US Players Have Fond Memories of Nicklaus

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2005 PresidentTiger Woods was a sophomore in high school when he first met Jack Nicklaus, serving as a warm-up act to the Golden Bear during a golf clinic in Los Angeles. Fred Funk was 37 when they first shared a stage, a third-round pairing at the U.S. Open that left Funk so nervous Nicklaus had to calm him down.
 
Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus
Tiger Woods seems to play his best when Jack Nicklaus says goodbye.
They both refer to Nicklaus as the greatest golfer of all time. At the Presidents Cup, though, they simply will call him 'Captain Jack.'
 
This has been a year of farewells for Nicklaus, who played his final Masters in April and ended his incomparable major championship career at the British Open. His final act this year is to lead the U.S. team at the Presidents Cup.
 
In the weeks leading up to the Sept. 22-25 matches, his 12 players shared their favorite memories of Nicklaus, which invariably involve his children, his presence and a surprising ability to talk smack:
 
Kenny Perry
Perry figured he was a lucky man to get a practice round with Nicklaus at the British Open this year, the final major championship of his career.
 
Then he discovered the Nicklaus needle.
 
'It was me and Tom Watson against him and Mike Weir,' Perry said. 'The whole day, Jack was needling me. If I hit a bad shot, left a putt short, whatever. He'd say, 'Yeah, my mother would have done it like that.' And I was thinking, 'Did he just say something about me?' I felt like a pin cushion out there.'
 
Any other time, Perry would have given it right back.
 
But it didn't seem right.
 
'I looked over at Weir and said, 'Can I say something to him?' But that's Jack Nicklaus. I can't needle that guy,' Perry said. 'It got so bad that Tom Watson finally stuck up for me, because he knew I wasn't going to say anything.'
 
Perry laughs at the abuse he took, but he'll never forget the end of the round. Nicklaus invited them all onto the Swilcan Bridge for a group photo.
 
'He sent me the picture with an autograph, and a 5-pound note,' he said. 'That's going to make a good picture.'
 
Scott Verplank
Augusta National always has honored amateur players, which explains how Verplank got paired with Nicklaus in the first round of the 1986 Masters. Verplank won the 1984 U.S. Amateur, then won the Western Open in 1985 while he was still at Oklahoma State. 'They try to pair amateurs with past champions,' Verplank said. 'I had a decent record as an amateur, and they paired me with a guy who had a decent record as a pro.'
 
It sure didn't look like that week would be anything special for Nicklaus, who rallied on the back nine just to shoot 74 in the first round. Verplank played college golf against Jack Nicklaus II, who was caddying for his dad that week. Walking up to the clubhouse after they signed their cards, Verplank said to him, 'If your dad keeps his head still on the putts, he could still win.'
 
'The back nine was flawless,' Verplank said. 'There was still nobody who could hit it like him.'
 
Verplank missed the cut and doesn't remember much about his round.
 
He doesn't even recall if he was nervous.
 
'I had to be dying, because I don't remember a damn shot I hit,' he said. 'Twenty years later, I still remember every shot he hit. It wasn't his best that day, but it was a thrill to play with him. I got back to Stillwater and was sitting in front of the TV that Sunday, having goose bumps just like everyone else.'
 
Nicklaus shot 65 in the final round and won his sixth green jacket.
 
'I'd like to think I got it started,' Verplank said with a laugh.
 
David Toms
Nicklaus appeared to be on his way to a record fifth U.S. Open title in 1982 at Pebble Beach, and a 15-year-old from Louisiana was along for the ride.
 
'I watched Nicklaus play that whole round,' Toms said.
 
Tom Watson was playing in the last group and, tied with Nicklaus on the par-3 17th, chipped in from just off the back of the green for birdie, then made birdie on the 18th for a two-stroke victory. 'I was hoping Jack would win,' Toms said. 'Still, I was there for one of the greatest shots ever. I was standing down the fairway on 18, and I could see him running around back there on 17. That was kind of neat.'
 
