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Pinehurst's National Golf Club shows Jack Nicklaus at a key phase in his course design career

Tom SpoustaBy Tom Spousta,
National Golf Club - No. 18
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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."

National Golf Club in Pinehurst: The verdict

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.

Planning a Pinehurst golf trip

For help in planning a golf vacation to Pinehurst, visit ResortsGolfAndSpas.com or call 800-767-3574.

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National Golf Club - No. 2

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Course renovation

    Tom Parsons wrote on: Jan 14, 2012

    Hello to all, I see we had one disgruntled and disappointed golfer who played National last year. He was correct in saying the greens were not in good shape. Would like all to know we have just finished renovating all 18 greens. Been closed since November and will open March 15! Will be amazing to play once again. Hope to see you this year at National, you will not be disappointed.
    Tom Parsons
    Director of Golf, PGA


  • The National

    james wrote on: Jul 13, 2010

    Just got back from The National this weekend. Great golf course with awesome facilities. We stayed in 2 cottages right along #s 8 and 9. Very demanding golf course. I played it twice and even though I expected to play better the second time, I scored worse. Choose your tees wisely as the course plays longer than the yardage indicates. The better players in our group were playing tips the first time and had to hit driver, hybrids into nearly every hole and probably never had a short iron in their hands. Green complexes extrememly demanding. Standout holes to me were #3 which is just gorgeous, #2 which is a very intimidating tee shot for so early in the round, #9 which might be the prettiest par 3 I've seen in person and #4 which should be the number one handicap hole on the course. No OB and it is fun trying to hit those shots from under the pine tree canopy! I cannot recommend this course enough as there are no bad holes.


      • RE: The National

        james wrote on: Jul 13, 2010

        Sorry, meant to say #5 should be the number one handicap hole. #4 is but it's a par 5 and I think those tend to be over rated on a lot of courses.