Golf Magazine Interview: Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus

Golf Magazine Interview: Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus

Golf's two leading legends go head to head as never before.

This interview originally ran in the May, 1994, issue of Golf Magazine.

A quarter century after their battles for domination of the pro Tour, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus remain the two biggest names in golf. However, what was once the game's most heated rivalry has simmered into the game's most complex friendship. Editor-in-Chief George Peper corralled the two titans of the GOLF Magazine masthead for a candid discussion that ranged from their assessments of each other's games to their opinions on what's good — and not so — about golf today.

GOLF Magazine: You guys have what has been called the game's most complicated friendship. Agree?

Nicklaus: I agree that we've both led very complicated lives, and certainly we've competed in everything we've done. We've had moments when we've disagreed, we've had moments when we fought each other right down to the end of the tournament, and we've had moments when we've fought each other for last place.

Palmer: There have been times when we've fought each other so hard that we've let others go buy us. But frankly, I think our rivalry, if that's what you want to call it, would have been even more intense if we were the same age.

Nicklaus: That's right. It's worth remembering that we came into this game at different times. Arnold, when you came on Tour, you basically had only two or three other guys to beat, right?

Palmer: Well…

Nicklaus: I'm not belittling what you did, but you know what I mean — the leaderboard didn't have any regular names up there. When I came on, I had Arnold, I had those guys you were beating, and I had a couple other guys, but not many. My point is that Arnold was in place as a dominant player for several years before my days began.

GOLF Magazine: You both have confessed that you enjoy nothing more then beating each other's brains out. Is that true even in casual practice rounds?

Nicklaus: Over the years, Arnold's the only guy I've played against for more then $10. We usually play for $20.

Palmer: Yes, although we never needed the money to make it interesting.

GOLF Magazine: Who's up lifetime?

Nicklaus: He is.

Palmer: (Laughing) But it doesn't matter because Jack never pays me anyway.

Nicklaus: I'd rather owe it to you and then beat you out of it.

GOLF Magazine: Speaking of debts, Arnie, you gave Jack a short-game lesson when he first came on the Tour — about the wisdom of putting rather than chipping from the fringe. Jack says he's followed that advice ever since. Has he ever repaid you with a tip for your game?

Palmer: Yes, but it took him about three decades! A couple years back, on the practice tee at the Tradition, I was getting a lesson from my old college buddy Jim Flick. At the time, I was having more trouble than usual with my nemesis — getting enough trajectory on my shots. As Jim and I were talking, Jack walked over, watched me hit a few shots, and then made some helpful comments. To be honest, I've never sought much help from Jack — or anyone else for that matter-but in that case, I figured he was worth listening to. After all, who in history has been better at hitting the ball up in the air than Jack Nicklaus?

GOLF Magazine: They say that golf reveals personality. Do you think that applies to each other?

Palmer: Well, it's no secret that Jack has a tremendous ability to focus totally on what he's doing, whether that's on the course or off. Other players may have had as much or more pure talent, Greg Norman for example. If Greg had had Jack's personality — his ability to blot out all of his other interests and focus entirely on golf — I think he might have been more competitive in more majors.

Nicklaus: Arnold's personality has revealed itself in everything he does — in his game, the way he carries himself down the fairway, in the way he's won the support of the public. He does things aggressively, with a flair. But when I first started playing with Arnold — in the early '60s and probably through the later '60s — he was a better "get the ball in the hole" guy than he was a striker of the ball. When he became a better striker of the ball, I think it actually went against his personality, and I'm not sure it helped his game. Suddenly, he was rarely in trouble — rarely in a position to charge and go after something. Arnold always played his best when he could allow that personality to come out — when he could drive it in the trees and savor the challenge. He was unique in that way.

GOLF Magazine: Jack, you touched on Arnold's popularity with the fans. When your rivalry was most heated, what effect did the public's preference for Arnold have on you?

Nicklaus: I was very much aware of it, of course, and I can't say I was able to blot it out. When the fans are rooting for the player you are trying to beat and not for you, you can't ignore it. But I don't think it ever hurt me — probably in more cases it helped: it made me more determined.

GOLF Magazine: Was it worst in the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, where a couple of fans stood deep rough with signs that read "Hit it Here, Jack"?

Nicklaus: No, I certainly saw those guys and felt a bit of pressure, but to tell you the truth, I probably feel it more these days — in events like the Senior Skins Game. The reason is that at age 54 I'm not able to focus as sharply as I used to.

GOLF Magazine: Do you guys see any players on today's PGA Tour who remind you of each other?

Palmer: No, I don't see anyone who is close to Jack, either in personality or overall game. But I do have to qualify that a bit, because I'm not out on the regular Tour and I don't know the younger guys that well.

