Golf Course Design: Nicklaus, Palmer and Player

Imagination. Innovation. Ingenuity.

These traits have guided the golf design decisions, from the initial site visit to the finished fairways, of the Big Three players cum architects, Palmer, Nicklaus and Player.

As golf’s elder statesmen, these luminaries hold 36 major golf titles between them, and they share a love of great design. Each, in their own right, (even though none of them feels as if they have a distinct trademark) have put their stamp on the world of golf course architecture. Courses designed by all three have held major professional tournaments, with Palmer’s K Club in County Kildare, Ireland having hosted, recently, the 2006 Ryder Cup.

“Imagination is very important in designing golf courses,” says Player. “Sometimes you are given a lousy piece of ground and that actually makes me work harder.”

This labor of love begins with a vision: the designer imagines what a piece of land can become. Once this vision crystallizes and takes shape, an architect needs to have the imagination, innovation and ingenuity to sculpt something beautiful and functional out of the land that will appeal to golfers of all ages and abilities. All the while, the man behind this vision must take into consideration environmental issues and advancements in technology, which might affect his original dream.

“I’m a great believer in beauty because people are working under great stress every week in their lives, so when they go out to golf it must be a tonic,” Player says. “It’s like when you go to Cypress Point or Pebble Beach early in the morning, you just get a feeling of peace of being around nature.”

This love of the land and commitment to preserve the wonders that Mother Nature has blessed us with is also at the heart of the philosophies guiding the creations of Nicklaus and Palmer.

“The goal of any designer should be to create a beautiful place to play golf,” says Nicklaus. “After all, if you are going to spend four hours on a golf course, you want it to be an enjoyable, aesthetically pleasing and memorable experience. I always say that you wouldn’t choose a rock quarry for a picnic, would you?”

This talented triumvirate also believe a great golf course is one that can be enjoyed by both the 20-handicapper and the professional golfer.

“The game is meant to be fun,” stresses Nicklaus. “I don’t design courses to suit myself as far as difficulty goes. I design them to match the golfers who are going to play the course. Golf is a game of precision, not strength. It’s a thinking person’s game. There’s no challenge in just whacking the ball. A golf course should be enjoyable and offer variety to every golfer, no matter what his or her level of skill or strength.”

Palmer concurs: “I like to make it so everyone who walks out on that course can enjoy it whether they are good players or bad players or a family going out to have a round of golf and the companionship that is created by touring an acceptable 18 holes.”

“There is definitely a knack to doing that and a great architect has that knack,” Player chips in.

Nicklaus recently celebrated a design milestone when the 300th Nicklaus Design golf course opened worldwide — Sebonack Golf Club in Southhampton, N.Y., a collaborative effort with architect Tom Doak. Flash back to 1969 and a neophyte Nicklaus, seven years into his professional playing career, teamed up with a rising course designer named Pete Dye to create Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C. That was, in essence, the beginning of Nicklaus Design. Even though the Golden Bear is playing less championship golf, his second career shows no signs of slowing down. Today, the fire to sculpt fairways and bunkers burns as strong as his desire to fire approach shots at the flagstick did during the heyday of his playing career. Nicklaus Design currently is developing courses in 32 different countries.

“Golf is a global game,” says Nicklaus. “We embrace each opportunity to introduce golf or grow it in new countries and emerging markets.”

Thirty-five years since he began to dabble in design, Palmer and his design team have also left their stamp across the globe. Palmer Course Design has nearly 300 active projects and has opened golf courses in 38 states and 23 countries.

Player adds, “we are currently building a golf course in a game reserve, and we are also building a golf course in Bulgaria, along the cliffs, where the views and topography are as good as, or better than, Pebble Beach.”

Respecting Mother Nature

The Big Three share a commitment to the environment. Palmer believes golf courses enhance nature, not destroy it, “I have seen golf courses that became a habitat for animals and various forms of wildlife after the course was completed.”

Nicklaus refers to environmental issues as “challenges,” rather then “concerns.”

“We have always prided ourselves on being a firm that embraces such challenges, works closely with the necessary agencies, and then accomplishes what works best for the environment and the client,” he explains. “We are here to enhance what Mother Nature has provided, not destroy it. I believe all our golf courses are environmentally friendly.” According to Nicklaus, more than 40 of his courses in the United States have been involved in Audubon International programs.

