Nicklaus, Player kick off 83rd Masters Tournament
Then they held court in an expansive and humorous press conference that touched on several topics, including but not limited to Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones; the late, great sportswriter Dan Jenkins; the first annual Augusta National Women’s Amateur; and modern contrivances like green-reading books.
“If you can’t read the green you should be selling beans!” said Player, a nine-time major winner.
Once the laughter in the room had died down, 18-time major winner, Nicklaus spoke.
“Well, I agree with everything Gary said,” said Nicklaus, “except I think to be a superstar you’ve got to win 10 majors.” More laughter. “He always teases me about that,” Player said.
The two enjoyed a warm round of applause as they strode to the tee, Player in all black, like his new PXG clubs, Nicklaus in red shirt and yellow sweater and hat. The Black Knight split the fairway, while the Golden Bear seemed to catch his shot off the heel and quickly waved away the effort.
That the ceremony is brief, one shot, was a welcome reprieve for Nicklaus, a record six-time winner here, who has been feeling all of his 79 years.
“I’ve had a hard time walking the last couple years,” he said after he and Player were joined by Tom Watson for the Par-3 Contest the day before.
Watson, incidentally, led the trio with a 2-under total in the Par 3. (At 69, he’s the youngest of the three.) Nicklaus shot an even-par 27, and Player a 1-over 28.
The winner of 24 tournaments on the PGA TOUR and more than 100 internationally, Player, 83, was the first to arrive at the practice tee at 7:25 a.m. the next day, Thursday.
“Can I hit some balls?” he said.
Nicklaus, riding shotgun on a stretch golf cart, arrived 10 minutes later and shook a few hands before limbering up. He plays only a little, often with his grandkids, and recently shot 85 from well ahead of the tournament tees.
The score, he said, was reflective of his game these days. It was in the interview room afterward that both players really hit their stride.
Asked about Bobby Jones, Nicklaus said he was 15 when they met at the 1955 U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Virginia. He knew plenty about the celebrated amateur, as Nicklaus’ father, Charlie, had idolized the man and even looked more than a little like him.
And so, when Jones showed up to watch the young Nicklaus play Walker Cup and Eisenhower Trophy teammate Bob Gardner at the James River Course in Virginia, it did not go well.
“Came out on 11,” Nicklaus said, recounting it like it was yesterday. “I went bogey, bogey, double-bogey, lost all three holes. (Jones) turned to my dad, he says, ‘Charlie, I don’t think I’m doing Jack much good out here.’ I ended up losing the match, 1-down.”
Player recalled sitting next to Jones and helping him cut his steak at the Champions Dinner, and confiding, “You know, Mr. Jones, I could never birdie the third hole. What do you think about that?”
Jones considered it. “You’re not supposed to birdie the third hole,” he said.
Nicklaus told an old story about wearing an ill-fitting green jacket that belonged to former New York Governor Thomas Dewey, who famously lost to Harry Truman for the presidency in 1948. Nicklaus wasn’t fitted for his own green jacket until 1998—an odd oversight for a player who had won six times—and revealed that his green jacket is now more than 20 years old.
“It looks like it, too,” Player said, eliciting more laughter.
Player recalled leaving the grounds with his green jacket, not realizing it was against the rules, and receiving a call from the notoriously dour Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts.
“I hope you’re not calling reverse-charges,” Player said in an attempt to lighten the mood. Told that he had violated club policy, Player said,
“Mr. Roberts, if you want it, come and fetch it.”
He and Nicklaus enjoyed a laugh at the image of Roberts flying 40 hours to South Africa retrieve the jacket. In the end, Player said, even Roberts seemed to see the absurdity of the situation before politely requesting that Player not wear the iconic jacket out in public.
Player railed against the modern ball, warning of the day when someone drives the first green. Nicklaus agreed. Asked about Rory McIlroy, for whom a Masters win would complete the career Grand Slam, Nicklaus said he didn’t realize the significance of winning the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship until being asked to pose for a picture.
Player said he’d been well aware of the Slam’s significance when he achieved it. (They are two of only five players to have won all four men’s professional majors.)
Both men praised the club for the addition of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, and both marveled at the performance of the winner, No. 1-ranked Jennifer Kupcho, in her first-ever competitive round here.
“I can’t believe that girl shot 67,” Nicklaus said.
Part of the pleasure of the press conference was seeing the expression on Nicklaus’ face. When the feisty South African Player said, again, that no one has flown more miles than him, Nicklaus flashed a knowing smile. How many times had he heard this story?
Asked how they used to while away those hours after sleeping on the 54-hole lead, Nicklaus said he didn’t do anything special, while Player said he would meditate and take a cold shower, then a hot shower to increase circulation. And he made sure not to overeat.
Player spoke of the frightening protests against South African apartheid, which nearly boiled over disastrously at the 1969 PGA Championship outside Dayton, Ohio, where he had ice thrown in his face and ultimately finished second to Raymond Floyd. It was at that tournament, Nicklaus recalled, that an enormous fan charged the green and Nicklaus, terrified, reared back with his putter.
“I swear, I would have killed the guy,” he said.
Before that could happen, though, the man veered away. Player nodded at the memory and said that he surely would have won the tournament without so much fan interference.
“So you see, I did win 10 (majors),” he said.
The laughter died down, and with the younger contestants having begun their rounds, and the old days still gone but now not forgotten, it was time to wrap up. Nicklaus and Player pushed out of their chairs, straightened their old bodies, and exited the stage.
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