THE INTERVIEW series
A legendary family whose legacy may be to change the way the game is played.
Jack Nicklaus and his son on working together to design golf courses and many more nuggets of wisdom.
If all goes according to plan, there will be a new Jack Nicklaus golf course within easy reach by the end of April 2018. However, it will be a co-design, built together with his son, Jack Nicklaus Jnr. The new Forest City Golf Course, sited within the $100 billion mega city project by Chinese developer Country Garden across the Second Link between Tuas and Johor Bahru, is set to open in two months’ time.
Both Nicklauses were at hand late January, together with Nicklaus Design associate Sean Quinn, to conduct a site inspection for their first co-design project in Malaysia.
But what is a co-design golf course? We asked both this and other questions that burns through the minds of golfers all over and got some intriguing answers in return during a visit across the Causeway, at their latest golf course project in Asia.
Bennyteo: Once again, what is a codesign golf course?
Jacknicklaus: When I do a Signature Golf Course, I take the lead. When it’s a Legacy or Co-design, then he takes the lead, (pauses before continuing) and then I come in and try to disrupt him.
So, you’re essentially still in charge then?
Well somebody’s got to take the lead. We can’t have two bosses. So Jackie’s the boss for this golf course, I come in and critique what works and doesn’t, and Sean Quinn, who’s our (senior) design associate on site. Between Jackie and Sean, they do 98 percent of the work out there. I come in and I add another two percent somewhere. When they are done with it, it will be a golf course that they have done
“My feeling is that the whole thing is controlled by the golf ball. If the golf ball is the length it is today, the courses we BUILD TODAY, fits THE GOLF ball. But what happens to the golf courses that were built over the last 150 years? They don’t fit THE GOLF BALL, SO YOU’LL have to keep lengthening and lengthening and lengthening, buy more land, spend more money on fertiliser, on water, on everything, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
and I have approved of and one that I like, and that’s where the co-design comes in.
Jack Jnr, can you tell us how working with your dad is like?
I think we work really well together. Most of the things I’ve learnt from the foundations of what a golf course should be, I learn from my father, so we’re going to agree on 99 percent of the stuff that we do. Occasionally, we’ll see things differently. Unfortunately I don’t play the game of golf like he does, not many people do – but in terms of personality, we’re going to see things differently, like today, Sean and myself we were, most of the course set up, dad came on some of the holes and said, “I don’t understand why you put that bunker there?” or
“looks like we may need another bunker there,” or “we might need to make the green a little easier, more receptive,” so it’s very rare that we don’t see eye to eye on many things.
Jack Snr, you’ve made yourself known that golf needs to change. Why?
My problem is that the golf ball continues to go further. Which means that number one, it obseletes all the old golf courses. Number two, to have a tournament golf course, you got to have 73 and a half plus, more likely 75 hundred yards. Not everybody has 7,500 yards. Not everybody has enough money to get that much land or build it and it takes a lot of time to play a long golf course.
My feeling is that the whole thing is controlled by the golf ball. If the golf ball is the length it is today, the courses we build today, fits the golf ball. But what happens to the golf courses that were built over the last 150 years? They don’t fit the golf ball, so you’ll have to keep lengthening and lengthening and lengthening, buy more land, spend more money on fertiliser, on water, on everything, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
The world is going the other way, where water is becoming the most precious commodity and we really need to use less water to do what we’re doing. We need less land, with population, the growth of people, we just don’t have enough land. The game of golf has become expensive. We don’t want it to become expensive, we want the masses to be able to afford to play the game. That’s really where we come from when we say the technology of the golf ball has made the game too difficult.
Apart from geographical and environmental constrains, what else are we looking at?
Every sport that you can pick that you see on television or otherwise, how long does it take? 3 hours at most. Well golf, it’s pretty difficult to get it in 3 hours. Now, when I first started, we used to be able to play the British Open in two and a half or three hours. That was the length of a round of golf. As the courses get longer and longer and longer, the golf ball went further and further and further; now we’re four, four and a half hours, sometimes five if we get a really difficult golf course. It’s too long for the average person to play.
People today want instant gratification. You’ve got your smart phone, you can get as much information in 10 seconds what we used to get in 10 minutes. People are used to this. Their mindset is exactly what the smart phone’s done. They don’t want to spend all that extra time on a golf course; they’ve got other things to do in life besides golf. That, I think, is bad for the game of golf. The game of golf needs to shrink to continue to be popular, to continue to grow. Now, we don’t have the problem so much in Asia as we have in the United States, in Britain, but it will happen here too where all of a sudden, they find that they don’t have time for the game. So, we need to shrink it and that’s the reason why we’re talking about the technology of the golf ball.
How much has the golf ball really evolved?
The golf ball’s increased about 20 percent in 20 years. It’s really increased about 20 percent in 10 years while the last 10 (years) has been pretty static, so we went from 1930 to maybe 1995 where the golf ball increase in length up to six to seven yards and that’s just the quality of the product. 1995 to 2000, the golf ball increased 50 yards. That meant that every golf course built prior to 1995 was now obselete.
