By John Strege
Middle age often allows one to see what in youth they were blind to. It is called wisdom, and for Gary Nicklaus, at 50, it is the lens through which he can now identify how his first go-around in professional golf went sideways.
When he used to play rounds with his father, Jack Nicklaus, he recalled, he’d walk off the course certain he had outplayed him, that he had driven it better, hit more fairways and greens, and putted better.
“What’d you shoot?” Gary would ask his dad.
“Sixty-eight,” Jack would reply, his score three better than Gary’s.
“How’d you beat me?”
“Well, I managed my game better.”
“But I played better than you.”
“Apparently not. I shot 68, and you shot 71.”
Gary did not understand then, but he does now. “I think my game was pretty immature even though I was in my early 30s and was on tour,” he said a few days ago as he prepared to launch a second professional career. He’ll make his PGA Tour Champions debut this week at the Oasis Championship in Boca Raton, Fla.
Nicklaus played three full years on the PGA Tour, with only a single memorable effort. He lipped out a six-foot birdie putt to win the rain-shortened BellSouth Classic outside Atlanta in 2000, then lost to Phil Mickelson on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff, a week before the Masters. Two years later, he lost his tour card and began drifting away from the game.
“I quit playing,” he said. “I really didn’t pick up a club for almost four years. Didn’t play at all. Maybe once a year. I had lost my card. Thirteen years of professional golf and I’d been struggling kind of the whole time. I didn’t really have a lot of fun on the regular tour. When you’re struggling to make cuts and playing every week—I think I played 96 events in three years—and you’re not playing well, it’s not a lot of fun.”
He had 122 career starts on the PGA Tour and made only 33 cuts, with that playoff loss to Mickelson his only top-10 finish.
“There’s not many better players out there that I could have lost to,” he said. “Phil’s amazing and has been for many, many years. I put myself in a position to win. I hit a great putt on the last hole, which I thought was a putt to win, which it was. It wrapped around the hole and came out. I had my chance to win it. If I had, my career would have been totally different. Then you don’t have to play 32 events a year. You can prepare, make a schedule.
“Then again, like I said, my game was immature and I was immature in my thinking what I had to do. I was so worried about how much money I was going to make, instead of, OK, the first six months I’ll play these 12 events and play three practice rounds at each place and be prepared to play in the event, rather than traveling on Monday, a practice round on Tuesday and getting one look at the course.”
Nicklaus eventually applied with the USGA to have his amateur status reinstated and began playing again, this time, armed with a greater understanding of the game and enjoying it more. “I played a few amateur events. Amateur events are fun. After that time off, my game was way better than it was when I was practicing and playing all time. I had a new outlook at the time and knew how to score. I think getting away from the game I figured out how to do that.”
Last summer, Nicklaus qualified to play in the U.S. Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach, where his father won the U.S. Amateur in 1961 and the U.S. Open in 1972.
Nicklaus, meanwhile, had been playing a lot of golf with his son, Gary Jr., or GT as he’s known. GT was introduced to the golf world by caddieing for his grandfather Jack in the Par 3 Contest at Augusta and making a hole-in-one when Jack asked him to hit the tee shot for him on the ninth hole.
“I’ve been thinking about it for awhile,” Gary said of his decision to turn pro again. “My kids are older. My daughter’s 14, my son 16. When I play with my son, he says, ‘Dad, why aren’t you trying to play professional golf?’ He says, ‘when you turn 50 you’ll hit it far enough to play on Champions Tour.’
“When I play with him at 6,700, 6,800 yards, I shoot a lot of good scores. I think moving up and being able to play at 7,000 yards or under [on the PGA Tour Champions] is a good thing for me. My game’s better.”
Nicklaus turned pro less than two weeks ago and won his first event, posting a 66 in a Minor League Golf Tour event in Lake Worth, Fla. Last week, he tied for 39th in the tour’s 36-hole Major I event.
Having been a PGA Tour member, Nicklaus is automatically an associate member of the PGA Tour Champions, allowing him an unlimited number of sponsor’s exemptions for one year. He has a few already lined up, and given his pedigree it seems likely he’ll get enough to accurately gauge the state of his game.
“I don’t want to wear out my welcome with sponsor invites,” he said. “I’ll write some letters and try to get in some tournaments and see how my game is, see how competitive I am. But I haven’t played against this level of competition in a long time. I could be a little disenchanted, but maybe I won’t be. I think I can be competitive. I’m looking to go out and have fun. I’m not looking to stress out over any of it.”
Those rounds with his his son, incidentally, helped rekindle his interest in the game. “He’s pushed me,” Nicklaus said, “telling me you should pursue this.” Then there’s this conversation they had, a familiar one, indeed a familial one.
“Dad, I hit it 50 yards past you,” GT said to him. “You shot 68, and I shot 72. How’d you do that?”
“I used to have those same conversations with my dad,” Gary said. “Funny how it goes down through generations.”