Jack Nicklaus had a lot on his mind when the first RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing was played.
By his standards, he was in a slump — not winning enough majors to suit himself, or the press.
He was the scourge of many in the golf world for the great concession in the Ryder Cup. He had allowed British Open champion Tony Jacklin to pick up a 3-foot putt, ensuring the Brits a tie with the Americans.
Nicklaus also was trying to lose weight. He'd just peeled off 30 pounds, but the press still said the fairways on his new Harbour Town Golf Links were so narrow that "Fat Jack" couldn't fit in them.
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And that first Heritage, played on Thanksgiving Weekend on Hilton Head Island, was a coming-out party for Nicklaus' first stab at golf course design. At Harbour Town, designed with Pete Dye, Nicklaus would be subjected to his toughest critics — his touring-professional peers.
But as the 50th Heritage tournament is being played over the same course this week, Nicklaus says both the course and the tournament changed his life by making him a better golfer.
He also says he didn't take home a dime for his labors on the course.
I asked him by phone how it all came about.
What is the first inkling you had of Charles Fraser, or Sea Pines, or Hilton Head?
Charles Fraser called Mark McCormack, who then represented me at IMG. He called Mark and said, “Mark, I'm getting ready to do a golf course down here in the Harbour Town area and I wanted to have a name of somebody I could put onto a golf course.” And he said, "Do you have anybody who would be interested?"
Well, he said, “I have Jack Nicklaus, who has talked about getting interested in that. Let me ask him and see if he would want to be involved." So Charles and I talked, and I told him I would be delighted to do that but I had no ability to do a golf course. I said a young fellow named Pete Dye had talked to me about consulting with him a year or so prior to that ...
Charles said, “I've never heard of him.”
I said, “I think you'd like him. Pete is very creative and he's not done very many golf courses yet, but you're going to hear of him.”
How did you know he was going to turn into a great one as well?
First of all, David, the contract came to me, and then I brought Pete in. That's what most people don't understand. But that's the way it came.
Pete and I had been friends for a long time. We'd played golf together. I beat Pete in the semifinals of the Trans-Miss (Trans-Mississippi Championship) when I was 18. I beat Pete and won the next day and that's what got me in the Walker Cup.
He was in the insurance business and he'd fiddled around with Indianapolis Country Club and he'd started doing some things, and he got a job at the Golf Club from Fred Jones (who owned) the Ohio State Life Insurance Co. Pete called me, and he said, “Jack,” he said, “I want you to come out and see this golf course I'm doing for Fred and see if you can help me with it.”
I said, “Pete, I don't know anything about golf courses.”
He said, “Oh, you know a lot more than you think.”
At Harbour Town, which hole do you recall being involved in the most? 15?
I made 23 trips in there, David, in a Lear Jet, which I got reimbursed zero for.
You had a gentleman's agreement between you and Pete?
Oh, no no. Charles Fraser was supposed to pay the expenses, he just never paid them.
Were you paid the fee for the design?
The fee was $40,000 and we put it all back into the golf course.
Was that your idea or Pete's?
Pete's! Of course. (laughter)
So you didn't get design money and you didn't get expense money?
No, but it was one of the greatest experiences I ever had in my life.
I structured Muirfield Village so I wouldn't make any money. But Muirfield became my biggest tool for selling for exactly the same reason. I wasn't interested in money. I was playing golf for money.
And, matter of fact, I went from, that was 1969 when that golf course opened, probably 1981 or 1982, the CEO of my company (Nicklaus Design) came to me and said, Jack, isn't about time you changed this avocation to a vocation? We never made any money making golf courses, we were just having fun and loving doing it. That was not my interest. I was making plenty of money playing golf.
You won the Heritage in 1975, and 1977 was your last appearance at the Heritage. Was there any reason for not coming after that?
I don't remember why, but it didn't work out with scheduling.
I never had an issue with Charles. I have a great relationship with everyone there still today. Even though I haven't been there in a long time, that doesn't mean that I had any reason not to be.
Where do you think the course stands in history, and the tournament?
I think it stands pretty high. What it boils down to, do the players like it? Yes. Do the players enjoy playing there? Yes. Do you get a good field? Yes. It certainly gets a good television ratings. I think all those things are yeses.
I think it is a testament to how good a designer Pete was, and I'll take a little bit of credit for being involved in it and learning and having fun with it, and inputting a lot onto the golf course.
It impacted my career greatly, not only from a golf standpoint, but as I learned and did that, it also taught me more on how to play the game of golf and I think it impacted the Tour as a first-class, quality tournament.
There's a lot of good things they did there. Feeding on the water, what they did on Calibogue Sound. The 18th hole out there. You probably would not be able to do that today. I'm sure you would not be able to do that today. Pete was pretty good at asking for forgiveness rather than permission.
It was a great project, attracted great golfers and still does today and I think that's a testament to Pete and what Charles Fraser wanted to accomplish there and the quality and class of the tournament.
Tell me about that first Heritage tournament. It was a time of change in your life.
That was the year I went down there a couple days before I went and found out my dad had pancreatic cancer. It started with hepatitis.
We did not know that. I was upset that he couldn't come. He said, "I don't think I can go down there and be there. I don't think I can help anybody. "
So I got back the day after the tournament and that's when I talked to the doctor and the doctor told me, "Jack he's got pancreatic cancer and it's gone to the liver. " I said, "How long?" He said six to 12 weeks and I think he lived nine weeks.
He passed on Feb. 19, 1970. I hadn't won a major in about three years in there, you know I said, "My dad sort of lived for me; he lived through my golf," and I felt like I hadn't given him a fair shake. And so maybe it gave me a little kick in the rear to go play better, and I won the British Open a little bit later in that year."
Did you ever think of the constellation of stars who were there in 1969: Charles Fraser, Pete Dye, you, Arnold Palmer, Dan Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, Charles Price, Furman Bisher … ?
We didn't know we were famous then (laughter). I think when you get a bunch of people who are significant in their field and all of a sudden as time goes on they become more significant and better, you always think, well the Heritage got pretty good coverage because of that.