Whistling Rock Country Club
Chuncheon-si, Gangwon-do, South Korea

Solitude, the sound of rushing water, and dazzling design elements give Whistling Rock an ambience all its own.

Part of the game’s lasting allure is the diversity of its playing fields. No two properties are identical and so no two courses are the same. Similarly, no two countries are culturally exactly alike. Many share similar beliefs toward family, work and relaxation but there are always variations and distinctions. Among the joys of exploration are seeing and experiencing what other countries value. For golfers, studying how different nationalities approach the game can provide a window into what a region cherishes. To that end, one of the most illuminating experiences the author has ever enjoyed is Whistling Rock, an hour and a half drive northeast of Seoul.

When the South Korean conglomerate Taekwang Group decided to develop a private golf club in 2006, Chairman Ho-jin Lee’s marching orders were ‘harmony of art and nature.’ The mandate was for the club to be within driving distance of Seoul but finding such a locale was no mean feat. According to Google, South Korea fits in the area between San Francisco and Los Angeles. From top to bottom, it is hilly, sometimes mountainous country where the Taebak ridge extends from North Korea down the peninsula to the southern part of South Korea. Nearly half the population resides around greater Seoul. It was intended that there be 27 holes so that a full day would be enjoyed. After two years of searching, a 425 acre parcel in a valley surrounded by uninhabited hills was assembled through a series of land acquisitions, mostly from farmers. Seclusion was guaranteed and the big picture of nature – a course set in a mountain valley – was achieved. When Seoul is hot and humid, breezes ‘whistle’ across the Gangwon Province mountains, thus the club’s name. In this cloistered environment the golfer certainly experiences one of the quietest rounds he will ever enjoy.

The choppy hills in the distance give way to something soothing in the foreground.

Extensive manipulation would be required of the rocky terrain to make it good for golf. That task was entrusted to the Californian-based firm of Robinson Golf Design, run by Ted Robinson Sr. and Jr. Unfortunately, Sr. passed away before construction commenced in 2009 and it fell to Jr. to carry on. At a time when new course construction had virtually ceased globally, Ted Robinson Jr. found himself in the enviable position of working for a client with great financial might. The creation of Whistling Rock Country Club was an enormous undertaking on three levels; the golf course, the landscaping which would include the interrelated water features, and the clubhouse and related structures. Play wouldn’t commence for three years.

Before turning our attention to the golf, let’s examine the Chairman’s use of the word ‘art’ which is multi-faceted at Whistling Rock beginning with the clubhouse. As a private club, a game here was always intended to be enjoyed in peace. It was presumed that 17,000 or so rounds a year would be played, so the option existed for a modest clubhouse to be built. Yet, this was one of South Korea’s most successful and influential conglomerates and the clubhouse in Korea is seen as the ‘face’ of the overall offering. While golf in Korea is in its infancy, one thing is readily apparent: at the high end, the standard for clubhouses is unmatched anywhere in world golf. Clubhouses function as art and can be counted among the finest buildings (let alone clubhouses) constructed this century. Be it South Cape, Haesley-Nine Bridges, or the Jack Nicklaus Korea course outside of Seoul, the design pedigree is stunning.

In the case of Whistling Rock, the Chairman was keen to create a sanctuary from city life that would help fuel the desire for people to make the drive from Seoul. With the conglomerate’s reputation on the line,  Francine Houben from the Danish firm of Mecanoo Architects was hired to design the clubhouse and three tea houses. The end result? Possibly the finest clubhouse in the world, one that occupies 167,000 square feet, and certainly the author’s favorite large clubhouse. The long axis of this rectangular masterpiece of design extends 140 meters and fronts the course. Considering that girth, it is amazing how peacefully it occupies the land – many comment that it seems to ‘float’. Clean lines dominate and stone, glass and wood are the key components. Views from the elongated clubhouse windows are of grass, streams, waterfalls, rocks and hills. Cars are parked underneath, removing the blight of a large asphalt lot. From the club’s collection of 30,000 bottles of wine at the west end to the saunas at the east end, the entire building is spacious, utile and elegant. Bamboo gardens dot the minimalistic lux interior.

How something can be immense and yet discrete is a marvel. This building presides over much of the play and as photographer Joann Dost notes, “It is the anchor of the property with the eye always drifting back toward it.” Glimpses are afforded of it from 14 of the 18 holes on the Cocoon-Temple course and like Shinnecock Hills’s clubhouse, it sets a tone, albeit in a contemporary manner (if you think a clubhouse has to be traditional clapboard to hold appeal, don’t go to South Korea!). A student of design would revel in it. Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, understanding the commitment of resources and capital required to bring it to fruition would celebrate.

