Jack of All Clubs

06 10, 2008

Published in the June 2008 issue of The Bay Street Bull

Last month at the Players Championship the PGA bestowed Jack William Nicklaus (who won the inaugural Players in 1974 and is the only golfer to win the tournament three times) with the highest honor left in their golf bag—the tour’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Nicklaus, 68, the proud father of five and grandfather of 21, is often regarded as the greatest golfer to ever grip a club. Sure arguments can be made for others who dominated their eras: trailblazer Bobby Jones (1923-1930) and the man with the golden swing Ben Hogan (1940-1960) knew no equals during their respective heydays but Nicklaus’ quarter-century reign as golf’s preeminent player from the early 1960s up until the mid eighties puts the golden bear on top of the all-time leader board by a couple strokes.

In his prime Nicklaus swung his clubs with such control and confidence, it was almost as if he made mental metronomic adjustments in his head depending on the distance and trajectory he required and then just made it happen. J.W.’s ability to conjure up wondrous strokes on demand didn’t stop once he reached the putting green. Many pros throw up (golfer parlance for letting your nerves get the best of you) when the pressure is on. Buckling just wasn’t the Bear’s way. Faced with a treacherous double breaking 40-footer on the 16th hole of the 1975 Masters, Nicklaus knew he could find the line, concentrated intently, and then tapped his ball hole-ward bound.

As a kid Jack was a jock of all sports excelling in every game he took a whiff at from track & field to table tennis. But when you shoot 91 from the men’s tees at the tender age of ten, shave that down to 81 the following year and are breaking 70 while your voice is still breaking at 13, the tingly sting of the golf bug can bite you like fire ants at a Georgia pig pickin’. The terms “natural” and “prodigy” are thrown out way too loosely by fawning sports writers looking for the surefire way to explain off-the-charts performance. Nicklaus’ majestic long and high lofting drives and his pin-point iron shots did not come as the result of punching a winning genetic lottery ticket. Nicklaus’ ambition exceeded his greatest tape measure shots. As a young buck he would sky 500 practice balls a day at the Scioto Country Club driving range in Columbus Ohio, hitting from dawn to dusk. Nicklaus wouldn’t even let the elements deprive him of his golf fix, clearing a spot to hit balls from in the dead of winter. After trouncing the field at the Ohio Open in 1956 as a teenaged sensation there was no turning back for Nicklaus.


"Everybody says there’s only one favorite, and that’s me. But you better watch the fat boy," quipped Arnold Palmer to the press when they asked him who would win the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

Palmer’s backhanded compliment might seem churlish to those unfamiliar with Nicklaus, but even his wife Barbara called him “fat boy” back then, which was a vast improvement over “Blobbo” which was what his Ohio State fraternity brothers called the big boned blonde kid with the crew cut who could have easily played fullback for the Buckeyes. Remember this was a decade before he’d stop popping shrimp cocktails like candy, lose the paunch, and let his golden locks grow long.

Now lets return to the tournament. Deadlocked at one under par after four rounds in Oakmont, Nicklaus proved the King’s little shoutout to be right on the money, as Fat Jack went on to out-duel Palmer by three strokes in the deciding 18-hole playoff.

“Now that the big guy’s out of the cage, everybody better run for cover,” relented Arnold Palmer when it was over, tipping his hat to the 22-year old rookie ten years his junior.

This was Jack William Nicklaus’ first victory as a professional golfer, and achieving the milestone in Palmer’s home State of Pennsylvania in front of a gallery of golf fans almost uniformly enlisted in Arnie’s Army made the accomplishment even more of a watershed moment. Palmer”s conciliatory quip proved to be quite a prescient prediction, it also began the golfing titans 50 year rivalry which continues to this day.

But golf fans didn’t immediately embrace the upstart. Unlike Palmer, a down-to-earth magnetic character who was fully aware that he was in the sports entertainment business, Nicklaus was often too keyed into the golf to realize that his was a television sport. And while Palmer was always acknowledging and connecting with his gallery of fans while blasting off shots with joyful abandon, Nicklaus came off more aloof.

Nicklaus wasn’t much of an extrovert and when he emerged on the scene he had what we’d characterize today as an “image problem.” He seemed to walk the fairways with tunnel vision. Not only did he tune out everything around him but his powers of concentration were so jacked up before each swing that it was as if he was plotting a multivariable regression line to the hole and using an internal anemometer to factor in wind speed.

So, who would you rather play a round with in the early sixties? Someone like Palmer who marched to his balls and stroked his clubs with the vim of a lumberjack wailing away at a giant oak trunk, or with Nicklaus, a master technician who had shot making down to a science and often wore the equation mulling expression of a professor of algebraic topology while hovering over his lie.

It’s not surprising that despite topping the PGA Money list for the last time in 1963, Arnie’s star and brand power would pay much higher dividends than Jack’s or any other golfer over the decades, continuing to reap fruits long after Palmer’s playing days were over. Palmer picked up his last PGA tour win in 1973, yet in the 1980s his star continued to rise banking at least $5 million annually from endorsement contracts, more than any other athlete in the world until the Michael Jordan advertising slam-dunk finally knocked Palmer down a few pegs in 1991 easily trumping the celebrated golfer’s $9 million take that year.

