What I Learned from an 18-time Major Champion Golfer

Have you ever wondered what is going through the mind of tour pro?

How would your golf game look if you had the ability to tap into any tour pro’s brain, and see exactly how they think?

Although this isn’t a reality in most cases, some tour pros have been kind enough to share their life’s work in the form of interviews, books, and instructional videos.

One of these altruists is Jack Nicklaus.

In 2005, Nicklaus, alongside Ken Bowden, revised the original book Golf My Way.  In the newest version, amateur golfers anywhere in the world get a closer look into the mind of Mr. Nicklaus, and the strategies that he used to become an 18 time major champion, and hall of fame member.

In this post, I will be working through 6 lessons that I have learned from Jack Nicklaus, and how you can apply them to your golf game.  

Below are the 6 most influential lessons that I have learned from Nicklaus:

1.  Extremes never work for long

One of the most impactful lessons that I have learned from Mr. Nicklaus is that in golf (and in life for that matter), it is possible to over-do it.

My first experience with this came when I tried to use jumbo golf grips in hopes to improve my grip.  I was playing quite well at the time, but was unhappy with the size of my golf grips.

I had learned that as a right handed golfer, my pinkie, ring, and middle finger were supposed to lightly touch the thumb pad when gripping a golf club. I noticed that these three fingers were actually digging into my thumb pad, and decided that it was time to increase the size of my golf grips to eliminate this.

I started out by putting on midsize grips, but for whatever reason, I eventually found myself with jumbo golf grips. I’m 6’0″ with fairly averaged sized hands, so there was no reason for having grips that were made for guys like Shaquille O’Neal (if he decided to play golf).

Initially, I hit the ball quite well with these grips due to the short term confidence this change had given me. Despite this, I eventually found myself making major swing compensations in order to prevent the huge block that I had developed.

When I finally came to my senses and downsized, I had gotten into some swing habits that would take me upwards of 4 months to eliminate!

Another experience that showed me the danger of the extreme was on my quest for a better short game. Have you ever gone to a golf lesson, learned something new, and then decided to practice only that for the next few weeks? I sure have, and it happened after listening to Jason Dufner speak at a dinner about how most amateurs have horrendous short games.

After a little introspection and analysis, I realized that he was right.  My short game was nowhere near that of a professional golfers.  I wanted to change it though!

In the next two months, I practiced short game, and only short game.

A little extreme??

I’d say so!

Initially, I noticed a huge payoff in my golf game.  I started shooting consistently lower scores, and felt invincible around the greens.  The only problem was that it didn’t last for long. In the absence of range work, I found myself unable to find the fairway, unable to stick it close, and eventually my game deteriorated.

The lesson?

To have a consistent golf game, you must achieve balance, whether it be applying to your equipment, practice, or even something as minuscule as a pre-shot routine.

In his book, Jack talks about his experience with extremes:

As an amateur in my late teens and early twenties, my clubs swing-weighted at about D5 or D6… There is a lot of thirty-six-holes-a-day play in serious amateur golf, and eventually I discovered I just couldn’t play D6 clubs — especially the driver — for seven or eight hours and still swing them well.

He also mentions later in his book that practice must be balanced as well:

I rarely hit balls for more than an hour at a time, because after that I begin to lose concentration and sight of my original shot-making goals.

If you are a golfer looking to seriously improve your game, take a moment to look from the outside-in on your golf game.

Are you spending too much time practicing one thing, and neglecting other areas of your game that will cost you in the future?

Do you play golf clubs that are right for you?  Unless you’re 6’6″, you probably shouldn’t be playing your irons an entire inch over standard…

Do you play a 40 yard hook or slice like Bubba Watson?  My best guess is that most people won’t find prolonged success with this strategy.

2.  Do whatever it takes to make a putt

Remember, I’ll do anything to make a putt

In his book, Nicklaus talks a lot about how important it is to be adaptive on the putting green. All putting greens are different, and it is necessary to make adjustments for each putting surface you are challenged with. In the new age of golf with tons of training aids and putting research labs, many of us have forgotten about the “feel” part of putting.

