The Jack Nicklaus Signature course at Carlton Woods was unveiled in 2001, five years before Tom Fazio’s 18-hole layout was laid out on a property three miles to the south of the Golden Bear’s original 18 holes.
Jack’s course is long and demanding, where tree-lined fairways wind around a property dotted with several small ponds and lakes. Water features at the 3rd to the 5th hole but the hole ranked as the most difficult on the front nine is the long par four 2nd.On the inward half, the 455-yard 15th is a real tough nut to crack. It may be devoid of sand but a menacing creek crosses the fairway twice from tee to green. The 18th is a fine home hole too, doglegging slightly right before bending in the opposite direction round a lake that runs along the left of the fairway.
The Carlton Woods Nicklaus course is difficult. Members say it plays 5-6 shots more difficult than the Fazio course. After playing both, I would agree with that assessment. The Nicklaus course makes you feel uncomfortable, particularly as one gets to the green complexes. One member told me that it is his least favorite course in the world that he has played, but he loves the Fazio course.
The Nicklaus course is mainly sterile from a visual perspective due to the flat terrain and lack of interesting visual appeal of a majority of the holes. There are a few that are attractive which I will note in my hole-by-hole overview. The more interesting visuals are from the several very large homes bordering the course.
The course was wet from Tropical Storm Beto which passed through earlier in the week, leaving behind 10 inches of rain over 3 days. Therefore, this review is not a “fair” assessment although the course did have 36 hours of no rain. However, there was no sunshine or warmer weather prior to playing it so the course was still soggy.
The course plays to a par 72. The Nicklaus tees are 7407 yards rated 76.8/144. The next set of tees are 7043 yards rated 74.3/141. The II tees are 6651 yards rated 73.4/139. We played the III tees on 9/24/2020 at 6251 yards rated 72.3/136 due to a tournament with varying handicaps/ages. There is a tee of lesser yardage as well as combination tees between all of the above yardages. Due to the soggy conditions the course played an “estimated” 6500 yards due to zero roll on balls. I will list the Nicklaus/II/III yardages in my course overview.
Due to the difficulty of the greens and the defenses, one needs to choose the correct set of tees. I would advise one to move up a set of tees from one’s normal yardage unless one is confident of their playing abilities. Although the course was still wet, the greens were still fast enough. While the greens are on the larger size, that creates the opportunity for more interior movement while Mr. Nicklaus took full advantage of. Being on the green more than 20 feet away often can result in a three putt. If one got out of place off the green, it nearly always results in a difficult recovery shot. This is a difficult course.
1. Par 4 – 412/356/356. The starting hole very much provides a hint at what is to come. There is a bunker left and a bunker a bit farther up on the right that longer hitters will pay no attention to. The green has a large bunker on the left of a green angled to the left with the green sloped towards the bunker.
2. Par 4 – 468/449/391. A long hole with a bunker left but trees opposite it on the other side of the fairway. The uphill green is angled left to right with a large, deep front bunker and a smaller one both on the right side. The green has a lot of interior undulations with a smaller back half.
3. Par 3 – 186/160/121. I found this to be the most boring hole on the golf course. It is a par 3 playing over water with a back center green. It is all carry over the water to this green with the miss being to the right. The green has perhaps the least amount of interior movement.
4. Par 5 – 538/503/463. Water is down nearly the entire left side of the fairway, stopping about 50 yards before the green complex. This dogleg left has two outer bunkers at the turn spaced 30 yards apart. There are also scattered trees down the right side. The green is in the shape of a valentine heart with a front left bunker, right side bunker and back center bunker. The green is also very undulated. While this is considered an average length par 5, the green makes this a challenging hole.
5. Par 4 – 436/394/372. Going in the opposite direction of the fourth, the pond is down the left side again, this time all the way to the green complex. There are three bunkers set on a knob on the right side that shrink the size of the fairway. The safe play is to lay up before them but then that leaves a very long shot into the green. Bigger hitters will try to fly the bunkers but behind it are a few trees. A long sinewy bunker is placed between the green and the water on the left. There is a somewhat hidden bunker at the right back of the green. The green is angled right to left creating a very difficult back left pin position. This is an overly difficult golf hole.
6. Par 4 – 378/324/324. Although this is a short par 4, the three bunkers on the left shrink the size of the landing zone. The right side has scattered trees once again. The green is angled to the left with a fronting right bunker and two bunkers left front and left middle. This green also has a lot of inner contours. Overall, the hole would be better served with two-three less bunkers given the strength of the green.
7. Par 3 – 214/194/171. It is rare that one sees a long par 3 that is surrounded by bunkers because it can make a hole too difficult. That is the case with this hole which plays slightly level. Moreover, the green is heavily contoured with swales and mounds that crest in the middle with a far lower left side. This is a hole only for the best players.
8. Par 5 – 583/519/476. This is easily the most visually pleasing hole on the golf course. Playing from an elevated tee one sees a seemingly wide fairway down the left and a near acre of waste are down the right side with fingers that lengthen the ability to capture a poorly struck tee shot. The waste area shrinks to a sliver before it widens again about 175 yards from the green all the way to the front of the green. The tee shot must also consider three bunkers placed on the right making the longer hitters having to carry the first half of the waste area in order to find the fairway. The hole goes downhill before slightly rising to a green. There are four bunkers placed to the left and behind the green which has spines and ridges in it. This is both a long hole and one that demands absolute accuracy.
9. Par 4 – 455/391/391. The front nine finishes with another difficult hole. This time the water is down the entire right side. There is a bunker placed on the left with scattered trees behind it. The driving line is just inside that left bunker. The green is placed to make the hole a dogleg right requiring a fade into the green. There is a small slightly raised bunker placed center front between the water and the green. The lower part of the green is on the left. It is another all-or-nothing hole to reach the green in regulation.
