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Nicklaus knows Oak Hill ins, outs


Jack Nicklaus considers Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester one of his all-time favorite courses.

It’s where the Hall of Famer won his record-tying fifth PGA Championship in 1980, with a then-record seven-shot margin of victory over Andy Bean.

Nicklaus also played two U.S. Opens at Oak Hill — in 1968 when he finished four shots behind a then unknown Lee Trevino, and 1989, when Curtis Strange became the first man since Ben Hogan in 1951 to capture back-to-back Open titles.

So who better to handicap this year’s 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill than the 18-time major championship winner?

On a conference call Friday, Nicklaus touched on a variety of subjects as Oak Hill prepares to host its 11th national championship Aug. 8-11.

Speaking about his 1980 win, when he finished at 6-under-par 274, Nicklaus said that as he came into the PGA after a scintillating win in the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, “I had a letdown and I had a hard time getting myself back up from a ball-striking standpoint.

“The weekend before the tournament, my son, Jackie, and I were up playing at Oak Hill and I was hitting the ball just fair, but my putting was awful. Jackie gave me a putting lesson on taking the heel of the putter through the line and breaking it off. I was breaking it off my stroke. I never did hit the ball really well that week, but I obviously ran the tables with my putter. Everything I drew back went in the hole.”

On Oak Hill, Nicklaus said, “I just love the course. It’s a wonderful northern, tree-lined, softly-rolling piece of property that is so enjoyable to play. It’s changed a lot through the years. The 18th hole has dramatically changed, as did a couple of holes on the front nine and the par-3 15th. Some changes have made the golf course a little bit more difficult.”

He said Oak Hill has stood the test of time. “It’s a great test of your entire game. Nobody has ever really chewed it apart. It’s one of those courses where you’ve got to play smart, but you’ve got to control your golf ball and you’ve also got to putt well because the greens are not easy greens to read.”

As for a player’s game that suits the tree-lined Oak Hill layout, Nicklaus said there are plenty.

“I think Trevino had the game for it. I think Nicklaus had the game, as well as Strange,” Nicklaus said, citing past winners. “The player has to suit his game to the golf course and the guys that can adapt to it are the guys that have always been the good players. Like Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.”

On Mickelson, who captured the British Open last week with a superb final-round 66 at Muirfield, Nicklaus said, “He’s obviously playing well and I would think that he would have to be the favorite going into the PGA.”

Nicklaus gave Mickelson kudos “for finally realizing that driver did not have to always come out of the bag. Phil has always tried to take his game and put it on the golf course, and that doesn’t always work. He found a club (a 3-wood) that he could keep in play and still hit quite long. And being in the fairway more often gave him more opportunities to hit it close.”

He equated Mickelson’s win at Muirfield to his in 1966. “I know for him to win at the British Open as high as he hits the ball, it was a big breakthrough,” he said. “I won at Muirfield and I was a high ball hitter and people had said ‘Jack will never win. It’s a golf course he can’t play.’ We both proved them wrong.”

As for Woods, Nicklaus said he thinks Tiger will still win another major. “When, I don’t know. But he’s already won four times this year, so he’s played pretty well,” he said. “He manages his golf ball as well as anybody ever has. It’s just a matter of making a few more putts.”

Among other players Nicklaus fancies this year, he particularly likes Matt Kuchar’s game. Kuchar, whose father went to high school in Watertown, won at the Memorial hosted by Nicklaus earlier this season.

As for defending champion Rory McIlroy, whose eight-shot victory at Kiawah Island last year broke the Nicklaus record, the Golden Bear isn’t quite sure what to make of his game.

“When you are driving the ball as poorly as Rory, it puts way too much pressure on the other parts of your game,” Nicklaus said. “All he needs to do is hit a few more fairways and he’ll be OK. But driving it in the fairway at Oak Hill is a must because they are pretty narrow and the rough is always thick.”

Nicklaus has also played a major role in an historic first this year. PGA fans are getting the opportunity to vote on the pin placement for Sunday’s 15th hole, the final par 3 of the tournament.

“I think it was a great idea because the response has been terrific so far,” Nicklaus said. “I think that’s what the PGA of American wants. I tried to get them to go for all four holes, but they said it might be too much the first year.”

This is the 50th anniversary of Nicklaus’s first PGA championship victory when he beat Dave Ragan by two strokes in seering heat at Dallas Athletic Club in 1963.

He still has a keepsake of that tournament in his pocket, a money clip he won in the long-drive contest that week.

Without hesitation, he recalled the distance: “341 yards and 17 inches.”

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