Rembrandt of Golf

When Jack Nicklaus, the Midas man of golf, won the senior US Open, over three decades ago, in style, what was expected had, indeed, happened. True, Nicklaus could have romped home to victory more quickly and easily, even if he had missed a couple of shots. All part and parcel of any vocation? You bet. Not for Jack, who, following his facile triumph, said, “I feel quite good. Maybe, I’ll continue playing for a while. That’s all.” And, he did – with sublime grace – till he faded into retirement.

Circa 1993. Flanked by the woman behind his success, Barbara, his doting wife, and son, who’s also a competent golfer by genetic evaluation, Jack looked completely fit. At 53, with another US Open title in his pocket, he showed that he hadn’t lost that verve, which was truly Nicklausian in character, a feel for the club, and an ambivalent finesse for the game which he’d adorned resplendently, for so long, with his phenomenal exploits.

Not surprisingly too, Jack had last won the US senior title in 1991. That victory was too sweet, following as it did after a turbulent phase for the master golfer, what with his alleged involvement in a business scandal. Flustered, he sure was; but, in the tourney, he demonstrated what stuff he was really made of. This was his hallmark – a fantastic golfer for all seasons.

With over 20 major PGA titles under his belt – and, more than 75 victories on the Tour – at such hallowed spots as Augusta, Oakmont, Pebble Beach and Baltusrol, to mention just a select few, Nicklaus’ super-duper reputation had always been buoyant, despite the big question mark on his ‘so-called’ business ethics. Detractors often alleged, or allege, that he was not as fair as his golf was on the financial side of things.

Nicklaus, in the midst of one such controversy earlier, and for all practical purposes too, wasn’t too happy with time and tide leaving their visiting cards at his door-step. He had even announced his plans to retire from the game. But, he continued in style – in a manner only he could.

That fantastic triumph of 1991 may well have helped him change his mind. And, why not? With a brilliant five-under-par 65, Nicklaus had tied with the existing competition record at Oakland Hills. As fellow-competitor, Chi Chi Rodriguez, golf’s fabulous character and darling of the game’s galleries, eulogised on Jack’s grand display, an objective lesson in supreme dexterity and golf skills: “Anything with the name United States is important to me. But, Jack is my idol. I don’t think anyone could [have] beat[en] him in that mood. Once he turned it on like he did, he’s tough to stop.” Encore 1993, as already touched upon – even though no one was able to post a birdie at the 18th hole.

Nicklaus was, surely, one of all-sport’s quiet superstars. Whoever had watched him as an enthusiastic teenager belting out a drive would have spotted a prodigy in him. But, since he had to depose Arnold Palmer, the marvel of the game then, most had not fancied Jack to winning not just golf tournaments, but several other battles of the psyche, or wit. This wasn’t all. The Palmer fan brigade and galleries often booed Nicklaus without mercy. But, Jack, with his fortitude and veneer of steely determination, never allowed his heart to rule his bottled-up emotions.

Thereafter, the road to success was without a hitch. Nicklaus soon became the greatest golfer – and, the finest ever – of his generation. With a difference, though. Because, for one so gifted, Nicklaus did not strike the ball with any degree of consistency. His golfing outlook was not flamboyant and his short game and putting were, more or less, average. Yet, what made him tick was his immense power, which he derived through the full range of clubs. Endowed with an uncanny knack for accuracy, Jack would often come up trumps when everything would seem lost. He would, at will, give himself an even greater chance and advantage with his next foray by letting out his driver. What’s more, he could often hit a six-iron while the rest needed fours.

Never a true ‘slogger,’ Nicklaus got his distance – because, he always played well within his sphere of physical endurance. Besides, he’d always been a good golf skill management professional to himself. Blessed with a natural benefit for accuracy, Jack was not only a stupendous golfer of all time, but also the most formidable ever – the 110 per cent golfer to borrow a phrase from Mark McCormack, the man who turned sport into big business.

A great method player, Nicklaus was, perforce, the first to have pioneered the system of pacing out courses, aside from charting distances. Although his ‘invention’ was mathematical, juxtaposed by a fine sense of logic, critics often lambasted its ‘perverse’ effects as having robbed from the game that fine[r] element of judgment, not to speak of its 5-star luxury on time limits. In other words, Jack’s idea came to mean a five-hour marathon for a round of four-ball play – and, not the old standard of about three-and-a-quarter hours’ run.

Whatever the argument, Nicklaus set a new norm.

For a man who loved the game far too much to over-estimate his own sense of self-importance, Nicklaus is also a role model for youngsters: of a high-level of achievement, which they could, perhaps, work for, attain and even overhaul. To his credit, Nicklaus’ unselfish conviction in the continuity of the game not only opened up the floodgates of golf stardom, but also set ajar its doors for a new generation of super-stars. Such was the legacy that Jack handed on to golf.

Golfers, as a rule, have always been faithful to tradition: of being graceful in victory and defeat. But, now, Nicklaus is worried that outside influences have begun to rip out the roots of the game, especially in such premier tournaments as the Ryder Cup. Says Nicklaus, “Sure, players want to win. However, patriotism should not be a part of any game and I would be sad if that becomes the major interest in any competition.’

His advice to aspiring golfers, “Bring a little bit of mental energy into play and watch your game improve. It’s important you know what you’re trying to do all the time.” That, as part of the human condition, was Jack’s greatest appeal.

It sums up Jack ‘The Bear’ Nicklaus.


– Photo, Courtesy: The Telegraph


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