Many folks in the know have a problem with Robert Trent Jones, Senior. His golf courses, they say, are too punitive, too penal. He is in love with the carry over water, they say. The reality is, he came of age after the ground-loving, ground-hugging, golden-age architects named Ross, Travis, Tillinghast, Raynor, MacDonald, Mackenzie, et al. He came of age during a time when the wealthy wanted a different type of course, one that contrasted with the natural courses of the first 40 years of the 20th century. As RTJ, Sr. aged, he returned to the type of courses that were built prior to WWII. Crag Burn is a perfect example, a heathland-style course where the front of the green is often open to a running shot, where unrealistic forced carries are absent. (Front nine images courtesy of Mark Saltzman)
Holes 1-3: 396, 563 & 330Although there are five sets of tees (the longest measuring 7150 yards) at Crag Burn, this review uses the middle set as a baseline. The first hole at Crag Burn is a strategic masterpiece. Powerful praise, I know, but consider the evidence. A hole that bends right, clogs the corner with sand, yet leaves a virtual meadow of fairway off to the left; an approach shot that comes in at an angle to a deep and somewhat-narrow green target, with sand right and rough mounds left, yet the front is completely open, perfect for a chip up the fall line to any pin position. Trent gives you a hard birdie and easy par/bogie to start the round. Hole number two, as I often note, comes way too early in the round. The longest par five on the course can play as distant as 607 yards, yet is manageable. There are no bunkers until you reach the green and the tee ball is a question of sufficient distance and accuracy. The lay-up (you’re not going for this green, trust me) must be deep enough to cut the yardage in…from the drive zone, it appears that the fairway runs out some 40 yards before it does. The third shot comes in over some portion of the pond, usually from inside 150 yards. The green is flattish, with some undulation, but not so treacherous to make the hole a complete nightmare. Hole number three is yet another terrific dogleg. Since it is short, it offers the option of going for the green against
the safe play to 100 yards. Since the green is slimmer than a pencil and protected by bunkers AND possessed of a low front, raised middle and low back, it demands either a precision approach or putting nerves of steel.
Holes 4-6: 374, 178 & 386
By the 4th hole, you begin to enjoy the game RTJ is playing. Another dogleg, this time slightly to the right, gives the faders a chance for an advantage. Again the line of charm calls you toward the trees, again the meadow awaits, this time on the left (albeit bordered by margin bunkers). Once the tee ball is properly placed, you confront an open green, tilted from back to front, with sand icing both perimeters and the rear. Whether you opt for a runner, a knock-down or a high ball in, the choice is yours. The green has substantial movement in all putts, more so as you near the rear, so take a second glance before putting. The fifth is a marvelous par three with a hidden tee off to the left. The usual tees play downhill to an L-shaped green with low front, high center and low back-right sections. A ball can be played over no water, some water or all water and still reach the green. The hidden tee is the most fun of them all, a wee pitch directly over water, sideways into the green. Number six is another faders hole, although a straight ball never hurts. Water is deep off the tee, as is gnarly rough. Up the right side are trees, but much room awaits in
the fairway, where a three-metal is easily enough club for the tee ball, leaving a mid-iron or less in. The green is protected by sand on either side, yet a bouncer (albeit an accurate one) is once again an option. The green, like number four, is tilted and undulating, necessitating a good look as you approach walking.
Holes 7-9: 150, 486 & 390
I’m not going to lie about number seven. From anything more than 150, it’s an unfair hole, the type that naysayers associate with RTJ. Guess he couldn’t avoid one. The tee ball traverses water for 70% of the hole, wrapping around the right side to take that miss away as well. There is no lay-up left or long and the green is quite shallow and wide, so it’s either one or done on this hole. That the tips go back to 220 yards…well, that’s that. I love the green, as it reminds me of the 5th, ‘cept you have three tiers, side by each: low left, high middle, middle right. My only suggestion is to aim at the left side of the green. A pull or a straight are dry and a push is in the middle of the green. The eighth hole, if you’re patient enough, offers an opportunity to reclaim a lost stroke. This par five gets better each time I play it. The entire left side is a strand of sand, so your eyes should be directed to the right margin and the fairway between it and the center. Play a nice tee ball and you’ll have a look at the green in two. It’s a heck of a strike to get there, but why not? Enough sand and mounding, plus a return to the fescue of the heathland, conspire against you. Oh, and the best green on the front nine. Take your child to this green and leave her/him for a few hours and you’ll have a Crenshaw when you return. Number nine is the most unique hole on the front nine, the only one of its kind that I’ve ever seen. Normally, cross bunkers are
used on a straight hole. Here, they are placed parallel to the drive, at the exact point where the hole turns left, forcing you to play right of them or, if you carry the ball 260, you can go at the farther portion of the fairway and have wedge in. The green is a traditional two-tiered affair, with low front, high back and a horizontal ridge.