Nicklaus: I don't see anyone who can do what Arnold did, but frankly I think it's because today's equipment doesn't allow the emergence of an Arnold Palmer.

GOLF Magazine: How so?

Nicklaus: Arnold won a lot of tournaments by playing scrambling, aggressive golf. So did I — I won a bunch of tournaments not playing my best. And Arnold I don't mean that derogatorily.

Palmer: No, I know what you're driving at, and I agree with you.

Nicklaus: Today, because of high tech equipment that minimizes errant shots, if a player hits too many shots offline, there are enough other guys out there hitting the fairways and greens and making putts that someone's gonna pass him. So there really isn't room for a personality like Arnold to show that exciting brand of golf — to come out of trouble and into the winner's circle.

GOLF Magazine: What about Watson?

Nicklaus: He was the closest as far as the type of game, but he didn't have Arnold's personality.

GOLF Magazine: You guys said that when you were out there your sole object was to win; finishing second and just making money didn't mean much. How many players on the current Tour do you think feel that way?

Nicklaus: Norman and Faldo. Those two guys are about the only ones who when they step onto the first tee of any golf tournament, feel they are there solely to win. They don't all the time, of course, and Nick's had a better record than Greg but I think they are the only two guys.

Palmer: I'd agree with that — they're the only ones.

GOLF Magazine: Some would argue that guys like Norman and Faldo can afford to take that all-or-nothing attitude because they're financially secure, whereas most players have to worry about mortgage payments.

Nicklaus: That's rubbish. Don't you think so, Arnold? For the guys who are playing this game professionally, money doesn't mean anything.

GOLF Magazine: Then why don't more play to win?

Palmer: What makes you think they don't?

GOLF Magazine: You guys just agreed that only Faldo and Norman play that way.

Nicklaus: But that doesn't mean that others don't have that attitude — they just don't have the games. Greg and Nick are the only ones who can legitimately step on the first tee and expect to win.

GOLF Magazine: So today's big purses — which allow a player to finish back in the pack each week yet still make a living — have had no effect on the player's incentives?

Palmer: Certainly times have changed. Years ago, I argued that more money should be spread among the top spots because the Tour had a lot of laggers — guys who were finishing 20th or worse every week and barely making a living. The Tour wasn't doing them any favors by keeping them out there. But with today's big purses the situation has changed tremendously. Now there are guys out there who have been on the Tour for 15 years, have never won a golf tournament, and are making a pretty good living.

GOLF Magazine: And do those guys deserve to be out there?

Palmer: I'll abstain from answering that one, but, personally, I don't think I'd stay on the Tour if I didn't think I could win, if I weren't winning at a reasonable pace.

Nicklaus: Arnold, when you played college and amateur golf, what kind of golf did you play? Matches. And in each of those matches, you played to win. Today, the kids in college play a lot of medal tournaments. Their whole attitude is "if I can finish well, it's okay." They aren't even conditioned to win.

GOLF Magazine: So you're saying that for a lot of today's players, 20th place is fine.

Nicklaus: For some of them. But remember, when Arnold and I came on the Tour, a lot of events didn't even have full fields. Today, there are thousands of guys trying to play the Tour — it's completely different. We only had 10 guys to beat, and we knew if we beat those guys we'd win tournaments. Hell's bells, the guys today have about a hundred guys to beat!

Palmer: Yes, Jack, but at the same time, they're playing for 75 money places instead of 15.

GOLF Magazine: What about the most successful players? Has all the money spoiled some of them?

Palmer: I think today's athletes generally are spoiled by what's happened to salaries, but I also think that golfers have maintained the best demeanor of any sport.

Nicklaus: Some Tour players have been spoiled, but not anywhere near to the point of baseball and basketball players sitting on the bench and earning $7 million. Whatever our guys earn, they earn.

GOLF Magazine: Arnold, recently a controversial book was written about you, and Jack, you've had your share of less-than-flattering coverage. Overall, however, hasn't the golf press been relatively soft on you guys and pro golfers in general, compared to the way the press has put some other athletes under the microscope?

Nicklaus: Define "soft." Do you think they've been soft on Couples over the last year or so? Do you think the British tabloids were soft on Tony Jacklin? I think for the most part, the press we've had has been very good. I think the golf press wants to relate to what we do and be a part of what we so. I also think we've been very fair with them. And that isn't necessarily the case in all sports — not all athletes give the press as much as Arnold and I have — and as a result some of those athletes have gotten some rough treatment. But maybe they've gotten what they deserved. If the athlete is fair with the press, he deserves fairness back.

GOLF Magazine: Is it as simple as that? What about the issue of personal privacy?

