DALLAS — Sometimes you just have to pinch yourself and then just relax and soak it all in, cherishing the moment.
Such was the case on a pleasant Sunday afternoon at the Dallas Athletic Club when 10 or so sports media representatives sat and visited with the greatest golfer of all time.
The occasion was a special one-day visit to DAC by Jack Nicklaus to celebrate the club’s centennial year. It was at DAC that Nicklaus won the PGA Championship in 1963, his third of 18 majors. Being played in May for the first time this year, the PGA was always an August tournament so it was played in barbaric Texas heat that week in 1963. It was so hot that there is an iconic picture of a young Nicklaus hoisting the Wannamaker Trophy draped in large white towel to combat the sizzling conditions.
Founded in 1919 as primarily a downtown facility for dining, swimming and handball, DAC now features a 36-hole golf facility atop 340 acres of rolling land at the eastern edge of Big D, very near Mesquite. The courses opened in the late 1950s and Nicklaus, through his course-design business, has supervised improvements to both through the years.
DAC general manager Brent Burkhart has commented on several occasions how both Nicklaus and the club have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship dating back to his 1963 win. A win that is fondly remembered by Nicklaus on a daily basis because of a money clip he carries that was given to him for winning the long-drive contest that year. The Golden Bear, as he is known, smashed a drive over 300 yards in those days of persimmon wood drivers and soft balata rubber balls.
On this glorious springtime afternoon, in the shade of the clubhouse porte-cochere, The Golden Bear is holding court and the media contingent is loving it and hanging on every word.
“Do I enjoy Tiger Woods chasing my record,” Nicklaus said, repeating an early question from the media assemblage. “No, not near as much as the last eight years.”
Nervous laughter erupted so Nicklaus said he was kidding. He said he has spoken to Woods frequently and told him that though nobody wants their record broken, he wants Woods to remain healthy enough to continue his quest to do so. The 43-year-old Woods, after almost a decade of being plagued by injuries, is back in the limelight seeking to tie or break Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. With the Masters win last month, Tiger is now at 15 and looking for more as the PGA Championship is next up beginning on Thursday at Bethpage Black on Long Island, New York.
“With his win at the Masters, he has certainly created a big spark for the game,” Nicklaus said. “And I think he is swinging better than I have ever seen him swing before. Up until the Masters, I wasn’t sure if the five inches between his ears were calmed down and giving him confidence. But I think they have now. He has won at Bethpage and will be very competitive there.”
Nicklaus earlier told the DAC members that he knew Woods would win the Masters while watching last month when the others in contention “filled up Rae’s Creek” on the 12th hole and Tiger played a smart and conservative shot to the middle of the green.
“I knew right then that he would remember how to win because that’s what happened to me in 1986 when I got into a similar situation. And sure enough, he played well and hit the shots he needed to hit coming in.”
Before sitting down with the media, Nicklaus toured all 36 holes at DAC with a contingent of members, reviewing the latest improvements to the course. On the final green, he was asked some interesting questions by the members. One concerned his nickname and emblem, The Golden Bear.
“It started with a writer commenting that I looked like a golden bear during one of my early tournaments. I was much bigger then so when we were looking for an emblem for a shirt line, I mentioned that the nickname for Arlington High School in Columbus, Ohio, was the Golden Bears so let’s just go with that. I have always been a Golden Bear.”
A common theme for Nicklaus through the years has been slowing down or rolling back the golf ball so that courses like DAC do not become obsolete.
“We are currently redoing a course in the northern part of the country that is only 5,900 yards and so I said let’s keep it that distance and look into using a 70 percent golf ball to make it challenging,” Nicklaus said. “The USGA likes the idea and so do the ball manufacturers. I see it as kind of a forerunner of that approach to playing a course. The golfer goes into the pro shop and asks for a certain kind of ball before playing that day to create the challenge that he or she wants. So we’ll see how that goes. I like the idea because it is just too expensive to keep making the courses longer.”
Now 79, Nicklaus said he “can’t hit it out of my shadow” and plays the forward tees whenever he tees it up.
“I now play at about 6,000 yards and still can’t break 80 most days. But the point of the different balls is to let everyone enjoy the game and find their own level of challenge.”
The conversation with the media continued with Nicklaus talking about how he set his schedule during his prime years on tour. It is a topic in North Texas with Woods and others like Rory McIlroy seldom playing in the area.
“I always looked at the courses I liked such as Pebble Beach and others and knew I would play there,” he said. “And then the four majors were penciled in and that left other tournaments and I would try to spread myself around to pacify certain folks who wanted me to play at their tournament. But the Texas tournaments have good fields. It’s hard for all tournaments to get fields like at a major.
“I never played Colonial very well because the prevailing wind there is tough on someone who hit the ball from left to right like I did. But I did manage to finally win there and I’m proud of that. I always liked the course and the tournament so it felt good to win there.”
Nicklaus also won back to back Byron Nelson titles in the early 1970s when the tournament was played at Preston Trail.
Gracious with his time, Nicklaus asked for any final questions.
He was asked about retirement and to that Nicklaus quickly said, “retire to what?” More laughter ensued as he expounded on his current lifestyle that involves a lot of travel with his course design business. He also said he spends a lot of his time working with his wife Barbara for their charity foundation to help children receive high quality medical care in South Florida.
“It is very rewarding to work with her on the foundation because seeing a child get well is a lot more rewarding than making a four-foot putt, I can tell you that.”
Someone piped up with, “what was your greatest contribution to the game?”
Nicklaus paused and thought about that one.
“Golf has given me so much, all because I was able to make a few more putts that some guys and so I don’t know, I have always tried to help grow the game and will continue to do so.”
And with that, The Golden Bear adjourned the meeting and headed for the clubhouse and a luncheon with the DAC members. The greatest golfer of all time has to eat just like the rest of us.