The Golden Bear, Marking Turf in the Mid-Atlantic

With two Eastern Shore courses under construction,
Jack Nicklaus extends his reach in the area.

By Craig Stoltz
Courtesy of the Washington Post

It’s a lousy day for golf, 40 degrees with a cutting wind, but Jack Nicklaus stands at the tee, contemplating hole No. 13 at the Peninsula Golf Club near Rehoboth Beach. It’s a tough par-3, a virtual island green perched about 170 yards away across a fluttering lake.

“That green needs a little more color,” Nicklaus says, turning away from the wind. “We’ve got to bring that bunker around the corner on the left side. You want to see the sand from the members’ tees.”

Nicklaus, 65, is here not as a player but as a course designer, the profession that now occupies most of his time. And if you haven’t heard of the Peninsula Golf Club, that’s because it won’t open until next year. Nicklaus has come to this waterfront property on the Eastern Shore for his fourth of nine planned working visits.

In addition to the 18-hole, 7,200-yard Jack Nicklaus Signature Course that is expected to open next year, Peninsula on the Indian River Bay will feature a wave pool worthy of a theme park, a nature center, a marina with a water taxi to Rehoboth Beach, a tennis complex with stadium seating, a gated entrance tended 24/7 and 1,400 townhouses, condos, villas and detached homes.

“There’s nothing like this in this part of the country,” says developer Larry Goldstein, the Washington-area builder who is developing the community. Goldstein cites Kiawah Island, the private golf community in South Carolina, as a likely peer.

Truth told, there is something similar not far away — Bayside, a residential community located just outside Fenwick Island, where another Jack Nicklaus course is under construction. Bayside, an 867-acre planned community being built by Olney-based Carl Freeman Cos., will have about 1,700 houses and many of the same amenities as Peninsula.

Like Peninsula’s, Bayside’s course will hug the shoreline and be routed judiciously through marshland, trees and houses; water will be in play throughout. Both courses will be open to owner-members and vacation renters. Bayside will also offer daily-fee public play. It opens in July.

Once Goldstein decided to turn the 800-acre former chicken feed farm into a gated community with golf course, he interviewed “a lot of the name designers” of golf courses. Nicklaus was the most expensive — he reportedly charges $2 million for his design services, though Goldstein won’t say, in addition to the costs of building the course itself.

“He has the highest name recognition, even among non-golfers,” Goldstein says. “My mother knows who Jack Nicklaus is, but she’s never heard of [well-regarded designer Tom] Fazio.”

The Peninsula is a Nicklaus Signature Course, a designation that means you get the Full Jack: The man himself routes and designs each hole, monitors construction over multiple visits, has a full-time associate on-site and signs off on the details. Prior to opening Nicklaus will play the course wired to a microphone, providing spoken notes for final tweaks by greens keepers.

Big-name course designers are notorious for showing up at a ground-breaking and grand opening, signing autographs and leaving most of the design work to associates. But Nicklaus approaches design with the same intensity that helped make him the greatest golfer of his generation.

This becomes obvious during his three-hour working visit. About a third of the holes are raw mud and exposed irrigation pipes, a third are sculpted fairways lacking only grass, and the rest are complete holes carpeted by green stubble.

Trailed by three SUV’s full of assistants, crew and various hangers-on, Nicklaus moves from hole to hole, first taking in the view while standing at the members’ tees, driving to the presumed landing area for another look, and finally moving to the green complex, where he evaluates the approach to the cup.

At one point he bends over to pick up small stones from the muck that will eventually be a fairway. “Have you had your guys out here?” Nicklaus scowls at an assistant. “These stones can wreck members’ clubs.”

The Golden Bear is sometimes described as a “second-shot” designer. Most of his fairways offer generous landing areas, permitting even a mediocre player to land on the short grass. “Everybody likes to hit driver, so we let them,” Nicklaus says. “We try to make the approach shot challenging.”

Nicklaus’ green complexes are complex indeed, well protected by bunkers, flanked by hazards and often terraced into several distinct zones.

Hole No. 3, a short par-4, presents a different test. Charts that plot sunlight exposure suggest insufficient illumination to keep grass healthy. The choices are cutting down a dozen trees or moving the already carefully sculpted green complex about 20 yards forward and to the right. For a number of reasons, including a preference for limiting environmental impacts, Nicklaus decides on the latter, effectively shortening the hole. “Let’s let a short par-4 play like a short par-4,” he says.

Goldstein, standing nearby, gives a thin smile: Another decision that will make the course better — and cost more money.

Nicklaus has designed courses all over the world, including Russia, China and Mexico. “But I haven’t done too much work in the Mid-Atlantic,” he says, while riding back to the Sussex County Airport, where “Air Bear,” his private Gulfstream 4 jet, awaits.

“This is a beautiful part of the country,” Nicklaus says. “Having a course run right along the water is pretty rare.” Most developers give the houses, not the golfers, the water view. At Peninsula the course will serve as an environmental buffer between the residential area and the bay, which will result in several holes having memorable water views. In fact, Nicklaus has designed Peninsula’s long, par-5 No. 18 to resemble the closing hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Monterey, Calif., creating a sort of Mid-Atlantic echo of one of the best-known golf holes in the U.S.

“The vistas,” Nicklaus says, as the Delaware countryside flashes by outside the car window, “are going to be spectacular.”

The Peninsula

The Pebble Beach of the East The Peninsula‚Äôs private, 7,200-yard, par 72 Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course is a marvel of engineering, ingenuity and breathtaking beauty, ensuring its future as…

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