Tiger Woods hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since 2013, and hasn't even teed it up in one since August 2015. His design career, however, has put him back in the winner’s circle. On Monday, Woods the architect debuted his first completed course design in the United States, Bluejack National, in Montgomery, Texas, 50 miles north of Houston.
Woods the player didn’t fare badly, either. In front of a crowd of club members and invited guests, he played his first five golf holes since 2015’s Wyndham event in Greensboro. To playing partner Mark O’Meara, a Bluejack National ambassador, emcee David Feherty and the other attendees, the smiling, wisecracking Woods was in great form, even as Tiger admitted afterwards, "I’m really rusty." What shines, however, is the course he has designed. Bluejack National is exactly the kind of fun, player-friendly, yet strategically compelling layout that golf needs. It's also drop-dead gorgeous. Golf clap for Woods and his entire design team, including Bryon Bell, Beau Welling and Shane Robichaux.
Conjured up from a long-closed, unfinished Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw project, Bluejack National benefits from a property that's somewhat unusual for Houston, with natural water hazards, elevation changes and mature trees, including its namesake oaks. Thank to these existing corridors from its previous life, and an abundance of natural hazards, Bluejack National possessed a rare maturity on opening day. Echoing his design philosophy first realized at Diamante's El Cardonal in Mexico, Woods says, "From a design standpoint, I try to create options, to make it friendly, but challenging for all levels."
Indeed, nearly every green offers run-up options, allowing Old World ground game choices to play a prominent role. That trait alone makes it playable for golfers of every ability, as well as for families. For the latter, Woods has created a 3,008-yard set of "Frank" Junior tees on the 7,552-yard track, as well as a 10-hole "Playgrounds" par-3 course next door, which achieved immediate notoriety worldwide upon opening two months ago when the first shot of the event yielded an ace, by 11-year-old Taylor Crozier.
The adjacent 10-holer is a blast, but for those looking to thump and shape shots, the championship course is equally fun. The tall trees, rolling terrain and brilliant white sand bunkers with their simple shapes evoke Augusta National. So do the roomy fairways and dearth of rough. Most apt is how contour plays such a significant role at Bluejack, as it does at Augusta. The ground game carries significant weight at Tiger's Texas creation, most effectively when it's interwoven with strategic options.
At the daunting 634-yard, par-5 5th, the green can actually be accessed in two, thanks to a helping slope front-left, that will feed the ball down to the putting surface. That said, the only way you can find that slope is by carrying a bunker. Down the right side is certainly safe, but you'll have to accept that it will take you three shots, even from the shorter tees of 582 and 531, due to the greenside's left-to-right tilt of the ground.
The 492-yard par-4 16th sounds formidable from the yardage alone, but the entire second half of the shot plays downhill. It's not merely a broad ski slope, however. Only a well-placed shot with the proper trajectory will find the most helpful contour front-right of the green. Get it too far left, and the ball will collect in a chipping area. A challenging, though not impossible recovery awaits—but it's fun, because you'll have the option of four or five different club choices.
Amid all the ground game frivolity, Woods told GOLF.com that the hole that will get people talking about Bluejack National is the par-3 12th, the only hole on the course that demands a forced carry. This is one glorious exception, a downhill plunge over a lake to a green backdropped by two bunkers and mature trees. It calls to mind the 12th hole at Augusta National, only Bluejack's version is more dramatic because of the elevation change. Of Bluejack's 12th, Woods said, "We were looking for a connector to two different parts of the property. The hole jumped out at us. It’s the only forced carry here, the only hole with no place to bail. It fits a cut shot perfectly. People will remember it."
People will remember Bluejack National for all the right reasons. The simple, effective strategic options carry the day, together with the variety of holes that climb uphill and tumble down, melding thoughtful ball placement with multiple risk/reward choices. The greens themselves offer remarkable differences from one another. What they all share are mostly friendly and interesting recovery possibilities. Kudos to Tiger Woods Design for creating a layout that will entice people to come back, rather than shooing them away.