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Sunday 24 June 2018

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Nicklaus creation matured well to silence critics

A signed photograph given to Dermot Gilleece by one of golfs all-time greatest players, Jack Nicklaus. Photo: David Conachy
A signed photograph given to Dermot Gilleece by one of golfs all-time greatest players, Jack Nicklaus. Photo: David Conachy

Dermot Gilleece

They'll be gathering this week at Muirfield Village, Ohio for the 43rd successive staging of the Memorial Tournament. That, of itself, encapsulates the enduring appeal of Jack Nicklaus and the breadth of his achievements as a player and a golf-course architect.

But there's much more to the Bear's magic, as this year's resurgence of Tiger Woods tends to emphasise. It is to be found in the lasting integrity of the Nicklaus brand, which has survived often severe attacks over the years.

From the perspective of golf-course design, there could hardly be a better example than the current well-being of St Mellion Resort on the border of Devon and Cornwall in south-west England. This I discovered on a recent, return visit, after a lapse of a quarter of a century.

When I informed the golf manager, David Moon, that I'd like to head down to the long 16th because of an incident concerning David Feherty, his smile spoke volumes. "I've heard about that," he said. "I gather it involved his tee-shot."

It most certainly did. Let me explain.

During the 1993 Benson and Hedges International at St Mellion, the quirky behaviour of Feherty and his caddie, Rod Wooller, would have merited comparisons with Blackadder and his wretched manservant, Baldrick. In the event, Feherty felt peckish towards the end of the final round.

That was when he summoned Rodders to head for Yum-Yums, a fast-food facility close to the 16th, to buy two hamburgers. In the event, the well-rounded bagman consumed his own burger on the return journey before handing the other one to his master.

Which presented Feherty with a problem in that he would need both hands free when driving off the 16th tee. And he left Rodders in no doubt that he didn't trust him to hold the surviving treat without sinking his teeth into it. The solution? Feherty put the burger on the ground, stuck a tee in the middle of it, placed his ball on top and then proceeded to whack a perfect drive which pitched into the distant rise in the fairway.

The Benson and Hedges first went to St Mellion in 1979, when Maurice Bembridge emerged victorious on what is now the Kernow Course. It also played host to the St Mellion Timeshare TPC in 1983, which Bernhard Langer won, and in 1984 when Brazil's Jaime Gonzalez triumphed. Back then, it was a par-71 with an overall length of 6,614 yards, but has since become a decidedly modest par-70 of 5,390.

This can be explained by the decision of the owners, Herman and Martin Bond, to enlist the services of the great man. As pig and potato-farming brothers, they caught the golf bug by building an original nine-hole stretch in 1976. Ten years on, with Nicklaus the newly-crowned US Masters champion, they prevailed upon him to embark on his first design venture in these islands.

So it was that with the acquisition of extra land, allied to some trimming of the existing layout, the new Nicklaus Course was ready for a European Tour launch in May 1990. As things transpired, it became the only new venue in my experience to be heavily criticised by competing players.

As a leading light on the European Tour at that time, Langer disliked the emphasis it placed on left-to-right shots. And unable to resist the opportunity of firing in his tuppence-worth, Feherty remarked: "We've been diddled. This one was done by Barbara [Nicklaus's wife]."

Later that month, I watched Nicklaus applying the final touches to his design at Mount Juliet, which was among 18 courses he had under construction at the time. In anticipation of some heat over St Mellion, the Bear said: "If they spent some time at designing courses, they [tournament professionals] would discover that it is not as easy as they think it is." He then referred to a full report he had received from his son, Jackie, who had competed in the tournament.

As a reaction to the German's criticism, he remarked icily: "I would assume that Langer would have to learn how to fade the ball or change his schedule." He then went on: "Over the years, people would look at certain shots and remark that they were fine for me because I hit the ball high. So, why don't they try to perfect the same shot? An accomplished professional should be able to move the ball any way he wishes - right to left, left to right, high or low.

"My view of the St Mellion criticism is that there are always 10 guys who will bellyache. We have them in the States though, in fairness, I would not have considered Bernhard [Langer] to be among that group. I respect his judgement."

Nicklaus then concluded: "The fact is that St Mellion was such a difficult site that I turned down the project on four occasions before eventually being persuaded to do it. I think it's a terrific course. I designed it mainly for a fade shot because I considered that draw shots would be too difficult to control on such a hilly site."

Two years later, however, a noted fader of the ball, Colin Montgomerie, came to spectacular grief there. After claiming the half-way lead, he proceeded to card a wretched third-round of 85 which, needless to remark, prompted a delicious Monty outburst.

Still, the B&H remained at St Mellion for a total of six seasons, during which time the Nicklaus view gained increasing acceptance, especially when the winners included Langer, no less, in 1991 and his great rival, Seve Ballesteros, in 1994. And by way of proving that truly great men don't harbour resentments, Nicklaus put his private plane at Feherty's disposal in 2005 when the Bangor man was at a low ebb through alcohol abuse.

Meanwhile, a once-modest hotel on the site has since been extended to 89 bedrooms and 10 lodges. And in 2004, the entire property was bought by Crown Golf, the UK's biggest golf operator with a portfolio of 23 courses.

"We're satisfied that the Nicklaus course has matured into one of the best you'll find anywhere," said Moon, the golf manager. "And you couldn't overstate the Nicklaus effect on the entire resort." A point emphasised by the Nicklaus Suite, Boardroom and Bar at courses playable 12 months of the year and which are doing a combined 70,000 rounds annually, largely at package rates, or at a maximum of £100 per round.

Down by the 18th, memories returned of some charming tournament scenes, when families of ducks would proceed with military precision, to and from the pond guarding the left side of the green. In the interim, the course has matured beautifully, while remaining largely unchanged from its original design.

Rory McIlroy, Masters champion Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth and El Tigre are lined up for Memorial action at a more famous Nicklaus creation, starting on Thursday. And the great man will be a gracious host, as he has been since congratulating the inaugural winner, Roger Maltbie, in 1976.

Constancy is a priceless element in the survival of competitive sport. And for tournament golf, Nicklaus manages to portray it to perfection.

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