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

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 Top 100 Courses in the World and see how many I have played.

My second career, as a course designer, is actually now longer than the 44 years I spent competing in professional golf. The work has been deeply fulfilling, and, to this day, design still inspires and energizes me. The greatest pleasure of the work is seeing golfers enjoying themselves on something I helped create.

That might surprise some of you. When I first started working as a designer, in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, I’d occasionally hear people say, “Jack designs golf courses only he can play.” In other words, challenging courses that favor left-to-right shots, the ball flight I preferred my entire career. That might have been true early on, but I figured out something pretty quick: A good golf course needs balance and variety. The average golfer doesn’t want to get beat up. 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 difficult the course you give them.

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I learned long ago that average golfers don’t care much about design philosophy or the strategy of a course. They want to have an enjoyable day with their friends on a beautiful, well-maintained course at a facility with great amenities and feel like they are being taken care of. So that’s what I try to give them.

It’s a balancing act for every 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 will use it for. It is then up to you to put your ego aside and deliver that to them. I had one owner tell me he wanted the most difficult golf course in his state, with the highest course rating, over 7,200 yards and par 72. It was a resort course. I didn’t agree with him, but I designed what he wanted. In that case, it gave the project the national notoriety he wanted. But, in most cases, if you give an owner a course so difficult that his buddies will never break 100 on it, that course won’t last.

One of the things that has allowed the Old Course at St. Andrews to stand the test of time is that while it is challenging, any golfer can shoot a good score on it — a good score for that golfer, that is. For one thing, you can run the ball up on almost every green there, and the run-up is a preferred approach shot for the average golfer. When I designed and built The Bear’s Club, our family’s home course in South Florida, I wanted to do the same thing. My goal was to give golfers a chance to bounce their ball onto every green — and you can. That makes golf more enjoyable for most players.

St. Andrews and Augusta National are two of the courses I think about when I visit a potential course site. Those two courses, as well as the Donald Ross design at Scioto Country Club, where I was introduced to the game at age 10, have influenced me a great deal, particularly in terms of giving golfers room off the tee. Then you place a premium on the second shot. Over time, you have likely heard Augusta National and the Old Course described as second-shot golf courses. And I like that philosophy.

Most new course sites have trees on them, and I’m looking to keep trees when possible. The tendency now is to cut down trees. If you look at the U.S. Open venues on GOLF’s Top 100 list, you’ll see a lot of courses where hundreds, if not thousands, of trees have been taken down. Some of these trees were 50 years old or much older. Sometimes it’s necessary, be it new or older courses, to remove trees, but, in general, I’m in favor of keeping them.

The par-4 17th green, with the par-4 18th behind, at The Old Course at St Andrews.
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If you want a treeless links course, go find some linksland. Augusta National, however, 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’t have one set of hard-and-fast rules. Every piece of land is different. You shouldn’t force your ideas and vision on a piece of land. You take your cues from Mother Nature and get your inspiration and ideas from the land 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 and of itself, is the beauty of golf and golf course design. That’s why lists like the one in this issue, and course designs in general, generate spirited and healthy debate.

Golfers tend to ask each other, “If you could play only one course for the rest of your life, which one would it be?” My answer has always been — excluding the 315 or so courses I’ve designed (my children, as I like to call them) — Pebble Beach.

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

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