An interview with Jack Nicklaus at The Masters

MODERATOR: I don’t have to introduce this guy. You all know him as well as I do, the wonderful record in this sport that he’s had and the wonderful patron of the sport that he’s been, generously contributing his time and effort to the sport in many, many different ways.

Jack, we thank you for coming to visit for us a little while this afternoon.

With that, I’ll take the first question.

Q. Jason Day settled down, got married and started having kids at an earlier stage and he seems to be following your model of being able to balance family with some of his most successful golf. How close have you gotten to, or how much have you gotten to know Jason, and does it appear that this is a guy who, in starting family life very, very early, has done nothing but help his golf?
JACK NICKLAUS: Well, it would be pretty difficult to answer that because I don’t really know Jason that well. Jason does play his golf at Muirfield when he’s at home. His wife is from Columbus, and that’s where they live. I’m up there a couple weeks a year and I certainly don’t see him very much, but usually when I’m there I see him.

He’s a nice young man. The members love him at Muirfield. I think that’s kind of the indication of the people he sees up there and that he runs into, they all like him and they all like to be around him. I don’t think that answers your question.

You know, I just happened to start my family early. Barbara and I, we decided when we were about 20 years old that we’d like to get married and have kids, and we didn’t want to wait to have kids. We wanted to grow up with our kids, so that’s what we did. And so we got married and we waited 14 months before our first one. Sometimes the first one usually comes any time. The second one takes nine. [laughter] But anyway, my first one did 14, but that’s okay. Anyway, we decided that that’s what we wanted to do and we did it.

Now today, I don’t think many people do that. Jason seems to have taken that path. He hasn’t played for a couple, three weeks, ever since his mother had a pretty significant scare, I guess. As I heard, I think it’s turned out all right; is that correct?

But talent, he’s got a wealth of talent. He’s got a great golf swing. He’s got probably, in my opinion, the best plane in the game. That’s not saying it’s the best swing; it’s the best plane, I think, being that it does pretty much what I think a golf swing should do.

But he restricts his hip turn a little bit, which I worry about because I think that really puts a lot of torque on your back, but that’s what he does. But he’s a very, very talented guy.

Q. What’s the biggest factor about this golf course, keeping players off balance and never really feeling quite comfortable? Did you ever find yourself in your years here, trying to be too perfect on this golf course?
JACK NICKLAUS: Well, I think this golf course, it keeps everybody off balance. I don’t care how much you play it or how well you play it; as the conditions change and as you’re going to probably see on Thursday, which will probably be wet, supposed to get pretty significant rain tomorrow; is that correct? If we do, we are going to see it wet.

But this golf course has a little bit of a — what do they call it, it’s got a SubAir system under it which sort of draws the water out. It will get fast pretty quick.

But it keeps you off balance. When it’s wet, it’s not too bad. Once it starts to get firm and the wind starts to blow and it blows from so many different directions that the golf course changes constantly. I don’t care how good you are, how much you play, the greens are the most severe greens in the game of golf and I would say they are the most difficult to putt.

So you’re always off balance. It’s a golf course that on a few occasions during my career, and ’65 was probably the time that I had zero problems with this golf course. I was hitting the ball a long way. The golf course, the greens were firm but they were holding. I was only hitting 9‑irons and wedging into them. It was a very easy game and never got off balance that week because I shot 271 — is that what I shot? something like that.

But then came right back the next year and they said, well, they’ve raised the height of the fairways.

Oh, no, we would never do that. Yeah, right.

Anyway, the fairways, we had nothing but little flyers the next year. The greens were hard as a rock and the wind blew and the winning score went up 17 strokes. They can control this thing pretty much what they want to do.

But it’s a golf course that if you — I won it both times. It’s a golf course that you really need to take advantage of it when you can take advantage of it, and when it’s tough, you’ve got to be very patient. And it is very easy to get out of being patient on this golf course.

