DUBLIN, Ohio – This may qualify as the ultimate exercise in futility, but give it the proverbial old college try anyway.
I want you to think about Jack Nicklaus. Picture that pronounced brow supporting his famously flaxen hair, his shoulders slightly hunched as if he's forever prepared to sink another 10-footer.
Now think about him as just another guy. Forget the 18 major championships. Disconnect him as the face of the game for the past half-century.
See, I told you it wouldn't be easy.
There's method behind this madness, though. Strip down the man to his very core, just as a fellow golfer, not as 'Jack Nicklaus, greatest golfer of all-time,' and you'll find his ideas on everything from golf course architecture to the state of the PGA Tour to growing the game at its grassroots level contain as much as, if not more, validity than any others that dot the fairways and greens-covered landscape.
This is hardly a revolutionary discovery. Nicklaus has always been a thinking man’s golfer, remaining in touch with the game long past the end of his playing days. It is relevant in today’s age, though, during which a celebrity’s opinions are often valued for the sole reason of celebrity.
It’s the rationale behind why Britney Spears can be queried about the upcoming presidential election or Justin Bieber asked to summarize his thoughts on the federal deficit. These are fruitless, futile attempts to extract meaningless opinion from a source simply because the source is given a platform.
In golf’s little corner of the world, it still happens – albeit to a much lesser extent. As soon as a pro wins a major championship, he’s expected to serve as an expert on all aspects of the game, his voice instantly granted greater reverence based simply on the accomplishment.
Nicklaus is the rare figure whose accomplishments create that platform, but for whom the spotlight is unquestionably appropriate. Think of it this way: If he had never won a single major title, his thoughts on the game would be less publicized, but no less justified or legitimate.
On Wednesday, Nicklaus spent over an hour lavishing these thoughts upon reporters in advance of his Memorial Tournament, producing hypotheses on a wide range of hot-button issues surrounding the game.
On slow play at the amateur level, he claimed, “The major problem is becoming for the average recreational golfer because today is not a four-and-a-half, four-hour time to play golf. This is in the computer age, kids want to do things in two-and-a-half, three hours at dead max. … The game for the average golfer needs to be faster, take less time, needs to be cheaper, and needs to be easier. Those are contradictory to the Tour.”
Maybe that’s not the most unconventional take on the topic, but there aren’t many well-known figures who would impugn their own reputation as part of the problem.
“I'm probably as much a culprit as anybody,” he continued. “We do a golf course and most people will say, ‘Jack, we want to have a chance to maybe someday play a PGA or a U.S. Open on this golf course.’ Well, I've got to do a golf course that's going to fit that level. Well, the average golfer can't play that golf course because it's just too darned difficult. But if we play the golf course at a length they can play it, then maybe it's not so bad.”
Astute opinions such as those extend to so many other areas, as well.
Much of that stems from his position in the game as more than just a legendary former player and current spokesman. Nicklaus has personally had a hand in designing 289 courses in 34 countries, expanding his expertise on the subject of course design.
“I’m not a fan of hacking the ball out of the rough; never have been,” he stated. “I don’t think that’s exciting golf. Then again, I think the rough should be a penalty. I mean, there’s a combination there somewhere. I think a guy in the rough, I think you give him a half a shot at what he needs to do. Arnold made his name at recovering. That was the excitement of Arnold Palmer playing golf.”
Nicklaus turned professional in 1961 and famously won the Masters a quarter-century later at the age of 46. His career spanned an era that started with professionals driving from tournament to tournament, with only the best of the best able to earn an acceptable living; it continued into a time with them ushered in private jets, competing for millions of dollars every single week.
It’s enough to leave a player of the previous generation telling plenty of “walking uphill 10 miles in the snow” types of stories, but Nicklaus has an uncanny ability to relate today’s players to those of his heyday without condemning the current crop.
Asked about the elite players competing on seemingly limited schedules, he contended, “It's always been hard to get the top players. I mean, how many times do you think that I got yelled at by sponsors and everything? … I started playing about 21 or 22 tournaments a year, and I think that's about what the guys are going to play today.”
Jack Nicklaus is often queried for his thoughts on so many aspects of the game for the simple fact that he’s Jack Nicklaus. It makes sense. The name alone carries a hefty weight, his accomplishments justification enough to seek his opinion.
We should pay attention, though, for myriad other reasons. Throughout his years in the game, he remains thoughtful, observant and intelligent. They are qualities which lend more credence to his beliefs than his major championship record – and the reason why when Nicklaus speaks, the rest of us continue to listen.