By Al Lunsford
In early October, 50-some-odd members of private club TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth, Ga., followed along a ceremonial nine-hole loop featuring a foursome of course designer Greg Norman, two national media members, and one club member whose birthday wish came early when he won a raffle to tag along.
Almost unfathomably, I found myself on the first tee with The Shark as one of those media members playing the newly renovated Stables course, one of three nine-hole tracks at the club about 30 miles north of downtown Atlanta.
The round represented the completion of a multi-year enhancement project that saw work done on all 27 holes of the property, site of the Mitsubishi Electric Classic on the PGA Tour Champions and the AT&T Classic on the PGA Tour from 1997–2008. Norman designed all three courses as his first project in the United States and noted that after a little over 25 years, “It was time.”
Admittedly, it took a few holes to settle the nerves of teeing it up with a World Golf Hall-of-Famer and a gallery of onlookers. But Norman could not have been more kind and engaged during the round on what is likely his favorite of the three routes. He gave us lines, read our putts, and offered up a few anecdotes all while effortlessly maintaining an even par score.
Several times, Norman mentioned the influence of Royal Melbourne on his Sugarloaf design. Particularly, he expanded on his favorite green complex at the par-four 7th noting its use of the original topography and how it forces you to “really play the golf hole backwards.” It was there that he chuckled at my effort to shape an approach at the back right pin, only to lose my ball down the slope behind it, saying, “That’s exactly why I designed it that way, so that you would try that shot.”
My favorite moment of the day came one hole before on the par-five 6th, which Norman called one of his most revered. Sugarloaf’s large greens have been segmented in quadrants, which make putts extra challenging if you end up in the wrong one. Seeing Norman play up a big swell instead of going toward the hole made me want to give it a try, and he pointed to exactly where I should let the ball fall down toward the cup—my second try ended up under a foot.
The club’s updates include resurfaced greens (TifEagle bermuda), tees/fairways (Zeon Zoysia), rebuilt bunkers, a state-of-the-art irrigation system, and new and resurfaced cart paths. The new playing surfaces also called for the removal of several trees from the property to allow for more sunlight to shine through.
The most noticeable change is the bunkers, as I found while playing the Pines and Meadows courses the day before. The property saw close to a 30 percent reduction in total bunkers, and the remaining were completely rebuilt with a revetted face at least a foot in height. The general reaction to this change among the membership has been positive, although some noted it made fairway bunker shots more burdensome.
The most trees were removed from Pines, the more closed-off of the three layouts—that resulted in some impressive sightlines from various vantage points, the best of which comes on the top of the 5th tee box looking back over the par-three 4th and par-five 3rd. Pines was my favorite of the nines and Head Professional John Barrett told me he’s heard a similar tune from many of the members following the renovations.
Speaking of sightlines—something occurred to me as I searched for a ball-washer a few holes into my initial round. You won’t find any of those at Sugarloaf, or above-ground trash cans, either. Barrett explained the club’s desire to have no unnecessary distractions to a players’ view of their vintage Georgia surroundings. Thus, the waste receptacles have been cleverly installed in the ground, hidden in plain sight.
Meadows, traditionally the back nine for the Mitsubishi Electric Classic, is the widest open of the tracks. The best place for a picture or video is the par-three 2nd, which plays over water to an isolated green flanked behind by a natural rock face. You may recall that’s where Tiger Woods made a miraculous up-and-down from on top of said rock en route to his seventh career PGA Tour victory.
The par-five 9th on Meadows (tournament 18th) is a finisher built for drama. It’s easily reachable for the pros and guarded by a lake leading up to the green for the last 100 yards or so, where bleachers are located to give the final hole a true stadium feel (the club believes they were the first to incorporate this in a tournament setting).
In short, Norman has maintained and upgraded the charm of his Georgia gem. And for anyone who may be wondering—at 64, he’s still got the game to conquer it.