A Major Champion's Masterpiece: Jack Nicklaus, Justin Thomas Team Up to Design Panther National
By Ryan Adams, PGA
Jack Nicklaus has really seen just about everything there's to see in golf.
Major championship victories. Down-to-the-wire finishes against Arnold Palmer or Gary Player or Lee Trevino. Course designs in some of the world's most beautiful locations. Golf shots that were plenty good, and plenty bad.
However, Nicklaus was stumped late last month when he was asked to describe the piece of property that his new course Panther National, co-designed with fellow major champion Justin Thomas, sits on in the western part of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
"Does it remind you of anything, Jack?"
Nicklaus sat there, pondering. After all, he's seen a lot.
"No," he said. "There's actually nothing like it."
A 'modern' vision requires major champions
Fittingly, that's likely exactly what Panther National Founder & President Dominik Senn would want to hear. The former Swiss ski racer moved his sports management agency from London to Jupiter in 2006, in a quest to find a place for his family that was modern. Northern Palm Beach County is littered with private golf courses but Senn found them "a little bit boring."
"Even though they were beautifully manicured, everything seem dated," Senn said at the opening of Panther National on Nov. 17. "I started creating a vision that there must be a market for a more modern kind of product."
That product turned out to be a plot of acerage 12 miles west of Palm Beach Gardens, out past where anything had been created before. Senn would need some serious expertise to create the bold 18-hole championship course he was envisioning, a linchpin of the greater Panther National community that would surround it.
Nicklaus was his choice, but Senn wanted a younger player to collaborate with the Golden Bear on the project, bringing an injection of energy and representing where the game was heading.
And that's where Justin Thomas joins the story.
'There's really nothing like it'
Thomas, the two-time PGA Champion and blossoming tour star, would join forces with Nicklaus to create something bold, testy and stunning, but also a ton of fun for everyday people to tackle. What's materialized is a rolling, eye-popping masterpiece in Panther National.
Adam Schafer, the PGA of America Head Professional at Panther National, said that the design team moved 2.5 million cubic feet of dirt to shape and create the course's layout.
"In terms of the golf course, there's really nothing like it in South Florida," said Schafer. "Dominik's vision and his background as a skier, that's evident in the slopes, undulation and elevation they've create here. There's several spots on the golf course almost 60 feet about sea level that provide just these amazing vistas. It's really, really unique."
One of the most interesting holes is the par-3 15th, which has an 87-yard long green, according to Nicklaus. The hole can play anywhere from under 150 yards to over 250 depending on pin location and tee.
"It turned out really cool," said Nicklaus, who hit the opening tee shot on Nov. 18 alongside Thomas. "It's basically like three par-3s in one. Truly, its one of the most unique golf holes on the course."
The Jack-JT combination brought an interesting spin to the project, too. It reminded Nicklaus of his work with Pete Dye on the renowned Harbour Town Golf Links in South Carolina.
"JT was a lot like I was with Pete . . . he was here to learn," said Nicklaus. "He'd come out with me and we'd look at a hole, and I'd said, 'Well, what'd you think?' Some holes, we'd move through, and some holes, he'd have input, like No. 11. We had the fairway pretty restricted and he thought everyone laying up in the same place on a par-5 wouldn't be interesting. So, we changed it and now its a better golf hole.
"The learning process with him was great, and JT was terrific. I'd love to have him on another project because I always enjoy doing anything with Justin Thomas."
A team effort
Envisioning two major champions walking mounds of dirt and surrounded by bulldozers and shapers? That's pretty cool. For Thomas, that experience was all about learning.
"I knew I wasn't coming in and taking over the majority by any means," said Thomas, who had Lexi Thompson, Morgan Hoffman, Rickier Fowler, Erik van Rooyen, Xander Schauffele come out to play an exhibition match during the opening ceremony last month. "I wanted him to explain why he was doing certain things and he was great in terms of having me involved and asking if I liked, if I didn't like and why. I think we made a pretty good team."
Part of that team, as well, are the PGA of America Golf Professionals creating experiences at Panther National. Led by PGA Director of Golf Tom Dyer, the course's staff is an integral part to making the property truly shine.
"I think everybody looks to the PGA Professional to create the environment for them to enjoy," said Nicklaus. "That's Tom's job . . . to make sure people enjoy this place."
Adds Thomas, who's a third generation PGA of America Member: "Tom and his staff are going to make this place what it is, right? They're a huge part of it, and I've been fortunate to meet many great PGA Members over the years. They set the tone, the vibe. They're what makes a club whole."
Dyer, who's been at some of South Florida's most prestigious clubs before arriving at Panther, understands the unique opportunity to make the course special, too. But he's also appreciative of its designers' goal.
"For a 29 year old kid, Justin had great architectural insight, and obviously Jack's vision is incredible," says Dyer. "This is legendary enjoyment in a beautiful environment. It's got a little something for everybody . . . and it's just a magnificent place to be."