The greatest sportsman of our lifetime spent about an hour waiting out a rain delay, with five or six fans, near thesixth fairway of famed Congressional Country Club in 1995. They all were swapping stories–okay, mostly listening to his stories–while the fans took turns holding steady a gallery stake on which the great man was pulling to keep his back limber. He was so unassuming that it was like talking to a neighbor over the hedgerow: approachable, comfortable in his own skin. But goodness, did his back–its disks abused by so many golf shots, its nerves weakened by a childhood polio scare–ever need the help!
Nearly seven years earlier, when Jack Nicklaus played the ceremonial opening round at the English Turn golf course he had just built to host the New Orleans stop on the PGA tour, his back was so bad that he had trouble hitting his opening tee shot more than 200 yards. At age 48 then, he was telling people his back was so beyond repair that he might hang up his golf spikes for good. But he kept on playing, the entire 18 holes, all the while chatting amiably with whichever one or two of the hundreds of fans on hand happened to fall in step beside him. By the 15th hole, a daunting par 5 with an island green, he was loose enough to reach the putting surface with two mammoth shots.
Less than four weeks after that round at English Turn on Nov. 1, 1988, Nicklaus began a routine of daily, vigorous back-strengthening exercises, more than a full hour a day, every single day, for some 2,400 days up to that rain delay at Congressional–and beyond. He added two U.S. Senior Open Titles, six other senior “majors,” and, at age 58, a final-day charge to finish in an impressive sixth place in the 1998 Masters–ahead of young defending champion Tiger Woods, ahead of Phil Mickelson, ahead of reigning U.S. Open Champion Ernie Els. All of this on a rickety and painful back and a hip so degraded it soon would need total replacement with some new-fangled alloy.
Clearly, this is a man who does not easily give up top-flight golf competition.
Just as clearly, though, he has chosen well the venue for his final major round. Well, indeed, but in several respects rather oddly. After all, the Old Course at St. Andrews, where the British Open starts today, does not (on paper) seem like a Nicklaus-type golf haven.
Even the most casual of golf fans knows that the Old Course at St. Andrews is the ancient “home of golf,” the place where grazing sheep and nature’s own whimsy preceded Old Tom Morris in helping design the links. But Nicklaus’s own golf course architecture tends toward the heavily engineered, massive-earth-moving variety.
Nicklaus at his heyday was best known for his toweringly high golf shots. High-ball hitters usually have trouble handling wind–but the wind off of St. Andrews Bay and the nearby Firth of Tay can be so fierce that not even pounds sterling used as ball marks are safe (one of mine blew 100 feet across the green before coming to rest in a swale).
On stateside courses, Nicklaus has been known to disfavor “blind” shots where the target can’t be seen. But at St. Andrews, the gorse is so high that tee shots on six straight holes are mere matters of faith, with the fairways utterly hidden from view by the bushes.
Nicklaus’s course designs tend to feature well-defined greens, sometimes tending toward the smallish, heavily guarded by hazards. At St. Andrews, most greens arise almost unobtrusively from the fairways, but sprawl to relatively massive proportions.
So St. Andrews doesn’t seem like a favored playground for Nicklaus. Yet to hear him tell it, it was love at first sight: “The first time I went around the golf course, I said, ‘Man, this is great.’ I loved it.”
So this man known for his directness loves a course known for quirkiness. This golfer known for brute strength loves a course requiring artistry. This conservative middle-American, apparently open and uncomplicated, loves a course full of diabolically hidden bunkers where flinty Scotsmen ply their trade.
But Jack Nicklaus always was perceptive. He recognized that this place, this old course, is a proving ground that rewards intelligence and excellence, nerves and talent. The townspeople who walk the narrow street by the 18th fairway–and stop to applaud a good shot pulled off by anyone who happens to be finishing an ordinary round–appreciate the game for the game’s own sake, respect good character, and will warm to anybody willing to endure uncomplainingly the rub of the green.
They took to Jack Nicklaus immediately, even when American fans still resented his challenge to King Arnold Palmer. They cheered and admired his sportsmanship when he lost and his graciousness when he won. And he in turn took immediately to them. He won two British Opens at St. Andrews. The university there granted him a rare honorary degree. And the Royal Bank of Scotland has put Nicklaus this week on its five-pound note, an honor bestowed on no other living person except the Queen and Queen Mother.
So it’s no wonder that Nicklaus chose St. Andrews for his farewell to major tournament golf. Great champions love great stages.
