Michigan Golfer ON-LINE

by Jack Berry

How do you follow one of the most acclaimed new courses in America, a course Golf Digest voted No. 1 Resort Course in the United States when it opened in 1993?

If you're Kevin Aldridge, you follow it with another classic, old-feel design, rumple the fairways a little, raise the greens a bit, mow around them to accent pitching and chipping, square the tees in the old links style, blend in 80-some bunkers, one little creek and tag it with a fine Scottish name, Blackheath.

It is scheduled to open in August in one of the hottest golf areas in southeast Michigan. Blackheath is on Rochester Rd., five miles north of downtown Rochester and one mile south of Twin Lakes which opened last fall and pulled a ranking in GOLF Magazine's One of the Ten Best You Can Play for designer Ray Hearn.

Also in the neighborhood is The Orchards, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and listed among GOLFWEEK's 100 Best Modern Courses; Art Hills' Pine Trace, another national award winner; Jerry Matthews' Greystone and Bill Newcomb's Glacier Club. All opened in the last eight years and are upscale public courses.

"The location was a no-brainer," Aldridge said. "The growth is all coming this way. In five years we'll be surrounded by housing."

The design was another matter. Kevin's father, Stan Aldridge, is an Anglophile which is reflected in his Bloomfield Hills home which resembles an English country estate, in Indianwood Country Club which he transformed from a leaky-roofed neglected clubhouse and course into a showpiece for the 1989 and 1994 United States Women's Opens, to his Canterbury Village shops in Orion Township to the critically-acclaimed Gailes at Lakewood Shores Resort in Oscoda. The classic look came naturally to Kevin.

The Aldridges love the old Scottish and English links which are accented by long, waving rough. The fescues wave on the Old Course at Indianwood, at The Gailes and next at Blackheath.

"There's a lot of pressure," Kevin Aldridge admitted about his Blackheath design. "This is my second design and I'll be glad when it opens. When I did the Gailes, national recognition never entered my mind. There wasn't the same pressure."

Blackheath is par 71 with five par 3s, four par 5s and nine par 4s. The par 4s range from the nifty 330-yard 14th, usually downwind, to the 450-yard (from the back) 18th which is into the prevailing west wind. While the 14th is short, positioning the tee shot is very important because there is a large pond on the left side of the green -- the only pond in play -- and the green slopes that way play.

The 18th has a touch of Indianwood's Old Course monster 18th green which is 21,000 square feet and appears to have an elephant buried beneath it. Blackheath's 18th also is punch bowl and is 19,000 square feet.

While Blackheath is just Aldridge's second design, he has constructed 23 courses, from northern Michigan's Gailes down to Georgia where the newest project is in Newnan, south of Atlanta. He observed Bob Cupp, one of the hottest designers in the business, when Cupp and Jerry Pate worked on Indianwood's Old Course prior to the 1989 U.S. Women's Open and when they designed Indianwood's New Course.

"Bob is my mentor," Aldridge said. "All I learned, I learned from him."

But Aldridge, a 1986 Michigan State University graduate, has a good eye of his own and likes to climb on the bulldozer and move dirt.

"I'd send the guys home in late afternoon and then push dirt until 11 o'clock at night. I enjoy it."

There was a lot of push at Blackheath, a basic flat, treeless cornfield.

"We moved 600,000 yards of dirt. We started in 1995 and for the first six months, we did nothing but move dirt. My intention was for people to come in and think this course has been here for 70 years.

"I like the fact that it had no trees. If you have a flat, wooded site, you can't blend your mounds so that they look natural," Aldridge said.

Blackheath looks natural, including a little rock-lined creek that connects two irrigation ponds. That's the only water on the course -- those old links courses in Ireland and Great Britain rarely have water, maybe an occasional creek or "burn" like the Swilcan Burn at St. Andrews Old Course.

"I'm not a fan of water," Aldridge said. "I like creeks -- they're neat. "The creek here is functional. This land is all clay and we needed drainage."

One thing missing from Blackheath that is a feature of the Gailes is sod-faced bunkers.

"They're expensive to do," Aldridge said. "Our bunkers here are round-faced and oval and we've got all sizes. We'll have long rough, like we do on the Old Course at Indianwood and at the Gailes but this year we'll mow close so the grass can knit. Next year we'll let the rough grow and it will wave in the wind."

And wave it will. Blackheath is open to the wind. Wide open.

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