Baggin’ For The Bear

posted in: Award-Winning Stories | 0

Baggin' for the Bear - Caddying for Jack Nicklaus

 

BY JOHN ROHDE
(The Oklahoman – Nov. 19, 1995)

 

A few days before this year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, former Oklahoman co-worker Mike Ferguson telephones with a proposition.

“There’s this auction being held in New York,” he explains. “A round of golf and dinner with Jack Nicklaus is up for bid.”

“Sounds great,” I answer.

“Whatever it costs, I’m gonna get that bid.”

“You go, boy.”

(The 32-year-old Ferguson is of journalistic ilk — rather hyper and wound a tad tight. His grandfather died last year and left a large chunk of change to his grandson. So Ferguson did what any hyper, tightly wound journalist would do under such circumstances. He left the profession.)

“By the way,” Ferguson adds, continuing his pipe dream of divots and dinner with the Golden Bear, “the bid also includes a week-long, all-expenses-paid tour of Nicklaus courses. It’s for eight people. You interested?”

“Fergie! Pal-o-mine. I’ve missed ya, buddy!”

“I’ll take that as a ‘Yes.’”

“You would be correct, sir. Now take your check book and do what must be done. Write on! You da man, Fergie!”

Three days later, Ferguson calls back.

“Think you could get some time off to be with Jack Nicklaus?” he asks, seemingly serious.

(To say Ferguson is a Nicklaus fan is a gargantuan understatement. The guy is goo-goo for Jack. Ferguson owns Nicklaus clubs, a Nicklaus bag, Nicklaus shirts, Nicklaus pants, a Nicklaus umbrella, presumably Nicklaus underwear, et al. He has committed to memory numerous Nicklaus books and videotapes.)

 

 

“Don’t kid me, Fergie,” I implore. “Never kid about Jack.”

“I’m not kidding. It’s a done deal, although it cost a little bit more than I thought it would.”

“How much?”

“Seventy-eight.”

“Thousand!?”

“Yup, 78 thousand.”

“Woof.”

The Centennial Auction, held inside the Waldorf-Astoria, was conducted by GOLF Magazine in cooperation with the USGA and Christie’s auction house. Other items sold included: lunch and a round of golf for four with Arnold Palmer ($38,000); a trip to Pebble Beach and a round of golf with 1992 U.S. Open champ Tom Kite ($35,000); a GOLF Magazine makeover for four ($31,000); a Leroy Neiman painting of the 18th hole at Shinnecock ($31,000); a pair of Rolex watches originally presented to Nicklaus and Palmer for two of their U.S. Open victories ($30,000); a round with Greg Norman in the pro-am of the Greg Norman Holden Classic in Australia, followed by a Far East cruise ($27,000); a golf trip for four to Scotland, including a round at St. Andrews ($26,000); a 36-hole day of golf for four with Bill Murray at Winged Foot ($26,000); four VIP tickets to each of the 1996 major championships ($26,000); rounds of golf for four at each of the last five U.S. Open sites ($21,000); a set of 14 clubs, each donated by a different U.S. Open champ ($18,000); a weekend with NBC golf anchors Johnny Miller and Dick Enberg ($8,000). The event raised more than $500,000 for various charities. Ferguson’s donation went to the Jack Nicklaus Junior Golf Foundation.

“We’re trying to figure out when Jack’s available,” Ferguson says. “It might not be until the middle of football season.”

“So?” I respond, hyperventilating.

“That’s not a problem?”

“Not for me. It probably will be for an editor or two, but no problemo here.”

“It looks as though I’ll be the only one playing with Jack. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. Heck, I’m not worthy. But do you think he’d let me caddy?”

“Don’t know. I’ll check with his people and get back to you.”

Then, for whatever reason, my feminine side screams out, “My God. What will I wear?”

“Just make sure it’s Nicklaus gear,” Ferguson says without hesitation.

After nearly three months of scheduling and rescheduling, the itinerary finally is set: Ferguson will play a morning round of golf with Nicklaus; that will be followed by lunch; that will be followed by six days of golf at seven different courses for eight people; all expenses paid; leave your wallet at home.

And, yes (gulp!), I am given clearance to tote Jack’s bag.

Life is good.

OCTOBER 14

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Rain drenches South Florida. One local report estimates 15-20 inches have fallen in a two-day span.

Ferguson is a basket case. Then again, who wouldn’t be? The man coughs up 78 grand to play with a legend, spends another three grand on golf lessons prepping for the event, and the entire dream flashes before his eyes on the Weather Channel.

No way will golf be played tomorrow. Backup plans are discussed, but not made.

OCTOBER 15

 

Bear Lake

 

Skies are cloudy, but no rain. At least there is hope. Bear Lakes Country Club, site of this year’s PGA Tour Qualifying School (Nov. 29-Dec. 4), is soaked and closed to the public. It is not, however, closed to its designer.

