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Jack Nicklaus: GOLF Magazine Interview

Jack Nicklaus reflects on his life and times as the world's greatest golfer.

This interview originally ran in the September, 1988, issue of Golf Magazine.

GOLF: You've won 20 major championships. We won't ask you to pick out the one that means the most — but how about choosing the top three?

NICKLAUS: The first would be my first U.S. Amateur at The Broadmoor in 1959. Second was the U.S. Open in 1962, because of the fashion in which I won it [he beat Arnold Palmer in an 18-hole playoff at Oakmont for his first professional victory]. Setting the Masters record [271] in '65 was an unbelievable thrill, but then, so was winning the British Open at St. Andrews.

GOLF: 1970 or 1978?

NICKLAUS: Both of them. Geez, there have been so many thrills. But if I had to pick three, they'd be the Open in '62, the U.S. Open at Baltusrol in '80 and The Masters in '86.

GOLF: There were a few disappointments as well. Can you think of three low points to go with the high ones?

NICKLAUS: No, but I can think of two. The first was in the 1972 British Open. I went to Muirfield with the first two legs of the Grand Slam in my pocket, and after 69 holes I still had a good chance to win the third leg. I was in control of my own destiny over those last three holes, but instead of finishing par-birdie-par as I had when I won there in 1966, I finished bogey-par-par and lost to [Lee] Trevino by a stroke. The other big disappointment was losing to [Tom] Watson's chip-in at Pebble Beach in the '82 U.S. Open.

GOLF: What about 1977?

NICKLAUS: You mean Turnberry?

GOLF: Yes, and Augusta, too. [Watson edged him at both]

NICKLAUS: Yes, but those victories wouldn't have meant anything in those particular years. At Muirfield in '72, I was trying to win the Slam. In fact if I had won there, I would have held all four majors at the same time, because I'd won the PGA Championship in 1971. And at Pebble I was going for a record fifth Open and really thought I'd won it. When Tom hit his tee shot into the rough on 17, I felt as if I was holding the trophy.

GOLF: Is there a single shot you'd like to have over again — a career mulligan?

NICKLAUS: A couple of drives stand out. One goes back 20 years, to the 1968 British Open at Carnoustie. In the final round, I knocked my tee shot on the sixth hole out of bounds and ended up finishing second [by two stokes] to Gary Player. The other came last year at Augusta. On the 10th tee in the final round I turned to Jackie [Nicklaus' son and frequent caddie] and said, 'We're gonna do it again.' I had shot a 34 on the front side and was four stokes off the lead — a year earlier I had been six back at the turn. I really thought I was going to pull off a seventh Masters. But instead I made one of the worst swings of my life and hooked the ball way left. I made six, and the charge was over. I'd love to have that swing back.

GOLF: What about your last shot to the 72nd green of The Masters in 1977 when Watson won by two strokes? You hit it really fat. Did the famous Nicklaus concentration collapse?

NICKLAUS: Yes, it did. I lost my composure. First, I was between a 6- and a 7-iron and decided to play the 6-iron behind the hole. Then came this roar up from the 17th green where Watson had made a birdie. After that I just couldn't reprogram myself. I should have taken the 7 and just hit it hard instead of trying to play a 'shot.'

GOLF: Wasn't that the same mistake Greg Norman made in '86 when you won? He said he should have nailed a 5-iron into the heart of the green instead of trying to feather a high 4-iron next to the hole.

NICKLAUS: Yes, you don't feather shots on the last hole of a major championship. [Norman missed the green and bogeyed, finishing a stroke behind Nicklaus.]

GOLF: If the gods of golf could give you one more victory, where would it be? Five Opens would give you more than any player. So would six PGAs, and a fourth British Open would give you four cycles of the majors.

NICKLAUS: I'd want that fifth Open. It's interesting that of all the major tournaments I've played in, I've had fewer chances to win the Open than any other. I've won The Masters six times but have been around the lead another half dozen times or more. At the British, I've won three but had seven seconds. At the PGA, I've won five times but been second a couple of times. At the U.S. Open, except for one or two occasions, I've either won it or been out of contention.

GOLF: Let's talk about Jack Nicklaus in contention. The guys on the Tour seem to agree that as good as Watson was a few years ago and Norman and Ballesteros are today, none of them will ever have your 'Intimidation factor.' When you were in the hunt, you struck fear in the hearts of the tournament leaders. As J.C. Snead once put it, 'when you go head to head against Nicklaus, he knows he's going to beat you, you know he's going to beat you, and he knows you know he's going to beat you.'

NICKLAUS: (laughing): Yes, I used to know that, and I'd love to know it again! I knew, coming down the stretch, that the odds were way in my favor of winning a golf tournament. I knew that if I kept the pressure on and didn't do anything stupid I would probably win.

GOLF: That's a pretty strong statement.

NICKLAUS: Yes, but there was absolutely no question in my mind. I knew exactly how intimidating I was, and I've got to tell you, it was a tremendous advantage. I knew that many of the other players had the physical skill I had, but I also knew that few of them had the mental skills to use that physical skill properly. That knowledge gave me the confidence that I would not lose a tournament myself. Someone might come up and beat me as Watson did a couple of times, but I would not lose it. Most players give tournaments away. And I always knew that when that happened, I'd be around, ready to accept the gift.

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