Jack Nicklaus loves Ryder Cup, but says winning isn’t most important thing

Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, 2016 Ryder Cup

Jack and Barbara Nicklaus host the players in the running for spots on the 2016 Ryder Cup team

By Roxanna Scott, USA TODAY Sports

Aldie, Va. — Jack Nicklaus, a two-time Ryder Cup captain who also played in the event six times, says he thinks the Americans will end their losing streak this year. But listening to Nicklaus talk about the Ryder Cup, it’s clear that the results don’t really matter.

“To me the competition is incidental,” Nicklaus said. “Who wins bragging rights — and I know everyone wants to win, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is the game of golf and people having good relations and goodwill.”

Nicklaus was part of the United States’ dominant run in the ’70s, when he played on winning teams from 1971 to 1977. In 1981 he went 4-0 in his matches (three of them with Tom Watson) on the team that beat Europe 18½ to 9½, and he was captain of the 1983 team that won by one point at PGA National in Florida.

For a man who has been such a fundamental part of Ryder Cup history, he doesn’t get too caught up in the rivalry.

“The Ryder Cup to me — we make a little bigger deal out of it than I think should be,” said Nicklaus, who spoke Thursday at the Creighton Farms Invitational, which raises money for children’s pediatric health care programs. “I think it’s a goodwill event. It’s a great event to have bragging rights for Europe or bragging rights for America. It’s a great format; it’s a great competition. There’s a lot of nice things about it, but I wish we wouldn’t make such a war out of it. I love the Ryder Cup, I loved playing in it, I love being a part of it.”

The Americans have lost the last three Ryder Cups and have won the biennial event just twice since 1995. Two years ago in Gleneagles, Scotland, the Americans were pummeled 16½ to 11½, and Phil Mickelson openly questioned how the team had gotten away from the formula that brought victory in 2008.

Shortly after the disappointing loss, the PGA of America announced an 11-person task force would be created to strategize for this year’s event at Hazeltine Golf Club in Chaska, Minn, which starts Sept. 30.

Nicklaus says he’s not sure the task force was necessary.

“That’s part of the things that I think is a little overkill,” he said. “They liked it; that’s what they wanted. I certainly didn’t have my nose in the middle of it so I sort of stayed out of it. But they felt [the task force] was going to get them a little more together and more unified as a team and so forth. That’s OK. I’m 40 years removed from that team as far as a player, maybe my old-folks ideas aren’t necessarily the right ones. Maybe theirs are the right ones. I don’t know. I just never thought you made that big a deal out of it.”

The task force, which includes past captains Raymond Floyd and Tom Lehman, current captain Davis Love III, and players Rickie Fowler, Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods, also raises expectations for the team headed to Hazeltine.

“I don’t really see the necessity to put the pressure on the young guys to win the Ryder Cup,” Nicklaus said. “They’ve got enough pressure on them week after week. When I was playing we had four major championships. Now we have four major championships, four world championships, the Players Championship, we’ve got the Olympics. We’ve got other significant events, they play all around the world.”

In February during the week of the Honda Classic, Nicklaus invited 22 PGA Tour players who were in the running for Ryder Cup spots, Love and the vice captains to a dinner he hosted with his wife, Barbara, at their home in North Palm Beach, Fla. Five of those players in attendance — Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Mickelson and Jimmy Walker — are on the current team. The final captain’s pick will be announced Sept. 25.

His message to the players was simple, Nicklaus said. “I said have fun, enjoy it. It’s not a U.S. Open; it’s not a British Open; it’s not a PGA Championship, it’s not a Masters. It’s the Ryder Cup …”

“I enjoyed playing the Ryder Cup, but I couldn’t tell you who I played or who I lost to, what my record was or anything else. I have no clue. I can tell you what it is in the Masters or the U.S. Open, that’s sort of the way I looked at it. And I think most of the guys who are there are that way. It’s a tough event for the top players to get up for. The guys who are just below the top tier, they get so excited because all of a sudden there are brought forth into the spotlight. But the guys who are the 1, 2, 3, 4 players in the world they’re always playing for the major situation. It’s a little harder for them to get excited about it.”

Nicklaus, who with Barbara created the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation in 2004, will be on site at Hazeltine to see if the Americans can win on home soil for the first time since 2008.

“People say why are the Europeans winning? I think it goes in cycles. I think the Americans have a better team this year. I think the Americans will win — they may or may not — but I think they will win this year. I think Davis has done a nice job, the guys want to play.”