Thursday, May 25, 2000

Real Nicklaus shines through at ceremony

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        DUBLIN, Ohio — It was all a little incestuous. Jack Nicklaus was honored Wednesday by the tournament he started, at a course he designed, for the lifetime of achievement that made the whole enterprise viable.

        He didn't ask for it. He didn't need it. But he couldn't avoid it. If you hold a golf championship and call it the Memorial and annually designate one of the game's great players for particular homage, that honor eventually must be bestowed on the greatest player of them all.

        Jack Nicklaus said he was a “reluctant honoree.” Sounded like it, too. His high-pitched voice wavered more than once as he addressed the gallery by the 18th green at Muirfield Village. It took the Memorial 25 years to fete its founder, and watching Nicklaus before the microphone told you why. For once in his cold-blooded life, the Golden Bear was a teddy bear — all warm and fuzzy and vulnerable.

Jack Nicklaus shares a laugh with Arnold Palmer.
(AP photo)
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        This is not how we normally see him. Not by a long iron. If there has been a distinguishing char acteristic to Nicklaus' career, it has been his serenity under stress. He was not only the most talented player of his time, but the toughest.

        “I once asked him, "How the heck do you win 20 majors? They're the hardest tournaments of the year to win,' ” Johnny Miller once said. “And there was a long silence before he said: "John, you're wrong. They're the easiest tournaments of the year to win.' ”

        Jack Nicklaus won 20 majors because he learned he usually could count on his opponents to crack. He would hit his fairways with those monster drives and reach the greens with those meticulous iron shots and await the spontaneous combustion of his competition.

        So it seemed pretty strange and extremely out of character Wednesday to watch Nicklaus struggle around the 18th green. Golf's iron will went a little wobbly when he spoke of his late father, Charlie, and again when he brought up his wife, Barbara. After 60 years, 11 grandchildren and a matchless set of memories, the old stoneface seems to have suffered some erosion.

        “I've never been good when it comes

        to sentimental emotions,” Nicklaus confessed. “I'm absolutely horrible, as a matter of fact. Control of my emotions as it relates to something I have to do, I've been pretty good at that. But when it comes to my family and Muirfield and things like that, that's tough for me.”

        This helps explain why Nicklaus was resented for so long for surpassing Arnold Palmer. Palmer exuded enthusiasm and personified charisma. Nicklaus, by contrast, was dull and dignified, restrained and remote. He ultimately would win over the crowds through sheer skill and astonishing staying power — the roars still resonate from his 1986 Masters — but at the end of the day the best player ever still engenders more awe than affection.

        Pity. For what Jack Nicklaus lacks in style, he makes up for in substance. His family always has come first, and his name has never been associated with scandal. Perhaps the most striking thing about Wednesday's ceremony was how much was left unsaid. Nicklaus' vast accomplishments repeatedly were glossed over in favor of testimonials to his character.

        “It is questionable if (his record) will ever be touched,” Palmer said Wednesday. “Jack has won a lot of golf tournaments, but do we ever think of the tournaments that he's lost? ... You've never seen him throw a club. You've never seen him do anything unbecoming to the game of golf.”

        Gary Player called him, “A man for all seasons.” Wednesday, Jack Nicklaus let his hair down long enough to give us a glimpse of the real guy.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at

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