For people of a certain age, Jack Nicklaus is the most dominant golfer of all time, a ball-striking, putt-making machine who helped propel golf onto the national stage. For those who are younger, the millennials, he may be just a name – the guy with 18 major championships who set the standard Tiger Woods has been trying decades to reach.
For me, Nicklaus' contributions to golf are a little more personal.
I spent my youth in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, living on and playing the course at Wabeek Country Club that had been designed by Nicklaus and famed architect Pete Dye. Pictures of Nicklaus and his peers decorated the clubhouse. As the elevated greens and beefy water hazards ate up shot after shot – even when my handicap was in the single digits – I'd curse and wonder, “What were they thinking when they built this hole?”
There was also this legend about the tree on No. 7, smack dab in the middle of the fairway of what was already one of the hardest holes in Michigan, a tree that was so unfair and talked about that it became the logo of the country club itself. As the story was told, Nicklaus didn't want that tree there, but workers removed the wrong one and he got so angry that he took his name off the course.
“I don't know (the story). I don't think that's true,” Nicklaus told me Tuesday, shaking his head after playing at Sycamore Hills Golf Club, another course he designed.
Ugh, sometimes the illusion is better than the truth.
But sometimes what you see does meet the legend, such as Nicklaus' performance on Sycamore's 18th hole, where he drained a 50-foot putt – from 40 feet off the green – in front of a packed patio to finish the National Pro Scratch Invitational.
Nicklaus, 79, has always been clutch.
“It was one of the few decent shots I hit all day,” Nicklaus said. “I didn't hit very many because I don't play much golf anymore, and my golf game shows it.”
Nicklaus, who plays about only once a month these days, came at the invitation of Tom Kelley, president of the Kelley Automotive Group and probably the greatest amateur golfer in Fort Wayne history with nine City Championships. Kelley and his late father, Jim, hired Nicklaus to design Sycamore Hills in 1987. In fact, Nicklaus and Tom Kelley were the first people to play the course when it opened in 1989.
Nicklaus has been at Sycamore Hills about six times since then.
Playing the course now for him is like seeing a kid all grown up; no matter how much planning you do, you can't accurately predict what the future will bring. That's why a redesign took place in 2014, under the guidance of Jack Nicklaus II and the Nicklaus Design team, which lengthened the course to make it more suitable for the long hitters of today.
“The course has matured,” the elder Nicklaus said. “The trees are obviously bigger. There are new problems because of the vegetation growth and you have to solve those issues. The course is in beautiful shape. The superintendent (John Thompson) has done a wonderful job with the golf course. ... It's a good test.”
Nicklaus estimated he's designed 315 courses, so it's amazing that he would remember the details of Sycamore Hills, Wabeek or any other. But he's sharp, able to give you the ins and outs of the Ohio State football team or the NFL's Miami Dolphins, who have his grandson, Nicklaus O'Leary, among their tight ends.
As for Woods, who resurrected his career with a win at The Masters this year for his 15th major championship, Nicklaus was noncommittal on whether his own major record is in jeopardy.
“Well, we'll see,” he said, alluding to Woods' ailing back. “I thought he did a great job coming back. I've had people ask me for a long time, 'Can Tiger win again?' And I've said, yeah I thought so because anybody with the short game he's had would figure out how to hit it around the golf course and win. Whether he'll win more or not, I don't know. ... I wish him well and I know what he did at The Masters was pretty special.”
Almost as special as getting to walk a few holes at Sycamore Hills with the greatest golfer of all time.
Justin A. Cohn, senior writer for The Journal Gazette, has covered Fort Wayne sports since 1997. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 260-461-8429. You can also follow him on Twitter @sportsicohn.