Bear Sighting

Ferguson is scheduled to meet Nicklaus at the practice range around 9:30 a.m. At 9:10, Nicklaus walks into the pro shop. He is introduced to Ferguson and his Freeloaders. I shake hands with the greatest golfer who ever lived and break the rather disturbing news that I’ll be his caddy.

“Really?” Nicklaus says, thoroughly unimpressed. “Well, I shouldn’t have any trouble finding you. You’re wearing my shirt.”

Dozens of shirts in the Nicklaus clothing line, and ours are a perfect match. Not only are we wearing the exact same shirt, but the same colored pants and belt as well. Team Nicklaus. A potentially tragic beginning to our 18-hole relationship, not to mention a horrid fashion faux pas.

“My fault, Jack,” I say, trying to make light of our wardrobes. “I should have called ahead to see what you were wearing.”

“Huh?” Nicklaus says with a frown.

Great. The man hates me. Ten seconds have elapsed, and I’ve already angered the Bear. I immediately do my best to execute the “Three Ups” to good caddying – show up, keep up and, most important, shut up.

Nicklaus isn’t my first stint as a looper, having carried the bag for Oak Tree’s Scott Verplank during the Oklahoman Open and for Quail Creek’s Jim Woodward at the PGA Tour’s Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich.

While warming up on the practice range, Nicklaus takes note of my uncanny ability to wipe dirt off a club.

“OK, caddy. Let’s keep ’em clean,” the Golden One says. Then he smiles.

With that, the discomfort dissipates. Our job descriptions have been determined: Jack will swing the clubs; I will clean the clubs. Simple stuff. Add another “up” — show up, keep up, shut up, clean up.

The Bear’s bag probably weighs 40-45 pounds, but I’m far too numb to feel it. As the group walks toward the No. 1 tee on the Lakes Course, the sun suddenly breaks through the clouds. A powerful man, Jack. Able to control the weather.

After posing for a dozen photos, Jack gives Ferguson his first — and last — honors on the tee box.

With four months of dreaded anticipation, Ferguson takes his first swing. The ball finds the fairway, roughly 220 yards away. An admirable effort.

Wounded Bear

Nicklaus hasn’t played golf in a month. In addition, his left middle finger is badly infected. He recently had journeyed to Africa for a course projects, and also went hiking and hunting in New Mexico and Arizona. He survived those trips without a scratch. But after returning home, he reached back to fluff a pillow in bed and cut the finger on a fancy headboard.

The finger, sensitive to the touch, is an ugly shade of purple. Nicklaus cuts out the middle finger of his golf glove and applies a Band-Aid. Unable to bend the damaged digit, he essentially plays with nine fingers. The end result has the greatest golfer of all-time swinging a club while making an obscene gesture. (No pictures, please.)

As Bobby Jones said at the 1965 Masters, “Nicklaus plays a game with which I’m not familiar.” Jack is 55 now, but the man can still crush a golf ball. Even with only nine fingers.

Many pros might go through a half-dozen balata balls per round. Not Jack. On this day, he requires just two. One on the front nine. One on the back. Nary a scuff mark is visible on either Maxfli HT-100. Jack doesn’t strike a golf ball. He caresses it.

Bear Necessities

Using one of the oddest-looking putters imaginable (which is saying a lot), the Bear birdies Nos. 2, 3 and 4. He’s 3-under through four holes. I’m thinking 59.

Nicklaus is thinking maybe he’s invented a new grip and found a new putter. “Hmmm,” he says, eyeing the putter.

A new Nicklaus driver is in the works. He seems pretty excited about it. The club’s proposed name: “Air Bear.”

Nicklaus is well aware the potential success of the new driver is dependent on his success on tour. (Although Nicklaus played just seven Senior Tour this season, he earned $538,800.)

I find myself constantly counting the clubs in Nicklaus’ bag to make sure all are present and accounted for – particularly the famed 3-wood he has swung since 1958.

The Bear has designed more than 120 courses worldwide, co-designed nine others and re-designed eight more; another 27 are under construction. His son, Jackie (Baby Bear?) has six courses open and seven others in the works.

Nicklaus reportedly charges anywhere from $500,000 to $1.5 million to design a course. His net worth? “That’s privileged information,” says an official at Golden Bear International.

Yes, having Nicklaus’ net worth indeed would be a privilege.

Ahh, it’s good to be the Bear.

Bear Hug

On No. 6 tee, a somewhat struggling Ferguson gets his first golf tip. Nicklaus makes only one suggestion.

“Got it?” he asks Ferguson.

“Yessir,” answers Ferguson, who experiences mild success with his first attempt.

Nicklaus then stands behind Ferguson and grabs the pupil’s shoulders to show the proper body turn. Ferguson takes another swing.

