Rocky Gap better than par for Nicklaus

Golf: The playing legend and architect tees off on the Western Maryland course he began more than a decade ago.

May 18, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

FLINTSTONE - Jack Nicklaus stood on the first tee at the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort yesterday, looking out on what he helped create from a 235-acre parcel of rough terrain in this Western Maryland town. Just by the name of the place, you know it wasn't an easy job.

But there was Nicklaus, winner of a record 18 major professional championships and designer of more than 180 courses around the world, trying to explain what his intentions were on nearly every shot on a course that can play anywhere from 7,102 yards at the back tees to 5,198 yards for beginners.

It was as if you were watching Mark Twain read one of his novels or Leonardo da Vinci explain the essence of a painting.

In this case, the 200 guests invited to watch Nicklaus play a course he first signed on to design more than a decade ago got to see a 61-year-old legend at work. When designing any course, Nicklaus starts with the same premise. "Golfers like when they can drive the ball," Nicklaus had said earlier in the day.

In reality, the 408-yard opening hole was one of the few places here where most golfers - Nicklaus included - could let it rip. After hitting a ceremonial first drive with an old persimmon wood club, and giving it to House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Nicklaus did what he has done for years.

He hit it far and placed it perfectly in the fairway.

"You have 315 yards to the end of the landing area," he told the crowd as he walked off the first tee.

Although new technology has allowed Nicklaus to hit it farther than he did in his prime, even he didn't have to worry about flying over the soft patch of bent grass and down into the trampled gully of weeds and brush leading up to the green.

It was about the only hole on the front nine, much of it carved out of the shale rock and trees that are all part of Evitts Mountain, where Nicklaus could make believe he was a toned-down Tiger Woods or John Daly.

While he performed admirably given the rainy and windy conditions that helped delay his private plane for more than hour en route from Ohio to the airport in Cumberland, Nicklaus played the course as if he hadn't seen it for a couple of years.

Take the 174-yard, par-3 fourth hole, where a large mass of shale had to be cut away from what was the left side of the green. As a result, the hole tends to pull every shot to the right - and trouble. That is where Nicklaus hit his tee shot, the ball hitting the fringe to the right of the green and nearly falling into a bunker.

"I thought I had made this to bounce left," Nicklaus joked before chipping to within a couple of inches of the cup.

At the brutal, 226-yard, par-3 sixth hole, Nicklaus told the gallery the elevation of the hole - about a 50- to 60-foot drop from tee to green - played into his club selection. Nicklaus said that, for every 10 feet you drop in elevation, you take 10 yards off your club selection.

"Give me a 4 [-iron]," he asked his caddie, Rocky Gap teaching pro John Johnson.

When Johnson suggested that Nicklaus might want to hit a 3-iron, Nicklaus gave one of his patented mock stares.

"OK, give me a 3," said Nicklaus.

"Yes, sir," said Johnson.

Either the ball got caught up in the swirling wind or Nicklaus hit it a little fat, because his tee shot fell a couple of yards short of the green. Nicklaus later joked when he misplaced another tee shot, giving him a blind approach to the green on the short par-4 seventh.`That's why you have to hit to the left on this hole," said Nicklaus.

One of the more interesting environmental battles Nicklaus and his design staff faced during the three years it took to build the course and finish what turned into a $53 million project occurred on the par-5 eighth. Nicklaus blasted a drive perfectly to the right of trees left of the fairway, but any tee shot pushed right would have to contend with an overhanging tree by the green.

"He wanted to scale back that tree," said Hans F. Mayer, chief executive officer of the Baltimore-based Maryland Economic Development Corporation, which is the leaseholder for the resort and course. "But we had to move the green to the left."

It was one of several battles Nicklaus had with state and local environmental agencies in developing and designing Rocky Gap. It nearly prevented the project from getting off the ground and prolonged the timetable from the day Nicklaus signed on for a $1 million fee to 13 years. Nicklaus credited Taylor with seeing all the problems through.

"I've only had one project that was tougher [to build]," Nicklaus said, referring to a course in Switzerland where only 10 holes have been completed.

Rocky Gap is one of dozens of public-access courses built throughout the state in recent years, and, like many of them, it plays to different tastes. While the front nine is mostly tight and treacherous, the back nine is more apt to get favorable reviews from weekend hackers.

Not that the back nine is without its signature holes. Perhaps the most daunting is the par-4 14th hole, where a narrow fairway is cut in half by water and out-of-bounds loom to the right and behind the hole. It was reminiscent of some holes at some of Nicklaus' tougher courses.

Though the gloomy weather didn't add much to the bucolic setting, it wasn't hard to envision what this course will look like later in the summer or in the fall. And it wasn't difficult for Nicklaus to imagine what it would look like in a few years.

"This golf course is just in its infancy," Nicklaus said as he was about to tee off on the eighth hole. "It's not all grown in yet. It will only get better as time goes on."

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