Nicklaus was - still is - the king of focus


PINEHURST, N.C. – Something still happens when Jack Nicklaus stands over a golf ball. The Golden Bear will tell you he gave up on his golf game long ago. After all, he’s 74 years old. His body has broken down. He has golf courses to design, business ventures to explore, family life to live. He plays golf rarely, and almost never in public. When he does play, he is content (or he claims to feel some emotion vaguely resembling contentment) to break 80. He has accepted his mortality. 

That's what he will tell you, anyway. But Nicklaus made a rare tournament appearance in Branson, Mo., last week for the Legends of Golf, the oldest tournament on the Champions Tour. It was first played 36 years ago in Austin, Texas – the idea was to have 50-something golfers team up and play a little golf for some money. Sam Snead paired up with Gardner Dickinson to win 50 grand the first year.  

In the years since, the tournament has been in Austin; La Quinta, Calif.; Amelia Island, Fla.,; St. Augustine, Fla.; Savannah, Ga.; and, this year, in Branson. Nicklaus said he came to this one because he wanted to support the tournament's reemergence in Branson, because he enjoyed the thought of teaming up with his friend Gary Player, because it was played on a course he designed, and because the sponsor, Bass Pro Shop founder Johnny Morris, is a friend and business partner.

In other words, he didn't expect much competitively. He made that perfectly clear.

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“Oh, I can’t play anymore,” he said dismissively. He said that he had played twice the previous week and that was “a lot for me.” When he was asked at a news conference about his golfing expectations, he made a joke about it. 

“We’re here to win!” he said and he held up a fist as if he meant it. Of course, he also smiled mischievously and it was clear that “We're here to win,” actually meant, “Come on, I’m just an old guy now, I’ve won my tournaments already. I can’t play anymore.” 

Everything about his first day in Branson had been rushed. He had spent the morning talking with Rory McIlroy about golf and life and how to balance the two. Then he flew into Branson and was immediately shuttled off to make an appearance at a Presidents Cup news conference with commissioner Tim Finchem. He then went to a smaller tournament news conference, talked for a while, then various media outlets grabbed him for quick side-session interviews. Nicklaus, as always, faced a blinding flurry of questions about a hundred different things: Tiger Woods; golf's decline; par-3 golf courses; the future of Missouri golf tourism. He was clearly growing tired and hungry – he had not eaten a thing – and he almost pleaded with people to let him get out there and just hit a couple of golf balls so he could see what had become of the course he had designed many years earlier. 

Finally, after more questions and more requests and a sandwich, he went out to the first hole. He was talking with a friend, he grabbed a club, he haphazardly dropped the golf ball, and he got ready to hit.

And then ... well, this is the point, something still happens when Jack Nicklaus stands over a golf ball. Because then he just stopped. I’ve seen professional golfers race through little practice rounds before. They drop the ball, they take one look at the hole, they hit the shot, they move on. The whole thing will take three seconds. 

But Nicklaus stood there. He looked at the hole. And he stood there. He looked at the ball. And he stood there. He looked at the hole. He steadied himself. It was mesmerizing; his whole persona had changed. His whole sense of focus had changed. This shot – this meaningless practice shot for a trivial tournament surrounded by maybe 11 people – suddenly became the single most important thing he had ever done in his entire life. He looked at the ball once more, and he tilted his head, and he hit the shot. 

It was a moderately good one – it went up on the green – and for a long time he stared at it. He studied the ball in flight, looked to see where it landed, noticed the way the ball bounced on the green. He stood there for a long time making calculations that, I suspect, only Jack Nicklaus makes. 

Here we are now, week of the U.S. Open, and this seems a good time as any to talk about the biggest reason Jack Nicklaus won four U.S. Opens and more major championships than any player in the history of golf and will, I believe, hold that record for many decades to come. Sure, his game was fantastic. He outdrove every player of his generation, and he hit his iron shots higher, and he was as good a pressure putter as anyone in the game’s history. But there’s something else, something that so few players have. 

Jack Nicklaus, perhaps better than anyone in the history of the game, could put aside everything that did not matter and focus all his energy and all his thought and all his will on putting a golf ball into a hole. That was all. Nothing got between his focus and his game. Nothing.

“In all the years I watched Jack play,” his great rival and friend Tom Watson says, "I never saw him backhand a putt into the hole. Maybe it happened once or twice through the years, but I never saw him do it. He cared too much and had too much respect for the game to backhand putts.”

This image of Jack Nicklaus walking around the hole and taking his time on a simple tap-in for double bogey – just like the image of him concentrating deeply on a meaningless shot in a practice round in Branson – gets to the heart of something about the Golden Bear. He never complicated things. He never complained about stuff he couldn’t change. He never worried about what it made no sense worrying about. 

This gets to the challenge that emerges at every U.S. Open. The point of this tournament is to give golfers the sternest test they will face all year. If the USGA has its way at most U.S. Opens, the rough will be high, the greens will be hard and par will call for a celebration. This week at Pinehurst No. 2 it’s a little bit different – the rough has been replaced by native grasses that will pick and choose when to punish bad shots. The hard greens are shaped like baseball caps and will inspire golf balls to mock and roll away. Par will still be in demand.

