Editor's notebook: Worthy of the name

Editor's notebook: Worthy of the name

Atlanta’s Bobby Jones Golf Course receives a multi-directional reboot. Will it be a grand slam model for public golf?

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November 2, 2018
Guy Cipriano
Construction Course News Editor's Notebook Top Stories

Clutching a set of sketches and routing plans on a sweltering late-September afternoon, Bobby Cupp stops on a hillside overlooking the 6th green of the Azalea nine at Bobby Jones Golf Course. Cupp begins describing the green and the flow of the hole while general manager Brian Conley gazes at a hillside adjacent to the fairway.

After Cupp finishes speaking, Conley directs a visitor to the hillside, which offers a glance at Atlanta’s gleaming, expansive and expanding skyline.

“That,” Conley says, “is our ‘Selfie Central.’” 

Cupp rolls up the sketches. “I never thought of that,” he says. 

Those responsible for one of the nation’s biggest urban golf transformations learn something each time they tour the 128-acre site, which debuts a reversible 9-hole course this month to residents accustomed to a dearth of selfie-worthy public golf courses.   

(Pictured superintendent Kyle Macdonald and architect Bobby Cupp describe a hole at the reversible Bobby Jones Golf Course)

The Atlanta metro area, hometown of Jones, winner of the 1930 grand slam, supported just one 18-hole public course per 64,754 residents in 2016, which ranked 314th out of 345 cities the National Golf Foundation examined for its 2017 “Golf Facilities in the U.S.” report. The option of hopping in a car, bus or train, traveling 15 minutes and playing a two-hour nine or blasting a bucket of balls doesn’t exist for thousands living near Atlanta’s urban core.  

Once a stagnant city-owned, 18-hole facility opened in 1932 and operated by a management company, the Bobby Jones GC marks the first urban reversible layout opened in the United States during the current construction wave. High-end resorts in remote parts of Michigan and Oregon have also introduced reversible courses.   

A reversible course stretching from 3,164 to 7,313 yards utilizing the versatile Longleaf Tee System when played as 18 holes represents only part of the Bobby Jones GC transformation. Changes also include the addition of a practice range and 6-hole Cupp Links with holes ranging from 50 to 70 yards. The short course is named after Bobby’s father, Bob Cupp, a legendary architect who died in August 2016.

The older Cupp started studying the site as early as 2003, devoting countless hours to finding solutions for the course despite the frustration associated with bureaucratic layers. “The studies said the same thing,” says Marty Elgison, president of Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation, Inc., which formed in 2016 to create an accessible facility worthy of Bobby Jones’s name. “If the city would put money into its courses, they would be nicer and more people will play them. The city never did that.”   

The conglomeration of influential Atlantans, including Robert Tyre Jones IV, the grandson of Bobby Jones, comprising the Foundation raised more than $23 million for the project. Each hole has a naming sponsor who contributed $150,000 to the effort. A breakthrough occurred in November 2016 when the state completed a swap of underground parking lots it owned for the golf course. The state then granted the Foundation permission to lease the course. Plans include the construction of the 23,000-square foot Murray Golf House, which will serve as the headquarters for the Georgia State Golf Association, Georgia Section of the PGA of America and Georgia Golf Hall of Fame. The Murray Golf House is scheduled to be completed in 2019, the same year superintendent Kyle Macdonald and team are expected to receive a new maintenance facility. The course will also serve as the home of the Georgia State University men’s and women’s golf teams.  

Cupp, coincidentally, was the first architect to be enshrined into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame. Asked what the completion of the project means to his family, Bobby becomes emotional. “I don’t think I can put that into words,” he says. “It’s been a ride. I talk to him every day. I can tell you that.”     

A mutual friend, former USGA executive committee member Gene McClure, introduced Elgison to the elder Cupp in 2012. Elgison, the Jones family attorney, made resuscitating the Bobby Jones GC a personal endeavor following his retirement in 2011. Cupp and Elgison developed an instant connection, with Cupp offering his services for free. 

A landlocked site – Atlanta’s trendy Buckhead neighborhoods border the property on all four sides – prevented Cupp from designing a course approaching 6,000 yards. Elgison says an 18-hole course lacking significant yardage without a practice range would fail to attract significant donor support.    

After completing an 18-hole, 5,400-yard routing without a range, Cupp started working on a 9-hole plan with a range. The plan changed in 2013 when Cupp started pondering the Old Course at St. Andrews, which has a reversible history. Six months later, Cupp presented Elgison with a reversible plan for Bobby Jones Golf Course. Bobby says his father spoke numerous times with fellow architect Tom Doak, whose reversible layout, “The Loop,” opened at Michigan’s Forest Dunes Resort in 2016.

“(Cupp) called me one morning and said, ‘I got it. I figured it out,’” Elgison says. “What he sent to me is 98 percent of what you see today. A few things have changed because of site conditions. But the basic routing is 98 percent of what we ended up with.”     

Construction commenced in November 2017, with Wadsworth Golf Construction, one of the project’s founding sponsors, turning the reversible plans into a physical reality. The course will utilize just two heights of cut for its TifEagle greens and TifTuf hitting surfaces, Macdonald says. The Bobby Jones GC is an early adopter of TifTuf, a bermudagrass variety developed and tested by the University of Georgia’s Dr. Wayne Hanna and Dr. Brian Schwartz. 

The Foundation selected Mosaic to manage the course. Mosaic hired Conley and Macdonald earlier this year to lead key departments. “You’re learning something new every day here,” says Macdonald, who previously worked at St. Ives Country Club in Atlanta’s private golf-rich north suburbs. “The thing that excited me most about this project was being able to give the public a private-level golf experience. Atlanta doesn’t have anything like this.” 

Rates have yet to be finalized, but officials and employees envision a diverse customer base enjoying the course, range and Cupp Links. Selfies will come at no extra cost. 

“When we finally started to get things built and you could see some of the greens, we were above the 6th green and Bobby Jones IV said, ‘My grandfather would be proud to have his name associated with this,’” Elgison says. “That says it all. If we do that, we’ll be successful.” 

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s senior editor.