“Better,” Nicklaus offers. “Now, let’s just concentrate on that one thing today. OK?”

“Yessir,” Ferguson replies.

No charge. Consider it part of the $78,000 package.

On the par-3 eighth hole, Ferguson mentions he once had a hole-in-one. Jack has 18. An entire round’s worth of aces. Amazing. His current caddy, meanwhile, has zero career aces.

Gentle Bear

I’m carrying the bag of a man who has claimed 71 PGA Tour titles, 26 more worldwide and eight more on the Senior PGA Tour. He has won 20 majors and been selected Player of the Year five times. He also has been chosen “Golfer of the Century” (but only once). He has more second-place finishes than any man in PGA Tour history (58; 19 in major championships). Going into this season, his career scoring average was 71.0. He had the PGA Tour’s lowest stroke average eight times (runner-up six times), was its top money winner eight times (runner-up four times) …

Well, you get the point.

I wanted to shut up, but there were so many things to talk about. Where to begin?

“You follow Ohio State football?” I ask as we walk to the green on the par-3 second hole.

“Oh, sure,” answers the Columbus native who proceeds to name several players on his alma mater’s highly ranked team.

A patient Nicklaus discusses numerous topics. No area seems off-limits. He talks of his favorite and least-favorite courses; the high-tech aspects of golf equipment; a bit of politics; the various presidents he has met; the Mark McCumber-Greg Norman spike mark incident; the Ryder Cup; Tiger Woods; golf course design; his past; his present; his future.

(Everything is off the record. I’m carrying a golf bag, not a pen and paper.)

I don’t read one putt. Not only is Nicklaus the best clutch putter in the history of the game, he’s also the architect of this particular course. Gee, think he needs my help?

On one occasion, Nicklaus kiddingly asks, “What should I hit here, caddy? A hard 6(-iron) or soft 5?”

“Hard 6,” I answer.

Nicklaus promptly pulls out a 5-iron and hits the approach shot to within 10 feet.

“Wise move, ignoring your caddy like that,” I say.

A little while later, Nicklaus again asks for another club selection. This time, I remain silent. “No thoughts on this one, huh?” Nicklaus says with a chuckle.

“I have no idea what you’re thinking,” I answer, “but I couldn’t agree with you more.”

Bear Lakes Country Club
Bear Lakes Country Club

 

“You’ve caddied before. Haven’t you?” my boss says, smiling.

With three holes remaining, the rain comes. In sheets. Ferguson asks Nicklaus if he wants to quit. “Heck no,” Nicklaus responds. “Let’s finish. We’re here to play golf.”

Rain won’t send this Bear into hiding. Lightning, however, will.

Despite the deluge, Nicklaus’ altered golf glove — which he never takes off — somehow remains bone dry. The Bear repels water. After 10 minutes, only a light mist is falling.

Even with all the chit-chat, Nicklaus shoots 2-under (35-35–70). It could have been lower, but the Bear is being gentle. He’s on cruise control. He isn’t attacking us, or the course. He’s taking it easy on everyone concerned.

Afterward, members of Fergie’s Freeloaders — all dripping wet — receive a complimentary shirt in the pro shop. “Tell them to put it on my tab,” Nicklaus says.

As far as I could tell, there was no tab.

Yes, it’s good to be the Bear.

Care Bear

When talk fades away from golf, it often draws back to Nicklaus’ family. Jack and Barbara Nicklaus have five children and six grandchildren (with two more on the way).

Nicklaus shared numerous stories of family gatherings and reunions. You can tell by the Papa Bear’s tone, this is a tight family unit.

Hungry Bear

A private round table is set up inside the clubhouse for lunch. Nicklaus politely asks a waiter to turn the television on to the Indianapolis-San Francisco NFL game.

“The TV isn’t wired, sir,” the embarrassed servant whispers.

Within three minutes, the TV is wired. Nicklaus pulls for the underdog Colts, who post an 18-17 upset.

“I’ve got to be careful what I order,” Nicklaus says, perusing the menu. “Barbara is having the kids over tonight and I don’t want to eat something she might be preparing.”

Nicklaus orders a Reuben sandwich. “It’s the first one I’ve had in months, and it’ll probably stay with me for a week,” he jokes.

Lo and behold, the Reuben becomes the most popular choice at the table. Me? Out of respect for my boss, I order the Bear Steak Sandwich.

Ferguson asks Nicklaus to sign a scorecard. Nicklaus also signs Ferguson’s scorecard (a slightly altered round of 95).

Roughly an hour and a couple dozen autographs later, Nicklaus stands and shakes hands with each group member.

It’s 3:12 p.m.

The Golden Bear has just spent six hours with a herd of gawking geeks. “Let me know if there’s anything you need during your trip,” he tells Ferguson with a wave.

