Whatever happened to Jack Nicklaus, that big blond guy who used to win most of the tournaments and most of the money? Well, last week, while the tour was in San Antonio, he was sitting at home in Florida trying to figure out whatever happened to Jack Nicklaus, too. Put flatly, Nicklaus is in the worst slump of his career. "I'm playing medium lousy," he says with a laugh, but for the last two months he really hasn't been that good, not for a golfer with a string of titles that reaches all the way back to Columbus. Consider Nicklaus' record over the past two months:
Jacksonville—finished 27th, earning $642.50.
National Airlines—missed the cut.
Greensboro—skipped the tournament.
Masters—finished 24th, earning $1,800.
Tournament of Champions—finished 16th in a field of only 28, shooting an 80 and 76 and earning $2,816.67.
Byron Nelson Classic—skipped tournament.
Greater New Orleans Open—missed cut.
Texas Open—skipped tournament.
In short, in the last eight tournaments Nicklaus has skipped three, missed the cut in two others and, in the three he did finish, has earned a total of $5,259.17, which is a few dollars less than the amount of his average check for each tournament in which he played during his first seven years as a pro.
When you stand back and inspect Nicklaus' career, it becomes apparent that his slump, while accentuated by his poor play in the last two months, goes well beyond that. What has made Nicklaus one of the most remarkable golfers of all time is his ability to win not only a lot of tournaments but a lot of major ones. In 1962, his first year as a pro, he beat Palmer in a playoff for the U.S. Open and won two other tournaments as well. In 1963 he took the Masters, the PGA and three others. In 1964 he won four more tournaments, though no major titles. He captured his second Masters in 1965 (by nine strokes), plus four other tournaments. In 1966 it was Masters No. 3, the British Open and two others. He won the U.S. Open for the second time in 1967, plus four other events on the pro tour. At 27, Nicklaus had won seven major titles (to say nothing about his two U.S. Amateur championships), 19 other tournaments and almost three-quarters of a million dollars. And it seemed as though his best golf was still ahead of him.
But in 1968, Nicklaus had the worst year of his career. Worst for Nicklaus meant two victories (his lowest total ever) and $155,285.55 in prize money. He was never a contender in any of the three major U.S. championships and, in fact, he did not make the cut at the PGA. (As well as winning all three—Masters, U.S. Open, PGA—he has now missed the cut in all of them.) Although he finished second in the U.S. Open, Nicklaus never was a strong threat to win. He won both his tournaments in August, back to back at the Western Open in Chicago and the American Golf Classic in Akron. The rest of the year, though, Nicklaus played like a rookie—missing the cut here, shooting 75s there. He probably switched drivers and putters more than any player on the tour.
At first glance there seemed to be an obvious explanation for Nicklaus' poor showing in 1968. He was actively involved in the PGA-player hassle, serving as a member of the Tournament Committee and later as an organizer of the revolt of the APG against the stiff-legged PGA Establishment. From August on he attended meetings before, during and after every tournament and defended himself against bitter verbal attacks by various officials of the PGA. It was easy to see why he was distracted.
This year, Nicklaus started playing with a vengeance. He played well and finished sixth in the Crosby, his first start, and then he won the Andy Williams-San Diego Open and its $30,000 first place check. The rest of the pros on the tour were wary. They knew that if Nicklaus had his mind on golf they would be playing for second place every week.
However, the following week Jack finished only 16th in the Bob Hope Desert Classic in Palm Springs and since then he has earned less money than your club pro. Nicklaus' slump has not hurt his bankroll; he might play better if it did. Mark McCormack, the lawyer who manages Nicklaus and also Palmer, says, "Sure, I would like him to win every week. But this has had no effect on what we are doing for him. Jack is a very salable commodity." When Nicklaus shoots one of his 76s or 80s, McCormack is among the first on the phone to congratulate him. "I kid him about it," McCormack continues. "He's been a little casual about his golf and he can be so damn good."
So, now, the question: What is wrong with Jack Nicklaus? Probably nothing permanent. Nicklaus is bored by the thought of playing in the weekly classics, festivals, invitationals and opens that comprise the long, long PGA tour schedule. He has won most of them and finds it difficult to convince himself that winning a tournament in San Antonio is more important than, well, fishing for tarpon in the Florida Keys or just plain sunbathing with the wife and kids on some remote reef in the Bahamas. Thanks to his past successes, Nicklaus can afford to do that.
One thing nobody understands about Nicklaus is that his list of priorities differs considerably from the list of most athletes. It sounds trite to say, but Nicklaus is an old-fashioned family man. He likes to be up in the morning when his two boys, Jackie, 7, and Stevie, 6, leave for school and he likes to be home when they return in the afternoon. He will spend his afternoons with them on a boat or in a bowling alley or on a golf course or playing basketball, baseball or football. At night after dinner the boys and the Nicklauses' only girl, Nancy, pile into the power boat docked outside their back door at Lost Tree Village, Fla. and go for a long ride on Lake Worth.
This fascination with home life, highly creditable though it may be, is not necessarily the best preparation for tournament golf. Certainly Nicklaus has found it difficult to concentrate on the little white ball with his name on it. Before the Masters tournament last month Jack went for a checkup with his only teacher, Jack Grout, the pro who introduced him to the game at Scioto in Columbus.
"Jack is swinging the club well, and his putting stroke is just beautiful," Grout said last week. "The problem seems to be that he is not organized as far as concentrating and practicing on his putting. I don't think he has given it enough time—either mentally or on the practice green. When he starts to bear down on it more in his mind, they'll fall for him like they always have."
In the meantime, Nicklaus struggles along. In the old days of the tour Jack could shoot a 74 and then a 72 and not worry too much about making a cut. Now a 74, a 72 and one airline ticket get you an early trip to the next tournament. Two weeks ago Nicklaus shot a 74 and then a 70 at New Orleans and did not make the cut.
"It used to be that if I shot a 74 and a 70 the first two rounds that I would be in a good position to win. For instance, if I had shot a 65 and a 66 the last two rounds at New Orleans, and that was not impossible there, I would have tied for first. But I didn't even get to play."
Now summer is coming, and Nicklaus generally plays well in the summer. Maybe then everyone will know where Jack Nicklaus is.