x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Millstone off his back

The name of Bobby Jones was rammed down the throat of Jack Nicklaus from the moment the Golden Bear made a stunning impact on the golfing world by winning the US Open as a rookie professional nearly half a century ago.

Anxious to earn his 14th major, Jack Nicklaus played some
Anxious to earn his 14th major, Jack Nicklaus played some "solid golf" to win the PGA Championship in 1975.

The name of Bobby Jones was rammed down the throat of Jack Nicklaus from the moment the Golden Bear made a stunning impact on the golfing world by winning the US Open as a rookie professional nearly half a century ago. Those who saw Nicklaus go to the home territory of then king of the game, Arnold Palmer, and silence the galleries known as "Arnie's Army" by triumphing in an 18-hole play-off at Oakmont, Pennsylvania, sensed a glittering career was about to unfold. Few could have envisaged the extent of that glitter.

Match and then surpass Jones - the illustrious amateur of the 1920s who amassed what was considered to be an unbeatable total of 13 major tournament victories before retiring at the tender age of 28 - was the message sent to the emerging Nicklaus. Thirty-four years ago that mission was splendidly accomplished when the American ambassador roared to a record-equalling four-stroke victory in the US PGA championship at the Canterbury course in Cleveland Ohio.

In the Jones era the four main events on the fixture list were the British and US Opens and the British and US Amateur championships. Jones won all four in the same all-conquering year of 1930 to be acclaimed as the finest player his sport had produced. Nicklaus, who never managed the modern day "calendar slam" of US Masters, US Open, British Open and PGA, completed a "career slam" on three occasions on the way to sporting immortality and took that "best of all time" honour from Jones with the third of his five PGA triumphs.

It was worth a modest US$45,000 (Dh165,599) to the man who went on to earn more than $33million on the golf course, but it was probably the defining moment of his professional life. Adding four more major titles to set a record of 18 that only current world No 1 Tiger Woods looks capable of matching in the foreseeable future, put more gloss on Nicklaus's career but overtaking Jones was the objective that spurred him on more than most.

"All I did was hear Jones, all I did was hear major championships and from the time I was an amateur that's what I prepared for," Nicklaus once said in interview. Jones who was still alive when Nicklaus set out on his quest to catch him, made a pertinent observation after watching how Nicklaus dealt with outrageous "Fatso" taunts from "Arnie's Army" before capturing that maiden major. "Nicklaus played a game with which I am not familiar," said Jones, a lawyer by profession. Jones seemed to be resigned from that day his record would be broken.

Nicklaus, who had drawn level with Jones on 13 titles by winning the previous year's US Open, confessed to getting frustrated by his failure to go one better in the ensuing six majors. "I've been bugged in majors this last year or so," he said after expressing his delight to remove the enormous millstone from his shoulders. "Every time I've fouled up a round when I had a chance to win. This time I played solid golf - nothing sensational, just solid."

Bruce Crampton, who finished runner-up to Nicklaus, was full of admiration for a fantastic champion, despite his own despair. "This borders on the unbelievable," said Crampton. "Playing alongside Jack was wonderful. It was an honour to be an eye witness to history. It's incredible for a man to accomplish so much and be so young [35]." After holding aloft the trophy, Nicklaus was asked to compare himself with Jones but refused to go there. "You can't draw any comparisons until I retire and I'm not about to retire," he warned. "I plan to play a lot more golf."

Indeed he did and his incredible span as a major tournament winner was extended to 26 years when he donned the iconic green jacket for the sixth time at Augusta National in 1986. Even Tiger will be hard pushed to match that amazing staying power. wjohnson@thenational.ae