A standard comment from golfers who have played Blue Bell Country Club is, "Nice course, but why did they have to build all those houses so close to the fairways?"
All across Blue Bell, as you stand on a tee sizing up the beauty or obstacles of a hole, the eye is often drawn away from the course itself to the plentiful and pricey homes that line many fairways, usually without trees to serve as a buffer.
It's a common sight for anybody who plays much golf in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Florida or Arizona, where golf courses are increasingly the centerpieces for housing or condominium developments. But for some golfers, it can be a stark, even objectionable, departure from the tradition of quiet, tree-lined courses so prevalent in this region.
"I came here from Plymouth Country Club, which is a classic old course with big trees everywhere," said Blue Bell's head professional, Don DeAngelis. "But that course and some of the others in the area are actually much tighter. The landing areas here are more generous than a lot of the older courses."
Even so, the owners of Bell Blue have decided that it's enough of an issue to speed along the course's maturation. Three years after it opened, they planted 500 to 750 trees - most of them already 15 to 20 feet tall - in strategic locations around the course in the hope of keeping golfers focused on the fairways and greens, rather than the homes.
"We can't wait for Mother Nature," said general manager Bill Beisel Jr. at the time. "We want to do what's needed to make the golf experience enjoyable."
Not that the golf experience at Blue Bell is unpleasant. Ed Seay, chief architect for Arnold Palmer's design company, has come up with several fine golf holes, weaving the course through the upscale Toll Brothers development.
From the championship tees, Blue Bell can be a monster - 7,203 yards that play to a 74.1 rating and a 132 slope. That's a bull of a course, even for long hitters. From the blue tees, Blue Bell measures a more reasonable 6,701 yards.
Blue Bell offers a mix of flat and rolling contours. Eight holes feature some degree of dogleg, though only Nos. 5, 17 and 18 are truly pronounced. Water comes into play on 11 holes. The greens are large, though not huge by many modern architects' standards, and offer moderate undulation. From the tees to greens, the course is generally in excellent condition. The fairways, currently rye grass, are being converted to bent to match the tees and greens.
The par-3 12th, the signature hole, is a beast. Totally over water - unless you sneak it up the ribbon of fairway on the left side - No. 12 can play as long as 241 yards from the championship tees, 198 from the blues. Merely hitting the green is an accomplishment.
Palmer himself, however, favors another par-3, the 155-yard third, which plays over a sizable marshland and features a bunker left of the green and marsh on the right, said DeAngelis, who caddied for Palmer during a round at Blue Bell in May.
Palmer's other favorite hole, said DeAngelis, is No. 4, a rolling, slightly uphill 376-yard, par-4 dogleg left. It's not one of the tougher holes on the course, but with a backdrop of trees behind the green, it's one of the prettiest.
A far more devilish hole, however, is the next one, the 497-yard, par-5 fifth, a severe dogleg left that requires a layup tee shot, a second shot over an ominous creek and underbrush that slash across the fairway at a 45-degree angle, then a medium- to short-iron into an elevated green. A birdie is quite possible for big hitters; and so is a double-bogey.
On the back side, No. 13 is one of the tougher par-4 holess. At 420 yards from the blues, No. 13 requires two solid rips to reach the green, with the second shot almost all carry over thicket.
No. 16, a 499-yard par-5, also offers a risk/reward ration that results in plenty of birdies and doubles. The tee shot is up over a crest, where a nasty fairway bunker resides on the right. But the real problem is over the crest and out of view from the tee: The entire right half of the fairway is a sprawling collection bunker leading down to a wild-grass hazard.
Blue Bell has realized only part of its considerable potential, and the addition of the trees can only help. If it could somehow be picked up and plopped down into a more bucolic setting, it probably already would have turned more heads. Then again, if it weren't for the housing development that bothers some golfers, the course probably wouldn't exist at all.
Orginally published September 29, 1996