Upon returning to his signature design for the first time in 30 years, Jack Nicklaus addressed the media to offer his thoughts on Pawleys Plantation then and now, The First Tee, the state of the game, Tiger Woods’ resurgence, Johnny Miller’s retirement and more.
An abridged transcript of this media session appears below the video; click the video to view it in its entirety.
You’ve seen how The First Tee has grown over the last 20 years. What does it mean to you, to see that it does continue to grow?
Well, when we started First Tee, back 20 years ago, we knew it was a concept, but I liked the concept. What I like about it is, you’re teaching kids how to play golf, but it’s not about golf. It’s using golf as a vehicle to teach kids lessons of life. I thought that was far more important than just a junior golf school. You see the things, and the kids that come out.
I’ve had the privilege to speak in front of Congress, on three occasions I guess, and asking for money for First Tee and doing some things. One of the times I was there was a breakfast, and we had two kids, one from Oklahoma City and one from Jacksonville – a little girl from Jacksonville and a guy from Oklahoma City. Both of their parents were in prison or drug addicts. They were nowhere in life.
The First Tee took them. They didn’t play golf. Both of them became valedictorians of their class. Both of them are going to college on golf scholarships. To hear them speak was fantastic. The little girl now is a doctor, and the boy is a lawyer. I was in Washington, and he was an aide to one of the Senators the last time I was in Washington.
So, you see what’s happened through The First Tee. You see time after time and instance after instance of different kids that have benefited from The First Tee – where they’ve gone, where they’ve grown, taken them off the street, given them purpose to live and teaching them how to live life and good life lessons of how to treat people, how to be with people and how to grow. I thought it was a very, very important concept. That’s why we got involved with it.
As you see all of the (junior) golfers out here, how important is it for this younger generation to learn the game from someone like you who really understands that?
Well, they’re not learning from me. I was sort of a “showcase” today, you might say, or whatever you want to call it. They have all these volunteers and people who have given their time to be part of teaching kids. I think that’s really neat. I don’t think they care much about whether they really become champion golfers or not, but I hope that as these kids play a little bit of golf now, maybe they stop playing for 10 or 15 years, and all of a sudden they go back to golf. As they get older, they want to pick up a sport.
My father was that way. My dad played golf as a kid. He played football, basketball, baseball and started the golf team at Columbus South High, where he was. But then when he went to college, he stopped playing golf about in his mid 40’s I guess, when he broke his ankle, and had three operations on it.
All of a sudden he remembered that he played golf. He had to take up a sport that he could walk. If it hadn’t (been) for my dad breaking his ankle, and having three fusions and having to take up a sport again, and he knew about golf … So, it was like a lot of these kids, and that’s how I got started. I carried the bag for him, and started caddying that way, started learning. I got lucky I guess.
Do you like seeing the excitement (in today’s game)? There’s the resurgence of Tiger Woods this season, did you like seeing the excitement back on the golf course?
Well, I think there’s been a lot of excitement. There’s a lot more excitement than just Tiger. But Tiger coming back this year, I thought was great. I never thought he would come back, and do what he’s done. He’s played actually fantastic this year. They kept saying, “Well, why isn’t he winning?” I said, “Well, he hasn’t fixed the spot between his ears. These five inches here between his ears. Once he fixes that, he’s gonna be just fine.” He got the Tour Championship, he seemed to get it together and won the championship.
As you would expect, the next week was the Ryder Cup, and he was toast – as were a lot of the guys, because they work so hard. It’s obvious when you see somebody work that hard, and accomplish what he did, you gotta have a let down, so that’s okay. That’s fine. I just think that’s great that he’s come back. It’s great for the tour. It’s great for the game, and I’m happy for him.
What do you think his odds are of catching your career record of winning 18 majors?
Well they’re not as good as they were 10 years ago, but he’s got probably another good 10 years of tournament golf in front of him. Forty major championships to win five of them. Who knows?
What do you think of Johnny Miller’s retirement? Is golf commentary full-time something you would ever consider?
I did golf commentary years ago. I did some for ABC and some for CBS. I did about 10 years of it. It wasn’t something that I really wanted to do.
One of my favorite stories is, I was working for ABC at the time, in Oklahoma City when the PGA Championship was there. I’ve always said that, what you really want to do is, if you’re prepared you should be able to play. I wasn’t really crazy about the golf course, or at least I thought I wasn’t crazy about it, and I went out and I missed the cut. There’s nothing worse than missing the cut, then having to stay around for the weekend and talk about other people playing that golf course.