For conservatives, there are plenty of reasons to admire the man nicknamed the Golden Bear. For starters, he’s one of us: He’s a big Bush fan, who campaigned in his home state of Ohio with the president. He’s a free-enterprise advocate and almost legendary for his devotion to family: He calls his sons his “best friends” and was known for flying cross-country and back between tournaments–or driving cross-state overnight during tournaments–to watch his sons play football or cheer for daughter Nan in volleyball. And he credits his wife, Barbara, publicly and repeatedly, for just about everything good in his life. (Barbara, in turn, is universally acclaimed as one of the most gracious ladies you’ll ever meet–and she pens lovely, hand-written thank-you letters to columnists who write nice things about her husband.)
Finally, of course, there is Nicklaus’ unmatched combination of accomplishment and sportsmanship. The winner of one hundred tournaments worldwide and an astonishing 20 major tourneys (counting his two U.S. Amateur titles), he also finished second 19 times in majors, with another bushel-full of close thirds, fourths, and fifths. For most people, consistent runner-up finishes eat at one’s soul: Think of the sympathy heaped on flamboyant Australian Greg Norman for his eight times as a major bridesmaid.
Norman could repeat each one of those finishes again and still not know the frustration of Nicklaus’ 19 close-but-no-cigar outings. Yet watch the Bear shake a competitor’s hand on the final green, in any tournament, with any outcome, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell who was congratulating whom. I myself became a fan of Nicklaus when he lost a U.S. Open playoff to Lee Trevino in 1971. While the exuberant “Merry Mex” pranced around like a vaudeville comedian after holing the final putt, the defeated Nicklaus not only showed no resentment of Trevino’s antics, but smiled and laughed and waited patiently to clap him fondly on the back.
A Friendly Rivalry
Trevino had a knack for beating Nicklaus head-to-head–but the Bear got him back in turn. One player, though, and one only, flat-out had Jack’s number. Either by one stroke or by one position in the field, Tom Watson edged Nicklaus to win the 1975 and 1977 British Opens, the 1977 and 1981 Masters tourneys, and the 1982 U.S. Open. Yet the two seem to enjoy a close friendship; indeed, Nicklaus and one of his sons bunked at Watson’s house near Kansas City last month while the two great golfers played a nearby seniors’ event.
It is fitting, then, that Nicklaus will be grouped with Watson for the first two rounds at St. Andrews–which, if the Golden Bear misses the cut (something tells me he’ll make it) will be his final two rounds ever in a major tourney.
Unless I missed a similar occasion since then, it was back at English Turn in New Orleans in 1991 that the younger Watson and the 51-year-old Nicklaus were grouped together for the last time that the pairing resulted not from pre-arrangement by tournament organizers but from their earned standing atop the leaderboard after several rounds of play. An hour before the round, the men’s grill in the clubhouse–by rule, open to reporters looking for a story–mysteriously emptied of everybody but working bartenders and the two great champions. Seeing a superb interview chance, I approached their table–only to realize, just as I started talking, that the room was empty for a reason. Without a word spoken, it seems, all the other players had decided to leave the two great players alone to savor, or perhaps steel themselves, for their coming battle. The empty room was a sign of deference to golfing royalty.
Suddenly feeling like a rank intruder, I heard my request for just a few minutes of their time come out of my mouth in a hopeless stammer. Watson just looked at me, patient and polite but clearly hoping I would get to the point. But Nicklaus, after a few seconds, figured out why the young reporter in front of him had contracted a bad case of nerves. With a wry smile he pointed to an empty chair and said: “Well, sit down with us then. You obviously have something you want to ask us.” I’m not sure if he actually winked, but the Bear had put me at ease. And while the interview from then went quickly, Nicklaus maintained his famous look-you-in-the-eye directness that says you have his respectful and undivided attention no matter what else he might want to be doing.
As it happened, Watson and Nicklaus both faded from the lead that weekend–both, of course, without complaints or excuses. In the grill room afterwards, Nicklaus spied a piece of left-over lemon cake among some goodies on the bar.
“That’s a big, delicious piece of sin sitting there,” he said to no one in particular. Then, smiling and shrugging his shoulders, he devoured the dessert almost whole.
This week at old St. Andrews, playing right alongside friendly rival Tom Watson once again, Jack Nicklaus will take one last bite of the major tournament experience. It’s a foregone conclusion that as he crosses the Swilcan Bridge and the famed Valley of Sin on front of the 18th green, the fond applause from thousands of gathered Scotsmen will be loud enough to stir the ghost of Old Tom Morris himself. And yes, for a career so magnificent, the rousing cheers will be just desserts.
–Quin Hillyer is an editorial writer and columnist for the Mobile Register.