Recently, top golfers Jordan Spieth and Jason Day sat down to join the sport’s legend Jack Nicklaus for a conversation with TIME on a patio overlooking Muirfield Village Golf Club, a Nicklaus-built preserve in Dublin, Ohio. Down below, the journeymen of the PGA Tour practiced for the annual Memorial Tournament. Up above two of the best in the world hung on the old man’s every word. They call him “Mr. Nicklaus.”
To read how the golf greats find their A-game, see the July 25 issue of TIME. For more of their conversation, see below.
TIME: You kept it together at the top longer than any golfer by far. As you see these two young champions, what do they need to know about keeping it together that long?
Jack Nicklaus: My philosophy was always, basically: You are playing one shot at a time, and you play one day at a time, and you play one year at a time, and you are always trying to climb a mountain. I always felt like I was trying to keep getting better. And as long as I was trying to get better I had goals in front of me, even when I was in my forties, because I won the masters at 46. Even in my forties, I just kept trying to work myself to get better. I mean, there is obviously a point where you start to have diminishing returns, but…all of a sudden 25 years or so have passed and that is what it is.
TIME: So it is a competition with yourself, as much as with the other players out there?
Nicklaus:Well I don’t think you have competition with anybody else. I don’t think Jason has a competition with Jordan, or vice versa, I think they have a competition with each other…There is only one person you can control out there, and that is yourself. And whether he makes a 30-footer, he certainly doesn’t have any control over it and vice versa. He makes a lot of them, you know.
Jason Day: A little too many.
Nicklaus: I don’t know about too many. I hope you guys keep making a whole bunch of them, I think that’s great for golf. But, you know, you just you control yourself, you control your own physical well-being, you control your own golf game you control your own competitive instincts—your own competitive instincts are against yourself.
TIME: Do you look at the road ahead as more of a physical challenge, a mental challenge…?
Day: Well I think for me, not so much Jordan because he is turning 23 next month or so, but I have battled injuries in my career, so I finally had enough of it. I finally said, ok, I need to take control of what I am doing nutrition-wise, body-wise to extend the longevity of my career, and try and hopefully one day stay at the top as long as Jack did. But, you know, everything that he said is obviously so true because of how long he dominated the game of golf, for just the way he planned his tournament schedules—everything he was doing was planned to win golf tournaments and not so much, you know, just playing in tournaments for the sake of playing. And not chasing money. Obviously, back then it was a little bit different with regards to prize money, purses and all that stuff.
Nicklaus: To say the least.
Jordan Spieth: He is the reason it has changed!
Day: So it’s a little different. So I am just trying to extend the longevity of my career but also trying to—like Jack said—trying to get better each and every week, each and every year, to really keep up with young guys like this.
Spieth: Yeah, I think it is a bit of both. As much as we love what we do because of the adrenaline rush of being in contention, having important puts or shots or trying to control the most minor club face rotations, you know, to get the ball to go where you are looking when your body is telling you to move fast. You know, that can be a mental grind week after week when you put yourself in contention consistently. Enjoying that is one thing that kind of helps us keep on going and some people don’t really like that. I have been out here for three years now so it is still very early on, hopefully, in a career that is as long and hopefully somewhere near half as successful as Mr. Nicklaus’. Loving it and embracing it, I think, is most important step.
TIME: There is kind of a loneliness to golf, you have to be very self-sufficient as a golfer for a very long time.
Spieth: I think back to what Mr. Nicklaus was saying about how your toughest competitor is yourself. I think for me, I loved having the ball in my hands, I loved, when I played other sports, loved team sports and team golf. Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, whatever it may be, is maybe the most fun couple weeks we have a year, but I love being able to control my own destiny. The work that I am able to put in ahead of time was either going to come out and I was going to be successful with it, or I was going to try and fail and learn how to succeed the next time. But I loved having the ball in my hands when the shot clock was winding down.
