When the history of golf is being rewritten, as happens when new champions appear on the scene, an old question surfaces. Who was the best of them all? Each generation has its own favourites. Bobby Jones in the 1930s, Arnold Palmer in the 1950s and Tiger Woods from the 1990s onwards were all given the accolade the best golfer that the world has ever seen. However, in some respects at least, they all still tip their hats to the man who was statistically the best golfer of the 20th Century, Jack Nicklaus.
The Early Years
Jack William Nicklaus was born on 21 January, 1940, to Louis Charles Nicklaus Jr and Helen Nicklaus in Columbus, Ohio, USA. Despite contracting a mild bout of polio when younger, Jack was a sporty child and played a variety of games to varying standards. When he first picked up a golf club at the age of ten, he immediately decided that there was something special about the game. It was equally clear from the earliest days that there was something very special about Jack himself. He covered his first nine holes on a full golf course at the age of 11 in an extremely credible 51 shots. Two years later, under the guidance of his coach Jack Grout, he broke 70 for a full 18 holes for the first time, and was playing off a handicap of just three. For three years, 1953 to 1955, the Ohio State Junior Trophy was his own personal possession. A year later, at just 16, he won the Ohio State Open Championship against an adult field. At the age of 19, he won the US Amateur Championship, reckoned by many observers to be as great an achievement as any of the four professional majors. The following year, he finished second in the US Open as an amateur. When he turned professional in 1961, having regained the Amateur Championship in that year, his reputation already preceded him to such an extent that hardened professionals were afraid of him on the course. This aura would continue to grow through the years as he ushered in a new era of professional golf.
A Difficult Start
It is perhaps difficult to imagine, many years later when we see Jack Nicklaus, the colossus of golf with the undying respect of his peers and subsequent generations, that he was not universally popular when he first started playing on the USPGA tour. He was overweight and perceived as arrogant, but his main crime was to provide a palpable challenge to Arnold Palmer. Palmer had become golf's first superstar in the post war period, and he was followed by a fanatical group of supporters called 'Arnie's Army'. He, more than anyone else, turned golf into the global sport it is now by appealing to a blue-collar audience that had previously ignored this apparently white-collar pastime.
It was the army themselves who christened the young upstart Nicklaus 'the Golden Bear' because of his blond hair and excess weight. Over the years, the sobriquet came to represent the way he stalked the rest of the field menacingly, especially in major championships. Nicklaus himself sensibly embraced the title, and eventually used it to brand his own range of sports and leisurewear, as well as his own global company. However, nothing could have seemed more remote than that kind of respect and power when he burst onto the scene.
Nicklaus's major championship breakthrough came a mere nine months after he turned pro. The 1962 US Open was played at the Oakmont Country Club, a few miles from where Arnold Palmer was born. It was the heart of his fanbase and as such provided him with a white-hot atmosphere in which all of his opponents melted, except one. The two great golfers, one at the height of his powers and the other just starting, traded shots throughout the final round ending up tied for the lead after 72 holes. It was pure sporting theatre of the type that only emerges when the torch is about to be passed from one great to another. The playoff the following day was over 18 holes, and Nicklaus was expected to fade as he went into a fifth round. Instead he displayed the coolest of temperaments, and the most unusual grasp of matchplay for such a young golfer, to head the favourite throughout. Nicklaus had won his first major at the age of 22. 'Arnie's Army' were furious and they turned their anger on the young Jack at every subsequent tournament. There were catcalls and disturbances every time he stood over a putt or addressed the ball. Nicklaus rose above it all through incredible reserves of concentration and determination. Indeed, it almost seemed to spur him on to greater deeds.
