Golf WorldJune 2, 2010

Jack Nicklaus: In His Own Words

To celebrate Jack Nicklaus turning 70 this year, Golf World asked contributor Brett Avery to research the Hall of Famer's thoughts over the decades and compile the best of them. Using newspaper and magazine articles, interview transcripts, as well as books written by the golfer, Avery presents the man in full, an individual whose mark on the game far exceeds his 18 major professional titles.


It was pretty awful. I shot 61 for nine holes at Scioto. My second nine I shot 50, but then I went up to 71 before I started improving.

[From an Aug. 1, 1954, cover story in the Columbus Citizen Sunday Magazine, headlined "Move Over Snead -- Make Room For Jackie," written by Kaye Kessler and describing his first round at age 10. The story notes the 14-year-old "bundle of nerveless energy," who has amassed 16 trophies and medals, will board a plane that day to compete in the seventh U.S. Junior Amateur, at Los Angeles CC]

When people ask me about my goals in golf, I answer with a question. What does everybody in golf set as a goal? The answer, of course, is Bobby Jones. I don't see how anybody can handle himself as well as Bobby Jones has. He knew when to quit. If he hadn't quit when he did, some of the luster might have been lost, but as it turned out, nothing can ever be taken away from him. He's fantastic. He is the greatest golfer who ever lived and probably ever will live and he's one of the greatest persons. That's my goal. Bobby Jones. It's the only goal.

[Golf magazine, 1959]

I went right home after missing the cut [in his first Masters, in 1959]. I didn't want to hang around if I wasn't playing. That's hard. It's sort of like attending a wedding where your girlfriend is marrying some other guy.

[Jack Nicklaus with Herbert Warren Wind. The Greatest Game of All: My Life In Golf. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969]

One of the fastest and finest lessons I learned that summer of 1959 in my encounters with the pros was to quit trying to play "hero" shots from severe trouble situations... Frequently, all that did was compound small errors into large disasters. Playing with the pros, I learned that the best of them had progressed far beyond this kind of immaturity.

[Jack Nicklaus with Ken Bowden. My Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997]

I learned I gotta hit the ball better.

[Columbus Dispatch, 1960, asked after the 1960 U.S. Open what he learned being paired with Ben Hogan for the final, 36-hole finish]

Some people say it's OK to lose if your opponent has a hot round. Phooey on that. I hate to lose -- period. If a guy is going to shoot a 10 under par, I am going to shoot an 11 under par.

[Sports Illustrated, 1960]

For a long time even girls came second.

[My Story, on his love of sports as a youth]

We picked July 23, 1960, for our wedding day for what I thought was an excellent reason: it was the Saturday of the PGA Championship, for which, as an amateur, I was, of course, ineligible.

[My Story]

I'm probably the only bottom-heavy golfer in the country.

[Saturday Evening Post, 1961]

For two years [as an amateur], I was expected to win every tournament I entered. If I didn't, I was a bum. I liked being top man. You've got to have the confidence that you can win; you've got to expect to win. If you don't, you have no business being there. As an amateur, I had it. I was on top. Now I've just got to work my way up the ladder again.

[Time, 1962]

I don't mind the odd visit to play in British tournaments. But if I had to play on your courses all season, it would drive me crazy. Golf is quite difficult enough without having to compete with rock-hard greens, and all kinds of humps and bumps in front of them.

[Golf Illustrated (U.K.), 1962]

Being in the money doesn't mean anything unless you're starving to death.

[Dallas Times-Herald, 1962, during U.S. Open week]

Arnie Palmer is a better putter than I am mainly because he's had 10 years longer to work on it.

[Time, 1962]

I want to be the best golfer the world has ever seen.

[Time, 1962]

Writers have told me more than once that I'm a better interview in defeat than in victory, which is a compliment I am extremely proud of.

[My Story]

I hit the ball well finishing second at the Thunderbird the week before the (1962 U.S.) Open and I didn't think my game needed any work. The only thing I had to decide was how to play Oakmont. On Monday, I charged the course. On Tuesday, I played it defensively. I scored better charging, so I decided that's how I'd play it.

