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Nicklaus and Els collaborating for first time amongst wild African lions and rhinos

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

People nowadays know South African Ernie Els primarily as one of the top golfers in the world and Jack Nicklaus as a legend who is now mainly a businessman and golf course designer.

But, many might not know that Nicklaus has taken Els under his wing as a designer.

Els has his own design company that is a joint venture between the two.

"It's kind of similar with what Jack did with Pete Dye 40 years ago and with what Pete has done with some others," said Ernie Els Design Ltd. President Mike Kenny. "I think it's interesting because if you look at the whole design family tree - Pete kind of begat Jack and Jack has begotten Ernie. It's kind of an extension of the Pete Dye family of architects.

A "true" collaboration"

Els's design company has about 10 projects it has either finished or is currently working on. His design career reflects his international status as a player - Els has worked on designing courses in the U.S., Bahamas, China, South Africa, Mauritius and Dubai.

But, thus far, he and Nicklaus have not worked together personally. Els has worked mainly with the staff of Nicklaus's design company.

Now, the two are finally collaborating on a design, at a course in South Africa, at Waterberg , roughly 90 minutes north of Johannesburg. Unlike some big-name collaborations, project officials say there won't be a clash of egos, like, for example, when Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer collaborated on the King and Bear in Florida.

"This is going to be a co-design, like what Jack did with Pete at Harbortown in the 1960s," Kenny said. "This will be a true collaboration on a hole-by hole basis.

Jack will "spoon-feed" Ernie

As you might expect, the more established Nicklaus will take more of a lead role.

"Jack is a lot more experienced and we fully expect he's going to have much stronger opinions," Kenny said. "Ernie is looking at this as a chance to learn first-hand what makes Jack tick. He's had the ability the last five years to work with Jacks's people, but he hasn't had the chance to spend a lot of time with Jack himself, especially out in the field.

"What I see Jack doing is spoon-feeding Ernie to a certain extent," Kenny added. "Ernies been doing it for a few years so he does have his own ideas as well - and they're not exactly a mirror image of Jack's.

No bulldozers for Nicklaus

One thing the architects promise is that Nicklaus won't be moving a lot of dirt - a long-time criticism leveled at Nicklaus and one which those who work with him say is anachronistic.

"We can tell you that, contrary to what you've heard about Jack or what you might think you know about Jack, he's changed quite a bit," Kenny said. "He's not the kind of guy who's going to want to bring bulldozers in there ana move mountains of earth. At one time (the criticism) was probably fair, but nothing exists in a vacuum and I would say the whole industry has grown up and gotten smarter and guys like Jack have come a long way.

"I don't know if you would call him a minimalist now, but he certainly doesn't live up to his former reputation as an earth-mover. In fact, guys like (Tom) Fazio will move more dirt than Jack, but that's not the perception. And Ernie is definitely growing up in this era; all of the courses we've done have been very minimal dirt jobs.

Golf and wild game

At Waterberg, bulldozers shouldn't be an issue, because it is a high-desert-like piece of property, dotted with foothills, rivers and streams. The golf course will roll through the valleys crossing the two main rivers and streams that flow through the property, while the houses will be built on the slopes.

Even more unusual, perhaps unique, is that the course and related development will be located within the confines of a game farm.

"This is the first time that a golf course has been designed to become one with the game reserve" Nicklaus said in a press release.

Nicklaus and Els are part of an ownership group buying the existing game farm with plans to develop it into a golf estate inside the reserve. Residents and guests will be able to play golf while watching wild game wander across the course and public areas.

The "big five"

The reserve, which features most of the "big five" - lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo and rhino - will have a separate lion reserve and will keep the "potentially dangerous" animals from eating golfers by using electrified fences and "cleverly-designed" access areas.

"You don't want the lions eating up all your prized game - or the golfers," Kenny said.

In Africa, wild game is a selling point, just like swimming pools or tennis courts in the U.S.

"As you might imagine, it's a big deal over there - it's an amenity," Kenny said.

"Specialized game vehicles"

The development will eventually have 280 residential lots and 260 "golf and bush" lodges, plus 60 "wildlife estates" tucked deep in the reserve on large stands. Plans also call for a luxury hotel with conference facilities, saunas, squash and tennis courts, a swimming pool. It will also have "specialized game vehicles" with rangers that will tote owners and guests through the reserve for up close and personal viewing.

Most of the marketing will be directed toward the United Kingdom and Johannesburg, especially those looking for weekend getaways from the hot and humid city.

Waterberg is located at a higher elevation in the northeast region of the country, and is one of the fastest-growing regions of South Africa.

Known for its vast mineral deposits, the area is also popular with tourists looking to see big-game animals. It is also hot and humid in the summer, but cool and dry in the winter, with the best wildlife viewing opportunities between May and October.

Project officials say they expect to win approval for the project in early 2005 with construction starting in early 2006. It is expected to be finished 18 months after construction starts.

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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