"I gave it my best shot, but it just wasn't good enough," Nicklaus said, according to Boehner's recounting Tuesday.
In honoring Nicklaus, Congress -- particularly Boehner -- paid tribute to its passion for a game that teaches a most poignant lesson for politics: It's not how many times lawmakers win on Capitol Hill -- defeat happens far more often -- it's how they play the game.
Despite his greatness, Nicklaus was far more likely to lose than win. Nicklaus competed in a PGA event almost 600 times, and won just 73 times. His record of 18 victories in the four major championships has stood for decades -- yet he entered more than 150 major tournaments.
It's the sort of winning percentage -- about 11 percent -- that members of Congress can associate with, given that their approval rating the past five years rank at similar levels.
Golf is built into much of the fabric of Capitol Hill: a socializing device for lawmakers and aides, a fundraising network for their campaigns and the lobbyists, and a competitive fix for some of America's most driven competitors. It's also a place to sometimes seal deals.
Nicklaus recounted how in the early days of the Clinton administration, former president Gerald Ford asked the legend to come play golf with him and Bill Clinton, to lobby him on the North American Free Trade Agreement. "I just play golf," Nicklaus told Ford. "Remember?"
In 2011, after much public cajoling, President Obama and Boehner used 18 holes at Joint Base Andrews to jump start a grand bargain budget deal -- a negotiation that ended acrimoniously, and a golf pairing that's never happened since.
The game serves as a metaphor for the life of being a congressman. It's an individualistic sport that requires tenacity but extreme patience, drive but also a long view that one's legacy will be based on decades of service.
"We just play golf," Nicklaus said repeatedly to the star-studded crowd in the Capitol Rotunda. Arnold Palmer -- his friend, competitor and fellow Gold Medal recipient -- looked on from the front row. Nicklaus fought back tears throughout his speech, seemingly amazed that so many lawmakers wanted to honor him.
The front rows were lined with lawmakers from Ohio, a few rows back sat Donald Trump. Both Ohioans, Boehner and Nicklaus have known each other for about 20 years, aides say. The speaker has long said golf rips back the curtain and reveals one's inner character, something that every congressman faces at some point.
"You start trying to hit that little white ball. You can't be somebody that you're not, because all of you shows up," he told "60 Minutes" in a December 2010 interview just before he became speaker.
For every shining star that bursts onto the PGA Tour like Tiger Woods in the fall of 1996 -- just as a young Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois state Senate -- there are hundreds who flame out quickly after a few years on tour. Think Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ohio) in Congress.
Early prodigies in their fields, both Phil Mickelson and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) just turned 45. Yet initial fame led to long grinds toward true respect. Mickelson could never win the biggest prizes, Ryan was just a wonk with a budget plan that hardly anyone noticed.
Mickelson won his first major, the Masters, at 34, and now holds five major titles. In 2011, in his seventh term, Ryan finally became a committee chairman, and a year later was his party's vice-presidential nominee. He's now working on passing his second major bipartisan fiscal plan in the past 18 months.
No one in Congress understands this roller-coaster ride quite like Boehner. A Google search of the phrase "embarrassing defeat" in the Washington region yields a string of Boehner's setbacks in the House the past four years. On Tuesday he recounted Nicklaus's ability to never let losing get him down.
"You have to go face the man in the mirror," Boehner said of defeat on the course.
He easily could have been talking about his career. Once a rising star, he was ejected from leadership after a disappointing GOP showing in the 1998 elections. He plodded and plotted, spending time as chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee -- he even had Nicklaus testify before that panel.
In 2006, he worked his way back up into leadership, only to see two straight elections leave them so deep in the minority most never thought he'd get to be speaker. When Republicans won back the majority in 2010, Boehner was considered out of step with the young firebrand conservatives in his GOP caucus. They fought with his leadership team, undermined him on big bipartisan deals and some even plotted his ouster.
Last month they embarrassed him on a funding vote for the Department of Homeland Security.
Basically, the young turks pulled the equivalent of Watson at Pebble Beach in the 1982 U.S. Open -- chipping in from an impossible spot off the 17th green, sealing the victory over Nicklaus and bounding around in joyous celebration.
For Nicklaus, that seemed to be his last gasp at another major title. He had just one other second place finish in his next 14 majors. He was 46 when he arrived at the Masters in Augusta, Ga., in 1986.
In congressional years, that's like being a 65-year-old speaker of the House who most lawmakers consider a lame duck that won't be around too much longer.
Instead, Nicklaus played an improbable four rounds of golf, capped off by a back nine on Sunday that is still the feature shot of CBS ads for The Masters: Nicklaus raising his putter in his left hand in the air as his last birdie drops into the cup, sealing victory.
As Boehner tried to recount that final round, he grew emotional and ended his speech. He's still looking for one last big victory, despite the many defeats, one more chance to raise his speaker's gavel in victory.