- - Tuesday, September 8, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE SECRET OF GOLF: THE STORY OF TOM WATSON AND JACK NICKLAUS

By Joe Posnanski

Simon & Schuster, $27, 256 pages

Sports is one of America’s great passions. It includes individual and team competitions, follows a set of rules and regulations and can be physically and emotionally intense for participants and fans alike.

In turn, we’ve witnessed many sports rivalries. This includes baseball (the New York Yankees versus the Boston Red Sox), football (the Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Oakland Raiders) and basketball (the Boston Celtics versus the Los Angeles Lakers).

Joe Posnanski’s new book, “The Secret of Golf: The Story of Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus,” tackles one of golf’s greatest rivalries. In their heyday, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus were both talented, competitive and extremely motivated. “Watson saw a legend,” Mr. Posnanski writes, and “Nicklaus saw another young gunslinger trying to take him out.” This intense rivalry led to memorable battles on the links, enormous respect for their skills and grew into a close friendship.

Mr. Posnanski is a national columnist for NBC Sports and one of America’s best sportswriters. He writes with passion about this great game that has produced many legends — and some unforgettable shots. His beautifully written book also explores the deep-rooted love and admiration Mr. Watson and Mr. Nicklaus have for golf.

Mr. Nicklaus, the “Golden Bear,” has been called the greatest golfer of all time. He was taught the game by his athletic father, Charlie. “I’m lucky,” Mr. Nicklaus says, “My dad was my best friend.” Mr. Posnanski explains their close relationship as “playing golf with a buddy.” The two men “poked fun at each other, made crazy bets that neither would ever pay off, tried hard to win, and laughed and hugged when the match was over.”

Mr. Watson learned his trade from his father, Ray, who was “likeable but in a more conservative and hard-bitten way.” Mr. Posnanski writes that Ray was a “hard man” who didn’t praise or encourage his son, and “did not have any use at all for irresponsible dreaming.” However, “Ray and a few of his friends raised enough money to fund Tom on the PGA Tour for two years.” In his own way, he cared.

Mr. Watson’s first idol was Arnold Palmer. It only makes sense that “Palmer fans, Watson among them, found Nicklaus‘ rise (and Palmer’s inevitable fall) unacceptable.” Few could accept the fact that “Fat Jack,” with his “colorless but devastating game,” had vanquished the popular leader of Arnie’s Army. “Jack was just a villain,” Mr. Watson notes, and he set out to make things right.

Along the way, Mr. Watson began to respect Mr. Nicklaus‘ game. He “did not love Nicklaus‘ swing the way he loved” Byron Nelson or Sam Snead’s sweet swings. “Nelson’s swing was art,” writes the author, and “Nicklaus‘ was powerful and athletic and brutally effective.” Yet, he was mesmerized by the fact that his soon-to-be rival “was not thinking about great shots most of the time; he was thinking about avoiding big mistakes.” Mr. Watson says, “No golfer hit the right shot more often than Jack Nicklaus,” and that, according to Mr. Posnanski, could very well be “the secret of golf.”

Although Mr. Nicklaus won more majors than Mr. Watson, the latter won most of their head-to-head battles.

There was the “Duel in the Sun” at Turnberry in 1977, in which “the golf and the sunshine and tension, all of it was so wonderful that the elated Scottish fans became unhinged.” Although “Nicklaus had beaten the Open scoring record by seven shots,” the important stat was “Watson had beaten it by eight.” A new rivalry was born.

The 1982 U.S. Open was another memorable battle of wills. Mr. Nicklaus had had “more success at Pebble Beach than anyone,” and Mr. Watson desperately wanted to finally win this tournament. Mr. Nicklaus walked off the course with the lead, only to later find out that Mr. Watson was ahead after hitting one of golf’s greatest shots at the 17th hole. His reaction? “Aw, come on.” History had repeated itself.

While these results could have torn apart most golfers’s psyches, it brought Mr. Watson and Mr. Nicklaus closer together. They became friends, and rooted for one another. Mr. Watson was proud of Mr. Nicklaus‘ 1986 Masters victory, and said “the memory I keep” is of him hugging his son, Jackie. In turn, Mr. Nicklaus praised the 59-year-old Watson’s near-victory at the 2009 British Open, and made his despondent friend happy by saying he hit the “perfect drive” and made “the right shot” on the 18th hole.

Mr. Posnanski’s wonderful prose about this great golfing rivalry and friendship makes his book a joy to read. It also makes you wish that Mr. Watson and Mr. Nicklaus could do it all over again.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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