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.
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."
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.
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: