A soft wind barely ruffled the flagstick on the 18th green at Diablo Grande’s Legends course, the one doomed by the drought.
Dark clouds covered the sky as a foursome motored down the fairway to complete their round. The overcast lent a properly somber mood after last week’s news that the Legends, the only course in the world bearing the design signatures of Jack Nicklaus and Gene Sarazen – icons both – would close soon.
The Legends West raised golf’s image in the area by its mere presence. That it eventually will go to seed seems neither right nor possible.
“That course was one of a kind,” said Shane Balfour, the director of golf at Diablo Grande from 1996 to 2007. “It’s always tragic to see a course go under. It’s just a sign of the times and so sad. It also shows how desperate the water situation is in this state.”
Balfour, today the executive director of the Junior Golf Association of Northern California, served as a caddie for Nicklaus on that gorgeous day in 1998 for the Golden Bear’s ceremonial first round at Legends.
Sarazen, one year before his death at age 97, struck the first ball off the tee and later – in one of those scrapbook moments – hit a few putts on the fifth green while Nicklaus held the stick. Also there was Don Panoz, the entrepreneur and visionary for the Diablo Grande resort.
“Thanks to you, Mr. Panoz,” Sarazen said on the first tee, “for dreaming up this place.”
Legends appeared to validate the plan by Panoz, the mover and shaker from Atlanta who deployed golf heavyweights to realize his dream in the foothills near Patterson. Diablo Grande’s Ranch course, designed by Denis Griffiths, opened in 1996, and two years later came Nicklaus, Sarazen and Legends. Homes sprouted. The course was acclaimed as one of the best in Northern California by Golf Today.
Nicklaus’ legacy, as arguably the greatest golfer of all time, will be rivaled by his impact as a designer. His company has built nearly 380 courses in 36 countries and 39 states. He’s been involved in the design of 290.
One of them was Legends.
Nicklaus created a traditional members’ course that, while not a bruising monster, offered a sufficient test for all levels. His basic concepts were there – enough room off the tee to hit driver but also mandating strong and precise iron shots to greens protected by bunkers and hazards. Two vintage windmills decorated the landscape.
“Every single hole is different,” Balfour said. “Jack designed a playable course. He wanted members to enjoy it.”
As Nicklaus put it, “There is enough golf out there for everyone.”
Water problems have hung over the project like one of those threatening clouds, however, since Day 1. Panoz pumped $120 million into the project before it went bankrupt and he eventually sold in 2008 as the real estate market crashed.
Last week’s news sobered local golfers. Everyone understands the realities – the water needs of 437 homes take priority in tough times. We’ve witnessed the loss of a number of courses, from Lake Don Pedro to Mountain House near Tracy, but never one with the prestige value of Legends.
Most golfers believe the Ranch course is more difficult than its neighbor. It survived the cut because of the homes surrounding it. The Ranch also is appealing to visitors as they enter on Diablo Grande Parkway.
“If you’re a golfer, you want that course (Legends) open. If you’re a resident, well, it was a very hard decision,” tournament director Danny Collins said. “Most people are sad. Heartbroken.”
Legends remains open, by the way, through April. No water will douse the grounds, however, and already a brownish tinge is seen on the fairways and greens. Tournament commitments probably will be moved to the Ranch.
“The playing conditions will be good until maybe the first week in May,” Collins said. “We’re hoping for rain.”
And a miracle.