It’s been lonely in the clubhouse
For more than 30 years, golfing great Jack Nicklaus has been waiting for someone to join him. He probably thought Tiger Woods would be the first to sit down for a drink. But as fate would have it, it has taken a legend from another sport to equal his record of 18 major titles. Roger Federer, 35, joined the club of two by winning the Australian Open last Sunday, more than four years after winning his 17th at Wimbledon in 2012.
But that was a relative sprint. Nicklaus, who like Federer is the second-oldest major winner in the modern era, won his 17th major at age 40 at the 1980 PGA Championship and his 18th at the ’86 Masters as a 46-year-old—one of several Masters records the Golden Bear still holds.
Nicklaus has met Federer twice before, the first meeting coming at the All England Club during Federer’s 2012 title run. He’s also a huge tennis fan, with three grass courts at his North Palm Beach, Florida, home. He plays regularly and has been spotted cheering on friends Bob and Mike Bryan at the Delray Beach Open.
Nicklaus spoke with ATPWorldTour.com just hours after Federer joined him in the exclusive ‘Club 18.’
Did you watch the final live? The U.S. is a tough time zone to be in for the Australian Open.
I saw the first four sets and unfortunately I got called away for a business call, so I missed the last set. I’m going to watch it the next time they replay it. When I was done I got to see the speeches afterwards, which were very nice.
Were you happy to see Roger take the title and break his Grand Slam drought?
I admire both men. I think Rafa is a terrific athlete and a great competitor. It was a shame that either one of them had to lose. I’ve been a fan of Roger’s for many years and I’ve always enjoyed the way he’s handled himself, the way he’s played the game, and his competitive drive. He’s represented his sport fantastically.
How did you rate the final? Was it one of the best matches in the Roger-Rafa rivalry?
I’m not an expert tennis player so for me to judge… I thought it was an awfully good match. I’ve seen the matches before. Rafa’s had the better of [the rivalry]. So it’s great to see Roger come back and do this. Any time you get those two together, it’s going to be something special.
Having unexpectedly won your 18th major at 46, you must have a better idea than most what this title means to Roger?
Most of the first 17 I won I expected to win if I worked hard and put myself in that position. I felt like I was the best player on the golf course and that’s what I was there for. I’m sure Roger in his first 17 felt much the same way. Then you get to a point in your career where you know that you may be beyond your peak but you get yourself to a position where you get a chance to do it again, and your body and your mind remember how to do it. That’s what happened to me in ’86. I don’t think Roger had any expectations going into this event, after having six months off. And all of a sudden he got to the semifinals and finals and he said, ‘Hey, I remember how to play this game and I’m going to play it.’
After you won your 18th did you feel that was a bonus and that you were unlikely to win any more? Do you think Roger can win a 19th?
I think he can get to 19. I don’t think there’s any question about it. He’s had a hard time the last few years despite playing really well. He made finals on several occasions but just didn’t quite get there. There’s a difference between 35 and 46. When you’re 35, you have a darn good chance of winning again. I’ll be watching and hoping he does win again. But if he doesn’t, he certainly has this one. Just like I competed again [without winning a major] but I had my ’86 Masters.
What are the challenges of competing at the highest level in the twilight of your career?
A lot of it is desire and what you really want to do. At the end of my career, I was more interested in watching my kids compete in high school athletics and even some college athletics. All five of my kids went to college on a D1 scholarship, which is pretty unusual. Roger’s kids aren’t at that age yet so he won’t have that. I’m sure he’s got other things he’s doing in life, but he’s still young enough that his concentration towards his sport will remain there for a few more years.
How many times have you met Roger?
We have met a couple of times at Wimbledon. The first was five years ago in 2012. [My wife] Barbara and I saw him again last year after the quarter-finals. On the two occasions I’ve seen Roger, I’ve been very impressed with his demeanour. He looks you in the eye; he’s a nice young man. He was as I expected him to be.
You also have a connection with the Williams sisters and the Bryan brothers?
The Williams sisters have come over and practised at my house, but every time they have been here I have not been here. I met them one time last year. I’m a fan. What talent and what a family.
Mike has not been to the house, but Bob has been here on several occasions. Every time he’s played here, he’s been my partner and I liked that very much. He’s become a good friend and we’re doing some things together for charity; an event we’re going to do this fall with golf and tennis together. Both Bob and Mike will participate.
How much do you enjoy tennis?
I love tennis. I am not a good player; I’m a decent tennis player. My dad introduced me to tennis as a kid. He was the city tennis champion in Columbus, Ohio, where he was growing up. He was a very good athlete who played football, basketball and baseball at Ohio State. He was a pretty good golfer. He introduced me to all sports, including tennis. He taught me just enough to allow me to understand the game. I didn’t really start playing tennis till after 30. I enjoy going to some of the tournaments [including nearby Delray Beach]. I have three grass courts here at the house. The pros in the area teach during the week and come here during the weekend. So we have some good tennis and good fun. I love the game. Anything I can do to promote the game of tennis and promote the game of golf is what I want to be part of.
It’s been lonely in the clubhouse