Leadership Links supporter Jack Nicklaus and AJGA Executive Director Stephen Hamblin hosted a spirited discussion for tournament participants and their families after the first round of the Rolex Tournament of Champions at PGA National Resort & Spa.
Nicklaus, an 18-time Major champion, shared a number of stories from his longtime career. Topics of conversation focused around his junior golf and college days and included the importance of family, Nicklaus’ college playing career, memories with Arnold Palmer, his Foundation’s work in supporting children’s healthcare and what made his 1986 Masters victory so remarkable.
Hamblin and Nicklaus share a common bond, each with five children. They opened the evening discussing the balance of career and family. Without hesitation, Nicklaus smiled and said, “I have a great wife. … Family is the key to anything.”
2019 Rolex Junior Players of the Year Maxwell Moldovan of Uniontown, Ohio, and Rose Zhang of Irvine, California, had the opportunity to sit onstage to ask several questions.
Zhang focused on Nicklaus’ 1986 Masters victory – known to many as the greatest ever played. Going into the event, Nicklaus had won 17 Majors before 1980, the year he turned 40. In the following years, he won two tournaments in 1982 and 1984. To the outside world, Nicklaus’ career seemed to stall … and one journalist in Atlanta printed especially tough criticism.
“I didn’t play a lot in 1986, but I found a really ugly putter that year that rolled nicely,” Nicklaus said. “I putted really well that week at Augusta, but I still entered the final round four strokes back. I had my son on the bag, and the morning of the final round he asked, ‘What do you think it will take to win today?’ I told him that 66 would tie and 65 would win.”
Still trailing after eight holes, Nicklaus stood over a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 9. As he went to hit the putt, he heard a roar from the direction of No. 8.
“I backed off my putt, looked at the crowd and said, ‘Let’s see if we can make some noise here,’” Nicklaus said.
He made the putt, which proved to be the turning point as he fired a 6-under-par 30 on the back nine to finish the final round exactly at 65. It was enough for the one-stroke victory and his 18th Major.
“It was special because it was my son’s first time on the bag at Augusta, and it was the first time my parents came to The Masters since my first appearance in 1959,” Nicklaus said. “How crazy is that?”
Moldovan, an Ohio State University signee, bonded over their allegiance to Ohio State. Nicklaus’ father was a multi-sport athlete for the Buckeyes and Nicklaus himself is reported to have not missed a game from age 6 to 20.
“I had a lot of college coaches recruiting me in high school,” Nicklaus said, “but I told them not to bother. I wanted to go to Ohio State, period.”
In addition to his family ties, Nicklaus was encouraged by coach Bob Kepler. At the time, freshmen did not compete in their first year and Nicklaus was itching to play.
“Coach Kepler called me into his office and said, ‘You’re not playing any college events this year,’” Nicklaus said. “I couldn’t believe it. He told me how great of an opportunity these events [Walker Cup and the Masters by way of his victory at the U.S. Amateur] were for me and that the team would be here for me in my junior year. How many college coaches would do that nowadays?”
The night ended with a series of questions from juniors in the audience. The first was related to what Nicklaus would change if he could go back and do his career over again.
“I wouldn’t have lost all those tournaments,” he said with a smile.
“I was very fortunate. I didn’t have a ‘what if?’ What if football? What if basketball? I never had that because I played them all. Golf seemed to fit. I’d go early and stay really late. Any success was because of my effort.”
Nicklaus said the best thing to happen to him was not winning right off the bat, because the best learning comes from mistakes and losses. Though “if I knew a young man named Tiger Woods was coming along, I’d have worked a little harder.”
Nicklaus rounded out the evening by encouraging juniors to get involved with charity after sharing information about his “Play Yellow” campaign. The initiative, led by Jack and Barbara, strives to bring the entire golf world together to help the 10 million kids treated at local children’s hospitals each year.
He finished the night with one final thought.
“Find as you go play and get to know your competitors, that your feeling toward them will get stronger,” Nicklaus said. “These bonds will last a lifetime. In golf, the bonding part makes it such a wonderful game.”