As arduous a struggle as Buddy Alexander had last week—he survived two days of qualifying and five matches before beating Chris Kite in the 36-hole final to win the U.S. Amateur championship at Shoal Creek near Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday—it could not have been more taxing than the 72 holes Jack Nicklaus put in. That's because Nicklaus didn't play golf; he watched his sons play golf.
At the Amateur on Tuesday and Wednesday, Jack joined a sizable gallery following 17-year-old Gary Nicklaus as he shot 79-73 to miss qualifying for match play by three strokes. Then Jack jetted to Tennessee in his Sabreliner 60 and watched 24-year-old Jack Nicklaus II shoot a painful 81-85 in his first official event as a professional, the St. Jude Memphis Classic (won by Mike Hulbert). The four-round total of 318 was not one of the greatest in Nicklaus annals.
"It's tougher to watch than to play," said Jack toward the end of Jackie's round on Friday. "As a father I've always found it so. But I've been watching my kids play sports all their lives. This is just another step."
It just so happens that the winner at Shoal Creek, 33-year-old Stewart (Buddy) Alexander, also had a successful golf pro for a father. Skip Alexander won two PGA events in 1948 and was the fifth-leading money winner on the Tour that year. He also won the 1941 North and South Amateur, a tournament that was taken in 1985 by none other than Jack Nicklaus II.
September 7, 1986
Buddy Alexander chose to follow in his father's footsteps, but the best he could do was win the 1977 Eastern Amateur and earn a spot as first alternate on the 1979 Walker Cup team. In a short-lived attempt at professional golf, Alexander's biggest victory came in a sand-shot wagering contest in Lakeland, Fla., which earned him the title of Dr. Bunker.
For the past four years, Alexander has served as the golf coach at Louisiana State. In July he was reinstated as an amateur by the USGA, and he brought to Shoal Creek a game that had been honed in practice rounds with his collegiate players. How appropriate it was, then, that his opponent in the final was 22-year-old Chris Kite, who had led Wake Forest to its dramatic comeback victory over Oklahoma State in the NCAA tournament last May, shooting a final-round 66.
On Saturday, Alexander said that Kite—who is not related to either of the professional Kites, Tom or Greg—was "the premier amateur in the country."
On Sunday he admitted that he hadn't slept well the night before, worrying about a blowout.
Kite made some mistakes during the morning 18 that left him two down at the break, but he came back with three straight birdies early in the afternoon round. "I felt I could do anything then," said Kite.
But Alexander wouldn't be intimidated. The coach made six birdies on the last 10 holes, including one on a 25-foot sand shot on the 30th hole. "Dr. Bunker made a house call," said Alexander. He closed out the match with a final birdie on the 33rd to win 5 and 3. Afterward, he had to pause after thinking about all those birdies. "That's some pretty fancy shooting," he said. "I didn't think I was that good."
As for the Nicklauses, all three of the family golfers agree that both Gary and Jack II need at least two more years of seasoning before any lasting judgments on their games can be made. "They are both young from the standpoint of being serious about the game," said Jack. "Jackie's got a great attitude, a great temperament, and he's got the desire. He works awful hard. Gary is just starting to work hard at his game. His best is certainly in front of him."
Jack approached Gary after the 9th hole during Gary's bleak opening 79 at Shoal Creek (a course that Jack designed). Jack didn't say much.
"I want a hot dog," said the youngster. So Jack dutifully dashed to a nearby concession stand, but it was one of those days. They had only ham and cheese sandwiches.
"Gary is a very tough little guy," said his father later. "He stopped playing golf completely for a year and a half after he got so much publicity, and that set him back. Now he wants to play again, but it's his decision. I believe in letting a kid be a kid when he's a kid."
Both Gary and Jackie handled the hubbub their famous father attracted with practiced aplomb, the same way each hid any disappointment with his own play.
"After a certain point I was just thinking, Let's get it in without injuring anybody," Jackie joked during a television interview following his 85 on Friday. Did he feel extra pressure with Jack in the gallery? "No," he said simply. "It's nice to have him here. Everything was nice about the week with the exception of my play."
"I know Jackie is embarrassed," said Barbara Nicklaus, who also walked all four of her sons' rounds, "and I know he knows what will be said by others. But he's got a lot of guts, and he understands. He's gonna be fine."
In fact, it was the several hundred spectators watching Jack watch Jack II at Memphis who seemed to suffer the most. They cheered mightily for shots by Jackie that were merely adequate and they froze into nervous silence when he found water or happened to miss a short putt. When Jackie triple-bogeyed the long par-4 13th on Friday, the gallery broke into spontaneous applause, partly out of sympathy and partly to encourage the young Nicklaus.
Both at Memphis and at Shoal Creek, Jack reacted to his sons' efforts with no more than a slight smile or a grim pursing of the lips. Rather than press close to the ropes to see every shot, he sought out remote locations well behind or ahead of the ball, and made almost no eye contact with either son during play. But when Jackie came to the ropes on the back nine Friday to ask his father if he should withdraw rather than risk injury by playing with an aching neck, the softness in Jack's manner showed how much he was suffering with his son. He gently massaged Jackie's neck and in a low voice said, "If you can finish the round, finish it. That's all anybody can ask of you."
Jackie, who graduated from North Carolina in 1985, decided to turn pro after he failed to qualify for the Amateur in August. He received a sponsor's exemption to play at Memphis and was offered three others. He plans to enter two more pro events before beginning competition for his Tour card at the PGA qualifying school later this month in Indianapolis.
"I've always been a Nicklaus and I'm used to what goes with that," Jackie said. "But I'm out here for myself, not because anyone else wants me to be. As far as people looking at me because of my name, that's not too big a deal to me right now. On the other hand, the Nicklaus name is going to open some doors for me, and for that I'm thankful. But the Nicklaus name is not hitting the shots for me. I'm the one that has to hit the shots. Obviously I have a long way to go. But you never know. Someday I might become a pretty good player."
Somedays do happen. Just ask Buddy Alexander.