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The Club at Carlton Woods

Bold and challenging golf courses from two of history’s most respected architects help define one of the country’s most successful planned communities

By: Curt Sampson

Appeared in 2013 LINKS Premier Clubs

At Carlton Woods, in the lush pine forest north of Houston, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio await.

Jack and Tom are not literally hanging out in the golf shop looking for a game, but both designers have courses under Carlton Woods’ big, luxurious roof, and their names and their fame pervade so thoroughly that members feel a delicious personal connection. “Played Fazio today,” they say. “I’m playing Nicklaus tomorrow.”

This unique and uniquely beautiful club has two campuses separated by two and a half miles of live oak, loblolly, and bayou. The Club at Carlton Woods Creekside is the formal name of the Fazio, and The Club at Carlton Woods denotes the Nicklaus. “Those two architects,” says Matt Johnson, who leads real estate sales for the club, with a smile. “Pretty special.” Managing Director Bill Langley is even more succinct: “Nicklaus and Fazio—that’s who we are.”

But it’s not all they are. In a broader context, Carlton Woods is the social and residential hub for the elite of The Woodlands, one of the most successful master-planned communities in the country. Crisscrossed by tree-lined streets and dotted by five village centers containing basics such as banks and markets and restaurants, its houses tucked away and barely seen, The Woodlands has the feel of a smallish resort even though it’s a community of 100,000. Partially as a result of the unusual eye appeal, ExxonMobil is about to build a major office complex there. And you may not believe your ears when you hear Johnson refer to the “dwindling inventory and higher demand” for building lots and memberships, but it’s true. Despite the down market nationally, 37 lots sold for $15 million at Carlton Woods in 2012, double the year before.

The energy-based economy in Texas explains some of the success, while thoughtful planning at The Woodlands also deserves a share of the credit. But no one at Carlton Woods forgets those two extraordinary gentlemen with their topo maps, sketchbooks, and routing plans.

The Nicklaus course is a big, bold creation, Jack’s confident statement about how golf should be played. With the layout fresh on his mind—he walked each hole last October, then, without notes, reviewed what he saw and recommended minor changes at a cocktail party afterward—the architect talked about the maturation of the course he put into the ground in 2001. Did this design present any particular challenges?

“Carlton Woods was a relatively flat piece of property,” Nicklaus recalled. As anyone with a soggy backyard knows, flatness often means drainage problems. “A lot of the courses you see down there, the fairways are elevated way up and crash down on the trees. I think those are always ugly as can be. I think we did a pretty good job of making [the drainage] work and making the trees relevant to the fairways.”

In overall look—the placement and definition of targets and hazards, de-emphasized rough, and room off the tee—Carlton Woods echoes one of the patron saints of golf
architecture, Alister MacKenzie. Anything to this, Mr. Nicklaus?

“Do I try to do anything by anybody else? No, certainly nothing intentional. [But] Augusta National has always been one of my thought patterns. I liked what Bobby Jones and MacKenzie did there, which was the same as at St. Andrews: give ‘em some room off the tee. Try to put it in the right position to get the best angle to the hole. The tee shot is a fun shot to play.”

And it’s an exhilarating shot throughout the round at Carlton Woods/Nicklaus. Even the 18th- handicap hole, the par-three 12th, gives the golfer plenty to think about. Aim for a patch of safety left or take it right at the pin and over the water from 162 yards? The postcard-perfect 15th is a sinuous, 419-yard par four with a wide, flanking creek on the left and a long, bean-shaped green. Charge your birdie putt from above the hole and you may suffer the singular indignity of rolling your ball into the hazard and turning your potential three into a six.

The par-five finishing hole presents an opportunity to admire two other kinds of architecture: the eagle’s nest atop a tall pine to the left of the fairway; and the clubhouse, a magnificent structure and a welcome sight, for you may well want a drink or two after 18 holes of matching wits with Jack. On a walk-through on the way to play Fazio, Langley shows off the amazing men’s locker room: Picture the nave of a cathedral but with showers and better wine.

From first hole to the last, Fazio’s characteristically artistic sculpting gives Carlton Woods Creekside a been-there-forever look, an enviable accomplishment for a golf course only opened in 2005. Particularly in its variety on and around the greens, the feeling is of playing a classic from a century ago. Tom is asked the same question asked of Jack: What was the hardest part of the design and construction?

“It doesn’t sound good to say, but we had no particular challenges,” the architect says. “The site had tree cover, sandy soil, a wonderful land plan, adequate width to create great holes, and the vegetation is so good. What else do you want?

“Yes, the ground is important, but ground you can fix. The biggest reason it’s special is not the terrain, it’s not Tom Fazio, it’s the commitment from the people at Carlton Woods.”

Langley talks about two aspects of this commitment while walking on Creekside’s zoysia fairways and roughs, a turf so springy it feels rubberized. To add to the golfer’s sense of ease and the feeling of privacy for homeowners, houses adjacent to the course are almost invisible, obscured by very deep setbacks and the thick native mix of trees and bushes. Then Langley explains a second bit of the Carlton Woods dedication to excellence.

“We decided early on that to be true to traditions we value, we would help foster amateur golf,” he says. “Clubs with storied reputations like Olympic and Baltusrol find a way to give back to the game by hosting important events, so we have, too. Shutting down one of our courses for a week of outside competition is problematic, but our members have embraced it.”

The USGA and the Texas Golf Association have held qualifiers and tournaments on the two Carlton Woods courses. For the past five years, a junior major—the AJGA’s HP Boys’ Championship—has been held on the Fazio course. In 2013, the club will host the 106th Southern Amateur Championship. The 2014 USGA Boys’ Junior will be contested on the Nicklaus.

The 18th at Creekside is a lovely dogleg-right par four that is not especially representative of the course since water must be carried on the second shot (Fazio doesn’t like forced carries and does not do signature holes). Hats off and handshakes, and the general manager is asked, with designs by two of history’s best golf architects at the tops of their games, which one gets the most play? Turns out the members can’t decide.

“When you have two courses, you hope for an even split in rounds played,” says Langley with a smile. “We’re pretty much dead on 50–50.”                

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