Jack Nicklaus explains why course design after 44 years still inspires him

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I have been blessed to have played golf all over the globe, both competitively and for recreation. So it’s fun to go through GOLF’s list of the 100 best courses in the world and see how many I’ve played.

My second career as a course designer is actually longer than the 44 years I spent competing in professional golf. The work has been deeply satisfying, and to this day, design still inspires and gives me energy. The greatest pleasure at work is watching golfers have fun with something I helped create.

It might surprise some of you. When I first started working as a designer, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I sometimes heard people say, “Jack designs golf courses, only he can play.” In other words, challenging courses that favor shots from left to right, the ball flight I preferred throughout my career. It could have been really early, but I found out something pretty quickly: A good golf course needs balance and variety. The average golfer does not want to be beaten. And the best players in the world appreciate good strategy and shot values. And yet, they can and will still shoot 65, no matter how hard the trajectory you give them.

gary player and jack nicklaus

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Josh Sens

I learned a long time ago that average golfers do not care about design philosophy or the strategy of the course. They want to have an enjoyable day with their friends on a beautiful, well-kept course on a facility with good facilities and feel that they are taken care of. So that’s what I’m trying to give them.

It is a balancing act for any course designer because your client is the owner or developer who hires you. The developers tell you what kind of course they want and what they want to use it for. It is then up to you to put your ego aside and deliver it to them. I got an owner to tell me he wanted the hardest golf course in his state, with the highest course rating, over 7,200 yards and par 72. It was a resort course. I did not agree with him, but I designed what he wanted. In that case, it gave the project the national fame he wanted. But in most cases, if you give an owner a course so hard that his friends will never break 100 on it, that course will not last.

One of the things that has made it possible for the Old Course in St. Andrews to pass the test of time, is that even though it is challenging, any golfer can shoot a good score on it – that is, a good score for that golfer. First, you can run the ball up on almost every green there, and the run is a preferred approach shot for the average golfer. When I designed and built The Bear’s Club, our family’s home ground in South Florida, I wanted to do the same. My goal was to give golfers a chance to bounce their ball on every green – and you can. It makes golf more fun for most players.

St. Andrews and Augusta National are two of the courses I think of when I visit a potential course location. These two courses, as well as the Donald Ross design at Scioto Country Club, where I was introduced to the game at the age of 10, have affected me a lot, especially in terms of giving golfers space off the tee. Then you place a prize on the second shot. Over time, you have probably heard Augusta National and Old Course described as second-shot golf courses. And I like that philosophy.

Most new course locations have trees on them and I seek to keep trees whenever possible. The trend now is to cut down trees. If you look at the US Open venues on GOLF’s Top 100 list, you will see a lot of courses where hundreds, if not thousands, of trees have been felled. Some of these trees were 50 years old or much older. Sometimes it is necessary, whether it is new or older lanes, to remove trees, but in general I am in favor of keeping them.

Par-4 17th green, with par-4 18th behind, at The Old Course at St.  Andrews.

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Ran Morrissett

If you want a tree-free link course, find a linkland. However, Augusta National was modeled after the Old Course. Bob Jones and Alister MacKenzie wanted it to be an inland links course.

In the end, with course design, you can not have one set of hard and fast rules. Every piece of land is different. You must not force your ideas and visions on a piece of land. You take your tracks from Mother Nature and get your inspiration and ideas from the country itself. Then you let it dictate what will be the best course for that site.

Design is very subjective. You know what they say: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. People see things their own way, and that in itself is the beauty of golf and golf course design. That is why lists like the one in this issue, and course design in general, generate lively and healthy debate.

Golfers tend to ask each other, “If you could only play one course for the rest of your life, what would it be?” My answer has always been – apart from the approximately 315 courses I have designed (my kids, as I like to call them) – Pebble Beach.

Over the years, I’ve probably heard hundreds of different answers to that question. It’s a good thing and all part of the fun our game offers.

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