Nick Price is a three-time major champion and a World Golf Hall of Fame member but he also will be remembered as a nice guy
From the Print Edition:
Jim Nantz, May/June 2011
In a barren porta-cabin not far from the 18th green at Royal Birkdale, Nick Price sat on a cheap folding chair as a group of somber journalists arrived, intending to gingerly ask him how it was that one of the world's best players had just shot an 82 in the third round of the 1998 British Open.
Golf being the psychologically delicate game that it is, and the game's journalists traditionally being loath to trod too heavily on a player's misfortune, there was little to suggest any sense of joy in the dim surroundings. For a few seconds, it was positively funereal.
Then Price, as he had always done—and always does—burst into his wide, toothy, crocodilian grin, appalled that anyone should be overly concerned that he shot a bad score in a golf tournament, no matter that he had been in contention after the first two rounds and now his chances had been blown away.
"What are you guys frowning about?" exclaimed Price, shaking the ink-stained wretches from their mournful postures. "You didn't shoot 82." Laughter ensued, as it always does when you spend any time around Nick Price, one of the world's most respected players, and indeed, its most respected person.
"You know what?" says Lee Trevino, one of the all-time greats, when asked about Nick Price, the man. "You finally asked a question that everyone in the game will give you an honest answer to. I don't know anyone who has more respect for the game, more respect for people, more respect for the country than Nick Price. Of all the players I know, and I know a hell of a lot of them, I don't know a nicer individual."
Price's legacy can easily be defined by his extraordinary play in the early and mid '90s, by his ascendancy to No. 1 in the world, clawing his way over players such as Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Fred Couples and Ernie Els. It can be defined by his three major championships (the 1992 and 1994 PGA Championships, and the 1994 British Open Championship). It can be defined by his 48 victories worldwide. It can be defined by his Hall of Fame induction in 2003.
But as significant as any accolades he's ever received are those given to him for the person he is. Those would be the 2002 Payne Stewart Award, given by the PGA Tour to a player who shows respect for the traditions of the game; the 2005 Bob Jones Award, given by the United States Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship; the 2011 Old Tom Morris Award, given by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America to a player "who through a continuing lifetime commitment to the game of golf has helped to mold the welfare of the game in a manner and style exemplified by Old Tom Morris."
"It's just always been my nature to be respectful of people and of the game I play," says Price. "I was brought up that way and there was never anything that would have caused me to change my personality in any way. Golf can be a maddening game, but you don't have to be mad about it."
At age 54, Price is now a Champions Tour player (though he intends to stick his foot back in the water of the PGA Tour at a few events in 2011). Born in South Africa to English parents, raised in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and having risen through the ranks of the game through Africa, Europe, Asia and the United States, Price's journey has been long, eventful, thrilling, rewarding and joyful. Along the way, he has earned the respect of everyone he has touched.
"With Pricey, what you see is what you get," says Ernie Els, the South African who is 13 years Price's junior. He looked up to Price as much as he did the iconic Gary Player for inspiration. "He is a straight up, honest human being. He was very much my mentor when I started playing in the United States. He gave me a lot of advice. He didn't have to do it, not to a fellow competitor. But it tells me about his character."
Character, of course, has many components. Price didn't make it to the top of the game without being a dedicated and steely competitor. Part of his character was defined by a mandatory stint in the Rhodesian military after graduation from high school, during a time of revolution when the country was on its way to becoming Zimbabwe. He was a radio operator, then involved with ciphers, signaling. And while on duty, he was shot at by insurgents. "I was shot at a few times," he says. "I never personally returned fire."
After military service, there was a golf career to pursue, and he did it with great verve. At the start of each season, he would begin with the same mantra: "Persistence, persistence, persistence."
Success in Africa, Asia and Europe finally brought him to the PGA Tour in 1982, where he not only found a place to play at the highest level of the game, he also found his home. He lived in Orlando to begin with, near his coach David Leadbetter, then relocated with his wife Sue to Jupiter Island, Florida, when their children were about to start school.
"I guess you could say that the most significant steps in my career were qualifying for the British Open as an amateur in 1975, winning my first European Tour event in 1980 and coming to the U.S. and qualifying for the tour by going through the tour school in the fall of 1982," says Price.
After an up-and-down start to his rookie season on the PGA Tour in 1983, Price made a deep impression by winning the World Series of Golf, holding off Jack Nicklaus in the final round.
