Jack Nicklaus has built a fine career for himself, and one of the crowning jewels in his lustrous golden cap is his own tournament, The Memorial. With one of the strongest fields in non-major golf, Jack’s tournament is regarded by many as one of the best of the season.
That view, I’ve come to learn, may not be shared by the Tour elite. I’m not talking about Tiger, but Tim. Not a guy from Fiji, but a guy named Finchem. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and his very astute, very capable team of executives haven’t lost much love for Jack Nicklaus through the years. In fact, it’s safe to say they never really had much to begin with.
In fact, Nicklaus is so far on the outside of Finchem’s camp that, should the PGA Tour season contract this winter, The Memorial may find its neck on the chopping block.
Through the years, Nicklaus has managed to get under the skin of many in the game. An elder statesman and quite easily the best to ever play the game (to this point), Nicklaus has managed to nearly destroy one equipment company (MacGregor), owns a Nicklaus vanity brand that he often tries to roll into endorsement deals for other company’s clubs (buy my company and I’ll endorse yoru clubs), and a clothing company that’s merely a branding solution for Hartmarx, the real makers of the apparel. Jack’s only success in business has been his golf course development, design, and consulting company, and that’s largely attributable to the Nicklaus name, particularly when he rarely offers little more than his name to the development and design process.
In fact, perhaps the largest thing Jack has built for himself is a growing dislike for “all things Jack,” and the resentment goes back quite a ways.
Much of the PGA Tour’s dislike of Jack’s tournament dates back to the tournament’s first few years in the late 1970s. Jack so disliked equipment representatives that they were banned from Tournament grounds for several years. Equipment representatives, who today inhabit “tour vans” and service player’s clubs each and every week, were only slightly different 30 years ago than they are today. Eventually, someone got in Jack’s ear, and equipment representatives were allowed in the parking lots, and only Monday through Wednesday. The tour reps of the late 1970s and early 1980s – many of whom have moved into higher ranking positions within the golf industry today – still resent being told how, from where, and when to do their jobs.
Nicklaus and Finchem have squared off before, and not everything is a “Will you captain the US President’s Cup team? Why yes I will Timmy” lovefest. Nicklaus has openly criticized the success of the PGA Tour and its ability to offer large purses, citing it as a primary reason for the recent European dominance in the Ryder Cup. He’s openly criticized the manner in which PGA Tour golf has become a “flog-fest,” calling modern golf “absurd.” Nicklaus feels a growing resentment in having his records challenged by players on a PGA Tour he feels is run capriciously and with little regard for the history of the game.
Nicklaus is a historic figure to be sure, and one to whom many owe favors, but in recent years Nicklaus’ continued acts have spurned even those relatively close to him. He continues to abuse of his pulpit on issues such as distance while he owns a course development and design company. Jack’s memory may be short, but fans and industry insiders remember that Nicklaus’ dominance was predicated upon power, once prompting Bobby Jones to say “he plays a game with which I am not familiar.” Jack’s inflated ego (particularly over Tiger Woods and his own accomplishments) and growing ill-will in the golf industry over soured business dealings and personal agendas have combined to produce a subtle under-tide of negativity towards the man once known as “Ohio Fats,” currently known as “The Golden Bear,” and possibly known in the future as “King Sour Grapes.”
Having spent the last two weeks attending tournaments at Arnold Palmer’s unofficial home course in Pennsylvania and Jack’s official home course in Ohio, the reasons why they are viewed so differently by the public have become obvious to me. While Arnold calls golf “good exercise” and plays today for the fun of it, Nicklaus has managed to goad the Brits into giving him a final farewell (yet again) at The Old Course because, as Jack will tell you, “he isn’t competitive anymore.” Jack has long lived in the shadow of Arnold Palmer, and even at his peak with fans – at the 1986 Masters – he was not as widely loved as Arnold Palmer. That these perceptions carry over into the minds and hearts of those in the golf industry comes as little surprise.
Finchem has said of possible contraction that the PGA Tour is “… aggressively looking and challenging ourselves in how we are presenting the product.” Golf in the modern world is marketed as such, and Finchem and Beaman before him have done a good job of that. Who wants to invite the crotchety old coot who keeps talking about how things used to be better years ago when he was in his prime? To be sure, the only thing that may save Nicklaus’ tournament is the field it draws each and every year along with the desire of PGA Tour executives to save face by not publicly insulting one of the game’s greatest players.
Photo Credits: © 2005 Erik J. Barzeski/The Sand Trap. All rights reserved.