No. 1 Player of All Time: Jack Nicklaus

No. 1 Player of All Time: Jack Nicklaus

ONE-DERFUL: You voted Jack the greatest player of all time!
Walter Iooss Jr./SI

This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue of Golf Magazine.

There was no World Golf Ranking until 1986, when his prime was behind him, so Jack Nicklaus never officially claimed the top spot. But that's okay. He can settle for the honor of No. 1 Player of All Time, according to more than 3,000 votes cast on

Nicklaus reached sublime heights as a player, with 18 major wins. And the father of five did it as the consummate family man. (One afternoon in the late 1970s, he jetted from Ohio to Florida to catch one of his sons' high school football games, then flew back for the third round of the World Series of Golf.) Since bidding farewell to competitive play in 2005, Nicklaus has embraced the role of golf's No. 1 Ambassador, designing dozens of courses and growing the game in far-flung places like China and the former Soviet Union; he also played a pivotal role in the campaign to make golf an Olympic sport in 2016. Not to mention that everyone from Rory McIlroy to Ernie Els seeks his counsel.

Although he's spent his adult life in the spotlight, were you aware of the 72-year-old icon's passion for tennis? Or that he keeps bugging Arnold Palmer to go fishing? Or that he came this close to throwing away a legendary career to become…a pharmacist? You may think you know the Golden Bear, but as this candid conversation shows, you don't know Jack.

Jack, our readers named you the No. 1 player of all time. Not bad for an Ohio kid who almost became a pharmacist.
I thank them for their vote of confidence. My record [18 major wins, 73 Tour wins], and what I did over time and against my competition, it's generally determined and voted on by other people, like your readers. And that's very nice. But all I ever wanted was to be the best I could be.

You won majors in three different decades. Your first win was the 1962 U.S. Open, and your last was the 1986 Masters. If 1962 Jack played 1986 Jack in match play, who would win?
That's hard to answer, because in '86 I don't know what I would have played like the week after I won the Masters. Now, if you take Jack from 1980 vs. Jack from 1962, I would say '80 Jack wins because he would be more experienced, a better player. I was more powerful in '62. I think my nerves would not have been much different year to year — I always had pretty good nerves. But my experience in 1980 was far greater than it was in 1962.

So when does 40-year-old Jack close out the kid? On 18?
I say it goes into overtime.

You mentioned always having good nerves, but you're still human. What was your most nervous moment as a pro?
When you have a dangerous shot without any bailout or relief — water on one side of the fairway and out of bounds on the other, and there's not enough room to play the shot — those situations I disliked. You're forced to play a shot, without an option. Where? The sixth at Carnoustie, a par 5 — if you played to the right [off the tee] you didn't leave yourself with anything, and if you played left, out of bounds was staring you in the face. I hit out of bounds there in the last round of '75 [British Open]. It cost me the tournament. Also, the [par-4] 17th at St. Andrews — on your second shot you've got the road on one side and the [Road Hole greenside] bunker on the other, which doesn't leave you a whole lot in between. Yes, you can play it short, but if you have to make birdie, what do you do?

You played conservatively in majors, so those must have taken you out of your strategy.
Yes, they put me in situations where I couldn't play conservative golf. The [par-4] seventh at Augusta is another — you want to hit driver, but miss it on either side and you're dead. The situations where I didn't have an alternative I found the most difficult.

Since this is the No. 1 Issue, what's the No. 1 greatest swing you ever saw?
Sam Snead. I don't think there's ever been a swing more rhythmic, fluid, or prettier than Sam's.

How about the best shot you've witnessed?
The one Tiger hit at the [2012] Memorial was about the greatest shot I've ever seen.

You're talking about the greenside flop shot Tiger holed on No. 16 on Sunday. You're ranking that above, say, Watson's chip-in on No. 17 at the 1982 U.S. Open?
If Watson's shot at Pebble Beach doesn't go in the hole, he still has a 12- to 15-foot putt to salvage par. He doesn't put himself out of the tournament. Lee Trevino's shot [chip-in for par] on the 71st hole at Muirfield in 1972, if it doesn't go in he's not out of the tournament. But Tiger's shot? You couldn't tell on TV how difficult it was. He didn't have a good lie. If he'd hit it two feet shorter, he's faced with a similar shot, just shorter. If he'd hit it two feet farther, it goes in the water. Given that he's trying to recover from all the issues he's had with his game, and with the game of life, he played it fantastically. The ball went in the hole, but that was immaterial. It's how he performed the shot that was so good.

You had one swing coach, Jack Grout, and you didn't change your swing much over your career. That's very different from Tiger's approach. How many majors would you have won if you'd had three different coaches and several swing overhauls?
I don't know. Jack Grout was smart. He knew that he didn't know everything about golf, so he sent me to Byron Nelson and Claude Harmon and other guys. When I came back, I would say, "That's much different than what you taught me. What do I do?" He said, "Jack, understand that there's more than one way to play the game." From that, I learned that I was able to blend [other philosophies] into my swing. It was part of my learning process. So if you talk about Tiger and different swing coaches and different swings, Tiger knows more about the swing than anybody. He doesn't need a swing coach. It's just another pair of eyes, as long as he understands that he has to be responsible for his own swing, just like I had to be responsible for my swing. Do you understand what I mean?

You're saying that the media makes too much of who's coaching Tiger.
The press makes a lot more of the issue of Tiger's swing coach than it actually is. Tiger understands the game and his swing very well. His dad did a great job. As long as you understand what you have to do and how to correct yourself on the course, and Tiger's been pretty good about that. Early in my career, I used to go see Bobby Jones, and he said to me, "Jack, I used to be just another golfer. I had my seven lean years, until I learned what [Jones's teacher] Stewart Maiden taught me, which was to be responsible for my swing and learn how to correct it — and how to be patient. And that's when I became a golfer." It's a learning process that Tiger's going through, and that I went through.

