Jack Nicklaus interview with Robert Williams, USGA museum curator

During his visit to the United States Golf Association in Far Hills, N.J., for the opening of the USGA Museum’s Jack Nicklaus Room, the Golden Bear sat down for a Q&A with Robert Williams, museum curator.

The Jack Nicklaus Room in the USGA's Museum at United States Golf Association in Far Hills, N.J. as seen on Tuesday, May 19, 2015.  (Copyright USGA/Jonathan Kolbe)

The Jack Nicklaus Room in the USGA’s Museum at United States Golf Association in Far Hills, N.J. as seen on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. (Copyright USGA/Jonathan Kolbe)

THE MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming and for making time in your busy schedules to join us for the opening of the Jack Nicklaus Room in our USGA Museum. I’m joined immediately to my left by Robert Williams, senior director of the USGA Museum and facilities, and of course our guest of honor, Mr. Jack Nicklaus. I’m also joined in the front row by USGA President Tom O’Toole and Executive Director Mike Davis.

Before we open it to your questions, we’d like to take a brief moment to underscore the significance of the occasion with Robert.

ROBERT WILLIAMS: Thanks. Our journey on this project with the Nicklaus family began a little over three years ago. It’s been an absolute pleasure working with them to build this room. Even when Jack occasionally ribbed me about answering some question or another, he was very patient, which we appreciated. The room and the related documentary films we’ve made over the past three years are examples of the USGA’s 120 year commitment to preserving and celebrating this game’s great history. Our objective in creating this room for Jack—like the rooms for Bob Jones, Arnold Palmer, Mickey Wright and Ben Hogan—is that future generations will be inspired by the contributions of these great champions and ambassadors who have greatly enriched the game that we all love.

The approach that we took with the room is that every word that is spoken or written is either Jack’s or from the family, again, just to make it personal. Our goal is to create a more intimate understanding of Jack’s values as they related to competitive spirit, integrity, self belief, commitment, perseverance and ultimately his vision.

On a personal note, it’s been an honor and a great deal of fun to work with one of my childhood heroes. When Mike Davis first asked us to take this project on, we knew we’d gain some insight into how one becomes a great champion, but we learned so much more. My favorite quote from the room expresses Jack’s candid insight and common sense: “Dreams can be great motivators, but I discovered early on to actually achieve them depends mostly on such factors as knowledge of the word,” which I think is actually an inspirational statement.

But if we discovered any secret to Jack’s success, I would have to say simply it was very unexpected, from my point of view, great champions and great shots, but I learned very quickly from Jack that it was the strength of family, his parents, Barbara, his kids and grandkids that really have inspired, recharged and fueled his unbelievable talent for this game. And ultimately we hope that’s what the room expresses.

There’s some facts and figures included, but I’ll throw it back to Adam [Barr].

THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much. We’d now like to open the floor to your questions and we’d ask that you confine your questions to the museum, the opening and Mr. Nicklaus’s relation to it.

Q. Could you speak a little bit about a particular memory that you want to share from your amateur relationship to the USGA and then maybe one from your favorite memories from your professional career at the USGA?

JACK NICKLAUS: I said it to the USGA staff this morning: 13 years old, I qualified for my first USGA championship, which was as a junior in 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Southern Hills. I had a 7:00 starting time. I was the first off the tee, played Stanley Ziobrowski, and I sauntered up to the tee about 30 seconds before my starting time, Joe Dey was there along with Colonel Lee in the traditional white suit and goatee. He was a wonderful, wonderful old guy.

Anyway, I walked up on the tee, and Mr. Dey said, young man, 30 seconds later and you would be on the second tee, 1 down. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. I was now in a USGA championship. You didn’t show up more than 30 seconds before your starting time. I wasn’t late, never had been late for a starting time, and you know, oddly enough, that’s all I dream about today is being late for starting times. Truth. I have that about twice a week.

Anyway, so that was my introduction to the USGA and my introduction to Joe Dey, and Joe Dey became like a second father to me. He was just a wonderful guy. He had that sort of proper façade, you might say, on the outside, but he had a great heart on the inside. He would do anything for anybody on the golfing end. He loved the game and loved to do it right, and I liked what he did. So that was my introduction to golf there.

My first amateur championship, I was fortunate enough to play the James River course at Country Club of Virginia in 1955. I was 15 years old. The night before the championship I played the last practice round, hit my second shot into the 18th green, there was a gentleman in a cart off the 18th green who said, “Come here, young man, I’d like to say hello.” It was Bob Jones. And he said, “I’ve been here for a couple hours,” and he said, “There’ve only been three people who have reached this green in two today. You’re one of them. I wanted to meet you.”

