Jasna Polana Estate being transformed into world class golf course

Having deserted stately Princeton for the international jet set life in Monte Carlo, Basia Johnson's "bright meadow" of some 200-plus Princeton acres could have sprouted an 80-home subdivision. Speculation ran that she might turn her $25 million dollar mansion, one of the most expensive homes ever built in the United States, into a conference center or transform it into a museum to enshrine her worldly treasures. Instead, the widow of Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company heir J. Seward Johnson Sr. opted to turn Jasna Polana (which means bright meadow in Polish) into a golf course.

But no ordinary golf course, mind you. Just as she has made a name in the art world collecting religious art and other museum-quality pieces, Johnson aims to make Jasna Polana a name to reckon with by transforming her estate into a site worthy of world class tournament play. She's planning to spend $15 million to do it, too (Forbes magazine has estimated Johnson's worth at $900 million).

Johnson hired golf great Gary Player to design the course, expected to be ready for play in 1997. Her mansion, home to her art collection, will become the clubhouse.

Princeton's Michael Graves, well-known for both his architectural feats (including the Swan and Dolphin Hotels at Disney World) and his design talents (including the ubiquitous Alessi teapot with the bluebird on the spout) has signed on to design the clubhouse restaurant.

South African-born Player, who has nine major championships to his credit and now travels the senior circuit in tournament play, reportedly was wowed when he first saw the site. And no wonder. The chance to carve out a major golf course in park-like territory minus homes lining the fairways is no small opportunity. "It's a rolling site. It's rare to have this; usually you have to do some home development," opines Chris Gray of the Professional Golfers Association.

The PGA was brought in to add its expertise on how best to prepare the site for tournament play. Its subsidiary, the Tournament Players Club, will operate the course when it opens; the course will officially be known as TPC at Jasna Polana.

While neither Gray nor Gary Player's firm would commit to what kinds of tournaments Jasna Polana will host, it's a good bet that within five years an event will be held in Princeton, probably from the Senior Circuit - perhaps with Player himself on the greens.

You can almost hear golfers up and down the East Coast rattling their clubs at the prospect of teeing off at Jasna Polana - some 160 had reportedly shelled out $36,000 for individuals by last December. Annual fees will be another $5,000. Corporate memberships will cost $42,500.

Some of the new members probably have tested their swings on other Player-designed courses such as the one at Palmas del Mar Resort on Puerto Rico or the Blackmoor Golf Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C. If so, they know Player's main criteria in designing a golf course is to make it playable for the recreational golfer as well as the professional.

What's planned for Jasna Polana is a par 72 championship course. At least four tee positions will be possible to vary the length of shots from hole to hole, making the greens flexible for an easy or tough round of golf. Seventeen of the holes will be what enthusiasts term strategic: a golfer can decide to play it safe or go for a riskier shot.

Hole 18, however, will be what golf course architects call heroic. Those with gusto can try to swing one over trees and a creek for "one of the best finishing holes in golf," according to Tim Freeland, Player's man assigned to the project.

Most of the curiosity about Jasna Polana has been about the mansion. Comparisons are all ready being made between the drive into Jasna Polana's clubhouse from its planned main entrance on Province Line Road and Magnolia Lane, the breathtaking entry to Augusta National Clubhouse in Georgia, site of the annual Masters Tournament. Flower gardens will be planted at Jasna Polana's front gate and a colonnade of 40-foot oaks will line the driveway. Parallel to the colonnade will be a mature screening of 30-foot white pine to the left and ornamental flowering trees on the right.

Gardens near the mansion also will add to Jasna Polana's outdoor splendor. These include a boxwood garden, a rose garden, a terraced flower garden and a reflecting pool with four specimen evergreen trees accenting the pool's four corners.

The real work for Player, however, is to draw the duffers.

For that, says Freeland, a simple philosophy will be followed which might be summed up as: Don't mess too much with Mother Nature. This sensibility is echoed by Gray of the PGA team. "We want to reflect what's there," Gray says. "We'll leave as much as possible, and enhance that with plantings."

Rather than move mountains - or in this case, mounds of earth - to create an artificial feel to the place, the golf course architects plan to keep as much of the estate intact as they can. That means leaving as many mature trees as possible or adding new trees in a more suitable site. Some 600 trees from five-foot saplings to huge oaks will be sacrificed, but for every one taken out, almost two more will be planted. Many of the new trees will be flowering ones - cherry trees on hole 10, dogwoods on hole 11, for example - to create a theme through the course.

On a parkland course like Jasna Polana's, trees do their part in making the course beautiful as well as add a challenge by amplifying or redirecting the wind.

"Championship players add this component to their strategy," Freeland says.

Wetlands, marshy areas and land needed to soak up stream run-off, also will play their part in the design. "We're lucky they're so pretty the way they are," says Freeland. "We don't have to enhance them. We can use them as a feature, just like a lake, so it becomes positive."

"We want it to have the same feel as the mansion," Freeland says of the course, using the word "traditional" to describe the feel the planners are trying to achieve. "It will never look more natural than what's there now," Freeland admits, but adds the challenge is to "sculpt" the land to look as if the course has always been part of Jasna Polana. The driving philosophy behind Player-designed courses, Freeland says, is that golf courses "should be a gift to nature."

For her part, Barbara "Basia" Johnson will keep an apartment in the Jasna Polana mansion and perhaps even take up golf - although she swung a club at the groundbreaking of her new venture, golf is a game she doesn't yet know how to play.

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