Editor’s note: In celebration of Golf Digest’s 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature and journalism we’ve ever published. Catch up on earlier installments.
There are two protagonists in this story. One needs no introduction except his name, Jack Nicklaus. The other is the interrogator, Bob Verdi, who was a senior writer for Golf Digest and Golf World when this story was first published in July 2000. Bob was to press tents what Miller Barber was to the PGA Tour—a man of mystery with consummate skill and widely respected, known by colleagues as Mr. X. We worked together for more than a decade, and I always wanted to have dinner with him, but each request was invariably met with: “No, I’m meeting friends from Chicago.” Smartening up, I’d say to him, “I hear you got friends coming in from Chicago—would they like to go to dinner?” Bob just laughed. “I’m going to bed early,” he’d say.
Verdi’s Chicago connections were not incidental. For 30 years he specialized in baseball and hockey for the Chicago Tribune as the lead sports columnist. After a second career in golf, his third act is now as team historian for the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I’m from the old school when it comes to covering sports,” he said in 2004, upon winning the PGA of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. “I’m not of the ‘assassin’ school of journalism. I couldn’t get mad four or five times a week [writing a column]. I awaken every day looking at the sports world as games. It’s obvious that there are many problems in sports, and that is a selling point for golf. It’s the honor of the game and honor of the people in it that make golf great. We don’t have collisions, the blood, the guts and the criminal assaults dominating the news. Honor in golf sells and will continue to do so at the end of the day.”
The two interviews that comprised this article were conducted with Nicklaus on the occasion of Golf Digest’s 50th anniversary as Jack was ranked the No. 1 player of the past half century, an order still unshaken in the additional 20 years since. Jack and Bob sat down at the Nicklaus kitchen table in North Palm Beach, Fla., and then later in Carefree, Ariz., to reflect on the past and gaze into the future. Along the way Jack provided intimate, previously unrevealed anecdotes that illuminate the ups and downs of his life, including—spoiler alert—the admission that he once smoked marijuana. In typical Verdi humor, Bob’s retort was, “Did you inhale, Mr. President?” —Jerry Tarde
Not long ago, we asked Arnold Palmer how it felt to turn 70. You hit 60 in January, so …
Jack Nicklaus: I never made a big deal of it. When I reached 40, now that’s what I thought would be a traumatic time. But I played well, so I got over that in a hurry. In 1979, when I was 39, I had such a bad year, I thought it was all over. Thankfully it wasn’t. And 50 wasn’t that bad. I suppose 60 is just a number, too, except that I’m coming off a hip surgery and still in the process of learning how to play golf again.
I’m healthy, as far as I know. I’m still about 10 pounds too heavy as I eat this potato soup, which I shouldn’t be doing. I’m about 200, and should be 190. But I exercise a lot and I’m still on the go, so I should be able to get this off.
Speaking of which, there’s the old story about how Barbara would prepare the dough to make cookies …
And some of the dough never made it to the oven? That’s true. Or was. In the last year or so, I’ve gotten a sweet tooth for some reason. I rarely drink alcohol. In college, I drank enough beer to sink 10 battleships, but no more. And I don’t touch soft drinks. If I have a weakness, it’s probably ice cream. That’s where I get lax, sloppy. I’ll sneak into the refrigerator at night and take two or three bites and put it back. Butter pecan. Only two or three bites, but it shows.
Part of the lore of your marriage to Barbara is how you two spent your honeymoon: Did she really sit in the car while you played golf?
Not quite. We got married on a Saturday [after their junior year at Ohio State], and spent the night in Columbus. Sunday, we drove to Hershey, Pa. Jay Weitzel, who was the assistant pro at Scioto, where I grew up, was the pro at Hershey. We just happened to wind up there, and I’d always wanted to play there. So I played that Monday—Barbara walked 18 holes with me—and then we went to New York. Barbara always wanted to go to New York City, so our plan was to spend two weeks there in the middle of the summer.