Day: That is why we practice so hard to have those moments. I think I definitely like the solitude of golf. I have always practiced by myself. It’s just because that is when I can do the most work, the most efficient work, is when I am by myself, and I think I just find a little bit of peace when it comes to being able to be out here on the golf course, and you are just you and yourself and your thoughts. I did play other sports growing up. I played cricket and all those other things, but I was just so much more talented in golf and that’s all I wanted to do.
Nicklaus: Baseball was probably my best sport when I was growing up … I could go to the golf course at any hour I wanted to go, and I didn’t come home until my mom grabbed my ear and yanked me home. I had exactly what you are saying. The team sports I loved, and I loved basketball. Golf was the only sport that I could go do by myself, do what I wanted to do, do what I needed to do.
TIME: Is today’s game more alike or more different from the game that you found in 1960?
Nicklaus: Obviously your own era, you think is the best game. These guys think the game they are playing is the best game, the next generation will come along and think that their game is the best game—that is exactly what you should think. But it is still golf. And it is still a competition from within. You have guys going out trying to put the best score on the board. It’s just a great game.
Day: Yeah, it doesn’t matter what era it is, or what year it is, or what tournament it is if you go and play that tournament. Like Jack says, you gotta go and play against yourself, not try and shoot yourself out of the tournament. But there is always going to be some guy going ahead and playing well there, it doesn’t matter what era it is, what tournament it is. But the technology has definitely changed the way that we look at…just through the TV. When I was growing up, sitting there watching Augusta National, The Masters, we just watched golf. Now the stats pop up telling where the guys hit it, the technology has changed a lot and we have to advance with that technology just to keep the game going forward and make it more exciting for everyone to try and pick up.
Nicklaus: We didn’t have any technology. The driver that I used for most of my career was made when I was 5 years old. A 1945, old MacGregor driver.
Day: I have a question: For different golf courses, did you have different sets?
Nicklaus: Well I had a different manufacturer that I represented in Europe, so (when) I would play the U.S., I would play with MacGregor golf clubs, and then I would go to the British Open, and I played with Slazenger over there.
Day: That is amazing.
Nicklaus: I would take my driver, my 3 wood, my putter, my wedge, my sand wedge, and then I would change irons. Then I would go to Australia later in the year, I had a different set of irons from Slazenger Australia. We had a different golf ball. We had the small ball, the large ball … switching back and forth…
TIME: I feel, and I would love to hear what you guys think, that we are entering an incredibly competitive era of golf and it reminds me of, frankly, the late 60s to the late 70s when you overlapped with half of the great major champions in the history of the game (who) were all out there at the same time. Do you guys feel like you guys might be starting a similar age, where you are playing against guys who have the capacity to put up five, six, seven, eight major championships?
Spieth: I think the potential is there. I think it is pretty early still to rush into anything like that. We were talking earlier about the change in the purses and the winner shares, and the reason we are able to do what we do, and we don’t even have to have a great week and (still) make a great living is because of those guys, and to say that there is a chance that some of us can do that and have that take form again I think is a little premature. But I think that the competition is significantly growing. Guys are younger, guys seem to be coming out unafraid of any situation and I can’t compare if that happened in the past or not. I can just speak to what our peers are doing.
TIME: I like that word “unafraid” because as you were, Jack, you had guys that were not afraid to come after you on Sunday.
