SOUTHERN PINES In the course of a 90-minute conversation on golf last week at Sandhills Community College, Jack Nicklaus touched on so many subjects, from yesteryear and today.
He talked about Tiger Woods swing changes (he doesnt see any), Rory McIlroys potential (he loves the kid), Ben Hogans generosity (he was surprised) and the influence of Bobby Jones (he says it was substantial).
Nicklaus talked about the upcoming Ryder Cup matches (he likes the U.S. chances on home soil), the 2016 Olympics (it could be a needed worldwide boost for golf), and Pinehurst No. 2 (his favorite course design). He also talked of winning the 1986 Masters, at 46, when he said he caught lightning in a bottle.
And Arnold Palmer. There could be no Nicklaus conversation on golf without Arnie in it.
At 72, Nicklaus said he doesnt play a lot of golf. What was a bit startling is that he said he doesnt miss playing golf.
I play it once a month, if I have to, he said, smiling. I stopped climbing the mountain. I love the game of golf, but golf was my vehicle to competition. When I lost my vehicle to competition and lost my golf game and my ability to play, I didnt really miss golf.
As Nicklaus said, he has other things to do. Hes still designing courses, still flying all over the country.
Ive never seen someone with more energy than Jack, said Peggy Kirk Bell, the longtime golf instructor at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club and a Nicklaus friend.
Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, have been married 52 years and have 22 grandkids. One of them, Nick OLeary, is a tight end for Florida State.
My plate, Nicklaus said, is full.
Nicklaus came to the Pinehurst area at the request of Dr. William E. Smith, once the pastor at Nicklaus Methodist church in Columbus, Ohio. Nicklaus took part in the Pauley Lecture Series, packing Owens Auditorium on campus and fielding questions from Jaime Diaz, senior writer for Golf Digest and Golf World.
The program was scheduled to last an hour. Nicklaus talked more than an hour and a half, and later patiently answered questions at a news conference.
Not all the discussion was about golf. Nicklaus talked of his parents and their German ancestry (a great grandfather was a boilermaker), and of his scary bout with polio at 13. He chuckled when asked about his basketball prowess, noting he was recruited to Ohio State to play basketball and was a pretty good shooting guard (I didnt like to pass it.) and a great free-throw shooter.
I played in a rec basketball league until I was 40, he said.
So much has been made of Nicklaus 18 major golf championships and Woods pursuit of Nicklaus record. Now comes McIlroy, young, talented, winning two majors at 23.
Hes fantastic, Nicklaus said. He has a great personality, hes a nice young man, hes humble, he handles himself well with the press, he handles himself well on the golf course. I really like him.
Nicklaus noted after he won the 1970 PGA Championship, the late Bob Green, the Associated Press golf writer, informed him he was just three major titles behind the 13 won by Jones.
I had never counted or paid attention to the numbers, Nicklaus said. Tiger has been doing it since he was 6 or 7 years old. He had my record 18 on his closet door. His whole life has been based on major championships.
Can Woods catch him? Nicklaus hears that question often.
Woods, at 36, has 14 majors but has not won one since the 2008 U.S. Open. He has had deep, troubling personal problems. Hes had injuries. Hes no longer the dominant force on the course.
What hell do from this point on, I dont know, Nicklaus said. Hes had a big change in his life and was away from the game for a while.
As for Woods much-discussed swing changes, under teachers Hank Haney and more recently Sean Foley, Nicklaus waved it off. You can be 200 yards away, see Woods swing a club and know who it is, Nicklaus noted.
Does Tigers swing look any different than it did 10 years ago? Not really, Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus recently was in Washington as Palmer, 82, was given the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor awarded a citizen by Congress.
The two old rivals still remain close friends. Nicklaus, with a touch of nostalgia, said he and Barbara once took many jet trips with Palmer and his late wife, Winnie, often engaging in bridge matches.
But when we played on the golf course, he wanted to kill me and I wanted to kill him, Nicklaus said.
As for Hogan, Nicklaus first played with him in the 1960 U.S. Open, which Palmer won and Nicklaus finished second as an amateur. The next spring, before the 1961 Masters, Nicklaus was pleasantly surprised when Hogan asked him if hed like to play a practice round.
He said, Got a game? Nicklaus recalled. That Ben Hogan wanted to play with a 21-year-old kid was a great honor and a great boost to my confidence.
But Nicklaus doesnt like to do too much reminiscing. He still has much he wants to do, saying he may soon be involved in another Pinehurst project.
Nicklaus designed National Golf Club, which opened in Pinehurst in 1989. Perhaps another Nicklaus course in the works?
Id love to come back to Pinehurst and do something else, he said.
Maybe even play a little golf.