Nicklaus paints a picture at Applecross Country Club

By Nate Oxman
Courtesy of Philadelphia Golfer

Trudging through the mud on a windy, bitter cold day in late November, Michael Nicklaus stopped and surveyed the land in front of him.

It’s just in its adolescent stage right now, and to the average golfer, there isn’t much to look at. A general shape of a golf hole is decipherable. A grassless tee area has been molded, a string of three fairway pot bunkers have been formed and a green has been carved out. It takes someone like Nicklaus to paint a better picture.

“It’s an uphill par 5 into a prevailing (wind),” said Nicklaus of the 542-yard 15th as he walked right into a stiff breeze. “There is going to be a bunker here (in the right rough) in play and one there (left rough) that is more directional.”

“I would make this a longish bunker,” said Nicklaus as he stood where the right fairway bunker will eventually be placed. “It’s going to have a fairly high front edge to it so if somebody gets to that bunker and they’re not all the way up in the front of it, they can get it out.”

“The way it will be set up is the better golfer will usually be the only one who gets into the end of that bunker,” added Nicklaus. “When you’re in the end of that bunker you’re going to have to chip out. If you don’t hit it that far and it runs into the bunker from the fairway you’re going to be able to get out of it because you’ll be in the front of it. You’re not trying to penalize the higher-handicap player. Those are the types of things that go into a golf course, particularly when you have a community that is going to be playing it.”

As Nicklaus painted his picture, design associate Dave Heatwole scribbled notes on the plans the two have designed for Applecross Country Club, a community golf course currently in the works in Downingtown on Bollinger Road just off of Route 322.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve got some shaping done and put some drainage in and now we’re kind of taking an overall look to see if we’re headed in the right direction. We’ll look at strategy and some of the detail work we’re going to do on the greens.”

Nicklaus and Heatwole led a group that spent the frigid day assessing first-hand each hole at Applecross.

Applecross, which is slated to open in the spring of 2009, will become the first Nicklaus Design golf course in the Philadelphia area. Nicklaus, the youngest of Jack’s four sons, has worked for his father’s company since he graduated from Georgia Tech and he is excited about the opportunity at Applecross.

“You look right here,” said Nicklaus pointing out to the course. “That’s perfect land for a golf course. The way the hills roll and what is out there, it’s just perfect. The slopes aren’t too steep, but they’re steep enough that you can make it work. There are a lot of good things here.”

Heatwole started at Nicklaus Design in 1986 and worked there full-time until he founded his own design firm five years ago, a group which still does a great deal of consulting work with his former company, such as Applecross, from its base in State College.

“The work is going well,” said Heatwole. “Hopefully we’ll have some decent weather this winter because the plan is to get everything grassed out by next fall. We’re going to start in the summer and finish up in the fall so everything will be growing in by mid-October.”

The hole Nicklaus and Heatwole walked is a perfect example of the rolling landscape that attracted them to the site and they have kept that in mind while working toward the goal of making Applecross a big-time attraction.

“I think you put it into this hillside,” said Nicklaus as he points to the spot for the left fairway bunker. “It’s more of a target, something they can play off of. The only guy who is going to get in that bunker is your better golfer, more than likely.”

Heatwole agrees and the group, which includes members of Wadsworth Golf Construction Company, which will take care of the actual construction of the golf course, moved up the fairway.

“As we’re out here we’re kind of thinking about not only strategy, but drainage and maintenance and just the flow of the golf course as you go from one hole to another, looking at balance: left and right, long and short, those types of things,” said Nicklaus. “A lot of that has been designed in, but we’re still keeping that in mind when we’re going through this whole process.”

They stopped after reaching the crest of the fairway, where just beyond, the set of three cross bunkers have been scooped out.

“I think we take the native (grasses) around the side of this bunker,” said Nicklaus as he points to the middle bunker. “And I think we shave the area in front of it.”

“With the big, wide-openness of this golf course, that’s what is going to help define these holes a little bit better, are the native grasses,” added Heatwole. “That’s going to be a big part of it.”

After Nicklaus learned that the native grasses are fescues he immediately started painting a mental picture.

“I think what we want to do when we get into these bunkers is maybe go to more of a sheep’s fine fescue mix, where it’s going to remain thinner and you can play a shot out of,” said Heatwole.

Nicklaus concurs and suggests that there needs to be a quiet transition between the native grasses and the rough, which will be blue grass.

The group then stood in front of the pot bunkers and pondered a few more changes.

“You have to come from the high side and if you put that bunker (the far left pot bunker) there (closer to the green) it takes that away,” said Nicklaus. “If you put it back a little bit and move this one (the middle bunker) then it will catch any bad shots. If someone hits a good shot and it stays left, he has a chance to run it up onto the green. And then we set up the green running away from him so if he hits it a little hot it runs off.”