Look no further than Old Works in Anaconda, Montana, which opened in 1997, to see Nicklaus’ environmental approach in action. “The site was a copper-smelting facility at the turn of the 20th century and had been abandoned for decades,” comments Nicklaus. “Through hard work from our design team, and the commitment of Anaconda and government officials, we were able to turn an eyesore into something beautiful that not only created something the city could be proud of, but also produced jobs and additional tourism.” After it opened, the Environmental Protection Agency wrote a personal letter to Nicklaus, applauding his design efforts. The project was also recognized with the 1998 Golf Digest Environmental Leaders in Golf Award.

For Player, environmental issues such as water preservation, minimizing the amount of fertilizer used, and proper drainage are always at the forefront of his planning, “Being a rancher I have a great feeling for the soil and for not wasting water. You’ve got to make golf and a golf course a gift to nature. You try to improve on the piece of ground … bring in birds, fish, and animals, have trees to fight pollution, have lakes, and use as much effluent water and rain water as possible.

“Above all you need to have good drainage … good drainage makes a very big difference to the growth of a golf course, to the condition of the golf course and how it gets the water absorbed.”

Technological advances alter design

Technological advances continue to revolutionize the game. As clubs and balls enable players to make longer shots everywhere on the course, these advances have altered the way this talented trio approaches new course designs.

“We are forced to lengthen the courses to some unbelievable distances today,” Palmer says. “When I started designing golf courses it was certainly in the ballpark to design a course that was somewhere short of, or maybe slightly over, 7,000 yards, and that was not unusual. Now we are looking at 7,600 yards because of the ball and technical advances of golf equipment.”

“There isn’t a course we open today that isn’t obsolete tomorrow because of equipment,” adds Nicklaus, weighing in on this technology debate. “We certainly have to stretch the yardages on all our projects to accommodate technology. But having said that, I think we actually focus more of our design from the member perspective than we used to since technology has affected the game at the higher levels more than for the average player. While touring professionals are getting longer and longer, I don’t necessarily think technology has made the average golfer that much better.”

Player and Nicklaus share a design solution for addressing this “length issue.” “I try to leave a little bit of ground at the start of each hole, so if necessary you can go back,” says Player. Nicklaus concurs with this approach since he says that less than two per cent of all golf is played from the back tees. “We tend to design more from the member tees and forward,” he says. “Then, we try to go back and find enough land on a hole to accommodate the big hitters or better players.”

Whether accommodating the big hitters or catering to the weekend golfer, when the designs are done and the fairway frolicking has begun, Player sums up best what, for the Big Three, a good golf course should provide for players.

“When you design a good golf course you give people pleasure for a thousand years,” he concludes. “That is a very big decision … to give people pleasure not punishment.”


Describe your favourite or most unique hole that you have designed.


Club: Four Season Golf Club Punta Mita, situated 25-miles north of the Puerto Vallarta airport in Mexico

Hole: third, par-3, 194 yards from back tee

“This hole is in the ocean. In what might be a design first, this par-3 features an island green sitting on a rock formation in the Pacific … there is a little bailout area right, so it could play as short as 165 yards. There are bunkers back and left of the green, so it protects your ball from getting in the rocks. At low tide, golfers can walk to the green on a path of hand-laid rock or take their golf car. At high tide, the hole is still playable as golfers are taken to the green in an amphibious vehicle.”


Club: Bay Hill Club, Orlando, Florida

Hole: 18th, par-four, 441 yards from the back tees

“The 18th at Bay Hill is a great hole in that you can do so much with it. First of all, off the tee you have a lake on the right, which stretches all the way to the front of the green. If you just get up and hit a tee shot without any thought you could end up in the lake off the tee. Then, you are looking at a green that is not very deep, it’s set into an amphitheatre-type situation … narrow with sand traps on the back and water in the front. It requires great precision off the tee and an even greater shot into the green.”


Club: The Lost City, Sun City, South Africa

Hole: 13th, par three

“You hit out of the mountains into the desert below and onto a green that is the shape of Africa. The traps around the green are filled with three colors of sand found in South Africa: yellow for the gold mines, red for the agriculture and white for the beaches. In a pool, on the left of the green we put in 38 crocodiles.”

This story was published in a special Rolex magazine called Perpetual Spirit on The Big Three.

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