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Jack Nicklaus Documentary Celebrates His Wins and His Losses

Sneak Preview of USGA's Jack Nicklaus Documentary
USGA historian Mike Trostel talks with Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Bamberger about a new Jack Nicklaus documentary made to coincide with The Golden Bear's 75th birthday.

A search for “Jack Nicklaus” on The New York Times website returns 6,587 articles. The oldest piece is a preview of the 1956 U.S. Junior Amateur in Williamstown, Mass; the most recent is a wrap-up of Ohio State’s resounding win in the big game last Monday, which references a giddy tweet from @jacknicklaus (“OH---IO! OHIO! OHIO! OHIO!”). Over at the Sports Illustrated Vault, you could kill a long weekend poring over the magazine’s 2,700-plus Jack stories. And on Amazon.com, you can find all sorts of Golden Bear-abilia: books, instruction videos, a Tattersal Long Sleeve Button Down Woven Shirt from Big Jack’s apparel line ($36.54, shipping not included). Among the literary offerings: Jack Nicklaus: My Story (1997), Jack Nicklaus: Golf’s Greatest Champion (2002), Jack Nicklaus: Memories and Mementos from Golf’s Golden Bear (2007). There’s also a six-part video series, released in 2005, that chronicles Nicklaus’s rise from tyke to titan. It’s called Jack: The Complete Story.

Point is, is there anything left to learn about the man?

The USGA thinks so, which is why it commissioned filmmaker and former HBO president Ross Greenburg to scour the archives, interrogate Nicklaus’ peers and delve into Jack’s psyche. The resulting 42-minute documentary, Nicklaus: The Making of a Champion, will air on Sunday at noon EST on Fox, in the lead-up to the Seahawks-Packers game. According to Greenburg and USGA officials, who joined Nicklaus in a teleconference with reporters on Wednesday, the film will go beyond just celebrating Nicklaus’s sundry achievements -- 18 major wins, eight USGA titles, 390-plus course designs, yadda yadda yadda -- to explain exactly how Nicklaus excelled.

“We tried to explore those values that set Jack apart -- the competitive spirit, the self belief, commitment, integrity, perseverance and vision,” said Michael Trotsel, the USGA's curator and historian, who helped develop the doc.

Added Greenburg: “You know, the most amazing thing is to see Tom Watson in the film discussing how gracious Jack was in defeat, and the little words of wisdom he would give the players that had just beaten him on the 18th hole. That was really a nice quality of Jack's that you don't often see. It speaks to his love of Bobby Jones and an understanding of what it is to not only to win but how to lose. So that actually was probably the most interesting storyline.”

This is the eighth film the USGA has released and the third produced by Greenburg’s team. Nicklaus, not surprisingly, has been a popular subject. In 2012, Greenburg made a film for the USGA on Nicklaus’s first U.S. Open win, in ’62, when he toppled Arnold Palmer at Oakmont. Nicklaus says he has enjoyed the process and flipping through his mind’s scrapbook.

“I think it's kind of neat,” he said. “I never really paid a whole lot of attention to what I did, but to have somebody sort of exaggerate, glorify it you might say, is very flattering. It's been years since I've done any of that stuff. To go back and look at it and see some of it and see some of the shots you played, it's kind of fun.”

Trotsel, who interviewed Nicklaus several times for the film, said he was floored by Nicklaus’s keen memory. “He'd always start off [interviews] by saying, ‘Oh, that was 50 years ago, I don't remember anything, and then would proceed to recall every detail perfectly, down to the exact yardage he had, the club he hit and the thoughts he had in his head. It really was amazing.”

The airing of the documentary coincides with yet another Nicklaus milestone: his 75th birthday, on Jan. 21. (He’s planning a quiet celebration with family and friends at the Bear’s Club.) Nicklaus is as sharp and engaging as ever, but he has not been immune from the rigors of aging. When asked what his misses most about his heyday, he didn’t hesitate.

“My golf game,” Nicklaus said. “Golf was my vehicle to competition. I mean, I dearly love the game of golf and I love playing the game of golf, but when you lose your vehicle to competition and the competition is what really excited you more than anything else, then it's really -- you lose your enthusiasm.”

Nicklaus had a golf date scheduled with some tennis buddies on Wednesday afternoon. He said he planned on giving his pals their customary eight shots, and at the end of the round someone would go home $20 richer. It makes for a hell of a story if you’re a 10-handicapper taking money off the greatest golfer of all time, but the competition isn’t quite so thrilling for Jack.

“Not exactly my idea of a U.S. Open,” he joked.

Nope, those days are over. But rest assured they’ll be revisited, rehashed and remembered forever.

Is Jack Nicklaus the greatest golfer of all-time? Join the conversation in the comments section below?

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