Don’t get me wrong, I love using putting aids, as I’ve written about here, but I also think it is important that we pair this with an appropriate amount of “feel.”

Have you ever felt like the best strategy in putting is to “groove” a stroke, and stick with it?

I surely did…

For so long, I would get angry at myself for changing my thought process week to week in putting.  Now, I’ve learned to accept it.  I accept the fact that there will be a different “putting thought” each week that will help me get the ball in the hole. To demonstrate, let me list off some of the putting “keys” that I’ve had in the last month of competitive golf:

  • Feeling as if my left elbow is locked throughout the stroke
  • Feeling a stroke with entirely my right hand
  • Thinking only about keeping my head down
  • Focusing on staring at a specific dimple on the golf ball throughout the stroke
  • Feeling my armpits tucked into my side throughout the stroke
  • Trying to make as long and slow of a stroke as possible

One interesting characteristic of this list…

It most likely won’t work for you (except maybe keeping your head down).

You have to come up with some putting keys for yourself through practice.  Go to the putting green, and try as many things as it takes to start making putts.  Once you’ve found something that works, stick with it until it stops working, and repeat the process over!

In due time, you will have an arsenal of “feels” and thoughts that you will be able to rotate between whenever your putting goes sour.

One word of caution

It is important to experiment and find some things that work for you, but don’t ever forget about the fundamentals of putting!   Always keep your eyes over the ball in your setup, and keep your head down throughout the entire putt. Speaking of fundamentals, Jack is a huge believer in having solid fundamentals to your golf game.

3.  Fundamentals come first

One of the most unique things about Jack is that he didn’t regularly take swing lessons like so many modern tour pros are seen doing so frequently. The one thing that Jack did do was make sure his fundamentals were always good.  At the beginning of each golf season, he would spend a week or two with his long-time mentor and swing coach, Jack Grout, working on fundamentals.

I believe the best a fellow can do to forge himself a good golf game is to select those fundamentals that have been common to the greatest number of good players down the years, then apply them assiduously as his talent, opportunity, and desire allow.

I have written extensively on fundamentals, so I don’t want to spend too much time on this section of the post.  If you want to learn more about the correct fundamentals of the golf swing, I suggest reading section three of this post, or reading chapters 1 & 2 from Ben Hogan’s Five Fundamentals Book.

4. Love golf, but not too much

If you are like most of my readers, you live and die by your golf game.  There is no day that sounds like a bad day for golf.  Such enthusiasm for the game is why there is a multi-billion dollar industry built around it. But if you want to reach your golfing potential, it is important to learn detachment.

Important as golf has always been to me in so many respects, I’ve never let myself become consumed by it.

I know it’s easier said than done, but Jack Nicklaus was a true master of this. He always tended to his family, and his outside business ventures throughout his career.

Maybe this is the reason for the longevity of Jack’s career. What would Tiger’s career look like if he had the sense of balance and respect for other priorities that Jack once did?

Would he have won 18 majors by now?

Would he be suffering from his various injuries right now?

I’m not generally interested in the “Tiger debate,” but it is interesting to ponder the differences between these two great athletes.

Since you’re reading this now, you probably aren’t near the skill level of either of these men. So how does lesson apply to you?

As an amateur golfer myself, I have found that my best golf has come when I have a sense of urgency to work hard at my game, but the discipline to detach from the game at the same time.

This state of mind is difficult to explain, but let me offer a simple formula that Jack Nicklaus mastered throughout his career:

  1. Practice diligently, effectively, and strategically
  2. Reflect on the practice, and make necessary adjustments for tomorrow
  3. Forget about golf until the next practice session.  Play another sport.  Spend time with family.  Read a book.  Work on the project that you’ve been stressing about at work.  Think about something other than golf!