Holes 10-12: 400, 370 & 165
Ten has the misfortune of consistently playing into the wind and it sits low on the course,
encouraging water to soften its fairway. In other words, you won’t hit your longest tee ball here and the hole will play two clubs longer than yardage dictates. However, the middle of the hole is completely open, from tee to green. Miss it right or left and you’ll deal with bunkers and rough in the drive zone, and more sand greenside. Tough green, similar to nine, yet not as severe a rise from front to back. Eleven is another of RTJ’s temptation holes. Your eyes are drawn to the sea of sand on the right and you simply WANT to carry it all and have a wee pitch in. Once you’ve played the hole this way, you realize that not only is the risk not worth the reward, but the hole plays harder this way. The green is the most segmented on the course, maybe even better than number 8’s putting surface, and that a full wedge in is the best play. Lonnie Nielsen would take dead aim at his pro shop and you should too. Play three-metal or bunt driver straight out, hit wedge in, THEN drain your birdie putt. Twelve is your living room. It is a comfortable little hole. Sure, there’s water left. OK, there’s sand right. What a green! What a fall from right to left. Similar to number five, but different enough to not be a copycat.
Holes 13-15: 410, 483 & 390
Thirteen might be classified as a slight dogleg right, but that’s all. The longer the tee ball, the higher the launch pad (and the longer the carry over the bit of water on the left.) Again,
a wide fairway, again, fairway sand on the right. The front of the green is open, the green is protected on three sides by sand and fescue. It’s long but manageable. Fourteen is a gem. The epitome of the risk-reward par five, RTJ must have drooled when he found this hole. Tee ball stays right of trees, left of rough, then view of green opens up. A diagonal water hazard slices the fairway from front left to front right of green. If a right-hander plays a slider in, it follows a bit of fairway on the far side of the water. A solid drive leaves hybrid or 4-metal in at most. If you feel like laying up short, aim at the specimen tree on the near side of the hazard and you’ll have 9-iron or wedge in. The green is long from front to back, but it’s set at an angle, so you never shoot directly from front to back. Not many undulations on this one, so you’ll have a great run at a one-putt. Number fifteen might be RTJ’s prized dogleg. Placement is the key, as a 240-yarder leaves 7 or 8 in to a receptive green. Too much left or too much deep puts you in trouble, so measure your distance with precision. Approach to a large, slightly-elevated green with some bunkering and lots of movement.
Holes 16-18: 491, 171 & 388
If you liked the 14th, you’ll love the 16th. A hard dogleg left to begin, over another ocean of bunkers on the left corner, then straight on till morning/the putting green. There is a
diagonal brook that crosses the fairway about 90 yards short of the green (I’ve been in it, trust me) so avoid it. The green is monstrously deep, slightly elevated, protected by sand right and the brook left. Just a gorgeous hole and the fourth great par five on the course. Seventeen is a bit better than seven in my book, but still not a great par three. It simply plays too long for its green depth. Put it at 140 yards and BOOM, we have a winner. Attempting to swing a five iron or longer in is foolishness, with deep sand front and downhill sand and fescue back. Sure, the green is quite wide, but also most shallow. You best know your number and hit it. Eighteen is a fine finishing hole. I’m not a fan of vertical hazards in fairways that deflect well-struck balls, so the specimen tree can go. Give me a centerline, seeing-eye bunker any day, or even a Principal’s Nose complex. The approach, usually with 7-iron or less, comes in over and right of a pond, so the runner is out. The green is a decent one for a finisher, flat enough that balls reflect off it and bound over. I’d like to see a little more tilt, a bit more undulation, but that’s just me.