Jack Nicklaus still is capable of delivering a signature moment, even in his 70s.
Last August, Nicklaus played in an event with friends and former rivals Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Arnold Palmer to celebrate the opening of the new Nicklaus-design Harbor Shores course in Benton Harbor, Mich.
Nicklaus crafted a par-5 10th hole that features a huge green with a top tier so steep it should include stairs. Facing a 100-foot putt, Miller reached for a lob wedge instead of his putter.
Aghast, Nicklaus grabbed his putter to show Miller how it should be done. The ball trundled up the hill, and the crowd of 5,000 people gasped then roared when it hit the hole with authority, popping up before falling in.
“I was just trying to save the green,” Nicklaus said afterwards.
“It was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in golf,” said Ross Smith, Harbor Shores’ director of golf.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better highlight during this week’s Senior PGA Championship at Harbor Shores. Nicklaus will continue to be the focus – or more specifically, his course will.
The storyline for Harbor Shores, located two hours from downtown Chicago, is of a course being built on environmentally abused land with the hopes that it will be a centerpiece of a rejuvenation project for an area that has suffered through hard times.
Benton Harbor, a town of 11,000 people, has an unemployment rate nearing 20 percent. Whirlpool, which has corporate headquarters there, was among the civic leaders that thought something needed to be done.
Among the ideas was to build a world-class golf course to stimulate housing, tourism and create jobs. A call then went out to Nicklaus.
When he arrived in Benton Harbor, city officials took him to the proposed location for the course. Immediately, Nicklaus realized he faced quite a challenge.
“I looked at the property and said, ‘Okay, where is the property for the course?’ ” Nicklaus said.
The property had abandoned buildings and had been used as a garbage dump. It was strewn with toxic waste and the precious beachfront area was a disaster. Officials estimate 5,000 old tires had to be removed.
Eventually, though, Nicklaus was able to see potential through the mess.
“On the bright side, there were some sand dunes by the lake and two rivers running through it,” Nicklaus said. “It had some beautiful wooded areas. I thought if we could clean it up, we could tie it together to make it a golf course.”
Nicklaus’ perseverance – he made more than 20 trips to Benton Harbor – and considerable cash – $18 million – produced one of the most unique golf courses anywhere. Actually, Smith tells new players that Harbor Shores plays like four different courses.
“It can’t be stereotyped as being a parkland or a links-style course,” Smith said. “Our course has four distinct sections. The opening six holes are great Jack Nicklaus-design holes. Holes 7-8-9 play into the dunes along Lake Michigan. It’s comparable to Scotland.
“Then 10-13, you have elevation changes and trees. They are our northern Michigan holes. Finally, 14-18 wrap around wetlands and the Paw Paw River.”
Visually, the course is stunning on the sprawling property. However, the players likely won’t be focused on the scenery.
Instead, they will turn their attention to the Nicklaus-designed greens. Smith said, “I’ve never played a course where the greens are as undulating.”
That might be an understatement. Golf balls get dizzy on the wild rides across the Nicklaus greens.
The most dramatic, and perhaps most controversial, will be the 10th green. It is a two-tiered and 10,500 square feet. Expectations are the pin will be on the top level during the tournament. If the ball fails to get up the hill, it’ll boomerang back down, leaving ridiculously long putts. As Miller showed, there will be players reaching for their wedge, thinking they have a better chance with that shot than a putter.
Smith defends the green.
“Some people think it’s quirky, but I’ve gotten to the point where I think it is fabulous,” Smith said. “Nicklaus is challenging the players to think on this hole. If the pin is on that top tier, you don’t want anything less than a full shot in there. You’ve got to be right with your yardage.”
The players definitely will weigh in with their critiques. However, the ultimate verdict on the course will be if it fulfills its mission and has a major impact on the community.
It’s early, but already houses are being built in the area surrounding the course. Benton Harbor’s downtown also is showing signs of life with new businesses.
Nicklaus is vested in seeing that this project is a success. He will be on hand this week at Harbor Shore to lend his vast presence in helping to tell the story.
Make no mistake, Harbor Shores is personal for Nicklaus.
“This is more than a golf course,” Nicklaus said. “This is a revitalization project that I deeply believe in. It’s a project that’s going to make a difference.”