You’ve got about six shots on this golf course that you’ve really got to watch. Your tee shot at 2 and other shots on the front nine are not all that severe. It’s your tee shot on 11, your tee shot on 12, both shots at 13 and your second shot at 15. I don’t think 16 is all that serious, you’ve got middle of the green, hit the ball out there and it will work its way back.

But outside of those shots, you’ve really got to watch those shots because that’s where you can build a big score. If you’re smart with those shots on the difficult conditions, and you play them pretty well, then you probably will do pretty well in the tournament. If you get a little sloppy and all of a sudden you’re down there at the airline booth on No. 2 and looking for a ticket on the way home, sometimes that’s pretty much all you can get on that hole. It’s not a good place to be. There are a couple other places that are not a very good place to be.

That’s what makes the golf course wonderful, actually, and what a great tournament it is, because you really never know what’s going to happen. Even the players, as good as they might be, don’t know what’s going to happen.

Q. Obviously a lot has been said, written about Arnold. Tell me something that doesn’t get said enough about Arnold.
JACK NICKLAUS: I don’t know what you want me to say. [chuckles]

Q. Well, he was a dear friend for the last 25, 30 years. What did you see that, maybe, many people didn’t see in Arnold?
JACK NICKLAUS: Well, I don’t know how many people realized how much Arnold took me under his wing when I was 20, 22 years old. When I first started on the Tour, Arnold was very good to me. In spite of having a gallery that wasn’t so good to me, he was never that way. I’ve said many times, I may have had to fight Arnold’s gallery but I never had to fight him.

He was very kind to a young guy starting out. I appreciated it very much. We had a lot of great times together. We traveled a lot together. We did a lot of things. Our wives were close friends.

I always love — well, here’s something. I always loved it Winnie made — Barbara said it. I don’t know if I’ve said it very much. But she said that she thought Winnie handled her life — Arnold’s life and their life — better than anybody that she had ever seen.

And what she meant by that — and she says, Well, how did you do that?

[Winnie] said, Well, on Tuesday if I got mad at Arnold, I would be afraid to say anything because I was afraid of ruining his game. And then when Sunday night rolled around and I could say something, I forgot what I was mad at him about. [laughter]

That’s stuff you probably don’t know.

And I’m sure Winnie had a lot of things to get mad at Arnold about, and of course Barbara with me, too.

He taught me a lot of things [about] how to handle and to do things. One of the things early on, probably maybe first, second, third tournament in on the Tour, I asked him, I said, What do you do after a round? He said, I always drop the sponsor a note. I said, I think that’s a good thing to do. So for my first year, my first couple of tournaments, I don’t think I ever failed to drop a sponsor a note after a tournament, thank you for the tournament and thanking the people, the volunteers, and so forth and so on.

In my later years of playing, part of that habit probably got relaxed by a lot of people, because I’ve had a lot of sponsors come to me and say, Jack, every year I get a letter from you. I don’t get one from anybody else. And that came from Arnold.

That’s a couple of things for you.

Q. You made the age 46 very fashionable back in 1986. I bring that up only because Phil Mickelson is 46 this year and the first question put to him was the fact that he’s 46, and his assessment of his chances of winning the Masters this year. Just wondering if you paid attention enough to Phil’s game.
JACK NICKLAUS: I would say that Phil has a lot better chance of winning this year than I did when I was 46.

Going into the tournament, I had no expectations about winning, at all. I love playing golf. I wanted to stay part of the Tour. I really loved playing golf. As I said many times, when January rolled around, I started thinking about the Masters, I started practicing for the Masters and getting ready for it and pick my tournaments and everything else based on getting to Augusta. Well, I did the same thing in 1986, but I thought about it in January, thought about it in February, thought about it in March and I started preparing about a week before the tournament. I didn’t do the things I used to do. Once I got myself in contention, I remembered how to play golf. I was fortunate that the other guys didn’t finish quite as well as they could finish, and I won the golf tournament.

