By Dermot Gileece
Jack Nicklaus had his first sight of links terrain when he represented the US in the 1959 Walker Cup matches at Muirfield. A week later, there was further education among the towering dunes of Royal St George's, Sandwich, where he played in the British Amateur Championship for the first time.
When he set about confronting this new reality in his development as a player of the highest quality, certain characteristics from both courses remained with him. Most of all, he remembered the wind.
"Wind is a very significant part of links golf, which is why you need to have generous fairways," he said. "Usually, you find that links golf has two wind conditions, either a shore breeze from the ocean or an off-shore breeze. Weather patterns are very different inland, where the wind just goes around the clock."
He added: "For my part, I didn't grow up in wind and I had to learn how to play it in.”.
In Ireland’s Joe Carr, he found the perfect teacher. “I learned a lot from watching Joe play links golf,” the Bear went on. “I saw him play an awful lot of two, three or four irons off the tee and I came to realise that this was a pretty good way to play those courses. It was the only way you could be certain of avoiding the bunkers."
As in all of the other key aspects of golf, Nicklaus learned well, to the extent that he went on to win three Open Championships on classic links terrain. His breakthrough victory was, significantly, at Muirfield in 1966 and he went on to win the other two on the Old Course at St Andrews, in 1970 and 1978.
Royal County Down
By the time he came to Royal Co Down in July 2002 for a debut appearance in the Senior British Open, he was very much a veteran of links play. That was when he finished tied third on “pretty skittish” terrain, behind the winner, Australia’s Ian Stanley.
"I like the golf course a lot and it was a terrific test, especially with the change of wind from the south-west,” he said afterwards. “You have to be in the right place or you are likely to get a bad bounce _ that is the mark of a well thought-out golf course."
Wearing his designer’s hat, he continued: "Is it the best course I have played in the British Isles? Probably not, because there are too many blind shots.
You had more than 25 full shots which were blind. You couldn't tell where anybody [spectator] was. Hit it over the top of a hill and you might kill somebody.
“You can't have that in this day and age, though I accept blindness as part of links golf as long as it has some definition. Not this business of hitting it over a white stone. I realise they didn't have earthmoving equipment back then, but I can think of a lot of situations which don't have to remain blind, without changing the overall character of the links. Throw that aside and it is an enjoyable course, a great, strategic test where you really have to play golf. I thoroughly enjoyed it."
In defence of blind shots, the words of Tommy Armour _ “There is no such thing as a blind hole to anyone with a memory” _ are often quoted. Either way, these comments should be viewed in the knowledge that Nicklaus has never been publicly kind to courses he disliked. For instance, he described Royal St George's as "the only course I know where you can knock a drive straight down the middle and lose your ball."
So, would he like to see changes at Royal Co Down? "You don't change that kind of a course," he replied. "You wouldn't want to change St Andrews which was built a long time ago and still stands the test of time. This is the way they built courses 100 years ago and you accept them as they are."
Royal County Down
Nicklaus has designed two golf courses in Ireland, both of them parkland. Mount Juliet was opened for play in 1991 and Killeen Castle’s first serious outing was in 2011 when it played host to a winning European effort in the Solheim Cup.
In between, it seemed as if a long-held desire to design a links in these islands would be realised, when he was contracted to impose his inimitable stamp on a wonderful property in the north west of Donegal. A project overlooking Sheephaven Bay, one mile from Carrigart, was embarked upon in 2006, only to fall victim to the world recession two years later.
Which meant that its opening scheduled for St Patrick’s Day [March 17th] 2009, never happened. However, during a visit there three years earlier, Nicklaus revealed a fascinating insight into links golf, as he envisaged it. As it happened, the development has since become part of the Rosapenna complex, where the Sandy Hills layout, designed by Pat Ruddy, has become a major attraction.
Describing the projected €90 million development at St Patrick’s as the design opportunity of a lifetime, the Bear said: "I've always considered these islands to be the home of golf, and for years I've wanted to do a seaside course. This is it."
Rosapenna Golf Club
He went on: "We usually build our greens to USGA specifications, but here they will be natural. That's one of the great benefits of working on a site like this: no drainage. On parkland, it normally takes 18 months to construct 18 holes. Here, you're looking at 36 holes in the same time-span. As the first golf course of its kind I'll have done here, there won't be all that much of a resemblance with traditional links courses I've played in the British Open. It will be my interpretation of what I think should be here, not a copy of someone else's work."
Sadly, it never happened. The broad sweep of the Bear’s thinking on links design, however, offered a fascinating insight into the accumulation of knowledge, since that fateful visit as a 19-year-old to Muirfield, 61 years ago.