St. Mellion’s Nicklaus course in Cornwall, England, lives up to the legacy of the Golden Bear

The origins of the Jack Nicklaus course at St. Mellion in Cornwall, England, might be questionable. But the results aren’t: Nicklaus’ design is one of the finest in Europe.

By Clive Agran
Courtesy of

CORNWALL, England – Cornwall, the most southernly county in England, is rich in folklore, and the tale told of how the Nicklaus course came to be built at St. Mellion might be just another myth. However, it’s good enough to bear (an appropriate word in this instance) repeating.

After finishing 57th at the inaugural Benson and Hedges International at St. Mellion in 1979 – and behind such notable names as Tony Jacklin (fifth), Nick Faldo (12th), Lee Trevino (19th) and Sandy Lyle (31st) – Seve Ballesteros, despite having pocketed the princely prize of £210, was critical of the course.

Stung by his comments, the then owners, Martin and Hermon Bond, resolved to create something truly spectacular that no one would have the temerity to criticize. And so they commissioned the great Jack Nicklaus to produce a masterpiece.

And he did.

What’s great about the Nicklaus course at St. Mellion

Although the rugged terrain was near perfect land with which to work and rich in raw features, especially water, the Golden Bear surpassed himself with a design that was quite simply dazzling.

It took no fewer than five years to convert the dream into reality, but when Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle joined the man himself on the first tee 21 years ago, they soon discovered that here was something quite extraordinary.

The opening drive is a blind shot, and only when you reach the brow of the hill and feast your eyes on what lies before you, do you begin to appreciate the thrill that lies ahead.

With towering trees, steep valley sides or the familiar Nicklaus mounding surrounding you as you wind your way along valley floors, up gorse-covered hills, around countless lakes and ponds, past waterfalls and alongside murmuring streams, you can both literally and metaphorically lose yourself in the breathtaking beauty of it all.

Since you rarely catch even a fleeting glimpse of another hole or sight of the clubhouse until the turn, you have no idea where you are other than it’s somewhere truly special. And just when you are convinced that the last hole you played must surely be the best, another of at least equal beauty unfolds in front of you. As befits a signature golf course, it’s seemingly made up of 18 signature holes.

But there’s a lot more than mere beauty to this golf course as it is every bit as tough as it is attractive. With comparatively small greens and tight fairways, it certainly can’t be overpowered.

But it’s fair, giving you more room off the tee on the long par fours than, for example, on the par fives, where you might have to exercise a modicum of restraint. My camera came out at least five times more frequently than did my driver.

The very obvious imperative is to keep away from the thick rough. Even if you find your ball in it, the chances are you’ll be hitting from a perilous lie. The mounds, banks and hillocks are best left to the spectators for which they were primarily intended as this is, very obviously, a stadium course. And nowhere is this more apparent than coming up the last.

With the handsome, new 80-bedroom hotel on your left and the green alongside yet another lake in front of a grassy amphitheater, you can almost hear the roar that will reverberate in a couple of years time when the English Open finally arrives at its new home.

As well as installing a state-of-the-art irrigation system, other improvements have been made. A few new championship tees have been constructed, bunkers have been shifted and greens slightly enlarged, but the course has not been lengthened, and all the alterations have been carried out with the expressed permission of Mr. Nicklaus, who very much approves of what’s been done.

“In very many ways,” explains Director of Golf David Moon, “the course was years ahead of its time. Nowadays, as a defense against modern equipment and huge hitters, they are narrowing fairways, growing the rough a bit and reducing the size of greens, which is basically what you have here.”

The Nicklaus course was clearly more to Seve’s liking as he won here in 1994 to join a distinguished list of superstars including Bernhard Langer, Jose Marie Olazabal, Peter Senior, Paul Broadhurst, Paul Casey and, most recently, Carl Mason, who set a new course record with a sensational 63 on his way to winning the Midas English Seniors Open in 2006.

Given the improvements that have been made to the golf course, is his record still valid? Yes, because the changes have not significantly altered the course. It will be interesting to see if his record survives the return of the tour pros in two years time. The shrewd money says it will and that level par for four rounds might well be good enough to win.

The Nicklaus course at St. Mellion: The verdict

This is a breathtakingly beautiful course that belongs right up there among the very best. Keep out of the punishing rough, and you could post a good score. But, however well or badly you play, you are certain to enjoy every bit of what is a simply stunning Jack Nicklaus creation.

As he said himself, “I knew it was going to be good but not this good. It’s everything I hoped for and more. St. Mellion is potentially the finest golf course in Europe.”

I don’t disagree.

St. Mellion Hotel Golf & Country Club

The first European course personally designed by the 18 times Major winner, Jack Nicklaus, was officially opened at St Mellion on the Devon Cornwall border in 1988. To celebrate the…

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