As the story goes, Hall Thompson spent so much time discussing the golf course he wanted to build that his wife, Lucy, told him to stop talking about it and start digging. So began the fulfillment of Thompson’s dream of creating a world-class layout in Birmingham, Alabama. Shoal Creek was an instant classic when it opened in 1977—drawing the PGA Championship just seven years later—and it remains one of America’s best courses.
Although the hiring of Jack Nicklaus to design the course seems like a no-brainer, Thompson was taking a chance when he hired the Golden Bear, 35 years old at the time, in 1975. Nicklaus was just starting out in the business and had yet to design a course by himself in the United States. (He had collaborated with Pete Dye and then Desmond Muirhead.)
But Thompson gave Nicklaus an ideal canvas, consisting of 1,550 densely wooded acres located between Oak and Double Oak mountains in the southern foothills of the Appalachians. “The land was terrific and there was actually space for two golf courses,” says Nicklaus. “But Hall wanted no part of that. ‘We only want one golf course,’ he told me, ‘but we want to make it a superior one.’”
Nicklaus worked closely with Thompson to route 18 of the best possible holes through the forest. “What really sets Shoal Creek apart from others is its uniqueness,” says Jim Simmons, who has been the superintendent since the course opened. “Not only is every hole set off by itself, each one plays different. And that came as much from Nicklaus as from Mr. Thompson, who was very hands-on during the entire process.”
Thompson, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 87, wanted to ensure the course would be fun for him and his fellow members while also providing a championship-caliber test. Nicklaus delivered on both criteria. In addition to entertaining members and guests for more than 30 years, the 7,154-yard layout has hosted two PGA Championships (1984, 1990), the 1986 U.S. Amateur and the 2008 U.S. Junior Amateur. In 2011 Shoal Creek will host yet another major, the Regions Tradition on the Champions Tour.
While the course is the focus of these championships’ competitors, the hub of the club’s everyday life is the main clubhouse, a replica of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Virginia, down to the coat of arms above the front door. It is flanked by a town hall, golf shop and four guest cottages, all arranged around a common lawn.
Built in the Williamsburg style, the club’s four guest cottages—named Nicklaus, Pate, Thompson and Alabama—range from two to eight bedrooms. There are also four suites above the shop, giving the club 26 rooms and 37 beds.
Indeed, an invitation to Shoal Creek is one of golf’s thrills, and visitors should be sure to partake of the entire club experience. In addition to the main attraction, one of Nicklaus’ best designs, Shoal Creek has a par-3 course known as “Little Links,” a swimming pool, tennis courts, fishing lakes and an equestrian center.
“People join mostly for the golf course,” says Jon Davis, the club’s general manager since 2000, “but we are bringing in a number of families. In addition, we have an excellent non-resident membership option as well as one of the strongest junior-membership programs in the state, if not the country. We want to make sure that everyone who wants to be a part of Shoal Creek has a chance to. It’s just such a special place.”