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Coronavirus conquered, Jack Nicklaus back to taking his best swings at boosting golf

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

At last year's Ally Challenge pro-am in Grand Blanc, Jack Nicklaus — playing alongside Detroit rocker Kid Rock — chipped in, to the delight of the fans.

Nicklaus said he hasn't chipped in since.

But he has beaten COVID-19. So that's something.

Jack Nicklaus chips in from off the green and celebrates with Kid Rock (white shorts) during last year's celebrity shootout at the Ally Challenge at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc.

"We got through it," Nicklaus said Wednesday during a press conference, speaking of himself and wife Barbara, who also contracted the coronavirus, in March. Both had the virus for several weeks. They are both 80. "I had a little sore throat for about four, five days, a cough that lasted about three weeks. Barbara had absolutely nothing. I'm actually still left with no taste. I can't smell or taste very much.

"I have some breathing problems, but it didn't seem to get to me on that. I guess I'm one of the fortunate ones. They said there's about 150,000 who haven't been so fortunate in the United States. Hopefully, this thing will pass.

"I think they've got to get — you've got to get back into life.

"Just protect your senior citizens and protect those who are vulnerable."

More: Check out the first-round tee times for this week's Ally Challenge

As for Barbara?

"Her?" Nicklaus said. "She took care of me the whole time. Don't worry about Barbara. Barbara's like a rock."

Speaking of the seniors, the 50-and-older Champions Tour returns to action this week at the Ally Challenge at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club. It's the circuit's first tournament since it was shut down in March.

Nicklaus is on site because of his partnership with Ally, but also has other ties, too. His son Gary is in the field. Also, Dan Sullivan, who is executive director of Nicklaus' Memorial on the PGA Tour, also helps run the Ally Challenge.

That means much of the crew on site in Grand Blanc already has had experience putting on a tournament during the COVID-19 pandemic, with all the additional safety protocols.

Jack Nicklaus hits the ceremonial first tee shot at the 2019 Masters.

Like at the Memorial, there will be no fans at the Ally, but Nicklaus is thrilled golf is back — even as other sports, particularly MLB, have big problems with the coronavirus.

"Well, golf is outdoors. The guys aren't really on top of each other. It's not a contact sport," Nicklaus said. "Tell us all when we finish it's not a contact sport, because our bodies think it's a contact sport.

"But I think golf is — it lends itself to being able to be played."

During his own ordeal with the virus, Nicklaus — who lives year-round in Florida, where there was a surge in cases this month; the Miami Marlins of MLB even recently had their season suspended, with more than half their roster testing positive — said he wasn't scared throughout the process. He said he believes if you keep a positive attitude, you're more likely to have a positive result.

More: 'Itching to compete': One hour north, south of Detroit, Champions, LPGA tours get rolling again

Besides a few issues, including a bad back, he doesn't have any significant underlying issues. He's not a drinker, and he hasn't been a smoker in many decades.

Nicklaus was on site at his Memorial, wearing a mask along with Barbara. Instead of his customary handshake for the winner walking off the 18th green, he left it up to the champion, Jon Rahm, who preferred a fist-bump.

He doesn't play much golf anymore — he figures he's played fewer than 50 to 60 holes in 2020. "My clubhead speed's so slow, it sounds like I've got the clubhead cover on it," he said — but still likes to make his appearances, pandemic be damned.

"My motivation in coming is I love the game of golf. I love to promote it and grow it wherever we go," Nicklaus said. "You know, I don't play golf anymore.

"So that's the kind of stuff I do now. Still go to golf courses."

A lot has changed in golf since Nicklaus' days (OK, decades) in the sun. For starters, the biggest check he ever won was at the 1986 Masters, a cool $144,000; now, weekly PGA Tour winners cash checks larger than $1 million. The courses have changed a lot, too, most notably, they're a whole lot longer. Warwick, which Nicklaus said he first played in 1959, has changed, too, including the greens, and additional bunkers over the years. The course is a lot tighter now, too. Nicklaus said there's one tree on the course, the 13th hole, that's older than he is.

Jack Nicklaus' largest paycheck was $144,000 for winning the 1986 Masters.

Nicklaus won 73 times on the PGA Tour, including his 18 majors, and 10 times on the Champions Tour, including the 1990 Senior Players Championship at Dearborn Country Club in 1990 and the U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township in 1991.

Nicklaus these days spends far more time designing courses than playing them, with several properties in Michigan — among them, The Golf Club at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, where he went viral in 2010 during the grand opening when he drained a 102-foot putt. Recently, he has overseen the transformation of Grand Haven Country Club into American Dunes, which will be a tribute to the armed forces.

But he remains a face for golf, on the PGA Tour and its subsidiary, the Champions Tour. The PGA Tour restarted eight weeks ago, and now its the senior's turn, as well as the LPGA Tour, which kicks off again this week in Toledo.

"Well, this has been a really, really difficult year for the PGA Tour. They have really stepped up," said Nicklaus, adding that a lot of credit goes to the continued commitment of tournament sponsors — this week, it's Ally Financial and McLaren Heatlh Systems — who aren't getting anywhere close to the full return they'd normally get on their investment. "The PGA Tour, for the large part, has financed most of what's going on. I think it's mostly through television packages and money they've had in their coffers. They can't keep this up, no chance at all.

"The PGA Tour's had to step up and supplement a lot of what's going on, and I give them a lot of kudos for doing that. I think they knew the game had to come back, that golf is a safe game for most people to be out there. They haven't felt as safe for spectators yet, but they're bringing live television to the public and that's been fantastic."

Ally Challenge

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club, Grand Blanc

Purse: $2 million (winner: $300,000)

TV: All days on Golf Channel. Friday — 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday — 2-4:30 p.m. Sunday — 3-5 p.m.

Tickets: None; because of COVID-19, fans are prohibited.

Defending champion: Jerry Kelly

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984