Conspicuous are the things that are gone from his life. Mark McCormack, for one. No more high-powered agent leading him through the paths of finance. No more doubts as to who was best serving whom. Sorry, Mark. Gone, too, is fat. No more Fat Jack. No more eye-catching beltline, leavened jowls and expansive shirting, accented by that once familiar end-of-the-bullet styling of his white-blond head. All gone. Also the anti-fans, those wry sportsmen who used to wave signs behind the bunkers—"Hit It Here, Jack"—and cheer his misses. Professional golf, accustomed to the ritual courtesy of its galleries, had never seen anything like it. Gay Brewer said he was actually embarrassed in Dallas not many seasons ago the way the fans booed Jack Nicklaus. At the U.S. Open at Baltusrol somebody threw a beer can. No more of that.
And Arnold. Arnold is gone, more or less. Nobody really tries to insinuate Palmer into his class anymore. The reactionaries still serving in Arnie's Army might, being a death-defying cadre, but those who know anything about golf know that he put Palmer in his place long ago, and pinned him there, like Theseus, just outside the throne room. In the last six or seven years the Palmer-Nicklaus rivalry has become a superficial thing, no deeper than the newsprint it takes to sustain it. "Lay the records out from the time Jack turned pro till now," says Deane Beman, the golfer. "It's plain as day. This man buried Palmer." No apologist, Deane.
That, of course, had been Nicklaus' sin. Bringing down the beloved Palmer. Hero worship is not negotiable. As a friend of Jack's put it: "The first time he entered the forest, he shot Robin Hood." And, oh, how easy it was to shower him with unforgiveness. The assassin was an implacable man, as radiant as a moving van as he trundled through the temples of golf ( Augusta, St. Andrews, Pebble Beach) toward the next winner's purse, looking, as Columnist Jim Murray wrote, not so much like an athlete as a pile of old clothes. Nicklaus kept Murray's comment in a corner of his mind, much as he concealed his sensitivity behind the steady, opaque look he favored in lining up putts. (That's gone, too, the deadpan Jack.) Years later, allowing himself a small grin, he said, "I finally met Murray. At a banquet. He was fatter than I was."
With the droll stoicism of a born infantryman, Nicklaus served out his rejection. Barbara Nicklaus says it was something they never discussed, not even in private. Too tender a subject. Like having a lunatic relative. "Somebody has to wear the black hat," Jack said. He had played before galleries from the time he was 13, a golf prodigy out of Columbus, Ohio, and could, it seemed, dial them in or out as he pleased. Deane Beman remembers the first time he heard the boos. "I couldn't believe it. They were booing Jack. Damn. Jack said, 'What boos?' "
His concentration was always extraordinary. Often criticized, and even penalized, for playing slowly, he said, "It didn't seem slow to me. Just long enough to think it out and hit the ball." Nevertheless he did as he was asked and speeded up his play—some gods answer requests—and if he thought he was being harassed he never said. It is reasonable to argue that a man en route to being the greatest golfer of all time, and a millionaire to boot, ought to be able to stand a little good-natured, beer-can-lobbing rejection. Nicklaus, in fact, was never an icy star like Ben Hogan. Essentially a nonsulker, even in defeat, he was not one to avoid an outstretched autograph book or a press tent, where he became famous for outlasting the enemy. No real bitterness ever surfaced. But there were times.
"He wouldn't want me to tell you this," says Gardner Dickinson, "but we were in one tournament years ago, playing together, and Arnold was on the adjacent fairway. Jack was shooting about a 64, leading the tournament, and Arnold a 74 and out of it, but all the people were over there, crashing through the rough and raising hell. Jack was on the green and he stopped to look and he said, 'One of these days those so-and-sos will be over here.' It bothered him, all right."
Ironies aside, there was never anything worth repeating to make a case between Nicklaus and Palmer. It has been a mutually profitable rivalry. The touchy fiscal interludes in their association with McCormack (some rather stormy) were not laid to Palmer; Nicklaus concluded instead that in McCormack's eye "Arnold would always be No. 1, no matter what I did on the golf course. It was an image thing. Not a good position to be in." Palmer was McCormack's first account, Gary Player came next and then Nicklaus and then all the others. "I began to feel like I was in a stable," said Nicklaus. He ultimately cut himself free, but the surgery was long and painful.
Other than that, one would have to strain. Palmer, a soloist who could play a crowd like a banjo, had been magnanimous at the beginning toward the younger, more talented, less hip Nicklaus. And Jack never forgot it. ("One thing about him," says Dickinson. "He's an appreciative guy.") Said Nicklaus: "I enjoy Arnold's company, and I think he enjoys mine." They maintained an amicable if not buddy-buddy relationship, often pairing up for team events where they struck appropriate fear in the hearts of the meager opposition. They did not pretend to be inseparable. They were superstars in the same constellation whose personalities happened to be light-years apart. A friend of both makes this comparison: "When Jack goes to dinner he pays attention to the people he is with and the wine list. When Arnold goes to dinner it's an event. He makes pleasing small talk—and counts the house over your shoulder."
It is no surprise to the pragmatic Beman that Palmer's eclipse (and that of all those who have come on Nicklaus' horizon) is now, finally, concordantly, accepted. "It was not an unpardonable sin," he says. "The public is not blind to talent. It is only a matter of time before they embrace it." Time—almost 11 years—and the witness of his tracks in the record book (13 major championships), and the supernal accumulation of money winnings ($1.7 million, including a record $320,542 in 1972).
When those who have been the closest to his brilliance speak of Nicklaus it is with such awe that one half expects to see them levitate. Don Bies says without qualification (and with starry-eyed disregard for the way Jack's right elbow tends to fly) that he has the greatest swing in golf. Dave Hill has written about Jack's "perfect body for it"—the length of arm in relationship to the size of trunk in relationship to the arc of his swing, the winds, the tides and the pollen count. A convinced Sam Snead doesn't mince words: "Nicklaus could try not to and still win."