Because it sometimes seems as though TPC golf courses are popping up on a monthly basis, it would be understandable to pass off TPC Sugarloaf course as just another link in the PGA Tour’s fast-growing network of courses. Yet the Duluth, Georgia, development has become one of the jewels of the TPC family, and its Greg Norman design is one of the finest examples of golf architecture to come along in years.
The players at the AT&T Classics at Sugarloaf have had nothing but enthusiastic comments for Norman’s creation. And the winners have included some of the biggest names in the game: Tiger Woods, David Duval, Retief Goosen, Phil Mickelson.
To say Norman took the work at Sugarloaf seriously is an understatement. Sugarloaf was his chance to shine in the U.S., and he took full advantage of the opportunity. During the early stages of Sugarloaf, Norman joined forces with former Pete Dye assistant Jason McCoy, and it is the architecture and detail work by Great White Shark Design that places Sugarloaf into the upper realm of American golf clubs. Norman made 22 site visits, and these weren’t merely arm-waving photograph sessions. He and McCoy clearly devoted much of their time to creating strategically sound holes that present numerous playing options.
After the sound but difficult par-4 opener through a wide clearing of towering pines, the second is a 144-yard par 3 to a green fronted by a deep, flowing edged sod-wall bunker. The next three holes are routed beautifully over hilly terrain where an attractive but annoying creek comes into play. The 6th is a straightforward three-shot par 5, while the long two-shot 7th presents all sorts of interesting tee shot options and a bunkerless, crowned green.
Although the front nine is more scenic, Norman’s best design ideas were left for the back nine, where thinking is paramount for getting into the clubhouse with a decent score. The first of these is the 310-yard 13th. With trees lining the left and bunkers closely guarding the right, it looks like a fairly generic drive and pitch par 4. But on closer inspection the 13th is one of the most interesting short holes to come along in years.
For the member, the best play is a lay-up shot barely avoiding fairway bunkers on the right, leaving a view to a medium-sized green that slopes gently away from the fairway. The bold player feels secure in trying to nestle a drive up through a small opening to the green, because short and left of the putting surface is a collection area where an overdrawn ball will find a lie on the tight bermuda fairway. But the collection area is well below the green and requires an awkward pitch over the deep bunker to an unreceptive putting surface. The 13th challenges golfers to pull off their very best, and the nature of the green and options make it a most original short par 4.
Another change in the final design stage with the tournament in mind came on the home hole. Originally slated as a difficult par 4, with a fun pitch-shot 19th hole planned for the current greensite, Norman opted to create a do-or-die par 5 with a forced-carry second shot over water. The landing area is 75 feet above the green, leaving a terrifying second shot for those opting to go for the green.
Despite the construction required to create such an exciting finish, the 18th has a perfect balance of risk and reward, and it looks remarkably natural. Actually, everything about TPC Sugarloaf was created to fit the existing terrain, giving it the feel of a club that has been, and will continue to be, an important landmark in American golf.