Today’s post focuses on a course near and dear to my heart, Mystery Valley.

Mystery Valley is a municipal golf course in Lithonia, GA–very close to Stone Mountain and to Southland Golf course, the subject of a prior PF review (see The course, nestled between majestic pine trees, plays 6700 yards around several lakes. Although not the longest test, Mystery Valley presents a fair challenge that rewards good shots and punishes bad ones.

Along with nearby Sugar Creek, Mystery Valley is the municipal golf course of DeKalb County, GA. The course opened in 1966 and has remained largely unchanged since Then. Although some landscape is different since when I started playing there in the early 90s, the layout is basically the same. The brother of famed Atlanta golfer Charlie Yates was the first head pro at the course. It is even rumored that Bobby Jones walked the grounds at one time.

However, none of this history is apparent when arriving at and playing the course. A long, winding drive previews the front 9 to the player as he drives into the course. A modest clubhouse with a chipping green, putting green, and substandard driving range greet the player.

At first glance, the course doesn’t look like much. However, it’s layout–meandering through the natural hills and elevation changes–provides a great test to the average golfer and some great opportunities for the advanced one. There are a good number of risk/reward shots for the long hitters as well as a number of bailouts for the average players. The fairways usually have nice green grass and are mostly wide and inviting.

Although not terribly fast, Mystery Valley is one of the few municipal golf courses in Atlanta that has not converted to bermuda greens. The bent grass is usually well-maintained but can become a little shaggy on certain days and after rains. And despite the work required for maintaining the greens, an average player can still walk on weekend mornings for under $30–plus, the course is especially easy to walk since it was built before carts were mainstream and is set up with tees in close proximity to greens.

Like all courses–and especially municipals–Mystery Valley has its drawbacks. There are several holes that border on unfair. For example, the par-3 second hole includes a green that is so severely sloped that certain pin placements are virtually unreachable. Bunkers typically lack sand and are very inconsistent if sand is included. Because it is a muni, weekends are typically packed, and 4.5-hour rounds should be expected; note, however, the course management takes their jobs very seriously, and only in very strange situations will a 5-hour round occur.

As stated, this course is very near and dear to my heart, as it is the place that I learned to play. If it were a private course located in the center of Atlanta–and if it had a little more length–it would be a likely spot for a tournament or at least a desired track. The enjoyment of the layout is comparable or superior to Druid Hills, East Lake, and Dunwoody Country Club, just to name a few. However, because it is municipal, it gets little credit for the true gem that it is.

There are many drawbacks to Mystery Valley–certainly. However, it is the course that I continually return to because 1) it is a fair course and 2) it is a fair price.

Layout: 9/10
Maintenance: 7/10
Greens: 8/10
Cost: 9/10
Value: 9/10
Practice Facility: 5/10
Proximity to Atlanta: 6/10

Overall: 8/10

NOTE: At the current time (July 2011), Mystery Valley is undergoing construction to repair drainage systems. Please be sure to call the proshop at (404) 469-6913 to ensure that construction is complete before your round.

I recently played Southland Golf Course in Stone Mountain/Lithonia, Georgia, and am providing this review to the readers of the PF.

At the PF, we strive to provide (when we can) a review of a course for the average Joe who just wants to get value out his Sunday round. Although a spectacular review, LG’s post about Pebble Beach (located here, if you want to check it out) is the exception for what we intend to review. As such, today’s review will not be in the clouds of playing a spectacular golf course, but rather will be giving the general reader an honest review of a course he or she might play this weekend. Without further ado, I review Southland.

A little background–I grew up not far from Southland. When I was in high school a friend landed a job there and often got me onto the course for little cost. Obviously, I’ve become familiar with the course over time and have an understanding of the layout that comes only with a sustained ability to play a course consistently.

In the 90s, Southland was a private club sustained by the neighborhood surrounding it. It opened its doors to the public around 2000 and was shortly thereafter bought by a group called “Eagle Greens.” Many in the Atlanta area will remember Eagle Greens for its buying and revitalizing of many courses in the area. The business model was to hire young, fresh-out-of-college superintendents so that the courses could pay them lower salaries and, thereby, become profitable. The business model must not have worked in the long run, because Eagle Greens is now defunct. During the height of Southland’s membership with Eagle Greens, the course was spectacular; in fantastic shape, manicured, with lots of perks and inexpensive. They had GPS on the carts (in the early and mid 2000s, when GPS was kind of chic), and the cost of a round was only in the $35-ish range (with cart on a weekend!).