From high on the Temple nine, the eye travels across the 8th and 9th holes of Cocoon toward the clubhouse.

Happily, the same care and thought that went into the clubhouse permeates all three nines where themed tea houses are found near the mid-way points of each layout. Choosing a favorite tea house is as difficult as picking a favorite nine; each is wildly different. On the Cocoon nine a tea house was built on the edge of a lake with tightly controlled oval views of a placid pond and the distant hills. The Temple tea house is larger and features wood and glass to great effect in creating an airy atmosphere. Lastly, the Cloud tea house is perched the highest from its surrounds and affords a view of the five holes on the property known as the Glen.

The view through the western window of the Cocoon tea house is of the Gangwon-do mountains.

The eastern view is of a pond. In Korea, it is considered poor form not to stop at a tea house during the round.

The Temple nine tea house is along a ridge and snuggles in among Japanese Red Pine.

The Cloud tea house appropriately sits the highest.

An additional art installation is the nine various sized balls scattered across the twenty-seven holes. Seven are found on the clubhouse side of the property and represent the colors of nature (blue, red, navy, green, orange (as seen above out the Cocoon tea house window), violet, and yellow). For those spiritually inclined, this main section of the property (i.e. where twenty-two of the holes are found) is ‘life.’ Meanwhile, gold and silver balls are located over the hill in the Glen and to reach them you pass through a stone structure with two enormous twenty foot wooden gates. This upcountry portion of the property occupied by five holes represents ‘after-life.’

One can only imagine what Old Tom Morris or Willie Park would think of the high art found at Whistling Rock. To have such non-golf extravagances might be an anathema to them. That said, viva-la-difference between Scots and Koreans! These balls lend Whistling Rock its own voice in world golf. Having seen The Balls, the landscape without them would somehow seem less memorable, and therefore diminished. A tip of the cap to everyone involved for coming up with something so original with such discriminating taste.

Anyone who appreciates design and art will appreciate Whistling Rock.

Heading here, the author had his apprehensions. Mountain courses are as removed from the home of golf and linksland as possible and consequently, often suffer from one or several limitations: poor soil, fairways that – ironically – are bulldozed too flat, narrow playing corridors hewn through woodlands, holes that feel crammed onto the landscape hanging off ledges, and most commonly, a course that is not walker friendly. Additionally, many mountain courses were developed for the sake of selling homes and the development compromises long interior views and a sense of place.

Happily, none of those limitations are present at Whistling Rock. To his eternal credit, Ted Robinson did a masterful job of finding 27 playing corridors in his routing across the rural landscape. It can not be overstated what an enormous undertaking this project was and his holes frequently play toward distant mountain peaks (e.g. the approach to Cocoon Two, the tee ball on Temple Three) or the clubhouse. Robinson’s routing yielded a course that is by and large a delight to walk. A four person cart is provided for each group and I hopped-on only twice (from Cocoon Four to the fifth tee and downhill after the tee ball at Temple Three. Otherwise, it was a fine stroll because care is continually given to the walker, as evidenced by the steps behind Temple One and the shaded walk up to Cocoon Eight tee.

After transforming the rugged landscape into something suitable for golf, focus was turned toward re-establishing a pleasant setting rooted in nature. Any other outcome would have muted the Chairman’s words. Robinson shrewdly recommended Taekwang hire Pinnacle Design Company and its principal Ken Alperstein. Their landscaping ultimately created the property’s overall look and feel. Hundreds of trees indigenous to Korea, including the Japanese Red Pine, Korean Pine, Amur Maple, Japanese Maple, and the Kousa Dogwood were planted in areas altered by construction. Many of these like the pines and Japanese Maples add an appealing delicacy that contrasts with the otherwise masculine features. Deciduous plants, bushes and grasses were brought in to add texture and flesh back out nature. The photographs throughout this profile speak as the resounding success of this landscape undertaking.

While the course construction required wall to wall shaping à la Shadow Creek, an important difference was embraced. Both Pinnacle and Robinson thought it best to foster views of other holes throughout the round. This is something not necessarily popular in America and certainly goes against the grain in Asia. Their point of view was pressed on Taekwang Group’s contact, Mr. Ki Yoo Kim, now President of Whistling Rock. Kim’s concurrence was a defining moment during the three year construction and today long interior views give Whistling Rock a special place in world golf so rarely found on a mountain course. Jasper Park and Roaring Gap are notable exceptions but it’s exceedingly rare for one to enjoy so many sweeping views across so many holes.

Long views through tall pines across the interior are routinely afforded with the subject matter alternating between verdant short grass, rock ledges, water features and distant hills. There is much to admire.

