No. 1 Player of All Time: Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus
Walter Iooss Jr./SI
HOOKED IT! An avid fisherman, Nicklaus has been bugging his friend Arnold Palmer to finally pick up a rod and reel. "But he's usually too busy playing golf."

You've always been able to balance family with other pursuits, like playing and course design. Do you feel that you get enough credit as an architect?
I do throughout most of the world. In other places? Maybe not. You design a course the way you think the game should be played. Designers are different, and different people look at a piece of ground in different ways. That's okay. That's what makes golf beautiful. Otherwise, it'd be like tennis -- every court is the same.

What hole or course makes you say, "This is great. I wish I'd designed it"?
I don't know about wishing I'd designed a hole. When I see a great hole, I think, "My design would have been different." Whether it would have been better, I don't know. The 8th hole at Pebble is my favorite second shot in golf. Could I have done it differently? Probably. But I think, "I would have liked a whack at that." It's my favorite second shot, but it's a lousy tee shot -- a blind, uphill, nothing tee shot. Yet the second part is unbelievable. Sometimes you see a property that makes you say, "Wow!" I was in Iceland a few years ago and saw a piece of ground on the ocean, with all these lava outcroppings and fescue grass in the valley. I said, "All you had to do is mow it and put tees and greens in." Sometimes you see a property and say, "Man, why did they call him -- why not us?" That's life. You don't always get the call.

You're pretty passionate about growing the game in places like China, Russia and South America. Why is that important to you?
I played all over the world. Not many people know that I won six Australian Opens. Of course, that doesn't mean much to Gary Player -- he won seven. [Laughs] Some parts weren't open for political reasons: South Africa, Russia, China. So now that places are more open, I can have a stronger voice as a designer and ambassador. The [2016] Olympics will be amazing for golf in China, Russia, Brazil, India -- places where it's not big but, because of the Olympics, will grow. I remember playing in the World Cup. Players from places like Finland would say, "Jack, our courses were pastures -- I've never had anybody but cows watch me play." By growing the game, if an exceptional, one-in-a-million player comes out of one of these countries, they'll be prepared to compete on the world stage.

You mentioned tennis. That's a passion of yours, right?
I've played all my life. We have three grass courts. I've got 10 to 15 people coming over and playing on weekends. We have a lot of fun.

What great player approached tennis the way you played golf?
I've never been asked that. I'd answer by saying, "Who do I admire most?" That category would have Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, and Rod Laver. Their demeanor, the way they handle themselves as sportsmen and with class -- if you want your children to model themselves after someone, look at those guys.

What gets your nerves up on the court? What's the tennis equivalent of a slippery 5-footer?
I haven't found a slippery downhill putt in tennis. I play recreationally. You could call me a high single-digit tennis player -- a 7 or 8. I'm happy when I put the ball away or return a tough serve.

We couldn't talk with you without mentioning Arnold Palmer. You began as rivals and became great friends. Tell us something about him that we don't know.
[Long pause] Arnold was such a great competitor. I think his biggest weakness is that he probably loved golf too much. Everything Arnold references goes back to golf. I've invited him many times on fishing trips, and now that he doesn't play competitively, he says, "I'd like to take you up on that, but I have this commitment -- I have to play golf." I say, "You've played enough golf. Come on, let's go fishing."

So you can love something too much -- even golf?
I'm not criticizing Arnold by any means for golf being his whole life. But it was his whole life. That's why people love him. As life goes on, and as he plays less and less, Arnold has lost his ability to play at the level he used to. And he gets very depressed with that. I'm fortunate. I had other things. I quit playing tournament golf, and I haven't missed a beat. Golf is a game to me. It wasn't my whole life. Arnold never had other things, except for flying. And he's quit flying, too. It's hard for him, because he doesn't have other hobbies.

It sounds like you're sitting by the phone, waiting for the call.
Every time I'm with him, I say, "Let's do it -- let's go fishing." He says [in an annoyed tone], "I know, I know. I'm gonna take it up." And I say, "A.P., all you gotta do is pick up the phone. And I'll be ready."

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This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue of Golf Magazine. Subscribers can download the issue on their tablets at

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