An Afternoon With Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus at Oakland Hills.

I recently had the opportunity — along with a couple of other journalists — to interview Jack Nicklaus at Oakland Hills Golf Club. Mr. Nicklaus was in town for a fundraiser in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Golf Association of Michigan and benefiting “Youth on Course.”

It was quite an honor for me to meet Mr. Nicklaus, and will remain a highlight of my life in golf.

A transcript of the conversation with Mr. Nicklaus follows. It really wasn’t much of an interview. With just a little prompting, Mr. Nicklaus held :

Nicklaus on his memories of Oakland Hills:

I played here in 1961 for the first time (US Open, won by Gene Littler). I was 21 and I played several practice rounds with Ben Hogan that week. I remember doing that and we had a nice week. I ended up playing two over the last seven holes to lose the tournament by three shots. 

I’ll never forget the second shot I hit at twelve. People will laugh about it because they can’t believe it that it happened. There used to be a big overhanging elm tree on the right side of the fairway about a hundred yards in front of the green. As I hit my second shot, a whirlwhind came through. You could see people’s hats fly up in the air. The tree started whipping. That shot was headed for the green, I guarantee you. It hit the tree as it blew out and dropped straight down. I made six instead of four and I ended up losing the tournament. 

I had finished second the year before at Cherry Hills. Then I came here and did that. I got lucky the next year and won at Oakmont. 

I was at the start of my career. I was still at Ohio State at the time. I enjoyed playing here. I was very excited to play with Hogan. I had played with Hogan in ‘60 at Cherry Hills in the last two rounds. The next year at Augusta, he walked into the locker room with a couple of pair of shoes over his shoulder. He said – he called everybody fella — 

“Hey fella. How you doing?”
I said “Hi Mr. Hogan.” 
He said “You got a game?” 
I said “I do now.”
 

We went on and played a couple of practice rounds at Augusta. And when we got here we did the same thing.  

I was very excited that Ben Hogan took an interest in a young kid. It was a big part of my life. 

I remember (Oakland Hills) well. I played here in the open in ‘61. I know that Gary won in ‘72. David Graham won in ‘79. Then I came back and played in ‘91. There was also ‘85. I remember ‘85 very well because I missed the cut. 

I was on the Maria Navratilova diet. It was called “Eat To Win” But the way I played it was win to eat. I got down to 170 pounds. It was the lightest I’d been since the eighth grade, and I couldn’t hit the ball out of the rough. I missed the cut here, and I missed the cut at the British Open that year –1985. I never had so much fun gaining 15 pounds in my life. 

Then we came back in 91 for the Senior Open.  

I think that was all I have played at Oakland Hills, although I did come back a few years ago for a fundraiser. 

Jack Nicklaus on how he got into golf: 

My father was what got me into golf. We lived by the Ohio State campus. My Dad had a drugstore on the campus and he broke his ankle. He had two unsuccessful operations and with the third one they fused the ankle. The doctor told him “Charlie, you need to take up something where you need to walk, otherwise you’re going to be in a chair permanently in the very near future.” 

He (Charlie Nicklaus) had played golf as a kid. He was a decent golfer as a kid. And he said I’ve got to go out where there’s a golf course. So we moved out to Arlington and he actually went into the first shopping center out there with his new drug store. We moved in 1949, and when the spring of 1950 came alng he started playing golf. He took me along to carry the bag. He didn’t really want to make a game with anybody because he couldn’t walk. And so, I’d follow him. As with all the sports I played, he introduced me to golf. He taught me the interlocking grip, which I never changed. 

Inspired by the 1950 PGA Championship At Scioto 

Jack Grout came to Scioto in 1950 and also the PGA Championship was at Scioto in 1950. Snead was the medalist in that and Mangrum was the second medalist. Anyway, Chandler Harper ended up beating Henry Williams in the final. That‘s one of the reasons they went back to medal play. You had guys that no one had ever heard of in the finals and that made it a little tough for television and everything else. 

