May River Golf Club
South Carolina, USA

Green Keeper: Chris Johnson

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

The easy walking Jack Nicklaus design at May River Golf Club takes full advantage of its Lowcountry setting. Beyond the seventh green is the Greenleaf slough, an inlet of the May River.

Jack Nicklaus Design has built over 300 courses in thirty-seven countries. From Gleneagles in Scotland, across to Europe and Asia, down to Australia, up and over to Hawaii, the Baja region of Mexico, and north along the Pacific coast to Whistler in Canada, the geographic reach of Jack Nicklaus’s golf course architecture career is unparalleled.

A huge business today, his design career started quietly enough in the 1960s at first The Golf Club outside of his home town of Columbus, Ohio and then on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. There, he enjoyed learning and exchanging ideas with Pete Dye during the construction process of Harbour Town.

During the thirty five period from when Harbour Town opened until construction started on May River in 2002, numerous golf architecture trends came and went. Nicklaus’s own thoughts on golf course design evolved as well. What he liked early in his design career, he may no longer care as much for today. For instance, the 1996 Australian Open was held at The Australian Golf Club outside of Sydney. Nicklaus remodeled the course in 1978 as a favor to his friend and member Kerry Packer. Nicklaus told the press after touring the course in 1996 that there was quite a bit he would do different design wise today if given the chance. This caused quite a kafuffle with the membership but the joy of being Jack Nicklaus is that you are always free to speak your mind! Without doubt, The Australian makes for a rigorous test for the game’s best. However, its water hazards and steep faced bunkers that line the edges of the greens limit its lasting appeal to strong golfers only – and Nicklaus realized that.

In general, such high demand architecture characterized golf course construction during the1970s and 1980s. With penal hazards flush against the greens, the golf played on such courses made for dramatic moments when seen on television. However, on a daily playing basis, no golfer enjoys losing several golf balls as it robs him of any sense of playing satisfaction. Playing these designs wore out golfers as they tired of so many do or die shots.

Starting in the 1990s and certainly by 2000, it was evident that something needed to change in golf course architecture. Building a tough golf course was easy. In fact, doing so required little imagination or skill. The far greater challenge was for golf architects to once again build courses that remained interesting to play for a wide range of playing abilities for decades to come a la the courses built during the Golden Age of golf architecture.

Today, every architect claims they build such courses – whether they do or not is a point of debate. To fulfill this lofty claim, what are the key design tenets that must be present?

Certainly, there must be plenty of playing room off the tee. Cramped holes lack strategy, produce cramped swings, and fail to hold the golfer’s interest over time. Angles of play help the course remain engaging for years to come. After encouraging the golfer to make a bold positive swing from the tee, the challenge can stiffen the closer one gets to the green. As most golfers are going to miss more than half the greens during their round, they need to be given the ability to find their ball (i.e. minimal water hazards and thick grass) and have a reasonable opportunity to play a recovery shot (i.e. no twelve feet deep bunkers) in order to enjoy their round. Playing recovery shots from short grass to a green a few feet above the golfer is within the skill set of all golfers and provides the widest range possible in types of recovery shots. Furthermore, when taken together, the eighteen putting surfaces and their interior contours need to pose a variety of challenges. Some should gather balls in toward certain hole locations while others should feature plateaus with shoulders that carry balls away. Finally, the entire course must be reflective of its natural environment. Human beings have a natural affinity for being in nature. Its draw is timeless and if the course’s appeal is rooted in nature, the course too stands a great chance of sharing that timeless quality.

Each of the above desirable traits can be found at May River. This is no surprise as in recent years, Nickalus has spoken openly about the need to return to fun golf. His designs are now reflecting that desire. Mayacama Golf Club in Napa Valley, which opened in August, 2001, is one example and May River is an even better one.

