My home course in Pawleys Island, SC, was recently re-rated by the USGA. In the last few years, a few changes made the course marginally easier to play. And yet, from virtually all tee boxes, the course rating and slope ratings have remained substantially the same, or actually increased.
The significant tweaks in recent years at Pawleys Plantation were designed to reduce the time per round on the challenging layout. For example, two large live oak trees that shielded the right half of the green on the par 5 11th green about 80 yards in front are now gone, making a lay-up placement less of a daunting task and a shot at birdie more frequent. The acres of bunkers that line many of the fairways on the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course are now designated waste bunkers almost all the way to the green, making it possible to ground your club behind the ball before your take a whack at it. For those uncomfortable with hovering the club above the sand before full swings -- count me as one -– that is a consequential change.
From the tips at Pawleys Plantation, the Golden Bear tees -- named for designer Nicklaus -- the layout plays to a total of 7,031 yards. The latest course rating is a whopping 75.2 with a slope of an equally robust 150, down from a rating of 75.7, but with an increase of slope from 148. At Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey, acknowledged as one of the toughest courses in the nation, the course rating is precisely the same as at Pawleys, 75.2 on a layout that is only a few yards longer, although the slope at Pine Valley is 155. At the relentlessly difficult Shinnecock Hills, the rating and slope are 74.4 and 140, respectively. Pine Valley and Shinnecock are very much private clubs; anyone looking for a stern challenge can play Pawleys Plantation. (Note: Those who want to play the back tees are asked to seek permission in the pro shop.)
The course and slope ratings for the other popular men’s tees at Pawleys have not changed significantly, although they are uncharacteristically high for a publicly accessible golf course. The Blue Heron tees, typically appropriate for those with handicaps of 6 and less, rate about the same as before, at 73.2 and 145, respectively, compared with a previous 73.7 and 144 (total yardage is 6,549). The White Egret tees, which I played for a few years before I turned 70, have gone from 72.0 and 138 to 71.6 and 140 (6,184 yards); they are suggested for those with handicaps of 6 to 18. I have been playing the Yellow Finch tees this year because I am not hitting the ball much beyond 210 yards off the tee, and their ratings did not move much; the old ratings of 69.2 and 132 are now 69.1 and 130 at 5,560 yards.
However, women who play the Yellow Finch tees from 5,560 yards really saw a jump in their ratings, from 72.7/130 to a whopping 74.3/142. The women’s Redtail Hawk tees at 4,932 yards have also jumped significantly, from an already challenging 70.1 and 122 to 71.4 and 130. By the numbers, Pawleys Plantation is not particularly women “friendly,” although women's league members do not seem to mind.
During a recent visit to celebrate the club’s 30th Anniversary, Jack Nicklaus told members and others at dinner that the course he designed in 1988 would benefit from some changes. For example, as happens with most golf courses over time, greenside bunkers have pulled away from the putting surfaces as the greens themselves have shrunk. He suggested restoring the greens to their original size, something many observers believe will make hitting greens in regulation considerably easier. He also recommended that much of the sand in the huge fairway bunkers be replaced with grass; that would speed up play and also make the game easier for double-digit handicappers.
These are ideas that most of us who play the golf course regularly certainly endorse. But given many of the forced carries to greens, surrounding marshland that is very much in play, and long greens that afford some nasty pin positions, the challenges at Pawleys Plantation will always rival some of the toughest courses in the land.