By Keith Jarrett
Courtesy of the Asheville Citizen-Times
In what is believed to be a first in the history of professional golf, a course’s grand opening coincides with the hosting of a pro tournament.
And in that same making history theme, an opening-day lineup that included 18 holes with Jack Nicklaus and Kevin Costner was unprecedented as well.
Playing together for the first time, the golfing legend and the Hollywood celebrity best known for his sports movies paired up Wednesday for the first official round of play at The Cliffs at Walnut Cove.
The Nicklaus design, a near flawless layout on a piece of land perfect for 18 holes just 12 miles from downtown Asheville, was unveiled for about 700 invited guests on the eve of the Nationwide Tour’s BMW Charity Pro-Am at The Cliffs.
After a morning news conference and clinic on the driving range by Nicklaus, the world’s greatest golfer and the actor played a leisurely 3 1/2-hour round in wind, sunshine and a brief rain shower.
Both wore microphones and bantered easily with each other and the audience while playing from the tips on the par-71 that covers 7,278 yards.
After drilling a mid-iron out of the rough to 15 feet on the par-4 4th hole, Costner was upstaged when Nicklaus chipped in for birdie from 15 feet, just off the green.
“He cut my heart out with that chip shot,” Costner joked after he missed his birdie putt.
Without missing a beat, Nicklaus countered, “That’s all right. I’ve had my heart cut out a couple of times on chip shots, like Mr. (Tom) Watson at Pebble Beach and Mr. (Lee) Trevino at Muirfield,” referring to major championships lost when Watson (1982 U.S. Open) and Trevino (1972 British Open) holed out from off the green late in final rounds.
At the par-3 11th hole that played 246 yards, Nicklaus quipped, “I’ve named this hole ‘Forever,’ ” before a solid 3-wood came up 10 yards short.
A couple of holes later Costner kidded Nicklaus about the length of the course. “Hey Jack, can we back up these tee boxes a little bit?”
At age 65 and having played just nine holes since missing the cut at his final Masters three weeks ago, Nicklaus still showed plenty of game.
He hit his driver long and relatively straight, chipped in twice for birdies on the front side — the only two birdies of the day from either player — and posted an unofficial 2-over par 73.
Costner, who took up the game later in life as preparation for his starring role in “Tin Cup,” also showed a solid swing. He claims a 14 handicap but played better than that in a round of 85.
“I would be nervous anyway playing in front of 700 people, but then you add playing with Jack Nicklaus,” Costner said before the round.
After playing, Costner said it was a special day.
“I’ve been fortunate to have done a lot of fun and different things in my life, and when I sit back and think about all that, playing golf with Jack Nicklaus will be one of those days I always remember.”
In Asheville for the first time since shooting scenes from his hit baseball movie “Bull Durham” in the 1980s, Costner will be back at Walnut Cove today playing as part of the pro/celebrity team in the BMW tourney.
“Bull Durham was a special time for me and I love this area,” he said. “This is a spectacular golf course; what a fun day.”
After completing the 238th course in his second career as a world-renowned architect, Nicklaus said he was pleased with the outcome of Walnut Cove.
“This is a beautiful valley and it was a fun project,” said Nicklaus, who grabbed his hamstring and was afraid he had pulled the muscle in his right leg after teeing off on the 9th hole, but continued to play.
“It’s a good golf course and it’s going to be fun to play, but it’s too hard for an old man like me.”