August 12, 2010

My Shot: Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus, photographed Jan. 22 at Hualalai Resort Golf Course in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

Jack Nicklaus, photographed Jan. 22 at Hualalai Resort Golf Course in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

Age 64 North Palm Beach, Florida

I had polio when I was 13. I started feeling stiff, my joints ached, and over a two-week period I lost my coordination and 20 pounds. The doctors thought I had the flu. I played an exhibition with Patty Berg and shot 53 for nine holes — not very good for a kid with a plus-3 handicap. My sister, Marilyn, was diagnosed at about the same time; the doctors deduced that she got it from me. Marilyn, who was 10, was unlucky. For a year she was unable to walk but eventually got 95 percent of her movement back. I recovered after a few weeks, but I still may suffer from post-polio syndrome. My whole career, my joints have gotten awfully sore at times. Polio is just a memory now, but it was a horrible disease. I got it a year or two before Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was distributed.

My favorite team was the Columbus Redbirds. They were a farm team for the St. Louis Cardinals, and their best pitcher was Harvey Haddix, who later pitched 12 perfect innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Harvey signed a baseball for me, and I kept it as a keepsake for many years. One day the ball disappeared, then mysteriously turned up again, beat up and caked with mud. I never did discover what happened to that baseball, though I think a 10-year-old boy named Steve Nicklaus had something to do with it.

I'd rather be two strokes ahead going into the last day than two strokes behind. Having said that, it's probably easier to win coming from behind. There is no fear in chasing. There is fear in being chased.

I always liked to visit a major-championship site early. One reason was to prepare, but I also enjoyed taking my boys along and having them play with me. It was a blast watching one of my kids who, say, was an 82-shooter, try to break 90 on a U.S. Open golf course. I enjoyed it more than they did.

In 1972 I took the Masters and the U.S. Open, then came close to winning the British Open. I've been asked how I would have done at the PGA if somehow I'd come through in the British. Well, when I arrived home from Scotland that year, I went and got a haircut and a manicure. A manicure, for heaven's sake, the only one I ever had in my life. And I developed an infection in my right forefinger that required surgery. It hurt, and I had a big bandage. I played the PGA with my right forefinger off the club. [Nicklaus tied for 13th.] So I'm not saying I couldn't have won the PGA, because I'm sure I would have loved the pressure. But that darned manicure wouldn't have made it very easy.

When Jock Hutchison and Freddie McLeod were the honorary starters at the Masters, for years they hit more than one shot. They'd play all 18 holes. It's been suggested that the next honorary starters, whoever they are, should keep playing for a while. Nine holes maybe, just to give the fans a chance to watch these legends play. It's an intriguing idea, and if you're asking if I'd be interested in doing that, the answer is no.

When I fly in a helicopter, I insist there be two sets of controls, one for me in case something happens to the pilot. I'm no expert, but I know enough to at least get the thing on the ground. Nothing scares me like the thought of not being in control.

I take that back. MRI tubes confine you so much they scare me, just like they scare a lot of people. A friend of mine had an MRI, and when he was finished, he went right to his lawyer and changed his will. He chose to be cremated instead of buried.

At 21, I was making $24,000 a year. That was pretty big money for a kid in those days. I made $12,000 selling insurance, $6,000 working for a slacks company and $6,000 more playing customer golf for the slacks manufacturer. Had I kept on at those things, I would have been miserable. The chance to make money was not a factor in my decision to turn pro, because I already had enough money. Heck, my first house cost only $22,000. All I ever wanted to do was play competitive golf against the best players in the world.

It's very important to lose graciously. My dad taught me that. The guy who won had to be pretty good to beat you, right? So give him credit, and mean it.

Spanking your children these days is frowned upon. That to me is ridiculous. Giving your child an occasional little smack on the rear end — and I want to emphasize I don't mean a beating — is an acceptable way to get your point across. It's not the pain that makes it effective. It's the anticipation of getting spanked, the noise of it and the fact you're unhappy that makes an impression, not the spanking itself.

I never saw a single episode of "MAS*H." I've never seen "Cheers" or "Seinfeld." The only show remotely like them I watch is "24." Gary [son] got his wife some episodes for Christmas and brought them on the boat, and I got hooked. Other than that, my favorite program is "SportsCenter." I especially like it in the morning, when they air last night's show four times, back to back.

Even the news is hard for me to watch; the media seems obsessed with nailing President Bush every single day. In a country where someone dies of diabetes every three minutes, the attacks on him wear me out. Where's the balance?

Barbara and I went to see a movie the other night that was depressing. I'm sure it'll win all sorts of Academy Awards, but it wasn't my cup of tea. Why are these movies that "make you think" always depressing? I want to laugh, or more important, I want to be entertained. Give me a movie like "Something's Gotta Give" or "Anger Management" or "Caddyshack" any day.

I go to church only a few times a year. Barbara is giving me a look as I say this, but darn it, I pray every day and worship in my own way. I just never got in the habit of going. Remember, I spent the better part of my life working on Sundays.

I don't carry a cell phone, never will. Anyone ever call to give you anything?

I don't believe in luck. Not in golf, anyway. There are good bounces and bad bounces, sure, but the ball is round and so is the hole. If you find yourself in a position where you hope for luck to pull you through, you're in serious trouble.

You've got to eliminate self-doubt. Self-doubt stinks.

As you know, there's no use trying to get rid of a song that's stuck in your head. When you get to the first tee, you can only hope it's a good one. I've played very well to Harry Belafonte singing "Jamaica Farewell." And it's hard to play badly to "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head."

