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Golf Digest Interview: Jack Nicholson

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Nicholson

'ONE TIME I LASHED A BALL, AND A HOMELESS GUY CAME RUNNING OUT OF THE WEEDS, YELLING.'
PHOTO: NIGEL PARRY

You and Harvey Keitel shot the golf scenes at Wilshire Country Club. His character was a 14-handicapper, and you were supposed to be a 9.
I had to look like I could play. So I went to the Studio City range and took a few lessons. The guy warned me, "Jack, you're gonna get bit. And when you're bit, that's it."

He was right, and it drove me crazy at first, trying to play this game. I kept hitting grounders, hitting everything in the hole between first and second base. Wrong game! I got better, though. Longer and a little straighter.

You were 52 when you started playing.
I'd always told myself I'd take up the rich guys' sports when I turned 50. I'd done a lot of skiing. Played tennis for years. But you can't improve at tennis after you're 50. You get to be in your 40s, and suddenly you're a doubles player. You can't cover the court anymore. But you can always improve at golf. So that's when I really took it up, when I was 52. I've spent more time playing golf than anything else the last 18 years. Just wanted to be an 80s-shooter. Got there, too.

But that's the point where you figure something out. Just when you start getting better, you realize how much work it would take to be really good. You can't do the game justice without putting in the time. And I'm not that patient.

How well did you play at your best?
I peaked six or seven years ago. Played around par for a couple months. I've always been a good putter, on a good day, anyway. That goes back to the miniature golf. My best round ever? I shot 64 at Lakeside. With witnesses, fortunately. That was a total anomaly. Missed two greens all day, got up and down both times.

Did you say 64?
I say 64, but it might've been 65. [Laughs.] But there was no way to keep that up.

I knew I'd never go crazy enough, never spend the time it took to be any sort of par-shooter. I mean, I'd gone insane for eight years to get my game together for one second. That's how golf is: It's obsession or bust. Once you get to your peak, you can't get better without playing three or four times a week. So I came to an accommodation with the game. If I could shoot in the 80s and not hold anybody up, well, that would be good enough. And it's pretty much a breeze to shoot in the 80s -- you just stay out of the water and the woods. Which I can do, partly because I'll kick it out of the woods.

Some say Nicholson is the Mickelson of the foot wedge.
Well, I do have a few rules to live by. I don't always observe them, but I use them for amusement:
1. No double bogeys on the first six holes.
2. I don't gamble. But if we must gamble, I only collect, I don't pay.
3. Under pressure, I'll cheat ya.
4. Any green in regulation, the second putt is called goo-oo-ood.

So that's why we heard you've never had a three-putt. What's the toughest part of the game for you, since it's not putting? For a long time I didn't have much of a sand game. I've been known to lie down and cry and kick my feet in a sand trap.

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PLANET JACK
It's Jack's world. We just play in it," says comic Tom Dreesen, a single-digit handicapper who knows the local rules. "Say you're 130 yards out, and he's 140. He hits. You watch his ball go by. Then you start to hit your shot, and zip -- another ball whizzes past. Then he'll drop another, and that one zips by.
"Why put up with that? He's Jack. It's fun. I'll never forget one time on the sixth hole at Lakeside, a par 3. Jack pushes his tee shot into a bunker. He blasts out over the green, out-of-bounds. Takes a drop in the bunker. Blasts out again -- over the green again. Chips on. Misses the putt. Finally he knocks it in, and he walks off the green with that ear-to-ear smile and says, 'These [freakin'] bogeys are killing me!' "

You get pretty emotional out there?
I'm working on that. Sometimes I get so mad at myself it's close to the assassination level. Then I get in the car and think, Why ruin other people's golf with your rotten, disgraceful attitude?

Are you a walker or a rider when you play?
I ride, and I hope what I read is true: It's eight miles to walk a round of golf, and two-something to ride in the cart. All I can tell you is this: End of a round, I'm tired.

Do you get to play when you're making a movie?
Used to. I had some medical stuff [surgery on a salivary gland] going on while we were shooting "The Bucket List," so I didn't play at all and lost my swing a little. I watched Morgan Freeman swing. He's an accomplished man, and a pilot, and now he's bit, too. He brought a mat when we were making the picture and hit buckets of balls.

What are your favorite courses?
Around here you'll find me at Lakeside and Bel-Air. I love 'em both. Riviera, too. Riviera is special, a classic. She was a beauty when Hogan played her, and she still is. Some of the holes there are getting a little long for me, though. I used to be able to get home, but it's tougher now.

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