Jack Nicklaus is telling stories.
He’s seated on a makeshift stage for the reopening of the Great Waters course at Reynolds Lake Oconee, a design he originally built in 1992 in the picturesque, golf-mad community between Atlanta and Augusta. Back then, Nicklaus convinced the ownership that instead of building a string of McMansions along the 90 miles of lakefront, they should take a page out of the Pebble Beach playbook and earmark some of the best land for golf. The result is a course with its final eight holes hugging the Oconee shoreline with vistas for miles.
“That was purely Jack convincing them that this would be better than an interior golf course and homes along the lake,” says Jim Lipe, one of Nicklaus’s longtime design associates.
They listened because, well, he’s Jack Nicklaus. Which he still is, of course, but not the same. He turned 80 on January 21, and is at the stage of his career when he enjoys what he terms “having a second bite at the apple.” And so when Great Waters was due for an upgrade of its irrigation—or as Nicklaus calls it, the plumbing—he used it as a chance to “put some lipstick on the outside.”
For years, whenever Nicklaus opened a golf course, he hit a ceremonial first tee shot with a persimmon driver, autographed the clubhead’s crown, and had it mounted in the clubhouse. But for the Great Waters reopening last fall, he didn’t make a swing. Instead, as he’s done increasingly with each passing year, Nicklaus held his version of a fireside chat with Reynolds Lake Oconee members and VIP guests.
That included his relating how, in 1966, he acquired 220 acres of mostly cornfield on the northwest outskirts of Columbus, Ohio, on land where he’d hunted rabbits with his father, Charlie, in his youth. Construction began in earnest in 1972 on what would become Muirfield Village Golf Club, home to the PGA Tour’s Memorial Tournament, with Nicklaus teaming with architect Desmond Muirhead on the layout.
Nicklaus also noted that his 54-year career in golf-course design began when Pete Dye, the Indianapolis insurance man turned fledgling golf course architect, called and asked him to critique his handiwork at a golf course he was building, The Golf Club in New Albany, Ohio.
“I said, ‘Pete, I don’t know anything about golf courses,’” Nicklaus recalls. Still, he took a look. “The third hole was a round green with four round bunkers. Pete said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘It’s pretty ugly.’ He said, ‘See you do know something?’ He said, ‘What would you do?’ That’s what got me interested. He asked me to consult with him. I had a blast. It was just one day.”
A few years later, Charles Fraser, the real estate developer behind Sea Pines Plantation in Hilton Head, S.C., called agent Mark McCormack and arranged a meeting with Nicklaus, who said he didn’t know the first thing about building a course but had discussed consulting with Dye. “Never heard of him,” Nicklaus recounts Fraser saying, which drew a fresh round of laughter.
Nicklaus and Dye split a $40,000 fee for designing Harbour Town Golf Links, which opened in 1969 and has stood the test of time for half a century. “I did a half-dozen courses with Pete,” Nicklaus recounted, “and I had to stop because I couldn’t afford it. He was always putting every dollar into every one of them and I never got reimbursed a dime.”
Nicklaus’s education in course design resumed under the tutelage of Muirhead, an iconoclast if there ever was one. One of their early innovations was the use of spectator mounds at Muirfield Village and Glen Abbey near Toronto (Nicklaus’s first solo project), which changed the operative notion of “spectator friendly.” Nicklaus designed six courses with Muirhead until, as he put it, “I got tired of compromising my ideas, and I wanted to do it myself.”
Nicklaus turned his avocation into a vocation, commanding fees of more than $1 million, depending on his level of involvement. Design became his outlet as his playing career wound down, and he was off and running, becoming one of the game’s ’s most prolific architects with 301 courses worldwide to his credit, a total that includes 268 solo designs and 33 co-designs, plus another 35 courses currently under development.
Early on, the knock against Nicklaus designed courses was that only he could master and enjoy them. Others charged that his layouts favored golfers who worked the ball the way he did, fading it left to right as well as any golfer ever. Nicklaus accepts this critique as part of his learning curve.
“I really didn’t know until I got some feedback from people,” Nicklaus says. “I had to change that and I tried as best I could for balance: to go basically six right, six left, six pretty straight, try to get water right, water left, out of bounds right and left.”
Tom Watson speaks glowingly of his longtime on-course rival’s design work, especially his bunkering. But even Watson wondered why Nicklaus built so many layouts that were backbreakers.
