Restoring the May River Golf Course with the help of professional golf champion Jack Nicklaus.
In a steady, soaking rain, Jack Nicklaus lifts the side curtain on his golf cart and hops off the front seat. He ambles toward the middle of the tee box on May River Golf Course’s second hole, stopping once he approaches the center, and looks around. With one hand on his back and the other shielding his sight from the rain, he surveys the fairways.
“Really pretty place, isn’t it, Jack?”
Sitting shotgun on another golf cart, Jack’s grandson, Jack Nicklaus III, agrees: “Yep.”
The rain has drenched the greens of the May River Golf Course all day, saturating the grass so much so that when we drive over the fairways, water sprays off the golf cart tires like a boat leaving a large and unnecessary wake.
David Stinson, the Palmetto Bluff Golf Club’s director of golf, and Chris Johnson, golf course superintendent, brave the weather and emerge from the dryness of their golf carts to join the famous Golden Bear on the tee. They chat about the length of the fairway, the design of the hole, and, of course, the rain.
“Should we get a picture, anyway?” Stinson asks. He says, “anyway,” meaning, “I’d like to remember this moment even though I am getting drenched.” I am relieved at the question, as the only reason I can join this private jaunt of the golf course is to drive a photographer around to capture the renowned Jack Nicklaus as he tours the recently restored May River Golf Course. But because of the rain, we’ve photographed nothing of interest yet.
Jack Senior stands patiently in the middle of the tee as he waits for the Palmetto Bluff Golf Club team and his son, Jack Junior, and his grandsons, Jack III and Will, to arrange themselves around him for the pose. I encourage the group to spread out, and the photographer begins clicking.
To make light of the situation, Jack Senior says something that I can’t quite make out over the din of the rain, and they all chuckle. For a man widely regarded as the greatest golfer of all time, snagging 18 major championships, 19 second-place and nine third-place finishes over the span of his highly lauded career, he is nothing like the egotistical athlete that his success might imply. Indeed, as a welcome contrast to the sports stars of today, Jack Nicklaus is nothing but gracious, good-humored and humble.
With a nod, Jack signals the end of the picture taking, and the group follows him back to their respective golf carts. Jack Senior waits for Jack Junior and Jack III to climb inside the cart, and then turns around to look at the golf course one more time before following suit—whether soaking up the moment or truly just getting soaked, I’m not sure.
IN THE BEGINNING
In 2004, the May River Golf Course opened in Palmetto Bluff to the delight and fanfare of members and guests of the community. Currently ranked 39th on Golf Digest’s list of the Top 100 Courses in the U.S., May River Golf Course has enjoyed attention from golfers and media alike during its tenure at the Bluff.
Situated on the banks of its namesake May River, the par-72 course can be equally a golfer’s paradise and worst enemy—described as challenging at best and downright heartbreaking at worst, but that comes with the territory of the oft-frustrating game of golf. Its intricately designed tee boxes, fairways, and greens integrate some of the most ingenious designs in environmentally sustainable golf courses, coming together to create a course that has become a destination for golf not only in the Lowcountry, but in the South as a whole.
But like anything of beauty, time had taken its toll. Thirteen years of wear and tear from Mother Nature and golfers alike prompted the need for a renovation of the golf course as well as a new strategy moving forward for maintenance and upkeep, which had become a momentous task for the golf club team to manage.
“Infrastructure [of the course] was great initially, but those sand areas had deteriorated over the last eight years,” Johnson said, regarding the state of the course and its bunkers before the restoration. “Maintenance demands had increased too, creating inconsistent quality throughout the course.”
The decision was made in late summer of 2016 to begin the months-long process to redesign and restore May River Golf Course, and the team officially began in August. And as the adage goes—two heads are better than one, four heads are better than two—the team at the Bluff reached out to Jack Nicklaus and his group of designers to engage them in the project as well.
“Jack Nicklaus was brought on board to bring the project into focus,” said Johnson about working with Nicklaus and his team. “Having their name re-stamped on the project just validates the whole thing—to the membership, to the golf community, and to our community.”
