Jack Grout, a teacher’s teacher, guided prize pupil Jack Nicklaus on the game’s fundamentals-and those of life as well.
AT ONE TIME, FEW PEOPLE REFERRED TO JACK GROUT AS “JACK NICKLAUS’ teacher,” fewer still called him his “coach” and nobody spoke of him as his “guru.” Grout wasn’t a “celebrity.” Far from it. “Jack Grout hardly ever set one foot on a practice tee at a major championship,” Nicklaus says of the man who taught him until Grout’s death in 1989. “He might be there, but he’d be back in the bleachers. If I was doing something I didn’t like, I’d go back and ask him.”
In a season in which Nicklaus’ finest hour, his 1986 Masters triumph, is being celebrated, it also is appropriate to recall the modest man who molded the immensely talented Nicklaus in ways that helped the Hall of Famer separate himself from other golfers of his time.
It is part of Nicklaus lore that his father, Charlie, signed him up for Grout’s two-hour Friday junior clinics at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, in 1950. Nicklaus was 10 years old, and Grout was the Head Professional. Pandel Savic, a long-time friend of the Nicklauses who was close with Grout, says: “Jack Grout recognized quickly that Jack was ahead of others in terms of intensity and ability. He told me that Jack’s power impressed him. He always taught him to hit it hard, even if he hit it all over the world.”
As Grout’s son, Dick, a courtly golf professional who lives in Greenville, South Carolina puts it: “Dad was an aficionado of the long drive. He maintained that young muscles need to be stretched and that accuracy can come later. During a lesson from him, you didn’t want Dad to say, ‘Let’s go get a lemonade or iced tea.’ The only reason he’d utter those words would be because you weren’t being aggressive enough, and so the lesson was over. He’d say, ‘Don’t let’s try to be pretty. Let’s not lollygag out here.'”
Nicklaus was his star pupil from the start. Grout would ask the boy he called “Jackie Boy” or “Jackie Buck” to demonstrate to the other kids in the clinic, gave him a free private lesson every two to three weeks and provided him with the fundamentals that helped Nicklaus forge golf’s finest record. Moreover, he was a friend and confidante. “I’m much better off for having known Jack Grout,” Nicklaus says, and he means on and off the course.
On the course, Grout gave his charge the knowledge to correct his own swing. “Rarely did I call him from a tournament,” Nicklaus says. “I didn’t need to call him every five minutes. I had to learn how to correct myself, which is the antithesis of the way it is today. For me it was more like the way it was with Bobby Jones. Jones told me that he became a good player when he didn’t have to run back to [his teacher] Stewart Maiden.”
Grout let Nicklaus be, even when that meant Nicklaus letting out a little shaft with his emotions as well as the club. “One time we were out on the course and I was trying to hit 2-irons,” Nicklaus says, “and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I was so frustrated that I took the shaft and broke it. Jack said, ‘Good boy, Jackie. You got to get that out sometimes.’ We went over to the shop, replaced the shaft and went back at it. I only did that the one time, but I could do it with Jack. He’d tell me [it was] fine, that I [had] to get rid of how I was feeling.”
Aware that young Nicklaus was a powerhouse in the making, Grout wasn’t about to make radical changes in the way the child wanted to go after the ball. He taught him how to use the clubhead while swinging hard and to stay centered over the ball with a steady head, rolling his left ankle toward his right in the backswing and his right toward his left in the downswing. “Most guys today teach by positions. I don’t agree with this way of teaching,” Nicklaus says. “Jack taught you what to do with the clubhead, not with your body. I think you should be playing with the golf club.”
A family of words comes up when people speak of Jack Grout. One is “gentleman,” another is “humble” and a third is “quiet.” Dick calls his father “a quiet, proud man.” Nicklaus’ wife, Barbara, says: “He was the kindest and sweetest man there ever was. He never raised his voice or said an unkind word. He didn’t know how.”
One of eight children, Grout was born in Oklahoma City, in 1910. When he noticed some of his older brothers had extra money during golf season, he wondered about the source. Grout followed them to Oklahoma City Country Club, where he learned they were caddies. He started to caddie as well, and by age 15 he became the assistant pro at Edgemere Country Club under his older brother, Dick, the head professional. When Jack was 19, he traveled with Dick to Glen Garden Golf Club in Fort Worth, where he again gave assistance to his brother, and was soon to pal around with junior members Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, respectively 17 and 18 at the time. The threesome practiced most mornings and played a few times a week in the afternoons. The Grout brothers noticed that Hogan’s equipment included only seven clubs, three left-handed and four right-handed. Hogan hit hooks from either side. Grout’s brother gave Hogan three hickory-shafted right-hand clubs, and they soon convinced him to play exclusively from the right side.
Jack Grout and his wife, Bonnie, were married in 1942 and had two sons, Dick and John, and two daughters, Ronnie and Debbie. Grout delivered Debbie in a taxicab in front of the hospital. Bonnie Grout lives in Stuart, Florida, with Debbie. She suffers from Parkinson’s disease and osteoporosis, and, Debbie says, “is in constant pain, just getting by.” Of her father, she says, “He was my best friend. I just felt comfortable when he was around.”
From Glen Garden, Grout moved to Hershey (PA.) Country Club, where he worked as an assistant professional with legendary player and teacher Henry Picard. There, Grout learned the value of footwork, which Picard had assimilated from the instruction that renowned teacher Alex Morrison had given him. Grout later wrote that Nicklaus had better footwork than anybody, including Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Nelson and Hogan.
