GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – There are the 18 majors. There are the six green jackets. There is the title “greatest champion of all-time.”
But Jack Nicklaus was willing to trade that all in for one thing: His family.
That message rang loud and clear Wednesday night, as the Golden Bear turned to Papa Bear as the guest speaker on Opening Night at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley.
“I look to golf as a game,” Nicklaus told the hundreds gathered to celebrate the 54 players in this week’s prestigious junior golf field. “I never wanted golf to dominate my life.
“Golf was my vehicle to make a living, but (wife Barbara and I) felt that our family was by far the most important thing.”
In a day when lip service is commonplace, Nicklaus continues to be a breath of fresh air, speaking with true emotion, conviction and offered his own lessons to help guide the impressionable minds in the room. But he is also determined to grow the game, using his success as a golfer and architect to help programs such as the First Tee blossom.
Speaking to a bevy of First Tee kids from the Augusta and Aiken areas Wednesday, Nicklaus fought back tears while telling of two letters he presented to Congress on behalf of First Tee. He says he was inspired by those two letters because they overcame personal hardship by finding solace in the game of golf and its integrity.
But trips to Washington, D.C. aren’t all Nicklaus has done to make the game more accessible to everyone. He also has his name on the Jack Nicklaus Learning Leagues that will debut in Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. It combines team play with golf featuring a bigger ball and velcro targets – promoting fun over breaking par.
“We had to go back and find out what is going on in the game of golf,” he said, later being honored with the First Tee’s Founders Award. “We found they are doing something else. Golf takes too long, golf is too hard, and golf is too expensive.”
Nicklaus also emphasized that how you treat fellow golfers is a true test of character, as what goes around comes around.
“Most of these young men, their ages are 14 to 18, and they are thinking, ‘Where am I going to get my next birdie and where’s the next tee?’ ” Nicklaus said. “As you go you learn about your fellow competitors, and you learn about what life is all about.”
A Nicklaus Q&A wouldn’t be complete without a Tiger Woods question or two – but he put a new twist on a couple of topical questions.
First, should Woods have been disqualified from the Masters due to his illegal drop? Nicklaus feels that the rule book is the barometer, and Woods did nothing wrong.
“If Tiger had withdrawn, he would have been putting himself above the rules of the game,” said Nicklaus.
And with another year failing to bring a fifth green jacket for Woods, is he running out of time to catch Nicklaus?
“He is plenty young enough, but will he? I don’t know.
“I still think Tiger will break my record,” Nicklaus continued. “If I said anything different, there would be headlines in the newspaper tomorrow.”
On this day, though, the headline wasn’t about on-course exploits, it centered on Nicklaus the man and which part of his persona that should truly be emulated.