One last golden moment for golf's Golden Bear
Bobby Jones, the legendary amateur golfer, once told Jack Nicklaus that no true champion's career was complete without a victory at the Old Course at St. Andrews on Scotland's uncompromising coast. So, being the good student of the game that he is, Nicklaus went out and won two of his three British Opens on the undulating turf of the course that is the birthplace - the shaggy shrine - of golf.
This week, as he competes in his 38th and last British Open, he may be laying down his own axiom for the next generation: If you have to retire, do it on golf's grandest stage.
When he walks off the 18th green at St. Andrews this week, officially ending his competition in major championships, he will be leaving behind a legacy of being, arguably, the greatest golfer of all time - and one of the most dominant athletes in any sport in the past half century.
Characteristically for Nicklaus, he's not in Scotland to revel in past triumphs or the adoration of tweedy British fans. He's there to win.
Even at 65, Nicklaus thinks he just might have one more magical week in him. "I'm here as a competitor," he said at a press conference this week. "And we'll find out whether that competitor can play through to Sunday and try do the best he can."
Scotland is also an appropriate stage for Nicklaus's curtain call because of the imprint he's put on the game. To many, he has revolutionized how golf is played. The sheepherders who chose to swing their wooden staffs at spherical stones centuries ago would hardly recognize the sport his talents spawned. His powerful swing, and towering ball-flight, ushered in a new era of 300-yard drives and 7,000-yard courses that are now the standard on the PGA Tour.
But for all his physical gifts, it was Nicklaus's mental toughness that many of his fellow pros remember the most. "There wasn't any one thing that made Jack better than the rest of us. But as his opponent, you could never expect him to make a mistake," says Lanny Wadkins, one of Nicklaus's toughest competitors in the 1970s.
Wadkins recalls his rookie year when he played in the same group with Nicklaus in the US Open at Pebble Beach - a tournament Nicklaus won. "Jack just had a presence. He understood how good he was," he says. "He wasn't cocky about it, but he would give you a look like: You take your best shot - it's not going to be good enough. He knew he was better, and he knew that you knew he was better."
Nicklaus's trophy case is well stocked. Throughout his career, he's won 18 major championships (Tiger Woods, by comparison, has won 9). Less heralded but also remarkable, he came in second 19 times in majors. He's captured 113 titles worldwide and finished in the top three 167 times. He's registered 19 holes-in-one.
Nicklaus's career is also notable for its longevity. Every decade there seemed to be a new competitor to duel and a new look. He started out winning a US Amateur championship in the 1950s. In the 1960s, he emerged to challenge a legend, Arnold Palmer. Palmer was bigger than life. He was the Beatles with a wedge instead of a guitar. He had his own army. Here was Nicklaus, with his Marine haircut and linebacker build, dethroning a king. In a sport known for its civility, he was booed. "Fat Jack," they called him.
By the 1970s, he was dominating - and winning over fans. He sported the shaggy John Denver hairstyle of the time. He wore argyle sweaters. His moniker became the "Golden Bear." New foes surfaced - South Africa's Gary Player, Lee "the Merry Mex" Trevino, the precision iron player Johnny Miller, and, most notably, Tom Watson.
Watson and Nicklaus, in fact, began a rivalry that led to some of the greatest moments in modern golf. In 1977 at the British Open at Turnberry, Scotland, the two traded birdies coming down the stretch on Sunday. Watson won by one stroke. More than a few golfers who were there have decreed it one of the greatest final-round competitions ever played.
In 1986, at the age of 46, Nicklaus stunned the golf world with a dramatic win at the Masters, capturing his sixth and final green jacket. As recently as 1998, he was still in contention in Augusta, Ga., this time against Woods and the other young guns, finishing a surprising sixth.
Over the years, Nicklaus has been admired as much for his sportsmanship as for the numbers on his score cards. "Jack unquestionably has been the dominant golfer of all time," says Player. "But more than that, he has always played the game in its truest spirit."
His manners extended to his relations with the media. While many of today's professional athletes clash with the press, Nicklaus was never one to shun post-round press conferences, no matter how he played. "If a question was off-point - or just plain dumb - he might give a short answer, but he would usually follow up by interpreting the question in a way that would salvage the pride of the questioner and produce some quotes that would help everybody in the room" says John Garrity, a long-time golf writer for Sports Illustrated.
Now there will be one last post-round press conference - as a winner, Nicklaus hopes. As he put it this week, in a moment of reflection: "Once the competition is over for me - obviously, I still look at a scenario when I walk down there late Sunday afternoon - at that point in time, it will be something different. I'll be looking at my last tournament."
The Golden Bear dominated the PGA tour for three decades.
Most all time major wins:
Jack Nicklaus 18
Walter Hagen 11
Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Tiger Woods (all tied) 9
Most all-time tour victories:
Sam Snead 82
Jack Nicklaus 72
Ben Hogan 64