But I would say Phil is far better prepared than I am from playing. I don’t think he’s probably playing his best golf right now but sometimes that changes very quickly. He certainly — honestly, age is not an issue to him. He’s a big guy and he’s a long guy and he’s got a great short game. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find him in contention.

Q. The fact that Jordan Spieth already won this tournament at a very young age, how much do you think that will help him navigate the mental challenges of getting past what happened to him last year at No. 12?
JACK NICKLAUS: I think he’s forgotten about that. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue to him. Jordan, he’s a very sharp kid and he’s a very good player and one who will put that behind him. He’ll learn from it rather than dwell on it. I think you’ll see Jordan play very well this year.

He hasn’t played that well this year coming up to here, but I don’t think that’s any indication for him. He’s a guy, what’s the right word — who, I think, has a great amount of talent, who is great mentally. He’ll figure out what he did and what he’ll learn from it. He’ll do fine, and I think you’re going to find him, he’s going to be contending for a lot of Masters for a lot of years.

Q. The last several years there have been a number of green jackets that have been put up for sale at auctions and sold to members of the public.
JACK NICKLAUS: Are you serious? Champions? Really?

Q. Mostly members, but a couple of champions.
JACK NICKLAUS: Goodness. I didn’t know that. I wonder what I could get for this? [Laughter]

Q. As someone who earned your jacket, would you have any issue with that, somebody who bought one of those, wearing those around?
JACK NICKLAUS: Well, they probably knew that I might do that so they didn’t give me one until 1998. That’s the first one I got. You know that story. You didn’t know that story? You’re shaking your head. You did know the story.

Anyway, I always loved Gary Player’s story, and Gary took his back to South Africa. And Cliff Roberts found out he had taken it back to South Africa. Mr. Roberts called him and he says, Gary, you are not supposed to take your jacket off the property. He says, You can’t take it home. He says, Oh, I’m sorry. Well, you can come get it any time you want. [laughter]

I would not ever sell my green jacket. Maybe some guys need that situation — maybe they do. I know there’s a lot of guys back when they first won here, were not wealthy people and struggled a little bit. If that’s what they need to do, then that’s okay. I couldn’t understand when Kathryn Crosby auctioned off all of Bing’s stuff.

The green jacket to me is kind of a symbol of a prize that I won in the game of golf that is very, very special to me and very sacred to me.

Q. Last year, Bernhard Langer contended after three rounds. Didn’t have a great fourth round. He swings a hundred miles an hour, 60 years old and he always talks about you as a model for how to manage a golf course. Wonder how you assess him at this age and what he’s doing on the Champions Tour?
JACK NICKLAUS: I haven’t played a lot with Bernhard lately, but he’s always there. He still hits the ball plenty long enough to play. He’s probably — I thought that Watson always hit the ball long enough to be able to play. I don’t think Tom probably does anymore. Bernhard hits the ball a little longer than Tom now.

He’s going to find that this golf course, you really need to hit the ball pretty long. He did pretty well last year, as you said. I think he’s an unbelievably good player, and for a guy who has struggled with what putter to use and how to use it, to still week after week be right there on the Senior Tour, he’s a phenomenon. He’s very, very good. I don’t know what else to say.

Q. Does he remind you of Gary or somebody, just in terms of his competitiveness, just to keep that desire going?
JACK NICKLAUS: Well, he keeps himself in shape. He’s not a big guy, so he needs to do that. He just doesn’t make a lot of mistakes on the golf course. He hits the ball long enough and he’s a good iron player and he just plugs along and shoots his 67 or 68 and that seems to be pretty good when you add up three or four of them. That’s not a bad score.

Q. The Club now has room to move the tee back on No. 5. If they were to ask you, as a golf course architect, what you would do with that property back there, what would you say?
JACK NICKLAUS: I don’t know. You know, my philosophy is the golf ball is what our problem is, not whether we move 5 back.

