Nicklaus and Watson walk off after Jack's final British Open, at St. Andrews in 2005.
The first time I ever interviewed Jack Nicklaus, the subject was Tom Watson. The week before, Tom had stuffed Jack, 65-65 to 65-66 over the last 36 holes in the 1977 British Open at Turnberry. (Earlier in the year, Watson had also beaten Nicklaus in a close-drawn Masters.) I was an intern at Golf Digest, helping to research an article on Watson, and my assignment was to go to the Boston tour event and "get some quotes from Jack about Tom."
I waited out a press conference and found my opening. Jack had been the idol of my youth, which didn't make it any easier. He fixed me with those steely blues, and it was as if the whole room turned into a Van Gogh painting: Starry Press Room.
"He's a good golfer; what do you want me to say?" Nicklaus finally blurted. "I gave it my best shot both times. I'm tired of giving it my best shot, and it isn't good enough." I took my notebook and retreated backward out of the room.
My second big encounter was again on the occasion of a Nicklaus defeat by Watson. Tom chipped in to win the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and my assignment was to conduct a face-to-face interview of the two in preparation for the next year's Open issue. I remember eating dinner in the clubhouse at Bay Hill -- Nicklaus and Watson dining separately across the room. Nicklaus had liver and onions.
Afterward, the interview was cordial but uneasy. "Tom's biggest strength is his ability to believe in himself," said Nicklaus. " . . . I've always said Tom has been a guy with blinders on, and he can only see where he is going, and he is going to get there."
Their relationship warmed as their rivalry became a distant memory. By the time the Open came to Turnberry in 1994, after Watson had lost it with a 74 on Sunday, Nicklaus called him to have dinner with their wives that night. Tom said no but then called back and agreed. "At midnight we were out on the front lawn of the Turnberry Hotel playing the par-3 course," Nicklaus said. There was some claret involved, and I don't mean the empty jug for a trophy.
Nicklaus and Watson have gone on fishing trips since then and shared many convivial nights together, like two old heavyweights whose matches are remembered with Roman numerals. When Jack played his last round in the British Open, at St. Andrews in 2005, his playing companion was Watson, with tears in his eyes.
When Watson had his magical week at Turnberry this summer, it was again Nicklaus on the phone long-distance Sunday evening.
"Are you gonna play the par-3 course tonight?" asked Jack. "Only if you're here," replied Tom.
Jack replayed the conversation for Managing Editor Roger Schiffman, who worked with Nicklaus on Watson's swing comparison, 1980 vs. 2009. Jack said he had watched every minute on television and called Watson to say he was very proud of him. He told Tom he did the right thing in putting instead of chipping on 18. "I'm glad you felt it was the right club; I just goosed it," said Watson.
"Well, you know, Tom, I would have goosed it, too," said Jack. "You took the only club from there that you couldn't lose the tournament with. The ball just came out faster than you hoped. And you hit the putt like the rest of us would have hit it." Then they laughed like only two old heavyweights can laugh.