DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Four players were having lunch in the grill room at Muirfield Village when they straightened in their chairs at the sight of Jack Nicklaus, who sat down to join them in conversation.
Lucas Glover played for him and Geoff Ogilvy played against him in the last Presidents Cup. Another player at the table was Daniel Chopra, fluent in three languages (Swedish, Hindi and English) yet struggling to comprehend the language spoken by Boo Weekley, who walked by muttering something about having to wear a different hat.
Nicklaus was only kidding when he said he saw 20 guys in the grill room and didn’t know 10 of them.
“I love seeing the young guys come along,” he said. “Young people come along in the game every year, and I think that’s great.”
What he has trouble recognizing at times is the game they play and how they play it.
“It’s a different day,” Nicklaus said, a phrase he uttered 21 times in a press conference that lasted just over an hour and covered such topics as the Ryder Cup, mental coaches, player gratitude and yes, technology.
So much has changed, not all for the good.
Muirfield Village is where Europe won the Ryder Cup for the first time on American soil, with Nicklaus as the U.S. captain. That was the first sign Europe was gaining equal footing, and lately, it has stomped all over the American team.
“I don’t understand it, frankly,” Nicklaus said.
It’s a curious trend, especially considering that the United States has not lost in the Presidents Cup in 10 years. It made Nicklaus wonder if Ryder Cup captains are taking their jobs too seriously. He mentioned the number of assistant captains brought to the matches, and alluded to Tom Lehman taking his team to Ireland a month before the Ryder Cup to practice.
“To take a whole team over to go play a practice round a month before an event?” he said. “You give me Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk, who are basically Nos. 1-2-3 in the world on our team. And they just finished playing all the major championships in the world, and they all are working their tail off. And you say, ‘OK, guys, now we’re going to do something important.’ Give me a break.
“Get out of the way and let them go play,” he said. “That’s sort of my feeling.”
If there’s too much baby-sitting going on, it’s not restricted to the Ryder Cup.
Nicklaus often recalls his practice sessions with teacher Jack Grout at the start of the season, to knock off the rust and make sure his fundamentals were in order. He might have seen Grout a few more times during the year, but not much more. As for sports psychologists? Nicklaus saw them as often as a seven-figure paycheck.
“I’ve never known one during the time when we played,” he said.
Nicklaus learned from his father how to run his own life. Grout taught him to play golf and understand his swing so he could correct his mistakes and learn how to prepare on his own.
“And the one thing is that Jack Grout, never one time in all the years that he worked with me, did he ever step on a practice tee at a tournament. Not once,” Nicklaus said. “When you’re a young guy and you come out and you see all the guys out there all have coaches, and you say, ‘Well, I’ve got to get that, too.’ As I say, it’s a different day.”
Perhaps the most troubling for Nicklaus is communication skills.
Nicklaus was asked if Tiger Woods ever called him personally when he decided not to play the Memorial because of soreness in his left knee from surgery in April.
“It’s a different day and age today, guys,” he said. “It’s all through agents.”
He did appreciate Mark Steinberg at IMG calling him twice over the last few months to report on Woods’ progress, and twice more leading up to the decision Friday.
But that got Nicklaus thinking about the way it used to be. Arnold Palmer was a rival, but he also was a mentor to Nicklaus, and the King once told the Bear that he almost always wrote sponsors a note of thanks for putting on the tournament.
“So every tournament I ever played in, I always dropped the sponsor a note,” Nicklaus said.
Then he paused, reflecting on his role as the tournament host at the Memorial.
“We get one or two,” Nicklaus said. “I’m not saying that of everybody. We do get one or two. But not very many.”
Rarer still are notes of regrets, and there are plenty of opportunities this year. Adam Scott changed his mind about playing, a surprise to tournament officials Friday. Steve Stricker and Anthony Kim were among five players who withdrew Tuesday. Woods isn’t here for the second time in three years. Vijay Singh pulled out with an injury.
“Guys just don’t communicate anymore,” Nicklaus said. “Every once in a while, I might get something. But I don’t think I ever had a note from anybody when they’re going to leave the Memorial Tournament or not going to play or something that wrote and said, ‘Jack, I’m sorry. I had a problem, I can’t be here.”
Someone suggested that most players use text messages.
“I think that’s a cop-out,” Nicklaus said.
Does he worry about manners?
“It’s a different day,” he said.
Nicklaus finds it irrelevant trying to compare this generation of titanium and solid-core balls against his generation of wooden drivers and balatas, against previous generations of hickory shafts and gutta percha.
It’s a different day, but one thing hasn’t changed. And this brings some energy to his voice.
“If I would have grown up in this age, I would have loved this age just as much as the age I grew up in,” he said. “I think the guys today love playing the game. I think they love playing.”
That’s not all bad.