If you read my review of Old Town, you know that one criteria I use for rating a golf course is the repeat play factor. During and following the round on any course, I present myself with this question: Is this a course I would play every day?"
The answer as related to the Gaston County Club in Gastonia NC is an emphatic "YES!"
About 40 members of the North Carolina Golf Panel accepted an invitation to play there Monday, and the Ellis Maples design, which was re-design/renovated in 2004 by Chris Spence of Greensboro NC, passed the initial litmus test, at least with me and I'm very sure by the others being overly pampered by the Club members and staff of Gaston.
We found a course in wonderful condition from tee through green on every hole. The A4 Bent grass greens (rebuilt as part of that 2004 renovation) were running at 11 on the Stimp meter. However, different from Old Town Club (see previous post) with its mounds in the middle of many greens, Maples and Spence gave Gaston two-tiered beauties which allow for a variety of pin positions which in turn can easily change the course from calm and simple to extremely challenging and very tough to score well.
In the dawn of his career as a course designer, Maples worked for Donald Ross and Spence is considered an expert on Ross renovation, so the combination of the two designers gives the course Ross-tendencies on the greens with false fronts and other areas around the greens where a slight mistake on your approach will result in your ball rolling off an edge into a closely mowed fringe. This also allows for use of your putter from well off the green. And, the false fronts are nothing like pure Ross greens where a shot hitting on the front of a green might roll as much as 50 yards back into the fairway. These fronts are slight and give the average golfer a chance to easily get up and down, if one is able to manage the speed of the green.
In our foursome, three of us regularly putted from up to 10 yards off the green while one player used a 52-degree wedge from as close as six inches from the green's edge. He was as accurate, probably more so, than the rest of us. The greens gave us some interesting and exciting moments throughout the round. After two holes, each of us had experienced approach putts that rolled four or five feet past the hole. Some made the return effort; some missed. On our third hole, the par-3, 11th, we all hit the green but no one was very close. One partner was standing over a five footer for par when I said, "It's apparent that making five foot putts will be very important today." About to start his stroke, that member stopped his effort, looked up, sort of laughed and said, "Thanks a lot." But he gathered himself quickly and stroked his par effort into the cup's center.
My score of 82 included three birdies and four double bogeys, three due to penalty shots from hitting into water hazards. I had 35 putts, hitting just 11 greens and only three 3-putts along with four 1-putt efforts. The greens were very true to the reading. But there were some interesting moments in the round.
I birdied the second toughest hole on the course, the 422-yard, par 4 15th hole which starts from an elevated tee, is a slight dogleg left down a hill and then back up a hill to an elevated green. My drive was well struck but caught the branch of tree along the left side. It stayed in the fairway but left me with an up-hill 8-iron to a front, left pin position. I landed the ball short of pin-high near the left edge of the green, and it stopped nearly immediately. I actually misread the putt, not seeing as much break, but I miss hit the attempt at birdie, sort of stabbing it left. The result was a roll that actually caught the right line and end up six-inches below the green's surface.
I also birdied the 395-yard, par 4 16th hole, but it only tied my buddy, Johnny Moore who made a putt from off the front of the green. The pin was about 15 feet onto the green, and I hit my approach shot two-feet under the hole. In making his birdie putt, Johnny's attempt actually rolled about 16 feet. He stroked it well but just left of the hole and about six-inches beyond the cup. It tried to stop, but just when everyone thought Johnny would have par, the ball started a reverse course and rolled back into the hole. Johnny had a very nice 77, five over par.
When you're playing a course with greens such as these, sometimes your thoughts of the course itself take a back seat, but at Gaston Country Club, which originally built in 1958, the routing of the holes, the variety of shots, the beautiful tall trees throughout, give you pause to enjoy the overall course while it offers a challenge for the day. The par-72 course has five sets of tees with the longest set listed at 7,042 yards with a course rating of 74.2 and a slope of 135. Our foursome played the 6,615 yard layout with its 72.1 rating and 131 slope. The fairways and tees are sewn with 419 Bermuda grass which offers terrific fairway lies and tough shots from thick rough.
What Spence did two years ago in his redesign was to change the greens complexes, specifically re-contouring the greens, taking out some of the surface slope and giving them more flat areas to allow for the speed of bent grass (originally, the greens were bermuda) and to give more pin placements, and the reshaping of the bunkers, softening the severity of the lips, bringing the fairway grass down into the edges. He also lengthened a couple of holes and made a few more interesting changes to a total of seven holes.
The course is fair. The long hitters have a chance to reach each of the four par 5s in two though two of those holes are guarded by creeks just a few yards in front of the greens. And, the four par 3s are not gimmicky with club selection from wedge to six iron for me. The par 4s call for accurate long drives or the use of a four-wood to avoid well placed creeks and other penalizing areas. The longest par 4 we played was the 439-yard, dogleg right 3rd-hole with a well placed creek along the right side. The shortest par 4s had lengths of 376, 373, 387, 367 and 362 yards.
The 18th hole is a wonderful par-5, 497 yard finishing hole, from an elevated tee with a lake along the entire right hand side. The green is well-bunkered to help prevent a two-shot assault. However, the most spectacular scene on the entire course, as far as I'm concerned, is the approach to the 17th hole, a short (362 yards) par four. The green is the highest point on the property and sits alone except for one tall oak tree at its back. Walking down the 17th fairway, you see the green in front of you and then the tree. However, beyond that, you see the beautiful white (painted) brick, sprawling clubhouse and the wonderfully green grass surrounding it. There's a hole and a half to go in your round, but to the casual visitor, no matter your score, there can't be but one thought:
"I've got to come back to Gaston Country Club. I could play here every day."