The Wisdom of Jack

No golfer’s words carry more heft than those of Nicklaus, evidenced in part by the gentle squeak with which he delivered them. Low volume and lilting with a touch of Oh-hi-oh, when the Bear talks, everybody listens. Here are 28 of his most enduring lessons.

Twenty majors if you count his two U.S. Amateurs, in stone the winner for all time. Champions great and small have sought his counsel in clubhouses and terraces across the world. Nicklaus started writing for Golf Digest in the early 1970s. What follows are some of his most enduring words that have appeared in our magazine across four decades. —Max Adler

Learn, practice and trust one basic swing. Most golfers, and especially those who begin the game as adults, pick it up and then continue to play by trial and error, rather than by formally learning one basic method.

  1. I’ve always believed the club should dominate you instead of you dominating the club.
  2. To me, winning by one is the same as winning by 10.
  3. Aim and alignment are by far the most important elements of the act of moving a golf ball from A to B. Rub the magic lamp, get the genie to give you any golf swing of your choice from history, and, if you don’t direct it correctly from the beginning, it still won’t reduce your present score by even one measly stroke.
  4. Even the gutsiest players learn they can’t try the hero shot all the time.
  5. You first have to see the trouble, then think positively about playing away from it. Some players might say they just “let it happen.” Well, you don’t ever just let it happen.
  6. I hold the club fairly loosely, but just before starting back, I press my hands together on the grip once or twice. I call this a “stationary press.”
  7. The harder I want to hit a shot, the slower I try to begin the swing.
  8. The fuller your backswing, the longer it takes to execute, which can help your tempo. Longer swingers, I’ve noticed, usually enjoy longer-lasting careers.
  9. I believe the Ryder Cup is an exhibition by some of the best golfers in the world, great entertainment and an exercise in sportsmanship, camaraderie and goodwill. The individual performances, good or bad, don’t determine who the best players in the world are. Nor does the side that happens to win determine on what side of the Atlantic the best golf is played. Too many people believe otherwise, and that helps make the matches too contentious among the teams and their fans.
  10. One of my lifelong checkpoints is to keep the shaft between my arms throughout the swing.
  11. Practice hitting as fully as you can without letting either heel lift at any point in the swing. This will teach you the proper way to shift weight by rolling your ankles, but most of all it will teach you the feeling of staying “centered.”
  12. I believe it’s impossible for me to hit too soon with the clubhead. When I need a through-swing thought, it’s most often, Release! Use the clubhead!
  13. Although I have great affection for the Masters, as far as pure golf I’d rather play in the British Open than any other event.
  14. Patience was always my strength. When a player says a course doesn’t suit him, he’s half beaten right there.
  15. On most courses, there are only five or six shots where you really need to pay attention and play conservative.
  16. When I putt, I hold my breath just before initiating the stroke to keep my head and body still.
  17. I visualize the putter shaft as being extremely limber, almost as flexible as a length of rope, which means the only way I can get the clubhead to swing truly is to stroke putts very softly.
  18. I know I have to make the putt. There is no alternative. It has to go in. That was my focus.
  19. I always like to have a couple of short 4s on my courses. They create variety and make the golfer think.
  20. With so much money in the pro game, conservative mediocrity sort of prevails. The goal is to make a good living more than it is to win. Yes, there’s a lot of depth in the pro game. If you took a large group of today’s players and put them against the group from my prime, today’s group would probably beat their brains out. But I think our four or five top guys, as a group, would have beaten the brains out of the players of today.
  21. It’s not that I wouldn’t get nervous, but I could always think straight under pressure. I know some people tend to go blank.
  22. On a second-shot course, you use the tee shot to truly create your second. This type of design happens to be my favorite.
  23. If you start with the club grounded, the natural tendency is for it to return to that spot at impact. In other words, you’re pre-setting a fat shot.
  24. I shot my age for the first time at 64 in Hawaii.
  25. I never hit a shot, even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. It’s like a color movie.
  26. The key to playing well is to first understand who you are as a person, and then manage that.
  27. I’m finding now, more than ever, that the game of a lifetime can give you the time of your life without ever striking a shot.
  28. I know I have to make the putt. There is no alternative. It has to go in.