x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Golden Bear was the ultimate winner

As Johnny Miller so famously put it: "When Jack Nicklaus plays well he wins, when he plays badly he comes second. When he's playing terribly, he's third.

When the great victories dried up, Jack Nicklaus grew fond of cracking a joke at his own expense. "A guy goes into a bar with his dog and orders a beer. The barman switches channels on the TV and on comes the latest golf tournament. I made a birdie and the dog did a back-flip on the bar. On the next hole, I holed another putt for a birdie and the dog repeated the back-flip. 'Your dog must be a real Nicklaus fan' said the barman. 'What does he do when Nicklaus wins a tournament?' The guy replied: 'I don't know, I've only had him 10 years . . .'"

Nicklaus could afford to make light of the passing of his era because his record made astonishing reading: in 100 "Majors" from 1961-86, he won 18 titles, was runner-up on another 18 occasions and finished third nine times, with a total of 66 top 10 places. As Johnny Miller so famously put it: "When Jack plays well he wins, when he plays badly he comes second. When he's playing terribly, he's third."

Voted "The Greatest Male Athlete of the 20th Century" ahead of Muhammad Ali, Rod Laver, Babe Ruth, Jesse Owens, Pele and Michael Jordan by the respected American magazine Sports Illustrated, the Golden Bear's haul of six Masters, four US Opens, three British Opens and five US PGA titles is more than that of Arnold Palmer and Gary Player put together, more than Ben Hogan plus Tom Watson, more than Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo.

After equalling the tally of 13 by Bobby Jones with his victory in the 1972 US Open, Nicklaus had played in five successive Majors without success until sporting immortality beckoned on August 12, 1973 when he triumphed in the US PGA Championship at the Canterbury country club, Cleveland. As well as the trophy, Nicklaus also won the hearts of American golf fans who had previously withheld their affections. In his early years "Fat Jack" - as he was unkindly known to the galleries - was a tubby youngster who earned the wrath of fans for having the effrontery to usurp the beloved Arnold Palmer.

Palmer was the king and some folk did take not take kindly to this new, flabby kid on the block. Unsmiling, shy and with a dress sense best described as "crumpled", Nicklaus acknowledged he would never replace Palmer in the affection of the masses when he said: "He can hitch up his pants and yank on a glove and the crowds will start oohing and aahing. When I hitch up my pants, nobody notices." With the encouragement of his wife, Barbara, Nicklaus was transformed into the "Lean Machine" who belatedly won the admiration of all via the power and the glory of his golf allied to his abiding sense of fair play and sportsmanship. (It was his wife who also jettisoned her colour blind husband's garish wardrobe to be replaced by tasteful pastels.)

Curiously, as golf's ultimate "winner", Nicklaus was never obsessed by the lure of records, titles or fame; by the age of 25 and the father of three-year-old Jack Jr, he had begun spending more time at home, gradually whittling down his tournament commitments in order to be a "normal dad" and inspiring Chi Chi Rodriguez to observe: "Jack has become a legend in his spare time . . ." For as Barbara explained: "When Jackie was born, Jack made a silent pact that the boy would never say 'I wish I'd known my dad'. Jack vowed he'd never be apart from us for more than two weeks at a time and it was a promise he kept throughout his career."

Unfailingly modest, Nicklaus sums up his career thus: "While some championships are won, most are lost. What I did was fail a little less often than other players who had the chance to win..." rphilip@thenational.ae