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As golf course designer, Jack Nicklaus speeding up, not slowing down

The ice sculptures under the party tent were already dripping pretty steady Tuesday when Jack Nicklaus stepped to the microphone to talk about his latest golf course design project in West Palm Beach.

Time’s a wasting, by that symbolic image, and the groaning of steam shovels moving dirt in the fading afternoon light made the same point.

“We’re going to start construction probably around the first of February,” Nicklaus said, “and we should be in play by Thanksgiving. We’re going to fill some of the lakes and probably build some new ones but it’s not like starting over.”

That’s because the bones of a Robert Trent Jones II course are already in place. Banyan Cay Resort & Golf Club, a $280 million project with a luxury hotel, a condo tower and 94 single-family residences to come, is located on a prime piece of land that long-time West Palm Beach residents remember as the centerpiece of the city’s westward expansion nearly 50 years ago.

Does the President County Club ring a bell, surrounded by the Land of the Presidents community? No? Well, just think of the Palm Beach Mall and Municipal Stadium, long since replaced by the Palm Beach Outlets and a Home Depot, respectively, and you’re in the neighborhood.

Jack remembers, because in 1979 he and Barbara watched their son, Jack II, play in a Palm Beach County Amateur tournament at the President. Future British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia won that event. Calc was a freshman on the Florida Gators golf team at the time and a recent graduate of North Shore High School, another familiar but faded reference.

Yes, Nicklaus has seen all the local trends cycle through since taking up permanent residence at North Palm Beach in 1965. The influence of his presence and his passion for Palm Beach County is about the only thing that hasn’t changed around here.

At 76, he is adding Banyan Cay and another new project at Via Mizner in Boca Raton to a list of a dozen or so Nicklaus course designs in his home county, and more than half of the ones already in use have undergone some level of renovation or redesign in the last year.

Nobody’s ever been able to match his levels of energy and production, though there’s another local guy, Tiger Woods, who people keep pushing to chase Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championship titles.

Tiger’s been stuck on 14 for a while, and not only because of surgeries and such. It’s a mental grind, too, trying to keep a game at world-class level over a period of decades, and this week Tiger feels finally ready to dip back into it after 15 months away from the PGA Tour. He tees it up on Thursday at the 18-player Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.

“I have no idea what we’re going to see, and I’m not sure Tiger knows what he’s going to see,” Nicklaus said. “I would think he’ll do all right. He’ll play well. I don’t think the injuries are going to be a big issue for him. The biggest issue is going to be between his ears, how does he mentally get back in the game?

“I think the game is happy to have him back. Every time I’ve seen him in recent months, he looks great, so the proof will be in the pudding, I suppose.”

Now there’s a phrase from another era, and with Nicklaus there always is a touch of nostalgia in every conversation. Talking about Arnold Palmer, who died Sept. 25, is still difficult. Thinking of his own prime playing days takes a little more work these days, too, but Jack continues to operate as an innovator.

The long-awaited appearance of golf at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, for instance, was an idea that Nicklaus championed, somewhat wistfully.

“Six different countries medaled, three guys and three girls, and I thought that was really neat,” Nicklaus said. “Everyone who came back that I talked to said it was one of the great experiences of their lifetime. The Olympic experience is something that I wish I’d had the opportunity to have, but never did.”

Banyan Cay is another fresh idea, from Nicklaus’ “reimagining” of the golf course to the developers’ home-run swing at creating a five-star resort right in the middle of the city, and just minutes from the airport. It’s sure to make PGA National and other area resorts step up their games.

“The (outlet) mall sort of started the rejuvenation of this area of West Palm,” he said. “It’s a big step. It’s a big gamble in this area to take an older golf course that got very tired and turn it around and put in a hotel with the investment they’ve put into it. So far, they’re taking all the right steps.”

Taking them quickly, too, now that the instant credibility of Nicklaus’ signature is on the place. Call it a backyard project for the Golden Bear, but a strong magnet for tourists from all over the world.

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