BENTON HARBOR — The image of Jack Nicklaus shrugging lackadaisically on the golf course draws both laughter and fond remembrance for Southwest Michigan residents.
On Aug. 10, 2010, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson christened The Golf Club at Harbor Shores with an opening exhibition that was televised on CBS. The exhibition was held to show off the pristine greens and fairways for the 18-hole course built in conjunction with the nearby housing development.
The foursome competed in a scramble skins format, rotating partners for three six-hole stretches. A crowd estimated at 5,000 followed the golfing greats around the 6,861-yard, par-71 course in hot and humid conditions.
Halfway through the exhibition, Nicklaus – who designed the course – made headlines during play when he showed a skeptical Miller the proper way to play the uniquely tiered 10th green. Nicklaus dropped a ball near Miller’s spot and, barely taking time to line up the shot, nailed a 102-foot putt that was met with thunderous applause.
Other than the 5,000 who were watching in person, Nicklaus’ putt has been viewed nearly 2 million times on YouTube, having gone viral overnight as a highlight on ESPN’s “SportsCenter’s” Top 10 Plays segment. The putt was a key moment for the Benton Harbor golf course, serving as a precursor to the Senior PGA’s biennial trips to the Twin Cities.
Some recall how hot it was during the August exhibition. Many more remember the friendly banter between the four legendary golfers.
But everyone remembers what is now simply referred to as “The Putt.”
The following comments are firsthand accounts from players and witnesses to the putt that has left its mark on Southwest Michigan.
PART I – THE EXHIBITION
The four golfers agreed to take part in the grand opening exhibition of the Benton Harbor golf course, an event called Champions for Change at Harbor Shores.
Plans for the exhibition began a year before the opening ceremony, with Nicklaus overseeing the finishing touches on the golf course he designed.
They played for a $1 million purse, which was later donated to the Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor.
The largest share, $393,750, was earned by Watson. Nicklaus raised $281,250, Palmer $168,750 and Miller came in at $156,250.
Ross Smith, director of the Golf Club at Harbor Shores: With everything Whirlpool (Corp.) was doing here in this community, they were looking for something really big for the course’s grand opening. Jack always plays when he opens a golf course. You know he’s going to come and play the golf course.
Jeff Fettig, Whirlpool board chairman and former CEO: We were trying to market this to the world. Jack Nicklaus, the designer of this course, passionately believed in what I called “the cause.” Using golf for the betterment of community. He got all in on that.
Chris Cook, Abonmarche president and CEO: I remember the buzz going into the event. Being with Abonmarche, we did the engineering for the project. So, we were tuned into it from the start.
Fettig: As we’re nearing the grand opening, the idea came from how back in the old days of golf when they would have celebrity exhibitions. This goes back to the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s – before TV. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to get Jack Nicklaus and some of the old legends here for an exhibition. They went back and forth and Jack said, “Yeah, I can probably get whoever you want.”
Smith: There were a couple meetings taking place and Mark Hesemann, who helped run this project, told me he was going to try to get Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Gary Player. Player wasn’t available at the time, so they brought in Johnny Miller. I don’t think there’s a golf course where those four golfers have ever played together.
Fettig: Back in the day, this is how professional golf was promoted in communities. You would have the top professionals come in and play an exhibition. Kind of like that “Bagger Vance” movie. That’s how golf was before the players started making money.
Kerry Wright, a broker for Evergreen Real Estate: That was a working day for me. I had to get Jack from tee to green on the course that day. I had a front row seat on that green.
Fettig: One of the guys told me, “We’ve never played as a foursome and it will probably never happen again.” If you think about it, that’s pretty cool. I mean, we had almost 40 major championships on one course at one time. It would be like having a four-hour pick-up game of basketball between Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and maybe LeBron James.
Wright: To have those four personalities on a golf course at one time was unheard of. When you’re dealing with personalities on that scale, to get it all lined up, was a miracle.
Smith: The two-man scramble was for a $1 million purse. These players were paid on the side and agreed to donate the $1 million back to the community. On top of that, this was taped by CBS Sports and played a year later, about an hour before the Masters (in 2011).
Ebon Sanders, executive director of The First Tee: We were involved in the ceremony from the beginning. My job that day was to help The First Tee kids, who acted as standard bearers. It was really exciting to meet the golfers prior to the exhibition.
Smith: There were about 5,000 people there. When they teed off of (Hole) 1, the fairway was lined five or six people deep. It was set up like a Tour event with the course being roped off.
Fettig: We were out there for maybe six hours. We had 4,000 or 5,000 people there that day. That’s an Augusta-like crowd (The Masters). But it was just for this foursome. We brought the best champions of golf in to help support this change. So, that’s how it was billed: Champions for Change.
