Catching Up With Jack

By Rich LernerMay 28, 2008, 4:00 pm
Rich Lerner recently sat down with Jack Nicklaus to discuss a variety of subjects, including Tigers pursuit of his major championship record and his own Memorial Tournament.
Rich: What was your goal when you built Muirfield Village in 1974?
Jack: I wanted to bring golf back to Columbus (Ohio). Columbus is where I grew up, the town that gave me the support and Scioto was my home course. I was 26 years old when I started assembling the property, 32 when we started building it and 34 when we opened it. It was the first course built for tournament golf with a gallery in mind. I also felt like we needed a theme for the tournament and so we came up with an idea of honoring the greats of the past.
Rich: The first honoree in 1976 was Bobby Jones, your boyhood hero. What were the characteristics you admired in Jones?
Jack: Golf was important but it wasnt the most important thing in his life. He was a family man, an attorney and he gave back to the game with Augusta National. All I heard about when I was a kid was Bobby Jones. He won The U.S. Open at Scioto in 1926. Obviously I wasnt around but there were a lot of members of Scioto that were there and when I was growing up I always heard that Jones did this and Jones did that, so I had always heard about Bobby Jones.
Rich: You honored this year the great Tony Jacklin. Thats awfully nice of you considering he came here to Muirfield Village as the captain of the European Ryder Cup team and beat the U.S. team which you captained!
Jack: Well Tonys been a great friend for a long time and we go back a long ways. Ill never forget the 18th hole and we lost it or tied it every time. It just killed us. When they asked how it felt to become the first American captain to lose on U.S. soil I said Id rather have it be me than someone else because I think I can handle it.
Rich: You did not increase the tournament purse this year. Why?
Jack: I felt like in Ohio people are struggling. The economy is a big issue. I didnt want to be taking more money out of the town at this time. I didnt think it was right.
Rich: Early on you polled the membership here asking for their favorite holes. What did you find out?
Jack: I got 14 different answers, 14 favorite holes and I thought thats pretty good but it showed me I had four holes to work on! People ask me what the signature hole is and to me it should be 18 signature holes.
Rich: Do you feel the golf course has gotten the credit it deserves?
Jack: Its gotten its due but I do think its a better golf course than people think it is. People that come here and play love it. The course is in magnificent condition and youd be hard pressed to find better shot value anywhere.
Rich: Why the furrowed bunkers?
Jack: I always felt bunkers should be a penalty. It got so that guys were aiming for bunkers. If you were going to miss a green you didnt want to be in six inches of rough, you wanted to be in a bunker. Im not trying to make it so they cant play. But if youre hitting a tee shot you should be at least thinking that you might get a bad lie in that fairway bunker. You might get a good lie but you might not. Around the greens it wont pose a problem. But the fairway bunkers should force you to think strategically.
Rich: Roger Maltbie won the first Memorial at 1 over in 1976. K.J. Choi won last year at 17 under. You seem reasonably comfortable with scores between 12 and 15 under. Whats your philosophy?
Jack: Equipment has changed the game. Thats okay. I dont mind the low scores. I just dont want to eliminate the strategy. For example at the 10th hole they can carry the bunker but its a 310-yard carry and the same at 13. At 18 the bunkers are out at over 300 yards. When we first did the golf course the bunkers were 265-270, so weve adjusted to modern golf. If they can play a good golf shot I think they should be rewarded.
Rich: In your prime with todays technology how far do you think you would have hit the golf ball?
Jack: Probably as far as the longest hitters today. I won The PGA driving contest in 1963 with a wooden driver. It was a normal day and I hit it 341 yards. To me, though, driving in my day was different. When you needed a long drive you went ahead and hit it. Most of the time, you played for position. You played strategically. Today, a lot of the long hitters just eliminate the strategy of the golf course. Thats what I dont care for.
Rich: Who had stiffer competition, you or Tiger?
Jack: I think there are more good players today. But fewer players win. Competition at Tigers level should come from people who have a history of winning. Thats what I had. I had fewer good players but the good players I competed against knew how to win when you look at Player with nine majors, Watson with eight, Arnold with seven and Lee with six. Tiger faces more good players but I had a few who better knew how to win.
Rich: Your era had one of kind players like Palmer and Floyd and Trevino with swings you cant really teach. Is there something about the players of your era that set them apart from the youngsters today who come out of these academies trained at the foot of a guru?
