From staff and wire reports
This week’s Australian Open represents so many important aspects of Jack Nicklaus’ career and life: his passion for tournament golf; his love of golf course design; the friends that have helped shape his path; and his deep-rooted affinity for the country and people of Australia.
For much of his life, Australia has been one of the Golden Bear’s favorite countries to visit. Tournament golf was initially the vehicle that brought him to Australia in the early 1960s, but over time, he developed strong feelings for the country, whether it is was the beautiful landscapes Australia offers, its wonderfully warm people, the fantastic fishing, or, of course, the golf. Nicklaus always greatly enjoyed playing golf in Australia, and cherishes each of his six Australian Open victories—three of which came at The Australian Golf Club, the site of this week’s Australian Open.
Televised Thursday through Sunday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET on the Golf Channel, The Australian Open has always been one of the most highly regarded tournaments in the game of golf. Over the decades, it has served as the draw for some of the biggest names in the game—from Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus, to today’s brightest stars, such as Rory McIlroy and countryman Adam Scott.
While respect for the Australian Open has endured, the game of golf has changed over the years and the forward-thinking members of The Australian Golf Club understood that their iconic layout needed to change with it. So taking into account today’s equipment and technology—and driven by the membership’s own desire to maintain one of the strongest tests in Australian golf—the course underwent a modernization of the course in 2012, led by the Golden Bear and his Nicklaus Design team.
“The golf course won’t play a lot differently,” Nicklaus said recently. “We modernized the golf course in many ways. Our job is to listen to the membership and respond to their wants and needs. You don’t build a clubhouse just for New Year’s Eve, and you don’t build or design a golf course just for a tournament. You design a golf course so it will first and foremost service its members, and then make certain it can accommodate an event.
“There were places on the golf course the membership had problems with; places where they wanted to ease the golf course; and other places where they wanted to strengthen the golf course. It was a combination of things—a little bit on every hole. It is one of the only memberships I have ever been involved with that wanted to continually make the golf course more difficult or challenging. I said, ‘Why would you want to do that for your membership?’ They said it is their history and their heritage. I think it’s a good, stern test of golf and will stand up well.”
Rewinding the clock
Nicklaus’ 2012 renovation is only the latest in the club’s storied history. The Golden Bear’s three victories at The Australian—in 1975, ’76 and ’78—unfolded during an era referred to as the “Packer Opens,” due to the involvement of Australian media tycoon and business figure, as well as long-time Nicklaus friend, Kerry Packer.
Several of the late Kerry Packer’s businesses were official 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 over time, the two became close friends. It was on a fishing trip after Nicklaus’ victory in the 1976 Open that the pair first discussed redesigning the old Kensington layout – and to have it in play for the ’77 championship.
“Packer was a very proud Australian and very proud of The Australian Golf Club,” Nicklaus said. “He wanted to see The Australian be as good a golf course as it could be, and he thought I could help him do that.”
Packer, a major benefactor of the club, put his proposal for the course to be redesigned by Nicklaus to a meeting of the course’s members on December 16, 1976. Packer probably swayed the vote to 60-40 in his favor by saying the redesign would be complete in 40 days.
In reality, the members were without their course for close to 10 months, but several Sydney-area clubs accommodated them with midweek and Saturday times.
So the work would progress with no delays, Nicklaus bridged the distance between the US and Australia with daily faxes to the construction team.
“That was over 30 years ago and it needed to be modernized, and that’s what we did,” Nicklaus said. “In the 35 years or so between re-designs, the game of golf has changed and often, and a course has to change with it.”
A world-class course
“With this latest renovation, I don’t think we changed the golf course so dramatically that it changed the quality of play needed to be successful,” Nicklaus said. “It still requires good golf shots and overall quality play.”
The latest incarnation for The Australian began in late 2010 when the club became concerned about the spread of Poa annua grass in the greens. The greens were certainly past their use-by date, and so 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,” said club CEO Rob Selley. “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 meters of top soil was taken off back to the sand base. And, this time, members were accommodated with a temporary 18-hole layout with 10 par 3s and eight par 4s. Even the temporary greens would have been the envy of several Sydney-area clubs.
It’s almost four years to the day since the Nicklaus Design team began its work. Nicklaus made personal visits to the course during renovations, and he was there to help reopen the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course on March 9, 2013. During the reopening event, the Golden Bear was made an honorary member of the club in front of about 1,000 guests.
”The Australian Open has always been very special to me,” Nicklaus said. “So to take a tournament that means so much to me—but also to the country of Australia and, hopefully, the world of golf—to a golf course I have been fortunate to be involved with over the years, is very meaningful. I think The Australian will hold up well.”
No doubt the Golden Bear will be watching the tournament’s telecast from the U.S. this week to see how his new creation does in tournament play.
“The Australian Golf Club will provide a stern but fair test. I am confident that at week’s end, the golf course will reward good overall play and a fitting winner should be crowned,” Nicklaus said.
From staff and wire reports