Sanders: Just the excitement in the area and the community as a whole was great to see. The crowds were fanatic. The golfers gave everyone what they came for.
Fettig: Johnny Miller helped emcee the thing. He’s a friend of Jack’s and told the crowd at one point, “These guys are legends. I’m a mini-legend.” That got some laughs. We didn’t plan this, he just naturally took over as emcee and introduced everyone. That was Johnny being Johnny.
Ryan Ogle, championship director: You couldn’t script an opening day for a golf course better than that. I mean, it’s a relatively young course. It’s been open for eight years. Having four of the greats to open was a blessing.
PART II – THE PUTT
Apart from the putt itself, one thing that everyone remembers from that August day was the heat. Palmer, who was the oldest of the four golfers, was visibly sweating but found a way to deal with the scorching temperature.
The 10th hole, home of the course’s most notorious green, proved to be the highlight of the grand opening. The now famous 102-foot putt came on a green that wasn’t originally intended to be the multi-level target it is. Due to the perceived difficulty of a pitch shot up the hill, Nicklaus opted to extend the green when designing the course.
Nicklaus and Watson were paired against Miller and Palmer for the middle six holes of the event when Miller prepared to hit from the front of the massive, multi-tiered 10th green. Playing from the front edge on the lower level of the green, with the hole about 100 feet away and up the roughly 6-foot rise, Miller planned an unorthodox shot.
Worried about the new green, Nicklaus intervened and inadvertently created a memorable moment for spectators.
Smith: It was a hot day. I believe it was in the 90s. My wife drove the cart for Palmer. He had been to the Mayo Clinic and had just gone to his annual physical. By the 7th and 8th holes, it was so hot that even his agent thought he might quit. He was getting so dehydrated. We were keeping him full of Gatorade.
Fettig: It was the hottest day. It was 90 degrees and like 90 percent humidity. After nine holes, Palmer was drenched. Every time he got out of the cart, every fan wanted his autograph. Despite the heat, he still stopped and signed everything.
Sanders: I remember the day being hot, extremely warm. Two holes after Nicklaus made the putt, one of our kids got overheated and we had to pull her out of the event.
Fettig: I know Ross (Smith) told Arnold Palmer if it was getting to be too much he could exit and they could play through. Palmer looked at him and said, “We have a golf tournament going on. And it may be hot, but we’re going to finish this golf tournament.”
Merlin Hanson, Hanson International board chairman: I was driving (Nicklaus’) golf cart for him and talking to him from hole to hole. In an 18-hole course, I got to know him a little. As we rode along, we talked about boating and fishing. Here he was, at this exhibition with three other legends, and he was talking to me about fishing. We had a good man-to-man conversation.
Hans Hesemann, caddie and Indianapolis resident: I had a front row seat for the putt. My dad, Mark Hesemann, was part of the development for Harbor Shores. I was given the opportunity to caddie for Jack Nicklaus.
Cook: My dad was a huge Jack Nicklaus fan. He was the guy we all rooted for growing up because my dad was from Ohio and Jack went to Ohio State.
Smith: By the time they got to the 10th Hole, Nicklaus and Watson were partners against Miller and Palmer.
Sanders: It wasn’t a surprise to me how difficult the green was when they came up to it. I had been on the green beforehand and visited (Hole 10) as it was being constructed. I got to hear Nicklaus’ thoughts on that green. Because it’s not a terribly long par 5, Nicklaus thought there should be some penalty for a golfer who attempts to go for the green in two.
Jack Nicklaus, retired professional golfer: The green was originally designed on top of the hill and the fairway was at the bottom, where we were, and I just thought it was too difficult a pitch from the bottom. So I said, “Why don’t I just put it in as green?” I felt that nobody could play it from the top to the bottom, but I did not think many people would ever get it up on the top, if the pin was on the bottom. So, I just put the green down at the bottom.
Smith: You need to position yourself to set up the right yardage to play to the top part of that green. He really wanted people to think when they played that hole, and he did a pretty darn good job with that.
Fettig: People are intimidated by that green at first. But once you see the design rationale behind it, it works. I thought it was the craziest green I’d ever seen in my life. Now I love it.
Nicklaus: I felt like instead of chipping, players could putt it up the hill and get a reasonable result. Keep in mind, that was the land that was there. That was not created. That top portion of the current green is where we were going to put the original green, and then I had to figure out how golfers were going to play it from the bottom. So I added green there. I suppose I could have raised the bottom and softened out the slope, but there wasn’t a lot of space in which to work.
Fettig: Before Jack hit that putt, Johnny was giving him all sorts of grief for the way he designed that hole. According to Nicklaus, it’s the largest green he’s ever designed, based on square footage.
