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.
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.