Inside The Ropes
Feb. 18, 2014 / Ritz-Carlton's Golf Club At Dove Mountain / Marana, Ariz.
In Dixon, Calif., about half an hour outside Sacramento. The town was small enough that when a McDonald's opened, it was a big deal. To fill up my days, my mom started dropping me off at a muny in Davis on her way to work. From the time I was 13 until I was out of high school, that's where I hung out. At Davis Golf Course we got unlimited golf for $5 a day. There were maybe 25 kids, dropped off from little towns in the area. A lot of days we'd play 45 holes, eating a sack lunch and squeezing packets of lemon juice and sugar from the snack bar into water to make lemonade. We gambled, played cross-country, putted, did scrambles and alternate shot. It was a blue-collar upbringing, and I'm grateful for it. You don't need to grow up on a great course to become a good player. As my dad says, "Who knows where you would have wound up if you were a country-club kid?"
MY DAD drove a beer truck. My mom and I would see him out on his route.
We'd go into a grocery store and watch him fix up displays and stock the shelves.
I was pretty much awed by it. When we got home, I'd get sodas and stock the refrigerator. When he got up early to go to work, I'd try to be up to say goodbye to him. He was my first hero. I wanted to be just like him. I still do.
ONE DAY we got behind a foursome of older couples, and they were very slow. One of my buddies said, "Let's get them moving." You know how kids are. He was as likely to top it as get it airborne, but he nails this 5-wood and catches one of the ladies in the arm. Knocked some clubs out of her hand. At first we were laughing, for reasons only kids would laugh at something like that. But when she went in and got the pro, it wasn't funny anymore.
I LOVE HIP-HOP MUSIC so much I can't even describe it. If I ever met Jay-Z, I'd lock up, be completely star-struck. What could I say that would possibly interest him? How often do you get to hang out with someone who's the best ever at what they do? At the AT&T this year, I played with Kelly Slater, the surfer. A legend. I had a much harder time talking to Kelly than I did, say, Jack Nicklaus the first time I met him.
OK, I WAS TERRIFIED the first time I met Jack, too. But I calmed myself down by reasoning that we had the same name—kind of. My full first name is Nicholas. His last name is Nicklaus. Get it? So I figured that we had that—and golf—in common.
I DIDN'T KNOW FRED COUPLES until I played Presidents Cup for him. They say it's best not to meet your heroes, because they might treat you badly or you'll see a dark side of them, and you'll be let down. But Fred, he's the real deal. He's every bit as smooth, powerful and relaxed as you see on TV. He's also just the right amount human. There were a couple of moments when he appeared a tiny bit uncomfortable in front of the microphone. It's that normalcy, the slight vulnerability, that draws people to him.
AS A KID, I saw the fame athletes got and was drawn to that. Aren't we all? But after I turned pro, I saw up close how people dug into Tiger. People seemed poised, just waiting for him to make a mistake. I knew it was unlikely I'd get to be as famous as Tiger, but that digging still kind of scared me. The result is, I'm a little socially awkward. I'm quiet in most situations because I'm nervous about saying the wrong thing.
__I SAY "SOCIALLY AWKWARD" __instead of "shy" because depending on the situation, I can swing too far the other way. At the Masters two years ago, I snapped the shaft on my 6-iron on the 11th hole. My mom, who was in the gallery, was horrified because a lady next to her said, "Shame on him for doing that at the Masters!" Playing "Halo 2" with a buddy a few years ago, I got sick of getting killed and spiked the controller on the floor. Busted it into pieces. Leading at Bay Hill in 2008, I had some choice language after making an 8 on the 16th hole. Depending on the situation and who I'm around, I'm not always quiet.
__ALL GAMES__are good for golf. Not just sports, but games—gin, Monopoly, video games, everything. They teach you how to read an opponent. How to size up situations. When to apply pressure, take a gamble or play it safe. Good game-players make the best golfers.
__YOU SAY__Tiger has never missed a four-footer he really needed. Well, I can think of one: Against me in the WGC-Match Play in 2012. I had a 1-up lead on 18, and Tiger had a four-foot putt to extend the match. I thought the putt was as good as in; my glove was out of my pocket, and I had my yardage book in hand, ready for the first playoff hole. He missed, which was shocking. When I went to shake his hand, I was so curious how he was going to react. But he said, "Good match, Nick," in the most sincere way.
I READ THAT HAROLD RAMIS, the guy who directed "Caddyshack," just passed away. It's the best golf movie ever because it didn't try to be anything but completely ridiculous. The problem with serious golf movies is authenticity. You see a supposedly good golfer waggle his club, and you know immediately he's a 14-handicapper. There's nowhere to hide; it's like noticing the strings on the puppets. I'll watch a rerun of "The Greatest Game Ever Played," but the rest, forget it.
