It’s taken several years and $4 million in private donations, but the back Nicklaus Nine at The American Lake Veterans Golf Course, located near Tacoma, WA. is open. The original nine-hole golf course was built in the 1950s and served as a respite for war veterans. Today, it’s the nation’s only course designed specifically for the rehabilitation of disabled veterans. That is why iconic golf legend and golf course designer Jack Nicklaus didn’t hesitate to volunteer his services pro bono when asked to design the second nine holes, affectionately dubbed the ‘Nicklaus Nine’.
Nicklaus got involved at the urging of Tacoma resident Ken Still, a former PGA professional and his good friend and a teammate on the 1969 Ryder Cup. Nicklaus donated his expertise to build the new back nine and tweak the front nine holes at American Lake. The course was originally constructed as a nine-hole place of respite—not rehabilitation— in 1955, on the grounds of the Veterans Administration hospital near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Nicklaus Nine Makes Golf Easier for the Disabled
Both sets of nine holes meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act, making the game easier for those with disabilities. Unlike the tight, tree-lined front nine, Nicklaus made sure to give the golfers larger landing areas off the tee. The holes also vary in direction, but many of the par-4 holes are short, making it a smooth, peaceful ride. American Lake also turned out to be Nicklaus Design’s milestone 400th golf course.
“Everything that American Lake stands for parallels our mission at Nicklaus Design, and that is to give people a place to recreate and congregate, and to design a course that best services the needs of the people who play there,” Nicklaus stated just prior to the opening of American Lake last year. “It’s been a labor of love to be involved in the planning, fundraising, groundbreaking, and design of the Nicklaus Nine at American Lake. I have always said that, in some ways, golf course design is a vehicle for me to give back to the game of golf. This time, we had the opportunity to give back to the men and women who have sacrificed their lives and limbs so we can live free in this country. To thank our nation’s heroes in this small way really is my privilege. It is the least we can do for the one percent of Americans who protect the other 99 percent of us, reminding us that there is nothing free about freedom.”
The American Lake Veterans Golf Course is completely staffed by 200-plus volunteers who maintain the course and provide services to the players. There are no paid employees. Many of these dedicated individuals first came to American Lake as patients and learned first-hand of the tremendous benefits of the course experience for wounded and recovering veterans. Last year, the course ranked No. 1 on Golf Digest’s 2015 list of “The 9 Most Cheerful Courses in America.”
A full range of campgrounds are also available in the Tacoma and surrounding region, with several services and amenities.