When I first stepped on the 14th tee at Whispering Pines Golf Club two years ago, my local playing partners told me two possibly fictional stories.
The first had to do with the so-called “George Bush Tree,” which stands on the river bank in front of the fairway. It was named in honor of the 41st president, who allegedly once hit this pine tree three times in a row. The second story was about Jordan Spieth driving the green just days before.
Those, I gathered, were the worst- and best-case scenarios on the 14th at Whispering Pines. I proceeded to bail out to the right and make a safe par, but I immediately wanted to go back to the tee. Ultimately I would see a lot more of this hole; last summer, I caddied at the club.
A perennial candidate for the top-ranked course in Texas, Whispering Pines is a Chet Williams design in the small town of Trinity. Corbin Robertson, Jr., founded the club as part of the Spirit Golf Association, which supports various charitable causes and conducts the Spirit International Amateur every other year.
Like many holes at Whispering Pines, the 14th takes advantage of the natural forestland setting on the Trinity River and forces the golfer to contemplate options and make decisions.
The bold swales of the green complex defend the hole against birdies and reward good shots. Separated into five distinct pockets, the putting surface collects and repels the ball in a variety of ways, and accommodates several pin positions that allow the hole to play differently day to day. As a rule of thumb, the farther left the pin is, the more accuracy you need to find the correct section. This encourages you to take more risk off the tee in pursuit of a shorter approach.
The short grass and contouring in front of the green serve as a delayed penalty for an overly conservative approach. Chips from the wrong side of a ridge or hollow need to be precise. In order to avoid these wrong-sided shots, you need the nerve to send your approach deep into the green.
As you leave the green, you can take in the panoramic view of the river and the pines. The land here has impressive scale, and the famed par-3 15th awaits.
The 15th hole at Whispering Pines. Photo credit: Patrick Koenig @PatrickjKoenig
The tee shot
From the tee, the 14th fairway runs diagonally to the left, following the river bank. But it’s not just the water that dictates strategy. Two trees—the George Bush tree and a skinnier counterpart closer to the green—create two basic routes.
The conservative one is to the right of the George Bush Tree (pun intended). This play requires minimal carry over the river and provides ample room for wayward shots. As a caddie, I recommended a hybrid or a fairway wood on this line to the majority of players. The goal was to get them on dry land and put a short iron in their hands.
The aggressive option is a driver left of the George Bush Tree, over the water, to a slope in the fairway that feeds the ball toward the green. This line brings the left-hand tree into play as well as introducing the risk of a block running through the fairway to the right. There is no good miss; if you choose the bold play, you’d better execute.
Not surprisingly, the trees on the 14th hole at Whispering Pines—their placement, even their very existence—are controversial. My first time on the course, I considered them a cop-out. I thought a center-line bunker or two would have served the same strategic purpose. But after guiding many different players through the hole and sketching it over and over on my daily pin sheet, I changed my mind. The trees are uniquely effective at getting golfers to ask that simple but all-important question: which way should I go?
Many players don’t worry too much about missing it in a 30-square-foot bunker. I never hit it where I aim, they think, and go on with their business. But a tree introduces a vertical dimension. It’s not just about where the ball ends up but how it flies. As a result, the playing area affected by a tree is much larger than that affected by the square footage of a bunker. This has a real effect on players’ mentalities and decision-making processes. They now have to focus on selecting a line and a shot shape, and then they need to commit.
Perhaps Alister MacKenzie had something like this in mind when, in The Spirit of St. Andrews, he praised “groups of trees, planted irregularly” (rather than boring “straight lines” of them) as a hazard. Such trees, MacKenzie wrote, “give players many opportunities of showing their skill and judgement in slicing, pulling round, or attempting to loft over them. Some of the most spectacular shots I have ever seen have been around, over or through narrow gaps in trees.”
Much like the 12th at Prairie Dunes, the 14th hole at Whispering Pines asks us to examine the use of trees in golf course design. Can they be interesting hazards, or are they too blunt and restrictive? I think No. 14 at Whispering Pines makes an argument for the former. It presents every golfer, from nearly every tee, with an intriguing set of strategic quandaries. The George Bush Tree and its leftward counterpart disrupt the trajectories of the typical conservative and aggressive lines to the diagonal fairway. At the same time, neither tree interferes with approaches, which means they avoid becoming tedious or overly penal as hazards.
Without the trees, there would be no need to second-guess your line. The hole would lose its lore, its strategic identity, and its main defense against bomb and gougers. And it would be far less fun for caddies to watch golfers play it every day.