Thursday, March 3, 2011

Classic Sports Thursday

A couple of items for this week's report. First is this nicely written obit of Duke Snider, the Brooklyn Dodgers great, from Joe Posnanski, whom I think is quite possibly the best sportswriter around today. If I go before Posnanski, I hope he does my write-up.

Michael Bamberger, also from SI, is not one of my all-time favorites, but I want to give him his due when he hits a home run (if I can mix my sports metaphors), as he does with this story on Jack Nicklaus. Tiger Woods, Bamberger writes, may be the most talented golfer ever, but Nicklaus - who won 18 majors, finished second 19 times, made millions in golf course design, raised millions for charity, and with his wife Barbara successfully raised five children, one of whom caddied for him at his last major victory - is golf's greatest champion. It reminds me of something I once heard Brent Musberger say, to the effect that although he didn't know who the greatest golfer of all time might be, he was certain that Nicklaus was the greatest winner.

And this sounds about right to me. I write more about Nicklaus than I do Snider, because I grew up in the era of Jack. He was already an established superstar, with some of his greatest victories behind him, when I took up golf as a spectator sport. And in those days, he wasn't my favorite golfer - Lee Trevino was, or Arnold Palmer, or the odd player in the odd tournament who happened to catch my fancy.*

* Such as Jim Simons, the young amateur who improbably led after three rounds of the 1971 U.S. Open, and remained only one shot behind coming to the 18th hole, where he put a desperation shot into the water and finished fifth. That year the tournament ended in a tie, necessitating an 18-hole playoff the next day. The two golfers in the playoff were Trevino and Nicklaus. Trevino won. I was happy.

It was only when Jack's skills began to naturally fade, when he was the big dog who had to fight off the young turks such as Miller and Watson*, that I really warmed to him, begain to root for him as well as admire him. I would even root for him against Trevino, although Lee wasn't then the threat he used to be. Fortunately for me, Nicklaus still had a few big victories in him, such as his 1980 U.S. Open triumph that caused fans to chant, "Jack's Back," or his epic 1986 Masters victory at 46, which solidified his place as not just golfer but icon.

* I never did warm to Tom Watson, or root for him, until his equally improbably run at the British Open a couple of years ago when, well into his 50s, he stood on the 18th hole with a one-shot lead. It was the first time I'd ever rooted for him. Predictably, he lost.

Anyway, in this era of hype, this anything-goes time when we admire an athlete for what he does on the playing field and try to avert our eyes to everything else, it's always nice to reflect on a man who was a true champion, perhaps the greatest, like Jack Nicklaus. It's even nicer when you can appreciate him while he's still around.  
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