Trinity Forest offers something unique in Dallas
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Trinity Forest, new home of the AT&T Byron Nelson, is a course unlike any other in Texas – but how quickly will the pros embrace it?
Written by Mike McAllister @PGATOUR_MikeMc
DALLAS – Trinity Forest Golf Club is roughly nine miles south from the revitalized and redeveloped downtown of the ninth most populated city in the United States – and yet the location feels like the middle of nowhere, isolated from civilization. A place where cell phone service and overexposed celebrities might seek shelter. Course developer Jonas Woods calls it "escapism."
Despite being surrounded by a forest (hence the name), very few trees actually exist inside its boundaries. Finding shade from the unrelenting Texas sun could become just as important as finding the nearest frozen margarita stand.
The course is designed in a links style, and yet the nearest coastal area is 300 miles away. There are no magnificent views of the sea, no cool ocean breezes to soothe your soul – but there is wind. Plenty of it. Dry and hot. After all, this is Texas.
So Harrison Frazar, the retired PGA TOUR pro who provided much-appreciated input when Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw built Trinity Forest, is prepared for the inevitable. His peers will come this week to the new venue of the AT&T Byron Nelson, and some of them will not be happy.
They will wonder why this course – taking over for TPC Four Seasons Las Colinas, which had hosted the AT&T Byron Nelson since 1983 -- isn’t like every other one in this state. They will question the judgment of forcing pros to abandon their games geared for U.S. layouts in order to play a course requiring a British approach. They will complain, they will argue, they will challenge. Some will rush to judgment; some will not give the course a second chance.
Frazar, part of the initial private corporation that spearheaded the Trinity Forest project, hopes his fellow pros immediately love the course as much as he does. But he knows that’s not realistic. At least not this week.
“I'm not so much worried about what they think right now,” he says. “I'm not so worried about what they even think six months from now. I care very much about what my peers think year one, year two, year three. We're trying to make this thing great 25, 30, 35, 50 years down the road. … There’s always resistance to change. We can’t hide that.”
Coore won’t be surprised either if the early reviews are mixed. “Because the course’s character is different,” he noted in a written explanation of the design, “some players will embrace Trinity Forest right away. Some will not.
“It may take time.”
Trinity Forest has been open since late October of 2016. Thanks to its uniqueness – a links course in Texas built on top of a landfill – it quickly drew a wide variety of reactions.
Golf Digest called it “night and day from any other venue” on the PGA TOUR and also warned that it was a “big risk for everyone involved.” The local Avid Golfer magazine called the course “pretty freaking awesome, unless you simply have a dislike for Crenshaw designs.” The local newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, ranked it this week as the 14th best course in Texas (albeit behind two other PGA TOUR venues, Colonial and Austin Country Club).
Links magazine suggested the course will “rattle some players … just as the great Scottish courses like St. Andrews, Troon and Dornoch frustrate players with odd kicks, funky bounces and tough greens, so will Trinity Forest.”
A year ago when Trinity Forest member Jordan Spieth was asked about the course, he called it a “very interesting layout” and noted that his scores have ranged from 7 under to 7 over. “It’s very challenging if you’re not really focused,” he said.
Not exactly a glowing review back then. But last week before the start of THE PLAYERS Championship, Spieth was asked again about Trinity Forest. This time, he sang a more positive tune.
"It looks as good as I've seen it since -- and I've been going out there since before the greens were even sprigged," Spieth said. "It looks really good. It's grown on me a lot over the past six months, and in the springtime, I think it's at its best. It's in his best condition that it can be now or the next month or two."
The Trinity Forest team will be happy if their course grows on other players. From an acceptance standpoint, Frazar likens it not so much to a links course on the British Isles, but to last week's venue, TPC Sawgrass. When Frazar turned pro in the mid-1990s, the home course of THE PLAYERS had been the host for little more than a decade.
“They were still figuring out that golf course,” Frazar says. “The first two or three years that thing was out, people were pulling their hair out. They didn’t understand the humps and the bumps. They thought Pete Dye was insane.
“But you look at how things soften over time and where technology takes people and agronomy. A lot of great golf courses kind of settle in over time.”
TPC Sawgrass is now one of golf’s most iconic – and certainly much-discussed -- courses. How long will it take Trinity Forest to settle in? The formulation of that answer begins this week.
