On Tuesday Jack Nicklaus came to Creighton Farms, the magnificent private golf course he built in Aldie, Va., to talk about a charity tournament he has established to benefit the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation. The event was played Wednesday, with Nicklaus in the field.
The good stuff, however, came when Nicklaus was asked about major championships. He told a story about a sportswriter 40 years ago informing him that he needed to win three more majors to match Bobby Jones' record of 13. It was news to Nicklaus. He wasn't keeping count.
"When I grew up, I knew that Jones had won 13 majors, didn't think much about it, never was a goal of mine," Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus' point was to illustrate that his much-discussed record of 18 majors was arbitrary. Only decades later, as Tiger Woods mounted his assault, did the number become golf's Holy Grail. The often-told story about Woods' youth is that he had a Nicklaus poster on his bedroom wall, beckoning him to greatness. Eighteen majors was the standard of success for Woods, who has won 14.
Nicklaus was asked what he would have done if Ben Hogan, for example, had won 22 majors.
"I would have kept playing," he said with a smile.
When Nicklaus won the PGA Championship at age 35, he passed Jones' record and some of his drive dissipated. He already was a father of five and had a thriving course design business.
"I never had a real goal to try to push that to another level," Nicklaus said. "It was never about how many."
If Woods ever breaks Nicklaus' hallowed record, the temptation will be to declare him the greatest of all time. But fans should keep in mind the quality of Nicklaus' contemporaries, including Gary Player (nine majors), Tom Watson (eight), Arnold Palmer (seven) and Lee Trevino (six). They should also consider how many majors Nicklaus might have won were he inspired by the feats of a predecessor and fueled solely by a number.
"I'm delighted today that I know all my five kids. My five kids all know me," Nicklaus said. "I've got 23 grandkids, and they all know me. That's far more important to me than any golf tournament."
- Kevin Dunleavy