Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Muirfield Village Golf Club

Muirfield Village Golf Club (ranked #37 in the world) is a Jack Nicklaus design located near Columbus, Ohio, not far from where Jack grew up. The course is named after Muirfield in Scotland, where Jack won his first Open Championship in 1966. One key difference between Muirfield and Muirfield Village is that the one in Ohio, like almost all of Jack's courses, supports a large housing development, while the one is Scotland sits on open land between a farm and the water. Most golfers are familiar with Muirfield Village since Jack's Memorial Tournament is played there each year, more often than not when it is raining. Although the course was co-designed by Desmond Muirhead and Pete Dye, the club history states that the final product was 90% Jack and 10% Dye and Muirhead. The course opened in 1974. Muirfield Village is Jack's baby, and he has continued to tweak the course ever since it was built, often making the course more difficult if he felt the shots the pros hit were not hard enough at the Memorial.

Aside from Muirfield Village, Columbus has two other distinctions: It is the home of Ohio State University, and the horror film The Silence of the Lambs was filmed nearby. The film features Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer who is incarcerated. I can't prove that the movie's producers chose to shoot near Columbus because of Muirfield Village, but they certainly may have. I think the movie is an apt metaphor for the course since I was often in jail and at times the course seemed to eat me alive.

Muirfield Village was designed from the beginning as a course to host professional tournaments and, like many Nicklaus designs, was built to suit Jack's style of play, which requires the golfer to hit the ball long and shape his or her shots. The course was built so that every hole has an amphitheater viewing area. The use of the amphitheater preceded even the TPC Stadium course in Ponte Vedr,e and Jack says, in a manner that would make The Donald proud, "It's a unique golf course. I don't think there's ever been a golf course built in the United States like Muirfield, or anything even close to it." The course has water actively in play on nine holes, normally both alongside the fairway and fronting the greens.

The first thing that struck me when seeing Muirfield Village is that it looks like Augusta. I have seen the course on TV and, just like Augusta, which I have walked several times, the terrain is much more dramatic in person. Muirfield Village is a very hilly course. One of the key design principles of Muirfield Village is that most shots play downhill. Jack's design philosophy about the course: "I believe golf is a much better game played downhill than uphill." You drive from elevated tee boxes or into a valley on the vast majority of holes, and your second shot is uphill only a handful of times. You can see the downhill terrain in this photo below looking back from the fourteenth green.

The downhill fourteenth hole looking back from the green

There are several courses in the world that stand out for having a great collection of par three holes: Cypress Point, Augusta National, Pine Valley, Woodhall Spa. In my view, Muirfield Village stands out for its par fives. Muirfield Village has a greater collection of par fives than any other course in the world I have played. The par five 5th, 11th and 15th are all world-class. Each uses Deer Creek, which snakes through the course, very skillfully. The 527 yard fifth hole begins with a tee shot from an elevated tee box (of course) to a fairway that slopes from right to left. The optimum play is to the right, since all balls naturally feed down to the left. On your second shot you have a choice of fairways to lay up to. The fairway on the left is safer and offers one of the few flat lies on the course.

MV 5
The par five 5th looking toward the green with fairways left and right

The fairway on the right is effectively very small since it continues to slope severely right to left and feeds balls not struck well into the water. This fairway on the right will leave you a shorter shot to the green, but also an uneven lie.

MV 5 green
The fifth hole looking back from above

The fifth green is fronted by water. If you hit the ball long off the tee and fade it, you can try for the green in two, but there is a big penalty being in the water if your shot is not well struck.

MV 5 back

The fifth hole looking back from the green

The hole is both strikingly beautiful and offers fabulous risk-reward options. As with most holes at Muirfield Village, a shot hit over the green leaves you in jail with a downhill sand shot to a green that slopes back to the water.

The conditioning of Muirfield Village is lush. The club history goes to great pains to say it was not modelled after Augusta, but I'm not so sure. The routing, use of water, hilly terrain and greens are similar to Augusta. Also, the par three 12th hole looks a lot like the par three 12th at Augusta, requiring a tee shot to be hit over a pond to a similar green. It is also hard not to think that Deer Creek is the substitute for Augusta's Rae's Creek. The greens generally were in excellent shape and were fast, although they are not the defining characteristic of the course; the hilly terrain and snaking creek is. Many of the greens are set at an angle to the fairway and have water in front of them, requiring precise control on both distance and location.

The 412 yard par four ninth is typical of the par fours at Muirfield Village. It plays from an elevated tee box, downhill (sound familiar). The fairway slopes hard from the right to the left and there are many uneven lies. Your approach shot has to be hit crisply from an uneven lie. If you are over the green, you will be faced with a penal downhill sand shot to a green sloping back to front and toward the water. This is a common design element at Muirfield Village.

