Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)


Q&A with Jack Nicklaus

By Matt Ginella Illustrations by Andy Friedman
March 08, 2009

Jack Nicklaus doesn't need much introduction. In a recent Q&A, a fair question could've been: What's more impressive than your combined first- or second-place finishes in 37 majors? Maybe that he's one of the few people who can still refer to Tiger Woods as a "kid" and get away with it. We spoke to the Golden Bear about everything from golf course architecture, to fly fishing to travel.

How many courses have you've designed?

Our figures show that I personally have done 271, of which 227 of those are solo, 31 are co-designs and 13 are redesigns. How's that for an answer? It seems like I have that in front of me, doesn't it? [Laughs]

I'm told you currently have projects in 47 countries, 27 of them new countries you've never worked in. That makes it seem like you're busier now than you have been in your entire life.

Well, nobody's busy right now. The business has shut down to an absolute screeching halt. And, you know, do we have work? Yeah, absolutely we have work. Do we have golf courses under construction? Yes. I really don't know how many we have right now. Normally we have 50 or 60, and we probably still have 30 or 35 under active construction. I have a new property I was at last week -- a little island off of Panama called Isla Viveros. It's a 1,500-acre island with 160 feet of elevation. It's gorgeous.

In the Bahamas on Royal Island, we're doing a course with Roger Staubach, which will have 18 holes along the ocean. There's no housing. No nothing. We're taking the eastern end of the island and it will be all golf. It will be spectacular. We were supposed to start construction this coming year but it depends on what this economy does. They have a lot invested in the island and I think the project's going to go. It's just a matter of when.

Are there parts of this planet that are out of bounds -- where you're not interested in going because there are health concerns or safety issues?

Antarctica and Artic. I don't think there would be too many good courses there.

The vaccinations you must need...

We don't have much of that. I did that years ago. I keep my boosters up. I've been doing that for a long time. But we do travel. Where have I gone lately? We've done quite a bit in Southern Africa. We looked at properties in Zimbabwe, Namibia, but I have not done any courses there. Another project that looks like it's going to go is in Mauritius. Northern Africa, we have courses in Morocco, prospective projects in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

There's nothing in the middle of Africa. We had one about 15 years ago in Zaire, where Mobutu was, where he got overthrown. He was going to do a head of state place and we were going to do the golf course and of course it never happened. Through the Middle East we're in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We've had proposals from Israel, Jordan, just off the coast of Lebanon -- we have a project on Cyprus and Turkey, Greece, two-thirds of all the Eastern Bloc Countries we've got projects.

Do you ever let politics factor into your decision to go to these places?

I've never had an issue any place I've gone. Do I watch what I'm doing? Sure. There are a couple of places I'm not wild about. There are places you couldn't get me back to with a team of wild horses, but I'd rather not name those.

Have you had the chance to talk design with Tiger?

No. I wouldn't think so. Tiger, at this point in time, wouldn't know anything about design. He knows how to play golf and he knows what a golf course looks like. But it was no different than when I was his age and starting out -- I wouldn't know anything about design. If he decides to get involved he'll learn. He's a smart kid and it depends on how much he wants to get involved. He won't know how to do it, but he'll learn. It will take him seven or eight golf courses before he'll learn enough before he'll really be able to talk about it intelligently.

Is there one piece of design advice you'd pass on?

I would say, listen as much as you can. Take in as much as you can because there's probably nothing new in design. It's just how you apply it and how you learn it. Pete Dye started out as an insurance salesman in Indiana and started fiddling around with Indianapolis Country Club. And then people started asking him to do different things. How long did it take him to learn? It took him quite awhile, but I'll tell you he just kept learning and learning and learning. And if Tiger, if we wishes to be involved, he'll just learn and learn and learn. But now, good gracious, he has a lot of years to go play golf and so my guess is he's not going to do a lot right now. But we welcome him. I welcome him with open arms. Anytime you get the kind of fees he does it raises the bar for everybody else, so that's OK.

What's the best piece of property you've ever worked with?

Properties are, in many cases, location. If you have any creativity you ought to be able to create what you want. The ability to be able to create within sand gives you a lot more flexibility. Sebonack was one of those. St. Francis Links in South Africa was one of those. Dismal River in Nebraska was one of those. Dismal River was probably the most minimalist golf course I've ever done. We moved less than 5,000 yards of dirt on the whole golf course. And I'd say that 4,000 of it was on one little knob we took out on a partially blind par 3.

Let's see . . . Oddly enough, North Palm Beach Country Club. It's maybe 130 acres in North Palm Beach. It has 30 feet of elevation change and it's on the same sand dune that Seminole is on. We redid that about two years ago. It's a beautiful little golf course. That kind of property is a great little location and I think it's turned out nice.