We went to the Astor Hotel, which no longer exists. Remember the film “High Society”? Part of it was filmed there. Anyway, on Tuesday, we went all around the city, and that meant five shoe stores. Barbara is a shoe freak. You should look at her closet. She didn’t come from an affluent background by any means, but that didn’t matter when she was younger. She still had enough shoes to start her own store.
The next day, we went to Winged Foot. That’s Wednesday, and it’s pouring buckets. Not a soul on the course except me playing and Barbara walking. By Thursday, after two days of pouring rain, she said, “Let’s get out of here.” That was our honeymoon in New York: One round of golf at Winged Foot in the rain, five shoe stores and some jazz at night.
Where did you go from there?
Well, I asked Barbara where she wanted to go from New York City, and she said she’d never been to Atlantic City. Neither had I, so we were off. Of course, Clementon, N.J., is right on the way. You pass it. Can’t miss it. Pine Valley. I pulled into the club and had no idea it was a stag club. I ran into a fellow named Dave Newbold. He asked me what he could do for me, and I told him I’d just driven in with my wife and would like to play if I could.
Dave said, “I’m sorry? Your wife?” He explained the rules. He said I should go play while he took care of Barbara. He put her in a car and drove around the perimeter of Pine Valley, and whenever he could drive through a gate, he would, so Barbara could get a look at me playing.
I shot 74. I didn’t think that was a fair test, because I was on my honeymoon [ laughs]. We went on to Atlantic City, spent one day there, and decided to go home. But not before we bought five dozen cherrystone clams. Now I needed ice. I drove around for two hours to find some. By midnight, we were in Zanesville, Ohio, and the ice had melted. We were starting to smell an odor.
When we finally reached my parents’ house, it was 1 in the morning.
I started to steam a dozen clams, and my mother woke up. “What are you doing?” she said. I told her I was fixing up a late-night snack. She told me those weren’t the kind of clams you’re supposed to steam. “If you eat those, you’ll kill yourself,” she said. Mom took them and threw them in the garbage can. End of honeymoon.
You obviously married a very patient woman.
Wait, there’s more. First tournament I entered after we married was the Cajun Classic in Lafayette, La. A fellow down there invited us to go duck hunting. Naturally, it was raining again.
I did my thing and Barbara just sat there all morning. The next morning, we went hunting again, and I told her I wasn’t going to shoot any ducks unless she did, too. Of course, it was raining again. First flight of ducks came in, landed on the water, got spooked and flew away. Then the second flight. They flew away, too.
“Why aren’t you shooting any ducks?” she asked. I told her I wasn’t going to shoot again until she did.
Finally, the third group came in and all of a sudden I hear bang! A duck falls out of the sky. She said, “Nice going; you got one.” I said, “Barbara, I didn’t shoot.” It was her.
Another time, we were in Wyoming and this farmer friend of ours wanted to get rid of prairie dogs. They destroy the land. Barbara reluctantly took a gun, and from 200 yards she fired away. Boom, a prairie dog goes four feet in the air and comes down. She shot again. Boom, another prairie dog went four feet in the air. Took me almost an hour to get the gun back from her.
If people see you as the jet-setting golfer/entrepreneur, they don’t see you at your kitchen table, completely at peace.
I’d much prefer to be at home than on the road. When Michael left for college—he was our youngest—I told Barbara I had a new rule about tournaments: If she doesn’t go, I don’t go.
I don’t think she’s missed one since.
Could you have accomplished what you have without her?
Probably not. Barbara is such a stabilizing influence, her judgment is so good, and she’s taken on such a load of being a parent. I think I’ve been a good father, but as a mother, she’s been exceptional. If the kids did something wrong or ran into a problem and I was playing in a tournament, she never said anything until I got home. Then she’d say, “I think we need to talk. We have an issue.” Her timing was so good.
When I started on the tour, there were four or five really good young players. Phil Rodgers was one. Richard Crawford was another one. He was a two-time NCAA champion. Those are two players who come to mind. Rodgers never lost a college match. Both of those guys were more advanced than I was. Phil won the first tournament he played in—the 1962 L.A. Open, where he shot 62 in the last round. That was my first tournament as a pro, too, and I drew my first check: $33.33.
