Sports Columns

April 8, 2014

Loran Smith: Golden Bear is still game’s top champion

Jack Nicklaus is entitled to play the Augusta National Golf Club as a member now, which means when he takes friends out for a round of golf, he hits from the member tees. He hits it a long way still — certainly for a guy in his mid-70s — but not like in 1965, when he drove the ball on No. 15 so far over the crest of the hill that he only needed a 7-iron for his second shot.

That hole played right at 530 yards then, but it was in an era when a player (most notably Arnold Palmer) would draw shouts of admiration when he would pull out a wood and go for the green. Today, Jack will hit his drive on a par-5 hole, turn and look back to where the championship markers are and say aloud, “You mean I won from back there?”

In a conversation in his office two weeks ago, he reminisced about his days at Augusta, expressing appreciation that he can still return and play often. He remembers driving down Magnolia Lane when he was 19 and thinking how special that was. Then he smiled, and said,  “I drove down Magnolia Lane last week, and I thought it was pretty special last week.”

There can be little doubt that Jack Nicklaus is golf’s greatest champion. It is possible that Tiger Woods will break his record of 18 major championships — time will tell — but there has never been a more accomplished golf champion than Nicklaus. He won 73 times on the PGA Tour, third all time. Sam Snead won 82 times; Woods has won 79 tournaments. And you can’t talk about Nicklaus’ 18 major championships without referring to the amazing stat that blows people away — he was second in a major 19 times.

Nicklaus has always enjoyed playing Augusta and appreciates the emotional elements — the grounds, the flowers in full bloom in the spring, the Bob Jones legacy and the countless traditions. He has always deflected praise with a balanced view. He might have won more majors, but is fortunate to have won 18 when most players feel that to win one major validates a career. How he feels inside about those near-misses is only for us to speculate.

One of the reasons he is the only six-time Masters champion is that he was able to overpower the golf course like no other competitor.

Those who win the Masters multiple times are the ones with power and length, although there are notable exceptions like Billy Casper, Zach Johnson and Mike Weir, who won their Green Jackets without ever reaching the par-5 holes in two shots. Nicklaus thinks that Mike Weir’s win in 2003 is one of the great Masters victories in that he won by only hitting 50 percent of the greens.

With hindsight, Nicklaus concludes that his win at Augusta in 1986 for his last major title “may have been” his most important victory. He still runs into people who say they can remember where they were when he shot 65 in the final round to grab his sixth green jacket.

“Nobody says that about any of the others,” he said.

Verne Lundquist and the late Pat Summerall, who had their moments in the CBS broadcasters booth, said that Nicklaus’ sixth Masters victory was the highlight of their professional careers.

Nicklaus enjoys recalling the conversation with his son Steve the morning of the final round. Steve called and said, “Pops what do you think?” Nicklaus told him 66 to tie and 65 to win.

“That,” Steve said, “is what I have in mind. Now go shoot it.”

When Nicklaus recalls 1986, he will note that once in contention, he remembered how to play.

“When I came into the tournament, I wasn’t hitting the ball well,” he recalled, “but began to hit it well in the tournament (and) just wasn’t making any putts.”

Early on at Augusta, he saw Palmer win the tournament by hitting only 19 greens.

“That told me that if I wanted to win, I had to learn how to putt those greens,” he said. “The Masters greens have always been the toughest greens we play. You always knew that (course designer Alister) MacKenzie’s greens would be severe. There just aren’t any greens anywhere like those at the Masters.”

On April 9, 1973, when Tommy Aaron won on a Monday after rain washed out Saturday’s round, I was on the way home and stopped by the McDonald’s on Washington Road. There were Nicklaus and his wife Barbara with Cary Middlecoff, the 1955 winner.

“Surprised to see you here,” I said.

Nicklaus replied, “Two strokes better and I would be eating at the club.”

His prime years — and I can’t get used to him being an honorary starter who no longer competes in the tournament — were the best of times. There were no metal clubs, no “hot” balls and no need to lengthen the golf course to accommodate technological advances.

We could count on Nicklaus making a run for the title and bringing about stimulating drama with superior shot making. Now all we have are the memories.

A conversation with him, however, enables you to relive those magical years and victories.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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