Monday, August 24, 2009

The Shot-Makers Golf Course

There’s a golf course just off of North Carolina highway 87 about midway between Sanford and Spring Lake that’s always been known as a “shot-makers” layout. At least that’s what the old pro, the late Jimmy Overton, intended it to be when he built it in the late 1960s.

Measuring only 6339 yards from the back tees, the par-72 track with a 71.0 course rating and a 126 slope seems to be, on paper at least, an easy tour, a reprieve from the mega distance courses with difficulty or length on every shot.

In reality, the Ponderosa Golf Club requires skilled shot-making and the idea that a round of golf does not have to be played on pristine fairways and smooth, well manicured greens. It’s a simple layout that requires thinking off the tee and an understanding of the nuances of the wavy greens with pin positions that could putt (not to be confused with drive) you crazy.

About three miles in the “country” on the west side of “downtown” Olivia, a highway 87 crossroads 10 miles south of the center of Sanford and 15 miles north of the center of Spring Lake, the Ponderosa, with tight fairways, blind tee shots, skimpy Bermuda fairways, no sand traps, and greens still primarily made of its original Tifton 328 Bermuda, has a middle-class appeal though it’s surrounded by very nice homes of the Carolina Seasons development with its main entrance off of Ponderosa Road.

Opened in 1967, the Ponderosa was the idea and design of Overton, then head professional at the Sanford Golf Course. He wanted his own course and he wanted it for skilled golfers who knew how to create shots from various angles and how to be creative on tricky greens. The course is owned and operated today by his second son, Billy.

When it opened, the length was good for the technology of the day. But, even today, with balls and clubs offering more and more distance, good course management at the Ponderosa starts from each tee. There’s not a lot of distance from tee to green, but the layout of each hole prevents the long driver from bombing away. Being able to cut or draw a tee shot is what the elder Overton actually had in mind.

The greens, not guarded with sand traps at all, offer elevation changes though would frighten most golfers until a few putts are hit. The Tifton 328 base does not allow too many balls to continue to trickle to edges of greens, all of which have interesting contours. It’s not rare to have to negotiate a putt well off line and sometimes away from the hole to get it close or to have a chance to make birdie, salvage par or even be satisfied with bogey. There’s some consistency to the shapes of the greens, but each is different just as the holes are.

The opening hole, 415-yards, is a slight dogleg right which is now guarded by tall pines, well known at any course in the North Carolina Sandhills. To the left is rough and more pines. The right shot may be an iron or a fairway metal, leaving 150 yards to the green. But in either case off the tee, to get close enough to the green, a slight fade is required.

A blind tee shot is a difficult start to the straight-away second hole, just 410 yards long. From the tee, the fairway rises and slopes down hill to a small pond about 100 yards from the green. Though the fairways are sand based, the down hill trajectory offers plenty of roll with a possibility of a driver finding the pond.

The fourth hole is a very tight 363 yard offering with no bends while the fifth and sixth holes again are doglegs with their own unusual problems. The fifth, a 414-yard dogleg to the left which is rated the most difficult hole on the course, has a fairway that slopes left, and even the longest of hitters find it difficult to drive the ball beyond the slope. Keeping it to the right is a must or a shot down the middle will find the left rough and several pine trees to negotiate on the approach shot to the green. The sixth, just 369 yards, has out-of-bounds along the right side of the dogleg right, and a straight tee shot will find the rough to the left. So, playing a shorter tee shot is a must unless the driver is played with a slight cut that starts down the middle.

The two par threes on the front are not very difficult but interesting. The 160-yard third hole (photo above from the green to the tee) requires a tee shot through a tight opening of pine branches and then a complete carry over water. The eighth is a straight forward 190-yard up-hill hole to a green not completely seen from the tee.

The two par fives on the front could be though of as par 4s today, but when opened in the 1960s, the 465-yard seventh and the 420-yard ninth, where hard to reach in two for different reasons.

The seventh hole is all up-hill from tee to green with a slightly left-sloping fairway which causes the player to hit right. A small stand of trees guards the right side of the fairway and tee shots left in that direction cause second shot problems. Today, a well hit tee shot leaves not much more than a five or six iron in to a long narrow green with a sharp drop-off only its left side.

