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Jack Nicklaus, golf’s greatest champion, turns 81

Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus, who won a record 18 major championships, turns 81 on Thursday.

Nicklaus remains the standard by which golfers will be measured, and he did it all without so many advantages in the modern game

Jack Nicklaus turns 81 on Thursday.  

His record as a professional golfer is legendary, with 73 victories on the PGA Tour, including a record 18 major championships.

You could sprinkle in the fact that Nicklaus played in 584 events on the PGA Tour, with 286 top-10 finishes, the last time coming in the 1998 Masters with a T-6 at age 58.

It’s an impressive on-course resume. Add the fact that his Nicklaus Design company has built more than 425 courses in 45-plus countries worldwide and you can see the extent of his impact on the game.

But Nicklaus in many ways has been supplanted in recent years by Tiger Woods, because many younger golf followers didn’t see Nicklaus play.

Watching old footage doesn’t compare with highlights of Woods as a modern media sensation. In fact, most young players don’t talk about wanting to be like Nicklaus but instead aspire to be like Woods, reciting chapter and verse his highlight reel that includes 15 major titles among a record-tying 82 Tour victories.

I could say it’s unfortunate, but it’s more the way of the sports world. We remember some of the old names fondly, but gush when talking about the recent wonders whom we see on TV or via social media.

I’m not going to take the time defending the record of the man whom I believe is golf’s GOAT. Just as in other sports, golf is defined by eras. And there is no doubt how good Nicklaus was in his era.

But just for a moment, think about how good Nicklaus could have been if he had developed a better short game or had an icon to pursue, as Woods had in Nicklaus.

And then there was the equipment of Nicklaus’ era. Not only did Nicklaus play with substandard gear for most of his career because of contractual obligations, but he had to play different equipment when competing in the British Open, which he won three times. Could you imagine today’s players being forced to play a different manufacturer’s equipment when outside the U.S.? 

Knowledge about swing mechanics, club fitting and the roles that other equipment played on ball and clubhead speed, so common today, didn’t exist in Nicklaus’ era.

Of course, you could say the same thing about Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, all arguably the best in golf at one time or another. They likely would have been even better with today’s information about their swing and equipment.

But every generation or so, someone stands out over his peers and declares through his accomplishments that he is the best. Nicklaus did that over a long period of time, changing the game.  

Nicklaus is still the standard bearer by whom the greatest golfers are measured.

I shudder to think how many majors Nicklaus would have won or if he played the best equipment and knew what Bryson DeChambeau knows about the golf swing. Or, if Nicklaus had taken the Luke Donald approach and diligently worked on his short game to complement a dominant long game.

He could have won 24 or more major titles, considering that even without those modern advantages he still had the most victories (18) and runners-up (19) in major-championship history.

So, on this 21st day of January, happy 81st birthday to Jack Nicklaus, the greatest of all time.

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