When Golf Club of Estrella opened in 1999, it did so with the Nicklaus name listed as the designer. But the course architect was not Jack Nicklaus, but rather his son, Jack Nicklaus II.
Charles Keating was the original developer of the Estrella property, but after the savings and loan crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the property was purchased by another company, which hired Nicklaus II to design the course.
Where To Golf Next publisher Alex Miceli spoke with Nicklaus on a range of topics, including his beginnings in golf course architecture, his design philosophies and his thoughts on Estrella.
Q.: What was the property like when you first visited?
JACK NICKLAUS II: Well, it was a property that (Keating’s) group owned and they went out there to develop. They put all this great infrastructure out there, they built these entry roads, they put amazing landscaping in the medians leading into the property, so they created a beautiful entrance. They had built a school out there. They had built some homes out there. Then when that whole savings and loan thing hit, that was before us.
I think the property was sitting in foreclosure with a bank somewhere and then the next ownership came in and said, “Look, we have got a nice property, we have got great bones. They (Keating’s group) have already created a great entrance out there in Goodyear, Arizona.” They brought our design team in and it was a chance for me to kind of share some of my thoughts and do a design on the property. It was a beautiful property.
Q.: This was one of your first designs?
NICKLAUS:I've been following my dad since I was a little guy, watching him do golf course work and watching him play golf, so I had been around it all my life. My first design was in 1988, down here in South Florida. Then my next one was over in London, England — Hanbury Manor in Hartfordshire, just north of London.
>> Fun Meter: Golf Club of Estrella
I started in the late '80s, and I have probably got about 40 jobs that I've finished to date all over the world, but that was one of my earlier jobs. I think Estrella was one of my first jobs in the desert. I think Superstition Mountain was just after that, that we did out there on the east side of Phoenix.
(Editor’s note: Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club’s Lost Gold course was designed by Jack Nicklaus and Jack Nicklaus II and opened in 1999.)
Q.: What I think is interesting about Golf Club of Estrella versus other desert courses is it is built as part of the landscape, creating a nice natural flow with few, if any, forced carries off the tee and bunkering around the greens, which allows for players to run the ball up versus covering the bunkers in the air. The course is generally more accessible and more enjoyable for the average player, I'm assuming that was purposeful?
NICKLAUS: Absolutely, it was public golf course when we did it. I think they had a semi-private component to it, but it was for public use and that was by design. We had the great desert look, soft rolling terrain, tried to have some sandy desert areas, but definitely wanted wide fairways for the public play. Didn't do any rough out there and we tried to have run‑ins into the greens. I'm sure I haven't seen it since I've opened it, so my memory on little details of the course is a little vague.
Q.: You talk about spending time with your dad since you were a little kid. If you had to identify particular ideas of his that resonate with you when you sit and look at a property or you're looking over a plat, what would they be?
NICKLAUS: I've actually thought about this briefly. When you mentioned my dad, not necessarily how he thinks about a golf course, but the reason I'm in the business is because of my dad. I always wanted to work alongside him, working on golf courses. I couldn't play golf like he could, but he allowed me to do some design work with him, co‑design some golf courses and allowed me to make contributions to his designs and it's been really fun to work with him. That's really been the highlight of being in the golf course design business.
Now, to answer your question more specifically, what he's taught me is that I try to look at [a design] the same way. Again, I don't play golf like he does, but he wants a golf course that's fun for the average player, actually fun for the very accomplished player, but a golf course that can accommodate both.
Augusta National is one of his favorite golf courses, and I know Royal Melbourne is one of his favorite golf courses. I think what he likes about both those golf courses is that they're great membership golf courses. Phenomenal membership golf courses and basically all you have to do is speed up the greens, tuck some pins, need to grow some rough as is the case at Royal Melbourne, not necessarily Augusta, and put the tees back. All of a sudden you have got a championship golf course. You just bring it back to the membership level when the tournament's over. So, those are two golf courses that he loves and that's why he loves them.
