Jack Nicklaus: GOLF Magazine Interview

July 18, 2009

This interview originally ran in the September, 1988, issue of Golf Magazine.

GOLF: You've won 20 major championships. We won't ask you to pick out the one that means the most — but how about choosing the top three?

NICKLAUS: The first would be my first U.S. Amateur at The Broadmoor in 1959. Second was the U.S. Open in 1962, because of the fashion in which I won it [he beat Arnold Palmer in an 18-hole playoff at Oakmont for his first professional victory]. Setting the Masters record [271] in '65 was an unbelievable thrill, but then, so was winning the British Open at St. Andrews.

GOLF: 1970 or 1978?

NICKLAUS: Both of them. Geez, there have been so many thrills. But if I had to pick three, they'd be the Open in '62, the U.S. Open at Baltusrol in '80 and The Masters in '86.

GOLF: There were a few disappointments as well. Can you think of three low points to go with the high ones?

NICKLAUS: No, but I can think of two. The first was in the 1972 British Open. I went to Muirfield with the first two legs of the Grand Slam in my pocket, and after 69 holes I still had a good chance to win the third leg. I was in control of my own destiny over those last three holes, but instead of finishing par-birdie-par as I had when I won there in 1966, I finished bogey-par-par and lost to [Lee] Trevino by a stroke. The other big disappointment was losing to [Tom] Watson's chip-in at Pebble Beach in the '82 U.S. Open.

GOLF: What about 1977?

NICKLAUS: You mean Turnberry?

GOLF: Yes, and Augusta, too. [Watson edged him at both]

NICKLAUS: Yes, but those victories wouldn't have meant anything in those particular years. At Muirfield in '72, I was trying to win the Slam. In fact if I had won there, I would have held all four majors at the same time, because I'd won the PGA Championship in 1971. And at Pebble I was going for a record fifth Open and really thought I'd won it. When Tom hit his tee shot into the rough on 17, I felt as if I was holding the trophy.

GOLF: Is there a single shot you'd like to have over again — a career mulligan?

NICKLAUS: A couple of drives stand out. One goes back 20 years, to the 1968 British Open at Carnoustie. In the final round, I knocked my tee shot on the sixth hole out of bounds and ended up finishing second [by two stokes] to Gary Player. The other came last year at Augusta. On the 10th tee in the final round I turned to Jackie [Nicklaus' son and frequent caddie] and said, 'We're gonna do it again.' I had shot a 34 on the front side and was four stokes off the lead — a year earlier I had been six back at the turn. I really thought I was going to pull off a seventh Masters. But instead I made one of the worst swings of my life and hooked the ball way left. I made six, and the charge was over. I'd love to have that swing back.

GOLF: What about your last shot to the 72nd green of The Masters in 1977 when Watson won by two strokes? You hit it really fat. Did the famous Nicklaus concentration collapse?

NICKLAUS: Yes, it did. I lost my composure. First, I was between a 6- and a 7-iron and decided to play the 6-iron behind the hole. Then came this roar up from the 17th green where Watson had made a birdie. After that I just couldn't reprogram myself. I should have taken the 7 and just hit it hard instead of trying to play a 'shot.'

GOLF: Wasn't that the same mistake Greg Norman made in '86 when you won? He said he should have nailed a 5-iron into the heart of the green instead of trying to feather a high 4-iron next to the hole.

NICKLAUS: Yes, you don't feather shots on the last hole of a major championship. [Norman missed the green and bogeyed, finishing a stroke behind Nicklaus.]

GOLF: If the gods of golf could give you one more victory, where would it be? Five Opens would give you more than any player. So would six PGAs, and a fourth British Open would give you four cycles of the majors.

NICKLAUS: I'd want that fifth Open. It's interesting that of all the major tournaments I've played in, I've had fewer chances to win the Open than any other. I've won The Masters six times but have been around the lead another half dozen times or more. At the British, I've won three but had seven seconds. At the PGA, I've won five times but been second a couple of times. At the U.S. Open, except for one or two occasions, I've either won it or been out of contention.

