PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The road to Hazeltine officially kicked off Thursday night in North Palm Beach, Fla., as Jack and Barbara Nicklaus hosted nearly two dozen U.S. Ryder Cup hopefuls at their home near the site of this week’s Honda Classic.
The Nicklauses were joined by captain Davis Love III as well as assistant captains Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk and Tom Lehman. Dustin Johnson, who is not in the field at PGA National, flew in for the dinner while the rest of the room comprised major champs Phil Mickelson, Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley as well as lesser-known American hopefuls like Zac Blair, Ben Martin, Andrew Loupe and John Huh.
“It was just great to get everybody together,” Love said. “That’s not even all the guys that might make the Ryder Cup team, but it was a big group of guys that are now excited about thinking about it and are part of the process.”
“The guys who were there, the tournaments that have been won, the tournaments that are going to be won,” added Jimmy Walker, “it was a cool group.”
Players were served steak and lobster – along with some Nicklaus-brand ice cream – while being treated to a tour that encompassed both major championship hardware as well as a guest house that Nicklaus has converted into a hunting trophy room.
“I didn’t know he was such a big game hunter,” Martin said. “He had some sort of marlin, like a black marlin maybe, that he said was a world record. I guess 18 majors wasn’t enough; he had to catch a world-record fish, too.”
The highlight of the evening for most, though, came when Nicklaus fielded questions from the room and offered insight and tips about how he prepared for big events.
“I think some of it was just learning a little bit more of his prep work, kind of how he went about things and then the confidence and belief he had going into a tournament once he had that preparation done,” said Rickie Fowler. “It was cool to kind of hear a little bit more of his background, and he’s in a position now where he can kind of share that and he’s not giving away any secrets.”
While some attendees like Brendan Steele focused on “soaking it all in” during the Q&A, some of the elder statesmen like Mickelson and Furyk stepped up with questions for the 18-time major champ.
“It was kind of like, those were all the guys that I grew up watching, and they grew up watching Jack,” Steele said. “Just different generations were all coming together to try to learn from each other.”
The night’s main theme centered on laying the groundwork for “changing the culture” as the Americans look to end a streak that has seen them lose six of the last seven times in the biennial matches.
“I think it was just to let all the guys know that this time around is going to be executed differently,” said Keegan Bradley.
While the invite list went down to Bradley at No. 42 in the latest Ryder Cup standings, not all invitees were in attendance. Per Love, Patrick Reed missed because of a sick family member while Zach Johnson and Charles Howell III had a late round Thursday coupled with an early start for their second rounds.
"I didn't get out of the locker room until 7:30 p.m. I was the second-to-last one out," Johnson said. "I’m never going to shy away from meeting with potential teammates and captains, but it’s February. That list could change dramatically. There could be guys who make it who weren’t there, multiple guys. I wouldn’t put a whole lot of merit into who was there and who wasn’t there."
This was the first of multiple team-building exercises planned ahead of the matches Sept. 30-Oct. 2 in Chaska, Minn. According to Love, the next event will come at the Memorial in early June, when Nicklaus will again host a smaller group of invitees for a dinner as well as a uniform fitting.