ANACONDA – Members of the Anaconda High School golf team had never been more nervous in their lives.
They each took turns hitting tee shots at the Old Works Golf Course driving range on Wednesday afternoon when none other than Jack Nicklaus arrived on the scene.
Nicklaus had been touring the golf course – one that he designed – and one of his friendly stops on this day was at the driving range.
Renowned golf coach Tim Mahoney, who had been guiding the Copperhead golfers through their shots, grips, club and body positions during a clinic, stepped aside.
Nicklaus spent time with each of the high school golfers, analyzing their swings and giving advice on how they can improve.
“It was the most nervous golf swing I’ve ever had,” said Rowdy Lynn. “I was very nervous.”
Lynn arrived at the clinic explaining to Mahoney how the distance on his shots was diminishing and that he had trouble controlling the direction of his shots.
After spending a few minutes with Nicklaus, Lynn returned to the tee, addressed the ball and hit a straight arching shot far into the range.
“He told me to use my wrists and put the club face where it’s supposed to be,” Lynn said. “I haven’t noticed it because it’s hard to notice what you’re doing during your own golf swing. After that, I’ll definitely be able to notice it.”
Nicklaus gave some of his valuable time to Carter Morley, Laryn Stoppler, Haley Davis, Nathan Connolly and Lynn.
“I was so nervous,” Davis said. “I can’t believe I actually did kind of good.
“I learned a lot. It was really useful and I’m happy I came.”
“I did know that he was going to come out but when I saw him, I was like, ‘Wow. There he is. Jack Nicklaus. To know that he was one of the best PGA players of all time, it felt like it wasn’t even real.”
It was real.
Nicklaus designed Old Works Golf Course, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Nicklaus squeezed a visit to Anaconda into an already-tight schedule and enjoyed the reunion with the town as much as the 100-plus golfers who spent the day playing the course.
“This is the first time I’ve been back,” Nicklaus admitted. “The golf course looks good. They’ve done a nice job taking care of it.
“I remembered half of the holes, probably, as far as what they were. I knew we had used the property or the elements of the old flumes and furnaces. I remember how we used the slag piles and things like that.
The specifics of the holes I don’t remember totally but…I was very, very, very pleasantly surprised. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Nicklaus had high expectations – just like with everything he does – when he designed Old Works. The picturesque course and its equally beautiful surroundings are located at an old Superfund site. The Hall of Fame golfer worked with ARCO to turn the old smelter site into something with a lasting impact.
“If ARCO had not done anything here, it would have cost about $45 million to clean it up,” Nicklaus explained while seated near the course’s driving range with the sun setting to his right. “We did the golf course, if I recall, for about half of that cost.
“It was the first Superfund site that had ever been used for anything for people to utilize.
“I think Anaconda was really struggling at that time. I think (the golf course) brought jobs, it brought some tourism, it brought hotels, it brought restaurants and utilization. It brought a lot of things that this community needed.
“Did it bring everything? No, I’m sure it didn’t. But it did bring a lot of things. A lot of peopled looked at it as being a pretty good start.”
Turning a Superfund site, or something like it, into a golfer’s paradise was just the beginning for Nicklaus. His Midas touch carried over to Benton Harbor, Michigan, where Harbor Shores Club now stands. It was built in an area known for its high unemployment at the time but the course now plays host to the Senior PGA Championship and other big events.
Another Nicklaus project found success in the heart of New York City, where an old landfill used to sit.
“It started it as a 9-11 project under (former New York City mayor Rudy) Giuliani. Giuliani started it and it went through three (Michael) Bloomberg terms. Nobody seemed to be able to get the thing finished.
“(Donald) Trump came along and politically he just got the job done. He went in and absolutely made it happen. We’d still be constructing if he hadn’t been given the concession to do it. He did a really good job. It created a lot of jobs and it created a lot of income for the city.”
Nicklaus’s name is anchored to hundreds of golf courses around the world but he tends to find the time to think about the high school, weekend and amateur golfers who grow up in communities like Anaconda.
“This was one of the most significant projects that I was ever involved in from the standpoint of all of the things it created out of a virtual wasteland, and it was a toxic wasteland,” Nicklaus said of Old Works. “I thought it was a fun project to be involved with. I really enjoyed it.
“I think if you can leave something better than when you got there, that’s a pretty good thing to do in life.
It was more of how do you clean it up and protect the people and the environment from what was here. That was really what it was.”
Ryder Cup thoughts
Nicklaus didn’t back away from sharing his thoughts on this week’s Ryder Cup, which is scheduled to take place at Hazeltine National Golf Club this week. He plans to leave Montana on Thursday for Hazeltine, where he will spend the remainder of his week.
He will attend Arnold Palmer’s memorial service next week before heading overseas, where he has other projects in the works.
“I think the American team is very strong,” Nicklaus said. “I think Davis Love has done a good job of preparing them. I hope hasn’t over-prepared them to where they have a hard time playing.”
Nicklaus pointed out that the Ryder Cup, as competitive as it is, is more about bragging rights than the individual wins and losses.
“The Europeans won the last time but can you tell me who won any of the matches?” Nicklaus asked members of the media on Wednesday. No one could, which only strengthened his point.
“The Europeans won and they got the bragging rights and they talked about how their tour is stronger at that particular time because of that,” Nicklaus said. “My philosophy has always been that the President’s Cup and the Ryder Cup are two goodwill events and it really wasn’t too important who won. What is important was that the game of golf wins and the comradery that was built between the golfing organizations.”
Back to bragging rights, Nicklaus stated, “I give our guys a far better than even chance of winning. I think they’ve got a strong team and they’d like to have the bragging rights back.”
Nicklaus was forced to cancel an upcoming trip to South Korea, partly because he will be attending funeral services for Arnold Palmer in Pennsylvania. Palmer passed away this past Sunday and services are scheduled for Tuesday in Pennsylvania.
Nicklaus said that Palmer was revered because of the way he played golf and because he came along at the right time.
“He was a beneficiary as much as golf was a beneficiary,” Nicklaus explained. “When Arnold came along, golf needed somebody to take it forward. Golf hadn’t had anybody who was leading it since (Ben) Hogan and (Sam) Snead, which was about 10 years previous.
“He just came along at the right time and he was sort of a swashbuckling guy who took to the imagination of the public. He played golf a little bit like they did. When he was younger, he was not a good driver. He hit it everywhere but he recovered and everybody loved how he recovered. When he stopped winning, that’s when he became a really good driver.
“When he was young, he putted the eyes out of the ball. Everybody loved that recovery and the great putting. Arnold came along and was the beneficiary of the time. It was a mutual admiration society, you might say. Everybody thanked him for being there at the right time. He handled it very well and we all acknowledge that and thank him for it.
“Arnold never met a stranger. Everybody was always a friend. We’ll all miss him a lot. It’s sad when we lose anybody. His memory will live on.”