So then Behold: The greatest golfer ever, Jack William Nicklaus. Golden Bear. Or just plain Bear.
No other athlete has had as lingering and admirable an impact on his profession. He dominated the game as no other player and then he turned to designing and building golf courses and has been doing so for close to 7 decades and the numbers are staggering,
By the way, for what it’s worth he laughed when this was suggested…but he didn’t object either.
So for starters he picked the hardest, the most maddening, most infuriating of sports to play. If you have tried you know whereof I speak. And if you are one of those helpless addicts out there flailing impotently away at that little dimpled ball, well you have my sympathy…and empathy.
As for his game, it is left to this summation by the sainted Bobby Jones: “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.”
As for his after life, which is an unremitting struggle for the athlete, he moved from tee box to drafting board seamlessly, and the Golden Bear empire stretches to the far horizon—equipment, clothing line, assorted endorsements, etc.,etc.,etc. As a businessman he is a rousing success.
Which leaves for our examination his personal life.
That would include a wife (Barbara) and five children and eight grandchildren. And the roll call changes, it sometimes seems, by the hour. But it all makes for that model of that prideful entity known as The Family Business.
And, oh yes, don’t forget the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital.
And now to the matter of police blotter summons, assorted DUI’s, speeding citations, detox, rehab, and all the other trappings that go with celebrity hood. Sorry, but you won’t find Bear on the cover of any of those supermarket trash tabloids or weeping on Oprah or any of the other public confessionals. Bear is, well, boring. Admiringly so. You want a role model? I nominate Bear. After 52 years in the business, when asked who has been my favorite athlete to cover.
Hard to remember now but he began his golfing life as Fat Jack. He was on the rumpled and wrinkled side, sweating, shirt tail tagging along like a kite, hair mussed, 20 pounds too heavy, maybe 30…in short, not exactly a teenybopper’s main swoon.
But here’s the thing—he could flat play. Boy how could he play. Drive the ball over the moon. Drain 30-footers. Stiff a 5 iron. Now, they told him, you need a body to match your game.
Off went the tonnage. On came the blonde dye. Oooohhh, crooned the little girls. Fore, please, Jack Nicklaus on the first tee.
One other thing—he knew the game, all of its subtleties and its nuances and he could transfer that knowledge. In his early years he wrote golf magazine articles and instructional booklets in pristine detail.
Lee Trevino once cracked: ‘Yeah, I tried some of it…it felt like acupuncture of the brain.’
Jack Nicklaus, as you may have heard, won 76 PGA tournaments around the world, the paramount ones being the Masters, the United States Open, the British Open and the PGA. They were, it was decreed, the majors, the hardest, most daunting, and if by chance a man were to win all four, it would be known as the Grand Slam, and feel free to bow low.
Jack Nicklaus won each of them. Again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and…
A dozen and a half.
Eighteen in all.
But that is not even the really neat part. This is: He was second in 19 of them.
And third half a dozen more times.
Which means that every time they teed it up the odds were heavy that he was going to win or decide who was.
He won by coming from behind and by going wire to wire, by brute strength and by feathery finesse, and when it came down to the money ball, when it all came down to a 30-footer with a double break, when the throat constricts and the shakes betray you, well, as he once said: “Sometimes it gets hard to breathe.” And he grabbed his throat.
Always…always he reflected an abiding respect for the game, the gentleman’s game. He was unfailingly a gracious winner.
Wish I’d had a pedometer strapped to my leg to measure the miles I logged over the years walking in his wake, taking notes, composing columns in my head.
My favorite venue, and I suspect it was his though he didn’t want to slight the others, was Augusta National, that enchanted cathedral in the pines, and in particular the 16th, that lovely little treacherous par 3 with water lying in ambush.
It was there when he guided the ball into the cup, running after it, putter raised like a sword, celebrating because he knew this was going to be good, and would soon make him, at 46, the oldest Masters champion in history.
I trailed after him—on higher ground—on one of his scouting excursions into the bogs, and that was like watching The Creation: Move that grove of trees 299 yards to the left, reshape those elephant burial mounds, dam up that one lake and make a waterfall.
He sees it, he sees it all in his head, visualizes what it will look like in a few years.
It is a living legacy.
“Every piece of ground,” he said, “’is a piece of me.”