The following year, at the US Masters at Augusta, Nicklaus beat Palmer to win his first Green Jacket in a tournament that had seemed to be Palmer's personal property. By taking that year's USPGA he had collected three majors before his 24th birthday, a feat that was unprecedented at the time. Palmer did come back to win the 1964 Masters to the delight of his fans, but his era of major wins came to an end with that victory. The vitriol heaped upon the young contender started to dissipate as Nicklaus built his own devoted fanbase to rival Palmer's. They were not as vociferous, but they were just as loyal. Finally, even the most blinkered of Nicklaus's critics had to accept that he was the best golfer, when in 1965 he destroyed the Masters field by nine shots, the biggest margin of victory and one which would stand until 1997 when Tiger Woods blew the field away by no less than 15 shots. That record will almost certainly never be beaten unless Woods does it himself. On that occasion Nicklaus paid Woods the ultimate tribute of repeating Bobby Jones' quote about Nicklaus himself exactly 32 years earlier:
That young man is playing a game with which I am not familiar.
In 1966 two more majors came Nicklaus's way, a third Masters and a first British Open. This meant that at the age of just 26, he had won each of the majors at least once. However, he was not destined to have things all his own way, for, having disposed of one rival to all intents and purposes, another was already on the scene and playing as well as ever.
The small, powerful and fantastically fit South African, Gary Player had first announced himself by winning the British Open in 1959 at the age of just 23. With a victory in the 1961 US Masters he had established himself as Palmer's main rival. However, the big two became the fabled big three as Nicklaus became the man to beat. Player headed Nicklaus in the 1962 USPGA and again in the 1965 US Open meaning he also had won the four majors at least once. His main weapon was a short game that may never be bettered for as long as the game is played. Time and again he saved par or made birdies from the sand in a way that had rivals and commentators gasping in admiration. One interviewer had the temerity to suggest that Player was lucky with the percentage of bunker shots that he put to within inches of the hole. His famous riposte was:
Yes! The more I practise, the luckier I seem to get!
Gary Player was one of the few golfers who did not fear Nicklaus on the course and off the course he became one of his greatest friends.
For a brief time, Britain's Tony Jacklin became a serious rival to Nicklaus, winning the 1969 British Open and the 1970 US Open. However, after a couple more years at the very top of the game, Jacklin and Nicklaus both saw the British Open of 1972 snatched away from them by the charismatic Lee Trevino. Nicklaus regrouped, but sadly Jacklin didn't and it was left to Tom Watson to take up the mantle of his main challenger. In 1977 their rivalry became the stuff of legend with the famous 'Duel in the Sun' at Turnberry in the British Open. The two golfers were a dozen shots better than the rest of the field with Watson edging out Nicklaus by one shot, after a scintillating display of matchplay over the final two days.
On the 72nd hole, Watson was four feet away and Nicklaus nearly 40 feet away. Watson's apparently assured one shot lead appeared to render his four-foot-putt a mere formality, but Nicklaus dug deep and holed the monster putt to force Watson to make his four-footer, which he duly did. The two men then congratulated each other with genuine warmth at the end of the greatest gladiatorial display the championship had ever seen. Watson was the man to beat at the British Open with five wins between 1975 and 1983. In that time Nicklaus won his third and last Open at St Andrews in 1978, but he probably never played better than in that runners-up display in 1977.
The 1986 Masters
By 1986, Nicklaus had been stuck on 17 majors since the USPGA of 1980. At 46 his aura had faded and he was never seriously mentioned as a contender in the majors. Watson's outrageous chip-in from thick rough in the 1982 US Open seemed to have taken with it the last of Nicklaus's chances. He came to Augusta as an also-ran who was a crowd favourite. It did not sit well with this ultimate competitor who growled that he wasn't finished yet. It was an article published by the golf writer of the Atlanta Journal saying that he was 'all washed up' that really hurt his pride, and provided him with the inspiration he needed to go out once more and achieve what many thought was impossible. He started badly with a 74, two over par, in the first round, seemingly confirming his decline. The second round of 71 ensured that he made the cut, but left him well adrift of the leaders, who included Greg Norman, Tom Kite, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros. His upward trajectory was maintained with a 69 that left him two under par and five shots off the lead.
That night on the BBC coverage of The Masters, the commentators were asked if they thought the Golden Bear could make one final charge through the field. Without exception they said it was impossible, but acknowledged how well he had played for a veteran.
