If you play golf courses for views, Robert Trent Jones Golf Club is for you. Approximately half of the holes incorporate Lake Manassas in some way--some with great views of the lake and others with the lake very much coming into play. Not only is the water a sight to behold, but the bunkering also stole the show at points. I suppose it is unsurprising that it reminded me a lot of Cal Club given Kyle Phillips restored both courses. Those two aspects provided the course's beauty and the greens provided the beast. As our host noted early in the round, if you are not on the correct section of these multi-sectioned greens, you will be three putting. This quickly became evident on the second hole when I found myself on the wrong plateau and could do no better than leaving a 20 footer for my second putt.
Though I did not play well on our day out there, I like the course because it is not super demanding off of the tee--we played the 6,600 yard tees (though that became longer given most of the water holes played against the wind). To me, the course's difficulty came on the greens and with the need for precise approaches (both to find the correct part of the green and to avoid bunkers). Like I always say, I always enjoy courses where it is hard to make huge numbers, but also hard to make pars. To me, that makes for a fun but still challenging day.
I appreciated that this course's great holes were a mixture of par threes, fours, and fives. The par threes particularly stand out--especially nine and eleven-- but the par five fourteenth and numerous par fours are also stellar holes.
This general introduction to the club would be notably lacking if it did not mention the clubhouse. Other than Congressional's, it is the largest, most opulent clubhouse I have encountered. To the extent this was built to accommodate PGA Tour events (it did host the first four Presidents Cups held in the US), it accomplished its goal. It is a palatial structure with awesome views of the lake and many great places from which to enjoy that view.
Clubhouse as you walk off of the 18th green.
Now, onto some of the holes.
1st--385 yard par four.
I did not have my camera out yet for the first hole, but it is a dogleg right slightly uphill par four. Fly some fairway bunkers and then your approach is to a tough green. Bunkers choke the front portion of the green, so you are tempted to go to the middle, wider section of the green, but the green is canted towards the front, so, depending on the pin location, you may be left with a downhill putt.
2nd--380 yard par four.
This is where the difficulty of the greens first became apparent to us. The hole is fairly straightforward until you reach the green where it tilts from left to right. Leaving your ball up left for a right hole location, as I did, will lead to a sure three putt unless you can make a 15 footer coming back up the hill.
3rd--455 yard par four.
This is the toughest hole on the course and demands a solid drive. The front of the green is completely protected by bunkering, so there is no way to run a shot up. So, if you mishit your drive and leave yourself a long club in, you will be forced to fly the ball the entire way or else find yourself in some intense greenside bunkers.
Approach to third.
4th--160 yard par three.
This is a fun hole. Come up short and risk rolling down the steep face back into the water. Go long into the back bunkers and you are left with a nearly impossible shot given the slope of the green. The play is to hit it ten yards right of the pin and let the ridge that bisects the green funnel it back down to the left.
5th--515 yard par five.
The fifth has a visually tricky tee shot. Your drive has to carry a set of fairway bunkers that obscures your view of the landing area, but also be short enough to not go into fairway bunkers that are just past your landing area. After navigating those bunkers, the hole turns to the right and bunkers continue to threaten your shots all the way up to the green.
6th--375 yard par four.
The sixth is a fun little dogleg right. Hit driver if you are trying to fly the bunkers on the right to shorten the hole. If you want to go straight, hit a shorter club to stay in the fairway. The optimal play may depend on the hole location. If the pin is on the left side of the green, then having a longer club in may not be a problem given you do not have to fly bunkers to get to the left edge of the green. If the pin is tucked right, as it was on the day we played, hitting a long club to that small landing zone over a massive bunker is no easy task. I hit a perfect drive, left ninety yards in, and then just made a mess of the hole.
Approach to six.
7th--405 yard par four.
This is where I felt like the course really started to get going. Fairway bunkers pinch the left side of the fairway on your drive and then your approach is slightly uphill to a green hidden by deep bunkers in front. Other than the third hole pictured above, this is where I started to realize how the bunkering was going to greatly enhance the aesthetics of this course.
Approach to seven.
8th--515 yard par five.
A 515 yard par five is the third hardest hole on the course--that tells you that there is more to this hole than meets the eye. There is not a ton to the drive, but your layup/approach to the green is going to be uphill, blind, and over some bunkers. If you fail to get to the plateau over the bunkers, then you are in for some hurt hitting your third out of those suckers.
Approach to eight.
9th--180 yard par three.
The eleventh hole may (and I say may, as I think it is open to debate) be more scenic, but I think the ninth is a better golf hole. Long, left, or right and the water comes into play. Hitting the green is hard enough, but there is also a ridge that creates two tiers. Be on the wrong tier and you likely have a three putt. This hole is rated as the fourth easiest on the course. I think I have to disagree with that. It is a 180 yard shot that has trouble all around and a landing area that is effectively the size of a half a green. This was one of my favorites on the course. After my tee shot, I knew I was headed towards a bogey, but I enjoyed the stroll up to the green nonetheless.
