Ed. Note: This is part four of a four-part series. In part three, the writer had been invited to caddy for Jack Nicklaus for the second time in his life, via their mutual friend, Vancouver entrepreneur Caleb Chan. Previous parts can be found in the May 17, June 14 and August 16 issues of What’s Up Yukon.
The night before the official opening I was surprisingly nervous and had trouble sleeping, not because this time I would be carrying for the greatest golfer of all time, but because I’ve had a lifelong fear and loathing of crowds and I knew the crowds were going to be big to watch Jack and Caleb open Nicklaus North.
I’ve spent my entire adult life describing myself as a “misanthropic humanist” which I define as a hater of humankind who likes people. Obviously, this character flaw is a PTSD hangover from Vietnam, which I’ve never been able to shake. In other words I despise the idiocy of our species in general and am ashamed to be a part of it, yet find endless joy, beauty and brilliance in some human individuals but can do without most of the rest of them known as the general public who also happened to be my readers.
So I was feeling a sense of foreboding as I walked the short distance from my basement suite in Alpine Meadows to the course for opening day – which only increased when I picked up his ceremonial competition bag, which still had the tag on it from his recent appearance at The Open on one of the English tracks, Birkdale, St. George or maybe Royal Lytham.
It felt like it weighed 150 pounds and was easily the heaviest load I ever lugged around a golf course.
After all the kibitzing with Jack during construction and technically working for him for three years, although paid by Caleb, greeting him again was as casual as greeting your older brother or an old friend: “Hey, Jack, good to see you again and thanks for doing this” to which he responded, “Make sure you send me a copy of the article you’re writing. I’m looking forward to reading it.”
The day began with a brief press conference before everybody adjourned to the 16th tee, right next to the clubhouse for an official Nicklaus Clinic, which was surprisingly entertaining. He demonstrated several trick shots, deliberately hit snap hooks and banana slices then dazzled everybody with his favourite club which is his one-iron.
It was during that part of the show when he noticed the crowd reacting to something where his shots were landing. Most people don’t know Jack has always been colour blind and doesn’t see well over long distances, so he asked me what was going on and I told him the kid with the shag-bag had a baseball glove and was trying to play Willie Mays and catch his shots like fly balls.
He chuckled and blasted the next three over his head into the River of Golden Dreams for three Golden Bear home runs.
The only Golden Golf Tip I recall from the clinic is this one: “The only part of the full golf swing that is truly important is the three feet before you hit the ball and the three feet after. The rest is just window dressing.”
After the clinic ended, I rented a 980 Cat loader to haul his bag to the first tee for the ceremonial opening shot in front of the BCTV cameras, which he hit with an old restored persimmon driver he presented to Caleb as a gift to be displayed in the clubhouse.
It made a huge THWACK! when he hit it and he held a formal pose for the cameras, but the ball itself hooked into the woods by the railroad tracks. No mulligans on ceremonial tee shots.
Then we headed out onto the course which produced the following memories among many others:
Jack: “Are you going to spend all day spitting on my golf clubs? Dip the end of the towel into that lake over there.”
Sack: “Good idea.”
Jack: “How far is to the front of the green from here?”
Sack: “I have no idea. I’m a sports writer.”
Jack: “Sorry, I thought you were caddying for me.”
Sack: (Loudly to gallery): “CAN ANYBODY SEE A SPRINKLER HEAD?”
Jack: (While addressing his tee shot) “I can carry that bunker out there, can’t I?”
Sack: (Shrugs) “I can.”
Jack: (Mutters “You can” before his takeaway, but his belly was bouncing which is the only way you can tell when a bear is laughing.)
Walking down the fourth fairway
Jack: “Can you really carry that bunker? I had to let the air out of my shoes and barely got over.”
Sack: “Nah. I was trying to get those words back as soon as they left my flapping yap before they reached your ears. I’ve never even played from that championship tee box, but I can get over it from the blues.”
Jack: “Phew. Glad to hear it. You had me worried there for a minute. Thought I was getting old.”
Sack: “There’s more green behind that bunker than it looks like from here.”
Jack: “I know that. I designed the golf course.”
This was the place where the environmentalists wanted to create a retirement community for woodpeckers, but Jack got busy giving Caleb a bunker clinic and never mentioned it. So why would I?
Sack: “This is probably a good time for a caddy to stay shut up, but I need to ask you this for my story.
Jack: “Ask me what?”
Sack: “You’re the best power fade player in the history of the game and this is a classic power fade hole on a course you designed, yet you cut off the corner with a common soft draw? Why?”
Jack: “I can’t make that move anymore because of my hips. The last several years I’ve been working the ball right to left. It’s easier on the body.”
Sack: (To Caleb) “I’m really impressed with how well you’re playing under gallery pressure. Are you pleased with your game?”
Caleb: “I’m frustrated. He’s out-driving me; every hole.”
Sack: “Well gee, Caleb, he IS the greatest golfer of all time and you’re a 12 handicap…”
Caleb: “Ten now.”
15th boondocks on the left
Jack hit his only bad tee shot of the day, which drew left into the woods by the lake alongside the Valley Trail bicycle path. When we found the ball it was sitting on top of a flattened out pile of clean drain rock and I was certain he would pick it up.
Sack: “You’re not going to play that, are you?”
Jack: “Why not? I can still par the hole. I just have to decide which iron I’m going to ruin in the doing of it.”
He somehow picked that ball clean off the drain rock with a seeing eye draw through some trees and it rolled up right in front if the green where he chipped close and made his par, one of the best pars ever, even though it was meaningless in a ceremonial Grand Opening against a ten handicap.
Actually, it was more like an $18 million golf lesson, which is what it cost Caleb to build Nicklaus North, (not including Jack’s fee), a cool million per hole.
On the 18th green, before putting out, he addressed the gallery thanking them for turning out and thanked everybody else involved in the day before saying: “Lee Trevino always tells people I never missed a putt on the 18th green in my entire career so now I’ll close out the day by showing you how it’s done.”
Then he gave the putt a mighty smack and the ball went scooting across the green into the gallery, which caused a kiddie scramble for the souvenir.
My final words to him in the locker room with a handshake were a simple, “Thanks for the memories, Jack.” I considered my caddy fees prepaid in 1961.
I’ve never seen him again since the big Skins Game in 1997 when Jack Jr. caddied for him. I guess he figured twice was enough of my brand of caddying, even though we retired undefeated.
I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column suggesting he might have won 37 majors (19 runner up finishes) if I’d been on his bag his entire career. With a couple of good belly bouncers down the stretch, I’m certain we could have beaten Watson at Turnberry in ’77.
As for the point of the second exercise, comparing the differences in his golf game as a 21-year-old and 55-year-old, that can be explained in one word: confidence.
The 21-year-old Nicklaus flat out told his golf ball where it was going, the 55-year-old put in a request, pretty much like the rest of us.
The biggest surprise was learning he had drifted into common draw golf as he aged, and my only regret was not asking him which he was playing while shooting that final nine 30 at Augusta in 1986 to win his 18th and final major at the age of 46. And now I must leave the games and memories of my childhood behind to deal with a more personal matter, my induction speech. I’ve recently been inducted into the Hermit Hall of Fame, housed in an igloo in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, on the desolate shores of the Arctic Ocean.
I’ll be the only one there except for the polar bears who don’t golf.