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Putting Perfectly

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photograph by John M. Lewis

 

 

From the practice putting green near the first hole, to the sleek black cart equipped with a ball washer and a clubface cleaning well on one rear fender and a built-in cooler on the other, you get the immediate impression that the second Jack Nicklaus entry into the Delaware golf market is something quite special. What you knew prior to your guest appearance here is that The Peninsula on Indian River Bay is also quite private. So for the Great Unwashed among us, The Peninsula will remain among The Best Courses We’ll Never Play.

Nevertheless, it’s worth a peek at what you’ll be missing (unless, of course, you should possess friends in high places and can get on as a guest), if for no other reason than to see how far great golf course design has come in our little state.

While Baywood Greens may continue to hold title to the most lushly and tropically landscaped layout in Delaware, and nearby Links at Lighthouse may lay claim to some of the most breathtaking vistas in the area, The Peninsula has plenty of game on both accounts, and it may just offer the purest and truest putting surfaces this side of a CBS golf telecast.

Overall The Peninsula features an open, links-style challenge from the tee boxes and fairways (four sets of tees distribute lengths from 5,267 yards, stretched to a robust 7,302 from the tips). Yet many holes feature green complexes beautifully sculpted out of the hardwood and pine forests that dot the 775 acres of the development. Many times you’ll find yourself hitting down into an amphitheater of green onto greens that are more softly contoured than you’ll find at Nicklaus’s other Delaware offering, Bayside. And a truer putt you won’t find anywhere around.

Playing in the open meadows and marshes of the property means the wind will always be your biggest challenge here. But right behind the wind as the best defense The Peninsula will throw at you comes the sand. Virtually all the greens are flanked by flashed-faced bunkers that tend to the shallow side, but are generously positioned to delay putting the putter in your hand for at least one more swing. There are more than 90 bunkers and waste areas at The Peninsula to make up for calm winds, including many green complexes fronted by devilishly deep, little pot bunkers that prevent you from scuffling one up onto the green instead of bringing it in from on high, the way the game was designed.

Then there’s the water. Though there is water on almost every hole (the par-4 12th appears to be the odd exception), it is in play realistically on perhaps 12 of the holes. That sounds like a lot, especially when you add the bunkers. Combined, it means that The Peninsula is a shot-making course, where the craft of the experienced target golfer can result in great success. You can have your worst day at The Peninsula, but you can also shoot your personal best when you find yourself hitting on all cylinders.

Breaking the course down into components, you may see the par-3s here as some of your favorites anywhere. Averaging around 200 yards from the tips, this collection of one-shotters all feature Donald Ross-style collection areas that offer several interesting options, should you miss the green.

Those collection areas are about the only break you’ll get, since three condemn you to a watery grave for being off-line and a fourth offers a virtual necklace of sand should you be short, long, left or right. The 190-yard par-3 16th—the peninsula at The Peninsula—features a wide, deep green flanked by sand, a sweeping collection area in back and water on three sides. When the wind is up, the Peninsula’s trifecta of defenses are facing you.

The par-4s are complimented by one of those short (351 yards from the tips; 285 yards from the mere mortal middle) temptresses that is not really reachable, yet invites you to pull out the Big Dog to see how close you can get. A diagonal bunker that runs from 245 yards on the right side out to 290 yards near the center of the fairway will gobble up a less-than-perfect drive and threatens to turn a birdie into a bogey should your reach exceed your grasp.

The par-5s would seem to steer you to the right or left, as the first three feature water or sand up the length of either the left or the right side of the fairways. Then you come to the 18th, where all bets are off on one of the most challenging (or frustrating, depending on your day so far) finishing holes you’ll play.

The ideal drive is just short of a long ribbon of bunker that fronts the water’s edge at about 270 yards. Hitting it to the ideal spot sets up either a heroic carry (240 yards) over the pond to a tiny green tucked to the left, or a safety to the right that leaves a wedge for your third. The carry is further complicated by a pair of pines that sit out on a narrow spit, which forces you to thread your second shot between them and the woods on the left. It’s a Tiger setup, to be sure, and a sucker punch for the rest of us.

No matter what you shot at The Peninsula, you’re sure to heap praise on the benefactor who allowed you the rare opportunity to putt on the kind of pristine greens usually reserved for tour players. Unlike the deep undulations found at Bayside, Nicklaus chose a softer challenge here, one that relies less on establishing a line through steep rolls than on getting distance control just right. You’ll find many long putts cozying right up to holes, rewarding your touch, rather than penalizing a failure to align a 40-foot triple-breaker over swales and undulations that seem to more closely resemble Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill. For the amateur, getting the distance right is sufficient reward for our efforts, and the greens at The Peninsula stand ready to offer fitting reward for a day of good putting.

Of The Peninsula, Nicklaus wrote, “This was a site that gave us a lot of wonderful elements, not the least of which were dramatic waterfront views. Our job was to put in good golf shots, and I believe we have done that.”

With seven holes overlooking the Indian River, Nicklaus has managed to mix challenge with natural beauty that should compel the rest of us to figure a way to rub shoulders with some of the well-heeled residents here so we can get ourselves invited to play one of the premier tracks in the tri-state area.

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