My Dad got me into the game and the PGA was also a big part of it. 

I got to meet all of the golfers in the locker room. I’ll never forget going up to Lloyd Mangrum, who was a rough guy. Cigarette hanging out of his mouth. (imitating a heavy smoker’s voice) 

“What do you want kid” 
I’ll never forget that line
I said Mr. Mangrum could you sing my autograph? 
“Sure. Now get out of here kid.” 

Anyway, I did that. So I got started playing golf that way. I got interested in it. I played all sports and by the process of elimination I ended up in golf. And what I mean by elimination is I was a pretty decent football player. I played quarterback, did all the punting and place kicking and played center linebacker. But when high school football rolled around, I had to make a choice. I played in some national (golf) tournaments and the national amateur – I qualified for that – and I had to make up my mind whether I wanted to play football or not. 

Advice From Woody Hayes 

And that was a time when Woody Hayes was a customer at my Dad’s drug store. He lived about a block away. Dad said “Woody, I think Jack could play football, but I don’t think he wants to.” And Woody said “Charlie, I’ve seen your boy. He’s a good athlete. But you keep him as far away from my sport as you can. He’s got a good sport to play.” 

Which is pretty good advice from Woody Hayes. 

Anyway, I played basketball through school. I was recruited for basketball to Ohio State probably because they didn’t give golf scholarships. I’m not sure, but that’s probably right. Anyway I was recruited with Havlicek and Lucas, so I got to know those guys. So I played basketball through school and I am smart enough to figure out that I wasn’t tall enough or fast enough for that and the other sports just sort of eliminated themselves. 

Playing Golf From Morning Until Night 

It turned out that golf was a sport where I could go out early in the morning, come home late at night. I could play all day and whatever my efforts were, I would be rewarded by my own efforts, not by some ellse’s. I would go out and play baseball and go out in a dusty  field waiting for another ten or fifteen guys to come to play baseball and they’d never show up. And you hang out for three hours. Really? 

And I like baseball. Baseball was probably my best sport. But I could never get anyone to play like I wanted to. I wanted to go at daybreak and come back at dark in whatever sport I played. And that’s what I did. So golf just happened to fit into that. I was very luck not to have any what-ifs. What if I had done this? What if I had stayed with that? Golf became my sport and I loved it. 

On His Dad’s Career As A Pharmacist 

My Dad died in 1970. My Dad had one near campus that he sold when he moved out to Arlington. And then he had one with his brother who was a pharmacist.  

My dad came from the South Side of Columbus, and his father when the boys were growing up – he had three boys and a sister. He was a boilermaker on the railroad. So he would take them down to where he made boilers and it was a hundred fifty degrees where he was working. He brought them down and said boys, I want to show you what I don’t want you to ever have to do. So of those three boys, one became a dentist, the others became pharmacists. My dad ended up partners with his brother in a shopping center, three or four drug stores and so forth. And that’s what they did. 

His last brother passed away two or three years ago and he was about fifteen years younger. And he had moved out west. 

On Why Golf Is So Popular In Michigan 

I think you look at Michigan, and you have very, very long days. You know, this time of year, you’ve got six hours of darkness probably. You can play golf here until ten o’clock and you can start playing golf here about five. 

So you have the ability if you want to play almost around the clock. And when you get that kind of a thing, you get some wonderful golf courses. In all seriousness you guys have good golf courses. And people have the ability to learn to play and have fun and do it. Outside the United States the country that you would never dream has the most golfers per capita is Iceland. For that exact same reason: They play around the clock. 

I think that Michigan falls into that category. Ohio is close to that, but not quite. The Detroit area has some wonderful golf courses, and all along the lake Michigan side to the Traverse City area. You have some really nice course. 

