Interview: Jack Nicklaus


Interview: Jack Nicklaus
Sean Dudley

The greatest golfer the world has seen now devotes his time to running the industry's most successful course design firm. Adam Lawrence met Jack to ask how he does it.

Reporters, as a breed, are not easily impressed. This isn’t, as some suggest, native cynicism, but merely that the nature of a journalist’s life is that one meets and talks to important people on a pretty frequent basis. But even journalists get excited sometimes, and I defy any golf reporter not to do so at the prospect of meeting Jack Nicklaus.

My first memory of golf is watching Nicklaus win the 1978 Open at St Andrews. Like every golf fan old enough to have seen it, the charge down Augusta’s back nine that saw him take the 1986 Masters at the age of 46, his eighteenth and last professional Major, is seared into my brain. And, in 2005, I was lucky enough to be alongside the Swilcan Bridge on the Friday afternoon that saw him bid farewell to championship golf amid a flood of tears, both on and off the course. For a new generation of golfers, Tiger Woods might be golf ’s iconic figure, but those of us a little older still see Jack as The Man.

So when I heard that Jack was going to be the guest of honour at the fifth KPMG Golf Business Forum, held in Ireland in May, my nerves started tingling. And when I managed to secure an interview with the great man, the sense of anticipation ratched up several notches.

In course design as in professional golf, Nicklaus blazed a trail for others to follow. Professional golfers were the early golf architects: the generation of Braid, Park and Morris were responsible for many fine courses. But after that generation passed from the scene, course design became a career in itself. Nicklaus, and those that followed him, have brought the business full circle. Now, every top professional worth his salt has a design business, and a large proportion of top end golf courses are created with the involvement of a player-designer.

Nicklaus and his great rival Arnold Palmer essentially created the signature design business. “It started in the mid Sixties,” he says. “Pete Dye came to see me in Columbus, where he was doing a course, I think it was the fourth one he built. He said ‘Jack, I want you to come out and give me some advice,’ and I told him, ‘Pete, I know nothing about golf courses.’”

But Dye stuck to his guns, and Nicklaus joined him on site at what became The Golf Club in Columbus. Jack says that, at first, the process confused him. “We got to the second hole, and it had a big bunker at the top of a hill,” he recalls. “I said ‘What’s this?’ and he said ‘it’s my rendition of a hole at Prestwick.’ The next hole had a big round green with four bunkers around it. I said ‘It looks pretty bad’ and he had me draw up what I thought was wrong with it. He had me do that on a couple of holes and I realised it really interested me.”

Soon after, a first real opportunity appeared. “Charles Frazier from Sea Pines came to Mark McCormack and said ‘We’d be keen to have Jack design us a course,’ so I went to Pete,” Nicklaus says. The result was Harbour Town, a course that, forty years on, is regarded as a crucial evolutionary stage in post-war golf architecture. Mostly Dye’s work, Harbour Town helped Nicklaus learn about design, and the rest is history.

Even then, though, Jack says he had no idea of how big the design business would become. It was when he came back to Columbus, his home town, to build a course, that things really took off. “Pete and I did five golf courses together, and when I came to build Muirfield Village, I wondered how to tie in real estate in with the golf course,” he says. The eccentric British architect Desmond Muirhead (profiled in GCA issue 12) helped him do this. “Desmond was a piece of work! I learned a lot as to how he used the land,” Nicklaus says.

Some of Nicklaus Design’s courses from the seventies and eighties were well received when first opened, but have not stood the test of time. But the company continues to move on. Jack says that he personally has become a much better designer over the years. “When I first started I had one way to do a golf course. People would say: ‘I see Nicklaus was here, everything goes left to right’. And I thought that was fair comment,” he explains. “As I get older, my ability to do design gets better because of experience. Now I have probably 25 different ways to do golf courses. I try to let owners have a bit of involvement in that. The best courses we’ve done are the ones where the owner had that involvement.”

Courses such as Sebonack, The Concession and Dismal River in the US (the first a collaboration with Tom Doak, the second involving Tony Jacklin, see p70), or the exciting new Kinloch course in New Zealand show the point Nicklaus is making. The firm, now by a distance the biggest golf design practice in the world, is delivering quality courses with a range of different looks and feels. “I have 21-22 guys that have worked for me that are members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, and I’m really proud of that. There’s nothing really new in golf course design, it’s about how you apply principles,” he continues. “We can give you any look you want. Some people like to spend a fortune to get what they want but you don’t need to.

“It’s just a different look. The rough look has become what people seem to like. I’m doing a golf course in Tokyo right now, he wants a clean look. Next day, it’s Korea, the course is by the seaside, so we are going for a rough look. The look should fit the property. We’ve had the privilege to do courses near the sea, and obviously you try to bring that seaside look in. Kinloch is a lava field. The lava came down the hill and left these hummocks where the golf course is – so naturally we brought them into the course.”

