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Farewell to a True Champion

By John Feinstein
Monday, July 18, 2005

There's nothing quite like a farewell in golf. For the truly great players, they come much later in life than for other athletes, meaning that their impact is spread across multiple generations. Jack Nicklaus was 20 years old when he first contended in a major championship, the 1960 U.S. Open. Forty-five years later, in what he says will be his last major championship, he still played the game well enough to birdie the final hole and give anyone who has ever cared about golf one last great thrill.

The scene on Friday afternoon at golf's birthplace, the Old Course at St. Andrews, was one of those moments when sports gets it exactly right. There was no script, as is so often the case during retirement ceremonies; no presentations and no speeches. Nicklaus departed exactly the way he wanted to: as a golfer, competing in the British Open on a course where he twice won the game's oldest major championship. He went out -- literally -- swinging, missing by two shots the 36-hole cut that would have allowed him to play on the weekend. Not bad for a man with 17 grandchildren.

There was far more to Nicklaus than longevity, more even than the 18 professional major championships he won -- seven more than any player in history. Nicklaus was one of those special athletes who knew both how to win and how to lose. In addition to his 18 victories in majors, he also finished second 19 times and never once whined or complained or talked about bad luck in defeat. It was fitting that he played his final round Friday with longtime rival and friend Tom Watson. It was Watson who inflicted several of Nicklaus's most painful defeats, including the 1977 British Open, when they staged one of the great duels in golf history the last two days, and the 1982 U.S. Open, when Watson's miraculous chip-in on the second-to-last hole stole the championship from Nicklaus.

On that day, Nicklaus waited for Watson to finish. When he walked off the 18th green, he grabbed Watson and said, "You did it to me again, you little SOB." And then he added, "I'm proud of you."

Tiger Woods was playing three holes behind Nicklaus on Friday, methodically grinding his way to his 10th major title (which he won by five shots yesterday) at the age of 29. It is very possible, even likely, that Woods will someday surpass Nicklaus's 18 majors. He has often said that is his goal and that Nicklaus has been his inspiration since childhood.

Except for one thing: Woods seems to think that Nicklaus's legacy is only about numbers, that winning golf tournaments is the only thing that measures a champion. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in golf.

Woods already holds many records. One of them, which is unofficial, is that he has been fined for using profanity publicly more than any player in history. While using profanity in the crucible of competition is hardly a great crime, it is indicative of Woods's attitude that, rather than try to curb his use of language, he has complained that he is being treated unfairly since there are always microphones following him when he plays. Last month, during the U.S. Open, Woods missed a putt and childishly dragged his putter across the green, damaging it as he did so. When he was asked about the incident later, he shrugged and said, "I was frustrated," (no apology) as if he was the only player among 156 dealing with frustration. In recent years he has allowed his caddie, Steve Williams, to frequently treat spectators and members of the media rudely, not only defending him but also appearing to sanction his misbehavior.

Woods is extremely popular with the golfing public, in part because of his extraordinary play and in part because of a carefully crafted image built around a series of commercials that show him to be a funny and friendly guy. Sadly, that's not the Woods most people encounter. He is the master of the TV sound bite, but he rarely shares any of his real thoughts with the public.

We tend to embrace our sports heroes not just for their greatness but also for allowing us to see that they are fragile. Arnold Palmer is the most popular player in golf history because he always shared his emotions in victory and defeat with his fans. Nicklaus and Watson both warmed to the role of icons as they grew older. Woods still doesn't seem to understand how to be a champion off the golf course. When Phil Mickelson put the green jacket on him during the TV ceremony after his victory at this year's Masters, Woods didn't even glance back at his longtime rival. As one player put it, "He treated Phil like a butler, not a fellow champion."

Someday, Tiger Woods will walk across the Swilcan Bridge on the 18th fairway at St. Andrews and say farewell the way Nicklaus did on Friday. No doubt he will be cheered for his greatness as a golfer, just as Nicklaus was. But those cheers -- and the tears -- were not just for a golfer, they were for a man; one who has always won and always lost with grace and dignity. As a golfer, Woods will no doubt continue to close the gap inexorably on Nicklaus's records. He has a much longer road to travel to match him as a true champion.

John Feinstein is the author of "Caddy for Life: The Bruce Edwards Story."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company