They used to call him Carnac, a reference to the Johnny Carson swami character who knew answers before the questions were read. It was a lighthearted if not slightly unkind jab at the greatest player in history, but Jack Nicklaus was always known for having an answer for everything, no matter what the topic.
But here’s the thing: more often than not, even when he seemed to be going off on a passionate monologue, Jack was right.
When jumbo titanium club heads sparked debate about the definitions of "spring-like effect" and "moment of inertia," Jack was shaking his head and saying, No, no, no, it’s the golf ball. Just roll the golf ball back, make it spin more, and the problem is solved.
Most experts dismissed him, but looking back, there is no question that Jack was absolutely right. If distance was, indeed, changing the game (and with average PGA Tour courses stretching to 7,500 yards, and courses like Canterbury Golf Club, where Jack won the PGA Championship, his 14th major, to surpass Bobby Jones as the greatest major champion of all time, falling out of the conversation for future events, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t), then Nicklaus’ pronouncements were right on target.
Now, Jack is at it again, emphatically making a point about how golf needs to change in order for the game to grow and prosper. Only this time, nobody is snickering or calling him names behind his back.
This time, people are listening.
I first heard Jack make the case for six- and 12-hole rounds of golf in Scotland in the spring of 2008. He was speaking about architecture at a development conference, and his ideas were, once more, raising a few eyebrows.
"We have to retool the way we think about a round of golf," Jack said. "A lot of people, especially people with young children, don’t have time to play 18 holes, or even nine holes. Rather than design courses where those are the only options, architects need to design multiple returning points: three holes, six holes; nine and 12 holes. That way, a father and his kids can go out in the evening and play three holes after dinner or a single can slip out for six holes after work."
At the time, very few people were thinking about golf in those terms. Now, after the Great Recession and many months of stagnant growth in the game, everyone is realizing that Jack was right all along.
But rather than sit back and let others test his theories, Nicklaus has used two of his most famous and exclusive clubs as models for the future of the game. Several months ago, Muirfield Village, host site of the Jack’s Memorial Tournament, put on two 12-hole tournaments for the membership. In addition to the shortened rounds, Jack doubled the size of the cups, making the holes bigger, the course shorter, and the event more convenient for the golfer of average skill. He also implemented severe slow play penalties for the event.
Those two tournaments were so successful that Nicklaus repeated them at his exclusive Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla. There the event was a mixed couples format with Jack and his wife Barbara playing.
"I think the game is a great game and in no way am in trying to change it," Nicklaus said. "There are few bigger traditionalists than me, but I realize we need to start thinking out of the box. So I ask all the traditionalists to be tolerant while we try something new, something fun to hopefully help us grow the game. It’s too important for us not to try. With so many sports and activities fighting for the time and attention of families, we need to think of ways to make our game more attractive and thus more inviting, especially to children and young adults. Perhaps what Muirfield Village is trying can help open a few eyes and a few minds."
Beyond the tournaments, Nicklaus has created 12-hole scorecards for members with composite courses that return to the clubhouse after the shortened round. The hope is that more players will make six- or twelve-hole rounds part of their standard routine, thus increasing family participation.
"The traditions and integrity of the game will always be respected and honored, but golf has to be cutting edge," Nicklaus said. "The time has come for the golf community to make a fresh start for the benefit of the future of the game, and show new people that the game of golf can be about makeable putts, camaraderie, and enjoyable competition played out in a timely manner."
The PGA of America has embraced these ideas through the Golf 2.0 program, but the ideas need to go further. Everyone in golf has to work to make the game faster and more enjoyable.
It is a testament to his greatness, not just as a player but as an ambassador of the game, that the man leading the charge is Jack Nicklaus.