Trash to treasure
15 Min Read
Located on the site of a former dumping ground, Trinity Forest becomes the new home of the AT&T Byron Nelson in 2018
Written by Jonathan Wall @jonathanrwall
DALLAS, Texas -- The opportunity presented to the highly respected design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw was, on the surface, extremely intriguing: Create a world-class golf course just six miles south of downtown Dallas. It was a rare chance to take a neglected piece of land near an urban area and make something beautiful.
A no-brainer, right? But Coore and Crenshaw hesitated. There was one issue.
“It’s a landfill,” Coore said. “You’re just never sure what you’ll be able to do with a piece of property like that.”
After seeing some topographic maps of the 400-acre site, the duo started to warm to the idea. They noticed some interesting features and decided to make an initial site visit. Maybe it could work. Maybe they could turn trash into treasure.
As Crenshaw stood on the piece of property for the first time, though, he still wasn’t sure. He was struggling for a vision. The land was relatively flat and covered in tall grass, with just a few mature trees and shrubbery dotting the space. What he and Coore had seen on the maps wasn’t evident in person.
So they asked for the grass to be mowed.
That's when everything came together.
A completely different property emerged that featured natural rolling terrain with subtle elevation changes — the perfect canvas for a course that next year will become the new home of the AT&T Byron Nelson.
Compared to the countless tree-lined golf courses that dot the landscape in North Texas, Trinity Forest Golf Club stands out from the crowd — a links-style, treeless layout bordered on all sides by towering hardwoods from the 6,000-acre Great Trinity Forest. Its history as a former landfill – which went unused for decades before the City of Dallas put the tract through environmental remediation – made it more challenging.
The entire process left a one-of-a-kind space for Coore and Crenshaw to create an 18-hole layout that tested their creativity and forced them to think outside the box — due in part to restrictions placed on the landfill that made it illegal to dig into the ground at any point during the project. The City of Dallas, by Texas Commission of Environmental Quality rules, also was required to remove any remaining trees that had voluntarily grown on top of the landfill, which completely put the property at the mercy of the elements.
Crenshaw called it “a landfill with character.”
"The interesting thing about this piece of land was that the indiscriminate dumping of dirt on the property had led to some pretty contours," Crenshaw noted. "… It's rolling land. It's not flat but it's not precipitous rise and falls. We both felt that we could let the holes fit the land, which lent itself to sort of a links-style course."
Instead of attempting to alter the contours, Coore and Crenshaw embraced the character flaws and built Trinity Forest around the gentle rises and falls in the land, along with the native grasses and rolling, rumpled sand that are hallmarks of the design.
"The set of circumstances are we let the holes fall where they are," Crenshaw said. "The character of the topography of the ground dictates what the end result will be, and we are very traditional in that regard. We've borrowed ideas from the old architects such as Donald Ross, [A.W.] Tillinghast and Perry Maxwell, and they all basically have the same interwoven philosophies in that the holes must fit the ground.
"Perry Maxwell had some fascinating statements about that. He said, if you take a piece of land and tie it into a natural theme, your golf course will be different than anyone else's. I always thought that was a fascinating statement. So wherever we go, we try as hard as we can to not alter the land so much."
Moving heaven and dirt
What happens when you build a golf course but lack the ability to alter the current shape of the land? For Trinity Forest Golf Club, the answer was simple: Build on top of the ground with the help of dirt mined from a nearby site next to the property.
"We always knew it was going to take a lot of work to get the holes built," said Kasey Kauff, Trinity Forest's director of grounds. "Each day we had loads of trucks going back and forth with dirt to the course. It felt like it never stopped for a little while, which is probably the case."
Working directly with Coore and Crenshaw, Kauff and his team went to work bringing the course sketches to life over a two-year period.
"Ben [Crenshaw] and Bill [Coore] are just the best guys in the world," said Knauff, who joined Trinity Forest in 2014 after stints at the Country Club of Orlando and Atlanta Athletic Club. "They got filthy dirty and sat and ate lunch with us every day. We'd have things come up that needed to be changed and they'd just make it happen. Being able to sort of work with somebody like that who's so flexible and can make things happen on the fly, it doesn't get better."
The dirt was definitely flying in Dallas – 750,000 cubic yards were added on top of the existing landfill to assist in the creation of bunkers and green complexes that otherwise would not have been possible. Due to environmental regulations, a minimum layer of six inches of dirt had to be spread on every hole, and was GPS'd for accuracy during the process. On a number of holes where the elevation change was minimal, the dirt layer remained relatively uniform.
However, there are holes on the property that feature more significant rises and falls where loads of dirt had to be piled up sometimes as high as 12 to 15 feet to create the dramatic bunkering that appears all over the course.
