Jack Nicklaus
John Feinstein

With age, Jack Nicklaus' legacy becomes less defined by his record and more by his character

January 20, 2020

Peter Alliss, the Hall of Fame broadcaster and former player, almost always used the same three words to describe Jack Nicklaus whenever he found himself on-air while Nicklaus was playing: “The great man.”

That sums it up pretty well.

Nicklaus turns 80 on Tuesday and there isn’t any doubt that just about everyone who has crossed his path during his remarkable life would agree with Alliss—and then some.

“What you need to remember when you talk about him is that he wasn’t just the greatest winner in golf history, he was also the greatest loser,” says David Feherty. “Every time he finished second in a major [19 times], he went out of his way to make sure the winner got to enjoy what he had accomplished. He wasn’t just gracious, he was more than that. He was willing to humble himself—to always say, ‘The best man won.’ That may have been true on that occasion, but it was never true over the long haul. There was never any real reason for Jack Nicklaus to be humble. And yet, he was.”

Tom Watson dueled with Nicklaus on three memorable occasions in major championships: the 1977 Masters; the 1977 Open Championship and the 1982 U.S. Open. Watson considers those events his three greatest moments in golf, not just because he won a major title, but because he beat Nicklaus to do so.

“If you beat him under those circumstances, you have to come away believing you can play with the very best,” Watson said last week. “And Jack made sure you felt that way. When we walked off the 18th green at Turnberry [after their famous Duel in the Sun], he said to me, ‘Tom, I gave you my best shot, and it wasn’t good enough.’ Hearing that from him was amazing.”

Five years later, when Watson famously chipped in on the 71st hole at Pebble Beach to deny Nicklaus a fifth U.S. Open title, Nicklaus waited behind the 18th green for Watson to finish. When Watson walked off the green, Nicklaus grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “You little sonofabitch, you did it to me again.” Then he added, “I’m proud of you. I know how much you needed to win this tournament.”

“That was really something special,” Watson says, “because I know that loss was a tough one for him.”

Phil Sheldon/Popperfoto

Watson (right) and Nicklaus compete during the 1980 British Open.

It is that generosity of spirit that sets Nicklaus apart. During his Memorial Tournament each spring, he sits in the player dining area on Tuesday and Wednesday and welcomes the players, asks how they like the golf course, and if they need anything to make their week more enjoyable. When you ask players about that, most just shrug and say, “That’s Jack.”

Through all the ups and downs that Tiger Woods has been through on and off the golf course, Nicklaus has always supported him publicly, has continued to insist that Woods can still break his record of 18 professional major titles and never taken any sort of swipe at anything he’s done.

“Think about that,” says Davis Love III. “There’s only one player in history who has even come close to Jack for the title of greatest player ever—Tiger. No one else is close. Most athletes would either feel threatened and stay at arm’s length or, given the chance, try to put him down. Jack’s done just the opposite.”

Love, a Hall of Famer himself, backs up Feherty and Watson. “I think Tiger’s learning now how to be gracious when he loses,” Love says. “But there was a long time when he’d say something about not having his ‘A’ game when he lost and not give the other guy much credit. Jack has always done that.”

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Love first met Nicklaus as a 10-year-old when the tour came to Atlanta Country Club, where his father, Davis Love Jr., was the head golf pro. Davis got to know Jack better when he was in college at North Carolina and was a teammate of Nicklaus’ son Jack Jr.

“During spring break we’d go to Florida to play, and we’d stay with the Nicklauses,” Love says. “He was always encouraging his [five] kids to bring friends home with them. He and Barbara were both that way.

“One year, my brother [Mark] and I went out to play tennis one night,” he said. “They had a grass court in the back yard that might have been at Wimbledon. It was perfect. Mark got mad and smashed a racquet. We’re like, ‘We broke one of Mr. Nicklaus’ racquets—what do we do?’ Then I got a smart idea. I said, ‘Let’s go tell Mrs. Nicklaus.’ ”

If Nicklaus has had a not-so-secret-weapon in life, it hasn’t been his ability to make putts under pressure nearly as much as it has been his wife, Barbara. Jokingly, she is often referred to on tour as “the nice Nicklaus” because Jack can be prickly at times and even occasionally impatient. It is Barbara who smooths things over.

When the Love brothers told her about the broken racquet, she laughed and said, “Don’t worry, he’s got plenty more. We won’t tell him, and he won’t notice.”

