Pine Barrens at World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville: Tom Fazio at his majestic best
BROOKSVILLE, Fla. -- The Pine Barrens course at World Woods Golf Club is generally considered among the three or four best golf courses in Florida after Seminole. Some of Tom Fazio's best work is on display here, perhaps his very best.
Saying this is both complimentary and curious because Pine Barrens is quite unlike the vast body of his work and may represent his most extreme design. The course is aggressive and in places brilliant, certainly the work of a master architect, but its very excellence gives fuel to the anti-Fazio camp that criticizes him for too often placing emphasis on aesthetics rather than strategy. Pine Barrens is proof that Fazio can create compelling, important courses as well as anyone in the business today, so why doesn't he do it more often?
What is immediately striking about Pine Barrens is its scale. The course is majestic, grand, theatrical in a way that belittles nearly every other course in the state. It seems so copious, so big. Each hole appears as a prime entity, an individualistic composition of parts wrested from the privacy of the site's trees, sand and quiet abundance. An entertaining slide show could be made of Pine Barrens hole-by-hole, a train of blended images depicting Fazio's very real ability to combine beauty with elements of strategy that are an anomaly in the context of his recent portfolio.
Part of Pine Barrens' magnetism is its contradiction between the naturalness of the setting and an overwhelming impression of disturbance. Staring over the course it seems that the subterranean earth has suddenly collapsed beneath it. The land appears to have fallen suddenly away from the solid limestone chassis of greens and fairways, tearing at the seams to reveal cavernous scars of soil and waste. These depressed, jagged-edged netherworlds hang tensely to the course by roots and vegetative threads. If there is a constant at Pine Barrens it is this, the sand, the raw, tumbling swaths of sunken terra. The waste areas give the course a rugged, forbidding look, like this was a land gouged by god-like claws, a course built in anger.
It's been written in more than one place that Pine Barrens is the Pine Valley of the South but such a comparison only stereotypes the latter and regionalizes the former. Pine Barrens may harbor some traits similar to the vaunted course from Clementon, but so do hundreds of other courses in the world. This one is strong enough to stand on it's own without gravy training off the popularity of another.
Pine Barrens plays to a par of 71 and a modest 6,902 yards from the tournament tees, topping out at "only" a 73.1 rating and 140 slope. While not long overall, there is plenty of length within the layout. Nine of the eleven par fours measure over 400 yards and five stretch over 424 yards. All three par fives are potentially reachable for long hitters and the fourth and 14th are all the more appetizing because of split fairways and alternate routes that reward the risk-taker.
Three of the four par threes are 191 yards or longer. Thus, even though there are a few short holes, Pine Barrens can play long and punishing.
The fourth and 15th holes are among the most popular holes in Florida and stand out as two of the better strategic holes built anywhere in the last 60 years. These well-documented holes both offer choices off the tee that, depending on the decision, change the entire dynamic of the hole
Photographs cannot do justice to the fourth, a monumental 494-yard par five. Dozens of pictures of the hole can be viewed beforehand (it's one of the more photographed holes in the state), but no image can match the full-fledged scope and grandeur of this hole until it is beheld in three dimensions. A famous and hellacious waste area dominates the right side all the way to the green. The fall-off into it is so steep that ladders are provided in places. The hole appears rugged and mythic, uneven and bewildering. There is fairway to the left, but the eye is drawn resolutely toward the chasm on the right, either from fear or fascination.
To take advantage of this reachable par five, this pit, and nerves, must be challenged. The carry directly across it is between 185 and 240 yards. When covered, the second must also bravely clear a portion of it that flares up violently at the green, because there is no sense in gambling with the drive only to play conservatively with the second. Man or mouse, the hole asks at the tee.
The vivid contrast between safety and hazard, the depth of field, strategic options, and mental intimidation combine to make this an idealized golf hole. The same arousing elements are in play at 15, a short par four that lacks nothing. It borders the fourth, residing in an interior sandy bowl ringed by trees . The green is located just across a water- and sand-filled crater on the right, beckoning from the tee, setting up almost like a par three. The primary fairway swings far out to the left and curls around a series of bunkers and waste areas short and to the left of the green, but another tongue of fairway is extended short of the green on the dangerous direct line.
The greatness of this hole is that it gives everyone an option, low or high handicapper. The 15th is only 330 yards from the tips and the carry over the hazard is between 175 and 230 yards. Though the safe play is to the left, this route leaves a blind, awkward pitch from a poor angle. The hole is quite unconventional but spectacular, both in the setting and the set-up. Not enough holes like this exist in modern golf course architecture, and certainly not enough from Fazio, given this example.
The 15th is one in a sequence of strong holes that begins with the 12th, a brutish par four that plays to alternate greens (the right green being the more difficult and making the better hole), and ends with the marvelous par three 16th which plays over an embankment on the left to a green perched precariously at an angle on the side of a hill. In between are the cut-off-as-much-as-you-dare drive at the par four 13th, and the amusement park of features at the 547-yard 14th. Fazio and crew threw in everything but the kitchen sink on this rather imbalanced hole, and capped it off with the most undulating green of the round.
It is notable that although the fourth and 15th are highly intellectual, Pine Barrens throughout is only mildly strategic. The plethora of dramatic hazards affect play in mostly conventional ways and are obvious, and many of the holes play quite traditionally.
The greatness of Pine Barrens is its visual potency and grand aesthetics combined with moments of pure strategic engagement that occur too infrequently. This is a course that may mentally overwhelm high-handicappers while proving to be too supple a challenge for the long and strong player. Compared to the great strategic courses of the world, Pine Barrens lacks subtlety and the constant pressure of risk and reward, but it certainly rivals anything else in the Deep South.
The world of golf has endorsed Pine Barrens at the highest levels. It weighs in at #97 on Golf Digest's current list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses, after debuting at #75 on the 1999 list. The same publication ranks it the fifth best course in Florida, down from fourth two years ago (behind Seminole, TPC Sawgrass, Fazio's own Black Diamond, and Jupiter Hills). Golf Magazine rates it as the #45 best course in the U.S. (down from #38), #68 in the world, and #9 on its Top 100 Courses You Can Play list. Finally, Golfweek rates Pine Barrens the ninth best modern course in America (course's built post-1960).