GOLF: Let's talk about Jack Nicklaus in contention. The guys on the Tour seem to agree that as good as Watson was a few years ago and Norman and Ballesteros are today, none of them will ever have your 'Intimidation factor.' When you were in the hunt, you struck fear in the hearts of the tournament leaders. As J.C. Snead once put it, 'when you go head to head against Nicklaus, he knows he's going to beat you, you know he's going to beat you, and he knows you know he's going to beat you.'

NICKLAUS: (laughing): Yes, I used to know that, and I'd love to know it again! I knew, coming down the stretch, that the odds were way in my favor of winning a golf tournament. I knew that if I kept the pressure on and didn't do anything stupid I would probably win.

GOLF: That's a pretty strong statement.

NICKLAUS: Yes, but there was absolutely no question in my mind. I knew exactly how intimidating I was, and I've got to tell you, it was a tremendous advantage. I knew that many of the other players had the physical skill I had, but I also knew that few of them had the mental skills to use that physical skill properly. That knowledge gave me the confidence that I would not lose a tournament myself. Someone might come up and beat me as Watson did a couple of times, but I would not lose it. Most players give tournaments away. And I always knew that when that happened, I'd be around, ready to accept the gift.

GOLF: But you also went out and won a few.

NICKLAUS: Yes, but in general, I did the winning in the early part of the round. I shoot a few birdies, make 32 or 31 on the front nine, and then the others would get scared or impatient. They'd fail to make a move on me, and I'd walk through the back nine. The only big exceptions were Augusta in '86 and Baltusrol [the U.S. Open] in '67. [Each time, Nicklaus shot 30 on his final nine.]

GOLF: Do you still prepare as thoroughly for the majors as you used to?

NICKLAUS: Yes and no. A week or two before those tournaments I still practice full bore and try to hone my game into shape. The difference is that now I don't play in more than one or two events prior to Augusta or prior to a U.S. Open or PGA or British. That tends to leave me a little flat, a little short on competitive experience.

GOLF: You've said you'll play a bit on the Senior PGA Tour. Any goals there? Did you know, for instance, that if you win the U.S. Senior Open you'll join Palmer as the only player to win the Amateur, the Open, and the Senior Open.

NICKLAUS: No, I haven't given it a thought. I have absolutely no goals on the Senior Tour. The Senior Tour is a good concept although frankly I'm not astounded at its continued success. It gives a lot of guys an opportunity to extend their careers. But personally, on the few occasions I will play the Senior Tour, I'll be a ceremonial golfer, much as I am today. I have no goals as Trevino does to break a bunch of records.

GOLF: Does that mean you'll grind less, take the competition less seriously, maybe loosen up and work the crowds as much as the course?

NICKLAUS: I doubt it. I'm deadly serious even when I play tennis against my kids. I want to beat their brains out. Whether it's pool or Ping Pong, I can't stand to have my kids beat me. Especially Ping Pong! And when they beat me, they just needle the devil out of me. That's fine. I'd rather have that than let them win a shallow victory. As long as I give it my best effort, I have no problem being beaten, whether by my kids at Ping Pong or Watson at Turnberry. When I play the Senior Tour, I'll play to win.

GOLF: One thing that aggravates most senior players is a loss of putting nerves. At age 46, have you ever yipped a putt?

NICKLAUS: That depends on what you mean by 'yipped.' I've missed putts where the putter seemed to go off in my hands, but I don't think those were the results of nerves. For the most part, my nerves have lasted pretty well. When I miss a short one, it's usually with a calm, smooth, crummy stroke!

GOLF: You'll meet up again with some old friends — old rivals — on the Senior Tour, probably some you've always enjoyed playing with. Who would make up your ideal foursome? But let's not confine it to the Seniors. Which three players in the history of the game would make up your dream foursome?

NICKLAUS: I'm going to pick two guys because I've never played with them. Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. Then I'd add Ben Hogan because I'd want him as my partner.

