When Jack Nicklaus gets rolling, he’s a master at explaining golf. He was on an epic roll Tuesday

May 29, 2019

DUBLIN, Ohio — Jack Nicklaus runs two annual clinics at his tournament, the Memorial. There’s the Wednesday clinic, on the driving range. The goal there is to improve our play. And there’s the Tuesday session, in the interview room. The goal there is to improve our understanding of the game. You know how people say, “He put on a clinic?” Tuesday’s press conference was a clinic. On how to be a leader in your industry, and how to answer questions from reporters with humor, candor and a touch of old-man crankiness. But Nicklaus talking about golf does not get old.

The Tuesday confab was called for 2 p.m. and it of course began right on time. It lasted for nearly 90 minutes and would have gone longer had one of Nicklaus’s minders not lifted him from his dais chair, hoisted the golfing legend across his shoulders and hauled him to his next appointment. As Nicklaus left the room, he could be heard saying, “If they don’t scale back the golf ball, we’re going to run out of earth!”

No, that didn’t happen, but Nicklaus did spend several minutes talking about one of his fixations, taking the modern golf ball to task, for its role in the death of the three-shot par-5 and its impact on the environment.

On Tuesday, he added a new wrinkle to this discussion: “The golf ball is by far the most important issue in the game…I heard something in the locker room yesterday that I had never heard before. They keep saying that golf ball doesn’t go any further. The USGA has declared that. But the manufacturers have learned how to control [the ball’s] descent. The ball used to go out and fall. Now it comes down on more of an angle so it hits and runs.”

Some of his other subjects included Jordan Spieth’s efforts to improve his swing, Tiger Woods’s win at Augusta in April and the game’s struggle to attract new young players.

On that last subject, he said, “Millennials are not taking up this game. And that’s a huge problem. They’re not going to play this game if it takes five hours. We used to go to the British Open and play in two hours, 25 minutes. If you played in 2:30 you were on the clock. Now it’s gotten slow over there, too.”

Regarding Spieth, who is playing this week, Nicklaus said, “Jordan’s trying to make some adjustments in his swing, he’s been trying this for about a year, he’s paying the pain for this a little bit, but he’ll be better off in the end for it.”

Nicklaus compared Woods at the Champions Dinner at Augusta in 2017 and this year. “He was not a happy camper then,” Nicklaus said. “This year, he was a totally different person. Positive. Almost, almost cocky. And I had never seen him cocky. He had an abundance of confidence that he would play well.”

Nicklaus, watching the tournament unfold from a fishing boat in the Bahamas, said he knew Woods would win after Francesco Molinari hit his ball in the creek on No. 12 when Woods hit his approach shot on the green.

“I just knew Tiger was rejuvenated by watching the balls go in the water and knowing that he was smart enough [not] to do that. He said, ‘I can do this.’ You could see it on his face.’ He went back to doing what he always used to do.”

As per usual, the modern golf ball stirred him up. For 40 years now, along with saltwater fly-fishing, course architecture and professional tennis, it has been a subject about which he never tires. He brings so much passion to this set-piece it never feels like he’s going through the motions. Nicklaus doesn’t go through the motions. Those 90 minutes on Tuesday were another illustration of that. Everything that happens from now through his Sunday handshake with the winner will further prove this point.

Nicklaus is indefatigable, and that’s because he’s engaged. Nicklaus is 79 and his energy level is extraordinary, even as he cuts back on his work schedule, sheds another beloved personal artifact (a watch) for a beloved charity (his family health-care foundation) and is in a period in his life where he watches far more high-school lacrosse than professional golf.

There was one subject that he talked about more than the ball, and that was Woods. Nicklaus has the most professional majors, with 18. Woods is second, with 15. Answering a question about him, Nicklaus said, “I never thought that he would not chase my record someday. But who knows how long his body is going to stay together? You’ve had as many operations as he’s had, he may be solid enough that it’s all right. And if he is, I think he probably will break my record. But he’s 43 years old, and when you get to be 43 years old and you start to get a little creak here and a little creak there, and all of a sudden every day is not the same.

“I played with Tiger, I don’t know, before Augusta, and he played just fantastic. But his neck was bothering him. And I’m sitting there: Really? He shot 64 and everything was just perfect. But he said, I have a little problem with [the neck]. He’s going to have a lot more of those problems. We all have a lot of those problems. But if you manage them and you know how to take care of yourself, you know how to pace yourself, you can do that. And he’s at the age where he needs to pace himself. He can’t just do everything everybody asks him to do. He’s got to be a little selfish. And that’s okay.”

As per usual, Nicklaus’s answers were long, detailed and thorough. He sometimes concluded an answer by saying to a reporter some variant of, “Did I answer your question?”

At one point, while answering questions about the state of the game, Nicklaus said, “If you ask Tiger the same questions you’re asking me, you’d get the same answers.”

“Shorter,” a reporter said.

But as Woods gets closer to 18, his sessions with reporters have become richer and more detailed. It’s like he’s taking a page from Big Jack.

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Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]