Riverwood Plantation is loaded with wildlife, but a new animal was roaming the grounds last week as a Golden Bear led a charge into the Retreat.
Jack Nicklaus made his first visit Tuesday to the Champions Retreat Golf Club at Riverwood Plantation in Evans, where the six-time Masters champion toured the terrain that will become a nine-hole Nicklaus Signature Course.
Along with the Nicklaus nine, work also is under way on two other nine-hole courses at Champions Retreat - Arnold Palmer will design one, while Gary Player is designing the other.
"It's going to be terrific," Nicklaus said of the 27-hole complex, which is expected to be completed in late 2004. "From my standpoint, it's going to be something unique and different. A lot of people are going to be attracted here to see this, to see, 'How did Jack, how did Arnold, how did Gary do?"'
Land still is being prepped on the Palmer and Player nines, but Jack's tract already is routed. After Tuesday's work, Nicklaus proclaimed the course ready for its next phase of construction.
"The next time I come out here, they'll have the course fine-graded out, and I'll make another tweak or two. I normally take six to 10 visits, but they won't need that here. The golf course is basically here. One or two more visits from me is all you're going to need," Nicklaus said.
"I would imagine I will get back out here in about six weeks. Once we get it in the shape it should be in, I'll sign off, let the grass grow, then we'll let Gary and Arnold do their thing, and I guess we'll open it up sometime."
The Golden Bear was accompanied last week by members of his architectural firm, Champions Retreat's project superintendents, an arborist, two of the retreat's principal investors, and a few media observers.
"Pretty narrow, isn't it?" Nicklaus said after taking his initial look from the tee box of the opening hole.
From there, Nicklaus provided input on how each hole should be designed. "Everything is oriented by what the ground is, and I start playing with it," he said.
Nicklaus spent a minimal amount of time studying each hole from the tees, but made more meticulous observations as he progressed down the fairways. He paid particular attention to the green complexes.
"He actually drew out the greens, 'high here, low there,' bunkers and the shapes," said E.G. Meybohm, chairman of Champions Retreat. "What he did is come in and put his touch on the golf course today. He was very gracious with his time, and he was very complimentary of the land he had to work with."
Originally, when Champions Retreat was known as The Big Three Golf Club, Nicklaus, Palmer and Player drew straws to see who would get which particular piece of land.
Nicklaus drew the short straw, but he was standing tall after seeing the rolling, wooded land he had to work with.
"I haven't seen Arnold or Gary's property, but I understand I've got the best one," Nicklaus said. "I think we were the third choice and it turned out we got the best one."
Back in the 1960s, when "The Big Three" was the buzzword of golf, Nicklaus made his first venture into golf-course design. His inaugural project was a co-design with Pete Dye at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C.
Now, three decades and more than 200 courses later, Nicklaus has fine-tuned his craft.
associate Chris Cochran (from left), Nicklaus, shaper Bobby Keene and design
coordinator Guillaume Heroux look over the fairway of the first hole.
Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker
"When I first started, I did courses one way; that's the only way I saw them," he said of his early penchant for creating left-to-right holes, which is the way he shaped golf shots in his prime. "After you start doing a lot of work, you figure out there's many different ways to skin a cat. So, you create variety in courses."
Nicklaus is renowned as a course architect, and is in great demand - the man who has won 20 major golf titles currently is working on more than 20 projects.
Many of his designs have received rave reviews, and became sites for professional tournaments and major championships. Some Nicklaus layouts, meanwhile, were panned for being too penal for anyone other than pros.
Even Nicklaus himself refers to his "humpty-dumpty stage," when he designed courses with overly severe greens that rejected anything less than a perfect approach shot.
"One of the things I had to learn to do was design a golf course for the average player. Now I design totally differently. I look from the back tee, but I almost design from the members tees now. Less than 2 percent of your golf is played from the back tees. My design philosophy has changed from that standpoint."
While Nicklaus did mandate some course-toughening additions (ponds on two holes, creeks on two others), his player-friendly design philosophy was on display Tuesday at Champions Retreat.
When Nicklaus arrived at the landing area on No. 4, a formidable par-4, he noticed a large oak tree that would be an impediment for most anyone who hasn't won The Masters.
"How the hell is the average golfer going to get there?," Nicklaus said of the daunting approach shot past the oak. He advised that the tree be removed.
The Bear also noticed something amiss on the par-3 eighth. He was bothered by a large hillside that swept down from the right, and he wasn't impressed by the aesthetics of the artificially raised green, which is bordered by wetlands on the left.
"Forget this," Nicklaus said to lead designer Chris Cochran.
The problem was solved when Nicklaus recommended moving the original back tee to a location atop the offending hillside. He also said a waste area should be added along the banks on the left, and added that the green should be leveled off.
"No. 8 was just trying to figure out how to make it work," Nicklaus explained. "It didn't fit anything else we had on the golf course. The whole idea is to make it look like a complete golf course, not eight holes and one orphan out there."
As Nicklaus finished up at Champions Retreat, he expressed the ultimate goal for his first golf course in Columbia County.
He isn't trying to outdo Player and Palmer, and he's not concerned with enhancing his local legacy.
"My ego's kind of beyond that. I'm more worried about a product for the client than I am about my golf course being better than somebody else's. I just want them (players at Champions Retreat) to enjoy it and say, "Hey, that was a good golf course."'
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