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Opinion by Greg Hansen : With Nicklaus' help, 2009 should be divine

Jack Nicklaus' itinerary Tuesday was nuts. He awoke at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., flew to Tucson, spent two hours getting his work shoes dirty at the still-under-construction Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, and then flew to Hawaii.

One day.
Among 51 other locations, Nicklaus is building/designing golf courses in the Ukraine, Norway, Vietnam, Greece and the United Arab Emirates. And did I mention Ludhiana, India, and Chongqing, China?

Nicklaus turned 68 last month, and if you think he has kicked back, cut back or lost his reputation as the world's No. 1 golfer, you are mistaken.

He is a golf-course-building machine, a prolific, work-driven dynamo who by 2010 will have built 400 golf courses globally. It is a record that will never get the attention that his 18 major golf victories did, but one that nevertheless seems unassailable for as long as man shall live.

For the last act in his wonderful life, Jack Nicklaus has become the Tiger Woods of golf course design. He retains such clout that when an entourage of six SUVs drove down a dirt road Tuesday afternoon, kicking up dust near the 17th green of the Ritz-Carlton's Tortolita Course, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was in the group awaiting Nicklaus' arrival.

"I still get a kick out of somebody wanting this old man to come and develop a golf course,'' Nicklaus said in his typical self-effacing style. "It's a legacy from my standpoint, something that will be here long after my life and my golf game.''

It's ironic that the man who played in just one Tucson Open (1963) in his superb career is involved in preserving Southern Arizona's place on the PGA Tour.

When the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship begins this morning at The Gallery Golf Club's South Course, Nicklaus won't be in the field or in the city limits, but his presence will be felt.

It's not much of a secret that limited spectator-access to the Gallery Golf Club is neither fan-friendly nor convenient. It's like wedging 20,000 golfers, spectators, volunteers and a sizable workforce into a space built for half that.

Nicklaus' Tortolita Course, which is to open in January, will change that. If all goes as expected, it should make the Tucson venue attractive enough to earn another four-year contract, running through the 2014 event, from the PGA Tour.

The Ritz-Carlton property will never be a stadium course playing host to tens of thousands of party-mad, sun-worshipping fans, a la Scottsdale's FBR Open. But it will give the Match Play event room to breathe — and even to expand.

"Tucson probably was getting lost on the tour to some extent,'' Nicklaus said. "But all of the sudden, it is becoming a central focus on the tour.

"To see Tucson pop back up in the game is great; Match Play has revived what's happening in golf with this town.''
Nicklaus' relationship with Tucson began, oddly enough, with the founder of Tucson National, Bill Nanini. In 1961, the two men signed a contract. Nicklaus would play on tour; Nanini would be his sponsor.

That trust splintered, bitterly, when Nicklaus got so prominent so fast. Litigation ensued. Both men agreed to remain silent on the matter. Nicklaus didn't return to Tucson until 1983, when he designed the La Paloma Country Club for Dave Mehl and his late brother, George.
La Paloma was Nicklaus' 26th golf course. He has again partnered with Mehl, the developer of the vast Dove Mountain property.

Mehl said Tuesday that it is his hope that the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club will play host to the Match Play Championships for more than just the 2009-10 portion of the current contract.

"Our intent is to work something out for the next four years,'' he said. There is no agreement, or plan, for Mehl and Nicklaus to develop another golf course together. So this is likely it for Southern Arizona, too.

If the Tortolita Course doesn't keep the PGA Tour happy, what else possibly could?

The Tortolita layout will be a traditional golf course design in that the No. 9 hole and the No. 18 hole return to the clubhouse, near the soon-to-be-built Ritz-Carlton Hotel. By comparison, the Gallery's South Course is a long, meandering loop in which a foot soldier golf fan can wander into the desert and not be seen for hours.
"Fans will be able to see a lot of golf here,'' Nicklaus said. "I was asked to design a golf course that could house a match-play tournament, and that's what I've done.''


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