PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the greatest player in the history of golf, is still one of the game's major players, even if he's not teeing it up in competition.
His influence in golf might be even greater today than in his playing days, His golf industry accomplishments include an equipment company, golf management company, his own tournament (the Memorial) and golf course design business.
As an architect, Nicklaus is credited with nearly 300 designs worldwide (his company nearly 400), and Nicklaus Design currently has offices in six different counties, including two locations in China.
Recently I had the chance to catch up with Nicklaus at the start of the famed "Bear Trap" at PGA National Resort & Spa. He was there during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the recently reopened and renovated Champion Course, home to the PGA Tour's Honda Classic.
Nicklaus addressed topics such as travel, golf course design and what he likes to do with his time off, which often include chasing the sporting events of his 20-plus grandchildren.
Golf Advisor: It seems you're busier than ever with your business and personal life. How many miles do you think you fly in a year?
Jack Nicklaus: Let's see. It's about 400 hours on my airplane (a Gulfstream jet nicknamed "Air Bear"). That would translate into about 200,000 miles a year. The last two weeks I had 40-hour weeks on the airplane.
Golf Advisor: Where did you go?
Jack Nicklaus: On that trip, I went to the North Carolina State football game (Sept. 27 in Raleigh, N.C., against Florida State. Nicklaus' grandson Nick O'Leary is a tight end for FSU). From there we flew all night and went to the Ryder Cup (at Gleneagles in Scotland). We went to Turkmenistan the next day. The president (Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov) wanted a golf course because they're having the Asian Games in 2017. They don't know anything about golf. None of them have ever played it, but we're going to do the first one for them. Anyway, I went to Morocco after that and got back (to the Palm Beaches area) on Thursday afternoon. We went to another football game Friday night, the Florida State game (vs. Wake Forest on Oct. 4) on Saturday, then Sunday morning, we got up early and went to China. We were in China a day and a half and then went to Japan for two days and got home Thursday night. And the pilots needed a day of rest before we flew up to Syracuse (for another Florida State win, on Oct. 11) and back.
Golf Advisor: What's the secret to surviving and thriving with that much travel, other than having your own jet?
Jack Nicklaus: On this last trip, it was "Breaking Bad." Twenty-three episodes, I think I went through. You watch a movie or talk some business on the plane, but it's not like you're in the air all the time.
Golf Advisor: Speaking of China, where you have more than 30 courses either built or under construction, has China become a good golf destination for Americans?
Jack Nicklaus: Hainan Island (in southern China, where Nicklaus designed Sanya Resort & Golf Club) is pretty good because they have a lot of seaside golf and is more tropical, sort of the Hawaii of China. Most of the other ones are clubs or public facilities with hotels. They're nice golf courses, but they're the inland stuff. We have one, Shanghai Links, which was on the ocean, but now they landfilled out beyond it.
Jack Nicklaus: I've never seen either one of them. I think that both the USGA and PGA have tried to mix up their venues a bit rather than having them on the same exact type of golf courses. I think that's good, nothing wrong with it. There's a lot of very, very good golf courses that have been built since the old ones that have been the standard.
Golf Advisor: Looking at the Champion Course at PGA National, where you've made a number of changes over the last 24 years, is there a difference between the resort courses you do for the public vs. the resort courses that host tour events?
Jack Nicklaus: Not a whole lot. But if you're going to do a resort golf course that you're never going to have an event on, you're going to make it far more user-friendly. So what we've done here is made sure that the tees are up in places where you can get around the golf course and enjoy it. And I think if people come to PGA National, this is the course they want to play -- because most golfers are masochists anyway. Still, this golf course is very playable. You don't have any 150-yard carries over non-recoverable areas (unless you play the tips on the Bear Trap). You always have a way to play it, and to me, that's what you have to have with the average golfer.
Morning Drive: Nicklaus on his beginnings in course design
Golf Advisor: When you go to Augusta and see Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, do you discuss the golf courses you've built? Do your old playing rivalries carry on to a business level?
