More than six years in the making, the new nine holes at the volunteer-operated American Lake Veterans Golf Course — dubbed the “Nicklaus Nine” after course architect Jack Nicklaus — opened Saturday morning in Lakewood.
More than 200 eager volunteers, most of them military veterans, showed up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Afterward, most of them piled into golf carts to spend the morning playing the entire 18-hole layout in a team “scramble” format.
“Here it is!” Fircrest’s Ken Still said, just minutes after the former PGA Tour golfer hit the ceremonial first tee ball down the middle of the 10th-hole fairway. “Fantastic.”
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And now it is a reality.
Early in 2010, after the golf course’s clubhouse and rehabilitation center was finished, the Friends of American Lake board of directors began exploring ways to construct a back nine to join with the existing nine-hole course, which opened in 1957.
They had plenty of ideas, but little money to speak of.
“We had $3,000 in the bank,” said Jim Sims, the former Friends of American Lake president. “That is all.”
What they did have was an ace in the hole: Still, 81, who is never shy about asking for special favors. He contacted Nicklaus, his close friend and former U.S. Ryder Cup teammate who had retired from competitive golf, but owned and operated a flourishing golf-course architectual business.
Nicklaus agreed to design the new nine holes — pro bono. All the committee had to do was raise $4 million for the physical construction of it, which it did purely through private donations.
Last June, just days before the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, Nicklaus visited the site one final time. The course’s routing was completed. Grass had just been planted. So the 18-time major champion put a tee in the ground at the 10th hole, and hit the first ball on the new layout.
“He was pleased,” Sims said. “That is what counts.”
The opening of the new nine holes was supposed to be earlier this spring, but was delayed because of the wet winter conditions, Sims said.
It almost worked out better this way: The Nicklaus Nine opened under blue skies and ideal golfing conditions Saturday morning, marking the 400th Nicklaus design to open across the world.
Nicklaus could not attend the ceremony Saturday. The 76-year-old is busy overseeing his PGA Tour event this week — the Memorial Tournament — happening outside Columbus, Ohio.
One of the ribbon-cutting participants Saturday was JoAnn (Tatum) Hattner, whose father, Joe, was largely responsible for the construction the original nine holes.
Joe Tatum was a psychiatrist who served in field hospitals during World War II. When he arrived from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to become the new director of the American Lake Veterans Administration Hospital in 1955, one of the first things he pursued was building a golf course.
“It is a therapy (for veterans) that is indescribable, until you are involved in it,” Hattner said.
Tatum died in 1988 after suffering a stroke. Hattner said he would have loved to see a day like Saturday.
“He loved golf, and he loved American Lake,” Hattner said. “And (because) Jack Nicklaus designed it, he would have been in seventh heaven.”
The new nine-hole section, which runs to the northwest side of the property, is much different. For starters, its putting greens are planted with a newer strain of bentgrass; the original nine’s greens are poa annua, or bluegrass.
And unlike the tight, tree-lined front nine, Nicklaus made sure to give the golfers bigger landing areas off the tee. The holes also vary in direction, but many of the par-4 holes are short, making it a smooth, peaceful ride.
Both sets of nine holes meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, making the game easier for those with disabilities.
“Whoever thought we’d have 18 holes?” Still said. “I didn’t.”