When leaders at Carmel Country Club approached course designer Rees Jones a few years ago about the possibility of giving the club's South Course a complete overhaul, they asked him to think about what he would do if there were no parameters.
The result is the new South Course, which opened this spring after an 18-month renovation project that has transformed it into one of the Carolinas' top layouts.
It has four new holes and a new feel. Several hundred trees were removed, enhancing the mature hardwoods that frame the course. Bunkers were adjusted, greens were tweaked and existing holes were reworked, creating a big, demanding golf course that can be stretched to 7,500 yards if wanted.
When 224 players tee off today in the 31st Carmel Pro-Am, one of the richest ($35,000) and most popular events on the Carolinas golf calendar, they will play a South Course that looks and feels dramatically different from the one Ellis Maples designed years ago and Jones tweaked over two decades.
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It's the culmination of a $12million club project that also included a new terrace on the back of the clubhouse, the creation of a new practice green, a new cart staging area and other enhancements.
"The course needed updating," said Ted Barnes, club president in 2010 when the bulk of the course work was done.
"When we met with Rees at the 2005 U.S. Open in Pinehurst, we told him if we could give him carte blanche, draw the best course he could come up with. It's very close to what we have today."
The biggest change from what Jones originally proposed are the first and 18th holes. Club officials convinced Jones to flop the design - putting No.1 where he originally had the 18th and vice versa - to accommodate the new clubhouse terrace and have the 18th green closer to the clubhouse.
The new first is a downhill par-4 playing along the corridor where the original 18th was. The new closing hole is an uphill par-5 where the old first hole was.
Jones also took previously wooded land the club owned and built a new fifth and sixth hole. The fifth is a solid par-3 over water while the sixth is on the short list of the most difficult holes in the Charlotte area.
It demands a long tee shot diagonally across a lake to a fairway guarded on both sides by bunkers. A good tee shot can still leave a middle to long iron approach into a green guarded by a steep slope and water on the right. It's not for the faint of heart.
"The sixth hole is an unbelievable hole because it has a carry bunker and we can make it a drivable (300-yard) par-4 because that's the latest thing in golf," Jones said.
The four closing holes were renovated, providing more landing room off the tee on the water-guarded 15th and 16th holes, but demanding more precision coming into the green. The par-3 17th green sits tighter to a pond and the 18th offers a reasonable birdie chance.
The South Course can be played at a variety of lengths and Jones focused on giving mid- to high-handicap players options going into each green.
The entries to greens were sand plated so the turf will be firmer, allowing players to bounce shots into the large contoured greens.
"The high handicappers will be happy because they can bounce the ball in," Jones said. "There are a lot of open entrances. The bunkers are generally on one side with grass pockets on the other from which they can recover more easily.
"There are choices. It's going to be fun to play. Yet if they want qualifying for the U.S. Open, they can tuck the pins and take the tees back."
It's strong enough that should tournament officials for the Wells Fargo Championship need to consider an alternative site in 2016 or 2017 because of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club, the South Course at Carmel is big enough and strong enough to be considered.
Local golfer dies
Norman Swenson, one of the great golf characters around here for years, died recently on a plane flight home from a golf trip in South Korea.
Swenson played college golf at Wake Forest in the 1960s and lived on the 16th hole at Carmel Country Club's South Course for many years.
He and his family had moved from Charlotte and split their time between the North Carolina mountains and a home in Florida.
In addition to being an excellent amateur player, Swenson had a world-class collection of golf memorabilia.
"Norman was one of the true ambassadors of golf," his friend, Xan Law, said. "He was so generous taking people to play at Pine Valley and on other golf trips. He was one of those rare golfers who got better with age. He'll really be missed."