Appeared in March 2001 LINKS
The ocean is a spiritual place. “We are tied to the ocean,” President John F. Kennedy said during a 1962 speech in the historic seaport of Newport, R.I. “And when we go back to the sea ... we are going back from whence we came.”
Jack Nicklaus may have hailed from land-locked Columbus, Ohio, but his life and professional career have been tied to the ocean from the very earliest days. It was on Monterey Peninsula headlands, while practicing for the 1961 U.S. Amateur Championship he would go on to win, where Nicklaus first lost his heart to coastal California and the Pebble Beach Golf Links. As a professional playing Pebble, he would win the ’72 U.S. Open and three Crosby National Pro-Ams.
If he could play only one more round of golf in his life, Nicklaus likes to say, it would be at Pebble Beach.
In his second career as a golf course architect, Nicklaus has continually returned to the sea. He designed the spectacular Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol and 27 equally stunning holes at Palmilla Resort, both on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Further west, he has fashioned a number of ocean courses in Hawaii. Back east, on Daufuskie Island off Hilton Head, Nicklaus designed the Melrose Golf Course, where three finishing holes play dramatically along the Intracoastal Waterway.
Nicklaus returned to Pebble Beach in 1998 to design the course’s new fifth hole, which, naturally, was set along the sea. And, for 35 years, Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, have lived in North Palm Beach, Fla.—a smooth 6-iron from the Atlantic.
Now, Nicklaus has been lured to the ocean once more. Ocean Hammock Golf Club, the new centerpiece of northeast Florida’s Palm Coast Resort, features six holes overlooking the Atlantic. Despite its youth—the golf course opened last December—there are already whispers that Ocean Hammock might one day earn the title, “Pebble Beach of the East.”
“Only time will tell how it matches up,” Nicklaus says. “Ocean Hammock is on a different coastline with different terrain than Pebble Beach. I mean, there’s only one Monterey Peninsula. But Ocean Hammock is the kind of course golfers won’t soon forget once they’ve been here.”
A few factors are certain: Ocean Hammock is Florida’s first true oceanfront course in more than 70 years; it will be among the last ocean courses ever built in this country; and Nicklaus has made the most of his special opportunity.
Ocean Hammock features plenty of classic Nicklaus design features: visually stimulating yet daunting par-4s to close each nine; a mix of reachable yet demanding par-5s; and a variety of holes that dogleg left and right, flow uphill and downhill, and play to greens both large and small. In many ways, Ocean Hammock is a perfect resort layout: dramatic, yet player-friendly; visually explicit, yet possessing plenty of options for low-handicappers.
Golfers can spray their tee shots a bit, but there is a clearly defined, optimal spot from which to approach each green complex. And, in general, the greens at Ocean Hammock are far more soothing and playable than the notoriously difficult putting surfaces drawn by Nicklaus in the mid-’80s.
The Nicklaus team moved more than a million yards of dirt at Ocean Hammock, about one-third of which came during shaping and the rest in raising the course. While the shaping makes the golf course more aesthetically pleasing, there appears nothing forced or contrived. And it’s jacking up the course that allows such dramatic views of the ocean.
“The interior of the course was basically flat, so we had to create all the terrain we could,” says Jim Lipe, who for 17 years has served as Nicklaus’ senior design associate. “The interior holes are where you make good, sound, strategic golf holes. Then the ocean holes are all raised with a lower fairway playing into a higher green site, which is characteristic of older-style golf courses.”
During its construction, Nicklaus insisted on small changes meant to ease the burden for the resort golfer: Site lines on water hazards were improved, green contours were softened, tree and shrub vegetation was thinned, and bunkers were made easier to escape. Ocean Hammock is a young course with a mature feel, due in large part to the pines, oaks and shrubs that frame nearly half the holes.
The golf course begins in relatively sedate fashion. The first hole is a short par-4 (380 yards from the back tees) that doglegs left to right into an elevated green surrounded by a bunker on the left and a grass hollow on the right. Then, with a favoring wind, golfers may attempt to reach the 540-yard, par-5 second in two shots.
