Golf At Grand Cypress Resort: 45 Holes of Vintage Jack Nicklaus Architecture

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

ORLANDO, FL -- The golf at Grand Cypress Resort is as polished and deluxe as anything in the South. Golf Magazine agrees, once again naming it a Gold Medal golf resort, one of only two awarded in Florida. It’s also worthy of historical preservation.

That probably seems strange considering that none of the courses are older than 20 years.

It’s not the age of the courses but rather their designer and style that make them noteworthy. These 45 holes are a perfectly preserved expression of a man and a very distinct architectural era. Grand Cypress is Jack Nicklaus architecture in the 1980’s.

It may be morbid to think about – and not to mention premature – but eventually there will come a day when the last Nicklaus golf course has been built. In much the way that clubs and historians now find glee in studying the origins of a Ross or Raynor or Banks course, future generations will be eager to know what a true Nicklaus course looked like, and if any original Nicklaus holes remain.

Grand Cypress intends to be one place where the Nicklaus architecture will always be on display.

“We’re doing that on purpose,” Director of Golf Maintenance Tom Alex says of the resort’s approach to the architecture. “One of these days you can imagine when Nicklaus is dead and gone and you’ve got 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus golf.”

“But that’s 20, 30, 40 years from now,” he adds quickly.

The original course at Grand Cypress, now the North/South course, was built in 1984. Over the years the North/South has hosted The Shark Shootout, a PGA Skills Challenge, and various LPGA Tour events. In 1986 Nicklaus and crew added the East nine and the Academy of Golf practice facility.

The North/South/East courses were manufactured on a blank canvas otherwise known as an orange grove with approximately one foot of elevation change across the entire property. With hard horizontal lines, square-edged bunkers and greens, bulkhead supported water hazards, and of course the “chocolate drop” mounds surrounding the greens, the courses are somewhat of an anachronism compared to today’s soft visual art.

It’s a model that’s no longer adhered to but in the mid-1980’s this was as cutting edge as golf got. What isn’t outdated are the shotmaking demands. The greens, with clearly demarcated contours, are elevated like risers above the fairways. Missing them will generally leave the player well below the putting surface needing to get the ball up quickly from a difficult situation.

The approaches to the greens are a textbook exercise in angles and lines of attack. Bold plays are rewarded, meek shots are compounded.

Despite years of architectural and technological change the course still works. It’s more than able to defend itself and asks more from skilled players than do most newcomers. In an architectural age of cushy lines and everything blended, the North/South/East course reminds us that golf is a sport, not a painting.

With so much shape and verticality one might expect maintenance nightmares. According to Alex it’s all in perspective.

“We’ve got steep bunkers and ledges, but that’s the dramatic eyesight and (those) are the sight lines you see when you play the golf course. Without that, it would kind of just be like an old parking lot,” he says.

“I can certainly understand why those features, whether it be bunkers or the high greens with ledged edging, we know why they’re here, we understand why they’re here, and they may present a few maintenance challenges but that’s what makes the golf course dramatic.”

When the resort wanted to add another 18-hole course in 1987, the directions to Nicklaus were to take it another direction.

“The owners went to him and said they wanted a meadow-looking golf course with very little water in play, and [to] make it more wide open in feel,” remembers Alex, who has been with the resort since before it opened. “That was Jack’s instruction, and then he came up with that concept.”

“That concept” was to build an homage to The Old Course at St. Andrews. And when it came to mirroring the look and playability of the home of golf, Nicklaus didn’t mess around.

The New Course at Grand Cypress Resort comes replete with uncountable humps, hillocks, hollows, bumps and rolls, monstrously contoured double greens, shared fairways, and 148 hidden sod-faced pot bunkers.

When it opened for play in 1988 it was immediately unique. The idea of building replica courses was born in the 1980’s and The New Course was among the concept’s first expressions (Nicklaus now builds replica courses of his own holes). But The New Course is more than simply a regurgitation of The Old Course; it’s an outstanding example of links-style golf with plenty of originality to accompany the emulation. The ride is a wild one and the course is unique, even if the idea of building a links-style course in America isn’t. But hey, if you’re going to build a links course, build a links course.

Several holes are virtual knock-offs of the original, most notably the 1st and 18th tandem (sans The Royal & Ancient Clubhouse lording beyond), the par 3 7th that emulates the fabled “Eden” hole complete with the less severe copies of the Strath and Hill bunkers, and the long 16th which copies the form of the par 5 14th and it’s famed Hell bunker.

And because all the movement and crinkled turf had to be manufactured from scratch, The New Course helped usher in the age of the big-dollar project that continues today.

With two divergent styles of design creating conditioning conundrums, Alex and his crew nevertheless find ways to maximize overall playability of both courses under extremely variant circumstances.

The architecture of the original 27 – particularly the small plateau greens at holes such as the South’s 6th, the 8th, which shares a double green with the North’s par 3 8th, and the North’s 1st and 6th – dictates that the greens be receptive. The 150 acres of fairway, steep bunkers, and multiple cuts of rough that must be maintained make those courses the conditioning priority.

Conversely, The New Course is maintained in opposite fashion: fast and firm. At least as much as it’s possible in the wet Florida summers.

“In the construction phases [of The New Course] it was suggested and agreed upon that we’d never overseed the fairways, unlike what we do on the North and South and the Academy,” explains Alex. “We want it to play hard and fast like St. Andrews. But there isn’t any way we can make the ground as hard as they’ve got [at St. Andrews]. Ever. It is an absolutely, totally different game.

A weeklong visit to the Old Course taught Alex of the links ideal. “I’ve got a better understanding of what they’re looking for,” he says, “but it’s very hard to recreate with bermuda grass. But we do try to create a similar golfing experience.”

Who’s It For?

It’s hard to imagine coming to Florida and finding a full-service resort with more diversity in its two golf courses than Grand Cypress. The North/South/East course is classic 1980’s architecture from a designer who has been one of most influential of our era. Aside from its incongruity with today’s styles, the North/South in particular remains a championship caliber test and is the best outlet for those wanting a stiff game.

The New Course works as well as a golf course as it does as a spin-off of St. Andrews. Sure, it’s neat to play replications of the Old Course’s classic holes, but that novelty is likely to wear off after a round or two. When it’s all said and done The New Course is simply a blast to play whether it’s a salute to something else or not. Maybe it’s price prohibitive, but given the surprisingly low cost of maintenance compared to the Americanized North/South/East course, there’s no reason more courses of this style shouldn’t exist. Speaking of replications, why isn’t this the contemporary links model?

Vitals

Opened: North/South 1984; East 1986; The New Course 1988
Architect: Jack Nicklaus
Par: North-36; South-36; East-36; The New Course 36-36-72
Yardage:
North-3,521; 3,223; 3,000; 2,629
South-3,462; 3,221; 2,933; 2,693
East-3,434; 3,151; 2,878; 2,427
The New Course-6,773; 6,181; 5,280

Rates

All players must be guests at the resort. Green fees are $115 for 18 holes from May 13th through September 30, $175 from October through May 12th.

Walkability

Most guests ride at Grand Cypress but walking is permitted. Check with pro shop for restrictions. The New Course is an ideal walk, and only the South Course has long walks between holes.

The New Course and The North/South/East Course
1 North Jacaranda
Orlando, FL 32836
407-239-1909

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.


Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Hell Bunker

    Michael OMalley wrote on: Jul 8, 2009

    Hell Bunker is at the 15th hole at Grand Cypress New course

    Reply