When the idea to turn Trinity Forest into a golf course was first conceived, the developers contacted six golf architectural firms -- including the one led by Aussie Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open winner -- to gauge their interest and hear their design plans. Coore and Crenshaw got the bid.
They had no plans to play it safe.
“Ben and Bill believe that if you build a golf course that makes everybody happy, you made a non-interesting golf course,” Frazar said. “In fact, they even said they want one or two holes on this thing to be a real head-scratcher, because that’s interesting.
“If you go through and look at the great golf courses around the world, all the greatest TOUR courses, there is one or two (holes) in there that people don’t like or don’t get. But you’ve got to have some interesting stuff to it.”
Added Woods, the developer: “They don’t manufacture golf. They don’t come out and say, this needs to be a par 4, this needs to be this long, the bunkers need to be here because that’s the prescription. Instead, they’re much more artful about it.”
So what are the head-scratcher holes at Trinity Forest?
Try the par-5 14th. Not only is it the longest hole on the course (630 yards), but it plays uphill, and is one of the few holes that plays into the south wind. If you’re trying to reach the green in two, then your second shot will be virtually blind. On the surface, that seems to be piling on for those courageous enough to go for it.
“There’s nothing comfortable about hitting a 3-wood or a hybrid into a green you can’t see,” Woods said. “But after they’re played it a few times, they realize, OK, there’s a lot of ways I can play this from here. As they get comfortable with it, I think they’ll be excited about the uniqueness of it.”
Now take the par-4 fifth. At 315 yards, it’s certainly drivable, it often plays downwind, and it’s just 207 yards to carry the front bunker. The green itself, while tiny, has little contour.
But miss on the wrong side, and you’ll be scrambling to save par. Since the miss here is long, the fifth becomes a rare drivable hole that could favor shorter hitters.
“It is not a matter of strength,” Frazar says. “It’s a matter of precision and a matter of choice and decision. You’re going to have a bunch of guys hear drivable hole and they’re going to stand up there with a driver and they’re going to bang it long – and if you’ hit anywhere long of that green, you’re in real, real, real trouble.
“So that’s going to make people kind of scratch their heads. It’s going to take them three or four times to go, OK, I can, but should I?”
Adds Woods: “I think guys will be hopeful that’s a birdie hole and I think you’re going to see a lot of guys walking off with bogeys and scratching their heads wondering, ‘How did that just happen?’”
They might need to ask Frazar.
One day when Coore and Crenshaw were scouting hole locations, Frazar was enjoying a round of golf with some friends at a former Byron Nelson venue, Preston Trail. When he finished, he checked his phone, which he had left in his car, and saw a flurry of voicemails from the architects. Frazar was needed at Trinity Forest – fast.
It seems that Coore and Crenshaw had set up a little tee box and wanted Frazar to hit some balls into a freshly mown patch. So Frazar hustled to the course, and in muddy conditions, hit upwards of 60 drivers and 3-woods. Coore, sticking a flag where every ball landed, noticed that the solidly struck 3-woods had congregated in a specific area.
So that’s where one of the bunkers at the fifth hole was placed.
“If guys don’t like where that bunker is,” Frazar says, “I guess it’s my fault.”
Biggest green in Texas?
Perhaps the most interesting, or at least most discussed, patch of grass at Trinity Forest measures approximately 35,000 square feet and has two pins stuck in it. It’s the double green used for the 412-yard par-4 third and 537-yard par-5 11th holes.
Like most things in Texas, the size alone is brag-worthy.
“There’s been some people that are trying to say it’s the biggest green in the state of Texas,” Frazar said. “I don’t believe it. In fact, I don’t know who’s saying that. But it is a massive green. It takes a couple of guys a long time to take care of it. We’re very proud of it. Ben and Bill are very excited about it.”
The double green is a nod to St. Andrews, which has seven of them. But unlike those at the old course – in which players come in from different directions, depending on which hole they’re playing -- Coore and Crenshaw put their own spin on it.
The third and 11th holes are side-by-side, playing west to east, with the 11th on the right side and the third on the left. When Frazar first heard the concept, he was initially concerned that play might get congested, that errant shots on one hole would impact play on the other. But once he realized the angles being used, his fears subsided.
