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With this schedule, he’s more like Golden Blur

One of golf’s greatest ambassadors, not to mention players, made a quick stop in Los Angeles last weekend. The Golden Bear was here to get an award, but his presence gave as much as it received.

Jack Nicklaus was the 12th winner of the Westcoast Sports Associates Roy Firestone Award. Broadcast personality Firestone and his group have used this annual event to raise money for Southern California youth sports and sports marketing.

The stop was quick because Nicklaus, 67, is among the busiest people on the planet.

Winning his 18 Grand Slam titles, most ever, was a stroll in the park compared to the pace he sets now, while designing and building golf courses all over the world.

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“When I was playing on the tour, I used my plane for about 400 hours a year,” he said. “Now, it is closer to 750.”

You do the math. At a speed of about 500 mph, that’s 375,000 miles a year in the air, or many circles of the earth.

“We will go right from here down to Mexico,” he said. “Then, after a couple of stops there, I’ll fly home to Ohio, then off the next day to Florida and then on to North Carolina and back to Ohio for some high school football games to see the grandkids, and . . . “

You start to feel jet-lagged, just listening.

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He currently is working on 60 courses worldwide, has been building courses since he was 27, when he was in the midst of his Hall of Fame golf career, and has built courses in 31 countries and 38 states. As a company, Nicklaus Design has built more than 320 courses.

His business satisfies his competitive edge now.

“I don’t play golf much now,” he said. “I don’t miss the game at all. I love it. I miss the competition, and I replace the golf with my business.”

He talked about building a course in Russia, about meeting the mayor of Moscow.

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“He was hooked on the game,” Nicklaus said. “He told me he wanted to have 15 more courses built in and around the city.”

He met the prime minister of Croatia, where he was building another course, and he presented him with a set of clubs.

“He took them and said, ‘Nice driver.’ So you knew he played,” Nicklaus said. “Then he took out the five-iron and asked me if I had one an inch longer. We got them for him and the next time I saw him, he told me they were the best clubs he ever had.”

The message was that the game is worldwide, and retaining that popularity is why Nicklaus is concerned about one trend -- the widening gap between the average player and the touring pro. He said the pros can do more with the new equipment -- the longer balls and perimeter-weighted club heads -- and that separates them way too much from Mr. and Ms. 15 handicap.

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“For years and years, they weren’t that far apart,” Nicklaus said. “Today, we’ve gone exactly the opposite of where we should go. Can you imagine playing against Tiger Woods today, the average club pro trying to compete with him?

“I used to play exhibitions, and the club pro, because he knew the course, had a chance to beat me. There isn’t anybody who is going to beat Tiger or Phil or these guys today.”

Nicklaus said the average golfer hits it farther now, but the pros hit it so much farther that it has become a different game. They hit it farther, but can control it. Most amateurs can’t.

“We lose people when they hit the ball 330 yards and then they can’t find it,” he said. “If they hit it 230-240, they can find it and keep playing. It speeds up the game.”

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Nicklaus debunked the theory that Tiger and Phil Mickelson don’t like each other, and he said he got a good look at that as captain of the recent Presidents Cup team.

“They do get along, but that doesn’t get in the way of their competitive natures,” he said.

“One night, we are there and there is a ping-pong table and Tiger and Phil decide to play. Tiger wins the first game, then the second. Phil says he’s got a buffet table kind of squeezing his space and could they change sides. Tiger says sure and Phil wins the next game. Then Phil wants to play a fourth, but Tiger says it’s time to stop. That way, he wins, 2-1.”

Nicklaus said that, among the people in public life he learned from the most, Bob Hope was near the top.

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“I probably played a dozen charity events with him over the years,” Nicklaus said, “and we’d be going all day and people would be clamoring for him every minute. When I got to the end of the day, I was bushed. Bob Hope kept going, and I never heard a cross word from him.”

Nicklaus remembered being with Hope and actor James Garner for an event near his home. The date was May 4, 1965, and he brought them home to dinner. His wife, Barbara, pregnant at the time, started the fire, cooked the steaks, served the meal and then, while the three men were playing pool, summoned her husband.

“Her bags were packed and she was telling me the baby was coming and she was heading for the hospital,” Nicklaus said. “She said she’d take a cab so I wouldn’t have to leave my guests.”

Clearly, that wasn’t going to happen, and while Nicklaus scrambled for his car keys, Hope and Garner scrambled for the exit.

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“On the way to the hospital, we talked about, if it was a boy, we might name it Robert James, after our guests that night,” Nicklaus said. “Well, our daughter, Nan, was born that night. But years later, when Nan had her fourth boy, she named him Robert James.”

“We got it done.”

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Times staff writer Mike James contributed to this report.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.


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