At some point during elementary school, I learned that the Mississippi River originated at Lake Itasca in Minnesota; as it’s unusually hip these days to deny established science, I might offer a counter-theory: There was once a monolithic ice cube east of what is now Davenport, Iowa. It melted. This is the only rational explanation for the topography at Davenport Country Club.
I was fortunate enough to play during an event where architect Jim Nagle was in attendance, and he gave the group a generalized overview of what he and partner Ron Forse saw in the club. At the top of his list was the routing, which he praised enthusiastically. It struck me as I listened; having played the course in the morning, the routing seemed so obvious. With land like this, doesn’t the earth declare to Alison where the holes should be, and not the other way around?
I reconsidered during my afternoon round, standing at the tee for No. 7, a par four that plays across two huge swells bubbling up from the left; a well-executed drive manages to stay atop the thin platform available, and the rest roll down to another area of shortgrass at the bottom of the hill (but pick up a few extra yards on the way). It’s a daunting look up to the next bubble, but a singular fairway runs all the way, and a well-placed iron will kick right off the slope toward the invisible green. Depending on what tee you play during a match, a bold basher may opt to attempt reaching the second bubble in one go…but the grass is long down in the valley between. If the above word-vomit is any indication, it’s a hole that defies easy explanation (I’ve attached a photo).
If I can hardly describe it, how can I claim the ability to route it? It would be easy to declare “ah, such bold movement! Surely a golf hole must go here!” Would I have created what Alison dreamt up? Doubtful. And that is the difference between he and I…the difference between being given a prime cut of steak and the ability to cook it.
Alison creates tasteful dishes across Davenport; the tee shot skyward across the dammed pond at No. 3, where the pond isn’t the hazard at all, but rather whether you choose the proper line to avoid gravity pulling the ball back down into a number of micro-valleys along the right side. The play across the Spencer Creek gorge at No. 10, to a green that, while not quite a Reverse Redan, calls for a long shot to feed from left-to-right down to the hole (the trip to the green will cross a Bel-Air-style bridge). No. 13, a par five of reachable length…but placed so that the dropoff to the right constantly imposes itself on the mind of the player, like Tom Petty cleaning his fingernails with a switchblade at contract negotiations…a subtle reminder that everything will be OK if you just do the right thing, man. To place this hole at a common, flat parkland property would be perfectly sufficient. To place it at this exact spot on the Davenport is appreciating your canvas.
Sometimes that means being smart enough to not get too smart. The most photographed hole at the club, No. 16, is one of the least interesting from a strictly strategic perspective. This is one where even I could have told ownership that a long tee shot downhill, across Spencer Creek (which flows in from the left), with a sheer rock face showing along the right side, is basic math. Alison didn’t need to do much, so he didn’t. I believe they call that “minimalism” in this day and age.
Messrs. Forse and Nagle deserve kudos for their work, as well. Aside from using Hirono as a touchpoint for restoring bunkers around the property (aerials from the era don’t exist), they were also tasked with creating new opening and closing holes (I was told by a member, who caddied at the club during the ‘50s, that the earliest No. 18 was an awkward 90-degree dogleg around the property cesspool). The new model is a par four of modest length, but requiring a forced carry across the creek to reach a tight green. Finding the proper angle means challenging the creek along the left. That said, those who desire distance over angle can attempt to carry the large bunker on the right to receive the reward of a tee shot kicked forward.
The course isn’t perfect, but just barely; the short par five that closes the front nine looks dramatic, with the creek flowing all along the right, with a perched green alongside, daring you to go for two. The trees along the left side of this pipeline fairway proves that Golden Age architects could be just as penal…although I didn’t have the guts to bring this up to Nagle, they could be removed. The better golfers might argue it would make this 520-yard five “too easy” but I challenge them to say that while trying to land an approach from 240 out to this lofted green. Coore and Crenshaw have proven time and again that the widest fairways in the world don’t make it any easier to score if the green is tucked in a corner against the hazard.
I’m generally pleased to associate myself with Top100GolfCourses, but I am especially pleased today, considering that this is the only site that currently lists Davenport among its Top 100 U.S. courses (GOLF and Digest need to look through their spam boxes for the memo). I think it belongs further up the list; in my personal rankings, I’ve even placed it ahead of one Top 100 World course from this site. This is not to say I’m correct…but to some degree, a golf course is a matter of taste, and Davenport ticks two of my biggest boxes. One of these is a superb routing. Often I celebrate Donald Ross for his many locations where he found ways to fit the optimal holes within tight parcels. Perhaps a greater challenge is to receive a magnificent piece of land and create a splendid answer to an open-ended question. I recently saw Tom Doak’s pitch for the Erin Hills project; it shook me.
Alison’s route at Davenport, and the landforms it sits upon, left me equally shook.
July 29, 2021