By GREG STODA
Courtesy of the Palm Beach Post
They are the hands of an athlete who has carved fame and glory from a lifetime of playing golf and building courses.
They are the hands of an outdoorsman who has fished the oceans, rivers and streams of the world, and hunted their fields and woods, too.
They are strong and textured, and Jack Nicklaus had them wrapped around the steering wheel of a golf cart. It was a brilliantly sun-splashed morning in the middle of February, and Nicklaus was roving The Champion course at PGA National Resort & Spa on which the Honda Classic will be contested this week. It was less an inspection than a tour of the Tom Fazio-designed layout that Nicklaus and his teams have refurbished over the years.
“We’ve done a lot of re-design work around the world,” Nicklaus says. “Modernize. It’s fun to do that. I enjoy bringing things up to snuff. You don’t get many right the first time, anyway.”
His own jobs, too, Nicklaus meant, and he allowed himself a smile at the admission.
Nicklaus simply thought it a good idea to take a look at The Champion before the PGA Tour guys get to it. He had the time (it’s the economy, stupid), and was able to spend the better part of two hours pointing here and there indicating changes to a green in terms of contour or size, a new tee box, a nest of trees, a re-shaped bunker or a narrowed fairway.
Nicklaus discussed some of the work with associate Chris Cochran, who was riding stand-up on the bag racks in back, and at one point complimented him about having brought a fairway bunker more into play.
“That looks a thousand times better, Chris,” Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus loves this stuff. He was good company at his animated best as a sometimes serious, sometimes teasingly combative conversationalist.
“It’s a big job,” he said jokingly about trying to provide a quick-study education in course design to an uninformed or, worse, a misinformed passenger.
Yeah, he loves this stuff.
And the reactions to Nicklaus from fee-paying customers he passed along the way was more than a little interesting. But why wouldn’t it be? Imagine a pick-up basketball game, and Michael Jordan strolling through the gym. Imagine exercisers throwing work-out punches in a boxing ring, and Muhammad Ali stopping in for a visit.
This is Nicklaus, who emerged as Arnold Palmer’s rival and superior once upon a time and has set the standard Tiger Woods now pursues.
It’s why a caddie who had taken arm-waving exception to the intrusion as Nicklaus approached a group stopped suddenly and flabbergastedly when recognizing the driver.
“Nice finish,” Nicklaus says to a woman who completed a follow-through on a good shot.
“Nice balance,” he said encouragingly to someone else whose shot doesn’t turn out too well.
At another hole, Nicklaus apologized for his interruption by saying, “We’ll be out of your way in a minute.”
Tick, tick, tick went the silent seconds before a reply finally was uttered, “Are you kidding? Take your time.”
And that’s exactly what Nicklaus did upon reaching the 15th tee where the three-hole Bear Trap – named in honor of his Golden Bear nickname – begins. Nicklaus hadn’t even noticed the huge statue of a bear at the hole until someone told him it was there.
“Hi, bear,” Nicklaus said playfully. “It’s a nice bear, isn’t it? We get to The Bear Trap and I don’t see the bear.”
“Have you ever hunted bear?” comes a question.
“Alaskan Brown,” Nicklaus answered.
Anyone wanting a picture with Jack and the Bear could step right up. Nicklaus posed happily, and invited other shots in case that one didn’t turn out. It’s impossible not to wonder, no matter how unfair it is to speculate: What will Tiger be like more than three decades from now?
Nicklaus is 69 years old, and grandfather to a brood. He is, astonishingly, almost a quarter of a century removed from his galvanizing Masters win in 1986 that gave him the 18th major championship of his professional career and established the number at which Woods, who has won 14 of the biggies, aims.
Nicklaus long ago came to grips, if that’s what it was, with figuring Woods will eclipse his record unless catastrophic injury prevents it. Neither did Nicklaus ever subscribe to the notion that fatherhood somehow would distract Woods from the quest, because Nicklaus knew how having a family inspired him when he was a young man and made him more disciplined, not less, in his work.
About his work at PGA National, Nicklaus said, “The pros have all said this is one Tiger will have to come to. I think you’ll see Tiger here next year.”
Woods might be living in the area by then.
If so, he should make it a point to see Nicklaus and shake hands if only to get idea of what the future might feel like.