For five years, PGA Tour professional Zac Blair has been the captain of a golf club without a golf course. Under his Buck Club brand, Blair has held events and sold merchandise while grappling with the complicated, expensive task of giving his society a physical home. Last summer, he purchased a sandy site in Aiken, South Carolina, now known as The Tree Farm. Recently he hired two golf architects for two different parts of the design process: Tom Doak for routing and Kye Goalby for construction.
Doak—the designer of Pacific Dunes, Ballyneal, and Tara Iti—is one of the best known architects in the golf industry. Goalby has less name recognition but a deep résumé as a construction specialist; he has worked with Doak, Gil Hanse, Dan Hixson, and Brian Silva on new builds as well as restorations and renovations.
“Kye has built some of the best courses in the whole world with Tom and other people,” Blair said on a new episode of The Fried Egg Podcast. “He’s going to have a really, really good group of guys helping him out with that. And having arguably the best router in the world throw together this routing has been really fun to be a part of, too.”
Before seeking Doak’s advice, Blair himself completed a routing concept for The Tree Farm, but he had some doubts. “I knew that that was the one thing you can’t screw up,” he said. “If you screw up a green or a fairway bunker, you can fix that down the road. But if you screw up the routing, you’re kind of stuck with what’s there.”
Now, after watching Doak piece together holes on the Aiken property, Blair is glad he reached out for help. “It’s been really cool to see [Doak] work that process and learn from him. And yeah, his routing is a lot better than mine.”
Tom Doak and Zac Blair's master plan for The Tree Farm (as the map indicates, the property was previously owned by the Merry Land Timber Company)
Last week, Blair began circulating a membership deck for The Tree Farm. He envisions it as a destination golf club with an 18-hole course, dining, and lodging. It will be supported by a core group of founding members as well as a “couple hundred” far-flung national members. “We’re doing it pretty old-school,” he said, “going and finding a bunch of people that love this project and love golf like I do.”
While The Tree Farm will be private, Blair wants anyone to be able to play it—at least once. He has not settled on a particular system for public access, but he is considering holding lotteries, offering one-time experiences to letter writers, and opening the tee sheet on Masters week. “There are definitely ways that people will be able to come play this place,” he said. “I think that’s very important.”
If member recruitment goes well, Goalby’s crew will start clearing corridors on the heavily treed property in late summer or early fall this year. Shaping will begin in the winter and proceed through the spring or summer of 2022. Ultimately, Blair is shooting for preview play in early 2023 and a grand opening in the fall of ’23.
Zac Blair and friends scouting the Tree Farm property in South Carolina
The long and winding road
During the well-publicized early stages of the Tree Farm project, Blair worked with architects Tad King and Rob Collins, the duo behind the acclaimed Sweetens Cove Golf Club in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. In October last year, Blair and King-Collins parted ways. They broke the news, in true 21st-century fashion, by posting Notes app screenshots on Twitter:
— King-Collins Golf (@KingCollinsGolf) October 31, 2020
— Zac Blair (@z_blair) November 1, 2020
Before Blair bought The Tree Farm, he and King-Collins had planned to collaborate on a flagship Buck Club design in Utah. That project, however, is on indefinite hold. Blair cites the cost of the property, the remoteness of the location, the brevity of the warm season, and the lack of a deeply ingrained destination-club culture in the Mountain West as inhibiting factors.
As the Utah Buck Club stalled, King-Collins got busy elsewhere, taking on builds in Nebraska, Mississippi, and Upstate New York. “They’re popular and in demand right now,” Blair said. “They had a bunch of stuff on their plate. It was just a situation where the timing wasn’t really working out.”
Meanwhile, even without an architect on board, The Tree Farm gained momentum late last year. A 30-minute drive from Augusta National, Aiken is a golf-rich town, already boasting an outstanding public-private twosome in Aiken GC and Palmetto GC. With The Tree Farm, Blair has discovered an appetite for yet more golf in the area. Even his fellow PGA Tour pros, many of whom are based in the Southeast, have started to take an interest. “As soon as the project moved to South Carolina,” Blair recalled, “it was all of a sudden on everybody’s radar. ‘Hey, I heard you’re building this place in Aiken. Hey, what’s it going to be like? Oh, could I come take a look?’”
Nursing a shoulder injury that has kept him out of PGA Tour action since last October, Blair has had time to flesh out his vision and assemble a team. First, on the advice of friends, he reached out to Kye Goalby. In turn, Goalby encouraged him to give Tom Doak a call.
“‘Look, this dude loves golf,’” Blair said, paraphrasing what Goalby told him about Doak. “‘He loves golf course architecture, loves routing, loves a good site. Give him a call. See what he thinks. Maybe he wants to give his opinion on a hole here or there.’ And then it turned into something so much bigger than that.”
While The Tree Farm is separate from The Buck Club, Blair maintains that the same basic ethos animates both: an obsessive love of the game. “For me, the biggest thing is just creating a place where people who love golf can go have fun,” he said. “And that obviously starts with building a really good golf course.”