Even by their minimalist standards, it’s possible that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have never done more with less than at Trinity Forest Golf Club. With gentle undulations, unforgiving fescue and dusty hardpan as far as one can see, their finished product looks more Dornoch than Dallas. And while it doesn’t appear daunting on television, the scorecard or even off the tee, it’s the small decisions around a big green that make No. 5 the best little par 4 in Texas.
“I don’t wanna be the kind to hesitate/ Be too shy, wait too late/ I don’t care what they say other lovers do/ I just wanna dance with you.”
If it weren’t for George Strait’s toe-tapping twang echoing from speakers embedded in Trinity Forest Golf Club’s practice area, one could have easily mistaken the sun-scorched ground for one of those perfectly dehydrated links layouts that typically begin with “Royal” or “St.”
This is a common reaction to the crusty site of the PGA Tour’s AT&T Byron Nelson. Ben Crenshaw was no exception: After finally getting convinced to scope out a knobbly meadow 15 minutes south of downtown Dallas, he looked out over what would become the ninth fairway, pointed to his left and said, “If that was an ocean, I’d swear to you we were standing in Scotland right now.”
“That” wasn’t saltwater, but rather a 6,000-acre sea of giant oaks, natural springs and the headwaters of a 710-mile river that stretches past Houston. Collectively it forms the Great Trinity Forest, one of the largest urban forests in the nation.
Despite its massive footprint on his hometown, real-estate developer Jonas Woods had never heard of the Great Trinity Forest until around 2006. After launching several successful high-end developments centered on Fazio designs, he got a call suggesting he check out the vast woodlands. The idea was short-lived; a multi-million-dollar development at the dawn of the housing collapse didn’t seem prudent.
Five years later, at the behest of AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, Woods set off on a mission to bring the Tour back to Dallas proper. After he struck out on potential restoration sites, it became obvious that new construction was necessary. With land on the mind, Woods suddenly remembered that five-year-old tip.
Days later, he was in a dusty SUV careening over a scruffy field, en route to the edges of the Great Trinity Forest. After marveling at the natural landscape, studying aerial topography maps and investigating the land’s prospects, Woods was disappointed to learn that no golf course would ever be built among the towering oaks: Protected flood plains, permission from the Army Corps of Engineers and a massive undertaking to remove vegetation meant he was looking at a truly forbidden forest.
Jim Barger, however, had his eyes fixed on another plot. While examining the area, Woods’ right-hand man/surveyor noticed an elevated, rolling field adjacent to the forest that looked to have serious golf potential. It was the same meadow that Woods unwittingly motored over on his way to the forest. Intrigued, Barger did some additional vetting and called Woods the next day.
“I have good news and bad news,” Barger said. “The good news is that [the property] is owned by the city.
The bad news: It’s a landfill.”
On the phone’s other end, Woods’ initial reaction wasn’t all that dissimilar from Bill Coore’s when he first heard of the site’s “underlying complexities.” The story goes that when Woods first called to pitch him, a stunned Coore pulled the phone away from his face, glaring at it as if a hermit crab had just whispered through his seashell.
One man’s trash
As promised, Barger’s news wasn’t all bad. The site was not a functioning landfill; it had been transformed into that bouncy meadow by Mother Nature’s uninterrupted attention over the previous 30 years. From the 1950s through the 1970s, a private owner used the clearing to illegally dump rubble from his company’s nearby infrastructure ventures. Eventually the city caught on and condemned the property. It maintained the land under proper landfill standards for several more years before capping the debris beneath 2 feet of clay.
By the time Woods and Barger got there, three decades of natural erosion, sprouting native grasses and shifting knolls beneath the cap made moving earth a tricky proposition. But the land clearly had potential. They were pleasantly surprised when Coore & Crenshaw were persuaded to agree.
For a design duo that prides itself on a minimalist mindset, the handcuff of a barrier beneath their canvas stretched the limits on their philosophy of finding good golf holes, not building them. No trees could be planted, as their roots would inevitably breach the capping. The same went for brooks and streams, both synonymous with Central Texas layouts.
Unlike its more natural Scottish brethren, this links-style land was temperamental: 170 acres of unpredictable contour (10% of it at one point deemed deficient by local environmental agencies) perched above the trees, exposed to whipping winds and framed nearly perfectly square by miles upon miles of the untouchable Trinity Forest.
Eventually, the picture they painted would prove worthy of its headaches. But it wasn’t without Coore returning the favor to Woods over the phone during the process: “Building a golf course just should not be this hard.”
Inspired by my warmup’s soundtrack, I got into a nice Texas two-putt rhythm for the opening holes of my first lap around Coore & Crenshaw’s jaw-dropping transformation. As I approached the 315-yard par-4 fifth tee—slotted well below the back of the fourth green and parallel to the property’s only visible water—I thought surely I’d be walking to the sixth hole under par for the day.
