Although I can’t absolutely verify the factual accuracy of the following “claim to fame,” if I’m not the only person who had the unique opportunity to caddy for Jack Nicklaus both before he won his first professional major (1962 U.S. Open) and after his last (1986 Masters), I’m certainly one of the very few fortunate enough to do so. And, although I’ll be 70 years old on my next birthday, I recall both (with the help of some very old notes) as if they happened yesterday. Here is how both transpired:
By the time Nicklaus Design was hired by Vancouver entrepreneur Caleb Chan to design and build a new golf course to promote his real estate project in Whistler in the early 1990s, I was well established as the local sports editor – with a secondary occupation. In the winters I covered World Cup ski racing in Canada, the U.S. and Europe and in the summers I ran bulldozers building mostly construction footings for new hotels – but also golf courses.
Accordingly, I was on the crew building the Nicklaus course for Caleb and was looking forward to Jack’s first inspection visit early in the three year project.
I was curious to renew our brief (two day) acquaintance from 1961, fully expecting to have been forgotten long ago as just some Cincinnati kid who caddied for him when he won Losantiville. I was too busy behind what would become the 11th green when Jack and his entourage walked the project during the afternoon, so I decided to approach him that evening at the official “welcome to Whistler” cocktail party.
Unfortunately, I had no time to go home and clean up for the party, so I walked into the affair in my dirty work clothes because I wasn’t going home without saying hello to my old buddy from Ohio. I walked right up to him while he was chatting with Caleb, my boss (but also a good friend), and said: “I’ve got one for you, Jack. Losantiville Country Club, Cincinnati, early ’60s, you were partnered with Bob Kepler.”
He listened politely, smiled at Kepler’s name, but looked slightly bored until I said: “I was your caddy that weekend.”
This animated him and he laughingly said to Caleb, “You know you’re getting old when a guy with grey hair tells you he caddied for you when he was a little kid,” and we had a great chat for a while before the PR gal in charge of the affair made the mistake of saying the following to me within earshot of The Golden Bear: “Excuse me, Doug, but you’re not dressed appropriately for the occasion and I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
I was fine with her suggestion because I was tired and hungry after a long day pushing dirt in the hot sun, but Jack wasn’t. He growled and said, “Excuse ME, young lady, but I would say he’s the only person in this room who IS dressed appropriately. We ARE building a golf course, you know.”
Some of my co-workers, the finish shapers who had quit work early to be ready for the party, told me the next morning that the only time Jack appeared to have any fun at the soirée was when he and I and Caleb were laughing and telling stories about that long-ago Pro-Am, and the birth of Jack Jr.
It stuck in Jack’s mind and every subsequent visit to the construction project (eight in total) he made it a point to detour to my dozer to touch bases. Some of those brief visits were just football chit-chat. He’s a Miami Dolphins fan because of his lifelong friendship with Don Shula and his home in Florida, but I’ve remained loyal to the Bengals. Other conversations were about the task at hand.
On one of his visits, he had a big contingent of Vancouver and Whistler environmentalists along with him who were trying to talk him into saving the woodpeckers. Since it concerned my job, which was bulking out the golf course, he invited me along for the tour. There was a spot on the course where we had been instructed by Jack’s design coordinator, a Belgian named Dirk, to leave four dead trees standing pending a decision by Jack. The environmentalists figured the four trees were prime woodpecker habitat, which they probably were, but they were also located right next to three tees and two greens and everybody in Canada knows how loud woodpeckers peck when woodpeckers peck wood.
Can you imagine standing over a putt or tee shot with a colony of woodpeckers hammering away nearby like pneumatic jackhammers? So Jack was listening to the environmentalists making their case for the woodpecker habitat on his golf design and listening studiously and thoughtfully to their opinions before asking one of them: “Are woodpeckers an endangered species around here in need of protection?” and the boss eco responded, “Heavens, no, they’re ubiquitous to all of British Columbia. They’re everywhere.” Jack excused himself from the conversation and asked one of the shapers to come walk away from the crowd with him. When they were beyond earshot, he whispered out the side of his mouth to the dozer operator, “The next time you come by here with your machine, waste those four snags.”
Final score: Bears 4, Woodpeckers 0.
While many former PGA players who morph into course designers when their playing days are winding down are more ceremonial than hands-on, Jack is not. He actually oversees every phase of construction and the “Jack Factor” is part of the Nicklaus Design protocol.
The construction supervisor, Bo McIvor from Kelowna, Dirk the design consultant and even the shapers themselves could provide their own interpretations of the blueprints but no aspect of the course was considered finished until Jack signed off on it. Dirk figured Jack had a photographic memory. After one helicopter tour on his arrival, he mentioned a tiny adjustment to a sand trap he had directed earlier, but which wasn’t done, yet. Dirk had to admit it slipped his mind. His attention to construction detail was as legendary as his 18 majors.
After three years of creative construction and one summer to let it grow in, the course was finally ready to play and Caleb invited me to join him in a twosome for the first-ever round on Nicklaus North in August, 1995, primarily because he wanted a full feature in the paper – which I would have done anyway. But I had two other goals in mind.
The first was to set the (unofficial) course record – a once in a lifetime opportunity. All I had to do was beat Caleb, a 12 handicap, and the record was mine. I was an 11 at the time and playing well, but I gargled the peanut butter under the pressure of making history and shot 46 on the front nine to his 39 and don’t even recall our final scores because he cleaned my clock and I have a selective memory: I forget things I don’t want to remember, like Vietnam, bad rounds of golf and ex-wives’ lawyers.
The second was to ask Caleb if he could arrange things with Jack to let me caddy for him when he came to town for the official opening of the course a year later on August 5, 1996 which was also a twosome, just Caleb and Jack.
I figured it would make a fun feature for my sports pages to compare Jack’s current game to when he was a rookie starting out. Caleb contacted Jack with the idea and he was all for it so the second go-round of caddying was on.