In December 2021, rumours began to swirl around Cabot’s acquisition of World Woods, a once-celebrated multi-course facility an hour or so north of Tampa, Florida. For those who had been, it was exciting, but a little nerve-wracking: Pine Barrens is, by my account and perhaps other readers as well, one of Tom Fazio’s single best efforts. I never had the privilege to see Rolling Oaks, the other main draw, but it was celebrated, if a little less, than its bigger sibling.
The property’s concept was daring: two eighteen hole courses from Tom Fazio built in the spirit of his two most famous consulting gigs: Pine Valley, the inspiration for Pine Barrens, and Augusta National, which Rolling Oaks draws from. Add a massive circular range, a putting course, and a short course, and it was paradise, and might I add, relatively cutting-edge for the 1990s. In fact, Pine Barrens was so highly thought of that, as Ben Cowan-Dewar mentioned in a brief conversion on property, it was in the World Top 100 for a decade.
Unfortunately, years of neglect dropped World Woods from golfers minds, and a tough time began to hang over its reputation. Those who visited could see the vision—the bones were there—but the conditioning, and the general lack of preservation of some of Fazio’s finest work limited the praise. On my visit in December 2021, the course was playable and in good enough shape for me to rekindle my admiration for my personal favourite Fazio, though it was a wasteland: nobody was on property, even though it had the ability to be a bubbling destination. The reputation was tarnished; it was an afterthought in the shadow of the Streamsong‘s of the world.
Fast-forward 13 months, and the opportunity to visit Cabot Citrus Farms as part of a “sneak peek” tour came about. The tour was Monday of the PGA Show week, but the issue was, it was Saturday, around 10:00PM, and I was on Queen Street West in Toronto celebrating a friend’s birthday. I had always planned to drive to the PGA Show; I wanted to play golf and stay for the Superintendents Show two weeks after, but the plan shifted to making it to an afternoon tour in Brooksville, Florida in just over 40 hours time. For context: the drive is over 18 hours, plus I needed to pack, and of course eat, sleep, and all that good stuff.
I made it to Ocala, Florida right around the time Sunday turned into Monday, with about an hour left of driving for the morning. It is comfortably the furthest I have ever driven in one stretch, but there was a sense of grandeur that I could not pass this opportunity up. Those who have followed the website know that as I am typing this up in January 2023, Beyond The Contour is barely a year old. These were actual journalists attending; I have never referred to myself as a journalist. Rather, I see myself as someone who just enjoys talking about golf and facilitates anyway to do so. Being a journalist is an impressive feat, and certainly one I think carries weight and prestige. I have always felt like if I referred to myself as a journalist—with no actual education in that subject, and never having taken a writing class other than the basic ones they make you take for a business degree—I would cheapen the brand of the Lorne Rubenstein’s, the Adam Stanley’s, or the Robert Thompson’s (those I look up to who have legitimate credentials as journalists or writers).
Nevertheless, I found myself in this situation, eager to explore, learn, and see a property I love, and truthfully, a comfortable environment. Ben Cowan-Dewar has been nothing but nice to me in my one previous meeting with him, listening him to preach wisdom to me as I tried to absorb as much as possible. After all, this is the guy in Canadian golf these days, I could learn a thing or two. Being able to visit his property for his revealing to the media was truly an honour, one I felt very grateful to be in attendance for.
Out of the gate, it becomes apparent the Tom Fazio layouts are only in spirit and roughly the same corridors, but a slightly different routing in parts to maximize the walkability. If we are being honest, the Pine Barrens routing was a bit janky as it jumped between the best parts of the property. The Cape Breton Highlands Links argument is “does it really matter if the routing has longer walks if they found the best holes?” But it does, especially to Kyle Franz, who calls Pine Needles home. Donald Ross was particularly astute in making his routings flow, and Pine Barrens did not.
Pine Barrens, however, the flow is noticeably better. The 2nd and 17th have traded places, which in turn provides a better position for the 3rd/16th, the two par 3’s flipped, and then trickling into the 4th and from the all-world 15th which, as mentioned, both survived with minor adjustments. At the 4th, Kyle Franz expanded the left fairway, which used to pinch in rather awkwardly. In truth, that was the point to force those who wanted to hit it longer go right, or those who were shorter to play up the left and get the better angle. Now, the 4th is still that same excellent Fazio par 5, but as Franz put it himself, a clear homage to National Golf Links of America’s weaving fairways and split hazards like that at “Peconic,” the beautiful penultimate hole on Long Island. I see more of Alister Mackenzie’s famed Channel Hole, but hold the water and substitute for sand.