However, long before Eagle Greens went away, the group sold Southland to Korean Air Lines. KAL has a habit of purchasing courses and running them into the ground. They make no attempt to maintain the courses, and they basically make profits off of the goodwill that the courses have had with players before until no one patronizes the course anymore. KAL killed the first course where I first broke 80 (Atlanta International, shooting 77). They ran Southland into the ground. I played it several years ago–2008 or 2009, probably–and was told by the pro shop that the course was in nice shape, only to find that every green had been aerated and was COVERED with sand. I vowed not to go back.

However, nostalgia go the best of me. A friend told me it was getting better, and–frankly–they had the earliest tee time this Sunday, so I decided to bite.

Because I grew up playing the (largely) wide-open public courses in the city of Atlanta, Southland is a course that bothers me. The heavily-wooded course contains a number of blind shots, dead spots, and traps (not sand, although it has those too). For my review, I tend to think that Southland over-penalizes mishits in many cases. A shot that is 10-yards offline could cost you 3 strokes trying to get out of the woods and back into play. Generally, the course is narrow, and the layout can be a little crazy. For example, the 8th hole (pictured above) is a 300+ yard straightaway hole from the white tees–pretty simple, just over water. From the blue tees, however, you actually have to hit down a hill to the area where the white tees are located and then hit from (basically right in front of) the white tees to the green, 260+ yards away. The shot from the blues to the white tees is about 180 yards. So, for me, I played a par 4 hitting 6-iron then 3-wood. That doesn’t make a lot of sense, no matter which course/hole you’re playing. This is but one example. Another would be the 11th hole, where a simply 340-yard par 4 can be a nightmare if you try to “go for it.” Playing a 3-iron off the tee is FAR better, as virtually any shot hit with the driver will be lost (for reasons that are difficult to explain). And the 15th includes a fairway bunker bounded by trees that is less than 100 yards from the green; thus, if you’re in that bunker, there is no way to get out without losing shots–unless you are incredibly skilled at hitting 70-yard cut and punched 5-irons out of bunkers. This kind of course bothers me, as my game is typically not defined by exacting precision, but is closer to a “bomb and gouge” style. If I bomb on Southland, there’s no way to gouge, unfortunately.

Such criticisms could be levied at some of the greatest courses in the world: Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Harbour Town, Bethpage, and Pinehurst could all be called “unfair” for the same or similar reasons; that’s just a gripe that my game is a square peg for the round hole that is this type of golf (I’m working on it, but the process is tedious).

However, KAL did some real damage to Southland. Although it is under new management that is trying to bring it back, it simply isn’t maintained to the level it needs to be. The greens were better than many places in Atlanta, considering many places lost their greens last year. Moreover, Southland doesn’t get much play since many of the patrons were completely turned off by KAL’s management that they wrote the course off completely (and now patronize nearby Mystery Valley, which I will review later). So those are some benefits. However, there is little or no sand in most of the bunkers. The bunker edges are not trimmed and, in fact, show signs of water erosion. There is pooling of water in fairways for no apparent reason. The course is muddy in places and baked in others. Months-old grass clippings are all over the fairways, piled in lines by rainwaters flowing down the fairways at some point. Many tee boxes are unlevel, lack grass, and have inordinate amounts of sand on them. Such maintenance issues make the course difficult and unenjoyable, as it’s nearly impossible to find a consistent lie, even in the best fairway. Also, although the pro shop has a collection of….let’s call them “vintage”….equipment for which you can haggel a deal, there is no food service in the pro shop, cart staff, beverage cart, food at the turn, etc.,etc. At $30 on a Sunday morning with a cart, it might be worth it if you were late trying to get a tee time, but if you’re able to play elsewhere, it’s probably be a better bet not to play Southland.

Greens: 8/10
Fairways: 3/10
Other course maintenance: 2/10
Cost: 7/10
Value: 5/10
Pace of Play: 9/10
Pro shop/clubhouse: 1/10

Overall: 4/10