Gary Player: Belief in himself is what made Jack Nicklaus special

January 20, 2020

Jack Nicklaus is more than a golfer, he’s an idea. It’s one thing to be the greatest champion the game has ever known, but to also be the quintessence of class, dignity and sportsmanship? Well, Jack represents something bigger than himself. In honor of The Golden Bear turning 80 on Tuesday (Jan. 21), GOLF.com is spending Nicklaus’ birthday week — with a little help from his friends — honoring the man himself. You can find even more Jack at 80 coverage in GOLF’s February issue.

Jack’s effort at the 1986 Masters Tournament, in my opinion, is the best example of just how fierce the Golden Bear was as a competitor. At 46, nearly everyone in the golf world considered Jack washed up. The “Olden Bear,” I recall hearing. They said he was going bankrupt, and they poked at his personal life; that he needed to go ahead and join Arnold and me on the Senior Tour.

All the distractions going on behind the scenes would have destroyed most. Many professionals, especially today, would have just withdrawn or not even come to Augusta, thinking they couldn’t play well enough dealing with those personal problems. But Jack learned to deal with adversity early in his career — everyone, and I mean everyone, favored Arnold over Jack, which Jack used as motivation to spark a proverbial fire under the feet of the greatest golfer and competitor our game has ever known. And he needed every fragment of his mental fortitude to properly prepare for the tournament and then go out and execute.

His overpowering physical tools were nearly gone in his 40s. It was Jack’s mind that made him so successful, and it was still the best in the game — I think he has the greatest mind in the history of golf. That’s why he could physically and emotionally hold up at 46 to win the Masters. That’s why he could focus solely on his goal of winning the tournament while coming from behind.

The belief in himself is what made Jack special. I recall a brief conversation we had that Saturday in the Champions Locker Room. He was in contention, and obviously I knew he was battling emotions trying to block out all the noise. It was a small gesture, but I looked at him and said, “You can do it.” And without missing a beat, he looked me right back in the eye with focus and determination and simply said, “I know I can.” Jack was not to be denied.

Reporting by Evan Rothman.