Nicklaus: No. I think I am a little easier to speak to this generation because I am viewing you from the outside. I think there are more good players playing the game today than there ever has been. The era that I played, we had Arnold and Gary and Trevino and Watson and Miller and Weiskopf and Casper. We had some really, really good players, and we probably had about eight or nine of them, but the depth beyond that sort of dropped off. Today, you have a bunch of really good players, these two right here, along with Rory, are probably at the top of the game. But I think that behind them, there are so many young guys coming along that are better equipped to play well than we had. I think equipment has a lot to do with that—I think Tiger was blessed with, his father taught him to play with old-time equipment and play shots that these guys never saw, never were taught to play, because that was never part of the game. But today is a different game. You don’t have to do that. Today is more of a power game. Today your conditions on the green are perfect, we never had an opportunity like…Jordan just recently ran the tables on the back nine to win a golf tournament. We never had greens that were that good, every green we played, every week. One time it would be running 8 [on the device that measures the speed of the putting surface], the next week they would be running 12, one week it would be grainy, the next week it would be Bermuda, it was all over the place. But today even the different grasses are cut perfect, and if you are a good putter you can run the tables today. So it is different conditions, different things you do—what’s better? I suppose if I were playing today, I’d think today would be fantastic. I’d love it. I’d love to be able to hit the ball out.
I think today is fantastic frankly. I love watching the game today. I never bothered to watch television in golf until these guys came along. I see so much good golf every weekend and I know that these guys have the ability to be dominant in the game, and you always want to see which one of them is going to come out and be dominant. And it’s every week, it’s somebody different. But these guys are holding their own I think, I think they are doing pretty well.
TIME: Is there anything about today’s game that worries you? Any trends that are of concern?
Nicklaus: Well the only thing that worries me about today’s game is that the golf ball doesn’t fit the courses. A golf course is fifty yards longer today than it was in 1995, and if you had the golf courses that did that then that is OK. The thing that worries me in the game, and it is not so much about the professional game because they can adjust the courses and so forth, and they spend the money to do that, is that the average golfer has a harder time relating to today’s game than they did with us. When we used to go out and play, we would play with a club champion. And I would hit the ball ten or fifteen yards past him so we could go out and make a game. And today I cant imagine any seeing any club champion making a game with these guys. They are hitting the ball 80 yards by them, so that to me gets a little lost, and it is what it is. But I just marvel at how they control the ball out there at 350 yards. Did I occasionally hit one out there? Sure I did. But it was only on occasion.
TIME: You both have to think about your responsibilities to golf and what you want your legacies eventually to be, is that something that is on your mind? I know you both have foundations that are involved with the game, tell us a little bit about that.
Day: We have the Brighter Days Foundation, which myself and my wife Ellie started back up, started up after the first Presidents Cup that I played in, you know just to give to local charities here. We had our first event last year, and we had our first event this year on Oct. 2 and 3. I am looking towards more as some how giving back to Australian golf. Australian golf did so much for me and that is why I am here today. Golf is not huge back in Australia, we are only a small population of 23 million people, so to be able to produce golfers like we have in the past…is not a small miracle. I would like to see a lot more boys and girls being able to pick up the game back home so that we can make the game healthy back there.
Spieth: I think Mr. Nicklaus has set a fantastic example on and off the course for us, as well as his peers and the legends of the game, and really the tour in general. I mean, golf to its foundation is a game of integrity and one that encourages us to give back, kind of be ambassadors, role models, I guess, for kids—whether they like golf or not. I think that’s just kind of what has been set for us. For me personally, I have started up the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation
. My little sister has special needs, so I started out trying to help kids with special needs. We have moved on to military now, and a third pillar in junior golf trying to help grow it back home. I think that we have a responsibility, sure, and I think both of us would say, just as Mr. Nicklaus has often voiced, that at the end of our career it would be pretty spectacular if we made as much of an impact or hopefully more off of the course than on, and hopefully that is pretty substantial and that is pretty special to us. And I mean, we all think about it with our partners too. We all share a partner in Rolex…That is how I got introduced to that, to Rolex, was through junior golf—the American Junior Golf Association. We support them through our foundation, our partners are looking to support our foundations and our interests as well, so I feel very fortunate with that. But we definitely do have a responsibility.
Nicklaus: You mentioned Rolex this watch right here…I had this more than 20 years before these guys were born. 1966, I played in the Canada Cup, which is now the World Cup in Japan, and Arnold and I were playing, and we went to a cocktail party for Rolex and Rolex was going to give me a watch for that thing. And Gary says, “take that one, it is the best watch!” It was, so I put it was this watch right here. And when we picked this watch up in Geneva the next year in 1967, this watch retailed for $300. 1967.
