Jack Nicklaus (R) with Matt Kuchar at The Memorial
Jack Nicklaus is the yardstick professional golfers use to measure their accomplishments. While his record of PGA Tour victories has been surpassed by Tiger Woods, he still leads in major championship victories. And he still remembers what became his 17th major title, the 1980 PGA Championship at Oak Hill in Rochester, NY, where the PGA will be held in ten days. That was six years before his final major victory at the Masters.
"Oak Hill was still a beautiful, northern, tree‑lined, softly‑rolling piece of property that was very enjoyable to play," Nicklaus said, remembering the course at the time. "It's a good test. Nobody has ever really chewed it apart, and it's one you've got to play smart on, but you've got to control your golf ball, and you've also got to putt, because the greens are not easy greens."
Nicklaus set a record at Oak Hill in 1980, shooting 274, which was 6‑under par. When asked if he thought anyone would better that mark, he joked, "Well, I certainly hope not!"
Then he added that he expected someone might for several reasons.
"I would suspect in this day and age, with as far as golf balls go and as straight as they go, and the number of good players, I would suspect that number would probably fall," he said. He also said it could depend on the course set up.
"My bet is that you had enough rain that you have a pretty good crop of rough, and you don't have extra wide fairways," he continued. "I think you have generous fairways, but not overly wide. You probably have the opportunity to firm your greens up, whether the rain will soften that or not is another issue."
The PGA Championship was not the only contest that week in 1980. There was also a long drive event which Nicklaus won.
"I have a money clip that's in my pocket right now and it's been in my pocket for 50 years. It says, 'Driving Distance Winner'," he explained. "That drive was 341 yards, 17 inches. I do remember that, too. That was an 11‑degree wood driver, 42 and three‑quarter‑inch shaft, Dynamic Edge shaft."
According to Nicklaus, all players used the same golf ball for the long drive event, something which cannot be imagined today because of the many equipment contracts for golf balls.
When it comes to who could win the PGA, Nicklaus gave expert analysis.
"The British Open, you can eliminate a lot of guys because of conditions," he said. "The U.S. Open, you have the same thing and the Masters, the same thing. But I think more people, because of the summer conditions and the nature of what happened with the PGA Championship, it opens it up to more people having an opportunity to win."
The PGA also has a stronger field than the other three events, behind only The Players Championship as far as quality players. There are easily 120-130 of the field of 150+ who can win.
When asked to pick a favorites, Nicklaus said because Woods had won four times this season, it would be hard to not consider him the front-runner. The key, according to Nicklaus, is how the golfer approaches the challenge.
"The player has to suit his game to the golf course," he explained. "And the guys that can adapt to it are the guys that always have been the good players. I mean, Mickelson will adapt well to it. Tiger will adapt well to it. I think there's a lot of guys that will adapt well to it."
He cited Phil Mickelson's recent victory at the British Open as Mickelson's willingness, at last, to modify his game to suit the course.
According to Nicklaus, in the past Mickelson tried to take his game and play the same game on every golf course. "That doesn't always work," Nicklaus said.
He pointed to Mickelson's ideas of taking the driver out of the bag and playing what the course gave him.
"He found a golf club that he could keep it in play with. He found that he is a good enough player, matter of fact, a terrific player that doesn't need to hit it ten miles. He can hit it into the fairway somewhere, and play like everybody should want to play and be successful," Nicklaus added.
"I give him great kudos for what he's done over the last couple weeks," Nicklaus said. "I know that for him to go it win at the British Open as high as he hits the golf ball, like I was -- I won at Muirfield and I was a high ball hitter and people said, 'Jack will never win, particularly Muirfield. It's a golf course he can't play.'"
The British Open in 1966 at Muirfield was Nicklaus's first British Open victory. He named his course in Dublin, OH, after it.
Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.