A Noble Pursuit

By Randall MellJune 3, 2009, 4:00 pm
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What separated Jack Nicklaus wasnt just how good he was in victory. Its how gracious he was in defeat.
What, after all, is more impressive? That the Golden Bear won 18 professional major championships? Or that he finished second in 19 of them?
Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus is still king of the majors until somebody dethrones him. (Getty Images)
Nicklaus, 69, may be faced with one more runner-up finish late in life, maybe the toughest of his remarkable career.
Tiger Woods is determined to take one of sports most treasured records away from Nicklaus. Woods, 33, needs five more major championship triumphs to surpass Nicklaus. If Woods does so, hell take more than the record for most major titles. Hell take away Nicklaus distinction as the best player who ever lived. Some folks already believe Woods is the best ever, but with 19 majors, it becomes official.
Its difficult to imagine this wouldnt injure Nicklaus in some way. Hes human, after all, and there has to be such joy in towering singularly over a lifes work like that. All of this helps make moments like Wednesdays Memorial Skins Games so compelling.
When Woods and Nicklaus are together, you expect the electricity to create sparks. Nicklaus is the only real rival to Woods on the planet, and now Nicklaus knows what all those players today feel like when Woods name hits a leaderboard. More often than not, theres a certain helplessness.
At the conclusion to Wednesdays skins game, Woods showed his flair for the dramatic for Nicklaus to inspect close up. Woods rolled in a 12-foot putt at the final hole to extend the skins game to a playoff and then holed his shot from 60 feet in the chip-off to win with Nicklaus on deck. The Golden Bear made a terrific run at holing his, too.
The day was mostly about fun and charity, but you sensed the pride these two showed performing for each other.
Its certainly no lock Woods will surpass Nicklaus, but the closer Woods gets, the more closely it draws these two together.
In the end, Woods determination to be the greatest player ever will remind us that Nicklaus greatness reaches beyond his skill. Well be reminded of the dignity Nicklaus displayed in all those second-place finishes. Well remember his great concession to Tony Jacklin in the 1969 Ryder Cup.
Woods and Nicklaus will draw out the best in each other even with Nicklaus relegated to spectator. Woods run at Nicklaus also thrusts the spotlight on what makes golf different.
In the wake of LeBron James unsportsmanlike exit after the NBAs Eastern Conference finals, golf gives us the ancient Olympic model of what competition was intended to be. Thats not to say golfs perfect. Its not. Golf isnt immune to the human hearts corrupt side, but the games honorable traditions make it a beacon in todays evolving sports landscape.
Michael Josephson, the founder of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, will tell you sportsmanship is civilitys first cousin.
The word competition comes from a Latin root, competere, which means to strive together, says Josephson. Thats the old version, the historic Olympic version, where you literally respect and honor your opponent, because youre both giving your best to truly test your athletic ability to see whos fastest or more skilled. Theres a nobility about competition.
Golf gives us something different than the awkwardness of Barry Bonds pursuit of Hank Aarons record.
It gives us Woods noble pursuit of Nicklaus.
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