Golden Bear makes himself at home among big five

By Michael Vlismas
Courtesy of The Times

The story goes that when God created Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, he turned to Nicklaus and said: “You will be the greatest the game has ever seen.” Then He turned to Palmer, adding: “But they will love you more.”

However, as we sit under a giant kameeldoring tree on the site of his latest South African signature course, Meletse, it’s clear that Nicklaus is much loved, particularly in SA.

Meletse, in the Waterberg outside Pretoria, is the seventh course he has designed in this country — a fact that may not sit well with longtime rival Gary Player.

“He has enough of his own turf,” says Nicklaus playfully when asked if Player may think he is muscling in on his territory.

The reality is that Nicklaus remains the benchmark in the game of golf. While on one end Tiger Woods is chasing the greatest record in the game — Nicklaus’s 18 Majors — Nicklaus is busy establishing other records in golf course design. And in this field, he is royalty.

The financial muscle behind Meletse includes Atterbury Properties, Rand Merchant Bank and the Bou Raath family. Louis van der Watt, MD of Atterbury, said Nicklaus had been their first choice for the project.

With the competition between Nicklaus and Player still fierce even at this late stage of their careers, you can see why Nicklaus jumped at the opportunity.

Player was the hand behind the famed Leopard Creek golf course in the Lowveld. So when the chance came to design a bushveld course , with the added attraction of a big-five reserve on the property, it’s the kind of “extra edge” a man who spent his life ruthlessly amassing Major championship titles can relate to.

“When I saw the site I thought it would make a pretty darn good golf course, ” says Nicklaus, who was so impressed by the game farms that will be sold to the wealthy as part of the development that he bought one himself.

Says Van der Watt: “The developers make no apologies for the exclusivity of Meletse. The land for the development cost R250-million. The budget for the golf course is R80-million and the two clubhouses will lift this to R140-million.

“There is a huge market that hasn’t been catered for in the Waterberg and we’re aiming to be more up-market and exclusive than the other developments here.”

But luxury is not something Nicklaus pursues or is particularly fond of.

“I don’t like it. I’m not interested in anything over the top. I like the bush and a rustic style of living.”

His love of the bush and trophy hunting, in addition to his many business interests, bring him to SA about five times a year.

Nicklaus speaks passionately about the country:

“I’ve been here a lot and enjoy it. SA golf is a world force today. You’ve got so many good young players. You’ve always had good players, but you’ve got some really good young ones now .”

In between reaffirming his respect for Tiger Woods and predicting Royal Birkdale a perfect set-up for Trevor Immelman in the Open Championship, Nicklaus reveals what he believes to be the greatest danger in the game.

“The biggest danger is that today’s players get their pockets full too early in the year,” he says when asked if it’s a concern that golf — despite being the healthiest and most financially successful it has ever been — has regressed from the big three players of his era to the big one of the Woods era.

He stops short of accusing some of the world’s top players of lacking the hunger to raise their games to challenge Woods, but says:

“If they know they can’t compete with Tiger but are still enjoying a very rewarding life, that’s where a lot of the attitude comes in.

“I’m not saying they don’t work hard and would hate for them to ever think I am saying this. Many of them work really hard, and there are probably 10 players that have as much talent as Tiger.

“But for them to go to the next level, they probably feel it’s too tough. And a lot of it has to do with the big purses in the game .”

The money is even growing on kameeldoring trees.

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