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Nicklaus's domestic fee of $2 million is the fattest in the industry. Tom Fazio and Greg Norman each get $1.2 million, and Arnold Palmer gets $1 million, though "he'll do one for $750,000," says Nicklaus. But if you pay full boat you get Jack's full attention—and eight visits. "I used to go 15 times," he says, "but my guys [10 designers] are so good now, eight is all I need."
On the first visit he flies over your property in a chopper and takes a look. (For the Summit he took a Sno-Cat.) On the second visit he walks it, figures out the routing and the center line. On the third he checks out how the clearing is going. On the fourth he approves the rough grading. On the fifth he approves the fine grading. On the sixth, the finish grading. On the seventh, the greens. And on the eighth he plays it. In this way he built Glen Abbey, Muirfield Village, Castle Pines, Shoal Creek, Valhalla, Harbour Town, Colleton River, Desert Mountain, PGA West and Cabo del Sol—some of the greatest courses in history, even if he doesn't completely agree. "Designs have changed dramatically," he says. "I think my finished work is so much better now than it used to be. Muirfield Village, Shoal Creek, Glen Abbey, those are all great, but they're all part of my education."
His best hole? "Probably 3B at Punta Mita." I agree. It's an incredible goddess of a hole just outside Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It's a par-3 that, when the tide is up, requires a six-wheeled amphibious vehicle (and operator) to take you out to the green. You tee off from the beach in the general direction of Hawaii to a natural island backed by a natural rock formation. It's like playing to Alcatraz and back. Pelicans rest on the green. Waves crash. Dolphins eek. And to think this was the 19th hole he designed for that course. The original third is a helluva good hole along the beach, but during his opening round, Nicklaus realized what he'd missed. So at Punta Mita you get to play two number 3s; the second may be the greatest 19th hole since the Tavern Room at Pebble Beach.
"What kills me is how many bad designers are out there," Nicklaus says. "I mean, who isn't designing courses? Sergio [Garc�a] is 21 years old [now 23], and he's designing courses!"
When his courses are finally ready, Nicklaus plays them, usually with the head pro and maybe the owner. He'll get an assistant pro or maybe some freaked-out member to caddie for him. One time, a nervous type who'd begged for the privilege was standing next to Nicklaus as he addressed a huge crowd. Nicklaus held out his right hand, waiting for the guy to hand him a golf ball. Instead, the guy shook his hand.
When we landed in Vail, Nicklaus invited me to dinner with him and his staff, many of whom had flown in for the opening. And he lit up for the occasion. Nicklaus was funny. Nicklaus was engaging. Nicklaus was open. Nicklaus was frank. Nicklaus was slightly tipsy. Naturally, this was a perfect time to ply him with controversial questions. "Do you get pissed when people call Tiger the greatest golfer in history?" I asked.
"Well, I do think all of you are crowning him too early," Nicklaus said. "He's only 25 years old [now 27]. You can say he's the best at his age in history. But the trick is to keep it up. And will he want to keep it up? It's not easy. Will he want to keep it up just to break my record [of 18 majors]? And what happens when he gets married and has kids? That changes you. There were plenty of times I didn't prepare like I should have because I felt like being with my kids. I think Tiger's going to want to get married someday. After all, it's gonna get old going back to the hotel room and saying, 'Hey, Butch [Harmon, Tiger's longtime coach], I did it again!' He has to have someone to play for."
I happen to think Nicklaus is right. He didn't just have 73 Tour wins and 18 majors, he's also had 43 years of marriage, five kids and 15 grandkids, all of whom live within a mile or so of him in Florida. What does Tiger have? (I mean, besides more than $200 million and a 12-car-pileup Swedish girlfriend?) Just the golf.
"And what about injuries?" Nicklaus continued. "Nobody talks about what injuries he'll have. I hurt my hip when I was 23. At 25 I used to get cortisone injections in it, three days a week for 10 weeks. Today, they wouldn't do it. Injections destroy the capsule of cartilage in the hip." (Sure enough, this past December, Tiger had knee surgery.)
There is also Nicklaus's contention that the players Tiger is whipping aren't within a par-5 of the guys he beat. "I had a bunch of guys who knew how to win," he once told USA Today. "I mean, [Tiger's] best [rivals] are all fighting for the [title] of Best Player Never to Have Won a Major. I had guys who'd won six, seven, eight majors-Arnold, Gary, Trevino, Watson." He pointed to Phil Mickelson's zero majors, David Duval's one, Colin Montgomerie's zero, Garcia's zero.