AUGUSTA, Ga. — Leaning back in his leather chair, eyeing the Masters telecast on a wall-sized TV while waving around a Moon Pie, Jack Nicklaus appeared to be just like any other golf fan on Thursday afternoon, save for his green jacket folded discreetly on a chair in the corner. He had consented to an interview in a private room within the press building at Augusta National, but that ended half an hour ago. Now Nicklaus was hanging out, sucked into the Masters just like the rest of us.
At 79 his stamina is remarkable: he had been up before dawn to smack the ceremonial first tee shot; weathered a joint press conference with a blustery Gary Player; schmoozed for a couple of hours around the clubhouse; and then spent more than 90 minutes discussing his life and career in forensic detail. Claiming he had never before enjoyed a Moon Pie, Big Jack studied the list of ingredients, the calorie and sugar information and agreed to taste-test one. Meanwhile, on the TV, Rory McIlroy pitched long and right of the flag at 18, leaving a 5-footer to save par.
“He’ll miss that,” Nicklaus said casually. “It breaks more than it looks like from there.”
Nicklaus claims not to watch much golf but he doesn’t miss a thing. He maintained a steady dialogue about the play as it unfolded on the telecast. Is he now just a casual fan or does he still view the golf through the lens of a competitor?
“I’ve never thought about that, just being a fan,” he said. “I watch from a strategy standpoint, to see how the guys play, whether I like what they’re doing, whether I don’t. Are they disciplined, patient? I look at it as compared how I would play the shots.”
Cameron Smith alighted the screen, hunched over a putt. “Is he the one who looks like he’s 12 years old?” Nicklaus asked. The camera caught Smith retrieving his ball from the cup, looking like he’s 12 years old.
Nicklaus paid particular attention to the clubs the players were hitting into the greens. As a prolific course designer and host of his own PGA Tour event, he is keenly aware of how the game has changed. He told the story of redesigning the 18th hole of his Muirfield Village because Robert Garrigus was blowing his drives over the bunker guarding the dogleg. “He said, ‘Haha, I only had 76 yards to the hole.’ I said, ‘Robert, that’s ridiculous.’ The next year he came back and had only 66 yards. He eliminated the strategy. Now they have to play the strategy of the hole.”
With the slightest touch of braggadocio, Nicklaus recalled that in 1964, when he was by far the game’s longest hitter, he needed only an 8-iron to knock it on the 15th green at Augusta National. Now half the field can do that.
A quarter-century ago Nicklaus was sounding the alarm that advances in technology were threatening to overwhelm classic courses. He is okay with the constant lengthening of Augusta National: “They’re doing what they have to do to stay with the times.”
Nicklaus revered Bobby Jones, felt a deep kinship with Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts and maintains a strong affection for the club and the tournament it conducts. But he also has a clear-eyed view of things. Jack, would you like pimento cheese sandwich for a snack? He scrunched up his face and said, “Noooooo.” Instead he cracked open a bag of caramel corn.
“I don’t like the rough,” Nicklaus said, munching away. “I’ve never liked the rough. Bobby Jones loved St. Andrews, he loved that it didn’t have rough, he loved that philosophy. There wasn’t rough here while he was alive. This golf course was unique because it was the only one [among championship American courses] that didn’t have to have rough. If they took the silly rough out the course would be tougher. The ball would run into the trees! Wake up, guys. Wake up.”
Nicklaus is hopeful that Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley, a former U.S. Amateur champ and reputed course architecture wonk, will take the course back to its origins. He recalled a conversation with Ridley’s predecessor Billy Payne.
“I told him Bobby Jones’s philosophy was that this is a second shot golf course,” Nicklaus said.
“What do you mean?” Payne replied.
“He gave you room to drive the ball like St. Andrews did off the tee. If you put it on proper side of the fairway, you have the best angle into the green.”
“He still didn’t understand it even after I explained it to him,” Nicklaus said.
Jordan Spieth’s pitch on the 9th hole rolled back to his feet. “Good gracious,” Nicklaus said. “Poor guy.”
Nicklaus was flying home to Palm Beach on Thursday night. He was going fishing the next day and said he probably wouldn’t watch more of the Masters until Sunday afternoon. He already knows how every putt is going to break. Up on the TV screen, McIlroy stood over his par putt at 18. A dollar had been wagered on the outcome. Just as Nicklaus predicted, Rory failed to play enough break and missed on the low side.
A dollar bill was slid across the table, then returned to its sender.
“I don’t want your dollar,” Nicklaus said. “I want the satisfaction.”
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