In 1978, Jack Nicklaus was honored by SI as Sportsman of the Year. The then-38-year-old Bear had just completed a season during which he won the Players Championship and British Open, quieting talk that his epic career was entering its twilight. That Sportsman was a celebration of his golf. Now Nicklaus deserves the award again, and it has nothing to do with birdies and bogies. In the past year no athlete has displayed more grace or humanity. Nicklaus has long been known not only as golf's greatest champion, but also its most dignified loser. As Jack has said his goodbyes this year it has been a reminder of how much he has meant to golf, and how much he will be missed.
Nicklaus's game may have rendered him a ceremonial golfer, but he can still command the spotlight. This year he stole the show at two of sports' grandest stages, Augusta National and the Old Course. His final Masters was particularly wrenching because only five weeks earlier Nicklaus's grandson Jake had drowned in a hot tub. Most athletes come into view during their youthful prime and then disappear before they fade away. But generations have grown up watching Nicklaus as he has evolved from overpowering prodigy to doting father to middle aged warrior to dignified elder statesman. We are in an era in which the game's best player has built a fortress around his inner-self, but throughout his life and career Nicklaus always let the public in. When he teared up striding his final fairway at the Masters, a nation cried along with him.
His final British Open was no less emotional. The putt of the year in golf may have been Nicklaus's birdie on his last hole at the Old Course, which was witnessed by dozens of players who ringed the green in a showing of appreciation and respect. You may not root for any of them, but Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els all have class, a precious commodity in pro sports. It's no accident that all of them grew up idolizing Nicklaus and have been mentored by him throughout their careers.
The true measure of Nicklaus is not his unprecedented 18 major championships, but his relevance in a sport that he has been shaping since 1960. In September, at the Presidents Cup, a U.S. team that has long been ripped for its apathy played its collective heart out for Capt. Jack, bringing him a victory that he claimed was the most satisfying moment of his career. A second Sportsman would be a nice way to end this momentous year. Only one other person has won two Sportsmans, and for a change wouldn't it be nice to see Jack tying one of Tiger's records, and not the other way around?
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Sports Illustrated will announce the 2005 Sportsman of the Year winner on Friday, Dec. 9 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Check back every weekday until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.