Bob Cupp (when he was senior designer for Jack Nicklaus) designed Shoal Creek and the course opened in 1977, hosting several top-flight competitions since then. Buddy Alexander won the US Amateur Championship in 1986 whilst Lee Trevino and Wayne Grady won two majors here – picking up the coveted USPGA Wanamaker Trophy in 1984 and 1990. The Shoal Creek Club hosted the 2008 U.S. Junior Amateur championship, won by Cameron Peck, then the first of five editions of the Tradition tournament on the Champions Tour (one of the senior tour's five major championships) was held here in 2011.
It’s a fabulous course serving a private golf club whose members luxuriate in a Williamsburg-styled clubhouse surrounded by a residential golfing community which sees each exist in perfect harmony. Shoal Creek is routed through a natural and secluded environment which is just a short distance from the city centre of Birmingham, Alabama. With the magnificent backdrop of Double Oak Mountain to the east, Shoal Creek is one of the most peaceful golfing environments imaginable.
Regarded as a challenging shot makers course which makes good use of creeks and ponds, Shoal Creek is always in excellent condition but the critics think it’s a bit too bland with insufficient variety of holes, shape or elevation change to get the golfing pulse racing.
In the book Golf’s 100 Toughest Holes by Chris Millard, the 470-yard par four 12th is described as “a relatively straight driving hole”. The author continues: “At the turn of a gentle dogleg right, a turn marked by bunkers, the hole heads uphill to a long narrow green that features a big slope on the right and a gaping, deep bunker on the left. For the PGA Championships and U.S. Amateur, deep rough turned a difficult hole into an extraordinarily difficult one.”
The course was updated ahead of it hosting the 73rd US Women’s Open in 2018 (won by Thailand's Ariya Jutanugarn), the first time that the event was held in the state of Alabama. Jack Nicklaus and his former senior architect Jim Lipe (who now runs his own design company in Louisiana) virtually reconstructed every hole, replacing former large fairway sand traps with smaller clusters of bunkers, removing trees to improve sight lines, and re-contouring greens with Auburn Victory bent grass to allow more pin positions.
My personal top 20 ranking of the golf courses designed or co-designd by Jack Nicklaus are: 1. Muirfield Village, 2. Mayacama, 3. The Concession (with Tony Jacklin), 4. Sebonack (mainly Tom Doak) 5. Kinloch, 6. Castle Pines, 7. Harbour Town (with Pete Dye), 8. May River at Palmetto Bluff, 9. Shoal Creek, 10. Pronghorn 11. Cabo del Sol Ocean, 12. Desert Highlands, 13. Dismal River White, 14. Sherwood, 15. Desert Mountain Geronimo, 16. Champion’s Retreat Creek/Bluffs (with Gary Player), 17. Hokuli’a, 18. Challenge at Manalee 19. Lake Las Vegas Reflection Bay, 20. Trump Jupiter, 21. The Bear’s Club (right next door to Trump Jupiter)
One reason I listed the above is I wanted to see how far down The Bear’s Club is on my personal list as well as remind myself of the courses Mr. Nicklaus designed that I consider to be behind Shoal Creek I have played 37 courses with Jack’s involvement in the design. I have excluded the two “Bear’s Best” courses from the above list, one in Las Vegas and the other near Atlanta since they are “inspired” courses built off his design ideas used elsewhere. I realize Mayacama may be controversial to some, but I loved the course and the setting.
I do not know if Shoal Creek is the number one course in Alabama. I have not played the two courses at Birmingham CC, a huge oversight on my part since I was right there and had the time to do so. I do believe Shoal Creek is certainly worthy of a Senior U.S. Open championship or another U.S. Women’s Open. I do not see it hosting another men’s major as it simply does not have enough length at 7400 yards and the fairways lack interest. It certainly can be made “tight” and has beautiful, smooth greens. There is risk-reward in every par 5 so perhaps I am wrong and it could have another PGA particularly since that major has moved to the month of May. The PGA is not afraid of a low score for the winner and field.
In any event, I really like Shoal Creek and can see why it made several top 100 in the USA lists for some time. (The course that made the list has been changed a bit). It has heroic shots, decision making, builds to a nice finish, is challenging yet fair, has a good routing, is an easy walk, and has good green complexes. There really is not much missing from this golf course other than it is not on a lake, river, or ocean and is enclosed by trees. For some raters it likely needs to be around another hundred years. It is obviously a golf course that required a lot of construction to build and that is definitely out of favor in this period of golf where naturalism, playability, and minimalism have taken hold of people’s attention.
I actually have Shoal Creek near the middle of the second hundred of the 725 courses I have currently played. This means I do think Mr. Nicklaus has designed a fair number of very good golf courses. Some might argue he should have some good courses given the high total of courses he has done.
My favorite holes are #2, #5, #6, #8, #9, #10, #15, #17 and #18. I do not mean to imply these are great holes, I think they are better than the others. There is not a bad hole on the golf course.
