Keeping Up with the National

You don't need an invitation from Hootie to play one of these great courses around Augusta
April 04, 2005

There is only one Augusta National, but it's impossible not to feel a little déj√† vu when visiting other courses nearby. At Jones Creek Golf Course, a few miles west, the 15th hole is a mirror image of Amen Corner's famous par-3 12th. Across the Savannah River in North Augusta, S.C., the bridge on the 15th hole of Mount Vintage Plantation and

Golf Club looks suspiciously like the oft-photographed Hogan Bridge in Amen Corner. Members of Sage Valley Golf Club, in Graniteville, S.C., can enjoy supper in the clubhouse dining room only if they don a very familiar shade of green blazer. Then there's the painting in the grillroom of Augusta's Forest Hills Golf Club; it's a knockoff of the Dwight Eisenhower portrait of Bobby Jones that hangs in the chairman's office at the National. These disparate courses have something else in common--they're all terrific tests of golf and a blast to play. Credit Augusta National's influence for that, too.

"The National is the ultimate measure. It makes all the other courses around Augusta want to get better," says Tour pro Charles Howell, who was born and raised in Augusta. "Every course in the area is great. We're lucky in that way. Part of that is the terrain, part of it is the climate, but a lot of it is because golf is Augusta. Everyone loves and respects the game, and that means the golfers in town have high standards for their courses and for themselves."

No place has embraced the Augusta National mystique quite the way Sage Valley, which opened to rave reviews in 2001, has. "I guess you could say we have tried to imitate Augusta while taking every detail to the next level," says club founder Weldon Wyatt, a courtly silver-haired real estate tycoon who lives in Aiken, S.C. Wyatt, 65, seems like a perfect candidate for membership at Augusta National, but instead of waiting for an invitation that might never have come, he decided in the mid-1990s to build his own private wonderland. Five years of searching led him to 9,500 acres of forest about 12 miles north of Augusta National. There Wyatt's handpicked architect, Tom Fazio, created one of his masterworks, a par-72 of 7,331 yards that has drawn the inevitable comparisons with a certain course down the road.

Says Fazio, "I don't mind if people say it looks like Augusta National--both courses have dramatic rolling terrain, lots of pine trees, water, dogwoods, azaleas and all that good stuff. But I didn't want to copy Augusta National. That would have been easy, but it wouldn't have been fun. The real challenge was to produce something totally different that's only 15 minutes away."

Fazio's success in differentiating the courses is a matter of scale. Augusta National's wide-open expanses impart a sense of grandeur, but players at Sage Valley rarely glimpse another hole, as the sprawling layout and towering trees create 18 intimate set pieces.

Building a good course is the easy part; creating a convivial club is a more complicated bit of alchemy. Wyatt visited some of the finest clubs in the U.S. and Scotland, searching for inspiration on how to foster a welcoming environment. Among his tastier decisions was acquiring the recipe for battered-and-fried pickle slices from Vaquero Golf Club in Dallas. The addictive treats are now served in the Sage Valley clubhouse. Hoping to replicate the famously genteel hospitality of Augusta National, Wyatt imported some of its key personnel. Sage Valley's head pro is former Augusta National assistant Eric Pedersen, and the cellar master is Frank Carpenter, who spent nearly 30 years turning the National's wine collection into one of the world's finest. About two dozen Augusta National caddies have defected for Sage Valley.

Sage Valley has also made use of another Augusta National feature, on-site lodging for its members. Sage Valley's 180 members--each of whom coughed up an initiation fee a little north of $100,000--are drawn from 42 states, and when they jet in for a long weekend they are put up in six "cottages," though that's a bit of a misnomer since one is 17,000 square feet and includes a soundproof boardroom, a barbershop, two massage rooms for the in-house masseuse and a manicure and pedicure station. Wyatt likes to have members stay on the property because getting to know their quirks is a priority. "It's all about being attentive," Wyatt says. "We know a particular member loves fresh fruit, so we try to have a carved pineapple waiting for him at the turn."

This kind of hospitality has made an impression on even well-traveled golfers. "It's one of the most comfortable places I've ever been, one of the most welcoming," says ageless Tour veteran Jay Haas, a Sage Valley member and holder of the course record (64). Haas shot his record round in late 2003 during a long weekend at the club that included a surprise 50th-birthday party thrown for him by his wife, Janice.

Despite all of its luxuries Sage Valley is not the second-best known track in the Augusta area. That would be Mount Vintage, which hosted the LPGA's Asahi Ryokuken International Championship from 2001 to '04. (The event will not return this year after losing its sponsor.) Mount Vintage is a 7,107-yard par-72 with breathtaking elevation changes and a grip-tightening series of watery risk-reward holes. It has 300 members, but unlike the very private Sage Valley, Mount Vintage welcomes the public (though at $86 a pop it is the priciest daily-fee course in the area).

