Ron Whitten doesn’t throw platitudes around willy-nilly about every golf course he sees. Golf Digest’s esteemed expert on golf courses and architecture has to truly be moved, and to see his comments in national print about the new Mystic Creek Golf Course in El Dorado speaks volumes.

Those Arkansas gems — the Alotian Club, Pleasant Valley Country Club and the two courses at Chenal Country Club — typically rate 1-4 in rankings of the state’s best courses. But the difference among Mystic Creek and the big three is that Mystic Creek is open to the public and at an affordable rate for the average golfer.

The course, officially called the Resurrection Course at Mystic Creek, is situated about three miles west of downtown El Dorado and a mile north of U.S. Highway 82 on state highway 335 and was originally targeted for a 2011-12 opening. But Mother Nature threw too much rain and too much heat at the lower portion of the state during a couple of growing seasons, and Mystic Creek didn’t officially open for play until last May. Whitten isn’t the only avid golfer and visitor to many of the nation’s finer courses to already sing its praises.

“We did not have an elite golf course in the area,” said Pete Parks, the managing partner of a group of area businessmen who financed the project. “I and several others found ourselves traveling to play golf. We thought, if we were willing to do that, others would do that and travel to an elite course in our area. It couldn’t be just a new course, it had to be elite.

“We’ve attracted the golfers who love golf and want to play a quality golf course and a challenging golf course,” said Parks, an El Dorado CPA by trade. “We’ve had a lot of favorable reviews comparing us to elite golf courses in the country. We wanted to build something that people would really love.”

There is an older, traditional-style course at the El Dorado Country Club and the city sports an older public course as well. But south from Pine Bluff and Hot Springs Village all the way to I-20 in Louisiana, the opportunity for building an elite “destination” course like Mystic Creek was wide open. Parks’ vision when the land was acquired in 2008 was to follow a Pinehurst, N.C., blueprint, one that could bring economic development to the area and draw not only local golfers but visitors from afar.

Enter architect Ken Dye (no relation to the Pete Dye design family) to craft a routing through virgin, mostly pine forest in Union County. Dye was tutored by the late, great Joe Finger (designer of Pleasant Valley and Pine Bluff Country Club) and leads the Katy, Texas-based Finger Dye Spann architecture company.

Unlike many projects of the golf course-building boom during the past decade-plus — where courses were built and routed around upscale housing developments — Mystic Creek’s owners took the opposite approach.

Parks said, “What I did was I laid out a block of land and gave it to Ken Dye and said, ‘Go find the best golf course you can.’

“He did the routing and then we made the housing development secondary to that. We have very nice housing areas on the outer edges of the property but we put the priority on finding the best golf course first. By doing that you don’t cross any roads with the golf course design.”

With the par-72 course and its Champion Bermuda greens and Celebration Bermuda fairways finished, the focus is on the next stage, Parks said: a clubhouse and overnight cottages. Parks hopes to have those completed in a year.

Along with the weather delays, the development was further slowed by the need for power to be directed to the project’s pump station for irrigation. But the wait was worth it, Parks said.

“We actually redid some things that we determined would make the golf course better,” he said and explained that the weather problems actually led to making bigger greens, and now each green offers seven or eight cup locations.

“The greens should soften up some this year,” Parks said. “The greens have been really hard; that’s the nature of new greens. We did two aerifications last year and will do two this year … We continue to clear areas on the perimeter of the golf course to make it more playable … from tee to green I don’t think we could ask for anything more.”

Mystic Creek is termed semi-private in that memberships are available, but the public can play for as low as $60 (including tax and cart) during the week (Tuesday-Thursday) and $75 on weekends (Friday-Sunday, as well as holiday Mondays).

Mystic Creek has already attracted members from Dallas, as well as California and northwest Arkansas, Parks said, and he expects that number to grow when the clubhouse and cottages are finished.

“We want people coming here to play it,” Parks said. “It was modeled after Pinehurst where you build an elite course and let the public come play and then you have a memberships, too, which Pinehurst has — a Whistling Straits, Pinehurst-type model. But we don’t charge as much as they do.”

Like Chenal

Nike golf representative Kim Backus and Alotian Club Chief Operating Officer Dan Snider joined Arkansas State Golf Association Executive Director Jay Fox in a late summer trip to Mystic Creek. The trio and their fourth, Steve Wells of Hampton, only managed to get in nine holes before time constraints forced them to head home, but Fox left raving about the El Dorado course.

“The rock work around the ponds, the hazards, it’s absolutely phenomenal,” Fox said. “It’s a four- or five-star course, whatever you would rate a top course. “It reminded me of Chenal, at least the nine holes I played. Chenal has the ponds with the decorated rock walls and that’s what you see at Mystic Creek … I look forward to teeing it up on the back nine. It’s just a phenomenal place. In fact, [the ASGA] is looking at having an event down there, and soon.”

Parks says his course has many strong points, but what stands out most is that it looks like Augusta National from tee to green with the backdrop of cathedral pines, it plays like Pinehurst No. 2 on the greens, and it has the bunkering style of Winged Foot.

“Murphy Oil does business in North Carolina with RJR, and some of their people get to go to Pinehurst every year,” Parks said. “They came away saying, ‘Your greens make Pinehurst No. 2’s look slow.’ The golfers used to playing courses around this area find [Mystic Creek] difficult. We didn’t want to build something that was just an average course.

“TPC Sawgrass, Whistling Straits, the first time you play those courses you come away thinking ‘That’s a tough course’ but the more you play them the easier they get. We hope 10 years down the road, as it matures, that Mystic Creek will be like that. That’s why we did it. We wanted to build an elite golf course that people around the country would say, ‘That’s a tough, great course.’ ”

Parks wouldn’t put a dollar figure on Mystic Creek’s costs to build, but he did say “it’s the third most expensive course ever built in Arkansas, behind Alotian and the Blessings.”

Mystic Creek, with its Bermuda, should round into exceptional playing shape in May and continue to a peak during the fall, when it’s at its prettiest, Parks said. Elevation changes range from 15-45 feet, and the course plays “downhill” on 17 of 18 holes.

Mystic Creek measures 7,500 from the tips and has six sets of tees.

“The course is completely laid out in front of you, no blind shots,” Parks said.