Two common denominators between the two projects is that the lead design associate for the Jack Nicklaus Design was Jim Lipe and the design coordinator was Kurt Bowman. On site daily, Bowman has gone on to become a design associate living and working for Jack Nicklaus Design in Cabo, Mexico. Lipe first joined the Jack Nicklaus organization twenty-four years ago for their course in Cornwall, England. Lipe speaks with great affection for what they accomplished at May River. In particular, the eighteen holes take the golfer on a lovely stroll through the Lowcountry, past numerous specimen three hundred year old live oaks that are found within this Maritime-of-the-Sea forest. According to Lipe, ‘There was never any discussion of moving much dirt on this project. To do so against such a backdrop of mature trees would have only introduced an unwelcome artificial element.’ Various wetlands are crossed but none encroach too much into play. The Greenleaf slough is encountered on the front whereas the course rubs up twice against the May River on the back.

Indeed, the design at May River captures the natural appeal of the site while providing fun and challenging golf for all as well as any Jack Nicklaus course with which the author is familiar. A review of the holes below highlight the various design elements that make it so but a lot of the challenge of May River occurs thirty yards and in to the greens.

The nature of the pushed-up greens – from the tightly mown banks that feed balls off their shoulders to the interior contours found within the greens themselves – highlights the crucial role that short grass plays in this design. Fast and firm playing conditions are an absolute must if these greens are to function properly. For instance, with a bunker in front and water nearby, a left hole location at the fifth only works well if the golfer can feed the ball in off the green’s center spine. Such is indeed the case. Here at the fifth as well as several other greens, the golfer enjoys learning how to aim at point x to feed his ball to point y. Other times, rather than gathering the ball in, the wings of some greens are the high point of their surrounds. Thus, with a back right hole location at the twelfth, caution becomes key as the overbold approach is sweep away and down the bank from the putting surface. Though the resulting recovery shot is ticklish, it is within the playing ability of all golfers.

These ideal fast and firm playing conditions are presented by Green Keeper Chris Johnson and his crew. The world was first exposed to Johnson’s ability to achieve such playing conditions at the Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match at Cherokee Plantation between David Duval and Ernie Els. Johnson had the course at peak firmness for this televised match in April, 2000. Unfamiliar with the course, the two players tried to treat the course as a typical overwatered soft American course. They boldly flew their approach shots right at the hole locations, only to see their balls take various slopes and drift off the greens. To avoid further embarrassment to these unprepared golfers, Johnson and his crew were sent ahead of the match to wet the greens and slow them down! Johnson’s talent in achieving such playing conditions in South Carolina made him the ideal choice for the May River green keeper position.

Holes To Note

First hole, 430/405 yards; The opener sets the tone and is an accurate reflection of what follows in several respects. First, the broad playing corridor is handsomely framed by oaks and other hardwoods. Second, the hole has strategic merit, courtesy of the classic bunkering pattern of a large bunker on the inside of this dogleg right and one on the outside front left of the green. Third, the pushed-up green complex provides a variety of recovery options – there are no water or penal hazards. In sum, the hole pleasantly sits upon the land and all level of golfers enjoy playing it.

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

Man’s hand is soft upon the land at May River. Note the absence of artificiality as the first fairway gently bends right around a large fairway bunker.

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

In keeping with its Lowcountry setting, the features at May River hug the ground. That is not to say, though, that the course plays flat. Typical of the rest of the course, the first green appears level with its surrounds when in fact it is pushed up several feet. This view is of the three foot deep bunker that wraps around the back right of the green.

Second hole, 205/185 yards; In the 1970s and 1980s, Nicklaus’s placement of greenside hazards was more confrontational than today. Streams or lakes abutted the edges of greens with but a small margin for error. Over the past two decades, Nicklaus’s design style evolved to a higher level. Take this hole as an example. The wetland was created but it is thirty yards from the front edge of the green. Only a topped shot finds it but it does give the average golfer a sense of accomplishment when he carries it. The large bunker in front of the green is also well off the putting surface. However, the hole is full of playing interest thanks to the qualities of its pushed-up green complex.

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

The wetland is really not in play as the putting surface doesn’t start until thirty yards past it. The bunker on the right is also eight paces removed from the front of the green.

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

There are more overtly beautiful photographs than this one found within this course profile. However, the photograph above of the right side of the second green illustrates the key role short grass plays in making this an engaging design for all golfers.

