By Doug Ferguson
AP Golf Writer
Justin Thomas could sense his expectations getting higher and his game going nowhere.
He was coming off a strong rookie year in 2015, contending a half-dozen times before breaking through for his first PGA Tour victory in Malaysia in October. But then he started the new year in a rut, and Thomas knew just what to do — no matter how awkward it might have seemed.
He asked Jack Nicklaus if he could come over to his house to talk.
“Very weird,” Thomas said about making a call to the 76-year-old owner of 18 major championships. “I was nervous to do it, but it was the coolest thing when I first met him. We had lunch before I got in The Bear’s Club, and for someone of his status and how comfortable I felt around him, I give him a lot of credit for that. He didn’t try to intimidate me or make me feel uncomfortable. As soon as you’re around him, you’re not nervous. It really speaks to his character.”
Nicklaus designs and builds golf courses. His business enterprise includes everything from wine to ice cream. He is heavily involved in the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation. And in his latest role, he is a mentor to a burgeoning class of young golfers.
And he loves it.
“I don’t know why they do it. They seem to think it’s going to help them,” Nicklaus said with a wink and a smile. “I get a big kick out of it, sure. Why would you not get a big kick out of it? I’m 76 years old and I’ve got a 22-year-old kid coming here asking me for advice.
“How many 22-year-olds ask anybody for advice?”
Jordan Spieth spent time with him before his first Masters. Charl Schwartzel met with Nicklaus before he won the green jacket. So did Trevor Immelman. Rory McIlroy talks shop with the Golden Bear all the time, though rarely about the Masters. (Note to McIlroy: The man has six green jackets.)
“Just like approaching any of the greats of the game, one can be intimidated a little bit,” Spieth said. “But every time I’ve spoken to him, he’s been very open and willing to help me. I think he’s just rooting for the game of golf. It’s not just me. He’s doing it for everyone that I’ve seen around him.
“He’s certainly been in our shoes, and we haven’t quite been in the shoes that’s he’s been in,” Spieth said. “It’s very, very nice of him, and I’ve enjoyed my time.”
Patrick Rodgers was at Muirfield Village two years ago to receive the Jack Nicklaus Award as college player of the year. Nicklaus stuck around to meet with Rodgers and the rest of the winners from various college divisions. Before leaving, he looked Rodgers right in the eye and told him, “You ever need anything at all, just call me.”
Nicklaus didn’t break eye contact until Rodgers nodded back.
Rodgers is on the growing list of young players who have taken Nicklaus up on his offer. That includes Jordan Niebrugge, who reached out to Nicklaus when he qualified for the 2014 Masters as the U.S. Public Links champion. A year later, Nicklaus sent him a hole-by-hole crib sheet on how to play St. Andrews when Niebrugge made it through local final qualifying for the British Open. Maybe it was a coincidence, but Niebrugge tied for sixth and was low amateur.
At their age, Nicklaus learned by watching more than listening. He would study the practice of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Julius Boros and Tommy Bolt and try to learn through imitation. It’s different now. Nicklaus said he was lucky to see the greats twice a year. He sees these kids all the time, particularly at his Bear’s Club in South Florida, where several of them now are members.
He doesn’t teach anyone how to play golf. He just talks. And they listen.
“Justin came and we talked for a couple of hours. Just talked,” Nicklaus said. “I don’t want to tell him what to do. I let him ask questions and I tried to feel how he’s doing and what he’s doing and how can I help his thought process. That’s more what it was about.”
Nicklaus played his final major 11 years ago at St. Andrews. He was Presidents Cup captain for the last time in 2007.
He remains relevant, especially to the next generation.
“I’ve had a lot of guys come to me. Most of them are afraid to approach me,” Nicklaus said. “To have all these young guys want to listen to something an old man has to say? It’s very flattering, and it’s also very nice that they want to do that.”
Conversations can last a few minutes (Spieth) to a few hours (Thomas).
And sometimes, the education goes beyond golf.
“I walked in his house and I had my hat on,” Thomas said. “We sat down and he said, ‘I hate to be that guy, but is it raining in here?’ He laughed and said, ‘Why do you have your hat on?’ I forgot to take it off. I felt like an idiot.”