[Newsweek, 1962]

I am asked questions about my hands almost as often as I'm asked to sign autographs. I have stubby hands with short fingers. I wear a man's small golf glove. Actually, my wife, Barbara, has stronger hands than mine from doing the dishes. That's why I always have to pass a tight jar lid over to her.

[Jack Nicklaus with Ken Bowden. Golf My Way. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974]

Fatigue affects a player's game in a funny way. Very often it will not show up at all in his full shots. Unless he is very, very tired he will be able to hit these just as solidly as ever. What it strikes first are the delicate shots on and around the green that require so much concentration. A tired player cannot concentrate, he completely loses his sense of "feel."

[Sports Illustrated, 1963]

I guess 95 percent of the time I am the last to leave a golf course. Maybe it is because I work hard and maybe it is because I waste time. I wonder which?

[Sports Illustrated, 1964]

It's always tougher to win the first one. Have you ever gone skeet shooting? Well, that first pigeon always is toughest to hit.

[Golf Digest, 1964]

The harder I want to hit the ball, the slower I start my takeaway. I want it to be just fast enough to avoid being jerky.

[The Greatest Game of All]

Scores will be in the 50s within 10 years or so. They get lower every year. That is if courses aren't stretched to 7,500 yards by then or the ball compression lowered.

[Golf World, 1965, from that year's Masters game story, where he shot 271 -- 12 years before Al Geiberger's 59 on the PGA]

My swing isn't pretty like Snead's or functional like Hogan's. But the most important thing about it, to me, is understanding it -- being able to take it apart and put it back together again. A lot of players on the tour don't know what to do about it when something goes wrong with their swing. Arnold knows; I think I know pretty well, too.

[Newsweek, 1965]

The critical alignment factor is the shoulders. Remember that, unless you make a deliberate effort not to, you will instinctively swing the club through the ball parallel to your shoulders, no matter where your feet may be aligned.

[Golf My Way]

For no reason that I could perceive, suddenly at [the] 1965 Masters I was no longer golf's Black Hat. For the first time in my career, right from the opening drive on Thursday, entire galleries had rooted for me. "Go get 'em, Jack!" and "Attaboy, big fella!" and "Birdie every hole!" people had yelled all the way around, and the same on Friday.

[My Story]

I don't smile much when I'm playing. And sometimes when I do, you can't tell.

[Miami Herald, 1966]

Quite often when I am preparing to play a tournament at an extremely long course, I will go out with an 8-to-10 handicapper at home in Columbus and hit his second shots, which means that I am forced to play a lot of long irons, many of them from difficult angles into the green.

[Sports Illustrated, 1967]

All sports are improving. They're running the mile faster, swimming faster. So it's only natural that golf scores should be better. To try to make players shoot the same score they shot 20 years ago when the Open was played here [Merion] by changing the course is wrong. There are too many great players today.

[Golf World, 1967, in the U.S. Open game story]

That's horrible [scheduling the 1968 Milwaukee tournament the same week as the British Open]. If I play any place, it'll be the British. It's time we grew up and recognized there's golf someplace else than just the United States.

[Golf World, 1967]

If you play, you only hit 30-odd full shots during a four-hour round. I can practice for an hour, hit all my clubs, and spend the other three hours fishing.

[Tropic Magazine (Miami Herald), 1968]

How do slumps begin? They begin from neglect, and neglect finally leads to a loss of confidence. You can practice a lot but still be neglectful -- neglectful of the fundamentals. During the long stretch of poor golf I suffered through in the winter and spring of 1967, I tried to rouse my game by attempting to bring off increasingly complicated shots. What I should have done was to back up, return to the fundamentals, and get one thing at a time under control.

[The Greatest Game of All]

The goal I failed to achieve in 1968 was that annual goal of mine: to win a major championship. I don't know why it is, but I never fare well in this direction in Olympic or election years.

[The Greatest Game of All]

Everybody has bad periods. The only thing is that I haven't had one since I was 17.

[San Francisco Chronicle, 1969]

Golf never was intended to be, never has been, and never will be "fair," in the sense that other games either are fair innately or have gradually been made more so for purposes of mass entertainment. The mathematicians might try to convince golfers that, by the law of averages, they enjoy as many good breaks as they suffer bad ones, but it never seems to work out that way to most of us.