As the Head Professional, Grout came to Scioto in 1950 and worked there until 1961, when he went to La Gorce Country Club in Miami Beach. He retired in 1974 after Nicklaus made him Professional Emeritus at newly formed Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, north of Columbus. He had a similar role at Loxahatchee Club when the Nicklaus-designed course opened in 1985, and also taught at Frenchman’s Creek and, during the winters of 1977 and 1978, at the Cheeca Lodge in the Florida Keys, where Ted Williams liked to fish for tarpon and bonefish in the flats.
While employed as a club professional, Grout qualified for and played in six United States Opens and three PGA Championships. When traveling the ragtag early PGA Tour, he frequently roomed with Picard. According to PGA Tour statistics, Grout is officially credited with 20 Top Ten and 40 Top Twenty-five finishes. In the PGA Championship, then a match-play event, he knocked off Jimmy Demaret in the first round in 1941 at Cherry Hills CC in Denver, defending champion Bob Hamilton in 1945 at Moraine CC in Dayton, Ohio, and medalist Johnny Palmer in 1953 at Birmingham (MI.) CC.
Grout succeeded as a player despite severe nearsightedness – he was one of the rare pros who wore glasses – and a mild manner. At Scioto CC during the PGA Championship in 1950, tour veteran Toney Penna stated: “If that guy could see, he’d be right there with the best of them. He has one of the finest swings in the game and everything to go with it but eyesight.” Ben Hogan told writer Ken Bowden, who has collaborated with Nicklaus on 11 books, that Grout could have won plenty of tournaments with his graceful swing and ball-striking. “Ben said he could have been a great player if he had a different personality,” Bowden says. “I think he was implying that Jack didn’t have the killer instinct.”
Bowden first met Grout during the 1965 PGA Championship at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier, PA., when British writer Pat Ward-Thomas introduced them. Along with some 60 pros, they were watching Hogan stamp out 4-wood shots on the range when Grout asked Bowden if he would like to meet Hogan. Bowden certainly did.
“I’ll never forget how warm Ben was to Jack,” Bowden says. ‘He softened right up when he saw it was Grout. He wouldn’t talk to anybody else on the range, but it was like they were relatives. It was a very different Hogan.”
As gentle as Grout was, he was firm in his views. But he provided advice only when he had something to contribute. In 1972, Hall of Famer Ray Floyd was having a terrible time when he sought out Grout at La Gorce. “I was laid off and short, and it’s hard to play golf that way,” Floyd says. “He gave me a move with my right elbow that solved the problem. He told me to get my right elbow up going back, which got the elbow and my right thumb under the shaft. Jack was an incredible guy. He dealt with what you had, and he kept it simple. He was very much a positive influence. Jack would tell you how good you were.”
After Charlie Nicklaus died at age 56 in 1970, Grout became even more of a father figure to the Golden Bear. In the late-1980s, “We would go out on the driving range,” Nicklaus says of the time he spent with Grout at Loxahatchee, “go down there and hit balls at the other end and talk about everything but golf and my golf swing. We did that day after day, and finally maybe after four or five days, we would be hitting balls and he would finally say, ‘Hey, you know, I would like to see your hands in a little different position at the top.’ ‘Oh, really? What do you think that would do?’ He said, ‘It will make you hit it better.’ “OK, We’ll do that.’ But that would be the only comment he would make for a week. We weren’t talking about golf. We were talking about being friends and the relationship between two people.”
Away from golf, Grout loved thoroughbred horse racing and often slipped out with Floyd and others to one of the Florida tracks. He made small wagers on college and pro football games, and at Loxahatchee, club co-founder Gordon Gray and his pals taught Grout a card game called “Oh, Hell,” an offshoot of hearts for which they made their own rules. One of Loxahatchee’s formal dining rooms is named after Grout, which is both an honor and an irony given that he wasn’t much for formality.
Jack Grout was comfortable in his own skin. He didn’t need to go to parties although he knew how to have a good time. He didn’t need to promote himself as the man who taught Jack Nicklaus – “never in 100 or 1,000 years would he do that,” Nicklaus says – and he was even reluctant to write a foreword to Nicklaus’ book Golf My Way, for fear of drawing attention to himself and away from the golfer he loved. But, as Bowden points out, Grout did finally agree to write the foreword, “and he was glad he did.”
Nicklaus was about to tee off in Saturday’s third round of the 1989 Memorial Tournament when a siren went off to stop play because of storms. Barbara presently received a call that Grout had passed away. “It was very weird,” Barbara says. “I think he died within a minute or two of when Jack was supposed to tee off.” Nicklaus had last seen his teacher, mentor and friend a month earlier, just after the Masters, where Nicklaus had missed the last green. Grout was in bed at his home and asked Nicklaus to stand up and make a swing. He watched and, Nicklaus says, “He told me why I hit the ball to the right. He was still teaching, and he couldn’t even get out of bed.”
Item 6 of Grout’s Last Will and Testament included observations he had made about his relationship with Nicklaus. Grout felt he had been given far too much credit; at the same time he acknowledged that he had helped him with the fundamentals of the game.
Quiet, proud and humble to the end.
By Lorne Rubenstein, GolfWorld Magazine, May 5, 2006