What's wrong with Jack Nicklaus?
A little more than halfway through his 18th professional season and his 40th year, Jack Nicklaus is playing like a has-been. He has not won a tournament in almost a year, ranks 51st on the money list, where he is sandwiched between Charles Coody and Alan Tapie, and has an indecently high scoring average. This year he probably will not make the Ryder Cup team. He says he cannot putt, that his back hurts and that he keeps reading Tom Watson's name in the headlines. Even his caddie's girl friend is worried about job security. What's going on?
The simple answer is that the most difficult trick in sports is to grow old gracefully. But somehow Nicklaus seems still too young and too good to have reached that awkward stage. After all, he won a major championship, the British Open, and earned $256,672 on the tour just last year—an average of $17,000 per appearance.
Last week Nicklaus was clearly unconvinced that he had come to the great divide of his career. Busy as he was, it's a wonder he had time to think about the question at all. He took a few days off with his family at their Muirfield Village Golf Club home in Dublin, Ohio, and one of his major disappointments was that he did not have time to play basketball. He got a putting lesson from Lee Trevino, addressing himself to an aspect of his game that does concern him, and deeply; practiced with his longtime tutor, Jack Grout; opened a new business; watched his sons play golf; received some advice from Arnold Palmer; booted a football around the front yard; set a course record; and generally had the mien of a confident man.
July 8, 1979
And it is true that in the two major championships played so far this season, the Masters and the U.S. Open, Nicklaus was by no means humiliated. He finished fourth and tied for ninth, respectively. But even his most fervent well-wishers concede that his play this year has been ragged, especially in the closing rounds. In his 10 tournaments he has four times shot his worst score on Sunday, which isn't like the real Jack. In a fifth, the Tournament Players Championship, his 78 in the last round was eclipsed only by his 82 the day before.
No wonder those close to him are genuinely worried. The girl friend of Angelo Argea, Nicklaus' caddie, recently asked Argea what he planned to do if his boss retired. Jack's wife, Barbara, told him that if his doleful streak continued, perhaps he might be better off on the sidelines. The concern is evident in other ways. Last week, well-meaning friends kept presenting him with putters, as if they were talismans that might restore his touch on the greens.
Theories to account for his travail are legion. Quite amiably, Nicklaus examined the most plausible ones last week, and commented on them.
1. Managing his business empire takes too much time.
"I've been busy with my businesses for as long as I have played on the tour," said Nicklaus. "I enjoy what I'm doing with them. And I've really got plenty of time to do what I want to do." As he spoke, Nicklaus was wearing tennis shorts and tennis shoes, and was on his way to watch the Ohio Junior Amateur, in which his sons Jackie, 17, and Gary, 10, were playing. He did not seem rushed. "Someday I'm going to sorely miss having to putt that three-footer to win a tournament," he said. "But I'm a little luckier than most athletes in that when I make the transition from my sport I'll have something to do that I enjoy. Still, I'll hate the day when I don't have to make that putt.... I'd like to have that opportunity right now."
2. He is worried that his projects have overextended him financially.
"Financially I'm in better shape than I've ever been. Five, six, seven years ago, yes, I might have been overextended—perhaps extended is a better word. Muirfield [the golf and residence complex whose course he designed and in which he is a heavy investor] was a tough project. But I've been stubborn about Muirfield, and I've been stubborn about the Memorial Tournament there. And I think I'm right."
3. Age has caught up with him.
"What is too old? I've been around and playing this game on a national basis since I was 13. If you believe that everyone can play and compete for only so long, then I'm very old. But 39 in golf is not old. Hogan—good gracious, he didn't play well until he was 40. Lee Trevino got a late start. No, I'm not too old. I kid around a lot and say, 'I'm getting too old for this game.' I don't really believe that. If I did, I wouldn't say it."
4. He has lost the putting touch.
"I am having trouble putting," Jack conceded. "When that's the case you put tremendous pressure on your chipping, which always has been the weak part of my game. Frankly, my chipping and putting have been atrocious this year. But it's all in your head. You make a couple and it turns right around."
5. He is bored with the game.
"I'm not bored, but I would say that I've played a long time. That theory probably would be as close as any. I'm trying to find a solution so I don't get that way. I don't want to be bored with golf. That's the reason I cut back my schedule. I want to be able to compete and be ready. One of my objectives is to be sharp and fresh as I can when I play."
