A Q&A With Jack Nicklaus

Golf’s greatest champion talks Colorado, competition and the current and future state of the game

CAG: Colorado holds a very special place in your career, starting with your win at The Broadmoor in the 1959 Amateur. You’ve described the eight-footer to beat Charlie Coe as the most important putt you’ve ever made. Was it your confidence that sank that putt or was it the putt that gave you confidence?

JACK NICKLAUS: The putt gave me confidence. It was a putt I had to make if I wanted to win, and when I look back on it, making that putt proved to me that I had the stuff to be able to do what I needed to do under pressure in order to win something significant. I have said before, and still believe today, that was probably the most important putt I made in my life. All of a sudden I had to make a putt under pressure to win my first major championship—which the U.S Amateur was at the time. It added to the self-belief that I needed as a 19-year-old. That putt and that victory together served as the springboard to the rest of my career.

CAG: A year after the Amateur, you returned to Colorado and would have won the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills had it not been for a number of putts. The Broadmoor’s greens are tougher than those at Cherry Hills. How did that experience shape you?

JN: Well, I think that not winning the U.S. Open may have been the best thing that ever happened to me. Had I would have won that U.S. Open, I would have been a 20-year-old kid with a head about the size of the moon—or the size of Colorado (laughs)—and I would have had a hard time reaching my ears. I was in the growing stages of my life and my career, and although it was a great experience and an important experience, it was an experience that taught me many lessons. One of those lessons was that other people have trouble coming down the stretch just as I did—everybody else is nervous and trying to win, too. I had to learn to be composed and be able to play within my own game.

I did several things coming down the stretch that cost me the tournament: One was a little 20-inch putt with a ball mark in the way that I didn’t have the presence of mind to fix. The next hole I three-putted it, but I probably three-putted it because of what I did while playing the prior hole. I parred 15 but I missed a very short putt at 16 for birdie, and then I missed a short-ish putt at 17 for birdie. When I got to 18, I thought the tournament was over, and I took three to get to down from the fringe. Had I gotten it up and down from the fringe or even holed the chip shot, it would have been a different story. All of those things were due to inexperience, but they were all good lessons to have learned. To go back to the question, the greens had nothing to do with it—it was really about me.

CAG: You won the 1993 U.S. Senior Open at Cherry Hills. Have you ever reflected on the fact that the victories bookending your amazing career, at least in USGA championships, both came from Colorado?

JN: That’s very nice, actually. I don’t know if I’ve thought about that until now—JUST now—but I have always enjoyed my time in Colorado. I have enjoyed playing golf in Colorado; I have enjoyed spending time with family and friends in Colorado; and I have enjoyed designing golf courses in Colorado. Outside of Florida and California, and maybe Arizona, I’ve probably designed more golf courses in Colorado than in any other state. I have thoroughly enjoyed every opportunity to work in Colorado. The sites have been tremendous, as have the people.

CAG: In the early 2000s, you were hired by The Broadmoor to redo the Mountain Course (above), which was originally designed by Arnold Palmer. How do you feel redesigning his or anyone else’s work? Have you had any of your courses redesigned?

JN: Actually, my firm, Nicklaus Design, was hired to redesign one of the courses at The Broadmoor, but I was not directly involved. I believe my son Jack was involved, along with one of our Senior Design Associates, Chris Cochran. As for the second part of the question, to my knowledge, none of my courses have been redesigned by another designer.

CAG: You worked very closely with Jack Vickers in creating Castle Pines Golf Club. Was he more involved than most owners in the design process?

JACK: Jack has always been very involved in the design process, and remains involved. In fact, he rode around with us during our June visit, and he offered comments and opinion throughout. Jack’s vision from day one was to design and build a golf club unlike any other in the Denver area. He truly wanted to do something right, and I love doing things the right way and people who share that desire. It’s not often you get the opportunity in the game to something really well and the absolute right way, and Jack was an owner who was not afraid to spend an extra dollar to make certain something was done the best possible way. Jack and I have always shared a special relationship and we do to this day.

I remember when I hosted Jack and his boys when Muirfield Village Golf Club was just opening in the early 1970s. Jack left with a hole-in-one and one of my staff members. I couldn’t get him to join the club but he took one of my staffers, Keith Schneider. I suggested Keith go “on loan” from Muirfield Village Golf Club to help Jack and Castle Pines launch. He is still there almost 35 years later. On loan. (Laughs)

CAG: What was the nature of your work at Castle Pines this June? What changes will we see?

JACK: We’re making a few changes. They were going to redo the greens, so we took the opportunity to see if there was anything we could do to the golf course to improve it.

We didn’t change anything on Holes 1, 2, 3, or 4. I’ve never been totally happy with the fifth green, so we changed the orientation of the fifth green, so it’s not so much straight on, but more left-to-right to create an easier approach into the green. We softened the hill behind the green by moving the green forward, which means we could possibly move the tee back. So, that combination was there. I think that will be a very nice hole.

The sixth green was modified a couple years ago, but I don’t think there was much cupping on it. It was still too severe, so we had the opportunity to redo that a little bit. No. 7 was ok. On No. 8, I always wanted to have the green further left, because I thought it would fit in between the hills a little bit more symmetrically—if that is the right word, I suppose—rather than leaving a swale on one side. The swale on one side was for drainage and I think they have handled the drainage issue—so the original issue was not an issue anymore. Now that allows us to move the green.

We made a minor modification to 9 on the back right.

We took out one back right bunker on 10. We previously had taken out a back left bunker and I thought it looked a little unbalanced, so I took the back right bunker out.

Hole No. 11 is pretty much the same. Hole 12, we took the little mound down to the right of the green and just opened it up a little bit and enlarged the front right of the green a little bit.

