Golf has never had a greater champion than Jack Nicklaus

Golf has never had a greater champion than Jack Nicklaus

Tiger Woods, right, is four majors away from tying Jack Nicklaus's record of 18.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

In 2007, Alan Shipnuck and I had a debate in this cyberspace about who was the greatest golfer of all-time. My young colleague took Tiger. I took Jack. I've been taking him ever since. After listening to his hour-long press conference from the Honda Classic Wednesday morning, I'm proud to be taking him all over again.

Woods is, surely, the greatest golf talent ever, greater even than John Daly. (Yes, that JD, who for a while there could get a golf ball to do anything.) Woods, surely, is the most dominant professional golfer of all-time, more so than even Young Tom Morris and Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer. (Bobby Jones, as an amateur, was the most dominant golfer ever, winning 13 majors in eight years.) But Nicklaus is the greatest golfer.

There were dozens of reporters ready to pose questions to Big Jack on Wednesday morning. Here are some of the reasons why:

• This April will mark 25 years since Jack's win at Augusta in '86, at age 46, in an era when 46 was considered old for a golfer. He said on Wednesday that he felt he was out of the tournament on Sunday when he made a bogey on 12. And then he went crazy, playing the final six holes in 20 shots and winning his record 18th major.

• Nobody is more qualified than Nicklaus to talk about whether Woods, who has been stuck on 14 majors since his U.S. Open win at Torrey Pines in 2008, will ever break Nicklaus's record. Nicklaus said on Wednesday that he still believes that Tiger, now 35, would get to 19 or more, because of "his work ethic," among other reasons. Nicklaus did say he was surprised "it has taken as long as it has" for Woods to return to his dominant form.

• At 71, Nicklaus has become the game's most authoritative grand old man. He's been at the center of golf since the mid-1950s. He's seen trends come and go. So when he says this is an interesting moment in golf, with the five highest-ranked players all European natives, he's considering other European heydays, including the Seve Era, the Jacklin Era and even, because he knows the game's history so well, the Vardon Era.

He joked on Wednesday that he would barely qualify as an avid golfer under the guidelines of the National Golf Foundation, having played maybe 15 rounds last year. His design business is working on more courses, most of them overseas, than Jack will play this year. He takes the grandfathering thing very seriously and you'll see Jack at high school football games up and down the South Florida Atlantic coastline.

The next time you'll see Nicklaus swing a club in anger is at the Augusta Par-3 tournament. That event might be a hit-and-giggle for some of the players, but Nicklaus can't hit a golf ball and not take it seriously. Last year, playing with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, he tapped some of the most beautiful, controlled wedge shots that anybody of any age could play.

My friend Neil Oxman caddied for Tom Watson in January in Hawaii when the ancient team of Watson and Nicklaus won the 18-hole Champions Skins Game over a bunch of kids, like Mark O'Meara and Fred Couples. Neil told me that Nicklaus drove it in play and hit it about 260 off the tee and at one point hit a beautiful punch, 140-yard, into-the-wind 6-iron. Nicklaus said of the shot that he "took the spin right off it," the kind of class shot that is played by golfers who actually know what they're doing.

And that's why Nicklaus is the greatest golfer of all-time in my book, or part of the reason, anyway. It's not just the 18 majors, although that's a lot of it. It's the fact that he could talk with such appreciation about the 140-yard 6-iron he hit on a January day in 2011 with such love of craft.

And it's that he could talk with equal verve about the day in 1953 when Joe Dey of the USGA warned Jackie, age 13, about the importance of getting to the first tee well before your tee time. Nicklaus never had the problem Dustin Johnson did last month at Riviera.

Part of Nicklaus's greatness is the 19 second-place finishes he had in majors, which says more about the men that had enough bottle to beat him down the stretch than it does about Jack. And in that category, the bigger part of his greatness is the class with which he handled those runner-up finishes. He never said second sucks. He shook the winner's hand and answered questions meaningfully.

Sam Snead won more tournaments. Woods, I still believe, will win more majors, although 18 is a much better bet. (One every other year for the next 10 years? It will be hard to do, but I would never bet against him.) But Nicklaus is the greatest of all-time, to me, for his body of work.

To describe that body of work you'd need a book. But it includes the vast charity work Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, have done, including this week's Honda Classic, which raises money for the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation. It includes raising five kids, too. It includes his grace and patience with sportswriters and fans and sponsors. It includes the excellent pro bono work he did on rehabbing the muni course in his backyard in North Palm Beach. It includes his good manners, as when, upon being asked about Tiger's marital woes, said, "It's none of my business."

Maybe you're not even 25 and you didn't have the utter joy of watching Nicklaus win that '86 Masters. {C}The highlights are all over YouTube{C} and Golf Channel. But the point here is that you haven't missed your chance to feel Nicklaus's greatness. Watch him play that little Par-3 tournament at Augusta in April. {C}Read the transcript of his press conference at the Honda on Wednesday{C} and see the effort he put into each answer. A few weeks from now, find out how much the Honda Classic raised in the name of improving children's health. This guy did it all.