FOX doc ‘Making of a Champion’ celebrates Nicklaus’ legendary career

There could be no better way to kick off FOX Sports’ foray into major golf coverage than with a feature-length documentary on Jack Nicklaus, the greatest champion the sport has ever known. To that end, "Nicklaus: The Making of a Champion," produced by 52-time Sports Emmy winner Ross Greenburg, will air at noon ET Sunday, Jan. 18, on FOX, just before the NFC championship game.

The Golden Bear himself, who will turn 75 on Jan. 21, gave extensive interviews to Greenburg and his production staff, who also taped interviews with such past and present legends as Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods. Members of Nicklaus’ family also feature prominently in the film, which seeks to dissect, as Greenburg put it, “the principles by which [Nicklaus] lives his life and the principles he took to the golf course over those many decades.”

Actor and noted documentary narrator Peter Coyote narrated the documentary, just as he did for the 2012 USGA film "1962 U.S. Open: Jack’s First Major". Viewers at home wishing to tweet along with their own Nicklaus memories can do so using the hashtag #RisewithJack.

Nicklaus, speaking by conference call from Florida this week, was reflective about his long and prestigious career. His 18 career majors — including eight USGA titles — stand alone at the top of his profession, but that he managed such dominance in an era without either today’s technological advances or the advent of modern sports psychology makes his achievements all the more impressive.

For example, his most trusted golf adviser was his wife, Barbara. “I didn’t always take her advice, as she will say, but I certainly listened to her because she’s a devil of a lot smarter than I am,” Nicklaus said. “She’d go on the practice tee and I’d walk off the practice tee one day, and she said, ‘Well, I see you fixed your crooked backswing.’

“I said, what are you talking about? She said, ‘I don’t know, but it looks different, and now it looks normal.’ I figured out what she was talking about, even though she didn’t really know anything about the game of golf at that point in time.”

And considering all the tech-centric improvements that have made life easier for today’s golfers, Nicklaus was in the dark for much of his career in regard to all that. In fact, he had his swing speed measured for the first time in 1998 — when he was 58 years old.

“I was 118 miles an hour, and I said, wow, that’s pretty good, I guess,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Yeah, there’s only one other guy on the Senior Tour, Jim Dent, was 118.’ That’s the only comparison I ever had. We never had any of that stuff.”

Considering the overall state of American golf, Nicklaus is heartened by the fact that four Americans stand among the top 10 in the World Golf Rankings. The U.S. also has seven of the top 14 golfers, if you go a little further down.

“I think American golf, from a tournament standpoint, is pretty healthy,” Nicklaus said. “I don’t think we’re as healthy from the juniors coming into the game, women staying in the game, as we could be, and I think we’re working on programs to try to help that. But as far as tournament golf, you know, we’re good.”

Nicklaus brushed off any criticisms leveled at the U.S. Ryder Cup team for its uninspired defeat at Gleneagles in Scotland this past September.

“I think you’re going to go in cycles on that, and right now there’s a lot of really good players in Europe,” he explained. “They just played better than the American players. That’s all there was to it. There’s nothing magic about it; it’s just that they played better. But that’ll turn around. The American players will ‑‑ they have their pride.”

And yet, for as much as Nicklaus stays on top of the current state of the sport to which he has given so much — his design company has created some 390 golf courses around the world — he rarely goes back and watches his own noteworthy accomplishments, something that made his first viewing of Greenburg’s final cut so satisfying.

“I think it’s kind of neat,” Nicklaus said. “I never really paid a whole lot of attention to what I did, but to have somebody sort of exaggerate — glorify it, you might say — is very flattering. It’s been years since I’ve done any of that stuff.

“To go back and look at it and see some of it and see some of the shots you played, it’s kind of fun.”