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The Million Dollar Signature

His record as a player long since tucked into the books, Jack Nicklaus stands ready to be judged on his achievement in a second golf career

By: Anthony Pioppi

Reflecting on a life in tournament golf, Bobby Jones once said: “All a man can do is beat the people who are around at the same time he is.” Jones avoided discussing how his skills might stack up against “those who came before … or may come afterward.”

All well and good, but the most talked-about player to come along after Jones, the great Jack Nicklaus, transitioned from tournament play into golf architecture, where indeed one’s talents can be compared across eras and one’s output judged against works of the past, present and eventually the future.

At 68, with more than 300 layouts to his credit, Nicklaus is nearing the clubhouse turn of his prolific design career. Of the courses that will constitute his body of work, a majority is in place for all to see. Nicklaus’ architecture career can be divided into several stages and viewed as an evolutionary process, with some of his finest and most artistically complete work appearing in more recent years.

Early projects such as Harbour Town, Muirfield Village, Shoal Creek and Valhalla, while scoring highest among Nicklaus layouts on national rankings, belong to a start-up period during which he either teamed with another architect (Pete Dye at Harbour Town), or painstakingly sculpted courses intended as monuments to tour-level difficulty (Shoal Creek, Valhalla) or to the Golden Bear legacy itself (Muirfield Village, with help from Desmond Muirhead).

The middle period, in which Nicklaus cranked his architecture business into a volume operation and tinkered—at times perilously—with its business model, resulted in Nicklaus Design attaining omnipresence but not always excellence.

These days, Nicklaus Design remains a high-volume operation, but the product he’s turned out during  the past decade or so—such as Mayacama in Sonoma County, Calif., coastal South Carolina’s May River and his South Florida playground, the Bear’s Club—consistently presents a solid combination of strategic elements, aesthetic beauty and ample opportunity for the average golfer to enjoy himself.

Jack’s growth as a course architect appears to have been fueled by the same doggedness that made him such a legendary player. Much of his learning has come from on-the-job training, as opposed to diligent study of the early design greats. Nicklaus did draw vital lessons from his early partnership with Dye, but he was unaware of how greatly Dye’s work has been influenced by the courses of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor.

“I have no idea about Macdonald and Raynor or any of those guys,” Nicklaus admits. “I’ve never really looked at any other courses, to be honest with you. I have enough problems trying to find and play my own golf courses and play tournament golf. I can’t remember the last time I just went to look at somebody else’s work.”
Like Frank Sinatra, Nicklaus has done it his way, and he maintains that he designs not for his legacy but for his client. “The definition of a good golf course is one that serves its intended use for the owner,” he says, with “intended use” ranging from player-friendly, sales-inducing real estate courses to golf-for-golf’s-sake venues capable of hosting a professional tour event.

Even before experience began to enrich the Nicklaus approach to course design, Jack’s influence as a golf legend led to higher standards for the finished product. Tom Alex, who oversaw “grow-in” of all 45 holes at Orlando’s Grand Cypress, witnessed this first-hand. The resort’s original 18 opened in 1984,  followed by a nine-hole addition in 1986 and the New course in 1988. Like many superintendents, Alex praises Nicklaus for demanding better course conditions and then providing for it, in the form of upgraded irrigation and other such measures. From the day Grand Cypress opened, Alex was mowing at heights unheard of in the Orlando area. Other courses began to follow suit, he recalls, and within a short time such maintenance practices were standard procedure.

Some of Jack’s earlier efforts—Grand Cypress New, for example, Daufuskie Island’s Melrose Course and the Long Bay Club in Wampee, S.C.—won’t ever win critics over. Forced carries, difficult greens and other forms of punitive architecture were evident in many of Jack’s designs from that era (a trend that characterized most other architects’ work at the time as well).

Nicklaus’ foray into course design began almost by accident. Dye, whom he had known from the amateur golf ranks, asked for his thoughts on a course he was building in Ohio, The Golf Club in New Albany. Nicklaus also consulted informally on several other Dye designs, then, in 1966, the developer of what would become Harbour Town Golf Links contacted the management firm representing Nicklaus, asking him to design a course. His management agreed without consulting Jack himself. Then came a contradictory followup: “I told them, ‘Jack doesn’t do golf courses,’” he says, chuckling at the memory.

So Dye, his relationship with Nicklaus by now a comfortable one, was brought in on the project. Although Harbour Town would become a highly successful and historic piece of course design, Nicklaus looks back on other early work with misgivings, saying his decision-making was overly based on “trying to build a reputation as a golf course designer.” Tournament-worthy venues such as Shoal Creek (two PGAs) and Castle Pines (The International), he says, were “maybe too tough for membership.”

The Jack Nicklaus of later vintage says he designs for the majority of players, not the few hitting from the back tees. “In recent years I haven’t built many really difficult golf courses, because over 98 percent of rounds are played from the members’ tees,” he says. “The golf course has to be fun for the owner and the people who play it.”

To support his current mindset, Nicklaus cites an outing he attended several years ago. He had conducted a clinic, then waited as a handful of other pros played the golf course—not a Nicklaus layout—with clients of the company that staged the outing. As participants returned to the clubhouse, Nicklaus was struck by the diametric opinions he heard.

“The amateurs were all saying, ‘Man, that is the greatest golf course I’ve ever played. It was so beautiful.’ And all 10 pros walked in and said, ‘That was the worst golf course I’ve ever seen.’ Well, what did that mean? It meant that the average golfer was out there to enjoy the day, to be in a scenic and pretty place, to have fun with their friends. Whereas the pro, who makes his living playing golf, was more interested in the quality and fairness of the tee shot, the playability of the bunkers, the playability of the greens and so on.

“So what you have to do [as an architect] is try to build a golf course that’s aesthetically pleasing and fun, and if you can put good golf shots all the way around the course, then you’ve accomplished everything for everybody.”Today, on a typical “Nicklaus Signature” project—which carries a design fee in excess of $1 million and guarantees the client a certain amount of on-site time with the Bear—a design associate will first work with a land planner to come up with a routing. The property is staked, then Jack shows up to assess the work thus far.

“I would say nine times out of 10, I change some of the routing around, but gives me a basis to work from, and I don’t make changes without the approval of the land planner,” he says. Once clearing begins, Nicklaus returns to the site and begins adding strategy to the routing. His design associates are allowed to interpret his ideas; site coordinators can interpret what the design associate wants; and the shapers who operate the earthmoving and grading machines are allowed input as well.

“If I give everybody a little freedom they have more fun,” Nicklaus says. “They may come up with an idea I haven’t thought of. Sure it’s got my name on it. But if anybody’s got an ego big enough to think they can do a golf course by themselves, they’re being unrealistic.”
At Sebonack, with the strong-willed Doak as a partner, Nicklaus most certainly will not be designing everything on his own. Some creative clashes over design decisions are likely, though the landscape will dictate much. For different reasons, each architect will be fully aware how eagerly history waits to judge the result of their collaboration. 

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