Date: November 25, 2014
Author: Peter Stone @ The Australian

The course that Jack built – twice

To visit the Jack Nicklaus Museum in Columbus, Ohio is to take a walk through the great man’s life.

There’s around a dozen rooms you walk through to relive each decade of his amazing career with video commentary many of his great moments along the way to 18 major championships and more than 100 victories worldwide. Photographs and memorabilia abound.

There’s a recreation of the family room of his parents Columbus’ home plus another room devoted to his golf course architecture. A map of the world pinpoints the 380 courses he’s designed in 36 countries – and three of those flags are in Australia.

There is Lakelands on Queensland’s Gold Coast, The Heritage Golf & Country Club in Melbourne – and The Australian in Sydney, venue for this week’s Emirates Australian Open.

Nicklaus’ affinity with The Australian is almost a love affair. He won his sixth (and most recent Australian Open to borrow a line from five-times British Open Champion Peter Thomson who was once asked when did he win his last Open) in 1978.

Indeed, three of those six victories were at The Australian – in 1975, 1976 and 1978 – during a period all and sundry referred to the championship as the Packer opens.

The late Kerry Packer’s Bulletin magazine and tobacco company WD and HO Wills becoming officials sponsors of the Open and the Channel Nine network owned by Packer telecast the full 18 holes of play, a first in Australian golf.

The Golden Bear stayed at Packer’s Bellevue Hill home during the 1975 open and they became firm friends. It was on a fishing trip after the ’76 open that the pair discussed Nicklaus redesigning the old Kensington layout – and to have it in play for the ’77 championship.

Packer, it should be said, a major benefactor of the club. He looked out the clubhouse window one day in the early ‘70s and saw the usually quiet course swarming with players.

It was a trade day.

“How much do you make from them a year,” he asked the club, but not quite so politely. It was more than half a million dollars, and he wrote a cheque on the spot.

“No more trade days,” the big man said. And, he continued the annual payment for years.

Packer put his proposal for the course to be redesigned by Nicklaus to a meeting of members on December 16, 1976. It was a bitterly divided meeting, but Packer probably swayed to vote to 60-40 in his favour by saying: “It will be finished in 40 days.”

In their dreams, the members were without their course for close to 10 months, but several Sydney clubs gave them midweek times and Saturday times to get their regular games.

Nicklaus brought in an American Fred Bolton, a little known course designer, to re-shape the greens and fairways. He worked alone with his bulldozer while Bubba Luke, a former course superintendent with Augusta National, consulted Bolton with his work on the greens.

It seemed at times decisions were made on the run – but also passed by Nicklaus with daily faxes to and from the US.

Bob Wilson, now 83, was on the club board at the time. His grounding in golf was extensive – golf writer for The Daily Telegraph, CEO of the Australian PGA, working for Wills in the organisation’s old Masters tournament and with the Dunlop/Slazenger company in its golf division.

He tells the yarn of being out on course with another American John Montgomery, who was Nicklaus’ tournament director, when they came across a boggy area on the left of the 17th.

Bolton was called in with his bulldozer to carve out the present lake.

All club records were destroyed when the clubhouse was burnt to the ground in 1982, but estimates of the cost of the work are between $1 million and $2 million.

David Graham won the 1977 Open, but the nearby Mascot Airport was thrown into chaos along the way. A blimp, with the sponsor names on either side, was tethered behind the 18th green, but when play ended on the Friday staff later went to bring it to ground for the night.

It was gone with the wind. Landing aircraft were warned of the rogue blimp and flight paths were changed. A “please explain” was forthcoming from the Department of Civil Aviation.

There are no blimps in view this week at the quite superb Australian course that has again redesigned by Nicklaus. Not in the sky, nor on ground level. The presentation is world-class, the course similar, but so very different to that last used for the Open in 2007 when Craig Parry won.

The latest incarnation for The Australian began back in late 2010 when the club became concerned about the spread of poana grass in the greens. It is a  club which has always prided itself on a high quality course.

Those greens were certainly past their use-by day. So too was the quality of the soil. Option one was to dig 45cm of soil out, put the gravel in and then to replant the greens in their existing condition.

“The club felt why not do more than just the greens,” club CEO Rob Selley said today. “It’s a Nicklaus course. It made a lot of sense to bring him back because of his attachment to the club.

“Jack absolutely jumped at the chance. His designers were on the ground in late 2010 working on what would be best to do. When the course was built in 1977 there were a lot of spectator mounds, now they’ve basically gone and the course looks much more natural.”

The fairways were redone. Around 12,500 cubic metres of top soil was taken off back to the sand base. And, Jack sent his top green shaper Jerame Miller, one of the highest paid in the business, here for six weeks to supervise work on the greens.    

“His work with his big D6 bulldozer was like an artist at work,” Selley says.

Unlike first time round, the club members did not lose their rounds of golf. Such was the rotation work around the course a temporary 18-hole layout was devised with 10 par threes and eight par fours. The temporary greens would have been the envy of several clubs around Sydney.

It’s almost four years to the day since the Nicklaus team hit the ground. It has cost $5 million with $1 million of that used on cart paths and it also has Nicklaus’ fee included.

“Jack made three (inspection) visits during the construction. He doesn’t get on a plane for less than $250,000 to go to most parts of the world, but he threw those visits in at no extra costs,” Selley said.

Appealing for Nicklaus was that he combined those visits with a little fishing in Christmas Island and New Zealand.

On March 9 last year, the course, one of the 290 out of the total 380 Nicklaus courses around the world that is a Nicklaus signature course, Nicklaus was here to open the course.

He was made an honorary member of the club and not one person among the 1000 or so invited didn’t leave without being touched and impressed by the man who is still the greatest golfer ever despite the declining efforts of Tiger Woods to surpass his record.

No doubt the ageing bear will be watching this week’s telecast from the US this week just to see how his new creation scrubs up in tournament play. If he can’t stay up so late (because of the time difference) he’ll have pushed the record button.