And in the days leading up to the tournament start, everyone talks about how patient they will need to be, how difficult it will be to overcome their frustration, how it will be ridiculously hard because the USGA wants it that way. Some already talk about how they must fundamentally change to play this course. Bubba Watson talks about completely altering his game and hitting short off the tee in order to avoid the trouble spots. Phil Mickelson talks about changing to a claw putting grip so he can hit with a lighter touch on these lightning-fast greens. And so on. 

Nicklaus used to love the lead-up to the U.S. Open. He used to read the newspapers on major championship weeks to see who was complaining or making ill-advised changes to their games and cross them off the list as potential contenders. He saw this as one of his great advantages. He would never talk about the need to be patient on a course – golf ALWAYS required patience. He would never talk about overcoming frustration. For Nicklaus, frustration was the emotion the other guy had to deal with.

One of the great clichés in sports and life is “You can’t worry about what you can’t control.” But very few have shown the discipline and focus to live inside the cliché. Nicklaus did.  

As Dan Jenkins, the king of all golf writers, says about Nicklaus: “It was almost as if he felt it was his birthright to win majors.”  

Professional golf is in a tenuous place at the moment. Tiger Woods won his last major championship six years ago – SIX YEARS – and in that time no golfer has taken the opportunity to grab top billing. Six different golfers, including Woods, have been No. 1 over that time (Woods, Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott). Even more to the point, there have been 19 different winners in the 23 major championships since Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open. Only Padraig Harrington (who won the first two majors after Woods’ victory), Phil Mickelson in the later part of his career, Rory McIroy at the start and Bubba Watson in his domination of Augusta have managed to win even two majors in those six years. 

There are many theories about the parity – one of the more popular being that golf is deeper now than ever before – but I would argue that the outside pressures are hotter than they’ve ever been. And no golfer since Woods has had anything resembling Nicklaus’ pure focus to deal with it.  

How did Nicklaus maintain that focus? Well, Nicklaus was not immune to pressure, but he wouldn’t put any extra on himself. Nicklaus was not invulnerable to slumps, but he never made them bigger than they were. If he was behind, he did not try to hit high-risk shots. If he was ahead, he did not worry about someone chasing him down from behind. He simply calculated the smartest shot time and again, and then he tried to hit it. If he hit a bad shot, he played hard for bogey. If 76 was the best score he could shoot, he worked his heart out to make sure he didn’t shoot 77. Let everybody else overthink and panic and agonize and torment themselves with too many thoughts. 

Most of the time, the others did. Nicklaus won 18 major championships. But Nicklaus would be the first to say that in reality other golfers lost some of those. 

No, Nicklaus didn’t always win. Sometimes a guy like Tom Watson or Lee Trevino would take one away from him. Sometimes, he just didn’t have quite enough. But he was always there – in 35 of the 40 major championships in the 1970s, Nicklaus finished top 10 (by comparison, Woods finished in the top 10 25 times in the 2000s). Nicklaus figured that the only way to win a major championship was to be in contention, and the only way to be in contention was to score well enough, no matter the golf course, no matter the weather, no matter how well he had been playing leading in. Nicklaus believed, deep inside, that he should contend every time. Missing the cut or having a terrible round early in the week that took him out of contention, these were not options.

That’s a hard place for an athlete to reach – that place of pure focus. Some golfers get there for a week or two. Some can reach it for a year or two. Nicklaus was there for 20 years. The most interesting revelation of the early week at Pinehurst is that McIlroy spent a couple of hours picking Nicklaus’ brain last week. He didn’t go into great detail about what they talked about but he did share this fun little exchange:

“He said to me, he goes, ‘How the hell can you shoot 63 one day and then 78?’ I said, ‘I wasn’t meaning to, Jack. I’m trying not to.’ ” 

There’s a lot of wisdom in that. If I had to pick one guy in the world who could legitimately become the best player in the world in the absence of Woods, it would be McIlroy. But, yeah, he shoots 63 one day and 78 the next. To a guy like Nicklaus, that just doesn’t make any sense. As Ted Williams once said to Sam Snead, “the golf ball doesn't move.” The hole stays the same size. You know how to use a golf club. You know where you want to hit the ball. Everything else is a distraction and a trap and beside the point.

McIlroy talked about the “nuggets of wisdom” Nicklaus passed along. If any of those nuggets get McIlroy to focus enough to save his bad days, the golf throne waits for him. 

But is that sort of focus transferable? Nicklaus did not play well in Branson. He hit some good shots here and there between persistent thunderstorms, but by Sunday most of those good shots were gone. He was exhausted. The Golden Bear will tell you he long ago gave up on his golf game, but the truth is that at no point did he stop grinding. He and Gary Player finished fifth. He talked about hoping he can maintain a golf game for another year. He’d like to come back and win.