\‘Bear trap\’ awaits WGC Match Play field

     When Jack Nicklaus was a youngster, he earned the nickname “the Golden Bear’’ for his ability to methodically take down foes and devour titles. For 25 years, the Bear stalked the PGA Tour, winning 73 times including a record 18 major championships.
     Today, at age 69, the Bear still is a force to be reckoned with. But these days he’s maintaining his reputation via the large tracks he leaves behind on the golf courses he builds – more than 300 worldwide and counting.
    Oh, you had heard Nicklaus has “mellowed’’ as an architect? Then obviously you have not seen or played The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain near Tucson, the site of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship on Feb. 25-March 1.
   At 7,849 yards Nicklaus’ latest-greatest is the longest par-72 layout on the PGA Tour in 2009, and probably ever if such records were kept. The gargantuan length despite the 2,600 feet of elevation (not quite a club less) is guaranteed to immediately eliminate numerous hopefuls in this elite 64-player field. (Maybe it was Jack’s way of retaliating against high-tech equipment, who knows?)
   But even more than the mindboggling yardage, which includes six par 4s that range from 476 to 536 yards and a par 5 that rambles on for 659 yards, are The Ritz’s roller-coaster-like greens. Fortunately, Nicklaus stopped just short of creating Six Flags Over Tucson.
   Having recently witnessed the rather extreme elevations and ubiquitous undulations first-hand, I’m more than a little curious to see how Tiger Wood and the "other” top 63  players on the planet  will approach, hold and putt these green monsters that offer up devilish pin positions tucked into small landing areas. Given the fact that many approach shots will come with mid- to long irons, it could get intersting.
   From a player’s standpoint, the saving grace to the new Ritz layout is its massive fairways, which are so generous that even slightly errant tee shots often rebound back into the emerald-green grass. That includes the rough, which is thick but not necessarily tough to negotiate. The chief hazard off the tee is the bunkers, and there are some real "beaches” in the fairways along with scattered pot bunkers. 
     At the same time, the surrounding desert remains very native and penal, meaning it’s loaded with all kinds of plants that will prick you, as well as lots of rocks. Uncork one into the surrounding saguaro forest – the most saguaros I’ve ever seen in Arizona in one location — and seldom will you recover without at least a one-stroke penalty plus distance.
    Another element that is certain to perplex players is the 45-degree mountain slope that the two nines – the Saguaro (front) and Tortolita (back) – are constructed upon. Sure, putts tend to break depending on whether you are going uphill or down — but not always! Nicklaus’ greens, in general, are hard to read because of their complexity and these being brand new might be more difficult than usual.
  In that regard, players will have a friend in The Ritz’s Jay Ervin, a third-generation superintendent from Lake Las Vegas who has every square inch of the course in tip-top playing condition. I am not being over-the-top when I say that, in my 20-some years of covering golf in Arizona, I’ve never seen a course in better shape right out of the starting gate.
   Ken Depew, who oversees the golf operations at The Ritz, agrees.
   “It’s pretty close to perfect,’’ DePew noted with obvious pride. “It’s one of the better courses I’ve seen (condition-wise) in the Southwest, which is amazing when you consider we just opened our doors (in January).’’
   There are 27 holes at The Ritz that eventually will be expanded to 36. Nicklaus had hoped that the other nine — his "favorite,”  Wild Burro — would be used for the tournament. But two tunnels that connect holes on that nine — Nos. 1 and 2, and Nos. 6 and 7 – were deemed too small by safety standards to move crowds through.
    Personally, I think they got it right the first time, because the Saguaro and Tortolita nines bring the most elevation into play, and that probably will test the best more than the never-ending yardage. The tournament 18 also boasts the most difficult greens – false fronts, run-offs, shelves, spillovers, etc – which should add up to lots of “accidents’’ and Augusta-like TV. And while the greens are enormous, many are quite shallow, another Nicklaus trademark that makes players dig deep.
    Overall, The Ritz should be better for spectator viewing than the South Course at The Gallery, which had been the WGC Match Play site for the past two years. Not being able to see players putt the ball due to the elevated greens at The Gallery had been the chief criticism. But that should not be a problem at The Ritz, espeically around the clubhouse, where Nos. 1 and 10 start out from the tee and 9 and 18 finish at the green.
     The critical difference between the two venues is certain to be the scoring. Birdies and eagles literally flew the past two years at The Gallery, but Nicklaus’ treacherous greens probably  will extingush any offensive fireworks at The Ritz. Par will be a good score, although there will be opportunities for some risk-reward at short par 4s like No. 4 and No. 15, where the tees could be moved up to "short” distances like 349 and 343 yards, respectively.
    As proof I offer Scottsdale’s Aaron Baddeley, the Australian star from Scottsdale who recently visited The Ritz for a practice round. Asked what he thought of the course afterwards, “Badds’’ told several members of the staff  that he thought it was pretty challenging, and that any player who shot 70 or better would probably win his match.
   I’ll go one better: Most players who card a 72 or better will win their matches, AND don’t be surprised if a few matches are won by players who end up over par. Good thing this is match play, where you can make a big number and still have a chance. Trust me, more than one "snowman” (8) will be made in the desert.
  Having said that, the PGA Tour could back off on the 7,849 yards at any point and make it more player-friendly. In fact, it probably will at some point  when it comes to the rugged closing stretch that includes a 247-yard par 3 at No. 16 followed by brutal back-to-back par 4s that play up the hill at 482 and 480 yards, respectively.
  It’s kind of amusing, really, but some 20 years ago, Nicklaus built 27 holes at La Paloma Golf Resort in the Old Pueblo and people called it the hardest golf they had ever seen. But today La Paloma is a pitch ‘n’ putt compared to The Ritz, perhaps the most demanding course the Golden Bear has ever built.
What: WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
When: Feb. 25-March 1.
Where: The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain.
Address: 6501 Boulder Bridge Pass, Marana (north of Tucson).
Directions from Phoenix: Take I-10 south to Tangerine Exit.
Parking: Near Tangerine Exit east of I-10.