THE path to Jack Nicklaus' door is so well beaten, it must rival the Augusta fairways for definition. At this time of year so many professionals go to him for advice on how to tackle the Masters course that they should form an orderly queue. Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy are just two players who are seeking the same guidance which helped Charl Schwartzel to victory last year.
McIlroy's relationship with the Golden Bear - who, with six winner's jackets to his name, should really be labelled "the Green Bear" - has been well-charted, the pair having met when the Ulsterman was just cracking America. But Donald's link with Nicklaus has not been so widely reported. They first became friendly through a shared sponsor and then the Englishman was handed the honour of pairing Nicklaus on his last round in a major, at the 2005 Open at St Andrews. Recently the bond has intensified as Donald seeks a major to go with the tag of world No 1.
One meeting in particular sticks out in Donald's mind. It came at a charity function in Donald's home town, Chicago. "We were in a car together and I asked him for advice, and how he was so successful in majors," said the 34-year-old. "He told me my driving accuracy was probably the key area I needed to work on. That's something I knew myself, but hearing it from Jack gave more substance to it."
Donald's short game is undoubted. (For the last three years he has finished top on strokes gained on the field in putting on the PGA Tour and was second the year before that.) His long-game, however, still has its question marks. But under the tutelage of his former college coach, Pat Goss, as well as the renowned Yorkshireman Pete Cowen, he has located the cut stuff with enough regularity to make it a smooth journey to the top of the order. It is an aspect to which Donald must remain ever vigilant, especially when he is at Augusta.
"Driving is the key for me at The Masters," said Donald, who has a third and a fourth at Augusta on his CV. "If I drive well I do well here. I think majors become trickier around the greens - they are firmer, smaller greens usually - and Jack told me last year that he thinks he was successful because he drove it very well. I see Jack around the Bear's Club [in Jupiter, Florida] quite a lot and he's happy to give you advice if you ask him. It's a good education."
Nicklaus, of course, majors in The Masters. Schwartzel could testify to it, having sat at his table 18 months ago and scribbled away on his cribsheet as Nicklaus took him through each shot on each hole. McIlroy has received the same lesson, as now has Donald. They would have been fools not to.
"When it comes to preparation and things like that, it can't but help to learn from the most successful golfer who ever lived," said Donald. "And that applies even more at Augusta."
For his part, Nicklaus is as humble as ever. He imparts his wisdom freely - both verbally and financially - and is surprised when the cubs credit the Bear for unlocking the National's secrets.
"I didn't think I would ever be a psyche coach," said 72-year-old, who, along with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player will hit the ceremonial opening drive on Thursday. "But it's actually kind of fun to see these players come along and try to be able to help them and see them have some success. What am I telling them? Maybe I'd better it write down."
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