Neither of those guys was married then, and I think Barbara gave me a steadying influence that a lot of other players didn’t have.
People who don’t know you might see how driven you are in golf and your other businesses and deduce that you might not be much fun to be around, a tough guy to live with.
I probably am. The kids have turned out great, and I don’t know how much credit I get for that. Sometimes, I’m an ogre. I can be short. I’ll walk into the office some days and I’ve gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, and everybody knows it. I’m a perfectionist. I like to be organized, and I like to get everything done today. Maybe that’s the German in me: “I vil do zis now.”
I think about that often: What kind of a life would I have had if I hadn’t met Barbara?
How sensitive are you about the kids’ growing up in the long shadow of the Bear?
It has worried me on occasion, but there again, Barbara has established such a strong sense of family. I’ll tell you a story not many people know.
I was playing in Las Vegas, the Sahara Invitational, in 1967. I shot 62 in the third round. Barbara was pregnant. This was between Nan and Gary. That night, Saturday night, Barbara had a miscarriage. She’d had a difficult pregnancy. So, in the middle of the night, she had a miscarriage. She didn’t wake me up until 8 in the morning, because she wanted me to sleep. Finally, I got up and she says, “Jack, I think I need to get to a doctor.” She explained why. I couldn’t believe it. I took her right to the hospital and made sure she was OK.
I went back to play golf, won the tournament, she came back from the hospital, and the next day we went back home. That’s when she started to call me “Dishpan Jack,” because I did the chores while she rested. But she absolutely should have woken me in the middle of the night. No question about it. She put herself at risk.
Are you at peace with the world that your children will live in?
Times change. My parents probably didn’t feel as good about the world I was growing into as the world they grew up in. I mean, we had air-raid drills in school because of the threat of nuclear war. We don’t have any of that stuff anymore. But do I like the drug scene or the crime we see today? The security measures that have to be taken today in our society? Of course not. But that’s what things are.
Barbara says you’re a best friend to all your children, and very contemporary. How contemporary?
A long time ago, a college friend came to a tournament and we went to dinner. He asked me if it was OK to smoke. I said, “Of course.” He said, “No, Jack, you don’t understand. I don’t mean smoke what I always used to smoke. I mean marijuana.” So he did, and I asked him to have a puff to see what it tasted like.
Did you inhale, Mr. President?
I did, and by 8 o’clock that night, I was done. I was ready for bed. I never tried marijuana again, and I wouldn’t know what cocaine looked like if you brought it into this room right now. But I wanted to know about marijuana. I’ve got kids. I would guess they’ve tried it. I would be amazed if they haven’t.
But none of them has a drug or drinking problem. Steve used to drink a bit. But he hasn’t had a drink in years. One New Year’s Eve, he drank too much and got obnoxious. The next day, he called up everybody and apologized. He stopped drinking on his own, and I’m proud of that. Steve was the one who fell asleep at the wheel of a car years ago and got into an accident on Jack Nicklaus Freeway in Columbus.
You have to trust your kids. They have to experience life, and you just hope you’ve provided them a foundation for what’s right and what isn’t.
Barbara says when Steve and Jackie were young, they fought all the time. So much so that she was afraid only one would survive to see the age of 10. Now Steve has just bought a house next to Jackie.
Amazing, isn’t it? Two older brothers living next to each other. And all five of our children live within maybe 10 minutes of Barbara and me. I think that’s pretty neat. That’s more important to me than 20 trophies for winning majors. And if it weren’t the way it is in our family, I’d trade all those trophies to make it that way.
Has it ever been lonely at the top?
No, I don’t think so. I always had Barbara and the family. I have my friends, guys I spend time with. Arnold, Player—probably spend more time with those two than anybody. Watson and I go to dinner every once in a while when we’re together.
