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Jack: The major champion

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Curtis Strange, Lee Trevino and Hale Irwin are standing on a range …

That’s not the start to a joke, but an actual occurrence a couple of years ago at the Father-Son Challenge.

And what are these World Golf Hall of Fame members discussing?

What’s the greatest shot you ever saw Jack Nicklaus hit?

“We still marvel at this guy,” Strange says.

What does it take to be the greatest at what you do?

We ask, because we don’t know. We take arbitrary, round numbers like 10,000 and say if you practice that many hours, a high degree of success can be obtained. We argue, no, the ability to achieve such is innate. We compromise and proclaim it is a combination of the two.

This isn’t about being great, however - like Strange or Trevino or Irwin - but being the greatest.

Jack Nicklaus’ final tally makes him – and it would take strong conjecture to convince many otherwise – the greatest golfer in history. Seventy-three PGA Tour wins, 18 major titles. The latter is the conquering number, greater than the sum total of Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, any combination of players Tiger Woods faced.

If there is an argument against Nicklaus being the greatest, it is rooted in Tiger’s decade-long dominance. Yes, Jack faced stronger competition, but Tiger battled deeper fields. Look closely, though, at Jack’s rivals from his major-winning period of 1962-86, from Palmer to Greg Norman. Three times as many players who prospered in that time frame made the Hall of Fame compared with those during Woods’ halcyon days. Tiger’s timeframe was shorter, but add in the current crop of players who could eventually be enshrined and there is still no comparison.

This, however, is not the case of Jack v. Tiger. It’s an appreciation of Nicklaus, an examination of what made him the greatest, through his friends and family and peers.

Jack Nicklaus at age 13 (Billy Foley, Jack Nicklaus Museum)

Cocky. Very confident. Not afraid to let you know he was a big deal.

Jack Saeger, Robin Obetz and Joe Berwanger have been Nicklaus’ friends for over six decades. That’s how they describe the kid who carded 51 over his first recorded nine holes at Scioto Country Club when he was 10.

“Jack had no qualms about the fact that he could be better than Sam Snead,” Saeger says, “and I think he was in the sixth or seventh grade.”

But in there are other, more flattering words as well: Extremely intelligent, very loyal, a regular guy, a great friend.

Purpose driven. That’s another one. Ten-thousand hours of practice, who can say? But Jack will tell you rare was the day he didn’t go to the range following a round. Sixty-four or 74, there was something to be gleaned. Maybe he just needed to hit five or six balls to get the right feel. Then it was glove off and family time.

Waste not, want not.

“Even in practice rounds, he never hit a careless or casual putt. There was always a purpose,” says longtime friend and former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman. “His preparation for each shot, whether it was for a practice round or whether it was for winning the Masters, was identical.”

“He wasn’t on the range gabbing with folks,” says 1996 Open champion Tom Lehman. “He was out there working. He was doing everything with a purpose.”

Physical gifts? Jack had that in spades. For all the early derision, he wasn't chubby as much as burly. He was a solid 6 feet tall back then, legs like tree trunks. And he'd wield that 1946 MacGregor persimmon driver like Paul Bunyan's ax.

“He was so strong,” says 1992 U.S. Open winner Tom Kite, “that if he did drive it crooked he could always muscle it out of the rough.”

Not that he ever hit it offline, right? Well, of course he did. But as time passes, legends grow. And 31 years after his final major win, people will tell you Jack never hit a wayward shot at the wrong time and never missed a putt that mattered.

“He could do it higher and better and straighter and longer and more accurately than anybody. You just marveled at, my gosh, I can never do that. How am I ever gonna beat this guy? Well, you couldn’t. If he was on his game you weren’t going to beat him,” says two-time U.S. Open champion Strange.

“And let’s not forget that Jack Nicklaus is the best putter that’s ever played the game,” adds 1977 PGA champion Lanny Wadkins.

“How many crucial putts did he hole?” instructor David Leadbetter asks rhetorically. “If you had your life on a 10-foot putt, you’d ask Jack Nicklaus to putt it.”

