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Creative Process

After nearly 40 years and more than 300 courses, the Golden Bear is still growing as an architect with new designs like Sebonack Golf Club

By: James A. Frank

Appeared in September/October 2008 LINKS

Jack Nicklaus is 68 now, with 21 grandchildren, at the stage of life in which even the most intense personalities mellow with age. On the course, he has given up competition altogether.

As an architect, the Golden Bear no longer seems to be a Grizzly. Far from being set in his ways, Nicklaus continues to evolve after nearly 40 years in the design business. His recent courses are not as difficult as some of those he built during the early and middle years of his design career. They also exhibit a willingness to try different directions in his philosophy.

Exhibit A is Sebonack Golf Club, a collaboration with Tom Doak that fits in seamlessly with its rugged surroundings in eastern Long Island. The course is very playable for all levels of players, and is a departure from the manufactured, manicured look long associated with Nicklaus.

“Every architect’s work changes over time,” says Doak. “That’s a function of living your life, seeing different things, having different influences.”

While those who have worked with him and observed his designs see a change in his design philosophy, Nicklaus himself is quick to clarify.

“I don’t know if I’ve changed,” responds Nicklaus, characteristically not letting anyone else speak for him. “When I started doing golf courses, I maybe had one way to do them. Now I can do courses 15 or 20 different ways.

“But that’s not change, that’s just growing.”

Whatever the terminology, there is little doubt Nicklaus the architect today is not the same one who designed Ryder Cup site Valhalla Golf Club, which opened in 1986. The first notable player to become a notable architect, Nicklaus for a long time built difficult courses best suited to good players who hit the ball the way he did.

A long, high fade definitely helps on courses like Valhalla, Glen Abbey and Sherwood, which are impressive and great tournament venues. But those courses—and even Desert Mountain in Arizona and Gleneagles in Scotland—have many similarities despite vast geographic differences. Just like his early playing career, his courses garnered more respect than love.

But the formula worked. Developers knew—and still know—that his name sells memberships, real estate and room nights. Much like Robert Trent Jones Sr. a few decades earlier, Nicklaus was the man for his time, turning architecture into a business in the 1970s and ’80s while imposing his will on the land, pushing it around by the cubic-yardful then maintaining it meticulously and expensively.

Despite growing up on a Donald Ross design—Scioto, in Columbus, Ohio—Nicklaus was not interested in recapturing the golden age of architecture. There was very little looking back for precedents and even less looking around at the work of his contemporaries. He was too busy playing tournament golf and running an empire of which course design was just one division.

But just as his career evolved, so have his designs. Take, for example, Sebonack. The consensus is that while the layout’s strategic elements (angling of greens, hiding elements from view) are pure Nicklaus, the routing is rooted in Doak’s minimalist style.

“Any time you work with somebody, and especially if you like some of the things they incorporate, you experiment with them,” says Nicklaus. “But did Doak have a huge influence on what I do? I don’t think so. He had an influence and I would hope that I had an influence on him, especially in the strategy of a course design and how you play the game or how it is played on a certain golf course.”

Or look at Nicklaus’ two-year-old Dismal River, in western Nebraska. It’s a big course—built on 3,000 acres of heaving sand hills—that plays up and over massive dunes and gaping sand blow-outs to hidden greens and fairways, drawing comparisons from lead designer Chris Cochran to Ireland’s Lahinch and Scotland’s Royal Aberdeen.Twenty years ago, a Nicklaus design on this site may have featured bunkers as pristinely edged as those at Muirfield Village Golf Club. But Dismal’s bunkers have a ragged look that is very much in keeping with the environment.

“We already had Dismal started when Jack was working on Sebonack,” says Cochran. “At Sebonack, Jack really fought at first with Tom on the bunkering: How do you edge it, is it going to crumble? But Tom convinced him that it would work and Jack got on board.”

Given his position in golf, Nicklaus rarely has had to get on board with anything, so his willingness to work with Doak surprised members of his design staff.

“After Sebonack was mostly shaped,” says Doak, “Jack brought in some of his associates. Some were shocked to see some of the holes we built and to see Jack really like them. They were much more rugged than the kind of stuff he’d been building. He said to them, ‘I really like this. We’ve been making it too perfect.’”

But more so than a shift in design philosophy or the influence of other designers and designs, the biggest difference in Nicklaus the architect now just may be his devotion to the craft.

“He never shorted anybody, but with the large volume of work, tournament schedule and other commitments, he couldn’t spend as much time,” says Cochran. “Now that he doesn’t play any golf, the majority of his time is spent on course design.

“More time allows him to be more creative. When he had to make quick site visits, he had to err on the side of caution.”

Longer site visits also have allowed Nicklaus to build courses from the mid-handicapper’s viewpoint as well as the tour player’s. More
importantly, the additional time allows Nicklaus, who always had all the answers, to wade into the unknown, a design arena in which he now asks questions, reacts to the land and takes some risks.

“With some of the new courses we are doing,” says Nicklaus, “I don’t yet know the look or style we will incorporate. So, who knows what I’m going to do. I have no idea what I’m going to do this afternoon, let alone what I’m going to do on a golf course somewhere.”

With that philosophy, Nicklaus may be on the verge of producing some of his most inventive and most interesting works. 

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