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Ode to Jack: A Loser & Quitter Unlike Any Other

Story & photo by Hugh C. McBride

Over the course of Jack Nicklaus’s 44-year professional career – and especially in the run-up to his July 14 retirement – hundreds of writers scribbled thousands of words in an attempt to capture the essence of what made “The Golden Bear” one of the all-time greats.

I think I can do it in two: loser and quitter.

If you’re even remotely familiar with the world of professional golf, you know that the word “Nicklaus” is synonymous with success. Seventy-three tournament victories. Eighteen majors. Eight times the tour’s leading money winner. Five times the PGA’s player of the year. Two times a magazine’s selection as player of the century. And the list goes on.

Now, I’m not arguing that these accomplishments aren’t impressive. But as one who believes that “exceptional” isn’t necessarily synonymous with “great,” I’ve always been more impressed with the statistics that appear in the smaller print on Jack’s resume – and the statements that don’t show up there at all.

For example, en route to amassing those 73 tour victories, Nicklaus finished second 58 times, and third on 36 occasions. Ten of those “almost wins” came as cruelly as the golf gods allow – by losing playoffs after tying for the lead over four days of competition.

Nineteen times, he was runner-up in a major (meaning that he not only won more majors than any other golfer, he also experienced the exquisite frustration of coming in second more times than anyone else ever has).

Long before the marketing minds at Nike created the ridiculous “You don’t win silver – you lose gold” slogan, Americans had been decidedly obsessed with first place.

Football coach Vince Lombardi is said to have opined that winning isn’t only the priority – it’s all there is.

To this day, the silver medals from the 1972 Olympic basketball tournament remain in a vault in Switzerland because, after the first international loss it had ever experienced, the U.S. team ducked the award ceremony rather than stand one rung below their Soviet opponents.

Even “heroes” aren’t exempt, as one-time Boston beloved Bill Buckner can attest, having spent nearly two decades as a Beantown pariah after letting a crucial ground ball trickle between his legs during the 1986 World Series.

This list, sadly, also goes on and on.

But the man widely regarded as the greatest golfer – and one of the game’s most intense competitors – lost by tantalizing margins 94 times, and left no tales of histrionics in his wake.

No tossed clubs. No berated caddies. No kicked dogs or abandoned fans. Just extra swings on the practice range, added focus on “next time.”

“He has always been the consummate professional both in victory and defeat,” Tom Watson told the BBC after Nicklaus’s final round July 15.

Watson, who played that final round alongside his longtime friend and professional nemesis, admitted having to fight back tears of his own as the two walked down the 18th fairway on the historic Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.

The thunderous applause that followed Nicklaus throughout his farewell round was, Watson said, “just a very small appreciation that the people around the world have for him and the way he has conducted himself.”

[Side note to all Randy Moss wannabes who may be reading this: I was in that throng on 18, and I can tell you that I have never experienced a crowd’s roar as loud as that one – you felt it thundering in your chest before you heard it echoing in your ears. All for an old man who didn’t even make the cut. Maybe “the way he has conducted himself” still means something after all.]

If anyone should know about Nicklaus’s ability to transcend defeat it is Watson. In 1977, he and Nicklaus engaged in one of golf’s great duels, over the final 36 holes of The Open, which was held that year in Turnberry, Scotland.

Tied after the first two rounds, the two carded matching 65s over the third 18. Nicklaus took an early 3-shot lead in the final round, and was up by two as late as the 12th hole.

Watson caught him, then birdied 17 to take a one-shot lead. On the final hole, Nicklaus drained a 35-foot putt for birdie to momentarily tie the match – but Watson had chipped to within three feet, and his ensuing birdie handed Nicklaus a defeat that some would consider career-crushing.

Nicklaus’s response? He put his arm around Watson, and victor and vanquished walked off the course together.

Hold that image in your mind for the next time you see a Little League dad berating his kid for not hating his opponents enough.

But though Jack’s response to “losing” the 1977 British Open is astounding, perhaps the most amazing thing about it is that it’s not his most memorable victory-denying gesture.

For that, we have to wind the clock back another eight years, to 1969 and the 18th hole of England’s Royal Birkdale.

Having holed a four-foot par putt on the final hole of the final match of that year’s Ryder Cup competition, Nicklaus left Britain’s Tony Jacklin with a knee-rattling two-footer to halve their match and tie the competition (which the U.S. team had won 14 of the previous 17 times).

So, with a huge win – not to mention the extension of “national dominance” – on the line, what does Our American Hero do? In what has been hailed as one of the greatest acts of sportsmanship in the history of the game (but which would never get him a shoe deal today), Nicklaus conceded the hole – telling Jacklin to pick his ball up, and causing the Ryder Cup competition to end in a tie for the first time in its 42-year history.

To clarify: He quit the match and accepted a draw rather than risk having a win “handed to him” by his opponent.

Think about that the next time you see some soccer mom screaming at her kid for having the audacity to stop and help up someone in the wrong color jersey.

“Golf will always be more about losing than winning,” Nicklaus once said, “and it is how you deal with this fact that will define you.”

It’s easy for those who have never competed to reserve their adulation for the most recent winners – or the most awe-inspiring victories. And it is just as simple for writers who have never felt the sting of loss to script paeans to the “moral victories” that are found only in defeat.

But when a man whose very livelihood depends upon his spot atop the leaderboard can treat defeat with such dispassion – well, this is as rare as it is wondrous. And when this same man is not only one of his game’s fiercest competitors, but also one of its all-time greats – well, this is truly the stuff of which legends are made.

When Jack Nicklaus walked off the 18th green July 15, he left a record of victories that will be difficult to surpass.

But he left a legacy in defeat that will stand forever.

[This commentary originally appeared in The Citizen, the official newspaper of U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart.]