COLUMBUS, Ohio — Now 72 years old, Jack Nicklaus jokes that he can’t remember what happened yesterday.
Yet he’s never forgotten what it was like to hit the most famous shots of his illustrious career.
“I can still feel it, it feels the same,” he said Monday at a charity luncheon affiliated with the Memorial Tournament, which he founded and hosts. “You can still feel the shot, the way it came off your hands, 30 or 40 years later. I still have that same feeling. I haven’t matched it lately. I do know that feeling, though. And it’s kind of fun to know what it feels like in golf.”
The years have not dimmed the sweet spot he hit on the 1 iron that he drilled through the wind and off the pin at 17 to take the 1972 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, or the 5 iron with a slight draw at 16 that helped him win the 1986 Masters at age 46.
Nicklaus, who helped raise $275,000 at the luncheon for Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, appeared with the defending Memorial Tournament winner, Steve Stricker, and two-time U.S. Open champion and golf analyst, Andy North.
Even though he no longer plays much golf — he said his five kids and 22 grandchildren all lead busy lives and don’t usually have time — Nicklaus said he hasn’t forgotten his signature shots.
Funny, he said, how many of them were 1 irons. There was the shot at Pebble Beach that helped him hold off Bruce Crampton. There was also another 1 iron at Augusta National, with Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller pressuring him, that led to his Masters victory in 1975.
Stricker remains impressed by the 5 iron that Nicklaus carved into the back-left pin placement on Sunday at the ’86 Masters.
“I still can’t get over that shot,” Stricker said. “I know you’ve hit a ton of great shots over the years, but that’s not an easy pin, first of all. One little flick over there and you’re in the water.”
With some embarrassment, Nicklaus said that shot was memorable because of his reaction to it.
“On that particular shot, I made probably the cockiest remark I’ve ever made in my life on a golf course,” he said. “It was 175 yards and a 5 iron that I had to take a little off of, but I hit it exactly the way I wanted to hit it. I hit it just to the right of the flag, with a slight draw. I hit the shot and I knew where it was. I reached down to pick up my tee and (son) Jackie, who was caddying for me, said, ‘Be right!’ I said, ‘It is.’”
To loud laughter, he added, “That remark can get you in a lot of trouble when the ball’s still in the air.”
North said all of those shots are memorable but it was much shorter ones that made them so.
“When I think of Jack Nicklaus, I think of (those), and 100,000 8-footers he made when he needed to make them,” he said.
Bubba Watson’s hooked wedge shot from the trees right of the 17th fairway in a playoff at this year’s Masters ranks with the greatest shots of all time, Nicklaus said. In trouble off the tee, Watson had to hit an incredible shot to just stay alive in his two-man showdown with Louis Oosthuizen.
Watson’s dramatic shot landed on the green and spun within range of an easy two-putt par that gave him his first major-championship victory.
Nicklaus said it was hard to even imagine the difficulty of the wedge shot.
“I’d never been where he was,” he cracked.
But it was the creativity that Watson showed that made it so memorable.
“When you’re playing a hook it usually takes off,” Nicklaus said. “But that ball danced like it had a lot of backspin on it. I saw that ball hit the green and I said, ‘Wow.’ That was something. Not only did he play the shot, but he played the shot and ended up with control at the end of the shot — which I thought was the amazing part. That will go down as one of the great shots ever played in the game.”
North added, “People will remember that shot that Bubba hit forever.”
Making such shots under duress is what separates great players from the rest, Nicklaus said.
“That’s what you play for,” he said. “The good players are always able to produce those shots when they have to produce them. Watson produced that shot when he had to produce it, I did.
“Those are the ones you remember.”