Time is the young golfer's friend and the older golfer's enemy. In the case of 56-year-old Jack Nicklaus, the years have finally begun to erode the awesome contours of his magnificent swing. But vestiges of the singular technique that captured 20 major championships remain, and they continue to yield spells of extraordinary ball-striking.
When Nicklaus is feeling good, he still stands alone among his contemporaries. He is plenty long and can fade and draw the ball equally well. He hits the ball high and is an excellent driver and long-iron player. He also has precise control over the distance he hits each club. When he is playing well he seldom is very long or short of the hole with his approaches.
On the other hand, Nicklaus has difficulty sustaining these streaks. In many ways he is a young golfer trapped in an older golfer's body. In his prime, he swung his hands majestically high at the top of the backswing. Today they are lower, a concession to decreasing flexibility and a need to generate power. His swing arc is narrower, the length of his swing shorter. Nicklaus is even diminished physically. His thighs, which once measured 29 inches around and fueled his powerful downswing, are thinner.
Nicklaus is a stubborn bear and has refused to abandon features in his swing that are better suited to stronger, more flexible physiques. Early in the backswing, he extends the club far from his body with his left arm, creating tremendous width in his swing. This also sets the stage for an upright swing plane, and Nicklaus is forced to rerout the club on a much flatter plane at the beginning of the downswing. That's hard to do. He also swings the club to a very high position at the top of the backswing -- though not as high as he once did -- and that strains the limits of his flexibility as well.
Why does he retain these features when they are so difficult to execute? Nicklaus' teacher during his formative years was Jack Grout, a former PGA Tour player who constantly admonished the young Nicklaus to swing his hands as high as possible and turn his body as far as he could. Nicklaus never forgot that, and to this day he swings as far back as he can.
"You don't see swings like Jack's much anymore," says Johnny Miller, one of Nicklaus' rivals in the 1970s.
"I call it a 'dinosaur' swing because golfers who keep their head so far behind the ball through impact are almost extinct. That's one reason Jack hits the ball so high; and it's also part of the reason his back hurts him."
Jack has worked hard to maintain his strength and flexibility, and practices whenever his busy off-course schedule allows. That's another reason his swing continues to function -- he works at it.
Although Nicklaus' swing isn't what it once was, it is terrific relative to his age. His competitiveness on the Senior PGA Tour (through early 1996 he was winning one in every four events he entered) can be attributed to his course management and putting stroke as well. There also is his experience, patience pride, desire, discipline, determination and a hundred other intangibles that made Nicklaus the most successful golfer of all time.
"Jack's swing hasn't aged real well because he doesn't have the strength and flexibility to swing the way he once did," says Miller. "The way he attempts to swing the club very wide on the backswing and very high at the top are very difficult to do when you reach a certain age. Those are not the parts of his swing the average golfer should try to copy."
The elements of his swing you should emulate are his fundamentals, which are a paragon of conformity. His grip is neutral and his address position is classic. He makes that full turn on the backswing and moves the shaft perfectly on plane on the downswing. At impact, he looks much like he did at address.
You might also borrow his intangibles -- the patience, determination, concentration and so forth. There is more to the makeup of a champion than the golf swing, and Jack Nicklaus, more than anyone, has it all.