[My Story]

I like to play left-to-right because distance is not what I'm after -- I'm long enough. Control is my main concern, and left-to-right gives you more control.

[The Greatest Game of All]

It makes you feel like a golfer when you can maneuver the ball.

[The Greatest Game of All]

A golfer must play [St. Andrews] at least a dozen times before he can expect to understand its subtleties. If a player becomes irritated at the bad bounces and unusual things that happen at St. Andrews, forget it. The Old Course must be accepted for what it is: a layout built hundreds of years ago and still such a challenge that no player ever has torn it apart over 72 holes.

[Sports Illustrated, 1970]

So many of these fellas think they can come right out of college and make a living in pro golf. Look, we're not much different from doctors. A young doctor doesn't expect to do open-heart surgery the day he graduates from medical school. He has to spend so many years learning, and he's hungry and maybe broke during that time. He doesn't begin to make it until he's really ready to do a job. It's the same with the pro golfer.

[Golf World, 1971]

The biggest tension-reliever of all in golf is confidence... The second-biggest is within anyone's capacity. It is concentration.

[Golf My Way]

The average player would enjoy the game more with the small [British 1.62-inch] ball. You drive at least 30 yards farther, and that gives you easier second shots. Striking it, you have more margin for error.

[Golf Digest, 1972]

I'm more nervous in the Masters from 6 p.m. until noon the next day because I'm continually thinking about how I'm going to play certain shots.

[Augusta Chronicle, 1972]

Most putting troubles stem from being scared or indecisive, or both.

[Golf Digest, 1972]

If, if, if -- that's what the game is all about.

[New York Times Magazine, 1972, on a reporter telling Nicklaus that if during the 1967 U.S. Open he hadn't bunkered his approach at Baltusrol's second hole, three-putted the 10th and made a short putt at the sixth he would have shot 62]

You don't get mad at Pebble Beach because it will only hurt you worse.

[Sports Illustrated, 1972]

The long irons are the nemesis of the average golfer. I'm convinced that the underlying reason for this is that he keeps hearing how hard they are to handle. They're not that difficult, truly.

[The Greatest Game of All]

Some of my friends like to kid me by claiming that I'm the only golfer in the world who is more accurate with a 1-iron than with a 9-iron, but they're not entirely wrong.

[The Greatest Game of All]

Concentration blocks out pressure. If you make mistakes and look for excuses, you lose your concentration and feel pressure. I try to keep from doing that.

[Golf Digest, 1972]

The most common mistake in fairway wedge play is trying to hit shots too hard. When you take the wedge from your bag, remember that with this club the ball should be caressed, not assaulted.

[Golf Digest, 1972]

Power is overemphasized in modern golf to a point where it's become totally out of proportion to the basic nature and enjoyment of the game. Golf is a game of precision, not strength... Where's the fun, where's the challenge in just beating at the ball? Any idiot can do that and if he's strong enough he'll score well. That's not what golf's about. It's a thinking man's game.

[Esquire, 1973]

Of all my contemporaries, Lee Trevino has been the hardest to beat.

[My Story]

The best way to cope with trouble is to stay out of it as much as possible.

[Golf Digest, 1974]

My stubbornness can be boundless.

[My Story]

I have learned humility [designing courses]. There were a couple of famous American architects whose courses I really disliked, and I tended to say so given the slightest opening. Some of my comments embarrass me now. I still do not care for their concepts, their broad strokes, but I do understand the sheer technical reasons for a lot of their work. And the main thing I understand is that when they did something that was not to my taste, it was usually because they did not have any alternative.

[Sports Illustrated, 1974]

The hardest thing for me to accept in my early days as a designer was that every routing ends up as a compromise between golfing purity, environmental requirements, and commercial necessity.

[My Story]

No great golf course was ever right at the start. Golf courses aren't built... they evolve.

[Golf Digest, 1974]

An interesting statistic to me is that the average length [in 1997] of a dozen of my favorite American major championship courses -- Augusta National, Baltusrol, Inverness, Medinah, Merion, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Oakmont, Olympic, Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills, and Southern Hills -- is only 6,880 yards.

