It was another long day, as always, and he was ready to pack it in. Having spent most of the day on his feet, he sat down for a moment to rest, daydreaming of coming home, kicking his sore feet up on the recliner for a few hours and maybe catching a quick nap before his wife, Patti, had their evening dinner prepared. “I’m drained, I don’t even know what day it is,” he thought to himself as he stared in the distance at nothing in particular. “But I know that I gotta keep going, there’s still so many people needing my help.” With that last thought in mind, he summoned the energy to get back on his feet and log a few more hours into the late evening.
I met Nick Nicolich about a dozen or so years ago, by happenstance really. He and I were familiar with each other through words and emails only, as we both connected via a golf website online where we both shared a similar passion and viewpoint not just about Golf, but life in general. Through a keyboard, in what was more or less the infancy stages of what we now commonly refer to as the social media, a friendship began. A few years afterward, several of us who frequented the website from the Mid Atlantic and Northeastern regions of the United States decided to put together an informal golf outing, simply to put some faces to the virtual names from the website, at a neutral gathering place at a golf course in Colts Neck, New Jersey.
Per my usual norm, I got to the golf course early that day of the outing, and I was on the practice range warming up, trying my best to figure out how to somehow stop hooking the ball off the planet. It was unusually warm that afternoon, and within 20 minutes I’d already worked up a pretty good sweat. I took a small break, long enough to towel off and take a few swigs of water. That’s when I realized that he’d been observing me hitting balls, and he walked over to where I was. “Fighting the hooks, are ya?” he asked. I recall saying something to the effect of, “if you only knew” or something along those lines. “Hit a few more for me,” he said. “Pretend that I’m not even here, just keep doing what you were doing.” I hit about 5 or so more balls, and it was the same thing, hook after hook. He just stood there studying without saying a word. After about 5 more balls, I guess he’d seen enough. “Do you mind if I show you something?” he asked. “Please, feel free,” I said. He then says, “Look at your grip. Now, I want you to hold the club with the same grip, but looser.” I did as he asked, and then he made a slight adjustment, positioning my right hand to get the logo of my golf glove facing the target a little more. “There, how does that feel,” he asked. “That feels very awkward,” I replied. He chuckled and said, “I bet it does. Now, I want you to make the same swing, maintaining that grip but with a little more relaxed grip pressure.” I don’t know how he did it, but I can still feel that moment of “Eureka!” as I hit this beautiful iron shot that went straight as an arrow. “I bet you ain’t seen that in a while, have ya,” he said, smiling ear to ear. “By virtue of your left handedness, you must be Lefty. Lefty, I’m Nick – your old buddy on the golf forum. It’s good to finally meet you, sir.”
At that very moment, I was struck with two overwhelming thoughts. Thought number one, first and foremost, was that the Golfing Gods had sent an angel from the heavens to help me sort out my ailing golf game. Thought number two, which was a little more sobering, was that there was the possibility, albeit remote, that I had just befriended a serial killer who would slip something in my bottle of water with my back turned, and tomorrow morning the course maintenance guys would be fishing my dead body out of the pond near the 16th green.
Luckily for me, Nick wasn’t a serial killer. But you’ve already picked up on that, I’m sure.
That day would mark the first of many to come in which both he and I would walk the fairways together in the coming years, not only learning each others’ strengths and weaknesses with a golf club in our hands, but more importantly – appreciating the value of sharing a day on a golf course with a friend who would lend an ear to some of life’s problems. I learned early on in our friendship that Nick had the overwhelming ability to make people feel very comfortable around him, as though they’d known him for years. His friendly and oft times comical disposition made him easy to relate to, both on and off the golf course. But he also had an enormous competitive spirit that exuded confidence. That competitive, confident drive coupled with both his work ethic and his ability to relate to people would all work together in serving him very well later on in life, in both his career as an accomplished teaching professional and as a neighbor in a community that could rely on his undying compassion during times of need.
As it relates to his career more specifically, his ability to communicate with his students is a huge, huge part of his overall success as a golf instructor. But too, the ability to relate to his students and what they’re going through when they come to him for help also plays a key role. “Teaching can bring great joy, but it can also bring great frustration. The joy is obvious, but the frustration comes from within. It comes from the fact that I can see the student’s frustration, and I then try and assume it for them,” he states. “This game is so damn hard most days. I really do feel for my students during these times, but sometimes you have to let them go to the range, on their own, and work out the things we’ve covered. No different than that of a parent who’s preparing to see their firstborn leave the nest and make life on their own, so too is the struggle with teaching. It’s hard to let go sometimes.”
I recall a conversation with him several years ago, as I asked him about a particular method that had become fairly popular that was being taught at that time, and sought his advice on whether or not it was something that maybe I should consider myself. Knowing my game as well as anyone, he didn’t pull any punches with his thoughts on the matter. “Hey, I don’t believe in the ‘one size fits all’ approach in golf,” he said. “Perhaps it comes from my wrestling background, but I’ve been very successful with understanding the body type of a student and their ability to work within the athletic frame they’re given. I’m not into teaching a method, but helping my students become better players based on the amount of flexibility and athleticism they have. That’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked, but often is when it comes to teaching. Again, there is no one size fits all approach as it pertains to hitting a well-struck golf ball.”
