Wolf Point Ranch
Texas, United States of America
Big budget courses open all the time to great fanfare. Why? Because the owners pay for the kind words and publicity! In the steady rollout of such expensive operations, the message was seared into the collective golfing psyche that great golf is expensive golf. Yet, nothing is further from the truth. In 2008, a course opened in southeast Texas. No one knew. Why? Because it was built for a rancher on his property to enjoy with his friends. No fanfare, no pomp and circumstance. Rather, here’s the kind of golf that stirs emotions and makes you glad that you actually play the sport. For those reasons, the lessons about its design and how it is presented on a daily basis are as powerful and as important to understand as any course opened this century. In all respects, Wolf Point represents ‘the back to the future’ of golf. The shame is that it flies so low under the radar while designs of “excess” garner great attention. Only if more ‘Wolf Points’ emerge will the game expand on a healthy, sustainable basis.
The tale starts in late 2005 when Houston-based golf architect Mike Nuzzo fielded a call from a rancher a few hours south who wanted to build his own private course near Carancahua Bay. The potential client’s desires were straightforward. He wanted a challenging and interesting layout on which searching for errant shots was rare. He intended to have his new home integrated with the course so that it would be afforded beautiful views of both the golf and property. After being forced to evacuate during Hurricane Rita, the Gulf of Mexico’s most intense tropical cyclone with 177 mph wind speeds, his home needed to be 20 feet higher than a hundred-year storm surge. Within those parameters Nuzzo was free to create eighteen holes.
After examining several of the rancher’s land holdings, they settled on the central portion of the main 1300 acre parcel that sprawled among the Texas scrub. The high to low point was a mere seven feet, so topography wasn’t a driving force. Instead, live oaks and Keller Creek were the dominant natural features. Nuzzo first focused his attention on the thousand yard Keller Creek that bisected this portion of the property and it eventually became the genesis for eight holes. This meandering stream affects shots in every manner possible from threatening drives at the 16th and 17th to approaches into the one shot 6th and par 5 14th. Nuzzo also created a 13 acre lake which generated fill to augment ground contours as well as to build the hillock for the residence.
The project cost was $3,000,000, of which $900,000 went toward irrigation. Construction took eighteen months. A phenomenon mid-way through the project occurred when a record 24 inches of rain fell in July 2007 right before grassing commenced. While some finished work was ruined, elsewhere anomalies arose. Intense rainfall transformed the 11th green and pronounced irregularities appeared on the sides of the turtleback green. Rather than rebuild, these permutations were slightly refined to make the green ‘mowable.’ Nuzzo loved the result and how nature had ‘melted’ his design.
To add playing interest to the relatively featureless landscape, 60 bunkers made their way into the final design. Breaking down their placement is fascinating and is the modern day equivalent of understanding a design like Woking Golf Club where ‘less is more.’ Nearly ½ of them can rightly be deemed central bunkers (i.e. they are completely encased by fairway). Half of the greens (1, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 13, 15, and 17) are without a bunker within 10 yards of the putting surface. Three holes (6, 10 and 15) are bunkerless. Two conclusions: of all the courses in North America which the author is familiar Wolf Point has the highest percentage of fairway bunkers and also features the lowest percentage of greenside bunkers of any top tier course. As a result, a typical round yields more lengthy fairway bunker shots than greenside splash recovery shots. The author can’t think of another course where that statement is true.
Liberal recovery options exist from the tight Bermuda 419 grass that surrounds most of the greens. In the finest links tradition, the pitch and run is crucial for success here. Overall, the putting surfaces are an eclectic set that defy stereotype. Some are canted to the side (the 4th, 6th, 10th, 16th), others to the rear (3rd, 12th and 13th), a few are high in the middle (the 1st, 2nd), while some rise up from grade to four or five feet at the rear (11th, 17th). Still, others possess swales (the 8th, 14th, 15th, 18th). In Volume 2 of The Confidential Guide, Tom Doak called them ‘the best set of greens in Texas.’
Of course, such intelligent use of hazards and green contours lose their meaning if the playing conditions are soft with little roll. Enter Don Mahaffey, who Nuzzo immediately engaged in the project once it was greenlighted. Mahaffey managed construction and then stayed on as Greenkeeper. Having long railed against the excesses of American greenkeeping from over-watering to maintaining things that don’t impact the golf, Mahaffey finally had the perfect opportunity (i.e. the right owner, design, climate and soil conditions) to demonstrate his maintenance ideals. With a crew that ranges from 3 to 5 people and an annual spend that averages under $500,000 for the golf course, Mahaffey has overseen Wolf Point’s presentation for eight years. He expresses his thoughts about the luxury of being at Wolf Point and his ideals of greenkeeping:
Wolf Point definitely has some built in maintenance advantages as we only have about 1,000 rounds a year. Less traffic means less compaction from carts. No shotguns, tournaments, or full tee sheets mean we can get by with fewer employees. Yet, what separates us from most courses is we do not do anything extra to make the course “pretty”. A cattle ranch in our part of the world has a rugged appearance and we want that same look for our course; we find a lot of beauty in the natural hues our course offers vs a course that is managed to look evenly green. Every maintenance task we do is based on answering one question, ‘Does it make the golf better?’ Obviously mowing does, as do regular cultural tasks like vertical mowing or aerification. But we never irrigate or fertilize unless we have a good reason.
