By Madoline Markham
Nestled in serene woods off Highway 41 with Double Oak Mountain in the backdrop is a golfer’s course—not a house-lined golf community but a pristine championship course. The perfectly manicured fairways and greens and a preference for caddies over carts are reminiscent of Augusta National. The par 72 course is the first that golf legend Jack Nicklaus designed himself, and it will host another round of golf legends the first week in May.
For the first time Shoal Creek is hosting the Regions Tradition, the first of five Champions Tour championship tournaments. Many of the players from the 1984 and 1990 PGA Championships at Shoal Creek are returning to play. Spectators can watch golf favorites Fred Couples and Tom Watson, among others, as well as catch appearances by Alabamians Condaleezza Rice, Gene Chizik and Anthony Grant.
“Our members are so excited to have major championship golf back and to see the excellent past champions again,” said Eric Williamson, director of golf at Shoal Creek. The course, noted for its challenging yet fair play, also hosted the 1986 U.S. Amateur Championship and the 2008 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship.
“It’s exciting having a tournament on this side of town again,” said James Vibert, an employee at Inverness Golf & Repair. “It’s easy to get to, and Shoal Creek is just awesome. I’ve played there a handful of times, and it’s always in perfect shape and has a beautiful design.”
Every tournament at Shoal Creek is part of the legacy of Hall Thompson, a Birmingham golfer and businessman who passed away in October 2010 at age 87. When he and Jack Nicklaus first scoped out land in Dunnavant Valley for the course in 1974, Nicklaus said there was room for not one but two courses. Thompson shot down the idea, asserting that there would be only one course, a superior course. That course opened in 1977.
“Everyone talks about how it is a Jack Nicklaus-designed course, but it wasn’t just Jack Nicklaus-designed—it was Hall Thompson-designed,” Williamson said. “All the changes we had been making to the course to bring back the majors were his doing, and he was excited when he found out [about the tournament]. He’ll definitely be watching from somewhere else.”
The Champions Tour tournaments culminate in the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship in San Francisco in November. Unlike the non-major Regions Charity Classic previously held annually at Robert Trent Jones Trail at Ross Bridge, major tournaments like the Regions Tradition feature a stronger field that plays 72 holes instead of 54 as well as a larger purse.
First conceived in 1980 as the Senior PGA Tour, membership of the prestigious Champions Tour’s is professional golfers age 50 and older. The Tradition began in 1989 at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz. The tournament moved to Oregon in 1999, where it stayed until coming to Shoal Creek this year.
“Shoal Creek provided a fantastic test when I won in 1984, and it will be just as challenging for the players at the Regions Tradition next year,” Lee Trevino, winner of 29 Champions Tour events, told the PGA when the tournament was announced in August 2010. Both Trevino and Wayne Grady won the 1984 and 1990 PGA Championships, respectively, with a three-stoke margin.
“Players say Shoal Creek has an excellent layout and excellent conditions and that everything is right in front of you so that good shots are rewarded,” Williamson said. He also said that green speeds will be up at the tournament with the lower humidity this time of year.
Fred Funk is the defending champion of the tournament, and World Golf Hall of Fame members Tom Kite and Tom Watson are past champions of the Tradition. Other notable committed players include Fred Couples, Tom Layman, Mark Calcavecchia, Corey Paven, John Cook, Peter Jacobsen, Bernhard Langer, Mark O’Meara and Nick Price.
Which player will win? “How well the players can hit straight and how well they putt will dictate the score,” Williamson said. “Ours is a fairly tree-lined golf course, and our greens have a lot of subtleties.”
Condaleezza Rice will be the honorary chairperson for the event and will be playing in Wednesday’s Pro-Am. The former U.S. Secretary of State and Birmingham native took up golf in 2005 and became a Shoal Creek member in 2009.
Auburn football coach Gene Chizik and Alabama basketball coach Anthony Grant will face off in an Alabama vs. Auburn putting challenge Wednesday morning at 9:30 a.m.
In keeping with the Regions Charity Classic tradition, Children’s Hospital will be the Tradition’s primary beneficiary.
The Golf Channel will be broadcasting tournament coverage Thursday through Sunday.
Kids 18 and under get into the grounds free with a ticketed adult. Grounds tickets range from $10 to $30 depending on the day; pavilion tickets range from $25 to $45. A tournament weekly pass is available for $95. Free parking is available at the corner of Highway 119 and Highway 280. Shuttle buses will transport people to Shoal Creek.
For more information and to buy and print tickets, visit regionstradition.com.