PGA West Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course -- Memorable Piece of the Golden Bear

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos by Scot Rendall

LA QUINTA, CA – “As Jack often says, what ends up on the top of a piece of ground is a piece of him,” remarked Tom Pearson, Jack Nicklaus’ lead Design Associate at PGA West for the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course.

Any piece of Jack Nicklaus is special, but his golf course designs go one step further. They’re an enduring legacy to the man who many consider the greatest to ever pick up a golf club.

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The view from the 1st tee. Right from the start, you see plateau fairways on the Nicklaus Tournament Course.

At PGA West, the Nicklaus Tournament Course lies adjacent to another architectural masterpiece, Pete Dye’s Stadium Course. Whereas the Stadium Course was intended to be a stern test for the game’s top players, the Nicklaus layout was not meant to be as punishing.

Pearson elaborates. “When Jack designed what is now called the ‘Nicklaus Tournament Course,’ it was at that time considered the ‘Nicklaus Resort Course.’ So, Jack did not design the course for tournament play, but rather resort play.”

“As you can imagine, the philosophies and goals change when an owner or developer is trying to create a tournament course rather than a resort or daily fee golf experience.”

The beautiful par three 12th hole.

The fact that the Nicklaus Course was right next door to the Stadium Course is no coincidence either, since both were planned by Landmark Golf as the centerpiece of what was to become (in the early 1980’s) a new upscale residential community in the Coachella Valley, billed as the Western Home of Golf.

Landmark did the initial routing of the golf course and Nicklaus was only able to relocate holes within that envelope and golf boundary.

Despite the two courses’ proximity, they look distinctly different in many ways. The Stadium Course is known for its oversized features – bunkers, mounds, lakes, you name it – everything’s big. In contrast, the Nicklaus Tournament Course is more “normal” in scope. But it’s still unique.

Towards the green of the short par four 5th hole, you will have several choices on how to play it.

“I would consider the features on the golf course to be normal in size for the design concept of the development,” Pearson explained. “Having the holes cut down about 20 feet into the areas between the homes may add to the feel of a large scale, but everything else seems to be normal.”

“The cutting in of the holes and large lakes was a requirement of the owner to generate fill for the housing areas, as well as a required lake area for the development’s master drainage and golf course irrigation requirements.”

Ah yes, the course does sit down below the grade, something that is subtle yet very noticeable throughout the journey. And because of the property’s one-of-a-kind drainage system, there was no water table to consider in the design. Nicklaus was able to scheme any elevation he desired for the low areas of the golf holes.

Beautiful mountain views on the par three 17th hole.

Jack could go as low as he wanted at PGA West – just like he did during his playing days on the PGA Tour.

The low-lying nature of the holes also highlights what is probably the Nicklaus Course’s most prominent design feature – plateau fairways.

Pearson said the ‘plateau fairway’ was a design concept Nicklaus developed to give instant maturity to the look of a golf hole, as well as add strategic value.

There is bail room to the right of the green of the par four 9th hole, but that will leave a very tough up and down for par.

“This same concept has been done on other Nicklaus courses that are developed in open areas, such as PGA West, and it always creates a unique and fantastic look. When a site has natural contours and trees or other natural vegetation to define a golf hole, the plateau feature may not be used as much, if at all.”

That could explain why you don’t see them at places like Muirfield Village or PGA National (home of the Honda Classic), where trees and plants are much more prevalent.

Like all great architects, Nicklaus takes what the land gives in terms of scribing a golf course. Any layout that gets his signature truly has that ‘piece’ of him.

Plenty of sand to contend with on the challenging par four 16th hole.

Pearson expounds. “As the name implies, a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course truly bears the signature of the world’s preeminent golf course designer. It has the thumbprint of arguably the greatest mind in golf history. It is the realization of one man’s vision, philosophy and passion for the greatest game of all.”

Pearson continues, “A Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course is the highest tier of design offering from Nicklaus Design, a firm that is recognized as the world leader in golf course design. This design features the most extensive involvement by Jack, who personally directs all design-related issues.”

Contractually speaking, that means Nicklaus visits the site during the construction process and provides input and approval on all key design decisions. Pearson’s role as Senior Design Associate at PGA West was to support Jack in his design efforts by making regular site visits throughout the construction phase to ensure Jack’s design vision was being implemented.

The double green of the 18th and 9th holes will definitely leave an impression.

The course layout may ultimately end up as the “piece of him” that Nicklaus was talking about, but what is found below the ground is a collaboration of a talented team that includes the owner/developer, development team, and designers who work both in the field and in the Nicklaus Design studio.

So really, the entire Tournament Course at PGA West has ‘Signature’ elements, because of Jack’s extensive involvement.

“Jack has always strived to let each site he works on dictate the design concept,” Pearson said. “The features he used at PGA West work with the site. You might see one or two of the features on other Nicklaus courses, but it is the melding of the features and how they played off each other at PGA West that created a style you will not see on other courses.”

Variety abounds on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. Here, the split fairway off the tee of the par five 11th hole.

