Monday, June 29, 2009

Lonnie Poole Golf Course opens: sort of

It’s not a record that will last. It probably didn’t last the day. I know it didn't last the weekend. And, it wasn’t anything official. It was a very weak 89, shot on a make-shift nine hole course played twice Saturday, June 27, 2009 at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course at NC State University.

The significance of the score and the round is minimal at best but it did mark the lowest score of the first completed round of the new golf course built on the University’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh. A dream for nearly half a decade and under construction for a couple of years, the opening of the Lonnie Poole Golf Course was reality that day when four of us teed off on the first hole at 8:03 a.m. The facility was open only to the Charter Partners, those who made financial donations to build the public course.

The full 18-hole layout is expected to open July 11, again only for donors for two days, and then to the public. Arnold Palmer, whose company designed the course, is expected July 31 for the official opening ceremony, open to donors only by invitation only! But, the tee shot I hit was tremendously satisfying because the course was open, at last!

The honors on the first hole were mine for one reason: I was playing from the Black tees while the others chose the White. There are six sets of tees at Lonnie Poole, the longest of which are the Competition tees measuring 7,358 yards on the par 71 layout. The Black course is 6,901 yards; White 6,326 yards; Gray 5,605; and, Red 4,976. For first day, only nine holes were open: 1, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, and 17 which included four par four holes, and three par fives and two par threes. The Black distance for those nine: 3,584 yards which meant I was playing—and walking with a push cart—a hilly 18-hole course of 7,168 yards playing to a par 74.

Standing over the ball, it took a moment to realize the significance, if any, of what I was doing, and then all I wanted to do was avoid things: a cold-top, one that could go about 30 yards before thick fescue rough would have stopped it; the sandy bunker along the right side of the fairway and easily within my teeing length; a snap hook into the 10th fairway; a strong fad to knee high grassy rough, possibly un-findable.

My swing was unusually slow and nearly perfect; the air-born ball split the fairway between the left side of the sand bunker and the hole’s left side rough and came to rest in the fairway about 270 yards from the green on this wonderful opening 542-yard up-hill, down-hill slight dogleg right par five. “Let it be noted that Jim Pomeranz hit the first tee shot hit on the course and it was in the fairway,” said managing editor Tim Peeler, a member of the foursome.

I was thrilled, so much so that—while thinking birdie—two topped-shots later combined with the drive, two more hits and two putts, I walked off the green with a disappointing double bogey 7. I refuse to bore you with the details of my play for the remainder of the round; but before you hear about the nine holes we played, I admit to one other shot of significance.

It was my tee ball on the 11th hole, a 631-yard par five that runs west to east parallel to Interstate 40. (For those who know the area, the course is very near the State Farmers Market.) The fairway is easily wide enough to avoid trouble, but I believe the extremely strong left hand gripe with a wide-open club face, an open stance and a swing that screamed of the ball going right resulted in a enormously hard right fade that started right, flew across a special practice tee for the NC State men’s golf team, the immediate rough, a fence, more high grass and trees and towards the highway where I’m somewhat confidence it landed. “Let it noted that Jim Pomeranz hit the first shot onto Interstate 40,” announced Peeler who was Twittering the entire round accounting for the nearly five and a half hours of play.

The course sits at a very high point in Wake County. It actually overlooks downtown Raleigh and its impressive skyline. There are views of the Dorthea Dix campus nearby. From the 11th tee, you can see the top third of the NC State Memorial Bell Tower located about 2.5 miles away as the crow flies. The top of the campus smokestack can be seen as well as other familiar landmarks. Just looking away from the course can make one forget the tough mission of moving around the layout.

Lonnie Poole Golf Course offers many different challenges but will eventually be a very fair venue with enough toughness for the best of golfers. The nine holes we played required many different shots. However, and this is usually not the case with all golf courses, I was able to hit full driver from each par four and par five without much worry. Even at 57 years of age, I was hitting tee shots from 270 to over 300 yards, giving lots of credit to the well mowed and hard fairways that gave way to lots of roll most of the time. From the White tees, my four metal would have seen much more action.

That sand bunker on the first hole can be cleared with a solid hit, and it sets up a second shot from a much flatter lie than from where my tee ball stopped further left. With a very good poke, one can reach the first green in two, but the shot would be a blind hit that would have to head just left of the green and get a good roll. The better shot is a lay-up six iron to about 100 yards out.

From the first hole, we went to the 169-yard eighth hole, an uphill par three. Only the front edge of the green is visible from any tee box. Two sand bunkers guard the green, but don’t be fooled; there is little or no green over the bunker on the right. Miss to the left and you’re either in high rough or on the 9th tee box. It's a good seven or an easy six iron shot depending on the wind, at least during this time of year.

