Jack Nicklaus turns 80 years old on Tuesday and imagine trying to buy him a birthday present.
With perhaps the greatest golf wife of all time, five kids and 22 grandchildren – good luck finding something special for him.
What do you give a guy who has 18 major championship trophies, not to mention 55 other PGA Tour wins?
OK, maybe the Canadian Open trophy, the one significant national championship he didn’t win on the PGA Tour.
A tee time someplace special?
He has his name on more than 400 golf courses around the world and he’s a member at Augusta National. Granted, Augusta is closed almost half the year and, believe it or not, they didn’t get around to giving Jack his own green jacket until the late 1990s. All that time he was wearing someone else’s.
Maybe all any of us can give him is our continued gratitude and appreciation for Jack being Jack all these 80 years.
You can’t give him another golf shirt. He has his own clothing company.
He owns his own jet and his own boat.
The Nicklaus name is on a children’s hospital in South Florida.
He even has his own brands of ice cream and lemonade.
Plus, he’s dotted the “i” with the Ohio State band at a football game so giving him an “experiential” birthday present would probably feel lame after that.
Jack – he earned first-name status decades ago – has joked more than once about the fact that he’s shrinking – and he is.
He was never tall but time and gravity have made him shorter, an inevitable effect of getting older. But even as he officially becomes an octogenarian, Jack and his life on and off the golf course seem as big as ever.
He remains if not the face of golf, the conscience and voice of the game.
His achievements haven’t dulled through time. Eighteen professional major championship victories, 73 PGA Tour wins, 58 second-place finishes, 56 top-five finishes in major championships.
Suppose Nicklaus never won a major championship, hard to imagine, I know. He still would have won 55 times. Only 44 players won more than 18 times in their PGA Tour careers. Jack has that many majors (or the same number as Rory McIlroy has career PGA Tour wins).
Thanks to Tiger Woods, what Nicklaus did with a golf club in his hand has remained the gold standard 34 years after his last major championship victory.
In all he has accomplished and all he has been through, Tiger made Jack better by reminding us of the many ways Nicklaus set himself apart. The victories. The near misses. The life he’s led.
Not bad for a guy few people were particularly fond of when he burst onto the golf scene 60 years ago.
Of course, he was taller then.
At an age when most people are retired, Jack has remained relevant. McIlroy, 50 years his junior, has sought the Bear’s counsel more than once, one more way McIlroy is different from his peers.
When Nicklaus talks about golf, he is not an old man rambling on about the way it used to be (though his memory has always been far sharper about events he won compared to those he didn’t). He is still insightful and influential, globetrotting around building golf courses, fulfilling business obligations and living a full life that still starts and ends at home in South Florida with the occasional bonefishing expedition shoehorned in there.
He has talked for years about slowing down, about receding into the shadows, but so far that hasn’t happened, though he has geared down slightly.
At the Memorial Tournament a couple of years ago, I asked Nicklaus if his bucket list included anything else, any more mountains to climb.
“I climbed them a few years ago,” he said, sitting in the grill room at Muirfield Village Golf Club, the place where his presence will live on like Bobby Jones’ at Augusta National.
In so many ways, Nicklaus is the mountain.
If you are old enough and, thereby, fortunate enough to have seen him through his prime, there is probably a collection of mental snapshots in your head.
Jack walking across the bridge at Oakmont in the 1962 U.S. Open playoff, beating Arnold Palmer on his home turf and, in the process, becoming the game’s new Zeus.
The new, slimmer Nicklaus in flared pants, bright colors and sporting a headful of long blond hair, transforming not just his look but his entire persona.
All those days with Palmer and Gary Player.
The great one winning the Open at St. Andrews in 1978 wearing an argyle sweater.
Leaving “bear tracks” on the 16th green on Sunday in the 1975 Masters, one of the best ones ever, crushing Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller in the process.
Walking into son Jackie’s hug at the end of the 1986 Masters.
Saying goodbye to the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2000 as Tiger Woods was heading out to rewrite the record book and finishing out his major championship career with a birdie on the 18th hole at St. Andrews in 2005.
Those are just golf moments, in a sense the frame around a bigger picture encompassing 80 exceptional years.
The birthday gift is a heartfelt thank you.
Happy birthday, Jack.