In other words, a true Nicklaus original.

One of those unique features on the course is found on the par five fifteenth hole, which includes an island green. We’ve seen island greens before – and there’s one earlier on the course (the par three 8th) and also over on the famous Stadium Course.

But on a par five? That’s a new one, at least for us.

Large mounds and deep bunkers frame the par three 3rd hole.

We asked Pearson if there was history behind the fifteenth. “I do not recall any reason why it’s an island green, other than the strategic value it presents. The lake was part of the master plan and we had to use it, so, maybe it’s a simple answer that Jack had on his ‘let’s design an island green’ hat that day. But seriously, the design fits the area and allowed Jack to design a great 5 par that gives the player several options on how to play the hole.”

More on the fifteenth below. The entire course is a strategic masterpiece, something you’d come to expect from Nicklaus as a designer. Jack the player thought his way around a golf course. His success was partially due to power in his day, but mostly because of his ability to plan and execute shots.

Nicklaus was the consummate thinking man’s player – not reckless in the least.

Getting to the island of the par five 15th hole is hard enough -- and then you have to get over that huge bunker, too.

You will need a similar approach at PGA West, though risk-reward gambling is definitely an option. Anthony Holder, PGA West’s Director of Golf, shares his thoughts on the layout. “The course is very fair from tee to green. The tee shots are forgiving but also visually stimulating to the eye. And for the low handicapper, there are plenty of sand and grass bunkers that come into play for the longer hitters. Also with the plateau style greens, you can find yourself with a difficult chip if you miss the putting surface with your approach shot.”

Holder pointed to another special feature on the Nicklaus Tournament Course, the fact that the ninth and eighteenth holes share a green. Don’t worry, you won’t get confused – but it’s a great way to finish up both nines, right in front of the clubhouse.

Highlights on the course include the short par four fifth hole. Playing 364 yards from the back tees, the fifth has a split fairway with a bunker running down the middle of the hole which gradually increases in size as it approaches the green. If you dare go for the green off the tee and come up short, you will have a 40-yard bunker shot to a plateau green. That’s a tough shot even for the pros.

The island green of the par three 8th hole is intimidating, but at least it is a big island.

Next up is the par three eighth, a fantastic one-shotter to an island green guarded by a bunkers in the front left and behind the green. Borrowing a look from the Stadium Course, the typical Pete Dye railroad ties outline the water’s edge to create a very intimidating visual to the shot. It’s not as scary as the 17th on the Stadium Course, but it gets your heart pumping!

As mentioned above, the par five fifteenth is truly memorable. Holder says it’s one the most difficult holes on the course and possibly in all of the Coachella Valley. “This lengthy par five provides a tee shot to a split fairway with a sand bunker positioned directly in the middle. The layup shot is not that easy either, with water down the left side of the fairway and OB on the right. For the long hitters, good luck! This is an island green guarded by a bunker and a narrow landing area.”

Nothing like trying to hit an island green with a fairway wood. The fifteenth is a tough one.

Jack Nicklaus always designs tough finishing holes, and this one is no different.

Finally, the par four eighteenth stands out – a fantastic finishing hole worthy of the Nicklaus name. There’s water all down the right side, which is buffered by a long fairway bunker. The green complex is a double green shared with the ninth and guarded with bunkers all around. Bring your game for the last link of the round.

PGA West has hosted the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School a number of times, and although the professionals usually score well on both courses, it’s been fun to see how the designs hold up against some of the best players in golf.

Resort players will appreciate the Nicklaus Tournament Course’s wide fairways and playing areas, and won’t be too bothered by the steep bunker faces and challenging green surrounds. Hard par, easy bogey – keep moving. That’s great resort golf.

There are desert plants in some of the waste bunkers on the course – so it’s conceivable you could be in a bunker and have an obstructed lie, but it’s all part of the experience.

Course conditioning was fantastic, and Holder insists they’ve mastered the transition to seasonal grasses. From what we saw, he’s right.

“We would like to leave our players with the thought that not only did the course exceed their expectation, but the service and touch points did as well…. The course brings them here, our staff keeps them here.”

No doubt. And you’ll certainly treasure the ‘piece’ of Jack Nicklaus as well.


PGA West Stadium Golf Course
56-150 PGA Boulevard
La Quinta, California 92253

Phone: 1-800-PGA-WEST


Course Designer: Jack Nicklaus
Design Project Manager: Tom Pearson
Director of Golf: Anthony Holder


Tournament                 7204    143/75.3
Championship             6522    134/72.2
Combo                        6212    130/70.7
Regular                        6061    128/70.0

Ladies Rating:

White                          6061    139/75.2
Gold                            5627    133/72.8
Combo                        5316    127/71.0
Red                             5023    124/69.4


Rates vary from $59 in the summer months, to $199 in the peak season.

Click here to book your tee time for PGA West at GolfNow.

Note: Walking is allowed, and encouraged at PGA West. “You don’t have to be a pro to walk like one” is a great tag line used during the Humana Challenge weeks.

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