Exactly 30 years ago, a golf design legend took center stage for the first time. The year was 1976 and the place, Muirfield Village Golf Club in suburban Columbus, Ohio. The legend was Jack Nicklaus. The Golden Bear had already been the finest golfer on the planet for nearly 15 years and had dabbled in architecture before, notably at Harbour Town Golf Links with Pete Dye in the late 1960s, but this would be his prime time design debut. It was a smashing success.
Nicklaus first conceived of Muirfield Village while competing in the 1966 Masters. Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, if he could do something like Bobby Jones did with the Augusta National experience, but do it in Columbus, Ohio, where he grew up. Back then, the Bear was associated with architect/land planner Desmond Muirhead, who had a talented associate in his employ named Jay Morrish. Together, they crafted what quickly became one of the PGA Tour’s most admired golf courses.
Critics lauded “The House That Jack Built,” as much for its flawless conditioning as for its design hallmarks, but every bit as impressive was how Nicklaus seamlessly integrated spectator areas into the closing holes, using hillsides and amphitheater-style mounding to provide fans with unimpeded views of the action.
Thirty years after its tournament debut, Muirfield Village continues to impress. Though not the fearsome brute it was in the 1970s and 1980s (Roger Maltbie won with a 288 total that first year and no one broke 280 until Hal Sutton in 1986), it maintains a stellar position in GOLF MAGAZINE’s Top 100 Courses in the World, at No. 38 and holds a U.S. ranking of No. 23. One look at the past champions roster will tell you that if the best courses bring out the best in the pros, Muirfield Village is a stud. Tiger Woods achieved a three-peat here from 1999-2001 while two-time champs include Tom Watson in 1979 and 1996, Greg Norman in 1990 and 1995, Hale Irwin in 1983 and 1985 and Nicklaus himself in 1977 and 1984. In recent years, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk have captured titles here as well.
Immediately after Nicklaus finished Muirfield Village, he formed his own design firm, with Jay Morrish and Bob Cupp as his lead associates. They quickly fashioned a number of top-tier courses designed specifically to host tournaments, such as Glen Abbey (Canadian Open), The Greenbrier course at the Greenbrier (1979 Ryder Cup) and Shoal Creek (1984 and 1990 PGA Championship). These were intended to be fair, but relentlessly challenging layouts that would test the pros.
By the 1980s, however, Nicklaus began crafting courses that played hard for the pros — even if no tournament would ever be held there. Course design had trended towards extremely dramatic, but extremely difficult courses and Nicklaus obliged his developer-clients by doing just that. Prevailing opinion went something like this: “Jack builds gorgeous courses that are impossible to play, maintain or afford. They’re built for his game: long, with shallow, elevated, fiercely fortified greens that require soaring, faded approaches.”
The sentiment may very well have been true into the early 1990s, but the rap followed Jack long after that, even though he had taken deliberate measures to soften his style. He acknowledges his critics and his personal learning curve in the book “Nicklaus by Design.”
“To some extent, the critics were right,” wrote Nicklaus. “In truth, I designed the way I played … long and left-to-right had been second nature to me since my early playing days at Scioto (in Columbus, Ohio).” He added, “I can be as stubborn as the next guy, but eventually I began to listen to the critics. I started trying to balance my work. This was a significant step up for me as designer.”
These days, the Bear has mellowed. He’s no longer peppering his layouts with chocolate-drop mounds or steep contours, which send scores and costs skyrocketing. His designs are now softer and more natural, and many are affordable for the Average Joe — witness Montana’s Old Works ($41) and the five courses that make up Tennessee’s Bear Trace, all of which can be played for $30-$60.
Tiger Woods may yet catch Nicklaus’ in the major championship department, but don’t look for him to touch the Golden Bear when it comes to golf course design. Nicklaus is fast approaching Donald Ross/Robert Trent Jones Sr. numbers; when all is said and done, Jack Nicklaus might be the most prolific golf course designer in history. And if the world course rankings are any indication, he will likely be hailed as one of history’s best designers as well.
Want to judge for yourself? Here are a few Nicklaus courses from different periods that you can play.
La Paloma Country Club, Tucson, Ariz. This 27-hole design was created at the height of Jack’s “magnificent but mean” run. Available to guests of the adjacent Westin La Paloma, the desert-target layout has been softened somewhat since its 1990 heyday, when GOLF MAGAZINE reported, “the three nines overmatch the average resort guest,” but the club’s Ridge/Canyon combo is still the state’s toughest public-access course, with a slope of 154.
Grand Traverse Resort and Spa (The Bear Course), Acme, Mich. With a course rating of 76.8 and a slope of 146, it’s easy to see why the Senior Tour pros balked at returning to this northern Michigan track after a few years of getting stomped on. This 1985 design has all the design earmarks of its time period — countless mounds, moguls, water hazards and elevated, multi-tiered greens.
Grand Cypress Golf Club, Orlando, Fla. Another 27-holer, and though the East nine is shorter than the North/South tournament test, it’s every bit as watery, making for brisk pro shop golf ball sales to shell-shocked amateurs. Opened in 1984, Grand Cypress favors high lofted approaches over pot bunkers, grassy depressions, lakes and mounds to wildly undulating greens.
Reynolds Plantation (Great Waters Course), Greensboro, Ga. Designed in Jack’s “transition period,” circa 1992, Great Waters embodies an important rung on the Nicklaus evolution ladder. The course is dramatic, strategy-laden and beautiful, with much of the back nine edging Lake Oconee, but it’s nowhere as penal as many of his 1980s efforts.
Bear Trace at Harrison Bay, Harrison, Tenn. A beautiful — and dare we say, forgiving — Nicklaus design that can be played for under $50, this 7,140-yard layout is situated in a state park, 20 miles northeast of Chattanooga. It eases through pines and hardwoods and provides handsome views of Harrison Bay from 12 holes.
May River Golf Club, Bluffton, S.C. This Hilton Head-area layout, accessible to guests of the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, represents fully evolved Nicklaus. Opened in 2004, May River is practically a minimalist design that hews closely to its natural surroundings as it flows from maritime forest to river bluffs. Miss a green and you’ll likely find a closely mown collection area, in sharp contrast to his 1980s style, where an errant approach would DOINK off a severe slope into guaranteed trouble.
|Joe Passov is the Architecture and Course Ratings Editor of GOLF MAGAZINE. E-mail him your questions and thoughts at [email protected]|