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New World Order: Recounting the greatness of Nicklaus

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist

Jack Nicklaus got his first win at the U.S. Open and his last at the 1986 Masters. (Getty Images)  
Jack Nicklaus got his first win at the U.S. Open and his last at the 1986 Masters. (Getty Images)  

DUBLIN, Ohio -- Some say the game's Golden Era was back before World War II. Others prefer the period that followed the war, when titans like Snead, Hogan and Nelson ruled.

Then there's the Golden Bear era, which is still going strong in a manner of speaking, 50 years after his first PGA Tour victory at the 1962 U.S. Open.

We've been on quite a riffing roll here at New World Order, thanks to the way the tour schedule worked out, and given that three of the game's Mt. Rushmore figures have been closely associated with the past three tour events, it's been a blast unearthing obscure and illuminating bits of tid about a trio of the best ever to bash balata, for the illumination of the younger Internet generation.

More on Memorial

It began two weeks ago outside Dallas with Byron Nelson, the nicest man in the history of the game. Last week, as the tour moved to Colonial and nearby Fort Worth, a track where Ben Hogan once hung his trademark hat, we excavated some lesser-known minutiae about the game's greatest enigma.

All three have massive statues erected in their honor outside the tournament venue, standing sentry over the course and tournament that will remain forever linked to their names and likenesses. After all these years, they loom just as large in a literal sense.

Of course, with this last guy, his likeness keeps changing. This week, we move to the greatest player of them all, period, and a man who is very much alive and kicking at age 72 -- Jack William Nicklaus. He won 73 times on the PGA Tour over 25 seasons, including 18 majors, a mark that is starting to again look impenetrable as the gap since Tiger Woods' last Grand Slam win grows to four years as the U.S. Open approaches in two weeks.

Back in his hometown to host the Memorial Tournament, Nicklaus was more dominant for a longer period than any player, as evidenced by the hysterical numericals. He won the career Grand Slam three times over, and that's not all.

Let's do the sequential countdown:

1 – NCAA Championship
2 – U.S. Amateurs
3 – British Opens
4 – U.S. Opens
5 – PGA Championships
6 – Masters Tournaments

As the tour rolls into Dublin, to play a course that perhaps represents Nicklaus' master effort at Muirfield Village, we're following up the Nelson and Hogan with a few more obscure snippets from the Hall of Fame files.

Nicklaus, of course, being a player who benefitted greatly from the television era, is far more well-known that the other pair, but that doesn't mean there isn't a trove of fun stuff that hasn't been told.

Or, at minimum, been told nearly often enough.

Here are 10 Jack facts, anecdotes or testimonials from friends, foes and family, as the tour heads back to his signature backyard venue.


When Jack didn't quite ... deliver
Granted, it has been amusingly noted before that while Nicklaus enjoyed a battle on the green grass, wearing green surgical scrubs was a different deal altogether. Nicklaus was long reputed to have fainted in the delivery room at the births of each of his five kids. Not so, wife Barbara told author John Boyette two years ago. Jack merely swooned at the births of Jackie, Steve, Nan and Gary. He learned how to use smelling salts by the time Michael was born, she cracked. "I think he was in the recovery room longer than I was when Nan was born," Barbara cracked.

Best of all bookends
With his 72 career victories -- Tiger Woods can tie Nicklaus with a win this week -- there's one pretty notable career feat that seems a certainty not to be equaled anytime soon. Nicklaus won his first major 50 years ago at the U.S. Open, and won his last Slam event a quarter-century later at the 1986 Masters. Will any other elite player win his first, and last, events at Grand Slam tournaments? In an age when top players are struggling to win a single major, it seems increasingly less likely. While the attempt here is to trot out some esoterica, it bears repeating for the zillionth time -- he finished second 19 times at major championships.

Quitting time for the Big Three
Nicklaus' career is inextricably intertwined with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, who jointly ruled the game for parts of two decades. Like many players of a certain vintage, Players and Nicklaus always believed they'd be bailing at a young age, like 35, as Palmer reminded them this year at the Masters. "You guys kept saying you were going to quit at 35," Palmer grinned. "I said, ‘Bull@#$%.'” Added Arnie, now 82: "Hey, if I could do it, I would be doing it right now." Chimed Nicklaus: "I think we all would." I think we all wish they could.

The King and I
Palmer wrote a chapter in the 2007 book, Jack Nicklaus: Simply the Best, in which he described the evolution of his relationship with his nemesis. "It always amazes me that people are shocked we were not childhood playmates on the golf course," Palmer wrote. "I've said it many times, Jack was my greatest competition in golf, both as a player and later in business. But the competition has never blunted my admiration for Jack." Each year at the Father/Son Challenge, which will return this fall, Nicklaus and Palmer were paired on the first day, and the smack talk between the two was absolutely priceless.