Then Heatwole threw out the idea of taking the far left bunker away. Although this is the first time the two have worked together, the two seemed to be in cohesion.

“You could very easily take that bunker out and connect the fairway up high,” said Nicklaus. “I think that’s a good idea. I don’t know that you need it. Just put some heavy grass up there and then connect the fairway around so we try to give him a little runway. We might try to increase the size of the middle bunker a little bit or even slide it over a hair.”

“Will that work for you?” Nicklaus asked Heatwole.

“I think it will make the hole more interesting,” said Heatwole. “When they put the pin in the back with the green falling away it’s going to be hard to get to.”

As the sun sets Nicklaus and Heatwole appeared happy about the changes.

“I think that works well,” said Nicklaus as he headed to Heatwole’s car for some much-needed relief from the cold. “So let’s cut this out. But I think we need to make that bunker bigger.”

Heatwole agreed and they headed back down what will one day be the 15th fairway.

“That’s pretty typical for this stage,” said Heatwole of the changes. “We knew that we wanted to add some bunkering, but you hope not to change too much. Those bunkers were shaped and there was a drainpipe in there, but that’s really all that was done to them. It’s not like there was sand and sod and irrigation in there and before irrigation goes in you have some flexibility.”

For a project that Heatwole began about six years ago, it is a good feeling to finally see his ideas come to fruition.

“If you look at the terrain out here, obviously now it looks a little rough, but when it starts to come together, it is going to look great,” said Heatwole. “One of the things that we’re trying to do is make it look like when this course is finished that we really didn’t do a lot. That it does blend in with the natural environment.”

The Applecross site was previously Overlook Road Farms. Among the 621 acres in East Brandywine Township, there were four farms and accompanying farmhouses, barns and other buildings as well as the Beaver Creek Dam and its lake, which will be utilized. The natural wetlands, creeks and wooded areas throughout the site are sure to be awesome features at Applecross as well.

“We try to bring those natural elements into the golf course as much as we can,” said Heatwole. “A lot of those natural things when you go out and play golf whether its streams or trees, it’s all part of that golf experience and while working for Jack we always try to get the golfer as close to that as we could.”

“I think it’s going to be a really nice golf course,” added Nicklaus. “I don’t think Dave would have spent six years of his life on it if the site wasn’t such a quality place.”

In addition to the golf course, Applecross promises to provide a truly unique living experience. The club will be managed by ClubCorp and will feature a 22,000 sq. ft. clubhouse complete with a restaurant and banquet facility. In addition to golf, residents will bask in the brilliance of The Grove, a 12,000 sq. ft. all-seasons recreation center with and Olympic size swimming pool, an indoor pool, a kids pool, a Jacuzzi and tennis courts. There is also a state of the art Sports Pavilion that will house a 10,000 sq. ft. cardio and weight training center.

The residential community will feature seven neighborhoods and more than 1,000 houses ranging from town homes to estate homes and active adult living villas designed by Pulte Homes. The entire process is slated to be completed by 2017.

“What I think is unique about this golf course is that even with so much development here we only have one hole where we have homes on both sides,” said Heatwole.

“I’ve worked on a lot of projects and that’s the thing you’re always trying to avoid if you can. It’s very hard to make that golf experience nice if you feel like you’re jammed in by homes on both sides and that’s not the case here.”

The golf course will feature four sets of tees and play at a par-72 at anywhere from 5,212 yards (red) to 7,028 yards (black).

“It’s a community golf course,” said Nicklaus. “It is really designed for a wide spectrum of golfers. I’m a scratch golfer, but I think I see pretty well how the higher handicap player is going to fare.”

Nicklaus has designed successful community courses in the past including The Reserve Club at St. James Plantation in Southport, N.C.

“I do enjoy it,” said Nicklaus of the business. “I mean what’s not to enjoy. You’re outside. You get to play the construction man and when you’re done you get to come out and play it and see how it works. I guess the ultimate satisfaction is when someone plays your golf course and tells you how much they enjoyed it.”

With the Nicklaus stamp on Applecross and a talented crew in support, many complements are sure to be in store in the future.

“We’ll talk about different things, but you’re not sure golfers are going to get what you’re talking about,” said Nicklaus. “When they come up to you and say things like I really love this hole because of the risk-reward here or the strategy or the way I have to think my way through it feels good. That’s exactly our goal. Let’s force them to think about this. Let’s put something in there where they have to use their head when they play this golf hole. So when they come back and tell you that, it’s pretty satisfying.”

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