And the ninth hole is another tee shot problem. The fairway, a down-hill-to-the-landing-area and up-hill-to-the-green design narrows at the 150-yard marker. The back tees are pushed way right as is the green calling for a cutting tee shot with a driver to give a 160-yard approach or a shorter tee shot for accuracy to keep out of wooded trouble left and right. Though it is somewhat short for a par 5, a well-placed, tall, bushy pine tree guards the green, catching nearly every attempt up the right hand side.

The back nine is much of the same yet slightly shorter (3133 yards versus the front side 3206 yards) and seemingly more difficult.

It starts with a 485 yard par five to the right with a fairway that slopes left through the green. Long straight tee shots find the rough to the left, but a well placed drive allows for a mid-iron approach. Shorter tee balls don’t make it to the corner.

Though rated the 16th handicap hole of the course, the par 3 11th hole at 172 yards and up-hill, again requires an accurate hit through a tight teeing area.

The 12th, a 371-yard 85-degree dogleg right (yes, the hole actually comes back towards the tee little), remains a mystery to many who have played there over the years. When the back-nine opened about 15 months after the front, it was not unusual to try to pound drives over the corner only to get caught short. As technology improved, the tree grew taller and attempting to clear the corner today easily results is a low-running second shot under limbs. A fairway metal or long iron about 220 is all that’s needed, but a well-cut driver could be the club if accurate.

At 343, the 13th hole, and at 363, the 14th hole, seem to be short enough to easily conquer, but the corner on the slightly up-grade dogleg left 13th is about 250 from the tee, and the nearly straight-up-hill 14th hole, a small curve to the right, has a narrow fairway to anyone wanting to pound a tee shot. As the 14th fairway gets short in width, it drops drastically on the right side, gathering wandering first hits. An approach from there must be over two of those tall, bushy pines. A shorter tee shot to the left is the best play.

The par 3 15th hole is just 149 yards long but, depending on the wind, the up-grade shot may vary two to three club selections when trying to hit this long, narrow green.

From the back tees, maybe the most interesting hole is the 16th (which was the 18th hole when the course first opened). It’s 435 yards long and sets up as a dogleg right from an elevated tee. It’s another blind tee shot over pines for the longer hitters or to the right of the trees for others. In either case, the resting place for your drive must be along the middle to the left side of the fairway. About 50 yards from the green, one of those bushy pines is stuck in the right half of the fairway. Any tee shot behind it requires a low runner approach that is doubtful to hold the green.

The 17th hole is another somewhat easy looking par 5 at 445 yards down hill, but a creek guards the fairway at the bottom of the landscape and is possible to drive into. The approach is up-hill and, when close enough for a short iron, to a surface you can’t see.

The finishing hole is a straight-forward up-hill 370-yard par 4 which is not overly difficult or spectacular. When the Ponderosa first opened, it was actually the 11th hole, but was switch to the 18th to allow the pro shop and spectators to see when rounds are completed.

In retrospect, though, the 18th should have always been the final hole at the Ponderosa, just to follow Jimmy Overton’s teaching philosophy. He always wanted his students to finish on a high note to encourage them to return. Pars and birdies do that, he would say. The 18th is not hard to play and allows all golfers the chance complete the round with a good score on the final hole. It’s less of a shot-makers hole, different from the rest of the course.

Golf is different from every player. Some prefer the beautiful drives to the clubhouse; some want to make sure the fairways are lush and forgiving; others want greens that hold every shot; and some want vistas that take them away from the misery of their game.

At the Ponderosa Golf Club, the game is basic. Hit your tee shot where it needs to be. Play the ball as it lies off thin fairways that might mean just sand underneath. Be creative on your approach shot, sometimes with bump and runs and at other times with enough trajectory to keep the ball from bounding over the firm greens. Learn to put from off the greens; learn to putt from on the greens with not a lot of break and a bit of firmness in the stroke.

The Ponderosa is not overly difficult on paper. It’s not a glamorous name by a well-known designer or even an inviting layout as you drive to the clubhouse. But it’s friendly, nice and low-key for golfers who want a shot-making challenge and experience.

For more information about tee times and rates at the Ponderosa and for directions to the course, call: 919-499-4013.

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