September 11, 2013 at 11:00 AM
Why Jack Nicklaus will always be one sportswriter’s hero
By Scott Hanson / Seattle Times staff
Scott Hanson is a desk editor for The Seattle Times who also covers golf and horse racing.
Charles Barkley was right. Athletes shouldn’t be role models.
Many of those who have been blessed with great athletic ability are flawed as human beings. It plays out in headlines on almost a daily basis.
But then there is Jack Nicklaus.
He is my hero. He was when I was a kid, and he is now.
That is saying something, coming from a jaded old sportswriter like myself, who long ago lost any illusion that those I cover are heroic.
But Nicklaus, who won a record 18 golf majors, is different. Jack gets it.
Rewind to a few years ago. Nicklaus receives a call from his longtime friend, Ken Still, one of the board of directors at American Lake Veterans Golf Course. It is the only course in the country that is completely accessible to disabled veterans, but badly needs a second nine to meet the demand.
“Jack, I need you to design a course for us,” Still says to him. “For free.”
With little hesitation, Nicklaus says OK.
This wasn’t like asking Nicklaus to sign a couple of hats. His design company is one of the best in the world. Designing a course is a huge project, and Nicklaus’ company fetches some of the highest prices in the industry.
Still, who was Nicklaus’ teammate in the 1969 Ryder Cup, estimated Nicklaus’ company would probably get a couple of million dollars for a project like the one at American Lake.
I often imagine how I would respond if a friend called me, and asked, “Hey Scott, I need you to edit my 1,400-page book. For free.”
Such was Nicklaus’ value of friendship that he said yes without hesitation, without even knowing what he was getting into. It’s what he has done since that is even more special.
Shortly after agreeing to do it, Nicklaus got a chance to watch the veterans, some without legs and arms, using special carts that allow them to play. He saw what golf did for their morale. It got to Nicklaus when badly wounded veterans told him that American Lake Golf Course had saved their lives by showing them they still had something to live for.
“I knew then that I made the right choice and that this is something I need to do,” Nicklaus said. “If I can save just one soldier by doing this, it will be worth it.”
It was obvious he meant it.
Now, Nicklaus wants more. He wants to tweak the original nine at American Lake Golf Course and wants to help build completely accessible courses like this across the nation.
Jack gets it.
A couple of years ago, he was in Tacoma to give a golf clinic to veterans, then appear at a fundraising reception for the new nine. Nicklaus was late to the dinner. Because after the clinic, he didn’t leave until every veteran there had the picture they wanted taken and their items signed.
Jack gets it.
Two weeks ago, at the groundbreaking for the new nine at American Lake, Nicklaus arrived early to meet, shake hands and thank the volunteers at the course, which is completely run by them. The volunteers were buzzing afterward, talking and comparing their time with Nicklaus.
Jack gets it.
He always has. For Nicklaus, he always made it clear that his family was his top priority, but this golfing great actually meant it and lived his life that way.
While working in Miami in 2001, I followed Nicklaus, then 61, for the first two rounds of the PGA Tournament at the famed Blue Monster at Doral. That Nicklaus was long past his prime did not matter. I was watching Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer ever and the man whom Edwin Pope, the legendary columnist, had told me was the most gracious superstar he had ever met.
Nicklaus, followed on each hole as usual by his wife Barbara, missed the cut that week. But he remained engaged with the gallery throughout, smiling and occasionally chatting. There was no profanity when his chance to make the cut ended on his 36th hole after he hit his drive into the lake.
It seemed such a stark contrast to Tiger Woods, who never looks at anyone, acts like the fans are a huge annoyance and seems to spit out profanities with every bad shot.
Jack gets it.
The following year, Nicklaus was not in the field at Doral. While covering the event, I spied Nicklaus and wife Barbara following their son, Gary, who was in the field.
I approached Jack and asked him why he wasn’t playing. I struck a nerve.
“My back’s bad and if I can’t play anywhere,” he said with a scowl. “How can I play here?”
I was stunned by his reaction, then told him how much I had enjoyed watching him the previous year.
The scowl went away, and he smiled.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I want to play so bad and it’s killing me that I can’t.”
My hero is human.
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