One property we haven't done and it doesn't look like we're going to do it is in Iceland, on the ocean. It looks like valleys down through the lava field. It's all covered with fescue. It's unbelievable. I don't if that course will ever happen but it's a great piece of property. I'll never forget that one. Did you know there's probably more golf played in Iceland than most places in the world? They play 24 hours a day in the summertime and the northern part is warmer than the southern part. It's a beautiful place to play. We're also working on 36 holes on the southern tip of Baja that we'll probably get started on later this year.

If you were going to make one change to Augusta, what would it be?

The ball. [Laughs.] I liked Augusta the way it used to be, but the game has changed so much that Augusta the way it used to be wouldn't challenge the golfers today. What's been done to Augusta is against my philosophy and probably against Bobby Jones' philosophy. But what they did is correct for the philosophy of the game today. And I think they did a great job. I think Augusta is equally as good a golf course, if not better, than when I was winning, but it's a different golf course with a different philosophy with the same set of greens. It's a wonderful place. I love Augusta.

Can you summarize for me what it means when I see Nicklaus Signature Course? When I see that, I always feel like I'm definitely playing a course where you got involved and that you were on property a few times. Is that accurate?

Yes. Some of my early golf courses I wasn't as involved. I was playing and maybe it was hard to get to. Maybe you might find one in China or someplace like that. Like Mission Hills in China, I was only there for one visit. That was the first golf courses they ever did. It looks like we might go redo it now and I'd probably make a lot more visits. What we determine as a Nicklaus Signature Course is one that I do. What's on that ground has my expression of what should be on that ground.

A Nicklaus Design golf course is done by the guys in my company that I work with, that have been trained in my vision, and they do what they think I might do. They might come in the office and ask me questions and I'd certainly answer their questions, but I'm not involved in the site visits or anything else.

Is there's a huge price difference between a Nicklaus Design course and a Nicklaus Signature course?

I've always felt you really shouldn't dictate a budget to a client. It's the client who tells you, "We have so much money to spend and this is the clientele we're going after and this is what we need to do." If you came into my office and said, "Jack I'd like to have a golf course and I have $2 million dollars. What can I do?" Well, you'll get Nicklaus Design and you'll get the best you can get for $2 million dollars.

Another guy comes in and says he wants all the bells and whistles and everything else, my goal is try to do it for as inexpensively as I can because I don't believe in just spending money to spend money, or moving dirt just to move dirt. But I do believe you want to try and create something there that's very unique and very special for him because that's what he's asking for and that's probably what's going to fit his market. North Palm Beach was a $3 million redo but it was a 100 percent redo. Dismal River, I don't think we spent $2 million of the golf course, if we spent that.

And then you might get a golf course where you have a very high union and heavy populated area where you might spend $30 million on the golf course because the conditions dictate that. I've had places where we moved 10 million yards of dirt because we had to create a site. English Turn is where we took a swamp nine feet below sea level, but because of the location it was worth it. We spent $7 million dollars to bring that swamp up with a drainage system and a pump system that would pump it back into the Mississippi River. But we only spent $4 million doing the golf course. But because of the location it was worth that. If you had to go out of town to build it, you would've spent far more doing that out of town and ended up with something that was an hour away for people rather than 20 minutes. There's a whole bunch of different ways you do things.

Let me shift to another one of your passions: fly-fishing. If you could only take one more trip to fly fish, where would you go and why?

That's a pretty good question. I could give you a pretty confusing answer on that. I love to fly fish so it depends on whether I'm going to do salt water or fresh water. So I'll break it up. If I'm doing salt water, convenient for me is to go to the Bahamas. And whether I go over into Berry Island or Andros Island, that area over there is spectacular for bonefish. I like that a lot. If I wanted to go fresh water I'd probably go to New Zealand, to the South Island for the trout down there. I've probably done that seven or eight times. And that's spectacular. Helicopter fishing back into all of those places.

Do you remember when you started fly-fishing?

I started out not doing much fishing. And then when I went to college, my college coach at Ohio State, Bob Keppler, was a fly fisherman. And I had done a little bit with my dad, not very much, and Kepp took me up one day and evidently I picked it up fairly quickly. And so, what we'd do when I was at Ohio State, is he'd look up at the sky and say, "Nick, it's too nice a day to play golf today. Why don't we get these other guys started off and you and I will go fishing. So we'd get the other guys started off and we'd get in the car and drive an hour where there were some stocked trout streams. And that's where I started fly fishing, with Keppler. And we'd probably do it seven or eight times a season during the spring. We'd go up there for an afternoon, we'd catch a few trout, have a nice trout dinner, have a couple of beers and then we'd go back. We'd get back in time before they finished playing golf. And he'd ask them, "Did you guys have a nice round today?" Can you imagine golf coaches doing that today? He was wonderful.

What's the best way to cook a trout?

What we did up there, well, there was several ways Kepp did it. One way, which was probably the worst way to do it, is he'd cook some bacon. And then we'd take the bacon grease and wrapped the bacon around the fish and cooked 'em in a skillet that way. Or we'd cook 'em on the grill in tinfoil sometimes. But I'm not a big fish eater. I like to catch fish and release them. I probably haven't killed a fish that I've caught in sport fishing for 20 years. No reason to kill it. You know, just take it and release it. We'll go out and catch a tuna or dolphin or some wahoo or something like that and we'll have that for the table. But whenever we fly fish we don't bother with it.