“You gotta have the head. You gotta have heart. You gotta have great devotion to wanting to be the best,” says 1958 PGA champion Dow Finsterwald. “And he had all three, which was proven numerous times.”

But there’s something else, something beyond truth and slight exaggeration, something we can’t comprehend. We very much want to. We want it to be a mathematical equation we can solve, scientific reasoning we can explain. We need an answer to every question and a response of Well, Jack just had it doesn’t wash. What is IT?

Jack possesses that something and even he’s hard-pressed to tell you what IT is. Rather, he has no interest in giving it meaning. He doesn’t look at himself as exceptional; though, he’s aware that he can do things that others cannot. Case in point, the 1972 U.S. Open.

Jack hits his famous 1-iron off the flagstick on the par-3 17th at Pebble Beach to sew up his second consecutive major victory. Of this, you know well. Everything about the moment is iconic: a 1-iron, Pebble Beach, 71st hole of the U.S. Open, a near-ace, Jack Nicklaus.

But there's more to the story. And even if you know the details, it's no less extraordinary.

“I had 219 yards, the wind was in my face, left to right,” he says of that shot. “I was going to play a lowish draw … but, obviously, I didn’t want to hook it.

“I leaned a little bit and I took the club back and I shut my face a little bit … got a little bit too far inside, but my timing was so good that week that I was able to adjust and come down and hold onto it a little bit more through the ball, and ended up getting the shot that I wanted.

“Most people can think of one, maybe two things during a golf swing. I can think of five or six and do them.”

This is when kids insert a blank stare emoticon.

“He’s not normal,” Mike Malaska, worldwide director of instruction for Nicklaus Golf Academies, says. “But then, normal people don’t win 18 majors.”

Dr. John Tickell wrote a book with Nicklaus, “Golf & Life", and offers a little insight into Jack’s not-so-normal way of thinking. According to the good doc, the two were about to board a helicopter when Jack tells him that he's going to need his own set of controls.

Excuse me?

All you can control 100 percent of the time is yourself, he tells Tickell. Jack isn't Arnie, he's not an aviator. But if the pilot had a heart attack, he was quite certain he'd get them safely on the ground.

Normal? No. But we’re all unique in some way. Jack, as he sees it, is just Jack. He’s never tried to solve himself, never sought to live in a Brave New World where IT can be explained and shared. Jack just sets his eyes forward and moves in that direction.

Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters (Getty Images)

Close your eyes. Not now, but soon. When you do, imagine Jack winning a regular PGA Tour event, any one of his 55.

Now close your eyes for five seconds. 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 …

What did you see? Nothing? That’s because Jack Nicklaus didn’t create run-of-the-mill memories.

The aforementioned 1-iron in ’72. The 1-iron in ’67. The putter heave in ’70. The leap in ’75. Arms raised in ’80. “Yes, sir,” in ’86.

Major names and course locations aren't necessary. You know the details. They’re some of golf’s most defining moments. And these, and many more, were authored by Nicklaus – all under a harsh glare meant to expose a player’s worth.

Jack was born for majors. He knew before he saw Hogan at the Masters on TV in 1953 that certain events were more prestigious than others, and that he wanted to win those certain events.

He competed in the U.S. Junior, had Bobby Jones watch him up close and personal as a 15-year-old in the ’55 U.S. Amateur. Qualified for his first U.S. Open at 17.

After Jack won the 1959 U.S. Am at The Broadmoor, his dad, Charlie, called home and said to his wife, Sissy, I think our son was born for greatness.

“My dad just, he just knew,” says Jack’s sister, Marilyn Hutchinson.

In Jack’s first full season on the PGA Tour, 1962, he played 26 events. He never played that much in a single season the remainder of his career. After 1970, he never played in more than 19 events a year.

Jack had a plan. He'd play a select number of the same events each year and sprinkle in a few new ones. But everything was geared toward being in prime competitive shape to win majors, particularly the Masters. Jack says he would base his first three months on Tour playing courses where he could work on shots he'd play at Augusta.

“It was a different mindset. We couldn’t play that way. We had to make a living. Jack was gonna make a living no matter what, so we played more tournaments. We had to put bread on the table,” says Wadkins. “What he did carried over into the modern day that people really focus on [majors].”

