Ninety percent of the new Gil Hanse design here, centerpiece of a 36-hole development from the PGA of America, would appear darned playable. All but two holes have been grassed and the course builder, Houston-based Heritage Links, is scheduled to complete all of its work by the onset of spring 2021. Normally that would mean a summer 2021 debut. But the East course will not open until June of 2022.
Is this the mother of all COVID-19 precautions?
“No, no. The client wants an entire year — not to grow things in, but to fully establish the course, the maintenance practices and its tournament preparedness down to every last detail,” reports Jon O’Donnell, president of Heritage Links, a division of Lexicon, Inc. “We’ve been involved in projects where the attitude was similar, but frankly those were very private clubs, in quite remote locations. This is a resort project that has been very visible from the get-go. Everyone’s eager to see it, to play it, to observe how it handles tournament play. But they’re all going to have to wait.”
“It’s a great luxury to be working a timeline like this one,” adds Hanse. “But it’s not every day that we get the chance to create a golf course that we know will host multiple major championship and potentially a Ryder Cup. Opening in 2022 will allow us to get the details and conditioning exactly right. So we can wait. And when it does open, the course and the features are going to be absolutely perfect from Day 1.”
Hanse is right: Few golf properties are developed with the built-in guarantee to host so many high-profile championships — as many as 20 already on the schedule, once amateur events are figured in. The Senior PGA Championship is set for PGA Frisco in 2023. The first of two PGA Championships arrives four years later. Two KPMG Women’s PGA Championships are scheduled. And while The PGA of America has yet to announce a Ryder Cup for north Texas (the first available slot is 2041), one can more or less take that commitment to the bank. There has even been speculation the AT&T Byron Nelson will move to Frisco once its 5-year contract with the TPC Craig Ranch expires in 2025.
Roger Meier, senior director of Golf Maintenance Operations for the PGA of America and PGA Frisco, put it best: “Championships are what we do,” Meier told the Dallas Morning News last month. “But day in and day out this place is going to be pretty special. When you step onto this place in 2022, we want you to feel like it has been here forever.”
Heritage Links – www.heritage-links.com has been working with Meier and the entire agronomic team since November 2019, getting those details exactly right. Jordan Roberts will serve as superintendent of the East Course when it opens in 2022. The West Course at PGA Frisco — designed by architect Beau Welling — is taking shape alongside, on a similar timetable. Heritage is not building that layout but has installed the irrigation system. Kyle Bunney will be the head superintendent on the West. Both he and Roberts report to Bryce Yates, PGA Frisco’s managing superintendent of Golf and Grounds.
In the meantime, an extraordinary amount of work continues at this 600-acre, $520 million mixed-use property that will eventually serve as the PGA’s national headquarters. The city of Frisco, located some 40 minutes north of downtown Dallas, will own the two completed courses. The PGA of America has a long-term contract as the course operator. When all these championships start taking place, the property will also feature a massive practice area, a 100,000-square foot putting course, a 10-hole short course, and an Omni-branded resort. An adjacent 2,500 acres are slated for further development under a master plan from Hunt Realty.
According to Blake Smith, the Heritage Links project manager in Frisco, “We average 90 trucks a day bringing in material — seven different types of aggregate material and 90,000 tons of sand capping materials for fairways alone. And that’s just for the East Course.”
Yet no firm in golf has more experience working with this sort of scale — O’Donnell compared it to the creation of Chambers Bay in Tacoma, Wash., site of the 2017 U.S. Open — or with Hanse himself. Hanse Golf Design and Heritage Links first worked together in 2014 on the renovation of Doral’s Blue Monster in Miami.
Since that time, they have collaborated in creating a diverse range of golf properties, from the 18-hole Mossy Oak Golf Club in West Point, Miss., to the Callaway Golf testing facility in Carlsbad, Calif., to the major championship restoration of Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla.
One of Hanse’s own calling cards has been the sheer variety of his designs, from old world parkland originals (Boston Golf Club), to sand-based resort renovations (Pinehurst No. 4), to MacDonald/Raynor homages half a world away (Ballyshear Links in Bangkok, Thailand), to preps on three U.S. Opens sites in four years (Winged Foot 2020, The Country Club 2022, Los Angeles CC 2023).
The East Course at PGA Frisco is yet another departure, what the architect calls a “ranch style” design, the likes of which his firm has never before attempted.
“The property here reminded me a bit of Southern Hills — the topography, along with the creek so prominently featured,” Hanse says, citing his work on the 2030 PGA Championship site. “Of course, Southern Hills is now surrounded by Tulsa. But when Perry Maxwell built it, Southern Hills probably looked a lot like our site in Frisco does today.
“This used to be a ranch, so we focused on that, along with what is some really interesting topography, good rolling ground. But everything has been done in proportion to the broad expanses we’re dealing with here. In that context the bunkers are the calling card, the most visible feature out there —and they are dramatic.”
Because the championship dance card is already so full, tournament considerations have always been top of mind, Hanse says. Witness the driveable par-4s on each nine and the stretch of holes from 13 to 16 that, according to the architect, will produce “a great finish”. But the creative process in Frisco is more nuanced and collaborative than that.
“The shaping team here is phenomenal,” Smith says, explaining that Heritage Links operators work alongside those from Hanse Golf Design, as they’ve done on so many sites and contexts since 2014. “We ended up creating a blowout feature from an old oxbow off no. 8 that is about the coolest feature you’ve ever seen. And that was actually the idea of Kerry Haig, the PGA’s chief championships officer.
“The design philosophy is to create the feeling of being out there in a ranch setting that has been there for 100 years — with all the tall natives waving, the cart paths that turn into ranch roads, the trees that have been planted to create the look of fence roads, even using barbed wire and hog wire in spots to guide the galleries. Working with Gil and his team is the chance to work outside the box. They tell us what they want and we say, Let us try to do that for you.”
“We all have learning curves,” Hanse says, “But having worked with us, Heritage understands our demands — our attention to detail and craftsmanship. Whatever we’ve asked, they’ve been able to answer the call. As our design style changes, they have adapted to us in every way. That understanding of how we work means they work alongside us very productively. They make it easy.”
That is exactly what O’Donnell wants to hear.
“Hey, we love working with Gil, but we adapt to the styles and demands of each and every architect and client we work with,” O’Donnell says. “For example, you have to strictly control water flow on a site like the one in Frisco. We worked with the irrigation designer, Larry Rogers, over on the West Course. Beau’s design there called for a lot basins, a lot of big drainage features. Well, Gil hates basins, so the drainage features we’re creating on the East Course are fed into and through natural features — or features created to look natural — in order to control that water.
“Some of those purely practical drainage features are pretty stunning. We’re all pretty happy with the rugged architecture and the washes we’ve created out there on the East Course, especially the way they roll right into these pristine green complexes. The entire design and construction operation has done an amazing job retaining the land’s original character, augmenting where necessary, and fitting a championship golf course within it.”