The green on 13 was too hard to hold. We changed the pitch on the green more back towards the player. Hole 14 and 15 are the same.

Hole 16, we’re building a new hole. We are taking water all the way up to the green, and making it more visible. It will look a little bit more like the 16th at Muirfield Village Golf Club or the 16th at Augusta National. We’ll drop the green a little bit and try to create some separation and get rid of some of that noise from behind the green. We’re not really doing anything on 17, and on 18, I put a bunker up the center of the fairway. I think it will force you to think more on the tee. You will have to go through a thought process now: Instead of just blasting it, you will have to decide whether or not you can hit it over a bunker, or if you need to fit it in short left, or carry it over, or play right of it. It gives you more options.

Other than that, we aren’t doing anything. (laughs)

CAG: For 20 years, Castle Pines was a favorite stop on the Tour for both players and fans. Last year’s BMW showed that Denver is a rabid golf town. What is your opinion about why Colorado can’t get a regular PGA Tour event?

JN: I don’t know. I’m not close enough to it to understand why. They have a lot of great golf courses, and certainly many people who are willing to help support an event. Once The International at Castle Pines left the scene, there just hasn’t been anything that’s come along.

CAG: Your legacy as a golf course designer is rivaling that as a player. Do you feel similarly competitive in that arena?

JN: Golf was always my vehicle to competition and golf course design is an extension of that. It’s not competition doing golf courses, though. And it’s not competition with other people or designers. It is competition between the land and me. I’m competing against my own creativity. I’ve been blessed to have two careers, and both of them have been successful and I’m very proud of that. It’s also kept me in the game of golf and relevant in the game.

CAG: What are some of your favorite non-golf activities in Colorado? Do you have any special places you like to go or things you like to do?

JN: Well, I’m not sure I’ve ever gone hunting in Colorado. I might be wrong, but I don’t think so. I have done quite a bit of stream fishing, and I’ve skied quite a bit. And I have had property in Colorado for many years, and about a year and a half ago, I sold the last home I owned.

Given Colorado's significance in your career, how do you feel when Will Nicholson asked you to be the guest of honor at the 100th Anniversary Gala?

JN: I think that was very, very nice, and I am very flattered Will and the people of the Colorado Golf Association wanted me to be there. As I said earlier, I have a long and special history with the state of Colorado, and a lot of wonderful memories I cherish. Let’s hope this event simply creates one more special memory.

CAG: What was your reaction when you found out they’d moved it to The Broadmoor?

JN: I didn’t know that it was originally going to be at any other place. But I am delighted that it is there. I haven’t been to The Broadmoor since the 1960 NCAA. I won the Amateur in 1959 and then lost to Steve Smith in the NCAA in 1960. I think I lost 4 and 3. (Editor's Note: Nicklaus remembered the score exactly.) 

CAG: With Spieth, Johnson, McIlroy, Day and Fowler, a lot of people believe professional golf is entering a golden age of competition, similar to the one in which you flourished. Would you agree with that? Why or why not?

JN:  Yes. And why? I think it is obvious. I think I commented after Jordan won the Masters this year that not only has quickly proven to be a wonderful player—and now a two-time major champion—but he is a great person—just as I think Rory McIlroy is—to carry the mantle for the game of golf. Both are mature beyond their years; they handled themselves very well; and golf should be proud to have them and some of these other young talents be the face of the game.

I have said before that I am someone who likes the new generations. I think it energizes the game of golf. We had Arnold's generation; then it came to my generation; then Tom Watson came along; and right on down the line to Tiger and Rory. And now we have Jordan Spieth and several others. There are a number of veteran players who have been terrific for a long time, but actually this might be the time for the young guys to take over.

CAG: Since the celebration of 100 years of golf also looks forward to the next 100 years of golf, what do you see as the future of the game?

JN:  I don’t know, but I’d like to be here in 100 years to let you know about it! (laughs)

Seriously, when you look at the future of the game, I think we need to have some corrections as it relates to a few things in golf. We’ve got to bring more people into the game and keep them in the game, and that will be helped by corrections to a few things: We need to play it faster; it needs to be less expensive; and it needs to be more fun for more people, rather than too difficult.

I think you can do all that, and I feel strongly that the game of golf is addressing that. I think a lot of it stems around the golf ball—the distance it goes and the fact many courses have had to add yardage and thus cost and difficulty to keep up with it.

Nicklaus talks to youngsters about S.N.A.G. (Starting New at Golf) at a course in Europe (Courtesy SNAG Europe).

Another key factor in the future of the game is how much water we have. Water is going to be a significant issue, and a lack of water could hurt the game of golf. You will have to design around that, and we do. Whether it is a new course or one we are renovating, we try to reduce the maintained turf and thus reduce the amount of water needed. Because you won’t have as much water as you used to have, you’ll need to design courses that people can get around and enjoy, have fun, and not be too expensive.

There is an upper tier or demographic in the game that is doing fine. We see a lot of clubs coming off seasons with tremendous revenue. The older, well-established clubs are all in pretty good shape, but golf is not just about the older, well-established clubs. It’s about bringing new people into the game. It’s about keeping people into the game. It’s about allowing seniors to play the game even longer. It’s about bringing youth into the game and bringing women into the game.

Golf is recreation. It’s not a tournament for everybody. Nine out of 10 golfers play at public-access courses, and about 75 percent of rounds played are at public facilities. That is a pretty telling fact. Golf must be willing to experiment, think out of the box, and in some cases, reinvent itself.

Related Links:

Cover Story: A Visit from Jack Nicklaus

Do You Know the Colorado Courses Jack Built?

Nicklaus to Appear at Colorado Century of Golf Gala

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