Hole 9
The approach to the green at the par four 9th hole

The 567 yard par five eleventh hole is somewhat similar to the par five fifth and is also a world-class hole. You again hit from an elevated tee box (I warned you) down into a valley with a fairway that again slopes right to left.

11th from fwy
The world-class par five 11th from the fairway

Your second shot is over Deer Creek to another fairway, and then finally another shot over water to the green. Once again, long hitters can certainly try to reach the green in two, but the shot has to be precise, or the ball will be repelled back into the stream that fronts the green. The split fairways reminded me a bit of the 17th and 18th holes at Carnoustie, both of which have patches of fairway intermingled with a snaking burn. The creek snakes through the 11th at Muirfield Village so much that the hole has seven bridges that you can use to cross in different places.

Hole Fourteen
Par five 11th hole toward the green

The use of multiple islands of fairways on this hole is also reminiscent of the par five 15th hole at Hirono Golf Club in Japan, which uses a similar design.

11 back
Deer Creek snaking through the 11th hole with its split fairways

I liked the fourteenth hole quite a bit. It is a 363 yard par four where you have to hit a tee shot through trees into a valley with an amphitheater. The green is large, but long and narrow and set at an angle to the fairway. I was worried about my approach shot to the 14th green and was about to yell "bite", but I had sudden visions of Anthony Hopkins simmering his fava beans, so I yelled "sit" instead. The ball landed in the middle of the green.

What Hole #
The 14th hole from the tee

Muirfield Village is a course suited to professional golfers. The co-designer of Loch Lomond, Jay Morrish, probably had me in mind when he said about Jack, "I've always felt Nicklaus really doesn't understand how bad people are. To him, a bad player is a two-handicap. If you're a 15-handicap, you're hopeless. There's no sense of you even being out there." Bingo.

Although his courses in general, and Muirfield Village specifically, are hard, I am not in the Nicklaus-design hating camp. I do find many of his resort courses unappealing and too difficult. However, I am a fan of his Mayacama course in Sonoma, California and of Cabo del Sol in Mexico as well as his co-design with Tom Doak of Sebonack on Long Island. I would make a distinction between Muirfield Village being very difficult, and thus hard for a mid-to-high handicapper to play, and the course not being good. It is a good course, has an interesting routing, is in superb condition and has excellent greens. I just wish I wasn't in the slammer my entire time there. Aside from all the other difficulties, there is a big penalty for being off the fairway, as the rough is tough and the ball nestles down into it.

Par five 15th hole playing through a narrow valley

On the negative side I thought there were a half-dozen average holes on the course including the par three fourth hole and the sixth and eighth holes. The course is very hilly, and it is as difficult a walk as any course I have played; it is the toughest walk I can remember since playing the Addington in England about five years ago. I played my favorite way, walking with a caddie, which saved me from a complete flop sweat. Carrying your bag at Muirfield Village would be a real burden. Jack's design philosophy of almost exclusively downhill golf shots means that the walk from the green to the next tee is sharply uphill all day long. Although a very private club, the course gets a lot of play and there are groups going off all day on most days.

In my view, Muirfield Village deserves to be ranked in the top 100 because it has the best collection of par five holes I have ever seen. It will be Nicklaus's legacy and as such should be treated with respect. He's probably not the first of golf's historical figures I would want to have a beer with, but you have to respect everything he has done for the game. If I may digress, those I would love to have a beer with, in order, are Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer and Ernie Els. The ultimate prize, however, would be to have a couple of scotches with Colin Montgomerie because, in keeping with today's theme, he is a psycho. You'd probably have to block out a day and a half to just sit and listen if you just ask him, "Colin, tell me a couple of stories where you argued with people for putting you off your game." I can't wait for next year's Ryder Cup with Monty as captain.

For Columbus, Ohio especially, Muirfield Village is quite formal. There is a guard gate at the entrance like at Pine Valley, and if your name is on the clipboard you are buzzed through the gate. After you drive up to the clubhouse an entourage comes out and greets you by name, and they valet park your car, which is very nice. The people and service at Muirfield Village are first class all the way, and they manage to make you feel at home. They change the spikes in your golf shoes to new spikes to protect their greens, and there is an attention to detail that's 'kinda hokey in a midwestern 'sorta way, but makes a difference. Their wine list is excellent and they have a large selection of Chiantis.

Nicklaus on Muirfield Village, "Certainly it's a tough, tough golf course. But it's a fair test." To keep this comment in context, it is a fair test of golf the same way that swimming from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco is a fair test for a swimmer.

From the back tees, the course plays 7,366 yards and has a slope rating of 149. Be prepared for a stern test of golf if you ever play Muirfield Village and make sure you don't play it by yourself. Go with somebody to lessen your chances of being eaten alive. There's safety in numbers.


Anonymous said...

Most over-rated notable course in America.

Without Jack, TV and the Memorial, it would be just another housing track. Repetitive, uninteresting, NOT a place to grow bent grass, where's teh beef, Dave?

