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An Interview with Jack Nicklaus: Jack talks clubs, courses and COVID-19

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus’ career is now entering an eight decade—marked by a fearless resolve and an ability to evolve, notably into a post-playing career leading one of the most successful golf course design firms in the world, Nicklaus Design. The National Club Association recently interviewed The Golden Bear to discuss the current golf landscape amid the coronavirus pandemic, the couple’s successful battle with the disease and the merits of great private clubs.

. The entire golf and club community was extremely grateful to hear that both you and Barbara successfully recovered from your COVID-19 diagnoses. What was the experience like? Is there anything you’d like to share with the golf and club community about the disease?

JACK: I think Barbara and I feel very blessed. With both of us being 80 and in a higher-risk age group, we were very fortunate in our experience. We self-quarantined as early as March 12, and yet Barbara and I both tested positive. Barbara was asymptomatic, and my symptoms were short-lived and relatively minor. Sadly, there are more than 200,000 people who were not quite as fortunate as we, and who lost their lives due to COVID-19. Our hearts and continued prayers go out to the families of those lost to this virus.

We both have been tested numerous times since, and we also have the antibodies. Theoretically, we are not supposed to be able to get it or give it. So that does provide some level of comfort and confidence. Again, we were very fortunate in our particular experience with coronavirus and feel great today, but it did show us how quickly and how easily someone can contract the virus. So, we can’t emphasize enough that everyone should continue to follow the advice of healthcare officials.


Q. You have been involved with the private club community for decades, what’s your view on the future of private clubs?

JACK: Yes, I have been involved with private clubs for many years, but I have also been involved in a lot of public facilities, too. I believe roughly 90% or more of the golf played in the United States is played on public courses. So we need to keep in mind how important public-access golf is to the industry.

From those I have spoken to in the industry, private clubs have rebounded very well from being shut down during the pandemic. They have also learned through this experience, and have adopted options in management and operations that will only make them healthier in the future.

I do see more and more high-end public golf and “destination golf” coming on. I say that because there are so many options for transportation—better transportation—and people can get to distant or remote places easier. To offer variety in golf experiences, and to have public access to many of them, is important. I believe public golf will probably get stronger as time goes on and that’s great.

You are always going to have private clubs, and that experience and offering are very important. It’s where people really enjoy bonding and having fun together. It’s as much a social experience as a golf experience.

Q. What makes for a good club?

JACK: For me, I like to look at one thing, and I think what makes a good club is being a “yes” club. If someone asks or wants something, and if it is possible, we try to get it for them. We try to say yes, whenever possible. At clubs where I have some level of say, we try to make sure we take care of everybody.
The singular most important mission for a club is to service the membership. That has always been our philosophy.

Q: In your involvement at Muirfield Village Golf Club and/or The Bear’s Club, you have always listened to the members and what is most important to them.

JACK: That’s true. I also think you have to keep up with the Joneses. When you see things happening at different places and those aspects or amenities become important to a membership, you need to be willing to add different things. For example, we have added Fitness Centers at both The Bear’s Club and Muirfield Village.
I am heavily involved with Castle Pines in Colorado. Castle Pines has just added all those things. They are very much a “yes” club. I think people like to walk into a club and if they run into a staff member, feel comfortable voicing a request: “Do you think it’s possible to get this done for me?” and the answer should always be, “Yes sir, I would be happy to get that done.”

Q: Being a member of a private club is a privilege many do not get to enjoy. Does it come with some responsibilities of which we should all be cognizant?

JACK: Anything and everything in this life come with a responsibility—and in the case of a private club, the responsibility of making sure that you treat people the right way, handle it the proper way, respect others, and always be aware and hold important the fact that there are other members, not just yourself.

Q. Nicklaus Design is a true leader in golf course design, with more than 425 courses in over 45 countries and numerous legendary links among them. You have been involved in some 310 of those designs. In your designs, what features do you focus in on to make a good golf experience for all levels of players? What about other amenities?

JACK: I believe strongly in variety; creating something aesthetically pleasing; integrating good strategy and good golf shots; making certain what you design fits the land; and always making certain what you design fits and services the purpose of the owner. You need to listen to your charge and try to fulfil that.

Q. What are your thoughts on how to make the game more accessible and private clubs more diverse and inclusive?

JACK: You have to have an open-door policy. It begins at the top with club leadership. I’ve always believed in diversity. Back in 1974, when we opened Muirfield Village Golf Club, I wanted the membership to have every race, creed, nationality, etc. represented, and we made certain to do that with our first 10 members. I wanted to ensure that Muirfield Village did not shut out anybody. That was back 45–50 years ago, and I have never changed my mind since. I want our clubs and this game to include every walk of life.

Another issue in accessibility is cost. If we can keep the cost of the game down—from course maintenance to the expenses passed on to the consumer—we can make the game more accessible and user friendly.

Q: What are other amenities that help make for a great experience?

JACK: I think it depends on what your membership wants. It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish with that particular club. You need to offer and deliver what your members and your clients want.

Q. With courses reopened since the COVID-19 shutdown, we are seeing a resurgence and tremendous numbers related to rounds played. Are there any trends that you see emerging or continuing?

