By Kent Kasey — The Birmingham News
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Many golfers are familiar with the name Shoal Creek but few have played the course because it is private. That included me.
I knew only that people talked about what a great course Shoal Creek was — worthy of hosting major tournaments — and that golf publications thought highly of the course, which was Jack Nicklaus’ first solo design and is the only Nicklaus-designed course in Alabama.
I got the opportunity to play the storied course a week before the Regions Tradition begins there Thursday.
My playing partner was Eric Williamson, the director of golf at Shoal Creek the past four-plus years, and my caddie was Danny Neal, who despite his 12 years of experience at Shoal Creek called himself a rookie.
By design, the first hole — called "Starter" — is a simple par-4, a straightforward hole to get the round started. Nicklaus didn’t want it to be overly difficult, and it’s not. The second hole — "The Bridge" — has more character but still isn’t too difficult.
Those two holes offer golfers a good shot at getting off to a good start and might give them a false sense of security as the par-4s toughen up considerably. Even the short 14th (381 yards), which looks quite simple from the elevated tee, has bite to it. Thus, it’s called "Sleeper."
The third hole is the first of four really good risk-reward par-5s. It has the appearance of a straight hole, but well-placed bunkers make it play more like a double dogleg. No. 3 plays 525 yards from the back tees, and it has what each of the par-5s has — a well-protected green that can give the average golfer fits. The day I played Shoal Creek, the pin was up front, on the most narrow part of the green, protected on either side by relatively deep bunkers filled with firm sand. I wasn’t overly concerned when my approach shot found its way into the left bunker, but I soon understood why Neal uttered a simple "Rats" after seeing it do so. Three shots and two trips across the green later, I was staring at a putt for 7. "Big Z" likely won’t treat the pros that poorly, but it was plenty unkind to me.
The next par-5 is the 545-yard sixth. "First Eagle" was one of Nicklaus’ favorites. According to Williamson, Nicklaus hit his tee shot and then teed his ball up in the fairway before hitting it again. When it landed, he said: "That’s where the green should be." You encounter Shoal Creek twice on this hole as it crosses in front of the tee and again in front of the green. A fairway bunker — one of two Nicklaus recommended when he toured the course a little over a year ago — was added along the left side. (The other is on the left side of the second fairway.) A good tee shot will leave you choices on your second shot — play down the left away from the creek, attack the green and the three bunkers that surround it, or play over the creek to a nice landing area in front of the green.
The most daring of golfers might like to challenge the 516-yard 11th hole, appropriately named "Dare You." The tee shot isn’t all that difficult as Nicklaus said he wanted to place a premium on the second shot. "It’s a pretty demanding par-5 from a second shot standpoint," he said. Again, the green is well-guarded by water in front, two pot bunkers on the right and a large bunker on the left.
The last of the par-5s is the stunning 17th hole — "Water Fall." Not a difficult driving hole, but another nicely protected green awaits. A pond to the left feeds a creek that runs in front of the shallow green. Nicklaus called it "probably the most interesting green site and scene on the golf course." I expect it will offer some terrific action for those in attendance this week.
Another hole that will see its share of action is the par-3 fifth. "Nick’s gem" offers an amazing view of Double Oak Mountain, which sits behind the green, guarded front left by a pond and front right by a large bunker. Nicklaus called it "just your average run-of-the-mill 190-yard par-3 over water with Double Oak Mountain in the background. … just one of the nicest par-3s you would ever want to play." I can’t add much to that.
The eighth hole is a short par-3 (169 yards) with water and bunkers protecting all sides of the green. "Wee Pond" isn’t a tough hole, but it’s also not as simple as you might think.
Naturally, when I stepped onto the first tee at Shoal Creek, I had high expectations — for the course and my game. While I failed to hold up my part — pars on the opening and closing holes were among the few highlights during my round of 92 — the course more than lived up to its reputation. It is, without a doubt, a challenging course, but it’s also very fair. What you see is what you get. Much to my surprise, the fairways were plenty wide. Overhead photos make it look as if the fairways are little ribbons cut out of a dense forest. During the past year, though, more than 3,000 trees have been removed. The rough is a nuisance but not overly penalizing — although I’m certain it could become an absolute pain if that’s what they wanted. And the greens are not all that difficult to read (at least Neal wasn’t having any problems with them.)
Since its opening in 1977, Shoal Creek has received high praise from players and publications alike. This year, the course ranks No. 72 on Golf Digest’s Top 100 Greatest Golf Courses in the U.S., and Golfweek placed the course No. 84 on its list of Best Modern Courses (built since 1960). I haven’t had the chance to play many of the courses on those lists, but I’d have a hard time believing any of them are noticeably superior to Shoal Creek. It is deserving of all the praise it has received and maybe even more.