6. He does not practice enough.
"I've done the same thing for 20 years and I'm not going to change now. It's not that I'm hitting the ball poorly. I'm hitting the ball great. It's my putting."
7. Physically he is not 100%.
"My back's always given me trouble, but it's better now than it was when I was a teen-ager. People forget that I had seven injections in it by the time I was 19. As for my eyes, I've experimented with glasses, partly because we started a new eyewear company in Florida and someone talked me into trying them. I just have trouble with faraway distance on hazy days, but I don't use my eyes to judge distance, anyway. I play from yardage."
Nicklaus has had other dead spots in his career. After setting the U.S. Open scoring record at Baltusrol in 1967, he went three years until his next major championship win in the 1970 British Open. "It was a period of apathy as much as anything," he says. And it is true that in a game in which the frustrations and the pressures are enormous, he has been competing for a long time. Nicklaus has been playing so long that his favorite leather grip no longer is manufactured.
The most insistent view is that Nicklaus does in fact devote too much time to his business interests, which include, under the corporation known as Golden Bear, shopping centers, ski resorts, cattle, a radio station and an option to buy a 50% share of the MacGregor golf equipment company, to list a few. "Every time he smiles at the Japanese, they give him a million dollars," says one of his associates.
Jack's fee for exhibitions is $22,500, which, he says, "creates a nice cash-fill situation."
Yet Nicklaus refuses to avail himself of one option that might ease his burden. When Palmer was at the top, his business manager, Mark McCormack, essentially made the corporate decisions. Nicklaus has a lot of people working for him, but he is the Harry Truman of his organization. The buck stops at his desk. Every day he ponders problems and how to solve them, whether they concern designs for a new line of golf clubs, the streetlights at Muirfield Village or a seat on his jet plane that won't recline properly. Right now the Nicklaus organization is working on 20 golf courses. Nicklaus is designing all of them, lining out the holes in what he jokingly calls his "Katzenjammer Kids drawings."
Last week Pandel Savic, a close friend from Columbus, laid it on the line. "He has to work at golf a little more," said Savic. "Someday he'll wake up and stop kidding himself. Jack loves his business, and he's good at it, but I've told him to wait until he's 45 for that. Play five more good years. Physically he's still as good as ever. He's strong, solid. But he has to play a little more competitively to stay sharp."
Nicklaus resolutely maintains that putting is the problem. At last month's Canadian Open, Trevino advised him that his stance was fouled up, an observation recently made also by Barbara Nicklaus. The other night Nicklaus toyed with one of his sons' putters. "It's not the putter, Dip," Barbara said.
Nicklaus laughs at the jokes, endures the advice and accepts the clubs. "I've got a lot of golf to play," he says. "Why should I be concerned? Everybody else is concerned for me. Everybody's asking me the same question. It gets to be a pain in the neck. It's a problem only if you let it be."
Of course, a victory in the British Open two weeks hence would quiet a lot of the debate. That's a tournament Nicklaus owns. He has three victories and six second-place finishes; in 17 appearances he has finished worse than fifth only three times. Nicklaus is looking forward to England.
Last week at the Ohio Junior he was licking a fever blister on his lower lip. In times of pressure, he can count on getting a fever blister. He may have professed firm confidence, but the sore on his lower lip bespoke a certain edginess.
Around him, there was a dearth of smiling faces. As Nicklaus watched Jackie and Gary compete, Savic approached him with the urgency of a man who had cracked the case. He said he had figured out that Jack's putting stance was wrong.
"Not you, too," said Nicklaus. "That's all I hear."
Back at Muirfield, Jack Grout, the silver-haired, tanned and grandfatherly pro who taught him the game as a youngster, presented Nicklaus with a putter. "I've been saving it for the day you needed it," said Grout. "It's a beauty."
"It's not the putter," said Nicklaus. "It's me."
At dusk one day Nicklaus walked onto the Muirfield practice green, carrying two putters. After missing three straight putts, he lamented, "I can't make a 12-foot uphill putt. How can you play golf if you can't make a 12-foot uphill putt?"