For instance, the par-5 14th opens with an uphill tee shot to a relatively flat landing before going back down the hill to the green complex. The dirt required for the elevation changes and bunkering turned the hole into a four-week project. During that same time-frame, three other holes were completed.
To build some of the bunkers with the high faces, upwards of 10-plus feet of dirt was needed for each bunker cutout. Along with the time-consuming nature of the entire project, the course also suffered through one of the wettest years in Dallas history in 2015 that washed out large portions of the dirt used to create each hole.
While the precipitation delayed planning for three months and pushed back the course's grow-in time table, there was a silver lining that came from the flooding.
"We found all our drainage issues," Kauff said. "… Had it been dry, we'd have been out there thinking we were fine before we knew we had draining problems here and here. But we found all that and we've attacked it. My guys have put in 12 miles of drain pipe since November of 2015. So that was our biggest thing."
With grow-in well underway on the 18-hole course, Kauff and his staff of 24 have turned their attention to other projects, including a nine-hole short course — greens weren't planted until the middle of last summer — and range expansion that will add two new teeing grounds to the practice facility.
"The good news is we're no longer moving all that dirt on the course," Kauff said. "We're wrapping up some winter projects and I imagine the course will be completely grown in by July, so we're trying to get all that wrapped up to do normal maintenance. We've got a lot of projects because we don't have the luxury of a golf course that's been around for 15 or 20 years. We've condensed everything into two years."
Variety of challenges
Creating a world-class golf course on a former landfill has become a popular endeavor for course designers in recent years. More than 70 courses have been constructed nationwide, the most well-known being Liberty National in Jersey City, New Jersey, which was built on top of a toxic landfill and offers scenic views of the New York City skyline. The course has hosted The Barclays on two occasions, and will welcome the 2017 Presidents Cup later this year.
Prior to designing Trinity Forest, Crenshaw and Coore already had experience creating courses on less-than-stellar land. Their Streamsong Red Course in remote central Florida was a former phosphate mine before it became one of the most talked-about links-style golf destinations in North America.
Just like the buzz that followed the Streamsong effort, the chatter regarding Trinity Forest has been building since 2013 when the City of Dallas, AT&T Inc., the Salesmanship Club of Dallas and a few power brokers came together to put the course on the map and set the path to the PGA TOUR’s return to Dallas. The AT&T Byron Nelson was last played in Dallas in 1982 at Preston Trail Golf Club. Since then, the tournament has been played at the TPC Four Seasons Resort in the city of Irving, roughly 25 minutes from where Trinity Forest is located.
"We're all very excited about the [AT&T Byron Nelson] coming back to Dallas," said Dallas resident -- and Trinity Forest member -- Jordan Spieth. "The location will entice guys to come and stay downtown. You'll basically be 10 minutes from uptown or downtown."
But there's more to Trinity Forest than simply being close to downtown Dallas. The course is unlike anything players have experienced in the area and will offer a test that tournament officials hope will entice the TOUR’s biggest names to consider playing.
Coore and Crenshaw spent close to six months coming up with a routing that complemented the space and create a similar look and feel to many of the great links-style courses of the Northeast United States and Great Britain.
That meant integrating native wispy buffalo grass, waste areas, dramatic bunkering and pitched Champion Ultradwarf greens to give it a rugged, windswept look. In partnership with the Trinity River Audubon Center, the course also restored 75 acres of Blackland Prairie — one of the most endangered ecosystems in the country — adding grasses and vegetation that are home to native plants and animals.
Stretching out to 7,450 yards from the back tees, the course features a variety of challenges for the professional and amateur alike — from short par 4s such as the drivable fifth that measures just 315 yards to par 5s that range from 537 to 630 yards. The par 3s also offer a number of different looks, including the downhill eighth that's highlighted by a severely sloping green with a ridge that separates the upper and lower portions of the surface and puts a premium on shot placement.
"We tried very hard to present a diverse test of golf," Crenshaw said. "In other words, some shorts holes, some long holes, and we have different-sized greens. We have some very large, and then a couple that were pretty small."
While the Trinity (L1F) Zoysia fairways are generous in size, the rumpled surfaces make it difficult to find a flat lie on nearly every hole.
For those who do find the short grass with regularity, they’ll contend with a series of difficult second shots to elevated greens that vary in size. Most of the greens are pitched and have shaved banks that funnel balls away from the hole that fail to hold the putting surface.
The one green complex that receives more comments than any other is the massive double green connecting the third and 11th holes. At just over three-quarters of an acre (approximately 36,000 square feet), the entire surface takes two members of Trinity Forest's maintenance crew 45 minutes to mow and maintain.
