Appeared in July/August 1995 LINKS
The recipe is easy: Take a 500-acre abandoned coalfield, pour in about $13 million, stir the dirt with an army of bulldozers and add water. Then sit back and wait—say, about 15 years.
James D. LaRosa, a rags-to-riches coal magnate, had hopes of giving something back to the working class community in which he had fulfilled his American dream. That was back in 1979. After some 150 field visits by Pete Dye, the course was finally ready. The front nine opened in July 1993, the back nine a year later. It has proven to be a worthwhile wait.
Today, the scarred hills of north-central West Virginia are home to one of the country’s most visually striking layouts. There are forced carries over flowing brooks, paths that wend across antiquated wooden bridges, a walkway that carries golfers through an actual mine shaft, a par 5 that lines up with 1,200-foot-high smokestacks in the distance, a sluice that runs out of the side of a green and a putting surface located under an exposed 65-foot wall formed by the Pittsburgh Seam. (At more than 200 miles long, it’s the country’s largest single slab of coal.)
Most of the holes are so wide that one side of play is soft and forgiving while the other is brutal, forbidding and dangerous. Few courses present so many internal options on holes, and fewer yet where the price of a wayward stroke is so great. No matter how well or how poorly you play this remarkable golf course, you’ll have no trouble remembering every hole, every vista and every brilliant combination of imagery, color and texture.
Dye’s earlier golfscapes—Crooked Stick, Harbour Town, TPC Sawgrass and PGA West—were built over dead flat land. Imagine now such brilliant constructs built on terrain that buckles and rises, with natural waterways crisscrossing the property. The effect in terms of views alone is remarkable—all the more compelling because there’s not a blind shot or an unfair feature at his namesake course.
All of Dye’s courses start with a moderate par 4. Here, the tone is set at a 390-yard hole where the right side is miles wide—though a bold drive over a bunker complex left will leave but a very easy pitch to the green. At the 2nd hole, the demands are more severe, with a bail-out right and a long drawn tee shot across a river on the left the optimal—if more frightening—line of play.
The course is characterized by sharply etched playing surfaces, greens with delicate chipping areas and always an open entrance to the green for those who prefer the ground game. At the long par-3 4th hole, golfers can bounce the ball in or play over a pond. A thin shelf on the back left of the green will only hold a parachuted shot. A bit short and the ball takes a bath; long and it leaves a near impossible chip.
Not a moment of respite can be found on this course. At the 10th tee, golfers perch on platform tees above a river bed. The fairway is set diagonally from left to right, and the far side of the landing area is contained by a long line of coal cars sitting atop a rail bed.
If there’s such a thing as saving yourself for the last hole, Dye has done so on this course. The 453-yard 18th plays along a creek that runs the length of the left side. The fairway cants none-too-gently off a hillside from the right. A drive played to that far side of the fairway is safe enough, but a knob up ahead in the fairway blocks a view of the green. That’s okay. Just aim for the waterfall far in the distance (by the 10th green) and whale away with all you’ve got.
Small wonder golfers are making the trek. There’s no better example of how a golf course can enhance the environment. The presumption that golf holes destroy a piece of land has never been more clearly refuted. A scraped out and abandoned coalfield has quickly become one of the game’s most distinctive retreats.