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Still Glittering After All These Years
Frank Deford
December 25, 1978
For 20 glorious years, from his first U.S. Amateur win in 1959 to his third British Open victory in July, Jack Nicklaus has dominated the world of golf
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December 25, 1978

Still Glittering After All These Years

For 20 glorious years, from his first U.S. Amateur win in 1959 to his third British Open victory in July, Jack Nicklaus has dominated the world of golf

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The fact that Nicklaus, so in harmony with his sport, is also so devoted to his home, in fact needs time at home in order to win on the road—that is surely not just a coincidence. Golf remains the most unchanging of our games. The old values and the old biases endure. Tournaments are distinguished by their male officials, attired in crisp blazers and provided with the energized scepters of power, in these days walkie-talkies and carts. Female volunteers are garbed in less formal clothes, are often obliged to wear beauty-pageant-type streamers diagonally across their fronts and are assigned the unrewarding ambulatory and clerical tasks. The wives in golf, more than in any other sport, are recognized by players, press and fans as wives, as worthy support troops.

The most instructive revelation about the Nicklauses and their own strong relationship, and its positive impact upon Jack's career, comes from this exchange, when the name of another golfer was brought up. He is Nicklaus' contemporary and once was presumed to be his likely challenger—or Nicklaus his. But the fellow faded quickly into obscurity.

"Well," says Barbara, "he wasn't married when he was on the tour."

"That's right," says Jack, "he just couldn't get organized." So much for that. As they say, golf is as clean a sport as there is.

Barbara has been ideal in the role of golf wife: ever winsome, ever well groomed, never forgetting a face or a blazer or the name that goes with it. On their honeymoon, he played golf; at one stop, the club was all-male and the bride had to stay in the car. When he was fat, she never brought it up. She heard the boos and the invective aimed at her man when large portions of all the world hated him for slaying the legend of Arnold Palmer, but she never brought it up, waiting for him to. And when he never brought it up, she never brought it up, either.

This is why, although Jack Nicklaus begins his 40th year next month, he and a great many people who know him well have no doubts but that he can keep on winning tournaments into his middle age. The legs go first, don't they? That's what they say. Jack Nicklaus still has all the underpinnings.

Charlie Nicklaus—a druggist, a stout, balding man—joined the Scioto Country Club outside Columbus in order to get exercise to help rehabilitate a broken ankle. He was new to this sort of privilege; his father had been a boilermaker on the Pennsylvania Railroad. It is an article of faith that poor American boys will apply themselves diligently to escape poverty. But for a child, deprivation can be a very relative thing. By the standards of the country club, the druggist's son appeared disadvantaged. So, in one sense, young Jack Nicklaus had the best of both worlds—reasonably comfortable circumstances yet a natural motivation to compete. Jack Grout remembers that of his 50 or so young charges, only the Nicklaus boy would show up to practice in the rain.

He was 10 then. Nicklaus has led a symmetrical sort of life; he was born at the beginning (January 21) of a neat zero-digit year, 1940, and has proceeded thereafter in decennial cycles: he learned golf in 1950, age 10; he married in 1960 and first came to prominence that year, finishing second to Palmer in the U.S. Open, though still an amateur; in 1970, his first year of being svelte, his father died, and the shock helped dislodge him from the only slump of his career; certainly there must be some special surprise in store for us in 1980.

Charlie Nicklaus introduced his only son to all sports, and Jackie became proficient at many, notably basketball; he only bothered with golf from March to September. The boy was precocious, reaching his full height, 5'11", by age 13. He still wonders whether he might have been inclined to concentrate on basketball or football "if I hadn't been a year ahead of myself in school, if I could have had one more year and become a big high school star."

But inherent in the game of golf were qualities that drew the boy to it. Foremost was the simple fact that he could play it by himself, for hours, whole days at a time. "The thing that sets golf apart from other sports is that it takes self-confidence, an ability to rely totally on yourself," he says. Obviously, this faith came to him at an early age. "When I'm through, what I'll really miss is kicking myself to get it done," he says. "I can live without the week of playing the Masters. But the really satisfying time is the three weeks leading up to the Masters when I'm preparing for it."

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