Last month at the Players Championship the PGA bestowed Jack William Nicklaus (who won the inaugural Players in 1974 and is the only golfer to win the tournament three times) with the highest honor left in their golf bag—the tour's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Nicklaus, 68, the proud father of five and grandfather of 21, is often regarded as the greatest golfer to ever grip a club. Sure arguments can be made for others who dominated their eras: trailblazer Bobby Jones (1923-1930) and the man with the golden swing Ben Hogan (1940-1960) knew no equals during their respective heydays but Nicklaus' quarter-century reign as golf's preeminent player from the early 1960s up until the mid eighties puts the golden bear on top of the all-time leader board by a couple strokes.
In his prime Nicklaus swung his clubs with such control and confidence, it was almost as if he made mental metronomic adjustments in his head depending on the distance and trajectory he required and then just made it happen. J.W.'s ability to conjure up wondrous strokes on demand didn't stop once he reached the putting green. Many pros throw up (golfer parlance for letting your nerves get the best of you) when the pressure is on. Buckling just wasn't the Bear's way. Faced with a treacherous double breaking 40-footer on the 16th hole of the 1975 Masters, Nicklaus knew he could find the line, concentrated intently, and then tapped his ball hole-ward bound.
As a kid Jack was a jock of all sports excelling in every game he took a whiff at from track & field to table tennis. But when you shoot 91 from the men's tees at the tender age of ten, shave that down to 81 the following year and are breaking 70 while your voice is still breaking at 13, the tingly sting of the golf bug can bite you like fire ants at a Georgia pig pickin'. The terms "natural" and "prodigy" are thrown out way too loosely by fawning sports writers looking for the surefire way to explain off-the-charts performance. Nicklaus' majestic long and high lofting drives and his pin-point iron shots did not come as the result of punching a winning genetic lottery ticket. Nicklaus' ambition exceeded his greatest tape measure shots. As a young buck he would sky 500 practice balls a day at the Scioto Country Club driving range in Columbus Ohio, hitting from dawn to dusk. Nicklaus wouldn't even let the elements deprive him of his golf fix, clearing a spot to hit balls from in the dead of winter. After trouncing the field at the Ohio Open in 1956 as a teenaged sensation there was no turning back for Nicklaus.
This Story First Ran in the June 2008 issue of the Bay Street Bull
Copyright © Mike Dojc, 2008