By Charlie Hill :: Photography courtesy of Cordillera Ranch
This year marks 10 years since the Nicklaus Signature Golf Course at Cordillera Ranch was completed; it’s hard to believe it’s been that long ago.
Seems like last week when the contractor was putting finishing touches on the final Zoysia grass sodding. This year’s Cordillera Ranch Living magazine offers a series of articles detailing the process for planning and building the golf course as part of the 10-year anniversary of its construction. In the prior issue we recounted the pre-development hurdles such as water and wastewater permitting and design, land planning and design concepts, and other predevelopment steps to getting the golf course started. We pick up the story in this issue where the pre-launch membership offering in late 2003 had been met with a great response and enough of a membership commitment to proceed forward with finalizing design with Jack Nicklaus’ design team and proceed with construction.
So throughout 2004, Mr. Nicklaus and his team of senior designers, including Jim Lipe, had refined their initial concept plans into formal design and construction plans for the general contractors bidding the work. By November 2004, a general contractor had been selected to handle the overall golf course construction and the work immediately began.
Preserving the Natural Attributes
In many golf course construction projects, major earthwork — cutting, filling, mass re-shaping of the landscape — is commonplace. However, the site selected at Cordillera offered such perfect natural terrain for a golf course that such massive regrading wasn’t necessary. That was important to us because minimal impact on the existing environment was such a core development philosophy for Cordillera Ranch from its beginnings in early 1997. That essential mission of “preserving the character and natural attributes of the ranch” had been instrumental in the success of the community up to that point and was very important to carry through to the golf course construction. “The 200+ acres on which the Nicklaus Signature Course is routed was very intentionally selected to minimalize earthwork. In many major golf course construction projects it’s not uncommon to have hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of earth work; in the Cordillera Ranch golf course we were able to accomplish the vision with a fraction of that,” says Mike Sheridan, Cordillera’s golf course construction project manager.
By selecting a site that didn’t need significant earthwork, it allowed the design and construction team to preserve many of the mature oak trees and other native vegetation that are interspersed throughout the golf course. Many golf courses are faced with a major replanting of trees upon completion that take 10-15+ years to mature and look natural. This wasn’t the case with this project.
The holes laid into the terrain very naturally and as Jack Nicklaus has often pointed out, designing and building this golf course were like peeling back the layers of an onion. The golf course was already there; it just needed to be revealed.
A great example of working around the terrain to reveal the beauty that naturally existed was through the integration of existing creeks and rock outcroppings. The cart paths behind 5 green and between holes 11 and 12 are just a couple examples of how cart paths were designed to work with the natural limestone. The path behind 5 ties directly into a slab of existing limestone bedrock which formed a waterfall, while the cart path between 11 and 12 dips down and around a series of massive rock outcroppings that really give the sense of the changing terrain you’re about to encounter on holes 12 through 14.
Nicklaus’ Photographic Memory
These were just a couple of areas where special care was taken in routing the golf course path. As Nicklaus would make site visits during 2005 to check on progress and make field adjustments, that’s where you really began to marvel at his attention to detail and nearly-photographic memory. “We would pick up Jack Nicklaus at the airport for a site visit and it might have been 6-8 weeks since he’d been on site,” mentions Chris Hill, Vice President of Development at Cordillera Ranch during that time, “and within minutes of our ride to Boerne, he’d start asking incredibly detailed questions like ‘what is the status of that tree on the right on hole 15’ or ‘have they finished re-shaping the right fairway bunker on hole 10?’ — he was asking about a site we see every day and yet he has a better recollection of these specific features than many of us did. He was doing this from memory without plans in front of him; meanwhile, we’d have to pull out plan sheets to refresh.”
This was a testament not only to Jack Nicklaus’ well-documented memory but also his passion for the details of his craft. He wasn’t building a golf course just for the fee; you truly could see he absolutely loved it. He had been described as creative in his golf game and, in his post-tour life, this was his creative outlet. You’ve heard Nicklaus talk about the exact yardage and club used from a tournament 40 years ago, like it was yesterday. That recall has undoubtedly assisted him in his golf course design career and particularly at Cordillera Ranch.
