In victory and defeat, Jack Nicklaus did it all with class

April 19, 2012

A couple weeks ago, before the House of Representatives voted to give Jack Nicklaus the Congressional Gold Medal, I was talking to Sandy Tatum about Big Jack’s career. Tatum, the former USGA president, has known, and made a study of, all the giants of the modern game, from Bobby Jones to Tiger Woods.
He was making the point that Nicklaus is the greatest golfer of all time not just because of his 18 wins in majors, and not just because of his 19 seconds in majors, but also because of the dignity with which he won, and, more importantly, with which he lost. Others have made the same point. If Jack gets the gold medal, his Congressional citation will surely echo it. But when you hear it from Tatum, who is 91, it takes on particular poignancy.
As Tatum talked, I thought about the Duel in the Sun, when Nicklaus and Tom Watson went at it like heavyweights at the 1977 British Open at Turnberry. But when Watson won by a shot, Nicklaus draped his meaty arm over Watson’s shoulder and led him off the final green. It was a great day of golf and for golf. Watson has said many times since then that Nicklaus helped make his career and Jack has said the same thing of Watson.
And that’s something that’s overlooked when you consider the life and times of Jack Nicklaus. Everyone knows about his prolific winning. He’s also had two other golf careers, as golf-course architect and author, that have been amazingly productive. Much has been said about how, in the 1960s, Jack and Arnold Palmer and their rivalry defined the game and gave every ordinary sports fan somebody to root for in golf. (Tiger never had anything like that, and it’s made his career less interesting.) But what about Jack’s role in the most entertaining decade in the history of golf, the bell-bottomed, floppy-haired, big-collared ‘70s? Attention must be paid.
Now maybe I’m prejudiced because I came of golf age in the height of the Lou Graham Era, but just take a look at Jack’s Wikipedia page. There’s a convenient chart that breaks down Jack’s performance in the four majors decade by decade. So for the 1970s, there are 40 boxes. Eight of them are, appropriately, green, signifying wins. The boxes for his other top-10 finishes are yellow, and there are 27 of them. The finishes that are below top-10 are white. Out of 40 boxes, only FIVE ARE WHITE. Thirty-five of his 40 finishes in the ‘70s are 10th or better! You know what that means — Jack Nicklaus came to play every single time. Nobody has ever had a 10-year period like that. Not Ben Hogan, not Arnold Palmer, not Tiger Woods.
Nicklaus did golf a tremendous service in that period because if you won a major in the 1970s, or even contended for one, you did it against Big Jack in his prime. And you did it in a decade when golf’s commitment to rules and sportsmanship stood in stark contrast to the anything-goes ethos that was so prevalent then. The golfers wore colorful costumes and hair that flapped in the breeze, but decorum still prevailed. It was some combo. It got me hooked and maybe it did the same for you.
Along the way, the legend of Jack made other golfing lives legendary. In other words, the stakes for Lou Graham’s win in the 1975 U.S. Open have been raised for all time because Jack was in the mix. Tom Weiskopf’s win in the ’73 British Open, the same. Ditto for Lanny Wadkins’s win in the 1977 PGA Championship.
You don’t really think of Wadkins and Weiskopf as players who each won only one major. It seems as if they won more than that, doesn’t it? That’s because when they did win they beat Nicklaus to do it, and when they contended and came up short in other majors, Nicklaus was hanging around then, too. His presence raised the stakes for everybody.
And through the ‘70s, Nicklaus helped make the careers of other players more interesting. Watson would be the most prominent name on that list, but others would include Johnny Miller, Ben Crenshaw, Seve Ballesteros, Andy North, Larry Nelson, Hale Irwin, Dave Stockton, Raymond Floyd, Lee Trevino and Hubert Green. When you think about those players, each of them had a distinctive swing, look, personality. They were playing for the hardware, the money and the simple joy of beating your ass, especially if your name was Jack William Nicklaus.
From the Tiger Era, the only other player, in addition to Woods, who would have been right at home in the ‘70s would be Vijay and possibly Phil and Ernie. I’d put Chris DiMarco on the list, but winning at least one major is a requirement for inclusion. Why? Because it means you got it done at least once.
Nobody, of course, got it done like Nicklaus got it done. For the past 26 years, ever since Nicklaus won his last major — the 1986 Masters — Jack has turned into the avuncular uncle. He’s moved into this phase in his life gracefully and this gold medal from Congress is emblematic of that. So is his membership at Augusta National, his role at the Memorial and at the Honda Classic, his celebrated captaincy of various feel-good President Cup teams.
But competitive golf is all about beating people and losing with class. If you’re tipping your Amana hat to Jack right now, you can be sure he’s got a thumb and a forefinger on the brim of his circa 1971 pork-pie, coming right back at you. Where would golf be without him? The vote by the House now goes to the Senate. If anybody there votes against him, they haven’t been paying attention. Arnold has a Congressional Gold Medal. Jack should have one, too.