Golf Australia

Peter Stone: When the Bear spoke

Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus delights crowds on his whistle-stop visit to Sydney.

Jack Nicklaus still cuts a proud figure. He always has. There was the time back in 1971 when he and a handful of Australian mates went to a French restaurant in Paddington for dinner on the eve of the Dunlop International tournament at Manly Golf Club.

“Wear something inconspicuous, don’t stand out in the crowd,” the Golden Bear was urged.

You’d hardly call a pillar-box red jacket a cloak of anonymity but that’s what he wore.

Let’s save the rest of the yarn for another time except for the not insignificant detail save that Cinderella’s coach was already a pumpkin when he departed and the next morning with a 7am tee time he darn near broke 60.

He was 11 under through 16 holes, but made par at the 17th and bogeyed the last for a 62.

On Friday afternoon Nicklaus, still the greatest golfer ever, flew into Sydney for the official opening of his redesign of his 1977 redesign of The Australian Golf Club’s Kensington layout and the ageing bear – he turned 73 on January 21 – looked as fresh as the proverbial daisy where lesser mortals would have been feeling their age.

Yes, yet again he cut a proud figure. Sure he’d slightly stooped these days and he has a dodgy knee, but his is a face that’s been recognized through the ages.

Last week, he and his wife Barbara hosted the Honda Classic at Nicklaus-designed PGA National in Jupiter, Florida, affectionately known as The Bear Club, and spent considerable time chatting on air with the television commentators.

Then, it was the trip to Australia and on Thursday night he had dinner with the members at The Australian where he was presented with life membership of the club, an honour he proudly accepted. On Friday morning it was breakfast with the members before nine holes of golf over the drastically altered layout with his son Jack in front of around 400 members and guests. After each hole they played, the Bear explained the changes he’d made.

Then came a luncheon and the official opening followed by the Golf Australia announcement that the Emirates Australian Open will be played at The Australian in 2014.

Next year will be the 18th time the club has hosted the Open that was first played in 1904 – at The Australian GC when it then resided a few kilometres away in Botany before moving to the old Kensington Links course, its current location a year later.

Nicklaus first played the Open at the Kensington layout in 1975 when, after seven years of sponsorship by the national airline, Qantas, the late Kerry Packer’s Bulletin magazine and the tobacco company WD and HO Wills became the official sponsors of the championship.

They were heady days for golf.

Packer – and his Channel Nine Network – revolutionised the way golf was telecast, all 18 holes of coverage. No other tournament in the world did that and, in fact, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that The Masters at the Augusta National course showed the opening nine holes in the telecast.

Nicklaus was paid an appearance fee to play the 1975 Open that was almost equal to the $35,000 total prize money and insisted – no, make that demanded – his fee be added to the purse. He won a fourth Open title but was still out of pocket with 18 per cent of the prize money going to the winner, but the chaps down the line had a larger take-home cheque.

It was the following year that perhaps the most equitable appearance money solution in Australian golf was formulated. Appearance money fees had strangled Australian golf before then – and still are – but Packer came up with an egalitarian approach.

With the Golden Bear’s prompting, each “name” player was paid a $6000 appearance fee no matter whether your name was Nicklaus or Shearer, as Bob who was making a habit of winning events at home was also on the list. The airfares of the internationals were thrown in and Packer housed them at his Bellevue Hill compound in Sydney.

Prize money was boosted to $160,000.

Nicklaus won a fifth Australian Open by four shots from an American rookie you may have heard of – Curtis Strange - who won back-to-back US Opens in 1988-89.

Packer had a dream and a cheque book with seeming endless slips. He had a four-year deal with the old Australian Golf Union that became Golf Australia but wanted to extend that forever and a day. Packer was a member of Royal Sydney until a falling out with club officials and he moved his membership - and largesse - to The Australian.

His vision was for The Australian to become the permanent home of the Open, just as Augusta National is synonymous with The Masters. He commissioned Nicklaus to redesign the course after the 1976 Open and that cheque book came out. Various estimates of the cost of the reconstruction range from between $1 and $2 million.

Nicklaus brought in Bubba Luke, a former course superintendent at Augusta, as a consultant on the greens. A little-known American course designer Fred Bolton was brought in to work from Nicklaus’ design plans. Bolton – and his bulldozer – became a familiar site at the course, but it didn’t go quite according to plan as there was criticism from many players during the 1977 Open.
He told me, perhaps in an unguarded moment, “I guess that’s the penalty you pay for supervising from the other side of the world.” He felt the course had become another person’s interpretation of his original design.