We have to do golf courses that serve the needs of our client and that's always been his No. 1 goal — not to influence or inject a design that doesn't meet the client’s goals. The client's goals could be anywhere from building a championship golf course to building a membership golf course to a resort golf course or a strictly public golf course. So, it varies on every job and that's part of the fun of our work too. We have got a different challenge every time we go out there.
Q.: Taking championship courses out of the mix, one of the hardest things I think there is to do as a course architect is making a course that's fun and enjoyable for everyone, no matter what handicap they are, no matter what tees they use. Are there any specifics that you try to look at when trying to do that? Because one of the problems with golf right now is there are a lot of golf courses out there that aren't very much fun.
NICKLAUS: Well, we want a golf course that's fun, but at the same time you have to put a certain amount of teeth in it so that people are challenged as well. It's just a golfer mentality, they love a challenge.
I think some of the barriers of entry for golfers are obviously the cost and the time that it takes you to play golf. You look at Muirfield Village, it takes a long time to play Muirfield Village and part of that time is looking for your golf ball when you hit it outside the fairway. The rough for the membership is maybe 3 inches high, but even at 3 inches you're looking for your golf ball. So that's a time situation. If you eliminate roughs all together that's one way or you just maintain your rough at a shorter level, that's going to reduce your play time.
Also, give players the space to play. You try to reduce forced carries, you give multiple tees where they can play the ball up and that relate to their level of play. There's a lot of things you can do. You can create bailouts around the greens like you mentioned at Estrella. There is a lot of mowed fairway areas that are just areas where you take some drainage off the green and the golf ball is going to end up there. You're not forcing a guy to play a skilled shot like some sort of a flop shot, they can putt it up the slope. So, there are things that you can do to make it fun. And there are things you can do to make it very difficult too.
There are a lot of other ways to speed up play. You can have continuous putting — which isn’t something we really do in the design realm — where you don't mark the ball once you start putting, you just putt it right into the hole. That will speed up play. You make the cups larger, you move the tees up, you play six holes as opposed to nine-hole segments … there are a lot of things that can you do, but as a designer you can make those concessions as well.
Q.: One thing that I read recently is how you put the 18 holes together. There are different things that you can do that will create a flow better than others. Have you ever taken time to look at that?
NICKLAUS: Absolutely. You try not to put a par 3 on the second hole of a golf course.
We are also cognizant of two-shot par 5s, because you're going to have people waiting on the par 3 for the people to finish the entire hole and get off the green. On the second-shot par 5 they're going to be waiting for people to finish out on the green.
We try not to do that, certainly at the start of a golf course. At the same time, we're trying to create a golf course that has variety. We're going to have those par 3s and two-shot par 5s, and maybe even a drivable par 4 throughout the golf course. But we might do that drivable par 4 right after a par 5. People may be a little bit slower on the par 5 and then they get a little bit of an open spot on the next hole. We try to definitely keep that in mind when we're laying out the golf course.
Q.: From a desert standpoint, what did you think of Estrella when you first saw it?
NICKLAUS: I was pretty green back in '94. I just looked at the property like, “Wow, I've got an opportunity to shape this property.” I tried to insert a certain design mentality to it, but, again, I had the benefit of people who worked by my dad's side for years who were helping me work through the challenges.
In '94, we weren't as concerned with water restrictions as we are today. When doing a golf course today you have to be concerned about how much property you're going to irrigate. You can't have these big turf nurseries out there like we used to do everywhere. You also have to be more cognizant of the cost of maintenance. The amount of sand you put out there, the amount of labor involved.
In the desert, you have to pay attention to the amount of irrigated turf because we do have restrictions on the amount of water we can use now. Practices have gotten better where they can maintain grass with less water. They found that actually it's beneficial because it encourages the roots to grow.
But going back to Estrella, I liked it because it was a soft golf course. You mentioned Superstition Mountain, that course actually was not as pretty a property as Estrella, which I think had much more natural beauty. We had to create a lot of the terrain at Superstition Mountain. We didn't move very much earth [at Estrella]. The golf course fit in very nicely.