PGA West Nicklaus Tournament Course -- Grin and Bear It

By Jeffrey A. Rendall


K.C. Kinsey, Director of Marketing at PGA West (KSL Desert Resorts), said the idea for the Nicklaus Tournament Course at the Resort was to build a layout that was suitable for hosting a PGA Tour event.


Not only did Nicklaus design one that met the goal, he's created a course that's worthy of his lofty signature. I should've known that Jack wouldn't design any patsy courses either--with a nickname like "The Golden Bear," you automatically should know that any course he designs will have a certain amount of bite to it.


Not as brutishly difficult as its Stadium Course sibling, the Nicklaus Tournament course still combines many clever and difficult elements in its 18 links that will challenge you. And while there are many things the same between the two courses (after all, Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus have worked together before on golf course design--Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina--comes to mind), they also have a distinctly different feel.


The "Nick Tournament," as locals call it, seems to incorporate a more natural blend of true desert terrain into its layout, so as to become pleasantly sanctimonious with the desert surroundings. There are a fair amount of houses on the course (as with the Stadium course), but at only a few spots would I note them as obtrusive. They don't detract from the desert feel of the course.


Supplementing the desert theme--the PGA West resort on the whole is surrounded by impressive mountain views--and Nicklaus nicely aims many of the links towards the mountains so as to maximize the dramatic effect. The Par three seventeenth is named 'Mountain View,' but you don't need to glance at the scorecard's hole names to notice the peaks--they look like they're practically on top of you.


Nicklaus also impressively uses distinctly different design features throughout the course to give the track its own unique flavor. It many ways, I don't think I've ever seen another course quite like it.

Maybe that's why the PGA Tour recently held its Q School on the Nicklaus Tournament course (as well as the Nicklaus Private course nearby), so if the professional players in waiting can handle this course without flinching, they can certainly handle the more traditional layouts on the PGA Tour.


Most notable of the distinctions found here (as opposed to more traditional courses) are the fairways. They've got table tops or plateaus. Nicklaus gives a fair amount of room to shoot at, but if you miss, there's a penalty to be had -- the ball will simply bounce or roll off the top into someplace that you're probably not going to like. Kinsey also points out that the grass around the greenside bunkers is shaved -- so the fringe won't save you from rolling into them if you miss wide.


Kinsey says the Nicklaus Tournament course was one of the first designed specifically to include desert vegetation and landscapes. Sure enough, desert vegetation can be found in any number of the bunkers or rough areas. I don't think I've had many lies in a bunker that were obstructed by a bush before, but there's always a first time to be found here.


In addition to the prevalent lengthy sand bunkers bordering fairways--greenside, Nicklaus uses deep grass bunkers and mounding to test your short game. Jack hasn't achieved fame as a great wedge player, but he sure expects you to be when you play his courses. And where you would normally be thanking God for the good fortune of being on grass instead of sand, here it might be the opposite.


That's because the rough was extremely thick. Kinsey and fellow playing partner, Jerry Howse, both said the rough was uncharacteristically thick due to Q-School's impending presence--but I'd bet it's something to tangle with all year round. Howse, a golf pro himself, said "Really, the only thing you can do if you're in this stuff is try to get as much club on the ball as possible, and hope it goes somewhere friendly."


At times, the cumulative desert charm and the aesthetic beauty of the course almost make you forget how tough it is. But then there's always something striking to remind you. Nicklaus throws it all at you--in addition to the sand, grass bunkers, desert vegetation, split and plateaud fairways, there's water. A lot of it. There are two island greens and sizeable lakes come into play on a several other holes.


In other words, the course can lull you into a false sense of complacency. Perhaps Kinsey said it best when he advised "Be creative. There are a lot of things out there that may surprise you--and don't be fooled by the looks of the course. It forces you to use creativity in shot selection."


Nicklaus gives hints as to what's in store with the first hole--with a pleateud fairway surrounded by deep grass swales and mounds, as well as a bunker on the right. The green is protected by huge sand and grass bunkers, but the putting surface is fairly large. And at 412 yards from the tips, a nice warmup hole that won't kill you.


The real character of the course is introduced on the fourth hole. 549 from the back, you must shoot over a long stretch of desert scrub wasteland to a table-top fairway. Again, there are deep rough swales on the borders of the fairway. Second shots must contend with a couple bunkers on the right, as well as rough and tricky undulations. The third shot is to an elevated green--and it's not a good idea to be short or long--because you'll have an uneven lie in a grass bunker in either case.


The eighth hole is the first island green--172 yards from the back and a full water carry. There is a bunker short and left to save you from the water if the pin's in that region and you hit it fat. Not really that tough of a hole--the green is big--but precise club selection will be vital to get you a birdie putt.


The ninth is the first of two outstanding finishing holes that play over the same lake to a massive tiered green that is shared with the eighteenth. 461 yards and a slight dogleg right, play your tee shot as close to the lake as possible (not realistically reachable) and carry your middle to long iron over the water. Bail right if you need to.


#11 is a 528 dogleg left par five, with a split fairway. The whole's name is 'Moguls,' which you will immediately see why when you reach the tee box. Smart play is to the right--otherwise the massive moguls block your view from the left side of the 'y' fairway. You'll definitely have to lay up if you're on that side. If you cut off enough of the leg from the right, you might have a shot at the green in two.


Fifteen is perhaps the most notorious hole on the course. Named Long Island, it's a 572 yard par five, again with a split fairway tee shot. The green is an island, requiring a full water carry, so going for it in two from the back tees isn't realistic. But even the second shot layup is no picnic--it has to be to the right (water's on the left) and the rough on the right side will make it tough to carry the water on your third if you're in it.


Eighteen is a great finishing hole. A slight dogleg right, Water guards the entire right side, along with a small sand buffer. Second shots will test your nerves (like the ninth), as you'll have to shoot over the lake to get good position on the elevated green. Seems like Jack saved one of the toughest shots of the day for the last full swing try.


But it seems Nicklaus doesn't ask anything more of you than he would himself. And the winner of so many majors wants tour players to earn a victory with solid nerve on the final hole. And he demands the same from you, too.



PGA West Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course

56-150 PGA Boulevard
La Quinta,
California 92253


Phone: 1-800-PGA-WEST




Course Designer: Jack Nicklaus

Director of Marketing: K.C. Kinsey



Regular Season -- Resort Guest $170; Non-Guest: $190
High Season (Begins after Christmas) -- Resort Guest: $205; Non-Guest: $235

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