What all visitors—but particularly those who played World Woods Pine Barrens before—will notice, is a much, much bigger ballpark. Some holes are over 100 yards wide from the left trees to the right, but the bunkering is much more intrusive than before. On the 6th, for example, a slew of five echelon bunkers in the spirit of Martin Hawtree’s renovation to Toronto Golf Club or even Kyle Franz renovation of the par 5, 16th at Southern Pines, eats into the fairway, with the left side providing a shorter carry. Further, the greens are much bigger, too. On the aforementioned 6th, a double green jointed with the opening hole now awaits, with some slopes the height of my 32×32 KJUS pants. This is the story on the 7th as well, which Franz refers to as a homage to the Biarritz, and specifically, North Berwick, which has the Biarritz green on a similar angle to that of Scotland’s famed version.
Certainly, the motif of the renovation is big, bigger, and biggest, as evident by the three-fairway, “Y” shaped bunker that replaced the old, heavily-treed anticlimactic par 4, 18th. It was one of the more monotone finishes to a great golf course I have seen; now, I doubt anyone will come off the 18th and NOT have something to say.
If those Fazio fans are worried, have no fear: the 4th is similar in presentation. The 10th green still has its awesome front dip that hides behind the bunker complex. The 12th permanently plays to the upper green, which was the clear more dramatic of the two greens. The 14th is still one of the better long par 5’s with its faux-Great Hazard working on a diagonal to the left. Thankfully, the 15th survived, though it is curiously longer, turning one of the better drivable par 4’s into a drive-and-pitch, but everything else is re-imagined on a large scale. On a visit to a course that made me sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, they mentioned they’re building tees with the intent of having them for variety’s sake; they won’t use them all the time. Perhaps the scorecard yardage will only be there for potential, and not common use? This is very prevalent at Bandon Dunes, where tees exist where 99.9% of golfers do not even think about looking for. I expect the same here.
The tour is primarily done in large SUV’s driving through the property, led by the architects and Daniel Knight, managing director of Cabot Citrus Farms. We started at Pine Barrens with Daniel and Kyle Franz before moving over to “The 21,” a rather innovative concept from two innovators: Mike Nuzzo & Don Mahaffrey, and ending at Cabot Oaks, the previously named Rolling Oaks.
I expect criticisms of Kyle Franz’ renovation of Pine Barrens to primarily revolve around the same criticisms of the David McLay Kidd school of golf: too wide, and perhaps pandering to golfers to help shoot a low score and leave happy. Upon first-look, it seems to be width, width, width, with numerous split fairways and corridors of upwards of one hundred plus yards, tree-line to tree-line. For example, the 1st, 4th, 5th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 17th, and 18th all feature either entirely secluded fairways, or some variation of a split decision. But Kyle is adamant that the green details will be extreme enough to produce enough variety—and penalty—to be interesting on the daily. This is the recipe for success, and why Cabot Links with its width, or Pacific Dunes continues to be the golden standard for the high-end golf resort playbook. I agree with Kyle, too, the details on the ground are quite interesting.
For example, the new par 5, 17th, working on the old space the 2nd used to occupy, has a lower left section which will drop off in a similar way to Pasatiempo’s 14th and how it interacts with the barranca, will collect balls and further complicate the layup to either the left or right fairway, depending on where the flag is that day. The split fairways on the 4th, 14th, and 15th retain their original intent, while the opening hole greets golfers with the concept from the start: split decisions off the tee, insane green complexes to continue the fun. This is no longer Pine Valley’s public offering, and perhaps for the better. Now, it seems to combine elements of Donald Ross’ slew of excellent offerings in Pinehurst, a little Pine Valley still remains, and some new, too: it is a hodgepodge of ideas, coming to life to create something that I do not think we have seen before. To me, that is a win.
Part II covers Cabot Oaks & The 21. Click here to continue to reading.