Commentary

On the Hot Seat: Jack Nicklaus

Was Jack Nicklaus in his prime better than Tiger Woods right now? Who gave Nicklaus the stiffest challenge in his day? ESPN.com's Jason Sobel caught up with the Golden Bear to delve into these topics and more in this Hot Seat interview.

Originally Published: May 26, 2008
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

He is golf's all-time leading major winner, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, a recent recipient of the PGA Tour's Lifetime Achievement Award, an honoree of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the founder and host of this week's Memorial Tournament and …

Let's face it: As one of the greatest legends in sports, Jack Nicklaus needs no further introduction.

Jack Nicklaus
AP PhotoPhil SandlinJack Nicklaus, above in 1986, says his Masters victory at age 46 that year was more impressive than his sixth-place finish at age 58.

The Golden Bear recently sat down on the ESPN.com Hot Seat to discuss the U.S.'s Ryder Cup woes, the lengthening of Augusta National and, of course, Tiger Woods' pursuit of his most celebrated record.

Q: In a recent ESPN interview, Tiger Woods was asked, "Jack or Tiger?" He responded, "Me. He is the greatest of all time, but you have to believe in yourself." So let me ask you: Jack or Tiger?

A: Well, I would say exactly the same thing. If you asked, am I going to win or is Tiger going to win, I would have to say me, and Tiger would have to say him. If we didn't believe in ourselves, then we wouldn't be thinking much about how good we were or had much self-confidence. That's the only way you can answer that question.

The game today is so different, so nobody will ever know. But Tiger is awfully good, he's terrific, and I guess I wasn't too bad in my time.

Q: Gary Player recently said that, using the same equipment, a 30-year-old Jack would beat a 30-year-old Tiger. Your thoughts?

A: Well, I don't know. Gary played in my era; Gary knew how I played. Sometimes, somebody else's judgment is a little bit better than your own since you're … too much in the middle of it. I think if you went back and analyzed the games, you'll see that we were about the same length off the tee. I was probably a straighter driver than Tiger. I don't think there was a lot of difference in our iron games. I think Tiger's short game is better than mine. And I think we were both good putters. So, I don't know how you pick the difference.

We would have had a good match, but nobody will ever know.

Q: Do you think it's a foregone conclusion that he will break your major championship record?

A: No, not necessarily. I suspect that he probably will, but you never break a record until you break it. I suspect in the next four or five years, that it will probably happen, but who knows what's going to happen in the next four or five years? Certainly at the rate he's going and the way he plays, he should do it. He's awfully good.

Q: You won 18 career professional majors but came in second 19 times. Do you ever sit back and say to yourself, "Man, if only I had won a few more of those"?

A: Not really. Yeah, sure, I would have liked to have won more, but I didn't know I was going to have a Tiger coming along chasing my record. Records were not that big a deal 20, 25 years ago. I remember walking into the press room in 1970, and Bob Green, the AP reporter, said to me, "Jack, that's 10 majors. You only have three more to tie Bobby Jones." That's the first time I ever added them up. That's the honest truth. I never even thought about it.

Jones was my boyhood idol. I knew Jones had won 13, and all of a sudden, I now had a goal. When I broke Jones' record, I was still playing very well, and I won some more.

If I had known a Tiger was coming along, would I have tried to set a record? Yeah, maybe. But, you know, my record is what it is. It stands on its own. Most records are made to be broken. Most people will try to strive beyond a certain point. And that's what Tiger is trying to do. I wish him much luck; I hope I'm the first one there to shake his hand if he breaks my record.

Obviously, nobody wants their records to be broken, but we'll just have to wait and see. I'm looking forward to watching with interest.

Q: Do you think there is too much emphasis being placed on that record right now?

On the Hot Seat

Who else has appeared on ESPN.com's Hot Seat to discuss golf? Everyone from Tiger Woods to Annika Sorenstam. Click here to find the entire list.
Hot Seat guests

A: Probably. It really focuses totally on Tiger and not the game of golf and the number of other good players that are out there. There are a lot of good players out there today. And that's probably one of the reasons why Tiger is ahead. There are so many really good players that they can't get the experience of winning enough times to really compete coming down the stretch with him, when he's had the experience of winning quite a few.

I had some guys who were very good. We didn't have anywhere near the number of good players in my time as they [have] today, but I had guys who had the experience of winning, so I had more competition; it kept me more on my toes. But as I said, it's a different game today, it's a different time, so we'll see what happens.

Q: You often are linked with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, but you had some great battles with Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, too. Which player was your biggest rival?

