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Story by Ian Guerin
PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. | Fans have long known Jack Nicklaus doesn’t have the time or interest in mincing his words. He’s been outspoken on equipment and current players, questioned strategy and even those in power. The game changes, he’s acknowledged, and courses and players need to be able to do that, too. During his October trip to Pawleys Plantation for the 30th anniversary celebration, he applied some self-introspection. Nicklaus, with Founders Group International Director of Agronomy Max Morgan riding shotgun, cruised the course for nearly 90 minutes. He was analyzing three decades of natural evolution, but also what was going through his head when he first stepped foot on the property.“You don’t remember a lot, but you remember some important things,” he said.
Nicklaus had not been on South Carolina’s Grand Strand since finishing his other local design, Long Bay Club, which opened within months of Pawleys Plantation in 1988. So there was some expectation he wouldn’t recall minor details. However, once he was on the course, it all came rushing back. That was evident on the par-3 No. 13, where he walked the marsh-surrounded peninsula green that provides some of the best views in all of Myrtle Beach golf. “We had to make sure, environmentally, the water and the fertilizer we put on [could] be taken off of it and transported off of there to separate drainage, distributed elsewhere,” Nicklaus said of the original crafting of the hole. “The irrigation had to be brought on from elsewhere. There’s a lot of things you have to do to make sure you fit the environment. When you do that, it’s obviously stood the test of time.”
Nicklaus, though, had zero intention of simply patting himself on the back or just waving at those who had come out of their homes to take pictures or shake his hand. From the very first hole, he was sharing his thoughts with Morgan about what he may do differently if he was designing the course today or more prominently featuring the course’s many great strengths. Mostly, that encircled ideas about growing the game and making it friendlier. Pawleys Plantation is one of the area’s most difficult layouts, and unsuspecting players can find themselves with ballooning scorecards if they’re not careful. Excessive bunkering, especially on the front nine, plays a big role in that.
“At the time, 30 years ago, that was en vogue,” Morgan said. “You turn the clock ahead and golf is tough right now. We’ve got to do everything we can to save expenses and make the game enjoyable. What Jack was saying is that those big bunkers penalize bad players; they don’t challenge the good players. So who is paying the bills is the average golfer who is struggling to break 100. He said, based on reducing expenses and making the golf course more enjoyable, to get rid of most of those, shrink them up.”
The history of Pawleys Plantation explains why Nicklaus originally laid out the terrain as he did. Per Morgan, when the famed golfer and designer was hired in 1986, the track was intended to be a private or semi-private course, not hosting package play. That plan was scrapped early, and visiting players without much on-course experience have made up large portions of the tee sheet ever since. Personal preference now versus the mid-late 1980s also came into effect. Consider this: Nicklaus has more than 300 signature courses, and Nicklaus Design’s reach of 39 states and 45 countries encompasses more than 400 courses. Nearly 290 came after Pawleys Plantation. Still, a little more than 30 years after it Pawleys Plantation opened its proverbial doors, here was the Golden Bear offering the expertise that has made him a giant in the design world, both during and after his playing days.
“It’s a very rare occurrence when a superintendent gets to hear what the architect has in mind right out of his own mouth,” Morgan said. “Typically, we show up to a golf course that was built by somebody years before. It’s a rare treat; the fact that it was Jack Nicklaus makes it even more special.”