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Bear Tracks: Nicklaus golf community courses we know and recommend
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Nicklaus Signature golf courses are unlike any other golf course designs (except for other layouts that bear the Nicklaus name). From trees set in the middle of fairways to the slanted greens that, more often than not, force lofted and faded shots into them (whose game does that sound like?) to fairway bunkers with intimidating lips, the Golden Bear’s layouts can be unrelenting, especially to the unsuspecting golfer. At his Pawley’s Plantation course, for example, a layout I know well, signs at the 1st and 10th tees advise which tee boxes to play for each level of golfer. I would advise first timers to ignore the signs and actually play one tee box shorter than advised, unless they appreciate hitting long irons or fairway metals into most greens, often from enormous bunkers waiting to snatch both pulled and pushed shots. Here are Jack Nicklaus Signature golf courses I have played and enjoyed, with the details on the tee boxes I suggest a 10-handicap player use. Higher and lower handicap golfers should adjust accordingly.
The National, Pinehurst, NC (semi-private)
Gold tees: 6,595 yards, Rating 72.2, Slope 132 Note: Although this is typically a longer routing than I suggest for a 10-handicap, only one of the par 5s is longer than 505 yards.
Pawleys Plantation, Pawleys Island, SC (semi-private)
White tees: 6,178 yards, Rating 72.0, Slope 139 Note: Blue tees play to 6,522 yards. With a slope of 144, it is plenty of golf course for the single-digit player.
Colleton River Plantation, Bluffton, SC (private)
Medal tees: 6,558 yards, Rating 71.7, Slope 132 Note: Fastest greens I’ve played in 10 years; Member tees at 6,201 yards might make for better experience for those with average short game.
Bayside, Selbyville, DE (semi-private)
Member tees: 6,418 yards, Rating 71.5, Slope 140 Note: Just a few miles from the ocean and on the Assawoman Bay, bring your knockdown game for the frequently windy days.
The Reserve at Lake Keowee, Sunset, SC (private)
White tees: 6,250 yards, Rating 70.8, Slope 134 Note: Good enough to host three rounds of the Web.com Tour’s BMW Charity event.
Governors Club, Chapel Hill, NC (private, 3 nines)
Lakes/Foothills Course Blue tees: 6,381 yards, Rating 71.5, Slope 133 Note: Other 18-hole combinations vary only slightly in terms of rating and slope from blue tees.
Bay Creek, Cape Charles, VA (resort)
White tees: 6,446 yards, Rating 72.0, Slope 138 Note: Adjacent Palmer course equally challenging, makes for good weekend of fun golf.
Landfall, Wilmington, NC (private, 3 nines)
Pines & Ocean course Blue/White Hybrid tees: 6,353 yards, Rating 71.5, Slope 132 Note: 45 holes of golf, including 18 by Pete Dye
Hills of Lakeway, Austin, TX (private)
Blue tees: 6,358 yards, Rating 70.7, Slope 132 Note: Longtime host course for Champions Tour event.
Creighton Farms, Aldie, VA (private)
Member tees: 6,123 yards, Rating 71.2, Slope 135 Note: Nicklaus purchased a villa beside one of his fairways.
Mayacama, Sonoma, CA (private)
Plates tees: 6,302 yards, Rating 71.5, Slope 139 Note: Caddies only, a 7-mile walk given the elevation of tees.
May River, Bluffton, SC (private/resort)
Cedar tees: 6,513 yards, Rating 72.8, Slope 137 Note: A bit lengthy, but the mandatory caddies at this pricey resort save you a few strokes.
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by Jack Maisano, National Golf Club, Pinehurst, NC
Editor’s Note: Recently, I played a round of golf at Hartford (CT) Golf Club with a rater for Golfweek magazine. During our walk, I asked him what he thought of Jack Nicklaus as a golf architect, and he offered that Nicklaus designs are too difficult for the average golfer and that they are actually affecting sales in golf communities with Nicklaus layouts. Since Nicklaus is one of my favorite designers, I asked a member at the Nicklaus-designed National Golf Club in Pinehurst what he thought of the notion that Nicklaus designs are a turn off. Jack Maisano’s response is not only a brilliant defense of the Golden Bear’s designs based on the one he plays regularly, but also a wonderful paean for all of us who love our home courses. His note to me follows.
