In The Presence of Jack Nicklaus

The one and only time that I was in presence of Jack Nicklaus on a one-on-one basis was so spontaneous, I didn’t have enough time to get too nervous.

He had come back to Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, to help celebrate the club’s 25th anniversary. While I was really looking forward to the evening celebration — Desert Mountain doesn’t do anything halfway — the thought of interviewing Nicklaus for this blog didn’t occur to me until literally that afternoon. But I managed to network my way to him through the Board and our COO and General Manager and a meeting was set for the following morning after breakfast. 

When I arrived in the Men’s Grill, I was expecting Jack to be at one of the tables with the GM and perhaps a Board member or two; intimate. What I found was a sort of ad hoc Board meeting with a dozen or so people around three or four tables that had been pushed together. I caught the eye of our GM as if to say, “I’m here,” he gave me a subtle nod and I quietly moved to a smaller seating area out of sight of the breakfast.

I sat down so that I could see the beautiful view back down the Valley and still keep an eye on when I might get my cue. That’s when I had my first flutter of butterflies; I mean, the man was sitting just on the other side of the big bank of televisions! Gonna be here a while. Better go out to the locker room and get a cup of coffee. Movement helped.

Back in my cat bird seat, the butterflies fluttered off and on. Not in a debilitating way, just in a way that caused my breathing to grow shallow.

So as a purveyor of golf mastery ideas and techniques, I’m supposed to know how to handle this, right? I mean, what’s the difference between this and being on the 1st tee at 7:30 in the morning? Not much I reasoned and I began plumbing my knowledge base.

The first one that popped into my head was a baseline, foundational principle, “There’s no fear in the present.” Fear only exists as we look forward to consequences or look back at regrets: “I hope I don’t screw this up somehow,” or “I wish I had prepared for this better.” But in the moment, as the surgeon literally holds the patient’s heart in his hands, as the airline pilot is completely engrossed in the landing, there is no fear. There is only all the years of training and fascination.

So I began slow, deep breathing. That relaxed my neck and my shoulders. And the subtle quivering in my chest subsided. I continued to pay attention to any tingling in my body and deliberately breathed it away. I was fine. I was at peace. I was ready.

Almost an hour later, there was a shuffling of the leather chairs, louder conversations broke out between pairings of men and Jack and our GM soon walked past my little private retreat and out into the locker room. Jack briefly glanced my way as they passed, but only because I happened to be there, not because he knew why.

I had discovered earlier that I wasn’t his only interview that morning. The main part of the locker room had been turned into a video interview set complete with television lighting, boom mics and all the set paraphernalia that goes with the territory for a two camera shoot. Two minutes later, the GM returned and told me that Jack was doing some tv and that it looked like I would get some time right after that. He said that he would come get me.

Finally the GM came in to get me about an hour and a half after I first arrived; there was just no way to know how long the breakfast meeting was going to last and how the interview order would unfold. For my part, I was just thrilled that I was being led out to meet the great man, interview recorder clutched in my hand. An hour and a half was a dirt-cheap price to pay.

Jack walked off the set just as we arrived, the GM introduced us and then led us to a quiet interview area in a less traveled part of the locker room where he had arranged two chairs. Jack led a little tension-relieving banter about the pool table that was there — it had been protectively covered for the banquet the night before — and we sat down and began. I was by now quite relaxed, but it was not lost on me that Jack Nicklaus was sitting, well, just right there. And that he was fully engaged in our work. And that his eyes were blue.

As I wrote in the original post, “Jack Nicklaus: Mastery Interview,” 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…

And thus began fifteen minutes of tightly focused questions and answers that became quite personal because I had used my own experiences as a Monday qualifier to explore the broad reach of mastery issues in golf.

Here I was sitting in the presence of the greatest player the game had ever seen until perhaps Tiger, and all of his attention was on me.

It may have taken me a while to lay this predicate for the point of this post, but how I felt in the presence of Jack Nicklaus is one of the reasons why 120 men have entered this week’s Memorial Tournament at Jack’s Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus.

Oh, many of them entered because they were exempt into this smaller invitational tournament, or because Jack and his wife Barbara go all out to make it one of the most welcoming tournaments on Tour. And to a man, they all seem to love this course that Jack has so lovingly designed, nurtured and spent 40 years tweaking. The Nicklaus’ spent the last year in a significant refurbishing of the clubhouse; you’d have to go see that.

These 120 men have entered the Memorial to win the tournament, to claim its FedExCup and world ranking points and for the check that comes with it.

But it is no small thing that the winner gets to walk off the 18th green and into the presence of a waiting Jack Nicklaus. He will shake their hands, pat them on the arm with his left hand and give them his undivided attention as he congratulates them and tells them how well they played.

And in those joyous moments, they know that they will never forget any of it.

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