Skip to main content

A little help from a friend

When Jack Nicklaus finally saw that his short game needed work, he called in Phil Rodgers, who even as a fellow rookie in 1962 had more shots than Jack did

In 1962 there were only two rookies on the PGA tour who mattered, and the question of which was better was still being debated when the year came to an end. Jack Nicklaus and Phil Rodgers were both blond, both crewcut, both fat and both very good golfers. Big Blob and Little Blob they were sometimes called. Nicklaus won the U.S. Open at Oakmont and two other tournaments that season and was named Rookie of the Year. But Rodgers, who finished third in the U.S. Open, won the Los Angeles Open at Rancho Park by nine strokes with a final-round 62 that many observers thought was the most impressive performance of '62. There were those willing to argue that Rodgers had more shots than Nicklaus did.

In the 18 years that have passed since his triumph at Oakmont, Nicklaus has won 14 more major titles and is now generally considered to be the greatest golfer who ever lived. Rodgers, on the other hand, had five moderately good years and then went into a long, painful decline that was accelerated by injuries. He never won a major title, he never got rich, and his early fame fled along with his youth and his confidence. He had chances, once in the U.S. Open and twice in the British Open, but he never pulled out a big one.

Nonetheless Rodgers' early boosters were right about one thing. He did have some shots that Nicklaus didn't, especially a reliable little number with a sand wedge from 20 yards or so off the green. With just a flick of his thick, freckled wrists, Rodgers could loft the ball high in the air where it would hang, as spinless as a knuckleball, and then fall gently onto the green, bounce once and stop, rarely more than one makable putt away from the hole.

Rodgers could make that shot over and over. Nicklaus couldn't do it nearly as consistently, but then he didn't have to. Nicklaus' long game and putting were so good that for two decades he didn't need to be a good chipper or a good pitcher. Lately, however, circumstances—such as finishing 71st on the money list in 1979—have made Nicklaus reassess the importance of his short game. "I think I would have won a lot more tournaments if I'd ever worked on those things," he said a few weeks ago.

Early last Saturday morning, Rodgers, 42, bachelor, bon vivant and, of late, guru, found himself in an alien although not unpleasant environment. Instead of waking in his own bed in his own little house in the hills north of San Diego with a living room full of dirty glasses left from a party the night before, he was sitting at the breakfast table in Nicklaus' sprawling, well-ordered establishment beside Lake Worth in North Palm Beach, Fla. Rodgers' eyes were red-rimmed from having spent the night crossing the country in a crowded DC-10. His pudgy frame was clad in an assortment of garments drawn from closets in the Nicklaus house to replace the clothes the airline had lost. When he stretched and yawned and scratched his new, reddish beard, his pale belly protruded into the space between a tent-shaped striped shirt and pair of tennis shorts that hung almost to his knees.

The south Florida air was warm and humid, and the large seagrape outside the breakfast-room window, with its flat leathery leaves the size of dinner plates, was foreign to his California eyes. A gardener was mowing the putting green at the edge of the lawn. Two golden retrievers bounded into and clambered out of the swimming pool. The grass tennis court was unused.

Nicklaus' children, who had been stirring at the back of the house, began to appear in the kitchen one by one—Nan, 14, Jackie, 18, Michael, 6, Gary, 11. Steve, 16, had already left with his mother, Barbara, for a baseball game in Boca Raton. Turning out eggs to order was Doris Richards, the caretaker who, along with her husband Jake, runs the Nicklaus household when Jack and Barbara are away. Jack, wearing a short burgundy bathrobe and with spirits as high as any of his children's on this first day of their spring break, had two over easy and dark rye toast. Rodgers passed. It was still 5 a.m. San Diego time.

Once these two were mistaken for each other. Now they seemed an odd pairing—the robust, prosperous family man surrounded by his athletic children, and the short, stocky loner with the slightly sad blue eyes. But for all their differences, the game of golf was still at the center of each of their lives, and Rodgers was there at Nicklaus' table, surrounded by dogs, children and luxury, because he has something that Nicklaus needed—a rare knowledge of the short game and the ability to communicate that knowledge.

Rodgers is a born teacher. Even when he was a rookie on the tour—the loudest, cockiest and, in the opinion of a few, most obnoxious rookie to come along in years—Rodgers never hesitated to give advice to anyone, whether or not he was invited to do so. Thus it was only natural, when his game began to let him down and his income from playing it started to dry up, that he would drift into teaching. When you teach as Rodgers does, on a free-lance basis rather than as a club pro, and when you work, as he does, with players who are already very good, like touring pros, teaching is referred to as "helping." Rodgers has helped Victor Regalado, John Schroeder, Gary McCord, his old friends, Raymond Floyd and Gene Littler, and John Brodie, the former NFL quarterback. He also has a stable of regulars in the San Diego area—a few young players who he thinks have a chance to be good and some businessmen, stockbrokers and the like, who call on him when their game has gone awry. He usually meets them at the practice range of their choice, and for a fee he patiently talks them out of whatever mental quagmire they've got themselves into.

