Stories of his greatness abound.
They number more than the 80 candles Jack Nicklaus will see on his birthday cake today.
If you are a Nicklaus fan, maybe your favorite story is how boldly he burst on to the major championship scene, because it wasn’t enough making his first PGA Tour victory a major championship in 1962. He had to beat Arnold Palmer in Palmer’s backyard. He had to beat him to claim the U.S. Open at Oakmont while overcoming taunts of “Fat Jack” from Arnie’s Army all week.
“They treated him like a dog,” Gary Player said later.
Or maybe it’s the way Nicklaus ended his run of major championship victories, slipping into a green jacket for the sixth time to beat the odds and Father Time as a 46-year-old at the Masters.
Maybe it’s the story of how he won that year tacking a newspaper clipping to the refrigerator of the home he rented for the week, an article by long-time Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Tom McCollister, who wrote that the Golden Bear had devolved into the Olden Bear.
“Nicklaus is done, gone,” McCollister wrote. “He just doesn’t have the game anymore. It’s rusted from lack of use. He’s 46, and nobody that old wins the Masters.”
Or maybe your favorite memory comes from one of the many great shots he pulled off, like that 1-iron into a mean wind at the 17th hole at Pebble Beach, when he knocked his tee shot off the flagstick in the final round on his way to winning the ’72 U.S. Open.
Or maybe it’s just a memory of how he carried himself, how gracious he was winning those 18 majors, and how dignified he was finishing second in 19 of them. Maybe it’s the sportsmanship he showed in “The Concession,” when he picked up Englishman Tony Jacklin’s ballmark at the ’69 Ryder Cup to assure the first tie in the event’s history, sparing Jacklin the possibility of missing a short putt in front of his fellow countrymen at Royal Birkdale.
“It really was an example of how Jack saw the big picture all the time,” Jacklin said years later.
Really, Nicklaus is still seeing and sharing the big picture.
The celebration today isn’t just in all the memories he left us, but in how relevant he continues to remain.
The man’s an icon, a treasure not just in what he once achieved, but in how he still shapes the game. His opinions matter. All those favorite memories we have of Nicklaus, there’s marrow to mine in what he mustered to create them.
That’s why Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and so many other young players have come to seek his counsel over the years. They want to know what he thinks.
The greatness Nicklaus continues to deliver is in how he is still so generously open to that.
“I don’t go out and seek this, but I’m available,” Nicklaus said in a conference call just last week. “I’ve always felt like I might have some knowledge, you might call it wisdom. I don’t know whether it is or not, but I might have something to impart to the kids that might help them. It’s very flattering to me that a 22-, 23-year-old would want to hear from an 80-year-old.”
For a champion of Nicklaus’ historic stature, the accessibility is as remarkable as it is rare.
“They still want to come talk to me,” Nicklaus said. “Makes me relevant.”
In March, Nicklaus will be quasi-host at the Honda Classic near his North Palm Beach, Florida home. In April, he will hit another ceremonial first tee shot at the Masters and then hold court in a packed media center there. In June, he will be front and center at his Memorial Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, where he grew up.
And he’s still designing golf courses.
“I love being involved in them,” he said. “Probably got nine or 10 courses I’m working on right now.
“I have no desire to retire.”
Nicklaus has dispensed so much advice over the years, it was fitting he should be asked in that conference call what he considers the best advice he ever got in the game.
He reached back to the marrow he mined from Bobby Jones so many years ago, something Socratic. It was about the importance of knowing thyself as a player, and the wisdom that comes in such self-discovery.
“I feel a little unhappy, or sad, for the guys today,” Nicklaus said. “They all have instructors and sports psychologists and all that stuff. I always thought that was the fun of the game, learning to do it yourself.
“When you do it yourself, when you’re coming to the end of a tournament, and you have to finish, and the responsibility is on you, you’re not wondering, ‘Can I do what this guy told me?’”
Nicklaus, of course, had his long-time coach, Jack Grout, but he said Grout eventually taught him the importance of self-reliance, of being able to find answers within himself.
“I became responsible for my own game,” Nicklaus said. “I could do my own thinking.”
For most of us in the game, knowing thyself isn’t nearly as enlightening as knowing Nicklaus. He continues to give us that gift.