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Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and the golf swing advice that made a Masters legend

Masters 2024

J.D. Cuban

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The stories of Masters legends Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, who graced Augusta National's first tee together once again on Thursday, are inextricably linked.

The two men started as rivals, grew into friends and now share the role of Masters honorary starters along with another legend, Gary Player. But their journey together began, in many ways, as master-and-apprentice. It was Nicklaus, after all, who may have served as the single biggest influence on Watson's golf swing and ignited the career of the man who would go on to win two green jackets.

Watson said Nicklaus' influence on his own golf swing began when he was just a 16-years-old. The pair played an exhibition together in 1966, the round served as a revelation for Watson, who would go on to become a eight-time major winner.

"I saw him hit a 1-iron straight up in the air off the turf, and I knew I couldn't do that," Watson told me earlier this year. "I wanted to hit the ball like Jack, but I didn't swing like Jack."

Reach high on the backswing to hit the ball high

A young Watson came away from that experience with two realizations:

  1. That he hit the ball too low.
  2. That mirroring Nicklaus' backswing would help him hit the ball higher.

Specifically, Watson said he tended to swing the club too flat, around his body. So he began working on reaching towards the sky on the backswing, just as his idol did.

"I tried to take the club straighter away and left," Watson explained. "I got my hands high like Jack. Really high."

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The ball started going really high, too, and Watson improved because of it. He turned professional in 1971 and won his first major in 1975.

Watson had solved one issue, but in doing so, created another: His drivers were flying higher now, but his natural right-to-left draw would turn into an uncontrollable hook at times.

"It came off at some funny angles," Watson said of his miss early in his career.

Nicklaus, he noticed, had used his power fade to claim his fifth green jacket earlier in 1975. It was a shot he realized he didn't have, but needed, too.

Watson's swing thought: Relax right side and turn

So Watson embarked on another Nicklaus-inspired swing change. Noticing the defending Masters champion's club didn't fall past parallel at the top of his backswing. Watson's new goal was to make the biggest shoulder turn he could but without allowing his arms to collapse. It was an idea that's been validated by modern technology, and one that tour players work on often today.

"I've been relaxing my right side and making a bigger turn," he told Golf Digest at the time. "I have more left side leadership in my swing, and it flows better."

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Two-time Masters champion Byron Nelson helped Watson through the change, and soon he found the left-to-right shot easier to call upon.

"I can bisect whichever side of the fairway I choose," Watson said. "It's a terrific feeling."

Watson slipped on his first green jacket in 1977, a year after making that change, then topped Nicklaus in the pair's famed Duel in the Sun at that year's Open Championship.

After the pair's ceremonial opening tee shots at Augusta on Thursday—where he, coincidentally, called upon that slight fade once again as he sent his ball down the fairway—Watson said the ultimate validation came not in victory in 1977 at Turnberry, but in Nicklaus' words to Watson after the tournament had been settled.

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Ben Walton

"He told me: 'Tom, I gave you my best shot, but it wasn't good enough,'" Watson recalled. "At the moment in my career, I had just changed my golf swing so I could have more trust in it. I was flying pretty high, and I was learning to trust it. But when Jack said that, coming from the best player in the world, I said, you know, to myself, 'Maybe I can play with the big boys.'"

Two men inextricably linked. Greatness learns from greatness. And Masters history is better because of it.

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