A Golfing Mind
Nicklaus' concentration—his ability to focus on the task at hand—is legendary. Indeed, many critics point to his phenomenal mental acuity and ability to focus as a major part of his success. Palmer, who in his young days was famous for his comeback victories, was now getting the comebacks pulled on him by a man who methodically sucked the leaders back in before propelling himself on to victory.
In 1967, in one of their last famous duels, Nicklaus drew close to Palmer as the final round of the U.S. Open waned. Then Nicklaus began to pull away. He was soon four strokes ahead of the field, his final margin of victory. Palmer faded into the background of the PGA Tour (although, it must be noted, he never faded from his celebrity), and Nicklaus, three years into his professional life, had many records to shatter.
Golf—in spite of the jokes to the contrary—is a physically demanding game for tour professionals. Professionals appear on the links for four days straight on weeks of tournaments, playing 18 holes each of those days, as well as practicing before and after each round. And they do this week in and week out, throughout the season, while at the same time dealing with the media and with the other pressures that arise from traveling the country and the globe. So if a player gets just a bit out of rhythm in his swing, it can throw off the entire game.
Nicklaus was unwavering in his focus. He was a powerhouse of a player who drove the ball farther than almost anyone he encountered; he mastered the putter, sinking long putts as if he were tapping the ball in from three feet; and his iron play and his shots from tough situations were as good than any other professionals he encountered. With his razor-sharp focus, he became very difficult to beat.
Yet he also became an ambassador for the game of golf. During the 1969 Ryder Cup play at Royal Birkdale, Nicklaus performed one of the true gestures of good faith in the game, conceding a short putt to Britain's Tony Jacklin, giving him the match, which in turn gave America the victory but allowed England to keep the Ryder Cup trophy one more year. Many consider it one of the best gestures in the history of sport, and though it was controversial at the time (teammate Sam Snead was upset that Nicklaus had conceded), the heart with which Nicklaus made the gesture showed his true colors.
Determined to change the way the public perceived him, Nicklaus emerged the next year as a leaner and more fit player. As the 1970s began, Nicklaus had changed his drab wardrobe for brighter colors and sought to make himself into an all-around player, one worthy of admiration for more than just his stellar play. He soon released books on how to play better golf, collaborating with his mentor Jack Grout as well as with his longtime writing ally Ken Bowden. Nicklaus' body of work itself is a veritable library of golf knowledge.
During the seventies, Nicklaus continued to accumulate tournament victories. He left the 60s with thirty victories, and added 36 more during the seventies, winning his fifth Masters in 1975 in thrilling fashion by sinking a forty-foot putt to pull one stroke ahead of Tom Weiskopf.
In 1979, however, Nicklaus stumbled. He went winless for the first time, finishing 71st on the money list. Some felt this was the beginning of his decline. After all, he had been dominating for at least fifteen seasons, and it was time for newcomers like Tom Watson to step up. (Palmer's dominance lasted a mere seven seasons, although some argues that it was not even that long.)
But Nicklaus, like the phoenix from the ashes, came back in the 1980s and helped usher in a new decade, proving that it was his decade as much as any other golfer's. With new major victories in the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship early on, many thought that he
was finally slowing down when he went several seasons without a major. Nicklaus had been the youngest winner of the Masters when he first won the tournament in 1963, but he needed to endcap his record. In 1986 he became the oldest player, at 46, to win a Masters green jacket.