From Tiger to Annika and more: 18 prominent golf figures share their favorite Jack Nicklaus memories

January 25, 2020

Jack Nicklaus is more than a golfer, he’s an idea. It’s one thing to be the greatest champion the game has ever known, but to also be the quintessence of class, dignity and sportsmanship? Well, Jack represents something bigger than himself. In honor of The Golden Bear turning 80 on Tuesday (Jan. 21), GOLF.com is spending Nicklaus’ birthday week — with a little help from his friends — honoring the man himself. You can find even more Jack at 80 coverage in GOLF’s February issue.

The fondness for Jack among players and friends runs so deep that teeing up favorite memories of him — and best wishes for his 80th — was as effortless as the Bear’s generosity and grace.

Bryson DeChambeau
“My first memory of Mr. Nicklaus was when I was a kid. My dad would talk about Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors. At that time, I was six, seven, eight, and Tiger was starting to come about. There was talk of Tiger passing Jack’s record. When I finally met Mr. Nicklaus, I don’t think he liked me very much initially. The first Memorial I played in we did a clinic, and I did this trick shot where someone stands in my follow-through. I don’t think he liked that. But I was able to win his tournament, and it’s been great getting to know him a little more. He once told me, ‘Hey, you’ve got the formula. Keep working hard and you’ll be fine.’ That was it. Sometimes the best advice is being told that you’re good enough.”

Tiger Woods
“Jack’s said a lot of things to me over the years — a lot of ’em I can’t tell you. But 80 years? Wow. He’s given me advice here and there, and when we talk it’s often about life in general. He always wants to know: ‘How’s everything going? How you playing? How you swinging? What are you working on?’ What he’s done for the game of golf in 80 years is incredible, and it’s not only what he accomplished as a player. Don’t forget how many golf courses he’s designed around the world — probably near 500. F—in’ crazy.”

Matt Kuchar
“One of my favorite memories ever of Jack is from when I won the Memorial, and the pictures of my kids and him high-fiving on the side of the green. I’d always heard about Jack’s history—he had five kids and didn’t play the 25-tournament schedule that some guys played. He was always getting home and making sure he prioritized being with the family. It’s a tricky juggling act, doing what we do. It’s a great life, and a difficult one at the same time. I have a huge respect for figuring out and balancing both. I think a lot of that comes from marrying a great woman, and Jack clearly did that.”

Padraig Harrington
“I’ve got a personal story with Jack from early last year. He had given me the courtesy [of playing time] at the Bear’s Club for a couple of weeks, when I was rehabbing. It was early on and I hadn’t yet seen Jack, but suddenly there he was. He looked busy, as if he might have had a meeting to go to. But I stopped him just to say, ‘Jack, thanks for welcoming me here.’ He said, ‘No problem.’ And then he asks, ‘Are you with anyone?’ And I was. Jack came all the way across the room to introduce himself to my guests, and it was a thrill. You could see he was in a hurry, but, no, he found time to stop. It’s exceptional; it’s just a different league. It was something I learned from. Here’s Jack, at 79, 80 years of age, still setting an example.”

Bubba Watson
“I remember watching the ’86 Masters with my dad, and that putt on the 17th. Even when I watch it today, it looks like the ball is going to break out of the hole. In my head, I always think the ball is going to miss low. But it goes in, and the rest is history. When I think about Jack Nicklaus, I always think about that putt. My history’s not like his, but what an honor to think that I have some history at Augusta, with Jack and all the other great champions who have won there.”

Rickie Fowler
“I don’t remember the exact first time I met Jack; I’ve been around him plenty of times now. But one of the first times we spoke was when Barbara reached out to me about playing in their foundation event. I called the house and Jack answered. ‘Hey, Jack, this is Rickie Fowler.’ We talked for roughly five seconds. Then I asked, ‘Is Barbara there?’ Jack and Barbara are people I’ve looked up to, and people I love spending time with. Honestly, I think you can learn just as much from her as you can from him. She’s got such a good sense of what goes on outside the ropes in day-to-day life, and, obviously, there’s nobody like Jack when it comes tobeing a competitor.”