A: Well, the biggest rival I had in my career was me. I couldn't control Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson or Lee Trevino. The only person I could control was me. The only person I could prepare for events was me. And if I didn't play well, I didn't play well, and I wasn't going to compete. But if I played well and prepared myself properly, then all I had to do was control myself and put myself in a position to win.

Maybe that's why I had 19 seconds [in majors]. I put myself in position a lot of times, but I got beat occasionally. To pick one of those guys as your best competitor? Pretty tough.

Q: Which is the greater accomplishment: winning the Masters at the age of 46, or finishing sixth at 58, just before having hip replacement surgery?

A: [Laughs.] I think winning it at 46. I had a chance when I was 58, just before I had my hip done. I played that tournament on one leg and I had a chance; I was close, but I didn't win. And when you don't win -- seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths -- they don't count. Only wins count.

Q: Speaking of the Masters, what are your thoughts on how Augusta National has been set up in recent years?

A: Well, I think that Augusta is not the same golf course that I grew up on. Bobby Jones' philosophy was giving you space off the tee; if you put it in the right side of the fairway, you ended up getting the right angle to the green. It was a great members' golf course. All they did was hide the pins and move the tees back, and they had the Masters.

Well, that doesn't work today. The game has changed so much, the golf ball goes so far, that Augusta had to change the philosophy of the golf course. I don't know whether it would be Jones' philosophy or not, but they had to change the philosophy.

They had the opportunity to bring in a golf ball that wouldn't go as far. I think they did the right thing in not putting themselves above the game of golf. They went in and changed the golf course to try to make it modern with today's competition. Yes, it changed the golf course, but yes, we're playing a different game. And the golf course that they've got today is a great golf course. It's a terrific golf course. It's a demanding golf course; it's demanding off the tee, it's demanding on the iron shots. The greens are the same greens. They've lengthened the golf course to try to get a comparison of what the golf ball goes today as opposed to what it went 20 years ago.

It's not the same course, but do I like it? I think it's a wonderful golf course.

Q: You've captained the U.S. team to victories in each of the past two Presidents Cups. Why hasn't that success carried over to the Ryder Cup?

A: Well, I don't know. I think that's a very good question. If we all knew the answer to that, we'd be able to write the ticket to success for Paul Azinger this fall. I talked to Paul for about an hour and a half the day after the Presidents Cup, and he said, "What did you do?" And I said, "Well, Paul, my feeling was that these guys are all professionals; they're all very accomplished in the field of playing the game of golf. For me to sit there and tell them what to do didn't make a lot of sense. For them to play with the guys they wanted to play with, to play the way they wanted to play and how they wanted to play the course, I think should be their call. When they prepare for tournaments, that's how they made the team, by winning and playing the way they played. My goal was for them to have fun and enjoy the event. It's a game for bragging rights, the same as what the Ryder Cup is. It's for sportsmanship and bragging rights; it's not a major championship. It's a significant event in the game of golf because people enjoy watching it and they love to be able to say their team won."

And so, coming into the Ryder Cup this fall, I hope Paul lets them play their game. I hope he comes in and lets them enjoy it, lets them have fun and just gets out of the way. That's what I did. I just got out of the way, let them go play and play their game, and they've been successful. They're a bunch of good players and a bunch of good guys.

Q: Tell me about the new relationship between the Royal Bank of Scotland Group and the USGA.

A: The Royal Bank of Scotland started with me about five years ago because they wanted to try to move into the United States and they had acquired several banks in the United States. Now they're the sixth-largest bank in the United States, as well as being the fourth-largest bank in the world. Well, they had been involved with the Royal & Ancient for over 100 years in the British Open, so they wanted to use me as a vehicle to move into the United States. And they've been moving in; you've seen commercials with me with RBS for the last five years.

Now they want to make associations with the major events in the United States, such as the USGA, and last year, they made an involvement with the PGA. They'll be a very good partner for the USGA. They're very low-key; they understand the game of golf. They want to grow the game of golf; they've been very involved in golf through the First Tee.

The Royal Bank is a very good group and a very smart group. They're good businesspeople, but they also understand the human side and they want that human side to be portrayed. And this coming year, we've got a series of commercials with the First Tee, and that will help portray a human side to the Royal Bank of Scotland. I'm involved in those, so obviously they're not bad for me, either. But they've been very successful in moving into the United States.

The USGA said they only want four partners; they have American Express, Lexus and IBM are their other partners. I think that they're trying to keep a very low-key approach. They want people who want to grow the game, and I think that their partnership with RBS will be very successful, both for them and for RBS.

Q: Jack Nicklaus, you are off the ESPN.com Hot Seat.

A: I've been on a Hot Seat? Well, that's great. Let's get off of it!

Q: Thanks, Jack, I appreciate it.

A: My pleasure. Nice to talk to you.

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.