Nicklaus Nine for Disabled Veterans

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The “Nicklaus Nine” at American Lake Veterans Golf Course (Lakewood, Wash.) opened this weekend appropriately during Jack Nicklaus’ own PGA Tour event, The Memorial presented by Nationwide.

The Golden Bear donated his design services for the new nine to encourage more veterans to participate and enjoy golf. It is a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course and the 400th course worldwide since his first in 1969.

“It is a very interesting thing to watch these guys that come home after serving our country and to help them transition back to society. Golf has been a big, big booster to a lot of the guys that have post-traumatic syndrome,” Nicklaus said.

“We’ve got a lot of men and women coming back home, and they need our help,” he added.

The Nicklaus Nine opening coincided with American Lake’s annual volunteer appreciation tournament with a ceremonial ribbon cutting by Joanne Hatner, whose father was the director of the VA Hospital during the first ribbon-cutting ceremony for the course in 1957, an event she attended.

Ken Still, a member with Nicklaus of the 1969 Ryder Cup squad hit the first drive representing close friend Nicklaus while the Golden Bear is in Dublin, Ohio at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.

“Kenny called me, oh, I don’t know, six or seven years ago,” said Nicklaus, “and he told me, ‘Jack, I need your help. We’ve got nine holes of golf out here, and it’s playing 40,000 rounds a year. We need more golf. All these veterans, they’re unbelievable, and I want to help them.”

“’I want you to design another nine holes,’” Nicklaus recalls Still asking him, “‘and fix up the other nine.’ Well, we’ve raised the money. We’ve done the renovation work on nine holes. And we’ve gotten the [additional] nine holes built.” The much-anticipated expansion will be open for others to play beginning Sunday, June 5. The course is ADA-accessible and is run by 200-plus volunteers and operates without any federal funding or paid employees.

“I could not be happier that American Lake turned out to be Nicklaus Design’s milestone 400th golf course,” Nicklaus said. “Everything that American Lake stands for parallels our mission at Nicklaus Design, and that is to give people a place to recreate and congregate, and to design a course that best services the needs of the people who play there. It’s been a labor of love to be involved in the planning, fundraising, groundbreaking and design of the Nicklaus Nine at American Lake. I have always said that, in some ways, golf course design is a vehicle for me to give back to the game of golf. This time, we get the opportunity to give back to the men and women who have sacrificed their lives and limbs so we can live free in this country. To thank our nation’s heroes in this small way really is my privilege. It is the least we can do for the 1% of Americans who protect the other 99% of us, reminding us that there is nothing free about freedom.”

Ode to a One Iron

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Last weekend a buddy invited me to play golf at a nearby course we both enjoy. It’s not especially long nor tight and has relatively few acres of sand and water but the main attraction without a doubt was spending time with a friend.

As we walked off the range following our pre-game warmup, he suddenly stopped saying, “Oh nuts!” Thinking he might have left something important like a club or his golf swing back in the car I was in for a surprise.

My friend said he had meant to hit a few with the club he had just purchased. I, curious and interested, asked, “Oh, what did ya get?”

His reply floored me, “A 1-iron.”

Now to explain so you don’t think my friend has completely lost his senses, he has been playing golf for several years, though at times finds it hard to get out…just like the rest of us. He is dedicated, wants to get better and has the advantage of having above average athletic ability.

However, having said all that, his chances of integrating a one iron into his game are between slim and none with the needle nudging the latter.

But in his mind’s eye he sees himself ripping it 220-yards into the wind with a slight draw that lands on the green, checks and rolls next to the pin. Really?

The story of how he came by the Ping Eye2 1-iron (a model which first saw the light of day in 1982) is worth the retelling. The week before my friend had been playing with a couple of guys, one of who wasn’t very good and had a bad case of the “Tommy Bolt’s,” or club tossing. Unbelievably this fellow was carrying a 1-iron in his bag and with a game even less accomplished than my friend’s had a particular affection for heaving it after nearly every swing.

By the way, Bolt was one of golf’s all time colorful characters. There are dozens of stories about his time on the PGA Tour but the quotation I like the best is, “Always throw your clubs ahead of you. That way you don’t have to waste energy going back to pick them up.”

Anyway back to the 1-iron saga, between tosses the fellow was ranting he was going to dump his 1-iron. Sell it. Good riddance.

My friend sensing an opportunity asked, “How much?” and the fellow said $20. Reaching into his pocket my friend came back with, “I’ve only got $12. How about that?”

“Done!” was the reply and my friend was the owner of a 1-iron. 

After my friend proudly related his tale I pointed out aside from the putter the 1-iron was probably the cause for more people giving up the game than anything but a spouse that doesn’t play. And that it was primary contributor to invention of hybrids. For crying out loud, not even PGA Tour players carry them.

HistoHogan_Merion_72hole_USGArically there are a number of famous 1-iron shots. Ben Hogan’s MacGregor 1-iron to the 72nd green of the 1950 U.S. Open setting up a par to put him a playoff the next day which he won. This all coming after being almost killed in a head on crash with a bus 16 months previously.