Barbara Nicklaus
[Like her husband, Barbara Nicklaus turns 80 this year.] “Well, you know, Jack is a lot older than me. [Laughs.] But we stay busy, and we feel so blessed. We’ve been able to help children [with the Nicklaus Children’s Healthcare Foundation], and so many people share that passion. It’s been wonderful. Jack really didn’t have much time [to help] when he was playing, but he was always supportive. I recently heard him tell somebody, ‘Barbara supported me for 30 years and now I’m supporting her.’ And he loves it. He said helping a child is much more important than a 4-foot putt. We’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a blast.”

Tony Finau
“My Jack story: I’m playing Colonial the week before the Memorial, and I get a text from my manager: Hey, Jack would like you to participate in his clinic on Wednesday. Are you interested? I remember reading it and thinking, ‘Wait, Jack wants me to be in his clinic?’ I was just ecstatic. I was a rookie at the time, and was like, Yeah, of course! But now the next four days, all I can think about is that I’m going to be hitting in front of Jack. I couldn’t tell you what I did Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, anything. But then Wednesday comes. I get to the clinic and I’m nervous as heck. Jack goes, ‘Okay, new young star here. I’m impressed with his game. Everyone welcome the long-bombing Tony Finau.’ Then he says, ‘Tony, why don’t you grab your driver and hit some for us.’ So I’m out there and I’m literally shaking. He’s like, ‘Okay, what shot do you want to hit?’ And I tell him I only hit a cut with my driver. He’s like, ‘All right, let’s see some.’ So I tee the ball up, and I get over it, just wanting to hit it as hard as I can. So I crush it, this little draw. And Jack goes, ‘Nice one. How was that?’ And I was like, ‘Perfect!’ I tee up another one, and I duck-hook this thing like 60 yards to the left, but I realized after the first one that I don’t think Jack can even see that far. And so he’s like, ‘How was that one?’ And I go, ‘Perfect!’ And everybody in the crowd’s laughing, because they saw where it went. And he goes, ‘Okay, how about one more?’ And I banana-slice that one 30 yards right, and he goes, ‘How was that?’ And I go, ‘I pured it.’ I love that moment and that story, because it was my first time hitting in front of Jack. I was so nervous—and it didn’t end up mattering. Totally great guy.”

Patrick Cantlay
“I met Jack when I won the Nicklaus Award in college, after my freshman year at UCLA. I went to the Memorial to accept the award, and then I had U.S. Open Qualifying the next day. He was gracious and very genuine. He was just a good guy to be around. Now I’ve been able to spend more time with him. Last year, at the Memorial, he gave me advice. Basically, he said, ‘Stop and smell the roses.’ That was the trick that worked for him, to calm himself down. Enjoying it helped him relax a little more. He shared that with me and it’s been really beneficial.”

Mike Davis
“Jack’s been a good friend to the USGA since his junior years, and one of the true privileges I’ve had was opening the Jack Nicklaus wing of the USGA Golf Museum in 2015. I can remember that day well, and the private tour we gave to Jack and Barbara and their family before we opened it to the public. His room was an addition to the museum. It sits adjacent to the Ben Hogan Room and is accessed by a window-encased hallway that ends with a bronze of Jack we commissioned titled Jack Is Back, to commemorate his 1980 U.S. Open win. This moment was more than a celebration of Jack as a player—but also as a husband, a father, a designer and a grandparent. A napkin from Jack and Barbara’s wedding was displayed, and other family artifacts loaned to us. It was a moment to celebrate all he was, is and will be to golf—an ambassador of all that is great about golf. He paid homage to Ben’s room, spent quite a bit of time in the Bob Jones Room, knowing how much he looked up to him through his career. As we were leaving the museum to attend the ceremony, we ended at the Arnold Palmer Room, adjacent to the front door. ‘My room’s better than his,’ Jack said under his breath, with a smile. And all we could do was chuckle and think, Once a competitor, always a competitor. We hope he never loses that spirit. It is what makes him a champion in every sense of the word.”

Justin Thomas
“The first time I really spent time with Jack was when we had lunch before I got into the Bear’s Club, down in Florida. That’s something he does with all the guys. He said to me, ‘If you ever need anything or want to talk, just call.’ I’ve tried to take advantage of that. He’s given me a lot of good advice—nothing I’d want to share with anybody. But I’d love to say, Happy 80th to not only one of the greatest to ever play the game but one of its greatest ambassadors. What Jack’s done off the course is as impressive as what he’s done on it.”

