400 gallons of paint.
Yet, as a true credit to William Flynn‘s skill as an architect, the end result of this large engineering effort is that the land looks like man has done little to it. This is indeed a rare gift for an architect to possess and few architects in history can match William Flynn in this regard.
The more one plays golf, the more one appreciates the lack of clutter at William Flynn‘s best designs and that is particularly true here. There no mounds anywhere and William Flynn‘s features hug the ground. Green complexes like the second, seventh, eighth and eleventh seem to be perfect extensions of the sloping terrain but in fact William Flynn moved a fair amount of dirt to prop up these greens and give the holes their golfing qualities.
William Flynn‘s earth moving also taxes the player’s perceptions on how a particular shot or putt will play. At the second hole, where the fairway slopes hard left to right, William Flynn propped up the right side of the green pad so that the putting surface actually slopes right to left. Such a tact makes the green more receptive to the approach, but it can also leave the player scratching his head as to which way his putt will break – should he look at the overall slope of the land or the specific pitch of the green? The fourth green is another optical illusion. The one-shotter drops sharply from the tee to the green below, which looks like it is pitched toward the tee as an inviting target. However, the green actually follows the slope down the hill, away from the tee. Many players stand perplexed on the tee as their tee ball continues to drift well past the hole. The eighth green is a combination of the themes of the second and fourth: from the tee of this 155 yarder, the green appears pitched back to front toward the tee. However, the front half follows the sidehill, left-to-right slope of the site as it runs away from the player while William Flynn built up the back-right portion of the green, sloping it from right to left.
Unfortunately, some of William Flynn‘s work has been tampered with and in doing so, The Cascades Golf Course‘s reputation as one of William Flynn‘s – and the world’s – best is now in jeopardy. Bunkers have been removed, streams covered over, and two of William Flynn‘s best holes (the fourteenth and fifteenth) have been severely altered. Take the sixth hole as an example of a hole that no longer delivers much playing interest. In William Flynn‘s day, the sixth captured his ability to create a hole that is natural/simple in appearance and yet highly strategic. As he walked the property, he found a section of stream that ran in a straight line for approximately 360 yards. He placed the tee on the left side of the stream and eventually settled on placing a long oval green on its right, parallel to the stream. In this manner, the closer one flirts with the stream off the tee, the better his angle into the green. Most famously, William Flynn later carried out this same strategy at the fourth at Lancaster Country Club, which became one of his most recognized holes. The more the golfer shies away from the stream, the more oblique his angle becomes into the oval green on his approach. However, at some point in the 1980s, the section of stream from 150 yards to 260 yards from the tee was run underground, thus robbing the hole of William Flynn‘s strategic intent. Even worse, where the stream once was is now a horrid cart path! Similarly, on the back nine, one of his most interesting designs was the fourteenth, with twenty some bunkers making what would have been a highly strategic slight dogleg to the right. Thinking that this 360 yard hole needed a bit more muscle, The Homestead carried out Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s recommendation to move William Flynn‘s green left and thirty yards back in the late 1950s. Today’s fourteenth plays straightaway, holding little strategic interest, though Jones’ green does feature the most interior contour of any on the course. The tragedy of that move was exacerbated in that Jones then also moved the fifteenth tee, shoehorning it between his new fourteenth green and the first fairway. The result is the worst hole on the course and a dreadful substitute for William Flynn‘s original 250 yard fifteenth with its interesting playing angles.
Tree growth is another issue that has robbed The Cascades Golf Course of some of its past grandeur. Long views past the seventh and eighth greens are now masked while some fairways like the twelfth have become senselessly claustrophobic. Still, through all this, William Flynn‘s course remains refreshingly original and is certainly still a placement course. Distance isn’t the big concern, as only four of the two shotters are over 430 yards. The greens aren’t frightenly contoured. The bunkers aren’t deep (in part because there is so much rock underneath), and yet … the score mounts. Hit the sloping fairway and keep the ball beneath the hole. Sounds easy, but consistent with design work carried out in the 1920’s, if the land had pitch, so did the fairways. At The Cascades Golf Course, the second, fifth, seventh and ninth fairways continually serve up different stances and lies. The golfer then descends into the river bed bottom of the valley for the second nine, which features a flowing stream of mountain water on six holes. The stances are flatter but the penalty for mistakes escalates. Overall, the challenge is balanced between the two nines, and when combined, the golfer appreciates why Sam Snead, the course’s first Head Professional, famously said as per below, ‘If you can play The Cascades Golf Course, you can play anywhere.’
Holes to Note
Fourth hole, 200 yards, Carry On; The elevated tee gives the golfer a clear few of the small 3,400 square foot green well below and the setting’s beauty acts as the only consolation for this is one of the most demanding shots on the course. Given the thinner mountain air at this 2,500 foot elevation, club selection remains a perpetual mystery, just when accuracy is at a premium. Unfortunately, the terror of the hole has been dumbed down in recent years with the course’s deepest bunker removed from the left as well as a penal horseshoe bunker that once ran around the back. In addition, the course has lost one of its best hole locations when rough was allowed to take over ~200 square feet of putting surface of William Flynn‘s back right fill pad.
Fifth hole, 575 yards, Marathon; Throughout his design career and in his writings, William Flynn frequently warned that technology was reducing the challenge of the game as the player was no longer asked to hit controlled long shots. He wrote often about the need for distance and backed it up with his 7,000 yard Mill Road Farm Golf Course which opened in 1926 (!) in the age of hickory golf clubs. The Philadelphia based William Flynn was a definite fan of the genuine three shot hole, no doubt influenced by such holes as the fourth at Merion and the pair at Pine Valley. And to this day, the fifth at The Cascades Golf Course plays as a three shotter, thanks to William Flynn‘s use of a huge landform that created two separate and distinct island fairways. Standing on the tee, the view isn’t as dramatic as a par five with a Sahara bunker feature but the land form is every bit as effective at dictating play.
Seventh hole, 425 yards, Seventh Heaven; The elevated tee soaks up the view down the length of the valley. In fact, the view should be longer but trees behind the green ruin what would otherwise be a great view of the short eighth. As it is, the seventh plays across the slope of the valley hill with everything falling toward the right. A draw is the perfect tee ball as it offers both distance and hope of holding the sloping fairway. The approach shot is invariably with the ball below one’s feet; hitting a controlled mid-iron from this position is a shot of great skill (and satisfaction), but alas few ‘flat landers’ possess such ability.
Eighth hole, 155 yards, Cemetery Ridge;Like the fourth, the initial prospect of playing the eighth is one of pleasure rather than apprehension. However, after just a few rounds, one learns to treat the eighth with great caution. Miss left and the left to right pitched green becomes difficult to hold on one’s recovery shot. Miss the right greenside bunker and the ball is kicked twenty plus yards away. A sharp fall behind offers no help either, making the putting surface a hit-it-or-else proposition.
Ninth hole, 450 yards, The Take Off; The rugged nature of the property is showcased with this tee ball out of a chute of trees across a ravine to a rolling fairway. The approach is blind unless the golfer can fly the ball onto a plateau some 270 yards from the tee. Some might sniff at a long or mid-iron aimed at the target board in a tree behind the green, but in fairness to William Flynn, the green is open in front, giving the player plenty of margin for error. In fact, given the heaving landscape on the front, it would be a shame if such a shot didn’t exist as the blind approach actually represents natural golf with the ninth fitting the land that it is situated on as well as any hole on the course. Too many modern architects would make a cut in the hillside to give the golfer a better view, thus inadvertently ruining this hole’s uniqueness.