Jack: Arnold was taught by his father. Trevino taught himself. Floyd was taught by his father. We didnt go to nationally known gurus. Jack Grout worked with me from the time I was 10 years old and he never set foot on the practice tee of a golf tournament while I was playing. Grout taught me how to teach myself and that was important. When Stewart Maiden taught Jones how to correct himself on the course thats when he became a good player. Grout taught me from day one how to fix my problems. Sure Id go back two or three times a year and see Jack for an hour and then Id go work on it by myself. Guys today spend hours and hours with their teachers. Im not suggesting its wrong to see a teacher but I do think theyd be better players if they took more responsibility for their own golf games. What really drives me crazy these days is the average golfers over reliance on caddies. Nobody ever plays their own golf shots! Theyre robots. To me the fun of the game was to be able to pick your own line, your own shot and your own club and make your own decisions. That to me makes you a better player. Tiger does that. He may have a great caddie in Steve Williams but I promise you that Tiger would have exactly the same record if Steve Williams were still in New Zealand.
Rich: How are you and Tiger alike?
Jack: I think that were pretty similar in our approach to the game. Tiger practices a lot like I did, he prepares a lot like I did and he dissects a golf course a lot like I did. If you look at what he did at Hoylake, he kept his driver in the bag. Thats what I did at Muirfield. He plays about the same number of tournaments that I played. He played events that would best prepare him for majors. Thats what I did. I think hes very intelligent about what he does in preparing.
Rich: How do you think you and Tiger are different?
Jack: I think Tiger has a much better short game. I think I was a better driver at least from an accuracy standpoint. In terms of length, were probably about the same.
Rich: Are players intimidated by Tiger?
Jack: I think they are but they shouldnt be. They cant control Tiger. The only person they control is themselves. Thats the whole essence of the game. Thats why I gravitated towards golf because I could control my own destiny. I cant control someone elses. I loved that. I loved to be able to come down the stretch doing what you think is the right thing. Sometimes you get beat and sometimes you win. In Tigers case, he may not break my record because he doesnt have anyone pushing him other than my record. If Phil wins a couple more majors I think that will inspire Tiger to play better. Tiger wants the competition and relishes it and I think hell be better when he has it.
Rich: When was the first time you became aware of Jones major championship record of 13?
Jack: I never really counted majors. I walked into the press room at the British Open in 1970 and the writer Bob Green said, Jack thats 10 majors, three more and you catch Jones. I promise you I had never counted. Its the absolute truth. All I did was play golf. It became a goal then and I passed Jones record in 1973 and then went back to what I was doing, which was playing and trying to win majors because I enjoyed the setups and I enjoyed winning them. But it was never a number. Now Tigers been focused since day one because hes had my 18 majors sitting on his closet door so when he wins one theyll say he needs 17 more! Hes been under a microscope since day one and I think hes handled it beautifully. Hes been inspired by the number and I suspect hell pass it in three or four years. At that time, well find out if he wants to go beyond it. Im very proud of my record. Could it have been better? Probably, but am I unhappy that its not? No. Ive had a good family life, my golf course design started when I was 28. I had a blast and I wouldve been bored to tears if golf was the only thing I did. Its been great for me since Tigers come on the scene because every time Tigers name is mentioned my names mentioned right alongside him. Its kept me alive in the game of golf.
Rich: You won 18 majors and finished runner up 19 times. Which one stung the most?
Jack: The ones that sting the most are the ones that you give away. I bogeyed the last two holes at Lytham in 1963 but I learned from that. At the Masters in 1977 Watson made a long putt at 17 to go one shot ahead and I was over my ball at 18 and it was the only time in my life I couldnt regroup. The pin was front left. I had 6-iron in my hand. My plan was to put it by the hole, let it take the slope and settle about 15 feet and give myself a chance at birdie. But when Watson birdied I tried to stuff it into the hole. I ended up hitting it fat into the bunker and made bogey. So I gave that one away and I didnt like that. At Turnberry in77 I played great. I happened to miss a 6-footer at 17 but so what. Youre going to miss a putt somewhere along the way. In 82 at Pebble Beach Jack Whitaker was congratulating me on winning my fifth Open when all of the sudden this roar goes up as Watson holed this impossible shot. So I dont have any regrets when I play well. Its like when I beat Miller and Weiskopf in 75 at Augusta it wouldnt have made any difference whether I won or lost because it was fun. It was fun to play Watson at Turnberry in 77 and Trevino at Muirfield in 72 even though I lost.
Rich: What were the principles your father, Charlie, instilled in you?
Jack: My dad instilled sportsmanship. He felt golf was a game and that you played it fairly, to win, and with respect and consideration for your opponent. My dad introduced me to all sports. I loved them all. If my dad hadnt broken his ankle and had three operations on it I probably never wouldve played golf. My dad was the city tennis champion. But after his ankle problems the doctor recommended he walk to strengthen the ankle and that lead him to golf. I used to tag along and I grew to love the individual aspect of golf.