The next evening Nicklaus was on the course until 9:35, playing nine holes with his sons. He had yet another putter, one that Chuck Perry, his corporation's chief operating officer, had given him. During the last few holes it was so dark his sons stood behind him to track the flight of the balls.
The next day Nicklaus was on the practice tee at Muirfield, working through a bag of balls with Grout and Savic looking on. Grout agrees that Nicklaus' troubles have nothing to do with the way he is hitting the ball. Before the U.S. Open, Jack pounded balls for hours from deep rough in the practice area. "He was hitting it perfect," says Grout, "then he got up there and wouldn't putt."
Grout patiently watched shot after shot.
"Jack, you're hitting that ball good," he said.
"Every one's like that," said Nicklaus.
He swung again. Even the sound suggested perfection.
"As long as I stay down, release and get my hips out of the way, all the things that you're supposed to do with a golf swing, the ball goes straight," he said.
"It always has," said Grout.
"It always has," Jack agreed.
That afternoon Nicklaus went out for a quick 18. He shot a 71, using Grout's putter on one nine, Perry's on the other.
Then he rushed off to downtown Columbus for the opening of the Jack Nicklaus auto leasing agency, a venture he has embarked upon with Bud Ewart, a friend from college. Nicklaus looked sharp in his blue suede jacket, Gucci shoes and gold Rolex watch.
The next morning Jack climbed aboard his jet at Ohio State's airport for the 30-minute trip to Morgantown, W. Va., where he was to play an exhibition round with Arnold Palmer. Before his departure he had been on the telephone to his office in North Palm Beach. "My secretary keeps telling me there are no problems," he said. "That makes me nervous."
At the Morgantown airport, Palmer was in the group awaiting Jack. Nicklaus recalls being paired with Palmer during the last round of the Phoenix Open in his rookie season, 1962. Palmer was winning the tournament by 12 shots when, at the 18th hole, he offered Nicklaus this advice: "C'mon, play a good hole here...and finish second." In a way it was patronizing, but Palmer was trying to be nice to a young kid. Nicklaus, however, never forgot it. He never liked to play for second place.
At a press conference preceding the exhibition, the reporters finally got around to the obvious. What's wrong with Jack's game?
"People still ask you how you play?" said Nicklaus, turning to Palmer.
"Well, they're almost through with that," Palmer said agreeably.
Nicklaus discussed his schedule with the reporters. "I've played the same number of tournaments," he said. "You think I haven't played as much because my name hasn't been up there."
"You'll get used to that," Palmer broke in, provoking laughter.
Then Palmer reminisced about the days when people persisted in asking him why, when his game was breaking up, he couldn't find the glue with which to put it back together. "You lose the knack for scoring, which is the whole game," he said. "This is the thing that Jack will experience. You still hit the golf ball well. But you don't score. That is the difference."
Nicklaus looked intently at Palmer. One might have thought he was studying one of those three-foot putts that win tournaments.
That afternoon Nicklaus went out and shot a 67, five-under-par, to set a record on the Lakeview course. Even Palmer was impressed with the way Jack was splitting the fairways. "You really are hitting the ball better, aren't you?" he said.
Later, returning to Topic A, Palmer said, "You slowly lose it. That's the thing Jack is faced with now, and he probably doesn't even know it. But I'd like to give him fair warning. You don't know how it slips. You really don't understand why it's slipping, but it does."
What could be done? "It's tough," Palmer said, "unless you cut out all the outside stuff. I don't know if Jack is willing to do that. I tried to, but I couldn't."
Nicklaus and Palmer hurried through the banquet following the match because the runway lights at the airport weren't working and they would have to take off before darkness closed in. Before he left, Nicklaus made a short talk. His tone was serious. "I was glad to be able to come back and post a good score before my golf game totally leaves me," he said.
At the airport Nicklaus' and Palmer's jets sat side by side, their lights winking on and off. In their jackets and ties the golfers could have been any other corporation presidents hurrying home from a round of meetings. They chatted about the British Open. Nicklaus, of course, will be trying to win it. Palmer isn't even bothering to go over this time.
When Palmer was at the top, Nicklaus was the one who helped push him across the divide. The golfers gazed at each other, these friends and foes of so many years' standing. Then they climbed into their airplanes and were off.