NICKLAUS: Well, it took more time. I think in my case winning fans came as a result of winning tournaments. Certainly, I didn't have too many supporters when I came on Tour. I didn't look like an athlete, I was overweight, had a crew cut, baggy clothes and on top of that I didn't smile much. I was very serious about my game, literally and figuratively the heavy.
GOLF: And you had a tough act to follow in Palmer.
NICKLAUS: I had a very tough act to follow. Arnold was dashing, charismatic — and still is. But to be honest, I paid zero attention to such things. All I wanted to do was win golf tournaments.
GOLF: You didn't have any nights when you came home to your wife Barbara and said, 'Gee, I wish the galleries liked me better?'
NICKLAUS: Never. We never discussed it. I think both Barbara and I knew that, for better or worse, I was myself. I couldn't try to be a Palmer. I had to be Nicklaus. If that came off as cocky and dour-faced, we knew it would just have to take time before people came around and accepted me for what I was.
GOLF: What about the notion that you made a conscious attempt to change your image — to slim down and update your hairdo for greater appeal?
NICKLAUS: I read that all the time, and this is as good an opportunity as any to clear that up. During the mid-1960s I paid a visit to my doctor and asked him about my weight, and you know what he said? 'Don't worry about it. You're in great shape and you have nothing to be concerned about except this: As some point in your life, you're going to get tired. When this happens, you'll know it's time to lose weight.' Well, I went along for another few years, and then after the 1969 Ryder Cup, flying back from Britain on the plane, I turned to Barbara and said, 'For the first time in my life, I feel tired from playing the game.' Then I said, 'When we get home, I'm going on a diet.' And that was that. Three weeks later I'd lost my weight.
GOLF:And the hairstyle?
NICKLAUS: Hairstyles change. No one wears their hair the way I did back then — not in a crewcut, not in that big slicked-back wave I sported. I changed with the times, not to improve my image.
GOLF: You still tend to look heavier some weeks than others, and I have this hunch that at any given moment, you'd like nothing better than to pig out, eat a pizza or a half gallon of ice cream.
NICKLAUS: You've got that right! The fact is, I diet every day of my life. I have to work at it. But I diet so I can pig out. Barbara laughs at me because of my eating habits. For most of the week I'll be real careful, then in a space of 48 hours I'll eat six pieces of cake and, as you say, a half gallon of ice cream. The next day I'll feel fat, go back to being a good boy for a few more days and go through the splurge again after that. If I were to let myself go all the time, I'd weigh 220-plus as I did in the old days. If I watched myself all the time, I'd be back down to 170 pounds where I was about three years ago, when I was so skinny I was hardly there. So this diet-splurge-diet-splurge routine, humorous as it seems to my wife, keeps me happy.
GOLF: You've become a model to golfers all over the world. People imitate your swing, your putting style, your mannerisms. With that in mind, do you ever wish you were a faster player?
NICKLAUS: I was never taught to play fast. I'll admit I was faster as a kid than I am today. But I think I'm faster now than I was a few years ago. I get really slow for two reasons: When I'm not sure of myself or when I'm so engrossed in a competition that I'm not aware of the pace. Otherwise, I try to pick myself up, because I think it's better for the game to be played faster.
GOLF: Your concentration is legendary. Has your utter concentration ever reached that point where, in effect, you went beyond concentration and into a zone where you're playing, as Johnny Miller has said of himself, 'out of your mind'?
NICKLAUS: On those two back nines of 30, at Augusta in '86 and Baltusrol in '67, I had such confidence that I felt I could just draw it back and all of a sudden — bam! — the ball was on the target. But it wasn't as if I went into a trance. I just got going with a couple of birdies, saw a light at the end of the tunnel and went after that light.
GOLF: You were never on automatic pilot?
NICKLAUS: No, I'm not foggy enough for that. I was always in full control.
GOLF: Arnie brought golf to the masses, Jones was the humble gentleman and Hogan inspired the work ethic. Each left a sort of legacy beyond his accomplishments. What do you see as your legacy?
NICKLAUS: I can't pick out a word or two as you have for those guys. I'd guess I might be proudest of my longevity, my ability to adapt over time. There were a lot of good players before me who might have been able to extend their careers a bit, had they kept in shape. I guess that apart from Sam Snead, I've hung on about the best of the top players.
GOLF: All right, that gets us to the question. Jack, no athlete has dominated a sport for a longer period of time or with greater certainty than you have the game of golf. Muhammad Ali in boxing might be the only one who came close. Have you decided in your own mind that you are the best golfer ever to walk the earth? Be honest, now.
NICKLAUS: (long pause): There have been better ball strikers than I. There might have been guys who were tougher competitors than I. There might have been guys who were more determined or better putters. But I frankly don't think that any of them has been able to put all that together and keep it together better than I have.
GOLF: That's pretty honest.
NICKLAUS: What do you mean pretty honest? That was very honest! Okay, you want it more definitive? Ultimately do I believe that I'm the best player? Let me say this. I believe it as closely as someone can believe it without actually saying it, because I don't think I could ever say it.
GOLF: That's close enough.