By Bill Frye, The Register-Herald Reporter
Pulling himself away from blueprints, topographical maps and other documents laying out plans for The Greenbrier’s Oakhurst golf course, Jack Nicklaus spoke spiritedly about the project Friday evening.
Moments before speaking to members of the media, Nicklaus and Greenbrier officials pored over plans for the golf course while dust settled from the vehicles that had just come to a complete rest among the moved dirt, cut trees and huge construction equipment.
The new Oakhurst golf course being built by four of golf’s biggest legends is well under way on the mountaintops of nearby White Sulphur Springs.
“What we’re doing here is theoretically the combination of the four of us,” Nicklaus said referring to project partners Lee Trevino, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer. “It’s difficult to do but I think we’re going to get there.”
Nicklaus said the property is a difficult one to mold into a world-premier and championship level golf course, but “has some pretty good views.”
Nicklaus said one of the goals of his visit was to “find the path of least resistance” in terms of the project.
“I’ve been working on this project in the office quite a bit,” Nicklaus said. “Now we’re on site and from what you see on site to what you see in the office is quite different.”
Nicklaus was on hand to see the layout of where the Oakhurst course will rest, which allowed him to make changes on the fly to make the course work better for the land that it’s on.
“We’ve made some adjustments, changed the third hole, which used par 4; now we’ve got it as a par 5, and the fourth hole used to be a par 5 and is now a par 4,” Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus said a lot of things they had on paper just aren’t going to work in real life application.
“We had a lake here on paper,” Nicklaus said. “There’s no way to put a lake here. Unless water’s going to sit at 45 degrees.”
But Nicklaus said that while the lakes have been taken out of the plan, he hopes to use natural streams to keep the new Oakhurst course and neighborhood scenically beautiful.
“A golf course is always a work in progress anyway,” Nicklaus said. “It evolves and one visit comes to the next visit. We haven’t really designed it yet; it’s all getting the holes in place and getting the earth in place where it should go and where it should be.”
Behind where the legendary golfer spoke about the course stood where the planned par 5 18th hole green will eventually be located.
“It’s going to be a good par 5 to close out the course,” Nicklaus said.
Once the holes have been located, then trees and bunkers can start to be placed, Nicklaus said.
Comparing the development of the Oakhurst course with courses he designed in the past, Nicklaus said that designing a course in the mountains is “not the issue.”
“The issue is how you best utilize the land and best make it efficient to play golf and make pretty vistas to play golf,” Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus said that Greenbrier owner Jim Justice wants 8,000 yards available for playable golf; however, the former golfer and now golf course designer said that no one is going to play 8,000 yards, “at least I hope not, anyway.”
But Nicklaus said when all is said and done there will be about 7,600 yards of playable golf on the eventual golf course, which will put it on par with other PGA Tour championship courses.
The way the course is being set up is that on one day one hole might play at 480 yards and the next day the same hole could be played at 380 yards, Nicklaus said.
“He’s (Jim Justice) asked us to do a golf course that could immediately hold a major championship on,” Nicklaus said. “That is part of our effort to do that. But who is going to play it? What, they have a major championship here every five years? What’s going to happen the other 250 weeks? Someone else is going to play it. We’ve got to make sure the golf course is very playable for the average person.”
Nicklaus said the goal is for those who do play the course that they “walk away and said they had a good day.”
Other challenges designers are facing with the Oakhurst course include minimizing the number of shots golfers will take uphill.
If designers can get the number of shots downhill to be around 75-80 percent of the course, then that’s a good number, Nicklaus said.
The most exciting part of the Oakhurst project for Nicklaus is the fact that he and the other designers can “start from scratch” on the mountaintop property.
“We don’t have any limitations; we’re limited here by the property and our imaginations, and that’s good,” Nicklaus said.
The former golfer said that the Oakhurst golf course “won’t be a cheap golf course, but no mountain courses are.”
“But what I’ve done here today is take a lot of money out of this golf course,” Nicklaus said. “Which I hope it does because I don’t like spending more money than we need to or spending money just to spend money.”
Nicklaus said that he likes some of the pasture areas being designed for the course as well as the holes that are lined up with stream beds and tree-lines.
“You’re trying to take all those different areas and put them in a balance,” Nicklaus said. “You don’t want all pastures, you don’t want all streams, you don’t want all lakes, you don’t want all trees. You try to make a balance.”