Arnold and I have had our differences of opinions on some golf matters, which is only natural. But every time there’s really been an issue in the game of golf, Arnold and I have stood side by side.
I saw what he said about our age difference. When he was 30, I was 20, and that’s a difference. So is 50 and 40, because he went to the senior tour while I was on the regular tour. There’s not a whole lot of difference, though, between 60 and 50 or 70 and 60. We play a lot of golf together now, and we still try to beat each other’s brains in.
The hip is fine. I’m still getting used to it. I probably went seven or eight years—maybe longer than that, since the mid-’70s—with something going on in the hip. Watching my swing, I could see this bobble in my hip area. So I was probably compensating for that as far back as then, maybe even into the ’60s. Now the hip is not an issue. Last year, I wasn’t strong enough to support what I was doing, and I wasn’t strong enough to hit a golf ball, either. Earlier this year, I couldn’t hit it out of my shadow. But I’m not so short anymore.
I still have that. But I also have all these dings affecting me like they never did before. Magnets on my hands, a foot problem. Arthritis. My knee. Then I hurt my back. It seems I wake up every day with something else wrong. So, right now I’m not real happy with my first few months of being 60. But I’ll work at it and see what happens.
Do you want to keep playing golf?
I want to if it doesn’t get ridiculous.
Well, I don’t want to keep doing it if I don’t do it well. I certainly don’t want to do what I did at Doral and shoot a pair of 75s.
But wouldn’t you rather play mediocre golf than not play at all?
No. Just going out there and playing doesn’t do it for me. It’s more fun not to play than to play badly. What’s fun is competing.
Let’s say, perish the thought, that you continue to shoot those 75s. Or a few more 81s, like the third round at the Masters. Are you concerned that it would tarnish the legend of Jack Nicklaus?
No, I don’t worry about that. What I’ve won is what I’ve won. There are a couple reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m 60. I have my last exemption for the U.S. Open this year. The British Open is at St. Andrews. Those two are the guiding lights. So, this is probably the last time I’ll play all four majors, unless I happen to win the U.S. Senior Open. I’m not likely to go back to the British after this year, unless I happen to play well there, which I don’t think is likely.
I don’t think so. I skipped the British a couple years ago. I skipped the Masters last year because of the surgery. Once the streak of consecutive majors ended [at 146, when Nicklaus didn’t play the 1998 British Open], it was no big deal.
How excited are you about this year’s Opens returning to Pebble Beach and St. Andrews—places where you’ve won?
If you would have me name three golf courses that I’d want to play majors on that I thought I would have my best chances to win on, I’d name Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. I think probably Pebble will be the easiest one to be competitive on now for me. Length shouldn’t be an issue for me there.
Besides Pebble Beach and St. Andrews being logical places to stop playing the two Opens at age 60, there’s my son, Gary. His qualifying for the tour is an added incentive for me to play, and maybe some added pressure, too.
What do you tell pros who knock the Old Course and don’t consider it a suitable venue?
Some players are saying they get to play three great courses for majors in 2000, then they go to Louisville to play the PGA Championship at Valhalla, which you designed.
I have my own criticism of Valhalla.
I think it was a little too bumpy at the start. It was done during a period when I was putting in a lot of mounds. I’ve since gone in there to try to soften it a bit. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a good test of golf. But I didn’t select it. If this is the last year I play all four majors, and the last one is at a course I designed, I’m very proud of that.
Is Valhalla the best course I’ve ever done? I think it’s a very good golf course. It just doesn’t have the history of the other three. I don’t know what is the best course I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t answer that if I could. I’ve got about 190, and they’re like children. They’re all equal.
Can you win another major?
I don’t know. I think if I stay healthy, I can play some good golf this year. Whether I’m good enough to win, I honestly don’t know. The likelihood is, probably not. But I’m not going to say no, and I’m not going to stop trying.
On the same subject: Do you think other players think you can win another major?
I don’t know why they would. I certainly haven’t given them much indication I can.
Is the senior tour any fun?
