Surely the closest place to Heaven in all of sport is a golf course. The prevailing feeling is one of good will. For the most part, the fans at tournaments are themselves active golfers, and they suffer for the competitors, shouting encouragement to them and calling out travel advisories to the balls they strike. Players and spectators troop the same ground, interacting physically from green to tee, spiritually from tee to green. On the best of afternoons, those soft, bright, blue days when God's own weather lives up to the luxuriant landscape that He and man have wrought, the game even verges on the ethereal. A golfer has to be a different breed of cat.
This is where we come to Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer of all time. Of course he has played better than the rest for almost 20 years. Of course he has won more often. Of course he has dominated the game. This is all well documented. What is of greater significance is the mystic oneness that he has had with the game of golf itself during that long span and with the courses on which it is played. Nicklaus would probably reject the word "mystic." But it may have been part of what Bobby Jones understood about Nicklaus many years ago, when he said, in tribute, " Jack Nicklaus plays a game with which I am not familiar."
How many other champions have become so identified with their sport, with every aspect of it, with the very essence of it, that it is impossible to think of one without the other? Babe Ruth, for sure; Bobby Jones himself; Muhammad Ali. But they are few, very few; in his remarkable career, Nicklaus has achieved that preeminence as much as anyone.
It has long been fashionable to say that Nicklaus wins by overpowering the course. But that misses the point. Jack Nicklaus overpower a golf course? Why, you might as well say that Mozart overpowered music or that Rembrandt overpowered a canvas. The ultimate art is to make an accomplice of whatever you are dealing with—melodies, forms, fairways. Over the years, scores of golfers have whipped golf courses—overpowered them. Nicklaus has won with golf courses, by driving, putting, attacking, thinking—by playing whatever sort of golf was required of him at that particular moment. The uniqueness of Nicklaus, his definition, is that rarely has he ever fought a golf course, so utterly is he in consonance with his sport, with its substance and spirit.
He has never been what is called a "personality." Palmer is a personality, and Player, too, and Trevino, and a few others. But not Nicklaus; he has never been perceived as anything but a golfer. He has never been the showman. Younger or older, fatter or thinner, despised or admired, his enormous presence has always been the product of the shots he has pulled out of his bag. Yet that is not quite all. In a sport in which longevity is a measure of the performer—as much as speed or strength defines athletes in other sports—Nicklaus has for nearly two decades stood up for the values he considers inherent in the game. He has turned down $1 million to play a Vegas-style TV "challenge match" because he feared it would demean the game of golf. His conduct has been so impeccable it is almost boring. It must be, you see, because, as he explains, "Golf is as clean a sport as there is." Just so: clean. His attitude in defeat is always as correct and elegant as that which he displays in triumph.
Nicklaus has even come to build golf courses himself, spreading his own ashes while he lives: vanity, yes, but tempered with love and a sense of where he fits in. "My golf game can only go on so long," he says, "but what I've learned can be put into a piece of ground to last beyond me. I'll always be part of golf because I'll have the courses. Building a golf course is my total expression."
The course lasts. Nicklaus knows that. The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, but St. Andrews isn't going anywhere. There is something at once proper and touching that after two seasons without a major championship, Nicklaus, age 38, won the British Open last summer at St. Andrews, age 500; the preeminent man and the preeminent course coming together. It seems apt, then, that this year Jack Nicklaus is SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Sportsman of the Year. He has had better years; nearly all of his years have been so very good. Indeed, they have been 20 years of surpassing excellence. And that is why we are naming him now.
In the last twelvemonth, a lot has happened in sports, and most of it predictable. The Red Sox collapsed. The Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. We had another Triple Crown champion. What Borg did not win, Connors did; on the distaff side it was mostly Evert. And moving further down D�j� Vu Lane: the Canadiens won; the Cowboys, too; Kentucky in college basketball, Notre Dame in college football. But for the fact that pro basketball went on and on and on until hardly anybody was watching, we could say for certain that the Celtics won that. One of the Unsers came in first again at Indy. Ali regained his title once more. Bill Rodgers won another Boston Marathon. SWIMMING MARKS FALL. Billy Martin got fired again. And so forth and so on.
However, if you missed any of this, Jack Nicklaus can bring you up to date. One of the reasons Nicklaus has himself in such perfect golf perspective is that he's got most of the rest of the world of sports down pat. He can do such things as quote, verbatim, football tips from Bear Bryant. When not practicing on the golf course, he devotes himself to every conceivable athletic activity: tennis, skiing, basketball, hunting, bicycling, fishing (he reeled in a 1,358-pound black marlin off Australia last month as a prelude to winning the Australian Open), weight lifting, touch football. You've heard of the girl next door. Jack Nicklaus is the jock next door. His everyday attire is tennis clothes. His closest friend in North Palm Beach, Fla., where he lives, is a high school athletic director and coach; he plans his golf tournaments around the football and basketball schedules of Benjamin High, where his two oldest boys are football and basketball stars. Mom is the scorekeeper for the basketball team, partly because that way she doesn't have to sit next to Dad, who has been known to get excited. Wow, is Dad some kind of bore on the subject of Benjamin High's athletic fortunes. He goes to all the practices; he even knows all the damn plays. Says Barbara Nicklaus, "We have to get to the games 45 minutes early so Jack can get taped."
Nicklaus (cradling a pigskin, to son Steve): You ought to run more play-action stuff.