Golden Bear hits golden years in stride

Jack Nicklaus' triumph in the 1986 Masters at the age of 46 captivated the sports world. The victory put a record sixth green jacket in the Golden Bear's closet. Augusta National/Getty Images

"Golf was never all that important to me."

The words leave Jack Nicklaus' lips and hang in the air like a carefully crafted wedge shot. For a split-second, it's as if Gandhi has declared that he never cared about world peace or Picasso claimed he wasn't much of an art person.

On the eve of Nicklaus' 70th birthday, during what is termed by his publicist as a "State of the Bear" interview with the media, the game's greatest major champion -- 18 titles, if you count only professional majors; 20 if, like Jack, you also include his two U.S. Amateur titles -- appears on the verge of a shocking admission ...

And then he explains himself.

"What I mean by that is ... I played a game because I loved it and I played it for the sake of the game," Nicklaus says, immediately thwarting any notion to the alternative. "I played it because when I played that game, the competition, the charge that I got from it, excited me to be really good at something. It excited me to be able to focus on something, something to work at, something that gave me goals, something that filled my life with excitement."

It is inherently difficult to compile a lifetime of work into a single sound bite -- especially for a man whose achievements have surpassed those of any other golfer in the game's history. Nicklaus, though, has discussed these things a time or two before, has waxed poetic on his love affair with golf, has explained his motivation and inspiration and determination.

The game became not only part of his life, but part of his every fiber and soul. It became about more than simply hitting a ball into the hole in as few strokes as possible; it was a life-long journey, a pursuit of happiness.

By the time his career was complete, once the trophies were on his shelf and the green jackets in his closet, his impact on the game was more than personal. Jack Nicklaus defined golf as much as golf defined him.

"I became aware of him before I turned pro. I was an amateur playing golf in Ohio and as you probably know, he played golf there also. I had heard about this young fellow that was coming on, but didn't know much about him -- and I suppose that he was about 10 years younger than I was, so I was just trying to get my game going. But I was quite aware that he was coming." -- Arnold Palmer

Jack William Nicklaus was born Jan. 21, 1940 to parents Charlie and Helen in Columbus, Ohio. He took up golf when he was 10 years old, firing a nine-hole score of 51 at famed Scioto Country Club the first time he ever played. From there, Jack was hooked. He began entering tournaments -- and winning most of 'em. The Ohio State Junior, the Ohio Open, the U.S. National Jaycees Championship and yes, those two U.S. Amateur titles, in 1959 and '61.

He turned professional in late 1961 and earned his first paycheck early the next year for exactly $33.33. His struggles didn't last, though, as Nicklaus won three tournaments during that debut season, including the 1962 U.S. Open.

Baby-faced and hardly chiseled, he was saddled with the early moniker "Fat Jack" before taking over the more brazen "Golden Bear." The name not only stuck, it seemed to fit his personality and style. He soon became the most dominant golfer since his idol, Bobby Jones, and the man who possessed the prettiest swing he had ever seen, Ben Hogan.

"To win a major, you had to beat Jack," says Raymond Floyd, himself a four-time major champion. "He was the guy who was the most formidable. I asked him one year, 'Jack, where are you going to play this year? What tournaments are you going to play?' And he said, 'Why do you want to know?' And I said, 'Because I want to kind of do my schedule around yours. I don't want to play where you are.' And he just chuckled."

"He came on in 1962 and won the Open that year, beating Palmer at Oakmont. He had that reputation of being such a great player and he proved it right away. All of us admired him for his great talent on the golf course. He really was something special to the game of golf, his ability to play and to win tournaments. He always geared himself to win the major championships and of course, he won quite a number of them." -- Billy Casper

Jack. Arnie. Gary.

Golf's "Big Three" need no formal introduction, as Nicklaus was joined by Palmer and Player to form a triumvirate unrivaled in its combined domination of the game.

How dominant were they? Between the PGA Tour, international circuits and the senior tour, the three superstars combined to win an astounding 350 titles. During the 18-year period from 1958-75, one of the three claimed a major championship in all but one of those years, as they totaled 34 such titles altogether.

Perhaps there is no greater statistic to measure Nicklaus' greatness than this simple one: His record of 18 professional majors is two more than the combined totals of Palmer and Player.

"The first time I remember hearing about Jack Nicklaus was when everyone was raving about this young amateur that was playing so well," Player says. "The first time I recall meeting him was at the Masters, and after watching him practice, we sat down outside the locker room at Augusta National and I told him he would win the Masters many times."

