PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – So Bobby Jones is giving advice to a young Jack Nicklaus . . .
They’re huddled together in an Augusta National cabin, back when Nicklaus was 19. The greatest player who ever lived is sharing his wisdom with the young man who will succeed him. They’re talking about the golf swing, about slumps, about fixing flaws.
The image this conjures makes you straighten your back and creep to the edge of your seat in the interview room at the Honda Classic.
It’s a couple hours before his pro-am tee time, but Nicklaus has transported himself back to his terrific moment with Jones. His eyes are far away, seeing Jones in that cabin, hearing Jones tell him about his “seven lean years” from ages 14 to 21. Jones is telling Nicklaus that part of his problem was that he was relying way too much on his instructor, Stewart Maiden. He is telling Nicklaus that in his struggles he kept running back to Maiden for help.
“Until he taught me not to run back to him, when I learned that, then I became a great golfer,” Jones told Nicklaus.
Nicklaus had the same swing coach (Jack Grout) his entire life, but he believes today’s players rely too heavily on their coaches when their games go awry.
“A lot of times, guys run back to their swing coach too much,” Nicklaus said.
Listening to Nicklaus Wednesday, you wonder what he would tell Tiger Woods today if they were to huddle in some cabin at Augusta National. Because, according to Nicklaus, he’s hardly talked to Woods in the last year. They had a brief conversation at the Memorial almost 10 months ago, another conversation at last year’s Masters, but that’s it.
If Nicklaus, 71, were to huddle with Woods, you wonder if he’d channel Bobby Jones for him. We’ve heard Nicklaus do that before.
“He plays a game with which I’m not familiar,” Jones said after Nicklaus won his second Masters in 1965 by a whopping nine shots.
Three decades later, Nicklaus would use those same words to describe Woods’ game.
Nicklaus still believes in Woods’ game.
“I’m surprised he hasn’t bounced back by now,” Nicklaus said. “I think he’s got a great work ethic, or, at least he did. I assume he still does. I haven’t seen him practice for a long time, but he’s got such a great work ethic. He’s so determined in what he wants to do. I’m very surprised he hasn’t popped back.
“I still think he’ll break my record.”
Woods, 35, has won 14 professional major championships, four short of Nicklaus’ record.
Nicklaus won his 13th and 14th majors when he was 35.
Like Woods, Nicklaus said he changed his swing more than once in his career.
“I made changes constantly in my swing,” Nicklaus said. “If you don’t make changes, you don’t improve, I don’t care who you are, because your body continually changes. My body at 46 was certainly different than it was at 25 and 35, as Tiger’s body is a lot different than it was at 25.”
And like Woods, Nicklaus went through a major slump.
“Jack Grout, who worked with me from 1950 through 1989, until he passed away, never set one foot on a practice tee [during a tournament], ever,” Nicklaus said. “He came to a lot of tournaments. You never saw him on the practice tee. He taught me to be able to make my own changes, make my own adjustments . . . so I could understand how to play the game. That was the important thing, that I knew how to play the game.
“Grout tried to teach that to me from the inception. He was familiar with what Jones had done.”
Nicklaus, it should be pointed out, wasn’t speaking directly about Woods’ swing changes, but generally about swing changes.
Speaking directly about Woods, Nicklaus believes a stabilizing atmosphere in the wake of Woods’ divorce should help him. He seemed pleased to hear that Elin Woods, who divorced Woods in the wake of his sex scandal, is seeking a home near Woods’ new Jupiter Island home in South Florida so their children will be near their father.
“I know he’s spending time with his kids,” Nicklaus said. “He got maybe off track, but I think he’s really a principled kid. Did he have some waywardness? Yes. But are we all perfect? No.”
Nicklaus said he found new motivation playing for his children in his 30s. Still dominant late into his 30s, Nicklaus endured the worst slump of his career at 39. His confidence bottomed out in 1979, his first winless season as a pro.
“No question about that,” said Nicklaus, who plummeted to 71st on the PGA Tour money list that year. “You had to really fall down pretty bad to get that far down [the money list] in those days.”
After amassing 65 PGA Tour victories in 17 seasons as a pro, Nicklaus lost his swing. He said his swing became too vertical. He lost power, started hitting weak pop-up shots. He was unable to hit penetrating shots into wind, and his short game, never a strength, was awful.
So Nicklaus decided at the end of ‘79 to put his clubs away for almost four months before rebuilding his swing from scratch. He huddled with Grout at the start of the ’80 season.
“I said, `OK, let’s start over,’” Nicklaus said. “We started with grip, stance, posture, everything. But the biggest thing we started out with was to shallow my arc.”
Nicklaus says he’s waiting for Woods to have that special moment that brings him back, the way Nicklaus snapped out of his slump in the summer of ‘80. Nicklaus came out of his funk at a major when he won the U.S. Open at Baltusrol. He had won the U.S. Open there in ’67, breaking Ben Hogan’s 72-hole scoring record.
“I wasn’t very happy going to the U.S. Open,” Nicklaus said. “But you just keep working at it, and you keep doing things, and all of a sudden, something kicks in. I think that’s what will happen with Tiger.”
Nicklaus believes his short-game work with Phil Rodgers helped him snap out of his slump. He also thinks something about Baltusrol, where he had success before, also helped revived him.
“I shot 63 in the first round and missed a little putt for 62 on the last hole,” Nicklaus said. “All of a sudden, I said, `Hey, maybe this is my time to start doing it the right way again.’ All of a sudden your mind turns around.”
Nicklaus went on to set the U.S. Open scoring record yet again and win the PGA Championship at Oak Hill later that summer. He believes something similar will spark a turnaround in Woods.
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