Mutiny on the USS Ponte Vedra
Nicklaus won U.S. Amateur titles in 1959 and 1961, and the guy who won in between was none other than Deane Beman, who would later become the commissioner of the PGA Tour after it formally separated from the PGA of America as a separate entity, partly at Nicklaus' behest. Beman had Jack's backing in the position, at least initially. In 1983, after Beman, then 44, began to license and market the tour more aggressively, cutting into the financial take of several star players, Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer staged a failed palace coup, detailed in the eye-opening 2011 book, Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Said Beman: "It wasn't a power struggle, it was a total revolution." Remarkably, Nicklaus and Palmer failed to unseat Beman, and through the latter's iron-handed guidance, the tour became a billion-dollar business. In hindsight, it was probably the most fortuitous misfire of Nicklaus' career.

Apologies to Arnold, but Jack is 'king' of comebacks
On the golf course, Nicklaus is famous for his two-major season of 1980, after he'd been written off for the first time as being over the hill. His victory at the Masters six years later was even more memorable. But Jack has come back from the dead a couple of times financially, too, basically going broke twice over. At one time, the company had an estimated 20 subsidiaries, including oil development and broadcasting. At his museum in Columbus, a clip from his short-lived Nicklaus Car Rental company airs. His company was close to bankruptcy in the mid-1980s, then reinvented itself and became solvent again. Golden Bear went public in 1996, but a lawsuit and SEC probe followed and the company bought back its shares and went private 12 years ago. Of his far-flung ventures at times, Nicklaus told the Wall Street Journal in 1987, "We were an accounting nightmare. ... I didn't know what any of them did, and neither did anyone else."

Five kids and an airplane
Nicklaus was, and remains, famous for his familial loyalty, occasionally jetting back to South Florida from PGA Tour venues in the Sunshine State to watch his kids play football, or volleyball, whatever. Now it's the same for his grandkids. "It's funny, but each spring, he calls and says, 'I need the boys' football schedule,' so he can plan his work schedule for the fall," Nan O'Leary, one of Jack's five children, told CBSSports.com in 2010. Now he has to fly to the Panhandle, too. One of Jack's grandsons, Nick O'Leary, is a starting tight end at Florida State.

Biggest of the bashers
Much has been made of Nicklaus' power advantage back in the day, before statistics were measured with lasers and tracked to within a blade of grass in accuracy. The man could devour courses with a power fade, yet won six times at the Masters, where a hook is the preferred shot shape. His putting was perhaps a bit underrated. His short game ... not so much. "He was also the finest putter I ever saw," Lee Trevino wrote in the 2007 Nicklaus book. "I'm not just talking about all those big putts he made. I mean, year in and year out, consistently brilliant putting. Never once did I see him get yippy with the short ones. If the man had had a good wedge game, he would have won 40 majors. I'm serious."

The wit and the ship
Nicklaus has been one of the game's father figures for years, often serving as a moral compass on many issues, and earlier this year, even admitted that as a designer, he had unwittingly contributed the exodus of golfers from the game because he made courses too hard. But Jack can still talk trash with the younger set, as he demonstrated as Presidents Cup captain five years ago. Nicklaus spotted teammates Zach Johnson, David Toms, Hunter Mahan and Charles Howell seated around a table. According to Howell, the dialogue from Nicklaus went like this: "Zach, great job on winning the Masters green jacket, that's fantastic, that's awesome. David, another solid season, you are a steady, steady player. Hunter, you've really come along here lately. Charles ... you need a lesson." The fact that Howell was the one who later told the story made it all the funnier.

Hall of Fame prose from a pro
Dan Jenkins covered 16 of Nicklaus' 20 major titles -- Jenkins counts the U.S. Amateur championships in that tally, too -- and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame earlier this month. So he gets the honors on the last tee box as it relates to Nicklaus taking over the game and becoming the best that ever was. "In all the stuff Jack accomplished, he set the bar higher than a '60s hippie for anyone who might follow," Jenkins wrote in the 2007 Nicklaus book. "This included his weight loss and discovery of fluff-dry hair, two primary things that made him more popular with the public and enabled him to overcome his image as, well, The Man Who Shot Arnold Palmer ... Jack was not only the greatest winner the game has seen, he proved to be the most gracious loser golf has known and was certainly the greatest natural interview in the whole wide world of sports."


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