THERE is an unwritten rule that journalists do not take advantage of their privileged access to sporting stars to ask them for their autograph.
The proximity of another Open Championship at the ‘Home of Golf’, St Andrews, brings to mind one of the handful of occasions when I have chosen to ignore this edict.
Jack Nicklaus was still sat at his place on the dias inside the media tent – it was just known as a press tent back then but I would hate to risk losing you younger readers at such an early stage in this piece.
I stood patiently waiting for him to finish shaking hands with several press men – sorry, media persons – before asking him to sign a magazine article I had written in which I pointed out why history said he would win his 15th major title.
My cheeks were probably still somewhat flushed from a moment during his conference when the great man had been discussing what drove him on, namely to acquire as many major titles as possible so as to pose a real challenge to whoever it was who would eventually surpass his tally.
I held up my hand, waited my turn and then asked if he didn’t feel that like Bob Beamon, who had shattered the world long-jump record with an astonishing leap in the Mexico Olympics, he had already pushed the bar, so to speak, out of reach.
“You’re young, but hang on in there, kid. All records in all sports will be beaten, including mine,” was the great man’s response.
My cheeks became flushed because the use of the word ‘kid’ had elicited a smattering of sniggers from the numerous USA scribes.
But the following day, many reports included Nicklaus’s response to my question, some as their intro.
By that stage, I already knew he had most certainly not used the word kid as a pejorative.
For he had browsed the Golf Illustrated article, thanked me for having had the faith that he would break a major drought stretching back almost three years to the 1975 US PGA, and then signed not only the piece itself but also the front cover of the magazine.
As he did so, he noticed me admiring the Claret Jug, the most famous trophy in golf, which sat in front of him.
“Go on, pick it up,” he said warmly.
I told him that I didn’t feel I should.
“What handicap are you?” he asked.
“Ten,” I replied.
“Not bad,” he said, “but my guess would be that you’re never going to win the Open, so this might be the only chance you get to hold it. So go on, pick it up.”
I feel sure Nicklaus had urged me to savour what it is like to hold the Claret Jug, albeit by proxy, because he knew he had unwittingly caused me a minor embarrassment.
What neither of us knew then was that history, to this date, would prove that he and the ‘kid’ were both right and wrong.
The reason I referenced Beamon’s world long-jump was because the American’s mark of 8.90 m – or 29ft 2 and ½ins as it was recorded in October, 1968, in Mexico – had bettered the existing record by 55 cm (21 and ¾ins).
It appeared a freakishly long distance, untouchable – and yet Mike Powell would jump even further than this in 1991. Nicklaus one up.
However, the Golden Bear was at that moment in 1978 basking in the immediate afterglow of his 15th major championship – a total still good enough to have him out in front even had he not added further successes in the 1980 US Open and US PGA plus the 1986 Masters. Match all square.
Of course, golf did appear to have its own Mike Powell in Tiger Woods, who got halfway towards at least equalling Nicklaus in the space of eight years when winning the Masters for the fourth time. It seemed certain that Nicklaus’s prophecy would come true, that it was only a matter of time before his name would be lowered one rung to make way for that of Woods on the list of the greatest men to have played this most wonderful of games.
However, that was 10 years ago and in that time Woods has managed to only – and I use that word comparitively – win five more to have him standing on 14 majors, one behind those accumulated by Nicklaus as he stood clutching the trophy at St Andrews, left.
The question which is posed as regularly as Woods now seems to mark down bogeys, namely can he ever win another major, will, no doubt, be asked again many times in the next few days before the action gets underway at St Andrews.
My answer has always been I don’t think so and I hope not.
I bear Tiger no personal ill will in the matter, it is just that Nicklaus, to me, seems more worthy of holding the position atop the pantheon of golfing greats, and I felt this even before the unravelling of Woods’s personal life seemed to pull at the threads of his golfing game.
Besides, I want to remain all square with JW Nicklaus.