The bunkers are well placed and the right number. Shoal Creek is not a golf course where one will worry much about the bunkers as they are shallow, visible, and not particularly penal.
The greens are in great condition and run very smoothly. It is not difficult to read the putts. Many of the greens are raised.
The criticisms one can say about Shoal Creek is that the front nine is better than the back nine. It does not have a single outstanding hole. The course can be overly difficult for a wayward driver of the ball as there are always trees and numerous holes with water. There are too many holes that either are straight or look straight. There is not a lot of terrain changes on many fairways as it is a course down in the valley. The heavily tree-lined course leads to two issues many players do not like: it adds difficulty to the course and it does not allow for views across multiple fairways which is very much in favor these days. Finally, it is not as scenic compared to other golf courses rated more favorably although a few holes have a lovely view of the nearby hills (I don’t consider them mountains).
There are six sets of tees ranging from “five star” at 7400 yards (76.2145) to three star at 6535 (72.3/138). As there had been a downpour during the entire night, we opted for the three-star tees. We did go back on two holes so we played closer to 6600 yards.
The opener is a 405/375 par 4 and one notices the trees lining either side of the fairway. It is a flat hole with a single fairway bunkers on the left and a bunker to either side of the green having a left to right tilt. It is a gentle opening hole if one stays out of the trees. However, unless one is behind a tree or has a restricted swing, it is probable that you will be able to advance your ball. This is a common theme to most of the holes.
The second is a similar length hole of 414/370 and is a gentle dogleg right where a single smaller tree cuts into the fairway making it necessary to go left. There is a large bunker to the left of the raised green which is angled right to left. It is another flat hole.
The first par 5 is 530/500 and is a birdie opportunity if one ignores the bunkers and plays straight. A single bunker is on the left of the fairway. There are two very long bunkers to the right of the green and a fall-off left. It is a nice hole, heavily tree lined and flat.
A difficult par 4 follows at 480/420 with no bunkers or water on the hole, but has plenty of difficulty due to the tree line and a very large green with fall-offs on all sides. This is a narrow fairway. This green has many undulations and swales leading to the fall-offs.
Five is a longer par 3 at 190/165 playing with a small pond fronting the left side of the green and a back bunker. The miss is to the right. I liked the narrow green with a saddle shape to it with the back right being the highest.
The sixth is a long par 5 at 540/475 where a stream somes down the right of the fairway. The stream continues to the left of the elevated green which sits off to the right with two bunkers right and one behind. This fairway once had a tree in the middle of the fairway but was taken out prior to the U.S. Women’s Open held at Shoal Creek in 2018.
Seven is a difficult par 4 at 470/425 that is straight and flat although the land slopes away on the left side of the green. There is a bunker to either side of the green which is 50 yards long.
Eight is a lovely par 3 at 150/135 playing a bit downhill to a small green guarded by a bunker right, a bunker behind and a stream on the left. The green seems very narrow behind the bunker on the right with a slant on the left side towards the water.
The front nine finishes with a flat par 4 of 455/380. We decided to play the 415 tees as we felt the hole changed too much from the 455 tees. This is a pleasant dogleg left. The stream cuts across the front of the green about eight yards short. It is a lovely hole with a well contoured green.
Ten is a par four of 430/400 and is a straight, flat hole with Shoal Creek on the right. This hole has a bunker on the right front, is large, and has three levels to it. For me, this hole is the best on the golf course.
Eleven is a par 5 of 525/470. We moved back to the four star tees at 495. It is a risk-reward hole as it is easily reachable in two by even above-average length players. The green is fronted by a pond with two bunkers right.
Twelve is rated the most difficult hole on the course at 520/450. We made the right decision in not lengthening this hole which would have easily been a par 5 for us from that back tee. Adding to the length is the approach shot is slightly uphill. There are bunkers left so the hole plays as a slight dogleg right. There is a bunker left of the green which tilts front to back. The hole is too difficult for my game.
The thirteenth is a beautiful par 3 of 215/170 going across a stream that does not come into play to a slightly elevated green with bunkers to either side. It is a pretty hole but straightforward.
There is finally a shorter par 4 of 390/370 with the best view of the hills behind the course. It is a fairly generous fairway followed by the hole with numerous bunkers near the green. The green is tiny adding to the difficulty.
Fifteen is a par 4 of 425/375 playing slightly uphill. This is the thickest set of trees of the golf course. This is a straight hole with a gully fronting the green and a shelf on the left side of the green angled away from the player. There is a 50-yard bunker on the left side of the fairway, a small bunker at the front of the green, and a bunker the entire right side of the green.
Sixteen is a long par 3 of 200/175 playing slightly downhill with another nice view with a bunker to either side. There is another view of the hill behind the green. The green is angled right to left and has a decided tier in it.
