What a lovely thing it is, that Jack Nicklaus has won again. Once we find what it is we like the best, there is so little time to do it. Grandpas sing lullabies to the sons of sons they never had time to sing to. Nicklaus beat Palmer and he beat Jones, doing it with the fire of the young and ambitious. Now, at 40, Nicklaus is singing lullabies.
For hours after winning the U.S. Open golf tournament at Balusrol in June, Nicklaus stayed on the club grounds. He loved the galleries, he said, for their warmth and enthusiasm. "I don't want this day to end," he told newspapermen who asked questions until they could think of no more. So little time. In 1967 at Baltusrol, Nicklaus also won the Open. That time the galleries cheered his errors. "Typical New York," he said meanly.
Now Nicklaus has won the PGA Championship for a fifth time. His four Open championships tied Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones, and the five PGA's tie Walter Hagen. With 19 championships in the four major pro tournaments and the U.S. Amateur, Nicklaus has won more majors than Arnold Palmer and Gary Player combined. Nicklaus is six championships ahead of Jones, whose 13 was the record for 40 years.
It is a standard of greatness accepted by all golfers that one major championship is not enough. Two majors makes you great. That's two in a career. Jack Nicklaus has won two major championships in a single season five times -- the 1963 Masters and PGA, the '66 Masters and British Open, the '72 Masters and U.S. Open, the '75 Masters and PGA and, now, the Open and PGA (a double achieved previously, by the way, only by Gene Saraxen in 1922 and Hogan in 1948).
Beginning with the U.S. Open of 1962, his first year as a professional, Nicklaus has played in 75 Masters, Opens, PGAs and British Opens. He has won 17 of them. With a saving of, say, 25 shots or so, he could have won 33 times, for in addition to his astonishing number of victories Nicklaus has finished second 16 times in the big events.
In the early years of this Everestian career, Nicklaus was cast as the mechanical heavy -- an overweight blob in a dumb hat -- opposite Arnold Palmer's sexy, sweating, grimacing-on-every-shot hero. So clearly was Nicklaus the superior player it would have been understandable had he chose to be churlish, demanding his due. It was instructive when Nicklaus chose, instead, to let his game have the last word.
As Palmer faded in the incessant glow of Nicklaus' gifts, only Bobby Jones was left. Bobby Jones with his 13 major championships, Bobby Jones who built the Masters into a great tournament, Bobby Jones who began golf as a churlish child and left it the very model of dignity and sportsmanship -- Bobby Jones who once said admiringly of Nicklaus, "Jack plays a game with which I am not familiar."
By 1969, at age 29, Nicklaus had won three major championships.
A great career.
So great it was over.
That's what Frank Beard thought. The PGA tour's leading money winner in 1969, Beard wrote a book about that season. In his book, Beard said Jack Nicklaus was through. "Nicklaus Washed Up, Beard Says," a headline declared.
Beard tried to mend the fence. Nicklaus wasn't washed up and Beard didn't say that. What Beard meant was that Nicklaus had been so good for so long that there was no way he could ever again accomplish what he already had done.
Well, that was safe. How many golfers ever win nine more major championships after they already have won nine?
With 10 more major championships, Nicklaus now has separated himself from Palmer, Hogan and Snead, even Bobby Jones. He is alone in his world, the best there ever was at what he loves to do. He is singing us lullabies. Palmer at his most emotional never lifted hearts higher than Nicklaus did by rolling in a 17-foot birdie putt in the anxious denouement of the U.S. Open. When the ball dropped into the hole, Nicklaus thrust his putter overhead and scrunched his face into a glorious closed-eye smile of overpowering joy.
Only a year ago doomsayers saw Jack Nicklaus done. Washed up. Their argument gained credence as Nicklaus, for the first time in his career, failed to win a single tournament in a year. He did finish second in the British Open, but there were so many questions about his ability that Nicklaus went on the offensive in interviews, declaring, "Jack Nicklaus is not dead. Yet."
Which is not the same as saying Jack Nicklaus didn't have problems. He did. He admitted it. His swing, once a model of leg power, had become too upright, costing him the distance produced by the legs. His short game, in bunkers and around the greens, wasn't good enough to offset the swing problems.
In beating Palmer and passing Jones, Nicklaus had been great, indeed. But at age 40 and with flawed swing and incomplete game, he could see the end coming. He didn't like it. Only too late do we learn what we love most. eSo Nicklaus went to his old teacher, Jack Grout, to get back the swing he had lost. And, he called on an old friend and rival, Phil Rodgers, to build the short game he needed.
Great athletes earn the right to end their careers the way they want to. However melancholy a sight Willie Mays was at the end, a stumblebum selling his name for the money, it did not diminish the majesty he gave life. Muhammad Ali can be knocked out in one, but he will remain in our memory the haunting lethal butterfly of his youth. If Jack Nicklaus wanted to quit with his 17 majors after a year without a single victory of any kind, no one could have argued against his supremacy.
The lovely thing is, he didn't quit. The powers of concentration yet burned brightly. He put his swing back together, he learned new tricks with the wedge. And in times when people asked him if he were dead yet, Nicklaus made every putt he needed to, as sure a sign of life as there is. His victories once were steps up the ladder of flaming ambition. The victories this year, in the U.S. Open and the PGA, were sweet and just reward for the work and love he brings to his game.