GOLF: Did you get to play much golf with Hogan?

NICKLAUS: The first time I played with him was at Cherry Hills, in 1960, where we went 36 holes together in the last two rounds of the U.S. Open. Thereafter, at every Masters or Open Ben played, he sought me out for a game. I always thought that was a nice compliment.

GOLF: Do you still think he's the finest, most consistent ball striker, you've ever seen?

NICKLAUS: Yes, although I'd rank Trevino next to him. And the best single ball-striking exhibition I've ever seen was by Byron Nelson. He gave me a clinic at the 1954 U.S. Junior Championship in Los Angeles. There was a new irrigation system on the fairway where he was hitting, and I'll never forget sitting with the other kids and watching shot after shot of his come down smack on the pipeline. It was incredible.

GOLF: You once said you agree with Jones, who said that he never became a truly complete player until he understood his golf swing inside-out. Do you still feel that way?

NICKLAUS: Absolutely, it's the one enormous key, the edge.

GOLF: How many guys on the current PGA Tour do you think know their swings in that way?

NICKLAUS: Very few

GOLF: A handful?

NICKLAUS: If that.

GOLF: Who are they? Is Mac O'Grady one?

NICKLAUS: No. If Mac understood his swing that well, he'd win everything. Part of it is knowing when you play, how to correct the mistakes you're making and not let the round get away from you. A big part of managing a golf course is managing your swing on the course. A lot of guys can go out and hit a golf ball, but they have no idea how to manage what they do with the ball. I've won as many golf tournaments hitting the ball badly as I have hitting the ball well. And in a way I'm more proud of the good rounds I've played while hitting the ball badly than of the great rounds while hitting the ball well. I understand my swing well enough to get myself through a tournament and win it. I've made it work.

GOLF: So which of today's guys know their swings?

NICKLAUS: Well, I think Raymond Floyd understands his swing very well. I think Trevino knows his swing. Tom Kit and Norman understand their swings pretty well.

GOLF: What about Watson?

NICKLAUS: No, I think Tom is still learning. Tom can be better than he is, and I don't think he is remotely through playing the game of golf. Watson has never been a ball-striker like a Trevino or a Hogan. His success was built on determination, a great short game and striking the ball well when he needed to down the stretch.

GOLF: Why do so few players have your swing knowledge? Are you that much smarter? Or harder working? Luckier?

NICKLAUS: It's a bit of luck, I guess. In Jack Grout, I had a great teacher from the beginning, and he taught me how to understand the swing. Beyond that, reaching an understanding of the golf swing seems to be something that takes time. I was fortunate to get a solid head start.

GOLF: Over 30 years, along with your victories on the course, you won an intangible victory: You won over the galleries and fans. In a way, that came less easily than did the trophies.

NICKLAUS: Well, it took more time. I think in my case winning fans came as a result of winning tournaments. Certainly, I didn't have too many supporters when I came on Tour. I didn't look like an athlete, I was overweight, had a crew cut, baggy clothes and on top of that I didn't smile much. I was very serious about my game, literally and figuratively the heavy.

GOLF: And you had a tough act to follow in Palmer.

NICKLAUS: I had a very tough act to follow. Arnold was dashing, charismatic — and still is. But to be honest, I paid zero attention to such things. All I wanted to do was win golf tournaments.

GOLF: You didn't have any nights when you came home to your wife Barbara and said, 'Gee, I wish the galleries liked me better?'

NICKLAUS: Never. We never discussed it. I think both Barbara and I knew that, for better or worse, I was myself. I couldn't try to be a Palmer. I had to be Nicklaus. If that came off as cocky and dour-faced, we knew it would just have to take time before people came around and accepted me for what I was.

GOLF: What about the notion that you made a conscious attempt to change your image — to slim down and update your hairdo for greater appeal?

