- Top 100
- Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus was born in Columbus, Ohio, the son of Charlie and Helen Nicklaus. He attended the Upper Arlington High School, where he competed in basketball, baseball and track and field. Within three years of taking up golf at the age of ten, he had broken 70 at his father’s club, Scioto, and was playing off a +3 handicap.
Nicklaus participated in the first of forty-four consecutive US Opens in 1957 but it was the US Amateur where he first tasted national success, winning the championship in 1959 and 1961 whilst still attending Ohio State University. He studied pharmacy there with the intention of following his father into that profession but he later switched to insurance.
After marrying Barbara Bash, a nursing student at the same university, Jack cut short his studies in 1961 to turn professional though he didn’t win his first event until the following year (at his 17th attempt) when he beat Arnold Palmer at Oakmont in a playoff for the US Open – the Golden Bear was already on his way to racking up a record number of Major victories.
Although Jack was fully immersed in the business of winning competitions on the PGA Tour during the 1960s, he was also dipping his big toe into the bathtub of golf course design. For example, Pete Dye had asked Jack to take a look at one of the first courses he had ever designed for an insurance company in New Albany, Ohio and he was impressed with what Jack had to say about the par three 3rd hole, in particular.
Jack didn’t want to get involved in a project just to endorse what somebody else was doing. He had a contribution to make and wanted his voice to be heard. Another offer came his way to work with Press Maxwell on a course in Long Beach, California but, after flying out to meet the architect on site, he found out none of his suggestions would probably be implemented.
Jack called the oil company behind the project to give back his design fee: “I take some pride in the fact that at 28 years old I was able to walk away from the situation that presented plenty of money but no credibility,” he said later. “ It sounds obvious, but you’ve got to be paid to do a job and you’ve got to do something to be paid… I would have diluted my reputation in design before my career even got started.”
Mark McCormack, who oversaw Jack’s business interests, then offered him the chance to design the Harbour Town course at Hilton Head Island for a developer called Charles Fraser. Remembering his tie up with Pete Dye a few years earlier, Jack called Pete in to work on the layout with him, making twenty-three trips back and forward to the site during the design and construction. As Jack later said: “I was just getting my feet wet, but I enjoyed it.”
Pete and Jack worked on a few other courses before Putnam Pierman, the financier for Muirfield Village, introduced Jack to Desmond Muirhead, who might best be described as an iconoclast, having visited the great courses of North America and Great Britain and Ireland then declaring: “those courses have no mystique whatsoever. I owe very little allegiance to St Andrews.”
Muirhead had studied architecture and engineering at Cambridge and horticulture at the University of British Columbia and Oregon University before working as a landscape planner on retirement villages in Canada and the United States. Jack and Desmond worked on several commissions: two public courses in Cincinnati; St Andrews in Japan; Mayacoo Lakes in Florida; a couple courses at La Moraleja in Spain, as well as their best known assignment, the 18-hole layout at Muirfield Village in Ohio.
The land for this course was acquired during the mid-1960s but construction didn’t start until 1972, with the official opening taking place two years later. The first edition of Jack’s Memorial Tournament took place in 1974 and it’s been a permanent fixture on the PGA Tour ever since then. The Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup, US Amateur and US Junior have all been held here too so there’s absolutely no doubt about its major tournament credentials.
After parting ways with Desmond Muirhead, Jack was ready to start out on his own. His first solo design was for Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario, home of the Royal Canadian Golf Association and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. The Canadian Open was played here the year after the course opened in 1976 and the event has returned to this venue many times since then.
The rest, as they say, is history – golfing history, both on and off the course. Jack’s name will forever be associated with greatness on the golf course – 18 professional major championships testify to that – but it’s his golf course design work that should also be remembered in equal measure to his magnificent competitive achievements on the links.
Nicklaus Design now has more than four hundred courses in play – number 400 debuted in 2016 when Jack’s company installed a new nine-hole circuit for free at the American Lake Veterans Golf Course in the grounds of the VA Hospital in Lakewood, Washington – and they’re located throughout nearly every state in the United States and in almost fifty countries around the world.
