Jack Nicklaus had a choice: clean closets or visit the city that has embraced him for nearly 40 years.
The Golden Bear chose flying into Augusta to check on the progress of his handiwork at the Champions Retreat Golf Club at Riverwood Plantation in Evans.
"Yesterday afternoon I was sitting at home and I took a look at my schedule next week and it's ridiculous. I'm all over the country next week with Augusta at the end of the week," said Nicklaus, standing at the rear of a pickup truck on the construction site of the golf course on Tuesday. "I wasn't doing anything. My wife had jury duty, so she wasn't around. My secretary had a birthday today, so she's out of town. If I was going to do anything it was going to clean closets. As I started thinking about it, (I decided) to find out how the work is coming."
The six-time Masters Tournament champion is designing nine holes of the 27-hole course that will be Champions Retreat, formerly called The Big Three. Two more nine-hole courses are being designed by fellow Masters champs Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
Because of rain delays and housing construction, Palmer's and Player's courses are developing more slowly than Nicklaus', but all three courses are scheduled to be completed in late 2004.
Officials at the club said Palmer and Player are scheduled to check on the progress of their respective courses later this year.
"When they were deciding which course they wanted to design, Gary said, 'Arnold, you're the oldest, so you go first. Jack, you've won the most green jackets, so you go next,"' said Betty Surrency, a consultant with Champions Retreat. "Arnold thinks he got the best piece of land. Jack thinks his is the best and Gary is happy with his. It worked out pretty well."
Nicklaus' Champions Retreat visit was his second. He initially checked on his signature course design five weeks earlier to make subtle changes to the landscape and the placement of hazards.
"Today, we went back and tweaked to try to make it look a little more natural," he said. "Every piece of property is different. You just sort of try to use common sense if you can and try to apply it. The good Lord gave us a really nice piece of ground here in Augusta. If you take it and screw it up He'll be mad at me and I don't want Him to be mad at me. I'm getting too close to meeting Him to get Him mad at me now."
In 1968, Nicklaus designed his first course with the help of Pete Dye in Hilton Head, S.C. He has since designed more than 200 golf courses with his team of landscape architects and arborists.
"I learned how to (design golf courses) by playing golf and working with other guys," Nicklaus said. "All my guys are landscape architects or turf graduates. They're masters in this or Ph.D.s in that. My Ph.D. is in golf, I guess. I just combine the two of them with what's practical for the ground. What goes on top of the ground is mine. What goes underneath the ground I let the other guys do."
Happy with Champions Retreat's progress so far, Nicklaus said he'll make one more visit in the coming months, before sod is put down, to make any final adjustments.
"It's coming along nice," he said. "Now, we'll take it down to a finished product and I'll come back for the last part and go over it just before it's grassed. That'll take it through the scope. Like I said, we've got a really nice piece of land. Just don't mess it up."
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