15 Feb Legendary Jack Nicklaus regales invitees at Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate Dinner
The greatest player to ever play the game, Jack Nicklaus, held court at Old Overton Club in Vestavia Hills Oct. 8, 2017 at a dinner to speak to the players and coaches in the 33rd playing of the Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate, along with sponsors of the event, and four very fortunate BGA juniors, along with BGA Executive Director Ian Thompson.
Pate, who does much, much more than just put his name on this premier men’s college golf event, is integral to the long-running success of one of the very top college golf events across the country.
He talked with great pride about the JPNI, as well as the 44th consecutive Boy Scouts golf event he hosts in his home town of Pensacola, Fla. every year.
“I love to give back to the kids and think it is very important to do so.”
He also noted with joy the play this year of Justin Thomas.
“I walked with him in a practice round at the U.S. Open and could see he was playing well. His focus is his strongest attribute. He’s not satisfied with winning one or two events…he wants to win every event he plays in.”
“I text him every time he does well. Same with the other guys on Tour like Trey Mullinax, Tom Lovelady, Bud Cauley and others. I tell them all the same thing. ‘You’re the best there is, keep it going.’”
Pate always invites a speaker of note for the dinner held the night before the tournament begins, but he took it up a number of notches getting the Golden Bear to speak.
“After I won the 1976 U.S. Open I started playing with Jack regularly. We traveled over the years to many countries to hunt and fish, plus play in events. We became good friends,” Pate said.
“We also played in the grand opening, along with Hubert Green, of Shoal Creek in 1977.
“When I got hurt when I was 28 and dropped off the tour, there were a lot of years I wasn’t around the tour and didn’t see Jack much.”
Pate noted that Nicklaus “loved Birmingham, particularly Shoal Creek. I think his recent renovation of Shoal Creek is one of the very best renovations I’ve seen in a very long time. I called Ron Whitten, course architecture editor at Golf Digest, to tell him that.”
Earlier last summer, Pate was playing in a Legends event in Minnesota and was on the same team as Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Gary Player. He asked Nicklaus then if he would come and speak, to which he agreed.
“It was a Q&A format. I introduced Jack, who really needs no introduction, and it flowed from there.”
That it did with Nicklaus, who was attending with his wife of 57 years, Barbara, and a number of other family members, displaying an encyclopedic knowledge and recollection of his career.
Nicklaus flew in late that afternoon for the event from Cincinnati, where he had watched grandson Nick O’Leary, a tight end for the Buffalo Bills, play against the Bengals, before heading home to south Florida late that night. A private event, for just the college players and sponsors, it was an electric evening for those in attendance.
I wasn’t fully sure what to expect from Nicklaus, now 77, given his ongoing heavy travel schedule, but he genuinely seemed to enjoy being at Old Overton. Prior to dinner, he mixed easily with the crowd, and then fully came into his own after Pate asked him a number of questions.
His answers were often very in-depth and insightful and he had the entire audience waiting on ever word as he described key wins in his legendary career, along with friendships he has made along the way, and how he would prepare for a championship, plus so much more.
Here’s just a taste of what he had to say…
“Let me get a few words in, before you talk all night!” was his opening remark after Pate introduced him. He talked about his long-time friendship with Pate and a number of trips they had taken together. He also noted that Jerry enjoyed being at the microphone! When asked about his practice routines…
“Before a round I was just warming up. Ninety precent of what I would work on was after the round. Working on what I did wrong and solidifying what I did right. I wanted a clear head when I went home after a round and never took the game home with me.
“I often referred to my swing on any given day as my ‘swing du jour (of the day)’ and that’s what I had to work with.
“I never wanted to warm up perfect, not thinking about anything. Those were the days I wouldn’t play well.
“I always wanted to start out well. I never cruised into a round. The first shot was just as important as the last and it always had my full attention.”
Early days of competitive golf…
“I played in my first USGA championship when I was 13 in the U.S. Junior at Southern Hills. I was first off at 7:00 and got to the tee maybe 30 seconds before my tee time. Joe Dey, who headed up the USGA and was ‘Mr. Golf’, told me, ‘Young man, if you had been 30 seconds later, you would have headed to the second tee one down.’ I’m proud to say I was never late for a tee time my whole career.”
He would go on to play in five U.S. Juniors (never winning one) and seven U.S. Amateurs (winning two). He noted his first National Amateur win was highly significant in his career arc.
“Right from the start, I loved the way the USGA set up their championships. I believe my most memorable win was my first National Amateur win in the 1959 championship at The Broadmoor. I was playing Charlie Coe, the defending champion, in the 36-hole final. We came to the final hole all square and I hit my 9-iron approach to eight feet. I knocked the putt right in and, to do so under the pressure, it gave me the confidence that I could win. And then I expected to win.”
He would win it again in 1961, sandwiched around his second place, as an amateur, to Arnold Palmer in the 1960 U.S. Open. He would enter the professional ranks in late 1961.
“I sort of expected to win as a pro and it didn’t surprise me when I did.”
This was far from a boastful statement; simply his mindset remembered some 56 years later.
Of course, his career has been extremely well chronicled, so no need to go into his astounding record here, but let’s move ahead to his amazing 1986 Masters victory…
“I was sort of finished as a player after winning the U.S. Open and PGA in 1980. My career had slowed right down and I’d won maybe twice after that. Coming into Augusta in ’86, the players were not scared of me or intimidated by me anymore. What was neat was with nine holes left to go I had a chance to win and I remembered how to do it, shooting 7-under for the
last 10 holes. It all came back to me.”
He is delighted also to remain relevant with today’s players, pointing out his relationship with the Crimson Tide’s Thomas, who took the PGA Tour by storm this year with five wins, including his first major, and was recently named PGA Tour Player of the Year.
“Justin’s one of your Alabama boys. I talk to him a lot. He used to have a hard time believing in himself; a hard time finishing off tournaments and believing he could win. I told him everyone else has the same issue. You are going to have nerves and you have to learn to control them. Take them as an advantage, not a hinderance. Boy, did he ever.
“He’s just a little guy, but he crushes it. I’m so very proud of him and the year he has had.”
I could go on and on, with stories from a night that will live long in my memory. Suffice to say, it was an evening everyone fortunate to be in attendance will never forget. Thank you to Jerry Pate for all he has done, and continues to do, for golf in so many different ways and arenas; and thank you to Jack Nicklaus for accepting Pate’s invitation, when he had no requirement to do so.
BGA juniors Michael Fain (BGA Junior Championship overall winner), Dylan Webb and Winston Smith (co-winners of the Hudson Cup for earning the most points in the 16-18 age group as co-players of the year), and Matthew Madden (winner of both the 14-15 championship and player of the year), along with one parent each, were invited to attend the dinner. No one present will ever forget this occasion.