[My Story]

Sure, I haven't won but just because I haven't won, it doesn't mean I'm washed up (laughter from the press corps). That's the feeling that I've been getting reading the articles. You've heard about guys reading their press clippings and getting a big head. I could start reading mine and get a small one.

[Akron Beacon Journal, 1976]

Golf is probably the easiest game in the world to quit at, but it's also the greatest game not to quit at.

[Golf Digest, 1976]

I really don't think I'm a great front runner. Once I got one shot behind, I just made up my mind and played more aggressive. I played better being behind at that point. I got confidence. I sort of steamrolled ahead.

The New York Times, 1977 game story from the Jackie Gleason-Inverrary, where he rallied to win by five shots]

A golfer should always stay with what has become natural.

[The Greatest Game of All]

Self-control demands self-honesty above all else. Learn to fight emotionalism with realism. Accept first and foremost the cold fact that every shot you hit, good or bad, is the product of only one person: YOU. Accept, secondly, that you rarely if ever will play or score quite as well as you think you can and should. I never have.

[Golf Digest, 1977, from his first playing lesson in the magazine]

There are plenty of fellows here who hit the ball better than I do. To beat them I have to out-prepare them. That is the only advantage I have.

[Tulsa World, 1977]

One of the toughest types of golfer to beat in match play is the fellow who seems rarely to produce spectacular shots but who also makes very few mistakes. You know he isn't going to throw a bunch of birdies at you, but you also know he isn't likely to make anything worse than bogey, and not many of those. If you aren't careful, this can wear down both your concentration and your emotional equilibrium.

[My Story]

I haven't fundamentally changed my golf swing since I was 13 years old, but I've never stopped trying to increase my versatility as a shotmaker. Pride has never stopped me from seeking help in this area. Much of the knowledge I possess I've cribbed from other tour players, both by watching and asking.

[Golf Digest, 1977]

Generally, one thought will be especially helpful in combating pressure. The one that has been the most beneficial over the years to me is, interestingly enough, also the simplest. The thought is: "Complete the backswing."

[Golf Digest, 1978]

Just to see (St. Andrews), it's ugly. The buildings are all ugly -- even the old clubhouse -- all so gray and stark. There are no trees. But put it all together, it is one of the most gorgeous sites in the world. You see, it is pretty because of what I feel for it.

[Sports Illustrated, 1978]

Mulling over that period now, it's clear to me that 1978 was the last year in which I could still periodically produce winning golf fairly effortlessly. From that time on, giving of my best demanded harder work, certainly physically and usually also mentally. In short, being able to depend mostly on raw talent ended in my 39th year.

[My Story]

The more wind a golfer is exposed to, the harder it becomes to build and maintain a big, high, and particularly a deep golf swing. Constant wind saws at your nerves and seems always to be threatening your stability. The effect is that you want to get the action over with as fast as possible. Inevitably over time that will in some way restrict your backswing. (This could explain why Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino, teaching themselves golf in windy Texas, developed relatively flat swings.)

[My Story]

Whenever I'm tempted to try anything too fancy from the sand, I remind myself how leaving the ball in bunkers a couple of times at Merion in 1971 in a playoff with Lee Trevino cost me a U.S. Open.

[Golf Digest, 1979]

You answer questions a lot different when you're 39 than when you were 25. At 25, I was brutally honest; at 39, I'm carefully honest.

[Golf World, 1979]

Today, if any young athlete were to ask my advice, I would counsel him not to be too slick, to be himself, and to try and temper honesty with tactfulness.

[The Greatest Game of All]

As long as I can get irritated with myself, I'll be a reasonable competitor.

[Washington Post, 1982]

Golf architects too often accept an inferior piece of property just to get the job. The result, almost inevitably, is an inferior course.

[Golf World, 1982]

Looking back, I can identify a number of periods where I came within the proverbial whisker of severe burnout.

[My Story]

What is it? Every week they try to retire me. I don't get it.

[Columbus Citizen-Journal, 1984]

[Ben] Hogan and [Sam] Snead played some of their best golf while in their 40s. Let's face it. It's tough for someone in his 40s to give up the things that are necessary to give up in order to win. It's just harder to sacrifice the older you get.

