I guess there are times in the life of any athlete when circumstances force him to ask himself, "Am I really any good?" Never mind all his old press clippings; forget the self-confidence that he has had to build within himself to have any chance of success. Just face up to that simple question. It is a question that I had to ask myself after I failed to make the cut at the Masters last April, and a lot of other people were asking it, too. "What's wrong with Nicklaus? Has he lost it already?"
Suddenly I began to wonder if perhaps I had played badly the last five years. Maybe I had been lucky to win my six major championships. So I put it to myself: "What is wrong with Jack Nicklaus?" And that was when I began to win the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, a victory that has to rank as the most gratifying of my career.
In a way this Open had everything for me. I made changes in my swing, and they worked. Two days before play began I made a major shift in my putting stroke, and rarely have I putted better. Just when I was looking for a new putter somebody handed me one. The course turned out to be superb. I was paired for two days with the man I like most to play golf against—my friend Arnold Palmer—and was able to beat him. And, of course, I broke the Open scoring record.
There is no question that I had been playing bad golf. I was hooking my drives, hitting my iron shots—especially the short ones—quite indifferently and putting worse than I can ever remember. At the Masters, all three of these things caught up with me at once, and it was no surprise that I missed the cut. I deserved to.
It was then that I did my thinking and made my initial decision. Once I had been a fine golfer, hitting the ball left to right, but I had turned away from that style of play. Now I had to give up hooking the ball and go back to my old swing. It was this that I worked on through April and May, and the results showed at Baltusrol. Throughout the entire tournament I did not hit one hook, I did not have one shot move from right to left.
In addition, I made two other technical adjustments. One concerned my short game, which had been so erratic. I have to keep my left arm rigid on such shots, and soon after the Masters I realized that I was not doing this. I was letting it flop around in the breeze. As a result, the club head was on a different trajectory every time I came into the ball. I never knew where the shot was going. To correct this, I began to concentrate on my left arm as I swung, and I started doing stretching exercises every day—the same kind you do if you have bursitis—that would make it easier for me to keep the arm rigid. This paid off with approach shots in the Open that seemed to me to be constantly on the flag.
When you hit the ball at the pin you obviously take the pressure off your putting. You don't have to go through the worry of trying to get down in two from 40 and 50 feet on every green. But when I arrived at Baltusrol for some practice a week before the tournament I was still putting poorly. I brought about half a dozen putters with me, none of which I really liked.
One evening I was standing on the putting green with Deane Beman and I borrowed his putter. It felt super to me. Pretty soon Deane had his hand out, wanting it back. He saw the look in my eye, and wasn't about to give that putter away. But he said he had a few more in the car similar to it, and a friend of his, Fred Mueller, an amateur golfer from Washington, went to get them. Mueller also brought back his own putter, the head of which he had dipped in white paint. It sure looked strange. I didn't care for Deane's rejects—they felt different from the one he was using—but that white one was perfect. I borrowed it from Fred and practiced with it back in Columbus all that weekend.
Now I was more confident about my putting, but it was not until Tuesday night at Baltusrol that the really important thing happened. Gordon Jones, a friend of mine on the tour, was watching me stroke the ball. I was trying some different things, obviously displeased, and he said, "Jack, why don't you go back to the way you used to putt years ago. You know, take it back a little shorter and then hit it harder." Well, it was like a bell had started ringing. Unconsciously, over a period of time, I had let my putting stroke get longer and longer. This meant I was actually slowing the club head down as it approached the ball. You can't do that with any golf shot. And right there, with Jones watching, I began to take a very short backswing and rap in putts from everywhere. The next day it seemed I sank them all, and I shot my practice-round 62. I couldn't miss with that White Fang, and I continued to putt well throughout the tournament, three-putting only three greens while one-putting 17. Of the five key shots I hit, four were putts.
This week I ordered half a dozen of those putters. I'll send one to Fred, of course, but I hope he will let me keep the one he loaned me. Deane is right. Lending a putter is dangerous.