By Rick Cleveland
Courtesy of the Clarion Ledger
MADISON — Jack Nicklaus remembers when he first surveyed what is now Annandale Golf Club when the property was a rural soybean field.
It was 30 years ago, 1979. Nicklaus was walking the property with Walter Denny, one of the club’s founders.
“They had just had seven inches of rain,” Nicklaus said. “It was wet and muddy and we’re out there in boots and Walter’s got his long, old legs and I’ve got my short legs trying to keep up.
“And Walter kept telling me to come over here and look at this. And it took me a lot longer to get there than it did him.”
Long story short: At the end of the muddy day, Denny asked Nicklaus what he thought of the property. Nicklaus replied that he thought it had the makings of a championship golf course, which Nicklaus did design and which opened in 1981.
Nicklaus was back at Annandale on Thursday, at the request of Annandale’s board, assessing the course and making suggestions for long-range plans for maintaining and improving Annandale.
“It was one of my first golf course designs back when I was still playing,” said Nicklaus, who began designing courses in 1975. “It was part of my growing up. I’m very proud of Annandale.”
Nicklaus has been involved in the design of close to 270 courses open for play worldwide in 32 countries and 39 states. More than 60 of Nicklaus-designed courses have made various national and international Top 100 lists, including Annandale.
Thirty years later, golf’s Golden Bear is perhaps an inch or two shorter – “finished as a player,” he says – but one thing hasn’t changed. It still rains a lot in Mississippi. In fact, it rained more than 20 inches in the six weeks prior to the Viking Classic, which was canceled in late October because of wet conditions at Annandale. Course drainage obviously was one of the concerns that brought Nicklaus back to Annandale.
“Does this golf course have some low areas? Yes,” Nicklaus said. “Does it have heavy soil that holds water? Yes. But I can tell you I don’t know of a course in the country that could get that much rain in that amount of time and host a PGA competition. For 28 years, drainage hasn’t been that big an issue.
“You’ve got a 28-year-old golf course, a great golf course but a course that needs a little TLC now,” Nicklaus said.
Yes, Nicklaus said, he does have some ideas of how to improve Annandale’s drainage over a period of years. He also has some ideas of possibly lengthening the golf course and other cosmetic changes to help Annandale withstand the test of time and equipment changes that have made 300-yard drives the rule rather than the exception in championship golf.
“You take hole number three (a par-4 with bunkers in the middle of the fairway) for example,” Nicklaus said. “Today’s golfers just blow the ball over those traps. That wasn’t the case in 1981. I could see moving a championship tee 30 or 35 yards back and there’s room to do it there.”
Annandale is by no means alone in this regard, Nicklaus stressed.
“I’m going from here to Shoal Creek (another of his designs near Birmingham) to deal with the same sorts of issues,” he said.
On To Cuba?
Nicklaus will turn 70 in January, but he remains a dynamic force in golf, especially in international circles. He has helped introduce the sport to Russia, China and has designed courses in post-apartheid South Africa and South Korea. A Vietnam project is in the works.
“Cuba, I would think,” Nicklaus said. “Our relations with Cuba are thawing and I would think it would be a natural place for a great golf course.”
Nicklaus was one of the primary forces and champions of having golf introduced to the Olympic Games in 2016 and 2020.
“People in China don’t know about The Masters and the U.S. Open, but they know all about the Olympics,” Nicklaus said. “They know the golf medal in the Olympics means a world champion. I think it’s great for golf to be part of the Olympics. I just wish I could have played in it myself.”
Tiger Woods no doubt will, which brings up one last subject broached with Nicklaus during his Madison visit.
If and when, Nicklaus was asked, do you think Tiger will break your record of 18 major championship victories?
Nicklaus smiled an “I’ve-been-asked-that-question-a-million-times” smile, before answering.
“Now how would I have any idea?” he said. “How could Tiger know that? I don’t and he doesn’t. I suppose that some day he will. I expect he will. He needs four more (to tie). I would be surprised if he didn’t, but he needs four more.”
Only 18 golfers in history have won four or more in an entire career. Woods, who turns 34 next month, faces more and better world-wide competition than ever before.
“With anyone else, there would be a huge question about whether they could achieve four more,” Nicklaus said, smiling again. “But he’s Tiger Woods. It’s going to be fun to watch.”