I've always been fascinated by Nicklaus's dual qualities of extreme competitiveness that led to 18 major championship wins and his unfailing graciousness in the heat of the battle, and just after, whether he won or narrowly lost. His outward appearance and behavior were the same in either situation—exemplary.
In an article in The Australian about the win-at-all-costs mentality of footballer Luis Suarez, Matthew Syed shared an anecdote about Jack Nicklaus that explains his greatness. I believe it also explains how a 29-year-old Nicklaus was able to concede a missable putt to Tony Jacklin that decided the outcome of the 1969 Ryder Cup.
I WAS once invited for tea with Jack Nicklaus at a hotel next to St Andrews. He greeted me with courtesy, showed me to a seat, and then poured. He was kind, discursive and humane. Almost old-worldly. This sense of decency characterised the way he played the game, too. He respected the rules, respected his opponents and generally conducted himself with honour. At the 1969 Ryder Cup, he conceded a crucial putt to Tony Jacklin on the final green, an act that has, to many, become synonymous with the elusive spirit of golf.
Now, here is something else about Nicklaus that is, perhaps, even more striking: he was a winner. In the way he swung his clubs, he was ruthless. He nailed important putts and he rarely missed the green when a major championship was approaching its climax. He ended up winning 18, a record that may not be surpassed for some time.
Do you see the distinction, here?
Nicklaus, like Tom Watson and others, was vindictive, but in a wonderfully limited sense. He was ruthless with his clubs rather than with his manner. He wanted to win, but never tried to punch anyone who got the better of him. He was ultra-driven, but grasped the subtle truth that ambition can never be an excuse for betraying one’s values.