As a Caddie, Jack Nicklaus was hopeless. Caddying for his son Gary at a U.S. Open qualifying round in 1983, he miscounted the clubs in the bag. It cost Gary a four-shot penalty, and he missed the cut. The year before, caddying for his son Jack Jr., he lost the boy's ball on the first hole.
Luckily, Nicklaus had other work. He has been the best golfer to ever live, by a par 5. Take a roll call of great players since 1935: Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. No two of them have won more majors than Nicklaus. With 18 under his belt, Nicklaus can give even one of them four a side and still end up laughing. What boggles the brain is that Nicklaus also finished second in majors 19 times. At his peak Nicklaus was so crushing an opponent that most players lost to him just driving into the parking lot. J.C. Snead once said, "When you go head-to-head against Nicklaus, he knows he's going to beat you, you know he's going to beat you, and he knows you know he's going to beat you."
In his prime he was hell on spikes. As impossibly long as John Daly is now, compared with his peers, so Nicklaus was in his day. As remarkably fine as Nick Price hits irons now, Nicklaus was better. As sublimely pure as Ben Crenshaw putts, Nicklaus was every bit as uncanny. That is the scariest part. The Nicklaus of the '60s and '70s was head and shoulders above everybody else, but mostly head. He was the supreme thinker, never distracted by the bells and the trophies and emotions of the thing. He was only interested in the nuts and yardage and sweat of it. Once, at St. Andrews, somebody asked him if, because he loved the place so much, emotion might get in his way. "That's kind of a silly question, don't you think?" he answered.
Even today, he is about as romantic as a carburetor. He has always exercised a simple and resolute will over his mind and body. On his flight home following the 1967 Ryder Cup he decided it was time to start losing his famous bulk. He called in his tailor and had him make pants for a man 15 pounds lighter. In three weeks, he fit them. He saw himself on tape smoking a cigarette, decided he looked like a "gangster," and quit, then and there. He went through his first winless season on the PGA Tour in 1979, and, determined to make a comeback, went out the next season and won both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.
Look all you want. There is not a shingle missing in his brilliant career. He won where he was supposed to win: Augusta and Firestone (six times each), Pebble Beach (four), St. Andrews and Baltusrol (twice each), Oakmont, Muirfield. He won on Tour 70 times. He won every major at least three times; nobody else has won every major even twice. Yet it wasn't easy. He began as a hero with no home, showing up at the 1962 Open at Oakmont—his first U.S. Open as a pro—looking like something you might pull from the bottom pouch of your golf bag. Fat and rumpled and wearing a dorky rain hat, his task was to conquer the beloved Arnie and his Army, who booed Nicklaus's good shots and yelled, "Miss it, Jack!" on the putting green. He beat Palmer 71-74 in an 18-hole playoff at that Open, and golf was never the same. He was not homespun like Sam Snead, not funny like Trevino. His pants didn't need hitching like Palmer's. Instead, he won over America with pure, unbleached excellence. Unlike any player since, he took over the wheel of golf and never flinched in the heavy traffic. Even the Senior PGA Tour has been no speed bump for Nicklaus. He won five of the first nine Senior events he entered and then grew bored. In June, at 54, he was one shot off the pace after the first round of the U.S. Open. He is not done even yet.
Long after he's gone Nicklaus will still be with us. Of America's top 100 courses, as selected by Golf Digest, 12 were designed by Nicklaus. They represent only a few of the 115 courses he has designed in 23 countries worldwide, not counting the 25 others currently under construction.
It is pure irony that Nicklaus shanked the racism issue earlier this year because anybody close to him knows that he is, quite literally, color blind. He couldn't tell you a green number from a red on a leader board if the winner's check depended on it. Maybe that's why Nicklaus put up so many red numbers his whole life. Made things simpler.