As a golf course designer, Nicklaus has won for nearly five decades

Jack Nicklaus, the architect: How the Golden Bear's designs have evolved over five decades

Jack, Golf Films' definitive documentary on Jack Nicklaus' career and contributions to the game, premieres Sunday, April 9th at 9 p.m. ET on Golf Channel.

Jack Nicklaus has enjoyed two incredible careers. And this may sound inconceivable, but you could argue that his livelihood as a golf course designer has been as prolific as his playing career. In some ways, even more so.

While his record for golf's professional majors at 18 (there were also two U.S. Amateur titles) seems unbreakable now, he has designed almost 300 golf courses. His company, Nicklaus Design, in partnership with his four sons and his son-in-law, has more than 410 courses worldwide in 41 countries. More than 140 of his designs have played host to professional tour events. Nobody, not even his friend and early mentor, Pete Dye, can match that record in the modern era.

It was Dye, perhaps, who really sparked Nicklaus' interest in golf course design, though Dye suspects young Nicklaus was on that path anyway. As an 18-year-old amateur, Nicklaus battled Dye in the semifinals of the 1958 Trans Mississippi conducted at Prairie Dunes in Kansas. Nicklaus won the match 3 and 2, and we all know what happened from there. Dye would go on to his prolific design career. And Nicklaus? Well, he would do that, too, eventually, as he was setting records on the course and beyond.

The green site on Harbour Town Golf Links' par-4 13th hole is well protected by a steep, large bunker.

Harbour Town Golf Links

Nicklaus' appetite for golf course design might have come as early as the mid-60s when Dye asked him out to the look at The Golf Club near Columbus, Ohio, Nicklaus' home town. A few years later, the two would collaborate on the now classic Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head, S.C, and a few other courses before Nicklaus would strike out on his own.

"It has created a legacy that will go beyond anything I've done on the golf course," Nicklaus wrote in the "Appreciation" section of "Pete Dye Golf Courses – 50 Years of Design," by Joel Zuckerman.

While the golf public, and critics, for that matter, often size up Nicklaus as a one-trick pony who likes to design golf courses for his left-to-right game, nothing could be further from the truth. Nicklaus said he learned much from Dye, but the most important aspect was that Dye preferred to design golf courses downhill whenever possible.

"Golf is more pleasant playing downhill," Nicklaus wrote. "Visually, it has a greater impact on the game."
So there you have it, Nicklaus' design philosophy, right?

Not entirely.

Many have argued that the Golden Bear designed courses that best suited his own game. That might be true on a few courses, but not the majority of them.

Architect Chet Williams, a senior design associate for Nicklaus for more than a quarter century, said Nicklaus always tried to balance his holes out – dogleg rights and dogleg lefts, or on one hole the green might rise to the right, and on another to the left, for example. But his early courses might have favored the professional fade a little more. That makes sense, of course, since he was still very much still a force on the PGA Tour after he started designing courses. He won his final major, the 1986 Masters, more than 10 years after his first solo design.

And although Nicklaus had about two dozen architects working for him over the years who have now gone onto solo careers (Bob Cupp, Jay Morrish and Chris Rule, e.g.) he was also probably the most hands-on designer of all the tour players who went into the business, especially for his "signature" courses. On that first course at Harbour Town with Dye, he was brought in initially because Sea Pines developer Charles Frasier wanted a big name associated with his new course, and there was no bigger name in golf then, save Arnold Palmer.

In his book, "Bury Me in a Pot Bunker," Dye said Nicklaus was brought in as the consultant, but he would have "signed on even if they had been named co-designers."

A few years later, Nicklaus would get his first solo design, and it came in Canada.

"What a lucky man I am," Nicklaus once said on David Feherty's TV show, "Feherty." "I was able to play a game, and I did alright playing the game, and now I'm able to transition into another livelihood while staying in the same thing I've been in all my life. And then bring my kids into it."

Here are some highlights of Nicklaus' second career in golf by decade::


Glen Abbey Golf Club

Shortly after collaborating on Harbor Town, Nicklaus landed his first solo gig, and would soon after design what many consider the best course of his entire portfolio. Speaking to his design longevity, his top designs in this decade remain PGA Tour hosts.

