When Jack Nicklaus was around 26 years old, the young Golden Bear began an apprenticeship of sorts with golf course architect Pete Dye. Truth be told, more people had heard of Nicklaus – already a winner of six Major championships – than of Dye, who was just beginning his career with the design of The Golf Club in New Albany, Ohio, near Columbus.
Dye – 14 years Nicklaus’ senior – asked his fellow Ohioan if he would like to advise on The Golf Club’s design. Nicklaus agreed. Dye asked again in 1967 for Nicklaus’ input in creating Harbour Town Golf Links for developer Charles Fraser on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Thus, Harbour Town, it can be argued, launched the legendary course design careers of Dye and Nicklaus. Each would go on to build some of golf’s more famous courses. Nicklaus also would go on to become the greatest golfer in history.
Fast forward more than 50 years. Nicklaus has essentially retired from golf, but his legacy as a course architect continues to grow. All told, Nicklaus has designed more than 400 courses around the world, the latest being the private Panther National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, FL., As he sat near a practice green not far from Panther National’s emerald rolling fairways, Nicklaus reflected on his early days learning under Dye and today of his own mentorship of 30-year-old PGA Tour star Justin Thomas. The two-time Major winner is co-designer on the Panther National project in the far reaches of Palm Beach County.
“It is a little like I was when I started,’’ said Nicklaus, who will be 84 years old in January. “He doesn’t know anything, but he knows what a golf course should look like. He doesn’t know what to do, so he asked a lot of questions.
“I was like that with Pete at Harbour Town. I just sort of went along and asked questions.’’
The result is undoubtedly one of the top new courses on the country, showcasing elevation changes unexpected in South Florida, as well as a nine-hole, par-three short course complete with an island green that replicates the famed 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass.
“There were no (environmental restrictions, so we could basically do what wanted,” Nicklaus said. “My phrase is, ‘Gee, that was a great golf course. What time can I play tomorrow?’ I think you’ll get that here.”
Will Nicklaus and Thomas team again?
“JT was terrific,’’ Nicklaus said. “I loved having him with me. I’d love to work with him again. But let him play golf right now. Let him go win more championships.’’
The Golden Bear, as always, speaks from experience.
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Photo: Panther National (Evan Schiller)