“I asked him one time, ‘Jack, this course is so tough, not too many people can really enjoy playing it,’” Watson recalls. “He said, ‘Well, Tom, the owner wanted the toughest golf course that I could build. You do what the owner wants you to do.’”
Nicklaus’s design philosophy highlighted an era when every owner and developer wanted a “championship course” and the aerial game took precedence over what the land had to offer.
“Jack doesn’t think about the ground game. He never did,” says longtime critic Brad Klein. “He showed that if you gave clients what they want, a sector of the public will respond. His style defined an era of ‘hard equals interesting’ that has now passed.”
In the process, Nicklaus became synonymous with building courses worthy of being considered as sites for pro tournaments. Since 1973, 150 Nicklaus courses have hosted more than a thousand professional and major amateur events around the world.
“You get a reputation of doing things for tournament golf and pretty soon I said, ‘Gee, it would be nice to have a resort golf course.’” he says.
Nicklaus would do plenty of those, too. He has witnessed the wonder of golf’s potential to lift tourism in a country or region, nowhere moreso than Los Cabos, Mexico, which was a sleepy fishing village when he first visited in 1964.
“You could slip down there with a bathing suit and $20 in your pocket and seemingly live for a week,” Nicklaus says. “Now, $20 might not get you out of the airport parking lot!”
Through 1992, Cabo had only a nine-hole municipal course. But that would change thanks to Nicklaus. Lipe hasn’t forgotten the sequence that led to Nicklaus building a dramatic mountainside clubhouse at El Dorado Golf Club in Cabo for Juan Sanchez-Navarro, a prominent Mexican business leader and owner of Corona Beer. Lipe routed the course and the clubhouse to avoid a rock excavation.
Then Nicklaus arrived and walked the rugged coastline, desert foothills, and canyons of El Dorado, envisioning a course that blended with the landscape.
“Jack points and says the clubhouse should go right there and the two nines should go up the two valleys and link the coast to the desert,” Lipe says. “I looked at the owner and said, ‘Jack, that’s one big mountain right there. It’s solid rock.’ Jack said, ‘I understand that, but that’s where it ought to be.’ They began chiseling away and cut a road with two tunnels through the mountain.”
The runway where Nicklaus landed for his first visit to Cabo is now a fairway at Palmilla Golf Club, which opened in 1993 and is one of six Nicklaus courses in Cabo. The year before Palmilla opened, there were only five commercial flights per day into Cabo: Today, Cabo is the number-one international destination for U.S. golfers. “Depending on your perspective,” Nicklaus says, “I am the man who either ruined Cabo or the man who helped build it.”
Together with real-estate developer Lyle Anderson, Nicklaus transformed Scottsdale, Ariz., into a golf Mecca by introducing desert-style target golf with the unveiling of Desert Highlands in 1983. They continued up Scottsdale Road and turned desolate land into Desert Mountain, a community with six Nicklaus courses, an oasis of green amid stark mountain backdrops that give way to a painted sky at sunset.
As he got older, Nicklaus’s design approach softened as he related better to the average golfer and realized how humbling the game can be. Muirfield Village is where his frustrations with the distance dilemma have most clearly played out. Several years ago, he stretched No. 18 to 484 yards after Robert Garrigus blasted a drive to within 76 yards of the hole.
“I said, ‘Robert, that’s not how the hole is supposed to play.’ We added 42 yards to the hole or something like that, and all of a sudden the landing area is the landing area again,” Nicklaus says.
Muirfield Village now weighs in at 7,392 yards and Nicklaus isn’t done tinkering. He has embarked on a two-phase renovation that should be completed in July.
The project originally consisted of leveling the tees and rebuilding greens and bunkers. Then Chris Cochran, another longtime design associate, asked Nicklaus if there were any other changes he wanted to make.
“We’re going through the golf course and he says he doesn’t want to do anything, he likes it the way it is. Then I said, ‘Let’s go hole by hole,’ and we’re only on the first when he says, ‘You know, what? I never really liked the first green’ and drew some new sketches, and on it went from there. You could just see, he was like a kid in a sandbox thinking of all the things he could do.”
“I went in expecting I was going to spend maybe a couple hundred thousand dollars and I walked off spending eight,” he tells his audience at Great Waters. “Million.”
Nicklaus may be an octogenarian, but he has only two speeds: go and giddy-up. He still has designs on adding to his portfolio of courses, which he considers his way of leaving something behind that will outlast him.
“I think he’ll do it forever, whatever his forever is,” Lipe says. “I don’t see him slowing down at all. I think he loves it that much.”