Jack Nicklaus’ 80th birthday call with reporters was a reminder of a bygone era

January 15, 2020


Big Jack turns 80 on Jan. 21. The other day, anticipating the grand event, he had a little confab with reporters. Most of us were on the phone with him for about 45 minutes, but two of the Florida guys drove to the Nicklaus home in North Palm Beach and lingered some after it, along with Scott Tolley, Jack Nicklaus’s longtime aide de camp. You can see Lake Worth Lagoon from the house, a waterway to the Atlantic. Jack’s a long way from winters in Columbus. The Nicklaus family has been there, in Lost Tree, since 1970. Jack stays with what works.

The best thing about the conference was that it happened at all. Think about it: one of the most famous and accomplished athletes in history making time for some sportswriters. That must sound odd to anybody born in this new millennium.

One reporter (possibly from Arbor Vitae Today) asked Nicklaus about a tree that had been on the right side of the 6th hole of the Muirfield Village course when it opened in 1976 but was gone soon. Another asked about modern golf equipment. (Nicklaus said all golfers liked best the equipment of their heyday.) Someone else asked about when Nicklaus started giving players tips on how to play Augusta National. (Charl Schwartzel sat with Jack before the 2011 Masters and won it — that started avalanche!) Nicklaus talked about taking up skiing in his mid-30s. Various odd little odds and ends came up. I asked Nicklaus about one of his old nicknames.

Not “Carnac.” That one came from a Johnny Carson bit, Carnac the Magnificent, a hatted mystic who could answer questions on cards without even reading them. (Nicklaus did kind of know everything; Tom Watson was Carnac II.) Certainly not “the Golden Bear.” There are people who actually call Greg Norman Shark, no the. But I don’t know anybody who refers to Jack Nicklaus as the Golden Bear.

But, to digress in this digression, I do recall, 40 years ago, something funny Barbara Nicklaus said, playing off the bear thing. Jack was in a mini-slump, and Dave Anderson of the New York Times asked Barbara how Jack had been to live with through it. She said, “He’s been a bear.”

The nickname I’m referring to is more like a title: Big Jack. Years ago, I started hearing Tour players refer to Nicklaus as Big Jack. As in, “I heard Big Jack is playing New Orleans this year.” There was surely some awe and envy in it. I asked Nicklaus the other day if he was aware of the name. He was.

He was big in those day, he said. “I was about five eleven and three-quarters then, 205 pounds,” he said. Big for that time, he explained. There was no Bryson DeChambeau. “Now I’m probably five-eight and 200 pounds.”

I offered that Big Jack was a nod to his stature as well.

“I never took it that way, but if they did that’s very nice,” Nicklaus said.

The best thing about the conference was that it happened at all. Think about it: one of the most famous and accomplished athletes in history making time for some sportswriters. That must sound odd to anybody born in this new millennium.

The session was a renewal of an old Nicklaus ritual, a winter confab with writers sometimes referred to as the State of the Bear. Among the reporters who were regulars or semi-regulars on these occasions were Ed Pope, Larry Dorman, Tim Rosaforte, Craig Dolch, Jamie Diaz and others who mean a great deal to this reporter. They would hang and get to know Nicklaus and he got to know them. The other day, Bob Harig of ESPN and Tom D’Angelo of the Palm Beach Post were in Jack’s house. They surely experienced the same thing.

Nobody would expect Tiger Woods — or Tom Brady or LeBron James — to do anything like that today. It’s a different era. Nicklaus has Scott Tolley and Arnold Palmer had a man named Doc Giffin. Woods had a spokesman named Glenn Greenspan, who started with Woods in the fall of 2009. But he was let go in mid-December. Greenspan came up — with long stints at the PGA Tour and Augusta National before joining Woods — in a time where there were many more traditional reporters on traditional newspapers and magazines. That obit has been written.

In 2019, Tiger had, you could argue, the most interesting year of his professional career. Winning the Masters. Receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Playing a half-year of poor golf. Winning in Japan. Winning a Presidents Cup as a playing captain. And Tiger does a great job of making himself available to reporters before and during tournaments. He made wonderful remarks at the Golf Writers dinner in Augusta in April. But in terms of meaningful interviews about this most meaningful year, I know of only two.

There was his 30-minute session with Henni Zuël of GolfTV after the Masters and his six-minute session with her after the Presidents Cup. That’s it.

Zuël is a superb interviewer, and Tiger’s comfort with her adds to the appeal. But Tiger has a contractual relationship with GolfTV. He gets paid. Part of what GolfTV is doing, spoken or not, is enhancing Tiger’s brand. The only reason it works as well as it does is because of Zuël’s skill and personality. But it would be hard to imagine her asking Woods, “Are there any active ingredients in your chewing gum?” Or, “Can we go deep on Patrick Reed?”

Big Jack came up in a different era. He’s had a relationship with the Columbus Dispatch, the Palm Beach Post, Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest, GOLF Magazine and other publications going back 40 or 50 or 60 years. Reporters had the opportunity to get to know him. It was a two-way street. He figured it was good for him and good for the game, knowing he wasn’t going to like all of it. He figured it was part of the job. You could go deep with Jack on most subjects. He didn’t find it annoying. He liked it.

Nicklaus ended the session the other day by saying, “I see you all at the Masters press conference I’ve enjoyed it through the years. I hope to continue to enjoy it. Thanks for making me feel relevant.”

That last sentence actually cuts both ways.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@golf.com.