Jack Nicklaus: Mastery Interview

As I said in yesterday’s post, Desert Mountain celebrated its 25th Anniversary with a big bash at the Cochise/Geronimo clubhouse. And it all got kicked off with comments from our original developer, Lyle Anderson, and Jack Nicklaus, the designer of our six courses, speaking for about 30 to 40 minutes.

Knowing this was happening, I approached one of our Board members at the beginning of the evening about the possibility of doing a golf mastery interview with Jack in conjunction with our 25th. And before the festivities were done it was arranged for the following morning.

The interview took place in the clubhouse and we had about fifteen minutes together. Jack was sharp, very accommodating and very thoughtful in his answers. After our introduction by our COO and General Manager, I began by giving him a sense of my background and the primary interest of the blog. 

I spent nine years out on the Champions Tour trying to Monday qualify my way in.

Oh, boy.

I know, but it was a great experience.

Oh, that’s good. Good for you.

So one of the things that the blog sprang from was my interest in how come guys can’t get themselves to do what they know how to do in the heat of battle?

How they can’t do what they know how to do…

Exactly. You talked about it last night a little bit in terms of confidence…

Well, it’s basically getting to know yourself. I don’t think many people really know who they are. I think that’s the biggest problem with everybody. If you understand who you are, what your abilities are and what your limitations are and what your strengths are too, then I think you have a much better chance of learning how to play golf. Or do anything in life.

Skip the game of golf. In golf course design, I know what I can do and fortunately on golf course design, I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know. So I surround myself with people that do know. You need to surround yourself with people who do fill in the gaps for you in anything we do. It can go from golf to anything you want to be.

Yes, exactly. But back to last night, you were talking about how you made the Walker Cup team, and thought, “Hey, I must be a good golfer.” And then you won the U.S. Amateur, came in second in the U.S. Open and then won the Amateur again. And out of that you realized, “Hey, I’m a pretty good player.”

Well, that I was better than I thought I was. I never tried to overestimate my ability. I think that was one of my strengths; understanding what my limitations were and how far I could go. And then as I gained confidence with what I did, that estimation grew.

But you know, I didn’t ever want to grow beyond the point of being guarded and making sure that I played within it. Because if I got beyond it, then I’d make dumb mistakes and come back [to the field].

And I’ve made some dumb mistakes. I cost myself a few majors where I did things I shouldn’t have done, not realizing that the other people were having the same problems I’m having.

Right. You think it’s only you, right?

Yeah, you think it’s only you, which is crazy. You know that — if you figure it out — they’re having the same problems you are.

It takes you a while to learn that though.

It takes you a while to learn that. It takes you a few times. Watson, it took him a while to learn that.

You mentioned Rory [McIlroy, who sought Jack out as a mentor] last night.

Rory. It’s taken him a few tournaments that he’s given away. And I did the same thing. We all did the same thing. But the best thing that ever happened to us was doing that.

Because once you finally learn — which I didn’t talk about last night, it was not a major but at Pebble Beach in the mid-60s. I came to the last hole needing a par to tie Phil Rogers who was already in the clubhouse. And I hit my third shot into 18 about twenty feet behind the hole.

And I’m sitting there looking at it and said, “Man, I’m going to win this tournament right now.” And I ran it four feet by the hole and missed it coming back. Lost the tournament.

And I started thinking about it and I said, “Why would you ever put yourself in that position to lose the tournament.” The likelihood of holing a twenty-foot downhill slider putt is not going to be great — what would I think my chances are in a playoff with Phil Rogers? Certainly no worse that 50-50.

But under the gun, you don’t think that way, right?

Oh, yes you do. That’s what you learn to do.

My point is that were my chances 50-50 of making that putt? No. The chances were probably 10 or 15 per cent. [Had] I two-putted it and we went to the playoff, then my chances were 50-50. [I would have] upped my odds by making sure I was smart.

I never three-putted the 18th hole again in my career.

At Pebble?

No. Anywhere where it meant anything. I did actually three-putt my last time I played Pebble in 2000. Knocked it on in two and then three-putted.

The famous video of you on the fence out there on the 18th tee.

Yeah, knocked it on the green, people were great, I had tears in my eyes…

You couldn’t see what you were doing…

Couldn’t see, yeah, I putted it fat. [Laughs] I hit it fat and left it about 10, 12 feet short.

Even the great Jack Nicklaus, right?

Well, we’re all sentimental.

So good. This is right in the heart of what I’m interested in. Beyond that, it’s like, what people don’t understand is how to take this knowledge to the first tee. How do you stand there, not be nervous, or be nervous and be with your nervousness?

Well, talk about being nervous. What makes players nervous?

The fear that you’re going to make a mistake.

Yeah, the uncertainty of knowing what you can do. Or what mistake you’ll make.

My wife has a phrase, she always says, “There’s no excuse for not being properly prepared.” She got that off a McDonald’s cup, I think. We were at a McDonald’s and there was a little cup that she got after I’d blown a tournament someplace along the line. The next morning my coffee was in it in the morning: “There’s no excuse for not being properly prepared.”

