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Friday, August 19, 2005

Atunyote Golf Club at Turning Stone, Overpriced, Strategy-light and no Architectural Echo

ATUNYOTE GOLF CLUB (Turning Stone casino)

Architect: Tom Fazio

Par 72

Excitement Level - 5/12

Difficulty - 7/12

Cost - $175, no reduced rates

Design - Two and 1/2 stars (all ratings out of seven)

Natural Setting - Two and 1/2 stars

Conditioning - 6 stars

Value - One-half a star

Overall rating - One and one-half stars


In prior articles I introduced and discussed the golf term “architectural echo.” While one “blogger” inquired where it lay between reminiscence and plagiarism, it is nowhere near either. That’s not even “close enough for Jazz” as musicians say.

Architectural echo is the extent to which a golf course design and routing maximize the use of strategic design features to make play more challenging and interesting. Examples include false-front greens, punchbowls, crowned fairways or greens, alternating shot values and or perpendicular or diagonal hazards to create multiple angles of play.

The best example I have seen this year has been Brian Silva’s private design Black Rock in his home town of Boston. Silva empties the goodie bag of oldies and gives us new twists as well. Diagonal waste bunkers and perpendicular fairway bunkers create corridors of play for all skill levels. Punchbowls and false fronts and saddles abound in the green complexes keeping the golfer thinking on every shot the best way to attack the hole for his ability. Silva also builds his trademark “Green Monster” bunkers, a large hill of bunkers stacked on top of each other like pancakes that are challenging, beautiful and unique.


Additionally, Golf Magazine’s top 100 lists came out this week and show heavy emphasis on strategic layouts, passing over many overpriced contrived layouts which look pretty, but like the proverbial platinum blonde, ultimately fail to satisfy long-term .

Atunyote (and the rest of the Turning Stone casino courses) were absent. Notice I did not say conspicuously absent, for most of the course conesseours already saw through Atunyote’s flash and hype. (Funny, but the cheapest and underhyped course, Rick Smith’s Shenandoah is the unanimous pick by experts as the best course at the resort.)

Atunyote’s supporters pray to all the false idols of golf design, expense, a big-name architect and length/difficulty. The result speaks for itself. After the typical opening excitement, RTJ II’s Kaluhyut (Atunyote’s predecessor) went from a top 10 finish in the “pricey” list for its first year, to a footnote.

Disappointed but not probative or introspective enough to examine the whys, the owners didn’t learn from one mistake and made a second - they paid every expense to build Atunyote. They were determined to deliver what they were sure the golfing public wanted. The result was a long, but overly wide strategy-light, overpriced gaudy arcade of a golf course that summarizes all the design mistakes of the 80's and early 90's and boasts a price of $175 that is completely unjustifiable. In short, waterfalls, stained glass windows in the clubhouse and "Augusta White sand" in the bunkers are the drawing points according to the media relations team.


Upon my arrival for media day, the staff took the greatest pains to show me the “magic gate” through which no one can pass unless they have a tee time - not even locals wishing to make purchases in the proshop. They next directed me to the large stained glass window in the grill room, the wood-paneled lounges and lockers and the waterfall. I was informed “that’s Augusta
white sand in the bunkers.”

I asked specific questions about design features - punchbowls, cross hazards, random bunkers and the like and repeatedly got the same answer - “Oh No. We have nothing like that here. But aren't the bunkers beautiful?"


First the good news. Atunyote is superbly conditioned, the food and amenities are excellent and the staff is friendly (so long as you are taken in by and parrot the marketing shtick).

However, Atunyote fails on four important levels. First, the course appears and in fact is completely artificial. Millions of cubic yards were moved to make typical Fazio 60 yd wide fairways and to fit the man-made lakes.

Next, the natural setting is merely average. The course is in the farmlands of the thinly traveled and golf starved I-90 corridor of upstate New York. Quoting only Fazio courses for now, it is a less interesting plot that Barton Creek (Texas foothills and canyons), Pine Hill and World Woods (sandhills of Jersey and Florida respectively), Ventana Canyon (AZ), Pelican Hill (Pacific coast) and TPC-Myrtle Beach. Except for Barton Creek, all of those courses are markedly cheaper than Atunyote.