While Palmer was pitchman supreme, on the golf course Jack was, to crib the LL Cool J lyric, something like a phenomenon. His eighteen major victories dwarf Palmer’s seven and by the time the seventies rolled round every golf fan from Pebble Beach to Hilton Head was familiar with the infectious ear-to-ear smile that would crease Jack’s face whenever he holed one. But more infectious than Jack’s smile for the sports obsessed hoi polloi was that he was a winner.

From 1962 to 1986, the brilliant ball striker finessed fairways, deftly plotted out approaches and putted with jitter-less confidence amassing 73 PGA wins including a record eighteen major titles. The epic scope of his career accomplishments in the game of golf could be used either to teach kindergarten math or alternately to re-jig the 12 days of Christmas song for golf fans:

12 years played on the Senior Circuit
11 Jack Nicklaus designed Golf Clubs dot South Carolina
10 Champions Tour titles
9 Jack Nicklaus designed courses in his homestate of Ohio
8 time PGA Tour leading money-winner
7 runner-up finishes at the British Open6 Masters
5 PGA Championships
4 U.S. Opens
3 British Opens
2 U.S. Amateurs
1 NCAA Championship

Nicklaus’ impressive wardrobe of green jackets and his hefty haul of glistening Wanamaker trophies, claret jugs, and other symbols of golfing grandeur alone elevate the golfer into a league of his own. But, to get a true sense of the extent of Nicklaus’ leaderboard supremacy in major championships it would be negligent not to note that he also accumulated a record nineteen runner-up finishes. Major Sundays when the golden bear was not in hunt were indeed far and few between.

Farewell My Birdy
At 2005 British Open, a 65-year-old Jack Nicklaus walking with a bit of a hitch thanks to an artificial hip, gave it one more go at the old course at St. Andrews. There could not be a more appropriate place for Nicklaus to wave farewell to competitive golf than in Scotland’s golf mecca. This was the same stage that twice ended three year major championship droughts for Nicklaus, first in 1970 and then again in 1978. And so on the second day of the tournament there was a palpable sense of destiny in the air at St Andrews as Nicklaus strode to meet his ball which lay 15-feet from the 18th cup on a slight downhill slope.

"I knew that hole would move wherever I hit it," Nicklaus commented afterward.

“I aimed six inches left of the hole, played a six-inch break, hit it and the ball was going along and every other putt going that way missed the hole, but this one gobbled it in. It was like Pac-Man."

Draining the putt wasn’t enough to make the cut and play on the next day. So as far as the tournament was concerned the putt was of no consequence, but it did give him a final 72 on the round, good enough for even par which is a mighty fine way to cap off a legendary career.

The Parade of Honors

The PGA’s Lifetime Achievement Award is just another in a long string of similar honors Nicklaus has been receiving in increasing frequency in the past couple decades. Such recognition can be bittersweet for most athletes, a sign that while they may be legends of the game their greatest contributions to their sport and to this world are well behind them. Nicklaus is an exception. He’s still making golf history. As beautifully as he once shaped the flight-path of a golf ball from left-to-right, he has extended his legend with a vibrant second career helming one of the most sought after golf design firms in the world. It’s been over 30 years since he unveiled Oakville, Ontario’s Glen Abbey, his first solo design masterpiece. Over 300 other courses have since opened up to the delight of golfers in 30 countries and dozens more are on the drawing board. Nicklaus course designs fetch up to $2.5 million per course and Golf Digest estimates his yearly income (not including investment returns) at $20.9 million, a real testament to not only his fairway contouring aptitude but also Nicklaus’ staying power. And while his entrepreneurial rival Arnie still makes more bread, the gap between the two has been closing fast in recent years. At this late stage in the game when both have private jets and museums named in their honour, there really is no more residual envy left over from their playing days though you can bet Arnie is a tad jealous of the greater acclaim and higher price tag Nicklaus’ fairway contouring designs receives over his own. Outside of golf course architecture Nicklaus’ other business interests include Nicklaus equipment, Nicklaus Apparel, and Nicklaus Academies.

Tiger Woods already has 13 major championships in the bag and should surpass Jack’s magic 18-major mark in a few years time. No matter how many of Jack’s records disappear into the ether of sports history, his sprawling fairway footprint assures that his legacy as an architect and ambassador of the game will one day share even marquee space with his athletic achievements. Jack didn’t just play the game better than anybody else in his generation, he also has proved himself to be one of the game’s most dedicated stewards, working to assure that the future of golf will continue to be golden.

Impress your Golf Buddies with these 5 Golden Nicklaus Nuggets

1) Jack earned $33.33 for finishing in his professional debut at the Los Angeles Open in 1962 after finishing tied for for 50th.

2) Jack is so money that The Royal Bank of Scotland released two million five-pound notes with a picture of Jack smiling wearing a familiar argyle sweater and clutching the claret jug. Nicklaus was only the third living person after the Queen and Queen Mother to be turned into Scottish currency.

3) In 1963, Jazz pianist Billy Maxted wrote a song honouring his friend Jack called “The Golden Bear.” Appropriately the song is on an album titled The Big Swingers.

4) If Jack knew he could only play one more round of golf in his life, he’d play it at Pebble Beach.

5) At the 1980 U.S. Open, a 40-year-old Jack Nicklaus became the only golfer to win a major championship in three decades. Six years later at Augusta he added “oldest golfer to win a Masters” to his long list of records.

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