The Golden Bear on his annual party; galleries; and the famous handshake

Jack Nicklaus. Pic: Getty Images

The Golden Bear is always a delight to hear. And he is always at his best. And even more at his ‘House’ – the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village. Little wonder, then this week, even though it has been so different from all the previous 40-odd editions – in that it has no fans – Jack Nicklaus had the media and players all excited, even if it was a virtual meeting.


JACK NICKLAUS: I’ve been hosting for 45 years, and this is the first time I’ve hosted half a group, just players. Players and press. Anyway, it’s a little different, obviously. We prepared the same way. The golf course is good. Most of the guys probably played here last week. The golf course will be a little different this week. Greens will be a couple feet faster. Rough will be a week older and deeper. Be pretty dead, as they say. And greens should be firmer unless we get too much rain.

But you know, outside of that, it’s — I know that the TOUR did a pretty darned good job from what I could see going around yesterday. They tried to spread the divots as much as they could and tried to use some different tees so they didn’t have the same landing area all the time as the things we’ll have at the Memorial Tournament. We’re looking forward to it. We’re delighted to be just playing the golf tournament.

We didn’t have live sports there for a long time. Now we’ve got live golf, and we’ve had it, what, five, six straight weeks.

Q. How much energy did you gain from having galleries? Did they help you? Just curious your thoughts on that.

JACK NICKLAUS: Oh, I enjoyed playing in front of people. I think that I had played in front of people since I was probably 11, 12 years old. 11, the galleries weren’t very big; 12 got a little bit bigger; 13 we actually had followings, and that just continued, so I got used to it. I played high school golf where we didn’t have anybody following. Played some college golf where we didn’t have anybody following. We played — once we started playing significant amateur tournaments, we always had people. So I grew up with it. But I did play some without it. It really didn’t make a whole lot of difference to me.

I think as evidenced at Oakmont when I played against Arnold in ’62, I didn’t know anything that was going on. I always had my mind so focused on what I was trying to do that I didn’t really hear a gallery. I was really more interested in what I was doing, my game, concentration, playing the golf course and shooting a score. That’s what I was out there for.

Did I enjoy having people out there and applauding and admiring what you’re doing and congratulating you? Absolutely, everybody has got an ego towards that. But did it make any difference to my game? Not really.

 Q. Can you imagine the ’86 Masters, though, without having those fans there on the back nine for you?

JACK NICKLAUS: Well, the fans were great, but I don’t even know how much — I got a nice ovation, nice applause and everything else, but I was really into trying to play golf. The people were fantastic, there’s no question about that, as they were in ’80 at Baltusrol, they were fantastic, ’78 at St. Andrews. I mean, you’d had a few times in your life where the galleries just are unbelievable, and they were unbelievable at all those three tournaments particularly. And quite a few others.

But it’s still a game to the player, and maybe some players handle it differently. A lot of times I would walk up at about the — when I get a little bit nervous coming down the stretch, 15th, 16th hole I just stop and look around and look at the excitement that was there. There I did play to a gallery because there I could stand around and say, gosh, look at this, this is what I’m here for, this is what I play for, this is what I got myself into this position to do. I’d look around and sort of feed off of that and say, okay, now, this is why I’m here, this is what I’m trying to do, have fun, go enjoy it, go win this thing. That would sort of get me pumped up, and actually it was looking and feeding off a gallery at that particular time.

I suppose I used them at times for that kind of a situation. I just looked at a picture just before I came over here, I think it was last year on the 18th hole, and the sea of people. I mean, just every inch of the 18th hole covered with people, and I’m sitting there saying, wow. You just don’t realize it when you don’t see it how many people really actually came out and watched.

 Q. And for this tournament, did you get the sense that you were going to have fans and then no fans and that some players maybe would have been hesitant to play the Memorial if fans had been here? Were you hearing that just because of the safety or not?

JACK NICKLAUS: Well, I think it was the players’ choice and the TOUR’s choice at this point to say, we would prefer not to have fans, and because of the issue that they had, if one of them got sick, then not only were they exposed to the caddie, then exposed to players they had played with, they’d have to go sit for two or three weeks, and the TOUR is shortened already, so it makes it harder for them to make a living. I understand that, and I think that the TOUR probably made the right decision as it relates to The Memorial tournament. Maybe we are a little too early for the galleries. We didn’t have a problem with it. We would have loved to have — my goal putting on the golf tournament is to bring major championship type golf back to Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up. That’s why this whole event is being played. It’s not being played for the players, it’s being played for central Ohio.

But I understand it, and I actually think it was the right decision. When you’re not really — even the governor liked our plan and went along with it and was going to allow us to start to have a gallery and open it up to spectator sports. I applaud the governor and thank him very much for his great efforts to try to help us and the work put in by Dan Sullivan and his team here and all the things they put together to set up a plan that would work and was passed by the state of Ohio.

But in the end, the players — you know, you can’t have a dance without the dancing girls, and so you just — and I can understand where some might be very hesitant. I think we’re probably doing the right thing right now, and we’re going to have a good tournament either way.

 Q. Just following up on the fans question, do you think not having fans at majors this year will or would affect the competition in terms of the pressure and who can win?

JACK NICKLAUS: I don’t know. Have all the majors declared no fans? I don’t know.

Q. Not yet.

JACK NICKLAUS: Oh, okay, because I hadn’t heard that. Will it make a difference? I think it always makes a little bit of difference. It depends on the individual. Some people do feed off of people. Some golfers do. And I said earlier, I said, it was part of me, I was so used to it. I never really fed that much off of it, but sometimes you get a gallery that sort of pushes you on like at Masters in ’86 or Baltusrol in ’80 or St. Andrews in ’78. The gallery was part of that for me.

But still, I was working so hard on trying to do what I had to do and concentrating on my golf game that that’s where my focus was. It was not on the people.

But I think fans do make a difference, but yeah, we played a lot of college golf and amateur golf where we had some exciting matches and exciting tournaments without anybody watching.

And yes, he will be ready to meet the winner and shake hands on the 18th green on Sunday. But should the winner wish not to do so, Nicklaus is also ready for a fist bump or the elbow bump.

Q. Jack, a lot of the players have told me one of their favourite memories was shaking your hand after they won the tournament, but in this day and age have you thought about what you might do instead of the handshake?

JACK NICKLAUS: I’m going to shake their hand. I am going to walk right out there and shake their hand. If they don’t want to shake my hand, that’s fine, I’ll give them a fist bump or an elbow bump, but I’m not going to give them COVID-19, I wouldn’t put anybody in that position. I wouldn’t do that, and if I was in any danger of doing that, I wouldn’t shake their hands.

And incidentally, I like shaking their hand, too. I think that’s a great tradition, but it was as much fun for me as I hope it is for them.

Let’s wait for Sunday.

These may be Covid times, but Nicklaus is ready with a handshake for the winner at Memorial

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