The Ponderosa Simple Design Stresses Shot-Making Skills
BY JIM POMERANZ
Special to The Pilot
There's a golf course just off of North Carolina Highway 87 about midway between Sanford and Spring Lake that's always been known as a "shot-makers" layout. At least that's what the old pro, the late Jimmy Overton, intended it to be when he built it in the late 1960s.
Measuring only 6,339 yards from the back tees, the par-72 track with a 71.0 course rating and a 126 slope seems to be an easy tour, a reprieve from the mega-distance courses with difficulty or length on every shot.
In reality, the Ponderosa Golf Club requires skilled shot-making and proves that golf doesn't have to be played on pristine fairways and smooth, well-manicured greens. It's a simple layout that requires thinking off the tee and an understanding of the nuances of the wavy greens with pin positions that could putt (not to be confused with drive) you crazy.
About three miles in the "country" on the west side of downtown Olivia, a Highway 87 crossroads 10 miles south of the center of Sanford and 15 miles north of the center of Spring Lake, the Ponderosa, with tight fairways, blind tee shots, skimpy Bermuda fairways, no sand traps and greens still primarily made of its original Tifton 328 Bermuda, has a middle-class appeal.
Opened in 1967, the Ponderosa was the idea and design of Overton, then head professional at Sanford Golf Course. He wanted his own course for skilled golfers who knew how to create shots from various angles and how to be creative on tricky greens. The course is owned and operated today by his second son, Billy.
When it opened, the length was good for the technology of the day. But, even today, with balls and clubs offering more and more distance, good course management at the Ponderosa starts from each tee. There's not a lot of distance from tee to green, but the layout of each hole prevents the long driver from bombing away. Being able to cut or draw a tee shot is what the elder Overton actually had in mind.
The greens offer elevation changes that would frighten most golfers until a few putts are hit. The Tifton 328 base doesn't allow too many balls to continue to trickle to edges of greens, all of which have interesting contours. It's not rare to have to negotiate a putt well off line and sometimes away from the hole to get it close or to have a chance to make birdie, salvage par or even be satisfied with bogey.
The 415-yard opening hole is a slight dogleg right which is guarded by tall pines. To the left is rough and more pines. The right shot may be an iron or a fairway metal, leaving 150 yards to the green. But in either case a slight fade is required for a good approach shot.
The two par threes on the front are not very difficult but are interesting. The 160-yard third hole requires a tee shot through a tight opening of pine branches and a complete carry over water. The eighth is a straightforward 190-yard uphill hole to a green not completely seen from the tee.
The two par fives on the front could be thought of as par-4s today, but when opened in the 1960s, the 465-yard seventh and the 420-yard ninth were hard to reach in two for different reasons.
The back nine is much of the same, yet slightly shorter (3,133 yards versus the front side 3,206 yards) and seemingly more difficult.
It starts with a 485-yard par-5 with a fairway that slopes left through the green. Long straight tee shots find the rough to the left, but a well-placed drive allows for a mid-iron approach. Shorter tee balls don't make it to the corner.
The 12th, a 371-yard, 85-degree dogleg right (yes, the hole actually comes back toward the tee a little), remains a mystery to many who have played there over the years. When the back nine opened about 15 months after the front, it was not unusual to try to pound drives over the corner only to get caught short. As technology improved, the tree grew taller and attempting to clear the corner today easily results in a low-running second shot under limbs.
From the back tees, perhaps the most interesting hole is the 16th (which was the 18th hole when the course first opened). It's 435 yards long and sets up as a dogleg right from an elevated tee. It's another blind tee shot over pines for the longer hitters or to the right of the trees for others. In either case, the resting place for your drive must be along the middle to the left side of the fairway. About 50 yards from the green, one of those bushy pines is stuck in the right half of the fairway.
The finishing hole is a straight-forward, uphill 370-yard par-4, which is not overly difficult or spectacular. When the Ponderosa first opened, it was actually the 11th hole but was switched to the 18th to allow the pro shop and spectators to see when rounds are completed.
In retrospect, the 18th should have always been the final hole at the Ponderosa, just to follow Jimmy Overton's teaching philosophy. He always wanted his students to finish on a high note to encourage them to return. Pars and birdies do that, he would say.
The 18th is not hard to play and allows golfers the chance to complete the round with a good score on the final hole. It's less of a shot-makers hole, different from the rest of the course.
At the Ponderosa Golf Club, the game is basic. Hit your tee shot where it needs to be. Play the ball as it lies off thin fairways that might mean just sand underneath. Be creative on your approach shot, sometimes with bump and runs and other times with enough trajectory to keep the ball from bounding over the firm greens. Learn to putt from off the greens; learn to putt on the greens with not a lot of break and a bit of firmness in the stroke.
The Ponderosa isn't a glamorous name by a well-known designer, but it's friendly, nice and low-key for golfers who want a shot-making challenge and experience.
Jim Pomeranz is a member of the North Carolina Golf Panel. For more information about tee times and rates at the Ponderosa and for directions to the course, call (919) 499-4013.
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