Nicklaus Tightens the Screws at Old Corkscrew

Why is this man smiling?:

The Golden Bear at Old Corkscrew

The Golden Bear at Old Corkscrew

Because he knows that some days you’re the corkscrew, some days you’re the cork.

Not that we hadn’t been warned about the sometimes daunting nature of the Old Corkscrew Golf Club in Estero. The night before the Golf Road Warriors were having some cocktails at The Bubble Room on Captiva Island and once the bartender heard where we were playing the next day he went off on a detailed critique of the Jack Nicklaus design philosophy: “That guy’s all up and down, up and down, and the greens are the hardest I’ve ever putted on.”

Thus reassured, we showed up in the morning loaded for Golden Bear. Golf operations manager Mike Iwinski was on hand to greet us, as was his golf pro brother, Bill. These two were the closest thing I’ve seen to a Car Guys routine behind a golf counter and, as we quickly discovered, a sense of humor helps out at Old Corkscrew; the round isn’t going to be a mild walk in the park.

But it certainly can be invigorating. We had no intention of playing the tips, 7,393 yards and a slope of 153. We may be Golf Road Warriors but we’re not insane. We even passed up the blue tees (6,617 yards), since a slope rating of 144 from the 6,262-yard white tees seemed like plenty, thank you very much.

This was easily the toughest course we faced on the trip, and personally it slapped me around like a red-headed stepchild for the first four holes. And by then I’d begun to appreciate that director of instruction Mike Calbot was a pretty funny, guy, too. He shepherded us around for part of the journey, agreeably taking a few photos of us along the way. He pointed out accurately enough that, “It’s so quiet out here you can hear a fly fart.”

Golf Road Warriors (from left): Hal Phillips, Tom Bedell, David Whyte, Brian McCallen

Golf Road Warriors (from left): Hal Phillips, Tom Bedell, David Whyte, Brian McCallen

He also presciently said to me on the fourth tee, “This is one of the prettiest holes out here, but if the ball’s off the fairway, it’s gone.” Q.E.D.

Pretty view from the fatal fourth tee

Pretty view from the fatal fourth tee

Four holes, and I was already out four balls. Not that the course is really that ravenous. I righted the ship by the fifth hole, stealing a bogey even after dribbling a shot into the water, and went on to enjoy the challenge throughout.

I was speaking to Rick Jacobson recently, part of the Nicklaus Design staff before hanging out his own shingle, and he noted that, “Jack’s philosophy has always been that a course should be fair, but strategic enough so you’ll have to think your way around.” And play from the proper tees? Jacobson laughed and said, “That usually takes education in the pro shop.”

And as long a hitter as Nicklaus was in his prime, Jacobson added that, “Jack always feels it’s not enough to rely on power to get around a course. Finesse has to come into play.” Absolutely true here.

I also recently wrote about Wayne Stiles, a mainly New England designer of the Ross era, speculating that I had probably played as many Stiles’ courses as any other designer, with possible contenders being Ross, Dye, Fazio and Nicklaus.

But now that I ponder it further, I think Nicklaus would easily rank number one. I’ve played his courses all over the world, and if there’s one thing in common with every one of them it’s superlative conditioning. It may be that the man’s very aura is enough to compel the work to ensure this, a sheer sense of custodial pride in overseeing a Nicklaus course that one dare not let the standard down.

Old Corkscrew before the dewsweepers

Old Corkscrew before the dewsweepers

This particular Nicklaus Signature Course was originally to be a private track called The Retreat with adjacent housing opportunities, but we know how that went in the early part of this century. It opened for business in 2007 as the public Old Corkscrew (named after the nearby Corkscrew River), with nary a house to mar the views of the mature oak, pines and cypress trees (or the sounds of a fly farting), on 275 acres.

Water there is, up and downs there are, and the large greens do indeed have a lot of movement to them. But armed with a sense of humor, and the sense to play from an appropriate tee, there’s real pleasure in tackling a thinking player’s course. Hal Phillips and I were the clear intellectual winners in this regard, taking our third and deciding match over Brian McCallan and David Whyte, 5 and 3.

Perhaps our best thought of the day, however, came after drawing a few tee shots just a shade too far on the home hole. Scrounging around some watery reeds to see if the balls were salvageable, we noticed we were being watched. We opted to drop some new pellets a bit further removed, and played in from there.

I see you....

I see you….

[April 30, 2014]

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