In terms of how he and his crew routinely achieve firm and bouncy conditions through the green, Mahaffey writes,
Another big advantage we enjoy is that my entire staff was here during construction and I managed the construction and made the agronomic decisions like how the greens were built. We wanted the ball to react exactly the same if it hit two yards short of the green or two yards onto the green. Many golfers say they want this, but what they usually do is use the green construction method out into the approach/fairway areas at great expense. We did the opposite, we brought the approach and fairway soil conditions into the green. We made this decision because we knew we would have limited golf traffic and we knew we want sloped greens with great surface drainage. Thus, we were OK with a push-up style of construction. We have good conditions for golf because that is all we care about, the playing of the game itself, and we have a client that encourages this approach. Having nothing to sell like lots, outings, tee times or memberships, and only focusing on that which makes the game more fun is why we have what we have.
While Mahaffey’s approach dangerously resembles nothing more than common sense, tragically, his approach to green keeping is the exception rather than the rule. Adam Lawrence, consultant and Editor of Golf Course Architecture magazine, is as well traveled as anyone in world golf. Having been to Wolf Point twice, he states bluntly, ‘The way Wolf Point is maintained gives the lie to any excuses you might ever hear from other courses as to why they aren’t firm. If Don can have that place playing like that, day in, day out, how come you can’t, with your big crew and your big budget, Mr. Super?’
Indeed, the author contends that a course’s ultimate responsibility is to provide fun, engaging golf while reflecting its own unique environment, and therefore, he considers Wolf Point to be among the handful of best presented courses in the United States. The author’s favorite Wolf Point story, of which there’s a scant few as less than 1,000 people have seen the course, centers around a two-day event. On the first day with the course and especially the greens brick hard and running as fast as 11, players moaned and groaned that there was no way to get close to certain hole locations. Approach shots aimed at the flag were routinely shunted aside, leaving players short-sided with faint prospects for an up and down. Rounds of 80 to 82 were commonplace among good players. The very next day, under similar playing conditions, those same players shot 73 to 75. They understood the course that much better and now appreciated where you couldn’t miss it, how to bounce shots in from the high side, and how to use the contours and short grass as their friend. People don’t come to east Texas, where Bermuda grass is king, expecting to need the imagination required to play links golf – but happily, and almost miraculously, such is the case.
Here is GolfClubAtlas.com’s cover photograph + caption after my first visit here in 2012:
That photograph of Don Mahaffey walking up toward the Home green summarizes the charms of a game here. Nuzzo’s routing with its ever alternating hole directions capitalizes on the firm playing conditions and the ever present wind off the bays and Gulf of Mexico, whose salt water is within smelling distance. Nuzzo takes the golfer on four loops in which the rancher’s home is cleverly used several times as a backdrop. The fourth green returns the golfer to close proximity of the first green, the fifth thru eighth form another clockwise loop, the tenth and fourteenth fairways brush against each other in opposite directions and the fifteenth thru eighteenth constitute a final counter-clockwise loop of sorts. Indeed, the first and second are the only consecutive holes that play in a similar direction. Nuzzo’s inspired cloverleaf routing maximized the very visible Keller Creek as well as the invisible but equally important wind.
While wind renders yardage meaningless (indeed, no yardage is given on the scorecard!), Nuzzo strived to make each hole enjoy a 20 yard or more difference from any another. The par 3s frequently play ~150, 170, 190, and 210 yards, for instance. Fans of the Stanley Thompson chart in George Thomas’s Golf in America will realize that the holes at Wolf Point form the ideal diagonal as seen below.
A final point about this unusual project, when you head to the first tee, you don’t. There are no tees, not a single set of tee markers exists and the teeing grounds are nearly indistinguishable from their surrounds. Wholly appreciative of this concept, the author also thinks that the aerial view below is most illuminating because the course is largely indistinguishable from its surrounds. This is the highest form of architecture and maintenance in that the course melds with nature and vice versa. Artificial delineations are just that and dilute a player’s connection to nature. In this regard, the course reminds the author of one of his all-time favorite links, Royal North Devon.
A round here is tantamount to enjoying a walk in the unspoiled Texas countryside. The more frantic your life, the more you will appreciate what a blessing this quiet solitude represents. John Paul-Newport certainly thought so when he visited:
Wolf Point is like the greatest backyard in the history of the world. Front yard, too, since the owner’s house sits in the middle of the course, elevated on landfill from construction. The house is very nice and modern but not the kind of fancy you might expect to accompany a personal course, such as at Sunnylands, the Annenberg estate in Palm Springs, California. Wolf Point was not designed to impress, it was designed to be a relaxing, comfortable place to spend time (not a primary residence) and to be able to walk out the door and play golf whenever you want. The day I visited, the owner (whom I did not meet) was playing with some local guys who drove there in an old Toyota Corolla. As a native Texan, I instantly bonded with the land and vegetation on the course and the creek that winds through the property. The design makes good use of that creek and the few other topographical features. I loved the bump-and-run Scottish aspect of the course, the rugged bunkers and the strategic but not penal character of the holes. My favorite single thing about Wolf Point was being able to choose where to tee off on each hole.
Holes to Note
First hole, 285 yards; Getting play away smoothly was not a prime consideration; the course averages 2 rounds per day! Yet, every first hole has a duty to whet the appetite and entice. This one is ideal in both respects. Acres of short grass extend to the right (well out of the diagram below). No ‘rough’ is in sight from the slightly elevated tee off the hillside of the residence and the green lies straight ahead past three shrewdly placed diagonal bunkers. Depending on the wind, one of the three is seemingly always in play; put another way, you would place your tee ball in one of those three spots if not for the darn bunkers. Strategically, the green opens up from the left as the green cants left, but that necessitates driving nearer the 13-acre lake.
Second hole, 410 yards; In keeping with the owner’s desire to avoid the tedious search for stray shots, wide fairways were a must but avoiding monotony was the trick. Width can easily equate to a thoughtless bomber’s paradise if playing features aren’t placed within the fairway. Just look at the photographs below to see how Nuzzo and Mahaffey created golf of great interest from flat Texas land.