“He did it a little bit differently,” says four-time major champion Raymond Floyd. “He would go into a major the week previous, play some rounds, go back home and maybe come in on Tuesday or Wednesday. That was his way of doing things. He was prepared, focused. And he beat everybody mentally.”

“I don’t think anybody ever went into a major better prepared than Jack," says Ohio sportswriter Kaye Kessler, who’s been writing about “Jackie boy” since 1950. "That includes Tiger, and certainly not the kids today."

Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones at the Masters (Nicklaus family)

Thirteen. Jack was never obsessed with that number, in the same way Tiger targeted 18. He didn’t put Jones’ major victory record in his crosshairs. In fact, he says that it wasn’t until his win in the 1970 Open at St. Andrews, when Associated Press writer Bob Green informed him he was only three shy of Jones – including Jack’s two U.S. Am wins  that Nicklaus gave pause.

“From then on,” he says, “major tournament numbers were certainly a goal for me.”

But even then the goal wasn’t to win 14 or 18 or 25. It was to win as many as possible, whatever that might bring. That it was Jones whom he was chasing for the record was poetic. Jack’s father revered the man, and, so too, would Jack. That admiration only increased Jack’s major focus.

Focus. Let us not forget that. In addition to the power and accuracy and pressure putting and that something we can’t explain, Jack has an uncanny ability to shield himself from outside influence.

It was first evident in the 1962 U.S. Open, when he overcame Arnie and his audacious army to win his first major title. Jack has said, repeatedly, that even though the Palmer-friendly fans at Oakmont got his father’s goat, they never bothered him. He had a tournament to win.

As Barbara Nicklaus, Jack’s wife of 57 years, says: “I think the house could continue to burn down around him, if he happens to be watching television and was really interested. He wouldn’t even notice.”

“At Augusta one year, there was a car wreck right behind the fourth green,” says Malaska. “And he was getting ready to hit a putt and the car screeched and the wreck happened. They were walking to the fifth tee and [son/caddie] Jackie said, ‘Didn’t you hear that wreck?’ And he says, ‘What wreck?’”

Wadkins first played alongside Nicklaus in the opening two rounds of the ’72 U.S. Open. He recalled during one of the days, Bing Crosby walked out of his house, into the 14th fairway and chatted up Jack for five minutes – during play.

“Jack was just calm and handled it and moved on. Didn’t faze him,” Wadkins says.

Nicklaus has always been able to compartmentalize. Barbara will tell him, Jack, we've got a problem over here. To which Jack will reply, Barbara, I can't worry about that now. I'll deal with that when I'm done with this.

In the 1971 PGA Championship, the Nicklauses shared a house with the Players. Jack and Gary were 1-2, in that order, after the third round. Tension? Not a bit, according to Jack. Just dinner and conversation. Your typical Saturday night with friends.

"He never brought golf home with him," daughter Nan says.

For the record, Jack prevailed that Sunday. After three sub-par rounds to build a lead, he closed in 1-over 73 to win by two.

It was typical Jack and a showcase of traits he inherited from both his father and mother. From Charlie, aggression. From Helen, caution.

“He was disciplined with his power. He didn’t try to overpower a golf course. He made decisions when to lay up, when his calculation was that the odds were not in his favor,” Beman says. “Jack was very judicious in his decision making. He did not waste strokes so he didn’t have to make so many birdies.”

“Jack was a surgeon,” says instructor Butch Harmon. “He just knew how to cut up a golf course. He knew how to take it apart, piece by piece.”

Saturday evening at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 1996. The sun is growing tired and just about everyone with a final-round tee time has gone home, save for the man with the six-shot lead. After multiple failures to win a major, Lehman is almost a sure bet to finally get it done. Almost. Remember, this is '96, the same year Norman squandered the same margin at the Masters. So, there's Lehman grinding away on the practice green when ... 

“[Jack] came driving by, stopped and rolled down the window and he just said, ‘Look, just lay in the weeds and let everybody beat themselves tomorrow,’” Lehman says.

