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The Bear's 50th

This year is Jack Nicklaus's first masters anniverdary

Posted Apr 03, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece


With all the talk about a return to major glory for Tiger Woods and the shambolic preparations of Rory McIlroy, a key aspect of this year’s US Masters may be lost to observers on this side of the pond.  But we can be assured that officials at Augusta National won’t have overlooked the fact that this is the 50th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’s first Masters win in 1963.

It was the Bear’s fifth Masters and his second as a professional.  And he was there as the reigning US Open champion, having beaten no less a figure than Arnold Palmer in a play-off at Oakmont, the previous June.  Though his 1963 Augusta challenge started with a far from promising 74, he swept into contention with a second-round 66, then slipped once more to another undistinguished 74 before a closing 72 brought his first green jacket by one stroke from Tony Lema.

His reward for that breakthrough was a cheque for $20,000 which would have bought a very handsome property in this part of the world at that time.  And as a bonus, there was a crystal vase for having the tournament’s lowest round on the second day.  Providing a further flavour of the type of field Nicklaus had to overcome, is the fact that the evergreen Sam Snead finished in a tie for third, Gary Player was tied fifth, Palmer was tied ninth and Gene Sarazen was 49th.

We’re reminded of the impact of that victory on Nicklaus, by a letter he wrote to Augusta National in late April 1965, after he had won his second Masters.  Addressed to Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, it read: “Dear Mr Jones and Mr Roberts.  Now that some of the excitement of the Masters week has passed, I realise what a great week it was for me.  Playing in the Masters was a life-long ambition and a thrill in itself.  When I won it for the first time, I thought that it would be the biggest thrill I would ever have.  However, my win this year has surpassed all my thrills in golf.

“Coming from a man of your stature, and a gentleman whom I have always respected and admired, Mr Jones, the words that you said at the presentation are words I will cherish all my life.  It certainly added to an already memorable week for me.

“As usual, the tournament was run with the dignity and perfection that will never be topped in the game of golf.  I want to thank you both very much for allowing me to compete it this tournament.  As I have said, Augusta National is my favourite course and the Masters my favourite golf tournament.  I feel the Masters is a monument to everything great in golf.  Sincerely, Jack Nicklaus.”

It will be recalled that the respect Nicklaus and Jones had for each other was mutual, given the great Bobby’s famous comment that the Bear played a game “with which I am not familiar.”  And the admiration was not misplaced.  In that memorable triumph in 1965, he carded an aggregate record of 271 comprising rounds of 67,71,64,69 which broke Ben Hogan’s tournament record by three strokes.  In the process, Nicklaus swept to victory by no fewer than nine strokes from Palmer and Player in a share of second place.

This, of course, became only a foretaste of remarkable feats to come, not least of which was a sixth Masters triumph in 1986, at the ripe old golfing age of 46.  And when those glory days had gone, I found myself considering the notion that, unlike the rest of us, every leading sportsperson faces two deaths - one competitive, one natural.

Even as his supreme skills were deserting him, however, Nicklaus continued to give wonderful interviews. I have a special memory of the US Masters in 1995, before Tiger Woods burst onto the professional scene. After a stunning, opening round of 67, the Bear came into the media centre where, in the course of a lengthy, official press conference, he explained how he had “found something” on the practice ground that morning.

When fascinated scribes had eventually run out of questions to ask, the official conference was brought to a conclusion.  Yet Nicklaus seemed to be in no hurry to leave.  That was when a small group, myself included, took advantage of the situation to continue the chat on a less formal basis.

Among the questions we asked the great man was: Who was the best golfer of all time? His reply was typically direct. “Hogan was the best I ever saw,” replied the Bear. “I never saw Jones [play], so I can’t comment on him. As for myself, that’s for others to judge.”

One could imagine the incomparable Bobby being quietly pleased by the honest directness of those words.

- Dermot Gilleece

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