Zack Hall

Breaking down the course

A closer look at Pronghorn Nicklaus. For more information on the items below, B6.


Nicklaus will challenge every golfer, from bogey player to tour professional. Novices should beware of the course’s carries and heavy bunkering.


Be aggressive off the tee to cut off as much distance as possible into what are challenging, firm and fast putting surfaces.


Though expensive to play, golfers who yearn for a stern test at a world-class facility will likely not go home disappointed.

Simply keeping the ball in play is at least half the battle for most amateur golfers.

I am no exception.

On a sunny, breezy day last week at the Jack Nicklaus Signature Course at posh Pronghorn Club northeast of Bend, I should have been ecstatic about hitting drive after drive onto the course’s perfectly manicured fairways.

So why was my score adding up like the National Debt Clock?

I found my answer on the 14th hole, a 173-yard par 3. There, I smacked a decently struck 6-iron into the wind to a back pin, then watched helplessly as the ball drifted just right of the intended target and buried itself into the front-right portion of the bunker that wraps around all but the front-left portion of the green.

With a fried-egg lie, I poorly executed a bunker shot, sending my ball over the green and back into the bunker.

Now with a downhill lie, I mis-hit another bunker shot and my ball screamed past the green.

A chip and two putts later, I had a bright-red face and an exasperating triple bogey.

My playing partner perfectly encapsulated just how I felt about the course at that moment.

“It seems like there is not a lot of margin for error,” he said.

Of course, that is not entirely true at Nicklaus, which was designed by its legendary namesake.

With often roomy fairways, Pronghorn’s publicly accessible golf course (Pronghorn also has its private Tom Fazio Course) does have room to miss. But it will punish golfers who play sloppy shots, particularly approaches into Nicklaus’ green complexes.

“Those approach shots that Nicklaus has are difficult because they are either to raised greens, or greens that run away from you, or narrow in certain spots,” said Jerrel Grow, who has been a pro at Pronghorn since 2012 but was recently promoted to be the club’s head professional.

In part because of the challenge, Nicklaus is considered by many national publications to be among the elite public-access courses in the country. That acclaim is hardly unearned.

The turf at the Nicklaus Course — which opened in 2004 as a private facility but started taking public tee times in 2010 — weaves through its striking high-desert surroundings, bringing its scraggly natural setting into play. And it is among the best-conditioned courses a golfer will find. The 10-year-old bentgrass greens have held up well and the tee boxes are all finely manicured, a clear sign of the course’s high-end status.

Nicklaus is also a stern test that will force golfers to use all their golf skills with a perpetually interesting design.

Oh, and it is a thrill to play.

“Yes it’s difficult, but I don’t think you leave thinking it was goofy-tough,” Grow said. “You get challenged and you might not have your best score, but I think you enjoy the experience. Every hole is unique and picturesque. It’s hard, but I also think it rewards you.”

During a three-hole stretch beginning on the short par-4 12th hole, I found out just what he meant.

That stretch began with a near-perfect drive and an even better short pitch to the elevated green. That left me 7 feet for birdie, which I converted.

I followed that with an ideal drive on the 378-yard, par-4 13th hole — Nicklaus’ signature hole, featuring a large pond that cuts off the straightest route to the waterfall-framed green. With 70 yards in I hit a decent bump-and-run 7-iron, missed a 12-foot putt, and tapped in my par.

Feeling great, I stepped to the 14th with no inkling of the debacle that was about to unfold.

Still, despite my trouble, I could not help thinking that maybe that is just how golf is supposed to be. Perhaps we are supposed to be rewarded for our great shots and punished for those that are not as well struck.

Indeed, this Nicklaus guy might know something about golf after all.

Difficulty of course

From the back tees, Nicklaus and Tetherow Golf Club in Bend share the highest USGA rating (75.2) of all the daily fee facilities in Central Oregon, and its slope of 151 surpasses that of any other course in the region, public or private.

In other words, Nicklaus will test every golfer.

Nicklaus plays particularly long, mainly because drives do not roll down the fairway as they would at a course like Tetherow. And playing a longer iron makes the already tough approach shots more challenging.

Of course, most of us would not choose to play from the brutally difficult 7,379-yard tips. From the more forward tees (set at 7,049, 6,533, 6,292, 6,000 and 5,256 yards), Nicklaus is far from impossible.

The fairways, particularly on the front nine, are often more generous than they appear from the tee box, and with only two water hazards, errant golf balls will most likely stay dry. Plus, Pronghorn’s local “desert rule” allows balls hit into the desert to be played laterally with a one-stroke penalty.

But with heavy bunkering throughout and frequent forced carries over desert to the fairway, novices should beware of taking on such a stern test.

Favorite hole

I LOVE the 543-yard, par-5 15th hole for both its beauty and its challenge.

The uphill hole greets golfers with three lava rock outcroppings — one on the right side and two to the left — that jut into the fairway and make for an unnerving tee shot (even if the landing area is a bit more generous than it appears).

A rock-surrounded bunker to the right and two more outcroppings to the left narrow the fairway at about 80 yards in front of the raised, relatively shallow green. Such impediments make going for the putting surface in two shots particularly risky.

More-conservative players can avoid much of that with a roomy layup area at about the 150-yard mark, but they will still have to negotiate a greenside bunker protecting the front-right section of the relatively shallow green.

The hole is easily among my favorites anywhere.

How to approach the course

The Nicklaus Course offers ample enough fairways on most holes to comfortably use a driver, and with the length of Nicklaus, any added yardage off the tee will pay dividends on shots into the green. But golfers should use caution, as balls that land in the juniper trees and natural vegetation of the surrounding high desert are nearly always trouble.

Not uncommon for a Jack Nicklaus design, the holes tend to drift right and favor a right-handed power fade, a shot the Golden Bear relied on to become the greatest golfer in history.

The greens are firm and fast, so play approach shots below the hole. And be wary of the collection areas around the greens. Off-the-mark approach shots often slide off the green and into small valleys that make for tough up-and-downs.

The well-conditioned greens roll particularly true, but a straight line is a rarity.

Off the course

Pronghorn is no ordinary golf course, with all the trappings of a high-end facility, including a massive and luxurious clubhouse.

The driving range is roomy and includes target mounding and bunkering, a nice touch. Pronghorn’s golf academy, which is now known as the Pronghorn Golf Academy after several branding changes, is a state-of-the-art indoor teaching facility. The pro shop, just west of the main clubhouse, is well-stocked with the latest equipment.

The Nicklaus Course’s exceptionally ample practice putting green and short-game area, which includes a practice bunker, sits just steps from the first tee. And the area is stocked with high-end Nike practice balls for all to use.


A world-class facility is rarely inexpensive, and the Nicklaus Course is no exception. Most locals would probably be dissuaded by the $210 peak green fee, an all-inclusive price that includes a forecaddie fee.

But Nicklaus does get more affordable after 2:30 p.m., when the price drops to $125. Considering the conditioning and quality of the course, that is not an unreasonable price.

Golfers who love to be challenged and want the experience of a truly high-end facility will likely not be disappointed.

— Reporter: 541-617-7868, .