Jack Nicklaus: Friend or Foe?

Most people have strongly positive impressions of the Golden Bear. Most golf fans admire him personally as well as professionally. But not everyone.

About eight years ago I was interviewing a golf course owner and developer who had built some of the top courses in Southern California. His company had worked with both Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. And he owned a home alongside a fairway at one of those fancy courses, one that was once the site of an exhibition match between Palmer and Nicklaus.

This fellow and his kids waited in back of their house, next to the fairway, as Palmer and Nicklaus played that hole. When Palmer reached this little group of fans he was friendly and chatty. "You won't be surprised to learn that Nicklaus wasn't," the fellow said to me.

He continued: "Nicklaus, as I'm sure you know, is an ***hole."

As I'm sure you know. Well, no, I didn't know that. And I still don't know that. I'm sure Nicklaus, in the course of his not-always-successful business ventures, or over decades of beating the tar out of his fellow golfers, rubbed a few people the wrong way. Like everyone else on the planet, Nicklaus has his bad days.

I told the story to a friend of mine, a teaching professional who has had the chance to play golf with Nicklaus a few times at corporate events. "What???" was his reaction. "Jack's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet." My friend regaled me with tales of Nicklaus' generosity of time and spirit on the few occasions my friend had golfed with him.

Why am I thinking about this exchange today? I ran across and old newspaper article. A golf columnist in a Aussie newspaper offered his picks for best quotes of the year. One of them was:

"If you'd offered me a 69 at the start this morning I'd have been all over you." - Sam Torrance

Let's hope Sam didn't say that to David Feherty. And this one:

"I'd stick my head up a dead bear's bum if it made me putt really good." - Peter Lonard

Picture the training aid ...

And then there was this one:

"Nicklaus' courses are like Jack himself - grim and humourless with sharp edges." - Peter Thomson

Thomson is a Hall of Famer, a 5-time winner of the British Open. I'm not aware of any prior beef between Thomson and Nicklaus, but perhaps there is one. Perhaps it goes back decades. Perhaps Nicklaus once insulted Thomson's course design work. For what it's worth, Thomson hates Augusta National, too, so at least Jack is in good company in drawing Thomson's ire.

In truth, many of Nicklaus' peers have never been fond of Jack's golf course designs. Some of his best friends - Tom Watson, for example - have poormouthed his work as an architect. But if you recall Watson's tears as he and Nicklaus walked off the 18th green at The Old Course following Jack's final British Open appearance in 2005, then you know that Watson doesn't share Thomson's opinion of the man.

Fact is, you can develop a bad opinion of anyone - of Mother Teresa - if you want to. Depends on what you take away, on what you weigh most heavily in other people.

Not even The King himself is immune. Remember that ESPN series from 1999 or 2000, "SportsCentury"? ESPN came up with a list of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century, then did a 30-minute or hour-long documentary on each. Their episode on Arnold Palmer portrayed Palmer as an insecure, insincere, manipulative egomaniac. It wasn't a pretty picture. Most of us remember Palmer much differently.

So, sure, there are people out there with poor opinions of Nicklaus. People who, perhaps, caught Jack on a bad day. Or saw a side of him he usually keeps hidden. Or whatever. Nicklaus can be arrogant, sure. His ultra-conservative, right-wing politics surely rub some the wrong way (but not his fellow pro golfers, since most of them are also ultra-conservative right-wingers). And I'd bet that Nicklaus' reputation would be far different - much more like Tiger Woods before Woods' cheating scandals became public - if Nicklaus had played in a media/celebrity/social media environment like today's. (Disagree? Go back and look up some of the things Nicklaus said about the competition over his long time at the top of the PGA Tour pecking order.)

The things I've always found most insightful about Nicklaus, however, are those little acts of kindness he has always - according to the stories - done for his friends and fellow pros. Those things Nicklaus himself never publicized, but that were eventually revealed by the recipients of Nicklaus' kindnesses.

Like that 6-year-old boy in Georgia who scrawled a letter to Nicklaus on Big Chief tablet paper, and has Jack's response framed on his wall today (Charles Howell III). Or that teenager in Canada struggling with his game, writing to Nicklaus to ask if he should switch from lefty to righty and start over (Mike Weir - you know what Jack told him).

Or that young pro in 1971, the one whose father died and who then received a warm, thoughtful letter of condolence from Nicklaus, a man to whom he'd barely spoken, and who has that letter with him still (Ben Crenshaw).

There are dozens and dozens of stories like these. Private little acts of kindness.

Another famous story about Nicklaus regards the time he took Lee Trevino aside and gave him a pep talk. I believe I recently stumbled across what may well be the very first telling of that story. It was in the July 19, 1971, issue of Time magazine, in a lengthy article about Trevino:

Troubled by business problems ... and the lingering illness of his mother, (Trevino) started out the 1971 season by dropping out of three tournaments. During an exhibition match in Palm Beach five months ago Nicklaus took him aside in the locker room and told him: "I hope you never find out how well you can play. If you do, it will be trouble for all of us." Says Trevino: "That word of encouragement changed my life. It stopped me from being the nervous character I was. I realized that I could reach the peak." He cut back on his outside commitments, and tempered his night-owl habits. Last April, Lee won the Tallahassee Open and started off on his fiery streak.

Trevino has spoken often about what those words of encouragement from Nicklaus meant to him. Remember, Trevino was Nicklaus' greatest rival at that moment, and Nicklaus was trying to help him get his game righted. Can you imagine Tiger Woods taking aside Phil Mickelson and offering him advice and encouragement? No?

There's no such character as Saint Nicklaus, or Saint Palmer. Like all of us, Nicklaus has had bad moments, moments of arrogance, moments of intemperance, moments of sullenness, and moments of worse.

But on the whole, Nicklaus seems so much better a person than Peter Thomson - or that golf course developer whose tale started this post - appears to believe he is.

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