Jack Nicklaus is, for the next two years at least, the most accomplished golfer who ever lived and the true golf ambassador to the sport’s world. He’s as classy a man as they come and as fierce a competitor that has ever played any game. Jack’s accomplishments and career speak for themselves…he revolutionized the game and epitomized everything that a golfer should be, and in the process, delivered some of the most remarkable performances that will live on forever.
That said…his career in course design doesn’t live up.
There are two shining examples of what Jack Nicklaus can accomplish as an architect, as well as one he created in joint with Pete Dye. Muirfield in central Ohio and Valhalla in Kentucky are FANTASTIC…when set up correctly. As last year showed us, there’s a fine line between fair and stupid. Muirfield’s setup for the Memorial crossed over to stupid, as no course with greens like that should have 6-8″ rough, and the result was a boring, survival-fest that had few memroable moments down the stretch. Contrast that with Valhalla’s setup for the Ryder Cup, which was extremely fair, and led to the most exciting weekend of golf of the season.
Harbor Town in South Carolina, the course he co-designed with Pete Dye, is another gem. It’s hard to setup Harbor Town poorly, but the design is classic. These are the crown jewels of the Nicklaus Empire.
Valhalla and Muirfield, while fantastic, epitomize Jack’s design concept, a concept he hammers in in pretty much every other significant course he built. There are three major design features that are guaranteed to be found in a Nicklaus course…outrageously undulating greens, holes that setup for a fade and carries over water or waste areas. You won’t just see these once, you’ll see them over and over and over again.
Take last week’s event at Dove Mountain for example. What was the one complaint you heard from the pros? The greens were stupid. Typical Jack. I mean, it’s not like Dove Mountain is a bad course, or any of his designs are, as they’re usually the most well conditioned courses you’ll find. But when EVERY course is a carbon copy with different geographic features, it really loses it’s sheen. Why even bother with cute names at this point? Just call these courses what they are…Dove Mountain is Muirfield Arizona. Valhalla is Muirfield Kentucky. They’re all the same damn thing.
And what bugs me even more is the fact that Muirfield, basically is Augusta National Ohio.
Yes, we get it Jack, you loved Augusta. And we don’t blame you for it…it’s arguably the cathedral of golf that has a timeless design and features that combine every great characteristic of the various styles of golf courses from around the world. It’s beautiful. It’s full of quirks and intracacies that, no matter how many times you play it, will eventually rear their heads. But these aren’t just design tricks, they’re part of the course and part of what makes Augusta a truly special place.
Take the greens for example. Augusta is about as hilly of a course as you’ll find in the Southeast, and many of the greens are set right on these hills, giving the greens their characteristic slope and leading to the rollercoaster putts and feeding approach shots that keeps bringing us back every April. But that’s the thing…it’s NATURAL.
Now lets look at Dove Mountain…the greens were heavily undulating and slopey, but the rest of the course wasn’t. The greens seemed like they were made like that on purpose, and it killed the flow of the course. The greens felt contrived, like some sort of experiment, some sort of obstacle to protect par. And it’s not just Dove Mountain that felt this.
Setup for a golf course is almost as important as how the holes are laid out. A well setup course will allow for a variety of options in course strategy and will fairly penalize you for a poor shot. For a great example of what I’m talking about, take a look at the last two US Opens where being in the rough wasn’t necessarily bad because it was graduated. Then look at last year’s Memorial, with the 8″ rough, where if you JUST rolled off the fairway, you’d have as bad of a lie as you would if you hooked it 30 yards left. Add that to the overly fast greens and the riveted bunkers and you have a course that’s simply impossible.
Jack was one of the most talented golfers ever, and it’s understandable that he’ll tend to lean towards the penal side of course setup, but he should also know that there’s something to be said for being fair. Augusta was always fair and put the pressure on the player to score well rather than simply get by, so if he’s stealing everything from the Green Jackets to begin with, why not setup as well?
So what prompted this little schpiel? Well, when you’re watching the Honda Classic and you see the ridiculousness that is the Nicklaus designed, Bear Trap (holes 15, 16, and 17) you’ll see where I’m coming from. When golf is struggling for viewers, you want a venue that will allow the player’s talent to emerge against each other. Seeing a 10 yard x 10 yard green surrounded by water that requires you to softly land a long iron isn’t fun, but then again, Jack doesn’t care.
Jack was the best golfer ever, it’s just a shame that talent couldn’t carry over into his post-golf career. Sometimes the best musicians are the worst teachers, and I guess that’s true in golf as well.