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The legacy that Jack built
18 majors is only the half of it for a golfer who - perhaps for the majority of golf fans the world over - embodies everything that is good about the game

Golf followers are divided into two camps. You are either a Nicklaus man or a Woods man. I know where I stand. You can have Tiger Woods and his billions, the putts he holes when he really has to, his 14 major championship victories, but I am a Nicklaus man through and through. Jack William Nicklaus was the greatest golfer of the past century, the man who set the benchmark of 18 professional major championships that Woods is trying to exceed but has not yet – and still may not.

For me, Nicklaus wins just about every category in which you compare the two Americans. Driving accuracy? Nicklaus, no contest. Putting. Close, I grant you. Perhaps Woods’ imagination around the green is greater than Nicklaus’ was but Nicklaus’ mind is as strong as Woods’. In manners on the course, in family values, in leading his sport, in being the dominant figure in it, Nicklaus is unchallengeable.

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods
For all that he stands for outside the game of golf
as well as in it, Jack Nicklaus is the greatest

Nicklaus, who was 70 last January, had his faults but they did not include swearing, spitting, throwing clubs and ignoring fans in the way Woods, who was 34 last December, does. “You never saw him getting upset,” Gary Player, one of Nicklaus’s greatest rivals, said. “You could never tell if he had hit a bad shot. He always had great patience. He had the best mind I have ever seen on a golf course.”

When Nicklaus first emerged as a player, he brought with him a keen awareness of his own intelligence and an occasional lack of respect for the intelligence of others. A journalist once asked him how he had managed to score so much lower on his inward nine hole than on his outward nine: “If I told you that your readers would be even more confused than they are already,” Nicklaus said witheringly.

Nicklaus faced hostile crowds who resented him usurping the title of America’s best golfer from Arnold Palmer. And these weren’t just mute fans. They stood in the rough and waved signs reading: ‘Hit it here Fat Boy’. His nickname early on was ‘Blob-Oh’ because he was carrying a lot of weight. Sometimes he was called ‘Ohio Fats’. Yet Nicklaus never once acknowledged these spectators. He has never spoken of the animosity directed towards him because he was younger, heavier and better than Palmer. It is true that the weight of pressure on Nicklaus was nothing like so great as it is on Woods. There were fewer newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations when he was at his peak. The demand for news about golf was less and thus so were the demands on his time. But Nicklaus coped with more of these than anyone else had to up to that time without giving the feeling, as Woods does, that his preference is to utter the minimum number of words and give the least time possible before moving on.

Woods creates a climate of fear among TV and radio journalists. Ask him difficult questions and you will not be interviewing him in the foreseeable future. Woods tried to freeze out Nick Faldo after the Englishman had criticised him on television on the last hole of a tournament in the US.

“I think he [Tiger] needs to clean up his act and show respect for the game that people before him have shown,” Tom Watson said recently. “I feel that he has not carried himself with the same stature as the other great players that have come along ike Jack, Arnold [Palmer] the Byron Nelsons, the Hogans.” Watson added that with those players there was no such thing as “bad language and club throwing on the golf course”.

Nearly 20 years ago, Nicklaus told me: “the best thing I ever did was marry Barbara. I could never have done it without her.” Barbara Nicklaus was so devoted she allowed Jack to play golf on their two-day honeymoon while she walked around watching him. On another occasion she suffered a miscarriage while staying with him in an hotel but did not wake him because, she reasoned, he was competing in a tournament and needed his rest.

A good game is to select three or four people with whom you would like to have dinner. Let’s narrow it down to two. Nicklaus or Woods. No contest. I have had dinner with Nicklaus, in Paris, and he was a generous host, attentive to his guests who were trying to teach him to pronounce the French word ‘jamais’.

For all I know Woods does not eat dinner. He is either practising, in the gym, or, well, we had better be careful what we say here. He is intelligent because you have to be bright to pass the Stanford University entrance exams, even if you are going there to play golf.

But do I want to have dinner with him? Not with the Woods I see at tournaments, though I understand from those who know him there is another, more genial side to him. I do not admire the way he treats many of those who have paid to watch him. He is aloof, cold and distant towards those who have to report on him for their news outlets, the very people who help generate the publicity that Woods’ sponsors need and for which they pay him so much money he was, prior to his fall, the richest sportsman there has ever been.

Nicklaus v Woods is like so many arguments between then and now. Weren’t the police more trustworthy years ago? Didn’t the trains run on time then? Surely people were more polite and the queues more orderly in those days? Often the answers favour the present. Actually, things were not better then.

But they were in this case. Nicklaus may yet remain the best golfer of all time. He is certainly a better role model and a better man. He was a hero to many and he remains a hero to many.

March 2010

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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