After a handshake and a pat on the back to start your round, however, Ocean Hammock sends you on your way with a boot to the seat of your pants. Man-made lakes and plenty of twists and turns come into play on the par-3 fourth, the par-4 fifth, the par-5 sixth and the treacherously long par-4 seventh—all very exciting inland holes. You could use every club in your bag on this stretch.
The 185-yard, par-3 eighth hole boasts the ocean as a backdrop and will most often play into a northeasterly wind, which can affect club selection dramatically.
The 468-yard ninth may be the course’s best and most eye-catching hole, and is certainly its toughest. Playing into the wind and along the Atlantic from the back sets of tees makes this par-4 nearly impossible to reach in two blows. In one round, playing from the blue markers, I hit driver, 3-wood—then 6-iron. From 125 yards. I came up short and left.
The back nine at Ocean Hammock is similar to the front side in its variety and dramatic build-up. The interior holes are strategically challenging, particularly the 433-yard, par-4 13th, while the ocean holes are pose-for-a-photo beautiful and again—if the wind is blowing—extremely difficult.
The final four holes at Ocean Hammock have been dubbed “The Bear’s Claw,” and for good reason: They can maul a scorecard. Most notably, No. 15 is a 450-yard par-4 that plays uphill and toward the ocean. The approach shot must be struck through two dune formations to an elevated green, and any missed approach shots face a steep pitch back up to the putting surface. Holes 17 and 18, meanwhile, are a longish par-3 and par-4 that can make or break a round.
“You have some easier holes and some harder holes,” says Lipe. “The harder holes tend to play toward the ocean and upwind. Plus, it’s always more difficult to play up to elevation.”
With its seaside drama and its meaty, 7,200-yard measurement from the back markers, Ocean Hammock will one day be an ideal course for tournament play. “It would be a shame not to show this golf course to people on television,” Nicklaus says. Echoes Bob DeVore, president of Lowe/Palm Coast, Inc.: “It’s too early now, but down the line we’d like to give this course lots of exposure.”
Ocean Hammock is the second Nicklaus-designed golf course at 25-year-old Palm Coast, an appealingly uncongested golf resort set on 700 acres of ancient oaks and palms and featuring six golf courses designed by the likes of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
Located midway between historic St. Augustine and Daytona Beach, Palm Coast rests along the southern end of a golfer’s dream drive down I-95, which includes Hilton Head, Sea Island and Ponte Vedra. Less than 45 minutes away from Ocean Hammock are the World Golf Village and Hall of Fame, where Nicklaus and Palmer recently collaborated on “The King and the Bear” golf course; the TPC Stadium course at Sawgrass; and LPGA International.
For more than two decades, Palm Coast Resort was run by ITT Corporation, which utilized the retreat’s original four golf courses mostly to attract real estate customers. In 1996, on behalf of a pension fund client, Lowe Enterprises acquired a substantial portion of the resort assets owned by ITT. Included in that acquisition were the land and development rights for the two-mile stretch of beachfront that is now the site of Ocean Hammock and its resort and residential community. With this single flourish, Palm Coast Resort vaults from also-ran status to bona fide golf destination.
(Along with the triumph comes a tragic footnote: Ocean Hammock is the last golf course that Nicklaus associate Bruce Borland worked on before he died in a 1999 plane crash along with Payne Stewart and four others.)
Nicklaus and his design team appear to have hit their stride as a new century ends and another begins. Today, the various lists of golf’s most accomplished living course architects should rightly feature his name. Nicklaus has designed more than 200 courses in 27 countries over a quarter of a century. Included in that group are host sites of four PGA Championships, a Ryder Cup, a Solheim Cup, a U.S. Amateur Championship and countless PGA and Senior PGA Tour events. And not only has he renovated holes at Pebble Beach, but he’s helped redesign Augusta National, as well.
Any discussion of the Nicklaus design portfolio must now include Ocean Hammock. Says Jack: “Some might say we saved our best for last.”