PGA West Nicklaus Tournament Course: Grin and Bear It

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Contributor

Jack Nicklaus Tournament CourseK.C. Kinsey, Director of Marketing at PGA West (KSL Desert Resorts), says the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course was originally intended to host a PGA Tour event.

Not only did Nicklaus design a layout that met the original goal-he's created a lasting, playable course that's worthy of his lofty signature. I should've known that Jack wouldn't design any patsy courses either-with a nickname like 'The Golden Bear,' you should automatically assume any track he designs will have a certain amount of 'bite' to it.

Not as brutishly difficult as its Stadium Course sibling, the Nicklaus Tournament course nevertheless combines many clever and difficult elements in its 18 links to challenge all players-pro and resort warrior alike. And while there are many qualities in common between the two courses (after all, Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus previously worked together on golf course design-Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina-comes to mind), the PGA West twins each have a distinctly different flavor to them-they must be fraternal.

The "Nick Tournament" as locals call it, incorporates a more natural blend of true desert terrain into its layout than the Stadium course. It's more pleasantly sanctimonious with the desert surroundings. There are a fair amount of houses on the course (as with the Stadium course), but in only a few spots would I call them obtrusive-their presence doesn't detract from the desert feel of the course.

Supplementing the desert theme throughout the resort are incredible mountain views. PGA West lies at the base of a sizeable mountain range-and Nicklaus nicely aims many of the links towards them so as to maximize the dramatic effect. The par three seventeenth is named 'Mountain View,' but you don't need to glance at the scorecard's hole nicknames to notice the peaks-they look like they're practically on top of you.

Jack Nicklaus Tournament CourseNicklaus also abundantly uses non-traditional design features throughout the course to give the track its own unique flavor. It many ways, I don't think I've seen another course quite like it.

Maybe that's why the PGA Tour recently held its Q School on the Nicklaus Tournament course (as well as the Nicklaus Private course nearby)-if the professional players in waiting can handle this unique course without flinching, they can certainly handle the more traditional layouts on the PGA Tour.

Most noteworthy of the distinctions found here (as opposed to more traditional courses) are the fairways. They've got tabletops or plateaus. Nicklaus gives a fair amount of room to shoot at off the tee, but if you miss the fairways, there's a penalty to be had-the ball will simply bounce or roll off the top into someplace that you're probably not going to like.

Kinsey points out that the grass around the greenside bunkers is shaved-so the fringe won't save you from rolling into them if you miss wide. Most courses will at least give you a protective fringe or rough layer-but here it seems Nicklaus wants the steep bunkers to play a larger role.

Kinsey also says the Nicklaus Tournament course was one of the first designed specifically to include desert vegetation and landscapes. Sure enough, desert vegetation can be found in any number of the bunkers or rough areas. I don't think I've had many lies in a bunker that were obstructed by a bush before, but there's always a first time to be found here.

In addition to the prevalent lengthy sand bunkers bordering fairways-greenside, Nicklaus uses deep grass bunkers and mounding to test your short game. Jack didn't earn his legend as a great wedge player, but he sure expects you to be one when you play his courses. And where you would normally be thanking God for the good fortune of being on grass instead of sand, here it might be the opposite.

Jack Nicklaus Tournament CourseThat's because the rough was extremely thick. Kinsey and fellow playing partner, Jerry Howse, both said the rough was uncharacteristically thick due to Q-School's impending presence-but I'd bet it's something to tangle with all year round. Howse, a golf pro himself, said "Really, the only thing you can do if you're in this stuff, is try to get as much club on the ball as possible, and hope it goes somewhere friendly."

At times, the cumulative desert charm and the aesthetic beauty of the course almost make you forget how tough it is. But then there's always something striking to remind you. Nicklaus throws it all at you-in addition to the sand, grass bunkers, desert vegetation, and split and plateaud fairways, there's water. A lot of it. There are two island greens (eighth and fifteenth) and large lakes come into play on a several other holes.

In other words, the course's variety can lull you into a false sense of complacency. Perhaps Kinsey said it best when he advised, "Be creative. There are a lot of things out there that may surprise you-and don't be fooled by the looks of the course. It forces you to use creativity in shot selection."

Nicklaus gives hints as to what's in store with the first hole-with a pleateud fairway surrounded by deep grass swales and mounds, as well as a bunker on the right. The green is protected by huge sand and grass bunkers, but the putting surface is fairly large. And at 412 yards from the tips, a nice warmup hole that won't kill you.

Jack Nicklaus Tournament CourseThe real character of the course is introduced on the fourth hole. 549 yards from the back, you must shoot over a long stretch of desert scrub wasteland to a table-top fairway. Again, there are deep rough swales on the borders of the short stuff. Second shots must avoid a couple bunkers on the right, as well as deep rough and tricky undulations. The third shot is to an elevated green-and it's not a good idea to be short or long-because you'll have an uneven lie in a grass bunker in either case.

The eighth hole is the first island green-172 yards from the back and features a full water carry. There is a bunker short and left of the putting surface to save you from King Neptune if the pin's in that region and you hit it fat. Not really that tough of a hole-the green is big-but precise club selection will be vital to get you a birdie putt.

The ninth is the first of two outstanding finishing holes that play over a large lake to a massive tiered green that is shared with the eighteenth. 461 yards and a slight dogleg right, play your tee shot as close to the lake as possible (not realistically reachable) and carry your middle to long iron over the water. Bail right if you need to.

No. 11 is a 528 yard dogleg left par five, with a split fairway. The hole's name is 'Moguls,' and you'll immediately see why when you reach the tee box. Smart play is to the right-otherwise the massive moguls block your view on your second shot from the left side of the 'y' fairway. You'll definitely have to lay up (with a lofted club to get you over the moguls) if you're on that side. If you cut off enough of the leg from the right side of the 'y,' however, you might have a shot at the green in two.

Fifteen is perhaps the most notorious hole on the course. Named 'Long Island,' it's a 572 yard par five, again with a split fairway tee shot. Since the green is an island, going for it in two isn't realistic if you're playing the back tee distance. But even the second shot layup is no picnic-it has to be to the right (water's on the left and the rough on the right side will make it tough to carry the water on your third if you're in it).

Jeffrey A. RendallJeffrey A. Rendall, Contributor

Jeffrey Rendall is an avid golfer and freelance writer. After passing the California Bar in 1994, he moved to Virginia to pursue his interests in history and politics, where he's worked since 1995.


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