Mystic Dunes Golf Club at The Palms

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

KISSIMMEE, FL - The term "MacKenzie Green" indicates a putting surface of severe, even surreal undulation, historically used in a derogatory manner. It's a reference to the type of greens that Alister MacKenzie was renowned for building throughout his incomparable career as a golf course architect up to his death in 1934. His large, rippled greens typically contained many befuddling pinable sections, often with segments that rose higher than a man's head.

Old photographs of these greens, such as those in his book Spirit of St. Andrewsof Moortown and Sitwell Park in England, show surfaces with movements nearly beyond expression. You have to see them to believe it.

Purists often lament the scarcity not only of original MacKenzie greens (most have been rebuilt over the years and are now scaled down, tamer versions of the originals, even at Augusta National), but of MacKenzie-esque contour in modern greens in general. Though big undulation made a dubious comeback in the 1980's, most high-movement greens from this period were simply over-the-top gimmicks that appeared linear and artificial compared to the massive, naturalistic contours of MacKenzie's. In general, purists insist, golf course architecture still sorely lacks greens of real excitement.

They should make arrangements to play at Mystic Dunes, a new public facility in Kissimmee, Florida, which opened in July of 2001. They'd like what they see here.

Nearly every green complex at Mystic Dunes is notable, for either its extreme contour or for the dramatic yet supple shaping surrounding them. The greens seem sculpted, as if carved deeply from blocks of marble, their graceful curves set down to decorate the ends of the holes. To envision them, one needs to think in three dimensions, in elevations.

Some of them are as undulating and profound as greens can be, containing rises and swales that differ as much as five feet. Despite the enormous breaks they remain harmonious and attractive, some of the sexiest greens anywhere.

The architect of record at Mystic Dunes is Gary Koch, as in Gary Koch Golf, Inc., former PGA Tour player, and television analyst. Koch's design résumé isn't deep (he's done a number of courses throughout the south, many in conjunction with architect Rick Robbins), but if he continues to draw greens like he has at Mystic Dunes, a cult following awaits. They are perhaps the closest examples of the old "MacKenzie Greens" as Florida now has to offer.

So is Gary Koch the next Alister MacKenzie?

The author will attempt to refrain from losing all credibility, but it must be said that Koch has achieved something special here, with his green complexes particularly, but also in the course in its entirety.

Mystic Dunes is routed over a piece of land that is still fairly rural considering its location just two miles south of Disney's Magic Kingdom. It's part of The Palms Resort, a new timeshare development that is beginning to fill out the property surrounding the course.

Though there is nothing spectacular about the property itself. The site offers a good deal of local movement and the routing takes advantage of what elevations are there. There is an admirable diversity among the holes and several have minor uphill, downhill, and sidehill grades. While most of the property is sandy and exposed, the second nine detours through a portion of wetlands and existing trees, thereby changing the complexion of the course at the turn.

Koch has given players quite a bit of room to maneuver the drive, a nice option considering the variant pin placements made available to the grounds crew. The most significant hazards to the drive come in the form of simple but thoughtful cross-bunkers and the setting up of diagonal lines of attack over waste areas and wetlands.

At only 7,012 yards, Mystic Dunes is not brutish, but due to the hole configuration and a par of 71, it plays as long as 7,012 can. The par fours are aligned as defensive strings, with an early succession of four in a row (three through six), followed by another group of five (nine through thirteen). From the tips, three of these measure 485 yards or longer, and five are 380 yards or less. The 496-yard 5th and the 508-yard 11th are so excessive in their yardage that they basically defy par (the par five 510-yard 15th is only two yards longer than the 11th), but also serve as indicators of where hole-design might be heading in the age of unchecked equipment advances.

Tee-to-green Mystic Dunes is stylish blend of classic strategic forms and thoroughly modern methods, but it is its greens that will make this course notable beyond whatever provincial reputation it develops.

They are designed in three basic categories: those that are dramatically tiered; those that are flatter, exposed and crowned; and those that have a multiplicity of large, internal breaks. These are general distinctions as many greens feature a combination of two or all three types.

Koch should receive the most credit for a handful of these tiered greens. Designing greens with sections on different levels is certainly nothing new, but at Mystic Dunes, this age-old concept is exercised to post-modern extremes.

The green at the 2nd, a 177-yard par three with water short and left (and an ill-fitting waterfall behind), slopes three to four feet down toward the water with a number of steps and perpendicular ridges on the way. A front left pin is the most dramatic, especially if the ball is above it, while the back left is the most difficult to reach. Balls struck safely to the middle of the green leave difficult two-putts of extreme uphill or downhill break.

