PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – We all marvel at the extraordinary achievements of great golfers like Jack Nicklaus. I could watch the ’86 Masters every day and never get bored.
But I also love the ordinary moments that remind us that the immortals are just men, and as reporters we’re privileged to catch those rare glimpses that allow us to see that.
I walked into the locker room at PGA National at 6 p.m. Wednesday night. Jack was lying on his back on the carpeted floor with his feet on a bench, rolling from left to right, right to left, letting out a slight groan as he worked out the kinks in his back. His eyes were closed.
After a few minutes he got up and squatted with his back pressed straight against a wooden locker.
“Saw you finished birdie, birdie,” I said.
“Yeah, how ‘bout that?” he said with a chuckle. Jack’s a very agreeable legend, easy to be around at 70. He makes you feel like a son who’s come home to visit.
He’d just come off the course he designed after a pro-am round with Drew Brees, Dan Marino and Kenny G. A lot of records set and sold in that foursome.
Jack fully expects his to be under assault in the next month. “I’d be surprised greatly if Tiger (Woods) didn’t play the Masters,” he said. “Because he’s a golfer, and a darned good one.”
While one theory says that Tiger needs to demonstrate that his marriage is more important than a major by skipping the Masters, another says that when an accountant or nurse or lawyer comes out of rehab they make their amends and go back to work. So why should Tiger be any different?
“His personal life is his personal life,” Jack said. “He’ll figure out his own problems. And as a golfer he’ll come back and get his game in shape and play. That’s what he does.”
Jack also believes that Tiger will need a tune up before the Masters.
While we talked, the television mounted just above where Jack was standing was tuned to ESPN. The anchors were talking about Tiger. Jack’s never seemed to mind the specter of Tiger looming over his shoulder.
Jack has often said that Tiger’s chase for 18 has been great for him because it’s kept his name alive for 15 years. Every time Tiger tees it up at a major we talk about his quest for Jack’s record.
I wonder if fans want Tiger to break it, or do they hope the record stays in Jack’s hands?
At this point, Paul Goydos popped in.
“I’ll never be as good as you are now,” said Goydos to Jack, and they laughed.
The subject turned to Tom Watson.
“I thought it was condescending to say that Watson winning the Open at Turnberry would have been the greatest upset in history,” Goydos said. “Me winning the Open would’ve been the greatest upset.
“My point is that Watson’s still so good that if he grinded out 25 events on the regular Tour I think he could win.’
Said Nicklaus: “There’s no question he’s good enough to win.”
After Goydos left, Jack and I talked football. His grandson Nick is a 6’4” high school junior being recruited by nearly every major power including USC.
“I haven’t missed any games,” Jack said.
I was then curious about the times before the 1986 Masters when he felt the love of the crowd most intensely.
“The 1972 British Open was unbelievable,” he said, his face lighting up at the thought. “I’d won the first two majors of the year and was making a big charge on the final day at Muirfield.
“I shot 30 on the front nine, made par at 10 and then stiffed my second shot at 11. As we’re walking up to green at 11 they’re absolutely going wild. I had tears running down my face. My caddie turned to me and said, ‘Hey man you got some holes to play.’”
Jack lost to Trevino by a shot.
He’s not lost his touch with the press. Just after his round and before coming to the locker room he also held court. “It was a Hall of Fame interview,” remarked colleague Craig Dolch. “Jack understands that you have to give a little. He always has.”
Will Tiger come to understand that? Will he feel what Jack felt at Muirfield in ’72? Will he be an honorary starter at the Masters years from now?
Jack will be at Augusta in that role for the first time this April, alongside his old friend and rival, Arnold Palmer. “I’ll have dinner, play nine holes at the par 3 and then hit a tee shot,” he said with a smile.
And he’ll make that day a better one for those who love the game, just as he did a wind-swept Wednesday in South Florida.