Cook: I had been out there several times, playing before the course was officially open. We did the design of the cart paths and bridges. I was familiar with that (10th) green. When they got there, Johnny Miller was razzing Jack about it. They were chattering among themselves about how unfair it was.
Hesemann: You have to understand, over the course of their careers, Mr. Nicklaus has always taken jabs at Johnny Miller. I think it was an older brother type of relationship. Johnny was sort of the announcer type throughout the round. As they got to the 10th green, there were comments about its difficulty.
Johnny Miller, retired professional golfer and TV golf analyst: He’s like my older brother, and he has a tendency to pummel his younger brother a little bit, but I can handle it. We spar a lot.
Smith: There’s this huge ridge that runs right through the hole. Miller and Palmer were at the bottom of the green. Nicklaus and Watson had hit theirs on the top tier. When they walked to the green, they were all giving Nicklaus a hard time. They were saying, “What’s going on? I’ve never seen a green like this in my life.”
Fettig: What didn’t get captured on the video was the beginning part of that argument.
Smith: Palmer hits his putt and it gets halfway there and comes rolling all the way back to him. Arnold looks over at Jack Nicklaus and says, “Jack, were you drinking the night before you designed this green?” At this point, the crowd is getting into it and everyone is having a good time.
Sanders: When Arnold Palmer hit his putt and it came back down, I turned to the kids and told them even the greats struggle at some point.
Hanson: I wasn’t on the green for the putt. I watched from down the hill. Around the green, there were lots and lots of people following them.
Smith: After Palmer, it’s Johnny Miller’s turn. Johnny’s caddie has his golf clubs on top of the green. Johnny starts hollering to bring his 6-degree wedge. That’s when Nicklaus turned to Johnny and said, “That putt’s not that hard.”
Hesemann: There’s a hill in the video where myself and the other caddies were seated out of the way. Once Johnny shouted for his wedge, you could tell Jack did not like that.
Nicklaus: When Johnny said there was no chance of making the putt from that bottom tier of the green, and he was going to instead hit a wedge, all I could think about was, “Everyone watching this on TV is going to see Johnny Miller hit a wedge, so from now on, they will want to hit wedge.” Suddenly, I envisioned all these divots scattered all over the green.
Wright: In the clip, I’m up behind the hole and my hands go flying. In true Jack Nicklaus fashion, he grabbed the ball, sauntered over to where John’s putter was, took about 3 seconds to eye up the putt.
Smith: He starts walking down the hill and throws the ball down. Johnny is almost talking to him while he’s trying to hit it, which I thought at the time would screw him up.
• • • • •
The following text is the exchange between Nicklaus and Miller that was picked up by CBS microphones when Miller asked for his wedge:
Nicklaus: No, no, no, no.
Miller: What … there’s no chance putting it.
Nicklaus: Why? Just hit a good putt.
Miller: There’s no chance.
Nicklaus: Want me to show you how to putt it? (crowd laughs)
Miller: You can’t … All right, now show me how to do it. (After the ball goes in, the crowd cheers as Nicklaus returns to his spot on the green)
Nicklaus: That’s all you gotta do.
• • • • •
Hesemann: I’m sitting at the back of the green watching this all unfold. I’ve been a caddie before. You prepare yourself to assist the golfer. As it was going over the ridge, I realized the flag has to come out. That thing landed right in the middle of the hole. The place went berserk. It was the greatest shot I’ve ever witnessed in my life. We all see holes in one, but this was magic.
Nicklaus: Honestly, I wasn’t sure where it was. I couldn’t see the hole. Once the ball got over the hill, the crowd was starting to make some noise. All of a sudden, the crowd erupted, and I thought, “Well, it obviously went in.” I think I might have thrown my hands up, but more in a “how about that” sort of way. And I remember as I got up to the upper tier, Watson was jokingly bowing.
Smith: I’m 62 years old, been playing golf for 50 years, and I will tell you that having been to big tournaments, this was the most exciting moment I’ve seen in golf in my life.
Wright: To this day, it’s one of the most electric things I’ve seen live. There was nothing planned about it. It was purely spontaneous. If you would have seen the expressions on the other golfers’ faces. They were in disbelief. Tom Watson was doing the “we bow down to you.” They were flabbergasted.
Cook: You never expected it to go in. That was the icing on the cake. It was surreal.
Nicklaus: Everyone was just laughing and giggling over the fact something like that could happen. That was my biggest kick all day.
Sanders: It was Jordanesque. For him to step up and hit the putt, I liken it to Michael Jordan switching hands in the air on the way to the bucket. He made it look easy. After the putt, you could see Tom Watson was bowing down in a “we’re not worthy” motion. Johnny had his hands on his hips in disbelief.
