With an unusual flurry of media requests (even for him) to discuss his 70th birthday on Jan. 21, Jack Nicklaus revived his annual “State of the Bear” news conference last week. Golfweek posed a few questions to the Golden Bear, who plans to celebrate the big day fishing for bonefish off Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Nicklaus spoke on a wide range of subjects:
To steal a line from Satchel Paige, how old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?
Good Lord; I’m not that old. Did you know that the first baseball game I ever saw, I saw Satchel Paige pitch? It was 1949, Yankees and the Indians. He played for the Indians at that time. The second game I ever saw was in Ebbets Field the next day. I saw the Cardinals with (Stan) Musial and the Dodgers with (Jackie) Robinson, (Roy) Campanella and (Duke) Snider.
In other words, how old do you feel?
I have too many people tell me I’m one of the youngest 70-year-olds they’ve ever seen, and I want to believe that. I play tennis 2-3 times a week. I play golf, if I want to play golf. I do anything I want to do. Outside of my arthritis, which is substantial in a lot of parts of my body, I feel great. I feel young. I really do.
You used to be able to shoot 70 falling out of your bed. Have you started to track how many times you’ve shot your age?
It’s easier to fall out of bed; that I can tell you. I shot my age about four times. I shot my age at 64; the next time was 68. I don’t think I did last year. I only played six or seven times. Now that I’m 70, it’s going to be a toss-up: falling out of bed or shooting 70.
Other than rolling back the ball, if you were the czar of golf, what are the top couple of changes you’d make now that grooves have been changed?
I don’t think I have to make any. You will find that the grooves will force the golf ball to become softer. The driver is going to have to change because you’re going to have to go to a softer golf ball. I think everything is going to change because of grooves. Which way and how far, I don’t know.
If Tiger doesn’t play the majors this year, how will it affect his chance of breaking your record of 18 major championships?
I don’t know the answer to what he’s going to do and what he’s going to play. He’s the only one who can answer that. Certainly this year, with where the majors are . . . he basically owns all three of those places (Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews’ Old Course). Whistling Straits (site of the PGA), I have no idea there. If Tiger is going to pass my record, I think this is a big year for him in that regard. If he doesn’t play this year, the chore will be a little tougher.
Can you reflect on your ability to maintain that fine level of focus and what it takes to sustain a career over time?
The reason I turned pro was to be the best that I could at a game. I played the game because I loved it. I played it for the sake of the game. The charge that I got from it excited me to be really good at something.
I never had the goals of winning so many majors. Majors were my focus because when I was young, Bobby Jones had said the lasting things are the four majors every year. A lot of things change, but those won’t change, and they haven’t. I geared my year to that, and it wasn’t until 1970 when I was at St. Andrews and I walked into the press room after I won and Bob Greene of the AP said, ‘That’s 10. Only three more to tie Bobby Jones.’ Honest to goodness, I can promise you, I never had added them up. I said, ‘Really? Gosh, I never dreamed of approaching Jones’ record.’ Then Jones’ record became a focus to me. In 1973, I passed Jones’ record at Canterbury. I made a focus on majors but never on numbers. It was just to play my best and be the best at what I did.
Did you ever feel your ability to play your best lapse and then recover?
Sure, I didn’t win a major from Baltusrol in 1967 until St. Andrews in 1970 . . . and 1979 was a terrible year for me. It was the first year I didn’t win a tournament. ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not that old a guy; 40 should be a good year for me.’ I treated myself as a beginner and went back to Jack Grout and totally revamped my golf swing. I ran into Phil Rodgers and asked him for help with my short game. My whole game was revamped, and I won two majors that year.
After that, I dropped off the scene. Winning the Masters in 1986 was kind of a freak happening. My focus and desire to win and compete left me. It’s very difficult to keep your focus for that long, for that many years without having periods of slowdowns and lulls without kicking yourself in the rear end for it.
What’s left on your short list that you haven’t accomplished?
My wife came up with something last week that I’d never dreamed of doing. We’ve never been to the Holy Land. I think for her 70th birthday, not mine, we are going to take a trip to Israel and do something that we’ve never done. I’m planning that. Whether that will happen or not, I don’t know.