Long after Tiger pounces on the Golden Bear's records, Jack Nicklaus' legacy will live on.
Author A.G. Pollard Jr. Photography CHRIS BUCK / CORBIS OUTLINE
EARLY IN JUNE, THE PGA TOUR WILL roll into Dublin, Ohio, for the annual Memorial Tournament, otherwise known as “Jack’s event.” As in Nicklaus. As in the Greatest Golfer Who Ever Lived — that is, until crouching Tiger catches up to him. By now, it’s a foregone conclusion that one day in the ever-nearer future, Tiger Woods will surpass Jack Nicklaus as the Greatest, just as Jack took it from Hogan, who took it from Jones, who took it from Vardon, and on and on.
While this year’s Memorial will officially honor two deserving figures — JoAnne Carner and Jackie Burke Jr. — it’s a good time to take a look back at Jack, who dominated the game of golf more completely and for a longer period of time than anyone else has. So far.
The Kid from Columbus grew up on the fairways of the Scioto Country Club, where his father, Charlie, a successful pharmacist, was a member. There, he came under the influence of legendary instructor Jack Grout. Nicklaus likes to recall that when he began taking lessons from Grout, the pro wouldn’t let him lift either foot off the ground during his swing, instead making the youngster get a feel for the rotational movement of a well- executed thwack.
That grounding, along with his father’s advice to just hit the hell out of the ball, served young Jack well. Although he won the Ohio Open in 1956 at age 16, it wasn’t until a few years later, after he won the U.S. Amateurs in 1959 and 1961, that he decided to make golf a career. Even then, he contemplated remaining an amateur like his hero, Bobby Jones.
In 1960, before he turned pro, he almost won the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Denver. Two years later, he won his first professional title at the U.S. Open at Oakmont in a Monday playoff against the heavily favored local, a Mr. Arnold Palmer.
If you know golf, you know the Nicklaus stats: the 18 majors (20 if you count the two Amateur titles, which Jack does); the 73 PGA Tour wins, trailing only Sam Snead; and the 19 second-place and the 73 top-10 finishes in majors. Oh, and he was the oldest player to win a major, at 46, when he captured the Masters in ’86.
But those are just numbers, which will eventually fall — either to Tiger Woods or some unknown, yet unborn superstar. What is most remarkable about Nicklaus’ career is that he never once choked away a major tournament. Obviously, he didn’t win them all, and occasionally even missed a cut in his prime. But there isn’t a single major tournament in his career when, with the title in his grasp and the final holes approaching on Sunday afternoon, Nicklaus collapsed.
That speaks to his mental fortitude, which better explains his records, longevity and mythology as a champion golfer. It certainly wasn’t his swing — upright, quick and somewhat graceless. And he always had an Achilles’ heel: a sometimes suspect short game, which probably cost him the 1971 U.S. Open against Lee Trevino at Merion.
But when the chips were down, or at least on the table, there was no one better at knuckling down and making great golf shots under pressure. In that Oakmont Open in ’62, he three- putted just once in five rounds (Palmer had 10); in his last major win, that memorable final round at the Masters in 1986, he blitzed the back nine with five birdies and an eagle to catch and pass Tom Kite and Greg Norman.
And there was that unbelievable duel with Tom Watson at the 1977 British Open at Turnberry in Scotland. Tied for the lead and playing together for the last two days, Nicklaus shot 65-66, Watson 65-65. The 36-hole mano a mano duel went down to the final hole where Nicklaus pushed his drive right into the deep rough near a gorse bush, while Watson found the fairway.
Knowing he needed a birdie, Jack took a monstrous whack at his ball, gouging out a huge divot. While the ball flew toward the green (where it finished some 30 feet from the hole), the Scottish spectators rushed to the spot of the shot and tossed copper coins into the divot hole in an old good luck custom. Nicklaus, of course, made his birdie putt, forcing Watson to drop his own 10-footer for the win.
But that trait of superhuman determination, which is notably shared by Woods, is only one facet of Nicklaus. There was also a deep sense of fair play and sportsmanship. Recall the Ryder Cup of 1969, which was all tied on Sunday as the final singles matches started. Nicklaus was paired with Tony Jacklin, and they arrived all square at the 18th tee at Royal Birkdale. Both made timid approach shots, and Jacklin ran his birdie putt about five feet past the hole. Nicklaus just missed his winning putt, tapped in and then reached over and picked up Jacklin’s marker, conceding the putt for a tie. The American players were aghast — captain Snead was livid — because Jacklin’s putt was eminently missable, especially under those pressure-packed conditions. But Nicklaus knew that the U.S. team would retain the Cup with a tie, and he didn’t think it sporting to make Jacklin sweat.
It was also Nicklaus who really saved the Ryder Cup competition when he suggested to the British PGA that they expand their team to include players from all of Europe, not just Great Britain. That one change, which allowed stars like Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros to bring their talent to the contest, restored the competitive balance between the two teams and helped launch the modern era of the Ryder Cup, which has become one of the world’s foremost sporting events.
Off the competitive course, Nicklaus has been something of a commercial juggernaut as well, despite bad business deals that almost bankrupted him. His name is always listed as one of the top modern golf course architects and the list of his groundbreaking designs is nearly as long as the list of his on- course victories.
Given the memories of the man’s exploits on the course, his longevity as a champion, his expertise in building hundreds of great courses around the globe and the enduring myth of his sportsmanship, it makes Woods’ task seem much more difficult than merely winning matches. Even when Woods steps ahead of him in the record books, the greatness that was Jack Nicklaus will remain unchallenged.
A.G. Pollard Jr. once loathed “Fat Jack’”as the usurper of “King Arnie” Palmer, but, like many in the world of golf, begrudgingly grew to admire him.
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