By Steve DiMeglio, USA TODAY Sports
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. — A small procession of expensive vehicles pulled up the circular driveway of a Palm Beach compound Thursday night for a casual, intimate dinner among friends.
Through the immaculately appointed home, alongside a former guest house now used as an office and near two grass tennis courts, the guests were seated by the pool overlooking a large fishing boat docked on the northern shore of Lake Worth.
It was time to break bread with the Golden Bear.
Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, married for more than 50 years, opened their home to a group of men hoping to change the fortunes of the U.S. team in the Ryder Cup. With Barbara in charge, the menu featured shrimp cocktails, steak and lobster, assorted greens—and Jack Nicklaus wine and Jack Nicklaus ice cream.
Also on the menu? The chance to devour Nicklaus’ golf IQ.
“I’m happy that I got to go to Jack and Barbara’s house, first of all. That was the neat thing,” U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III said Friday after completion of his second round in the Honda Classic at PGA National. “They heard Jack talk about the Ryder Cup, his great memories of it, and we talked a little bit about preparing for major championships or for Ryder Cups, and so we all learned something for sure.
“ … And it was just great to get everybody together. … It was a big group of guys that are now excited about the Ryder Cup, thinking about it and are part of the process.”
The process of changing the culture of the U.S.’s Ryder Cup team and began after the red, white and blue in 2014 lost to Europe for the sixth time in the past seven contests. In hopes of reversing the string when the two teams gather Sept. 30–Oct. 2 at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota, an 11-member Ryder Cup Task Force was created, comprised of past captains, players and PGA of America leaders seeking input from a variety of sources.
Jack, Tiger and Phil
The team bonding dinner was the latest step.
Twenty-six men in all gathered for about three hours: Love, assistant captains Tiger Woods, Tom Lehman and Jim Furyk; and potential members of the team including Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Jason Dufner and Jimmy Walker.
To a man, the food and beverages were magnificent.
To a man, the house was stunning.
To a man, Woods looked great.
“I saw him in the Bahamas at the Hero World Challenge and he was in rough shape, and he said that,” Billy Horschel said. “Last night he looked really good. Mentally, he’s in the same spot he was in December in the sense he’s at peace with everything, but physically he’s in a lot better shape and that’s what he told me. He said he’s excited to be progressing and hopefully he’ll get back out here and kick our ass.”
And to a man, the commitment shown by the veterans and assistant captains was noted. Lehman, for instance, flew in from Phoenix. Furyk, on the shelf with an injured wrist, drove four hours from his home in Ponte Vedra Beach. Woods drove in from nearby Jupiter.
“We got to see Tiger, Phil and Jack, all in the same room, and talking to each other and asking each other questions,” Love said. “We had an awful lot of wins sitting there for some young guys to listen to.”
Before dinner, some got a tour of the Nicklaus home, which included his Game Room and office. The Game Room didn’t have a pool table or pin-ball machine; instead, it was stocked with big-game trophies from Nicklaus’ successful hunting and fishing trips, including a 1,358-pound black marlin that he caught in 1978 in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef that remains the largest ever caught on a rod and reel.
“Jack’s good at everything, I guess,” Brenden Steele said.
“I guess 18 majors wasn’t enough, so he had to go out and catch a world-record fish,” Ben Martin said.
The office, on the other hand, was stocked with trophies from all his major championships and many other tournaments; his Congressional Gold Medal; and pictures of him with family and titans of industry, sports stars and celebrities.
To many, it was a golf museum.
Nicklaus Offers Tips
After dinner, Nicklaus held court.
“I just opened up my ears and listened,” Steele said.
“I think some of it was just learning a little bit more of his prep work, kind of how he went about things, and then the confidence and belief that he had going into a tournament once he had that preparation done,” said Fowler, who is the only player to go bogey-free through 36 holes and leads the Honda by one shot over Walker.
“The veterans on our team,” Keegan Bradley said, “are way into this. It was cool to see Tiger there for sure. I didn’t expect him to be there. … [The dinner] was to let all the guys know that this time it’s going to be executed differently. Just the presence of a few guys made that known.”
Love agreed. Nicklaus will likely open up his other home, the one at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, during the week of the Memorial.
“His memory, as you all know, is just phenomenal,” Love said. “He remembers every shot, every hole, and every situation that he was in, and he’s always honest, whether it’s about how well he played or how poorly he played. It was very educational for players like me and for some of the young guys.
“ … And then when we leave, Jack goes, ‘Anything else I can do for you guys, just let me know, don’t hesitate to ask.’ So we’ve got Jack Nicklaus. He is even more invested in this team than he was before, and that’s the great job the PGA of America has done over the last year and a half is—let’s get everybody who has a history with the Ryder Cup to help out and be involved.
“It’s really working.”
By Steve DiMeglio, USA TODAY Sports