Oh, yeah, we have a good time. We had a real senior moment during the first round of the Tradition in March. One hole, Dale Douglass was walking all over Dave Stockton’s line on the green. Maybe three times. Then I called Dale “Dave.” Then I apologized to Dale for calling him Dave and he said, “That’s OK, I never heard you anyway.”
That probably wouldn’t have happened on the regular tour. If you walked in somebody else’s line, that guy would have gotten hot as the dickens. And if you had called somebody by his wrong name, you would have been corrected on the spot. Dale and Dave and I just laughed. We couldn’t have cared less.
A couple months ago in this magazine, Tom Weiskopf remarked on the commotion after Justin Leonard’s big putt in the Ryder Cup last September. He said you’d never see Jack Nicklaus running around like the Americans did. Your thoughts?
I wasn’t there, and I’ve only seen bits of it on tape, so I really can’t comment on that specific incident. But, around about 1983, I said to a lot of different people—the PGA of America, the players, the press: Guys, you’ve got to take control of the Ryder Cup. It can get out of hand. This is an international goodwill match—or it’s supposed to be—not a war.
Look it up. I said that more than 15 years ago.
When we won at PGA National in 1983, we were all happy and everything. But at the Belfry in 1985, I understand it wasn’t a pretty scene. At Muirfield Village in 1987, if you don’t think there was a lot of running around the green, look again. Granted, nobody had another putt to tie, like there was in Boston. But if people say there wasn’t a lot of running around on the greens when Europe won in 1987, people have short memories.
If you’re asking me what to do to bring it back to what it was, I don’t know the answer. I’m from another generation. That talk about bringing me back as captain again sometime in the next few years, that’s just what it was—talk. Press talk. I’m out of solutions, and I’m really out of touch. Besides, why would they want me? I was the first [U.S.] losing captain in the Presidents Cup.
And you’ve lived to talk about it.
I could see and hear some signs that our players are getting tired of doing this every year—the Ryder Cup, followed by the Presidents Cup, followed by another Ryder Cup. The guys started talking about being paid, not into their pockets, but in their names to charity, which is fine. Someday, they may be paid directly.
Tiger, one of your players in the Presidents Cup, frequently mentions how helpful you’ve been.
I don’t know about that. We’ve talked a little about the swing, but I don’t think he needs a lot of help. He’s a great kid.
I think I understand a little of what he’s going through. A little, because the magnitude of what he deals with versus what we had 20 years ago is different. This kid has been under a microscope since he was 5. When I saw him walking by fans wanting autographs and you guys asking questions early in his career, it struck me that he’s had to keep moving throughout his whole life to get anything done. If he stands still, he literally can’t get anyplace.
I didn’t even decide that golf was a significant part of my life until I was 19. By that time, Tiger was public property.
One of your well-chronicled theories about golf is that high-tech equipment makes it more difficult for the exceptional golfers to separate themselves from the pack. Doesn’t Tiger dash that theory?
It makes his accomplishments even better. He’s no fly-by-night golfer, and his game has very little to do with equipment. It’s potentially the greatest ever in the game of golf. Potentially. He has to have the desire to keep working, to break all my records, as he says he wants to do. And he has to stay healthy, stay in shape, not get hurt. Those are two big ifs. But if he does, I firmly believe he will break my records. My gosh, he holes every putt he looks at.
I made my share. And when you look at somebody doing that, you think, “How in the world is anybody going to beat that guy?” But when you start missing 15-footers, and a few five-footers, then it’s pretty easy for you to get beat. Look at Ben Hogan. Nobody hit the ball better than he did. And then when he stopped making putts, still nobody hit the ball like he did, but people started beating him. That’s the game.
What does Tiger do better than you did at that age?
Tiger doesn’t have any weaknesses. I did. My short game was a weakness, but that was because I felt I didn’t need it. I won without it. I think if I had needed it, I would have worked at it.
I didn’t work at it, though, because I could reach all the par 5s I wanted to reach in two; I could hit the ball out of the rough whether I hit the tee ball straight or not. If I did miss the green, I usually didn’t miss by much, so I would chip on and I used to make almost everything from inside 10 feet, anyway. So, why did I need a short game?
