A pair of Jacks

August 23, 2007

Jack Grout took power for granted and taught Nicklaus feel and rhythm.

In the early days of Golf Digest, we had annual Pro Panel meetings that brought together the game's leading teachers for round-table debates. Diminutive Paul Runyan would always manage to drop into the conversation his 8-and-7 thrashing of Sam Snead in the 1938 PGA Championship (the steam visibly exuding from Sam's red ears across the room). Bob Toski would conclude, "You just can't teach golf in the pages of a magazine," which seemed to contradict the purpose of the meeting. And the most erudite teacher at the table was invariably ordering a Bloody Mary at 10 o'clock in the morning: Dr. Cary Middlecoff, the 1949 and '56 U.S. Open champion. Doc's other claim to fame was that he lived down the street from Jack and Barbara Nicklaus, so he was a font of gossip about the Great Man's game at his peak.

The subject one day turned to how good a teacher Jack Grout was -- the man credited with coaching Nicklaus since age 10. One after another gave testimony of his genius, until it came to Doc, by this time into his third tomato juice. "Well, I can't tell you how good Grout was," drawled Middlecoff, "but I'll put it this way: There isn't a teacher in this room who could have stopped Jack Nicklaus from winning 15 major championships!"

Just as a fight was about to erupt, Gentleman Jim Flick reached out and saved the moment: "I think what Cary means is, it's better to be a great student than to have a great teacher."

Jim was ever the peacemaker in this garrulous gang of swing theorists. We paired him with Snead, whom he could always keep on point -- and away from Runyan.

After Grout's death, Nicklaus got a little help from a couple of swing gurus (Phil Rodgers, Rick Smith) before settling into what remains a long friendship with Flick, who became a student of Jack as well as his teacher.

Flick, now 77, probably knows more about the golf swing than anyone alive and still studies an immense library of instruction books at his home in Carlsbad, Calif. He traces Nicklaus' footwork from the teachings of Alex Morrison, who influenced Henry Picard, who taught Grout, who gave the same ankles-rolling lesson to Nicklaus. "Jack's feet became the rhythm of his swing and taught him the transition from the ground up," says Flick. "It was a key factor in his development."

Gentleman Jim collaborated with Managing Editor Roger Schiffman to analyze the evolution of Jack's game for a lavish new book, Jack Nicklaus: Simply The Best!, edited by Martin Davis and excerpted in this issue. We chose to illustrate the cover story with three images of Nicklaus from the 1960s to emphasize the classic quality of his swing. Great teacher, great student -- I think we can learn from them.