Experience ‘Golden Bear’ golf in Kansai
The name Jack Nicklaus has long been associated with greatness on the golf course. His 18 professional major championships, the electrifying finishes, the sheer will to win - his achievements are legendary. However, the term “Nicklaus design” transcends the “Golden Bear’s” dominance as a player and extends far beyond the man. Today the name Nicklaus also stands for superior golf course design, the result of his more than four decades as a renowned golf course designer.
No stranger to the land of the rising sun, Nicklaus has designed a whopping 24 courses here, spanning the length and breadth of the country, from Hokkaido in the far north to the southernmost islands of Okinawa. In between, we find the Kinki region; the middle portion of Japan, its spiritual home - containing the world heritage sites of Kyoto and Ise, but also five classic Nicklaus courses which exemplify a harmony and peace, and an experience which can only be described as “spiritual golf.”
Nicklaus has been quoted as saying in Golf Digest about course design: “I have only three design constants. First, that golf should be much more a game of precision than of power. Second, that a course rewards the player who uses his mind ahead of his muscles. Third, that I disturb as little as possible of what Mother Nature has made available to me."
Exploring the following courses, one is in awe of the breathtaking landscapes but also how the courses look like they were almost naturally occurring, shining in the landscape like natural treasures.
Rokko Kokusai Photo by B Morgan
Having hosted major tournaments including the Japan Open, the Panasonic Ladies and the Japan Senior Open, the West course is one of the better-known Nicklaus adventures in the Kansai region Though it was originally designed by Fukuichi Kato, Nicklaus was brought in to extensively remodel it in preparation for the 1996 Japan Open.
Since the Nicklaus redesign, the course is renowned for its fast rolling fairways, American-style bunkers, and demanding creative approaches onto some beautiful greens. In his work here, Nicklaus respected the original strategy and layouts but took it to another level. Green sizes were kept smaller for future tournament use, while all the par 3 holes were totally revised to have more of an English parkland style. The hole to really savor is number 6, a testing par 3 with sublime bunkering and esthetically unmatched in Japan. The par five 14th is a classic risk and reward hole that offers greatness if the green is taken on in 2 shots, and the 18th is an exhilarating finishing hole to a round without any weak points.
Kobe C.C. shows a confident Golden Bear design. When the course was constructed in 2014, the course turf selection was considered a little ahead of its time with Nicklaus opting for Tipton 419 for the fairways, the first time it had been used anywhere in Japan, which he believed was a better match to the soil on site, and promoted more consistent and lush growth throughout the year.
Postcard perfect golf hemmed in by the Rokko mountains and Tsukihara lake is also a masterclass in routing, following the natural contours of the land and accentuating the beautiful landscape’s natural rock formations and plantings. Holes 7, 8 and 9 are outstanding in their design and challenge with the 15th and 17th on the in-course really offering some of the best-looking holes in Japan. The clubhouse, too, is palatial, with many memorabilia from Nicklaus himself. It's easy to tell he was really self-invested in this project.
Image Courtesy of Japan Memorial Golf Club.
On the Japan Memorial website, Nicklaus is quoted as saying: ”I would like to create a wonderful course that is comparable to the top courses of the West. I want each player to enjoy the real pleasure of true golf." To realize that concept, it took over a year for the right location to be found; there were five candidate sites before Nicklaus finally picked this one in Hyogo Prefecture. “It was like finishing my own course. I was able to work on it like I would in the U.S.” So there you have it: A “Jack’s place” right here in Japan.
The adventure starts straight away with an epic par 4. Nicklaus creates drama with superb routing with mature forest on the sides and mountains in the distance. The 6th hole is also something to write home about, a par 3 whose elevated tee looks down 220 yards from the black tees onto a slick green guarded by six bunkers.
Photo courtesy of Morou 36
Morou 36 is located in Nara Prefecture, about an hour’s pleasant drive from Osaka airport. The Takaraike course is a classic Nicklaus design in every way - extensive fairway bunkering, favoring a strategic and controlled game plan. Not a particularly long course, its defense is the many nuances of the land with sloping fairways, elevated greens and tee boxes, all offering plenty of entertainment for all levels. The stand-out holes, though, are the 16th, 17th and 18th which wind around a large lake. The 18th green slopes perilously towards the lake and makes for a visually dramatic finish.
The Komono Golf Club website proclaims “Jack Nicklaus’ hot spirit is eternally crystallized in this 7,222-yard prestigious layout.” Tall words I know, but perhaps we are saving the best until last. This course has long been on the Japan Championship roster and is regarded by many of the top professionals here to be the best (and most difficult) Nicklaus-designed course in Japan. Nicklaus’ philosophy here was simple: To encourage all levels of golfers to play aggressively, he nicknamed the course “The challenge Bull." Yet when one stands on the tee boxes, there is a feeling of stability, that you can strategize and take on the course. However, once you get off the tee ground, you see the full dangers that await!