In the shadow of downtown Augusta sits the River Golf Club, a Jim Fazio--designed hidden gem that opened in 1998. The 6,847-yard par-71 is good enough to have hosted U.S. Open qualifying, but the River is most notable for its incongruous beauty, as the wetlands setting has a transporting effect. "It's like visiting somewhere exotic," says Howell. "You feel like you should have a drink with an umbrella in it." All for $55 a round.

Still, most Augustans flock to Forest Hills Golf Club, where greens fees are $39, or $25 after noon. It is at Forest Hills that you will find the town's golfing soul. The course is in a scrappy part of Augusta and looks a little rough around the edges, but it has a very distinguished pedigree, having been designed by Donald Ross and validated by Bobby Jones. The course opened in 1926, and four years later it hosted the Southeastern Open, which Jones won while tuning up for his Grand Slam. A dusty glass case in the grillroom contains memorabilia from the tournament and a fascinating assortment of old news clippings.

As the home course of the Augusta State team and host of the Augusta State Invitational, Forest Hills has had a few other brushes with greatness, though after Jones you have to grade on a curve. In the pro shop there is a picture of Davis Love III holding a trophy from a long-ago invitational, and Vaughn Taylor, winner of the Tour's 2004 Reno-Tahoe Open, cut his teeth here as an honorable mention All-America in 1999, his senior year at Augusta State.

In recent years Forest Hills had acquired a reputation as a course in decline. A handful of the original Ross holes had been lost to military development in the 1940s, and more recently others were sullied by encroaching commercial development. In 2003 the Palmer Course Design Company did a thorough renovation of the course, adding 400 yards and numerous bunkers. The biggest changes came on the greens, where more slope was added and new Tift-Eagle grass greatly improved what were long considered the slowest putting surfaces in town.

Despite the changes to the course Forest Hills has retained its inclusiveness. It is still where the weekend warriors come to play their $5 Nassaus and ambitious juniors congregate to chase the dream. "Like a lot of people, I grew up at Forest Hills," says Howell. "It has a great chipping and putting area, and it's probably the best place in town to really work on your game. And because the Augusta State guys practice there, a lot of talented players are floating around, so you can always get a game."

The renovation of Forest Hills was spurred in part by all the work that had been done on Jones Creek, the other popular semiprivate course in town. (Like Forest Hills, it boasts a few hundred members that are allotted a percentage of the tee times.) Jones Creek is in west Augusta surrounded by newish housing developments where Tour players often rent houses during the Masters. Crammed in among the McMansions, the Rees Jones design always had a tight, claustrophobic feel, and twisty fairways and elevated greens that repelled anything even a hair off-line.

Lured to the area by his work on Sage Valley, Tom Fazio did a light redesign in 2001 that has made Jones Creek a little more user-friendly. Greens were flattened and enlarged and bunkers remade a little less steep and deep. But Fazio knew better than to tinker with the course's signature closing holes, a pair of long, dogleg par-4s that two-time U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen once called the hardest finish he had ever played. (Janzen went through Jones Creek for the second stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament in 1989.)

Jones Creek is decidedly more upscale than Forest Hills, charging $55 a round, but the Creek, too, is an important part of the local golf scene, as two high schools and a pair of middle schools use it as their home course. Jones Creek's reputation as a mecca for serious players was burnished when the adjoining International Golf Academy opened in 2004. The academy boasts the latest cutting-edge teaching tools, none sexier than the MAT-T custom-fitting system, the same space-age technology pioneered by TaylorMade to fine-tune the tools of its Tour players.

When the average fan thinks about golf in Augusta it is always of the famous home of the Masters, but there is more to the local golf scene. Whether it is pampered corporate titans at Sage Valley or juniors at Jones Creek, Augusta National provides the inspiration but not the access. Luckily, golfers in the area can enjoy some pretty good substitutes. As Weldon Wyatt puts it, "Amen Corner is not the only place in the world where the flowers bloom in the spring."

"Part of it is the terrain, PART OF IT IS THE CLIMATE, but a lot of it is because golf is Augusta," says Tour pro Charles Howell.

COLOR PHOTOGREG FOSTER Good Neighbors   Sage Valley's tall pines and rolling hills evoke the National, but the Bobby Jones painting (inset) in the Forest Hills clubhouse is an exact reproduction.   COLOR PHOTOGREG FOSTER [see caption above] COLOR PHOTOGREG FOSTER Masters Program   Jones Creek offers custom fitting (above) and a mirror image of the National's 12th (far left). The Jim Fazio--designed River Club (top left) is Augusta's hidden gem, while at Mount Vintage you can get a feel for what it's like to cross the Hogan Bridge.   COLOR PHOTOGREG FOSTER [see caption above] COLOR PHOTOGREG FOSTER [see caption above] COLOR PHOTOGREG FOSTER Sitting Pretty Wyatt (below) had the National in mind when he built Sage Valley's "cottages" for visiting members. COLOR PHOTOGREG FOSTER [see caption above]