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Golf Digest Interview: Jack Nicholson

This Academy Award winner has been a Hollywood A-list golfer for almost 20 years.

December 2007

A cliff-side property high in Beverly Hills.

A shot rings out. Bang!

An unshaven man on the back porch. A glint of metal as he aims and fires. Bang!

Jack's practicing. Up at the crack of 1 p.m., he has padded to his private practice range out back to hit balls off an AstroTurf mat.

"Got my targets down there," he says, nodding toward the bent trees and thick brush in the canyon below. "That little pond? That's an 85-yard shot."

He takes dead aim. "I try to splash 'em in there, but it's tough. I go long with my 56-degree and short with my 60."

Between films, the King of Hollywood becomes the Jack of Clubs, a gleeful golfer whose select few friends needle him almost as much as he needles them. A member at Bel-Air and Lakeside golf clubs, he is famously relaxed about the rules. He might take a mulligan or three, but the rule-bending isn't just for his benefit. "You tried like hell there, pal," he'll tell a bogey-scraping buddy. "I'm giving you a par."

Jack Nicholson, 70, has lived a remarkable life. As a teenager he followed his older sister, June, from New Jersey to Los Angeles, where she was trying to break into movies. More than a decade later he learned that June had actually been his mother. His grandmother, who raised him, never revealed the family secret. In Hollywood the sneaky-eyed young actor struggled for a decade, rising from TV bits -- including an "Andy Griffith" episode that paired him with Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife -- to stardom. "Easy Rider," "Five Easy Pieces," "Carnal Knowledge," "Chinatown," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "The Shining," "Terms of Endearment," "As Good as It Gets." Twelve Academy Award nominations, three Oscars and counting. This holiday season he'll be starring with fellow Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman in Rob Reiner's "The Bucket List."

Nicholson also has been an A-list Hollywood golfer for almost 20 years: grand marshal of the Police-Celebrity Golf Tournament to benefit the families of L.A. Police Department officers, co-host of the 2005 Jack Nicholson & Rudy Durand Celebrity Golf Classic for charity. Caddies love him for his $100 tips. Golf buddy Durand, a Hollywood deal-maker, calls him "a good golfer, a great actor and a hell of a guy -- just don't let him keep score."

"Well, I ain't king of the links," says Nicholson, "but it's never too late to improve."

Golf Digest: Where do you get all those yellow golf balls you hit off your back porch?
Jack Nicholson: I buy 'em in bulk from Lakeside. If you've ever hit range balls at Lakeside, you might have hit one that ended up on my porch.

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JACK ATTACK
In 1994, after being cut off in traffic, Nicholson used a golf club to smash another motorist's windshield. It was (and still is) the most famous instance of road rage meeting golf tantrum.
"I was out of my mind," he said later, referring to the rugged schedule of a film he was directing and the recent death of a friend. The case was settled out of court when he wrote the other driver a check, reportedly for $500,000. One mystery remained: What club had he used? News reports called it a wedge or a 5-iron; others said 3-iron and 9-iron. Jack had never specified -- until now.
"I was on my way to the course, and in the midst of this madness I some-how knew what I was doing," he says, "because I reached into my trunk and specifically selected a club I never used on the course: my 2-iron."
Case closed.

How many have you hit into the canyon?
Hundreds. Thousands. Initially I planned to retrieve them, but there got to be so many. A friend of mine, James Spader, made his way down there through the woods and weeds, and James took a picture. It looks like outer space down there, golf balls everywhere, like a planet peppered with golf balls.

You might have conked a snake or a scorpion with one of your shots.
I hope not. Live and let live, y'know? One time I lashed a ball, and a homeless guy came running out of the weeds, yelling.

You grew up in Neptune, N.J., on the Jersey shore. Did you play golf as a kid?
Miniature golf. One of my school friends' parents owned a minigolf course, and a bunch of us kids would play there all day in the summer. Two-under deuces was a good score. We'd play for quarters. That's the only time I ever played golf for money.

On a good day I'd go home with quarters ringing in my pocket.

Ever do any caddieing?
I did. We had a couple of clubs there in Jersey: Spring Lake and Shark River. You got $4 a bag, $8 for a double-bag loop. You'd be exhausted at the end of the day, but that was pretty good pay in those days.

After high school you followed your older sister, June, who you later discovered was your mother, to Los Angeles.
Yeah, and when I got out here my sister-mother was playing some golf. She played with a priest friend of hers. I knocked a few balls around, too, but didn't get bit yet.

When did the golf bug bite? You had a slick office-carpet putting stroke in the "Chinatown" sequel, "The Two Jakes." By the time of that movie [released in 1990], gumshoe Jake Gittes had gotten prosperous enough to be a golfer.
I'd been more of a tennis player till then, but I needed to swing a club halfway decent for that picture. That's when I really started playing.

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