The difference today is that there are more guys reaching the par 5s in two against Tiger than there were against me. So he needs more weapons than I did. He needs a bigger bag of tricks, and he sure has ’em.
When you were at your peak, were you as far ahead of the pack as Tiger Woods seems to be ahead of the rest of the world now?
I don’t think I was as far ahead as he is. I think I had more good players. And I don’t mean there aren’t good players now, really good. But I don’t think anybody has come to the forefront the last few years except Tiger. David Duval did for a while, but outside of that, nobody has really stepped forward. When I was playing my best, there was Lee Trevino or Tom Watson or Johnny Miller and of course, Arnold. At one time or another, each of them was there, or a few of them. Ben Crenshaw, too, and Tom Weiskopf.
I just don’t think the guys now have stepped forward. They all seem to fall on their faces coming down the stretch. The guys you’d think would be there at the end with him just don’t seem to be there.
Isn’t part of that due to the same intimidation factor that existed when you were playing? You know, Jack is in fifth place on Sunday, yet everybody’s chasing him.
It’s probably identical. I don’t know if he’s longer than I was off the tee, relative to the other guys. Probably not much different. I never lost a driving contest… I’ll take that back. I lost one to Deane Beman. That was when I was 20 years old, at the International Four Ball, I believe. Deane hit a drop kick that ran for nine miles.
Let’s go back a ways. When you started out as a pro and dethroned the King, Arnold Palmer, in his backyard at the 1962 U.S. Open, the public wasn’t nearly as fond of you as it is now. How did you take the cold shoulder then?
I was oblivious to it. That’s how I took it. I didn’t know it was there, honestly. I went out to play golf. That’s it. Now, by the time we got around to Baltusrol and the 1967 Open, I was not oblivious to it. The first few years, it never entered my mind whether I would be accepted or not, or whether it was even important. I played with blinders on, I suppose. As far as I can remember, the people at Oakmont were very nice to me. I wasn’t Arnold Palmer; I was some kid playing golf. I never thought about who got the most cheers or who felt the most warmth. I always thought a sporting event revolved around who did what, not who got the most applause.
What happened at Baltusrol?
I started to notice signs. “Go, Arnie.” And “Hit it here, Jack,” in the rough [laughs]. By that time, obviously, I became aware of it and, yeah, that hurt a little bit.
Why was Arnold so much more popular than you?
Arnold was more popular than anybody. It didn’t matter who you were. It still doesn’t. Arnold is Arnold. There never has been anyone like him before in the game of golf, and there probably won’t be another like him again. But I never begrudged him that. We all are grateful for the contributions he’s made to our sport. Whether it’s me or somebody who’s 100th on the money list, he was great for our game, and still is. That doesn’t mean people don’t like me.
When did you feel the tide turn?
Oh, probably the early ’70s. And let me make one thing clear: If the public was cool to me at the start because they were so fond of Arnold, Arnold was never cool to me. I never had to fight Arnold. He treated me great from Day 1. He tried to help me, he gave me advice, we traveled together, we did exhibitions, we’re great friends. I may have had to fight his galleries, but I never had to fight him.
Around the time you felt the attitude toward you warming up, you changed somewhat physically.
Yeah, I lost some weight, but I didn’t do it for the galleries. I did it for my health. Throughout the ’60s, when I was on the heavy side, my doctor kept saying, “Jack, you’ll know when you have to lose weight. You’re playing great. Some day, you’ll get tired, and you’ll know.” Well, when I finished the Ryder Cup in ’69, I came back and I was tired. So I told Barbara I was going to lose weight, and I did.
At the same time, hairstyles got longer. So I let my hair grow. So people looked and saw a “new” me, I guess. But I didn’t do it for anybody but myself. Did I enjoy looking better? Absolutely. Everybody likes to look better. Did I have a problem receiving more approval by looking slimmer? No. But did I do it to be more popular? Of course not.
