Book Excerpt: ‘The Magnificent Masters’ By Gil Capps

Reprinted from The Magnificent Masters: Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, and the 1975 Cliffhanger at Augusta by Gil Capps by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books group. Copyright © 2014 by Gil Capps.

The following excerpt is from the chapter titled NICKLAUS.

Book Excerpt: 'The Magnificent Masters' By Gil Capps 1
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SITTING AT HIS DESK at the Columbus Citizen-Journal later that same spring, sportswriter Kaye Kessler received a call from Jack Grout. Just a few months earlier, Kessler had written a story on Grout, who had just been hired as the new head golf professional at Scioto in December.

A native of Oklahoma, Grout had been a good player with more than a dozen top-ten finishes as a touring pro, although never an official win. He started his career in 1930 as an assistant pro under his brother at Glen Garden Golf and Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, the same club where Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson were learning the game as caddies and later as professionals. Grout moved on to Hershey Country Club in Pennsylvania, where he was an assistant to Henry Picard, the 1938 Masters champion. Now forty, Grout, tall with rimless glasses and jet black hair, was anxious to pass on his enthusiastic thoughts about the golf swing.

He wanted to let Kessler know that he was setting up a weekly, two-hour class every Friday morning for juniors. So Kessler and photographer Dick Garrett went out and took a picture of around thirty kids, mostly ages eight, nine, and ten. The picture ran, promoting the clinic without identifying any of the children.

A few months later, Grout again rang Kessler. Their first nine-hole
tournament had concluded and one of the boys in the photo shot a 51 the first time ever playing nine holes. “I said, ‘You’re kidding me, I’m giving up golf’,” says Kessler. “Nine holes at Scioto, and he shoots 51?” So Kessler ventured back out to the club and wrote a little blurb about ten-year-old Jackie Nicklaus, who Grout had invited to the clinics after seeing him tag along with his father. Since then there isn’t a name that has filled the columns of that paper’s sports section more often.

By the end of his first year playing, Nicklaus, who supplemented the classes with a private lesson every couple of weeks, had shot 95 for 18 holes and recorded his first win in the club juvenile championship with a score of 121 for 18 holes. The next year, his best was an 81, and he had become the star pupil of the weekly classes. He was the teacher’s pet, for Grout saw something in Nicklaus he had seen in few others. The talent was present, but so was a blend of determination, commitment, and intellect. Through Nicklaus, Grout could impart the swing theories he had conjured up over the last two decades. He hammered it into Nicklaus using three main points.

The first was keeping the head still, just behind the ball. This was the center of balance, and Nicklaus learned the hard way. Grout’s assistant Larry Glosser would grab Nicklaus’s hair and hold it during the swing. He could soon hold his head still with the hardest of swings.

The second was foot work, instilling in Nicklaus that rolling the ankles was the proper way to ensure a good swing. Nicklaus led with his legs and derived much of his power from them.

The third was to make as full a shoulder turn as possible on the backswing with the widest arc. Grout wanted Nicklaus to extend those muscles while he was young and hit the ball as hard and far as he could. To accomplish this, Nicklaus rotated his chin to the right and allowed his right elbow to move off his body. Grout saw power as an advantage and a skill that was difficult to ingrain when older. “Control can come later,” he said. This wasn’t a conventional thought at the time.

“He was so soft-spoken and so insightful,” says Kessler about Grout. “He would just tell Jack one little thing and that’s all he’d need. He had a marvelous calm about him, and I think that was infectious to Jack.”

Grout had his swing theories, but he was adaptable to students. For someone his size, Nicklaus had relatively small hands, and his father had initially instructed him to use an interlocking grip in which the pinkie on the right hand wraps around the left forefinger. Grout suggested he change to the Vardon grip in which the two fingers overlapped, but Nicklaus had problems with his hands slipping. So he stuck with the interlocking grip and never changed.

Nicklaus spent more and more time at the club. Even bad weather didn’t deter him since Grout had erected a Quonset hut. Named for its place of manufacturing in Quonset Point, Rhode Island, the moveable 16-by-36 foot hut was a prefabricated covering of lightweight, corrugated steel that the U.S. Navy designed for use in World War II . More than 150,000 were made, and the surplus was sold to the public after 1945. Nicklaus spent countless hours hitting balls from underneath it.

Grout was also a fan of Bobby Jones, but it was Nicklaus’s visits with Jones during the Masters that connected their philosophies.

“Jones said Stewart Maiden taught him how to manage and be responsible for his own game—his own actions on the golf course—so when he had problems he could correct them himself on the practice tee or during the round,” says Nicklaus.

A bell rang in Nicklaus’s head. Grout had strived to bestow him with complete knowledge of the golf swing. But he had been returning to Grout whenever something was amiss. Nicklaus figured, like or failure in the crucible of competition.”

This gave Nicklaus two advantages. First, he knew his own swing more than anyone in the game. Second, he was able to salvage rounds others couldn’t.

Grout traveled to the Masters nearly every year with Nicklaus, but never stepped foot on the practice range. He followed Jones’s maxim and let Nicklaus figure it out for himself. If he was really stuck with mechanics, Grout was available to talk it over with him, but Nicklaus would be a better golfer if he could self-diagnose his faults.

Nicklaus had also been fortunate to grow up playing a Donald Ross design that was one of the top courses in the country. When Bob Kletcke played Scioto for the first time, he immediately realized why Nicklaus learned to hit the ball so high. “They have real small greens there, and it’s quite hilly,” says Kletcke. “You had to hit the ball real high to keep it on the greens.” Right after Nicklaus began playing golf, the professionals returned to Scioto for another major
championship, the 1950 PGA. Autograph book in hand, Nicklaus took in the sights and sounds of that week.

The more Nicklaus played, the better he became. By year three, his best score was 74. Then in his fourth year, it was a 69. Members now wandered down to the Quonset hut to watch the long-hitting phenom. “I liked it the best of all the sports I played because I felt I had a reasonable chance of achieving something worthwhile in it,” said Nicklaus.

As his feats grew, Nicklaus’s fate was sealed by the head football coach at Ohio State himself, Woody Hayes. As a friend of the family, Hayes offered some parental advice to Charlie: “Football is a great game, but I know the talents of your son in golf. Keep him as far away from my game as you can.”

Gil Capps is an Emmy award-winning associate producer on NBC Sports golf telecasts and managing editor at Golf Channel.

Photo of author
Neil Sagebiel

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