The uphill tee shot is benign visually, with an abundance of space down the left, and features a prevailing south tailwind that can shorten the hole to around 280 yards. A massive bunker about 260 yards up the right side is the only true danger. But, after further review, like every well-thought-out driveable par-4, the tee shot leaves you with several options to consider:
1. Hit a long iron or hybrid 230 yards—short of the fairway bunker—and zip a 65-yard wedge in.
2. Hit something high and soft to carry the bunker and sit quickly between its speed-slot back side and wherever pin-high happens to be. This leaves, by far, the simplest pitch: straight up the hill and into the grain.
3. Chase a 3-wood or driver onto the green for a chance at eagle. Sounds simple, except any shot turning from right to left will pick up steam off the tightly mown fairways and almost surely run out long and left. That miss turns this seemingly vulnerable green into an inverted kidney bean from hell.
The green is deceptively large; it’s listed as nearly 4,000 square feet, but plays to half that size due to dramatic edges, perched positioning and back-to-front tilt. On the tee, I stood with driver in hand, blissfully ignorant to these facts. I pictured my natural draw starting at the flag, turning gently and settling just left of the green, where a three surrounded by a circle would soon follow.
After nearly two years of meticulously creating, massaging and discussing the options off the fifth tee, Ben Crenshaw chose the third (and most popular) during the course’s opening day. Knowing full well how the hole was intended to be played, Woods watched anxiously as his Hall of Fame playing companion tugged his tee shot ever so slightly, ending up long and left of the green.
Some 20 yards from the pin, Crenshaw’s ball lay a good 5 or 6 feet below the fiery surface that quickly runs away, both downhill and down grain, once on top. The grain underneath the ball lay the opposite way, meaning a strike millimeters in either direction would be the difference between Flub Town and Skull City. Given the stickiness of the green surroundings, a putt was extremely difficult to judge.
The two-time Masters champion opted for his lob wedge, lofting it high and landing it inches from his ideal spot, just paces short of the green. The ball paused, contemplated staying, then returned to Crenshaw’s feet.
Without hesitation, he pulled what looked to be a 9-iron, gracefully bumping it into the upslope and hoping for it to trickle forward. It did momentarily, but once again returned to its original spot.
After another failed attempt, it was officially damage-control time. Crenshaw reached for his famous heel-shafted putter. As his fifth shot climbed onto the surface, it carried a fraction too much pace. Gravity and lack of friction did the rest, nudging it all the way off the front edge. Unbothered, Crenshaw strolled over and rammed in off the stick for a double-bogey 6.
“How’d you like that hole, Ben?” someone shouted from the nearby 15th green, often referred to by locals as the fifth’s evil twin.
“I loved it,” Crenshaw responded as he made his way to the sixth tee. “I made double.”
“How’d you do that?”
“I made a 20-footer.”
That’s just one scene in a volatile movie that Woods—and anyone who has played the course enough—has often seen. Unfortunately, my cameo was simply a cheap reboot of Crenshaw’s opening-day game of table tennis. I one-putted for a 7, as mere mortals tend to do.
Enough stories for a song
Perhaps the only things larger than the state where Trinity resides are the tales that swirl around its blustery grounds.
Like how members Jordan Spieth and Tony Romo are known to dial in their games alongside former U.S. presidents. Or the right way to get the best out of the locker room’s motion-sensing peanut-butter dispenser, which grinds up whole peanuts into fresh paste on command. Or how Coore found the inspiration for the club’s logo in the dirt while critiquing lead shaper Jim Craig’s sketches of potential mound contours to the right of the 11th fairway.
For every one of those stories, there’s one to be told about an escapade on No. 5. They could be positive, like Brooks Koepka’s towering power fade that nearly slam-dunked and somehow settled 15 feet away, setting up a stunningly casual eagle-2 during 2019’s final round. Or they could be catastrophic, like David Duval holing a 7-footer for triple in the first round of Trinity’s inaugural year as host.
The legend only promises to grow, as torrential downpours and a rare north wind on consecutive Byron Nelson weeks have rendered the golf course unrecognizable to its staff and members. To hear them tell it, it’s only a matter of time before the best players in the world face the same spunky, gravelly hole that once again enticed me into going for the green on my second lap around the yard.
Playing my natural draw, you can probably guess where my tee shot came to rest. Undaunted and eager to finally lasso this longhorn, I calculated what few choices I had, then reached for my 60-degree. I knew it wasn’t the play, but a song stuck in my head: “I don’t care what they say other lovers do/ I just wanna dance with you.”