During your career, you snatched a lot of victories from players who appeared ready to win. But you were on the other end, too.
I can throw at least two at you. Can I make a trade? Like which 10 tournaments do you want if I can have the ’72 British Open or the ’82 U.S. Open? The ’72 British at Muirfield obviously hurt. I’d won the first two legs of the Grand Slam, I was playing my best golf, but Lee Trevino chipped in for a crucial par on No. 17 and beat me by a stroke. Otherwise, I would have gone to Oakland Hills [site of the ’72 PGA Championship] going for the Grand Slam.
But if I ran into a genie and he granted me one wish to have one back, it would be ’82 at Pebble Beach. That would have made five U.S. Opens. Nobody’s done that. I really thought that was mine. Jack Whitaker was by the 18th green, congratulating me on TV. There was a monitor behind us, and then we heard this big roar. Oops. Tom Watson had chipped in for birdie at No. 17.
Who would be on your all-time, all-star golf team?
For ball-striking, I would have Hogan and Trevino. My putters would be Palmer and Watson. Best driver, Arnold and Greg Norman. Best iron player, Hogan. Best bunker player, Player. Best chipper, Watson. Most imaginative, Seve Ballesteros. You notice how all those players were ones who won a lot of majors?
What’s the best shot you ever hit?
Probably three 1-irons. In 1967, the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, I had 238 yards uphill and into the wind on the last hole. I knocked it on the green, and made the putt to break Ben Hogan’s record [275 for 72 holes at the Open; Hogan’s 276 had stood since 1948].
In 1975, I hit a 1-iron on No. 15 at Augusta in the final round of what a lot of people have called the most exciting Masters ever. I had 246 yards to the flag, which was back right, and I almost holed it. I couldn’t have hit it any better. I thought I might even have a double eagle, and I was so pumped up about it, I missed the eagle putt from about 10 feet. But I made birdie and wound up beating Miller and Weiskopf by a shot. That might have been the best full swing I ever took.
The 1-iron I hit to No. 17 at Pebble Beach in 1972 [U. S. Open] has to be up there, too. I hit it low and pure and the ball almost went in. It hit the flagstick and wound up only a few inches from the hole. I won that Open by three shots over Bruce Crampton.
Putts? I remember a tough 12-footer that I made for birdie on No. 16 to win my first Masters in 1963, and the 40-footer I made there in 1975. Then in 1980 at Baltusrol, that 22-footer on No. 17 of the last round in the Open.
I beat Isao Aoki by two, but that birdie on No. 17 sure felt good. That was Father’s Day, and we went to McDonald’s for burgers and shakes, because that’s where Michael wanted to go.
You mentioned your first Masters victory in 1963. That started your green-jacket saga.
Yeah. When I won that year, I came out and they had a 46 long ready for me to put on. It looked like an overcoat. It was several sizes too big for me. When I came back the next year, they still hadn’t fit me. You know, you don’t take the green jacket out of Augusta National, at least you’re not supposed to. Anyway, that next year, they gave me Tom Dewey’s jacket—the governor of New York—and I wore that for a long time. Eventually, Hart, Schaffner and Marx started making some Masters jackets, and I asked if they would make one up for me on my own. If Augusta isn’t going to make me my own jacket that’ll fit, I’ll make my own.
I never said anything for all those years, until a couple years ago when I mentioned it to Jack Stephens, who was then the club chairman. He couldn’t believe it. I told him not to worry. Why ruin a good story? But the year they honored me, 1999, I found a note in my locker from Jack. He wanted me to go to the pro shop and get fitted for my own green jacket from Augusta National at last.
Do you see yourself as one of the ceremonial starters at Augusta National, maybe with Arnold and Gary Player? As Byron Nelson and Sam Snead still do, and as Gene Sarazen did before he passed away?
Would I object, if I made it to 90, to hitting a ball off the first tee for old times’ sake? No. But would I like going around Augusta, shooting 85 on a regular basis? No. I don’t want to shoot 85 anywhere. I don’t like shooting 75. That’s pathetic for someone like myself who has worked his tail off.