I play a lot of courses around here [Pinehurst], and naturally they are all different -- different lengths, different kinds of doglegs, different kinds of water hazards and other trouble, different kinds of bunkers and sand within them and, of course, different kinds of greens. My steady playing partners and I love the ones with the most manicured greens -- bent greens are near perfection right now and are our favorites -- places where they cut the rough to the right level (where you can find your ball) and where they rake the sand. Aesthetically, most of the courses around here are beautiful in a serious golfing sort of way; no mountains, canyons, oceans or infinite vistas -- just gorgeous rolling golf course green. But courses that were not built with the proper subterranean architecture (and there are some like that here) or consideration for drainage have problems that make them virtually unacceptable for regular play. After heavy rains, bunkers may completely wash out; sandy ravines may appear across fairways; straw may wash into mountainous clumps; standing water may accumulate, which expands wetlands and promotes an explosion of insects; teeing grounds wash out and eventually turn to dust; weeds infest the fairways. That does not happen at name-designer courses. These courses are well built from beneath the ground on up. Where there are local problems, they address them, installing fans and new sod -- even reshaping greens and fairways, if necessary. They attract the most high-priced outside play, where allowable, and so have sufficient revenue for proper daily maintenance. Members are proud of their courses and fill in divots and fix ball marks. The crews use the latest agricultural techniques to make sure the grass is healthy and strong and weeds don't take over. Greens are properly aerated and grow strong and healthy. My golf course superintendent here at National, Dave Bowbliss, and I had this exchange that illustrates the point:
JM: Dave, some guys drive their carts practically onto the green. Isn't there some way we can tell them when to get off the fairway? (We don't have exit posts at National.) DB: If the grass on the fringes can't handle the weigh of a cart, then I'm not doing my job. Find me a public course or a golf community with an old, worn-out layout by a no-name designer, and see if you'd get the same reaction from their greenskeeper. A recent survey I saw asked if golfers would pay more to play on a private golf course and why. About two-thirds said, “Yes,” they would. And the main reason (among several, such as better tee times, less crowding, clubhouse amenities, superior service, etc.) was golf course condition. Private courses are usually in better shape -- manicured, massaged and treated with love. It matters, and it shows. It's not automatic, of course, but a name-designer course usually means more investment, both before and after it opens. As for Nicklaus courses in particular, I've heard -- though it's only a rumor -- that our developer actually asked Nicklaus to create a difficult course. He wanted it to be a long-term challenge, and in that they were both successful. National is never easy and never boring to play. It has also been said that Nicklaus moved far less dirt in making National than the average layout. From a purely visual standpoint, one of the attractions of National is that it looks like it has always been there: Nicklaus just inserted the fairways and greens -- like Michaelangelo seeing forms inside blocks of granite or marble, and just carving away to let them out. National may not be a "big" course, but it's a gem just the same. Playing golf on certain courses is just different; they add a new dimension to what golf can be. Playing links golf is different; playing mountains courses is different; playing desert courses is different. Here in Pinehurst, # 2 is a world unto itself, unlike any other golf experience. Donald Ross uses all his imagination and tricks to give you every possible opportunity for glory and disaster. Tom Fazio gives you large layouts with plenty of room to make mistakes and then correct them. His recent influence may account for all the spacious parkland courses we see now. Dan Maples gives you context and humor and local flavor. Mike Strantz uses outlandish landscapes to surprise, delight and punish you. Rees Jones, the golf doctor, sets up mathematical puzzles that require near perfect calculations. Nicklaus lays the whole course -- National, that is, plus most of the other Nicklaus courses I have played -- right out in front of you. If there is a blind shot, it is no accident. On National, we have only two blind tee shots, one on each nine. There are exactly two greens where you can't see the surface on your approach. Each of the par 3s faces a different direction -- north, south, east and west. The rough is cut to about half a ball length. There is no out of bounds. Water comes into play on five holes. There are fairway bunkers on only four holes, only one of which can affect your drive. None of the bunkers is easy, but it is possible to play a whole round avoiding them. If you play the course from the correct tees, your tee shot is always straight; there are no holes requiring a 7-iron from the tee followed by a 5-wood. You would only cut corners if you're a big hitter or you're hitting from the wrong tees. Without any trickery whatsoever, it's a risk-reward course that can always be played conservatively to the front of the green to make par. A mistake, though, is almost always punished. Usually it takes four good shots to make par. Birdies require something special. And yet the course is eminently playable, even inviting. Once you learn the greens and chipping areas, getting to the hole is less like entering a spider's nest and more like finding a secret treasure. There are echoes of Donald Ross and the whole Pinehurst tradition at National, with greens that slope off in many directions. Fringes are cut short to allow players to putt as well as chip from off the green. We've had expanded waste bunkers and native wiregrass (as natural hazards) since the course was built in the 1980s. The greens, for all their undulations, allow you to putt from anywhere. But there is a premium put on pure approach shots, which means that picking the right club and hitting the right section of the green is the only way to bring birdie into play. National is the kind of thinking person's course that needs to be played from the hole back to the tee, which is why precise pin position sheets are distributed daily for the day's flags. Playing here is always a delectable challenge. I can attack the course in any number of ways, though usually it brings every club in the bag into play. It's the subtleties that make this course sublime. Nothing is left to chance. Nicklaus planned every mound and every tree. We've had several trees near the fairways, integral to the course, get hit by lightning; within a week, a new one is planted in the same spot, just the way it was designed. National is a flawless jewel that I enjoy playing every day. I've played it from the front tees, from the regular tees and once from the tips. It works wherever you play it from, and presents golfing challenges that require golfing solutions, not raw power or luck, to overcome. In fact, the lack of need for raw power is one of the reasons this course continues to intrigue and inspire me, even in retirement and without moving up to the front tees. Nicklaus courses always seem to inspire controversy. They are not classic in the way that a Tillinghast course is classic. They are more like gordian knots that need to be untied slowly, painstakingly, over time. Very few other golf course designers seem to have as clear a signature as Nicklaus. He may not be for everyone. He may not even be an acquired taste. But his courses -- especially National -- continue to challenge my game and subtly instruct me on what I need to do to become a better golfer. I can't fake it on this course. And I don't want to. I want to own my swing sufficiently to make the course yield to my skill. And I'll go on trying to improve until that happens.
Jack Maisano and his wife Tina moved to The National from Hong Kong, where he retired in 2009. They first visited the community in 1988 and joined its golf club in 1991. Over the next 20 years, they vacationed at the National at least once a year to play the golf course and relax with an ever-growing circle of friends. Jack, who took up golf in mid-career, has managed to lower his handicap to a 9.9 index. “It is really all about the short game,” he says. Two years ago, Tina finally took up golf “and loves it,” Jack says. “If anything, Tina is even more enthusiastic about Pinehurst than I am…if that's possible.”
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