Friday, February 21, 2014

Jack Nicklaus Thinks USGA Will Reign In Golf Ball

Jack Nicklaus received the National Golf Course Owners Association Award of Merit recently in Orlando. At the dinner where the award was presented, he commented on several topics, including the golf ball. He believes the USGA is close to making a change to roll back the golf ball distance.

"I don't think the rules are right about the golf ball," he said. He pointed the finger at the ball manufacturers who lobby for length.

The ball, Nicklaus said, is making almost all courses obsolete. According to Nicklaus, Augusta National is the only property that can spend what is needed to continue lengthening their course. "Nobody else has that kind of money," he added. 

He's not just talking about courses like Merion GC, which was thought to be too short to host a U.S. Open but did in 2013.

"The game has changed so much because of the golf ball. If they would switch back, all of the 17,000 courses that are obsolete would be championship courses again," he suggested.

Nicklaus said that, early in his career, most drives were in the 220-230 yard range, and now, many professionals and amateurs are able to get beyond 300 yards.

He said he has played with all kinds of different golf balls and equipment over the years. Prior to the worldwide acceptance of the large ball, he used to switch to the small ball to play overseas. He also changed equipment playing abroad, using Slazenger instead of MacGregor.  

The golf ball was not the only USGA topic touched on by the Golden Bear. 

Taking the long putters out of the game at this point is "like throwing deck chairs off the Titanic," Nicklaus said.  But he added, "They are the ruling body. If they say using the long putter is not a stroke, I support them."

When it comes to his career, Nicklaus noted that, while he had 58 second place finishes, he didn't enjoy any of them.

"But sometimes they stick out their hand and say congratulations," he added.  He heard congratulations a lot since he's had 120 victories around the world.

Surprisingly, amateur victories are at the top of Nicklaus' memorable titles. The Trans-Miss, which he won in 1958 and 1959, were the tournaments that led, he believes, to winning the U.S. Amateur title in 1959, and that led to turning pro.

"I made an eight-foot putt against Charlie Coe to win the U.S. Amateur, and that told me I could do that (play professionally)," he admitted.

Looking back on his career now, it is hard to believe Nicklaus ever lacked confidence. It was a series of successful steps that got him to where he wanted to go.

His 1959, U.S. Amateur victory led to playing in The Masters. 

Then, in 1960, while still an amateur, Nicklaus was two shots ahead of the field with six holes to go at the U.S. Open. Per, Ben Hogan, who Nicklaus played with in the final round, reportedly said Nicklaus should have won by 10.

"I told Arnold (Palmer, who shot 65 and won), if I had shot 69, nobody would have heard of you!" Nicklaus joked.  If Nicklaus had posted a 69, they would have tied. An 18-hole playoff would have ensued.  It would have been Palmer, the 1958 and 1960 Masters champ, against Nicklaus, still an amateur at the time. 

Of course, when Nicklaus finally won a professional event, it was a big one, two years later: the U.S. Open. 

"At Oakmont, I won my first professional event, beating Arnold in his own backyard," Nicklaus recalled. "They tell me the gallery favored Arnold, but I never heard them. Arnold was so gracious. He offered to split the gate."

At the time, gate splitting and purse splitting was commonplace in golf, although it is not allowed on the PGA Tour today.

Nicklaus said he told Arnold, "I would never do that to you."

The gate was $1400, which, at the time was a princely sum.

After entering the professional ranks in 1961, Nicklaus was represented by Mark McCormack, who was already the agent for Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. It was though McCormack that Nicklaus got involved in course design.
"Charles Fraser (of Sea Pines) called Mark and asked if I had done any design work. Mark said I hadn't yet," Nicklaus explained.  Fraser had contracted with Pete Dye to design the course but wanted Nicklaus to have some input. 

And so began a career that includes the design of 380-plus golf courses around the world.

"Pete introduced me to designing courses," Nicklaus explained. His first brush with course design actually came through Dye, prior to working on Harbour Town.

"We played amateur golf together," Nicklaus added about how he knew Dye. "Pete called and said. 'I'm doing a club for Fred Jones (The Golf Club, New Albany, OH, near Nicklaus' hometown of Columbus). Maybe you can give me some tips.'"

According to Nicklaus, he made some suggestions about an early hole on the golf course, and Dye adopted his ideas.

"I was flattered by that," Nicklaus said. "So Pete said, 'Maybe you'll consult (with me).'"

The deal was struck with Fraser for the Harbour Town project, and according to Nicklaus, he made 23 trips to Hilton Head. 

Fraser, meanwhile, had contracted for a tour event in May or June of the following year, a short window to complete the course.

"Harbour Town made my career," Dye has said on several occasions. One reason is that the first PGA Tour event held there was won by Arnold Palmer. Nicklaus agrees.

"If it hadn't been for Harbour Town, I might still be selling insurance," Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus (since he was speaking to an audience of owners) mentioned developers and owners who had faith in him early on, the ones who helped him launch the Nicklaus design brand. They were the Royal Canadian Golf Association (Glen Abbey), Jack Vickers (Castle Pines GC),Lyle Anderson (Desert Highlands GC and others) and Hall Thompson (Shoal Creek GC).

"My job first of all was to fulfill what the owner wanted," Nicklaus said about the courses he has built.

But he also pointed out, "Golf is like anything else that is successful where you have a real surge, and you are going to have lots of bad golf courses that are not going to survive."

We have seen that across the country, with the number of golf courses being reduced or converted to other uses, particularly housing in metropolitan areas. Nicklaus' number of 17,000 is actually more like 15,500 today (source: National Golf Foundation). Yet developers are still building courses, albeit most of them on the other side of the world. Today, most of Nicklaus' work is in China and Russia where the game is just beginning to take hold.

Nicklaus said golf today "takes too long, is too expensive and too hard."

He acknowledged that he has probably been part of that problem. To counteract the difficulties, he is working with SNAG Golf to introduce golf into park systems in six cities: Dallas, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Columbus. It is a pilot, learn-to-play program.

"It made sense to me to get golf into the parks," he added, hoping growth of golf might be a fraction of what the park systems have provided for other sports over the years.

Finally, a surprising disclosure.

Early in his pro career, Jack Nicklaus found himself having difficulty finishing off tournaments for victories. Joe Black, then the head of the PGA of America, which ran professional events at the time, offered him some advice. Black told him,"One of these tournaments you'll shoot 32 or 33 the last nine holes and win, and it will be fine."

He advised Nicklaus to have the patience to wait for that great final nine.  Needless to say, Nicklaus got the message.  

This article first appeared on

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