Toms was on the PGA Tour for 13 years before he finally got a chance to play with Nicklaus, in the first two rounds at the Memorial this year. He already had 11 victories and a major, but part of him wanted to impress the great one.
 
'I hit my first drive into a bunker, hit a good shot and made birdie,' Toms said. 'We're walking off the green, and Jack says, 'It was all set up by the drive.' One hole and he was already taking his shots.'
 
Fred Funk
Funk had met Nicklaus, but they were barely on a first-name basis. Then came the third round of the 1993 U.S. Open, where both needed a good round to have any hopes of contending.
 
'We're on the first tee and he said, 'Freddie, you look nervous,'' Funk said. 'Well, yeah. I'm in a major. Here I am playing with the greatest player of all time. It's a little intimidating. He said, 'Just relax.''
 
Funk managed to get his emotions under control for the next 17 holes. He was moving up the leaderboard, while Nicklaus was struggling on his way to a 76.
 
Then came the 18th at Baltusrol.
 
'I had a 5-footer up the hill on the last hole,' Funk says. 'Jack comes up to me and says, 'Knock it in. You've got a chance to win this thing.' I was like, 'Oh, man! Why couldn't you tell me that after it was over!''
 
Funk shot 67, then added a 70 in the final round and tied for seventh.
 
Jim Furyk and Jack Nicklaus
Jim Furyk won Jack's Memorial Tournament in 2002.
Jim Furyk
Furyk wanted to play nine holes of practice at Doral one year when he found Nicklaus on the first tee and was invited to join the foursome. He drew Nicklaus as his partner, against Ernie Els and Gary Nicklaus.
 
'Jack hit it down the middle,' Furyk said. 'Ernie heeled one out there, two of us were in the rough. Jack was the longest off the tee by 3 yards, so he's already starting in on us, giving us a hard time about how the old man hit it past the young guys. He birdied No. 1, and now he's crowing on the way to the second tee.'
 
Furyk birdied the next hole, Nicklaus birdied No. 3.

'We were 3 up through four, and he was just chirping all the way around,' Furyk said. 'I didn't know him well enough to know that side of him. And then on the next hole, Ernie and Gary pressed. I'll never forget what Jack said. His next line was,
'Boys, step into my office.' I got the biggest kick out of him.'
 
Justin Leonard
Leonard didn't have to think long to come up with his favorite Nicklaus memory.
 
'I played a practice round with him at Baltusrol in the '93 Open on my 21st birthday,' Leonard said.
 
Leonard had a tenuous link to Nicklaus, having won the U.S. Amateur the year before at Muirfield Village. Still, he was surprised when the Golden Bear approached him at the Masters that year and set up a practice round on Tuesday at Baltusrol.
 
Leonard grew up in the presence of greatness, meeting Byron Nelson at an early age.
 
'Yeah, but I was never playing golf with Byron,' he said. 'This was pretty cool.'
 
Fred Couples
Nicklaus meant so much to Couples that he delayed his flight home from Augusta in 1986, cleaned out his locker and rushed to his house so he could watch the back nine when Nicklaus won the Masters.
 
His first encounter also involved a rush to leave the course.
 
He was paired with Nicklaus for the first time at Doral in 1983. It was Couples' third year on tour, and he was as nervous as he had ever been. Storm clouds gathered over the Blue Monster when they teed off.
 
'We got in the first fairway -- he'd driven it down the middle, I was in the right side in the rough, just past him -- and it started to rain, then it started to pour,' Couples said. 'There was no horn, no nothing. He just stood there for a long, long time. I mean a LONG time. Guys were playing up 18, and he just stood there.
 
'We thought it was the greatest thing ever. He was not going to hit in this rain. I bet we waited seven or eight minutes, and he just stood there. Then they blew the siren, he marked his ball and we went inside. They washed out the round and the next day we re-paired in threes. I either didn't get him, or I had someone else with us so I wasn't as nervous about getting in his way.'
 
