Long ago I accepted the fact that I was unlikely to be able to hit a golf ball like Jack Nicklaus, nor putt with his complete assuredness under the most extreme pressure. After studying more than 40 of his golf courses worldwide, I’d also assumed that we were unlikely to ever share the same views on architecture and the business of golf course design. Turns out I was wrong, for I recently discovered that, like me, Nicklaus apparently believes that Sydney’s revered Australian Golf Club is seriously flawed. The problem for Jack Nicklaus; he’s the guy who designed it.
For some time now rumors have been circulating the golf community that The Australian was looking to revitalize its layout, either through a simple greens resurfacing or something more substantial. Nicklaus Design is keen for a major overhaul, and in a recent letter to the club’s board, written by senior associate Chris Cochran, the company made a number of staggering admissions.
Cochran begins by congratulating the club on doing a ‘great job preserving Jack’s Signature design so well for over 30 years.’ He then admits that many areas of the golf course were poor, including the fairways, the bunkers, the greens, the ponds, the landscaping and the symmetrical mounding. That’s quite a list when you think about it. He also suggests the routing could be improved.
Most startling to me, however, was the following remark, that ‘…if the Australian Golf Club was a brand new golf course that I was showing to Jack for the first time, he would make me re-shape the entire course before he would put his name on it.’
So to surmise, the club has done a great job preserving the Nicklaus design, but the course is an embarrassment and we want you to engage us to rebuild it. It’s quite an admission from Cochran, who points out that he has shown Jack Nicklaus images of the course and apparently speaks on behalf of the Nicklaus Company.
What’s absolutely true of the present Australian Golf Club, is that the problems outlined in Cochran’s letter do exist. The contentious point, I suppose, is who should be appointed to repair said damage.
Let’s look at the problems first, and Nicklaus Design is of the view that the bunkers are unnatural in appearance (they were rebuilt by ND less than a decade ago), the fairways have ‘little to no contour’ relative to the round symmetrical mounding and the green complexes don’t fit their surrounds. They also feel the ponds ‘do not relate to the greens and fairways as well as they should’, and that the landscaping is a dog’s breakfast that leaves the course without a consistent look.
These criticisms are all valid, and part of the reason why I once wrote that the course had been over-rated by our Golf Digest panel, who placed it 11th in Australia – and above a number of fine courses that seem superior. The Aus is not a poor course by any stretch, but as Cochran points out it’s neither beautiful nor particularly interesting. As the club has done a ‘great job’ preserving the original design, surely this assessment damns those who routed, designed and constructed the layout in the first place.
After identifying areas of concern Nicklaus Design goes on to provide the club with five distinct options for improvement, from a simple resurfacing of the putting greens through to a full scale redesign of the entire layout costing close to $7 million. Beyond moving some tees and greens, reshaping greens and bunkers, rebuilding lakes, making subtle routing changes and tidying up the landscaping, there is also a suggestion that the club consider removing most of the trees and returning the course to a links layout.
For those unfamiliar with the Australian GC history, it was a wild and sandy quasi-links in the 1970s when Nicklaus transformed it into an American parkland. Now Nicklaus and his team are offering, for a fee, to return the layout to its sandy roots – just like the nearby Lakes Golf Club has done. Something doesn’t seem right here.
As I’m regularly reminded, there are a few sacred cows in golf and Jack Nicklaus is first and foremost amongst them. Though I never saw him play live, I have a tremendous respect for his professional record and his role as an ambassador for our game. As a ‘designer’ however, he deserves the same scrutiny as any other course creator and I’ve long felt that his business model was anti-creative and dangerous for the growth of the game. Instead of committing fully to each and every project, his fee scale and method of design are skewed toward providing greatest care and attention to those projects and clients with the deepest pockets. The Australian are presumably well resourced, but if they are serious about improving their course they would be best advised to broaden their architectural search and consider all of golf’s Quality Endorsed designers. A financially sound club in an appealing city like Sydney could attract almost any architect it wanted.
If it wasn’t Nicklaus and we weren’t talking about the Australian Golf Club, it would be a surprise to learn that the designer who first altered the character of the course and created all these serious problems (their own words) would be re-hired to fix them and return the layout to how it used to play. Nothing in this business surprises anymore, and if Nicklaus Design is engaged to rebuild the course, our only hope is that they do a better job the second time around and create something that Jack isn’t ashamed to put his name on.
Footnote – from an angry Planet Golf insider
This is not rocket science folks, the best golf courses in the world rarely face major structural change – it’s what MacKenzie described as the finality of design, striving to get it right first time so the layout can stand the test of time. The Australian is a great club and the course sits on reasonably good ground. If they want to reshape the layout into one of the nation’s best they need a fresh set of eyes.