6/9/19

Secrets in the Slopes: The Fields GC

Mike Young's unsung labor of love in rural Georgia

by

In the Internet era, there are few secrets left for golfers to discover. This is not all bad; Rob Collins, for example, has acknowledged that Sweetens Cove Golf Club in Tennessee never could have succeeded in a blogless, Twitterless world.

But the Internet also has demystified golfers’ searches for something new and undiscovered. Hidden gems are rarely, if ever, hidden anymore.

And yet, somehow, the Fields Golf Club remains nearly undiscovered.

The Fields—located in rural LaGrange, GA, a little more than an hour’s drive southwest of Atlanta—is an enigma. It combines grand scale and blind, shot-by-shot reveals. It marries individually superb holes with a deft routing. Its playing corridors are wide, and its turf is neatly kept but sometimes browned-out Bermuda, cut at fairway height from wall to wall. The Fields plays exactly like what its name suggests: a cleared field, otherwise preserved as nature created it, inviting the player to discover 18 exciting holes by sending shots over and around the bends of its hills.

A full 30 years after it opened, the Fields has remained mostly a secret. But as a public, affordable, and well-designed golf course in a part of the country where that combination is rare, the Fields’ low profile seems destined to change.

Photo credit: Jaeger Kovich

The Architect

Mike Young’s relationship with the Fields has lasted half his life, and his relationship with the course (it was his first design) has only gotten closer: first he was the architect, and now he is its owner.

After falling for golf course design in high school, Young decided he wanted to be an architect, but he didn’t want to work for one. He took a job with a Toro distributor so he could build relationships with golf course superintendents—and, just as importantly, see their golf courses.

Young was an early champion of minimalist architecture. In the mid and late 1980s, that made him a lonely voice. “I’d go in [other architects’] offices, and I’d watch this stuff—and here I am, just a smartass kid selling equipment, but I kept saying to myself, ‘There’s something that doesn’t make sense here.’”

In 1988, his big chance arrived: a local seed salesman in LaGrange wanted to develop a golf course, and Young talked him into letting him handle the job.

“So I started messing with it, and for a year I’d just sketch out holes, and finally we were ready to go,” Young said. “I got a shaper that I knew who was trying to learn how to build bunkers, and I said, ‘Let’s do this thing.’ So I started doing it in the afternoons while I was working for Toro.”

The 5th green at the Fields. Photo credit: Will Bardwell

After the course opened, the developer sold it to an unpopular owner, and the course fell on hard times. Enter Young, again. In 2012, he began operating the course on a lease and ultimately bought it outright. The Fields is now operated by the Young family. After all this time, though, it might as well be a member of the family.

The Routing

The course wasn’t originally named the Fields, but that is the perfect name for it. It looks and feels like an enormous meadow, cleared just enough to allow for wide playing corridors. The entire property is covered in short grass, interrupted only by huge tufts of tall, golden fescue to separate the holes from one another.

“It’s so funny to have so many guys say, ‘Hey, can you give us a fairway line so we can know where we can move the ball?’” Young said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘No. No, we’re not gonna give you that.’ They say, ‘But we like to roll the ball around!’ Well, the end of the fairway is where that tall grass is, dude.”

At the 5th hole, the routing’s second movement begins. After a drive from a tee box bordered on three sides by trees, the player emerges from the woods, and the course’s full scale reveals itself: a huge, rolling meadow with massive fairways, separated by large knolls and long swaths of fescue.

The view from the 5th tee at the Fields. Photo credit: Will Bardwell

On the par-5 10th, the theme shifts back to the original incremental style. After a wide open, downhill tee shot to a slope tilted precariously toward some of the course’s only water, the routing turns toward a far corner of the property and again begins hiding everything beyond the next shot. The 10th green bends behind an outcropping of trees, and the 11th tee shot travels down to a blind landing area. The 11th green remains out of view until the player climbs the hill that a successful drive must crest.

At No. 15—at 426 yards, the second-longest par-4 on the back nine—the course returns to its second theme and puts scale front and center again: a long tee shot, a long approach.

Finally, over the Fields’ last two holes, the two themes converge. Nos. 17 and 18 play up and down through broad corridors, bringing together incremental revelations and massive scale. The 18th presents a downhill tee shot followed by an uphill approach to a large green flanked on the right by Redan-style slopes. But the line from tee to green is interrupted by spectacle bunkering, reminiscent of Carnoustie’s 14th, which requires the player either to challenge the bunkers and risk a penalty or to play wide of them and accept a likely bogey. Appropriately, the 18th green sits atop one of the property’s highest points, with views of most of the course—a literal apex to match the routing’s figurative one.

The Holes

The Fields is not long—6,643 yards from the tips and 6,193 from the whites—and the lack of rough helps it play even shorter. But some of the holes accept no substitute for a big, booming drive. The 18th forces a choice between a long carry over the spectacle bunkers or a likely bogey. Similarly, the 470-yard par-4 9th demands a lengthy tee shot for any chance of a par.

Other holes at the Fields, however, begin with more complex decisions. The 383-yard 3rd plays so severely downhill that a hybrid or mid-iron is the sensible play from the tee. At the 10th, a downslope propels aggressive drives toward one of the course’s few water hazards at homicidal speed.

Tee shots are not the only decisions that require care at the Fields. The course tends to reward big drives with short approaches, but the course’s firm turf makes wedge shots nervy. (Imagine trying to crush a 60-degree wedge off an Astroturf lie.) Often the better play is to chip a short or mid-iron across the humps and bumps surrounding the greens.

Once the player arrives at the putting surface, the adventure doesn’t slow down. The greens are pure and wild. They have scalloped edges, remarkable in their detail but not dissonant with the simple setting. Putting from off the green is almost always an option, but the farther away from the hole a putt begins, the farther from the hole the correct line usually is. The Fields is neither straightforward nor malicious. This is what the land gave Young, so it’s what the course became.

“[Tom] Doak and I have talked about this: just do the routing and quit worrying about it,” Young said. “That’s what they do overseas.”

Photo credit: Jaeger Kovich

Inevitably, the Fields will draw comparisons to another architectural treasure in the rural South, Sweetens Cove. Aside from lying below the Mason-Dixon Line, though, the two courses have little in common. Sweetens is an homage to the links elements of the Old Course, while the Fields is more akin to an English heathland course. It’s less Pinehurst No. 2 and more Dormie Club—an irony, given that the Fields was built 20 years earlier. But both are pure representations of their architects’ visions. They teem with an imagination rarely seen in this part of the country.

In an era of exposure, Sweetens Cove’s deserved attention eventually came its way. Perhaps the Fields’ time in the spotlight is not far behind.


Will Bardwell is a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi. He writes about golf in the Deep South at his blog, Lying Four.

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