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|As always, Jack Nicklaus demands a strong finish here at No. 18 at National Golf Club. (Courtesy of National Golf Club)|
The Jack Nicklaus-designed National Golf Club in Pinehurst shows the course designer in a transitional phase. Difficulty and length of front nine is vintage Nicklaus, while the back nine showcases his softer side.
PINEHURST, N.C. - His body of work spans about 40 years, so we can break down Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses into different eras, determining his shifting styles, influences and overall moods.
Nicklaus layouts are usually sterner, more disciplined tests than most architects. If you don't take golf seriously, Jack quickly and easily pummels you into submission, especially with his designs throughout the 1980s and early '90s.
National Golf Club represents Nicklaus in his transitional phase.
A kinder, gentler Jack.
Opened in 1989, National plans several observances of its 20th anniversary this coming year. Considered among the top 20 golf courses in North Carolina on most annual lists, the club has had a lot to celebrate. And just based alone on the competition in its Southern Pines and Pinehurst neighborhood, National has authored an impressive legacy.
Actually, Nicklaus created two golf courses in one, showing both his hard and soft(er) sides and offering shades of his masterpiece at Muirfield Village Golf Club, in Dublin, Ohio, site of the Memorial Tournament.
The front side represents the power game, particularly the first five holes. The theme: Big doglegs, strong slopes, carries over water hazards and shots to steep, elevated greens.
The back nine fits more of the local Sandhills terrain, with large waste bunkers, narrow fairways and subtle turns, and it demands more placement than power.
Nearly all the doglegs slide right and reward a power fade, which was Nicklaus' signature shot. Most of National's holes can look scary from the tee box. Some are tougher than others, naturally, but the first five holes are clearly the toughest stretch on this layout. The names say it all: The Knoll, Doon Carry, Narrow Way, Dogwood Bend and Batten's Wall.
"The first five holes make you feel like, gosh, this is work," says Tom Parsons, director of golf at National. "But it softens up a bit. The difference is that from the tee, there's plenty of room, and it's not too visually intimidating."
Jack spices things up with several multi-tiered greens on both nines. They are large, but there's only a small spot where you can hit your approach without leaving yourself a monstrously breaking putt.
"He didn't move too much earth. He made it more of a Pinehurst-style golf course," Parsons says. "I think the intimidation comes on your shots to the green. A lot of them are elevated and rolling with the way the land moves."
It'll hurt if you aren't ready to play. Jack's early message: You better hit a couple practice balls with every club in your bag and focus hard when you step to the tee at National.
That's evident on No. 1, a tricky dogleg left to a green that looks perched on a mountain top. The par-3 second hole presents you with a 180-yard shot over a duck pond. Interestingly, there are no sand traps around the green, which sits in a bowl of sorts.
At No. 3, a pine tree sits oddly in the middle of this dogleg right, before it takes you steeply uphill to a deep, three-tiered green where you can barely see the top of the flagstick.
The first par 5 arrives at No. 4, another dogleg right, this one with a lake in play off the tee. You've got to thread a layup between two bunkers in the landing area.
The fifth is arguably National's signature hole. It's a blind shot, of sorts, with your drive toward the top of a hill. The approach is back down to a green set against a rocky creek — all carry to this scenic par 4.
Whew! Not that you can relax too much after that, but the holes gradually become more subtle and instill more confidence over shots (with less water and more forgiving waste bunkers). The back nine might be tighter, but Jack doesn't hammer you with degree of difficulty.
The par-5 10th epitomizes how the back side sets up. It looks harder — and longer — than it plays, with water cutting the fairway in two, forcing you to be careful off the tee. A dogleg right around a lake allows ample room to access a green that hangs out over the water.
Called Bear's Valley, the 18th is a prototypical Nicklaus finishing hole of any era. A long dogleg fades right the last one-third of the hole to a green guarded on the left by water.
Nicklaus probably was at his toughest with his designs when he built National Golf Club. Even if you didn't know he did the course, you could probably figure it out in the first couple holes.
But he also gives glimpses to a softer side he would later show with his courses in his twilight years.
For help in planning a golf vacation to Pinehurst, visit ResortsGolfAndSpas.com or call 800-767-3574.
January 26, 2009
Veteran golf writer Tom Spousta keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation. He has covered golf and other sports for USA Today and The New York Times. Tom lives on a Donald Ross-designed golf course in Sarasota, Fla.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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