Day: Wow. A little different now.
Spieth: Which I think back then was his winter share in whatever tournament he just won.
Nicklaus: Golf has always given more back to charity than any other sport, more than any other sport combined. Both Jason and Jordan have all have formed their own foundations at a very young age. We didn’t do any of that. We were raising money on the tour and so forth, but the education of what seeing guys ahead of them, Tiger has done that, of course Arnold and every other guy has done that, but these guys are doing it at a young age. So they learned to give back at a young age. I think that is fantastic. Golf, I don’t know, probably a couple of billion dollars have been given to charity through golf. I don’t know what it is this year, probably $120 to $130 million this year will be raised through golf tournaments. But then to add on top of it what these guys do for their charities is fantastic.
TIME: So you have got your main job, golf, you have got this significant charitable enterprises, how do you fit family, friends?
Speith: I think hopefully your family and your closest friends are involved in both parts of your life. I mean, I think again, it’s a lot of it is hard for me to speak to…Given Jason has more experience and both of us combined are still way behind what Mr. Nicklaus has. But I have learned that you find good people—your family, and then your close knit group of people you can trust—and hope that they are with you for the duration of what you are doing and hope that these relationships are ones that you get lucky enough at the beginning to find the ones that are special and are involved in both aspects of your life…
TIME: It’s got to be something that is on your mind: I’ve got to figure this out. You don’t want to wake up ten years from now and (think) my life been eaten up by being a great champion.
Nicklaus: Well I think both of these guys right here have figured it out already. You know, golf is a game. And it is only a game. It is a great game. And it will dominate a great part of their life. But it won’t dominate all of their life. And I know Jordan, even though he is not married yet, he has got a sister he has looked after greatly. Jason is married he has got kids. I have got kids and grandkids, and my family has always been first all my life. I think if you have your other interests, if you have your family and if you have the idea of trying to help others, all of a sudden it makes the game of golf that you are playing a little bit less important. My family was a great diversion for me. My business interests were a great diversion for me. I can’t concentrate on golf 24 hours a day. I mean, I don’t want to. I want other things to be able to do. I want to be able to get my mind away from it. I want to, when I do go play golf, I want to give it my concentration. I want to give it my all, and I think that having these other things and particularly your family is something that is really, it’s a blessing for all golfers to have.
TIME: It’s a presidential election year, who is the first president you ever played golf with?
Nicklaus: I was supposed to play with Eisenhower in an exhibition with Arnold years ago in Philadelphia, and I got sick and he couldn’t play, but he went around with us. I played a lot of golf with Ford. He was a wonderful man. Ford was just like an old shoe, just so relaxed, so nice, if you ever believed a man could be that nice I played with a couple other presidents too, but Ford was my first.
TIME: If, God forbid, you could only play one more round of golf, where would it be?
Day: Augusta National. That is one tournament that I have always wanted to win: The Masters. Obviously these guys have had the opportunity and capitalized on that opportunity, but that is really the tournament that, you know … watching Tiger back in 1997 got me into the game of golf, and no one … I was close to winning that a couple times, but Adam Scott was the first Australian to win it, and I always wanted to be the first Australian. But you know, seeing him win it, he has such a great career in golf and just (was a) deserving winner. But yeah, if there is one golf course that I could play, tournament conditions, last day on earth, it would be Augusta National.
Spieth: Same here. Augusta National.
TIME: What about you?
Nicklaus: I got to say, I love Augusta National, but sort of from a golf standpoint if I want to go play one more round it would have to be Pebble Beach. My two favorite places in the game of golf are Augusta National and Saint Andrews, and that is why I ended my career at st Saint Andrews, just because I had so much respect for where the game started. But it is a pretty hard choice; I hope I don’t have to make it soon.