WHEN IAN O'CONNOR CONTACTED ME in May and offered to do something on his new golf book, Arnie & Jack, I said, “Great.” The book was doing very well and already on my radar. Then the author emails me. Perfect.
Besides, growing up, Jack Nicklaus was my Tiger Woods. Arnie & Jack was right in my golf wheelhouse. A review copy soon arrived and I dug in.
Honestly, there’s not much I could say that hasn’t already been written in the many fine reviews. The rivalry angle hadn’t been done, and O’Connor’s reporting skills made this a book. The guy can write a sentence, too.
O’Connor is a nationally recognized sports columnist for FoxSports.com and The Record of New Jersey. He answered my questions between filing columns about major league baseball and the NFL.
ARMCHAIR GOLF: What drew you to this project?
IAN O’CONNOR: I was always fascinated by how the Augusta National crowds reacted to Arnie and Jack in different ways. It didn’t matter that Jack had won six Masters, and Arnie four – it was clear who was king there and who was not. But the first seed for the book was planted seven years ago, at the 14th green. Jack had nearly won the Masters in ‘98, at age 58, just before going into hip replacement surgery, so he wasn’t at all happy that Augusta’s elders had paired him with Palmer and Gary Player for another Big Three reunion. At 61, Nicklaus still thought he could win the damn thing, and here he was part of a ceremonial group. Jack hates the ceremonial stuff.
Anyway, as he’s about to putt at 14, Arnie walks toward me and sits down among a circle of fans and starts engaging them in conversation. Jack hears the commotion, backs away from his putt, and stares daggers at Arnie. Arnie tips his cap, the fans laugh, and Jack just can’t believe Palmer’s behaving like this while he’s trying to grind it and make the cut. It’s a small-picture scene, but it told me a lot of big-picture things about their relationship and just how different they are as golfers and human beings.
ARMCHAIR GOLF: You did a ton of reporting – was it a long haul to get this story published?
IAN O’CONNOR: Two years of blood, sweat and tears. I did 200-some interviews and spent countless hours reviewing old magazine and newspaper clips in the hope of producing the defining account of the rivalry. The time actually passed quickly, as I found it to be incredibly rewarding work. It’s so difficult to do a book (especially when you keep your day job, as I did, as a newspaper columnist) that you have to be passionate about the subject matter. I can’t imagine doing a book on something I wasn’t all that interested in.
ARMCHAIR GOLF: I read somewhere that you used the Arnie-Jack rivalry as leverage to get face time with them. Tell me a little bit about that.
IAN O’CONNOR: At first, Nicklaus and Palmer both declined to cooperate with the book. Their reps contacted me with word that they had some vague agreement with Gary Player to possibly do a Big Three book in the future, and that they couldn’t cooperate with a competing project. I ended up sitting down with Arnie, anyway, for a few minutes just to plead my case, and at the end of that brief conversation he mentioned that he might agree to help if Jack changed his mind and agreed to help. It sounded grade schoolish to me, but again, said a lot about their relationship. So I knew I had to work on Jack to get Arnie.
Nicklaus agreed to see me in his North Palm Beach office. He was familiar with my work; I had a weekly column at USA Today at the time, and he was a regular USA Today reader. I sat down with him and just appealed to his work ethic (Jack's an incurable workaholic), just told him I'd work as hard on this book as he ever did on one of his golf course design projects. And he said, “OK, I’ll help you.”
Once I was through with my first Jack interview, I got back in touch with Arnie, told him Jack was on board, and voila, Palmer signed on as well. Both men and their families couldn’t have been more accommodating or accessible, and I’m indebted to them all for that.
ARMCHAIR GOLF: From reading Arnie & Jack, Tiger’s large galleries and intimidation factor have nothing on Arnie’s Army. Yet Jack’s focus, even as a young pro, was other-worldly. Do you think Tiger (or anybody) could intimidate Nicklaus on a golf course?
IAN O’CONNOR: I can’t imagine anyone intimidating Nicklaus on a golf course, Woods included. Jack was quite an intimidating presence himself. Many players told me that Nicklaus could stare a hole through them with those cold blue eyes of his. Like Tiger and unlike Arnie, Jack never spent any clubhouse time fraternizing with the other players. He never wanted his opponents to be comfortable around him. Jack wanted them to feel uncomfortable in his presence on the tee boxes, on the greens, and in the locker room.
ARMCHAIR GOLF: I learned a lot about the wives and how they enabled Arnie and Jack’s success. Anything surprise you? I'm guessing you unearthed new family material.
IAN O’CONNOR: I was surprised by just how close Winnie Palmer and Barbara Nicklaus were as their husbands were warring on the golf course and in the boardroom. It’s amazing to think that Winnie and Barbara could walk together at Oakmont in ‘62 while Arnie’s Army was unleashing a vicious verbal assault on Jack, but their bond was air-tight. As I wrote in the book, Winnie and Barbara deserve credit for preventing the Arnie-Jack relationship from ever getting to Defcon 1.
On another front, Peg Palmer, Arnie’s older daughter, is probably the most candid person I’ve ever interviewed. She had no problem talking openly about some painful experiences within the family, and about the burdens she carried as the child of an American icon.
ARMCHAIR GOLF: As a national sports columnist, you cover many sports. Where does golf rank for you?
IAN O’CONNOR: I find golf to be one of the most fascinating sports to write about. I love the man-versus-nature, man-versus-himself element to the game, and I think it lends itself to lively prose. Golf is all about mental challenges, and those demons and doubts within every player – Tiger Woods excluded – inspires a lot of drama.
ARMCHAIR GOLF: What's next?
IAN O’CONNOR: My wife is demanding some time off before I start another book. I’d think about doing a Tiger book, but I can’t believe my chances of getting him to cooperate would be within a long par-five of my chances of getting to Arnie and Jack.