Expect that number of worldwide courses to keep climbing as, at any one point in time, there might be fifty or more under construction or in some stage of planning.
Of course, Jack can’t do everything by himself so he’s actually the head of a talented team that includes designers who work both in the field and in the design studio. It’s a large group of people who are trained in landscape architecture, agronomy and state-of-the-art technology, working out of eight offices in six nations across three continents.
Jack employed architects like Bob Cupp and Jay Morrish back in the early days and they were followed by others such as Gene Bates, Ron Kirby, Rick Jacobsen and Greg Letsche. His sons Jack Jr. and Steve are also involved in the business, as is his son-in-law Bill O’Leary. Gary, Jack's fourth of five children, was also involved in the business and has a handful of designs to his name, including Dalhousie and Machynys Peninsula.
Senior designers include Dirk Bouts, who oversees the European office; Chris Cochrane, who now works from the Florida office; Chad Goetz, who’s also now based in Florida; and Sean Quinn, who heads up the operation in South Africa.
The company employs around twenty Design Associates worldwide, tasked with ensuring Jack's vision is carried out on every golf development. They also take the lead role on every course branded as a "Nicklaus Design" layout. Jack is proud of the many designers who have worked with his company since the mid-1970s, with literally dozens of them going on to attain membership of the prestigious American Society of Golf Course Architects.
Jack’s collaborations have been limited down the years but three readily spring to mind: World Golf Village (King & Bear) in St Augustine, Florida with Arnold Palmer in 2000; The Concession in Bradenton, Florida with Tony Jacklin in 2005; Sebonack in Southampton, New York with Tom Doak in 2006.
Keith Cutten in The Evolution of Golf Course Design concludes his profile of the Golden Bear with this: “Jack is widely recognised as a ‘signature’ designer. The Nicklaus name is well known throughout the world and that association is highly sought after by developers or owners, seeking to heighten their project’s reputation. Furthermore, over the years – and perhaps more regularly than any other modern golf architect – Nicklaus has modified his design style and marketing focus to mimic popular trends (links-style golf, for example) within the industry. Ultimately, his abilities, coupled with those he employs to oversee his projects, have produced several Top 100 golf courses in the world.”
In the foreword to the book Nicklaus by Design by Jack Nicklaus and Chris Millard, Pete Dye had this to say about working with Jack:
“We worked on four or five course together, but the best-known fruit of that partnership is certainly Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Since I was in my mid-forties when we took on that project and Jack was only 28, and since I was the design ‘veteran’ of our twosome, most people assume I brought Jack in on that project.
The fact is that Jack was the one who was originally approached for the job. He probably could have done it on his own, but he brought me in. He has always been gracious enough to give me the lion’s share of the credit for Harbour Town, but the course would never have been so well accepted if it hadn’t been for his involvement.
Our partnership lasted only a few years. Jack was thinking bigger than I was. He’d been that way in everything he’d ever done. I never really wanted to expand and Jack did. He threw himself into the design scene worldwide. I didn’t. Those were lifestyle decisions made in mutual respect and understanding. I admire Jack. I have enormous regards for what he has accomplished and still is accomplishing in and for the good of golf design.”
In the same book, Jack concludes the final chapter with this:
“I never could have guessed, back in 1965, that a walk in the woods with Pete Dye would put me where I am today. Since then it’s been a lot of work, hundreds of thousands of miles travelled, but always thoroughly enjoyable. Even now, when I struggle with my golf game, design keeps me close to the sport I love. I’ve been able to make money at it, and to meet fascinating people all over the world.
My work has been singled out for honors and my courses have been ranked (they’ve also been criticized but that’s fair). It keeps me young, and it keeps me close to my family. But the best part of being a course designer is knowing that the courses I design today will be around long after I’m gone. I hope they serve as living, growing testimonials to my love of the game.”
Golf My Way by Jack Nicklaus and Ken Bowden (1974)
Nicklaus by Design by Jack Nicklaus and Chris Millard (2002)