Lehman shot 73 and won by two. Sounds familiar.

That’s the way Jack did it. He won his first four majors of the ‘70s never breaking par in the final round. He twice shot 65 on Sunday to win a major, both times when trailing. He twice shot 74 on Sunday to win a major, both times when leading. The other 14 final-round scores fell in between.

“He didn’t shoot those 64s and 5s, really low scores [in the final round of majors]. He didn’t shoot those big numbers, either. He stayed right in there and everybody else sort of fell off the bandwagon in trying to achieve that major championship win,” says three-time U.S. Open winner Irwin. “He had the game and the intelligence and the wherewithal to stay in the game and not beat himself.”

For Jack it was a simple approach: Just do what's necessary to win.

“I always looked at a leaderboard and if I saw Palmer, Player, Watson, Trevino, Casper, those guys’ names up there, I knew that I’m gonna have to play [well],” Jack says. “If I saw some other names up there I knew that maybe I didn’t have to play as well, but I had to not be stupid … I didn’t have to win it with spectacular golf ‘cause usually those guys always self-destructed.”

“I think the majority of people are scared to win,” he continues. “I’m not naming names, but I can name you some really good players who never won much because every time they got themselves into contention they were afraid of what they felt like it would do to their life and their career.

“I always embraced winning.”

Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson at the 1977 Open (Getty Images)

You don’t have to win them all, Jack. That’s what famed writer Herbert Warren Wind once told Nicklaus at Augusta. Just win one a year and you’ll be the greatest ever.

He did win at least one major in 13 different seasons, stretching over a 25-year period. That kind of longevity, that sustained excellence is what propels the greatest of his generation to the greatest of all time.

When Jack was a kid, he lost a junior event and stormed off the last green. Charlie grabbed him and said, You get over there and shake that boy’s hand or nobody will ever think anything of you. That lesson of sportsmanship carried through a lifetime, and down to Jack's children's children.

For all of his triumphs, Jack is almost as famous for his graciousness in defeat. But just because you’re respectful doesn’t mean you have to enjoy losing. After he earned one of his 19 career runner-up finishes in a major at the 1971 Masters to Charles Coody, the sting lingered a little longer than usual. Being beaten, Jack always rationalized, was acceptable. It happens. Losing, by your own doing, like playing the second nine at Augusta in 1 over and not birdieing either of the par 5s, is not.

“I was way down on myself,” Jack says. “The idea was that the Masters set the stage for the year. If I didn’t win the Masters, to me, it was not gonna be a good year."

The next week was the Tournament of Champions. Jack didn't want to go.

Barbara was having none of that: “I said, ‘No, you can't act like a spoiled child. We will go to the Tournament of Champions.'"

And they did. And Jack won.

Poor Barbara. She knows just how competitive her husband can be. She doesn’t play much golf, but one day hit “a little miracle” that ended up about 4 feet from the hole.

“For an actual, real birdie,” she says. “And Jack’s about 40 feet away, off the green. And he holes it. I was kinda mad. He wasn’t gonna let me beat him on one hole.”

It took son Gary hitting a 1-iron to 6 inches and making eagle on the par-5 18th at Lost Tree Club when he was 14 to beat his dad for the first time.

“He never let me beat him,” Gary says. “Never would let me beat him.”

Whether it’s golf, fishing, bridge or tennis, Jack always gives you his best. And he expects the same from you. Don’t think about soft-serving one his way, even if you are a tennis pro. That’s when the lectures start, they’ll tell you.

Internal drive, however, has its limits. You need that external push to see how far you can go.

Jack Nicklaus and family at Congressional Gold Medal reception (Nicklaus family)

Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.

Arthur Ashe’s words are succinct and insightful, and not at all easy to live by.

There are those who enjoy the journey and those who just want to reach the destination. Nicklaus is among the minority in the former.

Jack didn’t just want to win. He didn’t just want to make money. He wanted to compete. He wanted the challenge. He wanted to prove that he had the game to win The Open. He wanted to prove that he wasn’t washed up after the ’79 season or before the ’86 Masters.