10. Par 4 – 427/402/354. Water is down the entire left side with the pond shaped to then front the green. This is a thin fairway as trees are down the right side. The green is placed off to the left and is thin with a large bunker left and a back center bunker. The green is long but is very sloped. It is another difficult hole.
11. Par 4 – 459/403/403. From the tee one thinks this must be a par 5 as the trees create a visual distraction. The trees are thicker here on both sides of the fairway. Fronting the green on the left is one of the larger bunkers on the golf course. The green is very sloped and undulated. Missing the green to the right side leaves a very difficult recovery shot even if one thinks that is the better place as they have avoided the large bunker. But from that right side the green is going away from you.
12. Par 3 – 192/162/134. This is perhaps the second most visual pleasing hole on the course playing over another pond. There are two front bunkers placed on the corner that frame the green. There is a somewhat hidden central back bunker. This is one of the more steeply sloped greens on the course going back to front and right to left with numerous swales and humps.
13. Par 5 – 578/513/513. This par 5 has fairway bunkers placed left then right that can make this hole play like a double dogleg for average length hitters. The green is long and thin and angled to the right, raised slightly to a higher point at the rear. It is not a visually exciting hole.
14. Par 4 – 440/420/392. Much like the thirteen, there is nothing attractive about the hole other than the houses down the left side. The hole has a cross bunker on the right followed by another bunker on the right. There is a right bunker about 20 yards short of the green and a final bunker on the right at the front of the green. Four bunkers….all on the right. The green makes up for the uninteresting placement of bunkers as it is angled to the right shaped like a peanut shell. There is short grass left of the green providing an opportunity for recovery.
15. Par 4 – 455/391/391. Considered the most beautiful hole on this course, this is also easily the best hole on the course. This is a dogleg left where the tee shot must cross a pond which continues down the left side before crossing in front of the green. The fairway is generous to the right of the pond. The green is placed against the pond and is steeply sloped back to front. There is higher mounding behind the green creating a difficult downhill chip if one goes into the rough. The green is shallower on the right side which is the higher part of the green. I do like the hole.
16. Par 4 – 416/391/354. This hole is another that is visually pleasing. This dogleg right has an inner bunker but the beauty of the hole is in the long waste are bunker down the left side beginning about 120 yards short of the green. Trees are placed between the waste area and the fairway. There is another bunker placed on the front right of the green which has a lot of interior movement.
17. Par 3 – 222/154/154. The final par 3 is a very challenging hole from the Nicklaus tee but manageable from the member’s tees. However, I do not like this hole due to the green which is long but somewhat thin with two bunkers left between the pond and green and another placed center right. The green is overly sloped and ridged.
18. Par 5 – 548/525/491. Stay right on this hole all the way to the green from the second shot into the green. This hole plays as a slight double dogleg with a pond coming in from the left, but not really in play off of the tee. There is a bunker on the inner corner right side. Two more bunkers are placed on the right as the pond pinches in the fairway from the left. The green is angled to the left with the pond now set against the front of the green. There is a large raised bunker on the right at the green and a small one center between the green and pond. The green has a horizontal spine in it and slopes towards the water but it is an easier green to read.
The Nicklaus course at Carlton Woods is challenging. The greens are overly shaped resulting in a high probability of three putts on many holes. There is a good use of water on the course where it is in play but opportunities with wider fairways are provided in order to stay clear of the water off the tee. The par 3’s are more challenging with the ponds as they require a carry to the green with no real ability to miss the green in order to make a par. The par 5’s are probably the easier holes on the course, yet they have some of the more difficult greens. Mr. Nicklaus built this course to be difficult both in length, defenses, and the greens. But if one chooses the right tees, then the difficulty of the course is cut by a third with the greens being the chief defense.
In the main, there is a good use of bunkers which are not standard/predictable in their shape or placements. Some of the bunkers are slightly raised and some are flat. There is a nice use of waste areas on several holes.
The course does suffer from uninteresting terrain. I have played many courses designed by Mr. Nicklaus who when given interesting, undulating land movement does an excellent job of incorporating it into both the routing and the design of each hole. At Carlton Woods, he did not have to give any meaningful consideration to the land other than on a few holes.
This is a course one will want to play for the challenge of playing it. Even if one was a member, I do not know if one would want to play it twice in the same weak unless they are a very good player.
Before I get to the golf course, the staff here provides the most luxurious vibe I've ever experienced at a facility. I felt very fortunate to get the opportunity to play here, and the hospitality, amenities, and conditions made me all the more thankful. I've never felt more important and out of place because every person on property treated me and my playing partners like royalty.
On to the golf course. It didn't hit me until about a month ago that all of Houston-area courses are virtually completely flat. The topography in this part of the country provides so little opportunity to do anything with the land beyond 99% complete flatness. Knowing that, Jack did about as good a job as one could do by making a flat area interesting for a golf course. The water hazards are all really crafty. The 15th, which the blurb mentions, was my favorite hole because of that creek that winds its way from tee to green. It was also a beautiful green complex and brought back memories of when I first walked around Amen Corner at Augusts National. The 9th and 18th are framed by the clubhouse in the background which makes two really good holes to begin with all the more epic.
In true Nicklaus Design style, if you're not precisely on-point with your yardages, you're penalized severely. I had several occasions throughout my round where my ball was on my target line, but just a yard or two short/long of where I needed to be and paid the price by getting either a short-sided bunker shot or watching my ball roll into water. Frustrating at times, but the opportunities to score are readily present and I just didn't take advantage. Throw a Tour player out there and he'll shoot 65 pretty easily.
Carlton Woods - Nicklaus is a Top 6 course for me now and it has nothing to do with anything wrong about this property. The courses above it just have more unique features on-site that could be taken advantage of.