The reachable 11th is “designed and intended to push you as far right in your line of play as possible,” he says. “That’s the most rewarding play.
“No. 3 is the left half of the big green. There’s a ridge that divides it. It’s very clearly defined which way they want you to come in from, and the preferred line of play is as far left as you can get. So we have not had any issues of crossing over.”
The ridge line, while offering a visual separation of the two greens, doesn’t prevent balls from spilling over to the other side, like a bunker or a walkway might. Depending on where the pins are set up, there might be some overlap, and on days when course officials are playful, they do exactly that for the members – like putting both pins on the back right.
Suffice to say they will avoid doing that this week.
Still, St. Andrews isn’t the only course honored by the unique set-up. The 11th hole has sharp angles and rolling angles reminiscent of Charles B. Macdonald’s influential National Golf Links. Macdonald founded Chicago Golf Club, and his assistant Seth Raynor remodelled the course in 1923; the punch bowl in the back of the large green is a nod to him. (Not coincidentally, Crenshaw is a non-resident member of Chicago Golf Club.) You can also feel Alistar Mackenzie’s impact on the design.
Given the variety of influences, it’s no surprise that the double-green set-up offers a wide variety of ways to play the two holes – as well as a wide variance of desired scoring.
“I’ve never seen anything like this – at least in the state of Texas,” Frazar says.
Links-style with a twist
So how will all this uniqueness manifest itself in the outcome of this week’s AT&T Byron Nelson?
Great players doing what they do best generally rise to the top, no matter the course or conditions. But Trinity Forest hopes to force great players out of their comfort zone.
“It’s common today for guys to stand up there and just rip as far as they can and as straight as they can – and that’s fine,” Woods says. “Then the second shot, they hit it as high as they can and land it as softly as they can – and whether that’s 230 yards or 120 yards, it’s not that relevant. They just know there’s a number and generally a location where they need to land the ball, and the ball’s going to stop generally if it hits that spot.
“Out there, they’re going to find because it’s firm and fast, it’s going to require a little bit different approach on some shots. I think it’s going to be fun to watch.”
But will it be fun to play? While a links-style setup is certainly reminiscent of the Open Championship, the conditions – and the temperatures – will be different.
"It's like an American links," Spieth said. "You've kind of got to play it from the air, not really a bounce-the-ball-up kind of links, but it is still a links-looking golf course. So it's weird, it's unique.
"Birkdale was kind of the closest comparison I've found to a links course that you kind of have to attack from the air. You get maybe four or five, six holes where you can bounce the ball up, but the way to get balls close is to come in with a higher shot. That's not necessarily true links. I don't want to say that about Birkdale because of the history and everything, but it's just the way I've found to play it well is that route."
Spieth certainly played Royal Birkdale well enough last year in winning the third major of his young career.
While it may be borderline golf heresy to link The Open Championship -- first held in 1860 -- to the annual TOUR stop in Dallas won by namesake Byron Nelson in the inaugural year in 1944, Coore and Crenshaw don’t shy away from the comparison. They embrace it.
The Zoysia grass, says Coore, is the closest turf they could use that generates similar characteristics to the fescue turf in Scotland. They say it provides options for different types of shots. Success at any hole can come from a variety of ways.
“At Trinity Forest, much like at the Open Championship in the United Kingdom, the definition of a good shot may be different than what players and viewers are accustomed to seeing,” Coore states.
Trinity Forest, in other words, doesn’t want golf played from point A to point B to point C. It doesn’t want to favor a particular style, or reward a specific physical attribute. It wants to give everyone a chance. It wants the Old Course feel with the Texas heat.
“All things great are controversial in the beginning,” Frazar says. “If we would have stood up and said we’re going to make every hole so that everybody is happy, I really think it would have been a plain, vanilla golf course.”
Trinity Forest offers a variety of flavors. It rewards substance over style. It’s a course that, as Coore states, asks questions with multiple answers.
“We think this provides interest and long-term enjoyment for those who play and those who watch,” he explains, “even if it might take time to appreciate.”
It’s a bold move, and some people don't enjoy change. Of course, how quickly the pros embrace Trinity Forest may very well be dictated by their position on the final leaderboard late Sunday afternoon.