Friday, August 2, 2013

Jack is back!
Nicklaus becomes Ambassador of Golf in Emotional Ceremony

By Pete Pappas 
On twitter @PGAPappas

Jack Nicklaus’ career at Firestone Country Club began in 1958 at the Rubber City Open.  In Nicklaus’ own words, he was a "scared little kid in the first true tournament I ever played," walking the fairways with tournament leader Art Wall, and reigning U.S. Open Champion Tommy Bolt.

Nicklaus recalled Bolt putting his arm around Jack and saying, "Don’t worry Jack, old Tom will take care of you."  And after six bogeys on the front nine, "Bolt stopped taking care of me, because he had gotten rid of me," Nicklaus said nostalgically with a laugh.

Little did an 18 year-old Jack know at the time, Firestone would go on to hold a very special place in his heart.  It would become a favorite venue for Nicklaus, where many of his 73 career Tour victories took place, including the 1975 PGA Championship – the 14th of his all-time 18 major championships.

And Wednesday, on the eve of the World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational, in front of an emotionally charged crowd, Ohio’s favorite son returned to Northeast Ohio, honored as the 2013 Ambassador of Golf.

The Award is presented annually at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to a person who has nurtured and advanced the ideals of golf internationally, and who’s concern and compassion for others extends beyond the golf course.  Nicklaus was genuinely and deeply moved by the prestigious award.
"This is certainly a special and meaningful recognition," Jack said with tears in his eyes.  "I feel blessed to be included among such a distinguished list of past recipients, including my wife, because I am certainly Barbara Nicklaus’ biggest fan."
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem took the podium first, calling Jack the embodiment of all that the Ambassador of Golf Award represents.
"Jack has excelled in all facets of our sport," Finchem said.  "As a player there is perhaps no equal.  He has been a prolific golf course designer, tournament host and successful business man.  And as a philanthropist, he has leveraged his position as a sports legend for the betterment of society."
Commissioner Finchem then introduced Mrs. Nicklaus, who shared her favorite anecdote illustrating one of Jack’s best attributes.
"It’s a story about a chicken and a pig walking down a street," Mrs. Nicklaus said.  "And they came upon a little cafe with a sign out front that said, breakfast special, ham and eggs, $2.99.  So the chicken looked over at the pig and said, how about we go in and have breakfast?  And the pig looked over at the chicken and said, hmm easy for you to say, for you it’s just a donation, for me it’s a total commitment."
Mrs. Nicklaus said she loves that story "because commitment is Jack’s middle name and I’ve always admired that quality in him."

Her tribute left Jack choked up when he approached the podium, and he’d wipe away tears again when he left.  For the hundreds of fans and invited guests gathered on the 1st tee, it was breathtaking.

Jack shared tales of the picture-perfect swing of Julius Boros and trying to immitate Boros’ swing for many weeks after the 1958 Rubber City Open, and about Jack’s father buying cigars for Charlie Sifford, his playing partner the first two days of that tournament, and acknowledged his great friends and competitors Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, and Lee Trevino.
"We all played the game for the love of the game and the love of competition," Nicklaus said.  "That’s what it was all about. Golf was my vehicle to competition.  And I learned early in my career that golf was the vehicle to giving back too, and making a difference."
Above all Nicklaus expressed enormous gratitude for Barbara, and spoke lovingly about how she’s been the driving force in his life, in all he’s done. 

Among the many stories that drew both laughter and respect from the crowd was Nicklaus’ story about Barbara not telling him she was going into labor with their first child – because she didn’t want him to withdraw from a tournament.
"In 1961, September, I was getting ready to play in Cincinnati, I was still an amateur, and called Barb to ask how she was doing," Jack said.  "She asked how my practice round was, and I told her it was good.  And then she said, OK, well have a good tournament.  And oh by the way, you’re a dad.  I said, excuse me?"
Jack’s grace, his humility, his humor, and his love of family and golf was on display for a glorious 30 minutes, and everyone in attendance for the ceremony, down to the last person, heart and soul appreciated it.