Perhaps the most surprising thing was that through their combined dominance, Nicklaus, Palmer and Player were as much friends as they were rivals.

One legendary story culminates with the three men spraying each other with champagne in a hotel room -- then having to split the bill for damages upon checkout.

Other tales remain just as amusing.

"I remember him shooting a Cape buffalo in South Africa and I had to make sure I had three hunters with him," Player recalls. "The last thing I wanted to see in full was Jack Nicklaus being killed by a buffalo whilst visiting me on a safari. We were supposed to leave for my ranch that afternoon and couldn't as he had to spend the whole day chasing a buffalo that he wounded as that is the rule, not to leave a wounded animal behind."

Of course, their good times weren't confined to off-course pursuits.

"One of my favorite stories is from Carnoustie in 1967," Nicklaus says. "We played a Big Three match at Carnoustie and Arnold, Gary and I had never played there. We went there and it was a very windy day. Arnold shot 79, Gary shot 78 and I shot 76. We walked off there thinking that was the worst golf course we had ever seen anywhere.

"Well, we were out with our wives that night and we started looking at the round. Arnold hit four greens in regulation and had 25 putts and we started giving Arnold raspberries about it. As we were doing that, we started thinking about Gary's round. Gary had hit five greens in regulation and had 26 putts. Well, then it got to me and I had hit eight greens and had 28 putts. But we had fun kidding each other. Through the years, we'd walk off the golf course and look up at the scoreboard. If one of us shot 74 or 75, we couldn't get to the locker room fast enough to say, 'Hey Arn, where'd you get all your birdies today?' We had a good time with it."

To this day, the Big Three remain very close. For the first time this year, Nicklaus will join Palmer as an honorary starter for the Masters and he believes Player will join them shortly thereafter.

"I feel like [Jack] is one of my best friends, yes," Palmer says. "I feel like if I needed something that I otherwise couldn't get, he would make it happen for me -- and vice versa."

"I stayed with Barbara and Jack during the PGA Championship at their home and I was 1 shot back of Jack going into the final round. I always teased Barbara about this, that every time she put our scrambled eggs down on the plate in the morning, I always switched plates just in case there was something in mine to make me sleepy." -- Gary Player

When Tiger Woods won his first major championship title at the Masters in 1997, the countdown was officially on. Only 17 more to tie Nicklaus! In an earlier era, though, such thoughts weren't expressed because they simply never occurred. The majors were important because of the history and prestige associated with them, not to secure a place in history.

"I never had the goals of winning so many majors, but majors were always my focus," Nicklaus maintains. "When I was young, Jones had always said that these are the lasting things in a golfer's life and that one thing that was consistent was we always have those four majors every year. A lot of things will change, but those never have. And so I kind of geared my year for that, I geared my game for that."

Nicklaus often tells the story of winning the 1970 Open Championship in a playoff over Doug Sanders, only to be told afterward where he ranked on the all-time ledger.

"I was at St. Andrews and I walked into the press room after I won and Bob Green of the AP said to me, 'Jack, that's 10. Only three more to go to tie Bobby Jones.'" Nicklaus says. "Honest to goodness, I can promise you, I had never added them up. That's the honest truth. I said, 'Really?' He said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'Gosh, I never even dreamed of approaching Jones' record.' So obviously, once that was said to me, then Jones' record became a focus. In 1973, I passed Jones' record at Canterbury and then I played golf to be just the best I could be and still play my majors. But I never had a focus on a number; a number was not an important thing to me. It was just to be able to play my best and be the best at what I did."

In fact, some of his most memorable moments came after he already owned the record. In 1980, at the age of 40, Nicklaus won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, his sixth multiple-major season and the 16th and 17th major titles of his career.

Those pale in comparison with what took place at Augusta National six years later. Starting his round 4 strokes behind leader Greg Norman, Nicklaus posted a back-nine 6-under 30 that included an eagle-birdie-birdie rally on holes 15-17 to win his sixth green jacket at the age of 46 -- exactly 23 years after claiming his first.