The following afternoon Nicklaus stood on the first tee with his son Jackie who was caddying for him. They discussed the type of score he might have to shoot. Jackie thought a 66 would win it, while his father was sure it would have to be one shot less. He made a solid enough start, being one under par for the first nine holes, three under overall, and not quite out of contention. It still seemed unlikely that he could engineer a spectacular last nine to leapfrog the dozen or so players in front of him. The buzz in the crowd started when he stood on the 15th tee at five under par and in contention. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath to see if the sentimental favourite could reignite the aura that had won him so many majors in the past. The 15th is a par five that most professionals see as a birdie chance. Nicklaus, with the adrenalin pumping in a way it probably had not done for a number of years, was on the green in two with a 20' chance for eagle. The ovation for Nicklaus as he stepped onto the green was huge. He was in with a real shout and the crowd were willing him on. What happened next was one of those sporting moments that leaves the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. The hunching style over the putt was as firm and confident as ever, the stroke a reminder of the Nicklaus of old. The putter was in the air before the ball reached the hole, his son leapt into the air in triumph and the crowd gave a roar that travelled around the course. The Golden Bear was on the prowl just two shots off the lead.
The effect on the rest of the field was like a reminder of past glories. Suddenly, from all around came news of missed putts, dropped shots and other players staring nervously at the large scoreboards. Could he keep it together? Not only could he keep it together, it actually got better. His eagle at 15 was followed by birdies at 16 and 17, a magical run of four shots picked up in three holes. It was golf as only Nicklaus could have played it in the situation. The 18th is a tough par four at Augusta, and a hole where many challengers have come to grief in the final round. Nicklaus had the experience of 25 previous Masters to help him, but even he left his second shot 40' short, giving him a treacherous putt over the tiered green.
Some of the crowd could barely watch as the ball left the putter, but Nicklaus was solid to the end, leaving the putt four inches short. As he remarked later on that momentous day, it was a distance that he'd always felt comfortable with. The tap-in was completed and he signed his card for a 65, the score he'd picked as the winning mark on the first tee, thanks to an almost unbelievable last nine of 30, six under par. Father and son embraced, leaving hardly a dry eye on the course or among his millions of fans watching and hoping on television.
Now he had to prepare himself for a likely play-off with Greg Norman who was now tied for the lead and looking very safe for a four at the last. One last time, however, the Jack Nicklaus aura worked its magic. Norman pushed his second shot dreadfully and ended up dropping a shot. The 'Olden Bear', as some humorists were calling him, was Masters champion for the sixth time at the age of 46. It was 23 years after his first Green Jacket and it gave him his 18th and final major amidst scenes of high emotion around the golfing world. Of all his victories, this was undoubtedly the one that meant the most to his fans and, probably, to Nicklaus himself.
The Family Man and the Businessman
Despite being a sportsman of unparalleled ability, Nicklaus has always been, first and foremost, a husband, father and grandfather. His close-knit family has been a joy and an example to all. He married Barbara Bash in 1960 at the age of just 20. Even their honeymoon revolved around golf as his rather circuitous route to their proposed honeymoon location took in almost every golf course along the way. Their first son Jackie was born a year later and Nicklaus decided that for the rest of his career he would be away from the family for no more than two weeks at a time. It was a promise he faithfully kept throughout the next 45 years of his incredible career. The normality of tasks like shopping and plumbing would keep him grounded as a person more effectively than anything else. Four more children, Steve, Nancy, Gary and Michael, followed in the next 12 years. Jack and Barbara have also become grandparents on no less than 17 occasions. He has been strengthened by his family throughout his life and career and it is very likely that he would have had much less success without the love and support of his wife and children.
Like the other two of the big three, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, Nicklaus's career earnings have been minute compared to the earnings of his Golden Bear clothing range and his golf course design. He has proved to be a designer of great flair. His first course was his own at Muirfield Village in Columbus, Ohio, named after the venue of his first British Open victory in 1966. Since then he has designed over a hundred golf courses worldwide.