DOWN TO BUSINESS
Starting with the back nine, the team examined each hole in its current state, determining the work to be done based on how each hole had evolved and weathered over the years. As a hallmark of May River Golf Course is its immense natural beauty and carefully preserved landscapes, it was of utmost importance that the renovation of the course be carried out not only in an environmentally sustainable way, but also in a way that respected its original design.
“I just remember Jack saying, ‘The least we do to this golf course, the better,’ and that’s the way it’s turned out,” said Chris Cochran, senior design associate for Jack Nicklaus Designs.
Over the course of 14 weeks, the team worked its way from the back nine to the front nine, moving and restoring bunkers, doubling the amount of irrigation heads, reinstating the natural golf cart paths, resodding two fairways, and more to bring the golf course back to its original beauty. These changes were critical to the infrastructure of the course as they improved the quality of the grounds as well as the conditions for play.
Hole 17 was a major project itself, in which Jack Senior personally redesigned the bunkers, replacing one large bunker with smaller ones. The team also incorporated native vegetation back into the natural bunkers and surrounding landscape, while eliminating plants that crowded out other natural plants. The attention to detail and craftsmanship in the redesign of this hole was paramount to Nicklaus and the team.
“A major outcome of the project is it created a delineation between formal and native bunkers, which we had never had before. This created a bigger difference between formal bunkers and waste bunkers and made the native areas a little more natural,” Johnson said.
SCIENCE OF SAND
From its outward appearance, a bunker seems like one of the less interesting and visually appealing aspects of a golf course. After all, it is a hole filled with sand. But the bunkers at May River Golf Course are much more than a sandbox—these bunkers were strategically placed and designed to coalesce with the layout of the course. During the restoration, Johnson and his team tested out several different sands to restore the bunkers, researching the best material to use for the long term.
After much research and planning, the bunkers were replaced with a white sand that hails from Georgia. The team sourced the sand from a mica mine outside of Deepstep, as the sand is a by-product created when mica is harvested. Not only does the sand drain very well, it stays in place, too.
“The new Tour Angle Sand combined with the Better Billy Bunker infrastructure provides a very aesthetically pleasing and weather-resistant product. It’s great sand, plays beautifully, and compacts really well,” Johnson said.
During its initial research, the golf team replaced four bunkers on the course with the new white Georgia sand to test its durability and sustainability early last fall—right before Hurricane Matthew paid a visit to Palmetto Bluff. After the category two storm rolled through the property and dropped 18 inches of rain, there were hundreds of trees down on the golf course, but those four bunkers remained almost perfectly in place. And so the decision was easy—Georgia sand found a new home in our South Carolina haven.
“We helped make [Chris’s] job a little more efficient,” Cochran said. “We reduced manpower for maintenance of bunkers, letting him spend those man hours doing something else.”
LEAVING A LEGACY
“Help me down, I’ve got a bad knee and I played tennis this morning,” Jack Senior says to a golf club member after his Q&A session at the golf club. Surprised but pleased, the member helps him down off the stage. Nicklaus just finished greeting dozens of members who crowded around him like moths to a flame, requesting pictures, autographs, and handshakes, all wanting a piece of the famous golfer. He greeted each one congenially and conversationally, nodding as fans told him stories of their memories of him over the years and thanking them for their support.
During the Q&A session, Nicklaus not only shared stories of the renovation and his career, but kept the audience on their toes with his quips. When asked about his multitude of golf courses designed by his team, he said, “People always ask me which one is my favorite. And I ask them, ‘Well who is your favorite child?’” After a golf club member told Nicklaus that as a beginner golfer she found the course to be very difficult, he agreed and said, “Well, all golf courses are hard for beginners.”
After smiling at his helping hand, Nicklaus scans the room and finds what he is looking for: his son and two grandsons waiting for him at the back. Walking toward them, he continues to smile and nod to guests, but keeps his eye on his prize. As he walks past me, I am struck by what a good sport he is—after all, he did just shake hands and sign autographs when he wasn’t necessarily supposed to. But then again, that’s just the type of person he is: gracious, good-humored, and humble. Perhaps that’s the lesson here—whether in life or in golf, maintaining a measured sense of self is the key.
After all, if I’m 76 years old and still playing tennis every morning, I’ll consider my life a success, too.
By: Anna Jones
Artwork by: Rod Pasibe