Jack Nicklaus: I've never really discussed much design with either one of them. I mean neither one of them is that much involved, although Gary is more involved than he used to be. He goes to his golf courses. Arnold never has been much involved, but that's OK. Arnold's name on the property, what he's done -- has been very beneficial. They have an Arnold Palmer golf course here (at PGA National). We don't talk a lot about our golf courses, but we talk a lot about the places we used to go, things we used to do. We spend most of the time giving each other a hard time, which is what most friends do.
Golf Advisor: Are there other architects you admire and if so, who are they?
Jack Nicklaus: The ones I'm fond of used to work for me and are out on their own. I've got 23, I think it is, members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects who used to work for me. And there are a lot of good ones out there -- the Jay Morrish's, the Bob Cupps. Many of them are not working now (because there's not enough work). Chris Rule was really good for us in China, and Chris is now out of the business. I think Coore-Crenshaw do a nice job. I think that Tom Fazio does a nice job, but I don't think he does that much right now . Tom Doak's got a good eye, but I think Doak is more about look than golf. I think we have some good young guys. I don't know Gil Hanse, but he's developing a nice reputation.
Golf Advisor: Have you followed the 2016 Olympic course saga in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil?
Jack Nicklaus: I don't really know what's going to happen, but they'll be all right. They'll finish it up. It's a decent piece of ground, and it's all sand. There's no real reason they shouldn't finish it.
Golf Advisor: Where do you travel for pleasure when you're not working?
Jack Nicklaus: I go to the Bahamas for fly-fishing. That's where I spend most of my time. I probably make eight to 10 trips (a year) to the Bahamas for three or four days. (Wife) Barbara goes with me. She's a good fly fisherman. She does very well. She enjoys it, so we do that together with another couple or two.
Golf Advisor: Do you still play a lot of tennis?
Jack Nicklaus: I have three grass courts in my yard, and we play tennis every weekend. I'll play tomorrow morning at 10 o'clock, then go to the Notre Dame-Florida State game.
Golf Advisor: What do you think about some of the new growth initiatives in the game? For example, what are you thoughts on doing six-hole loops, perhaps creating shorter options for players who just want to get in six or 12 holes?
Jack Nicklaus: We've been doing that for quite a while. I've got a 12-hole course at The Bear's Club (in Jupiter, Fla.). We go one through eight, 15 through 18, and I've got a scorecard for that. And we've had events every year for that. And at Muirfield, we go one, two, skip three and four, then go five through 14.
We've used the 8-inch holes and 2 ½-hour time limits, too. The idea is to try to encourage juniors, women and elderly seniors to play and stay in the game. The juniors get instant gratification with that 8-inch hole on a little shorter golf course. The women love it because they only have to play 12 holes, and they like that big hole. And the seniors come in and they say, "God, I've never had so much fun. I can play again." Now the core golfer isn't going to want to play that, but I'm not interested in changing the game for the core golfer. We just want to introduce the game to more people, to keep people in the game and have them enjoy it.
Golf Advisor: The game has something for everyone, right?
Jack Nicklaus: The game is supposed to be fun. I had a blast when I played tournament golf. I mean that's what I did. And people talk about pressure -- that's what I loved. That was my way of fun. Other people's way of fun is to not have the pressure. Everybody's built differently.
Golf Advisor: Finally, I need to ask you about the Ryder Cup. After all, it was your suggestion in the late '70s that led to the inclusion of the rest of Europe to join the players from Great Britain and Ireland. Now the Europeans are dominating the competition? What are your thoughts?
Jack Nicklaus: It's about good will, not about how do you pull everything out of it to win. I'm a little old school from that standpoint. It's an honor to be a captain. That's not his profession. He's got to do the best that he can and he has to rely on the players to do their jobs too. If the other team plays better, the other team plays better. At the end of the event, on Sunday night when it's over, you shake hands and have dinner. I think the pendulum will swing and go back and forth without making a monumental thing out of it.