What I always try to do when I design a golf course, I try to make a golf course, if they want to play for an event — because a lot of times people ask me, Jack, we want to play an event at this golf course, we want to have a PGA or U.S. Open. I try to get the golf course where I get the driver out of the big players’ hands three or four times during the round, and that equalizes the play. You get a guy who doesn’t hit it quite as far — with today, if they move it back at 2 and move it back at 5; Ben Hogan and Gary Player would have had just one heck of a time if they were playing here. That would be a shame, because two of the most talented golfers that’s ever lived.

Where length is so, so important that it takes everything out of it — I was long, obviously, but you know, I always preferred a shorter golf course. I always preferred it — when this golf course got fast, and everybody had a chance to play it, that’s when I really enjoyed it because that’s when it really took a lot of skill to play it.

When the golf course is long, it’s only — it’s not very hard when it’s long, but it just eliminates so many players from having a chance to play it. I’m never in favor of making the game longer. I’m in favor of trying to figure out how can you make it a challenging test for the entire field and bring the best golfer out, not the best slugger out.

Q. What was your goal playing Amen Corner, your philosophy?
JACK NICKLAUS: To me, you had four dangerous shots there. And so 11, if I hit the ball ever left of the hole there, you should be hit over the head because you never want to be over the left of the hole. You always want to be on the right side of the green some, where I don’t care where that pin was. No sense in bringing that water into play.

No. 12, if I hit it to the outside, maybe to the front left, if you only had a 9‑iron, it wasn’t too bad. But if that pin was to the right, if I was ever to the right of that bunker, I would have my head examined. If I played the outside edge of that bunker, I played a bad shot.

13, I don’t mind if I went through the fairway. Obviously didn’t want to but I tried to turn it around the corner if I could, right-to-left is not my forte for most of my life, but I could still play the shot when I had to. But you just can’t go left, as you know. It multiplies real quick there.

And then the second shot at 13 was probably after a good tee shot was not as dangerous, but obviously you just make sure that you just do not go right.

So you’ve got left at 11, outside the bunker at 12, left of the tee shot at 13 — second shot, don’t go right.

And you get to 15, and here is the other one. I mean, I crossed myself at 15 in ’71. I think [Cootie] won that we’re and I was in position to win the golf tournament, and I decided back at about 255-some yards to take a 3-wood and I hit it in the water. Hit it thin, hit it in the water. Then I went down and dropped it and dumped it in the water again and made 8.

I’ve said many times since that time, young guys come to me, and I say, when you get to the 15th hole, if you think you can get there, think of how many times you’re going to get there. If you can hit ten shots, are you going to get there five times, and where is the other five going to go. That, to me, is not the percentage you want.

If I drive it out there to where I’ve got 210, 215 yards or 220 yards or whatever, it might be and I’ve got a 4-iron in my hand or something, I know nine times out of ten I’m going to hit it into the water and the tenth time I’m not going to hit it in the water. I may miss it out to the right or something. Okay, just don’t put in harm’s way in your path. You just don’t do that.

So if you play those shots on this golf course, if you play those shots smart, and you play pretty good golf, you’re going to be in contention in the golf tournament.

Q. Was there a number that you were looking for—
JACK NICKLAUS: You’re asking about 11, 12 and 13 but I added in 15 and 2.

Q. Was there a number you would look for to get through 11, 12 and 13?
JACK NICKLAUS: No. No. Because some days you should be 6- or 7-under and some days even par is a great score.

Q. We were talking about golf memorabilia and green jackets. Wonder if you kept any of your golf balls from your six Masters victories and what they might be worth and what you did with them?
JACK NICKLAUS: I gave most of them to the Club here. I felt like sort of an idiot at the presentation in 1963, I walked off the green and Ralph Hutchinson, I was getting ready to throw the ball out in the gallery. Ralph said, No, no, no. He says, Give that to Bob Jones at the presentation.

So I gave Bob Jones the golf ball I finished with at the presentation, and I felt like sort of an idiot. He says, What? He looked at me like, why are you giving me the ball. So I didn’t give him any more balls. [laughter] I thought one was enough.

I probably had one or two of them in the museum, but most of the time I tossed them out to the gallery or something like that.

