From 2001-2007, I had the fancy position of Ambassador of Golf for The Cliffs Communities located in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Principally, my job was to help sell the Cliffs lifestyle to prospective members and property owners. In the spring of 2005, I received a phone call from the Chief Operations Officer of the company asking me if I would be interested in caddying for Jack Nicklaus during the first official round of play at The Cliffs at Walnut Cove. To be honest, I was a bit stupefied by the offer for several reasons. First of all, my initial thought as to why he was calling, was that he wanted me to play with Nicklaus, since I had played with him a number of times previously. Now, I was being asked to caddie for him when the only golf bag that I ever carried was my own. Well, I told the club’s official that I needed some time to think about it. As it turned out, after a brief come-to-Jesus moment with my wife, I agreed to be the Golden Bear’s caddie for a day.
On Wednesday, April 27, I received word to be available upon Jack’s arrival at Walnut Cove between 10:15-10:30 a.m. The meeting place was a townhome overlooking the ninth hole of the new course. At approximately 11:30 a.m. (and fashionably late) in through the doorway came J.W.N. and Jim Anthony, CEO and Founder of The Cliffs. I said hello to my boss Jim Anthony and then a few moments later my eyes met with Jack’s and we exchanged greetings, as well. He prompted said to me: “You are going to have to work today!” I chuckled when I heard Jack’s comment but he was prophetic because by the end of the day I was exhausted.
At that point, Jack made his way to a back bedroom where he changed into some golf clothes that were there waiting for him. He then sat down at a dining table for a quick bite to eat and to autograph a number of items that required his signature. Before long it was time for the group to head to the golf course. Since, Jack’s clubs were in Jim’s vehicle and, as his caddie I was responsible for them, I jumped in the backseat.
As the three of us were on our way, Jim Anthony said: “I’ve never heard anyone say an unkind word about Dick Grout.” Jack’s response was, “That was the same thing with his father. Nobody ever said an unkind thing about Jack Grout either.” I thought, hey, this trip is off to a rather good start! Just a few moments later, Jack asked me, “Dick, how old are you now?” When I answered him, both he and Jim commented on how remarkably well preserved I appeared for my age. To which I truthfully replied, that I had been well cared for my entire life. Then, just as we had arrived at the golf course, Jack mentioned that he remembered the summer in which I was born (June 1953).
I managed to lift Nicklaus’ 45-50 lbs. of golfing equipment out of the back of the SUV. Immediately, I knew that I was in for a long haul. His large black bag was heavy! There was definitely some extra gear in there. Next, Jack removed his wristwatch plus some other valuables from his pockets and instructed me to put them into his golf bag. He said, “Be sure to watch over things.” At that point, Jack turned and both he and Jim Anthony walked in the direction of a big tent that was to hold the media event.
I placed Jack’s clubs on his personal golf cart that was being closely protected by one of the Cliff’s marketing people. Before long, it was time to venture down to the practice facility for the Golden Bear’s clinic and warm-up session. The pace of things got considerably quicker now as I made my way to the designated spot where Jack was to conduct his exhibition. After retrieving Nicklaus’ clubs from the golf cart, I passed under the spectator ropes and found myself at the practice site sharing centerstage with the “Golfer of the Century.”
While stretching a bit and making several practice swings prior to hitting his first shot, Jack called over to me and said, “Dickie, you are eleven years older than your father was the first time I met him.” (Dad was 40 years old in 1950). I knew right away that Jack’s math had been correct.
Jack Nicklaus has always prepared himself properly for a round of golf. As it happened that day at Walnut Cove, he clearly conveyed to all those in-attendance the process of how his mind works and clearly displayed how his body works during the swing. In essence, what we were privileged to witness was how Jack Nicklaus organized himself before he went out to win all those 18 major championships.
When Jack finished giving the clinic, I handed him three new Black Callaway golf balls and his putter. Before heading to the first tee, his last stop is the practice putting green to strike a few putts. Once Jack sensed that he has a good feel for the speed of the greens it was time to begin his round.
Growing up as a junior golfer, I carried my own golf bag all the time. On the golf team in highschool and college it is a requirement that a player carry their own clubs. In my life, I have trekked many a mile while under the strap. Also, I’ve had the pleasure of playing countless rounds of golf in the company of many fine caddies. It is from paying attention and observing them that I feel that I know how to properly conduct myself as a caddie. However, when I stepped on the first tee at Walnut Cove with Jack Nicklaus’ clubs on my back, that was a brand new experience for me.
To be honest, when I got to Big Jack’s drive on the first fairway, I knew that he was not joking when he said that I “was going to have to work today.” I actually wondered if I would be physically able to finish all 18-holes. Nevertheless, I was fiercely determined to do the best job possible for him on this special day and somehow I managed to survive the entire round.
During the exhibition match, Jack was joined by actor Kevin Costner. Both men wore microphones and bantered easily with each other and the audience. Upon arriving to the tee of each new hole, Jack would share his thoughts on the design of that hole. It was both interesting and inspirational to hear how his mind worked when designing a golf course. The rapport between Nicklaus and Costner was fun, upbeat and genuine. At one point, Jack commented to me about how impressed he was by Costner’s shot-making ability. To which, I agreed.
Probably my greatest inspiration for making it through all eighteen holes and not collapsing under the weight of Nicklaus’ golf bag came from the chorus of cheers and attaboys I received from the club’s members. Sensing that I might be leaking oil, they encouraged me along the way. I was able to reward some of my support team with souvenirs of Jack’s golf balls. After throwing another one of his Jack#5 balls to the gallery, he looked at me and said, “Make sure I have enough to finish the round.”
Perhaps, the greatest compliment I received that day was from none other than Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy, I mean Kevin Costner, when he referred to me as “Jack’s professional caddie.” This occurred on the seventeenth tee while Costner was chastising Tim Hockter his boyhood friend and part time caddie for doing such a lousy job. To which Nicklaus responded, “Hey Kevin, this is the first time my caddie ever caddied before!” I really don’t think that Costner believed him.
In the end, a fictional storybook account of the interaction between Jack and I during our round together, would be to tell you that our personal conversations were full of warm remembrances of the past. But anyone who is familiar with Jack Nicklaus knows that he lives in the present. Like other highly accomplished people who seem to exist in the here and now, Jack doesn’t dwell on the past or spend time overthinking the future. He focuses intently on what he is currently engaged in and it is always done with a singleness of purpose.
Now, at 65 years old (2005), I could still plainly see in him the intense concentration and absolute resolve that I saw as a child over forty years ago. All during the round I watched him closely with the same set of eyes that witnessed his powerful and dominating shot making abilities of yesteryear. As far as I am concerned the only change in him that has taken place is the toll that age exacts on all of us. That being said he remains Jack Nicklaus, the greatest player whom my father told me to watch and learn from many years ago.