MONTGOMERY, Texas — Earlier this month, as many American golf luminaries were still stewing over the latest U.S. Ryder Cup failure, Tiger Woods was inspecting a muddy expanse about 40 minutes northwest of Houston, assessing progress on his first domestic course design, Bluejack National.
With pen, paper and tablet in hand on the hush-hush visit, Woods spent a day shaping the hilly layout, which will be part of a private family club development when it opens in the fall of 2015.
“The fairways have opened nicely since our first visit,” Woods told Bluejack developer Michael Abbott, a friend of more than 20 years, first as golf pro with early Woods mentor Byron Nelson, then as a teacher to longtime Woods friend Mark O’Meara.
Abbott is well acquainted with Woods the player, who once dominated the game with steely eyes and an R-rated tongue. Woods the designer, Abbott said, exudes a decidedly different vibe.
“He is a lot more expressive, a lot more personable,” Abbott said. “He lights up more, shows more emotions. I’ve known Tiger to be very stoic and sullen, if that’s the right word. This is very welcome. He is a very interactive person who is engaging, talking about his kids and their trips this summer and how proud he is of them.”
Because of financial troubles scrubbing Woods’s other projects in South Carolina and the Middle East, and a hurricane delaying his course in Los Cabos, Mexico, Bluejack will be Woods’s first U.S. design and perhaps his first design anywhere.
Abbott and longtime partner Casey Paulson formed Beacon Land Development last year and partnered with the Dallas financial firm Lantern Asset Management to buy the former site of Blaketree National Golf Club, which was once owned by Texas oil baron Thomas Blake and the first design of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore.
Woods and his team, which includes former Fazio design associate Beau Welling, are making use of some of the front-nine corridors already in place, along with a couple of natural lakes. On the back side, they are more or less starting from scratch.
Abbott said that during Woods’ visit he was struck by Woods’ consensus building. “When he’s playing, you never saw Tiger ask Steve Williams or Joe LaCava about a shot or what they thought he should do,” he said. “He would just come up with one in his mind and hit the shot and somebody like David Feherty would say on TV, ‘I have no idea how he came up with that.’
“Here, he had obviously taken time to prepare before he arrived. When he moved a tree or a tee, he took time to ask each person what he thought and then wrote down their thoughts in his notebook.”
Paulson, who had never met Woods before his first visit in January, called it one of the greatest experiences of his professional life. Abbott added that Woods’s legendary drive has helped him in his designing career as well, noting that “Tiger has not stopped thinking of himself as the No. 1 player in the world, but he didn’t come here to be the No. 5 architect in the world, either.”
Still, the Tiger who toured Bluejack in tennis shoes, faded blue jeans and a TW hat was a far cry from the moody, step-on-your-windpipe competitor he is on the course. During a post-tour powwow in the temporary clubhouse, as Woods talked with a group that included Lantern Asset president Andy Mitchell, Mitchell’s six-year-old son burst into the room and darted toward Woods to say hello. Woods extended his arms, swept up the boy with both hands and shook him in the air, smiling all the way.
“It was one of the most natural, caring, unscripted things I’ve even seen,” said Abbott, who witnessed the scene. “You can tell this [project] is important to him, but he is less protected. It’s the maturing process we all go through, especially if we have kids. Talking about Charlie and Sam like he does, kids always change you.”
The course is beginning to look like a course. Workers have begun laying gravel on the front nine and shaping the back nine around trees and vegetation. Grassing will begin in the next 30 days. The practice range and nine-hole short course, known as the “Playground,” should open in May. With good weather and no construction delays the course will be ready for play in a year. “This should be the last October 14 we’re not playing golf here,” Abbott said.
Woods has said that playability is a priority at Bluejack and it shows in the design, with wide landing areas, open green fronts and no rough. “One of the reasons people have stopped playing golf is they lose too many balls,” Paulson said. “They won’t do that here.”
The course is being softened and becoming more family-friendly. So, too, it seems, is its designer.