I remember in ’65 I won, I think, I remember throwing that out to the gallery on the 18th fairway and my arm was sore for a week. But yeah, the golf ball wasn’t all that special. I mean, I made a hole in one someplace, I might try to keep that ball. I could put another ball in the trophy case and nobody would know the difference. [laughter]

Q. In a discussion earlier today with Phil Mickelson about what happened with Lexi Thompson, he suggested that on the TOUR, players are becoming very lax about marking their ball, and maybe the difference between two and three inches on the marks. Did you ever have problems with that when you were playing? And secondly, when you saw a rules violation when you were playing, did you bring it to the attention of the player or would you keep mum about it?
JACK NICKLAUS: First of all, I was very careful how I marked the ball. I did not — we govern ourselves. We call rules on ourselves. The integrity of the game is that you do things the right way. So I don’t think I ever in my career ever marked a ball incorrectly, okay.

Second, on three occasions on the TOUR, guys were cheating. And I looked at my playing partner, and he came to me and we talked about it and we said, if it happens again, what do you think. So on three occasions, it happened again. Three occasions we took it quietly to the director of the tournament and got out of it. Nothing was ever said publicly about it.

Do I like that — and I think it’s our obligation as a player, if there is a rules violation that’s blatant —I mean, it could be accidental. But if it’s blatant, then I think it’s not fair to the rest of the field not to bring it up. But you bring it up quietly and try not to embarrass somebody and do it in a class manner that would maybe — we had one in The Presidents Cup last time, I think it was last time. Anyway, and we said, what do we do about it. And I don’t know why I got involved in it. I wasn’t in the tournament but I was there.

They just got the captains together and had a little conversation with the young man and it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. I think you can handle it properly, to his advantage.

What happened with Lexi, how in the world she did what she did, I don’t have any idea. She had a 12-inch putt. She certainly wasn’t getting any advantage from it. And I think she just made a mistake.

I don’t think she did it on purpose. I don’t think she did anything malicious about anything or trying to cheat. It just happened. She did it and did it wrong, and it was obvious that she marked it back probably an inch and a half away from where it was.

So I mean, I don’t know her well, but I know her. I played with her. Nice gal. I don’t think that’s the way she was brought up or the way she would play. And so I think it just happened to be a mistake.

Now, my opinion on that kind of stuff is that once the round is over, and the scorecard is signed, the day is over. That’s my opinion. I mean, that isn’t necessarily what it is. But that’s what I think.

I mean, I think what happened with Dustin last year at the U.S. Open, and to tell him on the 12th hole after waiting six holes to tell him; and then waiting, we’re going to discuss it at the end of the round, you can’t do that.

I mean, if you’re going to penalize somebody, penalize them. At least let them know and that’s when they have the ability to be able to correct it, or try to do the best they can.

I mean, I had a big argument with Mike Davis about that at The Open. I says, You can’t do that to the guy. Says, Oh, we did it throughout. I said, Mike, I don’t think so. That was not the right way to do it. You need to really — you’ve got to tell the kid right away and he’s got to know where he stands. Mike said, No, I think you’re wrong.

Well, okay. Taking it back — I went to Ireland and next day I’m coming back on an airplane from Ireland and Mike Davis found me over the Atlantic. [laughter] And he says, Jack, I want to apologize. I think you were right. And I thought that was very nice that he did that. I think the USGA, you don’t often hear them say they think they were wrong. [laughter] And that’s not against the USGA or anything. They are the ruling body in the game and try to do their best and try to do the best of their ability. For them to make a mistake and think that they were wrong and correct it — they had a couple last year that were not real good.

But I think everybody in the game of golf tries to do it the right way, the best way. I think there are very, very few people who take advantage of the rules in the game and if somebody does take advantage of the rules of the game, move on and make a lesson of it and I think that’s the way we should handle it.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you and Jack. Thank you so much, not only for coming back and visiting with this group but coming back to Augusta National.

Courtesy of The Masters