Disaster averted.

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Nicklaus’ playing record is, as Love points out, miles and miles beyond anything achieved by anyone—with the possible exception of Woods, who is three majors behind him but has won more tournaments, 82-73, overall. But when friends talk about Nicklaus, his golf frequently comes up almost as an afterthought, or something that’s taken for granted.

“He’s always been about what’s best for the game,” says Feherty, who played with him only once—nine holes during a practice round. “He walked up to me on the 10th tee and said, ‘How about we play in together,’ ” Feherty says—mimicking Nicklaus’ famous high-pitched voice. “I was so nervous, I could barely hold a club. He acted as if we were just two guys playing nine holes, did everything he could to make me relax. I’ve never seen him act as if he’s Jack Nicklaus.”

One part of Nicklaus’ legacy that is often overlooked is the Ryder Cup. “People in Europe say that the most important person in Ryder Cup history is Seve [Ballesteros]” Feherty says. “They forget that, without Jack, there’s no Seve. The Ryder Cup was a backburner event in golf until he came up with the idea of bringing all of Europe into it.”

It was Nicklaus who approached officials from Europe and the United States in 1977 and suggested a change in format to include all of Europe, instead of just Great Britain and Ireland as the biennial opponents versus the U.S.

“I always loved the Ryder Cup,” Nicklaus told me a few years back. “But it had gotten to the point where we were winning so easily most of the time that it was just a little more than hit-and-giggle golf a lot of the time. When Seve came on the scene in 1976, it occurred to me that it would be great to have him in the event, and there were going to be more great players coming from the continent. I thought they could help revive the event.”

He paused and smiled. “Of course, I never dreamed that I was creating a monster.”

The monster is the Ryder Cup today, one of the events in sports, not just golf. Someday—soon—there should be a Jack Nicklaus Trophy that goes to the outstanding player from the winning team at each Ryder Cup.

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Nicklaus has also spent years trying to convince the powers-that-be that the best and simplest way to dial back the power that has taken over the game would be to dial back the golf ball. So far, even though many players agree with him, his pleas haven’t brought change.

“Of course he’s right,” Watson says. “He’s been right for 30 years.”

Or, as Feherty sardonically puts it: “Why would anyone listen to Jack Nicklaus on the subject of what’s best for golf? What the heck does he know?”

When Love, who has had the chance to be around Nicklaus’ family for years, thinks of Jack, it’s his family he thinks about first.

“People forget, when he talked years ago about going to Augusta the week before the Masters to play three or four rounds and then going home for the weekend to relax, he didn’t really relax at home,” he said. “He’d spend the weekend going to his kids’ games, later grandkids’ games. It was always about family with him. Still is.

“That’s why my favorite memory of watching a round of golf is the last round at Augusta in ’86. For me, it wasn’t just about Jack winning that last major, it was about him doing it with Jackie on the bag. I knew how much that meant to both of them.”

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Nicklaus congratulates Love after his singles victory at the 2005 Presidents Cup.

After their years of competing so intensely with one another, Nicklaus and Watson became close friends. In 2009, after he had bogeyed the final hole at Turnberry to miss a chance to become the oldest major champion in history, Watson and his wife, Hilary, went back to their hotel room. Watson had maintained his composure throughout the post-round events, including watching Stewart Cink accept the claret jug and then doing every interview he was asked to do. Once that was all over, the angst of being so close to a stunning accomplishment hit him.

“The phone rang,” Watson recalls. “Hilary answered, and it was Barbara. They talked for a little while, and then Hilary handed me the phone and said, ‘Jack wants to talk to you.’

“Jack commiserated with me for a minute and then walked me through the last hole—which was probably the last thing I wanted to do. He said, ‘You hit a perfect tee shot, and your second shot was six inches from being on the green with an easy two-putt to win. Then, you hit a smart third shot [putting from a difficult lie] that ensured you’d have a chance to win.’ Then he paused a moment and said, ‘And then you hit the par putt like the rest of us would have—like a dog.’ I started to laugh. I couldn’t believe he was able to make me laugh in that moment.

“You take a lot of different paths in your life. There’s no doubt one of the best ones I took was becoming Jack’s friend.”

Nicklaus’ numbers as a golfer are absolutely astounding. What might be more astounding, is that they are not the heart and soul of his legacy. That can’t possibly be described in numbers—or perhaps even in words.


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