The coup de grâce for designing a multi-level green goes to Koch for his 15th green, a phenomenal cantilever at the tail end of this bending 510-yard par five. The front segment of the green, level with the fairway, runs a mere nine paces before it drops, literally, the better part of five feet to a large, lower back section. Only those over six feet tall will be able to see the cup while standing on the lower level. A putt from the back section up the vertical slope to a front pin requires faith and strength (the author five putted from here, with the first four coming up just short of the upper section before rolling back under foot). It's difficult to make oneself strike a putt firm enough to ascend such a rise. Of course, putts down the hill are just as interesting.

This green will certainly draw the ire of many, but it took real cojones for Koch to build it. With the 15th he has virtually exhausted the medium of tiered greens. Where can they go from here?

Other greens are not as brazen but equally brilliant, including the fascinating 1st and the simply incredible 6th.

The ferocity of break at the starting hole, a 350-yard par four, is vividly evident from the fairway. With its striking undulation and daunting, shadowed ascendance toward the back left section, everything the player needs to know about these greens is presented here in full audacity. The royal pin placement is on the upper left flat, but below it two swales traverse a gully at a 90° angle, and two more rolled ridges run side-to-side through the center and another at the front, with minor bumps and knobs residing in between.

Just as mesmerizing is the green complex of the 6th, defined by a singular, massive hump presiding over the back center of the putting surface. The green as a whole resembles a molten flapjack slipping off the back of a spoon, with the right portion of the green several feel lower than the hump and the left portion. It sits tenuously in liquid motion amongst a vast shaved slope of grass that falls away in the front and places a premium on the ability to chip the ball. A small, flat segment the size of a motel bathroom resides at the upper back left corner of the green - would they ever put the pin there? What nerve!

Some greens come in curvy forms, including a handful of bald, crowned greens that lack bunkers or any other defense, save for their tricky contours (3, 5, 7, 12, 13, 14 are examples of this type). Each has extended, shaved chipping areas that collect balls that roll off their rounded edges.

Others, such as the 4th, 8th, and 18th feature significant tilt and contrasting internal contours that plunge balls into deep areas carved out beneath the greens. These chipping bins can be as much as 10 or 12 feet below the putting surface.

In the early part of the century, MacKenzie and his fellow architects could routinely construct wild yet playable greens because the turf technology was relatively primitive. The greens were cut to only ¼" to ½", about the height of today's fairways, and rolled in the neighborhood of 5 or 6 on the stimpmeter.

The greens at Mystic Dunes will not be cut as low as those at many competing courses because of their undulation (if they were some would simply be unfair). The author was told they were running at 8 the day he played, but they seemed slower than that and likely were closer to 6 or 7, a speed which requires significant putting adjustment.

Mystic Dunes is due to receive a healthy dose of publicity over the next year as word about this course reaches the sport's print publications. All of the positive recognition is deserved. Mystic Dunes features aspects of golf architecture - some basic, some extreme - that have been underutilized in the mainstream for far too long. Hopefully this course influences other architects, particularly in Florida, to create greens of comparable interest. It isn't necessary to have the most original or blessed site to work on if the architect employs the same vision in his or her greens as Koch has here.

Switching the two nines is something the brass at Mystic Dunes may want to consider, for two reasons. The current ninth hole, a formidable 485-yard par four, runs up to the step of the new clubhouse and seems a logical and monumental finishing hole. Conversely the current 18th, though a terrific hole, is located some distance from the clubhouse in a rather pedestrian setting completely away from the core of the course.

Secondly, the first nine is more open and contains a greater diversity of holes. The second nine, as it stands now, comes in through the lower wetland region of the property and is a solid collection, but not very unique compared to the rolling first nine. The current first nine would make a greater impression were it encountered as the climax. Both sides finish with a par three, four, and five, albeit in different orders, so flipping nines would not miss that ending.

One final note: it might be best to play Mystic Dunes over the next twelve months. Regrettably, the course will eventually be surrounded by time-share condos and much of its open, natural aura will be lost. If only it could continue to exist in its current state where the construction occurs in only a few unobtrusive areas, Mystic Dunes might be one of the top ten courses in the state.

Mystic Dunes Golf Club at The Palms

7900 Palms Parkway
Kissimmee, FL 34747

Mystic Dunes is located at the Palms Resort, 1.2 miles south of Highway 192 on County Road 545, just south of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom entrance.

Rates through the end of 2001 are as follows: October-December 15, non-Florida resident, $85, Florida resident, $67. After December 15 rates rise to $119 and $94 respectively. Twilight rates are available. Carts are included.

Mystic Dunes' walking policy is currently undecided. The course is routed smoothly with the exception of the holes near the clubhouse and driving range, which are distanced from each other. Otherwise this is a very walkable course.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, 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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