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Jack Nicklaus remains a gracious champion

Honorary starters Gary Player, left, and Jack Nicklaus

Honorary starters Gary Player, left, and Jack Nicklaus laugh during the opening tee ceremony to start the first round of the Mastersat Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday. Credit: Getty Images / Jamie Squire

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Champions show their character not so much when they win as when someone else does, which is how Jack Nicklaus keeps proving he is the greatest champion golf ever has seen.

The key, he said, is to cherish the other person’s joy, which is what he did in finishing second more times than he finished first in major championships (19 to 18). So, he praises and supports Tiger Woods, whom he thinks has a good shot to win the Masters this week. He cheers on the young players who play at his club in Florida and ask him for advice.

Nicklaus congratulated Gary Player for outdriving him on the ceremonial tee shots to open the tournament early Thursday morning. And then there was the moment that he considers the greatest thrill he ever has experienced on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National. No, none of his record six victories here or any of the shots that secured those. It was the sight of his 15-year-old grandson G.T. (or Gary Jr.) making a hole-in-one in the Par-3 Contest Wednesday afternoon.

“I didn’t want to be disrespectful because six green jackets is pretty good, but that’s about yourself,” the 78-year-old man said in a news conference after he and Player continued a Masters tradition by being honorary starters. “When something happens with your children or grandchildren, that’s far more special to you. And so yesterday I said was the greatest day I’ve had at Augusta National, and it was just absolutely fantastic.”

Amazingly, both Nicklaus and Gary Sr. had sort of half-seriously predicted it when granddad asked G.T. if he would like to take a shot while caddying in the whimsical Par 3 event. At the same time, it was highly unlikely. “I’ve had all the grandkids hitting every year and only one has gotten it over the water. That was Nick [O’Leary, tight end for the Buffalo Bills]. He hit it over the green, but he got it over the water,” Nicklaus said.

Let’s face it, any grandfather would be proud to see his grandkids succeed. More impressive and more telling was the way Nicklaus had dealt with the golfers who defeated him while he was trying like crazy to beat them. Player has been quoted as calling him golf’s greatest champion and golf’s greatest loser. “I didn’t much like that description,” the 18-time major winner said, with a side glance at Player, his longtime friend, seated next to him.

Player’s point was that Nicklaus knew how to lose well. The latter still takes pride in having done that.

“Well, my father was very big on sportsmanship and doing the right thing to your fellow competitor,” Nicklaus said. “When I was very young, he said to me, ‘When that fella beats you, you should make him feel that you’re very happy for him. Firm handshake, look him in the eye and say well done.’ And he said, ‘If you want to go beat your head on a locker later in private, that’s your business. But right then, it’s his day and not your day. Go out and make sure he feels good.’ ”

In that vein, he knows that everyone eventually is a runner-up to Father Time so you have to be gracious there, too. If someone is making inroads at breaking your records, so be it. That would be Tiger Woods. “I’ve been amazed at how well he has come back,” the six-time green jacket winner said.

You don’t sit around, discrediting young players and ruefully say, “In my day . . . ” Numerous current PGA Tour standouts seek his counsel and he is honored by that.

True, he and Player both are skeptical of the retinue of coaches, teachers and gurus that each modern player hires. Player recalled Ben Hogan’s philosophy: “If I find someone who can beat me, I’ll go take a lesson from him.” But even there, Nicklaus admitted that if such resources were available in the 1960s, he would have used them.

He did not need a driving coach. As Player pointed out Thursday, “You outdrove me for 50 years.” So, Nicklaus allowed him to celebrate having hit the longer tee shot on the chilly Thursday morning. He let Player walk on the stage first for the news conference, saying, “C’mon, big hitter.”

They were competitive even in that little ceremonial duty. Nicklaus was the loser, and still the champion.

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