[Columbus Citizen-Journal, 1985]

In my early 20s, working nonstop from dawn to dusk, I could sometimes raise my game from ground zero to its zenith in just two or three days. By the time I reached my late 40s, because my body would no longer take the abuse of such marathon practice sessions, the same process required two or three weeks, and necessitated far more rest along the way.

[My Story]

Discouraging as it may sound, I must tell you that as long as your legs are in lousy shape you're never going to come anywhere close to reaching your full golfing potential.

[Golf My Way]

If some putts start to drop, I'll be awfully close. This is the best I've hit the ball in years. I'm happy with my game. I'm very happy with my game... I still want to win. I think I can. It would mean a lot. If nothing else, I'm gonna do it just to show you guys I can still win.

[Chicago Tribune, 1986, after 36 holes of the Masters]

[Tom Watson] is like I am in that, the more I'm doubted, the greater my motivation.

[My Story]

You don't feather shots on the last hole of a major championship.

[Golf, 1988]

I knew exactly how intimidating I was, and I've got to tell you, it was a tremendous advantage.

[Golf, 1988]

Don't ever try to tell me golf is not 99.9 percent a mental game.

[My Story]

I'm deadly serious even when I play tennis against my kids. I want to beat their brains out. Whether it's pool or Ping Pong, I can't stand to have my kids beat me. Especially Ping Pong! And when they beat me, they just needle the devil out of me. That's fine. I'd rather have that than let them win a shallow victory.

[Golf, 1988]

I think anybody, any businessman, any athlete who's successful has to be egocentric. I don't think there's any question about that. If you are going to try to be good at something, you can't let somebody else do it for you.

[Golf Digest, 1991]

If I hit the ball 30 to 35 feet left of the target and putt reasonably, I can shoot the same score as when I am hitting [it] five feet to the left of the target. It is not a lot tougher for me to make a 20-footer than it is a 10-footer. That's just the way I have always thought.

[Golf Digest, 1991]

There isn't a secret to golf, of course, but no real player will ever believe that.

[My Story]

Given today's equipment, a course would have to be 7,700 yards long to extend the best players to their maximum. Once the Ping [lawsuit against the PGA Tour] thing's over, the ball will be the next big issue.

[Golf World, 1992]

My least favorite U.S. Open course? I'd rather not say.

[Golf Digest, 1992]

The simple fact is that inactivity has always bored me... When I get excited about things outside golf, I get excited about the game as well. Barbara has always said that the busier I am the better I play, and she is correct.

[My Story]

I've never missed a putt in my mind.

[Golf Digest, 1994]

The frenzy around [Tiger Woods] is hard. You guys, you gals, and he's single. He's got that issue in front of him. How do you know how he's going to react to getting married or not getting married? To having children or not having children? You don't know, he's just starting his life. All our lives changed when we got married, all our lives changed when we had children, all our lives changed every day. Spinning [ahead] -- I'm really quite interested in seeing what's going to happen to him. And he's going to be -- every single thing he's going to do will be right in your newspapers. It will [be] under a microscope. It's a tough way to live.

[ASAPSports, which prepares tournament interview transcripts, 1997 Memorial]]

You don't have to hit the ball long and perfect. You have to hit the ball long enough and in play. You don't have to hit the ball close to the hole every hole, but you have to put the ball where you can play from.

[Transcript, 1998 U.S. Senior Open]

You attack a golf course mentally, not with your swing.

[Transcript, 1999 Memorial]

Every year when I started golf, I'd go back to Jack Grout and say, OK, I'm a beginner. That's why I like to take the fall off. I'm a beginner, I start with the grip, posture, fundamentals.

[Transcript, 1999 Memorial]

Well, I had a bunch of guys that knew how to win. I don't think [Woods] has anybody yet who really, you know, knows how to win that much. I mean his best [rivals] are all fighting for the category of "The Best Player Never to Win a Major."