As Nicklaus left the podium to a raucous standing ovation and applause, I made my way to greet and congratulate him.  I missed my photo-op with him due to some general confusion and one too many vodka-cranberries to be honest, but caught up with Jack later and was able to ask him a question.

What I’ll always remember is not just Jack’s answer, which I thought very interesting, but how comfortable it was talking with him.  Nicklaus is larger than life, and I understood I was in the presence of true greatness.  Yet Jack made speaking with him feel as easy as if I was talking with my neighbor, or a friendly uncle.

I asked Nicklaus if chasing and trying to break Walter Hagen’s then all-time 11 major victories (and Bobby Jones still controversial 13 – including U.S. Amateurs) record was more stressful, or the stretch of six years trying to get his last one at the 1986 Masters.  His answer was illuminating.
"It wasn’t pressure so much as I had to work harder for those wins [The U.S. Open and PGA Championship] in ’72 and ’73," Nicklaus told me.  "And for my last one – going that long was more frustrating than anything else.  I still felt I could win another one, which is what made it that much more special when it did happen."
And that was it.  A firm handshake, thank you, and Jack was on his way.  As brief an encounter as one can have, but one filled with so much substance.  He looked me in the eye the entire time.

My take on Nicklaus’ answer was that he is a man in control of pressure, not one controlled by it.  He has a grasp and perspective of things. Jack’s said many times in the past how badly he wanted to break Hagen’s and Jones' record.  And Nicklaus’ work ethic is legendary.  I believe Jack’s comment that he had to "work harder" to tie and surpass that record meant that Nicklaus resolved to take his game to an even greater level by working even harder than he’d ever done before.

After speaking with Nicklaus I soaked in the atmosphere and festivities.  There was a buzz, an electricity all around Firestone.  The dining room was exquisite, whatever you fancied for dinner Firestone probably had – though the apple cheesecake dessert was my favorite.  And to be honest, I had a few more drinks as well.

I met Firestone members, sharing my exciting story how I met and talked to Jack, had a very enjoyable discussion with a group of five men, a few who came from around the country for the ceremony, and even got a private performance from "The Jolly Jester," Kevin Dawson, a famous magician Firestone brought up from Georgia.

Dawson's performed for Presidents of the United States, Arnold Palmer and other golf dignitaries, and even shot a 72 at the Old Course at St. Andrews, including an ace on No. 8 (now that's what I call magic), and literally left me shaking my head, jaw cavernously open in disbelief.

The Jolly Jester read my mind in a way that was downright spooky, made things appear in my hands that weren’t there when I closed them, and even transformed a dollar bill I gave him into a $100 dollar bill – but unsportingly tranformed the $100 back to a buck when he gave it back.

I waited for Jack at the end of the evening, hoping to still get a photo with him.  I didn’t want to interrupt dinner as that wouldn’t have been appropriate.  But sadly I missed him again, this time because of the conversation I was having upstairs with Firestone members, about Jack, Tiger Woods, Golf Channel, Win McMurry, Holly Sonders, golf equipment, swing styles, and cigars.

Woods was not at the ceremony or dinner afterwards, but was on the range earlier in the afternoon.  A scuffle broke out between a teenager and elderly man, both arguing about something Tiger related while Woods was practicing.  Afterwards Woods took time to sign autographs, but looked downright miserable doing so, like someone wishing they were anywhere but here.

Nicklaus on the other hand genuinely enjoyed every moment of the evening.  Mingling, laughing, eating, drinking.  I got the impression Jack would have talked with every single person in attendance if that was possible.

This was Jack’s evening of course, celebrating everything Nicklaus.  But as I drove home I couldn’t help but think that while Tiger is chasing down Jack’s record, perhaps there are other things about Jack that Woods should aspire towards as well.  Nicklaus is loved and respected not just because of what he’s done as a golfer, but because of who he is as a man.

Dedicated to the memory of my mom Z (October 1941 - February 2013)

On twitter @PGAPappas and blogspot at PGAPappas.Blogspot

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