Wright: It wasn’t just the distance. It goes up this 6- to 8-foot drop. It had to be on the perfect path for it to go in.
Nicklaus: It was obviously pure luck. But it stopped the whole idea of hitting a wedge on the green, which is what I was trying to do.
Hanson: When Jack got back over to the cart, he was about as nonchalant as you can imagine. He just said, “Well that was a little bit of luck.” His enthusiasm was muted, but as you watch him over the years, he’s not one to get really crazy excited.
Eric Bradford, muralist and Benton Harbor resident: I heard about the putt through the grapevine. Me and my band hosted Hog Bash when I heard about it from one of my buddies who was there. I mean, we were at a rock metal event and we’re talking about golf.
Nicklaus: I mean, I didn’t think it was that tough. I went down there because I knew it was a double break putt. I could see it would go here and then there. All I had to do was hit it hard enough to catch the hill. To me, a difficult putt is when I have to make a putt and it counts for something. That day, it was just hitting a putt – a long putt – and it just happened to go in.
PART III – THE AFTERMATH
The Nicklaus-signature course would have always been linked to the 18-time major champion. But when Nicklaus sunk that putt, it helped to change the way outsiders perceive Benton Harbor.
Many area residents remember that day, but nearly 2 million people have viewed the video online. The highlight would eventually end up on “SportsCenter’s” Top 10 Plays segment.
Just this year, the North Shore Inn commissioned a mural to commemorate the putt and the neighboring golf course.
Smith: It was an unbelievable thing that this community had an opportunity to see something no place else in the world ever had. It springboarded us into the Senior PGA Championship. Harbor Shores has been here almost 10 years and I don’t know of another facility that’s had as much stuff in that amount of time.
Sanders: It’s still something we talk about in First Tee. To be honest, we talk with the kids more about the Arnold Palmer putt first, just so they know the game is difficult for even the great ones.
Fettig: The singular memory for me was that putt. But it was the fact that I was able to witness it was with my dad. Being there with my dad, and the fact that he got to shake hands with Jack and Arnold, and him telling my mom this was his best day in golf was pretty special to me.
Wright: You may recall, it was on ESPN’s Top 10 plays the next few days. There’s a place on the course that commemorates his 100-foot putt. The 10th green has become famous for that reason. You have people who come just to play there.
Smith: People as far as Japan and Scotland come here to play because they saw that putt. Two things have really driven people to play at Harbor Shores. One has been the fact that we host the Senior PGA Championship. The other is the fact that people saw that putt on TV.
Fettig: I don’t know when, but sometime during the Senior PGA they will air that putt. They always do. This just keeps growing. Now with the television coverage it just keeps going and going.
Bradford: With the putt itself, I wasn’t at the event. When I was tasked with creating the mural, I watched the video over and over again and did a lot of research. I put 1,200 hours into it. I had to skew the angle a bit to capture the feeling and atmosphere. It’s been nice to see how everyone has responded to it.
Ogle: Every time we hire someone to work on the championship, during the orientation process I will actually turn on the video and show them the putt. I talk about what this course means to the area, and the history of the course.
Smith: I’ve watched that video a minimum of 50 times, if not more.
Hesemann: It was my 5 seconds of fame. The video pops up online and on Facebook all the time and I get tagged in it. I’ve never been a part of something that went viral before. It was on “SportsCenter” that night. To have been there – front row – was cool.
Nicklaus: The couple of times I have seen the video, I can hear (Johnny) chuckling.
Sanders: For something that shocking to take place and end up on “SportsCenter’s” top plays, it helped Harbor Shores generate the interest the course deserved. It’s been busy since 2010, every summer.
Fettig: Have you seen the mural? We plan on adding champions into it from each year that it’s here.
Bradford: We refer to the mural as “The Putt.” Originally, I wanted to call it “That’s all you gotta do,” because that’s what Jack said at the time. I had some fun with it and added celebrities into it. Lynn Swan, Ozzie Smith, Babe Ruth and Pete Bevacqua (PGA of America CEO) are in there. There’s some fictional characters too, like Happy Gilmore and Carl Spangler from “Caddyshack.”
Cook: It’s pretty cool to know this continues to live on. This might be one of those immortal things that could be played for a generation.
Fettig: Everybody who plays that course tries to recreate that putt. I’ve tried it dozens of times and have come close within a foot or two. Never done it, though.
Wright: It was one of those rare, brilliant moments in sports. Jack could probably try that putt 100 times and never sink it again.
Bradford: It was the putt heard around Berrien County, if not the world. It marked where Benton Harbor was. That exhibition had a lot riding on it.
Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski