It isn’t often that a golf course architect gets to design a course for his or her alma mater. But that’s what happened with the Lonnie Poole Golf Course, NC State’s new course on Centennial Campus. It was a “dream come true,” says Brandon Johnson ’97. He worked on it with fellow alumnus Erik Larsen ’77, who’s executive vice president and senior golf course architect at Arnold Palmer Design. We spoke with Johnson, an architect for the company, about the course.
What was different about this course from others you’ve worked on?
It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a golf course for the university you attended. The piece of property was really good. . . . What was different? Not so much the method, although we did do a test bunker, which was quite interesting, to get the idea of the natural bunker look across to everybody. It was a thought of the direction we wanted to go. It would make the golf course look different from the other courses in the area. That was a really fun process at the front end of the construction, to get out there and watch them build a bunker, help them build the bunker and try to convince everybody that this is the direction it should go in, not only for aesthetics, but also for maintenance and sustainability. Introducing those native grasses and natural areas would significantly reduce the amount of irrigated acreage. That was something we were pressing that we thought was important. If we were going to build this golf course, we should be responsible. That was something that was a little bit different. It was fun to do. It added to the overall look and sustainability of the project.
What’s the most difficult hole?
I think No. 3, just being the length, if it is played as a par 4, would be the most difficult. One of the things we did that people don’t always see is how you can set the golf course up. No. 1 is par 5, a shortish par 5. If they wanted to, they could play that as a par 4. Just move the tees up. No. 3 is kind of the opposite. It’s a really, really long par 4. At 500 yards, . . . [y]ou’re going to play it as a par 5. We have these kind of half-par holes in there. No. 4 is another one. From the forward tees, they [are at] around 300 yards. If you want to play it up, it’s a driveable par 4. Three out of the first four holes are kind of these half-par holes depending on how you want to set it up. [T]he hardest hole, everybody has talked about No. 3 being hard because it’s long. There’s a forest area. It’s a difficult green. [A]ny golf hole is hard if you don’t keep it in play.
What are the course’s top features?
One of them . . . using the slopes to your advantage. Hopefully after several plays, people will understand . . . that you play it left on No. 1. . . . You can do the same on No. 2. There’s a little roll on No. 13 that will help you get it into certain pins. . . . Another one is the width of some of the fairways. Some of them are intentionally wide. On No. 5, it’s really wide, but you have go left because you’ll be blocked out completely if you go right. You could be on the fairway, you could have a perfect lie, but you’ve got trees in your way. The same with No. 7. You can play it down there left and be down in this hollow below this big huge bunker, and it makes the blind shot you have even worse. But if you play right and challenge the skinnier part of the fairway, you can bomb it down and around that cross bunker if you’re long enough.
Have you played the course?
How did you do?
I played fairly well. I made my share of birdies, made my share of bogeys. I played a ton of holes. I think the scores were 77 the first round, 74 the second round. Between those two rounds, I had seven or eight birdies. It’s playable.
I’ve heard it’s a pretty challenging, though.
I think they set it up to be playable for everyone. I think they have the opportunity to set it up to where it will challenge the best players. You start growing up rough. You start putting tees back. You start putting pins in [certain] locations. That’s another thing . . . you asked what’s the feature people might not see the first time? Pin placement would be key. The one on No. 4, the superintendent put a great pin right on the spine of the slope. It would repel balls if you were not on the right spot. . . . You could do that on several holes and make it difficult to score. You might be able to get par, but it would be difficult to get the ball close and make a lot of birdies.
The easy one is keep it on the fairway and the greens. I think I told someone, look away from the pin to find ways of getting the ball to the pin. There are several holes where you can play away from the pin. There’s probably going to be a roll that’s going to get you close somehow. And stay out of the bunkers.