John Duggan on golf: Jack Nick...
Golf

John Duggan on golf: Jack Nicklaus at 80 | The Greatest Champion

Happy Birthday Jack Nicklaus! 

The 'Golden Bear' turns 80 today, and all sports fans should tip a cap to this true legend.

I remember Butch Harmon describing Tiger Woods as the greatest golfer of all time and Nicklaus as the greatest champion. I always thought that was a beautiful way of comparing the two players without taking sides.

What's the difference, one may ask? Well first of all, Nicklaus has 18 major titles to Woods' 15, but that's probably not an accurate barometer of their relative status in the game of golf.

During 2000 and 2001, Woods was playing golf from outer space. The 15 shot win at the 2000 US Open. The 'Tiger Slam' of holding all four majors at once. The Californian now has 82 PGA Tour wins, tied for the all-time record with Sam Snead. A record which the 44-year-old will surely break, injury permitting.

However, statistically, Jack Nicklaus finished second in 19 majors. Less injury prone than Woods, he was able to maintain a consistency in racking up major titles, from the 1962 US Open to the 1986 Masters. In addition to his long, straight driving and clutch putting, Nicklaus' main quality was between the ears.

At the age of 46 in 1986, Ohio native Nicklaus was written off going to Augusta, before shooting that magical final round of 65 to claim a sixth green jacket. Of course, Woods achieved a comeback as comparable in the Masters last year, claiming his 15th major 11 years after his last, wearing down a star studded field in Sunday red.

Woods may reach 18 and if he does, one could re-calibrate, but I don't feel the need to. As in my opinion, Woods is the greatest golfer, but Nicklaus is the greatest champion.

The word 'champion' to me reflects the wider person, more than the ability inside the ropes. I see greatness in Woods and Nicklaus in different ways. Nicklaus had a blemish free career both on and off the course. His 18 majors, his ambassadorial excellence, his sagacity when it comes to the game, his pioneering ability to bring golf to the masses with his friend Arnold Palmer - all of these qualities make him the greatest champion in my mind. Woods may turn into that elder statesman, but he has a way to go.

What always sticks in my mind when I think of Nicklaus is his attitude to majors; that he always felt he had a better chance in majors because he was mentally stronger than anyone else.

Here are five moments worth celebrating from the storied career of Jack Nicklaus: 

1962: Ohio Fats

Jack Nicklaus wasn't very popular in 1962, for the simple reason he wasn't Arnold Palmer. Playing at the US Open at Oakmont in Palmer's native Pennsylvania, Nicklaus was heckled by the galleries, who called him 'Fat Jack' and 'Ohio Fats'. Nicklaus played with Palmer for the first two rounds and birdied the first three holes. They would end up in a Sunday play off, with Nicklaus shooting 71 to Palmer's 74. A first professional win for Nicklaus. It was a touch of 'The king is dead, long live the king.' Palmer would go on to win the Open, but his major journey was over by 1964.

1969: The Ryder Cup  

From 1959 until 1985, the Americans owned the Ryder Cup, which until 1979 was a Great Britain and Ireland v USA competition. It took the expansion to Europe and the leadership of Tony Jacklin and Seve Ballesteros to make the Ryder Cup what it is today. Back in 1969, there was a close contest, with the matches halved. Nicklaus famously conceded a short par putt to Jacklin at Birkdale, halving the hole, halving the match, halving the tournament. Sportsmanship in the golden veins.

1978: St Andrews 

A year previously, Nicklaus put his arm around Tom Watson as his fellow American beat him by one shot in the 'Duel in the Sun' at Turnberry. Watson won the Open and the rest of the field was nowhere. For Nicklaus to overcome that disappointment and win the claret jug the following year was testament to his mental fortitude. It was a classic Nicklaus win as well. He just hung around as others made mistakes. Two rounds of 69 over the weekend gave him his third major win in Scotland.

1980: US Open 

By the time 1980 came around, Nicklaus was 40 and out of form. He finished 61st on the money list the previous year and wasn't playing well entering the US Open at Baltusrol. However, the New Jersey course provided good memories for the 'Golden Bear', who won the 1967 US Open at the tree lined venue. Out of nowhere, he shot a 63 on day one and held off the challenge of Isao Aoki of Japan by two shots. Nicklaus celebrated by having burgers and shakes in McDonald's with his family.

1986: Augusta

Last and by no means least, it's Jack's final major, the Masters in 1986. When you watch it now, it still looks fresh. All the elements were there, Greg Norman, Seve, a Sunday charge, the roars of the galleries, his son Jackie on the bag. Nicklaus told his son he would need to shoot a 65 to win, which is exactly what transpired. A back nine of 30 sparked this fairy tale, with commentator Verne Lundquist bellowing 'Yes Sir' when Nicklaus sunk the putt on 17. Woods' story is the contemporary equivalent, but the manner of the Nicklaus charge edges it.

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