Risk and Reward: Short Par 4’s
Another Nicklaus hallmark is his affinity for risk / reward situations and, more particularly, short par 4’s. Short par 4’s don’t have to be drivable, but a well-designed short par 4 invokes what is sometimes a lost art of today’s grip-it-and-rip-it game: thinking and a variety of shot choices. Holes 3 and 14 at Cordillera Ranch are just a couple of the many examples of risk / reward holes here. There are several different tee shots you can play on both of these 300 to 350-yard par 4’s anywhere from a long-iron to a driver. The more aggressive line you take on 14 down the right side — even if you lay up short of the creek — leaves an easier approach to the green. Bomb a driver at the green and, if you avoid the creek guarding the left and front, you could be putting or chipping for eagle. Try to take a more conservative tee shot route down the left and you have a more difficult angle into the green — or worse, find the deep fairway bunker on the left that seems to be a magnet for overly cautious tee shots. In many ways the design strategy and targets on 14 at Cordillera Ranch are similar (though flipped) to the famous 14th at Nicklaus’ acclaimed Muirfield Village.
Though it’s one of the shortest holes on the course, hole 16 took the most care and delicate touch to build, and thus was the last hole to finish building. Even before it was built and covered with vegetation, the rugged canyon, high bluffs and natural waterfalls gave notice to the potential of how unique a golf hole could be in this setting, if done right. Again, the approach of working around the natural terrain was a driving force in the construction of this hole. Wanting to avoid a blind tee shot, Nicklaus made subtle grade changes to the green surface and tee boxes. Other delicate tweaks were made to sight lines from each tee box so that each of the different waterfalls could be seen; even the two-tiered Blue and Silver tee boxes were designed so that the Gold tee was afforded a view of the front falls reaching the pool below.
Over the weeks and months that the design team spent carefully perfecting hole 16, the phrase “this area is too uniquely beautiful, let’s don’t screw this up!” was repeated often. That was kind of the joke; we were blessed with a gorgeous setting for that hole — make sure nothing looks contrived. Based on the perennial ranking of 16 as the Most Beautiful Hole in Texas by The Dallas Morning News, it seems the team was successful in that endeavor.
Adding the Turf
As the holes began individually receiving Nicklaus’ blessing for final shape approval in early summer of 2005, fairway grassing installation began. For cost purposes, many golf courses are sprigged, particularly when it is Bermuda grass. However, Zeon Zoysia grows a little slower, so these fairways and tees were solid-sodded to expedite the grow-in process, though significantly more expensive. As the first rolls of this emerald green carpet were rolled out down hole 5 that summer, it was a beautiful site and gave the first true glimpse of what was to come. The contractor proceeded throughout the rest of the course until the rest of the fairways and tees were covered, which was followed by seeding the bent grass greens and sprigging the Bermuda roughs. This turf combination was fairly unique as Bermuda was still a more common fairway grass in the southern U.S. 10 years ago. Zeon Zoysia has since gained in popularity due to it needing less water for irrigation and having the absolute best surface to hit off of — the ball just seems to sit up as if on a tee. In fact, the supplier for Cordillera’s Zoysia fairways, Bladerunner Farms, was also later chosen to provide the Zoysia for the Rio golf course that’s hosting the 2016 Olympics.
The last bit of grassing was completed in January 2006 and in June 2006, after about six to twelve months of grow-in period, the golf course had a ‘soft opening’ for members only. Several of the current Club staff members were here during those early months along with many of The Club’s current members, and it is fun to reminisce with them about how far The Club has come and how much the golf course has matured since then. As with all golf courses, it takes time for it to settle-in, soften a little and mature. Considering that around the time this golf course opened we began a multi-year drought, our maintenance staff was tested that much more to keep the maturation process moving on track.
Following the soft opening in the summer of 2006, later that fall we completed the first phase of the Clubhouse, known as the Cabana and Pool Complex. In future issues we’ll dive into the evolution of other areas of The Club and the full Clubhouse development.