This bear was golden on the links
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
Before we delve into Jack Nicklaus' accomplishments, let's reflect upon a few quotes from years past concerning the golfing kingdom:
Grantland Rice, in The Saturday Evening Post in 1940: "There is no more chance that golf will give the world another (Bobby) Jones than there is that literature will produce another Shakespeare, sculpture another Phidias, music another Chopin."
Nicklaus, at 20 in 1960: "Ben Hogan is the greatest hitter of the ball that ever played the game. But I should hit the ball as well as Hogan someday. Maybe better."
More Nicklaus in 1960: "Jones is the greatest golfer who ever lived and probably ever will live. That's my goal. Bobby Jones. It's the only goal."
Arnold Palmer, in 1962, after losing the U.S. Open to 22-year-old Nicklaus in a playoff: "Now that the big guy's out of the cage, everybody better run for cover."
Without commenting about literature, sculpture or music, it's fair to say that Nicklaus and Palmer had a better handle on their game than did Rice, one of the most famous sportswriters of the 20th century.
While it is arguable if Nicklaus stroked the ball better than Hogan, there's no question he did it at least as well. Though Jones was the greatest golfer of the first half of the 20th century, it is likely that Nicklaus, the greatest golfer of the second half of the century, has surpassed him. Jones himself said after watching Nicklaus win the Masters in 1965: "Nicklaus played a game of which I am not familiar."
And Palmer certainly was right, as Nicklaus' career took off after his first win on the pro tour. Jones dominated the twenties and, seeing no more worlds to conquer, quit the game at 28. Nicklaus dominated the sixties and seventies and still won majors in the eighties, the last at 46.
"How many other champions have become so identified with their sport, with every aspect of it, with the very essence of it, that is impossible to think of one without the other?" Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated. "Babe Ruth, for sure; Bobby Jones himself; Muhammad Ali. But they are few, very few; in his remarkable career, Nicklaus has achieved that preeminence as much as anyone."
There have been few athletes that have started off spectacularly, then continued steadily upward, almost without interruption, for so many years. Nicklaus has won the most majors, either 18 (if one only counts Grand Slam events) or 20 (if one counts his two U.S. Amateurs). Either way, that's more than the combined total of Hogan and Palmer.
Nicklaus has won the most Masters (six) and tied for the most PGA Championships (five) and U.S. Opens (four). He's also won three British Opens, making him the only person to win each of the Grand Slam tournaments at least three times; nobody else has ever accomplished that twice. And only three others (Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player) have managed to win each of the pro majors once.
His 70 tour victories are seven more than Hogan's 63 and second only to Sam Snead's 81.
Not only did the person once known as Fat Jack vanquish his competitors on the course, he also won over a country. A 1960 cover story by Sports Illustrated was headlined: "One Whale of a Golfer." The article said Nicklaus' fraternity mates at Ohio State called him Blob-o, his neighborhood friends called him Whaleman and his wife Barbara had even called him Fat Boy.
When Nicklaus started on the tour, his main rival was the popular Palmer, America's darling -- energetic, virile, human and a winner. Nicklaus was the fat kid with the blond crew cut who should have been playing tackle for Woody Hayes' Buckeyes or commanding a platoon in the ROTC.
In the seventies, the 5-foot-11 Nicklaus lost about 20 pounds, getting down to a svelte 190, grew his hair longer and started becoming more popular with the galleries. He truly went from Fat Jack to "the Golden Bear."
"He was not homespun like Sam Snead, funny like Lee Trevino. His pants didn't need hitching like Palmer's," Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly wrote. "Instead, he won over America with pure, unbleached excellence."
Like Jones, Nicklaus was also a golf prodigy. He was born Jan. 21, 1940 in Columbus, Ohio, and was raised in the suburb of Upper Arlington. His father, a pharmacist, led him to the golf course and at 10, Jack shot a 51 for his first nine holes. At 13, he broke 70.
He spent hours on the practice range as a teenager, and cured himself of a hook that sometimes plagued him. In 1959, at 19 years and 7 months, he became the youngest player in 50 years to win the U.S. Amateur. He won his second amateur two years later.
In between, at the 1960 U.S. Open, he shot a 282, finishing second by two strokes to Palmer, who won the tournament with a final round 65. Despite his outstanding showing, Nicklaus wasn't thrilled.
"I didn't win," he said. "Nobody ever remembers who finished second at anything."
That's not always true, for we all remember Germany for finishing second in world wars, but Nicklaus' sentiment showed his competitive fire.
After maintaining that he wouldn't turn pro, Nicklaus did, in late 1961, and left Ohio State. In his first pro start, at the Los Angeles Open in January 1962, his 289 left him 21 strokes behind the winner. He earned $33.33.
Before that year's U.S. Open at Oakmont, Pa., Palmer said, "Everybody says there's only one favorite, and that's me. But you'd better watch the fat boy."
Trailing Palmer by five strokes with 11 holes left (12 for Palmer), Nicklaus made up all five between the seventh and 13th holes and forced a playoff. His par 71 was three strokes better than Palmer's 74.
Nicklaus finished 1962 third on the money list with $61,869 and was named the Rookie of the Year.
In 1963, Nicklaus won his first Masters and PGA titles. Two years later, he won his second Masters with a then-record 271, breaking Hogan's record by three strokes and eliciting Jones' praise. He also won his second of eight earnings titles.
In 1966, Nicklaus retained his Masters championship and also won his first British Open. At 26, he already had won all four Grand Slam events.
Nicklaus, an incredible clutch putter, continued to dominate until the late seventies. Then in 1980, when people were wondering if the 40-year-old Golden Bear had lost his touch, he won his fourth U.S. Open with a tournament record 272 at Baltusrol in New Jersey. He also romped -- by a record seven strokes -- to his fifth PGA Championship, at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y.
Nicklaus won only three more tour events, but the last was especially sweet. In 1986, at 46, he certainly was past his prime. Before the Masters, an Atlanta journalist wrote that Nicklaus was "done, washed up, through." Nicklaus tacked the story to his refrigerator, and then put the lie to it.
With his son Jack II caddying for him, Nicklaus shot a 65 in the final round, 30 on the back nine. His 279 edged out good friend Greg Norman and Tom Kite by a stroke and won him a sixth green jacket.
It was his last victory until he joined the Senior Tour in 1990. In the nineties, he has played sporadically on both the PGA and Senior Tours. A captain of industry for years, Nicklaus already was a conglomerate with his Golden Bear International -- endorsements, clothing, golf equipment and especially designing golf courses (more than 100). His worth has been estimated in excess of $300 million.
It's no wonder that Chi Chi Rodriguez once called Nicklaus a legend in his spare time.