Nicklaus revels in roles at Memorial

DUBLIN, Ohio -- The ball fails to fly as far as it used to, but Jack Nicklaus understands. Instead of getting frustrated, he makes self-deprecating comments about his lack of club-head speed these days.

His rounds at Augusta National, where he won the Masters a record six times and was the odds-on favorite to win for the better part of two decades, are now played well in front of the tips.

"I play the same tees Condoleezza Rice plays,'' he said, referencing the member tees at Augusta and making the point that it is important to play with enjoyment, not bothered in the least that a relative golf neophyte like the former Secretary of State would play from the same place.

"I don't play much golf anymore,'' he said. "If I break 80, I'm doing pretty well. The last two times I've been down to Augusta, I shot 72.''

That is not said to boast. As he has often noted, Jack Nicklaus no longer plays like Jack Nicklaus -- hence he plays much less.

And yet, he is incredibly comfortable in his own skin, the most accomplished golfer in history long ago settling into his various roles as golf course designer, family patriarch, elder statesman and tournament host for the Memorial Tournament that ended Sunday.

At age 76, it is fair to wonder how long he can keep up the hectic pace, marvel at his ability to do it, appreciate his still-large and meaningful presence in the game.

Nearly 11 years have passed since he played his last competitive round at St. Andrews, and this year marked the 30th anniversary of his last victory at the Masters.

But Nicklaus remains a go-to source for information and perspective. He hosted a meeting of prospective U.S. Ryder Cup players at his Florida home earlier this year. He routinely dispenses advice to the likes of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and anyone who asks.

Although he doesn't do it himself, Nicklaus has become a bit of a social media maven, another way to stay in touch.

And of course, there is his own tournament, a legacy that will endure and one that he had the vision to plot out 50 years ago, when the seeds were planted for what is now one of the top events on the PGA Tour on an iconic course designed and molded, to a large degree, by the man himself.

It is hard to fathom the idea of a guy at age 26 thinking in such a manner, believing it might be nice to bring a golf tournament to his hometown in Ohio, embarking on the mission to accomplish it.

Nicklaus won his first Open Championship that summer of 1966 in Scotland, and knew if his dream came to fruition, he'd name his club after Muirfield, where he completed the career Grand Slam. Hence, Muirfield Village Golf Club. And a Memorial Tournament logo that features the Claret Jug.

The first Memorial was played 40 years ago -- Nicklaus had his own PGA Tour event three years before Arnold Palmer -- and the Golden Bear won his twice, playing the event 30 straight years through 2005.

If playing in and organizing his own tournament was a chore, Nicklaus might prefer what he did then. His week is a whirlwind of activity, a schedule planned out by the minute to meet with various sponsors, dignitaries, players, PGA Tour officials, staff ... you name it.

"It was easier when I played,'' Nicklaus said Sunday evening after wrapping up the post-round interview session with winner William McGirt, a tradition that makes winning all the more special.

"But I don't do boredom well,'' Nicklaus said. "It's fine. I don't mind it. I've got plenty of time to do all that I do.''

It is a bit mind-numbing to consider it all. On Tuesday, for example, he met Jordan Spieth and Jason Day for a photo shoot with Rolex, and had various media interviews scheduled, including the annual tournament news conference that is supposed to last an hour and invariably ends up going longer -- and then longer still when Nicklaus lingered to answer more questions.

"The hardest part is getting him out of here,'' said his longtime assistant, Scott Tolley, a vice president with the Nicklaus Company. "And that's because of how much he enjoys talking to you guys [media].''

Those news conferences are something to behold for those of us poised to ask questions. The questions ranged from his tournament, to the controversy about no female members at Muirfield in Scotland, to U.S. Open venue Oakmont (where Nicklaus won his first tournament in 1962), to Spieth and Tiger Woods and all manner of subjects in which you tend to hang on every word.

Nicklaus was telling a story about the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills when he spotted Kaye Kessler in the auditorium to reminisce. Kessler, now 92, was a newspaper writer in Columbus who first wrote about the Golden Bear as a 14-year-old prodigy at nearby Scioto C.C.

Kessler was not sent to Cherry Hills to cover that Open won by Palmer. But Nicklaus, as a 20-year-old, contended along with Ben Hogan.

Because the local newspaper wasn't represented, none other than Woody Hayes -- the legendary Ohio State football coach -- sent daily dispatches back to the newspaper. Woody Hayes, golf blogger. Who knew?

The story was but a brief diversion from a flurry of meetings, sponsor obligations, charity appearances, speeches, television commitments. To show the extremes: There was a wine tasting event he attended on Thursday, then a meeting with PGA Tour staff on Saturday when officials were discussing the possibility of a weather delay.

When McGirt walked off the 18th green Sunday as a playoff victor, there was Nicklaus to greet him, arm over his shoulder at the awards ceremony. He might have needed a briefing beforehand to know much about the first-time winner, but Nicklaus talked afterward like he had been following McGirt's career through all of his various ups and downs.

The playoff loser, Jon Curran, was a bit more familiar because he plays out of Nicklaus' course in Florida, the Bear's Club. The Golden Bear had a word of encouragement for him, too.

"He said I was going to win a lot of events,'' Curran said. "Which is pretty really cool.''

No doubt. It's something to be cherished, a memory to last a lifetime. A word of encouragement, a handshake of congratulations from the player who won 18 major championships and designed more than 350 golf courses and founded a tournament that is now in its fifth decade? Priceless.

McGirt won $1.53 million, and assured himself a spot in his first U.S. Open and his first Masters, not to mention a three-year PGA Tour exemption.

But sitting in the winner's news conference next to Nicklaus? That might be the best perk of all.