Lloyd Mangrum had the reputation for being one of the toughest golfers ever. I remember when I was 10 years old, I went in the locker room at Scioto to get an autograph, and there was Lloyd, playing cards, sitting there with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He looked at me and barked, "What do you want, kid?" I was like anyone would be at the moment, and was taken aback by Lloyd's gruffness. I was only 10 at the time, but that stuck with me.

Lloyd's wife, Aleta, might have had a greater influence on my wife, Barbara, than any other person. At the 1962 Masters I was on the course and Barbara was on the veranda, bemoaning that she missed her baby. Jackie, our oldest, was only about 7 months old at the time. All of a sudden, a woman who had been knitting looked up and said, "Look here, little girl. You had Jack long before you had that baby, and you hope to have him long after that baby is gone. So grow up and be a wife." Case closed! Ten years later, Barbara saw Aleta and told her, "You'll never know what you did for my marriage." It isn't easy being the wife of a professional athlete, and Barbara has told this story to other tour wives over the years.

When I won the 1994 Mercedes Championships, I received $100,000 and a new car. On one hand, I had an endorsement deal with Lincoln-Mercury, and the class of Mercedes I won was in direct competition with a line made by the company I represented. On the other hand, Mercedes had put up a great deal of money to sponsor the event. So I traded the car, which cost $30,000, for an $85,000 model, one that didn't compete with Lincoln-Mercury. I paid the $55,000 difference. Both car companies were happy. A year later, I sold the car, which I never drove, for exactly $55,000 — there was depreciation, and I cut the guy a deal. I joke today that for what I paid flying my private plane that year, paying the taxes on the new car along with the difference in base cost, taking care of my caddie and other expenses, I came away from the 1994 Mercedes Championships $50,000 in the red. That's an exaggeration of course, but somewhere in there is a small lesson on money vs. principles.

I was against giving Casey Martin a cart. You ask, "What if he were your own son?" and my answer is, what's bigger, an individual or the game of golf? In truth, the case ended perfectly. Casey, who is a terrific young man and a friend of mine, got to pursue his dream. Meanwhile, the prohibition against carts and the status of golf as a walking game remained intact.

I have a feeling I'll be playing tennis long after I quit playing golf. Golf is much harder on me physically than tennis is.

I'm not much of a drinker at all. Today, I might have three beers over the course of a year, if that. Sure, when I was younger, I was like a lot of college kids. I tried to drink all the beer in Columbus, Ohio.

Barbara is giving me that look again.

And I could eat! At Lafayette, La., where they played the Cajun Classic in the early '60s, I'd go crazy for oysters. There's a picture of me from that period hoisting a big fork full of oysters into my mouth. I put away eight dozen oysters, went back to the hotel and changed, then went out to dinner, where I ate two dozen more oysters before the entree arrived. Yes, I could put the food away.

During Hell Week at Ohio State, for breakfast each day they made us eat a garlic bud, tie an onion around our neck and eat a few goldfish to tide us over for the day. This stayed with you all day long, as you can imagine. The heartburn alone was unbelievable. And by the way, there's not much of a taste with goldfish — just a little bitter.

Woody Hayes lived a block and a half from my dad's pharmacy. He knew I played several sports and that I especially loved football. I was a quarterback, linebacker and placekicker, and in practice could kick a field goal from 50 yards. I dreamed of playing football at Ohio State. My dad, who played some professional football and knew quite a bit about the sport, once asked Woody for advice about me. Woody said, "Football is a great game, but I know the talents of your son in golf. Keep him as far away from my game as you can." He didn't say I couldn't make the team at Ohio State. He only implied that golf was my best game and that I should focus on that. So I stuck with golf and basketball the remainder of high school.

When Barbara's mother died, Woody came by the funeral home. The atmosphere was sad, but a ways into it I look over, and there's Woody in a corner with my four boys. I walk over, and he's giving them a lesson on military history, deflecting the sadness. I was thinking how thoughtful that was when Barbara gets a phone call. It was Woody's wife, wanting to know if Woody was there. She asked if he had his walker with him, and whether his car was in the parking lot. It turned out Woody had just had a stroke and wasn't supposed to be out of the house, let alone not have his walker or try to drive a car. But he wanted to be there for Barbara and the boys and snuck away to be there. Woody's legacy is mixed, but in my opinion he was a great man.

If a cell phone or camera going off disrupts you, you've got issues with concentration or your golf game. If you're totally absorbed in the shot you're playing, how can you hear anything?

My dreams are productive. Many times I've been near the lead in a golf tournament despite having trouble with some part of my game. I can't seem to fix the problem no matter how many balls I hit or how much thought I give it. Then I'll go to bed and dream I'm working on the problem, and when I wake up I have the answer. Usually it's something small, like my eye alignment or weight distribution.

Gary Player likes to say, "Jack is not only the best winner of all time, he's the best loser." The "best loser" part of that bugs me.

It implies I'm adept at losing. I've asked Gary to substitute the word "gracious" for "best," or just say "Jack is a good sport," but he won't do it. He gets too big a kick out of complimenting and teasing me at the same time.

There are more good players today. There were more great players in my day.

The PGA Tour's prohibition against players wearing shorts started when Jimmy Demaret wore a pair of very short shorts at the 1961 World Cup in Puerto Rico. When Jimmy stooped to line up putts, his shorts turned out to be very revealing. Now, I have no objection to the PGA Tour's mandate that players wear long pants.

But I wear shorts 99 percent of the time, including when I go to the office, so I wouldn't object if knee-length shorts were permitted when the temperature gets around 90 degrees.

Friendships are valuable. If your partner is also your best friend, that's invaluable.

I just made Barbara smile.