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Nicklaus honored as “Ambassador of Golf”

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Jack Nicklaus’ career at Firestone Country Club began in 1958 at the Rubber City Open.

In Nicklaus’ own words, he was a “scared little kid in the first true tournament I ever played,” walking the fairways with tournament leader Art Wall, and reigning U.S. Open Champion Tommy Bolt.

Nicklaus recalled Bolt putting his arm around him and saying, “Don’t worry Jack, old Tom will take care of you.” And after six bogeys on the front nine, “Bolt stopped taking care of me, because he had gotten rid of me,” Nicklaus said nostalgically with a laugh.

Little did an 18 year-old Nicklaus know at the time, Firestone would go on to hold a very special place in his heart. It would become a favorite venue for Nicklaus, where many of his 73 career Tour victories took place, including the 1975 PGA Championship — the 14th of his all-time 18 major championships.

And Wednesday, on the eve of the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational in front of an emotionally charged crowd, Ohio’s favorite son returned to Northeast Ohio to be honored as the 2013 Ambassador of Golf.

Jack Nicklaus Ambassador of Golf WGC Bridgestone Firestone Podium Pappas TheGreekGrind

The Award is presented annually at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to a person who has nurtured and advanced the ideals of golf internationally, and whose concern and compassion for others extends beyond the golf course. During the ceremony, Nicklaus said he was genuinely and deeply moved by the prestigious award.

“This is certainly a special and meaningful recognition,” Nicklaus said with tears in his eyes.  “I feel blessed to be included among such a distinguished list of past recipients, including my wife, because I am certainly Barbara Nicklaus’ biggest fan.”

PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem took the podium first, calling Nicklaus the embodiment of all that the Ambassador of Golf Award represents.

“Jack has excelled in all facets of our sport,” Finchem said.  “As a player there is perhaps no equal. He has been a prolific golf course designer, tournament host and successful businessman. And as a philanthropist, he has leveraged his position as a sports legend for the betterment of society.”

Commissioner Finchem then introduced Mrs. Nicklaus, who shared her favorite anecdote illustrating one of her husband’s best attributes.

“It’s a story about a chicken and a pig walking down a street,” Mrs. Nicklaus said.  “And they came upon a little cafe with a sign out front that said, breakfast special, ham and eggs, $2.99. So the chicken looked over at the  pig and said, how about we go in and have breakfast? And the pig looked over at the chicken and said, hmm easy for you to say, for you it’s just a donation, for me it’s a total commitment.”

Mrs. Nicklaus said she loves that story “because commitment is Jack’s middle name and I’ve always admired that quality in him.”

Her tribute left Nicklaus choked up when he approached the podium, and he’d wipe away tears again when he left. For the hundreds of fans and invited guests gathered on the first tee, it was breathtaking.

Jack Nicklaus Ambassador of Golf WGC Bridgestone Firestone Barbara Jack Pappas TheGreekGrind

Nicklaus shared tales of the picture-perfect swing of Julius Boros and trying to immitate Boros’ swing for many weeks after the 1958 Rubber City Open, and about his father buying cigars for Charlie Sifford, his playing partner the first two days of that tournament, and acknowledged his great friends and competitors Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino.

“We all played the game for the love of the game and the love of competition,” Nicklaus said.  “That’s what it was all about. Golf was my vehicle to competition. And I learned early in my career that golf was the vehicle to giving back too, and making a difference.”

Above all Nicklaus expressed enormous gratitude for Barbara, and spoke lovingly about how she’s been the driving force in his life, in all he’s done.

Jack Nicklaus Ambassador of Golf WGC Bridgestone Firestone Kissing Barb Pappas TheGreekGrind

Among the many stories that drew both laughter and respect from the crowd was Nicklaus’ story about Barbara not telling him she was going into labor with their first child, because she didn’t want him to withdraw from a tournament.

“In 1961, September, I was getting ready to play in Cincinnati, I was still an amateur, and called Barb to ask how she was doing,” Nicklaus said.  “She asked how my practice round was, and I told her it was good. And then she said, OK, well have a good tournament. And oh by the way, you’re a dad.  I said, excuse me?”

Nicklaus’ grace, humility, humor, and love of family and golf was on display for a glorious 30 minutes, and everyone in attendance for the ceremony, down to the last person, heart and soul appreciated it.

After Nicklaus left the podium to a raucous standing ovation and applause, I had an opportunity to ask him a question. What I’ll always remember is not just Nicklaus’ answer, which I thought very interesting, but how comfortable it was talking with him. Nicklaus is larger than life, and I understood I was in the presence of true greatness. Yet Nicklaus made speaking with him feel as easy as if I was talking with my neighbor, or a friendly uncle.

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I asked him what was more stressful, chasing the record for major championship victories that were held by Walter Hagen (11) and Bobby Jones (13 — eight professional majors and five U.S. Amateurs), or the stretch of six years he played before he earned his last major victory at the 1986 Masters. His answer was illuminating.

“It wasn’t pressure so much as I had to work harder for those wins [The U.S. Open and PGA Championship] in ’72 and ’73,” Nicklaus told me. “And for my last one — going that long was more frustrating than anything else. I still felt I could win another one, which is what made it that much more special when it did happen.”

And that was it. A firm handshake, thank you, and Nicklaus was on his way. As brief an encounter as one can have, but one filled with so much substance. He looked me in the eye the entire time.

My take on Nicklaus’ answer was that he is a man in control of pressure, not one controlled by it. He has a grasp and perspective of things, and has said many times in the past how badly he wanted to break Hagen’s and Jones’ record. And Nicklaus’ work ethic is legendary. I believe Nicklaus’ comment that he had to “work harder” to tie and surpass that record meant that Nicklaus resolved to take his game to an even greater level by working even harder than he’d ever worked before.

After speaking with Nicklaus I soaked in the atmosphere and festivities. There was a buzz, an electricity all around Firestone. The dining room was exquisite, whatever you fancied for dinner Firestone probably had — though the apple cheesecake dessert was my favorite.

Jack Nicklaus Ambassador of Golf WGC Bridgestone Firestone Dining Room 1 Pappas TheGreekGrind

I met Firestone members, sharing my exciting story how I met and talked to Nicklaus, had a very enjoyable discussion with a group of five men, a few who are proud GolfWRX members, and even got a private performance from “The Jolly Jester,” Kevin Dawson, a magician Firestone brought up from Georgia who literally left me shaking my head, jaw cavernously open in disbelief.

Dawson read my mind in a way that was downright spooky, made things appear in my hands that weren’t there when I closed them, and even transformed a dollar bill I gave him into a $100 dollar bill (he unsportingly transformed the $100 back to a buck when he gave it back).

I waited for Nicklaus at the end of the evening, hoping to get a photo with him. I didn’t want to interrupt his dinner, as that wouldn’t have been appropriate. But sadly I missed him again, this time because of the conversation I was having upstairs with Firestone and GolfWRX members, about Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Holly Sonders, golf equipment, swing styles, and cigars.

Woods was not at the ceremony or dinner afterwards, but was on the range earlier in the afternoon. A scuffle broke out between a teenager and elderly man, both arguing about something Tiger related while Woods was practicing. Afterward, Woods took time to sign autographs, but looked downright miserable doing so, like someone wishing they were anywhere but here.

Nicklaus, on the other hand, genuinely enjoyed every moment of the evening. Mingling, laughing, eating, drinking. I got the impression Nicklaus would have talked with every single person in attendance if that was possible.

This was Nicklaus’ evening of course, celebrating everything Nicklaus. But as I drove home I couldn’t help but think that while Tiger is chasing down Nicklaus’ record, perhaps there are other things about Nicklaus that Woods should aspire towards as well. Nicklaus is loved and respected not just because of what he’s done as a golfer, but because of who he is as a man.

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Pete is a journalist, commentator, and interviewer covering the PGA Tour, new equipment releases, and the latest golf fashions. Pete's also a radio and television personality who's appeared multiple times on ESPN radio, and Fox Sports All Bets Are Off. And when he's not running down a story, he's at the range working on his game. Above all else, Pete's the proud son of a courageous mom who battled pancreatic cancer much longer than anyone expected. You can follow Pete on twitter @PGAPappas

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Joe

    Aug 5, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    Why did this story get buried so fast? Another good read!