Jordan Spieth
“If I were to wish him a happy birthday, I’d say, ‘Jack, I hope you’re spending it in your favorite place: Pebble Beach. And I hope you’re getting the opportunity to do what you love to do, which is play golf. Actually, now that might mean fly-fishing, too. Either way, I hope it’s a really great one. Taking on life the way you have until you’re 80—that’s an accomplishment.’ ”

Annika Sorenstam
“I’ve been lucky to spend some fun times with Jack. One that I really liked was [when he was working on a down there, and it was really cool. On our way home, he shared stories about his grandchildren and his family and Barbara. It was very personal and not so much ‘Let’s talk major championships.’ I remember our moments off the course more because he’s so human—though sometimes he’s unhuman on the golf course.”

John Daly
“I got paired with Jack at Doral one year. It was great to play a tournament round with Jack Nicklaus. It was probably 1994. On the first tee, he hits a good drive, then I hit a really good one. I killed it. I have only an 8-iron left into the green. Jack shanks a 4-iron that goes about 20 yards into the right-hand rough. Then he takes out a 6-iron and hits it to within a foot of the hole. Ends up tying me. Shows you how great he is—and how great he was then—to come back from a shot like that. It was one of the greatest holes that I’d ever played.”

Kevin Kisner
“I was only two years old, but I’ll always remember the clothing they were wearing the last time Jack won the Masters. Everybody out there… in plaid. But to win the Masters at 46? That was quite the feat. Jack’s awesome, and still very much involved. I see him every year at Muirfield Village, and it’s cool. He knows a lot about the game. I’ve never really asked him for advice, but I really like to BS and hang out with him. We talk about fishing.”

Jerry Pate
“Jack and I went to the Great Barrier Reef in 1977 or ’78 to go marlin fishing. I’d never black-marlin fished before, but Jack had been going for years trying to catch a 1,000-pounder. First day out, first fish I caught was 1,025 pounds. Jack was so mad! Five days later, I rode on a boat with him and just happened to have an old Super 8mm movie camera with me. It was about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and Jack hooked up this big marlin. I think it ended up weighing 1,358 pounds. At that time, it was like the third largest ever landed, and it took him six hours and 20 minutes to do it. I told everybody when we got back to the mothership, ‘Only Jack Nicklaus would have landed that fish.’ He fought it for six hours and 20 minutes, and hooked it up at 11:20 that night. I’d never seen anybody fight a fish that long. His determination was very similar to his determination when he was playing golf—he was not going to be defeated. There’s a video of it in the World Golf Hall of Fame! I shot it with a Bell & Howell camera. We didn’t have VHS, much less iPhones, back then. But you can see the fish coming out of the water. It was a lot of fun. To see Jack, the greatest of all time, land a fish that was one of the biggest of all time—well, it was a tribute to his tenacity.”

Davis Love III
“I’ve been around Jack since I was a little kid, and one of the things that sticks with me about his game is his power. He was Big Jack. From when he was a little kid, he was taught to swing for the fence. And now everybody is. I’m teaching a five-year-old granddaughter to swing for the fence. ‘I don’t care. Hit it hard as you want. We’ll straighten it out later on.’ That was the way Jack played—with passion and bravado. That’s what I remember: Big Jack hitting it hard. But if I could take any part of his game, it would be his preparation. I learned late from him that he was more prepared and ready than anybody else. Not only was he the best, but he was also the most prepared. It made him that much more confident. When he got to a major championship, he was more ready than everybody else. I see that in Tiger, too. And I talk to the next generation about it. ‘You shouldn’t focus on trying to swing like Jack. Be prepared like Jack.’ ”

Billy Horschel
“Mr. Nicklaus, you have done so much for golf. So many pros are thankful for everything you did for us in the early days of the PGA Tour and throughout the history of the game. So, Happy Birthday, and thank you so much for the path you set.”

Reporting by Jeff Babineau, Rachel Bleier and Dylan Dethier.

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