GREENSBORO, GEORGIA | You wonder why he still does it. Two Thursdays ago, Jack Nicklaus, three months shy of his 80th birthday, was shooting geese in a bog in Canada where he bagged his limit before lunchtime. Then he hopped on Air Bear 1, his private Gulfstream, and flew here for the grand reopening of Great Waters, the course he originally designed and recently renovated for Reynolds Oconee, a lakeside community between Atlanta and Augusta. Far from making a ceremonial appearance, Jack got up with the sun that Friday and rode the course with the superintendent and several of his associates from Nicklaus Design, as well as his wife, Barbara. On almost every hole, Jack asked questions and made comments.
“This was a wonderful opportunity 27 years ago to do a wonderful golf course on a wonderful piece of property,” Jack said of Great Waters. “The Reynolds people had the vision to understand that with 90 miles of waterfront, a little bit of it could go to golf that would be well worth the investment. They gave us more water than we ever asked for. I probably could have taken a little bit more off of the water. And I probably would (do that) today since I’m a little older and softer about those things.”
Jack is certainly softer, although by today’s standards he was never that hard. But there are also times when he flashes those exacting standards that won him 18 majors. During the cart ride around Reynolds, he saw 150-yard posts in the fairways, a standard feature of many resort courses. The posts not only help speed up play by giving players a visual cue for distance, they also provide an aiming point from the tee for those who might not know the course.
“I see the way the game is played as you get older. I have to tell you, I don’t see memberships anywhere getting younger. And as you get older, you appreciate more and more the addition of forward tees.” – Jack Nicklaus
“Those need to go,” Jack said. When someone in the group tried to explain the logic behind the posts, he said, “Pick them up.”
The posts were gone before the first group teed off.
But then the softer Jack re-emerged. He chatted, shook hands with a crowd of adoring fans, and answered questions thoughtfully and fully, as he has for years.
When looking at a golf course, even one that he himself designed, what does the 79-year-old Jack see that the 52-year-old Jack missed?
“A lot,” he said. “I see the way the game is played as you get older. I have to tell you, I don’t see memberships anywhere getting younger. And as you get older, you appreciate more and more the addition of forward tees. I’ve spent the last 20 years at the Bear’s Club putting in forward tees and I hope to take a bite at Muirfield Village next year putting in forward tees there. I’ve put in some forward tees (at Muirfield Village) but I’m going to put in a lot more.
“People take a lot of pride in where they play and where they live and they don’t want the game to pass them by. You want to make sure that as people get older you include them in what you’re doing. But you also know that time moves on and you have young people who want to join so you have to have a balance.
“I try to make sure golf courses are playable for everybody but also attract the better players who want to come out.”
The kinder, gentler Jack can be found in the courses he’s built in the last decade. No longer do Nicklaus designs have long forced carries with no bailout areas, or greens that can only receive shots hit sky high with loads of spin. Those changes are a reflection of the man himself. Jack looks to be in great shape for a soon-to-be octogenarian, but there is a slight glitch in his gate, a waddle that never existed as he prowled the fairways throughout his playing career.
“I really haven’t played 18 holes in the last 17 years,” he said. “I play but I haven’t put a ball on a tee at the first hole, holed every putt and said, ‘I shot this score,’ in a long time. I’ve cheated a little bit, given myself a few putts and got myself a handicap. I’m about a 6 now. And as you get older and don’t play as much, you realize what a humbling game it is. People of all walks of life and all skill levels want to play. As an architect, you want them to enjoy it.”
He spoke of other things – the golf ball, of course: “The distance report, I’m told, is coming out soon. But all they’d need to do is roll the golf ball back, even if it’s just 10 percent, it would make a huge difference,” a drum he has beaten for decades. He also praised Barbara and his associates in the design business. Overall, Mr. Nicklaus believes the game is in a good place. And so is he.
After a quick lunch at Reynolds, he loaded onto Air Bear 1 and flew to Dallas for an event honoring Payne Stewart on the 20th anniversary of Stewart’s death. Three locations, two countries, one grand opening, one gala dinner, and a goose hunt later, Jack headed home to Florida where he donned his grandson Nick O’Leary’s Miami Dolphins jersey and nestled in for a weekend of football.
The Golden Bear might be in his golden years, but don’t try to keep up with him. The man remains a marvel, even after all this time.
Jack Nicklaus still keeps a hectic schedule just shy of his 80th birthday. Photo: Steve Dykes, Getty Images
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