He said, “I want to come out and watch you play some holes tomorrow.” I played Bob Gardner, who was a Walker Cup player. I had him 1 down after 10 holes. Bob Jones showed up. Bogey, bogey, double bogey. I’m now 2 down. Mr. Jones said, “I’m going to get out of here.” Anyway, that was my introduction to Bob Jones.

My first U.S. Open Championship was at Inverness, in Toledo. I was 17 years old, and on the first hole, I hit 3 wood, 7 iron, 35 feet, boom, right in the hole. Parred the second hole, parred the third hole. My name went on the leader board, 1 under par, all charged up, I double-bogeyed the 4th hole and was never to be found again. Those were some of my USGA events.

I don’t know whether that answered your question or not, but I love USGA events. They molded my thinking about the game of golf. I always felt like the USGA—in those days, it was Joe Dey; Mike does it today, Mike Davis—sets up the golf course appropriately for your ability. If you have a men’s championship you set up the fairways a certain width, a certain depth. If you’re having a junior, it’s set up a certain way, set up for the amateur a certain way, the setup for the Open would be restrictive. I love that. I love the fast greens, I love the challenge. I love the golf courses because it brought the best out of me. It made me prepare, made me work at it, made me do the things I needed to do to be better, and that’s what I loved about USGA events. If you couldn’t handle it, then you got beat, and that’s OK.

Q. I was in the room a little bit earlier today. There are a lot of photos of your wife and family. With all the support they’ve given you, how important was it to you to have their comments and their thoughts in that room?

JACK NICKLAUS: You don’t have me without them. They’ve been my life. Golf is a game. Barbara is my family, Barbara is my wife. I understand golf is a game, and I’ve never treated it as anything else. Family is something that’s very special, and so they all contributed to the room. They all contributed to what my life was, my career was, and that to me is a special part of… All of them are here today except for Michael. Michael, believe it or not, could not get an airplane out yesterday. There were 60 flights from Atlanta to here and they were all full until late last night, and so Michael couldn’t get in.

But anyway, they’ve always been part of my life, and then after I stopped playing a lot seriously, Jackie caddied for me a lot, Steve caddied for me a lot, Gary caddied for me, Michael caddied for me. They all caddied for me. And now my grandkids are caddieing for me.
It’s fun to have family that’s close. It’s very special.

Q. I wanted to know if you had been here in the past and if you had any recollections about visiting some of the other exhibits of any of the other great golfers. And since we’re right down the road, if you could tell us about your recollections of Baltusrol and what your secret to success was there.

JACK NICKLAUS: Well, I had been to Far Hills before I’d been here, but I didn’t really see a lot when I was here before. I remember seeing the Bob Jones Room, and that was about it. I think that may have been all that was here because it was a while ago.

Coming here today, I got to see all these rooms. I went to see them, and I saw— what amazed me is what technology is like. I remember the New York Stock Exchange was such a small room and you could put so much in it with technology today, and it’s the same thing here. You did such an efficient job of not being overbearing with a big room and size and everything, so they’ve put it tastefully in a place where it’s not going to get lost, where you can see it very quickly.

There’s three people that come to these rooms. There’s streakers, strollers and stallers. People spend about a half an hour and they’re done with it. You can bring a streaker in here that would see a lot of things and have a lot of fun. Stroller, spend a couple hours and get a lot of information. Staller could spend all day or more. So you have whatever you want, and I think that’s what you’ve tried to accomplish, so people could take in the room at the pace of their own pleasure, but it’s so tasteful and so nice, and for all the exhibits that we walked through today, they’re all nicely done.

You asked me about Baltusrol. Baltusrol, obviously one of my favorite places in the game. I love playing Baltusrol. I remember going there in ’67. I was playing with Deane Beman, and he had a fellow with him named Fred Mueller. He’d given Fred a putter about a year earlier, and he said, Fred, go get that putter I gave you. So Fred went and got the putter and I got the putter, and I won the U.S. Open. That was White Fang. Then in 1980 I came here a week before the tournament, and I remember I played a practice round, I said, boy, this is a tough golf course. I set the Open record on this golf course? I thought it was really tough. I thought it was really long, and I thought it was playing very difficult. And so I did what I do, and that’s prepare, and when I get done with my preparation, the next week, I broke the record. I came back, and I said, God, I did that on that tough a golf course.

