Staging the Kentucky Derby and the NBA playoffs in September as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic certainly has produced a different sports calendar in 2020, but the most unique rearranged athletic event will be the Masters in mid-November.
The 84th Masters will not have patrons for the first time, but Jack Nicklaus serving as an honorary starter at Augusta National could provide some needed normalcy.
"They told me that a letter is forthcoming, so I assume they're going to ask me to do it," Nicklaus said this past week. "I don't know what's going to happen. The Par-3 (Contest) has been canceled. They say they're going to have a Champions Dinner, but I don't know if that works for a lot of guys.
"It will be different, but I think it's great that they're going to have the tournament."
Nicklaus has travel plans before the Masters, with the 18-time major champion serving as the featured speaker of the 14th annual Athens Area Chamber of Commerce Benefit Banquet at McMinn County High School on Saturday, Oct. 17. The banquet had been set for June 27 but was rescheduled due to coronavirus concerns.
The coronavirus is something the 80-year-old Nicklaus knows a bit about, with he and wife Barbara having contracted it back in March, but it hasn't stopped the "Golden Bear" from developing golf courses in the United States, Canada, Portugal, Scotland and Saudi Arabia.
"We've pretty much been home this year just like everybody else," he said. "We got it in March and were over it by middle to late April. I've been going to a few places to work on golf courses around the country, but you can't travel outside of the United States. I have to work with my guys on the phone and sort of text back and forth to get the information we need.
"We're here getting through it, and my wife has put up with me a lot this year."
When asked how many times he's watched "Caddyshack" since the pandemic started, Nicklaus said, "Probably about four times, and that's on top of the seven or eight times prior to that."
This calendar year on the PGA Tour will be remembered for Dustin Johnson's dominance in the recent FedEx Cup playoffs, 23-year-old Collin Morikawa winning the PGA Championship, the cancellation of the 149th British Open and the postponements of the U.S. Open and the Masters. The U.S. Open starts Thursday at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, New York, with Baylor School alumni Harris English and Stephan Jaeger in the 144-player field.
Golf may not have a recognized rivalry right now to evoke the showdowns Nicklaus had early on with Arnold Palmer and later with Tom Watson, or the battles Tiger Woods had more recently with Phil Mickelson, but Nicklaus believes the game is very healthy.
"We have a few glitches, and I believe the golf ball still goes too far, but the tour is strong right now," he said. "They've got more good young players than they've ever had. Tiger used to be the only one under 30 a little more than 10 years ago, but now we've got a whole bunch of guys under 30 who have won a bunch of tournaments."
Nicklaus and his wife often find themselves pulling for members of The Bear's Club, the prestigious course in Jupiter, Florida, that claims Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Patrick Cantlay among its regulars.
Yet he is appreciative of other golfing hot spots as well, including Baylor School, which had four graduates on the PGA Tour during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons and three this past season. Luke List had the most memorable year in 2018 with a runner-up finish to Thomas at the Honda Classic and a third-place showing at the RBC Heritage, while Mitchell had the most enjoyable 2019 with a Honda Classic victory.
This past season, English surged to a seventh-place finish in the FedEx Cup standings that was bolstered by a runner-up showing to Johnson at The Northern Trust, which opened the playoffs.
"I think that's pretty fantastic," Nicklaus said. "The Baylor School, as I understand, has really produced some athletes, and particularly golfers. To have those kids come out of there and move forward tells me they've either got a great recruiting program, a great program period that guys want to come to, or they've got some really cute girls that the guys can go see."
Nicklaus had an amazing 19 runner-up finishes at majors in addition to his 18 titles, and he looks back at his playing days with incredible fondness. The 1986 Masters is the triumph he hears about most, but he can just as vividly recall his 1973 PGA Championship at Canterbury in Beachwood, Ohio, when his oldest son, Jack, convinced 4-year-old sibling Gary to run out on the 18th green during Friday's round.
Barbara kept Gary with her at the hotel during weekend play.
"It was all very fun for me, and I enjoyed what I did," Nicklaus said. "I wouldn't change anything. When I was growing up, I looked back at (Sam) Snead and (Ben) Hogan and those guys, and their lifetime earnings were less than $250,000. I thought my lifetime earnings of $7 million was a lot, but these guys can make that in a year now or less than a year.
"Sometimes you can make it in a week."
Tickets to the Athens Area Chamber banquet are $50 for the program and $100 for the program and dinner, and they can be obtained by calling 423-745-0334. Athens Area Chamber president Rob Preston has been able to land Pete Rose, Nick Saban, Tim Tebow, Herschel Walker, Peyton Manning and Bo Jackson as past featured speakers, stepping out of the sports realm last year to bring in former president George W. Bush.
"I'm very honored to be in that group," Nicklaus said.
Doors will open around 6 p.m., Preston said, with the program starting at 7.