Nick didn’t answer my question directly, because he knew that it was ultimately my decision to either radically change my golf swing versus maybe working a little harder to make the swing I already had a little more proficient. But imbedded in his reply was the hallmark of a sound teaching philosophy, one in which he credits a legendary figure in golf instruction with helping him establish his own teaching style. “The more I teach, the more I try to find the simplest way to convey the message,” he said one afternoon, as we enjoyed a few beers and burgers at the 19th hole after the round. “From my earliest days as a player to this very day – I’ve been a Harvey Penick disciple. Mr. Penick’s words were simple to understand, and through his teachings I was able to find my own teaching style. We all know how hard this game is,” he goes on, “but I don’t believe that understanding golf instruction should be hard as well.”
Indeed, the game is hard most days. Sometimes the game seems so complicated that we lose our way, as we clutter our minds with hundreds of swing thoughts that begin with “maybe I should try this” or “maybe I need to try that.” Some days we’re left with only one of two options: either quit the game that we used to love, or find someone who can maybe help us sort through it all and start loving it once again. So as we continued our discussion over lunch that afternoon, I found the courage to ask him a question that I felt at that time might’ve been insulting. I was shocked with his response. “Do I take lessons, you ask? Sure, I take lessons,” he said. “I have certain struggles just like everyone else who plays the game. But too – I’ve had to hit a lot of golf balls in my life to get where I am today, and an even larger amount to stay here. I’m lucky in that I work with a great friend and even a greater instructor here at Harbor Links – Guna Kunjan, our head teaching professional. We work out a deal, he helps me take care of my full swing, and in return I help him out with his short game.” I kinda chuckled a bit after he said that, more from being caught off guard with his confession moreso than anything else. But knowing Nick as well as I do, and knowing how much pride he takes in working hard to maintain his skill level, it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. “Shoot yeah, he gets me back on track where he wants me. I’m typically drenched in sweat by the time we get there, but in the end it’s all worth it.”
An ordinary day for Nick Nicolich typically involves correcting a few bad grips, analyzing a lot of golf swings, and trying to help players lower their handicaps at a little corner of the practice range at Harbor Links Golf Club, in North Hempstead, NY, where he’s spent the past decade of his life teaching a game that he loves.
But this long, unending day in particular, back in late October, was anything but ordinary. The people looking to Nick for help on this day weren’t golfers coming to his corner of the practice range at Harbor Links hoping to become better golfers, but rather neighbors and fellow citizens who were simply looking for a hot meal and some comforting reassurance in what appeared to be a hopeless situation. The Knights of Columbus hall in nearby Long Beach, not far from Nick’s home, became his temporary workplace for the next six weeks, as the hall had been converted into a makeshift relief shelter and soup kitchen for those in need. Just a few days earlier, Hurricane Sandy and all of her enormous wrath slammed into the Northeastern coastline, not just completely leveling homes, but wiping entire communities completely off the map. Nick happened to be one of the lucky few whose home was somehow spared from one of the costliest storms in US history, but the devastation was unlike anything he’d ever witnessed. “I’ve been here a long, long time,” he said, “and I ain’t ever seen anything like it. People that I know – friends, neighbors, relatives – they’ve lost everything.”
As if things couldn’t possibly get any worse, the Knights of Columbus Hall there at Long Beach – which was still actively serving as a relief hub for those impacted by the storm and had somehow survived the storm’s devastation 6 weeks earlier – was destroyed by fire on December 10th. “That was really the low point for me,” he would tell me later. “As if looking around and seeing the enormous loss everywhere you looked wasn’t bad enough, we found ourselves in a situation where we could no longer help those who still needed help the most?
“I tell ya – golf was a distant memory at that time, my friend.”
The aftermath of the storm from last October with the trail of destruction it left behind in its wake is still present in some areas of that section of Long Island, nearly half a year later. But time goes on, and life goes on. I was reminded of this earlier this week, as I received the news that Nick was honorably mentioned as one of the top-50 instructors in America by one of the biggest junior golf programs in the country – the US Kids Golf Association. Nick has always had a niche for short game instruction, as his short game clinics and individual short game lessons continue to be one of the more popular teaching programs in Long Island, particularly with the younger players coming up through the junior golf ranks. His love of teaching the short game is quite obvious, as I’ve personally encountered on numerous occasions the art with which he can work a wedge and stroke a putter as we’ve played together over the years. If Golf were indeed considered Art, Nick Nicolich would be a modern-day Picasso, with the area from 100 yards and in to the green as his canvas.
But there’s another side to Nick that a lot of people saw firsthand the days and weeks following the disastrous storm that washed ashore on Long Island last fall, a side that I’ve been familiar with all these years I’ve known him. While his passion in life is teaching people how to be better golfers, he recognizes the importance of what happens beyond the golf course, like being a good neighbor and lending a helping hand in a desperate time of need.
He’s more than just a great teaching pro, more than just a great ambassador of the game we love. He’s a great friend and an even greater human being.