On Arnold Palmer 

The first time I met him was 1954 and I was playing the Ohio Amateur in Toledo. It was pouring down rain and I was the only golfer there on a Tuesday. No one else got off. I was a stubborn kid. I got off the golf course and there was some guy on the range. It was pouring down range and he was hitting balls. So I stopped to watch him. He looked like Popeye out there. He was drilling his short irons about quail high in a little draw. I thought “that guy’s strong” I asked who he was and they said, “oh, that’s our defending Champion, Arnold Palmer. Later that year he won the Amateur in Detroit Golf Club. 

On His Latest Project: American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan 

Major Dan Rooney (Folds of Honor founder) has been a friend of mine for a long time he wanted to do a golf course in honor of folds of honor. Dan asked me if I would help him out and I said “sure.” So we donated everything – we don’t want anything for it – what I wanted to be was part of it.  

Dan took me up to his property. about a year ago. I tried to figure out what to do and how to do it. And Dan started to raise money. (One fundraiser for the course “sold” holes for $133,000 each). In fact, Gary Woodland bought a hole or two on Dan’s course 

It’s a pretty piece of property. It originally was totally tree lined. I say originally because I came in and cleared it. There were all these big trees and I took them all down, except for on the perimeter. I wanted to keep the perimeter to separate from the housing.  

It’s all sand underneath it. So they call the golf course American Dunes. Dan’s idea was to have a dunesy golf course, so we’re going to have a dunsey golf course. 

So we started. We’ve got the clearing done. I’m going up there for the next two weeks to start actual design of the holes.    

On His Charitable Efforts and the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation 

Basically, through most of my career, my wife supported what I did. She understood that I didn’t need confrontation and I needed support and so for the first 40 years of our marriage, everything that I did, Barbara supported. 

When the Honda tournament moved to Palm Beach fifteen years ago, they came to us and asked what children’s charity was in the Palm Beach area. And I looked at her (Barbara) and said “do you want to go for it?” and she said absolutely, and that’s when we started our Foundation. 

We have had some big fundraisers and raised a little over a hundred million bucks the last fifteen years, which is not bad. And for the last fifteen years, I’ve been supporting her.  I run into a whole different crowd of people. I run into a whole bunch of different things. My values have changed as far as looking at the way things are. You start looking at some of these kids and what has happened to some of these kids as a result of some of your efforts, and the donations that people have made. And it seems as though this is a whole heckuva lot more important than a three- or four-foot putt. 

As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten involved in things like Major Dan’s thing and have had the opportunity to be a part of something that is a lot bigger and more important than what you’re doing. And we’ll continue to do some of those as they come along and they are appropriate and they are the proper thing to do. 

On Efforts To Grow Golf 

It’s a very slow process. The whole reason for it is that golf has three major problems: one, it takes too long long. It’s too expensive, and it’s too difficult. Millennials are not coming into the game  

I think what the USGA understands and the R&A understands is that the biggest problem in golf is the golf ball. They’ve researched it for forty years. I think they will get to it shortly. I think they’re going to have to bring the golf ball back a little bit. Not a lot, but they could bring it back to where not every time you have an event (you need to make course adjustments) I hear they’re talking about Oakland Hills. How long is this golf course? About 7,400 yards? You don’t have enough length.  

Augusta National is the only club I know that has the money to keep the game relevant. They bought all the houses along Berckmans’ Road and part of August Country Club to lengthen a hole. How much did that cost? Nobody can afford that. They’ve kept up but no one else can. 

Really, the golf ball is the controlling factor in that. If the golf ball gets shorter, you don’t need to keep adding land. We’re going to run out of land. We’re going to run out of water.  We’ll run out of money. We’ll run out of time. 

When I played the British Open in ‘62, we played in two hours and forty-five minutes. That’s how fast we played. That’s the way they played; the natural way they do it. Even there it’s slowed up. All of the other sports are three hours or less. 

