Golf was right for another reason, too, for, despite his being such a natural athlete, Nicklaus is physically limited in one curious way. "I don't react very well," he says. "In tennis, my best shot is the serve, but I respond terribly when I have to hit a ball back. In basketball, I was a really good shot"—not long ago he sank 80 straight free throws on his home court—"but I was poor at passing and at defense." Even today he delights in the most independent—and stationary—aspect of football: he will go out for an hour or more by himself and place-kick—and he can put the ball through the uprights at up to 40 yards. Given all this, there is simply no question but that golf—the game that most requires concentration, introspection, self-assurance, peace—was Nicklaus' destiny.
Also, he could hit the son of a bitch a country mile.
He scored 51 on the first nine holes he ever played; he qualified for the U.S. Open at 17 and birdied the first hole; he won the U.S. Amateur at 19; and at 22, in 1962, he turned pro. There stood Arnold Palmer, and neither man was ever to be the same.
Palmer was not just a beloved hero. That would have been enough. No, Palmer was the very fountainhead of golf. The game had often been maligned as a pastime for rich old men (the more captious critics refused to acknowledge that it was even a sport), but Palmer, the handsome charger, had given the game glamour, expanded its horizons. He made people proud to be golfers. And so, to beat Palmer was not just to upset the handsome hero: to beat Palmer was to hurt golf. And onto this stage walked a butterball of an athlete. Nicklaus ballooned as high as 225; he would wear a silly little hat and an $8.95 pair of olive green pants: when, God forbid, he opened his mouth, he spoke in a squeaky cartoon voice.
The business about Palmer is very old hat, of course, but it can never be written off. It is still the only rough edge to Nicklaus' life; more than that, it came near to soiling a very clean game. Arnie's fans booed Nicklaus' good shots; they held up signs in the rough that said HIT IT HERE, JACK; and once someone even hurled a beer bottle at him. It must have hurt so much, but to this day he swears he never noticed, never heard a boo. Can you believe that?
Well, he stands at the 11th tee at the Firestone Country Club in Akron last September. He is playing with Hale Irwin. It is a sharp, clear day, and the wind is blowing in gusts. There is a little sign at the tee, hanging from chains on a pole about eight feet high. It states what hole this is and how many yards long. As Nicklaus starts to address the ball, the sign starts to creak on its chains. His caddie looks up menacingly at the sign. Irwin looks up at the sign. Irwin's caddie and the scorekeeper look up at the sign. Everybody in the gallery looks up at the sign. By now you can just about hear the necks creaking, making almost as much noise as the sign. Nicklaus never takes his eye off the ball, gripping his club tighter and tighter as he simultaneously brings the clubhead closer and closer to the ball resting there upon the tee. And then back away, as if he is winding himself up. At the top of his swing...the sign catches an even stronger gust and in the blue-green silence swings now at a regular screech. People grimace, embarrassed that a sign here in Akron is doing this to the great Jack Nicklaus. The clubhead comes down and around in a perfect arc, and the ball flies away, high and handsome.
You know, he never heard that sign.
"What sets Jack apart above all," says Deane Beman, the PGA commissioner and a former golfing contemporary, "is concentration. He has complete control over his emotions, in his game and in his life."
Of course he heard the boos from the fanatics. Of course they hurt. But he never heard when he swung—and what the hell, that was only about 70 times a day.
Maybe the worst of all was at Oakmont, near Palmer's home in Pennsylvania, where the 1962 Open was played. It was not a tournament but a four-day ordination—only the fat kid. who had just turned pro, fouled up everybody's week by tying Palmer over 72 holes. And then he beat him in the playoff. 71-74.