BROOKELAND — Long about the sixth or seventh hole a couple of weeks ago at Rayburn Country, Ron Ashworth, my long-time golfing buddy who is a member at Medinah Country Club in Chicago, looked at me and said, “This place is pretty special. The variety of shots you get makes playing here a truly fun experience.”
Nothing that happened the rest of the way changed his opinion. Or mine. The bottom line is that Randy Russell and his associate, Bill Hanna, gave Beaumont attorney Walter Umphrey and his investors tremendous bang for their buck in a $3.2 million redesign of badly deteriorating nines originally carved out by noted architects Jay Rivere (1968) and Robert Trent Jones (1972).
The new-look gem is part of the 2009 purchase of Rayburn Country homeowners assets by an Umphrey partnership looking for an enticing real-estate investment. Millions of dollars in improvements have been done, including a stunning $4 million clubhouse that offers what has to be one of the finest dining experiences in East Texas.
Having a first-rate golfing facility, of course, is the key to making such an investment work and Russell, who was brought on board by the William Cole Golf Course and Real Estate Development Company, delivered a centerpiece to brag about. The Austin and Saint Simons Island, Ga., based architect ranks the finished product at Rayburn Country extremely high among his 60 or so original projects and redesigns.
What makes the golf course so appealing, as my buddy Ashworth quicky seized upon, is the fact a golfer is faced with so many different shots, thanks to continuous elevation changes on a well-manicured track framed by towering pines. Well that, and the surrounding beauty. Flatlanders, in particular, can anticipate an eye-opening experience, as they cope with sidehill lies and uphill and downhill shots where distances can be tricky.
Russell’s work is all the more impressive because he didn’t have the kind of operating budget that would permit vast amounts of earth to be moved. Consequently, he did not make significant changes in the routing done by Jones and Rivere. After correcting major infrastructure and irrigation problems, his focus was to create a “concept of minimal relocation.”
Green complexes were reshaped and reformed, with several greens being lowered to create better sight lines for the player. One green, on an 8th hole that doglegs hard left, was moved nearly 50 feet to make it easier to access with the second shot. Tee boxes were completely redone and in many cases shifted.
Most obvious change was in the bunkering, with the addition of numerous bunkers that are very much in play and very much on the smallish side.
“The biggest challenge we faced,” said Russell, “was in taking two separate nines with somewhat different terrain, built by different architects, and making it look like a course with a single architect. We think we accomplished that with what we were able to do with the smaller bunkers. Those smaller bunkers also added to the aesthetics and cut down on maintenance.”
Whatever validation Russell may have needed for his effort came from the double thumbs up he received after the Adams Pro Golf Tour Series held one of its tournaments at Rayburn Country in late March. Player feedback was overwhelmingly positive, a winning score of only 12-under par for 72 holes indicated the course held its own and negotiations are under way for the Adams Tour to return next year.
West Orange’s Michael Arnaud, who won his first Adams Tour tourney two weeks ago, is the one who suggested to tour officials that Rayburn Country be considered. He went on to finish sixth that week and said numerous players went out of their way to tell him how much they enjoyed the golf course.
“I’d heard many good things about Rayburn Country since the redesign and it all proved to be on target,” said Arnaud. “The other players were thoroughly impressed. They turned that into a great golf course. It’s probably in the top three we’ll play. I just thought they did everything right from that magnificent clubhouse to a layout that really makes you think about the shot you are going to hit.
“The routing was basically the same as the old course, but there are a lot more bunkers, the fairways are terrific and the greens have a lot more undulation,” Arnaud continued. “If you miss to the wrong part of the greens, you really get penalized. To turn what they had into that is a huge credit. I would think it will be a regular stop on the Adams Tour for years to come.”
As a nine handicap who struggled to shoot 84, my advice to the average and below player headed to Rayburn Country for the first time is to be smart rather than macho about how much you bite off in length. There are four sets of tee boxes, with yardage from 5,285 yards to 6,056, to 6,384 to 6,776.
Due to soft, lush fairways and severely uphill shots into greens, the course plays longer than the numbers. I tried it from the gold tees (6,344) and wound up having too many woods into the putting surfaces. Next time, I’ll be on the silvers (6,056).
What I really liked was the memorability of nearly all the holes, starting from a par 5, 1st that offers a classic, risk-reward decision on the second shot. Overall, the fairways are plenty wide but trouble in the trees is reachable nearly everywhere. Taken collectively, the four par-3s are exceptional. No. 2 and No. 4 are downright intimidating when looking at back-left pins.
Not surprisingly, play has picked up significantly since Rayburn re-opened, probably for two reasons.
No. 1, the course is such a fun experience that word-of-mouth has brought in golfers always looking for a new adventure. No. 2, the price is right, whether you do it as a day trip, or take advantage of the specials offered at www.lakerayburncountry.com. Two, three and four-day packages tie in to the adjacent 50-room hotel with rounds of golf, and offer replays at a mere $20.
The only downer on my visit was some bad patches in a few of the greens, created by weather conditions this spring. According to Arnaud, however, the greens were smooth and quick when the Adams Tour played there. According to head pro Paul Calame, they will soon be that way again.
I was impressed enough with the whole experience, including a most reasonably priced fine dining experience in the elegant clubhouse, that I’ve already recommended Rayburn Country to the Texas Golf Writers Association for our 2013 summer convention. Given the lofty expectations of our membership, it’s not something I’d have done without being thoroughly sold on the total experience.
Our usual convention stops, for instance, are generally posh resorts like the Four Seasons at Las Colinas, the Westin LaCantera in San Antonio, Barton Creek in Austin, Horseshoe Bay and The Woodlands. Rayburn Country may not have the same upscale feel, but the quality across the board can hold its own.
Russell would certainly agree with that assessment.
“It’s definitely one of my top two or three favorites,” said the man whose most heralded work is the University of Texas Golf Course. “These things become favorites for a variety of reasons, mostly on how much fun you have doing them, as well as dealing with a good owner and a good construction company. You are doubly blessed when the outcome is as good as Rayburn was.”
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at email@example.com