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Steve Smyers works wonders at Grande Pines

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

(Note: The author toured Grande Pines with the architect in mid-Decemberprior to its January 2004 opening.)

ORLANDO, Fla. - Will somebody please give Steve Smyers a good piece of land to work with?

Even though he's clearly established himself among the profession's elite,Smyers is found, year after year, working on properties that most otherA-list architects wouldn't touch with a stick. While his peers arerepeatedly given mouthwatering locales, the typical Smyers site is flat,constricted, and frequently just plain awful.

The hex was almost broken last year when he was a finalist for the thirdcourse at Bandon Dunes, arguably the commission of the year and a site thatwould seem perfectly suited for his talents. In the end, however, Bill Cooreand Ben Crenshaw got the job, something even Smyers has difficultybegrudging. "I cannot understand how Bill Coore is not the greatest of alltime," he says, "except he builds [his courses] too short for the modern dayplayer. But the sites he gets and the golf courses he builds are better thananybody who's ever lived, and people don't give him the recognition for it."

Even without sites like Bandon - or more accurately, sites that are usuallythe antithesis of Bandon - Smyers continually produces intellectual,classically reverential designs that also have the guts to challenge thebest players.

His most recent straw-spinning is the redesign of the beleagueredInternational Golf Club on International Drive in Orlando, a Marriott ownedand operated property now called Grande Pines and opened for play in January2004.

Though popular, the beleaguered 1986 Joe Lee course was built on a terriblesite, plagued by poor drainage and, in places, poor soil. Furthermore Smyerswas forced to confine his redesign to the existing playing corridors, hemmedin by condominiums and wetlands (an early plan had the course routedbackwards but this idea was scratched due to liability concerns).

After amending the surface/subsurface issues and clearing away much of thevegetation that suffocated the holes, Smyers took to lengthening the course(to 7,000 yards) and extensively reshaping and repositioning the greensites. The once ordinary, low profile greens are now elevated or "popped up," as the architect describes them, and extraordinary for both their intricacies and bold appearance.

The degree of greenside shaping was novel for the architect but the effectsare striking. The contrast in elevation between putting surfaces and thesurrounding hollows creates a vivid visual outline, something likechiaroscuro in painting or how shadows and light create depth offield in photography.

The bunkering - deep, grassed faced hazards set well below the puttingsurface - is also a departure from the flashed mode most commonly associatewith Smyers. It's a style he calls a cross between Seth Raynor and Pete Dye.

As Smyers walks the intensely molded putting surfaces, notably the 660-yardpar-5 second, the drivable third, the par-5 fifth, and the par-4 ninth, heillustrates with gestures how each contour might influence a high, low, orspinning shot, how a long or short iron from different places in the fairwaywill react at various pin placements, or how players can exercise choice intheir approaches. It's an impressive demonstration of how thoroughlyconceptualized the Grande Pines design is.

"Part of our deal is for the golfer to be able to read the ground," he says."If you read the ground, you have all these contours within the puttingsurface [that] you can work your ball off and feed it to a hole location.Conversely, if you don't work your ball and you're on the other side of thecontour, then you're fighting."

The complete relevance of every shape and ground contour, and the knowledgeof how it pertains to shotmaking, is something that separates Smyers fromcontemporaries more preoccupied with how a golf course looks (a luxury, ifyou've got a great site). It occurs off the greens as well.

Players trying to reach the par-5 11th in two will find a mound to the left of the green that will redirect shots onto the button-hooked green and a putting surface that falls heavily toward water on the right. At least seven more holes afford the chance to bounce the ball to the green if certain ground features are utilized.

"On every one of our fairways there are subtle contours, but they are contours that the accomplished player will work his ball one way or another off of to gain an advantage." A drive at the par-5 16th that challenges the right-side fairways bunkers, for instance, will propel forward whereas those played meekly to the left will roll sideways, away from the target (bringing to mind many of the driving nuances at Royal Melbourne).

For the player able to "read" its complexities, Grande Pines is an endlessly rewarding golf course. For those who can't, or don't, the shaping isnevertheless memorable for its quirkiness, if you want to call it that.

When asked about the presence of knob-like features found on many of the greens (also noticeable at many of his other designs - one on the fourth green at Southern Dunes comes immediately to mind), Smyers says, "That's mylove of Pine Valley. Pine Valley's got these knobs all over the greens. They set the hole locations right around the edges of them, and if you're not on the right side of that knob, you're [in trouble]."

It doesn't stop with knobs. The front half of the 196-yard 17th green, for instance, is a wide, un-pinnable ramp that slides down into a low chipping area. The wide shallow back section - the actual putting surface - is shaped nearly like a skateboard half pipe (or in classical terms, a mini punch bowl) and sloped left to right.

The green at the long par-4 13th is elevated and contains five or six distinct sections including what looks like a rear upstairs bedroom. And the18th, well, where to start? The horseshoe shaped putting surface, with a bunker in the apse, is a cacophony of slope, swale, and ridge, with a false front to boot. Looking at it Smyers shrugs and shakes his head. "I don't know," he says. "I'll probably get criticized for it, but who knows? In 75years it might be considered a classic."

The same could be said for much of his work. In addition to Grande Pines,Smyers also spent the last year renovating Isles worth Country Club in Windermere (it re-opened for members in December 2003) and will soon begin work on three new projects in Central Florida: two near Lakeland and one inthe sandy hills northwest of Orlando (with input from Nick Faldo). Are these sites any better that usual? Doubtful.

"If I look at my career," he says with a laugh, "I've probably been blessed with more bad sites and more bad settings than anybody in architecture."

Maybe it doesn't really matter anymore.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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