The Masters Interview: Jack Nicklaus on Creating a Golf Course

As The Masters approaches, we talk to Jack Nicklaus on his process of designing a world class golf course in Mexico.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

The 2015 PGA Tour will serve up the first Major Tournament next week when The Masters kicks off in Augusta, Georgia. There might be no player in the history of the game more immediately identified with the great tournament than Jack Nicklaus – The Golden Bear who won a closet full of Green Jackets as a six time Masters Champion.

If you count championships in “The Majors,” Nicklaus is the greatest player in golf history with 18 titles. The wayward Tiger Woods has famously chased that record for years now, endlessly stuck on 14. While Nicklaus watches the unfortunate Woods struggle, he busies himself as one of the most sought after course designers in the world. 

I caught up to Nicklaus near the first tee of his most recent creation, the award winning Quivira in Cabo San Lucas as he discussed the creative process he goes through to create a world class resort course.

How would you describe Quivira?

JACK NICKLAUS:  I would describe the golf course as one that’s taken a long time to get done to start with, but one that’s been well worth the wait.  It’s a golf course that’s very pretty.  It’s got some very, very unusual, spectacular golf shots on it.  It’s got some difficult shots.  It’s got some easy shots.  It’s got obviously great terrain.  Most of all it’s got some absolutely unbelievable vistas.  The views from the golf course are really beautiful.

The fifth hole is unique at Quivira as the tee shot runs into a dog leg left downhill into an oceanside green? Would you say it’s the signature hole here? 

No. 5, we are changing.  It was done differently than I asked in the end, but that’s okay.  The little mounds that go down the hill, those are coming out.   I wanted the tee shot, if you hit the ball into the space I had going down the hill, to run all the way to the green, which is fine.   From the back tee it’s only about 270 yards down the hill to carry the green, probably 3wood for most for good players.  But I think you’d better be fairly accurate.

We found the location of where we thought we could put a green.  Then we found where we thought we could put a tee.  And then we tried to figure out, ‘how are we going to get there in between it?’  How do you take a spectacular situation like that, and take that shelf that the green sits on and how do you utilize it? 

Some people will hit driver, some will hit 3 wood, some will hit an iron, play it out on the top and it will probably creep a little bit left but it will probably stay there.  And then it’s a pitch down the hill.  If you want to be a little bit more aggressive, we take about four of those little sand dunes out down there, and the idea was to hit the ball left, a little draw, and let it feed its way down the hill to the green.

I did one in Hawaii at Kauai Lagoons, years ago, the 16th hole there.  It fed the ball into a narrow little spot down to the green.  That’s sort of where my idea came from: “You know, I think that will work here and let’s give it a try.”  We haven’t quite got it there yet.

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Quivira is the hottest course in Baja. Do you have fond memories of playing in Mexico?

I didn’t play a lot of golf in México.  There wasn’t a lot of golf to play competitively. I think basically the only time I played in México was the old Canada Cup; Arnold (Palmer) and I played it at Club de Golf.  Played some 3- Tour Challenges or something like that, in ’78, is that when it was? I remember I played the first two rounds and on Friday night I went home and watched my boys play a high school football game and came back on Saturday.  They were playing for the state championship, so I had to be home for that. 

I sort of go back and look at the first time I came to Baja, it was 1963 or 1964, and I remember I told a story a little earlier in an interview.  I was flying in on my Aero Commander, I had a co-pilot with me, and I was flying in.  I was getting ready to start throttling back on the runway in Palmilla and all of a sudden felt a hand on my hand push my hand forward.  The Palmilla runway sits at an angle and I was lining it up like it was a flat runway.  All of a sudden it was below the hillside, which would have been right in the face of the hill.  A little push that says, ‘I think we need a little gas here.’ 

And so the runway there is one of the fairways we had at Palmilla.  So when Don Koll decided to do Palmilla, which was some 23 or 24 years later, 22 years later, whatever, 1986, I came down here, the runway was still there.  Cabo had not changed at all.  We used to be able to come down here in the ‘60s, we came down here with a tee shirt, swimming suit, a pair of sandals and 20 bucks and stay for a week.  Now you might not be able to get out of the airport for that, I’m not sure.

