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For busy Jack Nicklaus, it’s still all about the family

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It’s family-oriented, practice-oriented, exercise-oriented. People can get out and go walking through the hills. If they want, they can walk through the hills with their golf clubs. – Jack Nicklaus on the 12-hole course he’s designing for Red Ledges Golf Resort in Heber

HEBER — For Jack Nicklaus, it’s always been about family.

For years, the man known as perhaps the greatest golfer of all time has talked about his family being the top priority in his life even above his golf and business successes.

“It always has been,’’ he said. “That was my goal when my kids left for school, that they’d know their dad. I made sure I got home as much as possible to be with them. I was never gone more than two weeks in all the time I played golf and traveling for anything else. So that was always my priority.’’

Nicklaus was in Utah earlier this week with his wife, Barbara, to check up on the design of his latest project, an unusual 12-hole golf “park” he’s designed at the Red Ledges Golf Resort in Heber. He toured the layout with his good friend Tony Burns, the owner of Red Ledges, and came away pleased that the project is on schedule and should open next spring.

Nicklaus acknowledged family “seems to be a pretty big theme in Utah’’ and has designed his latest project with families in mind.

“It’s family-oriented, practice-oriented, exercise-oriented,’’ he said of his 12-hole course. “People can get out and go walking through the hills. If they want, they can walk through the hills with their golf clubs.’’

So why a golf course with 12 holes instead of the traditional 9 or 18?

Nicklaus said it was originally going to be a 9-hole “executive” course with a couple of par-4s mixed in with the par-3s.

“My philosophy sort of kind of changed and I said ‘Why would you want to come out here to play a little par-3 course and you have two par-4 holes that force you to bring your whole golf bag when you could take maybe three or four clubs and play nine holes?' And that’s what we changed it.’’

He said it could have been any number, but he decided to break up one long hole into three and another into two, ending up with 12.

It’s not the first time Nicklaus has created a course that isn’t nine or 18 holes. He also has a 12-hole course at The Bear’s Club in Florida.

In an interview at the Red Ledges clubhouse, Nicklaus discussed several golf issues, including the idea of golf not changing with the times and how it’s not attracting enough younger golfers these days.

He likes out-of-the-box ideas such as 12-hole golf courses that can be played in an hour and a half or even using 8- or 12-inch cups on greens, so beginners can find success and not get too frustrated.

“It’s can be like what we’re doing here,’’ he said. “Don’t be so set in your ways about what the game is. People have looked at me and said, ‘Jack’s going to do eight-inch holes? Jack’s going to do 12-hole courses?’’’

Nicklaus compared golf to other sports such as tennis or basketball, where people can get together to play for fun as long as they want.

“What are you out for? You get guys that want to play tennis, what do you do, you go out and hit tennis balls. Sometimes you play a match, sometimes you don’t, most of the time you just go hit. You go out and shoot hoops, what do you do? Maybe you’ll play a little horse or one-on-one something like that.

“But we get hung up in golf — ‘I’ve got my handicap, I’ve got to shoot this,’’’ he said. “Instead, how about, 'Let’s go play golf for an hour and a half. How many holes are you going to play? I don’t know. However many we can get in.’ It shouldn’t be time, it shouldn’t be money, it shouldn’t be difficulty. It should be fun and as much time as you have.’’

At age 75, Nicklaus no longer plays golf competitively and hasn’t for a decade. He says the only thing close to competitive golf is what he did last week when he played in a “legends” golf event in Minneapolis with Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam and others in a scramble format.

The Golden Bear says he has no plans to retire, almost acting offended at being asked such a question.

“From what? Why would I retire? Go and sit on the couch?’’

He certainly isn’t slowing down.

His travel schedule in the days around his Utah visit included a flight from Florida to Minnesota, a stop in Los Angeles, then his visit to Utah, before he headed up to Montana for a few days where he’ll fish and attend a golf course opening. Then after going home to Florida, he and his wife are going to Buffalo to watch their grandson, Nick O’Leary, play a preseason game for the Buffalo Bills, then up to Canada and over to Cleveland for another golf outing.

“I don’t mind moving around,’’ Nicklaus said.

In all, Jack and Barbara have five children and 22 grandchildren and they travel around the country watching their various sporting endeavors. In fact, Nicklaus must consult a laminated master sheet that lists each of his 22 grandkids' various sporting events so he can properly arrange his travel schedule. This fall there will be more football games, lacrosse games and volleyball games for the Nicklauses.

“You can play golf anytime, do business anytime,’’ he said. “As your family continues to grow and develop, you need to be a part of what they do.’’