Hidden Creek Golf Club
Green Keeper: Jeffrey Riggs
Many factors go into the creation of a ‘great’ course, with great defined as a course that one wishes to play numerous times, year after year. Three primary ones are the site needs to be special, the driving force behind the project must understand and look to promote golf as being about enjoyment and variety and then finally, the architect has to deliver a strategic design. Getting all three factors to come together at the same time is difficult or otherwise there would be many more great courses. Hidden Creek in southern New Jersey is a rare example of a modern course where the key ingredients seamlessly melded together, though from the time that the owner first contacted the architects to when this dream course opened was seventeen years!
To start with, the owner of Hidden Creek, Roger Hansen, grew up outside of Atlantic City, New Jersey where he gained an appreciation of classic architecture at Atlantic City Country Club, the two courses at Seaview Country Club and then later at Pine Valley Golf Club. In 1985, having read an article in a golf magazine where Ben Crenshaw expressed an interest in designing courses, Roger Hansen called Ben Crenshaw. At the end of the lengthy telephone conversation, Ben Crenshaw encouraged him to contact a man named Bill Coore. Having done so,Roger Hansen eventually flew down to tour Bill Coore‘s Rockport Country Club in Corpus Christi with Bill Coore in December, 1986. The two men hit it off and Roger Hansen knew whom he would select should he ever get into the golf course business.
A few years passed and in 1991, Roger Hansen decided to develop two public access courses in Galloway Township. He contacted the now existing architect firm of Coore & Crenshaw and had Bill Coore come see the site. Ultimately, Coore & Crenshaw politely declined the project as they were tied up in Hawaii with the design of the Plantation Course at Kapalua. Nonetheless, Roger Hansen pursued his vision and the resulting Stephen Kay and Steve Smyers courses were an immediate success with the Smyers course hosting the U.S. Public Links Championship in 2003.
A few more years pass and it is now the fall of 1998 when Roger Hansen becomes aware of another large block of property twelve miles from Atlantic City. This time, he was surprised/delighted to find that the site has up to fifty feet in elevation change with consistent movement throughout the upland part of the property. Thus, he contacts Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw again. With a little arm twisting, he convinces Bill Coore that the site does indeed hold promise and to return to south New Jersey to see for himself.
Once there, Bill Coore stays, walking and re-walking the property. The clubhouse needed to be located within 1000 feet of the entrance drive to avoid seeking a state permit to improve the roadway, the timing of which would have delayed the project for at least one year. Apart from the location of the clubhouse, Roger Hansen gave Bill Coore carte blanche to go anywhere that he wanted on the expansive 750 acres. After three weeks, and on one occasion having wandered off the property and stumbled onto a shooting range (!), Bill Coore had seen enough and flew back to Texas.
Coore and Crenshaw discussed the matter and replied to Roger Hansen that they could build a course that would be reflective of the site’s charms. Roger Hansen accepted their terms and work commenced in the summer of 2000.
Think about it – Bill Coore spent three weeks on site before Coore & Crenshaw had a signed contract. That is more time than 90% of the big name architects spend on site after they get a signed contract!
With only a couple of modifications on the back side, the final routing was the one that Bill Coore visualized during his three week stay with Roger Hansen. He decided that none of the 300 acres of wetlands would feature into the design and that the holes would stay on the upland part of the property which possessed the natural movement and land forms. Bill Coore‘s routing stands out in excellence because it perfectly exposed the rolls of the property through one engaging hole after another while at the same time minimizing any green to tee walks. The end result is that only 50,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved during the project and that the course is reflective of the ground upon which it sits.
As Bill Coore says, ‘The Hidden Creek site required very little alteration to the landscape. The holes lay on the ground pretty much the way we found it. That’s consistent with the way Ben and I like to work…We look for projects in which the site lends itself to golf in its natural form. Hidden Creek looked like golf in its natural form in terms of rolling terrain and trees. Since the fairways required minimal movement of earth, it enabled us to emphasize details, such as bunkers and the contouring of greens.’
With the routing in place, James Duncan, who has a background in civil engineering and who had joined Coore and Crenshaw in 1998 for the East Hampton Golf Club, was brought in as Project Manager. One of his first tasks was to oversee the tree clearing and with the design team having sensed a chance to build a course similar in feel to the heath courses in England, large playing corridors eighty plus yards in width were created. The concept of building a course with a similar appeal to the heath courses gathered additional steam when it was realized that some of the vegetation underneath the trees that border the playing corridors was actually called false heather.
