This interview originally ran in the May, 1994, issue of Golf Magazine.
A quarter century after their battles for domination of the pro Tour, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus remain the two biggest names in golf. However, what was once the game's most heated rivalry has simmered into the game's most complex friendship. Editor-in-Chief George Peper corralled the two titans of the GOLF Magazine masthead for a candid discussion that ranged from their assessments of each other's games to their opinions on what's good — and not so — about golf today.
GOLF Magazine: You guys have what has been called the game's most complicated friendship. Agree?
Nicklaus: I agree that we've both led very complicated lives, and certainly we've competed in everything we've done. We've had moments when we've disagreed, we've had moments when we fought each other right down to the end of the tournament, and we've had moments when we've fought each other for last place.
Palmer: There have been times when we've fought each other so hard that we've let others go buy us. But frankly, I think our rivalry, if that's what you want to call it, would have been even more intense if we were the same age.
Nicklaus: That's right. It's worth remembering that we came into this game at different times. Arnold, when you came on Tour, you basically had only two or three other guys to beat, right?
Nicklaus: I'm not belittling what you did, but you know what I mean — the leaderboard didn't have any regular names up there. When I came on, I had Arnold, I had those guys you were beating, and I had a couple other guys, but not many. My point is that Arnold was in place as a dominant player for several years before my days began.
GOLF Magazine: You both have confessed that you enjoy nothing more then beating each other's brains out. Is that true even in casual practice rounds?
Nicklaus: Over the years, Arnold's the only guy I've played against for more then $10. We usually play for $20.
Palmer: Yes, although we never needed the money to make it interesting.
GOLF Magazine: Who's up lifetime?
Nicklaus: He is.
Palmer: (Laughing) But it doesn't matter because Jack never pays me anyway.
Nicklaus: I'd rather owe it to you and then beat you out of it.
GOLF Magazine: Speaking of debts, Arnie, you gave Jack a short-game lesson when he first came on the Tour — about the wisdom of putting rather than chipping from the fringe. Jack says he's followed that advice ever since. Has he ever repaid you with a tip for your game?
Palmer: Yes, but it took him about three decades! A couple years back, on the practice tee at the Tradition, I was getting a lesson from my old college buddy Jim Flick. At the time, I was having more trouble than usual with my nemesis — getting enough trajectory on my shots. As Jim and I were talking, Jack walked over, watched me hit a few shots, and then made some helpful comments. To be honest, I've never sought much help from Jack — or anyone else for that matter-but in that case, I figured he was worth listening to. After all, who in history has been better at hitting the ball up in the air than Jack Nicklaus?
GOLF Magazine: They say that golf reveals personality. Do you think that applies to each other?
Palmer: Well, it's no secret that Jack has a tremendous ability to focus totally on what he's doing, whether that's on the course or off. Other players may have had as much or more pure talent, Greg Norman for example. If Greg had had Jack's personality — his ability to blot out all of his other interests and focus entirely on golf — I think he might have been more competitive in more majors.
Nicklaus: Arnold's personality has revealed itself in everything he does — in his game, the way he carries himself down the fairway, in the way he's won the support of the public. He does things aggressively, with a flair. But when I first started playing with Arnold — in the early '60s and probably through the later '60s — he was a better "get the ball in the hole" guy than he was a striker of the ball. When he became a better striker of the ball, I think it actually went against his personality, and I'm not sure it helped his game. Suddenly, he was rarely in trouble — rarely in a position to charge and go after something. Arnold always played his best when he could allow that personality to come out — when he could drive it in the trees and savor the challenge. He was unique in that way.