Rich: What needs to change within the Ryder Cup culture to restore American glory?
Jack: After The Presidents Cup last year I spent over an hour on the phone with Paul. The first thing I said was why all the assistant captains. He said I want to help guys learn from them. I told him he has accomplished players, otherwise they wouldnt be on the team. I dont think they need anybody helping them. Leave them alone and let them play. Whether my philosophy was right or wrong I got a lot out of my guys. In 98 at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne they didnt want to play. They didnt want to be there. They all came back and said Jack we owe you one. We didnt give you a full effort. So the next time I was captain was 2002 and I said Im going to take the 12 guys to South Africa that want to play. If you dont want to play just say so. Obviously nobody stayed home and they bonded as a team and they were terrific. So I told Paul that I let them do what they wanted to do. I let them make their own pairings up to a degree---who do they want to play with, who dont they want to play with. I tried to stay in the background and I think it worked very well. I think Paul will do fine. He said I think Ill keep the assistants for me, to give me advice.
Rich: Is the pressure too great at the Ryder Cup?
Jack: Youre going to tell me that the pressure on Tiger at the Ryder Cup is greater than what he faces at the U.S. Open? This is supposed to be a fun week and a week of good will. Who wins is for bragging rights. By the time you guys in the media get through with it then theres a lot of pressure. I think the pressure is ridiculous. There is no pressure. Too much is made of it. Just go play.
Rich: What keeps your competitive juices flowing?
Jack: Golf course design. I mean I cant play anymore.
Rich: Come on, I heard you shot your age the other day.
Jack: Well about a month ago. I shot my age twice, once when I was 64 and now at 68. And I didnt play 15 times in between. Can I still play? I can shoot a decent round if I have to but I can also play some bad rounds. But my golf course design will live long beyond my golf game and my lifetime. And one of the things Im doing thats interesting is Im working on courses in 29 new countries. That makes 55 countries Ive worked in and Russias the best example. I never dreamed of doing golf courses in Russia. Were consulting for the mayor of Moscow on 15 golf public facilities. He wants to do in golf what theyve done in tennis. 15 years from now he wants a bunch of players from Russia who can play. And theyll do it. So whats exciting is that were taking the game of golf into a country thats never really played it and well be able to shape the future of the sport in that country. Were doing the same thing through Poland and Bulgaria and Romania and Czech Republic and Greece and Turkey.
Rich: That has to amaze you considering that Russia was not long ago an arch enemy.
Jack: I turned down the first golf course in Russia for exactly that reason some 20 years ago.
Rich: Could you see golf someday in Iraq or Afghanistan?
Jack: Absolutely. Maybe not in my lifetime, but itll happen.
Rich: You have 21 grandkids. Are you hopeful for the world theyll inherit?
Jack: Well the world is shrinking. Its very complicated. It used to be so far away that we didnt worry about it. Everything is so close now. The computer age has changed everything dramatically. Im a total dinosaur when it comes to the computer age.
Rich: Do you e-mail?
Jack: No I dont do any of that! I worry about my guys that work for me. Scott Tolley and I were on a recent trip around the world and were out of touch for four days. When we came back he had 344 e-mails to return. I mean how do you do that? You spend your life punching buttons. Thats why I refuse to do that. So what are my grandkids going to face? I dont know. Obviously wed love to have peace in the world. But theres never been peace. I dont know.
Rich: Why arent more people in this country playing golf?
Jack: The biggest problem is takes too long to play golf. If you play fast today its a four-hour round. Equipment has translated to longer golf courses and longer rounds. Should we make it a 12-hole round? Most other sports are two to three hour games. If you could leave the house at eight in the morning, kiss your wife goodbye and say Ill see you at noon, well have lunch and spend the afternoon with the kids, wives wouldnt object to that. Whats happening with young adults today is they have kids in organized sports from the earliest age with the dads and moms participating on Saturdays and Sundays where they used to play golf. We need to do something to get it to be a two- to three-hour game. If we do that I think well bring a lot of people into the game.
Rich: How many holes-in-one do you have?
Jack: 20. Its funny I remember playing The Tradition with Arnie and Gary and Gary made an ace on No. 7. I said, Gary how many do you have now? And he said, 18. I said thats how many I have. Then I asked Arnold how many hed made and he said 18. All three of us had 18. I thought that was an interesting bit of trivia at that time!
Rich: Hows your health? You look well.
Jack: Im doing all right. Ive gained some weight which Im not happy about. Traveling makes it difficult. You know I had great discipline when I played golf. Im afraid Im a little more relaxed today.
Rich: You still have that weakness for ice cream?
Jack: I have a weakness for a lot of things!
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