Jack Nicklaus in the U.S. Open back in 1972 at Pebble BeNicklaus_17th_PBeach_1972ach playing the par-3 17th on the final day. The 219-yards between the Golden Bear and the hole were dead into a strong wind coming off the local water hazard known as the Pacific Ocean. His 1-iron shot hit the pin and dropped next to the hole for an easy two. Even more incredible to my mind and showing Nicklaus’ immense talent was on the back swing he felt the club was too closed which would have produced a disastrous hook. However, he had so much control that week he adjusted on the way down holding off the release to compensate. The result was his second major championship of the year.

My own 1-iron story goes back to the middle 70’s when I was a lot younger and thought I could play this maddening game. Par-5, dogleg left and after a good drive to the corner a sweet 1-iron into the hole for a two—double eagle—albatross—whatever. The unfortunate part of the story is, because of the way the green-fronting bunker was situated, I couldn’t see it go in.

But back to the present. When we got out on the course my friend tried out his Ping Eye2 “butter knife” from the tee on two holes of the second nine. As you might expect the results weren’t pretty. But he has vowed to keep at it because he can still see that 220-yard shot into the wind with a slight draw.

The 18th Major – Jack Nicklaus 1986 Masters

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Thirty years is a long time and if you are old enough, 1986 may have some strong memories. There were the tragedies of the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in the Ukraine but also for some, the thrill of the Chicago Bears winning the Super Bowl in a blowout 46 to 10 and the New York Mets taking the World Series 4 games to 3. Both coincidentally beating Boston area teams, the Patriots and Red Sox.

In our game there were some interesting things going on as well. Future Hall of Fame member Pat Bradley won three majors on the LPGA Tour and on the men’s Tour the U.S. Open was won by 44-year old Raymond Floyd also a future inductee to the Hall of Fame. But who can forget the other win by an “old guy?” At the age of 46 without a Tour win in two years and major championship in six Jack Nicklaus gave us one for the ages.

His victory in that year’s Masters is still considered to be the greatest ever.

Fans watching the last nine holes that April Sunday could share the emotion the Golden Bear must have been feeling…and talk about performing under pressure! It’s been 30 years and still the nervousness, excitement and finally the elation when Nicklaus took his sixth Masters and 18th major championship is very real.

There are dozens of stories about what happening that day including the legend of Nicklaus’ putter, a Clay Long-designed MacGregor Response ZT 615, that compared with the then popular models looked like a kitchen utensil or maybe a garden tool. MacGregor took orders for 5,000 the Monday morning following.

My favorite story took place at the start of the week. As Nicklaus related it in his autobiography Jack Nicklaus: My Story written with Ken Bowden, he described a Tom McCollister column in the Atlanta Journal:

[McCollister was] announcing the demise of Jack Nicklaus, golfer. According to this piece I was finished, washed up, kaput, the clubs were rusted out, the Bear was off hibernating somewhere, it was all over and done with, forget it, hang ‘em up and go design golf courses or whatever.

Strong stuff and many agreed but the measure of Nicklaus the man was his reaction to this rather harsh opinion dismissing his ability. Again from his book:

[But] this one struck a nerve. “Finished, huh?” I said to myself. “All washed up, am I? Well, we’ll see about that this week.”

A clipping of the offending column stayed pasted to the rental house refrigerator courtesy of Nicklaus’ longtime friend John Montgomery and was undoubtedly a strong “I’ll-show-‘em” incentive each time Nicklaus passed.

His play on the back nine Sunday has taken on almost mythic status, written and talked about by commentators from Herbert Warren Wind (“nothing less than the most important accomplishment in golf since Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930”) to yours truly. However, Nicklaus himself points out the back nine charge of six under par wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t had some incredible luck on the eighth hole.

His drive on this steeply uphill par-5, known as Yellow Jasmine, was pushed slightly and wound up right of the fairway laying on pine needles with several trees blocking the route forward. The prudent play would have been to pitch back to the fairway, however at that point being even par for the round Nicklaus knew unless he started scoring better the tournament was out of reach.

Definitely a higher risk shot was called for.

There was a small opening that a perfectly struck shot might sneak through and with a slight fade the ball would miss the first two trees immediately in front of him and, if it stayed low enough long enough, others closer to the fairway. But he also could tell, if the ball wasn’t hit perfectly it was anybody’s guess where it would wind up and a bogey or worse a very real possibility.

With three wood in hand and taking his time he aligned the shot carefully. But when Nicklaus struck the ball though on the center of the clubface it started slightly right of the opening at which he was aiming, narrowly missed the first tree trunk and just barely passed through an even smaller gap in the branches. The ball did stay low though and curved further right to finish near the edge of the green, just the spot you want to be if you’re going to miss the putting surface,.

A pitch and two putts secured his par and gave Nicklaus the emotional boost from escaping potential disaster that set the stage for a seven under par run over the next ten holes for a final score of 65.

Thirty years ago it seemed fantastic…it still does today.