You're 72. If you could go back 50 years and give young Jack advice, what would you tell him?
Obviously, it would be something a 22-year-old would never listen to [laughs]. I'd tell him to be more patient. I had pretty good patience in my twenties, and that's probably why I won so much, but I made mistakes in my early years on Tour, and [had I corrected] those, I would have won several more majors. But near misses in majors are part of the learning process. Tom Watson went through that. Rory McIlroy went through that — you blow a couple of majors, but you learn how to win. I wouldn't want to trade it, because the learning process is so valuable. But still, I look back and say, "Boy! If I would have just done that, bam, what I could have won."

Your old rival Johnny Miller speaks movingly about the role his father played in making him a champion. What's the No. 1 most important thing that your dad, Charlie, taught you?
That I'm not the only person on the golf course and I'm not the only person in life. I had to treat other people the way I wanted to be a treated. He taught me sportsmanship — how to smile and sincerely congratulate someone when they beat me. I remember him saying, "Go beat your head against the locker later. When you're on the course, you genuinely say congratulations." I felt that if a guy played better than me, he deserved to be congratulated. He also taught me family values: how to be part of your kids' lives without intruding on their lives.

Didn't he also correct your career path?
He always let me choose what I wanted to do. I was going to college to be a pharmacist, because that's what he was. After three years of pre-pharmacy, he said, "Jack, with your golf game, do you really think the best way to spend your life is behind a medicine counter? I suggest you find something to utilize your talents."

So if it wasn't for your dad, you would have been one hell of a player in the Columbus pharmacists' golf league.
My dad had a lot of wisdom for me. What I truly regret is that he didn't live long enough to impart more. He was 56 when he died.

You've always been able to balance family with other pursuits, like playing and course design. Do you feel that you get enough credit as an architect?
I do throughout most of the world. In other places? Maybe not. You design a course the way you think the game should be played. Designers are different, and different people look at a piece of ground in different ways. That's okay. That's what makes golf beautiful. Otherwise, it'd be like tennis — every court is the same.

What hole or course makes you say, "This is great. I wish I'd designed it"?
I don't know about wishing I'd designed a hole. When I see a great hole, I think, "My design would have been different." Whether it would have been better, I don't know. The 8th hole at Pebble is my favorite second shot in golf. Could I have done it differently? Probably. But I think, "I would have liked a whack at that." It's my favorite second shot, but it's a lousy tee shot — a blind, uphill, nothing tee shot. Yet the second part is unbelievable. Sometimes you see a property that makes you say, "Wow!" I was in Iceland a few years ago and saw a piece of ground on the ocean, with all these lava outcroppings and fescue grass in the valley. I said, "All you had to do is mow it and put tees and greens in." Sometimes you see a property and say, "Man, why did they call him — why not us?" That's life. You don't always get the call.

You're pretty passionate about growing the game in places like China, Russia and South America. Why is that important to you?
I played all over the world. Not many people know that I won six Australian Opens. Of course, that doesn't mean much to Gary Player — he won seven. [Laughs] Some parts weren't open for political reasons: South Africa, Russia, China. So now that places are more open, I can have a stronger voice as a designer and ambassador. The [2016] Olympics will be amazing for golf in China, Russia, Brazil, India — places where it's not big but, because of the Olympics, will grow. I remember playing in the World Cup. Players from places like Finland would say, "Jack, our courses were pastures — I've never had anybody but cows watch me play." By growing the game, if an exceptional, one-in-a-million player comes out of one of these countries, they'll be prepared to compete on the world stage.

You mentioned tennis. That's a passion of yours, right?
I've played all my life. We have three grass courts. I've got 10 to 15 people coming over and playing on weekends. We have a lot of fun.

What great player approached tennis the way you played golf?
I've never been asked that. I'd answer by saying, "Who do I admire most?" That category would have Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, and Rod Laver. Their demeanor, the way they handle themselves as sportsmen and with class — if you want your children to model themselves after someone, look at those guys.

What gets your nerves up on the court? What's the tennis equivalent of a slippery 5-footer?
I haven't found a slippery downhill putt in tennis. I play recreationally. You could call me a high single-digit tennis player — a 7 or 8. I'm happy when I put the ball away or return a tough serve.

We couldn't talk with you without mentioning Arnold Palmer. You began as rivals and became great friends. Tell us something about him that we don't know.
[Long pause] Arnold was such a great competitor. I think his biggest weakness is that he probably loved golf too much. Everything Arnold references goes back to golf. I've invited him many times on fishing trips, and now that he doesn't play competitively, he says, "I'd like to take you up on that, but I have this commitment — I have to play golf." I say, "You've played enough golf. Come on, let's go fishing."

So you can love something too much — even golf?
I'm not criticizing Arnold by any means for golf being his whole life. But it was his whole life. That's why people love him. As life goes on, and as he plays less and less, Arnold has lost his ability to play at the level he used to. And he gets very depressed with that. I'm fortunate. I had other things. I quit playing tournament golf, and I haven't missed a beat. Golf is a game to me. It wasn't my whole life. Arnold never had other things, except for flying. And he's quit flying, too. It's hard for him, because he doesn't have other hobbies.

It sounds like you're sitting by the phone, waiting for the call.
Every time I'm with him, I say, "Let's do it — let's go fishing." He says [in an annoyed tone], "I know, I know. I'm gonna take it up." And I say, "A.P., all you gotta do is pick up the phone. And I'll be ready."

Special Section: No. 1 Issue

This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue of Golf Magazine. Subscribers can download the issue on their tablets at