Nicklaus had played in the rain and had played in pain. This was no grumpy Bear. This was a Teddy Bear. The man’s generosity was above and beyond the call.

A smiling Ferguson figures he got a bargain. “I could go home today and it would have been worth every cent,” he surmises.

But the tour has just begun. Time to make some Bear Tracks.

OCTOBER 16-21

Fergie’s Freeloaders consists of: Ferguson, Kyle Caswell, David Gary, Dan Pyle, Brad Denton, Bob West and me. (One invitee, Michael O’Loughlin, couldn’t make it. Poor soul.) By trade, they are, in order: a Dallas millionaire and self-investor, an insurance agency manager, a stock broker, a car salesman, a leasing administrator, the sports editor of the Port Arthur (Texas) News, and an admittedly spoiled sports columnist.

They are complete strangers with two common threads: Ferguson, and a deep appreciation for golf. A rather eclectic group, but a good bunch.

Wet weather causes some scheduling changes. Because of this, not all stops will be at Nicklaus-designed courses. Nonetheless, each stop is primo.

Heritage course at Ibis

  • Round One is in West Palm Beach on the Heritage Course at Ibis. It’s a Baby Bear course, designed by Jackie.

Frankly, the place should be closed due to wet grounds. Thankfully, it isn’t. A very attractive layout. (Oklahoma City pro Art Proctor is there to compete in the Senior Club Pro Championship, where he finishes tied for third.)

Rain falls throughout the day. After the morning round, our soggy group gets into its two complimentary Lincoln Town Cars and drives to Orlando.

 

  • Round Two is at the Nicklaus-designed New Course at Grand Cypress, a breathtaking re-creation of famed St. Andrews. Not an exact replica, of course, but supremely similar – the Swilken Burn; the Road Hole; and an endless sea of bunkers; double greens; vast fairways.

Golf carts are equipped with a computerized caddy which automatically computes your yardage to each green. Very cool. The starter gives a speech on the first tee, offering warnings and suggestions. His accent is unmistakably eastern. Brooklyn meets Scotland. “Yous guys watch out for the bunkas. It’s embarrassin to havta cawl somebodys to come get your carts outta the sand.”

The day is extremely Scottish. Overcast, misty and windy. The only thing missing is fog. This course is surreal. Golf is followed by a rather lengthy stay at a local pub. A great day.

 

  • Rounds Three and Four take us to World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville, Fla., north of Tampa, a highly respected 36-hole spread designed by Tom Fazio.

The Rolling Oaks Course supposedly is patterned after Augusta National. To be truthful, not once do I think of Augusta while playing this course. A nice layout, but certainly not worthy of such a comparison.

The Pine Barrens Course is patterned after Pine Valley in Clementon, N.J., the world’s No. 1-ranked course.

Ranked No. 39 among U.S. courses, Pine Barrens is far superior to Rolling Oaks. Several holes are the spitting image of Pine Valley. Very impressive.

 

  • After catching an early morning flight to Savannah, Ga., Round Five has us at Hilton Head Island, S.C., to play at Colleton River, which is ranked No. 99 in the country.

Many have called this one of Nicklaus’ finest designs, including Nicklaus himself. Without question, it’s our stiffest challenge so far. Long, with plenty of trouble. A humbling experience.

 

  • Round Six is on Nicklaus’ Golden Bear Course at Indigo Run, also located in the golf mecca of Hilton Head.

A nice course. Crowded, but nice. In some ways, it’s a Baby Colleton. Not as long or as difficult, but still a challenge.

Our group drives to Greensboro, Ga., for the much-anticipated Great Waters Course, which Nicklaus raved about during lunch.

Located along Lake Oconee about 80 miles east of Atlanta, Great Waters is considered one of the nation’s most picturesque public courses. We arrive at night, adding to the anticipation of how the place will look come sunrise.

Jack Nicklaus Great Water
Great Waters
  • Oh. My. God.

The presumed beauty of Great Waters no longer is presumed. It’s real. Golf courses are most beautiful either at sunrise or at sunset when shadows are cast. Great Waters, however, is at its most beautiful all day long.

Every hole belongs on a postcard. Plenty of trees. Plenty of water. Plenty of sand. Plenty of beauty.

Rolling Oaks allegedly was patterned after Augusta National. Great Waters, with its indescribable hue of green grass and white bunkers, bears far more resemblance to the renown Alister MacKenzie course located just 70 miles to the east.

Nicklaus has outdone himself. Not the most difficult track we’ve faced, but arguably the most appealing.

  • Our final trek is to the Atlanta airport. Ferguson can’t stop smiling.

“All those courses were great,” our generous leader says, “but that day with Jack undoubtedly was the highlight. We should do this again sometime. Maybe tour some of his desert courses in the Southwest.”

“Count me in,” I tell Fergie. “You’ve got my number.”

Life is good.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save