Golf hero's modest memories

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 December, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 December, 1997, 12:00am

Humility does not become sports stars in the TV age. Angling for the next advertising contract, ever ready to sign up for the next endorsement, they are big, brash and permanently on a screen near you, selling themselves and turning a profit.

Jack Nicklaus, such a successful golfer that he still inhabits a solo universe, belongs to an earlier, more honourable age. In cricket-speak, he would have been a gentleman and a player; raised impeccably in Columbus, Ohio - capital of everything middling about Middle America - from an early age he was a contender at whatever sport he turned his 'robust physique and good hand-eye co-ordination' to.

But as well as a player he was also a competitor, as he remains on the senior Tour. And his will to win, as much as his self-effacing nature of later years, permeates his autobiography.

Nicklaus' story is not without its 'bull-headedness' of youth, as he calls it. It is punctuated by anecdotes and snapshots of a life on the amateur and professional circuits, and the best of these feature the owners of names and faces familiar to generations of television viewers and sportsmen: Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Tony Jacklin.

It is fitting for one so courteous, and so quick to share credit with his family, that his stories are not the place to look for gossip. And they can seem out of bounds to the non-golfer. But they give some measure of Nicklaus the man, and he candidly - with almost a plea for absolution - declares the arrogance which infused his precocious talent.

This is Nicklaus on Palmer: 'It is hard for me to capture the magnitude of Arnold Palmer. He was not only [golf's] undisputed king, but the emperor-in-chief of contemporary American sports heroes . . . a national figure as renowned and admired as any man of his generation.' But his attitude towards Palmer as a rival was a little different, Nicklaus recalls: 'I liked Arnie a lot as a person [and] I had appropriate respect for his record. Beyond that . . . I looked on Arnold the way you would expect a bull-headed youth [to do]. Arnold Palmer was just another player; I wanted to win and win again. If it meant . . . toppling a legend and throwing half the population into deep depression . . . fine and dandy.' As Nicklaus recognises, of such stuff are champions made. But it is Trevino for whom Nicklaus feels most affection. Nicklaus says: 'He was dirt-poor as a youngster, which instilled in him a hunger for success and a capacity for perseverance . . .' The Merry Mex, he says, 'quit school in the eighth grade and took a job at a Dallas driving range; his skill was honed when he played for folding money without a nickel in his pocket'. In such moments Nicklaus - with his ghostwriter's help of course - is at his most fluid and captivating.

My Story comes with a complete record of Nicklaus' tournament performances, all the way from his 1950 win in the Scioto Juvenile Championship, to his 1996 exit from the Dunlop Phoenix tournament in Miyazaki, Japan (when he missed the cut that would take him into the final rounds).

So the rabid golf fan is satisfied, while the general reader is entertained, not least by the smooth narrative: clear and light, but never flimsy.

This is never just a paean to Jack Nicklaus from Jack Nicklaus. Rather, a deserved celebration of the achievements of golf's greatest practitioner (although he would probably dismiss the commendation) in ability as much as garlands earned: two US Amateur Championships, six Masters, four US Opens, three British Opens, and five US PGA Championships.

A certain young, very talented American golfer recently arrived on the scene, is the only player currently being given a chance of overhauling Nicklaus. Tiger Woods already has a weighty sponsorship deal, and will remain rich even if he never picks up another club. The autobiography which closes his career will make intriguing comparative reading to My Story.

My Story by Jack Nicklaus with Ken Bowden Simon & Schuster, $300