It’s a great sense of accomplishment when you can take something and really think it’s really tough, and then all of a sudden you conquer it. That makes you feel pretty good.

Q. Good to know. It killed me.
JACK NICKLAUS: It kills a lot of people. I think if I went back now I don’t think I’d finish.

Q. This is reminding me of the day when Yogi Berra opened his museum about 15 years ago, and we asked him how nice it was to have a museum with all this stuff in it and really enjoy it, and his comment was, “well, normally you have to be dead to get this,” which I thought was pretty funny. For a great golfer, to see your career summed up and displayed this way, when you walk through it and you see what you’ve done and you see what you mean to so many people, what are you thinking when you walk through there?

JACK NICKLAUS: Well, I’m going back and saying, “I remember that.” There’s a lot of things that— You probably drew an awful lot out of us during the last three years, drew a lot out of me that I didn’t even know I remembered, and to see it all compiled together is really very special. I asked, can I get a copy of that, and they said, sure.

Some of the interactive things are just unbelievably done. When I did the things on the golf course design, I said, what in the world is he doing. I said, this makes no sense whatsoever. Well, when I saw him put the questions in frames, you then understand how he did it. There’s a lot of things in there that are just very, very, very special. And they’re all things that happened, which is kind of nice, when you walk in, you say, well, that isn’t right, wow, did they exaggerate that. I haven’t seen that. It was all factual. I liked that.

Q. Was there anything that surprised you when you walked in?

JACK NICKLAUS: I think the interactives surprised me like I just talked about. When you have that— I’m not a tech guy, so I like to get my computer on and somebody shows me the button. How do you do things. Now I’ve got to get one of my grandkids to show me how to see it.

Q. Jack, the streakers, strollers or stallers, invariably when they walk through a museum like this and they see the old equipment and the artifacts and things that show the history of the game, they start shaking their heads just in disbelief that people can accomplish what they did with these pieces of equipment. Going through there, looking at for example the 1 iron that you hit the great shots with, the 3 wood that was mentioned before, do you catch yourself thinking, ‘my gosh, I accomplished all this’ or’ I sometimes can’t even believe that we pulled that off with that piece of equipment now’?

JACK NICKLAUS: Now I’m wondering where it went to. I want to use it again. I don’t hit it as well as I used to. I need that brought back. No, I didn’t think much about that. People ask me all the time, I still use a small headed iron, and they say, how do you do anything with that. I say, what do you mean how do I hit it? I hit it all my life, why would I have any problem with it? Do I hit it as often as I used to? No. Actually more often. You’re not supposed to do that. But I always felt like the equipment was designed for its era, and equipment has changed.

Am I a fan of the changes? No, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, because I think everybody always thinks that the era that they played and what they played with was the best the way the game was played. Today is a great game. Only issue I have is with the golf ball, which we’ve talked about a thousand times, because it goes too far, is it just reduces all golf courses to nothing, for the big player.

But the equipment today, I mean, it’s technology, the consistency of it, the ability to— the ease of play for the average golfer, it’s fantastic. It’s been very good for the game.

Q. I was struck by your comment, when you mentioned that your dad had always introduced you but never pushed you, and he always said that he wanted you to do your very best. I was also struck by the comment once you got into the late 1960s and you went into a slump, your dad passed away and you felt that you had let him down in some way, that you had not really prepared or motivated yourself. Could you explain or go into that just a little bit, because that seems to be a defining moment of your career.

JACK NICKLAUS: The problem was I think that—and I probably didn’t even realize it as it was happening, I won the U.S. Open at Baltusrol in ’67. I didn’t win another major championship until St. Andrews in ’70. During that period of time I won a lot of golf tournaments. I didn’t think I played that great, but I was good enough that I could still win.

As a result, when my dad passed away, I sort of felt like, well, my dad’s sole pleasure in life was watching his son compete and compete at a high level. Sure, I was making money and winning golf tournaments, but I wasn’t winning the ones that were important. And I went back and looked at it and I said, I wasn’t prepared like I should have been on the day. That doesn’t mean I’m not prepared for a weekly event. But when you come to an Open or a Masters or a PGA or British Open, you need to be ready to play that tournament.

My father passed away February of ’70. All of a sudden I seemed to go back to work, and I don’t know why, but—of course St. Andrews showed up at that time, and Bob Jones—and I said that no golfer’s career is complete unless he can win at St. Andrews. Well, I wanted to win at St. Andrews.