"We've never really set out to do double greens," Crenshaw said, "but they suffice in fitting the piece of the puzzle. There were directions of golf holes that we utilized that particular piece of land to, in other words, backwards and forwards. So that was fun to do, and I think people remark that it is."
With no water hazards present on the property, the course's biggest defense is the wind and the 88 distinct bunkers that are placed in strategic positions, sometimes staggered, to create angles into each green.
"We're always considering a bunker will affect the line off the tee or on an approach, no matter if someone is playing from the back or all the way up," Coore said. "The bunkers force you to respect each hole, and we want them to be a challenge if you do find one."
Jonas Woods has been a Dallas resident since 1989. Yet when a friend approached him 10 years ago about the possibility of building a course in the Trinity Forest area, Woods had one question.
It’s doubtful many residents could tell you the exact location of Trinity Forest, the forgotten 11-mile piece of property in south Dallas that follows the Trinity River, one of the state’s longest rivers that runs all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico.
Trinity Forest had mostly been neglected, and efforts to transform it into a wildlife oasis with nature trails and other facilities struggled to take off. The Dallas Observer, a local weekly, once ran a story with this headline: “The Great Trinity Forest Ain’t So Great.”
But Woods was intrigued. In 2007, he had founded his own Dallas-based integrated real estate investment firm called Woods Capital. Previously, he had worked for Hillwood Development Corporation and had just completed a successful golf club community in Westlake, Texas, called the Vaquero Club.
Besides being involved in a dozen or so golf development deals, he’s also a self-described “golf junkie” and has always been intrigued by the thought of the local PGA TOUR event moving to downtown Dallas. Once he realized where Trinity Forest was located, his curiosity was piqued.
“I thought, you know, maybe I should spend a little time thinking about that,” Woods said.
The initial draw for Woods was the opportunity to build a similar community to Vaquero, but it didn't take long to realize such a project would not be feasible, due to the protected hardwoods that surrounded the property, as well as the floodplain that existed in the area.
Nearly five years went by before a brief conversation with AT&T president Randall L. Stephenson — who was interested in looking at the feasibility of building a course in downtown Dallas that could potentially host a TOUR event — led Woods to take another look at the Trinity Forest and the land he had initially ruled out.
The second trip produced an entirely different result. Thanks to a friend who was looking at aerial photos of the forest on Google Map and spotted the 400-acre landfill, Woods pinpointed the piece of land he thought could work.
"It was right in the middle of the forest, but I had no idea what was really there the first time I drove across it because I was fixed on the forest way in the distance," Woods said. "This time around, I'm driving across the field looking at the field, and thought this would be an interesting place for a course.
"I was quickly struck by how incredible the meadow was and that it had all these undulations and was surrounded by all these hardwood trees and a few kind of mixed trees on the property. It was elevated and had beautiful long waving grass that made it look like a links golf course."
Working directly with City of Dallas officials, AT&T and the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, Woods managed to get all parties on board with the idea of creating a course near downtown that could help put Dallas back on the golf map. Although Trinity Forest Golf Club -- which opened in October of last year -- serves a private membership, the development should benefit the community along with bringing prestigious golf championships to Dallas.
"You have to remember that this was a landfill that we had to remediate," Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings said. "On top of it was built a nirvana of a golf experience. So when people push back on private-public partnerships, this is a great example of how it works."
In preparation for next year's TOUR event, Trinity Forest will go through a test-run in August when it hosts the Texas State Open. The event will give tournament officials a better idea of how the course plays in tournament conditions, and what, if any, tweaks need to be made in the run-up to the 2018 AT&T Byron Nelson.
"The Texas State Open will essentially provide a dry run for many areas that will apply to our tournament," said Jon Drago, tournament director of the AT&T Byron Nelson. "During the conduct of the Texas State Open, we’ll look at things like the walking patterns of the players, where they drive the ball for positioning of spectator crossings, corporate hospitality and television towers and the like. Not to mention we may have the PGA TOUR rules staff on-site to evaluate potential tee and hole locations that will likely be used during the AT&T Byron Nelson.
"We’ll evaluate the scoring averages for each hole and monitor the pace of play and any potential challenges with certain holes. There are so many positives for this partnership with the Northern Texas PGA, and we are excited for the opportunity.”
Along with building a course that will eventually host a TOUR event, Trinity Forest will also have space for the First Tee of Greater Dallas, as well as a brand new facility on one side of the driving range that will house Southern Methodist University men's and women's golf teams.
"We want this place to reflect our excitement in bringing golf back to Dallas," Woods said. "That starts with becoming the home of championship golf in Dallas, and to that, I think we've been very successful. Beyond that we're trying to create special private club for our members, as well as looking at the charitable aspect.
"I'm really proud of what we've been able to accomplish in such a short time."