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Rock solid: America's best quarry courses

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

PINEHURST, N.C. - Sometimes a bad name is a good thing. That had to be the reasoning behind the The Pit Golf Links here in the rolling Sandhills of the Tar Heel State. Any publicity is good publicity, right? Turns out The Pit is one heck of a golf track, derogatory moniker aside. The Dan Maples designed course is eminently challenging, invariably intriguing and most importantly to this story - it is built in (you guessed it), a pit.

Well, not exactly a pit. More like a quarry. And hey, properly naming a golf course in a ditch is not an easy thing to do. Then again, designing and building a golf course in a ditch is not an easy thing to do. Yet there are enough "quarry courses" sprinkled throughout this country's golf landscape to fill up a, er, quarry.

Perhaps quarry courses are America's dysfunctional yet dramatic contribution to golf's architectural cannon. The Scots and Irish have their links, the English have their heathland, and we yanks have our also-ran gravel pits. But if you've had the pleasure of playing one of these rocky renditions, you know it's an architectural styling with plenty of promise.

"They are unique sites with unusual lines that provide a lot of contrast," says Clyde Johnston, president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. "Most designers would jump at the chance to do one."

Jump at the chance to have a routing dictated by rock formations? Jump at the chance to inform an unsuspecting superintendent his job hinges on whether or not he can grow grass on granite?

"Sure," Johnston adds, "It could be a once in a lifetime opportunity. All of us get to build courses on average sites."

While Johnston hasn't designed a quarry course, he has visited a few and sees the challenges and opportunities that would come with the assignment.

"You have to convince the client it isn't going to be your typical course," Johnston says. "It may cost a lot more money to design. Then again, the client probably got the land cheaply because it is all used up."

The land may be all used up, but what it was used for actually varies by quarry. The Pit was built in an old sand mine that supplied the sand for the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1935. The back nine at the Quarry Golf Club in San Antonio is routed through a former rock quarry used to make cement (the old cement plant, in plain view of the course, is now a mall).

The Quarry nine at the Bay Harbor Golf Club in Petosky, Mich. snakes around an old shale quarry. The Pete Dye Golf Club in Harrison County W. Va is situated in a reclaimed coal mine. And Oak Quarry in Riverside, Calif. is a hidden gem - literally. The Brian Curley, Lee Schmidt design is snuggled amid the remains of a marble and limestone quarry.

"It was a property that was rendered useless," Curley says. "Landmark took a look at it because they could get it cheap. They didn't think we could put a golf course on it because it was too severe."

How severe? Curley says only one small stretch of the site - just big enough for a par-3 - jumped out at him as developable.

"My first take when I saw the site was I needed to build this one great golf hole, number 14 and connect it to 17 decent golf holes," he says.

That is, until he and his design team uncovered a pleasant surprise.

"They (the original owners) had actually scrapped off the first layer and set it aside," Curley says. "The wild thing was, when I found out it was all good material, that solved our grass growing problem. We trucked it up, formed the golf holes with it and then formed holes where the dirt had been."

Like Johnston, Curley says the primary upside to building quarry courses is the cost of the dirt. Quarry property can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of developable land. Some cities and counties will even give developers considerable tax and infrastructure breaks because the quarry is deemed a hazardous and undesirable land use.

"These are the type of sites where you can have trash blowing around and vagrants hanging out," Curley says. "Having a golf course on them is a desirable use of the land and a tax base."

Curley says there are some benefits for the architects as well.

"You have a chance to hit a home run because it is so dramatic and different," he says.

Indeed, Texas-based architect Jeff Brauer is circling the bases after the opening of the Quarry at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, Minn. The starkly beautiful course, which makes its way in and around a former sand quarry, is being hailed as one of 2004's best new tracks. Brauer recently told TravelGolf.com that the course's blend of trees and knobby hills reminds him of The Pit.

"The quarry is expansive with about 210 acres, but you have trees and sections of the quarry where you don't see other holes," Brauer told TravelGolf.com. "The first course at Giants Ridge was a north woods style with lakes. We wanted the second course to be entirely different."

After all, different is what quarry courses should be about. Yet when Tom Fazio designed the Quarry Course at Black Diamond Ranch in Lecanto, Fla. back in 1987, some proponents of traditional design figured the Hendersonville, N.C. based architect had gone mad. However, the Quarry Course was quickly recognized by national golf publications as a cutting edge development in golf course design.

Even Fazio admits he didn't have it all figured out at the time.

"When we started at Black Diamond, we had no idea how the five holes in the quarry would turn out," says Fazio in his book, Golf Course Designs. "They 'evolved' as we were building them and were incorporated into the routing plan."

With more and more architects dabbling in the craft, the future of quarry courses would appear to be rock solid.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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