What’s it Like to Play the Course You Built?
March 27, 2014
For more than six years, Bruce Charlton (middle) dreamed about the Grand Opening at Poppy Hills.
“There’s nothing more fun as a golf architect than to see the final product,” said Charlton, the Chief Design Officer for Robert Trent Jones II. “It’s a day that you live for.”
Charlton saw the renovation through its infancy, staying up odd hours with his team of architects to solve the many riddles that this project presented.
RTJ II unkinked routing quirks, discovered new holes, increased and varied playability with wider fairways and softer doglegs, and returned a course that felt like it was sitting on an earthquake-ravaged second story back to the forest floor.
While Poppy Hills still traverses the same corner of the Del Monte Forest, Charlton helped reinvent its playing characteristics, transforming a soft and wet course into a firm and fast racetrack with no rough and re-imagined bentgrass greens.
Nobody knows what was done to Poppy Hills better than Charlton.
So what’s it like to play a course you understand so intimately?
“That’s kind of fun and frustrating at the same time,” Charlton said.
But how? Charlton has the answer key, right? He knows every inch of this place.
“But then you’ve got to swing the club and try to execute it – and you just can’t do it sometimes,” said Charlton, hitting on one of the mysteries of golf.
“You go, ‘Dang it! I want to hit another ball. I know I can hit that shot.’ But that’s the way golf is. You just don’t execute every shot all the time.”
As a 9-handicap, Charlton was also focused on the milestone of breaking 80 at the new par 71.
“When I get to holes 13, 14, and 15 on any golf course, I’m trying to figure out what I’ve got to do to break 80,” said Charlton with a giggle. “But when you go out to a golf course that you’ve worked on, that you’ve poured your heart and soul into, where you know exactly where you should hit the ball, it’s a frustrating mental game.”
But it was incredibly rewarding for Charlton to see the reaction of the guests at the Grand Opening, talking through each hole over a post-round beer or two.
“The sampling we had during the Grand Opening was a good one,” Charlton said. “We probably had some very tough critics there with the media. I think every single person – especially if they played here before – was extremely pleased with the playability aspect of it. They didn’t say it was easy, but they felt like they could play the golf course. They felt like they could find their ball. They felt like all of the hazards out there were well defined.”
While playability has improved, Charlton can’t wait to see how Poppy Hills challenges Northern California’s top amateur players this summer.
“My first impression as I played, I really think that the golf course will yield a 65 or 66 in the first couple months,” said Charlton about Poppy Hills, which will also host the Champions Tour in Septemeber.
“But if you want to make this golf course tough, just move the tee up on either No. 9 or 10 and have one play as a par 4. Play Poppy Hills as a par 70. The golf course has that flexibility in it.
“And I’d still like to see some really good players from the forward tees (291 yards) on No. 14.”
But most of all, Charlton believes Poppy Hills is a course that will reward local knowledge over everything else.
“Playing here again and again, you’re going to have a distinct advantage,” Charlton said. “There’s probably more variety in how to play the golf course than ever before. And I think that will bring people back. There won’t be repetitive experiences. I’m really proud that we’ve developed a course with a huge amount of flexibility. You can hit shots many different ways, and you can get close to hole locations many different ways.”
Other observations from Charlton
Poppy Hills was in the best shape he’s ever seen for an opening:
I have been in the profession of golf course architecture for 33 years, and I have never seen a better grow-in. The superb playing conditions displayed for the Grand Opening at Poppy Hills are the best I have ever seen. To have turf grass surfaces playing so pure and well groomed has elevated the new Poppy Hills to a standard that will be difficult for other courses to match.
Charlton loves the ways the greens turned out:
I’m extremely proud of the green surfaces. I think they do a great job of testing you. You’re not done when you get on the green. I think you still have a lot of work.
Charlton was pleased to hear that the course wasn’t completely solved the first time guests played it:
A lot of people said there are a few mysteries out there, like not being able to see the creek on No. 9 from the left side of the fairway. That’s all by design. It’s a short par 5. You have to be in the right spot off the tee to see everything. That was kind of fun to hear people react that way. That’s exactly what we wanted.
Charlton also thinks the stout opening five holes will define Poppy Hills in a good way:
You want to get through the first five holes, and then the rest of the golf course is going to yield some more birdies if you play it smart. It’s a rhythm we certainly were aware of, and were embracing. I think it’s going to be one of the more popular things about Poppy.
Those first five holes, you’ve got some skill level that has to come to the forefront. But then we give you some chances to get some strokes back as you return to the clubhouse on the front nine, and then Nos. 10-11 – there’s some good birdie opportunities there. I think you’ll find a lot of good chances coming home to score.