That night (after missing the cut), on Friday night we went out to dinner. Appropriately as it should be, we went to McDonald’s (which was what we could afford that week, because I played so bad!). My wife found a little cup that was (with) what do they call them? Happy Meals? The next morning I had tea or coffee or something in a little Happy (Meal) cup. On the cup it said, “There is no excuse for not being properly prepared.” And she’s right.
I don’t know how I got to that, but to me it was a great lesson of being ready to play and do what you’re supposed to do. If you’re not, you end up doing commentary, and talking about guys you don’t want to talk about.
I did that for a few years, and I really decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. I talked to Johnny, he called me the day he retired, we talked that night. I said, “What are you going to do?” He said, “Well I don’t know. Some people talked to me about doing this stuff, people talk about doing that …” I said, “Johnny, are you going to retire or are you going to do something?” “I don’t know.”
Nobody likes to retire. I’m 78 years old, I’m not even close to retirement. We all have fun and do different things. Johnny did a great job. I thought his commentary was very candid. He didn’t pull any punches, he shot straight from the hip, maybe a little too much from the hip sometimes, but that’s okay. That was his personality and that’s what he does, but he’s been a good friend for a long time and I support whatever he wants to do.
You’ve got courses all over the world that are really well known. When you look at a fresh course to design, what excites you about that?
Usually the property, depends where. We’ve done 40 states in the United States. (What, 46 countries, Scott?) Forty-six countries that I’ve done golf courses in, so I’ve traveled the world extensively you might say. Not only playing the game of golf, but also designing. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve had fun with it. Going to new markets, new places where the game is just starting or it hasn’t even started.
We just did a golf course recently in a country called Turkmenistan. The Turkmenistan golf course sits about nine miles from the Iranian border. Just to the east was Afghanistan. I was over doing a golf course there. I probably made, I don’t know seven, eight visits there doing it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The people were very nice. I did it basically for the government for tourism. Nobody in the country played golf, not a single person. And now, golf is going to be one of their sports.
So to do that, and grow the game of golf is fun. I enjoy that. I enjoy being part of that. It’s very rewarding when you turn around and you see it 20 years later.
That’s like China, when we started doing golf courses 20 or 30 years ago in China. We see young golfers coming out of China now, boys and girls. Same thing in Korea and other places, so it’s neat.
(On today’s rules of golf)
The game of golf, the rules of golf have always been fairly complicated. I’ve always thought that they should be common sense. Figure out what is logical, what should happen, what makes sense.
One of the silliest rules that I’ve always thought is, you’ve got a hole, you’ve got a water hazard on the left and you’ve got out of bounds on the right. You hit it out of bounds it costs you two strokes, you hit in the water hazard it costs you one stroke. Why? They’re both the same basic bad shot, so why should one be more than the other? The only way I look at it is, the guy didn’t have enough money or the property wasn’t available to buy the property on the right.
(On some of his recollections of Pawleys Plantation after seeing it again for the first time in three decades)
We opened the golf course (in 1988) and on the third hole (he played on that opening day), and an alligator came out of the water and took my ball off the green. You see the people scrambling to get out of the alligator’s way. It was a pretty good-sized alligator, too, and he’s probably still around here.
I remembered what I did over at 13 and 17 out on the marsh. I remember some of the trees that were instrumental in some of the things, and some of the looks of some of the holes. You know, you don’t remember a lot, but you remember some important things.
I thought the bones of the golf course were really quite good. There really hasn’t been anything done to this golf course in 30 years, and I think one of the reasons why they wanted me to see it is, what would I do now to spruce it up? Hopefully we will. It could use a little TLC. Like any golf course 30 years old, it’s time to have a little help, but the bones are there.
How important do you think the involvement of golf in the Olympics is to the future or development of golf?
I worked hard with Annika (Sorenstam) in trying to get golf into the Olympics. We were the two men and women that were the spokespersons for that. I felt that the Olympics were not going to make a lot of difference in golf in the United States, Great Britain or some mature golf markets, but to the rest of the world, an Olympic Gold Medal is the pinnacle of what goes on.
In golf, usually it’s the four major championships and with the Olympics coming along, to most of the world, that’s going to be the pinnacle of what the game of golf is. So you’re going to see golf grow tremendously in China, India, Russia, Brazil … large countries with large populations where very little golf was played before that.
I think it can only grow the game of golf, it will only help it. I think it’s terrific. I sure wish we had Olympics when I was playing. I’d like to have a gold medal.