    I was never a fan of Jack growing up. I guess it’s the Cleveland sports fan in me; I always rooted for the underdog. I would get so mad when Jack would beat my boy Tom Watson. I guess I really missed out on what Nicklaus was doing as a player at the time. I guess that is why I am a Tiger fan now. I am amazed at just how good he is as a player. The more I read and listen to Jack the more I hope that Tiger never beats his record. Jack is more than just a great golfer!!!

    Great story Pete! Keep up the good work.

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Golf's Perfect Imperfections

Golf’s Perfect Imperfections: The best drill in golf (throwing the club)

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If you are struggling with weight shift, clearing your hips, or have issues freeing up your golf swing, then what you want to do is start chucking that golf club. No joke! In this podcast, we will explain how to properly throw the golf club from a safe area and the results will be absolutely transformational.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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Opinion & Analysis

Ways to Win: A New No. 1 – How Justin Thomas overcame a poor putting performance

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In the final tuneup before the PGA Championship in San Francisco, many of the world’s best teed it up at Memphis’ TPC Southwind in the WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational. The final day showcased a stacked leaderboard and plenty of volatility, but in the end, it was Justin Thomas who came from four back to win for the third time this year. This was a quick bounceback after a letdown at The Memorial just a few weeks ago. Winning on the PGA Tour certainly takes stellar play and, typically, a little luck like Thomas’ pulled drive on 15 that skirted off a cart path, over a bridge and into prime position for a late birdie. Had that tee ball found the hazard instead, this article would likely be about Brooks Koepka and his late charge.

Golf is a game of misses and taking advantage of good breaks. That is not to take away from JT’s week of stellar ball striking. He finished the week first in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green and second in Strokes Gained Approach. That’s no surprise for the new number one in the world. What is surprising is how poorly Thomas putted throughout the week. It is extremely rare for a PGA Tour winner to lose strokes to the field with the putter, but that is exactly what Thomas did.

In Ways to Win, it is rare that we highlight Short Game as a differentiating factor for winners. That is typically because to excel in the short game, one has to miss quite a few greens. When you miss greens, it’s hard to score. However, Justin Thomas was able to consistently get himself out of difficult situations, minimize damage, and turn bogeys into pars throughout his four rounds.

If you want to be an elite player, you can’t do it with your short game alone. It sure comes in handy on those off days, though. Just how good was Thomas’ short game? He finished fourth for the week in Strokes Gained Around the Green and got up and down inside 75 yards more than 80 percent of the time (including several clutch up and downs late on Sunday). His touch was particularly crucial, given that his putter wasn’t really cooperating.

Again, it is very rare for a PGA Tour winner to lose strokes with the flatstick. Typically the winner is the best putter out of the best ball strikers, but not so this week. Thomas only three-putted twice for the week. However, he lost strokes to the field from three out of nine distance buckets that we analyzed using V1 Game’s putting breakdown.

In four other buckets, he was almost “net zero” in strokes gained with the putter. He only gained strokes with the putter from inside six feet. Making short putts is certainly a big key to golfing success. That is why short misses are highlighted in V1 Game’s post-round analysis: missing short putts is a quick way to compound errors. Thomas is not an elite putter by any means, but he is typically solid in the clutch.

V1 Game makes it easy to keep track of personal bests and track progress in a tournament. Any stat that the PGA Tour gives can be recreated with V1 Game. Here are some quick stats for Thomas’ week using V1 Game’s Personal Bests feature:

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Worst Round: 70
Longest Drive: 347 yds
Longest Holeout: 28 ft
Most consecutive holes without a bogey: 24
Scrambling Streak: 9 in a row
Holes without a 3 putt: 20
Most birdies in a round: 6

Thomas certainly played well when it mattered, resisting the urge to look at a scoreboard throughout the final round and focusing on the job at hand. His patience paid off with his 13th victory in a young career. Short game play is a fantastic equalizer and a great tool for any golfer’s bag. However, Thomas really separates himself with ball striking.

The best way to improve your short game is to miss fewer greens, like JT. For most amateurs, short game practice should focus on eliminating mistakes, such as “two-chips” when you do miss the green. Once you can consistently get on the green and have a putt to get up and down, focus should shift to the long game. Tee to Green play is where the game’s best separate themselves from the weekend warriors.

V1 Game can help you with each of these items.

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On Spec

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