Rodgers' pupils swear by him. Jim Iverson, 44, an investment banker who plays anywhere from scratch to a four handicap, first encountered Rodgers at a practice range, where Rodgers was giving some "help" to Mark Pfeil, a touring pro. "I just listened," says Iverson. "Up to then I had about a 75% chance of getting up and down in three from off the green. Now I average about two, just from listening. It's a rare talent, being able to communicate like that."

Rodgers' association with Nicklaus this year arose from two things: first, a magazine article written by Paul Runyan, Rodgers' mentor during his early years on the tour, which said, among other things, that Nicklaus had the short game of an eight-or 10-handicapper; and second, a dinner during the Crosby at which Schroeder suggested to Nicklaus that Jack's short game might benefit from some help from Rodgers. Several weeks later, at the Los Angeles Open, Nicklaus and Rodgers got together on a nearby course where they stayed until dark. "Long enough that he got a passable understanding," says Rodgers. "He said he was going to go home and plug it right into his game. The principle is very simple, but it helps to have a little imagination to pick it up quickly. The chipping stroke is a very short, firm stroke, all arms. The pitch is a very soft stroke, all hands."

Five days later Nicklaus called Rodgers in San Diego and invited him to come east and stay at his house for a couple of days. As it turned out, two days became two weeks. Mornings and afternoons, and sometimes evenings with the lights on around the putting green in the side yard, Nicklaus and Rodgers worked on the new shots, joined now and then by Jackie and Gary.

"He's really helped me a lot," says Nicklaus. "I'd been lazy about my short game; I'd never really tried to learn it. I thought that my basically poor chipping was just because I didn't have the 'touch.' I never had anyone to talk to who understood it well enough to explain the reason for hitting a certain shot other than the way I had been hitting it. Phil also suggested a change in my grip that has affected my long game. Once I made the change, it allowed everything I had been working on all winter to happen."

Rodgers returned to Florida last week, primarily to work with Jackie but also to give Jack one last brushup before the Masters. Still wearing his outlandish makeshift costume, with a floppy blue hat added to shield his fair skin from the sun, Rodgers stood on the practice tee at Frenchman's Creek Golf Club on Saturday with Jackie from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., with a half hour off for a sandwich on the clubhouse porch. When Jack showed up with Gary at about 2 p.m., Jackie was working on the five-iron. The boy's hands were covered with blisters and his deep-set eyes were sunk deeper than usual and his right shoulder was sore and he couldn't have been happier. He stopped hitting balls long enough to summarize for his father what he had learned, and then he turned back to the five-iron. In the pro shop, where he went to buy some gauze tape for his son's sore fingers, Jack announced proudly to the club pro and his assistant, "Jackie's got a new golf swing and 27 blisters."

Later, watching from a golf cart, Nicklaus said of Rodgers, "He's a good teacher. It's hard for a father to teach his son about the golf swing. You can't spend enough time."

"The secret to teaching," says Rodgers, "is that the student understands what you're talking about and has faith that it will do him some good. It takes about eight or 10 hours for the average person to get the fundamentals my way. Then it's just how much he wants to work. I'm basically a remodeler."

In August of 1978 Rodgers was in an auto accident that virtually put an end to his competitive career. He wasn't seriously injured, but the middle finger of his left hand required an operation on the second joint and remains swollen. He has entered six tournaments so far this year. He missed the cut in four and failed to qualify for the other two. Nicklaus thinks Rodgers is playing well enough so that if he played more he would begin to make some money. The trouble with the tour, though, is that it takes money to make money, and Rodgers has little to spare. He says that if he could, he'd play 20 tournaments a year, but in the next breath he sounds not at all sure he wants to try again.

"I had a few ups and an awful lot of downs," he says of his career. "I don't really know how to explain what happened. I think maybe I burned myself out, that I was too good too fast. At every stage—high school, college, the service—I was always the best, or if not the best, then knocking at the door. Golf is a very individual game, and it takes a lot of self-confidence. I'm not as sure of myself as people think I am. Take Nicklaus. He's won 66 tournaments, and he has played in four or five hundred. That's not much of a winning percentage in most other sports. But, me, I was 5 for 600. That's pretty humbling when you get right down to it. I once thought to myself, 'These guys have shot me full of so many holes, I feel like Fearless Fosdick.' You have to be awfully tough to overcome that, and I'm not sure I was."

Jack Nicklaus is tough enough, however, and with a little help from an old friend, especially around the greens, he could be ready to launch two comebacks—his own and Phil Rodgers'.


In Florida, Rodgers checks his pupil's progress.