[Transcript, 2001 Senior PGA Championship]

I always felt the majors were easiest because -- thanks to [the media] -- because you eliminated half the people for me... So when you got down to the end, there were 10 or 15 guys who had a chance to win [a major] instead of 40 guys who had a chance to win every week, because the other 25 eliminated themselves.

[Transcript, 2001 Senior PGA Championship]

I see numbers when I look at leader boards, but rarely do I connect them to names. I have enough trouble not beating myself, let alone worrying about a hundred or more other guys.

[My Story]

People always have the tendency to think today is better than anything that happened yesterday, but it's all right. I know what my record was. I know how hard it was to do. I know how good [Woods] is. Tiger is going to have to really play to beat it. If he does, it will be great for the game of golf. Whatever happens, I did my best, and it's enough.

[Golf World, 2001]

I don't think it's hard to prepare yourself or get to a peak [for four majors each year]. I think what is very difficult to do is to have your golf game remain at a peak at four different golf courses, four different times of the year, four different conditions.

[Transcript, 2002 Ford Senior Players Championship]

It's interesting that the club [Woods] has the most trouble with is his most high tech: the driver.

[Golf Digest, 2007]

I'm grateful for Tiger. Every day he's mentioned, I'm often mentioned in the same breath. It's been wonderful for me. Thanks to Tiger, my name is being introduced to an entirely new generation of golfers and fans.

[Golf Digest, 2007]

I suppose it's a terrible admission for a guy in my business, but ever since my early teens I have found practicing putting immensely boring. It's a necessary chore, of course, but I generally have to push myself to do it and, when at home, have frequently failed in that effort.

[My Story]

If you took a large group of today's players and put them against the group from my prime, today's group would probably beat our brains out. But I think our four or five top guys, as a group, would have beaten the brains out of the top players of today.

[Golf Digest, 2007]

I would go so far to say that on at least half of my best scoring rounds my golf wasn't especially brilliant.

[The Greatest Game of All]

My strongest motivation through all my best years wasn't the championships I won and the golfers I defeated, but those I lost and the players who beat me. If Arnold Palmer hadn't been there when I turned pro, or Johnny Miller or Lee Trevino or Tom Watson hadn't come along and whipped me as often as they did, I'm certain my record would have been a shadow of what I'm proud to have achieved.

[My Story]

I always thought the U.S. Open made a man out of you more than any other tournament.

[usopen.com, 2007]

The slow-play habit, let me say, is like the cigarette habit -- it is so hard to break that a man is wisest not to begin it.

[The Greatest Game of All]

I often wondered why we worry so much about the winning score and par. And it seems as though to continue to do that we continue to change golf courses, continue to spend a fortune and for what reason? Almighty par.

  __ [*Transcript, 2008 Memorial*] __

Getting good at this game, then staying good, is a tough and lonely and endless journey, with lots of dead-ends and other frustrations to strain your body and stress your mind along the way. Which, of course, is why so few of the tens of thousands who set out on it get very far along it.

[My Story]

I remember what an international person I must have been in 1960 [at the World Amateur Team Championships at Merion] and how good my geography was. I was playing with a gentleman from Portugal, and I'm a very suave 20-year-old college kid walking down the fairways, and I turn over to him and I say, "And just exactly what part of South America is Portugal?"

[Transcript, 2008 International Golf Federation media conference]

Throughout my life I've always had a tendency, as the British neatly put it, to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. Maybe this is overconfidence, or maybe it's just a strong desire to live life to the fullest. Whatever the cause, I've always been in the championship flight when it comes to filling up a day.

[My Story]

Golf is my love and golf is my life, but candidly tennis seems to me in many ways a better game than golf. It's less expensive, takes less time, provides more exercise, demands as high a level of skill in a different way, is intensively competitive, can be played "mixed" and has fewer social or financial barriers.

[Golf My Way]

Beyond good hand-eye coordination, perhaps my greatest inherent gift in regard to golf is the ability to compartmentalize my mind, to switch it at will totally from one activity or concern to another, then, for the required duration of the new focus, blank everything else out 100 percent.

[My Story]

Life is an adventure. You do the best you can to plan, but you never know what's going to happen. It's kind of nice to not know what is around the corner. That's the adventure.

[USA Today, 2010, from his 70th birthday press conference]