Jack's Back

After Tiger's miseries, there's a new appreciation for Nicklaus' career

October 2010

Jack Nicklaus sinks back in one of the cushy armchairs in his North Palm Beach office, dressed in what his staff refers to as his business "uniform": shorts, a golf shirt and boat shoes without socks. A few days before, he and wife Barbara had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, the 200 in attendance including their five children and nearly all of their 21 grandchildren. There is no golf memorabilia glinting in the bright Florida light, although all manner of wildlife art -- but no depiction of a tiger -- looms on the walls.

At 70, the Golden Bear is at peace. Still, after stretching his legs onto a coffee table, he fixes his visitor with a stare and asks in a crisp, slightly challenging voice, "What's this story about again?"

A tricky question, considering the source. The last thing Jack Nicklaus wants to do is to be perceived as piling on Tiger Woods. But Nicklaus has unwittingly been the biggest beneficiary of the most complete backlash in the history of sports. As the previously sure-footed Woods has fallen off a cliff, ending the impression that he would continue to click off major championships at a metronomic pace, there's a new appreciation for Nicklaus' body of work -- 18 victories and 46 top-three finishes in majors -- and the way he went about it. From the fuller perspective that retirement provides, with the subtext of just how problematic sustained excellence at the top of the sport really is, we wanted to ask Nicklaus to share his latest thoughts on his career.

Taking in the pitch, Nicklaus nods, refraining from the contrarian tack he often takes to hold off journalists. He has resolutely resisted commenting on Woods' problems, patiently repeating the words, "It's none of my business," and has actively dodged being positioned on the high moral ground at Woods' expense. And though Nicklaus has long demonstrated an uncanny understanding of Woods as a golfer, which surely comes from having breathed the same air, Jack knows that for the foreseeable future, anything he says about his historical challenger will be read through the prism of rivalry. Indeed, his statement in January, "If Tiger is going to pass my record, I think this is a big year for him in that regard," became, after Woods failed to win his 15th major at Pebble Beach or St. Andrews, the platform for several national columnists to make the case that Woods' great days are over.

Nicklaus and Woods have been compared every which way, from driver through putter and beyond, with the sum total long considered almost a wash. But the potential for major life mistakes that seemed moot in two people so driven and organized has suddenly become the most important element of all. Nicklaus' steady conservatism, which on the course might have begun to seem quaint and even limiting in contrast to Woods' bolder style, has become the potential off-the-course difference-maker. As Nicklaus sits in the clubhouse, an early finisher watching the recklessness that has cost Woods the lead, the score Jack posted is looking better.

"For a while, it was like, 'Yeah, Jack was great, but he's no Tiger,' " says Scott Simpson, who adds that Nicklaus remains his golf hero. "Now Jack is back in the game."

Mark Calcavecchia, who as a junior golfer in Florida was encouraged by Nicklaus and is one of the closer pros to Woods, sees both sides. "Tiger was winning majors like they were freaking club championships, making it look so easy," Calcavecchia says. "Now even he knows it isn't. It just makes you take another look at what Jack accomplished and realize, Man, that really took a lot."

Addressing a number of topics during a 90-minute conversation, Nicklaus displays a new candor. He used to say, "My record is my record. I did all I could do." Today, he casts a more analytical and sometimes critical eye on the nuances of his career, starting with a self-effacing haymaker: "If I were to look back on my work, I think I accomplished probably about 70 to 75 percent of what I could have. Maybe 60 percent. Somewhere in that area; two-thirds of what I could have accomplished. If I had been a really dedicated person, and really worked hard, I think I could have accomplished more."

It's a startling concession. For one, hindsight and the expanded timetables of modern golfers have shown Nicklaus he probably had more in the tank than he thought. He remembers 1980, when he won two majors at 40 after a dismal 1979 in which he battled apathy. "It was a devastating birthday for everybody when they hit 40," he says with a chuckle. "Life was over. Now I think, Man, what a young age. But because I had played poorly, I was really motivated to play well. I worked very hard on my game. Then I won two majors and sort of said, Well, I can do this. And then after that, I just sort of let it drop off again."

He is wistful, remembering the feeling of owning a record so complete and superior to his rivals that he lost motivation. "What was there to shoot for? I didn't have any goals. When you don't have goals, it makes it pretty difficult. I think that's why Tiger will still break my record. His goals are to play until he breaks my record. I don't expect him to play a whole lot beyond that."

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