With the tree clearing complete in September 2000, the construction of the holes commenced. Jeff Riggs, the Green Keeper at Roger Hansen‘s nearby Blue Heron Pines Golf Club, was brought on board full time at this point. With Coore & Crenshaw‘s Jim Craig and Dave Zinkhand on site and Jeff Bradley coming down from Friar’s Head on a regular basis, the core team was in place. Dan Proctor and Tom Beck would later play key roles in finishing the course as well.
As with any course, integral to the lasting enjoyment by its members would be a series of interesting green complexes. Not wanting to be tied to the USGA green construction method which has limitations in tying in the green with its surrounds, the greens were constructed as follows: the existing sandy, gravelly soil was pulled back from a large area (say 13,000 square feet) from where the green would approximately be located. Clean sand was brought in to fill up the hole to grade level. Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw deliberated green by green as to what each green’s playing characteristics should be and then Jim Craig worked his magic in creating just such greens. Green mix was then applied. One great advantage to this method is that there isn’t a defined break in the types of soils and playing conditions as one approaches the green; there is a gradual transition making the ground game a genuine – and often preferred – way to approach the green.
Much detail work went into the construction of Hidden Creek, in part because Coore & Crenshaw weren’t bouncing around the country tending to twelve different projects at once. Rather, they were adhering to their philosophy of two projects per year with the other being Friar’s Head on eastern Long Island. Nothing was rushed at Hidden Creek, allowing each man to take great pride in his own handy work. As a result, the course enjoyed a sense of instant maturity the day it opened in June 2002 and since then as only evolved for the better thanks to the work of Riggs working with the fescues and native vegetation and seeking to get the fairways running hot.
Holes to Note
First hole, 400 yards; Some first holes like the ones at Yale Golf Club, Sand Hills Golf Club, and Pinehurst No. 2 inform the player right away if he is going to like the course as the holes are indicative of what lies ahead. The same holds true at Hidden Creek. From the moment that one leaves either the nearby putting green or the practice field and steps onto the tee, all one sees is a pure golf landscape. There are no homes or paved cart paths, the playing corridor and fairway are wide, the green is large at 8,000 square feet but with hole locations best accessed from certain sides of the fairway, and the fescue grasses provide great visual contrast.
Second hole, 370 yards; Wide fairways in and of themselves aren’t strategic. If the bunkers at The Old Course at St. Andrews paralleled the fairways as opposed to being down the line of play, then The Old Course would be infinitely more boring. Instead, thanks to the random placement of central hazards throughout the course, The Old Course remains a strategic gem in any wind. Same for Hidden Creek as Coore & Crenshaw were quick to create central hazards and diagonal carries throughout the course. Of particular note too is the ferocious bunker eleven paces from the front right edge of the green, the wall of which is eight feet high. Bill Coore and Jeff Bradley had great fun planting then ripping out clumnps of grass and dirt to give this bunker its look.
Third hole, 535 yards; Hidden Creek is twelve miles west of the Atlantic Ocean and as such, the wind is always a factor, though how much is tricky to judge as few consecutive holes head in the same direction. For the third hole in a row, Bill Coore leads the golfer in a completely different direction and he did so in part to take advantage of an abandoned quarry where sand and gravel were once excavated for use in a nearby road construction project. This abandoned pit is approximately one hundred and sixty yards long by fifty yards wide and eight feet deep and was the site’s most unique feature. Coore & Crenshaw wisely placed the green some twenty yards beyond this formidable pit as by so doing, they tempt many more class golfers into having a go at the green in two, wind permitting.
Fourth hole, 220 yards; A breathtaking hole, with immediate comparisons belonging with the all-world Long Redan fourth at Riviera and the Long Reverse Redan eleventh on The North Course at Los Angeles Country Club.The design team opted to clear a large area of trees well behind the green to help give the hole the same sense of drama and scale as one experiences when standing on the tenth tee of The Old Course at Sunningdale. Similarly, they also cleared a large area behind the sixth and twelfth greens, which, in addition to giving those holes an expansive feel, also provides for improved air flow and sunlight for the greens.