__BUTCH HARMON__was my teacher until last year, when I started working with Todd Anderson. But I'll never forget the things I learned from Butch, not just about golf but about life. He told me to take care of the people who take care of you. To always think of them and do nice things for them. To carry enough money with you to tip the right people. And to not be a tightwad.
__WHEN I WAS ON THE RANGE__at Rio Secco with Butch, he'd see some kid struggling at the far end of the range. Not a tour player, just a customer out practicing.
As I hit balls, Butch would start muttering—not at me, but the hacker. His eyes would keep darting back to the kid. Finally, he'd say, "You'll have to excuse me." And he would walk to the end of the range and fix the guy's swing. Butch would come back and say, "Sorry, but I just couldn't take watching that swing anymore." I saw Butch do that a lot. Here's a man who can charge big bucks but who loves golf so much he'd probably do it for free.
LAST YEAR, Butch was called out for a tweet he made about me. I don't want to go over it again. You can Google it. Butch didn't mean anything by it, and who doesn't make mistakes? It's a perfect example of why I don't do social media. I'm a huge San Francisco Giants and 49ers fan. All it would take is one nasty tweet about the hated Dodgers—which I just know I couldn't resist—and I'd be in big trouble.
MY WIFE, AMBER, and I split time between Austin and Las Vegas. I'm not one of those people who live in Las Vegas but never go to a casino. I'll take friends from out of town, or Butch and I will go. I'm a craps man. There are two things you should never do while playing craps. Never say "seven" when someone is holding the dice, and never touch your chips until that moment they give you more chips.
__THE PERCEPTION__of what goes on inside the ropes on the PGA Tour versus what really happens, is very different.
As a kid I'd see Tiger Woods making small talk with his caddie or the other players and wonder what they were talking about. Now that I've played quite a bit with Tiger, here's the answer: last night's basketball game. The hotel. The food in player dining. In short, nothing you'd necessarily pay money to hear.
IF IT CAME DOWN to one guy who I wouldn't want to play for my money—or a guy I wouldn't mind backing if a life were at stake—I'd take Ryan Moore. When he's on his game, you really don't want to look and see Ryan. Even the elite players, you don't know for certain what they'll do over the last couple of holes in a big event. One day soon, you'll see what I'm talking about.
SECOND ROUND, 2010 Memorial. I'm paired with Chris Couch, and we're both playing lousy. On the 12th hole, he barely misses clearing a bunker. Chris spins and throws his 7-iron. But somehow the club caught his shirt, so instead of the club going forward, it whips behind him. It looked like a cartoon, and I almost couldn't hit my next shot I was laughing so hard. The gallery was laughing, too, and some dudes started to tease him, but Chris did a smart thing: He got a ball out of his bag, signed it, walked over to the fans, smiled and tossed it to them. Just like that, they were on his side. Best pro move I've ever seen.
WHEN A FAN GETS HIT by a golf ball, the person least upset seems to be the fan. I was there when a guy got hit just above the eye at the 2009 PGA at Hazeltine. Blood everywhere, and for a couple of holes it was hard for me to get that image out of my mind. A signed golf glove or free tickets—Rory McIlroy is big on that—seems to take care of it. Fans getting hit is sort of an underrated danger in golf. Baseball, too. It's a wonder it doesn't happen more often.
I'M NOT MUCH for playing money games in practice rounds. I like playing money games when I'm at home, but teeing it up for $1,000 in a tournament practice round when we're playing for $9 million‚ I'll pass. On one hand, I don't want to focus 100 percent for five hours to win a grand. On the other, I don't want to not concentrate and then pay somebody $1,000.
THE BEST PLAYER you've never heard of? Todd Miller. Johnny Miller's youngest son. The Millers lived in Napa when I was a junior. Todd would show up with these old blade irons and wedges that his dad used when he was young, and it was like there was magic in them. Todd could make a golf ball talk. He'd call the shots—high draws, power fades, knockdowns—and pull them off like they were nothing. He wasn't cocky at all; his personality wasn't at all like his dad's. His ball-striking was tour-caliber and almost made me wonder, What am I doing here? But a career as a tour player wasn't in the cards for Todd. It happens like that. You never can tell.
__AMBER AND I__have a daughter on the way. So far I've made one long-term commitment: be up for anything. When my dad got home from that beer route, he'd be exhausted from hauling kegs and cases of beer. But if I wanted to play catch in the back yard, he did it cheerfully, every time. When my daughter wants to play or needs help with her homework, I'll be there.