Seventeen is the final par 5 at 530/495 and another risk-reward hole. A large fairway bunker is on the right side with a smaller one on the left. The fairway slopes slightly to the left. A pond fronts the green to a narrow, raised green making even a short third pitch shot very challenging. There is a large bunker to the right of the green and a false front.
Eighteen is a long par 4 of 450/405 with the fairway narrowing as it tumbles down to the right. There are bunkers left and right of the green which has three levels to it. It is a nice finishing hole.
This is a course one should try to play if in the area. But do not make my mistake and miss out on the two courses at Birmingham Country Club. Having then played these three, one can decide their favorite for the best in Alabama.
I rate this course higher than some of the previous reviewers because there are at least ten good golf holes on the course. All of the par 3’s and par 5’s are fun, require strategic thinking or precise iron play, while there are three-four good par 4’s. The members of this club should be very pleased with their golf course (their clubhouse is wonderful), and visitors will not be disappointed.
This rating is a toss-up for me between 5 and 4.5 but because I flew in to play in and was glad I did, I will go higher.
Shoal Creek is a fine addition to the Alabama golf scene but it's position among the elite courses in the United States is overrated in my mind. The desire to be "Augusta" like is certainly present. You have the towering pines and the clubhouse is quite special as well as all the other assorted amenities. But, frankly, the golf is dullsville and often repetitive to a fault.
Jack Nicklaus tamed his early architectural impulses and the finished product -- minus the risk/reward nature of the par-5 holes is fairly mundane.
What often happens is that far too many people ascribe a faulty belief that the hosting of major events automatically means superior architecture. One has little do with the other.
The same holds true when course conditioning is elevated to an erroneous equality with overall architecture. Architecture is the main course - the conditioning is the dessert. Shoal Creek is well-prepared turf wise but the key element of engaging architecture for the bulk of the holes is absent.
M. James Ward
My First round of golf was played at Shoal Creek. What a treat. I wish I could play it again. Too bad it is private.
I had low expectations going into Shoal Creek. Aside from Muirfield Village, the Jack Nicklaus courses I played were underwhelming. However, I was pleasantly surprised with Shoal Creek. The fairways were wider than I anticipated. The greens were very pure. There are a few memorable holes and the course uses the creeks very well. The course was very quiet, except for the birds chirping like you hear during the Master's. The club in general is fantastic, with a very friendly and courteous staff. Beautiful clubhouse. Top tier practice facilities. The par 3 course is short, but a lot of fun.
While Jack Nicklaus is the architect of record, Robert Trent Jones had a hand in the development of Shoal Creek. In the 50s, Jones shortened Country Club of Birmingham’s 16th hole into a par 4. In so doing, it became easier to drive through the fairway and out of bounds on the right. In the 70s, member Hall Thompson became frustrated with the club’s unwillingness to move the tee on 16 to prevent his going OB. When his wife tired of his regular complaints about the club’s intransigence, she suggested he build his own club.
So he did.
Thompson was a perfectionist and while he wanted a course of championship caliber, he also wanted one that was playable for his friends, who would become its members. As Nicklaus was in his infancy as a designer, Thompson vetoed so many of Jack's ideas that older locals will also tell you that even though Nicklaus’s name is on the course, Shoal (as the members call it) is actually a Hall Thompson design………assisted by Jack Nicklaus. As a result, none of the par4s require an aerial approach, leaving the player a number of options (and causing him or her to think) on the approach. The same is not true on the par 5s, where water fronts the green on three of them. The finest is #6 where you can go for the green on your second shot, but with a tougher angle than if you lay up. Three of the par 3s (all fronted by water) were the same length the day I played, but short enough not to be daunting. Most fairways are wide and half of them have enough hazards to require some thinking of the tee. Greens are nicely contoured and slick: 12.5 on my stimpmeter the day I played, despite having been topdressed enough that sand was still visible.
Shoal Creek is a wonderful Jack Nicklaus design cut from a rich forest cradled in the lap of Oak and Double Oak Mountains at the southern end of the Appalachians. It features towering pines, dogwoods, azaleas, and a meandering creek and feels a lot like Augusta National. Larry Berle.
Legend has it that guests were sitting around a lunch table at Augusta National discussing how their respective states were in need of a similar facility. Within a few years from that conversation, Castle Pines, The Honors Course and Shoal Creek were born.
Alabama is a golf starved state, and Shoal Creek puts it on the map, especially having hosted multiple memorable PGA championships just a few years after opening. It’s a wonderful walk through the tree-lined fairways with many impressive left & right doglegs. The club just completed a renovation of all fairways which are marvellous. The creek meanders through the property and adds charming aesthetic value to the experience. Three of the four delightful par 3s play downhill to diagonal shaped green surfaces.
The demanding features of this course that warrants a major championship include a noticeable number of crowned greens that have tight entrances with bunkers pinching the edges. The combination of tight drives and small target greens keeps even the professional on their toes. Shoal Creek is one of Jack’s most celebrated and respected designs hidden amongst the Alabama mountains.