You have to dig a little deeper and do some extra research to uncover Chuck Smith’s name when it comes to Triangle golf course design, but his architectural influence and land planning expertise reaches from Clayton to Durham, with numerous stops in between.
Smith’s resume “officially” lists just three golf courses – including River Ridge in Raleigh and Crooked Creek in Fuquay-Varina – but the Cary landscape architect had a hand in the original development of Prestonwood Country Club and Lochmere, along with The Crossings and The Neuse.
“Everybody wants to design golf courses and very few get to do it, so I’ve been extremely blessed to do the ones I have done. It’s a passion,” said Smith. “I am certainly anonymous in that regard, but that’s OK.”
After a few years on the sidelines, Smith caught yet another break in his limited design career when his friendship with Champions Tour golfer and TV color analyst Bobby Clampett turned into a collaboration of the Payne Stewart Golf Club in Branson, Mo., which was opened in 2009 to rave reviews. Once again, Smith is “officially” the golf course architect, but his name is mentioned in passing on the club’s website.
“The big thing there was they wanted to focus on Payne Stewart’s name, so they weren’t trying to get into big designer names, otherwise I wouldn’t have had a chance,” Smith said. “They spent $20 million on that thing. Technically my name is on it and Bobby is listed as player consultant.”
Smith’s name IS on the scorecard at River Ridge, which was completed in 1997 and is about 10-15 minutes from downtown Raleigh in southern Wake County. After playing this course, with its stunning rock outcroppings, lakes, wetlands, ravines, and numerous twists and turns, it’s amazing the 58-year-old Smith hasn’t been tapped to design dozens of other golf courses.
Smith’s favorite architect – the late Mike Strantz of Tobacco Road fame – would be proud of Smith’s limited design credits and philosophy.
“I got to meet Strantz and studied his work,” Smith said. “I loved his camouflage and illusion aspects and I try to take that to my work.”
River Ridge measures just 6,740 yards from the tips – short by today’s standards and similar to Tobacco Road’s stature, but has a rating of 73.1, meaning this layout is far from a pushover.
In fact, with six par-4s measuring less than 400 yards from the back tees, the variety of holes is intoxicating and brings a player’s mind into play as much as his brawn.
“One of the reasons I love Tobacco Road and Strantz is you can finish a round of golf and look back and you can remember every visual, you can remember every shot you had,” Smith said. “Trying to create something that is that memorable to me makes golf more fun and makes it more interesting and you want to come back. So having that variety to me is important in that regard.
“Obviously, the equipment has made it to where you’ve got to have length, but there is a point to where you just can’t design around that anymore and you’ll never be able to overcome equipment. So you’ve got to challenge golfers with fun and variety. I’ve never been to Firestone, but when you watch it on TV it looks like it is the same thing over and over and over again. Certainly it is a great golf course, but to me it’s sort of boring.”
River Ridge is far from pedestrian. Some of its rock outcroppings are larger than SUVs and blend beautifully into a landscape that nestles up against the winding Neuse River.
“We tried to take advantage of the rocks when we could. It was interesting,” Smith said. “Hey, Missouri is one big rock so it helped to have had rock in my experience at River Ridge when I designed the Payne Stewart course.”
All the boulders at River Ridge aren’t decorative. For example, two of the course’s largest rocks are used as an aiming point off the tee on the dogleg par-5 13th hole.
“That was a big, big, big rock that would have cost a lot of money to remove so we tried to take it and use it as a feature,” Smith said.
The highlight of the front nine is the fifth hole, which requires a golfer to decide how far to hit a drive downhill toward a lake to a green that is guarded in the front by a decorative rock wall.
On the back, the 11th measures just 315 yards from the tips, but requires long hitters to carry a meandering creek 250 yards off the tee, and then fly three carefully situated bunkers in front of the putting surface.
“I like having one or two holes that you can sit there and somebody who hits it big can think about going for the green,” Smith said. “I like the risk-reward aspect of that.”
The closing three holes at River Ridge are also special and arguably the best in the Triangle.
An approach shot to the 483-yard par-4 requires a long iron over a lake. The yardage book tells golfers to “take your par and run.” Good advice.
The par-3 17th is a downhill 199-yard shot (about a 40-foot drop) to a green that is only 24 yards deep. The carry is over beautiful wetlands with a stacked-stone wall and lake ready to gobble up errant shots short and right.
The closing hole, a relatively short par-5, heads straight uphill with the white clubhouse as a backdrop. Two bunkers frame your tee shot, and a lake and bunker are to the left of the green for those attempting to reach in two.
“When I’m playing and I get around to holes 14 or 15 I already start thinking about my tee shot on No. 17 because there is no bailout area,” said River Ridge head pro Tim Cockrell. “You have to pick your poison and just go for it.”
River Ridge’s varied topography produces a unique experience, yet one that Smith was able to let unfold right in front of the golfer’s eyes.
“What I like about the elevation changes is you can always see your golf ball, it’s not like blind shots,” Cockrell said. “I’m not a big fan of a lot of blind shots and most golfers want to see where their ball ends up.”
Smith is quick to extend a special “thank you” to Dr. Johnny Bagwell of Garner Family Practice, who owned the land that River Ridge now sits on, and approached the N.C. State grad after he had recently completed Crooked Creek with the prospect of designing another Triangle course.
“He gave me an opportunity that a lot of people would not have given me and I am appreciative to this day,” said Smith, a landscape architect by trade. “Sometimes big things come from little forks in the road here and another little fork in the road there; you make decisions and things happen and pretty soon you’re in a place and you’re not sure how you got there. My whole life has been set up like that.”