"Look at the players I beat down the stretch," says Price. "I was a pigeon among the cats. I was cannon fodder, but I managed to win. Nicklaus, Floyd, Irwin, Aoki, the giants of the game. Nicklaus walked up to me on the green after I won and congratulated me. It meant an awful lot to me."
That victory looked to be the touchstone of an outstanding career, yet Price wouldn't again win on the U.S. Tour until 1991. He won tournaments worldwide and finished highly in several PGA Tour events, but he couldn't get over the winning hump in the U.S. Not that there weren't some real thrills along the way. He shot 63 in the 1986 Masters, lipping out a putt on the 18th for 62. "It was as if Bobby Jones said, 'Okay, that's enough,' " says Price.
For several seasons, it just didn't seem he had enough.
"I went through a period where I was playing well and just couldn't win," says Price. "I was winning overseas and on smaller tours but over here I couldn't win. I finished third, second, fourth, second, in the '80s. In 1988 I went to see [sports psychologist] Bob Rotella. From a mental standpoint, he turned me around. He simplified my thinking on the golf course. I was thinking about too many things. He got me focused. I built on that over the next two years. In 1991, I won my first event after all those years at the Byron Nelson. I didn't hit the ball all that well that weekend, but my game was so solid, I said to myself you don't have to play perfect golf to win, I just had to manage my game correctly. That was really the key to me starting to play really well."
Boy, did he ever. From 1991 through 1994 he won 12 PGA Tour events, including the Players Championship and his three majors. He was a force every week he played, and when he was on his game, he was unstoppable.
"Having been a journeyman pretty much up until 1991, having won maybe seven tournaments worldwide in 12 years as a pro, all of a sudden the floodgates opened," says Price. "It was so much fun. If you have that happen to you when you are young and you haven't put all those years of hard work in, it's probably not as much appreciated as when you have done all that. That's probably why I was so appreciative of it. I loved it. Playing against the greatest players in the world on some of the greatest golf courses in the best championships, PGA, U.S. Open, British Open and Masters, and having a chance to win."
At his side, as his caddy, friend and chief supporter, was Jeff "Squeaky" Medlin. With "Squeak" he shared the best of times—and the worst.
"At the end of 1990 my caddy told me he wouldn't be doing it anymore, he was going home. So we looked around for a caddy and I decided to call Squeaky because he had caddied for some big players like Fred Couples and John Mahaffey," says Price. "Squeaky told me that Tom Watson had just asked him to caddy for him. So I say I'd love to have you, but totally understand if you go with Tom. A week later he says he's decided to caddy for me."
It wasn't the Humphrey Bogart-to-Claude Raines "Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship" moment, but it would become a beautiful friendship and a highly successful partnership.
"So I start with Squeaky in 1991 and in May we win the Byron Nelson," says Price. "We were getting along really well. He was a very positive guy with a great sense of humor. We won again at the Canadian Open. Things were going great and it really felt like we were a team. In '92 I played well, really well, and won the PGA Championship and won a few more tournaments in the U.S. and around the world. In 1993 I won the TPC in March. We were really on roll. No one was having more fun out there than us, and particularly Squeaky. Ninety-four comes along and I'm playing at a level I could only have dreamed of. I win the British Open and the PGA again. I'm No. 1 in the world. I have to think that Squeaky was a major component in that. And he was such a great friend. I had someone to share it with. It was really a wonderful time, riding on a cloud."
The 1994 season was the pinnacle of Price's career. He played well in 1995 but didn't win in the U.S. Then during the spring and early summer of 1996 he was plagued with a sinus infection that he couldn't shake, and he didn't play very much. He withdrew from a tournament the first week of June, skipped the U.S. Open and didn't schedule himself to play again until the first week of July, at the Western Open in Chicago.
"I met Squeaky at the Western Open and he said that he had just had a physical and his doctor thought that he might have leukemia, but he was waiting for the test results to come back. It was like a kick in the stomach, man. I said you have to be kidding," says Price. "That Saturday morning when I showed up at the clubhouse, there was Squeak with my bag and I knew by the look on his face that it was bad. He said he had leukemia. I said 'We're going to kick this thing dead.' "
Price called upon all his resources, his medical contacts. Medlin began treatment and Price began a new phase of his career without Squeak on the bag. At the Hilton Head tournament in April of 1997, Price led wire-to-wire to win. "When Squeak was about to have a bone marrow transplant, I won the tournament at Hilton Head and as I was walking up the 18th, I remember having a green ribbon on my visor as lots of guys were doing. I said into the camera, 'We are all pulling for you for you Squeak.' "
Medlin had the transplant and Price went to see him in May. "Squeak was always such a positive person and he seemed in good spirits but he didn't look good. He was clearly sick," says Price.
