Monster to a muffin: Bay Point golf course in Panama City evolves behind the bulldozers

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

PANAMA CITY, Fla. - What happens to a hardened criminal caught red-handed? He's arrested and goes to trial, unless he has a good lawyer. What happens to a golf course that is just too damned hard? If it's a resort course, it gets bulldozed and you start all over, lawyer or not.

That's what happened to the former Lagoons Legend, here at the Bay Point Marriott Resort in Panama City. It was a Robert Von Haage work, and at one time, considered one of the hardest golf courses in the country.

Resort guests would play it, rave about the challenge - which usually means it's impossible for resort duffers to post a decent score - and then in the same breath vow never to return. In its place - literally - rose the Bay Point Nicklaus course. Course officials are advertising it as the first Nicklaus Design course in Northwest Florida, but don't be misled by the name; Jack Nicklaus Sr. had nothing to do with it.

The course is mainly the work of son Gary and senior Nicklaus designer Chris Cochran. The goal was to design anything other than another ridiculously hard course that makes resort guests cry in their beer rather than book another tee time.

"We took our direction from Honours (Golf Company)," Cochran said. "They let us know what they wanted. They wanted a user-friendly, resort golf course."

That's what they got. But, Honours, a development and management company that's fast gaining a reputation with courses in Alabama, Georgia and Florida, also said it wanted a course that could be toughened up if a tournament could be lured.

So Cochran took all that dirt that made up the hills and sharp mounds from the Von Haage - sometimes known as "Von Hilly" - course and leveled out the fairways. The fairways also became a bit higher, thus removing unfair obstacles and improving drainage. Then, he and Nicklaus built a course that could easily be made meaner and leaner.

"It's very easy to move the rough in here," said Cochran, who's been with the Nicklaus team for almost 22 years.

Though Cochran and son Gary work for the Golden Bear, they are usually given a free hand when it comes to these kind of courses, though they usually follow an overall Nicklaus philosophy.

"But, not to the letter," Cochran said. "We do some things Jack may not typically do and we do some things Jack may typically do. Gary and I can do whatever we want as long as it satisfies the client."

The course is typical Jack in some ways, such as its wide, sweeping fairways. Nicklaus likes to give you options to the greens, and this course does that; most of the holes are wide enough to swing away with impunity. Also, most of the doglegs are to the right, favoring Nicklaus' power fade.

Many of the holes have wide collars and bail-out areas and though there are some heavily-wooded areas around the course, you won't lose many golf balls in the rough; it's a fairly open course, and flat, as are most Florida courses.

There's also plenty of water - no less than 15 lakes and ponds dot the terrain, not to mention St. Andrews Bay itself, which provides some nice, shimmering backdrops. Water comes into play at some point on nearly every hole; still, it's usually avoidable if you can manage to be reasonably accurate.

Though it's a resort course, there are some relatively tough holes, especially from the back tees. There's a rough little stretch on the back nine, starting with No. 12, a 522-yard par 5 with a sloping, two-tiered fairway. A long, accurate drive will put you up on the plateau, giving you the best view to the green.

No. 13 is a tight, drivable par 4 and No. 14 is a dogleg right where the fairway narrows considerably on your approach. Again, a long draw will put you up on the plateau, hitting into a green that sits at an angle to the fairway.

The Verdict

The Nicklaus course at Bay Point is a pretty good resort course but not a spectacular one that will have you driving out of your way to play. Other than the few, risk-reward holes, in fact, it's a little bland.

It does have a nice, natural feel, though it winds through houses and condos, some of which overlook the fairways. For the most part, though, they're set back nicely.

Golfer Jon Carlson compared it to the other Bay Point course, the Meadows, which he found lacking.

"It's surprising," said Carlson, a 14-handicapper. "I didn't have high expectations. The conditioning is excellent for a brand new course."

The fairways have good movement and the greens have some pretty fair undulation. There is a good mix of holes and nearly all the par 3s play over or near water. No. 17 is a doozy, a 234-yarder over water with a big waste area and bunker to catch balls slightly pushed.

Stay and play

The Marriott at Bay Point sits in a 1,100-acre wildlife sanctuary with views of St. Andrews Bay. You can fish off the pier or try an array of other water sports.

The spa offers various kind of massages, including aromatherapy, European facials - where you can get your "décolleté" soothed with a purified ampoule - and other oxygenating facials. You can also get eye and lip tune-ups.

Dining out

The Marriott has the Kingfish Restaurant, which serves "Floribeean" food and sushi. There is also Lime's Beach Club, which has live music, and 30 Degree Blue, which overlooks the bay, and serves more casual food.

Fast fact

At the recent grand opening of the Nicklaus course, a bagpiper strode up the 18th fairway, playing the same tune used to christen the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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