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Editorial: It’s time for WNY to say ‘you’re hired’ to Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus once said, “The older you get, the stronger the wind gets, and it’s always in your face.”

The golf legend known as the Golden Bear was speaking about his game, but his observation also could describe the headwinds faced by Nicklaus and civic advocate Kevin Gaughan in their quest to bring a Nicklaus-designed golf course to land adjacent to South Park, and to revamp the existing course in Delaware Park.

Nicklaus was in town on Monday to promote the ideas, meeting with members of the media and with potential donors to the projects. Nicklaus is the consensus greatest golfer of the 20th century and also a giant of the course design business. He could no doubt be pursuing loftier projects for bigger paychecks elsewhere, but he believes in the potential of the Buffalo venture, which he has offered to do at cost.

We believe in it, too. A golfing legend has offered to put his imprint on two public courses here. The benefits would be tangible: a reconfigured Delaware Park course that would give back more of the meadow there for other uses by the public; the potential restoration of the arboretum at South Park, conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted, if the current public golf course there goes away; an educational and vocational center for city youngsters, on a reclaimed brownfield site adjacent to South Park that will also hold a new golf course built by Nicklaus.

Neither Mayor Byron W. Brown nor the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy is rushing to embrace the ideas.

Stephanie Crockatt, executive director of the Conservancy, told The News on Tuesday that she hopes Gaughan’s plan succeeds, but there is a long way to go. For example, she said, the city and the Conservancy would not think of closing the South Park course until after the Nicklaus course is built on the adjoining brownfield site, and the impact of that is measured.

“Not until we see a course like that (showing it is profitable), showing sustainability ... only then would we make a case to the public on why South Park Golf Course would be obsolete or not necessary,” she said.

Delaware Park, she points out, is Olmsted land, so the Conservancy and the city would have to sign off on any changes to the golf course.

“This is years down the road,” she said.

The question is, how long will Nicklaus, who is 78, be willing to make his services available?

There are sizable hurdles to jump, of course. The estimated cost of the project is $42 million, all to be raised privately. Gaughan says he has commitments totaling close to $4 million so far.

Still, this is no time for Buffalo to play small ball. Would our city turn down a basketball facility built by Michael Jordan? A soccer pitch from Lionel Messi, or an Olympic swimming pool orchestrated by Summer Sanders?

Nicklaus is no rookie at designing courses. His company has built them in 45 countries and 39 states in the U.S. He toured Delaware Park in a golf cart on Monday and said he could see within five minutes what should be done with the land to make it a more desirable tract for golfers while reducing the intrusion on non-golfers.

“The ground told me what I had to do,” he said.

Nicklaus also talked about trying to remove some of the issues that have slowed the growth of the game.

“If you design a course that’s 70 or 75 percent the size of a normal course, why not build a golf ball that’s 70 to 75 percent of a normal golf ball?” he said. “And I think that Buffalo will be the first place as a pilot for this.”

Gaughan’s team and the Olmsted Conservancy are working on a memo of understanding, which the Olmsted board may vote on before the end of the month.

Hearings for the public to weigh in on the golf course proposals will also be scheduled for this year.

Hearings are important, and all due diligence must be done, but we hope to see some urgency in moving the projects forward.

The golfer Chi-Chi Rodriguez once said that Nicklaus “is a legend in his spare time.” The fact that he is offering so much of his time to Buffalo is a rare opportunity that should not be squandered.

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