JACK: Years ago, it used to be about getting a golf course—a good golf course. Today, it’s about trying to get the best-conditioned golf course. And the best service. And the best amenities.

Clubs are competing for people’s attention and their dollar, and I think you need to have the best facility that you can have. Also, I believe in clubs and courses, and our game, constantly trying to reinvent itself to bring in more people, and, perhaps more important, keep people in the game. I think you should offer a lot of things to do at the club, and ways to play the game. We have had 12-hole golf; 8-inch or larger cups; and more recently, I have encouraged and advocated “Doubles Golf,” which is basically a two-person, 9-hole scramble, where you play against other teams using a handicapping system to make the matches even. That represents most of the competitive golf I play these days. But we need to continue to try all kind of things to create variety and bring people into the game of golf and keep them there, and not have them be intimidated by the game. Because it is a difficult game, we need to make sure they come in, are comfortable and enjoy their experience.

Q. Muirfield hosted back-to-back PGA TOUR tournaments this year. Most courses have a difficult time maintaining conditions for one. How did that come to be and how did your team do it?

JACK: The John Deere Classic was forced to cancel due to COVID-19, and that was being played the week before our Memorial Tournament—rather the dates of our re-scheduled Memorial. The PGA TOUR still wanted to schedule an event in that window, and they needed a place for the other tournament. They asked us if there was any possibility that we would host two weeks in a row, and we said yes, we will do that. It’s good for the game of golf, and if we can be there for the game and the PGA TOUR, we wanted to step up and help. Workday stepped in to sponsor the tournament, and we had a nice event. We set up the golf course differently than we would for the Memorial Tournament—using different tees, so we didn’t have all the divots in the same place; different green speeds; different pins; different rough height. We had some rain during the Workday. The rough was short to start with, and the rough grew because of the rain for the Memorial. The greens were about 11½ for the first tournament, and 13—trending to 14—for the Memorial Tournament. I think we handled it as well as could be hoped for or expected. It was a burden on the membership, but we have a special membership at Muirfield Village Golf Club and they are always quick to help out the game of golf. It was a hardship of sorts on our club and tournament staff, but they all loved it and they were the ones that wanted to do it from the get-go. I certainly would not have done it were it not for our staff, their enthusiasm and their energy. They did a great job and I was very proud.

You are the only sports figure—and just the fourth person in history—to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Lincoln Medal. President George W. Bush presented you the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and fellow Ohioan, Speaker John Boehner, presented you the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015. Then, in 2018, with Vice President Pence and First Lady Melania Trump to each side of you and Barbara, Marie Osmond presented you the Lincoln Medal. How does it feel to receive such honors from our country’s leaders and some of the most influential people in the nation?

JACK: It’s pretty special, and I was truly honored and humbled each time. I don’t know how some country bumkin from Ohio did enough to deserve such recognition. I guess I had good guidance from my parents and my wife Barbara.


Q. You’ve played golf with Presidents, Senators, Representatives and many other public figures, what’s your view on the importance of civic engagement?

t’s hard to get people to be involved in civic life today, because sadly, we are so divided. It’s very difficult, yet I think it remains very important. I see the job that our leaders do and their hard work, and it doesn’t matter whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, as long as you are not radical. I think both sides have their views, and each has philosophies that are good and that I respect. I basically have been a Republican all my life, but I’ve voted for many Democrats. I have a lot of liberal causes that I like. But I also like free enterprise; I like our military; I like our police force; and I like the entrepreneurial system that we have and that is the backbone of our country. I like competition. To be successful in this country, you have to be competitive and you have to work hard. That’s what has made America great and continues to make it great. That’s what makes America, well, America.

Q. The sports and golf community lost an icon in 2016 when Arnold Palmer passed away. He was so much more than that to you and Barbara. In the years since his passing, what were the moments you missed him the most intensely?

JACK: Arnold and I were always competitive, no matter what we did, and it was like that our whole adult lives. But also, because we were competitive, we kidded each other, needled each other. Our wives were the best of friends. We spent a lot of social time together, as well as time together on the golf course. Recently, we celebrated what would have been Arnold’s 91st birthday, and I said something about how much I missed my calls to him every year to wish him a happy birthday, and with each year that passed, it was less and less about golf, and more about life. I just miss him. He was a great guy and a great friend.

Q. NCA has asked public figures what their dream foursome would be and asked them to include a Democrat, Republican and a nonprofessional golfer. Who would complete your foursome and why?

JACK: There is one Republican I have not played golf with who I would like to play golf with, and that is, George W. Bush. I have played with President Trump, and I enjoyed that. I’ve played golf with George H. W. Bush; and I played golf with Bill Clinton. I played golf on both sides of the aisle, you might say. I would have to include George W. Bush, and I have played a lot of golf with Bill Clinton and I still enjoy playing golf with Bill Clinton.

To be perfectly honest, my ideal foursome would be a fivesome, and it would be my four boys. But since you asked the question, I probably would pick Jack Lucks as the one non-professional. Jack and I went to Ohio State together, and he and his wife Cherie are two of our closest friends in the world. We have done so many things together and created so many great memories. Jack is a wonderful guy and he is certainly not a professional golfer.