He wanted the best of Palmer and Player. When Trevino and Miller and Weiskopf, and then Watson emerged, he wanted their best, too. Seve, Faldo, Langer, Lyle, Woosie, Norman – even past his prime, he wanted all they could offer.

“Had none of those guys come along, I may not have pushed myself as hard. It was good for me,” Jack says. “Of course I took it as a challenge. Who wouldn’t? … There were all these young guys coming along, ‘Oh, here’s the next guy that’s gonna take Nicklaus off the throne.’ Fine. I love that.”

In the early '70s, Johnny Miller was playing better than anyone in the world and, as a surprise to no one, figured he was now on Jack’s level. Frank Christian, longtime Augusta National photographer, ran into Nicklaus at the Masters and Jack asked him what he thought about Johnny's take. Christian said, “Well, I can only tell you that Lee Trevino said somebody oughta take Johnny Miller behind the barn and tan his hide because he’s made Jack Nicklaus mad. Now none of us have a chance.”

Trevino long said, don't poke the sleeping bear. Just let him lie, man.

It finally happened after a pair of major victories in 1980. Professional complacency got the better of Nicklaus. His kids were growing up, active in all kinds of sports. A limited Tour schedule reduced further, and the wins dried up.

But Jack always had that balance. He didn’t separate golf and family. They were both integral parts of his life, with the latter outweighing the former. Barbara and the kids came to tournaments. Jack never played more than two weeks in a row. He'd play at certain events only if they could guarantee him late-early tee times, so he could fly home Friday afternoon for high school football games and then fly back Saturday morning for Round 3.

That competitive desire had lasted, on a professional level, for the better part of two decades. It had to dissipate at some point. And, of course, with Jack it didn't happen until after a double-major season at age 40.

“He wasn’t just focused on golf. Family was important to him. The world was bigger than just golf,” Beman says. “He had a broad spectrum on life, which is one of the reasons he was so successful.”

Beman was successful. He won the U.S. (twice) and British Ams, a host of other prominent amateur events, earned four PGA Tour titles, and commissioned the Tour.

Jack was the greatest.

Nicklaus competed in 72 majors as a professional in the 1960s and '70s. Fifty-six times he finished inside the top 10, compared with four missed cuts.

From 1963-80, he once finished outside the top 6 at The Open. Once.

“And he only won, like, three of them. Only, you know, I mean he could have won 10 of them,” says 1988 PGA champion Jeff Sluman of Jack's success at The Open. “If things really broke well for him, he might have gobbled up 30 of 'em [overall]. He was that good.”

Even when discussing the greatest it’s impossible not to wonder: What if?

What if Wayne Gretzky never left Edmonton? What if Muhammad Ali had never been suspended? What if Michael Jordan had never played baseball? What if Tiger had been faithful?

What if Jack Nicklaus had drawn a line between his personal and professional lives? What if he didn’t let his kids tag along for practice rounds? What if he didn’t let them caddie for him? What if he didn’t have to dig shoes out of the mud with his 7-iron – during a round?

“What do you mean?” Jack says. “They were part of my life and I wanted to share it with my family. I wanted them to understand what Dad did and be part of what went on.

“That’s been the foundation of what we’ve done.”

Jack Nicklaus is about four, maybe five inches shorter in stature than he used to be. He’s a little more slumped, a little more round. The blond has thinned a little, but it’s still a good head of hair.

He is no longer the burly kid of the '60s, with the crew cut and cigarettes. He’s not the fit and more fashionable man of the '70s. He’s no longer playing competitively and rarely socially.

Today, he's at the children's hospital bearing his name, making visits to the staff and patients. He's with Barbara, raising money for charity and his foundation. He's traversing the globe with new course projects. He's in Buffalo watching his grandson play for the Bills or in South Florida watching a granddaughter swim. Son Michael will tell you that when they go fishing, he has to catch more than you.

He can't sit still, Barbara says. He just cannot be bored, must be active. And whatever he's doing - and he's always doing something - he's not going to do it half-assed. The greatest never do.

"Striving for mediocrity," son Gary says, "is his biggest pet peeve."