I know that it started at a charity auction in her hometown in South Carolina; I wasn’t there because of a scheduling conflict. The auction was tied to the Nationwide Tour event in the upstate region and one of her nephews was helping to run it. One of the organizers had business ties to Jack, which accounts for why the opportunity was up for sale. She felt obligated to be a good citizen and to help out her nephew, and there was a free bar and she only wanted to help get the bidding started…
It took, however, a recession to enable me to actually schedule the trip. I would send possible dates to an assistant in Jack’s office. She would reply that he would be out of town or out of the country at that time. It was only after the global recession virtually shut down the golf architecture business that mutually agreeable dates became available and the weekend was set.
I didn’t mind, because it took me a long time to decide whom to invite. There was no shortage of people who might like to go, no shortage of people who had on occasion invited me on memorable golf trips. But finally, I decided that the right thing to do was to invite the members of my regular weekend foursome. They put up with me the most. They deserved a reward. I will call them Nick, Mike and Vince, because those are in fact their names. On a fine weekend in early spring, we flew south.
The Bear’s Club is a project of Jack’s late middle age. He was one of the founders, along with some old friends and business associates. It’s both a shrine to him and an example of all the things he’s decided a golf club ought to be, after decades of hanging out at places like Muirfield and Augusta National.I did not ask how much it costs to join, but I suspect it’s safe to say that if you have to remove your shoes before you board your flight to Palm Beach, you can’t afford it. The opulence is neither the extravagant ostentation of Donald Trump’s Palm Beach mansion nor the quiet, old money refinement of Seminole, where the established aristocrats of the town play golf. It’s a place for people like Nicklaus, who made their own money and now wish to enjoy it with their peers.
There’s a guard and a gatehouse, of course. There are dozens of quiet, smiling employees who do their best to convince each guest that it would be their great pleasure to attend to any legitimate whim. The clubhouse is a sprawling, vaguely Mediterranean complex, built of gray stone, with red tile roofing, several fountains and blooming bougainvillea among its stone footpaths and archways. Our “cottage” had four suites, each big enough for a normal urban family.
The Nicklauses must have emptied half their attic and a couple of storage rooms furnishing the clubhouse. The walls in the formal dining room are decorated with the stuffed heads of big game Jack has shot. The locker room is spacious and luxurious enough for a Junior League cocktail party, with its own dining area and bar. Its walls are covered with some of the pictures and memorabilia Nicklaus accumulated during his career. There’s even a golden bear, a stuffed polar bear with yellow-white fur, eight feet tall, that stands in one of the vestibules. The beast was shot by a fan of Jack’s (presumably back in the days before polar bears were an endangered species), and sent to him as a gift.
Outdoors, the golfing facilities are immaculate. Caddies wear white coveralls. The turf on the capacious practice tee could serve as a putting surface at a lot of clubs. The short game area has two greens, one for chipping, pitching and bunker play and another for putting. There is a challenging, nine-hole par-three course, a la Augusta National. One of the Bear’s Club members, Ernie Els, is said to use it to tune up his short game.
The golf course is not for the faint of heart or the casual hacker. It was built on a typical piece of flat, low-lying inland Florida real estate. The contours come largely from a bulldozer’s blade and there are plenty of canals, marshes and lagoons to drain the place—and swallow golf balls.
Given the original topography, and the founders’ desire to sell land on the course’s perimeter for housing, Nicklaus did an excellent job of building a layout that gives a player 18 varied looks. Each hole requires thought. There are generally at least two or three ways to play the par fours and par fives—a safe line that makes the hole longer and a risky line that makes it shorter and might yield a birdie.
A player had better be long and straight off the tee, for a ball hit too far off line is likely to find either water or gnarly native scrub that swallows it up just as efficiently as a pond might. Second shots need to be precise. Many of the greens have severe contours and the player needs to hit the correct segment to have a reasonable chance to make a birdie, or even two-putt. And there is generally no bail-out area. If one side of the green is flanked by water, Nicklaus almost always makes sure that the other side is no bargain, either. A shot that misses on the “safe” side finds either a tightly mowed, severely contoured chipping area or a deep bunker. A skulled sand shot or pitch off a tight lie beings the water back into play.
The course conditioning is, as one might expect, impeccable. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of play—my group rarely saw anyone else. If the Bear’s Club were a resort, I would give it four-and-a-half stars. It’s about as good as a course can be on such an originally dull piece of land.
Certainly, it was more than enough of a challenge for my ostensible nine-handicap golf game, encrusted as it was in winter rust. It would be more than enough in the middle of the summer, when I can actually play to the nine. I struggled to scores in the 90s. Mike, Vince and Nick did only a little better.By the time we finished our second round, we were more than ready for the treats of the last day—the club fitting and the clinic. Rick Gomes, a specialist from the Nicklaus factory, took us to the far end of the range and let us try out the Nicklaus line. I felt slightly mortified when he told me that it was time to stop asking for a stiff shaft and to use a driver with a loft I’d always associated with a three-wood. But I couldn’t argue with the high, straight tee shots I hit with the driver he put in my hands. Ditto when he suggested hybrids in place of my long irons.