NICKLAUS: I read that all the time, and this is as good an opportunity as any to clear that up. During the mid-1960s I paid a visit to my doctor and asked him about my weight, and you know what he said? 'Don't worry about it. You're in great shape and you have nothing to be concerned about except this: As some point in your life, you're going to get tired. When this happens, you'll know it's time to lose weight.' Well, I went along for another few years, and then after the 1969 Ryder Cup, flying back from Britain on the plane, I turned to Barbara and said, 'For the first time in my life, I feel tired from playing the game.' Then I said, 'When we get home, I'm going on a diet.' And that was that. Three weeks later I'd lost my weight.

GOLF:And the hairstyle?

NICKLAUS: Hairstyles change. No one wears their hair the way I did back then — not in a crewcut, not in that big slicked-back wave I sported. I changed with the times, not to improve my image.

GOLF: You still tend to look heavier some weeks than others, and I have this hunch that at any given moment, you'd like nothing better than to pig out, eat a pizza or a half gallon of ice cream.

NICKLAUS: You've got that right! The fact is, I diet every day of my life. I have to work at it. But I diet so I can pig out. Barbara laughs at me because of my eating habits. For most of the week I'll be real careful, then in a space of 48 hours I'll eat six pieces of cake and, as you say, a half gallon of ice cream. The next day I'll feel fat, go back to being a good boy for a few more days and go through the splurge again after that. If I were to let myself go all the time, I'd weigh 220-plus as I did in the old days. If I watched myself all the time, I'd be back down to 170 pounds where I was about three years ago, when I was so skinny I was hardly there. So this diet-splurge-diet-splurge routine, humorous as it seems to my wife, keeps me happy.

GOLF: You've become a model to golfers all over the world. People imitate your swing, your putting style, your mannerisms. With that in mind, do you ever wish you were a faster player?

NICKLAUS: I was never taught to play fast. I'll admit I was faster as a kid than I am today. But I think I'm faster now than I was a few years ago. I get really slow for two reasons: When I'm not sure of myself or when I'm so engrossed in a competition that I'm not aware of the pace. Otherwise, I try to pick myself up, because I think it's better for the game to be played faster.

GOLF: Your concentration is legendary. Has your utter concentration ever reached that point where, in effect, you went beyond concentration and into a zone where you're playing, as Johnny Miller has said of himself, 'out of your mind'?

NICKLAUS: On those two back nines of 30, at Augusta in '86 and Baltusrol in '67, I had such confidence that I felt I could just draw it back and all of a sudden — bam! — the ball was on the target. But it wasn't as if I went into a trance. I just got going with a couple of birdies, saw a light at the end of the tunnel and went after that light.

GOLF: You were never on automatic pilot?

NICKLAUS: No, I'm not foggy enough for that. I was always in full control.

GOLF: Arnie brought golf to the masses, Jones was the humble gentleman and Hogan inspired the work ethic. Each left a sort of legacy beyond his accomplishments. What do you see as your legacy?

NICKLAUS: I can't pick out a word or two as you have for those guys. I'd guess I might be proudest of my longevity, my ability to adapt over time. There were a lot of good players before me who might have been able to extend their careers a bit, had they kept in shape. I guess that apart from Sam Snead, I've hung on about the best of the top players.

GOLF: All right, that gets us to the question. Jack, no athlete has dominated a sport for a longer period of time or with greater certainty than you have the game of golf. Muhammad Ali in boxing might be the only one who came close. Have you decided in your own mind that you are the best golfer ever to walk the earth? Be honest, now.

NICKLAUS: (long pause): There have been better ball strikers than I. There might have been guys who were tougher competitors than I. There might have been guys who were more determined or better putters. But I frankly don't think that any of them has been able to put all that together and keep it together better than I have.

GOLF: That's pretty honest.

NICKLAUS: What do you mean pretty honest? That was very honest! Okay, you want it more definitive? Ultimately do I believe that I'm the best player? Let me say this. I believe it as closely as someone can believe it without actually saying it, because I don't think I could ever say it.

GOLF: That's close enough.

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