Every time Jack Nicklaus wins a biggie, he tells the world he wants to win another one because there is a kid out there somewhere, beating on balls from dawn to dusk, who will win the biggies, too, and Jack wants to make it tough for the kid to catch him.
This is to introduce John Cook.
He is 20 years old.
A lean blond.
A junior at Ohio State.
Twice an All-America golfer.
Winner of both the California and Ohio state amateur championships.
Today, he plays for the U.S. Amateur Golf Championship, going against Scott Hoch, both looking for the first biggie in a tournament Jack Nicklaus won when Cook was 1 1/2 years old.
"Are you," someone asked Cook, "the young Golden Bear or the young Ben Crenshaw?"
"I'm the young nobody," Cook said.
If Nicklaus hears the tiny footsteps of youth tracking him, the noise likely comes from a hundred places, including Nicklaus' very own golf course, Muirfield Village, just outside Columbus, Ohio.
John Cook lives there.
On the Muirfield driving range.
His family bought a condominium by the driving range when Cook enrolled at Ohio State.
An important Ohio State alumnua recruited Cook for the school's golf team.
"He wrote me a nice little note, and we had dinner at Pebble Beach," Cook said. "He basically told me the advantages - and the disadvantages - of going to Ohio State."
Once upon a time, the U.S. Amateur was always won by a car dealer from Indianapolis or an insurance man from Memphis. Those were the guys who didn't work for a living and so had time to knock that silly white pellet all over the pasture.
Now the U.S. Amateur belongs to the college golfers, who have made the national amateur tournaments a kind of minor league training ground for the pro tour. The last five U.S. champions have been collegians. That's because (a) the tournament became match play again, and the creaking car dealers can't handle 36 holes three days straight, and (b) the college players somehow find the cash to play virtually weekly, thereby achieving a high level of competence.
Perhaps the nature of the tournament is changing because of this move from "pure" amateurs to "semipro" amateurs. Time was, squirrels outnumbered paying customers at USGA amateur events. The other day, maybe 3,000 spectators where at Plainfield Country Club to see some of the young men whose hurrying footsteps keep Jack Nicklaus running. ABC-TV will carry today's championship match.
You would like John Cook. In merry contrast to those hot dogs whose obnoxious behavior moves even kind-hearted observers to wish them a quick drowning in a sea of mustard, Cook is quiet, shy and becomingly modest.
Through his first six matches over a difficult golf course. Cook was 10 under par. He had been behind in only two matches.
"Are you," someone asked Cook, "impressed?"
"I'm getting there," he said.
"When do you think you'll arrive at 'impressed'?"
"I'll be impressed if I'm still playing Sunday."
Let's say your English assignment today is an essay on the development of the golfer who will surpass Jack Nicklaus.
Romanticists might go for a Lee Trevino figure, the hustler-up-from-nothing metaphor.
Realists would go for a John Cook story. His father, Jim, if not wealthy is ahead of the game. John Cook's wrist watch may cost more than some sports writers' cars. Jim Cook is a business manager who is big in auto racing. He promoted two Indy-car races at the Trenton (N.J.) Speedway and is business manager for racer Mario Andretti, the former Indianapolis 500 winner who likely will be this year's Grand Prix world champion.
Money helps good golfers become great.
At age 4, John Cook first swung a golf club. At 7, he had a full set of clubs. At 8, he shot 82 on a regulation golf course.
At 12, he decided it was time to get serious.
So he took lessons from Ken Venturi, who is not your ordinary putt-putt pro. An artist at his work, Venturi once won the U.S. Open. John Cook will take swing advice from no one except Venturi, still his teacher today.
Cook grew up playing golf at Firestone Country Club, where his father was a public relations man, and now he is a member at both Muirfield Village and Mission Hills Country Club in Palm Springs, Calif., (the Cooks have a home there, too).
While in Columbus, the prodigy often plays golf with another Ohio State man. Tom Weiskopf. Cook says he has played twice with Nicklaus.
"I understand that Nicklaus said John could be the best," said Jim Cook, hastening to add, "Now I don't know if he meant 'best college golfer' or what. You better check it. I might be prejudiced, you know."
Whatever Nicklaus said, this much is clear to anyone with eyes: The kid can flat play. He isn't big (5-foot-10, 155), but he removes the ball a long way in a straight line. His iron shots are high fades, clones of Nicklaus' feathery floaters, and while John Cook says he isn't a great putter, he makes enough to the Big 10 champion, the Broadmoor Invitational champion, the Northeast Amateur champion, the. . .you get the idea.
How does a young man of 20 keep his head screwed on right when he is a golfer of great promise who lives on Jack Nicklaus' driving range, often tees it up with a British Open champion and will talk the golf swing only with a U.S. Open champion?
"I let it go in one ear and out the other," Cook said disarmingly. "I've seen a lot of good players let it go to their heads. They change. Some friends of mine turned into people I didn't even know. I don't want to be that way, and if I get that way, I hope somebody tells me.
"All I want is to play well enough to be satisfied."
What about breaking the records Nicklaus will leave? Is John Cook the man?
"You never know," he said, and then he repeated the words with a little smile. "You never know repeated the words with a little smile. "You never know."