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Celebrating The Golden Bear

Jack Nicklaus at Oakmont Country Club, site of his first Major victory in the 1962 U.S. Open. (John Mummert, USGA)
Jack Nicklaus at Oakmont Country Club, site of his first Major victory in the 1962 U.S. Open.
(John Mummert, USGA)

A hearty and happy 74th birthday to Jack William Nicklaus: still the greatest golfer of all time and holder of a major championship record that becomes more impressive with each passing year.

But as colossal as Jack’s records are, they wither when compared to the man himself – a gentleman, father, grandfather, architect, hunter, football fanatic, memoirist and engaging conversationalist whose greatest accomplishments are not the trophies on his shelf, but the extraordinary family he raised and the kindness he has shown for others in his almost 60 years in the public eye.

Unfortunately, in many areas of journalism the art of economy and understatement has been replaced by an instinct for bombast and bad manners. Richard Sherman and the ranting horde that engaged him this past weekend are but the latest examples.

Jack Nicklaus is the antithesis of that carnival-barker mindset. In 20 years of covering golf (and many others have known him much longer than I), Jack has never once blown off a question or a questioner. A call or e-mail is always returned and, even if he is convinced that he has very little to add on a subject, whatever gems he provides are always polished and brilliant.

The day former Augusta National chairman Jack Stephens died, I called Jack at his home. It was the weekend and Barbara answered. She hesitated, but only for a moment before putting him on the line. After I apologized for interrupted his family time, I asked if he could recount some personal stories about Stephens and the role the chairman played in shaping The Masters. Jack went on for a solid 15 minutes, regaling me with one anecdote after another.

But that wasn’t the best part. After I had more than enough to write my story (and when embarrassment at taking too much of his time began cause me discomfort) I thanked him and hung up. Twenty minutes later, Jack called me back. He had forgotten a couple of stories that he wanted to make sure I knew.

To put this into perspective, Alabama head coach Nick Saban, whom I’ve covered for the past five seasons, wouldn’t say hello to me if we were trapped on an elevator, not because I’ve said or done anything to alienate the coach, but because of the wall most celebrities and athletes build between themselves and those charged with writing about them.

Jack is not that way at all. When I have called to ask a question, the response has been timely and thoughtful. And when I reached out to him a couple of summers ago to ask a favor on behalf of an Army Ranger veteran and war hero who lived in Jupiter, Jack went above and beyond anything I could have ever requested.

For two decades I’ve had a cordial and imminently professional relationship with Jack Nicklaus, but I’m not alone. Everyone who covers golf shares the same experiences when it comes to dealing with him.

How good is he? Ever since I’ve known him he has ended every press conference, whether it’s a formal meeting in a media center or a scrum on the putting green, the same way. When everything has been asked and answered, he says, “Do you have everything you need?”

It is a question few if any modern-day athletes ever ask, because the courtesy behind it never enters their minds.

So, happy birthday, sir. We are privileged to know you.


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