One of my favourite pastimes on tour is watching kids get autographs from their golf heroes. I never weary of the star-struck expressions on the kids’ faces, the way they’re sometimes rendered speechless. I love the way the players interact with them and the joy that pervades that environment. It always reminds me of my first encounter with Jack Nicklaus, one of my boyhood heroes. The fact it happened when I was 25 years old is irrelevant.
Park City, Utah, June 1, 1984. I was still finding my legs as a sports anchor at KSL, then the local CBS affiliate in Salt Lake City. A couple of weeks earlier, someone wanting publicity arranged for me to caddie for Jack at the opening of Park Meadows, a course he’d designed. The unspoken return favour was the understanding I would follow up with a first-person report on the news.
It should’ve been no sweat. I knew golf, having played on the team at the University of Houston. A few days before the 18-hole exhibition, which I learned would be a “match” between Jack and the local Utah hero, Johnny Miller, I even scouted the course and carefully walked off yardages. I was going to come prepared.
Jack arrived fresh off a win in his Memorial Tournament the week before. There were about 3,000 invited guests, and the crowd made me a little nervous. After a brief warm-up, Mr Nicklaus – I wouldn’t have dreamed of calling him “Jack” back then – pulled me aside and asked about my golf background. He was aware someone had set up my role as his caddie, and he expressed his appreciation for my advance prep work.
Then Jack got down to business. He pulled out a sleeve of MacGregor Tourney golf balls and handed one to me. “See this ball here, Jim? This is ball No.1. It will be used today on the first, fourth, seventh, 10th, 13th and 16th holes.” He pulled out another. “This is ball No.2. Please give it to me on the second, fifth, eighth, 11th, 14th and 17th holes.” I accepted the third ball and nodded, indicating I understood the rotation. I discovered later that Jack believed wound balata balls needed time to “rest” before they were put back into play.
After some warm remarks and a ribbon-cutting, Jack pull-hooked his opening tee shot over the heads of the gallery on the side of the fairway. He looked around at the shocked faces and declared, “Since I designed the place, I’m allowing myself a mulligan.” The gallery laughed. Jack then looked at me expectantly. In the heat of the moment, I’d forgotten I was carrying the other two balls, one in each pocket for inventory control. “Jim, may I have another ball, please?” he requested, patiently. Snapping out of my fog, I retrieved a ball and walked towards him. “That’s OK, Jim, you can just toss it,” he said. Jack snatched my pitch out of the air and then ripped it long and straight into the thin mountain air.
As we came upon Jack’s first tee ball in the rough, he said, “You can pick that one up; we’re playing the other one.” At that point my brain became even more addled. Does the first ball go to the back of the 1-2-3 lineup and get rebranded as ball No.3? What about the one in the middle of the fairway – is that still ball No.2, or has it become the new No.1? I fumbled at my pockets. I clearly was choking, which I’m sure Jack noticed. After his two-putt par, he said deliberately, “This will now be ball No.1.” As if to remind me, he added, “The initial ball doesn’t come out again until the third tee.”
‘I clearly was choking, which I’m sure Jack noticed.’ – Jim Nantz
The third hole produced a three-putt and Jack’s only bogey of the day. Thankfully his performance the rest of the way prevented any further chance for confusion on my part. The balls played out in their reworked order, and Jack hit every green in regulation. He and Johnny couldn’t have been more gracious. The match ended in a tie.
A week later, I got a beautiful handwritten note from Jack. Enclosed was an autographed picture of the two of us “strategising” over club selection: Dear Jim, Remembering our round at Park Meadows. Thanks for your help. See you soon, Jack Nicklaus.
I had no idea that “soon” would be less than two years later, on a warm Sunday in April 1986, when he knocked home a four-footer for birdie on the par-3 16th hole at Augusta National. At that point, his former looper declared from the CBS tower overlooking the hole, “There’s no doubt about it, the Bear has come out of hibernation!”
I’ve visited with Jack hundreds of times since, in the booth at his Memorial Tournament, at the Masters, at his home in Florida, at my home in Pebble Beach, and even at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in the US Capitol Rotunda, where I was honoured to co-serve as his presenter along with his son, Jackie. I’d like to say I’m no longer star-struck, but who would I be kidding? Some 35 years later, this old caddie still considers Jack the greatest player of all time.