The Secrets of his Success
In a career that spanned 40 years, 25 of those at the very top, Nicklaus achieved so much that mere figures do not do him justice, but these figures do demand attention.
As well as his 18 professional majors and two amateur championships, Nicklaus added eight more majors on the seniors tour for players over 50. However, it is the sheer number of times he was in contention that is truly remarkable. He finished second in 19 professional majors, and in the top three a total of 48 times. When you look at top ten finishes, the figure reaches a scarcely-credible and unbeatable 73. No less amazing is the thought that between his second place in the US Open as an amateur, and his final top ten finish in the Masters in 1998, there was a gap of 36 years.
So what was it that made Jack Nicklaus the greatest golfer of his generation? If the formula was that easy to discern, then every golfer would have been able to challenge him, but it is possible to pick out some elements of his game and personality: what made Nicklaus the man all others are judged against.
In pure golfing terms he was almost the perfect competitor. He was the longest hitter of a golf ball in his prime, during the 1960s and the 1970s. Allied to this was a putting style that was entirely individual and incredibly effective. Nicklaus would hunch over his putts in an instantly recognisable style and within 15 feet he was almost flawless. The trademark salute, putter raised skywards in triumph, would greet any birdie or eagle, and with his length he created more of these chances than anyone else. Just as importantly he was the consummate holer of par putts that kept a bad round from becoming disastrous, and a good round on track. The fact that he was at the top of the statistics for both areas of the game goes a long way to explain his prodigious success.
He also hated giving anything other than his best. As his powers waned he cut an increasingly-frustrated figure on the golf course. He knew what he wanted to do in his mind, but his body would no longer let him do it. He effectively finished competitive golf after that sixth place in the Masters, but he still had to do his best whenever he appeared. The perfect example was the 2001 US Open where he made a 15' birdie putt on the final hole of his final round in the tournament. After the 2000 British Open, which everyone thought would be his last, a rather stupid interviewer caught him after the end of his second round when it was quite clear that he would not be playing at the weekend. The interview started badly.
So Jack, I suppose this a very emotional moment for you.
The Golden Bear almost literally growled back his disgusted answer.
What? Missing the cut!
Actually, he did play one more Open Championship, in 2005. Past champions have an automatic invitation to the Open until they are 65. Nicklaus had not been intending to take up this chance as he wanted to play his last Open at St Andrews which was pencilled in for 2006. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club who run the Championship simply moved St Andrews one year forward in the rota, quite possibly the ultimate tribute to the greatest golfer of his era. He even found himself on a special issue of Scottish five pound notes for his last tournament. Two million were issued and he became only the third living person to appear on the notes after The Queen and the Queen Mother. Once his tears and the tears of his fans everywhere had dried in the aftermath of his final round at St Andrews, even Nicklaus had to admit that it had been special despite missing the cut again.
However, there were other aspects of his game that were less obvious but no less vital. As already mentioned he had an aura that would beat most of his playing partners at the first hole. He had endless reserves of concentration ensuring that nothing could distract him on or off the course. His respect for opponents and the game itself ensured that he never took either of them for granted. Finally, he had a secure family base that allowed him to remain totally grounded despite the adulation and riches that came his way.
Perhaps the last word should remain with Nicklaus himself, for whom the game was always more important than individual glory. In the 1969 Ryder Cup, he represented America for the first time and found himself up against Tony Jacklin. Halfway down the final fairway, Nicklaus called across to his opponent:
How do you feel, Tony?
Jacklin's reply was short and sweet:
From any other competitor that would have been seen as gamesmanship, but Nicklaus understood what his rival was going through. On the final green Jacklin had a nervy three foot putt to ensure that the Ryder Cup was shared for the first time ever. As he stepped forward, Nicklaus picked the ball up and shook hands, to Jacklin's astonishment and the annoyance of many of Nicklaus's teammates, including furious captain Sam Snead. He simply said:
I don't think you would have missed that Tony, but I didn't want to give you the chance!