I heard story about a long flight to Russia when you gave your pilots a hard time about how they cooked the lamb. Is this an ongoing thing -- you giving the pilots a hard time about how they cook?

No, but that time the lamb came out absolutely raw. We go back-and-forth and give them a hard time. I might cook occasionally, but I'm not a good cook. That's not my passion.

__Are there a few things on a bucket list somewhere when you think to yourself, "I still haven't done that? I'd still like to go there?" __

There are always new places to go fishing. For any fisherman, there's always a new place, always a new horizon. There are a lot of places I haven't fished. I haven't fished the southern part of Andros, which I would like to do one day. About a month or so ago I went to Ascension Bay down in Mexico off the Yucatan. Which I had before about been 20 years ago and now it's a state park and it's absolutely fantastic, and that's permit fishing. And down through the South Pacific, near New Caledonia, there's supposed to be some bonefish flats where double-digit bonefishing is supposed to be pretty common.

What's double-digit bone fishing mean?

Over ten pounds. Six or seven pounds is a big bonefish, but down there they say a double-digit bonefish is pretty common. We have a new project in Noumea and New Caledonia and I think I'll have to make a visit while I'm down there.

Over the years have you ever had a close call in the air?

I've been in a few in small airplanes where I've thought, why am I doing this? Oh sure. We all occasionally use bad judgment, when you probably shouldn't be there. Knock on wood, so far to this date, we're all right. I try to use good judgment wherever I can but sometimes you get caught, particularly if you start flying in the mountains around bush areas and sometimes the fog comes in and sometimes you get caught. I've been in helicopters and I've just pointed and said, "Guys we're going down." And the pilot says, "Oh, we'll be OK." And I've said, "Down!" And we just go down. I've done that in Iowa. I landed in this farmer's backyard.

Did you get out and talk to the farmer?

Oh sure. The pilot was flying low and the weather is zero and it was getting worse and I said, "Look, we don't need to do this." So he found a place down through the clouds and he put down in the back of this farm. I've done that in Japan. There were a lot of power lines through this valley we were going through and we couldn't see and I said, "Hey, we don't need this." And I said, "DOWN!" You can do that in a helicopter. Sometimes when you're in an airplane, you can't do that.

When you put it down on a farm, do you have a coffee with the farmer at that point?

Well I don't drink coffee but I'll have a glass of water with him or something.

When was the last time you flew commercial?

Probably 10 or 12 years ago, when I flew to South Africa. I haven't flown in the United States commercially for 17 or 18 years.

What's your quick travel tips? How do you pack?

I've done enough of it that it's not a big deal for me to pack. The way I pack is I look at how long I'll be gone and I pack day for day. If I'm going on a three day fishing trip I plot each day. I put most of that in a little bag. If I'm going from there to work on golf courses for a few days, I plot that trip. Most of my long trips are a week to 10 days. Short trips inside the Unites States are usually three or four days unless I'm going to add fishing to it.

One course for the rest of your life?

I don't know. I would want to go to one of my golf courses more than likely.

Of yours, which one would you choose?

Well, if I answered that question I'd have about 300 unhappy people. So we don't answer that question.

Mr. Palmer said the same thing.

I take the fifth on that. Well, let me tell you this: if I was going to exclude my golf courses, OK, if I have one round of golf to play, I'd go to Pebble Beach. If I had two places that I want to visit, my favorite place, I'd be hard pressed to choose between Augusta and St. Andrews. If I had one golf course, from a design standpoint, one that I really love, it would probably be Pinehurst. There's a totally tree-lined golf course where trees are not a part of the strategy. And the toughest course I've ever played is Carnoustie.


Yes, Carnasty. That would be sort of the gamut that I would go with.

Have you been to Bandon Dunes?


Any interest?

I don't know any other reason why I would go out there other than to see it. I don't play golf much any more so there wouldn't be much interest in that.

__In the My Shot that ran in Golf Digest a few years ago I read that you'll never have a cell phone. You were anti-cell phone. Is that still true? __

I said I'd never have one?


I have a cell phone in my car. And occasionally – occasionally -- I even take it out now. But you won't be able to call me very often because I turn it off. It's for calling out for me and not for calling into me.

Then I shouldn't take it personally if you never pick up my calls?

You won't get me. Nobody gets me. Well, my wife gets me. But, I'm still computer illiterate.

Do you have an iPod?

Yeah, I've got an iPod. It's in my drawer beside my computer and it's been in there for two-and-a-half years. Gary put music on it and I put it into my computer, which I pipe through my house. I can turn my computer on to get to my music. I can do a few things.

Have you ever Googled anything?


Do you get e-mail?

No. I would never do that. Everybody I see with e-mail is a slave to it. I've got a secretary for that. They can e-mail her and she can get everything she wants right to me.