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Kevin Connelly: Nicklaus still that big, strong dude

Published: Thu, April 24, 2014 @ 12:09 a.m.

That big, strong dude.

Those were the four words used by Arnold Palmer to describe a then 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus the day before the two squared off in an 18-hole playoff for the 1962 U.S. Open title.

Nicklaus defeated Palmer at Oakmont Country Club, outside Pittsburgh, for the first of his record 18 major championships.

Not bad for a kid who grew up in central Ohio.

But what’s even more remarkable is that more than a half-century later, The Golden Bear still lives up to those same four words.

My viewpoint might be slightly different than that of Arnie, but Wednesday evening at The Lake Club in Poland, that big, strong dude had this young guy hanging on his every word.

He’s about as big a name as the sport’s ever had. And still is.

The expansion of television and other ways to consume golf has helped Tiger Woods build his brand into what it is today, but as far as impact on the game there’s been nobody like Nicklaus.

His physical stature on the other hand, now at the age of 74, has allowed him to crack a joke or two at his own expense.

Posing for a photo with Lake Club owner Ed Muransky — who will make just about anybody look small standing next to him — Nicklaus joked, “And to think they used to call me Big Jack.”

But he wasn’t fooling anyone.

Nicklaus still gains everybody’s attention when he walks into a room, even when in the presence of his old friend from Ohio State, Jim Tressel, who one could only imagine was at The Lake Club lobbying for votes for Youngstown State’s presidency.

Just kidding.

Tressel came to support the United Way and because Nicklaus is still that big of a dude.

Nicklaus turned pro in 1961 and didn’t retire from golf until 2005. He said Wednesday he considers himself fortunate for how healthy he stayed in his career.

The only two tournaments he ever had to withdraw from in his entire career: Akron’s World Series of Golf in 1981 and The Masters in 1983.

“I was in fourth place going into the last round of the World Series and they carried me off the practice tee because of my back,” Nicklaus said.

“Then at the Masters I was playing with [Gary] Player and [Freddie] Couples in the second round and I didn’t get off the tee.”

Missing just two tournaments because of injury is almost unprecedented. It’s that type of strength and stamina that allowed him to compete in tournaments for as long as he did.

And then perhaps the side that most people aren’t able to see is what I like to call his “dude” factor.

Whether it’s his quick-witted remarks, or the humorous response to a question he’s probably received more times than he’d like:

“Hey Jack, how do you feel about Tiger approaching your career majors record?”

“Who?” Nicklaus quipped.

It’s the combination of personality and competitiveness that golf lacks with the uber-serious Woods.

It’s also a larger-than-life personality that pours out through Jack’s wide smile that has allowed him to stay on top of his sport’s radar for over a half-century.

Just ask Muransky.

“Watching Jack Nicklaus’ G5 or whatever he has land at the Youngstown airport for our community is what it’s all about,” Muransky said.

The Golden Bear is still that big, strong dude.

Just a little older.

Kevin Connelly is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at kconnelly@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @Connelly_Vindy.

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