Ninth green. Look closely and you can see the ridge directly in front of the pin.
10th--350 yard par four.
Keep your drive out to the right to have a good angle into the green. Going left will require flying a bunch of bunkers out of the rough. The green is another one bisected by a ridge and surrounded by some fantastic bunkering.
Brother on tenth tee.
Approach to the tenth green if you go out right.
Looking back down tenth fairway to the peninsula that is nine green.
11th--165 yard par three.
One of the most fun and scenic holes I have played. Unless you come up short in the bunker, anything into that steep face risks rolling into the water. The natural thought is to take an extra club and go deeper onto the green, but then you are left with a diabolical putt down to the pin.
Me on the eleventh tee.
12th--470 yard par five.
Another tricky little hole with options off the tee. Hitting driver causes a few problems. Hit it far left and it is in the water. Hit it kind of left and you are in a bunker. Playing a shorter club takes both the water and bunker out of play, which seems to be the smart play because even with your 200 yard club, you will have 270 into the green. It becomes a three shot hole, but a very manageable one. Another short par five that is no piece of cake.
Bridge taking you from twelve green to thirteen tee.
13th--430 yard par four.
Another hole staring straight into the lake. For the entirety of the hole, left is bad and risks bouncing into the water, but, at best, leaves a bad angle into the green. The real fun part of this hole comes at the green, which has some of the best bunkering on the course and another green that has multiple ridges that you can use as backstops to certain hole locations. This was certainly on of my favorites on the course.
Approach to thirteen.
Awesome bunkering around thirteen green.
Another one of bunkering around thirteen green.
14th--500 yard par five.
I loved this hole because of its scenery and I always enjoy the challenge of seeing how aggressive you want to get when hitting a short iron over water. However, for me, this hole does not have much in the way of risk reward, though it does for longer hitters. Even if I hit a drive out there 260, I am not going for a green that is still 240 yards away with water in front. If you can poke it out there 280-290, then you will certainly have a decision to make. But, if you are like me, hit an average drive, then your 150 club, and you are left with a wedge in. No matter how you play it, this green complex is one of the best on the course.
What you will be facing on your second shot.
Approach to fourteen. And that is why I am not going for it from 240 out.
15th--420 yard par four.
Another simply stellar hole. Gorgeous bunkering all down the left and a green where coming in from the left is near impossible. In other words, go right on this hole.
Approach to fifteen.
16th--150 yard par three.
Apparently the club is thinking of changing things up a bit and simply getting rid of this hole. As our host said, this would probably be the best par three on many courses in the country. But, the standards here are pretty high and when you have such amazing land on this lake, I could understand wanting to optimize it. The difficulty of this hole must be largely determined by pin location. If front right, there does not appear to be much to it. Back left (as we played it) is another shot to a small landing area protected by some vicious bunkers.
How would ya like that chip next to sixteen green?
17th--345 yard par four.
I wish I got a better picture off the tee because the bunkering up the left is special. The hole really requires a well placed drive because left is trouble and the green is small, so you need to be in good position to take advantage of this short hole.
Approach to seventeen.
18th--420 yard par four.
Downhill, dogleg left par four to close out. Not the best hole on the course (that is not a knock because there are so many other good ones), but this is a stellar finishing holes. I often feel like finishers leave a little something to be desired, but this one does not disappoint. Again, I particularly like the green complex with more of the course's signature bunkering.
Unfortunately, there was no good way to take this picture directly into the sun. Hopefully you can get a sense of just how great a finishing shot this truly is.
This course was a great combination of many things. It was challenging, but not brutal. If I went out there and shot below my handicap, I would be quite proud of myself. It was as scenic as any non-ocean course I have ever played. There was also a lot of strategic thinking required--a lot of holes gave you multiple routes and club options off the tee. Even if you perfectly execute off the tee, you can't go to sleep because half the battle is hitting the correct portion of the green. And I can't say it enough, I love the look of these bunkers. Like I said, they remind me of Cal Club, but also Pasatiempo, which is universally thought to have some of the best bunkering in golf.
The more courses I play the harder it is to think about which course I would want to play everyday if I had the choice. There are some that I want to play frequently, but not everyday--Bandon courses being a prime example of that (mainly due to intense conditions). There are some courses I would only want to play a few times a year because they take a toll on you--Chambers Bay and Bethpage being examples of those. RTJ falls in the category of courses I would happily play everyday--alongside (among others) Cypress, Pebble, Cal Club, Somerset, Aronimink, and Hudson National. There is not necessarily a hierarchy of favorites among these. For example, I like Pacific Dunes more than Aronimink even if I could more easily see myself playing Aronimink every day. I am only making the point that everything is best in its proper dosage and I would happily take a daily dosage of RTJ.