We need to get somewhere there or less, whether it’s 12 holes, it’s not about the tour. The tour is very healthy. But even then, on tour today, the average golfer can’t relate to the tour player. When I was growing up, I hit it fifteen or twenty yards further than the club champion. We could go out and have a game. He knew the course and I didn’t and more than likely it was a pretty even match. Could you imagine today  Tiger or Brooks Koepka come up and play the club champion. They’d hit it a hundred yards past. And they’d drub them. 

The average golfer doesn’t relate to what is going ton today. But that was the beauty of the game people would go out and watch the game and say “That’s what I’d like to be able to do.” 

But now there’s no way in the world they can do what these guys do. But if the ball came back a little bit, to where it’s relevant to the average golfer, maybe they could see the relevance and do it. 

That’s where I’ve been coming from. I’m not trying to change the game of golf. All I’m trying to do is make it so that people can afford it, so the game will grow. Right now, guys love to hit the ball a long way. You might hit one out of twenty 300 yards, the other 19, you hit it 200 yards. And all of a sudden people are saying “you hit it 300 yards.” I say so what — you didn’t find it. 

Golfers today make a bad hole and get a double bogey. Years ago, when the golf ball didn’t go so far, you kept the scores – and everybody kept the scores. People don’t keep scores anymore. We’re not going back fifty years. But right here at Oakland Hills, where I grew up at Scioto, where we play the Memorial Tournament, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we bring the pros in to play. It’s not necessary. It’s a very simple thing to fix. We gotta get that done so that we can bring more people in. 

How A Player’s Life Changes When He Wins A Major 

[Gary Woodland’s] whole life will change. It will dramatically change. All of a sudden, when you go into a club people will say “Oh, Hi Mr. Woodland.” And before they said “What’s your number? 64? Your locker’s over there.” 

And the press will walk in and you’ll want to talk to him and no one wanted to talk him before. He’s always been a good golfer, and he’s a super nice guy. His life will just change dramatically. The demand on this time, the people who want to see him, the people who want him to do things. It’ll change a lot   

Of course, his bank account probably changed a couple million bucks too. 

On The New Rules of Golf 

Back in the fifties we left the pin in. I don’t know why they changed. It’s basically designed to speed up play. Most players take a cart. People don’t have a caddy. And you get the ball on the green and its forty feet away, you just take the putt. You don’t have to take the pin out and do all that. It just speeds up play. 

Years ago, when they had that rule [leaving the pin in] we had to be very careful because the pins were l uniform. Today, pins are all unfirom. They’re all – I don’t know – aluminum pins that are a certain width. Before we had some big fat ones, and some were wood and the ball would bounce off some of them. 

I think putting with the pin in is fine. 

I think it looks a little stupid dropping from the knees. The rule should say “drop somewhere between the knee and shoulder so you don’t have to look like someone’s curtseying out there. 

 I understand why they did it. It speeds up play becasue the ball doesn’t roll away so you don’t’ have to take more than one drip. 

I don’t even know what some of the others are. The one where water hazards are a penalty areas. I wonder that means. I like the out of bounds rule for the average person; they don’t use it on tour. I think that reasonable. I think that speeds up play. I think it’s reasonable.  

If you haven’t’ intentionally tried to move the ball just put it back. The double hit they put it back. 

On Playing Golf 

 I don’t play golf anymore. I don’t know what the rules are. I was on television at Muirfield and I learned about five or six new rules while I was on television. I didn’t have a clue what they were.  I haven’t completed a round of golf tee to green since 2005. I mean I’ll go out, and I’ll give myself a putt.  

That was like playing golf with Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton would say “I’ll give you yours if you’ll give me mine.” That’s what he used to always say. That was for a seven, though. They were all six and eight footers. I’ve played with him quite a few times.

***

I feel fortunate to have met two of golf’s “Big Three.” I met Gary Player at the Ford Senior Championship. I am just sorry that I didn’t have the chance to meet Mr. Palmer.

 

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