Then it was time for the grand finale. We got in golf carts and drove back to the practice tee. Four folding chairs had been set up in a neat semi-circle. At precisely the appointed hour, a golf cart drove up and the greatest player of all time got out. Nicklaus was wearing black shoes, dark slacks, and a striped golf shirt. He was bareheaded, and his blonde hair glinted in the hot sun.
He shook hands very pleasantly, and asked where we were from. The Washington, D.C. area, we told him. He grimaced.
“The people in Washington are taking over everything, aren’t they?” he asked, rhetorically.
He seemed momentarily nonplussed when none of us responded by saying, “Megadittos, Jack!”
I had a fleeting vision of the club security staff being chastised for permitting non-Republicans through the gate. But Nicklaus is nothing if not a practiced, professional performer who knows when it’s appropriate to be non-partisan. He quickly switched the topic, starting with our various jobs. He compared notes on hip replacements with Vinnie, who is an orthopedic surgeon. Then he started talking golf and how he plays it.
“I don’t play much golf any more,” he said. “This will probably be the only practice session I get in before I go to Augusta.” (The Masters was a week or so away.) He started hitting wedges, then moved through his bag, explaining his fundamentals as he hit—weight evenly distributed, posture fairly erect, neutral grip, etc.
Hit shots looked close to perfect. Each of them was straight and had the appropriate arc. Finally he got down to his driver and he hit a few shots that flew high and true, maybe 260 yards out, then faded ever so slightly before lighting on the green turf. “The ball just doesn’t go anywhere anymore,” he lamented. I refrained from mentioning how badly I would like to be able to hit drives that didn’t go anywhere just like his.
He was gracious and genial, and only occasionally did he show a little of the personality that helped lift him to 18 major championships.
Mike had been trying for a year to master the one-plane swing, a technique suggested by our home pro. He raised his hand and asked Jack what he thought of it.
“The one-plane swing?” Jack sniffed. “What’s that?”
Rashly, Mike tried to explain. “You know, it’s a swing, um…” he began, before wilting slightly at the idea of explaining a golf swing to Jack Nicklaus. “…that’s taught by Jim Hardy and some others,” he finished.
“Jim Hardy? What’d he ever win?”
I felt sorry for Mike. He felt, I imagine, like a reporter who made the mistake of asking Pope Benedict to discuss the theology of L. Ron Hubbard.
I raised my hand and asked Jack what he recommended to fix my biggest problem, the short pitch, which I am equally adept at skulling and chunking.
“Well, you just let the bounce of your sand wedge keep it from digging into the ground,” he said. “Let me see your sand wedge. It probably doesn’t have any bounce.”
I trotted to my bag and pulled out my sand wedge, a Cleveland model with 14 degrees of bounce. Jack took my clubhead in his right hand and held his own sand wedge next to it, in his left hand. He peered at the two soles.
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with your sand wedge,” he said. “It’s pretty much like mine.”
I waited, still half hoping that he’d say, “Since the problem isn’t your club, your flaw must be x and the secret that will fix it is y.” But he didn’t. He suggested I hit a couple of wedge shots. I managed to chunk one.
“Well, if you’re going to hit two inches behind the ball…” he began. Then he stopped. That was all he could say.
Jack, for instance, asked us how we liked the demo clubs we’d been hitting. Someone complimented the hybrids. “Glad you like them” he said. “I don’t use them, myself. You can’t work the ball with them. They can only make it go high and straight.” I still think of those words when I take one of my Nicklaus hybrids and slice or hook the ball into a bunker. Different universes.
And that, in the end, was what I took away from my weekend at Jack’s place—an insight into greatness.
I learned that the great, in contrast to the multitudes, work on a level of technical near-perfection. Short pitches were never the strength of Jack’s game (he didn’t have to hit that many of them), and yet it was difficult for him to deal with the very concept of not hitting them cleanly. His swing, even in his old age, works within such tight parameters that he can’t make it irregular enough to draw or fade a hybrid club. And the great, in contrast to us self-doubting multitudes, have a crusty confidence in doing things their own way. I can imagine Jack’s reaction, when he was a player, had one of today’s celebrity swing doctors had the temerity to approach him with a tip.
“And what have you won?” he’d say. And he’d keep on doing things his own way.
Those were things I’d heard and read about greatness. Seeing them in person imprinted the lesson on my brain in a new way. So, thanks to my wife. Whatever she paid, the weekend was worth it.
And thanks, Jack.