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Jack Nicklaus is still more interested in the game than his place in the game

Jack Nicklaus
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Jack Nicklaus poses with Branden Grace and Richard Sterne of the International Team on Thursday.

DUBLIN, Ohio -- The most interesting thing to happen so far in this 10th playing of the Presidents Cup came Wednesday night, in downtown Columbus, when Jack Nicklaus spoke at the opening ceremonies. He was talking about his captaincy of the American team in the 2003 edition, in South Africa, when the matches ended in a tie, with Ernie Els and Tiger Woods still on the course, duking it out at sunset.

“To this day,” Big Jack said, “it is the greatest sporting event with which I have ever been involved.”

From the man who won the ’62 U.S. Open and the ’86 Masters and scores of memorable sporting events in between, that’s an extraordinary statement.

There’s more in those 16 words than we could ever fully know, but we know some of it. Nicklaus suggested the tie to his great friend, Gary Player, the captain of the International team and the person for whom Jack and Barbara Nicklaus named their fourth child. Without Gary Player -- without Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper and Johnny Miller and Tom Watson and Tom Weiskopf and Hale Irwin and various others -- the life and times of Jack W. Nicklaus are far less rich. That Player accepted the tie on the spot tells you all you need to know about their bond.

Any reference to that ’03 tie brings to mind the 1969 Ryder Cup matches, the first Nicklaus played in. That’s when he conceded a short but missable putt to Tony Jacklin on the last hole, in the last match, a sporting gift that meant the matches would finish in a 16-16 tie. Nicklaus’s reputation as a gracious sportsman has only grown since that day.

Twice on Wednesday night, Dan Hicks, as the emcee of the event, referred to Nicklaus as “the greatest of all-time,” as it were statement of fact. Muhammad Ali, of course, did the same thing, except he was talking about himself. Some would disagree with Hicks. They would argue in favor of Hogan or Snead or, most commonly, Woods. But I think Hicks had it right, and those 16 words Nicklaus said Wednesday day night have a something to do with it. He’s led a golfing life for the ages.

To most professionals, golf is winning and losing and your place on the money list. That’s understandable. But the essence of golf is way more than that, and Nicklaus had that figured out by age 29. He put the game ahead of himself on that day with Jacklin. Now, as one of golf’s elder statesman, he’s still more interested in the game than his place in the game. Witness his comments Wednesday night in Columbus, the Wonder Bread town where he grew up, where he played football in the fall and baseball in the spring and golf in the long days of summer.

The other day, I was with Curtis Strange, and I asked him a question that is really a ridiculous one to ask a professional golfer. I asked him when the game brought him the most pleasure. It’s ridiculous because golf isn’t, when you get right down to it, a pleasure, or even a game, to most people who play it for their livelihood. But Curtis wasn’t put off the question at all.

Strange answered without hesitating, and the answer had nothing to do with winning the ’88 and ’89 U.S. Opens or being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007 or beating Lee Trevino and Tom Kite and Greg Norman in playoffs at Tour events. He said, “playing in college, winning those national titles at Wake.” Wake Forest won in ’74 and ’75 and the players from that era, including Jay Haas and David Thore, remain close friends today. What he loved, of course, was being on a team, having teammates, caring about something other than himself. What he had then is something that’s hard to find in Tour life: camaraderie.

Nicklaus was lucky. He had it. Surely not in his early years, but eventually. Woods has not, and likely hasn’t wanted it, and that has a lot to do with his greatness. Davis Love and Fred Couples and Ernie Els did, and maybe if camaraderie meant less to them they would have achieved more as players.

Phil Mickelson is harder to figure. He has a relationship with his fans that is unique in the game. All professional golfers experience loneliness, on the course, in the hotel room at three in the morning sitting on a 54-hole lead, but a guess is that Mickelson is less susceptible to it. He has certainly had had a lot of big times in recent years, playing with and hanging out with Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, Dustin Johnson and Keegan Bradley. He and Matt Kuchar, over various dinner tables and ping-pong tables, enjoy topping each other in this thing or that. A good time. But on six occasions that we all know about -- Father’s Day 1999 and 2002, ’04, ’06, 09 and ’13 -- we don’t know how alone he felt at the end of the day.

The point here is that these Presidents Cups and Ryder Cups are rare opportunities for these touring pros, who live in a world where every shot makes somebody happy. One player’s misfortune will almost always be another player’s good fortune. It’s the dog-eat-dog nature of professional golf and it’s a beautiful thing. But what Nicklaus was saying Wednesday night is that it’s not the only thing.

Many have surmised that given his step-on-your-neck personality, it cannot be very easy for Woods, for one week a year, to suddenly play team golf again, as if he were back in college, but maybe that’s wrong. Strange was the Ryder Cup captain of the 2002 U.S. team, and I asked him how Woods fit in with the other players that year. Candor has never been a problem for him, regarding Tiger or anything else. He answered in a word: “Perfect.” On Thursday, Woods and Kuchar, batting fifth in the six-team lineup, rolled to a 5 & 4 victory over Angel Cabrera and Marc Leishman. Winning is always a good time, and Kuchar and Woods took turns playing some beautiful golf. So it was easy.

But Nicklaus, if you take him literally and I am, was saying something far deeper than that. He’s saying it’s OK to tie. In fact, if you look at his career, what he told us 19 times in majors alone is that it’s OK to lose, too. Nicklaus knows what he duffers have always known. The game is being on a course, with your friends, trying your damnedest, and what happens is what happens. What they’re doing here at Muirfield Village this week, at the course that Jack built? It’s what we do whenever we can.

 

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