On the Sunday morning of the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional, Price got a sobering call from Medlin's wife. "She said that she was taking him out of the hospital, that there was nothing else they could do for him," says Price. "He had developed an infection in his lungs."
The next day Price flew to Columbus, Ohio, to visit with the Medlins. Medlin looked horrible, looked green, looked terminal.
With a heavy heart, he flew home to Palm Beach. When he got back there was a voicemail message from Medlin's wife. Squeaky had died.
"I just cried my eyes out," says Price. "Maybe it's selfish to think this way, but we had shared so many great times, had done so many great things together, that it left a big hole in my life. I still miss him terribly. One of the reasons that I didn't play so well afterward is that we worked so well together as a team. He knew my swing inside and out, knew me as a person. That's no disrespect to the caddies who worked for me, but it was almost impossible to have that relationship again."
Price didn't go away, though he never again played at the highest level. He would win a PGA Tour event in 1998, and his last one in 2002. Still he remains proud that he was still a strong player into his mid 40s, battling players of the Tiger Era.
"It was hard to come down from the top," says Price. "We all know it is not going to be like that forever. What I was really happy about was that I continued to play well even though I didn't play at that same level. Even in 2002 when I won a tournament, in 2003 and 2004 when I was 46 and 47, I was still competitive. I was still in the top 30 in the world ranking. I was very happy that I played so well, then my game went off in 2005. When you take into consideration all the changes that were going on, the golf courses getting longer and the equipment changes, that was a really good effort, I think. I was really proud of that."
Of course by the time he became eligible for the Champions Tour at age 50 in 2007, he had gathered a whole bunch of friends along the way, and a whole bunch of respect. Playing with, and against, Nick Price was always a pleasure, and for Price playing with his old cronies was like a homecoming.
"The big difference is all the guys out here [on the Champions Tour] have been there and done that in their careers," says Price. "There aren't the egos out here that there were when you first came out [on the PGA Tour]. Everyone knows everyone so well. It's more about entertaining. It's still about competitiveness."
As Trevino says, "You can't find a person out there that could say a bad word about Nicky. I've never heard one, ever."
Putting the question to Price's colleagues at the Charles Schwab Championship last fall—say something bad about Nick Price—elicited these responses.
From Jeff Sluman: "He's a horrible wine drinker. We rented a condo together with Jay Haas last year for a tournament and I brought along a lot of really unbelievable wine and he says, 'Where's the beer?' "
From Mark Calcavecchia: "He didn't get me into his golf club [McArthur] in Florida. I thought I would be in like Flynn with a guy like that. Other than that, I love the guy."
From Tom Watson: "He's not a wine drinker and he tells really corny jokes."
From Loren Roberts: "We were at that Kapalua tournament at the end of the year and the players and their wives were out on a whale watching cruise. Everyone had a couple of beers. Nick dove in the water. He popped up and mooned us. Now that was pretty funny."
From Tom Kite: "He smokes, man, he smokes."
Price is a smoker, but mostly cigarettes. He says he smokes three or four cigars a year when friends give him one. And, he says that when he plays in the Dominican Republic, he always brings some cigars back to his buddies. However, he says he doesn't smoke enough cigars to have a favorite, or even any way to talk about specific cigars.
Price, 54, has won three times on the Champions Tour through the early part of the 2011 season. He wasn't happy with the way he began his new career, but his swing consistency has improved and he feels better over the putter. When he's not fishing, he's working hard on his game, particularly now that his three teenage children, Gregory, Robyn and Kimberly, have their own active lives.
"It's truly amazing to be a parent and it's the highlight of my life, but it's now 'Hi, Dad,' and they are gone off to do things, so I have had more time to work on my game."
He feels good enough, in fact, to have played in the PGA Tour's Honda Classic where he finished in a tie for 55th place. Rory Sabbatini won the tournament. Now, he has to decide how many more times this year he will take on the host of younger players on the PGA Tour.
No matter where he plays, everyone will be glad to see him.
"How you can you be a great player and as great a person?" asks Tom Kite, rhetorically. "Just be like Nick Price."
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.
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