But Nicklaus refused to criticize Bolton and Luke. He simply went back to the drawing board and ordered changes to 14 holes. He sent a three-page summary to club members on what he proposed to do.

So stunning were the changes he made for the 1978 Open that five-times British Open Champion Peter Thomson, himself by then a highly regarded course designer around the world, was prompted to write glowing of the course in The Age where he wrote a regular column while I was chief golf correspondent.

Thomson’s words were: “Whatever one thinks of the merit of the changes, it is undeniably a superb championship course which will improve as time passes. When it is finally complete, and that may take a year or two yet, the result should be outstanding and a monument to Nicklaus’ involvement in Australia and Kerry Packer’s magnanimity. The course must now be a matter of pride to Nicklaus and he must be favoured to win here on his own creation. He should start and finish a happy man.”

How prophetic Thommo was - Nicklaus did win a sixth Open, but not before a little off-course drama. Nicklaus started slowly in that championship with a one over par 73 and returned to Packer’s Bellevue estate where he and Packer watched American players Ben Crenshaw and Bruce Lietzke play tennis.

Packer knew a bit about form and Nicklaus was a keen tennis player. They reckoned, even in their street shoes, they could take the young ones to the cleaners.

The match became quite intense, Nicklaus and Packer on a mission. Both rarely failed in their separate walks of life. Nicklaus hit a backhand and his right arm felt numb. Packer called a horse doctor. Yes, that’s right, a horse doctor who applied an anti-inflammatory drug, butibazatoisine, used on horses.
All was well. Nicklaus duly won and remarked afterwards: “Maybe I’ll run in next year’s Melbourne Cup.”

But, no, all wasn’t well with the dream, the vision of Packer and Nicklaus.

The big man – Packer that is – walked away from golf. I pondered in another place just last year what golf in this country might have been like had they succeeded.

It was after watching “Howzat” the min-series on TV on how Packer took on cricketing authorities with his World Series Cricket and won.

Packer was spending millions of dollars on the cricket war – and he’d even put in a bid to take over the running of the Australian Open tennis – and his accountants were running scared. He didn’t need another sporting war and when he attempted to renegotiate his deal to sponsor and run the Open with the old AGU it hit a stalemate.

There are various reasons put forward as to why Packer walked away but the major impasse was the fact that the AGU wanted an extra 2.5 per cent of the gate receipts. Back then it would have amounted to around $5000.

Packer met with then AGU president the late Dr Jim Nixon and other golfing officials and point-blank refused the request. Packer walked away telling those behind him exactly what he thought of them.

On Friday Nicklaus spoke affectionately of Packer and the friendship they formed after first meeting in 1975.

“He became a very good friend after meeting him here at the Open. Well, it was at the pro-am party where I met him. We just fostered a relationship by spending some time together. He wanted me to do the golf course here and he became a member of Muirfield Village (at Dublin just outside Columbus, Ohio), he became a founder member of my Bear’s Club in Florida. We just spent time together, we hunted together, we fished a little bit together, we played a little golf together and we had some common interests that were mutually beneficial to most of us,” Nicklaus said.

Our short interview is here in full on the Golf Australia website.

So, here we are with the latest reincarnation of The Australian’s Kensington layout. It’s cost around $5 million with the tired 30 year-old plus greens being totally replaced and 17 new tee complexes. The fairway bunkering has been changed and the ninth and 14th holes have been moved away from the adjacent Southern Cross motorway. They are massive changes but I’ll let others to go into the intricate detail down the track.

But, let’s hope at next year’s Emirates Australian Open the great Jack Nicklaus will be invited back, not to play the championship but maybe a ceremonial few holes on the eve of the tournament just for the young kids who’ve never seen him play but, rather, have grown up with a bloke called Tiger Woods as their idol.

“Never say never,” Nicklaus said of such a possibility. And, with that, he and his wife and son were off to the airport where his private jet Air Bear was ready for boarding. His visit to Australia was just 24 hours with a packed schedule, but the smile never left his face.

He was headed to New Zealand to look at some course design work there – before he and his son go fishing.

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Golf Australia