Jordan Spieth Is Following Jack Nicklaus’ Lead — On and Off the Course

May 26, 2016

You may be too young to remember Arnold and Jack at Oakmont in ’62, when they met in a playoff to decide the U.S. Open and first assumed the roles that they’ve been playing ever since. But you know about it, right? Maybe you’ve read the write-ups in various books and magazines, seen the black-and-white highlight reels, watched the Ross Greenburg documentary. “I didn’t know I was dethroning a king,” Nicklaus once said. “I was a 22-year-old kid with blinders on.”

Not only is Jack Nicklaus the greatest golfer of all time, he’s also the game’s greatest talker. Lee Trevino, when he was still coming around, was wittier and more incisive, but nobody discusses golf with more depth than Nicklaus. It’s been a gift. Jordan Spieth has received more from Nicklaus—in the way of instruction, history, insight, path—than he could possibly know. As have we all.

You probably saw Arnold and Jack on the first tee at Augusta in April, ringing in another new year. Jack looked heartbroken, really. He was in his golf duds, ball and driver in hand. Arnold was in his green jacket, using Ben Crenshaw as a human cane, bent in the early sunshine, bathed in applause. The Arnold-and-Jack saga is so entwined that you can’t tell the story of one without the other. The long-running hit Arnold and Jack is music by Arnold, book by Jack. Jack’s eyes were welling as he stood on that first tee, and it wasn’t just the cool morning wind.

Nicklaus played the inaugural shot of the 80th Masters alongside Gary Player, and then the two old lions came into the media center. For more than 75 minutes—first in a press conference, then in a scrum, and finally in one-on-one sessions—they talked. Nicklaus answered questions about Arnold, Gary, Oakmont, Augusta, the game as it was and as it is, his wife and their children and their grandchildren. He didn’t bring up his one-time experiment as a pot smoker, although on one memorable occasion, he even talked about that.

“I think everybody was happy to see Arnold out on the tee,” Jack said. He is 76, a long decade younger than Arnold. “I think Arnold was happy to be on the tee. I think he would have preferred to hit a golf ball.” Three simple and true statements. Borderline profound, really.

Nicklaus happened to be responding to a question from Scott Michaux of the Augusta Chronicle. But as Dave Anderson, the retired New York Times columnist, has pointed out, Nicklaus didn’t care if you were from ESPN or the weekly in Dubuque, “He was going to answer your questions.” Anderson covered them all: Ali, Mantle, Gretzky, Montana, Woods—everybody. Nicklaus, Dave will tell you, was “the best.” The best interview subject ever. Big Jack.

For the April issue of GOLF, Nicklaus looked at photos from his ’86 victory at Augusta and provided insight into what he was doing and thinking. We trumpeted his remarks as an “exclusive.” Not our finest moment, in part because, as noted, Jack will talk to anybody. Late in that Thursday morning session at Augusta, with his stomach gurgling for breakfast, Nicklaus answered one-on-one questions from a reporter asking about Dave Ragan, runner-up to Nicklaus in the 1963 PGA Championship. Now multiply those four minutes of stand-up by a million. I’ll never forget the first time Nicklaus said to me, as we were wrapping up, “You got enough?” Turns out, he says that to everybody, and concludes his sessions with a wink or a handshake or both. That he remembers your name is just a bonus you can take to your grave.

On Masters Sunday, I happened to see Gary Player giving an impromptu clinic at a country-club driving range in the far reaches of Augusta. When he was done, I walked him to his car and thanked him for the Thursday-morning tutorial he and Jack had given us, and the game. I asked him if he had a mentor in the area of press relations.

“No, no, nothing like that,” he said—and when he went for “we” in this next part, he of course meant the Big Three. “We wanted to grow the game, we wanted to promote the game, and we loved talking about the game,” he said. “It was good for golf, and it was good for business. You guys had questions, and we answered them. There was nothing exceptional about it—it was just common decency.”

On Sunday night at Augusta, despite that excruciating quadruple he had made on 12, Jordan Spieth stood outside the old white clubhouse and honestly and thoroughly answered the queries sent his way. He was 22, as Jack had once been at Oakmont. Nicklaus was the same person, in victory and defeat, in good times and in bad. And here was Jordan, standing where Jack has stood. Golf, among other things, is about being a good loser. That has been Jack’s ultimate example. The kid is following his lead.