Nicklaus Holds Court At Memorial

The Wednesday before the annual Memorial Tournament in suburban Columbus means it's time for the annual "State of the Bear" press conference with OSU product Jack Nicklaus. The greatest golfer who ever lived talked about his game, the game of golf and the tournament with reporters, and has the highlights.

As part of his preparations for the Memorial Tournament, which starts tomorrow at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, Jack Nicklaus played the course he designed – and has redesigned, as the game has demanded – twice over the weekend.

He shot 75 and 74 from the members' tees.

"Terrible," the former Ohio State golfer and NCAA champion said. "I play the members' tees right now. I can't even think about the back tees. And I threw my 95 mph clubhead speed at it, and the ball just looks like it has a headcover on the club.

"I play probably, oh, I don't know, 15 times a year. And I played two days, shot 75, 74, which wasn't terrible. But I holed every putt I looked at, meaning I finished every hole. But that's about it. I don't play very well."

Most people would kill to be able to play that well at Jack's age – he turned 74 in January, meaning he shot his age once over the weekend – but the demanding standard is what one would expect from the greatest golfer who ever lived.

"I guess 75, 74 is not too bad," he admitted. "But it's from 6,500 or 6,600 yards, not 7,300 yards."

Nicklaus' Muirfield layout as long as 7,392 yards this weekend now that the 18th tee has been pushed back – the latest major change to the course, done last summer to accommodate the Presidents Cup – so it's clear that Nicklaus isn't playing from the tips anymore.

And the standard to which he holds himself has always been famously high – he's the guy who quit playing competitive golf once he realized he wouldn't be winning tournaments anymore, fearful of becoming a "ceremonial golfer."

But Nicklaus has always been matter-of-fact about his skills, and he was again on Wednesday at the "State of the Bear" news conference when asked about Lee Trevino's contention that Nicklaus could have hit the ball 400 yards if he had used today's equipment in his prime.

"Oh, sure," he said, drawing a laugh. "What else do you want me to say?"

To prove his point, Nicklaus – who grew up basically across the street from the Ohio State campus – pulled out a wad of cash held together by a gold money clip.

"That money clip I've carried since 1963," he said. "That money clip was from the PGA Championship driving contest in '63 and it was 341 yards, 17 inches. … Under certain conditions, there's a lot of guys out here today that could hit the ball 400 yards. Well, not a lot, but probably a dozen, if you get the right conditions. If they had the same conditions I had when I won that driving contest at Dallas, they would have hit it 400 yards, and I might have, too. But that was with a 42¾-inch wood driver."

With talk of his game out of the way, Nicklaus spent about an hour at his annual press conference discussing the state of the game, many of the sport's most popular figures and more.

BSB wraps up some of the Golden Bear's most interesting comments below.

The State Of The Game
Nicklaus is often asked to comment on the health of the game he dominated for so long, and that question came up again on Wednesday.

The golf industry – in at least the United States – has seen its participation numbers drop over the past few years, but Nicklaus painted a rosier picture in his response.

"I think the state of tournament golf is really, really healthy," he said. "And, frankly, I'm starting to see signs that regular golf is making a recovery. We're starting to see golf courses come back – not so much new ones yet, but we're seeing a lot of the old ones that I started five, six years ago are now being finished.

"I'm starting to see the whole economics of the game of golf starting to increase again. People are starting to play more rounds. They're spending more money at a lot of the clubs. The clubs are not struggling like they were three, four years ago, so I think we've made a turnaround. I think we're headed in the right direction. We just went through a bad time. The whole United States and the world went through a bad time. And hopefully, we're on the other side of it."

Nicklaus was not asked about the idea of enlarging the holes to make the game easier for casual golfers or anything dramatic like that – a topic that came up during his appearance in April's Legends Luncheon at the Ohio Union – but he did seem to approve of the emergence of youth in the game.

For example, there's 20-year-old Jordan Speith, who has contended in a number of top-flight tournaments this year, and then there's 11-year-old golfer Lucy Li, who has qualified for this summer's U.S. Women's Open.

"Unbelievable," Nicklaus said. "But we're getting kids younger in here. I mean, Michelle Wie, I played with her when she was 13. And I never forget playing – we played in Hawaii, and it was 308 yards to this one bunker. I took a driver, cut it a little bit to keep it short of it. She one-hopped it in the bunker at age 13. I remember that."

Nicklaus also has grandchildren who have taken up the game, just like his sons Jackie – a former pro golfer who is now a course designer – and Gary, who also spent time on the Tour.

His 11-year-old grandson GT is 11 years old and can hit it 270 yards, while his grandson Nick O'Leary – a football player at Florida State – shoots in the 70s. Two other grandsons, Charlie (a lacrosse player at Rutgers) and Jack III, have also picked up the game.

"They're all starting to play now," he said. "We tried to get them to play earlier, but that's what kids want to do. They want to play in their other sports and do other things, and more of them are starting to play, but I think the only one competitively is probably GT."

Talking Tiger
Nicklaus said he got a phone call from Tiger Woods this morning expressing his wish that he would be able to play in the tournament he has won five times.

But Woods is on the shelf currently with a back injury, and he won't play in the upcoming U.S. Open in June, either. Nicklaus still isn't counting out Woods' chances of picking up the four major championship wins needed to tie Nicklaus' all-time record of 18.

"If he's healthy, I think Tiger's got 10-plus years to play top-quality tournament golf," Nicklaus said. "I've said many times, he's got a little over 40 tournaments to play the major championships. He's only got to win five to pass my record. As good a player he is, I don't think that should be a big deal. But, then again, he's got to do it, plus he's got to be healthy to do it."

Nicklaus said he wasn't sure if Tiger will be recovered in time to play in the British Open in July, either.

"He didn't say anything, and I didn't ask him because I knew I was going to talk to you guys," Nicklaus said with a laugh. "He said he's doing well, progressing well, and he's looking forward to getting back into the game. He misses it."

Memorial Time
One of the more interesting questions of the day came from a report who asked Nicklaus – who designed Muirfield to be one of the most spectator-friendly layouts in professional golf – where he would sit to watch the tournament if he had the chance.

"My living room with a television set," he said to laughter.

But in all seriousness, Nicklaus struggled with the question.

"18's a pretty good place, but you're only seeing the finish of it," he said. "You get quite a bit of good golf around the 15th green, 16th tee, you get both of those holes there. 14 green's pretty. I love the 14th hole. I think it's a fun hole to watch and a fun hole to play. But personally, if I'm going to watch golf, I'm going to walk with it."

Tournament favorites might include defending champion Matt Kuchar and Rory McIlroy, who won a week ago, and The Memorial always seems to produce a winner over its first 38 years that upholds the prestige of the event.

The players this year will take on a course relatively unchanged since last year's Presidents Cup. Nicklaus plans to remove a number of the fairway bunkers on 18 in the future because they aren't needed anymore and provide a drainage issue, but the focus before this tournament was simply getting the course in shape after Ohio's rough winter prevented the sod laid last fall from taking hold.

"It was a mess," he said. "And that mess is now pretty good. Everything had to happen this spring, and I think without the last two weeks, we probably would have had a hard time. I was up here less than a month ago, and there wasn't a leaf on a tree. And it's just absolutely went from spring to summer.

"And the golf course is looking really, really, really good."

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