The Golf Club at Cuscowilla

Green Keeper: Rusty Mercer

Jeff Bradley's distinctive bunkering helps make Cuscowilla a standout among modern designs.

What makes a great ‘members’ course? How do you achieve both ‘playability’ and yet hold the low marker’s interest round after round throughout the years? Achieving this balance is the challenge, as each criterion can detract from the other. Too hard, and everyone throws their arms up in despair and heads home. Too easy, and people lose interest.

The Golf Club at Cuscowilla is a rare modern example of getting this balance just right.Borrowing from Alister MacKenzie’s famous quote re: the ideal golf hole, the ideal course ‘is surely one that affords the greatest pleasure to the greatest number, gives the fullest advantage for accurate play, stimulates players to improve their game, and never becomes monotonous.’ Such is the case at Cuscowilla as the course, which has atwo holes thatborder Lake Oconee in Georgia, is imminently playable and enjoyable for the 18-handicapper while equally intriguing to the low marker. The strict par of 70 contributes to the latter.

The fifth hole serves as a fine illustration on how Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw accomplished this goal. From the back tees, the hole measures only 305 yards. A huge pit of a bunker dominates the hole as it comes within 24 yards of the front edge of the green and stretches back over 100 yards. The bunker is in direct line with the green from the tee and splits the generous right fairway from the smaller and tighter left side. The high marker has ample room down the right for his typical slice/fade shot pattern, from where he faces a short-iron to a green whose ‘only’ defense is its contours. The most precise of shots is needed to offer a realistic chance of a three; a good-but-not-great approach leaves the player with a four half the time; and a poor approach will likely result in five, but no worse.

The view from the 5th tee, with a player left of the central hazard and a group of players right of it.

A successful 250 yard tee ball into the left fairway affords the golfer a perfect angle down the length of the green. The resulting pitch is still tricky though as it needs to contend with the swale in front of the green as well as the green's left to right tilt.

For the low marker, however, the fifth presents an entirely different, but equally appealing, challenge. Even though it takes 250 uphill yards to carry the bunker, the player has difficulty not accepting the task. Plenty of fairway on both sides of the bunker encourages a good slash from the tee. The contours of the green and its slight left-to-right angle (which is accentuated the farther right, away from the bunker, one drives) will make him work hard for that desired three, no matter how good the drive.

As with both courses at Talking Stick, Coore and Crenshaw have produced first-rate bunkering from both an aesthetic/artistic perspective (courtesy ofJeff Bradley’s handwork) and a strategic one. The bunkers are deep, expansive where appropriate and without geometric edges. Importantly, the rugged edges to the bunkers don’t require additional maintenance – the edges are cut in the winter to one height and allowed to grow throughout the summer, requiring only the occasional trim and a machete cut of any bermuda runners. Uniquely, the sand is red/pink by design. After a few steady rains, the red Georgia clay and other sediments washed into the then white bunkers, creating this distinctive look that further differentiates the course.

Cuscowilla distinguishes itself also with the pacing and variety of the holes. The long holes (6, 8, 9, 13, 15 and 18) are spread out so that there is not necessarily one stretch of holes where the player can only brace himself and attempt to weather a four- or five-hole stretch. The shots that are asked of him are presented in a varied yet continuous flow.

The one shotters further highlight the variety found within the course. In one author’s round, the correct clubs for these holes were, in order, 4-iron, 3-wood, 9-iron and 7-iron. The 3rd has water on the left; the 11th on the right. The 8th green is angled left-to-right while the 16th is set at a right-to-left cant (although the green slopes left-to-right).

A slight pull on the 195 yard 3rd hole could spell trouble.

Special mention needs to be paid to Rusty Mercer and his staff for the presentation of the course. Considering how crucialthe area in front of the green is to holes 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, and 15, much would be lost from this design without fast and firm playing conditions. Mercer obtains this firmness in part by top dressing the areas in front of the greens once a week andfocusing attention on these areas almost as if they were part of the green.

Holes to Note

1st hole, 380 yards; A striking opening hole that has no clear superior in inland golf, there is heaps of room to the right (where most players first shots go anyway), but the visually intimidating fairway bunkering on the left, the sole greenside bunker on the right and the green’s left-to-right angle create the strategy.

The ideal tee ball is to the left of the players walking up the 1st fairway, and that line also represents the longest carry over this impressive bunker complex.

2nd hole, 535 yards; As seen early in their careeron the back nine at Kapalua Plantation, Coore and Crenshaw have a keen understanding of the strategic merit of optional diagonal carries on their three shot holes. In the case here, the only way to have a clear pitch at a hole location on the back right shelf of the green is place the 2nd shot perfectly in front of the green, and that involves carrying the bunker pictured below.

The 50 yard diagonal bunker starts 130 yards from the green and golfers of all skill levels are free to choose which line is best for them.

The 50 yard diagonal bunker starts 130 yards from the green and golfers of all skill
levels are free to choose which line is best for them.

5th hole, 305 yards; While the preceding holewas anatural with a Cape drive across a lake and the 6th hole enjoys an expansive feel up on a plain, the property in between the twois just a gradual uphill slope. In short, it is the perfect place for an indifferenthole to exist. This is exactly the situationthat seperates good fromgreat architects and Coore rose to the occasion here by converting a wash area into a huge gaping bunker down what would normally havebeen the middle of the fairway. As noted above, the options that exist make this a strategic gem andit also allows Cuscowilla to enjoy a superb first six holes.

Best to avoid this central hazard at the uphill 5th!

6th hole, 465 yards; A long and basically flat hole across a plainthatwould fit in at Walton Heath (if there was any heath). Rather than just being a bystander, the left fairway bunker juts out near the line of play and clearly presents the job at hand: Play to the right and face a slightly longer approach or carry it (some 230 yards) for the easier approach. There are two bunkers some 20 yards short and right of the green that can certainly come into play for a long approach. Somewhat like the 6th at Woodhall Spa, these can affect where you land your second with a wooden club. The green was wisely left open in front.

The closer the golfer can stay to the bunkers down the left of the fairway, the less he will have to contend with the large bunker right and short of the green.

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