Jack Nicklaus, the world's greatest golfer, might also be the game's best interview

Jack Nicklaus, the world’s greatest golfer, might also be the game’s best interview

Jack Nicklaus said the timing was right to join Arnold Palmer for a ceremonial tee shot.
David Cannon/Getty Images

The world’s sports fans stopped what they were doing Monday afternoon to watch a disarmingly open Tiger Woods take questions about his Thanksgiving night car accident, his infidelities, the FBI investigation of his doctor and the state of his game. But if those fans really wanted to learn something from and be entertained by a great champion, they should have waited for Jack Nicklaus.

The six-time Masters champion will hit the ceremonial opening tee shot Thursday morning with Arnold Palmer, and on Tuesday afternoon Nicklaus took questions that touched on the game’s past (playing with Ben Hogan), its future (most of his grandkids don’t play) and, yes, Woods (of whom he spoke volumes by not saying much at all).

In the same room where Woods owned up to his mistakes, Nicklaus held court, conducting more of a conversation than a question-and-answer session. He’s in a good place right now: old enough that he doesn’t have to watch what he says, involved enough in the game to remain knowledgeable and engaging, and just cranky enough to be interesting.

Nicklaus got things started Tuesday by displaying his competitive side. The moderator introduced Nicklaus by reciting his incredible resume, “Winner of 18 majors, including six Masters, five PGAs, four U.S. Opens, three British Opens, winner of 73 PGA Tour victories, six-time Ryder Cup Team member, including twice as captain, captained four Presidents Cup teams, has competed in 45 Masters Tournaments, tied for fourth all-time…”

That’s when Nicklaus interrupted.

“Fourth? Has to be Arnold and Gary. Who would be the fourth?” Nicklaus asked.

Raymond Floyd was the answer.

“Raymond’s played more than I have? Who is the other one then? Just curious. I never heard that stat before,” Nicklaus said.

“Fourth is very good,” the moderator said as the room filled with laughter. It stayed that way for a half-hour, until the moderator thanked Nicklaus for his time.

“No, I have a few more minutes,” Nicklaus said. “Let’s try something else. If anybody has got anything other than Tiger questions, let’s finish a couple of those.”

Nicklaus did, and then took another Woods question, and then answered a few more questions to a smaller scrum of reporters until he’d been in the room almost an hour.

“They should show a tape of that to every Tour pro,” a veteran reporter said as he left the room.

Here are some highlights from the press conference. The transcript is here. I recommend it.

On hitting the first tee shot with Arnold Palmer
Arnold asked me if I would do that. And you know, I thought that it would be a nice thing to do. So I’m here. Looking forward to it. I’m sure that we will have a nice time. Actually, I should say, [Augusta National Chairman] Billy [Payne] called me and said that Arnold would like to have me do it with him. I’m old enough now, I can do that, guys. We’ll have fun and we’ll both belt it out there about 150.

On Tiger Woods challenging his record of 18 majors
I don’t think he’s here for his health or anything. He’s here to play golf. I mean, that’s what he is. He’s a very good golfer. It’s the first major of the year. He’s taking large steps to get his life back in order, and he wants to play golf. He’s excited about wanting to play, and I think that’s great for him, and I think that’s great for the game.

I did what I did, and my record is what it was. And if somebody, whether it be Tiger or somebody else, breaks that record, then they break it. There’s not much I can do about it. I’m too old to go out and try to compete again, that’s for sure. My 95-mile-an-hour clubhead speed just won’t cut it anymore.

On Tiger-proofing and Jack-proofing Augusta National
As equipment changed and the golfers started playing better and the scores started getting lower, things had to be done that would have to adjust that philosophy to the best it could to stay with what Bobby Jones had wanted, but they had to adjust it to modern golf.

I’m not sure the golf course today would be the golf course that Jones would have done, because I don’t think his philosophy was the same. Is it a good golf course today? Yeah, it’s a darned good golf course today. Was it a good golf course then? Under the conditions that we played then, yeah, it was a darned good golf course then. But the golf course has changed over time. But it’s the only golf course I know that has totally changed what they have done to adjust to what’s happened with the times of the game and done it very, very well.

On Tom Watson at Turnberry

I think what Tom did at Turnberry last year was fantastic. He unfortunately didn’t finish it, and at the time he ended up thinking it was his fault. I don’t know if I told you this story, but I got him about a half hour after he played. He said he felt bad and I said, “Tom, how many 59-year-olds have shot 65 the first round at the British Open? I can’t think of any.” I said “How many have led after two rounds, how many have led after three rounds and how many have led after four rounds? I can’t think of any.”

“But I didn’t finish.”

I said, “Tom, you played a great tee shot on 18 and you played what appeared to be a great second shot. Just happened to be just that much too long.” I said, “You picked the right club for your third shot.”

He said, “Oh, I’m glad to hear you say that. I’m getting a lot of flak on that.” [laughs]

I said, “I know you’re a good chipper, but it’s the only club in your bag — the putter is the only club in your bag you were not going to lose the tournament, because you were going to knock it on the green.”

He said, “Yeah, but I goosed it.”

I said, “Yeah, but so what, so did everybody else.” I said, “You had to get the ball on the green.” I said, “Now then you hit the putt like the rest of us would.” [laughs]

On whether his win in 1986 at age 46 was the sweetest of his six Masters

They are all very sweet. I didn’t have any one that I didn’t like. But I think that the last one when nobody expected me to win, including me, that obviously was very sweet.

On playing his first Masters in 1959

I played pretty well from tee-to-green. I hit 31 of 36 greens. That obviously means I didn’t play 72. [laughs] I shot 76-74 or 74-76, I don’t remember which way it was. But I had eight 3-putt greens in 36 holes. Arnold was at 141. He was leading the tournament and I was out of the tournament at 150. Arnold had hit 19 greens in regulation and was leading the tournament. I said, “You’d better learn how to chip and putt, and understand what happens on this golf course.” That’s what I learned.

On Ben Hogan

[Hogan] walked in, and I had been at the golf course. He walked in and says, “Hey, Fella. You got a game.” That was the nicest compliment I had. He saw this young kid and wanted to watch this young kid. And so we played there and Oakland Hills and we played a lot of practice rounds together.

On what he thinks of the blood sausage on Angel Cabrera’s Champions Dinner menu

I hope he enjoys it.

On whether Tiger Woods needed to apologize to his fellow golfers

I think I’ll stay away from that.

On whether Tiger Woods ever disrespected the game on the course

I’ll stay away from that too.

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