The King & The Bear: Florida's First Coast Adds Another Gem
ST. AUGUSTINE, FL - What happens when you pool the combined resources of golf's two greatest champions and give them carte blanche to design a course? What does nearly a century of competitive golf at the highest level, the considerable breadth of golf course experience and intellect, not to mention two of the largest and most dynamic design teams, ultimately produce?
The answer is, of course, The King & The Bear, the newest addition to the golf lineup at World Golf Village in St. Augustine, Florida. The course is the first collaborative effort between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, who between them hold 25 major titles, over 130 PGA Tour victories, and some 350 golf course designs to their credit.
As one might expect, The King & The Bear is a course that exudes great class and polish. World Golf Village is a beautiful and well-conceived operation, a superlative ode to golf, and its two courses (including the Bobby Weed designed The Slammer & The Squire) are grand, beautiful products.
Already, The King & The Bear is garnering the type of attention that few golf courses can ever hope to procure. Profiles in numerous golf magazines including Golf Digest, a special presentation on the Golf Channel, and a head-to-head match on the course between Jack and Arnie for Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, have showcased the course since its debut in November of 2000.
Getting Palmer and Nicklaus together will naturally produce this magnitude of hype-these are two of the greatest figures not just in golf but in all of sport. The pairing is as big as it gets, and The King & The Bear is a one of a kind co-design.
What a great coup for World Golf Village. Nearly 10,000 spectators turned out to witness the two legendary figures play the inaugural round, and as the new home of the Senior PGA Tour's Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, the course will be televised nationally each Spring. The publicity from The King & The Bear, along with all the other interactive features of the Village, continues to elevate the resort on the national stage.
The King & The Bear is set two miles southwest of the World Golf Village complex, so it's not physically linked to the resort, and the terrain is not the same as The Slammer & The Squire. While it shares the common trait with the initial course of having two distinct nines, one open and one wooded, the feel of each layout is different. Aesthetic elements were prioritized at the newer course, with the crushed coquina rock hazards and cart paths, the artistic bunkering, and the rock walls that support a number of the greens, being particularly popular touches.
So what is the actual result? Is it a series of Jack holes followed by a series of Arnie's? Do their fingerprints smudge out the others'? Hardly.
The King & The Bear is a smooth composite of the better aspects of each firm's design style. Trademark Palmer and Nicklaus features are still evident, but rather than compete, they perform in a complimentary fashion. Palmer's team did the original routing, Nicklaus' tackled the strategic elements next, and then the two golfers walked the course on several occasions to further enhance it to their specs and supply directives to their engineers.
"There are elements of both [in the design]," Craig Medvid, Golf Shop Manager and Assistant Pro says. "It's not like Nicklaus did the front and Palmer did the back. They were both very involved in the overall design." How do the player's distinct approaches blend? "Very naturally," says Medvid. "Maybe you can see how Palmer influenced the right-to-left holes and Nicklaus the left-to-right, as that's how they played. You see strong signs of Palmer in places and then signs of Nicklaus, especially with his angled greens and chipping areas."
The combination accentuates the stronger points in each style. The influence of Nicklaus lends the Palmer vogue an added element of completeness and comprehensiveness, and Palmer's eye for easy lines and visual flow softens Nicklaus' traditional penchant for stark contrast and out of control scale.
Together they add to the layout a mandate for professional-caliber thinking and course management. Most of the holes at The King & The Bear force the golfer to make difficult decisions, particularly off the tee.
"This is a player's course," states Medvid. "It's designed to be tournament ready. The reaction has reflected that. It's been incredibly positive and supportive." Par is 72, and at its championship length it reaches 7,279 yards, though the measure is as little as 5,119 yards from shortest tees, with three sets in between.
That this is a "driver's" course should come as no surprise as both Palmer and Nicklaus wielded awesome power games in their primes. Whereas at The Slammer & The Squire scoring is less dependent on driving ability than iron and short-game execution, driver distance and placement is the key to success at The King & The Bear.
When the course is on its game, it forces players to manage the hole from the tee. The choice is always either a direct line of attack that brings water or bunkers into play but ultimately yields superior angles of approach, or to hit it to the wider portions of the fairways and settle for longer second and third shots. Eleven out of the fourteen non-par three holes provide risk-reward opportunities that flirt with hazards and improve approach position.
The fourth hole is typical of the course's demeanor, a 383-yard (from the championship tees) par four called "Gambler's Delight." Two sloped cross-bunkers guard the fairway to the right and a group of tall trees defend the left slightly further up. In between is a "speed slot" that will project the ball through the gap and add significant yardage to the drive. The safe play is to bail left, then hit over or to the right of the trees to the well bunkered tri-cornered green with a short iron. But taking a shot at threading a drive through the slot leaves nothing more than a short chip shot and a chance for birdie.
The fifth and seventh holes are mirror-image par fives, 546 yards and 573 yards respectively that turn at right angles around lakes on the inside corner.
The fifth, a strong dogleg right, is a replica of Robert Trent Jones, Sr.'s famous par five at The Dunes Golf Club. Bold drives will cut over the water and sprawling bunker at the inside corner of the dogleg and leave a tempting look, again over water, at a green that snuggles close to the lake. The seventh is a reverse image of this, this one bending left and slightly longer with a more severe green. Both holes reward a drive that runs as close as possible to the water.
Once the back nine is gained, the scenery changes, introducing to the experience hardwood forests and awkward, but quite striking, top-heavy pines called loblollies.
The holes on this side, while every bit as opportunistic as those on the outward nine, are visually beautiful as well. 14 through 18 particularly are eye candy and provide for picturesque golf shots and a memorable finish.
The climax, literally and figuratively, is the eighteenth, called "Bear's Claw," a proverbial name that seems to show up on so many Nicklaus courses.
At 563 yards the hole may seem out of range for most, but is set up in such a way that going for the green is not only possible but encouraged. Choices abound here. The fairway is the largest on the course and the tee shot can be directed any number of places. Pines and wetland define the extreme left side of the hole along with a vast crushed-coquina waste area that runs up to the green.
Well-struck drives (that avoid the bunker on the right) will leave 230 to 260 yards across the wasteland to the open green. An abundance of fairway room exists on the right of the waste area and green, but that angle brings into play three greenside traps. There are probably a dozen ways to approach this hole. It's the best hole on the course, and one of the best in the region.
Any time a project of this magnitude and profile is undertaken, there is always the possibility for underachievement, or at least letdown. There is a joy and enthusiasm, however, that permeates throughout the design here, at a level that is often missing at many courses designed by either man individually. It's hard to imagine many chagrined rounds or displeased visitors. The course exudes a professionalism and quality that will carry it as far, if not beyond, its cachet value.
The King & The Bear has been nominated by Golf Digest as one of the "Best New Resort Courses in America," the first of many awards and accolades to come. It is the ideal accompaniment to World Golf Village, a layout worthy of destination status that will undoubtedly be on the serious golfer's "must play" list when in northern Florida.
Fees range from a low of $125 in the summer months to $200 during March and April.
Visit their website at www.kingandbear.com
It's important to note that The King & The Bear is not located on property with World Golf Village. To get there from the Village entrance turn right (west) on International Golf Parkway and travel 1.5 miles to the intersection of Highway 16. Go through the intersection and you'll be on Pacetti Road. The entrance is approximately ½ mile on the right.