Similarly, the current trend towards more natural golf courses has had its impact on Nicklaus Design’s courses, but Jack says the change is just common sense. “My philosophy to try to do as good a golf course as you can as naturally as you can. I’ve always felt out of bounds was the worst penalty in the world, because it just means you didn’t have enough money or the guy next door wouldn’t sell it to you!” he says. “But the average golfer is interested in how pretty a place is. Most golfers don’t understand the quality of golf on a site. If you have any common sense you try to use what’s there. If you have a nothing piece of ground then you have to create a golf course. But you try to make it as close to the land around it as possible. It may be a nothing piece of property where you have to construct everything. Or it may be a better piece where you have to find the golf course. It’s everybody’s objective to make it look as though nothing was done, but I’ve worked with a couple of ‘minimalists’ and they moved about ten times as much dirt as I would!”

Nicklaus says he has formulated his thoughts on course design during his long career. “When I stopped being able to play golf well, playing lost its interest for me,” he says. “I love golf, but competition was what made it fun for me. Now design provides that competition for me. My competition is with the ground, with nature. To be honest with you I never see anyone else’s courses, I just don’t have time. Over the last 20 years I’ve made two trips to see someone else’s golf course and I was very disappointed both times. There are a lot of talented designers in the game today, but we don’t run into them that much.”

The tougher environmental restrictions being imposed on golf development around the world meet with a mixed reaction from Jack. “I couldn’t build Muirfield Village today,” he says. “I’ve got two valleys on the fifth and eleventh that were basically wetlands – we channelled streams down them. Today I’d have to go up onto the sides and onto the top of the hills. Restrictions have got tougher around the world. I think it’s great. The US is a little tougher than most places. Around the world I try to apply US environmental restrictions to places that don’t have them yet. I don’t want people ten years from now saying: ‘Nicklaus was here and look what he did to the place.’

“In the desert areas of the US, we’ve got very environmentally sensitive irrigation systems and we try to irrigate far less grass. And in some locations you just say ‘Sorry, we can’t do a golf course here’. Paspalum has been a great benefit to golf in places like the Caribbean and Mexico because with it the quality of water is not a big issue. If you’re in Dubai or Abu Dhabi – it’s not an issue at the moment, because there’s plenty enough money for desalination plants.”

But Jack’s big hobby horse, along with many of his peers, is the distance problem. Though his courses have been among the beneficiaries of the move of tournament golf away from classic era tracks, he clearly feels the trend has gone too far. “It would be very simple for the R&A and USGA to bring the golf ball back 10-15 per cent, and we would have many, many courses around the world that are now obsolete for good players that could be championship courses again,” he says, citing this year’s Open venue, Royal Birkdale, as an example. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. Here you have Royal Birkdale that’s hosted seven Opens. Golf really didn’t change a lot from 1935, when steel shafts came in, to 1995. All of a sudden, since 1995, the ball goes 50-60 yards further, and it ruins the game. All the records from past Opens at Birkdale are out of the window. It’s a new golf course, all because of the egos of golf ball manufacturers. It’s ridiculous that manufacturers can control the game of golf.

“There used to be courses with about six sets of tees, letting people choose the set they wanted. We used to do the back tees at 7,000-7,100 yards, and the gaps between them fell at about 300 yard intervals. What’s happened with the golf ball means that 7,100 yard golf course isn’t enough for the best players, but the average players haven’t got that much better. I try to make 6,700 the maximum apart from the back tees. They can be anywhere. There should be tees for ordinary golfers and tees for the gorillas. I don’t try to make tees in between.

“I don’t like the 7,700-7,800 yard golf courses, though we do them because clients want us to. If you build a course at that length, you’ve taken the average pro and eliminated him from the game, like Augusta has done. So on four or five holes I try to take the driver out of the long player’s hands, so that somebody with a little less length but more accuracy can compete – to level out the golf course. I used to play a five iron 175-180 yards and the average golfer probably hits it 150. So sometimes I try to have people land their drives so everyone is hitting the same club for their second shot. It doesn’t work all that often! The easiest solution is not to change the 30,000 golf courses in the world, but to change the ball!

“The biggest problem we have today is keeping people in the game,” he asserts. “You used to be able to play in three and a half hours or less, and as they keep making longer golf courses it takes longer. If golf took three hours you could tell your wife you were leaving the house at eight in the morning and you’d be home by lunchtime. Now, the kids say ‘Where’s Dad?’ and as a result we have lots of people who are not playing golf, or not playing very much. It’s a shame that we’re allowing golf to be dictated by equipment. The game is supposed to be fun, played in a short period of time with your friends.”

Now working in over 40 countries, Nicklaus Design is playing a major role in the development of golf around the world. No name sells golf like Jack Nicklaus, or at least none did: it remains to be seen what impact Tiger Woods will have on the development market. “I get a big kick out of the opportunity to work in countries where golf is new, and shape what’s going to happen for the game of golf in those countries,” Jack says. “I went to Croatia for the first time not long ago, and I met the Prime Minister. He said ‘What will golf bring here?’ and I tried to explain how the game could affect tourism and the country’s economy. We went into his chambers afterwards. He’d said he was a golfer, and I happened to have a set of clubs as a gift to him. He pulled out the driver and said ‘Gee Jack, this is a really nice driver,’ so I said ‘Well, thanks Mr Prime Minister.’ Then he pulled out the five iron and said ‘I don’t suppose I could get this one inch longer could I?’ And then I knew we’d be OK!”

This article first appeared in issue 13 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2008.