The ninth—if it were the 18th—would be an excellent finishing hole for two good reasons. It has good length and is challenging to play; and, the green sits down in a half bowl allowing for spectators to watch from above the green. From the Black tees, the par four measures 439, uphill from the tee with a sand bunker about 280-yards out on the right, projecting about a third of the way across the fairway. Left of the fairway is trouble, and there’s no other way to call it. The hole actually appears to bend slightly to the left, but that more of an illusion due to the bunkering along the left near and at the green. For the longer hitters, the tee ball must be middle to left.

The 10th is short—369 yards, par 4—and a full driver is okay, keeping short of the bunker on the right that starts about 80 yards in front of the green and continues to the putting surface. My first tee shot on 10 was on the right side of the fairway, and from there, just a 56-degree wedge was required but I could not see the surface of the green. Second time through, I hit down the left side and the same distance but from that spot, nearly the entire putting surface came into view, making the shot easier.

The 631-yard par five 11th hole looks tough but if played as a par five about the only problem will be making sure your approach shot clears the bunkering the guards the green for about 100 yards in front of and to the left of the green. It’s listed as the 2nd handicap hole, but a good tee shot and an easy lay-up will give you a challenging but not too tough third attempt.

The par four 12th defies physics. It’s a dogleg left with bunkering within reach of the tee shot to the left side of the fairway, but the fairway has a crest in the middle and the right side slopes way right. It’s sort of a damned if you do and damned if you don’t tee ball. The hole measures 424 yards but it’s down hill. Maybe it was the hardness of the fairway or maybe just the downhill slope, but I was gaining yardage from the tee and standing over second shots with short wedge shots. A four-wood from the tee may be the best giving a little, but not much, longer second shot, maybe a 9-iron instead of a wedge.

Of the nine holes we played, the 15th is the only one with water that actually comes into play. It’s pretty much a straight 504-yard par five that makes you think it’s a double dogleg. There’s a 300-yard long pond on the left to avoid from the tee and there’s a pond on the right that starts where the other pond stops and runs all the way up to the green. Hit it right off the tee and left towards the green towards a series of bunkers. Layup second shots may be the order of the day but hitting the green in two is possible for longer hitters.

No. 16 is the optical illusion hole with three small pot bunkers in the middle of the fairway on this 379 yard hole. From the tee, the three look side by side, but that’s not the case. The middle bunker is 20 yards closer to the tee than the others. Drive right or left of the middle bunker and you should be okay for a short approach shot to the only elevated green of the make-shift nine hole round, maybe of all the holes on the course.

Our final hole was number 17, a very short par 3. From the Black tees, it’s just 127 to the middle. It’s only 118 from the White. And it’s down hill. Matter of fact, the shorter the tee shot, the more down hill it is. One bunker guards the front and another is placed to the left, sort of out of play unless the cup is cut on that part of the green.

Speaking of greens: Wonderful! Smooth. No ball marks. (We were the first off, ever.) Not too fast but the putts rolled out. Very much feel putting. Faster than they looked but even down hill attempts with the right touch kept a good line and stopped near the hole. Easy to read. Some contours that required creative attempts such as on 17 having to putt nearly perpendicular to the hole to a point, hoping the ball would nearly come to a stop before casually rolling right toward the hole and stopping just an inch to the left. No Donald Ross-type edges where the ball not only rolls off but way off. Pretty much flat around the edges then a cut fringe and rough the height of a ball or so.

It was hot Saturday: 97 degrees. As noted, I walked. And I enjoyed it. The 89 strokes were disappointing for someone with an 8 handicap but then it was a par 74. I hit eight of 14 fairways but only four greens in regulation and had 30 putts. Lots of bad approach shots and one penalty for hitting onto I-40. No news of broken windshields or wrecks in that area Saturday

I enjoyed it so much that I returned Sunday for another 18, this time by myself (except for the last three holes when someone in a cart caught up with me) in the middle of the 94-degree afternoon. Just under three hours. Shot 82 with 33 putts, five hit fairways and eight greens in regulation. Much better. Missed a six foot birdie putt on the 11th hole. Played several holes smarter than during the opening round. Hey, just 8-over par for the day on a course that’s partially open. And, unless someone tells me otherwise, a new course record from the Black tees. Hah! Hah!

It’ll not be an everyday visit for me to Lonnie Poole, but with a very nice practice range, large putting green and easy access to the course, it’s definitely on my short list of places to visit regularly. The other nine holes will be equally as interesting, so maybe I’ll let you know what they’re like after July 11. Thanks for reading.

For more information, including the location and rates, about the Lonnie Poole Golf Course at NC State University go to

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