Phil Mickleson
Phil Mickelson first played with Nicklaus during a golf course opening in the Phoenix area, but nothing will replace a practice round at Augusta National in
1993.
 
Mickelson won the Buick Invitational earlier that year for his first PGA Tour victory as a pro, getting him into the Masters. He played a practice round with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
 
'It was just cool to play with him at Augusta, and see the way the people responded to him,' Mickelson said.
 
Stewart Cink
Cink and Michael Nicklaus, the youngest of Jack Nicklaus' five children, were teammates at Georgia Tech. Cink first met Jack Nicklaus when parents were invited to Atlanta for a football game. Sure enough, a round of golf was quickly arranged.
 
'I played with Jack, and I tied Jack,' Cink said. 'I remember on the last hole, I made about an 8-footer for par. I knew exactly what he shot and what I shot, and I knew that was to tie him. And he asked me if I knew that putt was to tie him. And I lied to him and said, 'No, I didn't know.'
 
'But then when I walked away, I was thinking, 'Why didn't I tell him I knew?' Because if I told him I knew, he would have thought I was better because I made that putt to tie Jack Nicklaus.'
 
Did he ever go back and tell Nicklaus he lied?
 
'No,' Cink said. 'But I'll probably tell him at the Presidents Cup. He won't remember that, so me telling him that would be sort of anticlimactic.'
 
Davis Love III
Love and Jack Nicklaus II were teammates at North Carolina, and he went home with the Bear's son and played golf at Lost Tree in North Palm Beach, Fla.
 
'It was the first time I ever played with him,' Love said. 'I was maybe a sophomore in college. It was me and Jackie against Jack and another teammate. I was nervous as I could be.'
 
Love said he wasn't keeping score, but he knows they won the match.
 
'We played a match for milkshakes,' Love said with a laugh. 'And he never paid off.'
 
Chris DiMarco
'I was paired with Gary (Nicklaus) in a junior event. We were 16,' DiMarco said. 'I get there, and there's Mr. Nicklaus watching. That was the most nerve-racking round of golf of my life.'
 
More nerves came nearly 20 years later when DiMarco played for Nicklaus on the Presidents Cup team and was in a singles match crucial to a U.S. comeback. Of course, he didn't realize this until Nicklaus pulled up in a cart.
 
'He said, 'How are you doing?' I said, 'I'm good, I'm having so much fun,'' DiMarco said. 'He said, `Good. Because we really need your point.' I got up-and-down for birdie and on the next hole, the 17th, I'm tied with Stuart Appleby. Mr. Nicklaus is on the tee helping me out with what club to hit. To me, that was the coolest thing.'
 
They settled on a 7-iron, which DiMarco hit to 8 feet. He made the birdie and held on to win his match.
 
'I couldn't even spit,' he said. 'To make birdie there, knowing the greatest player ever to play the game is relying on me to come through, that was the best for me.'
 
Tiger Woods
Four years after he first met Nicklaus at the golf clinic, Woods played a practice round at the Masters with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, which was arranged by Butch Harmon.
 
'I'm this little amateur,' Woods said. 'They said, 'Do you want to play a skins game?' I said, 'Sure, what are we playing for?' They said, 'We'll disclose the dollar amount at the end of the round.' Arnie birdied the last hole and stole all the skins, and Jack says, 'That's typical.'
 
'So we're leaving, and Jack puts his arm around me and says, 'Are you busy?' I told him I was going back to the Crow's Nest. He says, 'Why don't you join Arnold and myself in a Par 3 contest.' Sweet. I couldn't turn that down.'
 
The biggest news from that Wednesday afternoon was when Nicklaus came into the press center and raved about Woods, saying his fundamentals were as good as he had seen, and that Woods might win more green jackets than Nicklaus and Palmer combined.
 
And what did Woods think when he heard about that statement?
 
'What was he smoking?' he said.

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