Third, there is no strategy to speak of. There are a handful of good holes. 5, 9, 11 and 15 come to mind, but most trade beauty and predictability for brains. Hook bunkers are routinely at 270-290, slice bunkers at 240-260. All the bunkers are the same tired multiple-node cloverleaf style bunkers seen at most Fazio/Jones layouts. There is not much variety in the length of the par-4s...just one long hole after another. There are no punchbowls, only one forced carry (a 100 yard tee shot over a creek.,), no false front greens, no gull-wings...in short, nothing really interesting architecturtally.

Since there are no advanced design features, the course is devoid of architectural echo.

Finally, the price is a patrician insult to the hard working people of the region. That exorbitant price is higher than Bandon Dunes (off season), Pumpkin Ridge, PGA West, Sawgrass, Troon North (summer), Ventana, World Woods, anything good in Myrtle (stop me anytime...)

Heck, just within four hours, you get better value and more sound design at Hiawatha ($50), Bethpage ($82), Red Tail ($90/$50), Pinehills ($70), Pine Hill ($145) just to name a few.

Since readers speak loudly as well as industry professionals, lets look to the voice of the people. 42% responding to a GM poll said revered perennial world No. 1 course Pine Valley wasn’t worth $150!! Where is Atunyote going with $175??? No one who truly champions public golf can say think that price is reasonable for almost ANY course.

Because the course looks pretty and because the nearest outstanding daily fee course is two hours away in Binghamton (the much better, more interesting and cheaper Hiawatha Landing), some might be entranced by the gimmicks. Then again, most need only travel a couple hours for a first-hand look at how many other facilities accomplish what Atunyote does at a lower price and with a more varied deesign.


Those who engage in any criticism of the course may find the service much cooler though. Two quotes are most disconcerting. In touting the course’s playing host to the Club Pro Championship in 2006, the media director responded to my earlier column on the course by saying Atunyote was on par with “Pinehurst, Valhalla, Whistling Straits, Doral and La Quinta. Nice Company.” He even encouraged one person to call the course "the Augusta of the North."

The course is two years old and you think it has any right to claim comparison to the wonders of the golfing world? Come again? This person later admitted to not visiting or playing a single one of the courses he mentioned in the quote.

Another overly enthusiastic resort employee gushed “we’re angling to host a major and on that day Tiger Woods is going to sink a putt for birdie on the eighteenth green at Atunyote to win!”

Atunyote can’t hold a major because the fairways are too wide and if you grow rough to pinch them, it takes the bunkers out of play. Plus the greens are too large, flat and easy. By the way, Quick! Can you name the last Fazio course to hold a major? PGA National held the PGA in 1987 and was uniformly panned as the worst major of the late 20th century. They haven’t played a Fazio design since. Also, Oak Hill - just down the street in Rochester - might have a thing or two about hosting that major as well.

Moreover, Pinehurst’s greeens require a graduate degree in golf course architecture to begin to understand their complexity. The angles there are so good, your geometry teacher would moan in orgasm. Whistling Straits is not merely great because of its stunning lakeside setting. Dye wove random bunkers and alternating shot requirements onto a wide palette of natural green settings, making the course an expert test, not just eye candy. Valhalla has brilliant risk reward options, making it an exciting tournament venue.

Undulating green complexes with devilish chipping angles? Random bunkers confounding long bombers? Plenty of strategic options? A variety of architectural features? Yeah Atunyote, you are right.

You have nothing like that.

One well respected international guide to golf courses frequently rates such Disney-fied, strategy light designs very low on their ten point rating scale. They describe an absolute zero as “A course so contrived and unnatural that it may poison your mind and which I cannot recommend under any circumstances. Reserved for courses which wasted ridiculous sums of money in their construction and which shouldn’t have been built in the first place.”

While Atunyote is unnatural, gaudy and never should have been built as it didnt learn from or correct the errors of the other two courses on property, it still passes the test of minimum competence.

A “2" as “A mediocre golf course with little or no architectural interest, but nothing really horrible...play it in a scramble and drink a lot of beer.”

That’s the best way to get in a day at Atunyote. PLay it in a scramble and drink alot of beer. It’s a solid effort, but unremarkable and dreadfully overpriced. But hey don’t tell them that. They’ll just say ”hey look at our waterfall and stained glass window! Its worth every penny.”


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