Why Jack Nicklaus is called the Golden Bear

Jack Nicklaus is revered across golf, especially at Augusta, but his relationship with the Masters patrons hasn’t always been so harmonious. In his early appearances, the Golden Bear was known by the less favourable moniker “Fat Jack”.

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I have never been to Jack Nicklaus’ house, but I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of crystal around the place. Augusta National give crystal to players who achieve the extraordinary, and no one in the history of the game has achieved more extraordinary things at Augusta National than Jack William Nicklaus.

Shoot the lowest score on any given day, you get a crystal vase. Nicklaus got enough of those to open a florists. Make an eagle at any hole you get a pair of crystal goblets. Nicklaus had 24 eagles.

The records speak for themselves. Nicklaus has won the Masters six times. That’s two more than anyone else – Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer included. And twice as many Green Jackets as Gary Player, Sam Snead, Nick Faldo or Phil Mickelson.

In his 45 starts, he has the most runners-up finishes (4), the most top 5s (15), the most top 10s (22), and the most top 25s (25).

When he won his first Green Jacket, he was the youngest to ever win one – aged 23 years, two months and 17 days. When he won his sixth, he was (and still is) the oldest – at 46 years, two months, 23 days. He has made more cuts (37) and more birdies (506) than any other player. And he is still the only man ever to put the Jacket on himself, having successfully defended his title, in 1966; Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods had the Jacket put on them by the Chairman of Augusta National when they made successful defences.

Jack Nicklaus receives the Green Jacket from previous winner Bernhard Langer after victory in the 1986 Masters

As recently as 1998, defying the passage of time, a 58-year-old Golden Bear with lumbago and a dodgy hip threatened once more to do the impossible and become the oldest man (by 10 years) to win a major. With four holes left he was only four off the lead, as he turned to his son Steve and said, “If I can get an eagle and a couple of birdies, I can win this.” And he was serious.

When he made a birdie instead of an eagle, a deafening roar spread like wildfire, around the course, as scoreboards fanned the flames. Fred Couples admitted later that he wished secretly he could chuck his clubs away and go and watch Nicklaus. David Toms, in the middle of shooting a 64 himself, turned to his playing partner David Frost, and said: “Isn’t it just fantastic what he’s doing?”

Put simply, even though Nicklaus will now only stay a couple of days, go to the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night, and whack one down the 1st with his two buddies on Thursday morning, he remains as much part of the furniture at Augusta National as the azaleas, pimento cheese sandwiches and the oak tree outside the clubhouse. There is even a plaque, with his name on it, beside a drinking fountain, between the 16th and 17th holes. It commemorates his six victories, and at the bottom reads: “Jack Nicklaus elevated his game to meet golf’s challenges, including these at the Masters Tournament. The man and Augusta National will be forever linked.”

Nicklaus has only missed half a dozen tournaments since making his debut, and when he has, it’s like Ascot without the hats, or Wimbledon without the strawberries – a far lesser occasion.

“I find it as hard to picture a year away from the Masters as a year away from my family at Christmas,” he says. “At Augusta, regardless of your vintage, you are always a member of the clan. No other occasion in golf compares with it, and I trust it never changes.”

It may not have changed much – but he certainly has. Generations of golf fans today don’t appreciate that there were two Jack Nicklauses. Before he became the greatest player who ever lived, adored by all, there was another, much-less-loved Jack Nicklaus…

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