I just sort of felt like he had been there, and he always said, if you’re going to play something, give it your best. Try to be your best or don’t play, don’t get involved. So I’ve always tried to do that.

I used that for inspiration.

Q. As a follow-up, did you ever have a conversation with your father about the topic you’re just talking about?

JACK NICKLAUS: No, I didn’t. He would never do that. He was always proud of what I did, and he always felt like I was doing what I could do.

Q. Obviously, the incredible legacy you’ve left behind— I’ve talked to other athletes who think very much about their legacy while they’re competing, somewhere in their career they start thinking about what they’re doing and what they’re leaving behind and the type of record. You just made mention of the fact that you took note of Bob Jones’ comment that no golfer’s career is complete, so in a way that’s a milestone and a legacy. Did you think about your historic legacy, the history, the mark that you would leave on the game while you were competing?

JACK NICKLAUS: No, the first time I ever even thought about major championships was 1970, that championship I just talked about at St. Andrews. I walked in the pressroom, and Bob Green, an AP reporter, Bob is like, “Hey, that’s 10 majors now, only three more to tie Bobby Jones.” I never even [it] never entered my mind. Tiger has had it on his wall since he was 5 years old. It never entered my mind. I was interested in just doing my best, and when I wasn’t giving my best, that’s what we were talking about, then I needed to give my best. I don’t think you can give your best every time. Maybe you think you can, but I don’t think that you’re able to. I just don’t think that either mentally or physically or something, it doesn’t allow you to sometimes. But you’d like to think that you give it your best.

I never really worry very much about my legacy. If I worried about my legacy, I think I probably would have prepared myself better and won more like 25 major championships. I don’t know, I’m just being facetious. But could I have won more? Yes. Could I have prepared better? Yes. Would I have known my family the way I know them? Probably not. Would I have had my family and my kids for another two major championships? Absolutely not. My legacy is not— The importance of my legacy is not the golf course, it’s what my life is, and what my life is intended to be. The game of golf is a game. My family is my life.

Q. You had mentioned and talked many times about how Barbara and your mom were packrats, saved everything. I’m just wondering is there a piece in this room that was more meaningful to you or something that you kept or was special?

JACK NICKLAUS: Well, I kept the clubs. I’m the one that kept clubs, and everything else they kept. I kept nothing. When I go home— About four times a year I go in my closet, and I say, oh, no, no, no, out of here, out of here. Somebody can have a better use of this than I have. It’s just sitting here. I give all my stuff away, and I did that. The only golf club from my major championship wins that I don’t have is my putter that I won the Masters with in 1986. Where it is, I have no clue.

You saw the putter I used at Baltusrol in there. I got that back— I was missing that putter and the big one, and my son Steve had his 40th birthday, and Joe Messler, that played defensive back at Florida State when Steve played at Florida State, came back, and he says, “Hey, Mr. Nicklaus, I was cleaning out my garage the other day, and I saw this putter that Steve gave me, and I wonder if it has any significance.” It’s the one I won Baltusrol with, it’s that putter. I said, “Yeah, as a matter of fact it does, it does have a little bit of significance.” Joe gave me that back, and I felt kind of funny. I said, “Joe, why actually give it to me? You can have a nice deduction. There’s some value there and it’s worth a lot of money.” He said, “Oh, no, I don’t want— I’m not going to—” I said, “Joe, I’m just telling you because what I’m going to do is I’m going to get a deduction, because that’s what you do.”

I mean, I don’t know if you guys understand about the museum or not, but the government is going to tax you on your stuff, and I have all my trophies, and trophy that (inaudible). I remember saying that to John Glenn, and John was saying— We were sitting down there talking about the museum and what we were doing with the museum and so forth. He was a senator at the time, and I said to him, “John, what have you done with all your stuff from space and so forth and so on?” He said, “I don’t know what to do with it.” I said, “you know, you’re not a spring chicken.” John was probably, I don’t know, 78 at the time. I don’t know how old is he now? He’s probably 85, probably. Anyway, nice man, wonderful guy. I said, “John, you need to have a foundation. You give to the foundation, and it keeps all your memorabilia intact forever.” He said, “Really? You can do that?” I said, “John, you made the law. You voted for it.” He got the biggest kick out of it.

Q. We’ve heard a lot of great things about Barbara, but if you’re a golfer with a wife, the one thing I really admire is the story about Pine Valley. How true is that, and did you—
JACK NICKLAUS: Right on target. If you’ve got the accurate straight, it’s right on target. I’ve never lied about it. I didn’t even fabricate it or exaggerate it.