Augusta National, in my opinion, is the only golf course in the world that has been able to keep up with the times. The reason is because they have enough money to do it. Nobody else has enough money to do it.
My whole point is that we used to have 17,000 golf courses in the United States, we have 15,000 now. When only one of them has been able to stay up with the times, that means we’ve got 14,999 who haven’t.
Right now, is golf growing or shrinking?
We had a downturn. We had a peak at about 2006 but in 10 years, we’ve closed more courses than we’ve opened and now I think we’ve started to level off and move back in the other direction. We’ve got to be mindful of what got us into that problem so when we have good times, things are good but when you have a downturn, you don’t want to destroy all the good times, so let’s be mindful of what our problems were before and attack them as we go forward.
And going forward means shorterning the time it takes to play the game? Does that mean shortening the game with respect to Par?
You don’t have to build anything, all you have to do is recognise that you can play it. Muirfield Village and Bear’s Club are two of my courses at home where we have 12- hole score cards. If anyone wants to play 12 holes, just get a scorecard for 12 holes. Can we have a handicap on it? Sure. I mean, the USGA is now recommending handicap for 9 holes. So, I think people are mindful of the fact that we do have problems and we need to speed up the game, we need to play in less time. Absolutely.
Would that entail buidling shorter courses?
“Augusta National, in my opinion, is the only golf course in the world that has been able to keep up with the times. The reason is because they have enough money to do it.
Nobody else has enough money to do it.”
It’s not the case of building shorter courses, we have to get to the golf ball first. If a golf ball is as it is, building a golf course as it is today fits the game. And actually, it’s good for the developer because 7,500 yards, you’re going to get more houses than 6,500 yards. I can understand that, and I can understand a developer maybe not wanting to do that. You can always don’t have to play 7,500 yards; you can play 6,000 or 5.500 yards, play whatever lengths you have but then you have the distances between the green and tee. It doesn’t keep it quick (if you don’t reduce that).
So, what you’re saying is that there are many ways to skin a cat?
We don’t need to change from 18 holes. You just have options within what you have. And if you only have a small piece of ground, then 9 holes and 12 holes are
perfectly acceptable. That’s what we’ve been trying to tell people. If you don’t have enough land, it doesn’t mean you can’t build a golf course.
Another thing we’re exploring with the USGA, which I think we will, is golf course rating. We’ll take golf courses and have them rated. Take Augusta National being 100 percent. Then, you’ll have golf courses where, distance wise, they’ll be 90, 80, 70 percent and so on. You build a 70 percent golf ball, and 80 perecnt golf ball, the manufacturers will make more golf balls for the golf course that will fit you properly.
And, say you’re at a 70 percent golf course and you have a 100 percent golf ball, you’ll just play it faster and quicker.
But if you want to play it as an event, using a 70 percent golf ball in a 6,000 yard golf course, the course will feel like a championship course.
Think of what it was 20 years ago. The golf ball you get then was an 80 percent golf ball compared to what we have today. So, how hard is it to go back to that one? Pretty easy right?
That is certainly an insight that the industry can take notes on, using creative and available measures to speed up the game. And talking of industry, how important is it to have golf as part of a property’s development plans, such as this one here at Forest City?
Jackjnr: You got a lot of property. Why would you get a property here versus another there? It’s all about amenities. Basically, that’s what a golf course is. 95 percent of the time, it’s an amenity for a housing development. Occasionally you have a course that is specific for itself, a standalone but generally it’s for homes.
And if that’s your main amenity, your golf course, you want to put your best foot forward. That’s why at The Nicklaus Group when we get a contract, we try to build something really quality because everything that surrounds it affects your amenity.
Jacksnr: We went from17,000 to 15,000 courses in the United States. So what are they doing? Now, they are going to take those 2,000 old golf courses and putting in housing developments or they are redoing and rebranding them, so that they can compete.
Those old courses that didn’t make it, you can redo them because they are all usually in good locations, inner city most likely. The courses that didn’t succeed probably weren’t very good. Those were the ones that didn’t attract the people so Jackie is absolutely right; if you want to build a good project, you want to attract people, from all over the world. So, put your best foot forward, and build the best golf course you can.
“Another thing we’re exploring with the USGA, which I think we will, is golf course rating. We’ll take golf courses and have them rated. Take Augusta National
being 100 percent. Then, you’ll have golf courses where, distance wise, they’ll be 90, 80, 70 percent and so on. You build a 70 percent golf ball, and 80 perecnt golf ball, the manufacturers will make more golf balls for
the golf course that will fit you properly.”
The 18-time major champion with his son at the Forest City Golf Hotel’s privatefunction room.
Jack Nicklaus with Jon Garner, right, and David Savic, left, both senior course designers with Nicklaus Design, at the site of the American Lake Veterans GolfCourse in Lakewood, Wash.
The Mastersat Augusta National Golf Club is the epitome of what money can achievein golf.