His entire book seems to follow this premise, and personally, I have found success with such a “formula” in golf. With a little intuition, you too can follow this formula for golfing success.

It is your job to learn how to practice diligently, effectively, and strategically.  As you become more knowledgeable in the game of golf, you’ll become more fluent in reflecting and making the necessary adjustments in your mental processes, practice sessions, and other parts of your golf game.

5.  Never stop learning golf

If you take the time to listen to many tour pros speak in press conferences, they often refer to the fact that they are still learning golf each day. One thing that made Jack Nicklaus so great was his understanding that golf was a game where you strive for perfection, but never quite reach it.

It seems obvious to most of us, but how many times have you said things like:

If only I could make more 10 foot putts, I would have a great golf game.

I’ll play better once I get my posture and ball position better

If I didn’t have to work, I would have more time to practice golf, and then I would be able to shoot even par

As much as I would like these statements to actually be true, they aren’t! There has never been a golfer in history who has developed a perfect swing, locked it in place, and never had to practice it again.

Golf is a dynamic game, and doesn’t work like we want it to work.

In your quest to become a better golfer, you shouldn’t be practicing in hopes that one day you will “get it.”

You should continue to improve your golf game knowing that tomorrow will present you with new challenges that you will have to overcome. You will never come to a place in your golf game where you will be “content.”

I know it might be easy to think that if you could just shoot in the 70s consistently, you’d have more fun playing golf. Yes, you might enjoy golf more in a sense of the accomplishment, but shooting in the 70s won’t cure your unfulfilled desire to improve.

The fun of golf is not the day that you finally shoot even par, but the process of getting up each morning prepared to learn something new. If golf could be “mastered,” then why do guys like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Jason Day, Adam Scott, Gary Player, etc. keep playing?

Is it for the money? The fame?

The answer is unclear, but each of these great golfers share the same desire to continuously improve their golf games. If you want to play better golf, and have more fun with it, enjoy the little improvements you make each day.

Keep an open mind, and never stop learning!

6.  The power of a mentor

This isn’t exactly a lesson that I learned directly from the teachings of Jack Nicklaus, but by observing his life in general.

After reading the first hundred pages of his biography written by Mark Shaw, I noticed something that Nicklaus had early on in his life.

A mentor.

Jack Nicklaus met his mentor very early on.  Charlie Nicklaus, Jack’s father was recovering from a surgery, and decided to sign the family up for a membership at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio.  Charlie dragged young Jack along to his “physical therapy” sessions on the golf course, and soon found that Jack had natural talent for the game.  Charlie was not the only one who saw this innate ability in young Jackie.  The head professional at Scioto, Jack Grout, saw unlimited potential in the boy.  Not long after being introduced to golf, Jack Nicklaus was spending the entirety of his day playing golf, and being mentored by Grout, who had an immense talent for the game himself. During the summers of his boyhood, Nicklaus would play 18 holes in the morning, get a lesson from Grout, and then go play another 18 until sunset. The relationship lasted throughout Nicklaus’s entire career, and proved to be his greatest asset.  Although Jack often found himself in the solo spotlight, a huge portion of his prolonged success could be attributed to the loyal and loving Jack Grout.

I’m not saying that it is impossible to learn golf by trial and error, but if there was anything that will expedite the process of improvement, it is to learn from someone who has been where you want to be.

Of course, Jack was lucky to have such a good mentor from a young age, but hope is not lost for the average golfer!

In the last decade, the internet has emerged as a tool that can help people in any field seek and find mentors.   You can download golf books from the Kindle Store, watch instructional videos on YouTube from the greatest players in the world, and read and interact on golf sites like The DIY Golfer!

The best way to improve your golf game may be trial and error, but if you are like me, you would benefit from finding people who know the game better than you do, and learning as much as you can from them.

Conclusion

I hope that this post has given you a little bit of insight into the mind of one of the greatest golfers to ever live.

My golf game surely has benefited by studying the golf career of Mr. Nicklaus!