Is it true that by winning the 1986 Masters, you saved your business?
No, I can’t say that. Financially, I don’t think winning then made that much of a difference. Did winning then come at an opportune time for somebody not to shut the door on Jack Nicklaus? Perhaps. It’s not like on that Monday morning in 1986, the cash registers starting ringing. But MacGregor did sell a lot of putters.
You did take a couple hits right about that time.
A project in New York and one in California–a couple of developments where I shouldn’t have signed my name to the paper. They both cost me a lot of money, and there was the potential for me owing even more. Was I in trouble? Sure I was. I could have owed a lot more than I was worth, put it that way.
Your course management is so meticulous. Do you not have that knack off the course?
On the course, it’s just the ball and me. Off the course, you are to a great extent dependent on others. If it had been just the ball and me in all my business ventures, I like to think there wouldn’t have been all those blips. But in golf, it’s different. Only you suffer. Golden Bear [Golf] Inc. potentially cost me more than either of those two other projects. Well into nine figures.
I made a very, very big tactical error about 10 years ago. I always wanted my kids to be involved in my businesses. So in the late ’80s, I took the money I was making and reinvested it in other businesses. At the time, about 90 percent of Golden Bear required me to be personally involved. If something had happened to me, Golden Bear could have gone south. So I invested in businesses that didn’t need my personal time. Golf centers, a golf course construction company. Then it became evident that I had the capital to take the businesses only so far. That’s when we went public, and to make a long story short, it didn’t work out. We’re now taking back the company privately. I feel terrible about it. I lost a fortune myself, and those who had faith in me also lost money.
Hindsight is always 20/20. I should have stayed with our core businesses and invested instead with money managers in the proper places. I would have no headaches. I’d be very wealthy, and so would my kids.
Am I financially OK? Yes, absolutely, and so are my kids. But I could be a lot wealthier, and things could have been a lot easier. Getting on an airplane tomorrow could have been an elective event instead of mandatory. Right now, I’m still working because I think I have to. I probably don’t, but I work anyway. I made the wrong decisions for the right reasons.
Did you trust too many people?
Always have. And I feel bad for the people who trusted me, who saw Jack Nicklaus as chairman of the board of a company and lost money because of it.
And you’re supposed to be enjoying life at this point.
I am, basically. It’s just that things got more complicated than they had to be. And I am slowing down. I’m going back to what I should have been doing all along—designing courses, and an endorsement-licensing business. I don’t think my earning power has been hurt too much by what has transpired. We’ve been lucky.
Is there ever a day when you have nothing to do?
Not very often. I’ve had too many Saturdays and Sundays off lately, if you know what I mean. The Saturday after Doral, where I missed the cut, I didn’t have anything scheduled, so I cleaned out three closets that needed cleaning for years. One year after I missed the cut at Honda, we wound up with an entire new sound system for the house where we’ve lived for almost 30 years. Surround sound, movie theater, new television. The whole thing. That’s more expensive than cleaning closets.
Do you ever go outside by the pool, sit in the chair, look out on the water, and just relax?
That’s a problem. I don’t allow myself time to go out there and sit on a chair by the pool. I haven’t been to the beach in I don’t know how many years, and we live a minute from it.
But you do go on vacation. It isn’t all work, work, work?
No. I have my fun. Don’t get me wrong. I take the boys on fishing and hunting trips. Barbara and I get away every so often. But I do still enjoy my work, designing golf courses. And I still enjoy playing golf—at least when I play respectable golf.
Is it important to you to be remembered as the greatest golfer ever?
In my lifetime, if people choose to remember me that way, that’s probably what I’ll be. But it’s like a golf tournament. If you try your best, and somebody plays better, you tip your hat to him. Which is what I would do to Tiger or anybody else if they break my records. Besides, I had my century. Tiger can have the 21st. I know I won’t be the greatest golfer of this century.