Right now, the 18th itself is a morass of loose dirt, trees and irrigation pipe. The splendor is in Jack Nicklaus' mind -- and in the notebooks of his designers on this arid hillside in the Sierra Nevadas, just a few elevation-aided tee shots from Lake Tahoe.
'I really enjoy this part of the process,' said Nicklaus, who parlayed his peerless golfing career into a thriving course-design business. 'Designing is really just common sense. You apply what you know to what you see out here, and you try to make something that people can enjoy.'
Nicklaus pours most of his passion for golf these days into designing courses, not playing them. When it opens next July, his latest venture -- located east of Truckee, a thriving ski town 30 minutes west of Reno -- will be just the second public course designed by the Golden Bear in the Golden State.
Old Greenwood will be a luxury development featuring $700,000 lots, condominiums and elaborate recreation facilities. But it's centered on the course under construction for Nicklaus' eponymous design company, which has created 260 courses open for play in 27 countries at last count.
Nicklaus spends varying degrees of personal time on almost every one of his company's ventures. Nicklaus Design's $1.8 million contract at Old Greenwood requires the Golden Bear to make at least six trips to the site -- for course engineering and general glad-handing.
The 63-year-old did a bit of everything on a recent trip to Truckee, where he surveyed the site of Old Greenwood for the second time.
'I'm a busy guy, but that's all right,' Nicklaus said. 'I enjoy that.'
Though younger men might shrink from the challenge, it was a fairly typical Monday for Nicklaus, who shot a 69 in the final round of the U.S. Senior Open last month before flying to his vacation home in Vail, Colo., on his private jet. He woke up in Colorado, and after watching a couple of hours of Wimbledon tennis, he flew to Tahoe.
After rolling up to Old Greenwood in an SUV, Nicklaus stepped into the back of a large pickup truck. In addition to a handful of developers and engineers, he was joined by Jim Lipe, Nicklaus Design's top mind, and Chris Rule, the onsite manager of the project.
Nicklaus' name and presence probably are even more important than his personal design input, and he leaves much of the nuts-and-bolts work to his employees. But Nicklaus has plenty of thoughts on the subject that has become another passion ever since he won the last of his 18 major titles at the 1986 Masters.
'One thing you learn is that you shouldn't ever design a golf hole for a tree,' Nicklaus said, drawing chuckles from his team. 'A group of trees, that's fine. But if you lose that one tree, you're dead meat.'
Dodging bulldozers and cranes working amid the aging pines, the truck rolled out to the first tee, where Nicklaus chats with Rule -- a former Ohio State golfer who became a course designer. They talk about the position of the back tees and width of the fairway.
At the second hole, Nicklaus engages Lipe and Rule in an animated discussion about the difficulty of the long, rolling fairway on the par 5.
Nicklaus proves to be a staunch advocate for the average golfer.
'Will that be too easy?' Rule wondered about one suggestion.
'If you're going to make this a public golf course, people have got to be able to get to where they want to go,' Nicklaus said. 'I'm trying to get the weekend guy to have it a little bit easier.'
Case in point: On the third green, which is a depression in the bare dirt outlined in spray paint at this point, Nicklaus lobbied for a wider, flatter surface. Lipe and Rule liked their design, but they made appropriate notes in their thick binders featuring detailed topographical drawings and numerical charts of every detail.
'It's never a question of who wins (the arguments). It's just by how much,' said Blake Riva, a partner in the development company building Old Greenwood.
On the sixth hole, Nicklaus paused in the center of a gaping dirt hole lined with 100 yards of plastic sheeting. Soon, the hole would be filled with water and trout, ready to menace players.
'Bet I spend a little more time in here,' Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus is relentlessly self-deprecating about his own game. He hasn't won on the Champions Tour since 1996, and he missed the cut in all four PGA events he played this year, including an ignominious 18-over in the first two rounds of the Masters.
'I stopped playing golf a long time ago,' he told two fans before his drive onto the course. 'I'm not too good at that any more.'
Nicklaus worked through lunch. After examining the first few holes of the back nine, the party veers south to the gorgeous final three holes of the course.
Shortly after leaving, Nicklaus posed for a few promotional photos in front of a stained-glass window in the brand-new sales center. He proceeded to an information session with investors and lot-buyers, where he recited the strengths and weaknesses of every theoretical hole by memory.
Nicklaus personally opens about 15 golf courses every year -- something he describes as his favorite part of course design. He'll be back in Truckee three more times before Old Greenwood opens in July.
After shaking every hand and signing every autograph, Nicklaus hopped back in the SUV for a ride back to his jet -- and a dinner date with his wife, Barbara.
'You don't get an opportunity to work on a beautiful piece of property like this very often,' Nicklaus said. 'So when you do, you want to do your best.'
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