"I remember a story from the Ryder Cup. Tom Weiskopf and Jack were a team and Tom had a birdie putt somewhere around 8 or 10 feet. Jack had one about 12 feet away, pretty much similar, on the same amount of line. And Tom said to Jack, 'Do you want me to putt first?' And Jack looked over at Tom and said, 'Pick it up.' And of course, can you imagine the [look] that Tom got when Jack said that? Tom looked at him and said, 'What?' Jack said, 'Pick it up. I'm going to make this.' And he did." -- Raymond Floyd

There are a few different ways of measuring Nicklaus' greatness. We can inspect the record books and find that he won 73 career PGA Tour events, including six Masters titles, four U.S. Opens, three Open Championships and five PGA Championships. All are numbers either at or near the top of the charts, but they fail to tell the entire story.

Which leads to another way of determining his value to the game of golf: Ask those who competed against him.

Arnold Palmer: "I think he has been a wonderful player. He has set records that may never be equaled or bettered. He has been very, very good for the game. He set standards that will take a long time for anyone to equal or better. I think that his playing -- there's no question about that. He's probably the best of all time and that's very good."

Gary Player: "The thing that made Jack a great champion was talent, great strength and also a wonderful putter and really the best mind I have ever seen on a golf course. You never saw him getting upset; you could never tell if he hit a bad shot and he always had great patience."

Ben Crenshaw: "We got to watch him, under a lot of different circumstances, play the game and win. He won in a lot of different conditions, different countries, and to me, he played with more common sense than almost anybody. Yes, he had abundant power but he knew where to use it and how to use it. Jack just had a competitive nature, and his will was just remarkable. It's been great. He has been so great to everybody and has meant so much to our game."

Fuzzy Zoeller: "What an honor and pleasure it is to know one of the greatest, if not the greatest golfers in golf. In my opinion, great golfers are much more than what happens on the course, but also off the golf course. He has been a tremendous ambassador to the game and it's been a real pleasure to know him and have had the opportunity to play with him."

Nick Price: "He has been such a huge part of my golfing life from the first time I read his book and from the first time I played with him. He has been an inspiration to all of my generation and certainly someone who we've looked up to over the years. But you know, what a great man, what a great career, a wonderful husband and father. I mean, Jack Nicklaus has to be one of the great sportsmen of the 20th century."

Raymond Floyd: "Well, I think Jack's legacy will be that he was the greatest golfer to ever play the game up through 1990. Wouldn't you say? Without question, he was the best player that ever played. He was an incredible ambassador for the game by the way he conducted himself. He was a great family man, great integrity, always gave back to the game and his communities in which he lived. So his legacy will not only be the greatest player up through this Tiger era, but maybe could go down still as the greatest player to ever play."

"No one has had more of an influence on my golf career than Jack Nicklaus. It was watching him play in the Masters when I was 14 years old that first inspired me to take up the game. I'd not really thought about golf before then and, even though he didn't win that year, there was something about Jack's stature on the course, that indescribable aura, that made me desperate to get my hands around a golf club. I marched up to my mum there and then and announced my intentions of wanting to try golf. She said, 'Alright, but you're getting your haircut first,' which seemed like a fair enough deal at the time. Everything that has followed for me is as a result of that inspiration. I can't tell you how many imaginary rounds of golf I played with Mr. Nicklaus whilst practicing as a young amateur and, years later, it was always an honor to play alongside him competitively." -- Nick Faldo

Jack Nicklaus makes mention of his 70th birthday and immediately produces a sound which roughly translates as "Yecccch," eliciting a few chuckles from nearby observers. It is as if he bit into an overly bitter piece of fruit or, perhaps more appropriately, chunked a chip shot from just off the green.

Despite his audible distaste for the milestone, you get the feeling that the Golden Bear is perfectly content with his golden years. Jack and wife Barbara have nearly two dozen grandchildren, while his professional career remains on the business side of golf. His course design company has been in place for more than four decades, currently with a specific focus in Asia.

As for his game, Nicklaus readily admits, "I'm not much of a golfer anymore." He recently hit two stacks of balls at a driving range -- more than he's hit during a single session in a half-decade. "I looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame," he recalls. "Couldn't straighten up to save my life."

Even so, adding one more candle to the birthday cake can be considered reason for optimism. By his count, he has shot his age or better on four separate occasions; he will now have one more stroke to reach that goal.

As he looks back on a life spent within the game, Nicklaus can state, "Golf was never all that important to me," but only when followed by a postscript explaining his love for its intangible characteristics. And as we look back on his life in golf, from his dominance to his adulation to his influence, we can determine that Jack William Nicklaus was indisputably important to the game itself.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.