I'm at 120 or so of the over 200 ever ranked top 100, so I am coming from a good vantage point.

Not top 100 in my book.

"A par 3 guy"

Chipper said...

I like the comment about Chianti... do they also serve fava beans?

Anonymous said...

A Beer with Ernie? Just go to Queenwood in England, hes there almost every day, along with A Scott, Monte, Churchills grandsons, and 20 other european tour players.
I love reading your posts, but that is out of line...not chianti and farva beans out of line, but out of line.
Walter Hagen before Bobby Jones? You are eating fava beans there.
Hes defensibly better than Tiger. I have this argument every day with anyone. What is a Tiger slam anyway? And who cares?

Bobby "MADE" the grand slam.
Tiger is just chasing it.
Bobby MADE the Masters.
Tiger just plays in it.
Bobby never took a dime.
Tiger is a $ wh..., rhymes with bore.

I like him, but despise that people would call him the best golfer to ever play the game. Not creative, throws tantrums (Watson and other tour players write to him about this personally), won't show at anything his sponsors don't make him go to.

Is this really worth discussing?

Like that you like N Berwick by the way, one of the best I have ever played.

Anonymous said...

Ah, see you Americans just don't get it about Monty. At the Ryder Cup you will be able to make as much noise as you want, shout abuse at him, whatever you want and... he won't care. Why? Cos he won't be swinging a club. THEN he's a psycho.

The Schlog said...

You forgot to include Ptarmigan in your list of favorite Nicklaus courses.

Jack said...

my fav nicklaus course is The Hills in Lakeway Tx. Lochinvar in Houston is pretty good. some of his newer courses are mediocre at best.

MacBoube said...

Well Mr. Top 100 - It seems I almost ran into at Muirfield Village. I was fortunate to play this fine tract in August. Somehow, on this synopsis, I happen to agree with many of your thoughts. Don't ask me how that happened, as I will rarely be on the same page as you (see Fisher's Island and Oakmont comments).

Your analysis of the par fives is right on dude! Is number 11 just a great *ucking golf hole or what? Then right back with the Augusta-Rae's creek like 12th? Spectacular.

If you thought it was a tough walk - try being from the beach in SoCal and playing this course on a humid August Ohio day. I could have used four shirts, three pairs of boxers, and two showers during my 4.5 hour walk. I am not slow, but this course plays slow - it is beastly and a nasty tough walk.

Everybody loves to slam Jack's tracks it seems, however, with this course; I can't say enough good things about it. First off, it is as immaculate as any course anywhere anytime. It is beautiful and scenic, with perhaps the most perfectly pruned forests of trees in the great 48. Also, the turf is heavenly. The softness under your feet is something we don't get enough of in SoCal. No tight lies in Columbus on Jack's course. Great driving range, too.

Anyway, I would not quite agree that there are six mediocre holes, although six or so of the holes are mundane by comparison to the others. This is easily the best Jack track I have ever played. I would recommend it to anyone, including all the quasi architects that hate Jack's layouts.

The friendliness of the staff (my pal Jake had an incredible PGA internship there this summer) really made my group feel comfortable. The spike thing was unique, and I must say, when they changed mine back after the round -I was impressed. Also, the way they set you up in the locker room, next to all the great Ohio State alum lockers is pretty cool, too. Reminiscent of getting Ronald Reagan's locker at LACC - right Mr. Top 100?

One thing I am curious about is how you recalled the hard walk at Muirfield Village reminded you of the tough walk at the Addington. I had no idea you played the Addington? Why not add that to this blog? I know the Addington, and it is better than 80% of the courses on your quest here. Maybe 90%. Your readers should be exposed to what I (and a few others) think is perhaps the most under-rated course on this earth. I still have my pics and lots of great memories from that memorable round if you ever need help with it. If you loved the Addington as much as I did, we can indeed be friends.

Unknown said...

MacBoube - they changed your spikes back? We figured ours were gone for good - and mine were on a brand new pair of FJ's. I liked my other ones but still have the Muirfield V ones they put in. Another souvenier, I guess. You and I might have crossed paths at MV. I was there around Aug 12, 2009. Played there, Scioto, The Golf Club, and Scarlet at OSU. Loved them all. Thought Scioto was the hardest, MV the prettiest, and The Golf Club the most unique.

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Anonymous said...

Not a place to grow bentgrass??? WTF? What do you suggest Poa, Bermuda?? You know nothing about golf and golf course management.

Mark said...

I played this course and found it a cross between Dye and Mackenzie.

Just not a big fan of Jacks courses and he just doesnt have an "original eye" for design. To many holes looked like other great holes.

I am a 6 cap and found myself navigating, checking yardage, making sure I didnt put my ball where NOT to and looking at my yardage book more than I was just playing.

Doesnt deserve to be in the top 100but it is a great course for the pros.