The pros at the New Course charmingly attribute Mark O'Meara's victory at the '98 British Open at Royal Birkdale to a pre-Open acclimatization round he played at the New Course. Not very likely. I would say his 63—nine under on the New Course, which measures 6,800 yards from the tips—was good playing on a good course, nothing more, although that's a lot.
When I returned home from the New Course, I called Ron Whitten, the co-author of a hefty tome titled The Architects of Golf, which some of my golfing friends and I refer to as the Bible. Did I really like it as much as I thought I did? A modern resort course in Florida? I was looking for a second opinion.
"Any course that wants to try to take inspiration from the best features of the Old Course, be my guest," Whitten said. "Charles Blair Macdonald was trying to duplicate Old Course holes almost 100 years ago, and many others have tried since. These courses that imitate the Old Course, they're like Elvis impersonators. We know they're not the King, but some are better than others. The goal at the New Course is to give the resort golfer in Florida something different than every other resort course in Florida. Viewed that way, it works." I was relieved. It wasn't just me.
The saving grace of the New Course, it seems, is that it doesn't pretend to be anything it's not. "I've never had anybody tell me they like it more than the Old Course," says Brad Doyle, who until last month was the longtime director of golf at Grand Cypress. "But many people have told me it captures the flavor of the Old Course."
One person who wouldn't consider that a compliment is Scott Hoch, who lives in Orlando. Hoch has played both courses. The New Course he would return to. The Old Course he would not. In fact, he was exempt from qualifying for the Open this year and still didn't go. "I don't like it," he says of the Old Course. "Why don't I like it? The list is too long to get into. If you put it in 80� weather, it might be all right." The New Course, at least, has 80� weather. Much warmer weather, too.
"That's the one thing we couldn't duplicate, the weather," says Tom Pearson, the course architect who oversaw the New Course construction for Nicklaus. "The owners loved St. Andrews, so that's what we gave them. It was never supposed to be an exact replica, but one thing that happened was kind of spooky. We were deciding where to put the double greens, and we weren't thinking a bit about the Old Course and how the numbers of the holes on its double greens always add up to 18. But when we finished our routing we realized that the numbers on ours did, too. I sat back in my chair and a chill went through me, like the golfing gods were with me."
I believe in the existence of golfing gods as much as the next guy, I just happen to think they have better things to do than work the New Course. Then again, I could be wrong. The day O'Meara shot that 63 on the New Course, he was playing with one of his Orlando neighbors, Master Woods. The kid shot 62, then finished a shot behind O'Meara at Royal Birkdale. When he teed it up on the Old Course last week, maybe he dipped into the memory of that very low round at Grand Cypress two years ago, looking for inspiration. Maybe, but I doubt it.
In any event they've got a nice resort course over there. Free tees. No trees. No gorse, either.