Arch rivals even before the Beatles landed in America in the early 1960s, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have always been a contrast in style. There was Arnie, the charismatic swashbuckler who thrilled the masses with his low, piercing drives and go-for-broke heroics. Jack, 10 years his junior, was more self-contained and methodical, a consummate strategist who rode his power fade and pressure-proof putting to more major victories than anyone.
An interest in golf course design came naturally to both, although, like their swings, their styles and approaches to the business were entirely different. Palmer is the figurehead of his design company, leaving most of the actual work in the hands of Ed Seay and other staff architects. Nicklaus is more hands-on. He has evolved his style from the severe crash-and-burn courses of the '80s, venues it was said only he could play, to well-conceived layouts that anyone can handle from the forward tees.
The likelihood of these two titans pooling their talents to co-design a course would be unthinkable anywhere else but at World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Florida, home of the World Golf Hall of Fame. It was PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem who asked the King (as Arnie's army called him) and the Bear (as Nicklaus was dubbed by the media in his golden days) to put their heads together in the design of WGV's second course. Cross a rope hook with a power fade and what do you get? A beauty right down the middle. As Palmer said at the time the project was announced, "We are going to do some things that probably neither one of us would do alone. On the other hand, we're going to totally cooperate, so it will have both our styles incorporated." Routed on former pastureland, the front nine offers open, links-style holes, though with plenty of water in play. The back nine is classic Florida parkland golf, the holes framed by saw palmetto, loblolly pines, and 200-year-old live oaks.
Opened late last year and site of the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, a Senior PGA Tour event, the King & Bear is an amalgam of two different but complementary design styles. There are sickle-shaped holes bent around lakes lined with coquina rock that resemble the great risk-reward par fours and fives at Bay Hill, Palmer's winter home in Orlando. Also, a number of holes feature "beach" bunkers, with the sand sloped down to the water's edge, another Palmer touch. The greens are representative of Jack's most recent work: Subtle plateaus and gentle swales are woven into sizable putting surfaces. Nearly every green has a difficult "Sunday" pin placement area clearly designed for tournament play. Lastly, an equal number of holes bend to the left or right off the tee. There are no tricks. As befits a duo with nearly 500 designs to their credit, the test is firm but fair.
Each hole holds strategic interest, but a few are especially memorable. Among them is the fourth, a short par four with cross bunkers in the driving zone that tempts big hitters to go for the well-defended green; the back-to-back behemoths at eight and nine, each a trouble-strewn par four strong enough to give experts the willies from the tips at 460 and 454 yards, respectively; the 11th, a watery par three loosely modeled after the par-three 12th at Augusta National, and just as dangerous; and the par-five 18th, a grand finale flanked by wetlands to the left and by a huge coquina waste area dotted with broomsedge and cordgrass beside the green. Reachable in two? For the King and the Bear, perhaps. All others should lay up.
Shortly before ground was broken, Nicklaus said, "Arnold and I were competitive every time we teed it up. We stayed competitive in everything we have done. One guy wins one time; the other guy wins another time. This time we are both going to win." Actually, the big winner is the Florida-bound golfer who plays (from the correct set of tees) this well-groomed spread co-produced by two great champions.
The King & Bear clubhouse, a handsome wood-and-stone structure set on a gentle rise behind the ninth and 18th greens, doubles as a museum, its halls hung with black-and-white photos of Palmer and Nicklaus in their heydays.
Walkers are welcome. Golf packages are available through Sheraton's Vistana Resort and WGV Renaissance Resort. Tee times: 904-940-6088. Web site: www.worldgolfvillage.com.