Third hole, 430/380 yards; One of the biggest differences in the back and middle markers is found on this hole. For those strong enough to play May River from its 7,170 yard back tees, the lake is the defining factor from the tee. For the remaining ninety-eight percent of us, we will enjoy the course far more from the 6,620 tee markers. The tiger and the nine handicap golfer are both pleased with their respective challenges on this hole.

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

A view from the back markers shows that the skilled golfer needs to challenge the water down the right in order to have the best approach angle into the green. The forward tees are toward the left, making the water less of a factor.

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

The meticulous tree clearing process uncovered this baby live oak ninety yards from the green. Though there is concern as to how big it will become with time, Nicklaus was insistent it be left.

Fourth hole, 565/535 yards; A strength from the beginning of Jack Nicklaus’s design career has been his ability to create great three shot holes. In particular, there is invariably some form of hazard that one may elect to contend with their second in order to set up a potential birdie. Examples from around the world include carrying the dry wash at the fourth at Cabo del Sol in Mexico and the alternate paths created at the sixth at The Legends Golf and Country Resort in Malaysia. Here, an eighty yard long bunker from 150 to seventy yards short of the green creates all sorts of interesting playing decisions.

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

Can the golfer carry this bunker in two? Or should he lay up short of it, directly in line with the fourth flag? Perhaps laying up farther down its right side makes the most sense when the hole location is left?

Fifth hole, 440/420 yards; While all the green complexes at May River are different, none compete among themselves for attention. Rather, when taken as a set, they compliment each other and pose a great variety of challenge. Take this green for instance. Unusual for the course, it is broader (42 yards) than it is deep (21 yards). Thus, the approach to the fifth is more about distance control than direction. Though there are two bunkers across the front, they are small and there is plenty of room to run the ball onto the green. Shots that go long leave a recovery shot from short grass.

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

Provided the golfer is patient and takes time to learn the course, he finds there is almost always a way to reach even the most difficult hole locations. Take the one above on the left wing of the fifth green. With water ten paces left of the putting surface and a small bunker in front, the golfer is wise to use the high center spine to feed his approach shot left into the bowl and toward the day’s hole location.

Sixthhole, 175/155 yards; One reason why May River is a fun course for all is how Nicklaus handled forced carries. He had to get the golfer across the fifty yard wide Greenleaf Creek and a very fine way to do so was to create a one shotter, thus affording all golfers the luxury of a perfect lie from the tee.

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

The postcard perfect sixth hole at May River. One of the course’s best hole locations is back left. A depression within the green starts in line with the two tall trees behind the green, and serves to gather balls back toward such hole locations.

Seventh hole, 335/310 yards; One attribute of a great short two shotter is that there be no consensus on how it should best be played. Holes like the twelfth at The Old Course, the ninth at Cypress Point, and the fifth at Crystal Downs have stumped golfers for decades. So too will this little menace. Charlie Kent, Director of Golf, prefers to take his tee ball right, leaving him a 100 to 110 yard shot across the slough to the green. A full pitch is the desired result, as Mr. Kent now has the ability to control/spin the ball into this shallow green. Conversely, Greg Wrobel, Head Golf Professional, shortens the hole by playing left. His tee ball finishes close to the hazard, leaving him a fifty to sixty yard wedge. The benefit as Mr. Wrobel sees it? The ground nearest the hazard is flat and gives him the perfect stance/lie whereas the ground on the right of the fairway actually slopes slightly toward the green. Nicklaus’s own advice on playing the hole? ‘Just because the seventh is a short doesn’t mean it is supposed to be a birdie hole. Patience is required. Don’t be so quick to always go after the flag. Sometimes a twenty foot putt from either left or right of the hole is your best play.’

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

The golfer is greeted with views of expansive playing corridors from most tees at May River. However, the view from the seventh tee is one of the more intimidating on the course. Easily the shortest two shotter on the course, the seventh is the eleventh handicap hole, high for a hole of such modest length.

May River, Jack Nicklaus, Nicklaus Design, Inn at Palmetto Bluff

From any angle, the pitch across the slough is to a wide but shallow target. The left of the green narrows to only nine (!) paces. However, the right hole location seen above is just as taxing as the putting surface past the right greenside bunker slopes away from the player.

Continued >>>