WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—Years ago, Jack Nicklaus recalls, the PGA Tour couldn't keep a Tour stop in this area because it couldn't get any crowds to come out and watch.
"You'd come in the pressroom and there'd be three guys and they were all horse-racing writers," Nicklaus says with his familiar chuckle. "Not to disparage horse racing." He pauses while laughter breaks out. "They just weren't golf writers."
He marvels at this week's Honda Classic, which has the atmosphere and feel of a big-deal Tour stop because that’s exactly what is has become in recent years, just as anyone who has witnessed an extended passage of time marvels at how quickly the world changes and then continues to change.
Nicklaus has played a key role in the Honda Classic’s success although he would dismiss this sentence with a wave of his weathered hand. The Honda was a nice little Tour stop throughout the ‘90s and beyond until the tournament relocated from the Fort Lauderdale area to Nicklaus Country—Palm Beach County—and the tournament merged its resources with the Nicklaus name and the desire of Jack and Barbara Nicklaus to improve children’s charities. All the Honda Classic has done since then is snowball in every way, starting with $2.55 million raised for charity last year.
The event has a favorable date, a challenging course, a strong field with big names and that priceless but hard-to-replicate feeling that if you’re a fan or a player and you’re not at PGA National during tournament week, you’re missing something special.
Barbara Nicklaus talked about the tourney’s efforts during a segment on Saturday’s telecasts. Jack jokingly told his wife, “I missed it—I fell asleep.” He was kidding, of course. He is extremely proud of his wife’s role and in the tournament’s charity development.
Mr. and Mrs. Nicklaus hosted a dinner party this week at the request of Ryder Cup captain Davis Love in the hopes of building some team bonding among the captains, assistant captains and potential players. Some 29 players showed up, including Tiger Woods, and rest assured it was as much about a chance to hang with Jack as it was about team unity.
He’s 76, he’s as pleasant and gracious and self-deprecating as ever and, oh yeah, he’s a living legend that we all appreciate now more than ever. He’s got opinions and memories and stories and if they distracted a roomful of writers early Sunday afternoon during the Classic’s final round, well, we were the luckier for it.
He reminisced about whatever the writers asked him to reminisce about. The 1986 Masters? Seems like we just did the one from the 25th year yesterday and the Golf Channel is going to do a special on it, he said, but eventually he did get into the topic and talk about how son Jackie ended up caddying for him that special week.
“I never relied on a caddie for anything,” Jack says. “I liked the three ups—show up, keep up and shut up. There’s still only two guys I ever ask anything about on a green, Jackie and (son) Steve. They’re both good putters. In ’86, Jackie did say to me on every putt, keep your head still. He knows that was my biggest fault. So he’d just say, ‘OK, Dad, knock it in there, keep your head still.’ Just a nice little reminder. So I probably moved my head only half the time.”
Masters officials are talking about buying another chunk of land from neighboring Augusta Country Club in order to add up to 50 yards to the par-5 13th hole. Does Jack have an opinion? Of course.
“Augusta has done a really good job of changing the golf course to suit the times,” he says. “They have done a better job than anybody. They can well afford it, not many can. Not many guys hit driver there, anyway. They play 3-wood and 5-iron, 6-iron. With the length the guys hit it today, the 13th is a little easier than it needs to be. That hole would be helped by distance, yes. There’s not many other holes that would be.”
He was the first to win back-to-back Masters in 1965 and 1966 and he still remembers how different the conditions were, an intentional change.
“In ’65, the course was fast and the greens were pretty quick but they held,” Jack says. “We came back in ’66 and the fairways were long, the greens were like rocks. At the Masters dinner, we asked Cliff Roberts why they changed the cut of the fairways. We were hitting flyer after flyer after flyer where the year before, you could spin the ball beautifully. He said, What are you talking about, the cut of the fairways is the same.
“It was obvious what they did. I shot 271 the year before and they weren’t going to have that again. I actually played pretty well but the golf course was really tough. My winning score was 17 shots higher.”
He was asked about his first Ryder Cup. Thanks for asking. Jack first played in 1969. He didn’t become eligible until the end of 1966 (the rules were different then, you had to take a PGA of America class) and with only one year left in a two-year scoring period, didn’t make the ’67 team. The ’69 Ryder Cup is best remembered for Jack conceding a short putt to Tony Jacklin on the final green in singles that gave the beleaguered Great Britain & Ireland team a halve, a remarkable gesture of sportsmanship in an event that had been decidedly lopsided for years (and a gesture that some fellow teammates and U.S. captain Sam Snead weren’t happy about).
Jack has one arm propped on an end table, the other holding a microphone as he sits in a chair on the stage in the temporary interview room. He doesn’t mention the Jacklin thing, other than to say he played him twice in singles that year. What does he remember? It was the first time he ever got tired playing golf. On the flight home, he tells his wife about his fatigue and says, “I think it’s time I lost weight.”
“So I came home and went on the Weight Watchers diet,” he says. “I called Hart, Schaffner and Marx—I was working with them at the time—and asked if they could send a tailor down in three weeks because I was going to lose 20 pounds and I’ll need all new clothes. I’d put on bermuda shorts, carry four or five clubs and run around the course as I played. Sure enough, I lost 15 pounds at the end of three weeks and lost the next five the next week.
“The first tournament I went to was at Silverado. I won. I went to Las Vegas and won that tournament. I went to Hawaii the next week and started with 63 but lost by a shot. I was always worried about whether losing weight would affect my play or my distance. It didn’t hurt me, I was fine. I need a diet I can do now.”
Jack was happy to see Tiger Woods looking well at the Ryder Cup dinner. “He looked great, he was in great spirits and the guys enjoy having him there,” Jack says. “It was a very nice evening. I’ve told Tiger many times and I told him again the other night, nobody wants their records broken but I don’t want you to not to have that opportunity because of your health. So I hope you get healthy and do well as soon as you feel like you can play.”
Jordan Spieth has a chance, like Nicklaus, to be a rare repeat Masters champion. Only Nick Faldo and Tiger have also done it.
“Jordan is very mature, very savvy and what I really admire, because it’s what I tried to do, I always got something pretty good out of my game when I wasn’t playing well.
“He chips the ball fantastic and for some reason, oddly enough, his worst putting is from two to six feet. He’s a fantastic middle-length putter, just makes a ton of putts. I like him as a person. He’s not the most spectacular striker of the ball but he’s got a very uncomplicated golf swing and a great short game. He thinks his way around the course, he’s very smart. I give him a tremendous amount of credit. I like the kid a lot.”
Spieth missed the dinner at the Nicklaus house but as Jack assessed the event’s benefit to the U.S. Ryder Cup team, “I don’t imagine how these guys coming over to have dinner at an old man’s house is going to help any. It was flattering, we enjoyed having them. My wife gave them too much food and probably too much wine, also. But the wine was terrific. It was mine.” The room full of writers laughed.
“And too much (Jack Nicklaus label) ice cream, which was really good, too,” he added. The writers laughed again. “Those are my commercials,” he said with a smile.
A lot of exciting golf took place later Sunday afternoon as the players maneuvered their way through the treacherous stretch of holes known as the Bear Trap, in Jack’s honor. You won’t find a catalogue of those birdies and bogeys and others here, or how the tournament was won or lost. Instead, there are reflections and words of wisdom from Jack.
He hopes “a lot of kids are going to benefit” from the work of his foundation—the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, the outpatient clinics and a new one opening in Jupiter—and he’s is grateful for the confluence of events that made all this possible.
Grateful? That’s a good word. Some writers felt the same way Sunday afternoon.