Glen Abbey, Oakville, Ontario, Canada (1976): Located near Toronto, Glen Abbey was Nicklaus' first solo design, and it's been a good one ever since. Designed for the Royal Canadian Golf Association, the course has played host to the Canadian Open 27 times. Known for its Valley holes on the back nine, there's plenty of variety, although it might have a few more left-to-right holes than most courses. There have been plenty of great champions, but the most famous moment to date remains Tiger Woods' incredible 6-iron out of a bunker over a lake to 12-feet and birdie on the final hole to clinch the 2000 Canadian Open.

Muirfield Village, Dublin, Ohio (1974): Named after the venue where Nicklaus won his first Open trophy, many would argue that Muirfield Village, host of the Memorial Tournament on the PGA Tour, is Nicklaus' finest golf course (though initially designed with Desmond Muirhead). Somewhat reminiscent of another course he loves, Augusta National, Nicklaus has fine-tuned the course almost every year. Consistently ranked in the top 20 nationally, the course was officially dedicated with an exhibition match between Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf on Memorial Day 1974.

Shoal Creek Country Club, Birmingham, Alabama (1977): Cut through a forest of hardwoods, Shoal Creek has been the site of two PGA Championships – 1984 won by Lee Trevino and 1990, when Wayne Grady was victorious. The private club has also played host to the U.S. Amateur in 1986, but in 1994, a young Tiger Woods helped his Stanford team win the Jerry Pate's National Intercollegiate with a tournament-best individual score of 206.


The 15th hole at PGA National's Champion Course kicks off the infamous "Bear Trap," which is one of the most challenging stretches of holes on the PGA Tour.

PGA National's Champion Course

Upscale daily-fee and resort golf really came to prominence, and Nicklaus had a hand in designing top courses in many of today's most popular golf destinations. He also showed in this decade that his design firm could build in a variety of climates.

PGA National Champion Course, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (1981/1990): This was actually orignally a George and Tom Fazio collaboration, but Nicklaus redesigned it, giving its the famous "Bear Trap" holes of 15, 16 and 17 (all with water hazards). This is another design that Nicklaus tends to tweak over the years. It also has a pretty good professional tournament pedigree, having been the site of the 1981 Ryder Cup as well as a regular host of the Senior PGA Championship and now the Honda Classic on the PGA Tour.

Desert Highlands, Scottsdale, Arizona (1983): Said Nicklaus' senior associate Chet Williams: "I had never seen anything like this before, the way it related to its natural surroundings. It had a huge impact on all other courses built in the desert." Desert Highlands, built in the shadows of Pinnacle Peak with the lights of the Valley spread across the horizon in the distance below, was the site of the first two Skins Games in 1983 and 1984, featuring Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino and Gary Player.

Grand Cypress Resort, Orlando, Florida (1984): There are 45 Nicklaus Signature designed holes at Grand Cypress, including 27 on the North, South and East courses, beautifully maintained classic Florida golf at its best. The other 18 holes, the New Course, is Nicklaus' tribute to the Old Course at St. Andrews. The first and 18th are basically replicas of the corresponding holes in Scotland, however the rest of the course is original – and extremely fun.

The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort, Acme, Michigan (1984): In a state full of great golf courses, The Bear is probably the best known course at Grand Traverse Resort. Here, Nicklaus crafted a links-style course that features Scottish terraced fairways, tiered greens, deep grassy roughs, moguls, mounds, and deep pot bunkers. It's on a great piece of property that includes plenty of lakes, ponds and streams as well as hardwood forests and fruit orchards that are home to a variety of wildlife.

PGA West Tournament Course, La Quinta, California (1987): Nicklaus designed two courses at PGA West, the Private Course, the other the Tournament Course at the resort. The second along with the Stadium Course is the bi-annual host of the PGA Tour’s final round of Q-School, while 2016 marked the first year the CareerBuilder Challenge was played on the Nicklaus Tournament and host Course, the Stadium after being played on two of PGA West'S Private Courses for over a decade. Nicknamed by Members as the Nick Tourney, it is both very forgiving off the tee and extremely demanding around the greens.

Sherwood Country Club, Thousand Oaks, California (1989): Renovated last year by Nicklaus himself, Sherwood Country Club has a great history, having served as the location for several movies including the 1923 version of "Robin Hood" well before golf entered the picture. Nicklaus said it was one of the most magnificent pieces of land he's ever had the chance to work on. "There isn’t another golf course in the World that has a more beautiful tree complex than Sherwood," he said.


The PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles

The PGA Centenary Course

The golf course boom had really taken hold in the 1990s, not just domestically but also around the world. During these years, he landed some of the most spectacular tropical oceanfront property on the planet.

The PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles Hotel, Auchterarder, Perthshire, Scotland (1993): Nicklaus certainly brought an American type golf course to contrast the other two courses at Gleneagles and has received criticism because of that. On its own is certainly a quality resort course, and the longest inland course in Scotland. It's significant primarily because it played host to the 2014 Ryder Cup won by the Europeans.

Manele Golf Course, Lanai, Hawaii (1993): Designed as an amenity of the recently renovated Four Seasons Resort on Lanai, Manele Golf Course might be the most visually stunning of Nicklaus' Hawaii designs. With black lava outcroppings to red cliffs that jet out of the deep blue sea, the course sits above the crashing waves of Hulopoe Bay and features three holes that play along 200-foot cliffs. The signature hole is the 12th, known for its 200 yards of carry over the churning ocean below.

Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol, Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico (1994): According to Chet Williams, this is the course that really opened up golf course development in the Cabo area. "It was Jack's first real opportunity to work on a really good seaside golf course," Williams said. The course has seven holes on the ocean and has been listed among the top 100 in the world by more than one publication. (More: Jack Nicklaus, the guy who 'ruined' Cabo)

Mission Hills Golf Club – World Cup Course, Shenzhen, China (1994): Named in honor of the first World Cup played in China, the Nicklaus designed World Cup Course is one of the 12 layouts at Mission Hills (some of the other designers include Gary Player, Pete Dye, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh), making it the largest golf resort in the world. Because it was built for tournament play, the course has a stadium feel to it with spectator mounds as well as plenty of water, length and large bunkers.

Old Works Golf Course, Anaconda, Montana (1994): Nicklaus showed great versatility with his ability to adapt to different land sites here with Old Works Golf Course, which was built over Anaconda's historic century old copper smelter, incorporating many historic relics in his design. Transforming a Superfund site into a golf course required the constant involvement of the Environmental Protection Agency. Before construction, the entire area was capped. The greens, bunkers, tree root balls and lake bottoms were specially lined to prevent any leakage upward. But the most visually unique feature of the course is the use of the remaining black slag, an inert, harmless material left by the copper smelting process, in the bunkers. The result is a par-72, public course that plays 7,722 yards tips.

Pacifico Course at Punta Mita, Nayarit, Mexico (1999): The first of two golf courses he did at the Four Seasons and St. Regis resorts just above Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula might even be better than his Cabo del Sol course. Nicklaus himself compared it to Pebble Beach, but what makes it famous are its two par 3s – 3A and 3B (Nicknamed Tail of the Whale), which actually give the course 19 holes. At 181 yards 3A has the ocean in the background, but 3B is over the ocean to a black lava rock island that is only accessible by cart during low tide. During high tide, the course has an amphibious vehicle to transport you to the green.

The Bear Trace in Tennessee (1999): There are four highly lauded courses on the Bear Trace, the Cumberland Mountain, Tims Ford, Chickasaw and The Bear Trace at Harrison Bay, which all part of the Tennessee state parks system. What makes these milestone courses for Nicklaus is that the majority of his courses have always been private or high-end resort, yet these are affordable, well-conditioned layouts that anyone can play. Each of these courses are very different and enjoyable.

The Bear's Club, Jupiter, Florida (1999): This is Nicklaus' home club and one of the best golf courses in Florida. It doesn't have that typical Florida look of palm trees and lots of water. Instead, Nicklaus designed a golf course that winds through a very natural setting of Cypress, Pine and Oak trees, set up to cater to all levels of players. With membership by invitation only, there is also a cool nine-par 3 course.


Pronghorn's dramatic 15th is framed by mountains and heads gently uphill.

The Nicklaus Course at Pronghorn

The early 2000s were the tail end of the boom years for golf course design and represent some of Nicklaus' most high-end resort and residential communities. Nicklaus' had gained a reputation as a name that along with Tom Fazio could most benefit property values. While no architect was immune to their projects going bankrupt when the housing crisis struck, most of Nicklaus' designs, while they may have undergone several ownership changes or delays, did survive.