So, in other words, if you prepare yourself and you’re ready for what you think you can do. When you get there, you’ve got all the stuff you know you can do and you have all that stuff behind you. Now that you know that, just go do it.

And that’s what you try to be there for. A lot of guys don’t ever really properly — it’s one thing to be prepared and another to be properly prepared. You can prepare yourself and then all of a sudden — I always talk about football coaches. You see them, they prepare the first ten or twelve plays, the first play doesn’t work and so they change their game plan.

A good coach has his game plan, he runs the first play and maybe it doesn’t work. But he stays with his game plan because what it is, it’s not him, he’s prepared his players for that. So you gotta have the confidence in your players to execute what you’re doing. It’s the same thing, you’ve gotta have confidence in yourself to execute what you need to do. So stay with your game plan. Get yourself prepared and then go do it.

In my experience, I had to catch up a lot because I started late. And my purpose in trying to do this was to prove the efficacy of the operating principles of mastery and transformation; how do you master any skill and how do you transform yourself into whatever you want to become. So I chose golf because I love golf, I played it forever, not seriously until my forties.

So I literally turned this into a seven-day a week thing. I sold my house in San Francisco and moved here because of it. So I was beating balls, I worked with Jim Flick for the last year and a half, God rest his soul…

Yeah, what a great guy.

So anytime I was playing, anytime I was out there playing with these guys, the practice rounds during the week, I could see my talent, I knew that I had it, I had a world-class short game — they used to call me “Mr. Up and Down” — I putted great. I was just waiting for my swing to catch up with my short game. And it didn’t on Monday. I could play with those guys all week long through the practice rounds and work in the practice areas [but not on Monday].

And so that’s what I was talking about in terms of fear of the unknown. It was like, no lack of preparation in terms of what I was doing. I was running six miles a day…

Maybe you weren’t preparing what you should prepare. Maybe you prepared beyond your ability.

It could have been.

The whole idea is knowing yourself, knowing what your ability is. And knowing what your limitations are. And you prepare to do what you can do. Don’t try to prepare to do — because the first time you get on the first tee and all of a sudden you say, “Well, a little cut shot would be perfect, just put it out there in the middle of the fairway.”

And all of a sudden you get fast and you do something else. Now, if you know how to hit that shot, if you’ve prepared yourself how to do that, then you should be able to do it.

Okay, thanks. I was just looking for — you know, a lot of these pros now, they’re all talking about playing to targets, seeing the shot and playing that shot to the target.

I play very much visually.

That’s all they’re thinking about.

Visualization.

Right. You think of your swing on the practice range and not when you’re playing.

Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. My swing is totally — I swing totally thinking about my swing. Everything I do.

Do you really?

Absolutely.

I asked Tiger about the same thing and he said, “Yeah.” But that was inconsistent with what everyone else was saying.

I don’t know. I have no idea what anyone else says. I don’t pay any attention to anybody else. No, no. I totally — my swing is different everyday. I never know what my “swing de jure” is.

I remember you saying that.

Yeah, and so I want each day to make sure of what I’ve got when I go to the practice tee. So I go to the practice tee and make sure what I’ve got, and what I want it to be, come together before I get to the first tee.

You know, every shot I play, I think of exactly what I want to do with the swing. I never just let it happen. Ever. Never. Even today, I can think of four or five things during a swing and do all of them. And I probably use to be able to do more.

Most people say to think of one or maybe one and a half, but I’ve always been able to think of several things to do during the swing. And I do those things.

Wow.

It’s a discipline for me to be able to do that.

Well, it makes me feel better that I’m still doing that then [laughs].

To me that’s the way you gotta play golf. To me, to stand up, they say, “Just let it go.” Crap! You can’t let it go. The guys that let it go never win.

Okay. Perfect. Thank you for taking the time…

You got what you need?

Yeah, thank you very much, Jack, I really appreciate it.

And thanks for coming out here to Desert Mountain too. I wrote a piece on you and Lyle last night based on your presentation.

You know it really was a true partnership. We did all of this together, every step of the way.

I know. That’s what I wrote.

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3 Responses to Jack Nicklaus: Mastery Interview

  1. John Monteleone says:

    While reading your interview of Jack Nicklaus I was reminded of what almost all the great baseball pitchers say about their craft. Prepare and you will build confidence. Focus on making the pitch. See the catcher’s target and execute the sequence of mechanics that the pitch selection and target call for. Make pitches sounds like execute the swing. Nicklaus would have made a terrific pitcher if he’s chosen baseball instead of golf.

  2. Lee Garcia says:

    Pros definitely think differently than amateurs about their swings and that sure comes out with Jack’s comment about thinking about multiple aspects of his swing simultaneously. I believe you are right Bill that most amateurs should not have more than 1.5-2 swing thoughts, and instead focus on the target or they are toast.

  3. Guy Ruthmansdorfer says:

    Bill
    I was going back and reading some older articles on your site and came upon your Nicklaus interview. My question is after the interview what would you have done differently or have changed in your swing preparation for the senior tour journey.