Palmer: That gets to the book that's been written about me [Arnie, Inside the Legend, by Larry Guest]. My objection to that book has little to do with the things that were written — a lot of the comments were very flattering, and people tell me they think the book was a positive one. But in writing parts of that book, the writer tried to destroy some private relationships that I'd had all my life — personal relationships that the writer was privileged to observe only because I befriended him, not for any other reason. I think I have every right to be hot at him because he betrayed me.

GOLF Magazine: There's a whole chapter in that book entitled "The Bull and the Bear" on the relationship between you and Jack…

Palmer: Sure, that's one of the areas where he tried to stir things up, but Jack and I can laugh about some of the stuff in that book, because our relationship is stronger than the stuff that was written.

Nicklaus: Yeah, I haven't even read the book, but Arnold and I have talked about it, and I must say I agree with everything Arnold says 100 percent.

GOLF Magazine: Is the game of golf better off than it was, say, 30 years ago?

Palmer: Sure it's better because more people play it. Golf has spread all over the world in the last 30 years — it's become available to virtually everyone, and that's a good thing.

Nicklaus: That's right, and it's still growing like crazy in some areas. Arnie, have you designed any courses in Germany?

Palmer: We're working on two right now.

Nicklaus: Well, you're ahead of me then, but last week I had a couple of German gentlemen in my office. Because of the East German situation there has been only one public course in the country. But these guys want to bring public golf to the country, and we're talking to him about doing 25 courses. I think that's a fabulous thing for the game.

GOLF Magazine: Okay, now why is the game worse than it was 30 years ago?

Palmer: I have a concern that — as part of this same expansion — we might lose some of the integrity and etiquette and tradition that has made the game so great. I think it's incumbent on those of us who know and revere those things to preserve and protect the game. I hate flimsy things, and I fear that golf could become flimsy if we don't all pay attention to educating new golfers on the rules and etiquette.

GOLF Magazine: Part of etiquette is pace of play. It's no secret that golf in America has become slower over the last three decades, and Jack, there are those who say you're one of the causes — that the generation who revered your achievements also has adopted your pace of play. Have you ever been sorry that you're not a faster player?

Nicklaus: That's absurd. Do you think Hogan was a fast player? Or Middlecoff?

GOLF Magazine: No, but Hogan and Middlecoff weren't on television.

Nicklaus: Well, I didn't invent slow play. And I don't think I'm a slow player anymore, either. Granted, I'm not the fastest guy on the Tour, but I'm not the slowest either. I've always taken my time over the ball, but I don't take time getting around a course. For years I did take my time, but that was because I hated waiting to hit shots — I adopted a pace where I didn't have to stand by my ball and wait. Recently, the Tour has picked up its pace, and I think that's great, but even with that faster pace, I don't think you've heard any complaints about my speed of play. Whatever pace you tell me to play at, I can hit.

GOLF Magazine: When you play all by yourself, how quickly do you get around a golf course?

Nicklaus: That depends. If I'm trying to shoot a score, about two and a half hours. If I'm just hitting shots and seeing the golf course, about two hours. Just like anyone else.

GOLF Magazine: Okay, if we're improving a bit in the pace-of-play area, where, if anywhere, do you see the game threatened?

Nicklaus: The one thing that has really upset me is in the equipment area. And it's happened only in tournament golf. Thirty years ago the best players — Nelson, Snead, and Hogan — were shotmakers. Today, because of the advancements in equipment — many of which admittedly have been good for the average player — the game's best players are not shotmakers, and in that I think the game has lost something. The manufacturers have taken over a lot of the game. I'm not against that — heck, I'm a manufacturer, too — but I am against making golf courses obsolete, going to the national Open and playing half the holes with a one-iron.

GOLF Magazine: Is the best technology the kind that helps the average golfer but doesn't help you?

Nicklaus: Yeah, I think the average guy should get all the help he can. This is a very very difficult game. But we shouldn't let those advancements creep into professional golf.

GOLF Magazine: How do you stop them?

Nicklaus: The best way is by throttling back the distance of the ball, say 5 percent, so that the biggest tee shot hit by Greg Norman or Fred Couples or Davis Love III comes to rest at about the same point in the fairway that mine and Arnold's did in the '60's. Heck, that's one of the things that made Arnold great. I remember playing with Arnold in 1962 at Phoenix and he won the tournament by 12 shots at 269. I finished second at 281, and he won that tournament by whipping out a driver on every hole on a course that wasn't any wider than this room. I marveled at that. I could never have hit a ball that long with that accuracy. He took charge of that course and separated himself from the field. Today's longest hitters can't do that because the ball goes too far and the courses are set up so that you can't hit a ball long and straight.