The Summit Course at Cordillera, Edwards, Colorado (2001): While Nicklaus' most famous Colorado course is Castle Pines, the Summit might be his most dramatic mountain course. At more than 9,000 feet, it is one of the highest and most picturesque golf courses in the United States. Nearly all the holes are memorable with elevated tees and greens perched on the horizon with views that span a hundred miles or more. Fairways are generous, but the greens aren't easy, which was typical for this period of Nicklaus courses.

The Nicklaus Course at Pronghorn Golf Club Club, Bend, Oregon (2004): Laid out among ancient lava rock ridges and outcroppings with panoramic views of the Cascade Mountains, the Jack Nicklaus Course at Pronghorn Club & Resort is one of his most memorable, even though it doesn't get all the accolades of some his more famous designs. This gorgeous par 72 will make you think about your tee shots, layups and approaches as you tackle greens guarded by plenty of hazards and the natural landscape of the high desert of central Oregon. The signature hole is, perhaps, the short par-4 13th, which plays around a lake to a green guarded by huge bunkers.

Sebonack Golf Club, Southampton, New York (2006): Sebonack, located right next to the historic National Golf Links of America and Shinnecock Hills, is a collaboration between Nicklaus and the well-respected Tom Doak. By all accounts they hit a home run with this private club, which reflects both architects' styles in a setting that offer panoramic views of Long Island's Great Peconic Bay and Cold Spring Pond. Meant to look as if manicured by time, Sebonack appears to have fashioned itself from the wild terrain.

The Golf Club at Dove Mountain, Marana, Arizona (2009): With 18 of the 27 holes designed for match play, The Golf Club at Dove Mountain came during a period where Nicklaus started to design greens that were a lot more dramatic than his earlier courses. In fact, when the WGC Match Play was held there for the first time in 2009, players, including Tiger Woods, were heavily critical of the greens, and Nicklaus returned to soften them the following year. Still, the dramatic beauty and variety of this course can't be denied.


So far in this decade, Nicklaus has shown a great deal of versatility in his design, including reclamation projects built on brownfields. But he's also on the short list when luxury golf communities on prime coastal property begin looking for an architect.

With the Whitestone Bridge in the background, the par-5 18th is the finishing hole to an unique golf experience in New York City.

Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point

The Golf Club at Harbor Shores, Michigan (2011): Host of the Senior PGA Championship in 2012 and 2014, Nicklaus turned what was once an Environmental Protection Agency-designated Superfund site into a dramatic wetlands course with spectacular tee shots, creative bunkering and very challenging greens. The course is a mixture of links-style holes, parkland-style holes and tree-lined holes with plenty of elevation change. Perhaps the most talked about is the three-tiered green on the par-5 10th. During an exhibition match between Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer, Palmer had a putt from the bottom of the green return to his feet, only to watch Nicklaus throw down a ball from the same location and sink it.

Top of the Rock, Missouri (2014): Located just south of Branson, Mo., which is an emerging golf destination, Top of the Rock Golf Course is part of Big Cedar Lodge and located high above Table Rock Lake, offering great views and terrific conditions. This Audubon Signature Cooperative Sanctuary course is also the only par 3 course to host a professional tour event, the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf at Big Cedar Lodge on the PGA Tour Champions, furthering a trend legitimizing the building of short courses.

Quivira Los Cabos, Cabo San Lucas (2015): Just when you thought Nicklaus couldn't top himself with Mexican ocean golf, here comes Quivira Golf Club on the Pacific coast with some of the most dramatic seaside holes yet. The plan is to eventually expand to 36 holes, which might close the mile-long gap between the fourth and fifth holes. Speaking of the 5th, it's the most dramatic and most controversial hole on the course. A drivable par 4 to a green perched over the ocean, it's difficult even if you lay up. Talk is that the hole will tweaked.

Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point, Bronx, New York (2015): A rare municipal course for Nicklaus, Trump Golf Links (designed with John Sanford) is exactly that – a links course minus the ocean with incredible views of the Manhattan Skyline. Some 10 years in the making, it was built over an old landfill next to the Whitestone Bridge. While the holes are good, the most memorable is a finishing stretch that works its way around wetlands and a lake.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Jack Nicklaus is inspiring.

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Jack Nicklaus, the architect: How the Golden Bear's designs have evolved over five decades