Tour pros united in admiration for Jack Nicklaus but split on reasons why

By Marla Ridenour
Courtesy of Beacon Journal

Nicolas Colsaerts might be too young to call the conversation the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

But the 30-year-old Belgian golfer’s voice carried a touch of reverence when he recalled the private talk he had with Jack Nicklaus before this year’s Masters Tournament.

“He had an hour; I feel pretty fortunate,” Colsaerts said. “His son gave him a phone call at 11 o’clock to see if I could see him and I was sitting down with him at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, which was magic.

“What amazes me most is how sharp Jack is at his age. He’s still very connected with the modern game, even though his generation played a different game with different equipment. He’s a wonderful guy to talk to and gives you very good advice.”

Nicklaus’ willingness to mentor young, rising stars is just one attribute PGA Tour players appreciate about him. When asked last month at the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club what they admire most about Nicklaus besides his 18 major victories, answers ranged from his clutch putting to his supreme focus and confidence to what he has done since giving up competitive golf at the 2005 British Open.

“He wasn’t just the greatest player the game has ever seen. He had that by himself with golf,” Stuart Appleby said. “But his contribution back into golf beyond his playing years is probably the legacy on his deathbed he’ll look back and be the most proud of. He’ll be proud of his achievements, but in his decades after golf, that’s an amazing effort. He’s going to be known by more people as a contributor to the communities than Jack Nicklaus who won so many majors.”

Nicklaus, 73, will be honored today on the eve of the $8.75 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational as this year’s Ambassador of Golf. He will be celebrated during a 5:30 p.m. ceremony at the first tee that is open to tournament ticket holders, then feted at a clubhouse reception. Joining him will be wife Barbara, chosen for the same award in 1990.

All questioned about Nicklaus at Congressional expressed admiration, but for different reasons.

“I guess being the best player there’s always a responsibility to represent the game,” 2010 Bridgestone champion Hunter Mahan said. “It’s not representing the game while you play, it’s after, too, and he’s done an incredible job. He has to do it in the right manner and he does.”

Family man first

Mentioned most often was Nicklaus’ loyalty to his five children and 22 grandchildren.

“I’ve read all the books. I’ve heard he never spent more than two weeks away from his family, that’s impressive, and to accomplish what he did,” Chris Stroud said.

“He was probably the first one to travel with his kids on the road,” Brandt Snedeker said.

Nicklaus showed those who followed that a balance of family and golf success could be achieved.

“There’s two ways of looking at it. You can look at it from the positive, ‘Hey, it can be done, the greatest player in the world did it,’ ” Jim Furyk said. “Or you can say ‘It might take the greatest player in the world to get away with it.’ Being as successful as he was, he could play 15 to 20 events a year and still do really well. A lot of very good players can do that, Steve Stricker is showing that this year. There’s guys out there who aren’t capable, who don’t have the talent of Steve Stricker or Jack Nicklaus.”

At this year’s U.S. Open at Merion, Phil Mickelson received attention after flying home to San Diego on Monday for his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation on Wednesday. In a June 25 conference call, Nicklaus said he did a lot of that.

“I flew in from Akron a couple times for a Friday night football game and went back up,” Nicklaus said. “I always took the philosophy that golf was a game, and that my real life was my family. As long as my family was in good order and they were progressing nicely and my kids all knew their father and they all knew that I loved them; that was what was important to me. If I could play golf besides that, that was just fine. Golf did not dominate my life; my family dominated my life.”

That’s not all the pros cited when they thought of Nicklaus.

Always in contention

Nick Watney pointed out the 58 second-place finishes (19 in majors) and 36 thirds (eight in majors) Nicklaus totaled to go along with his 73 victories on the PGA Tour.

“It’s one thing to win, but it’s another thing to always have a chance and it seems like he did,” Watney said. “Pretty much the debate between him and Tiger Woods, those two are far and away the best two players in history. There’s a lot to admire, but the fact he was always in contention shows how good he was.”

Ohioans Ben Curtis of Kent and Jason Kokrak of Warren couldn’t pick out just one thing they admired about Nicklaus.

Curtis marveled at that fact that Nicklaus could have won 40 majors, but also called him “a great role model for kids.”

“He was never in trouble, he always did things the proper way,” Curtis said. “That’s what makes him such a special person, someone of that magnitude.”

Nice guy and class act

Kokrak said he played in “The Jake,” a charity fundraiser to honor Nicklaus’ late grandson at the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., and was thrilled to meet Jack and Barbara Nicklaus.

“That was an awesome thing for me to do,” Kokrak said. “He’s an all-time nice guy, a class act. He does everything for golf you could possibly want him to. He’s always in the public eye, he’s always doing something to help junior golf, golf in Ohio, golf in Columbus. Wherever he is, he has that presence.”

Kokrak also brought up Nicklaus’ clutch putting — “It’s the same putting stroke, same everything that I grew up watching,” Kokrak said — and the fact he was one of the tour’s best drivers.

But most looked at Nicklaus and his impact on a worldwide scale.

“He’s the best all-time,” Australian Jason Day said. “What he’s done for the game of golf … [Arnold] Palmer, [Gary] Player, those guys put the game of golf on the map.

“Looking back on his career, he has to be proud of what he’s done for himself, for his family and especially the people he’s influenced. A lot of people started playing the game because of what he’s done.”