GOLF Magazine: Do you agree with that, Arnie?

Palmer: Not completely. I still think it ties to the abilities of a player. If the long hitting player can't hit his drives straight enough, he should have the ability to throttle back and lay up. Gary Player won a couple of major championships without ever pulling a driver out of his bag. You know that, don't you?

Nicklaus: No, which ones?

Palmer: Well, Aronimink for one. He won the PGA there [in 1962] by hitting 3- and 4-woods all week — and he wasn't even a long hitter. But he knew how to manage a golf course and play shots. Still does. Having said that, I do agree that the ball needs some throttling back. Jack says it should be 5 percent; I'd advocate at least 15 percent.

GOLF Magazine: Speaking of major championships why do you think that today's players don't do as you guys once — show up a week early and take the time to learn about the site of the Open or PGA Championship? This year's Open site, Oakmont, is a good example — those super-fast greens require some studying.

Nicklaus: No they don't-not as much as they used to. Today the USGA sets up every Open course the same way-you know what the fairways are gonna be, you know what the rough is gonna be, you know the speed of the greens. If Oakmont's greens are faster than USGA specs, they slow them down. It used to be that each site presented a different set of conditions that needed some study. Not anymore.

Palmer: That's true. In fact the whole Tour has become a series of very similar conditions. Heck, back in the early days, the condition of the Tour courses was very inconsistent, particularly in the winter months. One of the reasons I looked forward to Augusta each spring was that I felt it was the first event of the year where I'd be truly rewarded for playing a good shot.

Nicklaus: Yeah, the winter Tour was really a winter Tour. Nowadays, with overseeing and so forth those courses are in great shape, probably better than the ones in the summer.

Palmer: But getting back to your question about the Open, I think there's another reason that guys don't show up early and practice. Winning the Open doesn't mean as much today as it did when Jack and I were in our primes. I can recall talking to Hogan and Nelson and guys like Ed Furgol about their victories. Winning the Open back then was almost like an insurance policy. Today, with all of the money in professional golf, it's comparatively less important.

GOLF Magazine: That brings up a questions I've always meant to ask you, Jack, about an old story. Back in 1960 at Cherry Hills, when you were an amateur and couldn't accept prize money, the story goes that you placed a bet on yourself to win the U.S. Open and had you won you would have cashed in for several hundred dollars. True or False? Nicklaus: True. The week of the tournament, my Dad came up and said "Jack, as national amateur champion they have you at 35-1 odds to win the Open. Would you like to make a bet on that?" And I said, "You're damn right I would — I'll have 20 bucks on that." And he said "Do you want place or show?" and I said, "Hell, no, I wanna win." Coming down the stretch, that bet was pretty important to me. I was about to get married, and I needed the money. Arnie, you were the only one who kept me from winning that $700.

Palmer: You have my apologies.

GOLF Magazine: At this point in your lives, if you were forced to choose between playing golf for the rest of your days or pursuing your business careers and playing no golf, which would it be?

Palmer: Golf, of course. But you knew I'd say that.

GOLF Magazine: Yes, but I wasn't too sure what Jack would say….

Nicklaus: C'mon…I'd choose golf, too. The only reason to choose otherwise would be if my body wouldn't let me play without pain, or if I were so hampered that I couldn't enjoy it any more.

Palmer: Yeah, I guess I agree. So far, I've been pretty fortunate. At age 64, I can still stand on the tee and hit it pretty good. When that's no longer the case, I suspect my attitude will change.

GOLF Magazine: You guys are probably two of the 100 most recognizable names and faces in the world. Do you ever sit back and consider the mind-boggling magnitude of that celebrity?

Palmer: No, I don't think about it, and when others begin to talk to me in that way, I quickly pass it off.

Nicklaus: I've sat back and thought that the things that have happened to me because of an ability to hit a little white ball a little better than somebody else have been pretty special. And to have been awarded some of the status and gone to some of the places I have is pretty unusual and pretty nice. But it drives me crazy when I go home and a good friend, say a tennis partner, starts in with that "Who you are, what you are" stuff. My response is usually something like, "Serve the ball, will you?"

GOLF Magazine: Last question, admittedly, a very premature one: Where do you want your ashes spread?

Palmer: That's easy. Latrobe Country Club. It's already in my will.

Nicklaus: I'm not sure. I've never been asked that and I've never asked myself. I don't even know what I'm gonna do, whether I'm gonna be buried or cremated or what…

Palmer: Well, you'd better start thinking about it, Jack-you're not getting any younger.

Nicklaus: Yeah, well I guess…I suppose it would have to be Muirfield Village.

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