Arthur Hills' Dunes Golf Club in Brooksville stands out, even in the shadow of World Woods
BROOKSVILLE, Fla. -- During World War II, a fairly uninhabited area northwest of the small town of Brooksville was used as a target range for military aircraft. The planes that flew over this isolated region of Hernando County dropped bombs that laid waste significant areas of the countryside. For years afterward, the site lay barren and the vegetation grew back, but the remnants of those explosions (actually the lack of remnants) remained, blending rather harmoniously into the natural sandy sweeps that are common to this part of the state.
These sandy pits and crevices now provide a spectacular backdrop for Dunes Golf Club, a relatively little mentioned Arthur Hills course that opened in 1988.
It probably doesn't help that Dunes Golf Club is located only a few miles from one of the premier golf destinations in the South, World Woods Golf Club. With such a high-profile neighbor, it is often overshadowed, but in regards to site and raw fabric, The Dunes is the larger club's equal and might possibly be richer.
The Dunes and the World Woods courses, particularly Pine Barrens, share a sandy soil well suited for golf. Solid earth gives way in places to large washes of exposed sand and both courses are routed among deep and cluttered forests of pine. While the portraiture of each is rugged and masculine, the moonscape atmosphere of The Dunes is in many ways more stirring.
Hills is no stranger to superb sites. Over the last 10 years, he has worked with some incredibly advantageous properties in the country. Some of the most memorable bay and oceanside courses to open in America during the 1990's have come off the boards of Hills' Ohio-based firm (Bay Harbor, Half Moon Bay, and Lighthouse Sound come immediately to mind), but even today he's hard pressed to name many properties he's designed that outshine the Seville site.
"The first impression was that the site was a rare opportunity," Hills recalls. "The Dunes site was absolutely one of the best inland sites we've worked on."
Hills and crew made it pay off by taking advantage of every aspect of this roaming property, from the wooded flats of the front nine to the vivid holes late in the round that follow the rise and fall of the land and take the player right to the brink of the sand pits. Little earth was moved in the fairways and nearly all of the contouring is done in and around the greens, some of which appear to be highly shaped. Furthermore, Hills has sprinkled the green complexes with a variety of steep and shallow, uniquely styled bunkers that mirror the roughness and irregularity of the natural sand hazards.
Dunes Golf Club tops out at 7,140 yards and comes in distinct packages, or series of holes. Holes two through six play through the pines over relatively level ground. The green complexes in this series are industrious, set down or cradled among mounds to reflect the captured feel that the surrounding pines impart.
Seven, eight, and nine, as well as number one, leave the woods and begin to explore more meaningful, less wooded ground. Here the irregular green shapes are better defended and situated at thoughtful angles to the fairway. The first nine sets the player up for the exhilarating second nine run, which absolutely takes off after solid but straightforward holes at 10 and 11.
The cavernous sand pits that mark The Dunes' reputation do not occur every hole. In fact, only at 1, 12,13,14, and 17 do they appear in full force either dramatically or logistically. But when they are incorporated they are incredible, harrowing features that beget heightened expectation of the next.
Though much of the existing Dunes Golf Club lore centers on the source of these interesting landscape features, Hills notes that "mostly these craters were natural occurrences" and not primarily the result of bombs. Indeed it's difficult to discern what is bomb-made and what might be indigenous, but the hollowed out sand pits certainly look like they were blasted by something.
Hills, able to take the routing where he wanted to go (quite surprising considering the plethora of environmental and zoning restrictions that usually limit an architect's plans), made a decision to not make The Dunes a purely heroic course. Instead of using the sand washes as cross hazards or putting them in the line of play, they primarily appear laterally and in support of the green complexes.
Using the hazards in this way was the result of simply following the lead of the land. "We tried to locate the best possible green sites, incorporating sand areas when possible. We wanted to actively incorporate them and their character into the design," he says. Even when not utilized for do-or-die shots, the sand pits influence play by penalizing, sometimes severely, those whose accuracy fails. Visually they are more powerful, lending The Dunes an impression that can be striking, magnificent.
The pit behind and to the left of the elevated, plateau green at the first is both frightening and awe-inspiring at once. Its effect is as much psychological as strategic, but it sets the tone for a baited, exciting trek.
The action really picks up at the 416-yard 12th and the 158-yard 13th, two holes that are set brilliantly among the sand washes and together act to catapult the round from a pleasurable walk through nature into an energetic, triumphant homeward finish.
The 12th green is placed at the top of a rise between a deep man-made bunker to the left and a larger, sprawling and sinister natural bunker on the right. To get to it, a mid-sized cross-bunker ninety yards short of the green must be cleared, and a large oak and bunker short and left must be avoided.
The 13th plays over a valley to a green that curves away from the tee at a right-to-left angle. Anything hit short on the inside elbow dribbles 12 feet down a steep slope into a bunker. To the right and long of the green is one of the biggest sand caverns on the course, and left of the green tumbles away down into scrub and nothingness. In short, there is no room to miss. This is potentially a world-class par three, but whoever decided to build the white utility shed on line directly behind the green has seriously compromised the great naturalness and aesthetic of the hole.
There is excellent work, particularly in and around the greens, at 14 through 16, and 17 is a dynamite uphill par five that at last utilizes a natural sand formation as a serious cross hazard. At only 508 yards, the green is potentially reachable for the long player, but to do it the hazard must be attacked directly with a blind second shot over it and up the hill. The small green is cocked at a right-to-left orientation, guarded by a bunker inside left and more sandy wash beyond.
While there is no reason to bemoan anything about the wonderful course that is here, there might be wistful dreams of the course that's not. If there's anything critical to be said of Dunes Golf Club it might be about the lack of heroic shots given the stimulus. It's possible that golf in such a dramatic, raw landscape wants for more true heart-pounding shots and opportunities to gamble.
This is playing armchair architect to be sure, but what does Hills think?
"I would probably do some things differently, but I like what is there," he says, leaving the door open slightly for at least some "what ifs."
Still, we too like what is there, and so will anyone who appreciates a thought provoking, cut-above golf course in a beautiful and isolated setting.
November 19, 2001