Play commenced in 2012 and after three years of feedback from its members, a decision was reached to tweak the design in 2015. David Fisher, Vice President of International Business at Whistling Rock and who was previously the on-site landscape architect for Pinnacle during construction, knew Eric Iverson from their time together working on a Tom Doak project in China. Iverson initially worked for Doak in Virginia twenty years prior before joining full time in 2001. Iverson’s career at Renaissance Golf Design began with a bang, contributing to world class gems like Cape Kidnappers, St. Andrews Beach and Barnbougle.  His work at Stone Eagle, tucked in the mountains and his time working for Perry Dye on brawny terrain in Japan provided direct experience for Whistling Rock.

Fisher like the idea of a consulting architect in the design-build mode, meaning someone who would make recommendations and then carry out the work himself. Whistling Rock was always going to be a Ted Robinson design but it was felt that enhancements made in a sympathetic manner by someone on site doing the work himself would be beneficial. Iverson arrived in November, 2015 and immediately headed to Cocoon. Iverson was duly impressed by the first green and quickly acknowledges that he ‘… has filed it away in my memory in case there is ever a project where we could use something like it. We certainly wouldn’t touch the first green – it was perfect as-is.’ At the same time, he thought, ‘Yet there were other opportunities to help such as creating more hole locations on Cocoon Three green and making Cocoon Six more playable for the less accomplished player. After touring the first nine, I felt good about working within the club’s framework and yielding a course that would be more enjoyable.’ Central to Iverson’s conviction was that Robinson ‘… had done a great job of focusing left and right and creating enough width. If he hadn’t done so well with the big picture stuff, an opportunity for me to lend meaningful help would not have existed.’

One of the most improved holes was Cocoon Six where the fairway was raised and the green lowered. Weaker players had struggled to complete it.

Iverson’s initial directive was to provide additional hole locations and enable more questions to be posed. As a case study, let’s examine the third hole on Cocoon. This long uphill two shotter culminated at a green that was high in the middle rear, allowing for drainage off the front and back. It also meant the putting surface was well above its surrounds and severe to the point that its 6,000 square feet rendered only five usable hole locations. The lead-in to the green was an abrupt five foot ramp that rejected most running shots. Iverson reduced the back of the green by 1/2 foot, the middle of the green five feet (!), and the front half four feet and pulled that dirt forward to level the approach. Shots can now be chased onto an open putting surface where a Maxwell puff in the middle of the green creates a series of baby bowls and a plethora of interesting hole locations. Both the approach shot and the likely recoveries are much more engaging, both visually and for the shots that they ask the golfer to play. It transforms the hole from being a good one with a severe green to a great one that is a treat to play. It rivals Cocoon Seven as the author’s favorite green on the property.

Iverson’s revisions garnered immediate praise when they were unveiled in the spring of 2017. Strategic components had been added to the Cocoon and Temple nines and the eighteen holes were now more in keeping with the standard set by the clubhouse and other facilities, as we see below.

Cocoon Course

First hole, 325 yards; On this proverbial gentle handshake three themes emerge. First, fairway bunkers matter at Whistling Rock; they’re on the large size and intrude into play from one side. Rarely does a straight line exist from tee to flag. Selecting driver is not an automatic decision as less will often allow the golfer to stay short of such hazards. Second, the putting surfaces are gracefully contoured like potato chips rather than abrupt contours. Third, the backdrops for the greens are invariably attractive and diverse.

As seen from 135 yards, the first green feeds off a hill on the right and drops down left to a wavy putting surface that features a mild false front.

Second hole, 550 yards; The only three shotter on the property that heads west takes advantage of the fact that it goes toward the low side of the property. After each shot, a grander and broader panorama unfolds, capped off by the view of the tree covered rolling hills some 1500 yards behind the green.

Hard to believe a city of nearly 25,000,000 is but one and half hours away. The clean lines of the green’s horizon do nothing to distract the eye from the setting’s beauty.

Third hole, 470 yards; The pacing of the holes at Whistling Rock is highlighted by ½ par holes liberally sprinkled throughout. Sandwiched between the reachable par 5 second and the drivable short fourth lies this brute. Robinson gives and Robinson taketh away! The golfer is never going to feel ‘out of the game’ as opportunity is rarely far away –  just not now. The uphill approach shot is likely to be from 200 +/- yards and its difficulty is compounded by how the blue grass works in conjunction with the fairway contours. Tee shots are unlikely to yield a level stance in this rumpled fairway. The mindful golfer will adjust but hitting from uphill, downhill or side hill stances complicates matters. A standout green as previously noted completes the extreme challenge.

The nest of bunkers short right and long left lend genuine playing interest to a straight playing corridor.

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