Co-designer Tony Jacklin gave Adam Lawrence a tour of America's best new private golf course.
Naming a golf course after a gimme might seem an esoteric piece of marketing. But when the codesigners are the old friends and rivals who shared in golf 's most legendary display of sportsmanship, it becomes a more logical choice. Still, when Jack Nicklaus conceded Tony Jacklin's putt to tie the 1969 Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale, surely neither can have imagined that, forty years on, the act would be memorialised in the form of 520 acres of Florida swampland.
Nevertheless, that's what has happened. For, when Jacklin heard that Nicklaus' practice had been contracted to design a golf course outside the Florida town of Bradenton, he approached both developer and architect with a proposal that the club should be named in honour of Jack's famous concession. Seeing the positive reaction from his client, Nicklaus insisted that he and Jacklin should design the course together. "He told me 'If we're going to do this, let's do it properly,'" Jacklin explained.
For Jacklin, who is restarting his career as a signature designer, having been involved with a number of courses during the Eighties, it was an opportunity not to be missed. The course that they produced together, christened The Concession, was well-received from the outset – winning the coveted Golf Digest Best New Private Course award.
Having seen quite a few of Nicklaus' new courses in the last year or two, the lineage of The Concession is not hard to spot. Muscular bunkering, potent visuals and strong strategic options abound; but fine play will be needed to shoot a good score, especially from any of the longer sets of tees – the course can be stretched to 7,470 yards, should members feel in need of a good beating, or should a major tournament be attracted (given its heritage, Jacklin would like the club to go in search of a Ryder Cup, although he acknowledges that the competition for the matches makes this a long shot).
Opening with a fairly straightforward 428 yard par four, the course soon gets into its stride. The second hole, 476 yards from the black tees, and with a big water hazard to the right, will be rather more testing. The designers have built a bunker, resembling a beach, next to the lake, and designed to stop some balls from running into the water. Golfers whose shots stay above ground as a result of this feature may be grateful, but to me these artificial beaches detract from the otherwise attractive look of the course (there are another couple to be found elsewhere).
The third hole is the first of the course's four par fives. Water must be carried from the tee, and the far bank of the lake creates a nice diagonal, with the preferred left side of the fairway demanding a stronger tee shot. Around the green, though, is where the hole gets interesting: there are bunkers in the line of play that will threaten any attempt to get home in two (at 577 yards from the black tees, the hole is only moderately long by modern standards and it is only just over 500 yards from the next set of tees). Around the green one of The Concession's best features can be seen: there is little rough and some devilish falloffs, making for fascinating short game options. Those golfers who automatically reach for the lob wedge when they miss a green may find a round here a chastening experience.
The long par four fifth, stretching to 478 yards from the back tees, is one of the course's standout holes. From those back blocks, which are not only much further back than the other sets, but also positioned to create a more intimidating angle for the tee shot, a fine drive will be needed. There is ample fairway width, as long as the player is happy to lay up short of a pair of huge bunkers cut into a rise on the right side. From here, though, getting home in two is a faint hope, all the more since the rise ensures the second shot will be blind. To have a real chance of reaching the green in two, the golfer must hit his drive into a narrow neck between the left hand bunker and the large lake.
The attractive eighth hole, a comparative breather at only 374 yards, features a very well constructed stream to the left side of the fairway. The brook also crosses in front of the green, pressurising the approach, which, because of the contouring, is tougher than the yardage might indicate.
As with many other holes on the golf course, the green is slightly pushed up onto a plateau, making it harder to hit. As with so much of Florida golf, there is little elevation change across the property: it is a testament to the quality of the architecture on show that this lack of topographical interest doesn't stand out.
The back nine continues in the same vein. The twelfth is the shortest par four on the course, and is potentially drivable for the longest hitters, if they are prepared to take on a long carry over native scrub; a small patch of fairway in front of the green awaits if the shot is executed perfectly. For most it will be a drive and pitch, but the approach is not straightforward because of the tight bunkering around the green. Thirteen, another in a set of fine par fives, sets up an exciting diagonal water carry from the tee, as does the par four fifteenth. And the finish is predictably strong – the last three holes, all with abundant water hazards, extent to over 1,500 yards between them.
Conditioning is as one would expect for a club of this status. This has not come about without its pains, though, as Jacklin explained. An unusual flat piping was used for green drainage, and this pipe has not performed as had been hoped. The club's own grounds crew, therefore, is digging it up where the blockages have occurred, and replacing with more orthodox drainage tile. My own observation, though, was that this will be a short-term problem, soon fixed.
The houses that will underpin the economics of The Concession were just starting to be built when I visited the course earlier this year. Though large and imposing, I suspect that they will have far less impact on the golf course than at many other similar developments, for the masterplan of the site has provided for a core golf course, with no road crossings between holes. Thus, unlike many housing developments, there will be no sense of playing down corridors between homes, nor are there unreasonably long treks between holes. In fact, the course is eminently walkable, and the club is developing a caddie programme for those who prefer to play golf in the traditional way – something of a surprise in golf cart dominated Florida.
The Concession's practice facilities are well up to the highest modern standards. The club claims that the 23 acre driving range is among the world's largest, and the short game area offers a 14,000 square foot chipping green, numerous bunkers, and the opportunity to practice shots up to 100 yards.
As I mentioned above, elevation change is really the only thing The Concession lacks. It is a terrific piece of property aside from this, with attractive native plants and trees. There are, perhaps, rather more water hazards in play than some golfers would like – barely a hole goes by without the possibility of a golf ball plopping into a lake. But on such a property, abundant water is probably inevitable: a quick look at many other Floridian courses shows that. Nicklaus and his team, with Jacklin's assistance, have crafted another highly accomplished golf course. Those who seek quirk may find the place a little vanilla for their tastes, but in every other sense it is a splendid test of golf. The members and their guests are honoured indeed.
This article appeared in issue 13 of Golf Course Architecture, published July 2008.