Related: Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Resort, Quivira Golf Club

My friends call me, they say I’m the guy who ruined Cabo.  I think from one standpoint, what we did was really introduce the game of golf to Cabo.  We had a little nine hole golf course down here at the time, and  some people say yes, some people say no. So, it’s been a great experience to be part of the growth of Cabo and be part of what they have done.  It’s been fun and hopefully we’re not done. 

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How do you work with local officials when shaping a stretch of land into a course?

I think almost all the projects have done pretty well down here.  I think that when Discovery Land Company took over at El Dorado, and we had, I don’t know, half a dozen holes on the ocean and they took four of the holes off the ocean.  I said, ‘Don’t get it all off to where you end up with everything inland.  You have to keep a little there for what’s going to happen.’  I think they kept enough.  For a measly six or seven hundred million dollars worth of real estate, they took my holes off the ocean …  really upset me.  (I’m being facetious.  They did exactly the right thing.)

We’ll come along and we’ll do a golf course and utilize the ocean.  And we say, okay, now, when you start to sell, we ought to take some of those holes and move them back off the ocean but leave some of them on the ocean so the golf course keeps its reputation and value.  From a tourist standpoint of bringing people and attracting golfers, the mousetrap’s got to work, so you have to make sure the people see what you’re doing. 

We have a lot on the ocean here at Quivira.  Actually, from our original plan, we have less than we originally planned, which is okay.  But the places we have it, I think it’s very strategically placed and I think it actually works very well.  So I don’t think this project really sacrificed any ocean lots for what we did with the golf. 

There’s a new course very near to Quivira designed by Tiger Woods. Do you know about that?

I don’t understand. Who? I’m sorry, I don’t know who you’re talking about. (Laughs.) I honestly don’t know anything about it.  I know he used to own a golf course next door but I don’t know what stage it’s in. 

What tweaks did you see that you want to make here at Quivira?

It’s the first time I’ve been able to see the greens at a speed that they are going to be. They were growing in the last time I was here.  I think I was here three months ago, was it, something like that, just before they finished up the grass.  So now I’ve seen the greens where they are, and I found two or three greens that were probably a little bit more severe than they needed to be in a couple of areas. 

So we will adjust those, and these are very easy to adjust since they are not USGA greens.  They are just on the sand.  So to make that adjustment is very easy, very fast, and they’ll get back in play very fast. 

So I want to make sure that this golf course is very playable all the way around.  And I know Chris Cochran, my design associate on the project … I give Chris some freedom at times to do some things, and he made a judgment on the par 3, No. 13, that ended up putting …  I just had a big, soft bowl, and he wanted to keep the rocks on the right side of the green for visual appeal.  But even with that he had to put a little ridge into it to drop in, and you can’t keep the ball on the green. 

So I said, ‘Chris  I love the rocks  yeah, but they have got to be able to play the hole.’  That was done since I was here, but we’ll change it back.

I said, ‘I’d rather that somebody find their golf ball and play the hole than worry about playing the rocks.’  We’ll see.  I don’t think they are going to go anywhere.  But those are little things that you do when you’re finishing up a golf course.  And we had a similar situation on 14th green with the ridge, it’s more than we can stop a ball on. 

And the 9th green was a little quick around the one side and I think that probably happened with the hurricane and probably got cleaned off and probably got pulled off a little too much.  We’ll fix that.  They are little things. 

But I want to make sure, any time I leave the golf course, I want to leave it so the golf course is playable and fun and maintainable. 

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Quivira is all-inclusive with a driving range, the food and comfort throw in. Is that Mexican hospitality?

I think it’s a feel good thing.  I mean, what does it really cost to have snacks, water, put it all-inclusive in your price and have your meals and so forth and so on?  Most of the clubs that I’m involved with, a lot of times you go to a club or a place, and you’re paying for a bottle of water, you’re paying for a handful of peanuts, you’re paying this and that and so forth. 

We do it at most of our clubs, it’s in a different way but it’s the same thing.  If you go to the Bear’s Club, we have a no-tipping policy.  We have all our drinks, everything, all breakfasts are free.  They are all-inclusive.  We figure we charge the guy enough to join the place, we can give him something and have him feel good.  I think the all-inclusive is the thing that people really like about their vacation, not worry about having to reach in their pocket and grab $5 every time you turn around and enjoy it.  I think it’s very nice.