Q. Did you lower after that or what?
JACK NICKLAUS: It’s not a big deal to her. I mean, we went through Pine Valley—I didn’t know it was the same club. Drove in the gate and walked up to the clubhouse, and I came unannounced because I didn’t have a clue who to call or what to callI was a 20-year-old kid. I walked in and a fellow recognized me, named Dave Newble. Dave said, “Aren’t you Jack Nicklaus?” I said, “Yes.” “Can I help you?” I said, “Well, my wife is with me in the car.” He says, “Jack, your wife?” She wasn’t supposed to be there. He said, “Don’t worry about it. I assume you want to play.” I said, “I’d love to play.” So I went out and played and Dave took care of my wife and she got to see the outside of Pine Valley and a few fences. How could you not go by Pine Valley, going from New York City to Atlanta? Don’t you go by Camden County, New Jersey? Absolutely, how could you get there any other way?

Q. When people come here and they look at the exhibits and they check out the room for the day, what would you like them to take away from it in terms of the experience?
JACK NICKLAUS: Well, you know, I don’t know what I would like to—I think the USGA put together, and I think they’d like to say—I think they put together a pretty good cross section of Ben Hogan’s life, Arnold Palmer’s life, and the life of Bob Jones and Jack Nicklaus, and gave a little insight into who he was, what he did, and what his life was about. I’m not trying to suggest somebody’s opinion that’s there. Somebody is going to form their own opinion of it, and you can get a cross section of people that make up their own mind. I think when you go to a museum that’s what you do. You go there and look at it and you say, that was pretty neat, or you can say, “I don’t care for that.” You have those kind of things. So they’re going to be— I don’t think my objective is to try to tell somebody what to think.

Q. With the U.S. Open being on Father’s Day, can you tell us a little bit more about, besides your father influencing you, the influence you had on your kids? Most people say that they are introduced to golf through their father, and with the U.S. Open being on Father’s Day, can you speak more about your father and obviously the impact you’ve had on your kids?
JACK NICKLAUS: The impact that I’ve had or he’s had?

Q. That he’s had on you, and you on your kids.
JACK NICKLAUS: The U.S. Open has finished on Father’s Day for as long as I can remember. I think I won all four of my U.S. Opens on Father’s Day, I think. I’ve got all my kids, with their kids and what they’re trying to impart upon their kids, and I try to do what my father told me. I try to tell my kids what my dad told me, point to them and try to put to their kids what I told them. It’s a generational pass down that you hope that you’re trying to do the right thing for your kids, give them the right values and things to do, and I think it’s kind of nice that the U.S. Open falls on that day. It’s a pretty nice, special day, a nice, special present to give to your father if you win the U.S. Open or to your kids—your kids are pretty happy for you on your Father’s Day, too.

Q. When were you first aware that the USGA had these rooms, so to speak, and did you ever say to yourself, gee, I wonder if I’ll ever have a room?
JACK NICKLAUS: I knew when I came here, and I don’t know when it was. I think they only had the Bob Jones Room when I was there.

Q. Did you ever say to yourself, gee, I wonder if I’ll ever have a room?
JACK NICKLAUS: No, it never even entered my mind. There are a lot of people that could have rooms. That wasn’t something that I was necessarily striving for. I think it’s very nice that the USGA has chosen me—to honor me, and I appreciate that very much, but I think that they appropriately honored Bob Jones and appropriately Arnold and appropriately Mickey and Ben.

Q. The fact that they honored them, after they did develop the other rooms, did you say to yourself, hey, maybe—
JACK NICKLAUS: I didn’t know they did. I wouldn’t have known that by coming here. You’ve known me a long time. I read about as much as I want to read. I read who won the ballgame last night and who’s playing tonight and who’s on television.

Q. You really weren’t aware?
JACK NICKLAUS: I honestly wasn’t. I shouldn’t say I wasn’t. I mean, I wasn’t until the USGA came to me and they said that they’d like to do a new room, and they said who had the other rooms, and I said, well, that makes sense that they would.

Q. Is that the first time you knew that there were other rooms?
JACK NICKLAUS: Yeah.

Q. Besides Jones?
JACK NICKLAUS: Yeah, and I would have remembered the Jones room. I would have come back the first time    when I came here, I think the Bob Jones, and they had some nice things about Bob Jones. I wouldn’t have known it they called the Bob Jones Room. Then all of a sudden they’ve added    I don’t know who was the second, was Arnold the second? Hogan was second and then Arnold? Yeah.

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